Beyond the Digital: Preparing Artists to Work at the Frontiers of Techno-culture


Stephen Wilson, Professor, Art, San Francisco State University

** Note this a pre-publication version of a chapter called "Beyond the Digital"
in Mel Alexenberg, Editor.  Educating Artists for the Future: Learning at the Intersections of Art, Science, Technology, and Culture   Intellect Books:  London, 2007




What kind of preparation do artists need? Some would emphasize cultivation of personal vision and creativity, emotional self-knowledge, intuition, and spiritual awareness.  Others highlight technical skills of working with media, finding powerful ways to communicate, exposure to the great works of the past, and a strong grounding in art history. Still others stress skills of socio-political analysis, sensitivity to one's own cultural identity, and awareness of critical themes in understanding culture and media.


These emphases are quite different and their relative importance varies with ideas about what is art. In the contemporary postmodern world, the nature of art is greatly contested as is the question of how to prepare artists.   Framing the question as "how does one educate artists for a digital age" focuses the challenge a bit.  Highlighting "digital age" implies a special attention to what might be needed for artists to function and respond to a technologically oriented world. Although the meta-themes in educating artists suggested above are important and under-analyzed, this essay focuses on the special issues of educating artists in a technological age.



More than Digital


The term "digital age" is misleading.  Digital technology is significant but it is part of something much more momentous. Scientific research and technological development are doing much more than creating new gadgets and media.  They are radically transforming basic philosophical ideas about the nature of the physical world, time, and space; the nature of life and intelligence; and the limits in our abilities to transform the world and humanity. The technological is intertwined with the ethical, cultural, and social-economic.  The impact of the digital revolution has been enormous, but it is only one of many revolutions that are brewing - for example, the biological, materials science, neurological, and cosmological.  It is critical to consider how to educate artists for a scientific/technological age, not just a digital age. 


Historically, the arts alerted people to emerging developments, examined the unspoken implications, and explored alternative futures. As the centers of cultural imagination and foment of the times have moved to the technology labs, the arts have not understood the challenge. It is a critical error to conceptualize research as merely some narrow, technical specialized inquiry.   Merely assimilating the new gizmos to create new media is a timid response.

The arts have a much more profound calling.  They can become an independent zone of research - pursuing agendas ignored by commercial interests and scientific disciplines and integrating critical commentary with the search for new knowledge and the elaboration of new technical possibilities.  Those who believe that the arts are now up to date because they pay attention to digital technology have misunderstood the course of history because the research goes on - investigating many other fields in which the arts should be proactive pioneers rather than merely consumers of the results.


This essay examines this challenge:  Assume a definition of art that sees keeping watch on the cultural frontier as one of its central functions.   Assume an analysis that scientific and technological research and all their associated implications are critical drivers of culture. The question, then, is how to prepare artists not only to master the historical issues for all artists, but also the special challenges of becoming an strong, independent voice who is competent and innovative in the worlds of both art and research.


The following sections will consider an idiosyncratic selection of historical approaches to this challenge, identify dimensions of variation that art curricula might address, and describe how the Conceptual Information Arts program, which I have been associated with, addresses these dimensions. The discussion is based on my experience as an artist working with emerging technologies, research conducted for my Information Arts book (Wilson 2002), and the 25 year history of the CIA program, which was one of the pioneering curricula preparing artists for technological research.




An Abbreviated History of Art and Technology Programs


It is no wonder there is uncertainly about how to design art programs to respond to technological culture.  The arts in general have been confused and slow to address technological change. It was only a few years ago that museums, curators, and collectors began to accept photography or video as valid art forms.  Now there is beginning to be interest in the computers, the Internet, and biology.  Art influenced by science/technology has mostly been considered outside the mainstream.  Most university art programs ignored these themes until the last decade.  


The following section provides a brief idiosyncratic history of programs that addressed the challenge of preparing artists for a technological age.  It considers the Bauhaus and then two pioneering programs I had personal contact with - Generative Systems and Conceptual Design.



The Bauhaus is often identified as a landmark in technological education for artists.  This early 20th century European institution brought together an illustrious faculty of artists, architects, designers, technology experimenters, theatre experts, etc.  Rather than ignoring technological changes, it felt that artists and designers must embrace the new developments and work with them.  All students were required to take part in a series of interdisciplinary workshops.  They were not afraid to work with new materials - machinery, electricity, light, sound, factories, and industrial culture.  The official Bauhaus history site gives a little flavor of that period.


