Spotlight on UCIRA Artist Heather Logas: Experimental Game Design

15 May

What do Demosthenes, Wordsworth, and students in Heather Logas’s UCSC course in experimental game design have in common? Solitary walks! Art 146, offered this spring, asked students to examine not only the underlying assumptions involved in game-making, but how inspiration can be cultivated.

Among the strategies explored in the interdisciplinary course—comprised, Logas notes, of roughly half computer science majors and half art majors—was a thirty minute walk.  According to a student on the class blog, “the goal, was to seek places and things you normally wouldn’t think about, challenging the definition of what games are.”

Logas proposed only two rules: to be open to possibilities and to walk alone. In one sense, that’s the underlying framework of many of the digital games the students have grown up playing. As to actually taking a solitary walk—that, the blogger reported, was for her an unusual and somewhat challenging experience.

Logas, who is an MFA candidate in Digital Arts and New Media, describes herself as “a game designer and an artist who wants to take these two worlds and moosh them together.” Her own games specialize in allowing players to examine the reasons behind their responses. A player of her Before You Close Your Eyes can come to a seemingly tragic end, receive a score on their compassion and timidity, and find themselves revived and back on the road to the palace, armed perhaps with more awareness.

In addition to Mechanics ( “rules you play a game by” ), Dynamics (“things that happen as a result of the rules”), and Aesthetics (“the packaging, what the game looks like”), Logas told her class, game designers need to think about the thoughts and emotions they want their game to elicit from players.

To that end, classroom strategies included spider web maps representing all the associations that came to peoples’ minds when a particular word –“saw,” say—was mentioned.  Seeing the tangled pathways that emerged between physical objects, metaphorical actions and pop-cultural references (Texas Chain Saw!) gave students another way of viewing the multiple levels that may be involved in a game.  Or an artwork.

Logas’s current interest is what she calls “physical interfaces for digital games.” She’s not talking about joysticks. After watching a speech by Bernie DeKoven, a founder of the New Game Movement (an on-the-ground outgrowth of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalogue) and Junkyard Sports (using found and everyday objects like chalk and shopping carts) Art146 students went outside to devise games that embody DeKoven’s idea of “coliberation.” By that he means games which address the question of how to truly play with other people rather than merely playing with a game.

What did they come up with?  Students, Logas observed, were “rolling down hills, rhyming in circles,” as well as inventing an energetic form of charades in which a player not only had to communicate an idea to his teammates but get them to perform it.

The solitary walks inspired other games. Hunters and Prey (subtitled Logarithmic Dodge Ball) uses teams made up of two kinds of players—those who can only hunt and those who can only be hunted. What makes things more interesting are rules that limit the hunters’ options and permit prey to develop strategic collaborations.

In Shadow Cube, a solo player uses actual cubes and the sun to cast a shadow line in prescribed patterns. As the student blog reports: “Some designs were easy to achieve whilst others proved to be quite challenging.” Like the art-making strategies of Fluxus, a movement which included John Cage and Yoko Ono and which Logas cites as one of her inspirations, Shadow Cube directs players’ attention to the intricate interplay between plan and chance. A useful observation whether the subject is games, art, or life.

 

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

Spotlight on UCIRA Artist Sharon Daniel: Causes and Effects

10 May

The sound of silence in Sharon Daniel’s work is multi-toned. A woman details her life in a California prison sewing American flags for 55 cents an hour. A recovered addict turns the back streets of East Oakland into a photographic portrait of rutted asphalt and benign blue skies. The silence in Daniel’s decade’s worth of interrelated projects—Need X-Change, Blood Sugar, Undoing Time, and Golden Rule—is that of voices muffled. The silencers are poverty, abuse, discrimination, lack of education—and also public policy.

Daniel describes her role as that of ”context provider.” While using traditional documentary methods like filmed and printed interviews, she distributes tools—software, disposable cameras, walkmen, one-one-one instruction—she hopes will widen the public domain. Her aim is an internet that publishes the stories and perspectives of all members of society—as told by themselves.

One topic, closely examined, often leads to new perspectives on another. Need X-Change began with a demonstrated cause and effect: Disposable needles could significantly lessen an injected-drug user’s risk of catching or transmitting HIV. Working with participants in Casa Segura’s needle exchange program to record their thoughts and experiences, Daniel hoped to ensure the program’s continuance despite neighborhood fears and political resistance.

