University of Washington, DXARTS

Summer 2010: v.06 n.01: 2010 CAA Conference Edition, 2010

James Coupe
University of Washington, DXARTS Center for Digital Art and Experimental Media

Fig 1: DXARTS Logo

Fig 1: DXARTS Logo

What is the role of a PhD thesis for artists? Certainly it seems to be the case that an advanced qualification in Art is not required in order to have a successful career as an artist. A PhD is therefore not for everyone, and even then people will have a variety of motivations for wanting to do one.

Fig 2: DXARTS Offices / Labs, University of Washington

Fig 2: DXARTS Offices / Labs, University of Washington

At the heart of this issue is the assertion that artistic knowledge is a particular type of intellectual and academic knowledge, and that it has value equivalent to that in other fields. Therefore, a PhD student in art can contribute original findings to both their own discipline, as well as to other disciplines. As universities (and society in general) become increasingly committed to interdisciplinary approaches to problem-solving, artists thereby come to the fore, as capable of synergizing widely varied fields. For artists, the relationship between engineering and computing may be very obvious, for example. Yet for engineers and computer scientists, this is a fairly recent interdisciplinary development.

Fig 3: DXARTS Warehouse, Seattle

Fig 3: DXARTS Warehouse, Seattle

One of the features of the University of Washington’s Center for Digital Art and Experimental Media (DXARTS) is its focus on studio practice. The mantra is to practice your theory – i.e. the artistic knowledge referred to above manifests itself in actual works of art rather than in text and theoretical documents. For us, this is key to the assertion of artistic knowledge as PhD-worthy – experimentation occurs through the work itself, and discoveries are fundamentally bound up within it. For example, considering the idea of a “research question”: should this be something that begins as a textual statement, or something that finds expression within a series of art works? The value of translating between work and description is clear, but we feel it is important to maintain a hierarchy between the two.

Fig 4: James Coupe, (re)collector, 2007

Fig 4: James Coupe, (re)collector, 2007

DXARTS emerged from a variety of highly specific institutional factors, which determined things such as budgets, faculty responsibilities, relationship with other departments and available resources. Unlike many similar programs, DXARTS is an autonomous academic unit that is not a subset of a School of Art, Music or Engineering. It was established as a flagship for interdisciplinary creativity within the UW, and this gives our students enormous freedom when interacting with other, more traditional departments across campus. The structure of these interactions and affiliations shape the program. For example, DXARTS has a very strong collaborative relationship between art and music, leading to methodological experiments with, for instance, the use of counterpoint in visual art and the use of interactivity and space in musical performance.

Fig 5 Juan Pampin, Entanglement, 2008

Fig 5 Juan Pampin, Entanglement, 2008

To address the questions raised by Jessica Walker, the chair of the panel “New Media/New Terrain: Pioneering a PhD in Creative Research.” I’ve outlined the logistical parameters of the University of Washington’s DXARTS PhD program. Walker’s questions were directed toward advancing knowledge about contemporary issues within creative art research and how programs are structured to meet the needs of artists who are both producers in the studio and researchers who contribute to academic scholarship.

Fig 6: Nicolas Varchausky, SPK, 2009

Fig 6: Nicolas Varchausky, SPK, 2009

Faculty and students at DXARTS may focus their work in a particular area of experimental arts or they may pursue areas of creative research that incorporate multiple disciplines that may or may not be aligned with a particular kind of media. Five research areas have been established to structure work by the technology that is employed or the outcomes produced:

  • Visual Synthesis: Film, spatial imaging, machine vision, virtual reality, HD cinema, stereo imaging, 3D modeling, real-time digital video synthesis, graphics, effects, motion capture
  • Aural Synthesis: Computer music, digital signal processing, ambisonics, ultrasound
  • Algorithmic Processes: Computer programming, database/interface art, hybrid gaming systems, dance/performance
  • Sensing and Control Systems: Haptics, robotics, mechatronics, circuit design, fabrication, interactive installation, performance
  • Telematics: Telerobotics, telepresence, bioart, remote performance systems
Fig 7: Philomene Longpre, Cereus, 2009

Fig 7: Philomene Longpre, Cereus, 2009

The BFA program at DXARTS has been established for six years and typically has fifty fulltime students enrolled within a given academic year. The application process is highly competitive with twelve students being accepted each year. Undergraduates must enroll in prerequisite courses within other academic departments prior to being accepted into the DXARTS program. Prerequisites include completion of physics, math, art/music history and computer science course work. Unlike a typical undergraduate program, DXARTS students undergo five years of study where they specialize in video, sound, 3-D or mechatronic art.

Fig 8: Shawn Brixey, Chimera Obscura, 2002

Fig 8: Shawn Brixey, Chimera Obscura, 2002

The PhD program at DXARTS has been established for five years and typically has 15 fulltime candidates enrolled within a given academic year. It has been standard practice for 1 to 3 PhD candidates to be offered admission into the program each year. The PhD student body reflects a 50:50 gender parity and is highly diverse in terms of cultural makeup. Students from Poland, Greece, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, USA, UK, Korea, China and Japan have graduated of are currently enrolled in the DXARTS PhD program. PhD students receive a tuition waver and four year stipend upon admission, making DXARTS a highly sought-after destination for emerging artists and scholars. In addition to funding, PhD students have the opportunity to develop professional teaching experience through TA and RA roles.

Fig 9: Stelios Manousakis, Fantasia on a Single Number, 2009

Fig 9: Stelios Manousakis, Fantasia on a Single Number, 2009

In keeping with traditional PhD research strategies while also allowing hybrid methodologies to emerge, DXARTS has developed an innovative structure for its PhD students. The program is a total of five years and is a combination of student-defined research portals and program-defined projects. The five years are structured as follows:

  • Year 1: Classes at DXARTS and across the University to fit own research interests, PhD research seminar
  • Year 2: Continue classes across the University to fit own research interests, PhD research seminar, Qualifying Exam
  • Year 3/4: Develop specialized projects, Form a PhD committee, General Exam
  • Year 4/5: Dissertation Project, Defense, Thesis
Fig 10: Richard Karpen, Aperture, 2006

Fig 10: Richard Karpen, Aperture, 2006

Interestingly, the relationship of a new media PhD program with scientific fields is perhaps a point of tension. Although this may change over the next few years, from a research perspective, the sciences are working according to very different funding models than the arts. The temptation may be there to attempt to leverage new media art’s association with computing and engineering in order to tap into some of those science-based funding models. However, again, here it is important to assert the uniqueness of artistic knowledge: we are not trying to be scientists, rather we should assert the value of taking an interdisciplinary approach inside fields that often share similar tools, but differing methodologies. At that point, we may successfully extract art from its research ghetto and find more universal value for its endeavors, justifying the importance of a PhD in the field at the same time.

Fig 11: James Coupe, The Difference Engine, 2005

Fig 11: James Coupe, The Difference Engine, 2005