At a time when industrial society was in the grip of a crisis, the Bauhaus stood almost alone in asking how the modernization process could be mastered by means of design.  Founded in Weimar in 1919, the Bauhaus rallied masters and students who sought to reverse the split between art and production by returning to the crafts as the foundation of all artistic activity and developing exemplary designs for objects and spaces that were to form part of a more humane future society.( Bauhaus-dessau 2006)


Although most would acknowledge the conceptual leaps and significant innovations introduced at the Bauhaus, contemporary analysts note several problematic aspects.  The philosophy was dominated by a modernist faith in rational design to fix the world, which from a post modernist perspective seems quite naive and unsophisticated in its understanding of the complexities of modern techno-industrial culture.  Activities were often dominated by utilitarian goals which may have de-emphasized more speculative art directions.  Faculty and students were encouraged to work with industry and serve its purposes, perhaps without enough distance.  As my upcoming book Great Moments in Art and Science (Wilson in press) points out, there were many other artistic responses to the developments of science and technology in that era - for example, deep consideration of new scientific paradigms such as relativity, uncertainty, and the unconscious, emotional embrace, irreverence, skepticism, and resistance.   As discussed in later sections, many of the Bauhaus themes continue as issues for contemporary curricula.



Generative Systems


An extraordinary artist and educator named Sonia Sheridan introduced an innovative program called Generative Systems at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1970's.  Sheridan had established her artistic reputation for her early experiments with color copier machines, which were just then becoming available.  For example, she created a series of leaves which were synthetically colored by the machine to suggest the passing of seasons.  Her work was collected widely by museums.  She was also famous for taking on research residencies in industrial research labs. (Sheridan  2006)


Students (including me) came from all over the world to study with her in relation to these new artistic technologies.  But Sheridan held that the specific technologies should not be the focus.  Much more interesting were the processes by which ideas could be transformed (the generative systems) and their philosophical and artistic implications.  She felt the scope of interest must stretch from historical art practices to the latest technologies and research.  She taught students to tear the machines apart in order to get at core understandings. She taught lessons in light, heat, time, sound, magnetics, etc. She taught courses called Process I or Process II.  She noted the Bauhaus as a source of ideas but without the utilitarian preoccupation.  In one famous move, she unplugged the machines for a year so students could overcome surface infatuation with the technologies. Years later, she wrote an article describing the curriculum in a special issue of the art/science journal Leonardo -  "Mind/Senses/Hand: The Generative Systems Program at the Art Institute of Chicago 1970-1980".  Here are some excerpts.


At first we taught extensions of traditional art processes, but later we developed a full program of investigation into the transformative process occurring in art as a result of the impact of the communications revolution on the society at large.  Generative systems was a research center; a resource and energy bank; a self-generating center where communication tools came and went while people remained; a nurturing ground for the Electronic Printout Systems (ESP); an extension into the future of photography, drawing, textiles and so on; a time machine from instant real time back to mechanical time; an attitude; an interactive force between industry, education and the public; and finally a viable alternative to the present art education system.

From 67 to 77 we were occupied with exploring many communications systems, which we gathered in a great variety of unusual ways too numerous to discuss here.  The communications technology that emerged in the 1960s validated the dreams of the most imaginative minds. Objects could be stretched in time, layered in time, scanned in time, filtered in time, metamorphosed and synchronized in time, in a matter of seconds, on the new electronic copiers, telecopiers, and computers and their moving lights, lenses, thermal and/or steel rollers and electronic gates....

GS was an open system, an ever-changing system, in which the machines would come and go, but the humans would remain the constant factor.  Courses would not be named for a specific and therefore static technological process - as had been done before with the standard art courses of printing, painting, photography and video- but rather for a dynamic process encompassing change, metamorphosis, inconsistency and chaos. (Sheridan 2002)


Many students remember the time fondly; it was an exhilarating place.  Curiosity and inquiry ruled.  Any source of ideas – e.g. from art, commerce, technology, or science was welcome.  She brought in guest speakers from outside the closed circle of art and art history.   Sheridan was famous for her long two foot long technician's screwdriver.  Students brought in strange devices and she would enthusiastically take them apart to understand how they worked.  It was clear that she was investigating and learning right along with the studnets.  When a few of advanced graduate students got interested in microcomputers, which were just then becoming available, she offered to change the budget for the department for that year so she could buy one to experiment with. MFA students undertook highly speculative projects - for example, one experimented with growing mold as an image generating system; another tried to understand fax technology sufficiently that he could create images by singing into the machine.  Generative Systems was an influential source in shaping approaches to educating artists for a technological age. 



