Summer 2011: v.07 n.01: Under Fire: 3D Animation Pedagogy
Assistant Professor of Art & Technology
The Ohio State University
Classroom demand for software techniques-of-the-month and industry workflows threaten to compromise exploratory form, depth of content and experimental technique in student artwork. Market pressures in the digital 3D classroom reinforce a narrow industry aesthetic, which, if encouraged, can marginalize more independent students and interfere with a holistic, well-rounded arts education. In his Artgames & Media Sculpture courses at the University of North Texas, Mecklenburger’s students critically engage their favorite game genres, working to unpack their embedded discourses and invert their traditional structures. These courses have produced game-based media artworks that often command and define their own context and engage with art history. This has been achieved by structuring courses on a model similar to a painting studio workshop, emphasizing discussion, critique, and research.
When I first began exploring digital 3D in Claudia Hart’s Virtual Installation course, I became fascinated by what others were modeling and why. I found myself downloading archives of freely available models, wondering who these modelers were and why they were making these things. With a practically limitless digital palette, unrestrained by the laws of nature, I was amazed that so many people would spend so much time modeling the most mundane objects and environments. The largest stretch of the imagination I encountered were objects made for predigested genres like science fiction and medieval fantasy.
I took the most conventional objects I found, re-scaled and mashed them into a kind of digital 3D bricolage I called Uninstalled (2007). It was a simultaneous homage and send-up of the postmodern public “plop art” of Claes Oldenburg, who, like me, was raised in Chicago and attended School of the Institute of Chicago (SAIC.)  I documented the object by animating it like a science fiction hologram, slowly rotating in an empty gray digital hyperspace. (Figure 1)
To emphasize the collaborative, social nature of the object and its origins, the screen name of each unwitting collaborator is emblazoned upon their involuntarily contributed object. I then integrated the bricolage sculpture into photos of prominent locations for public art in Chicago. (Figure 2 and Figure 3) These images serve as imaginary proposals for structurally impossible public works, in contrast to the mundane availability and utter possible-ness of the sculpture’s component parts.
As I researched the existing virtual built environment/archive of free models for this project, I noted a few interesting facts about the available quantities of different kinds of objects. Guns and spaceships were the two categories of objects that outnumbered all other categories by such a vast margin that I simply had to rule them out for Uninstalled and set them aside for their own projects. Both objects are employed in video games, however the number of free digital 3D guns exceeded spaceships by many orders of magnitude. The first person shooter (FPS) game industry is already the highest grossing form of media entertainment and is poised to overtake television as the most popular form of media. What this means is that a lot of people are spending a lot of time making painstakingly accurate models of guns. The parallel in availability of virtual and real guns interested me greatly, and it seemed appropriate to continue with another of Oldenburg’s preoccupations, the gun, which culminated in the Ray Gun Wing of his Mouse Museum.
Pwn3d is a series of videos, objects, interactive installations and performances emerging from this examination of digital 3D guns made for FPS games. In such entertainments, the player’s physical and digital body vanishes (or often is not represented at all), and is replaced entirely by the gun. Accordingly I fill environments with guns, stripping away landscapes and people to emphasize the guns’ figurative qualities. (Figure 4)
This series led to a collaboration with artist Mark L. Franz to create an interactive installation Friendly Fire, (Figures 5 and 6) in which we created our own version of a FPS from scratch, populating it with nothing but guns. The more one fires, the more the guns multiply in our gravity-free environment and fire haphazardly on their own, until the “game” interaction slips beyond the user’s control into cacophony and chaos.
In 2010 I developed a pair of wireless pistol controllers for the game during a residency at the Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music (STEIM) in in Amsterdam. (Figure 7) This has transformed our system into an upgraded acoustic instrument for live performance that produces sound and image in response to classic American Western ‘gunslinging theatrics.’
