Digital Photography
Alternative Digital Print
Introduction to digital arts



Dena Elisabeth Eber



As digital media continues to advance along with the expectations of the consuming public, there is greater pressure on students in the discipline to keep up with technological change. My goal as a Digital Arts professor is to teach in a way that helps my students balance the technological challenges of our discipline with the need to create expressive works of art. By artistic expression I mean using visual, and in some cases audio tools to communicate multilayered and meaningful ideas that are aesthetically coherent. This is not an easy task, as many students often get lost in the sea of software functions and special effects that the computer graphics industry constantly feeds us. Students also often lose sight of their artistic purpose when they become focused on a specific career, ironically making them less suited for their goal since corporations desire creative artists with not only skill, but also insight and originality. Thus my primary goal is to help students tap their creative and artistic potential using digital art tools in support of their ideas and technical goals. I encourage concept development in classes, support the use of new technologies in the service of art and develop curriculum that nurtures experimentation while embracing the digital arts discipline. I believe this approach helps my students build an identity in digital arts that helps them build a creative community in their discipline and in the art world, while my curricular innovations help my colleagues in the discipline with same issues of creating unity.

One way that I promote artistic expression is through embedding concept into all assignments, from the advanced studio to the beginning technical exercise. For example in a beginning digital arts class, I asked students to create the “digital self” in a portrait that included, in addition to creating images on the screen, source photos, paintings or objects. I asked them to connect the objects and photos to their identity within a virtual digital realm, decipher techniques that integrate other source material into the digital environment and seamlessly combine them to make new images. Students not only solved numerous technical problems, but also reflected on how they see themselves in digital landscapes and how they represent such ideas to make visually and formally compelling images using objects, photos, digital painting and collage. Students cared about their artwork because they were telling stories about their digital identity. To open up their exploration I gave a variety of readings and showed examples of art created by digital artists and works in other media that supported the concept.

In more advanced classes I encourage expressiveness by assigning themes that require interpretation, and at the same time, I ask students to work with a variety of advanced techniques. For example, I asked students in an advanced digital photography class to create fabricated pictures in order to manipulate the concept of photographic truth. As part of the “Fauxtography and Fabrication using High End Digital” assignment, students were asked to read theoretical texts that defined and questioned the notion of photographic truth, as well as to investigate artists who use this concept in their work. Additionally, students learned advanced imaging techniques, including the use of high-end professional cameras. In some cases, students presented images that did not appear to be manipulated, but actually were and, as a result, played with the need for a physical referent of an image, supporting the idea that the conceptual truth or agenda behind the image was just as important and convincing as having a real world representation of the image. In other cases students blatantly showed their digital manipulation, expressing an opinion about the need to expose the image construction process by revealing the manipulation to viewers. Ultimately, students not only learned advanced techniques, but also creatively interpreted concepts related to photographic and digital truth.

Another facet of my teaching is to embrace new technologies and to understand and apply them to serve artistic goals. More often than not, this means using the technologies in ways that run counter to their initial inception. For example, I instructed my advanced imaging class to investigate the social networking site Second Life (SL) as a source for artistic inspiration and as an exhibition space. Part of this assignment included an analysis of what SL could provide that was unique, both in the art making process and in the display of their work. Part of the digital arts discipline includes artistic responses to popular digital culture and requires an in depth grasp of how technologies are being used. Many of our students graduate to work on graphics for applications and devices that have not been invented yet, and in some cases are inventing them. This includes a student who started a multi-million dollar company for online virtual world training tools to students who create mobile device applications or who work to help create the next generation of movie and gaming graphics. Teaching sensitivity to contemporary digital trends is essential for understanding and creating new trends, which influenced the student who now creates virtual training tools. The same understanding of trends and creative original thinking also aided my students now in the gaming and animation industry. In further understanding and applying new technologies, digital arts students also help define the aesthetics of new tools that are later disseminated into other disciplines, such as photography and printmaking, consequently feeding the overall continuum of possibilities in art. This is especially apparent in my students who have gone on to teach in universities and who are working in hybrid areas to help bring digital possibilities to other disciplines.

