[iDC] Interview with Randall Packer

Trebor Scholz trebor at thing.net
Mon Mar 28 17:26:53 EST 2005

The Future of Academic Freedom

Interview with Randall Packer (adjusted by Trebor Scholz)
As part of WebCamTalk1.0

Trebor Scholz: Following the 'election' of G.W. Bush in 12/00, academic
freedom of speech is under renewed attack. How do you integrate political
discourses in new media pedagogy?

Randall Packer: Since September 11, 2001 the dynamics of this society have
changed radically. Earlier we talked about the Steve Kurtz case. But there
are also instances like that of University of Colorado professor Ward
Churchill. His case led to the attempt of the governor of the state to fire
him. If you do not have freedom of expression in academia where do you have
it? Are there any spaces left that allow for it? There are artists teaching
all over the university system who realize that it is a vital part of
education to bring political issues into the classroom. One of these topics
is advocacy. Are you trying to persuade students of your political opinion?
How do you raise issues without putting students on the spot, without making
them feel uncomfortable about their own perspective? How do you engage art
students in political discourse as part of a new media curriculum? Two years
ago, when the war in Iraq started, I was teaching at the Maryland Institute
of Art (MICA). As part of my "Electronic Media and Culture" course I asked
students to go out and watch how the media was covering the war. As a young
artist who has never consciously followed a war- should you not pay
attention? My particular students were eight years old when the first Gulf
War started. But surprisingly, they had no interest to closely follow this
war. Throughout the United States there is wide-spread student apathy in
relation to politics. Students feel reluctant to engage in conversations
about politics with their professors because of a perceived need to conform
to their opinion. At the same time these discussions are vital to their
development as artists. In my class students compared "Fox News" to CNN, and
other print and network-based media. They were asked how the media filters
our perspective. We analyzed the manufacturing of popular opinion.
Incorporating sound and images, students created daily entries into a
personal blog that showed their responses to a particular news event. At the
end of the semester students were asked to produce a piece using the
material. This was also at the time when the CNN reporter Kevin Sites was
fired for keeping a personal blog. One student evaluation for this course on
Electronic Media and Culture read: "Why did we have to talk about the war
when we could have spent more time learning Flash?" His question sums up the


TS: I was acutely aware of Lynne Cheney's initiative that asked students to
report their professors if they speak out against the war. Sustainable
networks can counter these efforts to isolate and intimidate those who speak


RP: Right, but what do you? Do not you feel an obligation to engage students
about these issues?

TS: I would relate the activity of teaching in part to the semantic root of
the word professor- to "proclaim." I did have critical discussions about the
war with students but I had friends who did not commit to directing public
discourse in that direction because it would have an automatic, expected
response. They assumed that a reduction of all debate centering around war
leads to an atmosphere of distraction that sets the stage for cuts of
medical benefits, for example.

An earlier example of the use of a situation of widespread focus on one
conflict was the case of four NYPD officers who tortured the Haitian
immigrant Abner Luoima with a broom stick while screaming racist epithets.
This happened in 1997 and all four officers were convicted. On February
2002, only months after the attacks on the World Trade Center three of the
four convictions were overturned. Two officers were set free outright. As
the nation's attention focused on other topics, there was little or no
protest against there release.


But in the classroom I start with the politics of technologies in the every
day. Which interactivist technologies were used on the streets of the
Republican Convention? What is represented when technologized images stand
in for war, for a situation of trauma and suffering? How can we link more
and more pervasive methods of surveillance to the politics of the database?
We look at the history of cooperative media from Indymedia in Seattle (1999)
to today's social software.

RP: Currently, I am teaching at American University in Washington, DC. This
is a very politicized university but I am not having students work on
political projects just yet. I do eventually plan on introducing a course I
taught at Johns Hopkins University a few years ago, which offered students a
history of activism in the arts, entitled "Art, Politics, and New Media:"


I need to re-think the way I am integrating political discourse in new media
classes. Everything you teach students is political. Not talking about the
Bush regime makes you complicit.

TS: Our actions are political in their consequences-- not addressing the
context in which we function does not mean we are mysteriously outside of
it. Art and technology curriculum in the U.S. is more often than not focused
on technological innovation. Student exhibitions often feature work that
conveys a lack of urgency or human experience while it is focused on often
decorative, technological play.