I’d recently completed Friendly Fire 1.0 at SAIC upon joining the faculty of the University of North Texas Department of Studio Arts to help develop their nascent New Media Art Major. I immediately began experiencing palpable industry market pressures similar to what my colleagues in this edition describe so well. These pressures are driven in large part by the very game genre I’ve taken on as subject matter. At first, many of my New Media Art Undergraduates registered visible surprise and confusion by the frank discussions I held on the content, concept, the subject of their work, and existing precedents in art history. Many appeared to have little or no interest in art, the histories of art, or aesthetics, beyond what they had been exposed to through popular culture.
It was clear that demand for established industry workflows threatened to marginalize exploratory form, depth of content and experimental technique. Market pressures in the digital 3D classroom can reinforce a narrow industry aesthetic, which, if encouraged, cultivates an atmosphere that marginalizes independent student-artists, and can interfere with a well-rounded arts education. In crafting standards for student evaluation, my colleague Professor Jenny Vogel and I decided it was important to prioritize students’ awareness of the many cultural, historical and contemporary art contexts for their work. This has proven to be my greatest challenge as an art educator working with digital 3D. However, in only three semesters I’ve seen a dramatic shift in the strength of student work and their level of research and conceptual-aesthetic engagement.
One factor enabling this shift has been a course I teach in artistic game modification and interactive installation, Experimental 3D: Artgames & Media Sculpture. The course is indebted to Claudia Hart’s Virtual Installation course, and playFULL/playME, a course taught by artists Jon Cates and Ben Chang at SAIC. The course introduces artistic game modification and digital 3D interventions as a growing set of contemporary art practices with a pre-digital legacy growing out of 1960s and 70s media art. Through this course I’ve managed to harness student enthusiasm for collaborative game production and channel it into compelling interactive media artworks. I encourage students to re-examine their favorite game genre from a critical perspective, unpack its hidden narratives and build game-based work that somehow inverts traditional genre structures. The FPS, side-scroll platform, ‘roguelike’, or text-based adventure become raw materials for student artworks. Some students are interested in sidestepping genres entirely or using game engines to create musical instruments or non-interactive abstract generative artworks. In fall 2010, this course had produced the most mature work overall that I’ve seen a class create intwelve years as an artist educator, and I feel this was due to the exceptional degree of student engagement in critique.
In a series of still images for photographic prints, Stephen Fleming used game-building software to interrogate suburban architecture by subtly inserting a model of the Bates Motel into a gated community. (Figure 8 )
Donna Lord weaved highly personal poetic narratives within ASCII art for an interactive text-based installation. (Figure 9)
Peter Kusek engaged with abstraction, music and barcodes in an exploratory 3D environment made by hacking Sandbox, a game authoring environment for young game designers. (Figure 10)
Teaching in a Studio Arts Department alongside painting, sculpture, photography, printmaking and ceramics disciplines, has provided an important context for my instructional approach. I structure courses the way painting and sculpture courses are conducted. I present historical examples of relevant work to students; we discuss this work as a class in relation to the course topic, students perform independent research often into other artists whose work is relevant to their project, they work independently on projects while I circulate to provide one-on-one advice and assistance, we discuss the work in a group critique, and finally mount a public exhibition. Projects can be inspired by prompts, constraints or themes I provide, but the work is otherwise entirely the student’s own design. The majority of my time is spent meeting individually with students and conducting group critiques. Although I will assist with software or hardware issues where necessary, the technical means through which students achieve their work is de-emphasized. What matters is the resulting work, whether it is successful, in what ways it is or isn’t, and why.
A room full of computers and game production software carries powerful industry associations. For this reason I’ve found it necessary to openly address market pressure and the inherent biases of technology from the start. I describe the structure of the course explicitly to ensure that students are clear about context and expectations. I clarify that I’ve never worked in the media or game industry, nor do I have any interest or ability to teach industry pipelines or workflows, explaining that I am an independent artist who works with and is critical of technology, and that I don’t believe artists need powerful computers or fancy software skills to make great art. I also make it clear that there is an abundance of local technical colleges that teach current industry skills at a fraction of university course costs. As Claudia Herbst eloquently points out, such skill-based knowledge “has a built-in expiration date.” By contrast to an industry approach to pedagogy, I’m committed to fostering skills that never expire, such as independent critical thinking and command over a strong, distinctive artistic voice, irrespective of technical means.
