DEAF04 - Affective Turbulance

V2_: DEAF04 - Affective Turbulance


Open Alliances - Nadia Palliser

17 Nov 2004 , report

Once again the can of beans of interdisciplinary education was opened at the Open Alliances seminar this year. Collaboration and knowledge transfer were the key words in an interesting mix of educational models. Academies, universities, R&D institutions and industry have obviously been putting their teeth into possible collaborations, as more specific venues and methodology were presented. V2_ did the same last year, in an attempt to set up a small scale collaborative project with students from University of Utrecht and Leiden University. Also, in the context of the Dutch Electronic Art Festival 2003 (DEAF03), V2_ collaborated with some educational institutions, organizing a special Media Acadamy Day and
lectures and tours. These educational trajectories provided the impetus for a special program at DEAF04 concerning forms of collaboration with partners from different sectors.  Since the open-ended rhetorics of interdisciplinary idealism seems to be on the wane (though it did crop up here and there), the question of hands-on experience and specification has become crucial to the debate. The scope of interdisciplinary education and knowledge transfer is, after all, extremely broad: ranging from short-term projects between academies and festivals to long-term art-sci collaboration on PhD level. The Open Alliances seminar sets a starting point for a definition of specific forms of knowledge transfer through education and industry.

Collaboration remains a complicated affair, with or without any kind of idealistic motivation. Interests differ, perspectives clash, systems collide and results are often disappointing. Although such projects perhaps have the right to fail within an educational framework, in the industry they do not. Looking for ways to boost the knowledge economy of Holland however, politics propagate the strengthening of knowledge transfer within networks of business and knowledge organizations. The Advisory Council for Science and technology Policy sees a role for the cultural sector: "A knowledge economy can only develop properly if it is embedded in a culturally sophisticated, creative, tolerant and open knowledge society. As a factor in locating knowledge-intensive business activity, the cultural climate is gaining in significance." Now politics has tuned in on the open transfer of knowledge, what kind of collaboration is needed? How might new and useful models improve interdisciplinary education and knowledge transfer between institutes, universities, academies and the industry?

Model 1. Firstly, Charles van der Mast gave an overview of the program "Media and Knowledge Technology" at the faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science, at the Technical University of Delft. The Media Knowledge Technology is a bachelors program that shares two thirds of its subjects with the regular Computer Science curriculum. The other third includes more specialized subjects on multimedia, knowledge engineering and Man-Machine-Interaction. The Media Knowledge Engineering is a masters program within the same faculty, specializing in multimedia information processing. Students are trained in designing, realizing and testing intelligent user interfaces, taking both technique and usability into account. The aim of the research projects done within the Media Knowledge Engineering program is to boost research on the subject of human-computer interaction of intelligent multimodal systems. Projects include VR Exposure Therapy: dealing with acrophobia, fear of flying and agoraphobia through the use of VR (a project van der Mast is working on himself), a ‘multi-cultural' database for facial action detection (boosting surveillance where more scary specifics are needed?) research in changes in the brains of the elderly through scans and the promotion and development of web lectures: an international database of lectures concerning topics such as VR, usability and graphics. Research subjects focus on safety and health care: venues that obviously implement the use of an all-encompassing technology (without dealing with social dilemma's?).

According to van der Mast, most collaborations were initiated by individual researchers (such as a game research CD production made together with students from the art schools in Utrecht and Amsterdam). Problems that arose for long-term collaboration were the different teaching schedules. More ad hoc contracts and part-time professors were needed and support from central administration and services of the university. For more productive collaboration in the future, van der Mast suggested a "Smart Atelier" such as the GVU in Atlanta. Could such an atelier genuinely share knowledge instead of just adding up components or delegating production aspects to different students? By specifying the project through implementing subdomains, van der Mast believed collaboration could mean a genuine sharing of knowledge.

