[iDC] On Interdisciplinarity. An Interview with Simon Penny

Trebor Scholz trebor at thing.net
Thu Mar 2 20:36:18 EST 2006

On Interdisciplinarity

An interview with Simon Penny 
by Trebor Scholz

Trebor Scholz: 
The Share, Share Widely conference (New York City, 2005) surfaced many
topics that face media art educators. One of the issues on the front
burner is a lacking emphasis on art. On the one hand, many media art
programs proclaim that they educate media artists. On the other hand,
there is really only a small chance of providing a livelihood for such
artists through the commodification of their artwork. The traditional
art world and new media scenes are still fairly disconnected. The term
"creative industries" (often used in Australia) attempts to address the
forking of media authorship into commercial and non-commercial branches.
But the term does not work very well. There really is no one stable new
media industry to start with and the term "creative" is too broad.
Numerous new media gurus who teach, make programming and software
training their priority. The tension between vocational training and
liberal education is a key antagonism in the field. This is obvious also
when observing ill-advised job profiles in media art that surface all
over the US. The prevailing notion seems to be that a few
industry-strength programming skills are enough to make a good cultural
producer. Little time is spent thinking through art or cultural studies
(not to mention art history)! Technologists should know how to open a
cell phone and tinker with it. Equally, a certain competence can be
asked of the engineer when it comes to art history. Numerous cultural
practitioners show discomfort even using the word ³art.² The framing of
artwork as art is frequently at odds with the funding logic of
innumerable cultural institutions. Once I was told ³Just take the word
art out of your proposal and we will fund it.² Cultural producers employ
scientific formats and language to contextualize their work in the
process of getting it funded. In the United States the sciences are much
better endowed than the cultural arena. More often than not a Ph.D. is a
must when applying for science funding. This is one of the reasons that
countless media artists drift into newly emerging doctorate programs. 

Simon Penny: 
Your introduction cuts right to the heart of the issue of
interdisciplinarity with respect to "new media" (and I prefer the rather
clunky "digital cultural practices" to either new media or media art,
partly because I think the notion of "media" is an irrelevant focus). I
would disagree with you on the subject of "art": those programs arising
in fine art institutions are usually heavily invested in art, but have a
simplistic understanding of technical issues and theoretical issues that
arise from technical issues. A similar pattern is observed in programs
that arise in humanities and programs that arise in CS: they each
privilege their discipline. However, these disciplines arose before the
new media and its special issues, so none of them are adequate or
sufficient to the situation: a new pedagogical model is required: this
is the underlying rationale of the Arts Computation Engineering Program
I established at UCI. 

On the subject of funding, it is clear that in the US, of the little
arts funding is available and minimal part of that goes to media arts.
Science-side research funding is explicitly not interested in art. So it
is very difficult to get appropriate funding for media art projects and
initiatives. Hence the attraction of commercial funding, but the
downside of this is the imperative of market success.

In general it is fair to say that the aesthetic or the socio-technical
modes of cultural production today are rooted in the practices of the
1960s-- when radical practices embraced the body, physical site and
social context, as well as  emerging technologies.  In many ways you can
see the roots of many new media works in conceptual art practices. You
can see in various aspects in new media art that refer to mail art, body
art and site specific art. This is no accident of course, the people
doing the current work were trained by practitioners from that period.
The issues that are explored in new media art are often essentially a
continuation of the 60s and 70s explosion of post-object art,
transferred to a new technological context. 

On the other hand, new practices are emerging in the context of new
technologies which are in a marginal position with respect to common
notions of art. What we are seeing is a transition. If we look at
cultural practices of the last two, three hundred years, we realize that
new kind of cultural practices create their own venues. Cinema is a
perfect example. Cinema created a novel kind of venue. We don't usually
go to see cinema in art museums, opera theaters, parades or mardi gras-
the cinema created a novel kind of venue which was geographically
dispersed yet synchronous: you could see the same film in a hundred
places around the world at the same time. It had commonalities to
conventional theatre venue but in many ways it was different. Those
precursor venues remain relevant to the work that they supported and the
new venues that emerge are relevant to the new practices. Right now we
are seeing exactly that happening with multi-user gaming. You have seen
as well as I have, the pitiful attempt to incorporate multi-user gaming,
for instance, into museum-type contexts. It's peculiar and completely
inappropriate. This new practice will define its own new venue. I am not
so concerned if the power brokers of the conventional art world don't
get it.

