The Pedagogic Traditions of Emerging Media Art Education

Gretchen Larsen
Summer 2021

Introduction and Recollection: Why Practice EMA

Before discussing the pedagogic traditions of teaching Emerging Media Art (EMA) at the college level, it’s important to clarify why people practice EMA in the first place. This will ground the rationale for why to teach it. In the previous investigation of the historical roots of EMA practice, one reason was that artists were looking for answers that traditional art methods like painting — even in a new, more expressive style — did not provide. The use of emerging media was, in the case of ZERO group, a physically new medium that, it was hoped, would make it possible to express new ideas. Art critic and philosopher Pierre Restany said “painting is dying... the traditional pictorial means of expression have not withstood the tremendous wear and tear of our modern times... time has passed it by... the world of today is filled with a fundamental longing for more immediate communication and direct perception of the real” (Ketner, 2017, pp. 91-92). Emerging technology helped artists to create what they felt were more active, more sensory experiences for the audience.

The actual work of ZERO group, with its mechanized sculpture and use of optical illusion, certainly addressed the senses in different ways than a painting. The work of Fluxus artists, while still using new technologies, was more motivated by frustration with the emerging consumption-driven capitalist society. Their why for new media was less to explore new ideas or conceptual/physical possibilities inherent to art as a discipline, and more because it allowed them to interrupt the consumption-driven culture. They used technology critically, exposing critical issues in a sometimes uncomfortable way (for example, a pianist meticulously puncturing a piano with over a thousand nails, in Gunther Uecker’s Nailing of a Piano, 1964). Fluxus artists didn’t want their work to be consumed by the contemporary art world, but rather for it to aid in the transformation of society at large.

Fluxus and ZERO groups exhibit two different reasons for why to work with emerging technology. In the case of ZERO, it was really a tool to further ideas. New media enabled new conceptual possibilities. The work of ZERO-associated artists strongly relates to conceptual art, in which the material output is less important than its conceptual development (Shanken, 2002). Fluxus artists were focused on creating work that would expose/transform/re-imagine a flawed capitalist system. They used technology, which is imbued with cultural/social values, to critique the current and propose possible futures (Paik’s TVs, where he intentionally mis-used the TV, which involved a deep/critical understanding of how the network’s technology was being used commercially in order for him to undo it in “modified TVs”).

Shigeko Kubota is another EMA artist whose reasons for using emerging media differs from both Fluxus and ZERO groups. Her work, although deep in conceptual rigor and critical cultural wisdom, nonetheless primarily represents the personal. Her Berlin Diaries, River, or Meta Marcel: Window (Snow) show her working not to make a political statement or dealing with broad concepts like the direction of the contemporary art work, but instead using emerging media to deal with her own concerns — her adoration of Duchamp, her ideas about the future of video, as well as themes of family and relationship to nature (Zippay, 2019).

Shanken (2002) defined three ways that emerging media artists work with technology:
  1. Aesthetic examination of visual forms of science and tech
  2. Applications of science and tech to create visual forms
  3. The use of scientific concepts and tech media both to question their prescribed applications and to create new aesthetic models. In this third case, art and tech, like conceptual art, is a meta-critical process

We can think of ZERO group, as well as pop and minimalist artists working with the A&T LACMA program, as relying on the second way of working: applying technology to the creation of visual forms. Fluxus artists work the third way: using technology to question the prescribed applications and to create new models. Kubota works between these, with her own personal preoccupations at the center. From this, the answer for why artists work with emerging media can be roughly broken down into (1) those that are more focused on aesthetics and traditional art concerns, and (2) those more focused on using it to reflect critically on the socio-cultural aspects of technology. So, why work with emerging media? Either to build a “better” visual form, to critically reflect on the technology of the times and promote larger societal change, or possibly just because why not (to explore one's own concerns).

Albu (2011) described how EMA has historically been evaluated by the contemporary art world. She named five criteria that EMA works have been evaluated against. Her criteria boil down to: Does EMA work “critique... the potentially dehumanizing effects of technology? (Albu, 2011, pp. 2-3)” Is it both sensorially engaging and stimulating of critical reflection? Does it convey a meaningful message that is more potent than the medium’s novelty? How does the work engage the audience in participation or interaction? The criticism of EMA has often been that it is novel but empty, not critical enough of technology, and too limited/pedantic about how the audience can interact with it (for example Rauschenberg’s mud-muse, which “only” takes noise level as input to control the quantity of mud bubbles output). The art world is skeptical of EMA, has a high bar for it, and this can account for EMA’s alternate progress down the alleys of academia (this may be more of a highway than an alleyway) and technical conferences. However it’s possible that meeting art world demands is not exactly EMA’s project. Media scholar Lev Manovich (2003) succinctly describes fundamental differences between the EMA project and that of contemporary art:

“The logic of the art world and the logic of new media are exact opposites. The first is based on the romantic idea of authorship which assumes a single author; the notion of a unique, one of a kind art object, and the control over the distribution of such objects which takes place through a set of exclusive places: galleries, museums, auctions. The second [emerging media art] privileges the existence of potentially numerous copies, infinitely large number of different states of the same work, author-user symbiosis (the user can change the work through interactivity), the collective, collaborative authorship, and network distribution (which bypasses the art system distribution channels).” (p.2)

These values or underlying logics of emerging media as described by Manovich help to leverage the art world criticism. Nevertheless, the central complaint Albu puts forth comes up repeatedly across the literature: that artists should operate by way of Grau’s third method of working: using technology critically to help shape society. Grau (2016) explains the reason for this:  “a techno-cultural society that does not understand the challenges it is facing and is not equally open to the art of its time is in trouble.” Artists are largely expected to use emerging technologies meta-critically, to expose the lie of technological determinism (that heaven on earth can be achieved through the right technology), and to better understand where we are at right now (Grau 2016; Huhtamo, 2016; Levin & Brain, 2021). This is also the perspective of media scholar Donald Rushkoff, whose ideas helped shape UNL’s Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Art (JCCEMA). One Rushkoff mantra— which is, actually, a book title— program or be programmed— reflects the same fearful warning of Grau. If we do not embrace and understand technologies, we are in trouble.

