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Education Feature: New Media Arts

Education Feature: Well taught, self-taught and still learning

Anna Davis

Anna Davis is an artist working with video, interactive technologies and performance. She is currently creating a series of sensor-driven environments inhabited by characters called a/proxy[mate]s.

Thea Baumann, Virtual Terrain Tryptich (stills form video projection), 2003 Thea Baumann, Virtual Terrain Tryptich (stills form video projection), 2003
Perhaps the best way to evaluate the benefits and pitfalls of tertiary art education is to speak to people who have recently completed their studies and are now practicing artists in the ‘real’ world. I conducted a series of interviews with some emerging new media artists and asked them to reflect on their educational experiences.

Generally their responses were overwhelmingly positive, with most artists heaping praise on the people, technology and experiences to which they had been exposed. Perhaps the most inspiring answer came from Michaela French. During the screening of a Super 8 documentary she made while studying printmaking, a visiting lecturer pulled her aside and told her she really needed to be making films: “From that moment my direction changed, my focus shifted and I began making things move. It was like being shown a door to my world, like finding a place where I fit, somewhere where all my ideas, stories, narratives and sequences had a context in which to exist.”

Following are excerpts from email interviews with the following new media artists: Kate Murphy (NSW), who attended the Canberra School of Art at the Australian National University (ACT) from 1995-1999; Michaela French (VIC), Canberra Institute of the Arts (ACT) 1988-1991; Thea Baumann (QLD), Queensland University of Technology 2000-2002; Mel Donat (NSW), School of Contemporary Art, University of Western Sydney 1998-2003 (including MA); and Kelli McCluskey and Steve Bull (WA), who both studied at the Cheltenham and Gloucester College in the UK between 1995-1998 and 1988-91 respectively, before coming to Australia in 1999.

Do you think you were born an artist or learnt how to be one at art school?

Murphy: Ah, the old nature versus nurture huh? I don’t have the answer to that question! Art school has been a huge influence, technically and conceptually. Obviously you don’t have to go to art school to be an artist but I am glad that I did.

French: I think I was born with an inherent creativity and I have always known that I am happiest when I am creating. Going to art school taught me a lot about how to mould that creativity into an ongoing artistic practice. It taught me discipline and a lot about the management of artistic practice within a real world context. But in truth I don’t think I actually learned to be an artist until quite recently and the change was much more about a belief than a practice...It’s hard to say where the edges of being and learning start and end but it has certainly been a fulfilling process and in some ways I feel like I am now at the beginning.

Baumann: Yes and no. I think through my studies I learnt how to engage with and analyze art on a more critical, theoretical, complex level. Engaging in arts-based academic discourse was integral in developing my visual literacy skills, and honing my ability to articulate my own art practice. However, it was the professional endeavours I undertook outside of a formal institution...such as coordinating content for multi-arts festivals...and volunteering...that taught me more practical curatorial, people and management skills.

Donat: I believe I learnt to be a better artist at art school...[by learning] how to hone in on my creative talents. You can’t teach anyone to be an artist if they’re not one.

McCluskey: I think I learnt the value of collaborative practice and that’s stayed with me. I think also the notion of having a number of tools in your creative kit-bag: writing, research, video making, performing, directing. Seeing what form best suits the idea and being able to follow through with it was a great discovery.

So how would you say your current practice has been affected by your art education?

French: It is difficult to quantify exactly...Art school provided a clear foundation in terms of the ideas, process, discipline and context that now informs my work. I would not be without the experience...

Baumann: I probably wouldn’t be messing around with pixels. I’d still be at home playing with gouache and masking tape.

Donat: I would never have had the opportunity to work with and develop my art practice with the moving image without access to the equipment and teachers at university.

Bull: It certainly encouraged me to be brave, to try things out, take a risk here or there and work with other people as often as possible.

Did you learn many technical or craft-based skills at art school that are still relevant to your practice?

Murphy: In my department there was more emphasis on concept than technique, however I did learn technical skills which I still use today. Most of the skills, however, which I required [video] weren’t taught at the time so I had to teach myself these and continue to do so.

French: A huge amount of what I learned regarding the development and articulation of ideas and the composition and construction of image remains completely relevant to my practice. I also studied a semester of colour theory and this perhaps had the strongest influence of all; my increased understanding of colour totally altered my way of seeing.

Baumann: I was introduced to technical equipment, software and new media technologies at art school. I had a great tutor who was very helpful, patient and encouraging when it came to giving us the lowdown on how equipment and software functioned. However, I would say that I am predominantly a self-taught new media artist.

Bull: I experimented a lot with video, sound and installation, made lots of mistakes and learnt from them. They are certainly relevant to my contribution to the group’s practice now [Bull is a member of PVI Collective], both conceptually and technically.

A common challenge facing many emerging artists is how to make art and be financially independent. Did your art education teach you how to survive as artists in the ‘real’ world?

Murphy: Art school offered a course called Professional Practices. It was a great course which gave advice with grant writing, contracts, tax etc. It was very helpful, I still refer to my notes.

French: Art school didn’t teach me how to make a living, but I did develop a determination and formed a strong commitment to my practice whilst I was there. These things, combined with a huge amount of persistence and endless support from family and friends, have made it possible for me to get to a point where I am able to survive through my creative endeavours.

Baumann: No. My time at art school was like dozing in a nice warm, youth allowance-encoated bubble. I was never tutored in what I would consider the fine art of grant writing, how to capitalise on my art works, business skills or taxation. It was only after I graduated and was thrust into the harsh world that I had to learn about these issues—and quickly!

Donat: Yes it did, but making a living in the sense that you could earn some money and notoriety from producing works. I more often use skills learnt such as being a sole trader and understanding copyright issues etc.

McCluskey: Hah! No, but I do remember getting advice on funding applications at one point, which helped greatly, as that really felt like an elusive creature to tackle when you left study.

Bull: No it didn’t; that was unfortunately not on the curriculum.

And finally, would you recommend your art school to other aspiring artists?

Murphy: Yes, I would. The school has great teachers and programs. The theory workshop is also great. I think Canberra is a great place to study. There’s a really tight and committed art community there which is very encouraging...Also Canberra doesn’t have a lot of distractions so you study more and it is a lot cheaper to live there!

French: I would certainly recommend an art school as a place to formulate and experiment with ideas and develop strategies for an ongoing creative practice.

Baumann: Yes. If you are looking for a strong emphasis on exploring new media technologies (video, sound, gaming), experimentation, play and anti-traditionalist philosophies.

Donat: Yes, because of the multi-disciplinary thinking, access to different mediums and equipment and the teaching staff who are practicing artists. There is an overall attitude to help you develop not only as an artist, but also as an individual...I’m always of the belief that your work can be created by whatever means necessary and I believe this multi-disciplinary thinking has stemmed from attending UWS.

McCluskey: Going to any art school gives you clarity, something to kick against, opportunities to experiment and find your feet. I think it’s really important to have the breathing space to just make and to fuck up, to stay passionate and be supported and occasionally make something that you know will stay with you, whatever you choose to do afterwards.

Anna Davis is an artist working with video, interactive technologies and performance. She is currently creating a series of sensor-driven environments inhabited by characters called a/proxy[mate]s.

RealTime issue #62 Aug-Sept 2004 pg. 26

© Anna Davis; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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