TS: Curators as cultural legitimizers decide about inclusion and
exclusion. Defining a borderline between art and non-art provides
curators with decision making tools. To discuss this in educational
settings is important. With these problems in sight and also
re-connecting to my earlier comments: Do you perceive a crisis in
new-media art education? For the past ten years new jobs in this field
opened up. Few faculty are fully confident with their teaching practice.
Theory and software are like drift wood in the river. They unremittingly
pull ahead of us. But there always is the technical solace. Instructors
should be driven by the discourse of a media instead of focusing solely
on its material properties. 

SP: I argued that the new practices may not have their home in the
museums. Similarly I would argue that the Academy is not necessarily
the natural home for new-media art education. This is only to be
expected. The kinds of socio-cultural conditions that shaped this new
work did not exist yet when the disciplines in the university were
developed. Quite clearly diplomas and degrees that were set up prior to
the existence of this practice cannot serve as guidelines in training
practitioners in an optimal way. The question then becomes: if we want
to train practitioners and managers for all of these new kind of
practices-- what out of all these traditional disciplines and fields is
relevant? What does a person in this field need to know and how should
these things be integrated in order to equip the student in the best
possible way? I don't claim to have an authoritative view. What I do
argue is that knowledge, techniques and methods from the technical
sciences, the humanities and from the arts have to be combined in a new
way. I want to give every student the freedom to draw upon any
knowledge base that they feel is appropriate for their work. We are in a
period of flux. If a student wants to take a course in ethno-methodology
or if a student wants to take a course in mathematical logic that is
fine by me. Ultimately they are the new generation that is creating this
new context and I sincerely believe they have an intuitive grasp of what
they need.  I'm naturalized to analog technology. The digital came upon
me in my teenage years. My students are naturalized to digital
technology. They have a different approach. My job is to facilitate a
rigorous development of their ideas, because, thankfully, intellectual
precision and academic rigor have not become obsolete.   

TS: New-media art education in North America takes place for the most
part in universities. Where else do you see effective venues that impact
very many people and have the financial means to do so?

SP: Two of the motto of the ACE program: one is hybrid vigor and the
other one is kind of industrial hazard logo: "danger of permanent damage
to axiomatic assumptions." That's actually very serious. The longer I
try to perpetrate a serious interdisciplinarity in the academy the
clearer it becomes to me -- in doing interdisciplinarity you necessarily
excavate below the horizon of partisans of particular disciplines. Some
disciplines have the axiomatic assumption that the justification for
their practice and the criteria by which they judge their practitioners
and their students is the production of new knowledge. And they claim to
know what new knowledge is. They have a definition for it. Firstly, that
definition of knowledge excludes a wide range of things that many people
call knowledge. Secondly, there are a range of disciplines on the campus
for whom the production of new knowledge is not a primary task. There is
an enormous amount of lip service paid to interdisciplinarity across
campuses in this country and elsewhere. In my experience that is almost
never sufficiently intellectually sophisticated to do anything but
sabotage the entire project. Because if you remain wholly enveloped
within the world-view of a particular discipline and simply take pieces
from other disciplines into your practice then you take those pieces out
of context and in that process ignore the deeper epistemological crisis
which you create. If you can't create a context in which the two
disciplines that you are attempting to combine can be resolved or at
least that the differences in their positions can be negotiated then you
have not even started doing interdisciplinarity.

TS: Collaborations between artists and scientists are often arduous
endeavors. Artists can bring new methodologies to the table of
scientists. However, they often end up as illustrators of the findings
of scientists. Genuine collaborations take a long time to develop. They
need true interest and  commitment from all parties involved. 