In the following, we’ll shift our focus from what EMA artists and their critics believe about why to practice EMA, and focus on what EMA educators/researchers — who may also be practitioners/artists — believe about (1) what an emerging media artist is and why (2) the best program-level structure at the college-level to support students in becoming that vision and (3) pedagogic traditions in the college classroom. We’ll encounter some of the persistent challenges of teaching and learning it, as well as contradictions that pop up throughout the literature. Finally, we’ll interrogate all of these ideas about what an emerging media artist is and how to educate them using a critical and de-colonial lens. How do these ideas about educating emerging media artists align with the critical and de-colonial paradigms in education?

Before proceeding, a few things need to be cleared up. For one, this essay specifically addresses not EMA education in general, but “Computational Creativity” education. “Computational Creativity” is a new term (we’ve touched on so many — Digital Art, New Media Art, intermedia), and there are many more — computer art, creative coding, generative art, algorithmic art, multimedia art, cyber arts, among others (Paul, 2011; Lister et. al., 2008). Computational Creativity speaks more specifically to the piece of EMA that I teach and research, which could also be termed Creative Coding.  Computational Creativity describes practices that use computational media (often code) to create art or design work. In an EMA program, there are many classes, and not all of them emphasize computation (which could mean, literally, coding, or it could mean computational thinking processes, or computer programs which require some aspect of computational thinking).

In the JCCEMA, coding is just one of four “threads” of classes. The other three — entrepreneurship, design, and storytelling — do not emphasize computation in artistic practice, and therefore these teaching methods will be, at least partially, set aside to emphasize strategies that are particular to computation. However some of the ideas about teaching and learning Computational Creativity occur at the program (as opposed to classroom) level, and pieces that  are relevant will be included.

What it means to be an emerging media artists in the present moment

I am interested in how, throughout the literature, who an emerging media artist is and what she does are described. I think these portraits are useful, because they give definition to the “outcome” (if we dare utter such a product-oriented concept) of the EMA educational project. Different individuals describe her in different ways. Penny (2004) is insistent that she is equal parts artist and engineer. He does not mean half artist and half engineer, but 100 percent of both. His EMA program is shaped around this particular vision. Others emphasize her capacity to use technology, particularly coding, as a skill, separated out from the Computer Science discipline. She takes technology in isolation and applies its capacities to a broad range of creative fields (Levin & Brain, 2021; Filimowicz & Tzankova, 2017). New media technologies, like code, “exist as resources to the skilled creator or team who can use coding skills along with art, media, design, and informatic knowledge” (Filimowicz & Tzankova, 2017, p.7).

This flexible capacity to use technologies as tools for myriad creative projects is sometimes called computational flexibility (Peppler, 2010; Meeken, 2012). Meeken (2012) describes this as the ability to “flow between, to combine, to misuse a variety of artistic media and digital tools” (p. 20). Lialina (2012) describes her as a “General Purpose User,” an individual who can “publish photos online without Flickr, tweet without twitter, like without Facebook,” individuals who can do digital and creative work without the help of somebody else’s software. Being an emerging media artist is less about retaining knowledge than it is about being able to navigate knowledge, which is sometimes called new media literacy (Peppler, 2010; Penny 2009) or technological literacy (Reas, 2006). Computational literacy, which describes the two-step process of becoming fluent in programming language (learning to read and write code), is also cited as important, but instead of describing the emerging media artist it describes one of her skills (Hieronymi, 2017).

Navigating technologies as an emerging media artist is second only to creating work. Emerging media artists are “creators of form” (Levin & Brain, 2021, p.3). They use new media literacy or flexibility or fluency to surf the crushing information technology wave and not be crushed (Penny, 2004). Creative productivity is how emerging media artists stay afloat. Filimowicz and Tzankova (2017) describe what her as an individual with “aesthetic or practical intuition which must function as lines of code in a program, go through design process stages (variation, revision, iteration, testing)” and ultimately become a built object that functions in real environments (p.7). Production is key, but it’s not the ability to produce an answer to a question that somebody else asked. The emerging media artist is figuring out the question herself, and coming up with possible answers to it (Penny, 2009). It is this ability which some think makes her “super” employable. She can “think on the fly and fill holes that don’t exist yet” (Filimowicz & Tzankova, 2017).

And, some EMA educators/researchers specify that she won’t fill just any holes. She’s meant to be trained in critical social and cultural histories, and practice EMA in a way that is “overtly political” and “that both anticipate and respond to technological transformations in society” (Levin & Brain, 2021). As Penny (2004) puts it, “we are dealing with a novel techno-cultural complex” (p.12). He sees the challenge being about “imagining and articulating” what would be “the smart thing to do, the wise thing to do” (Penny, 2004, p.12). EMA artist and educator Allison Parrish says “Art is the only ethical use of AI.” She means for technological potential to be defined at the hands of artists, who “[experiment] with new ways of seeing, being ,and relating” (Levin & Brain, 2021, p. 4), who “cultivate experiences of wonder, curiosity, enchantment, and surprise” (Levin & Brain, 2021, p.6).

These visions of what an emerging media artist is are a lot like what we’ve already talked about—the emerging media artist as a political/social interventionist, or as a creator of more whimsical visions of what technologies can do. However the nuances of these various visions for who the emerging media artist is matter when it comes to the teaching of it. Is she half engineer and half artist, or full artist using the engineer’s technology? How computationally literate should she be? To what extent is her work whimsical, and to what extent is it political?

The best program-level structure at the college-level to support students

Throughout the literature, the idea for who the emerging media artist is comes from the perspective of the EMA educator/practitioner/researcher, and there tends to be an underlying perspective about where, at the college-level, the education of the emerging media artist should  take place. I can point to two really distinct contexts where she is educated. One is in a transdisciplinary program, tied neither to a technology or art program, but drawing from each in a totally new space. The other is in an art program, where media arts or computation are introduced into the existing art curriculum. One final context that is continually referenced is not actually where the emerging media artist is educated, but where she will be out in the world, upon graduation. I call this final context “Art used in Technology Domain.” The prior context is “Technology used in Art Domain.” The former transdisciplinary context is “Technology and Art form a new domain.”