Model 2. Jeroen van Mastricht works at the Faculty of Art, Media and Technology at the Utrecht School of the Arts. Propagating more room to play, Mastrigt is especially busy with the Professional School of the Arts Utrecht (PSAU), a collaboration between students and teachers at the School of Arts Utrecht ( and from the University of Utrecht. PSAU focuses on interdisciplinary project-based education (inspired by the EMMA system). Whereas BA education tends towards more teaching, with time for confrontation and reflection towards the end of the course, the PSAU MA programs are especially focused on confrontation. One of the projects of the ‘applied games' program might be, for example, to design a video game for blind people - it turned out to be a first-person shooter no less with GPS and audio feedback! These kinds of projects work well due to the dedicated lab spaces: students have 24-hour access to the technology they need. Being in a physical space together, students learn from each other. Where process is emphasized more than content, such projects have to form a carefully moderated chaos however: the dynamics of this kind of education falls flat with too much moderated organization, yet becomes ‘bad chaos' without some kind of organized assistance. Furthermore, whereas students might benefit from eachother, teachers often don't: this slows down the interdisciplinary process on a long-term level of education.

The PSAU master programs are facilitated by HKU's art & media technology project bureau Xchange. Xchange negotiates between education and ‘the real world' supporting a database of alumni and occasional publications: Xchange has an annual turnover of 300 000 euro. With strong clients and proposals, projects are less likely to fail though there is always a chance they will: all parties need room to play in a educational yet productive setting which allows for experimentation.

Model 3. The Leiden Institute of Advanced Computer Science (LIACS) offers a masters program in collaboration with the faculty of Creative and Performing Arts. This MSci in Media Technology tries to bring an arts point of view, a perspective Bas Haring calls "Wild Thinking" into a scientific context. Inspired by the ways in which the arts and science meet at MIT in Boston, collaboration was sought between Computer Science and the Royal Academy in the Hague. Bas Haring phrased it as an initiative to ‘fill the gap' - while computer sciences and biosciences heavily influence the world, he stated, the so-called Wild Thinkers i.e. artists might be inspired by these sciences yet are not capable of concrete things. Vice versa, new ways of thinking and dealing with technology might be useful in research done in computer sciences. Thanks to the Faculty of the Arts, Haring managed to introduce a course on "Wild Thinking" for the students of Media Technology - a kick ass or otherwise sense interfering course (the latter used by more disciplinary colleagues at the LIACS). Inspiring as these courses were, there were quite a few things that did not work according to Haring: students used science and technology to make aesthetic things, not to ‘think wildly' in a specifically scientific context. Whereas academies define their results in terms of talent, Haring felt students needed more assistance to be able to maximize results. Thirdly, projects in collaboration were difficult to define and hierarchical systems in different institutions made it difficult to mark the results. An important point Haring made was that both parties need to define their projects and aims - it should be clear what there is to gain, in so doing increasing the quality of educational collaboration. At the same time these gains shouldn't stifle research and experimentation; as Einstein said; "If we knew what we were doing it would not be called research".

Model 4. At the ANMI - The Amsterdam New Media Institute - an initiative has been taken to push collaboration between design, computer sciences, technology and business. Different clusters within the arts, companies, the government and knowledge institutions were invited, for example in workshops at the summer school of august 2004: twenty courses were given with approximately 40 participants, including speakers from the University of Amsterdam, Virtual Platform, the Lost Boys, V2_, de Waag, InHolland Professional Schools, TBWA Interaction Company. As a part-time professor for ‘technology and Innovation' at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Gerrits takes a broad approach to collaboration and knowledge transfer for his students (who are especially business-oriented). The aim is to orientate within other fields and be able to communicate universally in the area of media technology and business. The question becomes - is this a productive and concrete form of knowledge transfer? Or are students merely dabbling in areas otherwise untouched?