 Conceptual Design 


Working within the Art Department at San Francisco State University, Bryan Rogers and James Storey created another pioneering program that attempted to define a relevant education for artists in the contemporary technological era.  Storey was an inventor and product design researcher who worked in art education and Rogers was an artist who had a joint MFA and PhD in Engineering from UC Berkeley.  Rogers felt that most art programs clung to traditional formats that did not respond to the cultural foment of the scientific and technological worlds and to the innovations of art movements such as the conceptual, electronics, performance, and earth art, which challenged conventional notions.  The program had several important features:


- Emphasis on ideas not media  (students were encouraged to work in whatever media served their agendas and to invent new media if necessary)

- Rigorous sequence of common core courses focused on processes and systems analysis. The sequence was stepped, growing more ambitious in its scope as students moved through the program

- Attention focused on the latest developments both in art and science/technology

- Use of geometry as a meta-language and skeleton for inquiries


Here are some excerpts from the SFSU catalog course descriptions from that era that described the core courses, designed and taught by Rogers.


Art 410...Process concepts; structure concepts; and geometrical form-language correlated with a variety of modes of art expression

Art 510 ... Continuation of Art 410 with emphasis on complex systems and environmental scale.  (SFSU 1986)


Rogers noted that Buckminster Fuller was a significant intellectual resource for his thinking.  He seemed influenced by Fuller's cross disciplinary philosophy that integrated art, design, engineering and many other disciplines.  Also important was Fuller's visionary "comprehensive anticipatory design" which stressed systems thinking and exhortation to avoid disciplinary blinders. For Fuller, artists, when functioning at their best, were exemplars of the open minded, expansive innovators that the culture desperately needed.  Here is an excerpt from Fuller's Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth  (Fuller, 1973) that gives a flavor of this thinking.


The great aesthetic which will inaugurate the twenty-first century will be the utterly invisible quality of intellectual integrity; the integrity of the individual dealing with his scientific discoveries; the integrity of the individual in dealing with conceptual realization of comprehensive interrelatedness of all events; the integrity of the individual dealing with the only experimentally arrived at information regarding invisible phenomena; and finally integrity of all those who formulate invisibly within their respective minds and invisibly with the only mathematically dimensionable, advanced technologies, on the behalf of their fellow men. (quoted in Vesna 2006).


Conceptual Design hired me to help develop computer and technology related aspects of the program. In 1980 the program offered one of the first computer graphics courses in the country aimed at artists and designers.  150 potential students showed up for the first day trying to get in.  We were amazed at the hunger of people outside technical professions for exposure to this technology.   Gradually the program expanded the technology curriculum.  Storey soon retired and Rogers resigned to go to Carnegie Mellon to serve as chair of the Art Department.  There he expanded his ideas to encompass the whole department and founded the Studio for Creative Inquiry.  Later he moved on to expand on the ideas even further as dean of the School of Arts and Design at the University of Michigan. Those interested in arts education in a digital age should consult the descriptions of these models available online.   Here are excerpts from the prospectus prepared by Rogers for the UM's new MFA program.


Today, viability in the larger cultural context requires that creative work engage a broader intellectual and social context. Context must be intentionally expanded beyond the self-referential assumptions of the 20th century. In an effort to address this requirement, the School of Art & Design has developed a graduate program in which all students develop a robust, intense engagement with one or more fields of knowledge in addition to art and design. The School intends that graduates of this program have the capability to thrive in a variety of public and private roles and to become cultural leaders in a rapidly changing global culture.

The University of Michigan offers a panoply of intellectual resources matched by few institutions of higher learning. Many of these offerings are at the forefront of the nationÕs intellectual life – engaging the critical issues of our time. They address such domains as social justice, the life sciences and medicine, the environment, information-communication technologies, visual culture, law and business. These arenas, individually and in combination, are available at the University to inform creative work. They provide unparalleled opportunities for artists and designers to contribute to the comprehensive culture.  (Rogers, 2002)


 Conceptual Information Arts (CIA)


Conceptual Design eventually morphed into Conceptual/Information Arts (CIA).  The name changed because many potential students, confused by term "design", came looking for traditional commercial design and because critical discourse stressed the ideological baggage and modernist assumptions of the term design.   CIA is one of longest running programs that has directly addressed the issue of educating artists for a scientific/technological age. Since 1987 I have directed the program.  This section briefly describes the curriculum and underlying rationale. The next section analyzes the educational issues that have been confronted and extracts dimensions of variability relevant to all similar programs.  Over the years several colleagues have held positions in the department and helped define the curriculum including George Legrady and Paula Levine.  Legrady went on to help found the joint art/engineering MAT (Masters in Art & Technology) program at UC Santa Barbara. Levine is still the other core faculty of the CIA program.