We can think of these contexts as sort of like knowledge locations. In the “Technology used in Art Domain,” technology is brought into the art “knowledge center,” or discipline. This sort of program might be called interdisciplinary, when two or more disciplines come together (CITE). Often in the interdisciplinary context, there exists a more central discipline about which other practices are added (Barthes, 1972, as cited in Penny, 2009, p.31). Barthes and Penny take issue with this habit, and prefer something they term radical interdisciplinarity, which involves bringing multiple areas of study together to create “a new object, which belongs to no one.” Radical interdisciplinarity would probably be called a transdisciplinary context or program by educational researchers. Transdisciplinarity is “the coming together of multiple disciplines to define a new generative context for the production of new problems and solutions” (Filimowicz & Tzankova, 2017, p.6).

This “Technology used in Art Domain” adds new media and technical practices into the existing art discipline. One reason that EMA is often placed in the fine art programs of colleges and universities has to do with the emphasis on creative production, which is a central tenet of arts practice (Peppler, 2010; Penny, 2009). Media theorist Peppler (2010) believes that emerging media can be used in art education as a strategy to make art education more relevant to youth, who are already immersed in digital culture, however it’s worth noting that Peppler writes specifically about EMA in K-12. She writes that because “media arts draws heavily on youths’ existing interest in new media, it can potentially be an effective way to enhance the connection between school and out-of-school learning and act as a tool for active learning” (Peppler, 2010, p.2119). Elsewhere she describes using new media in art as a tool for decreasing the “educational gap.”

New media is often brought into the undergraduate art program as a computation class (Levin & Brain, 2021; Filimowicz & Tzankova, 2017). The goal is to make students aware of code as a primary tool for creative practice: “instead of using tools made by programmers to create beautiful images and objects, art and design students can engage with the aesthetics and politics of code” (TWo, 2017, p.85). These computational creativity advocates believe that it is really powerful when artists create their own tools, instead of using tools developed by others for them. Penny (2004) makes this point a little more aggressively: “What earthly good is graphical filter which simulates pointilism to an artist who, informed by feminist theory, is engaged in a visual deconstruction of the rhetorics of pharmaceutical companies developing and marketing reproductive technologies?” (p. 5). The reason for introducing computation into the arts in this interdisciplinary context is so that the artist might learn how to “activate [her] own models,” developing her own creative tools and systems instead of relying on those built by an engineer with only an outsider perspective of what art is and what an artist does (Simon, 2004, as cited in Meeken, 2012, p.12).

Simon Penny—an EMA educator, practitioner, and leader of one of the first transdisciplinary EMA programs at UC Irvine—believes that the merely interdisciplinary EMA context (Technology in Art) is an extreme disservice to the project of educating emerging media artists. He views the emerging media artist as half artist and half engineer, and promotes simultaneous, dual-rigor in the arts and in engineering sciences. He sees the mere integration of one discipline into the other as always doing a disservice to the discipline that is merely added in:

“In its most cynical and unenlightened forms, such a process is inherently imperializing… It retains the master discourse status of the ‘home discipline’, and is thus unable to recognize that in the process of uprooting the products of the outlying discipline and bringing them ‘indoors’, they might in the process wither and die, transformed and reduced like bleached specimens preserved in formalin. In the worst cases, shallow interdisciplinarity resembles Viking-like academic pillaging and plundering raids, pulling exhibits from distant disciplines which, torn from discursive context, change or lose their meaning in the process.” (Penny, 2009, p. 7)

Penny (2009) believes that the arts are devalued by the engineering/science disciplines, and conversely that art schools often fail to recognize the necessary “rigors of technological invention” (p.33). He writes that “an art institution is easily persuaded of the fundamental importance of studio space, but not of the need for a linux cluster or system administrator” (Penny, 2009, p.33). Beyond these more superficial differences, Penny cites the differing underlying values that the arts and engineering sciences hold. He believes that only a transdisciplinary context makes space for the ongoing negotiation of the conflicts as the two collide, like “two tectonic plates” (Penny, 2004, p.7). Penny names the transdisciplinary context a brave one, as it requires the laying down of closely held beliefs, or questioning those of others, which is often met with resistance and occasionally with violence (Penny, 2009).

The final “Art used in Technology Domain” describes programs and practices that bring the arts into technology realms. This comes up in computer science education, where art is used to help teach coding to all students (Guzdial, 2003). These programs rarely aim to educate emerging media artists, and rather seek to teach coding within the computer science discipline, with art as a culturally relevant tool that also helps students to be more personally expressive. However, this idea of bringing specifically emerging media artists into technology comes up repeatedly in literature on teaching and learning EMA. Here, though, the idea of “Art used in Technology Domain” is really a vision for the future emerging media artist working in the technology industry. It’s worth noting that this idea of the artist working in industry also came up repeatedly in my historical analysis of EMA practice, with ZERO group artists learning about emerging technology via industrial jobs, the LACMA A&T project which placed artists in industry as a sort of industrial art intern, and the E.A.T. program which was a sort of database to help artists and technology experts to share resources and co-develop projects.

In the literature focused on educating emerging media artists, “Artists working in Technology Domain” is a vision offered for the future EMA graduate. Golan Levin and Tega Brain (2021), EMA leaders in practice and teaching, write “there is a new urgency for artists and designers to have a seat at the tables where technological agendas are set” (p.5). Artists are believed to bring criticality to the tech industry, which is prone to a “techno nerd culture,” and vulnerable to “techno-optimism and technophilic enthusiasm” (Levin & Brain, 2021, p.5). Artists embrace messiness and it is hoped that they will not see the world as  “a system to be optimized” (Levin & Brain, 2021, p.6).

Does a tech company really want to employ an artist to be critical about their projects? I can’t help but feel like it’s because the artist may have some off-the-wall idea that will help increase company fortunes. As Penny (2009) has said, nobody really likes to have their projects called in for questioning. And we know from historical projects including LACMA’s Art and Technology program that involving artists in industry is hard (though not impossible) for both parties.

