"Militantly Marginal": The First IDMAA Conference

Posted by Juliet Davis | Fri Apr 2nd 2004 1:35 a.m.

Militantly Marginal": The First IDMAA Conference
by Juliet Davis and Suellen Regonini
____________________________________________________________________________

Gather 25 digital media educators into a room and urge them to confess thei=
r secret doubts: that they might be marginalized in their departments; that=
people "don't really get" what they do; that administrators aren't sure ho=
w to assign value to their work; that curriculum changes so fast that the c=
atalogs are out of date as soon as they're printed; that their field harbor=
s an uncertain intellectual core. Then, watch these same people brainstorm,=
collaborate, mutate across disciplines, seek common ground, and strive to =
legitimize. If this sounds as much like a support group as a conference wor=
kshop, then you've already grasped an unusual aspect of the new Internation=
al Digital Media and Arts Association (IDMAA) and its first conference, hel=
d in Orlando March 10-12. "It's about support," says Ray Steele, the Direct=
or of the Center for Media Design at Ball State, who started the associatio=
n with part of a grant from the Lilly Foundation and sponsorship from such =
industry notables as Electronic Arts and Pearson Prentice Hall. It's also u=
ndeniably political (conference title: "For the Militantly Marginal"). One =
gets the sense that this group is going to move and shake this field with o=
r without you.

This impression might be owed in part to a list of founding members that se=
ems anything but marginal, including Ball State, Bowling Green State Univer=
sity, Columbia College, Florida State, Stetson, SUNY, Union, and the Univer=
sities of Central Florida, Denver, Florida, Georgia, Montana, Warwick, and =
Wisconsin. Furthermore, IDMAA officers and board members come from leading-=
edge positions in their fields (http://www.idmaa.org/board.htm ).

"We're really an odd bunch."
The term "militantly marginal" could appeal on many levels to people in dig=
ital media and art. It acknowledges rebellion against tradition, giving a n=
od to digital dilettantes who have crossed disciplines, broken with academy=
traditions, and reinvented themselves as rogues of raster, vagabonds of ve=
ctor. "We're really an odd bunch", Steele commented in his closing statemen=
ts. At the same time, the term suggests a movement toward institutionalizin=
g the future. As all good students of revolution know, today's militantly m=
arginal are tomorrow's monoliths; fortunately, this irony was not lost on t=
he IDMAA group, which seems to embrace disparate voices and be wary of quic=
k solutions.

IDMAA acknowledges that the digital media and art programs created by unive=
rsities and colleges around the world involve diverse and ever-changing tec=
hnologies, markets, values, and goals; and that these programs tend to emer=
ge more organically than strategically from partnerships of Art, Communicat=
ions, Science, English, Music, Theater, Film, Journalism, and other discipl=
ines. The IDMAA web site furthermore points out that "these programs often =
don't fit within the neat and tidy confines of traditional university struc=
tures--their creators and champions often forge interdisciplinary partnersh=
ips to create opportunities, attract money, and stimulate explosions of cre=
ativity. The International Digital Media & Arts Association was organized b=
y and for people working in these margins. Margins are frontiers, but they =
are also uncertain places. Marginal people upset the establishment, take ri=
sks and make new things happen."

Sue Regonini and I have had the opportunity to develop (or help develop) se=
ven digital media arts programs since 1997, yet we still feel at times as t=
hough we're operating on the fringe-and perhaps we're not alone in this fee=
ling. Approximately 200 people attended this conference to access its 30 wo=
rkshops, three presentations by industry and academic leaders, gallery exhi=
bit of experimental digital work, new peer-reviewed journal, and array of n=
etworking opportunities. Differences in this conference from SIGGRAPH or si=
milar gatherings became obvious. Rather than sitting in a big hall, absorbi=
ng information being disseminated by the speaker/panel in a (mostly) one-di=
rectional outpouring of content, the IDMAA conference participants became p=
art of a melange of discussions, mediated by workshop leaders, on a wide =
range of topics, from funding for digital media projects, to game technolog=
y and theory; curriculum design to interactive performance. For a complete =
list of workshops (summaries of which will soon be posted to the IDMAA web =
site), see http://www.idmaa.org/idmac2004/workshops.html .

Call for Standards?
If the conference was "designed to answer the key questions for faculty and=
administrators building Digital Media and Digital Arts academic programs a=
round the world," it probably asked more questions than it answered. While =
we were not able to get around to all 30 workshops in the two-and-a-half da=
ys, we did notice some common themes among those we did attend. "Who are we=
?" was a question that arose many times. "What do we call what we do?" Term=
s such as "new media" and "digital media" seem to fall apart under scrutiny=
, as they are based on specific and changing technologies. And what of the =
diplomas we hand out to our students that say "M.F.A. in New Media" today, =
only to sound old tomorrow? Jan Cannon-Bowers, mediator of the workshop ent=
itled "Graduate Programs in DM&A", reported that USC is working with the te=
rm "Dynamic Media", which ironically seems to fix, by means of terminology,=
a state of continuous and energetic change. "Convergent media" has become =
a popular term as well.