Here is an excerpt from the CIA core concepts web page that presents the basic rationale and foci for the program and suggests some curricular issues to be addressed in technological arts education. 


CIA emphasizes systematic and structured processes of inquiry as an underlying support to the experimental searching at the fringes of the art world....  CIA encourages students to supercede, question, and challenge traditional notions of what constitutes valid art media, contexts, and approaches. Students are encouraged to bring ideas, materials, and experiences from outside the art world to become focuses for their art. Students are challenged to combine traditional media and to incorporate new media. They are encouraged to follow their ideas and artistic impulses even if they don't take them into traditional validated art directions.

Contemporary science and technology are radically transforming the world. The culture desperately needs artists to address these developments. The program encourages students to become knowledgeable about world views, ideas, and tools of these fields and to incorporate them in a non-superficial way into their art making. Students are expected to achieve expertise in technological areas in which most artists only superficially venture.

Electronic technology and mediated information distribution seem on the surface value-free, but in fact, are causing major shifts in social interaction and the way we perceive ourselves and reality. Artworks generated through digital technology require some knowledge of strategies learned from semiotics, communications studies, and cultural theory for critically understanding technology's impact on culture.  (CIA 2006a)



 Dimensions of Variability in Design of Curricula


Designers of programs to prepare students to function in a scientific/technological age face a variety of challenging philosophical and curricular questions. Here are some of questions to be confronted:


Established Media versus Emerging Research


Even within the technological arts there is a continuum stretching from established forms such as digital video, web design, animation to emerging research fields not yet established as media such as art & biology, alternative interfaces, etc.    What range of this continuum does a curriculum propose to address?  How does it propose to prepare students? Many new programs focus on digital media.  They teach the latest software skills, digital aesthetics, and theoretical background.  They claim that they have prepared artists for the digital age.


As explained earlier, this may not be enough.  The research world is moving so fast that today's latest technology may soon be out of date.  Even more importantly areas of research in science and technology that now seem esoteric and remote may end up being the core of cultural and media focus.   Ironically, those focused on today's digital media may be making the same kind of mistake of complacency that art programs did in 1980 when they thought video was the end state of electronic media.  Most art colleagues thought I was crazy to be interested as an artist and teacher in the computer; they dismissed it as only relevant to science and business.  Similarly, in 1988 they dismissed our desire to start an Internet art course; the Internet was seen as only pertinent to the military and advanced computer science researchers.


If one defines an artist's role as innovator and anticipator, then the curriculum must reach out beyond today's new media.  Indeed, in our kind of culture every area of scientific and technological research is a potential focus for the arts.  This approach poses major challenges.  How does one decide which emerging fields are worth investigating?  How does one prepare to teach in such rapidly developing fields?  How does one reconcile the need to teach students mastery of contemporary media while also preparing for more imminent futures?


As described in a later section, one strategy is to teach students meta-skills of how to learn.  Still one must also address the concrete curriculum.  CIA tries to mix contemporary skills with emergent fields.  Most courses include elements that teach students to master current applications to as deep a level as possible.  Students are warned, however, that in 10 years they will probably be working with application environments that might be quite different.  The courses ask them to penetrate deeper than surface software manipulations and to analyze the underlying structures of what they work with. For example, in an Interactive Events course, everyone is required to learn programming rather than just using canned behaviors because that helps to demystify the underlying bases of the application and prepares them to work with unrelated fields.  In digital video students are encouraged to think about the relative ease with which various kinds of narrative structures are supported and excluded in the applications.


But it is important to reach even further than deconstructing today's media.  Core faculty in CIA are constantly investigating new areas of research and inventing new courses even while still in the midst of their own research.  Faculty hope to model this on-going investigative stance and make discussions of the research process part of the course.  Operationally it is quite a challenge for faculty to constantly design new courses and many colleagues teaching in  more conventional areas do not appreciate the professional load of constantly reinventing the curriculum.  Within a limited budget, CIA also invites visiting artists to teach semester courses in new fields.  Examples of the experimental courses taught by core and visiting faculty over the years include:  Electronics, Robotics, Physical Computing, Art & Biology, Locative Media & GPS, Interactive Web, Gestural Interfaces, Interactive Video, Tactical Web Media, Interventionist Art, and Cartography.