These different contexts where EMA education might take place are important to define, if only because they shed light on different underlying beliefs about what exactly EMA is all about, and therefore, importantly, how to teach it.
Are emerging technologies brought into the art department, and if so, how? Does EMA want the same thing as traditional arts education? How is a transdisciplinary context different from the interdisciplinary one?  What Are EMA graduates expected to enter into the technology industry? Penny doesn’t specify where he envisions students of his transdisciplinary program going off to work, but he does state clearly where not: digital arts industries (graphics, animation, gaming, web-design), or technical research. His EMA student, trained in a transdisciplinary context, is also hoping to work in one, where she doesn’t merely “add to” some project, occupying a seat at a table, but where she is involved in artistic and technological production at all levels (Penny, 2010).

Pedagogic Traditions -  Coding

In any EMA program, either a transdisciplinary or interdisciplinary one, Computational Art and Design is one class among many. The following pedagogical strategies focus on the Computational Art and Design classroom within EMA programs. The reason is that (1) this is my area of teaching and practice, and (2) many EMA educators and practitioners consider coding to be a fundamental emerging media technology (Meeken, 2012; Levin & Brain, 2021; Filimowicz & Tzankova, 2017; TWo, 2017). Coding is considered an essential tool for emerging media artists because it underlies literally all of the digital technologies we interact with (Levin & Brain, 2021; Peppler, 2010; Reas, 2006; Penny, 2004). As the Computational Art and Design education group TWo point out, “Code is the pervasive, invisible material that drives our contemporary mediated environment” (p. 75).

The idea is that if we teach coding, students will know how to create their own programs, they won’t be so reliant on somebody else's, and they’ll also know how to critically interrogate the programs that others have built for them. Jaron Lanier, a vocal critic of the tech industry, is a technology veteran himself who was involved in building one of the early versions of virtual reality technology. He now uses his deep knowledge of the technology culture and technological practice to voice concerns about the industry. His naming of Facebook and other social media platforms as “Behavior Modification Empires” has prompted me to leave them (Lanier, 2010). His notion that I shouldn’t have to be manipulated by a third party in order to communicate with my friend rings true, and echoes Lialina’s (2012) idea of the emerging media artist as a General Purpose User who can “tweet without Twitter.”

Students who understand how to code won’t be so helpless in the face of opaque technological systems. Technology systems, softwares that we all use, are actually designed to be opaque. Although students, considered “digital natives,” have grown up around digital technology, they really only are skilled at navigating user interfaces, and have no training beneath that superficial level (TWo, 2017, p. 82). Meeken (2012) writes about the “increasing, designed alienation of users from their computers” (p. 11). Companies don’t want people to know how to code, so that they will instead rely on their coded systems.  Lialina (2012) states that companies like Adobe name coding as a rote, non-creative tool which their software “helps” people to avoid. Their message conveys that a person “does creativity” in Photoshop, Illustrator, or another Adobe program, but that coding is “mechanical, rather than expressive” (Lialina, 2012, as cited in Meeken, 2012, p. 8). Users become reliant on companies like Adobe to “be creative,” when in fact the software itself is built on code. Students who understand how to use and manipulate the core building blocks of technologies like Adobe digital art softwares might, it is hoped, have the ability to create their own creative practice or creative systems instead.

Pedagogic Traditions -  Learning Theory

Pedagogy is a word I find myself arguing with, but it really just refers to practices of teaching, which are different from a curriculum, which has more to do with the content and its organization. A teacher’s pedagogy is influenced by her beliefs about how an individual learns (learning theory). EMA education generally professes a constructionist learning theory, which is a “socially situated learning-by-making” (Levin & Brain, 2021, p.7). Constructivism (v not n) is the base theory of learning that constructionism was built out of it (Papert & Harel, 1991). Constructivism has at its heart the idea that learning is a very active process that involves the learner actively building knowledge structures.

It's useful to think of learning theories in historical succession. The early (early 20th century), behaviorist model emphasized changing external behaviors of an individual (Yilmaz, 2011). This focus on externally visible actions or responses was perhaps overemphasized, and the cognitive approach replaced it, with an emphasis instead on “how conceptual change” occurs (Yilmaz, 2008, p. 204). Cognitivism really emphasizes how individuals “make sense of and process information” and teaching with it in mind involves close attention to the organization of whatever knowledge is being explored (Yilmaz, 2008).  Careful organization of knowledge is thought to aid in the development and growth of conceptual models. The work of Piaget, Vygotsky, and Bruner, among others, have contributed  to this model of learning (Yilmaz, 2008)..

Constructivism followed, emphasizing that truth is not universal, as well as the idea of active construction of meaning and understanding by individual learners. Where the cognitivist approach might emphasize the organization of knowledge, the constructivist emphasizes experiential learning and reflection, giving the learner space to build her own understanding. Constructionism is a strand of constructivism that shares the notion of “building knowledge structures,” but it “adds the idea that this happens especially felicitously in a context where the learner is consciously engaged in constructing a public entity, whether it’s a sand castle on the beach or a theory of the universe” (Papert & Harel, 1991). Constructionism is about learning-by-making, and the posing of problems and creation of possible solutions are key. The description Papert and Harel (1991) offer for what learning is evokes the meaning of the constructionist model: “groping in our disorderly bag of tricks and tools for the wherewithal to build understandings” (p. 4).

Papert pointed out a significant difference between the (k-12) art versus math classroom. He accidentally observed a “soap sculpture” project in the art classroom: “they were all carving soap, but what each student carved came from wherever fancy is bred and the project was not done and dropped but continued for many weeks. It allowed time to think, to dream, to gaze, to get a new idea and try it and drop it or persist…” (Papert & Harel, 1991, p. 5). Papert realized that this was actually much the same as how math is done in the “real world,” but definitely not how it is done in schooling, where “students are generally given little problems they solve or don’t solve pretty well on the fly” (p. 5).  This led him to dream of a “soap sculpture math,” which I don’t think is too different from the dream of the EMA Computational Art and Design classroom. This soap sculpture math idea of a classroom, where technical material is manipulated over time, wrestled with and abandoned, talked about and considered and changed and changed again, rings true for a vision of the EMA Computational Art and Design classroom. Other EMA educators/practitioners give it more definition.