Perhaps even more important is the question of what we should be teaching-f=
or example, in associate, bachelor, master, and doctoral programs. How do w=
e incorporate the teaching of technology, project management, aesthetics, c=
ritical theory? Or, as one participant put it: "How do you teach Flash with=
out, well, teaching Flash?" Is it even appropriate to incorporate the teach=
ing of technologies per se at the university level, or should it be relegat=
ed to workshops outside of class meetings? And what should we expect studen=
ts to teach themselves? At what level? When we develop graduate programs, w=
hat foundations should we assume students to have when they enter? While so=
me workshop participants seemed to feel that a call for standards is needed=
to legitimize digital media/arts in the academy, others felt that the prot=
ean and interdisciplinary nature of the field was essential to its nature, =
and that the field should stay in flux. Can a room full of programmers, art=
ists, and social scientists really agree on these issues? Should we really =
be able to?

Having recently returned from visits to two universities that are collapsin=
g the walls of departments in an effort to encourage interdisciplinary work=
, I have observed an interesting movement toward fluidity. Michigan State U=
niversity has newly established its C.A.L.M. department (Communication, Art=
s, Letters, and Music), which merges previously sectioned-off departments s=
uch as Telecommunications, Art, Theater, Music, English, and Journalism. At=
University of Texas at Dallas, the School of Arts and Humanities, under th=
e leadership of Dean Dennis Kratz, has collapsed its walls so that it has n=
o departments per se. A dance professor teaches animation because she under=
stands how the body moves. An artist shows students how to slosh paint on a=
digital scanner. A philosopher teaches a video class, emphasizing critical=
theory. It's every accreditation team's nightmare (a thought delightfully =
subversive in and of itself). While we think of knowledge as becoming more =
and more specialized, we also see a trend toward generalizing and "cross-po=
llinating."

What Employers Want

"We aren't even looking for specialists who know specific technologies any =
more; we're looking for artists." -Jim Spoto, Computer Graphics Supervisor =
for Electronic Arts (EA)

From the opening plenary session of the conference, it was obvious that maj=
or concerns of participants included the increasing speed of technological =
change and the cultivation of curricula and methodologies that allow studen=
ts to become creative thinkers and problem-solvers, rather than software sp=
ecialists. Art David of Wave Light Digital Images, Inc., who has worked in =
compositing and digital shot clean-up on several major motion pictures such=
as The Matrix, Judge Dredd, Contact, and Starship Troopers, said in his pr=
esentation that "students need to develop problem-solving skills" in order =
to be competitive in a rapidly shifting technological environment. David il=
lustrated the challenges of the digital effects industry by discussing the =
dramatic changes in staffing at ILM and other digital effect houses worldwi=
de over a period of just eight years. He also emphasized that the workload =
is being redistributed to smaller firms and to various locations worldwide,=
and that students must be willing to adapt to the industry if they want to=
remain viable.

Jim Spoto, Computer Graphics Supervisor for Electronic Arts (EA), the world=
's largest computer game and electronic entertainment company, brought a si=
milar message. "You can't commodify creativity," said Spoto, as he describe=
d the profile of workers that EA wants to attract. Technical jobs, he expla=
ined, can be shipped overseas. Creativity can't be. Art can't be. Storytell=
ing can't be. Spoto believes that we are seeing a shift from an "informatio=
n economy" to a "creative economy" as information technologies become commo=
dified. EA is seeking to enhance customer experience by developing new game=
designs, genres and models; developing greater immersion in virtual experi=
ences through more meaningful and emotional interaction with "digital human=
s" (photorealistic characters with sophisticated artificial intelligence); =
designing more complex interfaces that allow users wider ranges of interact=
ion; and promoting more convergence with film to create higher overall prod=
uction values.

"We Tell Stories"
Perhaps one of the most resonant moments we witnessed came with a comment f=
rom Jeff Rush, Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in the School of =
Communications and Theater at Temple University, who suggested that what we=
all have in common is that "we tell stories." The popularity of workshops =
involving narrative theory and gaming seemed to suggest a lot of excitement=
about the future of digital story-telling. We even met English-professors-=
turned-experimental-video-game-developers. IDMAA directors have instituted =
an annual Award for Positive Innovation in Media, which was presented to Jo=
e Lambert and Emily Paulos of the Center for
Digital Storytelling at Berkeley, in memory of Dana Atchley, founding
Director of the Center. In accepting the a=
ward, Lambert discussed the importance of digital media in helping people l=
earn how to present their stories and preserve them for the future. "We add=
ress the sunshine as well as the shadow side", said Lambert, "and question =
where we are going." The presenters of the award, Caroll Blue of the Univer=
sity of Central Florida, and Nancy Carlson of Ball State University, stated=
that "experience design," as defined in Nathan Shedroff's book of the same=
name, is a major goal of digital storytelling, in that it allows the autho=
r/artist to "capture, objectify, and quantify" experiences and information =
that would be lost otherwise.

The IDMAA Conference started conversations that will undoubtedly continue i=
n future conferences and publications-conversations that promise to take us=
beyond the dialectical antagonism of statements like "linear narrative is =
dead" or "video games are evil," to see ourselves as part of an expanding, =
fluid field that partially defies definitions because it entertains infinit=
e possibilities.

Future IDMAA Resources
IDMAA promises to provide the following resources to its members in upcomin=
g months:

- a forum for sharing sample syllabi and curricula developed for media arts=
programs.

- a master list of graduate programs in digital media and art, and descript=
ions of content.

- summaries of the conference workshops, posted to the web.

- the new International Digital Media and Arts Association Journal

- ongoing conferences

- gallery exhibits of experimental work

Links
IDMAA Home www.idmaa.org
IDMAA 2004 Conference Web Site http://www.idmaa.org/idmac2004/
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