In addition, CIA tries to take full advantage of university and community contexts.  Many art students consider their university general education requirements an annoyance. CIA converts these requirements to an advantage by explicitly strategizing with students to make courses taken elsewhere in the university serve the research interests of their art practice.  It also tries to teach students to see the research resources of the larger community as artistic resources by field trips and by bringing in guest speakers from outside of art. One advanced course requires all students to serve internships in art and/or research settings.  For more on these approaches see the later section describing the art & research course.


Media Skills vs. Meta Skills 


What should be the balance of teaching students specific digital applications and skills versus teaching more general orientations and knowledge?   What is the ultimate future role imagined for the student - work within media companies, independent artist, member of research teams, some other yet undefined roles?  Some programs believe that professional/vocational preparation in the skills needed today is the best way to serve students and the larger community and should be the agenda of higher education.   Even many without a vocational emphasis believe the best preparation for artists is intensive hands-on training in the latest technical skills supplemented with some history, aesthetics, and theory.  In this view practice is the core of being an artist and art is best learned through doing.


Others reverse the balance - believing that the best training is teaching meta-skills that can transcend the inevitable flux of change.  They believe that it is impossible to predict what skills and perspectives will be essential a few years hence and that the student can be prepared by learning inquiry and analytical skills so they can cope with inevitable new developments whatever they may be.  The term 'digital age' implies that one expects the technological world artists will deal with to be in flux and constant reinvention and hence a world where today's skills and perspectives can be rapidly out of date.   Remember the thousands of students in 1900 preparing for a life long trade in blacksmithing.  Indeed, this debate is at the core of liberal arts education, which is premised on the value of teaching fundamental non-discipline specific knowledge and intellectual skills as preparation for life long learning.


Focusing on meta-skills was a feature of Generative Systems and Conceptual Design programs described earlier.  Others propose critical theory as the central meta-skill of the contemporary age (see section below).  So, what are the meta-skills to best prepare students for a scientific/ technological age?


CIA attempts a balance.  The challenge may even more complicated because SFSU is not a research university.  Many CIA students are first generation college; even though they have chosen the arts, they (and their parents) still are searching for marketable skills on leaving.  CIA teaches current state of the art applications but does as part of a conceptual, artistic inquiry. There are no courses named for applications.   Nonetheless students are expected to master these applications and to create works that show the highest level of technical excellence.  For example, they learn digital video applications such as Final Cut Pro; yet they do in courses focused on art and history of narrative.  They take conceptual strategies courses focused on abstract concepts such as time, randomness, and mapping in conjunction with the more technical courses.  Every course includes critical analysis such as how the media produced with the software fits into a larger cultural and media context and a push to understand underlying structures of the software.  Ironically, employers like their portfolios because they combine technical competence with unorthodox vision.


As described earlier CIA also teaches courses focused on emerging research fields - for example, locative media, art & biology, interactive internet, robotics, and  physical computing.  Also a course called art & research focuses on highly experimental research fields (see description below).  Working at this edge means there are few consumer applications available.  Students must invent their own working environments and work with beta software and hardware still in development.  When they have technical questions they must often go to sources outside of the art and media world.  The meta-skills in these courses focus on processes of research and development.


Combining these speculative courses with those focused on more commonplace applications has unexpected benefits.  Students who have constructed prototypes are much more enterprising and empowered in their approach to troubleshooting and innovation even when working with conventional applications and environments.   This comfort and initiative often has benefits in conventional settings because supervisors chose them for challenging new assignments and it also prepares some to be entrepreneurs, starting their own businesses.   For those working in the arts, this research background results in a productive skepticism about digital tools and a repertoire of ideas that help them keep their art fresh and compelling.


The balance is difficult.  Small programs like CIA must juggle scope versus depth and they must reassure students that the speculative courses will have long term benefits.  It is difficult for some students to accept the ultimate benefits of speculative courses like art & biology over courses which include training in common applications.  This move to teach research skills has begun to spread.  For more examples check out the ACE program at UC Irvine, the MAT program at UC Santa Barbara and the DX program at the University of Washington.  (ACE 2006; MAT  2006; DX  2006)


Relationship to Traditional Art Curriculum and to Other Disciplines


What is the relative balance between education in traditional art practice and special preparation for work in experimental art practices?   Digital/Technological Arts programs can be situated in many different places in the university - for example, cinema/film, design, art, communications, or in their own administrative entities.  All programs face the challenge of defining their relationship to established curricula and their integration into other art and media forms.  How much conventional history and practice should be required of students in experimental programs?  Ideally students would take a full curriculum in both the historical and new forms but often there is not time and choices must be made.