Before proceeding into some of these details, it’s important to mention the lack of research on teaching EMA at the college level. This is addressed in two seminal edited books on the subject, Teaching Computational Creativity (Filimowicz & Tzankova, 2017) and Code As Creative Medium (Levin & Brain, 2021). Filimowicz and Tzankova (2017) explain “practice-based educators in the fields of interactive media and computational design are rarely challenged to reflect on their teaching pedagogies and student’s learning…” and go on to explain that consideration of teaching and learning are “considered marginal to the prevailing discourse” (p. 2). There is already a lot going on with creative technological pursuits, and the focus of academic EMA practitioners/researchers tends to emphasize issues related to its practice and application, as opposed to how EMA is taught (Bergstrom & Lotto, 2015). Brain and Levin (2021) explain how “pedagogic traditions… were mostly absent from the programming primers on our bookshelves which dealt above all with how to write code, rather than what to make when learning to code and why” (p. 2). The following pedagogic strategies are culled from papers and books that are beginning to emerge regarding the teaching of Computational Art and Design.

Ideas about how learning happens in the EMA classroom are rooted in the constructivist belief that “knowledge is not passively received” but constructed by individuals to make sense of their experiential universe (Yilmaz, 2008; Holbert et. al., 2020). Constructivist pedagogies emphasize: a respect for the knowledges and beliefs that students bring to the classroom, space for sharing and dialogue about the subject, opportunities to change or modify their understandings of subjects through meaningful work, “meta-awareness of their own understanding and learning processes,” and instruction about a topic that is achieved through loosely structured learning opportunities (Yilmaz, 2008, p.170). The term “socially situated learning-by-making” continues to help describe what the constructivist  pedagogy looks like, as does this description of radical constructivist pedagogy: “situated cognitive experiences with authentic activities for students to build their own understanding of realities” (Papert & Harel, 1991; Feng., 1996, p. 75).

Constructionist teaching practices place learners in the role of designer, and emphasize creating and sharing artifacts that “reflect [students’] personal interests and values” (Holbert et. al., 2020, p.329, Peppler, 2010; Papert & Harel, 1991). What could be called critical constructionism sees the world as a thing that can be changed, and it aims to expose “inequitable systemic structures,” while practicing creating interventions (Holbert et. al., 2020, p.329). In EMA Computational Art and Design classes, the space to “create interventions'' is achieved through projects, which are sometimes just called assignments. Projects are an essential part of the EMA Computational Art and Design Classroom. Projects are generally open-ended. They require a creative response (idea, solution, intervention). Project constraints are designed to be “tight enough to learn necessary skills, but at the same time, inspire a wide range of possible responses” (Levin & Brain, 2021, p. 6). This setup encourages “curiosity and improvisation.” Projects are thought to achieve the learning of technical skills (through technical constraints), while applying it in personally meaningful ways. An EMA project might be considered a good one if it  “(1) constitutes an entry point into a critical issue; (2) builds transferable skills (blinking an Led on arduino is dull but introduces some important concepts); (3) allows students to make something personally relevant: a chance to develop their own creative practice, or make a portfolio piece” (Levin & Brain, 2021, p. 7).

EMA educator/practitioner at the MIT Media Lab, Mitch Resnick, explains the reason for focusing on projects has to do with computational literacy’s relationship to language literacy. He explains that learning to write is not only about learning grammar and punctuation — rather it is about learning to communicate ideas. In the same way, coding is not only about the rules, but rather acquiring the rules to enable the individual to communicate her idea (Resnick, 2018, as cited in Levin & Brain, 2021, p. 7). Computational Art and Design projects are the space in which the practice of communicating one’s ideas happens. In writing a paper, one wrangles things like vocabulary, grammar, and voice alongside conceptual content. So too, in the Computational Art and Design class, coding logic and syntax are wrangled alongside conceptual content.

Projects are also just a natural space in which the construction of artifacts, as sort of physical representations for construction of knowledge, happens. Constructionist learning theory is all about providing students with space to wrangle with their own understandings and beliefs, and to develop or change them, and projects really are the “space” in the Computational Art and Design classroom in which this process plays out. Critical reflection through personal writings or group-level critiques are used to support the development of meta-awareness about learning and to challenge students to incorporate new perspectives (Penny, 2009; Guglielmetti & McCormack, 2017). Penny (2009) sees the traditional critique structure of the art discipline as one of art’s greatest strengths. He explains how art students are always/have always been expected to be able to justify their work on many different levels, “simultaneously: in terms of formal aesthetics of form, light, color, material… in terms of social, political or environmental concerns ...and in terms of the dynamics of its presentation” (Penny, 2009, p. 23).

Penny explicitly describes which aspects of his transdisciplinary program are pulled from which of the technical sciences, humanities, and art disciplines. From the technical sciences, his EMA program brings in “rigorous analytical-technical thinking,” (which likely is similar to computational literacy), a “technical design and research-and-development process, the design-prototype-test cycle,” as well as “hardcore pragmatic rigor – no amount of handwaving can obscure the brutal fact that it works or it doesn’t” (Penny, 2009, p. 42). From the humanities, his pedagogy brings in an “emphasis on historical and theoretical contextualization” which involves “understanding technical, politico-economic and cultural change as an ongoing interwoven and braided historical process which leads to the current techno-cultural context” (p. 42). From the arts, he draws the majority of pedagogical strategy, including the emphasis on artifact-building, “non-didactic communication” (the idea that the work of the artist is not merely to “inform” or “pass on information”, but to convey it in such a way that might “stimulate a rich cloud of associations”), holistic design and production practice (the idea that the EMA artist is involved in a project from inception to final build), and a “student-centered philosophy” (p. 43).

Penny (2009, 2004) does a really thorough job of describing how the technical and artistic disciplines come together by defining what he sees as useful from each in his transdisciplinary context. Looking at his list, already conflicts appear, for example the technical science’s emphasis on “pragmatic rigor” (where “no amount of handwaving can obscure the brutal fact that it works or doesn’t”) versus a project made in an art program, where determining whether or not something works is often highly contingent and subject to change over time. Nevertheless a complication like this doesn’t appear insurmountable, but rather merely adds depth and complexity to the EMA project. Perhaps Penny’s conceptual/theoretical rigor at the intersection of the art and technical science plane would have aided past failures like LACMA A&T.

