There are two main issues I sought to address in teaching IF2210 “Aesthetics of New Media” and UAR2201 “Cyberart”. First, media studies as a discipline is closely related to the practice of media industries, particularly creative media. Second, aesthetics as a discipline is related to the practice of making art, which is a broad term as far as contemporary and new media arts are concerned. Therefore, in both cases, a careful consideration of proportion and interaction between theory and practice is essential to the form and content of teaching.
The paper will present further discussion on:
- The question of disciplinary balance between theory and practice, or why one cannot avoid the issue of experience and practice in teaching media aesthetics.
- Practical solutions which I have found useful in empowering students with practical skills to help them understand the complex theoretical concepts taught in my classes, and in turn, re-apply the concepts to their creative projects.
Relevance of practice and media experience to media studies and aesthetics
Media and cyberculture studies rely heavily on developments in information, communication and bio-technologies. Most of the operative concepts like ‘Information and Network Society’, ‘Knowledge-based Economy’, ‘Interactivity’, ‘Mediation’, ‘Human-Machine Interaction’, ‘E-Learning’, ‘New Media’, ‘Post-Human’, ‘Cyborg’ and so on, are founded on technological innovations. These concepts would not have entered the academic curricula without social and cultural values that provide the necessary political, educational and business frameworks. Thus, the link between theoretical frameworks and practical developments is crucial in media studies.
However, traditionally, many academics in humanities and social sciences have theorised on technology without first hand experience. The European situation is relevant here, since it is there where traditional separation between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences has had a long history. Wolfgang Shirmacher, the dean of the European Graduate School, describes how the lack of experience and practice in media and technology among European media scholars and lecturers leads to a situation of widespread disdain for media industries, such as television, games and the Internet. As a result, the young students of media studies do not consider practice and effort in learning technology as a fundamental necessity of theorising media:
Media aesthetics in Europe is preaching in the desert. Teachers and students are used to a talking head, the professor, and an audience taking notes. A discussion after the master’s long talk gives future masters the opportunity to deliver their own talk, mimicking the professor’s attitude. There is a disregard for the form of the delivery—as long as the sentences pour out of a significant mouth—because the pre-media academics believe strongly in the traditional dichotomy of form and content and the dominance of content over form. In terms of criticism only, the academic philosopher is interested in media and shares his or her biases freely with a like-minded audience. What a judge the person makes who has never enjoyed a video clip, who at best accepts the Beatles, who was never raised as a television baby and never watches TV commercials for the fun of it! (Shirmacher, 1991)
A scholar of new media needs to be in tune with new developments in the media industries and know how to incorporate them into his/her pedagogy. Practice has to be reflected upon, while theory needs to be grounded in actual experience. Among other strategies to help students understand the importance of collaboration between theorists and practitioners, I have made guest lectures by creative media practitioners such as artists, filmmakers, game developers and experimental musicians, an important supplement to my courses. These guest lectures allow students to learn from and ask questions of a person who is working ‘out there’ in the real world. In addition, such lectures substantiate theoretical concepts with a practitioner’s perspective, making students refer to and reflect on the realm of practice. It is also important that students observe their lecturer to be open to questioning by the exigencies of practical issues and being challenged by the issues of ‘making’ versus ‘theorising’. In my classes, I teach students to value knowledge that is tested and negotiated by the realities of practice by emphasising the importance of relating theory to practical success in innovative approaches to creative media.
Learning about the practical aspects of abstract concepts through critique sessions
Teaching theory is challenging, especially theories of new media aesthetics. The concepts are often abstract and may seem speculative to students who do not have experience with either art or creative media. Using relevant examples can help alleviate the problem of comprehension, but this method has limitations. Being a theorist myself, I tend to include complex theoretical concepts and difficult texts in the curriculum. For example, in teaching the concept of “virtual reality”, I ask undergraduate students to read Rene Descartes’ First Meditation that speculates on the reality of the external world and pose these issues in relation to the aesthetics and ideas of David Cronenberg’s film, eXistenZ. Then, students are required to make the connection between Descartes’ ideas on reality and Cronenberg’s film by posting their views on the IVLE forum, conducting independent research on both the text and the film, and presenting their findings in class. The presentation is followed by an in-class discussion that draws out the salient issues.
However, I think students learn mainly from their practical creative projects that constitute the largest proportion of the final grade. “Cyberarts” is a studio-based module where 70% of the students’ grade is based on their video-art project (40%) and net-art project (30%). Even in the more traditionally structured lecture/tutorial module “Aesthetics of New Media”, the practical component accounts for 50% of the final grade and the examination accounts for only 30% of the final grade.
This signals to students that a practical deliberation of and ‘struggling with’ the concepts discussed in class to translate the concepts into their self-defined creative projects is crucial. For the “Cyberarts” class, an important part of such ‘translation’ has been the critique sessions where students showcase their creative ‘work-in-progress’ while their classmates and lecturers ‘interrogate’ the project. The questions mainly revolve around how the concept of the project has been researched and applied to the making of the work itself: media specificity, research process, target audience, exhibition style, relevance to the local context, and critical approach to the concept. During the session, suggestions on these aspects are offered and possible further research directions are highlighted.
Informal student feedback has consistently indicated that such critique sessions though painful, are extremely useful not only for developing the projects and testing aesthetic theories, but also for building students’ confidence in what constitutes an effective critique. These learning experiences are transferable to a variety of professional situations including the students’ professional life.
At the end of each semester, I usually ask students if they have been given enough time for their projects, or whether they should be given more theoretical work instead. Interestingly, students in the “Cyberarts” class from the last academic year (AY 2003/2004) demanded for a larger net-art project in addition to their video-art project. They claimed that doing the project helped them make the abstract interactive media theories ‘their own’ and helped them appreciate conceptual and technological difficulties of new media art making.
The final class in the course is usually an ‘Open Class’—an exhibition that showcases the students’ creative projects to a wider NUS audience and the public. It closes the full circle of theory/practice connection when students learn to communicate their concepts during the question and answer session after each project presentation, and ‘defend’ their ideas and work like in most professional settings.
Shirmacher, W. (1991/2000). “Media Aesthetics in Europe”. (Last accessed: 28 June 2005).