Their stories, however, pointed to a wider web of cause and consequence, including the revolving door by which addicts become inmates and inmates become addicts (explored in Blood Sugar), and the economic usefulness of an incarcerated population examined in Undoing Time (formerly titled Capitalist Punishment) and the upcoming Golden Rule.

In an introduction to Public Secrets–a work which like Undoing Time looks at the corporate use of prison labor—Daniel distinguishes between “secrets that are kept from the public,” and so called public secrets, those “secrets that the public chooses to keep safe from itself.” One such open secret is the widespread use of prisons to provide a cheap domestic labor force.

Offering inmates a chance to earn money while learning marketable skills sounds like a reasonable idea. Closer investigation reveals what Daniels calls an mushrooming, exploitative “security economy” in which, she writes, “private companies receive substantial tax incentives from state and local governments to establish facilities on prison sites and hire prison laborers who often work for less than a dollar a day.” It’s a powerful incentive, Daniel suggests, for acquiring ever more prisoners through harsher sentencing laws.

Recording inmates’ stories required another kind of secrecy. California has a media ban which makes it illegal for reporters to conduct face to face interviews with prisoners that are not monitored by prison officials. Daniel’s solution was to go undercover. Posing as a legal advocate, she spent five years interviewing women at Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) in Chowchilla, the largest female correctional facility in the United States.

Among the video portrait that emerge from the interviews, one—from Undoing Time—gives the phrase ‘draped in the flag’ a chilling twist. A sixty-one year old African-American woman sits half covered by one of the large American flags she spends much of her time sewing and lists the labels by which she has been systematically dismissed: “black girl,” “lesbian,” “drug addict,” “HIV positive.” As she talks, it becomes harder to connect the symbolic flag that’s so vigorously waved over political debates with the stiff, painstakingly stitched fabric that engulfs her. The labels too begin to seem insubstantial in the presence of this thoughtful, articulate person, sentenced to fifteen years for possession of 20 dollars worth of heroin, who works for a tiny fraction of America’s minimum wage.

It’s shocking when the woman first rips a star off the flag in her lap. Then a hopeful thought occurs. Perhaps, just as stitches can be undone, the tightly woven networks of abuse can begin to be dismantled.

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

Spotlight on UCIRA Artist Annie Loui: Blue Light

1 May

A dark opening in an overgrown hillside; the opportunity for a daring feat of discovery—these are near-irresistible lures in any century. In 2002 they proved fatal for Glenn and Nicholas Anderson, 18 and 23 year-old brothers who drowned while exploring an abandoned Orange County silver mine. Annie Loui, choreographer, director and UCI professor, moved to Silverado canyon not long afterward and learned about the accident, which occurred nearby, from neighbors. Eight years later Blue Light, Loui’s multimedia production inspired by the story, premiered at UCI Irvine’s Studio Theater.

Named for the mine where the accident took place, Blue Light turns a tragic but not infrequent statistic—nationwide, old mines had already claimed 11 lives that year –into an examination and evocation of the adventurous impulse. Loui’s production, designed with the help of Cornerstone Theater’s Greg Pacificar and UCI graduate student Adam Levine, is built around giant, high-definition projections of the Santa Ana mountains. They fill the stage and the invitation they hold out is visceral. Actors turned superheroes  leap joyously toward the looming boulders and steel themselves to face the unknown darkness. The script, written by novelist and UCI professor Michelle Latiolais, and based on interviews with family and friends of the brothers, portrays adolescents who are sensitive to the world around them, excited by their own potential, but still untested.

Loui wanted the images to be huge in order to convey the larger than life scale of the terrain she sees out her windows. She was drawn to the story, she says, “partially because it was part of the community I was moving into. But what I ended up realizing was also really attaching me to it was that I’m an adventurous person. I’ll head off into the mountains by myself. If I were their age I would have probably been going in right there with them. I think there’s a sense of exploring, and the limitless of life, and not really knowing where any boundaries are when you’re a teenager. It’s a certain youthful energy and a certain ability to take off into the unknown with absolutely no thought for the ramifications. “

Leaps into the unknown  are in some sense fundamental to Loui’s work.