Penny cites “analytical-technical thinking” as a core aspect of the pedagogy (Penny, 2009, p. 42). Although he doesn’t describe this in detail, in EMA literature computational literacy does repeatedly come up. Computational literacy was described by Alan Kay (1989):  “[t]he ability to ‘read’ a medium means you can access materials and tools created by others. The ability to ‘write’ in a medium means you can generate materials and tools for others. You must have both to be literate”  (as cited in Meeken, 2012, p.6). Computational literacy is considered a two-step process, one that involves both learning to read and write, much like natural language literacy. Hieronymi (2017) further explains that “The first step requires an ability to understand and modify code. The second step translates ideas and concepts into code. The transition from the first to second step is challenging for many students” (p. 48).  The first step, learning to read, is a lot easier for art and design students at the college level, and the second step is a lot harder.

This consideration of the process of acquiring computational literacy exposes how considerations of cognition, seen through these practices of organizing knowledge for students in ways that will help them acquire computational literacy, are at play in the Computational Art and Design classroom. The “relatively steep learning curve” of learning to code is a point of contention among the literature, although it’s not often stated as such — the challenges of overcoming it have not been emphasized as heavily as strategies for overcoming it (Hieronymi, 2017, p. 48). Some of these strategies include being intentional to make the first few projects approachable and fun. Other strategies include the simple, aforementioned practice of using projects as a primary learning tool, which are based on original student ideas. Other methods include relating computational processes to  traditional media processes, as well as alternating between coding projects and projects that rely on pre-built software like Adobe. Detailed examples of Computational Art and Design projects tend to align the technical processes with cultural themes and social concepts. For example, Guglielmetti and McCormack (2017) describe one week’s creative code curriculum in an online learning setting:

“the characteristics of randomness and variation were examined in relation to how they are expressed in nature and biological systems, and how they feature quite significantly in social activities, such as how randomness was entangled with chance and fate in ancient times or in financial theory where a ‘random walk’ algorithm models fluctuating stock prices. We introduced artists who use randomness and variation in their art-making to provide the creative stimulus: Jean Erp, John Cage, Vera Molnar, Sol LeWitt, Maria Verstappen… in the corresponding practical activities, randomness and noise are implemented and explored in creative coding.” (p. 202)

This practice of aligning computational processes to cultural content is very common. It’s a strategy used in the foundational Computational Art and Design class at the JCCEMA. A lesson about loops, a key programming concept, might be presented along with the abstract, modernist painting practices that came out of the Casablanca School of Fine Arts in Morocco in  the 1960s, where repeating color and pattern are used to stunning effect. Classes tend to involve projects, technical lectures, and presentations about artists and EMA-related research, which may be shared by the instructor or presented by students (student presentations of EMA artists is a common practice). In my own experience, it is more common for instructors to relate computational or technical processes to emerging media artists working from a white/European perspective, than sharing about artists working from different cultural roots. The previous example of relating loops to the Casablanca School was actually only possible after I received a deep, de-colonial education in art of the 1960s. It’s more common for concepts like loops to be related to American pop artists like Bridget Riley and Andy Warhol.

Computational concepts are linked to cultural material and are explored in the artifact-building space of a project, where computer code is the required tool to pull from ones “disorderly bag of tricks” (Papert & Harel, 1991, p. 4). This limitation of technical tools forces students to grope around for other tricks, ideally strategies personally meaningful to them that help them to bring their particular magic to the table. Although specific pedagogical strategies like culturally-relevant pedagogy, or Friere’s pedagogy of the oppressed, or pedagogies of discomfort aren’t explicitly discussed, Levin and Brain (2021) do mention bell hooks as an example of teaching that stays alert and sensitive to the needs and feelings of the classroom. They also cite Nettrice Gaskins’ message that “Every single student comes with something. [people] are not empty vessels. They come to the table with something valuable from a community and a culture,” and share her notion that the more the classroom can connect to what a person already has and can do, the more connected they’ll be to the new learning (as cited in Levin & Brain, 2021, p.8). More specific teaching strategies like making culturally or personally relevant connections aren’t explicitly described. Levin and Brain (2021) explain “the necessity of actively orchestrating the emotional dimensions of a classroom is often overlooked” (p. 9).

Coding as “easy” or “hard”

Although strategies for teaching coding are emphasized, there is some discrepancy across the literature about whether or not learning to code is (or should be) easy or hard. TWo is a Compational Art and Design project built on the foundational belief that learning to code is not easy, that it is in fact hard, and that conceiving of it as easy is actually counterproductive to learning it. They conducted a literature review and expose this habit of making coding easy (TWo, 2017). They liken this habit of trying to sell code as easy as playing into the consumerist mindset, saying this “attachment to easy… keeps faculty and potential students waiting for other people to produce the perfect, immediate, visual approach to programming…. removing agency from students, making them once again reliant on actual programmers” (TWo, 2017, p. 79).

In their practice teaching computation in college-level art classrooms, they’ve found that students aren’t actually so impatient as they are thought to be, and that rather they are merely skeptical of “things that seem like marketing, including pedagogical approaches”(TWo, 2017, p. 81). Their experience has taught them that “most students are willing to be patient when they are presented with a meaningful approach to a complex topic” (TWo, 2017, p. 81). In their teaching, they emphasize slowness, acknowledging the long-term but ultimately rewarding challenge of coding, the fact that many programmers (when asked how long it took them to learn) took years to learn it, and also intentionally expose how a lot of shiny EMA work actually involved engineers and computer sciences in the build process. As far as specific teaching strategies, they just state that “some learners need to experiment, some need regular practice, some need a project to get started. Some people need time alone, others need group dynamics” (TWo, 2017, p.87).

Not all EMA educators frame coding this way. Peppler (2010) writes about shortcut tools, and states that “media art oftentimes requires little programming (or unimpressive code from the standpoint of a computer programmer) to make an aesthetically impactful piece” (p. 2126). Lialina’s (2012) notion of the General Purpose User frames the emerging media artist as not fully engineer (and fully artist), but rather as a sort of eclectic skateboarder who has the capacity to make experimental use of a broad range of technologies.

