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Beyond the Boundaries of Language

Leviathan (Photo courtesy of Cinema Guild)

In recent memory, there’s been a never-ending deluge of bad news for the arts and humanities in the U.S.: government support, which is already low, may be cut entirely; universities, facing budget crises, have axed language and arts programs; prominent professors spend their time writing books defending the basic value of humanistic inquiry, while their pecuniary graduate students fight for poverty wages as adjuncts, and earn a little money on the side writing articles about their plight.

In the midst of all this, I was struggling to put together a dissertation proposal — it was something on the history of art and science, the way aesthetic intuitions could inform “objective” scientific models — and had fallen into a state of panic. Many of the thinkers and artists I cared about had celebrated a knowledge that couldn’t be written down, but here I was, trying to write it all down, like a collector pinning butterflies to a board. At the time, I had no idea that something quite incongruous and extraordinary had been developing across the country. While I quietly yearned for the return of the artist-scholar, and a culture that valued experiences without quantifiable value, a number of universities were championing new academic programs devoted precisely to this. Often referred to as “critical media practice,” the departments have spread rapidly, taking hold at University of California, Santa Barbara; Washington University; Harvard; University of Southern California and, most recently, University of Colorado Boulder, where the doctorate program in critical media practices, beginning this year, will be part of the university’s first new school in nearly half a century.

Universities have long shielded thought from the burdens of economy — it doesn’t matter, for example, how much cash you earn with your argument about Ovid’s poetics; what matters is that you earn the respect of a small niche of academics and bring prestige to the university. These recent critical media programs suggest that universities could begin to afford art a similar space, where the media work of professors and students are valued as much as a paper or a book. Unlike film and art schools, with their expensive tuition, these practice-based programs are often free, and provide health insurance, a stipend and teaching opportunities, giving students the financial security — at least temporarily — to develop work independent of market demands. It’s optimistic, perhaps, but also possible to imagine these programs developing into a university-based patronage system for film and media arts, offering a counterweight to the dominance of European film and media arts so long buoyed by generous state funding.

Attempts to describe these programs as a unified project will inevitably fail — most of them emerged independently, and there is no founding manifesto that unites them, no single tradition or single methodology from which they all draw. That they seek to blend art, technology and academia only complicates this further; each program chooses different varietals and then mixes these ingredients a little differently, and the professors who lead these programs often have distinct interests that then shape them. At DXARTS, for example, there’s a strong faculty presence in experimental sound art; at UC Santa Barbara a focus on data art and computer programming; and at Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, a focus on avant-garde nonfiction film. Not to mention that the students are also free to take their research in myriad directions. Doctoral students at USC’s Media Arts + Practice doctoral program, which accepts only three students a year, have done projects in media activism, world building, robotics, digital humanities, immersive journalism, poetic science, game design, augmented reality — and the list goes on. If the scope leaves you somewhat breathless, or even bemused, don’t fret; it is precisely this openness to new developments and new interests that most excites those working in it. It will undoubtedly become more unified as it carves out its disciplinary norms, but for now, professors and students are happy to see where it organically takes them.

At first glance, there’s something rather peculiar about a doctorate in media practice, critical or not. The university, after all, already supports the arts through MFA programs, which has long been the gold standard in art practice — it’s what you usually need to teach at an art program, and, of course, in the amorphous and underfunded world of art, it’s been used as an important marker of social distinction between professionals and mere amateurs. When I asked Juan Pampin, head of DXARTS at Washington University, why there needed to be doctoral programs in the arts, he responded with a question of his own: “Why in the sciences do students spend four or five or six years beyond the master’s program? Is it that art is easier?” And while no doubt the sciences will always have more funding, he explained that DXARTS “wanted to give the opportunity to artists to get an equal amount of time and funding [as the sciences] to do the research they want to do.”