It is one thing to be aware of the new digital technologies and to know how to make them work, but it is another to grasp the implications of their use, not only in the arts, but also by the consuming public. This is essential to discovering creative uses for new media and to use such creative potential to make artistic comments about the medium. To help my students keep up with innovation I am a member of professional societies such as SIGGRAPH and the International Digital Media and Arts Association (IDMAA). I also take part in learning communities at BGSU, which help me explore in depth some of the new technologies I use in my advanced imaging class such as podcasting and SL. I presented the achievements of this learning community at SEED, a regional conference about such organizations.

A curriculum that is both flexible enough to embrace new technologies and also grounded sufficiently to infuse solid art principles into these technologies provides digital arts students with greater opportunities to grow. As new technologies and trends emerge and the focus and core of digital arts shifts, to facilitate an optimal learning experience, I constantly evaluate and update the overall course offerings and the specific content of some courses. The curriculum my colleagues and I developed includes the overall shift from general digital competency and basic 3D animation to a more sophisticated application of a larger tool sets to include artistic games, a broad understanding of imaging, more flexibility in specialty areas and more opportunities to fully develop short animations, to name a few. The digital arts curriculum under my leadership now has three major areas of focus: imaging; 3D animation and modeling; and interactive applications. A fourth focus, digital video, applies across all three areas. Students may choose to study a combination of these or to focus in one. Included in this mix is a new contemporary issues course allowing instructors in digital arts to create course content that addresses the artistic application of an emerging technology at both the intermediate and advanced level. I was a major player in developing this flexible approach and I will continue to update the curriculum as our field demands.

Among many courses I developed over the years, two courses that address the changing role of digital arts and have strong links to my creative work are photography for digital artists and alternative digital print. Both were part of our program’s generic digital arts classes since its inception. As the aesthetics of digital imaging developed, the need to tease out specific applications became pressing. Both courses began as special topics classes and, as I developed them, my colleagues and I agreed they should become permanent offerings in digital arts. Photography for digital artists uses the disciplinary aesthetics of photography to place photography within the digital imaging continuum. Starting with the history and aesthetics of photography, students investigate ways in which digital tools change or do not change the way we create, consume and ultimately interpret contemporary digital photographs.

Alternative digital print is a course that starts with the digital print, a place that is often the endpoint in digital imaging. Students investigate ways to realize their digital images as products that combine traditional and digital art practices. Combining digital and traditional processes elicits unique outcomes that, because they are still part of the digital realm, can be artistically embraced within established aesthetics of digital imaging. I developed this course to challenge the students to make appropriate choices about traditional and digital processes that support their ideas and to encourage finely tuned experimentations with multiple media and new combinations of materials. The course also serves to broaden the students’ ideas about the reach of digital applications in the larger art continuum.

In my approach to graduate teaching I apply the same three principles of keeping concept central in art, embracing new technologies in the service of art and creating forward thinking curriculum. However, with graduate students I tailor these ideas to meet the more focused and specific goals of their studies. I expect and help develop a more focused individual vision that we progressively build on over their tenure in the graduate program. Because the digital arts discipline is relatively new, we have students come to graduate school with artistic maturity, but lacking technical skills or conversely, we have students from industry with technical skills but deficient in artistic or expressive sophistication. I use our 5000 level classes, which are often taught with our 4000 level classes, as a way for such students to gain proficiency in lacking areas while still developing their stronger abilities. Together we develop an individualized plan of study that allows these students to work more in depth towards a specific artistic style and voice (something conceptual and aesthetic that marks each artist) while adapting the necessary parts of the 4000 level course when it is appropriate. At the 6000 level I nurture the same focus developed in the 5000 level courses to perfect technique and vision in preparation for their MFA exhibitions, work in industry, work as a college professor or success as an independent artist. The rich complexity in skill and voice is apparent in their resulting work.

Digital technology changes so quickly that even Moore’s law (that the number of transistors that can be placed on an integrated circuit doubles every 18 months, thus doubling our computing power and the capabilities of it) will soon be obsolete as our hardware shifts from integrated circuit technology to new paradigms, including nanotechnology. With this shifting technological landscape comes a changing digital arts world and this creates an ongoing challenge for teachers in the discipline. We need to constantly investigate new technologies to not only understand how to use them, but to grasp the larger implications of their applications so we may aptly apply them to class art projects. My teaching philosophy is about keeping the idea, depth and artistic expression embedded in all new technology-inspired art, to encourage experimentation so students may arrive at ways to apply new media to art and to constantly provide a curricular framework that makes all this possible. As the tools of my discipline change, I will continue to merge solid foundations in art with yet to be developed digital aesthetics.

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