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Using computer technologies in Australian visual arts classrooms: Some questions?

How are students using computer technologies in visual arts classrooms in Australia? And how are teachers responding to constant urging from public and educational sectors to incorporate the use of computer technologies into the visual arts curriculum? How imaginative, inventive, experimental, artistically valid or culturally relevant is this use in terms of curriculum? Are students being encouraged to use computer technologies to conceptualize and express ideas, or does their practice revolve around the potentially anachronistic practice of using tools which simulate traditional hand tools such as typewriters, paintboxes, drawing tables and spreadsheets?
 
And in the field of artistic practice, what are artists making and doing with new media and technologies? As Simon Penny observes, artists are hard at work creating computer forms that can exist nowhere else: multi media, interactivity, simulations and virtual reality. These are the media upon which the computer art of the twenty-first century will be based (Penny, 1991, p.25). Given that much of the practice in the visual arts classroom draws from a knowledge and understanding of artistic practice, how closely does student work parallel that of the work of contemporary artists who use computer technology? Is what visual arts students are being asked to do appropriately contemporary or sufficiently twenty- first centuryish?
 
 
And how do we know that the works produced using computer technology are worthwhile works of art? Recent research has revealed that one of the practical problems raised in displaying new media work is the absence of art that is worthy of exhibition. A positive interpretation of this might be that multimedia is currently at a Daguerreotype stage of evolution. Related to which is the relative dearth of thematic exhibitions in new media. In other words, while the medium is still the main message, the capacity of this art to reflect meaning is limited (Murray, 1998).
 
 
Certainly new digital media promise new territories for artistic practice, but a lot of writing, theoretical consideration and argument is needed before there is a general acceptance and understanding of such work. These new forms demand a reconsideration of art production and consumption. The new dimensions and capabilities of the new forms (interactivity, instantaneous multiple distribution, ephemerality) demand the generation of new aesthetic models, new ethical models, new institutions and new conventions of consumption (Lovejoy, 1992, p4, 5).
 
But what do the artists who are making works using computer technology have to say about their artistic practice? And are works created using computer technology different from those made in other media? Is what we say about such works different from the ways in which we interpret, talk about and respond to works of art, which have been conceptualized in other arenas of art making?
 
 
Currently I am conducting research, which is designed to answer some of these complex questions. This research is based on the proposition that a connection should exist between the artistic practice of artists working in a contemporary postmodern context to produce work using computer technology and that of senior secondary visual arts using computer technology. In essence what this study is designed to do is to develop a heuristic model for art education which proposes the most appropriate use of computer technology in the visual arts classroom.
 
The process of research involves conducting interviews with individuals from three different sectors: Australian artists and senior secondary visual arts students using computer technology in their artistic practice, and the teachers of these visual arts students.
 
 
Preliminary information from interviews with selected Australian artists indicate that:
  • they consider ideas, issues and themes to be the most important aspect of their work.
  • they use computer technology as a means to an end and not as a reflection on itself.
  • they came to use computer technology from a diversity of backgrounds including computer science, film and video production, photography and fine arts, specifically painting.
  • they were not able to, or chose not to identify peers working in the same arena whose work had either interested or influenced them.
  • although all indicated they preferred to work alone, each acknowledged that it was often necessary to work with fellow artists and others with particular expertise to achieve a desired end product.
 
 
Preliminary information from interviews with male senior secondary visual arts students indicate that they:
  • appear to be predominantly interested in developing narrative works around themes involving space, aliens or other worlds; in using three dimensional modeling tools to replicate the effects achieved in large-scale animated adventure movies and electronic games.
  • are articulate about the ideas pursued in their art works i.e. they could argue for social, political, technological, cultural and personal purpose.
  • without exception, had access to computers and computer games from an early age (i.e. school years 3 to 5, ages 8 to 10).
  • were more likely to have access to equivalent computer technology at home.
 
 
Responses from interviews with female senior secondary visual arts students indicate that they:
  • appear mostly interested in designing two dimensionally i.e. magazine covers, posters, illustrations drawn from photographic sources.
  • are more focused on the design and composition of their works than the ideas and themes pursued.
  • came to computer technology from a background in photography, painting, drawing and printmaking.
  • experienced the potentially creative use of computers late in their education (i.e. year 9 or 10, ages 14 to 15).
 
 
Responses from interviews with both male and female students indicate:
  • they prefer to work on projects alone -although almost all appreciated that the multimedia industry requires collaboration across arts forms i.e. composing music, acting, videotaping, script writing.
  • they were unable to identify any particular Australian artists using computer technology.
  • their teacher's level of skill with software and hardware was an important adjunct to their creative work with computer technology.
 
 
Teacher responses indicate that:
  • the teaching of skills relating to the use of particular software programs was of paramount importance ・ encouraging students to pursue creative ideas followed on from the teaching of skills.
  • keeping up with the rapid change in computer hardware and software and the pressure to do so from the multimedia industry was an aspect which caused extreme frustration.
  • the lack of funding to visual arts departments was an extremely limiting factor in the provision of support for student's artistic practice.
  • they have little or no knowledge of the work of Australian artists using computer technology.
  • much of their time is spent trying to keep ahead of their students in the use of particular software.
  • the quality of visual arts curriculum delivered is very much reliant on the personal enthusiasm and expertise of the teacher concerned.
 
 
A multimedia presentation of the findings from this research has been offered to the research component of the 30th INSEA World Congress to be held in Brisbane from 21-26 September 1999.
 
 
References:
Lovejoy, Margot. Postmodern Currents: Art and Artists in the Age of Electronic Media. Ann Arbor, Michigan: U.M.I. Research Press, 1992.
 
Murray, Kerin, "Report on training for curators in new media". For Australian Network for Art and Technology. [web page] December, 1998; http://www.anat.org.au. [Accessed January 1999].
 
Penny, Simon. "Computer art: Critical issues in teaching." Artlink, 1991, vol.11, no.3: 24-26.
 
Penny, Simon,ed. Critical Issues in Electronic Media. New York: State University of New York Press, 1995.
Profile

Jenny Aland

Jenny Aland is currently Curriculum Officer, the Arts for the Department of Education, Training and Employment, South Australia. In this role, she assumes responsibility for what happens in arts education programs from the Reception years of schooling to Year 12 (the final year of secondary schooling). In another life, she has co-authored for Heinemann publishers, three highly successful visual arts texts for middle and senior secondary texts - Art Connections (1991); Australian Artlook (1997) and Art Connections: Second Edition (1998) for Heinemann Educational publishers. Jenny has long been interested in looking at the impact of the use of computers on the artistic practice of Australian artists and students.
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