SP: It's a question of whether or not you reflectively engage the
premises of the other discipline as well as your own. If you don't do
that rigorously enough then you may sabotage what you are trying to do.
In disciplines there is a disciplinary hubris. Most practitioners of
certain discipline have the sense that in the end their discipline is
the master discipline and they have the master discourse and all the
other disciplines can be drawn upon to help them. It doesn¹t matter if
you talk to architects, or engineers or critical theorists-- there is
almost always hubris. Doing interdisciplinarity is inherently
psychologically very challenging. You have to be prepared to say: "I
don't have the majority of the relevant knowledge. I don't have the
master discourse. It's entirely possible that I am working with partial
knowledge". That makes people insecure. It takes humility and
intellectual courage because if you claim to be an interdisciplinarian,
someone who is deeply involved in one of the disciplines you are
referring to can always turn to you and say "you are a dilettante. You
don't have a deep enough knowledge of this discipline to speak to it".
And you have to respond by saying "yes, I am not steeped as deeply in
that discipline as you are but on the other hand I'm bringing a
different perspective to your practice and surely there is value in
that". It's very difficult when you begin to challenge the sense of
authority of disciplinary partisans.

Then there is the question of vocational training. There is another
element in there, which is the predatory nature of employers. I have
seen repeatedly students being drawn into employment part way though
their undergraduate education. They'd suddenly be drawn into jobs where
they were earning many times the salary that they would expect to be
earning at the end of an undergraduate or graduate degree. They work 120
hours a week and in three years their knowledge was out of date and they
were on the street. I have seen this happening many times and it's a
difficult problem in a context where the tools are changing so rapidly.
My position has always been that there is no point in providing
vocational training in a tool which will be obsolete by the time the
student graduates. That was clear for sure ten years ago, but things are
stabilizing. The dot com bust was not a bad thing.

TS:  How do you position yourself within the many different approaches
to teaching programming? I argue that the principles of programming are
part of a more stable trajectory that will allow students to learn new
languages when necessary. Think of the Python programming language, for

SP: Certainly, it is crucial to understand the behavior and logics of
the machine, you have to speak its language. A grounding in computer
architecture, software architecture, digital logic and programming
styles is required. This is required basic literacy. But if you look at
the change in, say, web programming languages over a very short period
the change is extraordinary. The industry is in flux and things that
were regarded as being basic skills have disappeared into hardware
instantiations and people are not even aware of them anymore. It's an
awkward pedagogical situation, no question about it. This where the
experience of the educator comes in. The educator can say- I have seen
ten or fifteen programs or software packages in this area and this one
has the qualities that I want to teach. That's why we get paid as
On the issue of Theory, it depends on what we mean by theory. Computer
science theory and critical theory are separate pursuits. In my opinion,
its crucial that technically inclined students be exposed to ways of
thinking which require them to look at their work and their field in a
large socio-political context. There is no question that critical theory
of the last twenty or thirty years can be extremely valuable and is
important as it is part of the contemporary intellectual climate and
students ought to know about it. But there are two key problems. One of
them is the naive art production as implementation of theory, which is
almost always in my experience underwhelming in its presence as art. And
secondly, the questionable relationship between theory and practice from
the point of view of theorists. For instance, sometimes, when one sees
the meeting of practitioners and theorists the transfer of intellectual
property is usually one way. The artist provides examples or substance
for the imaginations of the theory machine. But the products of the
theory machine stays within the confines of the theory machine. Often
theorists see artworks or cultural practice in the way a cow sees grass.
It's for consumption. I'm looking for ways in which there can be a
closer integration of theory and practice. I'm looking for a way in
which theorists can engage with practice and give back to it in a
constructive way.

TS: Relating back to an earlier discussion I wonder if there is no valid
space for a cultural practice that is informed by, rather than conflated
with, theory. 

SP: Of course. My concern is with a naive and superficial implementation
of theory which produces bad art. One can point to examples in which the
use of theory has precluded in the production of rich and intellectually
deep art. But you don't get that by going to a couple of lectures on
Deleuze and then flashing around some Deleuzian jargon. There is a need
for a process of integration. 

