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York Symposium

Peking/York Symposium: Interdisciplinarity, Art and Technology

I was invited to a symposium at York University between arts researchers from China, the US and Canada. These notes are rough and written on the fly.

Geoffrey Rockwell: "Humanities Computing and the Intersection with Digital Arts"

I presented a brief history of humanities computing, discussed some of the current challenges and ended with some common challenges:

  1. Training and Programmes: We need to find ways to weave in digital methods into the training of graduate students without sacrificing their academic preparation.
  2. Cultural Archives: We have to work with other sectors like libraries to develop archives for research that can be maintained and which can interoperate.
  3. Academic Cyberinfrastructure: We have to find ways to provide students and faculty with appropriate infrastructure in a cost effective fashion.
  4. Participatory Interactive Culture: We have to find ways to engage youth and the style of participatory culture they are interested in.

Jixiang Peng - "The Change of Film and TV in Digital Technological Time"

Jixiang from Peking University talked about whether there is a "9th Art" (beyond the traditional arts and cinema.) He feels it hasn't yet emerged and we are at a point of transition. He talked about the way games and films incorporate the legendary (think Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter.)

Robert Taylor - "Arts and Technology for the New American University, an Interdisciplinary Approach"

Robert Taylor from New College, Arizona State University presented a performance talk. Education for the artist and from the artist. He argued that the new American academy must change to survive. How can theatre, the arts, and interdisciplinarity contribute? New College has gotten rid of traditional departments and is trying to figure out how to reach more students through smaller centers and distance education. Being small (3000 students) lets them innovate.

Zuoxin Wang - "The Meaning of Life"

Zuoxin from Fudan University talked about the "Meaning of Life". Fudan is just starting arts programs. It sounds like arts education is expanding rapidly in China. Few comprehensive universities in China have established arts faculties. The arts need to have a good foundation in literature and humanities. As they emphasize the arts they hope not to leave the humanities behind, by which she also meant human character. It is interesting to see how Zuoxin engaged the ethical dimensions of learning and connected it to literature. We have lost that in North America. We don' try to produce well-rounded individuals or at least we don't take that as the responsibility of professional education.

Catherine Wild - "Digital and Interactive Culture at Concordia"

Wild talked about initiatives at Concordia like Hexagram and the labs that are supported by it. I was impressed by the number of different research labs - Hexagram has given them the ability to flexibly support many different research initiatives in media arts. She also drew our attention to how space for labs/infrastructure helps. It gives a group visibility, it allows her to show what they do in art to senior administrators who might not realize their strengths, it allows interdisciplinary teams to gather and get to know each other, and it provides a focus for people from different walks.

Georges Van Den Abbeele - "Interdisciplinarity, Art and Technology"

Georges gave a great talk showing how many of the patterns of change we see now with new technologies going through phases of Imitation, Invention and Standardization have taken place before. He reminded us about the history of the book and how it was centuries after the development of the printing press that the "book" emerged with its standardization. Could electronic texts being entering the third phase as we standardize and large-scale collections like Google Books or Amazon impose these standards on the inventiveness around? Does the role of the university change as technologies go through these phases. In periods of invention we provide a place for innovation and experimentation. Then when things standardize we provide trained workers. He reminded us that early cinema was more experimental than it is now. The university might be a place that "preserves" knowledge of experiments that were not taken up and the university might "preserve" innovation in the face of standardization. Georges also mentioned how we are seeing cultural tourists in California who are well educated and not satisfied with poor materials and poorly trained docents. Universities can contribute to such cultural tourism.

Nell Tenhaaf - "The Interdisciplinary Digital Media Program at York"

Nell talked about their new Digital Media program, which like the one at Concordia, brings computer science courses together with arts courses. It is in the second year. We talked about collaboration with colleges and the differences in culture.

Sheila Petty - "Towards an Interdisciplinary Center of Excellence in Sound, Interactive Media and Performance at the University of Regina"

Sheila talked about initiatives in Regina. They have the challenge we have at U of Alberta of how to build a regional centre without simply feeding students to the center (Toronto or Vancouver.) They are following a cluster model that creates a critical mass of multidisciplinary expertise. She talked about knowledge communities and transaction spaces. Again, spaces can bring people together in a way the network can't. Universities should focus on creative spaces in and through which things happen rather than the creative products. Their initiative has been working with TR Las which is also in Edmonton. She also talked about neat work on soundscapes.

Xuguang Chen - "The Aesthetic Thinking of the Relationship between Art and Technology"

Xuguang gave a talk that I didn't entirely get about the shift in cinema due to technology. He was working off Benjamin and the loss of the objective or real, but applying it to cinema where special effects have had an effect of detaching the medium from any necessary connection to the real. He commented on how the role of the director and actors is diminishing and, in interactive cinema, the role of the technology and the audience is increasing. We are losing our sense of who the "auteur" of the work is.

Ian Wilson - "Knowledge and Innovation: The Stratford Institute"

Ian Wilson talked about the Canada 3.0 Forum and the emerging Stratford Institute of the University of Waterloo. He mentioned that the Canada 3.0 Forum issued a Stratford Declaration which sets some objectives for Canadian ICT strategy. It is impressive the network of business, academy, and government which is behind the Stratford Institute. Wilson mentioned how important online content is to the community. As we put up history it is no longer the generalized history of nations or generations, but "my history" because it is being mined by people for their identity and genealogy.

Caitlin Fisher - "Augmented Reality"

Fisher gave us tour of her augmented reality Future Cinemas lab where we saw a very cool and low-tech card project. Cards with unique glyphs can be synchronized to video clips so that you can lay them out anywhere and the software will overlay where a card is a particular video. The packs of cards can be sold inexpensively and the software can then be used to create inexpensive augmentation projects. She is releasing this soon in Buffalo.

Michael Longford - "Tentacles: Design, Technology and Interdisciplinary Collaboration in the Mobile Media Lab"

Longford showed a project from his Mobile Media Lab that allows multiple users to control a shared space from an iPhone app. Each iPhone (or iPod Touch) controls a tentacle that gets larger as it absorbs tentacules. Beautiful and neat. He talked about next steps and the challenges of commercialization. This project was supported by Apple.


There was much to think about from the discussions. Some of my conclusions are:

  • Evaluation of colleagues who do interdsciplinary and digital work is still an issue. See the MLA Evaluation Wiki I worked on. We need to add more about the arts to this.
  • Many digital arts programs are being developed by adding a CS stream to an art stream. I'm still convinced this is a second-best approach where the two cultures are not really talking and as a result there isn't coordination. Program committees that work together are important to avoid this.
  • Labs and space are important for all the reasons Wild mentioned.
  • Infrastructure is going to get more expensive and we need to look beyond single university solutions towards cloud solutions.
  • Teaching digital arts is expensive and we need to find ways to control the costs or these will remain marginal show programs without the broad impact.



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