Gerrits pointed out a couple of critical points in his quest for collaboration. Finding colleagues and interesting collaborators was difficult. Apart from the difficulty of competing institutions and different reward systems, the idiosyncratic terminology in different domains caused confusion. It had to be said that in the end, ‘the mavericks' i.e. individuals who worked extremely hard to pull the ropes together, made collaboration work. Finally, concerning the further development of the Amsterdam New Media Institute, Gerrits envisioned its status growing towards location based content development, taking Amsterdam as the Internet Capital of the World. This comment caused quite a few grumbles from the public since what has always defined the internet if not its global ambitions? Why the geographical limitation? Seen as the companies of interest are all in Amsterdam, this seemed a good starting point for the ANMI though perhaps not a goal or point to grow towards.    

Model 5. Anne Nigten has been working on the concept of artistic research and development since the V2_Lab was established in 1998. The articulation and positioning of specific qualities in research and developments and the fostering of this knowledge are the three main focus points of R&D at the V2_Lab. Articulated qualities are, for example, an attempt to combine different R&D fields in unexpected ways. Also the combination of tech and non/tech applications has becomes an important quality of R&D projects (known as the bricolage approach). Thirdly, non-task-specific design is emphasized giving space and freedom for social interaction with participants. The experience of the participant always forms the main reference or goal in R&D projects. Using an iterative methodology, process based R&D is implicated instead of solution based design. In this way a fertile ground for collaboration has been prepared. Common ground might be discovered and developed between theory and practice, also using FLOSS (Free/Libre and Open Source Software) to foster knowledge transfer. Finally to make it work highly qualified personnel is needed and to genuinely experiment partners should be found from different fields. In bridging cultural, industrial and artistic domains, common aims were found through both creativity and technology. Secondly through collaboration a shared theoretic discourse and knowledge was initiated. On the other hand, though FLOSS works well for art and science, it does not for the industry. Also many obstacles existed in funding R&D projects. Again, the advantage of location-based R&D projects came up: Art-Sci projects could be more equal in this way, for example in collaboration with studio based PhD programs. As a conclusion, the aim of R&D projects had to be to find benefit from each other instead of pretending to be somebody else in disguise.

Model 6. TNO-STB is involved in applied research: the systematic and effective collection, development and interpretation of knowledge and concepts. STB develops visions and business models, supports processes and advises on the relationship between technology, economy and society. In an attempt to find answers and solutions to clients' questions and problems, TNO-STB does research in the implications of technological developments for policy processes. According to Jan Vogel, from TNO-STB, in the business and art of knowledge transfer, much emphasis is laid on electronic forms of education and on business to business. According to research, the four key areas of Holland's future knowledge economy are supposedly flowers and food, high tech systems and materials, water and the creative sector. Knowledge transfer and collaboration between R&D institutions and the industry are essential to the concept of a promising knowledge economy in Holland. Business networking has a new role to play, using the spider in the web metaphor for its activities. Jan Vogel displayed new business models on co-financing, tangibles, risk removables, access and information: briefly skimming the surface of new ways on how to invest. Though actuality might distract from innovation, an interesting point, these new models of industry seem to lead the way. A critical point of collaboration between R&D institutions and industry is however as Anne Nigten also noted, the financing. Since investments have very strict rules as opposed to the creative sector (that is beyond its bureaucracy) this could form an impediment on collaborative progress. Yet, looking towards the future, an open invitation for new collaborative proposals between R&D institutions and the industry showed positive ambitions.  

