Leo Erken, December 9, 2015
A photographer friend who has a romantic heart told me about the day she and her friends spent during the Amsterdam Sail event this year. While drinking cold white wine in a little boat they felt like they were in paradise when they were zigzagging among hundreds of the worlds most beautiful sailing ships. It made them feel great to be in the middle of a proud world. Of course she realised that this world is something that belongs to the past and that it exists only during festivals.
She did not realize immediately that she was in a similar situation when she visited Paris Photo a few months later. She did acknowledge that there was no economic reason for her to be there. ‘I was there to feel good with people who are in the same business as me’, she said referring to other visitors she met there. But she admitted that from a content and economical point of view, the festival was not connecting to her work at all. What she saw exhibited were expensive art objects made with photographic technology targeting investors and rich collectors. Her own work had a human documentary intention, made for a wide media audience. She saw little of that at Paris Photo. Most of the documentary work shown was made years ago during photography’s glorious past.
Like my friend many of today’s photographers, graphic designers, writers and film makers are having a real hard time to survive. The reasons for that are simple: printed media is rapidly disappearing and television has lost it’s power. The internet is to blame, many say.
Those who switched to the world of online media had to make profound changes in their profession and approach. Photographers became film makers and interactive publishers. Writers became bloggers and graphic designers started building websites. They all had the re-educate themselves and started co-operating with programmers.
Many visual professionals were stubborn and moved inwards into their own artistic communities. Photographers convulsively clung to photo books and graphic designers became obsessed with the production of high-end but cryptically, complicated, extensive in it form -but very limited in edition- printed publications. Many film makers seemed to be working exclusively for film festivals where they would see each others films. As if they all were desperately trying to preserve their worlds. Although some had success inside their communities. Many of them (even the most successful) needed a job to make a living. A position they often found in art education. The question arose: does a nostalgic approach of our professions serve our students who will work in a completely different media reality? Do we need to hold on strongly to terms like ‘photography’ or ‘graphic design’ when we know that technical revolutions minimized it’s role in our society?
Years ago art schools had departments like ‘sculpture’, ‘painting’ and ‘graphics’. The disciplines still exists more or less but their importance has been enormously reduced so we all accepted that they merged into ‘fine arts departments’. The enormous boom of new technology and the opportunities coming out of that made separation of those media ridiculous. But in the world of applied arts at many art academies segregation of disciplines in art education is still alive. We still have departments as ‘photography’, and ‘graphic design’, based on old media realities that are no longer ruling.
Students at art schools are therefore taught technology of the past only because their teachers were raised that way. It’s hard to believe that very little art students of photography or graphic design at a Dutch art school learn to read and write in code. Code is the most important language of the digital age. Most art school teachers are illiterate when it comes to code, so they think they can ignore it. I really think we are making a huge mistake here. Sure, code is difficult to learn, but if we can learn English, Spanish and Chinese, we can learn code. Without code, art students are far behind their peers who study programming. At the end: programming students learn next to nothing about art. What is the result? Code wins but lacks a visual component. Art hardly plays a role in new media developments. None of the large communication protocols -everything we consider new media today- has been designed by art based designers. It is all done by purely technical educated people. Art is at most illustrating it. When we compare this time frame with the period of Bauhaus, when art and technology were strengthening each other and empowered new developments, today’s art applied education puts itself on a ridiculous sidetrack.
In the new media reality it’s also strange that we separate designers from image makers. There are no borders between still images and moving images any more. Photography on a screen is not a fixed thing it can contain sound and it’s only a matter of time when new digital senses like smell, taste and touching will be introduced.
The internet is -still after all these years- a text driven world. Our ex art students -many of whom are unemployed today- could play a far more fundamental role in the development of the image culture in the centre where it all happens: code protocols. Art and programming students should not only learn to work together more but have fundamental knowledge of each others fields. Art based professionals should not be unemployed: they are needed in society. The best art students are the dreamers, the hyper active, the misfits, the crazy ones who painted graffiti on impossible places that drew attention in high school. They are the ones who were not afraid to speak out and raised questions when nobody else did.
In the last few years there has been a large decline of signups at art schools. Less and less talented youngsters turned up. They want to be in the centre of the developments and that’s not art school. Although they are probably not familiar with the term itself – a new generation can smell that todays art education is no longer avant garde.
We have to listen to their needs and at the same time make clear that art has to be part of progress and a new generation needs art education to develop the new routes. Art education is all about making connections. A process based on study of what happened in the past combined with what could happen in the future. Our students have to study history of society, art, film, (popular) music, literature, technology, philosophy and much, much more. And in the meantime they have to implement it all into their personal creative working process and artistic developments. We as teachers may be no longer able to show a new generation a fixt career path, our experiences still play an important role in the transition to a new media order but we do need to communicate deeper with the new generation in stead of patronizing them. The days of hierarchical teacher-pupil relationships are over for good.
The media world today is far more complex then it used to be. We have to co-operate with different disciplines more than we ever did before. More disciplines will merge. Creative professionals will have to work in multi-disciplined teams to make progress. The era of one man bands is over.
Education in applied arts has to embrace teamwork. It’s therefore really important that we realise that not all students will become autonomous ‘artists’. We have to give students the possibility to define their own specific roles in co-operations. The question ‘what will be my contribution?’ has to be central in the education process, both for students and teachers. The question: ‘for who are we working’, is equally important.
A new media order is impossible to predict. But let us embrace different worlds and (technical) languages. Experience, technology and have fresh crazy ideas lined up.
Conservatism is our biggest enemy.
And please: let us stop smothering the new generation with our nostalgia. They will create their own one day.
Leo Erken December 2015
Thanks to Pawel Pokutycki and Mohinder Perihar
Picture of installation by Ola Lanko in Foam photo museum Amsterdam