TS: I agree. It takes a long time until theory you can call up theory
when needed. Your program at UC Irvine brings together art and science.
Recently I noticed a certain scientification of the arts. Scientific
formats enter the arts. This practice can be witnessed all over the US
and is related to the business logic of the University and funding
bodies like the NSF. In addition to self-organziation and a full embrace
of the unregulated digital commons, this scientification
of the arts is a response to the prevailing resource scarcity.    

SP: I think this is where the Canadians again have shown remarkable
wisdom. In Quebec but maybe even nationally now, there is a new
definition of a kind of fundable practice, which is called "research
creation". This recognizes the kind of hybrid practice that is part
technical research and part artistic production. We don't have that in
this country. The fact that we have an NEH and NSF reflects the
disciplinary division on campus. There is little support for practices
that straddle the boundaries. And those disciplinary definitions are of
course completely artificial. Another more insidious mode of
scientification is the insinuation of values and criteria from
scientific and technical practice into cultural practice. Computer
technology is a philosophical Trojan horse. Take the issue of
productivity. Because of the linking of technology and commerce, which
is what computer culture is all about, there is a high emphasis on
productivity. One has to ask if a value like productivity is in fact
constructive when one is talking about cultural practice. Would
Shakespeare have been a better playwright if he had forced himself to
produce one play a week? The answer is "no." If you try to optimize
words towards poetry in terms of redundant characters, would it make
better poetry? Again-- "no." The whole question is, of
course, absurd. All these values like optimization, efficiency,
productivity, reliability, provability, which come upon us because of
the tools we use, are really dangerous. So I must return to a rigorous
analysis of the disciplines which we are attempting to combine. If you
would apply criteria like productivity to art you would empty it out
until it would simply be a shell. You'd destroy it. In a lot of ways I
think that we are destroying it. At least let me put this out there as a
provocation:  ultimately we are employing a technology which is based on
the idea of man-machine interaction where the man is secondary to the
machine for the purpose of productivity. I find it odd that this is not
regarded as a fundamental problematic in the field. 

TS: So far we discussed radical issues in education. But all of this is
still safely situated behind the thick firewalls of academia. Do you see
aspects of media art education that can serve as models for processes
outside of it?

SP: I have to say that I have been so focused on establishing
appropriate educational programs within the academy as substantial part
of my career, that I don't feel qualified to address your question
except in a reflexive way. I taught in self-contained art academies and
I think I chose to establish ACE not in such location because while
there are problems with the academy as an environment and as a context,
it's also true that nowhere else, I think, can you have such easy access
to such a breadth of knowledge, experience and techniques within walking
distance. Access here is a given. If I have a student who is interested
in the electrical engineering aspects of RFID technology, I can say- go
across to the electrical engineering department. Within a day or two
that student can have a top level meeting where key issues are
addressed. Having all these mind on campus works better than a search
engine. You get what you need in a very efficient way. I think that is
the real value of the academy. Virtually any question a student asks me,
whether be it the history of racism or new practices in biomedical
engineering- I can send them directly to an expert.

About Simon Penny:
Simon Penny is professor of arts and engineering, a joint appointment of
the Claire Trevor School of the Arts and The Henry Samueli School of
Engineering at UC Irvine. He is the architect and founding director of
the interdisciplinary graduate program in Arts, Computation Engineering
(ACE) which offers three masters degrees in the field, one in Fine Arts,
one in Engineering and one in Information and Computer Science. Mr.
Penny is an artist, theorist, teacher and curator in the field of
Electronic and Interactive Art. His art practice consists of interactive
and robotic installations, which have been exhibited in the Americas,
Australia and Europe. His essays have been published and translated
widely. He edited the anthology Critical Issues in Electronic Media
(SUNY Press 1995). 

About Trebor Scholz:
Trebor Scholz works both collaboratively and individually as an artist,
media theorist, activist, and organizer. <www.collectivate.net> He is
researcher and professor in the Department of Media Study, SUNY at
Buffalo. In 2005 he facilitated ³Share, Share Widely²

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