As an EMA educator and practitioner, to me these different ways of understanding coding matter. The one, which frames coding as a complex but extremely rewarding and necessary tool, requires consistent, meaningful opportunities to practice code in a creative context. The other might favor reading code as opposed to writing it, modifying pre-built code samples, and using coding sporadically among other digital softwares. As an emerging coder myself, I can’t help but feel passionately that reading code alone is a very incomplete literacy that ultimately does not enable communication in the medium of code. I would favor the exclusion of code from the EMA classroom, as opposed to its incomplete and ill-informed addition to existing art curriculum, with much the same vehemence and rationale as Penny’s (2009) argument against the mere interdisciplinary involvement of  technical sciences in the arts.

Critical and De-colonial Perspectives on EMA Education

I understand the de-colonial perspective as a critical response to the so-called critical paradigm. De-colonial scholars call it out for the fact that it has actually functionally just reinforced the power and prominence of white/European adopters of it (Scheurich and Young, 1996). I think of the critical paradigm as the practice of white/European scholars recognizing their dominance, and the historical roots of violence and oppression that it’s built upon. Their critical response (which is the critical perspective) is really an attempt to “make up for this fact” by pointing it out. However this critical practice actually involves taking up a lot of space and making a lot of noise which functionally serves to re-center the white/European group whose dominance was problematic in the first place. De-colonial scholars Eve Tuck and Wang might describe this critical practice as “moves to innocence,” attempts made by white/Europeans to try to ignore, hide, cover over, or minimally repair the fact that their positions of power have literally involved  slavery, murder and mutilation of non-dominant groups (Tuck and Yang, 2012). It is a little strange that the critical paradigm, which is built upon naming the truth, actually functionally serves to reinforce the existing power dynamics and in some ways cover over the truth.

The de-colonial paradigm sees the “critical” practices as possibly more harmful than any others because, although adherents think they are helping, what actually happens is like the application of a heavy thick glaze over an already complex reality. In some ways, other paradigms like the efficiency model in education were less harmful, because they were so overtly projecting white/European agendas like productivity at the expense of individual lives, that they were at least easier to recognize, and therefore easier to confront.

The de-colonial project emphasizes hearing directly from BIPoC about their experiences and about how things are, period (Ricketts, 2021). It would favor, for example, the use of the term “white wildness” over “white fragility,” which both speak to the same fact, but the former is defined by a black woman and speaks specifically to the violent impact of the so-called fragility of whiteness (Ricketts, 2021). The de-colonial project really wants to hear from, to privilege, to empower and learn from historically marginalized individuals. It maintains that the dominant culture can’t actually see itself, and that it is really only the non-dominant groups who are able to see it for what it is. It’s pretty exciting, because it really lays down a vision for change, a vision for the liberation of oppressed groups as knowledge-holders, wisdom-bringers and guides who might help us all get out of this mess we are in.

I don’t mean to sound fuzzy about the de-colonial project, nor to imply that the de-colonial project involves handing off the work of fixing the world’s problems, created by the white/European dominant groups, to historically oppressed individuals. My experience of the de-colonial paradigm is that it involves some of the most fierce, challenging work in the world. It is not just about standing up against injustice, but much more importantly it requires facing one’s inner shadows, one’s deep-seated alliances to a culture whose values are embedded so deep they can be difficult to see, let alone accept, learn from, and ultimately purge. Yes, the de-colonial project involves a lot of work, but it is not work in the same white/European/production-oriented/power-hungry way. It won’t make you “good,” or win or succeed (Ricketts, 2021). For dominant groups, the work involves seeing and feeling the harm that one's participation in the oppression of others has caused, as well as recognizing the harm it has caused oneself. For non-dominant groups it involves seeing, feeling, and healing the harm that has been caused to you, as well as potentially the ways in which the individual has ingested the oppressor’s values (Ricketts, 2021). It’s worth mentioning that often we realize that we both oppress and are oppressed, and much of the work importantly acknowledging and reckoning these two realities. The de-colonial project involves giving time, giving energy, giving resources and attention and love to our collective healing, and not doing so because it will make you good or earn you success, but as a result of the honest acknowledgement of harms that you have intentionally or not been involved in, and are responsible to help heal (Ricketts, 2021). I see the de-colonial paradigm as firmly rooted in the old wisdom that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. This perspective seeks totally new tools from the perspective of individuals who are not beholden to the dominant white/European culture.

Now, how do the critical and de-colonial paradigm relate to EMA education? EMA, as a practice and an educational project, checks the critical box. Built into it is a deep criticality. It wants its students to not just use the technology created and packaged by the often white/European Silicon Valley bro culture, but to learn to create such technologies themselves and in this process to become capable of interrogating technologies. EMA students learn how to break open the shiny veneer and expose the mess of decisions that go into any seemingly smooth app or other digital experience. As mentioned elsewhere, technology is not just technical, it is also deeply cultural, and technology is not new, is not de facto freed of old biases and assumptions, but rather it often just reproduces the same cultural values and beliefs in a new form (Pacey, 1983;  Meeken, 2012). The EMA educational project means to expose that, and to train students who can put forth alternatives.

What I wonder about, then, is what it means to bring the EMA educational project into a more de-colonial realm. Decolonization is a lot about bringing BIPoC voices to the fore, and making space for their experiences and knowledge to have influence and take form. Coding, in particular, birthed from, or at least is controlled by and steeped in the cultural status quo of white/European cultural perspective. If EMA education involves a lot of critical interrogation of existing technologies, doesn’t that put us at risk of the same faults of the critical paradigm, where we criticize it but actually just reinforce it? If EMA involves breaking technologies, both their technical and cultural aspects, down, what prevents us from recreating the harmful parts in a new form? Heather Dewey-Hagborb (2015, as cited in Levin & Brain, 2021) explains, “the intersection of arts and technology brings the worst of both worlds together. The tech industry is so white male, and the art world also prioritizes white men. But then, when you put those two together, it’s like it just explodes” (p. 8).

I can’t help but think of Nansi Guevara’s (2018) unpublished work, Nuestra Vida Rasquache: Making Do As a Way of Life. In it, she gives an account of her experiences as a Xican@ woman in a college-level art and design program. She writes about a project in a 3D design class where she was instructed to work with found materials. She describes it as a moment when she clearly saw how white/European culture takes what other cultures have always known, in this case about creative practices that honor and respect the earth, and package it with some new label — in this case, sustainability — and sell it. In the project space, she recognized that she was getting the opportunity to do what she knew how to do — to create with whatever materials are around.