The CIA program sits within the Art Department at San Francisco State University.  This has been both an asset and a liability.  Undergraduate students are required to fulfill the general requirements of the Art Department which includes courses in art forms outside the CIA concentration and art history courses. MFA's similarly take courses along with students from historical media.  It has been an asset in that students see the CIA grounded in the experimental traditions of the arts.  Their visual work is informed by the centuries of practice and history of previous art work.  Because the faculty and fellow students they encounter in general Art Department courses may not be familiar with or may be skeptical or even hostile to experimental technology-based work, they are forced to articulate and explain their work to these audiences. Colleagues from historical art forms sometimes ask fresh questions and suggest connections that do not come up from those working exclusively with technology-based forms.


The link to the traditional art curriculum can also be a liability.  Students working with experimental technology arts go in many directions and hence draw on many media traditions besides art - for example, theater, cinema, broadcast, music.  For some, the most important sources may even be outside media and art, for example, computer science, engineering, or biology.   For example, given limited time, an experimental sound artist might be better served by taking courses in the history of music or the physics of sound than conventional art courses.  Also, other students and faculty members' unfamiliarity with issues of culture and technology/science and lack of interest can be demoralizing.


Art departments have a long standing problem with the experimental forms of visual arts that do not fit into traditional media such as painting or sculpture - for example, conceptual, electronic, installation, ecological, performance, and interventionist art.  Some "new genre" and "interdisciplinary" programs have been attempted although they never became an established feature of art programs.  


For a long time technological arts were placed in the same miscellaneous category outside of historical media. Programs such as Generative Systems and Conceptual Design often became a refuge for these kinds of arts because they did not give primacy to conventional media.  These alternative traditions can be important resources for those working with technology. For example, CIA teaches these connections: dada, happenings, and performance art for those interested in interactivity, conceptual art for those interested in digital text or coding based art, installation and kinetics art for those interested in robotics or physical computing, and situationist and interventionist art for those interested in locative media and tactical web interventions.  All new technology programs (including those in disciplines such as cinema or music) must establish this balance - how much to emphasize historical connections versus how much to focus on the new developments.


Cultural Theory


Some programs believe that critical theory and  analysis of the relationships among culture, media, and science and technology may be an extremely important tool for artists and media workers.  What should be the balance of emphasis between theory and hands-on skills?


The last decades have seen a revolution in thinking about the relationship of theory to artistic practice and preparation.  Some believe it is essential that artists be aware of semiotics, the socio-cultural context of the art and media worlds and the meta-narratives that underlie their work -for example, in areas of representation, identity, and the body.  In this view, skills in postmodern analysis are even more critical for artists who work with new media.  Technology based artists inevitably encounter issues such as the relationship of popular culture to high culture; virtuality and the its impact on time, space and the body; the cultural context of technology developers claims to progress; and the narratives of science such as objectivity, access to universal truth and immunity from cultural bias.


Preparing artists requires an explicit focus on theory.   Conventional programs that emphasize self expression and  technical concerns are seen as romantically self indulgent, naive, and out of touch with the present day realities of cultural workers. Theory based programs claim the work will be stronger if more time between teacher and student is spent on issues such as media archaeology and critiques of popular media and power structures than on technical production skills, which can be left to assistants.


The Technoculture program at UC Davis is a program well known for its emphasis on theory.  Here is an excerpt from its web site.


We concentrate on transdisciplinary approaches to artistic, cultural and scholarly production in contemporary media and digital arts, community media, and mutual concerns of the arts with the scientific and technological disciplines. In contrast to programs which see technology as the primary driving force, we place questions of poetics, aesthetics, history, politics and the environment at the core of our mission. In other words, we emphasize the "culture" in Technoculture. (Technoculture Program 2006)


The media studies program in the Literature, Communications, and Culture program at Georgia Tech Univesity is another program well known for its theory emphasis.  Here is an excerpt from the web site for their STAC (Science, Technology & Culture) program.