Pampin’s use of the word “research” is not accidental. If students at an MFA program “make art,” students at critical media programs “conduct artistic research.” These programs are fundamentally committed to a new definition of knowledge, one that values not just analysis and written language, but also embodied knowledge, visceral experience, affect and the insights of aesthetics. As Holly Willis, chair of USC’s Media Arts + Practice program (and Filmmaker co-founder and contributor) told me, “We’re at a moment where we’re thinking about knowledge differently. It isn’t a single thing that’s known, it’s really something that’s produced in a series or interrelationships and interconnections.” This is all part of a larger trend in the university, in which academics tired of the linguistic turn that dominated scholarship in the ’80s and ’90s have turned to studying aspects of life that seem irreducible to language: infrastructures, networks, media, the senses, the environment and the mundane objects that make up everyday life. That some of these scholars began to yearn for academic work that itself broke the boundaries of language seems only inevitable.

The notion that art practice can shape knowledge isn’t exactly a new insight. Intellectual history is rife with examples of art and research informing each other: If your tastes are more traditional, there’s Pythagoras’s investigation of mathematics and music, da Vinci’s interest in the forms of life, Goethe’s investigations of color and optics; for those with a more contemporary bent, there’s surrealism, Bauhaus, cybernetics and the art and technology movement of the ’60s and ’70s. But if the idea isn’t itself radical, its introduction into the American university system is. Academic research — whether in the humanities, social sciences or hard sciences — has long been turned toward explication, analysis, clarification and demystification. “I don’t think this is widespread yet,” Willis told me. To many in the academy, she went on, “all of this sounds crazy. There’s a ton of pushback, and a sense that this kind of work is totally illegitimate.” Try to tell the old-fashioned deans, who have spent their lives synthesizing archival research into mighty tomes or crunching the raw data from their laboratories, that their work is but one form of knowledge; try to convince them that their books are no more significant than an experimental sound piece, or a video game, or an avant-garde piece of cinema. That these programs have eked out a niche in academia at all is itself rather remarkable.

By 2013, I had become excited by nonfiction filmmaking, and I continued to dally on my dissertation proposal. While academic writing offered its intellectual puzzles, documentary filmmaking seemed infinitely more challenging — there’s the ideas, but there are also the moods and rhythms, the social relationships, the movements that have to be improvised, and images that can shift in meaning with the slightest alteration. Comparatively, writing about what other people had written seemed drab. Then I saw Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan — a non-narrative film on a fishing boat that violently thrashes between ship, sea and air — and noticed that it was produced, inexplicably, by something called the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University. I thought I may have found a solution. I concocted a plan for an exchange year at Harvard, wrote emails to professors at the lab announcing my imminent arrival, heard nothing back, showed up in the fall anyway and through luck and kindness was allowed to study there.

I found something entrancingly hybrid: It certainly wasn’t a film school — many students in the program, like me, had very little background in filmmaking — nor was it academia, at least as I had known it: We spent very little time reading texts, instead watching each others’ work, subjecting the rhythms and movements of one’s body to the same rigorous scrutiny that you might a poem in a literature seminar. It felt both less tangible and more immediate than anything I had seen in academia. And something surprising also happened: In discovering these more concrete and urgent questions about life and society, I found my academic work began to breathe again. The fact that writing lacked something seemed fine, so long as there was also a way to explore the rest.

Harvard’s media practice programs — which in addition to sensory ethnography include critical media practice, a clearing house of sorts for media arts across the university — have emerged through their alliances with traditional departments. This is woven into the fabric of these programs. Peter Galison, a historian of science, a filmmaker and co-director of these programs, explained that these centers do not so much exist in and of themselves — as art for art’s sake — but as a “form of research that would add dimension to work people were doing across the university.” An anthropologist, or historian of science, or sociologist, may find that there were significant aspects of their research that have meaning beyond language, and if they do, these programs are there to give them equipment and guidance. But if you’re a mere filmmaker interested in studying at the Sensory Ethnography Lab, and you don’t have the academic background to get into a doctoral program, you’re pretty much out of luck.