It reminds me of a conversation I had recently with a tenure-track professor of EMA. He was telling me about this AI machine, and how it had consumed practically everything there was to consume, and had “spoken back” encouraging humanity to honor mother earth.  I couldn’t help feeling so angry at his esteem for a machine who knows what many groups of people across the globe have known forever. I wanted him to feel that same pride and respect for all of the bodies that have been used, in so many cases, to build that AI machine.

The question lingers, why do we honor — with our  time and with our money — this practice of experimenting with technology? Reinhold Niebuhr (1932) said, decades ago, “we are living in a world… in which a higher degree of technological achievement and to a certain degree, a higher intelligence, brings us in closer and closer contact with all the world but we haven’t the intelligence by which we may make our common life sufferable” (as cited in Paterson, 2017, p. 217). Light and Space movement artist James Turrell revoked his participation in  the LACMA A&T project, because he believed it was an illusion that “a kind of soul hunger and quest for faith might be literally satisfied by chemical assistance or electronic innervations” (Kozloff, 1971, para. 17). These critics of the technology project, of the belief that technology will satisfy our “soul hunger,” feel and ring true to me, in spite of their white/European and male spokespersons. It also echoes the work of Michel Foucault, whose lecture series The Technology of the Self served as a rude awakening to me. I had expected Foucault to describe some totally incredible application of emerging technology that might help me “make my human life sufferable.” Instead, the whole point, all the “technologies” Foucault cited, were actually all the boring and true things I already knew, like meditating, and taking walks, and journaling, and limiting food and drink sometimes. I was really disappointed! In my consumption-driven mindset, I was hoping for a quick fix.

In Guevara’s (2018) paper, she talks of technology that doesn’t solve all the problems, doesn't make everything perfect once and for all. She talks about her family’s living room table as constructed from scrap lumber, creating walls with bedsheets, using duct tape to secure floor tiles, “[conjuring] up door locks out of nails, dollhouses out of bookshelves, and Barbie dresses out of old socks” (Guevara, 2018, para. 8). She cites ’Ulu’ave (2015), who says “We have no band, no ballet, what we do have is crumbling walls, trains, found objects, our bodies, our voices and we use those to co-create the world in which we live” (as cited in Guevara, 2018, para. 6). She also talks about educational spaces that don’t try to inject culture but that celebrate the cultural practices that find themselves there.

In dialogue with Guevara, I can’t help but think of Gloria Anzaldua’s writing in La Prieta, “There is no beauty in poverty, in my mother being able to give only one of her children lunch money… It was not very romantic for my sister and me to wear the dresses and panties my mother made us out of flour sacks because she couldn’t afford store-bought ones like the other mothers” (Anzaldua, 2009, p. 42). Through Anzaldua’s lens, Guevara’s Rasquachismo practices, the practice of “[holding] life together with bits of string, old coffee cans and broken mirrors,” becomes more complicated (Guevara, 2018, para. 1). Between material poverty, and white/European models of wealth, certainly other possibilities exist.

The exploration of alternative possibilities is a key element of speculative design. Design, as a practice, can be thought of as problem-solving, and there are various schools of design practice that advocate specific design processes (like design-thinking). Speculative design is a problem-solving process that emphasizes the inherent “unfixability” of many of the world’s problems, and which instead works towards both changing peoples’ “values, beliefs, attitudes, and behavior” (Dunne & Raby, 2013). Critical design is another design method that emphasizes “identifying and dismantling inequitable and oppressive systems” (Holbert et. al., 2020, p.329). Both practices are really about constructing artifacts, but have somewhat different emphases which might well cross over. The practice of speculative, critical, or any other form of design are really connected to constructivist and particularly constructionist theories of learning, however they offer a more specific model or road map for constructing artifacts that either critically dismantle the past or critically build towards the future.

I feel doubtful of any methods or practices that emphasize fixing problems, in line with Turrell’s and many others’ notion that soul-hunger won’t be satisfied by any emerging technologies (Kozloff, 1971; Levin & Brain, 2021; Paterson, 2017). Critical and speculative design, as methods to aid in the artifact-building processes of the EMA classroom, beat out design thinking and other design approaches that might favor perfect solutions over exploration, critical interrogation, and dreaming up beautiful possibilities that don’t quite fit in the world as we know it right now. Although the term critical is built into critical design, the fact that it specifically cites dismantling oppressive systems brings it into a more abolitionist territory that feels less vulnerable to the white/European self-inflating practice of the critical perspective. Speculative design processes, which emphasize exposing underlying values and beliefs, also feel like a process that makes adequate space for letting totally new ideas grow.

One speculative design project I’ve encountered involves using emerging technologies  like VR and 3D modeling to imagine black women in neuroscience. The Hyphen-Labs project, Neurospeculative Afrofeminism, offers a vision of a “neurocosmetology lab where black women are pioneering techniques of brain optimization and cognitive enhancement” (Hyphen-Labs). The  project combines the “culturally specific ritual of haircare” with a future where black women are pioneers of brain research (Figure 1). It feels like an example of a technology, in the more technical sense, being used to construct new possibilities that are less laden with white/European cultural norms.

I can’t help but think about the painting Anticipation (Figure 2) by Betye Saar. It was created in 1961, a period of time not so unlike our present moment. It is “just” a portrait of a pregnant black woman, sitting holding some flowers and looking off into the distance. It is to me no less dramatic a vision than Hyphen-Labs, no less daring to dream a dream of peace so complete that who could but choose to live life in honor of it? It reminds me too of EMA artist Shigeko Kubota, her emerging media sculpture (Figure 3) where she used twine to attach a translucent flat stone, painted with the names of her ancestors, to a TV, using the TV’s glow to illuminate the names. Here too, a vision. Both are personal, and maybe people would call them political, but regardless they are inspirational — models that I can only hope to honor in my work as an EMA educator and practitioner. That students (people!) can use technology, can wrench it free from the tight clutches of its cultural moors and invite its magic towards dreams not yet realized.

There are many possible ways to do this. I’ll only know by trying.

February 2024
designer & educator

— Sculpture and Installation
— Creative Code Research