Media Art and Cultural Education: a De-Centred Centre?
Educating culture or culturing education?
After a recent trip to Dortmunder U Duncan White reflects on the role of media art in ‘cultural education’.
Media Art and Cultural Education: a De-Centred Centre?
Last month I was invited to attend the fourth working group meeting for the proposed Centre of Cultural Education at the Dortmund U.
Gathered together in a working class district of Dortmund were the various members of the committee made up of funders, curators and educators attempting to agree on the vision of the new centre, the form it should take, its organisation, direction and aims.
I had been asked to speak about ‘cultural education’ in the ‘digital age’ drawing on my experiences working in higher education and arts research in London.
I chose, perhaps, perversley to consider the conceptual nature of ‘cultural education’ (a term in itself desperately in need of unpacking) in light of attempts made by a previous generation of artists to challenge – often anarchically so – the systems of inheretd knowledge and learning that underpinned education and the organisation of information.
A key example of this is the experimental film Encyclopaedia Britannica made by the late John Latham in 1968.
This film – or early piece of media art? – perhaps more than any other challenges the assumed authority of texts and the elitist management of knowledge. It seemed to be a fitting example for our current age of media digitisation, decentring and re-appropriation.
With some surprise (perhaps naively on my part) these ideas and the playful manner of their presentation were received with a certain amount of good will. Even excitement. The ‘dialogical’, the ‘performative’ and the ‘participatory’ all seemed to be what the working group was after in terms of the design and outfitting of the new centre of cultural education.
Kids Today: educating culture or culturing education?
The process was for me enlightening on a number of levels.
Clearly the role of education in the so-called digital age is shifting. Young people have a much freer access to information and demonstrate a more independent approach to learning – good news, you would have thought, for everybody.
So exactly what the role of a ‘centre’ would be where people physically congregate, as it were, ‘beyond media’ was, as such, a hot topic of debate. More personally, it was also fascinating to discover ways in which experimental avant-garde practices can (gulp!) be applied in new contexts. But this is perhaps not new.
In the early days of ‘media art’ John Latham, along with Jeffrey Shaw and a number of now prominent media artists were part of the Artists Placement Group (APG), a loose and conceptual outfit that ‘placed’ or ‘sited’ artists within the context of industry, social organisations and business in order to ‘collaborate’ within its ‘structures’ and promote the free thought of artists within the seemingly restrictive and conformist culture of corporate Britain.
This happened at a time when industry and business seemed utterly uncreative – existing solely to reproduce the bland and conformist corporate culture of the 9-5 working week, Metroland and the middle-class family – imagine an APG placement nowadays at Google or Apple!
(Although, in the early 1970s IBM expressed a deep paranoia when approached by the APG – I wonder if there would be a similar reaction now? Perhaps the exercise wouldn’t be as inane as it sounds…)
Art, Media, Culture: organic/artificial?
Indeed, is it now the case that there is an ever greater ‘role’ for artists to play in the construction of culture in modern cities and their changing economies?
This certainly seems to be the case in Dortmund – an exciting case study and one that challenges the assumption that ‘cultural activity’ is an organic process rather than an artificially imported construct?
In the UK the growing consensus, backed and promoted by various interested parties, is that ‘art is good for the economy’.
According to last year’s Hook Report, the creative industries are the UK’s biggest growth industry. Despite the “Big-Society” double-speak it calls for public investment in the arts as a driver for economic growth.
In London alone, the arts and cultural sector is worth between an estimated £29.5bn and £34bn annually.
But whether the economy is good for art is, as ever, less clear. And, indeed, whose economy are we talking about? The general experience of artists with a critical or experimental practice – at least in my experience – is economic and cultural marginalisation.
Certainly the gallery market is strong, even ‘recession-proof’, if you have an object to sell. But if your practice is more relational, more process-based, the ‘economic entry points’ are less clear.
However, what is becoming more evident is that precisely this kind of process-based or relational ‘artistic thinking’ is increasing in value within the economy and has perhaps been doing so for the past ten years. See for instance John Howkins' work on Creative Economies and the flows of ‘intellectual capital’.
So a centre for cultural education may well be an opportunity for economic re-appropriation. A site in which artists not only contribute to the learning of a new generation of creative and dynamic minds and, in turn, the health of the creative economy, but also get something back – a place of thinking and creativity that is of their own making, use and control?