Falling Girl (2008), a collaboration with Scott Snibbe, is an interactive animation of a girl falling gently from a skyscraper and the people she encounters in the building’s windows on her way down—a journey which transforms her from girl to old woman and includes the film’s viewers. In that piece, the point of contact between the girl and the animated spectators is virtual–-as it is between viewers and the adjacent screen which captures and incorporates their movements into the girl’s fall. In much of Loui’s work, though, the contact point is tactile.

As a dancer and teacher she uses the principles of Contact Improvisation, a now widely used dance practice first developed in the 1970s. Contact begins with a single point of touch and shared weight between partners and uses it as the fulcrum of a 360 degree sphere of improvised movement. In her 2009 book, The Physical Actor, Loui extends the practice to partners working with text in a traditional theatre setting and teaches it in UCI’s graduate acting program.

She explains: “In the way I teach Contact, it’s very much about the relationship between the two people, and the most important thing is the authenticity of the relationship. So every physical movement of energy and weight exchange has to be authentically followed through in real attentiveness to your partner.”

The next step is adding words. She says she usually starts with scenes like those in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ones with “really quick exchanges that happen to rhyme. You find that if you’re just speaking the language while you’re moving and the movement comes first, you start embodying a lot of the meaning of the text without intending to. You don’t try to act it out in any way, or act out a character. You start allowing the text to inform your movement.”

She finds the process is “very liberating for the actors. You can take it down to more realistic scenes and keep that same energy going. You might end up doing a Chekhov scene where you’re sitting in a parlor drinking tea, and you’re flipping people over your back, as you’re talking about when the doctor is coming and how the samovar is doing. If you’ve done this work, if you’ve just Contacted the scene, and then you take it down to realism, its much more charged, because the relationship is already physically established between the two people. So if somebody crosses their legs and looks at their watch, somebody else will turn their head and look out the window. There’s a really interesting reciprocity that starts to happen.”

In “Blue Light” she extended the practice even further: “The video was so enormous and overwhelming, I had people responding to the projection like a contact partner. There’s one section where the screen is showing somebody going up a gorge, and the actor is dealing with the screen, ducking and jumping as new things come up.”

In some ways that sense of untamed nature has been informing her work ever since Loui, raised in Saint Louis, relocated to Southern California from Boston in the early 1990s. “The Midwest where I grew up is agrarian,” she says, “and where I trained was in Europe where, as we know, it’s been settled for so many thousands of years that wilderness isn’t really an option. But here, particularly in California, I feel that wilderness is part of the manifest destiny model. You go West and there’s this ever-expansive horizon of possibility. And in some ways I have actually found this to be true.”

Another Day in Paradise,  which Loui created soon after her arrival, dramatized the war between the promoters of cookie-cutter suburban development—like Irvine Ranch’s Donald Bren—and the mythic California of open spaces and individual freedom. Both that piece and Blue Light, Louie explains, were in part attempts to come to terms with her own transcontinental leap into a new environment.

“I was in Boston enough time to feel the constraints.” she says.“ And I was married to a New Englander, so I was well ensconced in that whole aesthetic of New England as a territory as well as a cultural—well I won’t quite say Mecca, but as a long tradition.”

Orange County was very much another country. “I was absolutely horrified when I first moved here by the amount of development and the accepted artificiality of the landscape that was being superimposed on top of this wilderness. I think part of the way I’ve made peace with it is to begin to understand that some of what I thought was artificial is really California. Palm trees do grow right here. And part of it was to move up into a landscape that’s completely indigenous.”

California’s shifting mix of myth and reality was brought back to Loui during the research for Blue Light. Heard today, the name of the mine sounds romantic, suggesting the gleam of silver or the beckoning flicker of a will of the wisp.  Loui found otherwise. Cave-ins are a mine danger most people recognize, but with the last of the Silverado mine operations shuttered since the early 1950s, few area residents knew that a blue light was a traditional warning sign. It signaled that oxygen-sapping methane gas, often present in rock faults, had seeped into the shaft. The Anderson brothers were both strong swimmers, but rescuers found oxygen levels in the tunnels where they drowned to be fatally low.

