Leo Erken, December 31, 2015.
Sitting in a bar in the late nineties with colleagues who work in the creative industry I occasionally caught myself making little white lies about my financial situation. My gut feeling told me that it would be wise to position myself on the winning side. That’s how our world was divided at the time: winners and losers and you better place yourself in the first category. The nineties were not the most gracious time frame I experienced – many things changed back then. One thing that happened is that my generation lost its financially comfortable standard of living. The digital revolution brought many new possibilities but what came with it: the decline of the printing press, took the lucrative positions of many away. It is fair to say that in the period that followed most of us got the opportunity to experience how it feels to be a loser for a while.
The surprising thing that occurred in my artistic surroundings was that all of a sudden we found ourselves in an atmosphere of openness and solidarity. We became more humble and started budgeting by sharing our studio’s and equipment. We also shared knowledge and time. That gave us the opportunity to learn and connect to the new media realities. We realised we needed each other but also that we could learn from youngsters. While we were struggling, the next generation developed complete different attitudes and demands towards information and communication. Sharing their lives with strangers from an early age seemed a perfectly normal thing to do. Revolutionary developments like social media -even though they use it all day- seemed not particularly special for them. These days I see students in art taking their new media surroundings for granted and most of them do not show a particular interest to study it in depth. Many of them even prefer the values of the analog past and move to ancient technology. Like it’s something they have to protect. It’s a real strange sensation to discover that we lecturers in art, have to be aware of the conservatism of our students. We have to push many of them into the new world by force – it seems. My generation – born in the sixties – knows what we left behind; the newspapers, the magazines, the powerful television networks, all lost it’s power or even disappeared. That world will not return – it’s online equivalents are no more than a shadow of what once was.
We saw the revolutions happening but more than us it will be the next generations that has to deal with the consequences. They have to make sure what will come is theirs. New media structures are being developed as we speak, all kinds of attempts are popping up. These are not inventions by individuals but created by crowds. It’s the complex co-operation between developers and users that decides what will grow or what will pass. If you want to work in the creative world you’ve got to be on that train. The world of communication changes rapidly and demands that we stay alert on all kinds of levels. It makes development in the 21th century teamwork by definition. Todays art students not only have to develop their personal skills and competences but also have to define their specific role inside creative team processes. In a strong team very different competences are working together: thinkers, workers, observers, creators, organisers, et cetera. They are complementary and get the best out of each other because of the common goal and their different characters and backgrounds will only make them stronger. Teamwork is growing in art education but students could do much more then organizing group exhibitions, their collaborations should go deeper to cope to what is happening in the world around them. Lecturers like myself have to collaborate with our students in different ways than we used to do. We realise that we can no longer trust our own individual careers as a guideline. We bring knowledge and experience but we learn as much from our students as they learn from us. We also know that our students have to move on further and faster than we did. So we put some pressure on them. The ambitions we have for our students are huge and we ask them to take risks and make mistakes. ‘When you don’t make mistakes – you will not learn’, we say. We want them to be tough because they will play key roles in designing future communication paths. We want them to step wide over us.
But as previously said; for real progress we need high standard collaborations but in art education team work does not come automatically. Many students see their study as a competition. Our old structures even promote that way of thinking. Of course in education individual development is central – our students should gain knowledge and skills – but does that mean they have to be taught to compete with each other on every level? The individual awards and competitions our institutions offer them make them compete – instead of complementing each other. They make the creative process a lonely business where it should be a party. By giving individual prizes we are creating individual winners – so also individual losers. It does not help to build the artistic teams we need so desperately. Talking to alumni who graduated a few years ago I discovered lots of artistic loneliness, they miss their fellow students, they miss the reflection, they miss belonging to a common cause. We should leave our out dated rule that every artist should work as a individual author and start sharing more during the creative process. Collaboration deserves a far bigger role in applied art education. Art teams are necessary for achieving the media reform that is so crucial right now. Let’s celebrate the fact that we need each other to grow.
Leo Erken is a film maker, photographer and lecturer at AKV|St. Joost in Breda, the Netherlands.
Picture: installation by Song Dong, Groninger Museum 2015.
Thanks to Mohinder Perihar.