Blog Post

Kevin Hamilton: New Media in One Minute

Kevin Hamilton's analysis of the state of New Media at the Undergraduate and Graduate level proposes modes of research and education that encourage concurrent immersion in theory, history, and practice. New Media as a major is offered at few schools in the United States, though most studio arts programs now encourage and provide training in digital tools, and "Digital" is becoming an increasingly popular qualifier in humanities education. Hamilton views craftsmanship in coding and proficiency in programming as foundational to the study of New Media within all disciplines, but these views are not necessarily characteristic of New Media studies at University of Illinois overall. For example, practice based research methodologies remain relatively rare in humanities education, while the more common pre-professional New Media studio practice exists in tension with the academic goals of a Research Institution. Nonetheless, Hamilton sees New Media as a research methodology, a hybrid of theory and practice that should move beyond disciplinary boundaries.

The following is an interview with Kevin Hamilton by HASTAC scholar's Jeff Kolar and Bonnie Fortune. The interview was originally generated for a Forum entitled "New Media Tensions: Practice, Research, and Pedagogy in Higher Education." Although the forum never launched in it's original form, Bonnie and I felt the interview should be published as a joint investigation into New Media art practice and it's impact on the future of New Media education.

Here is a link to a slideshow that Hamilton shows Freshman deciding what to focus on in the Department of Art and Design. Hamilton merges old and new aesthetics, scrawls out text, then scans and uploads the following questions to define the most current state of the discipline. (I was unable to embedd this slideshow into the HASTAC blog format, so please visit the link externally).

 

1. What defines the a New Media arts curriculum at the undergrad and graduate level?

In planning any curricula (New Media included), I look both to emerging disciplinary content and the contingent, local demands of a particular educational setting. Each institution has a unique educational mandate that should structure a path through the histories, methods, and debates of a lively area of study.
 
For example, I serve the mission of a Fine Arts unit within a large land-grant research institution. Though there are pre-professional units in our University (a Law School, a Med School, etc.), the dominant /telos/ of education at Illinois is the discovery and production of new knowledge. Education in the sciences, humanities, and the arts at this institution takes place within constant sight of speculative, open-ended examination of a field's prior habits and conclusions.
 
In a Fine Arts context, such examination is largely practice-based; research in New Media by artists will likely take the form of making objects and experiences, as opposed to constructing critical texts, conducting surveys or close readings of extant forms. Our undergraduate curriculum is designed to introduce students to this process - a process which requires knowledge of technique, form, process, precedent, and theory. The resulting curriculum looks pretty broad, and we also have to keep in mind that our BFA students may not pursue an academic research career. In the end, our undergrad and graduate curricula borrow heavily from traditional Studio Arts approaches, which also emphasize open-ended research of media and contexts, if to some disciplinary ends which New Media doesn't always share (i.e. commercial gallery sales, advancement of aesthetic avant-gardes, etc.)
 
There is one other factor here which I should mention. If curricula serve as an interface between local educational mandates and global disciplines, the process of designing such an interface is bound to the economic and material limitations of local institutional resources. In my experience, this is where New Media education faces the hardest challenges. The economic mandate for New Media education - how new hires are granted, for example, or how educational technologies are budgeted - is likely to come from approaches to education that privilege pre-professional preparation over open-ended research. If Studio Arts education (where we borrow our curricular mechanisms) suffers from a dire lack of attention to real-world post-educational life, then pre-professional approaches to education (how our funding is justified) are often blind to any ends not easily located within a market-driven understanding of creative work.
 
So there are three competing forces in this picture; it's a tumultuous moment for all higher education, but we face some particular challenges. New Media curricula are typically funded through structures with little room for research or open inquiry. New Media curricula are designed and implemented based on structures that care little for how students integrate their creative work with their lives as citizens, customers, social beings. And in our case, New Media curricula will continue only if the Faculty demonstrate their professional viability as researchers according to a third area of economics - academic production through peer-review and publication or their equivalents.
 
 
2. How often does that definition shift and change?
 
Well, in our case, it seems we're in a state of perpetual change - which is a problem from the standpoint of educational labor. Obviously the field of New Media is changing, as new methods, platforms and contexts emerge - the rise of Digital Humanities, for example, has as much bearing on the shape of our curriculum as does the emergence of social networking media or new hardware. We need to prepare our students for conducting research, producing experiences, in and about these new areas of living and being.
 
Additionally, our curricula have to change in response to changing institutional resources. These include the obvious present economic fluctuations, but also include changes in personnel. Curricular pressures change with the movements of administrators from institution to institution. New leadership results in new mandates for instructors.
 
I'm in my eighth year of teaching in one institution, and can't point to a time when I haven't been working on curricular revision. I'm not talking about routine and appropriate alterations to syllabi - I'm talking about major overhauls which require group work, approval at multiple levels. This is wholly unsustainable, and detracts from more valuable work.  I have some theories about why this is, and I don't think it's unique to this place.
 