During the Q&A at the CAA panel from which these essays emerged, media artist/curator/educator Michael Salmond remarked: “YouTube demos can teach students more about software and hardware than I ever could.” For this reason I point students to the wealth of technical resources available online and give a maximum of five technical demo mini-lessons per semester. Mini-lessons are student-centered, growing out of areas where I observe multiple students lacking the same important skill. When working one-on-one with students, I go more in-depth with technical issues if a student requests it, but otherwise I keep communication focused on how the work operates aesthetically.
My teaching approach is indebted to Lev Vygotsky, whose research helped to develop Constructivist learning theory. Constructivism contrasts traditional “transmission” theories of instruction, where information is transmitted to students who are inactive information-receivers. Vygotsky’s Constructivism operates from the premise that all knowledge is actively constructed by learners, and so-called “transmission” can never be the case. Effective long-term learning happens when learners are given full responsibility for the construction of their own knowledge at all stages of learning. The teacher takes the role of learning facilitator, allowing learners to actively construct understanding by providing what Vygotsky calls “scaffolding” to support progression toward complex and difficult concepts and skills that may be beyond their current capacity. Vygotsky refers to this as the learner’s “zone of proximal development.” Scaffolding temporarily increases this zone, and it is removed as soon as learners demonstrate the ability to construct their own scaffolding. In this process, a constant practice of “checking for understanding” is crucial for the facilitator. One-on-one meetings, group critiques and mini-lessons are activities in which I use scaffolding techniques on a daily basis.
Whether or not particular students are interested in pursuing careers as independent artists, the creative and critical tools they develop by learning how to work as independent artists will serve well in any career path. Creative industries are desperate for internally-motivated, independent learners and critical thinkers. I find increasing numbers of students interested in careers as independent artists enrolling in my New Media Art courses, and many others who realize they are interested in this way of working when they give it a try.
Last semester, one such student came to my office hours to discuss his future. He entered the New Media Art Major with the goal of eventually working for a game development studio. After my second 3D course he decided that such a career path would be too restrictive creatively. He sought my advice for how to work as an independent artist and teach media art. Digital 3D courses are attracting increasing numbers of graduate students and serious undergraduate painters, sculptors and photographers. I believe strongly in a student-centered classroom. However, capitulating to the many market pressures that bear upon media art students ultimately narrows the scope of an artist’s education. Bending to market pressure often means prioritizing technical mastery above depth of content, which does a disservice to students regardless of their ambitions.
1. Claes Oldenburg, Coosje Van Bruggen, Official Website. “Individual Biograpies”. http://oldenburgvanbruggen.com/biography/bios-individual.htm (accessed Jan 15, 2011).
2. Don Reisinger. (2010), “Call of Duty: Black Ops hits $1 billion milestone.” http://news.cnet.com/8301-13506_3-20026321-17.html (accessed Jan 15, 2011).
3. BBC News. (2009), “Games will ‘eclipse’ other media.” Retrieved January 13, 2011 from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7821612.stm (accessed Jan 15, 2011).
4. Coosje Van Bruggen, Claes Oldenburg: Mouse Museum / Ray Gun Wing (Rijksmuseum Kroller-Muller, 1979).
5. Claudia Herbst. (2011). “Can 3D Art Be Taught?” http://www.newmediacaucus.org/wp/media-n-journal/ (accessed Jan 15, 2011).
6. Lev Vygotsky, The History of the Development of Higher Mental Functions (New York: Plenum Press, 1987).
Shane Mecklenburger (MS.Ed, MFA) is an interdisciplinary artist working between media, sculpture, performance and installation. His projects examine valuation, conflict and identity in popular culture and art. He is Assistant Professor of Art & Technology at The Ohio State University.