In conclusion, a varied array of potential knowledge transfer and collaboration was presented at the Open Alliances seminar. An important point that popped up continually was the fact that whatever kind of collaboration, it should be specific from the start what all parties have to gain. Simple idealism and orientation in other disciplines does not suffice: though perhaps an initial step, projects often result in vagueness and a mere confirmation of ignorant views on other disciplines. Since any collaboration is tough and unyielding, ‘we need to find ways to do better', as Rob van Kranenburg blatantly made clear. Experiences in collaboration show the following general observations: interdisciplinary projects are mostly done by individuals without much support from the institutions wherein these collaborations take place. With more educational support (i.e. better administration and part time teachers) collaborative education could establish itself concretely in relationship to R&D institutions and industry. Secondly, physical spaces to work in have proven to be an important aspect of qualitative collaboration: either as lab spaces or as a "Smart Atelier", the concept of the laboratory works well for students. In the book "My First recession" on The Battle over New-Media Arts Education, Geert Lovink writes "Collaborative project-based education is a proven model for escaping individual vocational training and the pressure to teach commercial software (...) The tension between vocational training and conceptual learning can be overcome by making radical choices. It remains important to emphasize that the computer is not just a tool. Ideally, new-media programs should be modelled after laboratories, not schools". Perhaps such spaces should be developed to temporarily include all teachers and other parties working in collaboration? Since these parties mostly work in their own separate ways a chance of continuing long-term collaboration is often missed out on.

Obviously the EMMA system has been inspirational: in so doing giving more room to play in an educational sense. Projects can and often fail however. This is a third general point that makes collaboration with the industry somewhat strenuous. Though R&D projects are ‘iterative' - i.e. process-based (and working with FLOSS) results may be hard to define for commerce-based parties. It seems clear, also coming from TNO-STB, that progress can be made on defining specific collaboration, without being opportunistic or overly idealistic: this depends on how the collaboration is articulated from the starting point. As much as Media Technology students in Leiden need to understand that collaboration has been sought within a specific i.e. scientific context, so too should varying situation-dependent collaborations define themselves through context.

Another important point for the motivation of students is the way in which the work is rewarded. On the one hand assignments need to be clear; on the other hand, making students responsible for their own project (and consequently any kind of reward) helps to get motivated collaboration going. Again, this all depends on the sort of collaboration: a short-term project between an art academy and a festival for example is better off with a well articulated assignment, whereas a long-term research project might give more responsibility to students, resulting in reflective collaboration. With all this said and done, students from the University of Utrecht and Media Technology, Leiden, actually working on a collaboration with DEAF04 were all but satisfied with the way in which collaboration had progressed. Though discontent comes naturally to students, there had obviously been a lack of communication, both ways, on how to continue a thematic project revolving around the festival. Students seemed to be expecting consistency from the organization of DEAF (which as a whole only becomes truly definite at the festival itself) and the organization of DEAF left students to their own initiatives and research proposals without defining what was actually expected of them within the context of the festival.     

Finally, the urge to define a universal interdisciplinary language for collaboration and knowledge transfer often came to the fore in presentations and discussions. Other than perhaps in a technological or creative sense, I wonder if this universal urge is perhaps a little utopian? If different forms of collaboration need to be defined, as well as the specific gains of all parties in collaboration, different languages also remain part and parcel. Obviously, disciplinary fields have their own specific languages and not without reason. Good knowledge transfer cannot flourish without the disciplines needed to supply such knowledge: in a way, I feel these fields of knowledge with their own idiosyncrasies, are there to be cherished. After all, doesn't a universal approach deny the true sense of specific interdisciplinary education? According to Leonard Franken, vice president of the New technology and Innovation dep. at the ABN Amro Bank, one should be multi-lingual oneself or at least this is what multidisciplinary education should have to offer. Hopefully students will be able to find their way through a multi-jungle of tasks, tools and disciplines in the educational future of Holland! Though it is was clear at the Open Alliances seminar that collaboration and knowledge transfer between educational systems, R&D institutions and industry have a long way to go, there seemed to be a more constructive feel to the day than in former Media Academy Events at DEAF. It may take a while before interdisciplinary models truly deliver in practice, for both students and teachers, institutes and industry. Yet the specifics of collaboration and knowledge transfer are definitely being worked at, cooking up the can of beans of interdisciplinary education to more edible and perhaps even tasty food for thought.

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Open Alliances

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