RP: It is critical that student artists are aware of their role as critics
of the relationship between individual and society. Art is no longer just
about what Marcel Duchamp referred to as retinal art. It is not simply about
the materials we use. The classroom is a laboratory for artists to develop
strategies. It is about discourse, which gives us a context for the way we
make art. Without that we are just empty eyes gazing at the environment.
Moving to Washington was a transformational experience for me. My work
became more intentionally political. You cannot be an artist in this city
without being impacted by the fact that you are in what many think of as the
"power center of the world." It is ironical though that the Washington arts
scene is as apolitical as you can get. In Washington your daily life is made
up of the inauguration ceremony, the White House, the Mall, and the
monuments. Washington is like a stage set for America. Here, people from all
over the world come to experience "the American moment." As a performance
artist I was struck by the spectacular image, which the city projects. At
the same time, I noted most clearly that the United States government is as
far from embracing the arts as any country could possibly be. In Europe you
have ministries of culture with serious support for the arts. Occasionally
you even have an artist who is minister of culture. Vaclav Havel became
president in the Czech Republic. We have a president in the United States
who is quite artistic but that is another story... I looked around me and
realized that this country really needs a platform for culture, a ministry.
Shortly after Bush took office I e-mailed him and proposed the idea of a
Department of Art and Technology. I felt that you could not really think
about the role of the artist without also including technology. Like anybody
who writes to the White House I received an auto-reply saying something
like: "Thank you very much for expressing your views. Your opinion is
important to us. We take every email very seriously here at the White House.
We wish you the best of luck."  So, I created the Department. The US
Department for Art and Technology has a website and there was a swearing-in
ceremony in Baltimore. In 2002 I gave a speech at the opening of
Transmediale in Berlin. The Transmediale director Andreas Broeckman played
it straight following a somewhat playful approach. He issued press releases
stating a line-up of European and American officials who would be speaking.
One of them was the Minister of Culture of the United States of America.
Many of the journalists did not even question that. When I delivered the
speech I was sandwiched in between real government officials. My
performative speech consisted of re-mixes from real political speeches
combined with texts from German Dada artists. Most people in the audience
realized that it was a performance by the time it concluded. I could not
help but end with "Ich bin ein Berliner... Künstler." One of the German
media critics was absolutely baffled that the United States Government had
sent a government official posing as an artist, the perfect ironic reversal.

http://www.usdat.us/archives/ (Archive)
http://www.usdat.us/secretary (Current)

Students in this country are so horrified to think about politics because
they are accustomed to the model of the artist who creates art and the
politician who deal with just that,-- politics. And the two do not mix. The
model of the artist that is projected to young people in this country does
not connect to the larger social body. They are taught that artists work on
the fringes of society. What they are doing is not really that important to
the national dialogue, to the shaping of national identity. This, of course,
is very different in Europe where artists are seen as contributors to
culture. In the United States that is not at all the case. American students
have no context for this model of the artist. It confuses them if they are
coming into the classroom and are taught to contribute, to use their
perspective as an artist to critique the world around them.

TS: In East Europe the artist was taken seriously, even feared. The smallest
gesture was taken as a possible signifier of deviance. Artists retreated
into inner exile or developed a coded language that enabled them to
communicate to the few who could read it. In the auto-perforation
performances of the 1980s in East Germany, for example, the body became a
platform of expression that was out of the reach of the state, similar to
much of recent Chinese performance.

RP: Related to your earlier reference about the Lynne Cheney/ Joe Lieberman
report, there is an anti-Arab propagandist who runs a campus watch list. On
his website he posts the "academic of the month" quoting academics who have
spoken out against the government. He provides their e-mail address,
affiliation, phone number, etc. There is a McCarthyist feature on this site
called "Keep us informed," encouraging students to report their professors.
This is not about dialogue but it aims at exposure and intimidation of those
who hold critical views.


TS: Here at the State University of New York a group of faculty and students
currently organizes a teach-in on the case of our colleague Steve Kurtz. The
teach-in and party that will follow (with DJSpooky and others) are meant to
inform students about the case.


RP: I could imagine that many students who engage in practices such as
Steve's are discouraged because they must think that if they work with
tactical media then they will be arrested, just like Steve Kurtz. Let me end
with a quote by the Columbia University Law School Dean David M. Schizer who

"Yet along with academic freedom comes academic responsibility. We are
scholars, not advocates. . . . The classroom is sacred space. The duty of a
teacher is to seek truth, not to disseminate propaganda. In training the
world's future leaders, and in grappling with the world's hardest problems,
our society needs academic freedom more than ever. We need honest, balanced,
and collegial conversations - especially about controversial subjects. . .
Hamilton's legacy must be preserved."

I find this statement full of contradictions. How can you teach and not
advocate? How can you differentiate between truth and propaganda? How can we
engage in meaningful discourse without expressing a point of view? How could
anyone be so pure as to teach issues without any personal perspective?
Should we not involve students in the multiplicity of opinion shaping? How
do we preserve academic freedom?

Randall Packer is internationally recognized as a pioneering artist,
composer, educator, and scholar in the field of multimedia. His work has
been exhibited at museums and galleries throughout the world including
Europe, Asia, and North America. He is Assistant Professor of Multimedia at
American University in Washington, DC. His book and accompanying Web site,
Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality (W.W. Norton 2001 /
www.artmuseum.net), has been adopted internationally as one of the leading
educational texts in the field. Packer is concerned with the aesthetic,
philosophical, and socio-cultural impact of new media in an increasingly
technological society. Since moving to Washington, DC in 2000, his work has
explored the critique of the role of the artist in society and politics. He
founded the virtual government agency US Department of Art and Technology
(www.usdat.us) in 2001, which proposes and supports the idealized definition
of the artist as one whose reflections, ideas, aesthetics, sensibilities,
and abilities can have significant and transformative impact on the world
stage. Website: www.zakros.com

More information about the iDC mailing list