Georgia Tech's STAC program is unique in its emphasis on communication skills, cultural interpretation, and textual analysis. Unlike similar programs, which look at science, technology, and the humanities as separate entities, STAC examines the modes of communication and understanding common to them all. As a result, students learn to master the range of methodologies of literary and cultural analysis needed to understand and interpret the ÒtextsÓ ranging from novels and films to scientific journals and web pages that our society to communicate and to understand itself. STAC students pursue a course of study that is genuinely multidisciplinary and international, and that draws upon the multiple strengths of the Georgia Tech faculty.  (STAC Program 2006)



Many contemporary programs see this theoretical literacy as the key meta skill for preparing artists in a technological era. Others think the theory emphasis can sometimes be overemphasized.   Every curriculum must determine a relevant balance.


CIAÕs Art and Research Course 


What are the best ways to build artists' curiosity, competence, and comfort with scientific research and emerging technologies? What should be the relationship of established scientific and technological disciplines to artistic practice? What are the meta skills artists need to flourish in this border area between the arts and research.


The previous sections discussed several approaches.  Many of the CIA research oriented courses include relevant skills such as critical theory, learning what is involved in developing prototypes, and working in areas of inquiry that are in the process of being defined.  CIA also offered a course, called Art & Research, specifically aimed at the research meta skills.  It asked students to familiarize themselves information resources that could alert them to developments in the research world, develop competencies in interpreting scientific research, define areas of interest, develop art ideas related to those areas, establish contact with researchers, and to develop working styles necessary to move the research based art projects along.  They read articles and books exploring the relationships between research and culture, went on field trips, and heard visiting lecturers.  Here is the description of the course from the Syllabus.


- What will be the art of the future?

- What is going on in scientific research labs?

- How can artists penetrate the secrets?

- How can artists build on research to create new art and media?

This course aims to prepare artists and new media professionals to become innovators in the development of emerging technologies.  The past decades have shown that scientific and technological research that seemed esoteric and outside artistic or media realms can quickly become the core of new cultural trends and industries (for example, the basic ideas of the World Wide Web were considered wild, unrealizable ideas when first promulgated by Ted Nelson).  Artists who want to help shape future cultural development and new media must become adept at understanding the worlds of research.  This approach is critical for those who want to stay ahead of the current pace of change.

This course teaches students skills of monitoring scientific research and emerging technologies.  It presents several areas of research that promise to be important in the future.  It demonstrates the artistic possibilities by studying the pioneering work of artists around the world who work with concepts, tools, and information contexts not usually defined as art.  It explores cultural theory that relates to the development of new technologies.  It helps students to reconsider the interrelationships of science, technology, media, and art  (CIA 2006b: Research Course Syllabus)


Several assignments focus on cultivating curiosity, awareness of sources of research information, skills at navigating these new information networks, and understanding their possible connections with art works. The course uses my book Information Arts: Intersections of Art, Science, and Technology (Wilson, 2002) and the associated art and research web sites as launching points for this work. (CIA 2006c: Art & Science Resource Web Sites).  Here are a sample of these assignments:


- Journal Search:  Students are asked to go to the university library and browse the periodical section to find journals and magazines in topics they were not familiar with.  They meet to report on the findings, explaining their understanding of the journal's mission and audience and presenting articles that intrigued them.

- Think Tank Presentation:  Students are asked to conduct web research to investigate research think tanks working in innovative areas.  They are asked to study the conceptual frameworks the think tanks use to organize their work and to present several particular projects they found interesting.

- Artist Presentation:  Students are asked to find artist web sites for artists working with experimental areas of research and to make presentations on several.  They are asked to try to understand how the research functions in the artist's work and to read whatever the artist wrote on the topic.

- Trade shows/ scientific meetings:  Students are asked to become aware of what trade shows and scientific meetings are taking place in town.  They are asked to arrange to attend one that stimulates their interest.

- Patents:  They are taught how the patent system works and asked to browse patents via the patent office web page.

- Articles:  Students are asked to find and report on cultural theory oriented articles that provide perspective on research fields they are interested in.