As an example, here's some information about where we're currently making changes. The undergraduate curriculum, which will matriculate its first class this Spring, will look fairly different in a couple years. A new curriculum is already working its way through the channels in response to pressures about our low enrollment. Our classes are expected to have more students than we are currently attracting, and in response to this we're going to have to consolidate courses and change requirements to ensure that no Macintosh computer has an empty seat at classtime. The result - not wholly undesirable, if for poor reasons - is that our BFA curriculum will become more autonomous, and less integrated with the other Fine Arts.
 
At the grad level, we'll be looking at more substantive changes in the very near future. Graduate New Media programs are rapidly changing into pre-professional programs, in which students expect training in the basic skills and histories of their media. They are looking more and more like graduate Architecture schools in this way, and less like graduate Painting or Sculpture programs, where students are admitted based on demonstration of prior expertise in specific histories and media. I don't count this as all bad, but it means that MFA New Media curricula will need to do more work to ensure that students can demonstrate knowledge of appropriate histories, languages, contexts, and media.
 
In this time of economic crisis, we simply can't offer new classes to meet these needs, so we'll soon cease the granting of graduate degrees in New Media. Students interested in applying their media skills and interests within a traditional Studio Art MFA structure will be encouraged to apply to our MFA Sculpture/Painting program (where, unsurprisingly, work in video and other digital media is already widely accepted). New Media faculty will continue to work with these students, but we felt that in the interest of academic integrity we needed to cease offering a New Media MFA if the institution can't support appropriate instruction, through graduate-level seminars and studios specific to the field.
 
 
3. How much of a New Media program is based on teaching and learning technical skills? -- And what does that mean in the context of a humanities discourse?
 
This used to be an irksome subject for me, but as New Media studies have proliferated throughout the humanities, sciences and social sciences, I increasingly welcome discussions of technical instruction and expertise.
 
I count proficiency in a craft - be it the craft of writing, the craft of coding, of creation in image or sound - as essential to the discovery of new knowledge, and to the transformation of social spaces into new (and hopefully more just) shapes. The extension of the body through a medium or tool plays no small part in the ability to empathize and relate to others. Such fluidity requires practice, something not particularly supported outside the arts, and often supported for the wrong reasons within the arts.
 
Experience with the process of craft - the achievement and exploration of material proficiency - will be the best thing - perhaps the only thing - that the Fine Arts traditions can bring to the New Media table. Education in technique is therefore an essential part of a New Media curriculum, though it can't be the center of a program, at least in a program that is not pre-professional. I also count education in technique as an important entry point for some young students for whom the content or context of New Media seems too academic or abstract.

That said, we have had to adopt a curriculum that emphasizes breadth over depth in this regard. Our belief is that one course should suffice in introducing undergraduates to most areas of New Media craft. From there, I believe students should choose one or more media and pursue greater proficiency through individual and group instruction (formal and informal).

New Media studies that take place within a primarily Humanities-based discourse would do well to include the same level of introductory instruction. Just as some Art History curricula share first-year courses with Fine Arts practice curricula, Media Studies students would do well to start in a mix of practice and history/theory, before perhaps parting ways to focus on one or the other in advanced study.
 
The emergence of the "amateur economy" certainly promised some new access, but I don't think it can or will deliver a more inclusive "creative class." General undergraduate curricula will likely include more and more digital production as part of education, but is likely to look more like routine consumption of media than achievement of control and influence over shared media spaces. Education in technology to the point of some fluency - including familiarity with its history and composition - will help create more impactful media citizens.
 
 
4. What do you envision as the future of New Media in an institutional context? (Will it even be around? Will it have a new name?)

At this point in time, I'm not particularly optimistic about the future of Higher Ed in general. But I'll take your question as a prompt for wishful thinking, outside of some of the more repressive pressures of the current climate.

My hope would be to see New Media studies move outside the Fine Arts realm, and leave it behind for good. The dominant engines of Fine Arts education are absorbing the new tools quite easily into their extant modes of disciplinary evaluation and exploration, and there's really little need for adding a new branch to that tree called "New Media." Put another way, the field of New Media simply has no need for the history of the avant-garde on which contemporary art education is based. Media practitioners have a great deal to learn from the old avant-gardes, but not as a motivating telos.

There will be pre-professional degrees in media production for the entertainment industries, and there will likely continue to be undergraduate educational tracks that prepare students for work in the international contemporary art market. Though such programs will include instruction in digital tools, neither will be properly concerned with the exploration of media as a space for social organization, sensory exploration, or the design of new communicative capacities. Gaming programs must produce game-workers, Art programs must produce art-workers, and there's nothing wrong with that. But there is more to media studies than can be contained within those realms.

I'd like to see New Media as an area of academic study that includes education in both practice and theory. Media Studies at the undergraduate level should include a range of approaches, from the practice-based to the theoretical-critical, to the historical and even social-scientific. An undergraduate in New Media should experience an equal amount of, say, Film Criticism, History of Technology, Sociology of Use, and practice through crafting tech. Upper-level undergraduates and Graduate students should focus on one aspect of this, but the Faculty and spaces should be shared. Consider the precedent in Architecture, for example - where some schools are able to support education and research in the design, history, and social study of the built environment. At the moment, I take that as a brighter model for New Media education than the ones I've inherited from the Fine Arts.

 

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Special thanks to Kevin Hamilton for participating in this interview and to Bonnie Fortune for co-organizing this interview.

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