Harvard’s model of critical media practice has the benefit of being reproducible across universities with relative ease. Based primarily in video and audio work, the technology isn’t esoteric or particularly expensive, with the main cost being the educators who are skilled both at media work and at mentoring. But its liminal position between departments does pose a certain problem. For despite all this talk of “art as knowledge,” the traditional programs still expect a full and rigorous dissertation, no matter how insightful or important your films; and most job searches, even if they are looking for someone with production skills as well, are still primarily interested in written research. While a number of students have built distinguished careers in film while finishing their dissertations — such as Stephanie Spray and J. P. Sniadecki — for every success story there is a student who’s faced with a Solomonic decision. During my time at Harvard, I saw a number of students tear themselves from their vibrant filmmaking to perfunctorily put together a dissertation, and much more often, shelve their film projects to write the dissertation that their home department demands. This is by no means the fault of the media practice programs, but rather, the fault of an academic culture that has yet to accept that academic knowledge can exist beyond the written word. Until the culture of knowledge changes more broadly at universities — and that means not just course requirements, but also hiring priorities — it’s unlikely that Harvard’s model of media practice will meet its potential.

Other programs, primarily on the West Coast, have taken a different tack. Rather than an interdisciplinary program that accompanies the established disciplines, these programs offer independent doctorate degrees in media practice. Unlike Harvard, which seeks collaborative work primarily in the humanities and social sciences, these programs forge alliances with scientists and the tech industry. Also unlike Harvard, the work they produce tends to be based less in traditional cinema and more in emergent technology and new media: virtual reality, robotics, expanded media and virtual worlds, to name a few. At DXARTS, for example, students build relationships with scientists and engineers at their university and beyond, creating collaborative projects that incorporate scientific research with design. Recently, for example, they’ve made headlines with their Art + Brain Lab, which has developed a technique to play music through the brain waves on an EEG. Similar to DXARTS, USC’s Media Arts + Practice doctoral program offers a list of seemingly infinite resources from their School of Cinematic Arts. Students there engage in a diversity of emerging media, with access to a dozen labs, including such as the Game Innovation Lab, the Jaunt Cinematic Virtual Reality Lab and the Mobile and Environmental Media Lab.

These programs, formed as independent disciplines, avoid some of the challenges faced at Harvard: Here, students’ written work is valued equally to their media practice, and rather than competing for the students’ time, the two organically build off each other. Yet these programs also face a dilemma, and one that’s potentially more ominous. The focus on new and emerging technologies is far more capital intensive than single-channel cinema, and programs that want to become most alluring to potential students undoubtedly feel pressure to offer opportunities at the cutting edge of technology and art. And with that, come major corporations. While DXARTS from early on decided to avoid corporate-funded laboratories, the School of Cinematic Arts at USC is awash with investment from corporations like Microsoft, Sony, BMW, Steelcase, Cisco and even the entertainment-restaurant chain Dave & Buster’s. As Willis explained to me, “It’s a delicate navigation. You don’t want your students’ ideas to get swept up into some corporate project, but at the same time you want your students to have a real-world experience.” The tech industry has a long history of capturing idealism and utopian impulses, and shunting them into profit, surveillance and addiction. If all of these programs seem like a shining hope against the instrumentalization of the university, this should give us pause. It would be a tragedy, but one that has happened many times before, if this movement became yet one more research branch of the corporate tech behemoth that already structures so much of our lives.

It’s still too early to know where any of this will go: Will filmmaking become recognized as a form of research and knowledge on equal footing with a dissertation? Will the art-technology research nexus spread to universities across the country? And what will be the role of tech companies in shaping this research? This fall, UC-Boulder will welcome their first doctorate cohort into the Critical Media Practice program. The newest of these departments, it is poised between experimental documentaries and emergent technologies, drawing inspiration and faculty from critical media programs around the country. It may be the best bellwether for the future of the discipline. How it synthesizes these different programs, and how it navigates the potential pitfalls, will be a good indication of whether this movement will continue. And more than that: It will be a good indication of whether it should.

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