Several assignments ask students to actually create art project mockups based on emerging areas of scientific and technological research.  These projects aim to teach students several skills: identification of cultural theory relevant to their interests, learning the language, history, and conceptual structure necessary to work in unfamiliar fields, identification of web and other sources of information on the research, surveying artists working in related fields, formulation of an art project that might build on that research, identification of researchers with information relevant to the project, initiation of contacts with those researchers or vendors, visits to labs or technology companies if feasible, conceptual mock up of the art project with background material about the research, and building of models or prototypes if feasible.  Here are some examples of projects students developed:


-  A skywriter painting system based on understanding of local weather patterns and skywriting technology

- A method to record the sensations of sexual encounter

- An autonomous bat robot

- A system that would allow you to dance with a real time animated image of your skeleton

- An interface to computers that was good for your health

- An artificial 3-d audience that responded appropriately to your performance

- A system for generating sculptures that look like authentic feces

- A "road rage" system that sensed developing rage and calmed drivers

- A system to record dreams

- A teleportation system


Another project asked students to investigate the patent system. Patents are an amazing repository of technological innovation as well as a snapshot of cultural history about changing technological interests.  They studied the patent system's rationale and history, its procedures, how to conduct patent searches, and the rudiments of how to compose a patent.  They browsed the archives of past patents and considered the relationship of patents to artistic innovation.  Here is the description of the assignment from the syllabus.


New Invention Proposal:  Propose a new invention that could be produced. The idea should not be strictly utilitarian.  It should have some element of cultural commentary or artistic or conceptual experimentation. Conduct a patent search for similar inventions.  Present a prototype patent application with text description, discussion of related inventions, and diagrams or mock up images done in the line drawing style of regular patents.


Here are some examples of mock patents that students developed:


-Dream recorder and dream imagery reconstruction device

-A powerful electronic device which simulates a crowd so the neighbors don't have to know how lonely you really are

-Recently broke up? Have an ex? send them a gift they'll never forget- bad flower revenge system

-A lighted, enclosed shelving unit featuring electro-luminescent lighting panels!!

-Projection system that allows people to see different projections based on position

- Evolving autonomous house

- Bicycle system to power personal electronics

- Invisible tattoo system

- "Nanny Helmet" gives rewards and punishments to children based on their behavior

- A "safe" fire that burns cool


The course achieved many of its goals.  It awakened young artists to vast reaches of scientific and technological research calling out for artistic attention.  It helped demystify these areas, teaching them ways to find resources, to interpret the materials they found, to initiate discussions with researchers, to find critical literature relevant to the research, and to create art that responded to the research.  It also illustrated some challenges in this approach.  It showed students the difficulty of undertaking to learn new areas of technology or science simultaneous with pursuing art goals.  It awakened a hunger for supplemental education in missing areas in their background. Since it promoted an independent approach to research that urged artists to question paradigmatic boundaries handed down from science disciplines and marketplace definitions of importance, it confronted them with the difficulties of differentiating quackery from lines of inquiry that were worth pursuing.



Science and technology are transforming culture at its core.  How should the arts participate in this transformation?  How should they integrate the ancient magic of art with the magic of science.   Answering this question will require courage and experimentation in the next decades.  Creating programs to prepare artists for these revolutionary times will itself be a significant challenge.






ACE. (2006) (Arts, Computation Engineering Program – UC Irvine).

Bauhaus-dessau. (2006). ÒBahaus HistoryÓ,  *


CIA (2006a) (Conceptual Information Arts – SFSU). ÒProgram DescriptionÓ. *


CIA (2006b) ÒArt & Research Course SyllabusÓ. *


CIA (2006c): ÒArt & Science Resource Web SitesÓ*


DX (2006) (University of Washington - Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media). ÒProgram DescriptionÓ.. *


MAT(2006).  (Masters in Art & Technology- UC Santa Barbara). ÒProgram DescriptionÓ. *


Rogers, Bryan (2002)  ÒProspectus for MFA program  School of Arts and Design at the University of MichiganÓ.  *


San Francisco State University. (1985). ÒArt Department Course DescriptionÓ. College Catalog.


Sheridan, Sonia (2002).  "Mind/Senses/Hand: The Generative Systems Program at the Art Institute of Chicago 1970-1980Ó.  Journal Leonardo.  Volume 23 Numbers 2 and 3. 2002


Sheridan, Sonia (2006).  ÒBiographyÓ. *


Studio for Creative Inquiry - CMU (2006). ÒProgram DescriptionÓ.  ( *


Technoculture Program (2006).  (UC Davis).  *


Vesna, Victoria. (2006). ÒBuckminster Fuller: Illusive Mutant ArtistÓ. Excerpt quoted from R. Buckminster Fuller. Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. Penguin, New York: 1973.  *


Wilson, Stephen.  Information Arts: Intersections of Art, Science, and Technology.  MIT Press.  (Cambridge, 2002)



*  All websites were accessed April 2, 2006