Loui had the sad job of informing the boys’ mother that the mine’s danger had at some point been well known. At the same time she encountered the outrage of cave buffs who resented any forest service efforts to restrict mine entrance. These paradoxical pulls of risk and restraint—central to contemporary discussions of wilderness, and, it might be noted, to contact improvisation—are neatly caught in Michelle Latiolais’s script. Glenn Anderson speaks admiringly of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and its romantic protagonist. His friend thinks the boy was stupidly unprepared. Their English teacher suggests that Krakauer may invented some details—which “would not be an issue” if the book were fiction.

Blue Light’s use of real people and events was for Loui another venture into new territory. It was, she says, “like writing biography in a way. You want to stay as close to truth as you can, and honor everybody’s memory.” The boys’ family, she notes, was “outrageously supportive” and the sold–out run during the UCI theatre season brought out a lot of the Silverado community. “It ended up”, she says, “being a bit of a commemorative event.”

Still, she adds, “it’s an interesting line to walk.” Full of push and pull, or as Loui puts it: “There’s only a certain amount of license you can take. And, taking license is what makes things theatrically interesting.” What seems to be required is an ever-shifting balance.

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

Cauleen Smith: From Eclipse to Solar Flare

26 Apr

 

The boy in the cape appears out of a corner of the screen to run down the walkways of a public housing complex Another appears doing a loping walk-run on the grass. Once joined together, they’re no longer random oddballs. With instruments lifted and steps synchronized, they’ve become members of a spirited unit: The Solar Flare Arkestral Marching Band. The explosive jazz-funk piece the band is playing is “Where Pathways Meet,” a 1978 composition by Sun Ra, a former resident of the housing complex.

In the project formerly known as Eclipse—now morphing into several separately titled strands including the marching band appearances—filmmaker Cauleen Smith’s central concern is the Unidentified Flying Object that is cultural innovation. Specifically, black cultural innovation. Ultimately envisioned as the second of three film projects linked to historic hubs of African-American musical expression (New Orleans, Chicago, and Kansas City), Smith’s current work centers on jazz musician Sun Ra and the radical reshaping both he and his music underwent during the years 1945 to 1961 that he spent on Chicago’s South Side.

When Sun Ra traveled north from Alabama at the end of WWII he was thirty year old Herman ‘Sonny’ Blount, a jazz pianist and respected Birmingham band leader, He was also a conscientious objector who had spent time in both prison and conservation camps. By the time he died in 1993, he had been internationally celebrated (including a 1969 cover-of Rolling Stone) as a visionary composer and performer and an influential Afro-futurist.

Not only a pioneer of free jazz and electronic music, he was a showman whose Arkestra might contain two dozen musicians, singers, and dancers wearing anything from satin robes to beanies with lighted propellers on top. By the early 1950s he had also created an elaborate and enduring persona. By renaming himself after the Egyptian sun god and claiming to be a member of the Angel Race born on Saturn, he pulled questions of race out of confining stereotypes and into buoyant, imaginative space.

Tracing Sun Ra’s transformative Chicago years leads Smith to two streams of questions. One: What was it about that place and time that spurred Herman Blount to reinvent himself and his music. Two: How can similar artistic transformations take place today?

Next month at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Smith debuts a dual-screen projection inspired by her research in Chicago. Titled “A Seed is a Star,” it includes video portraits of the last living members of Sun Ra’s Arkestra, some of whom first played with him at Chicago’s Wonder Inn in 1960—gigs which saw the Arkestra’s first use of costume: capes and doublets acquired from a local opera company.

Over the past two years, Smith has produced flash mob touch-downs in other parts of the city, including Chinatown Square where the Rich South High School band, brilliantly uniformed in reds and blues, materializes before visibly intrigued onlookers to play Sun Ra’s “Space is the Place.“ This and other filmed appearances will be part of Smith’s installation at Chicago’s threewalls gallery opening in September 2012

Sun Ra, according to his biographer, said that his space-inspired costumes, began as a message, a sign to people “that there are other things outside their closed environment.” And, he stressed, other cultures. For Smith, the marching band appearances serve a similar purpose. Providing what she calls “fleeting ecstatic moments of visual and aural incongruence,” they are like otherworldly beings or inspiration itself, interrupting ordinary life and proposing a new patterns. What if the city were not just, as she writes, “grey and gritty,” but “awash” in sparkling brilliance. Not just a cluster of separate spheres, but an interdependent galaxy. Not just what we expect, but what we might imagine.

 

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

UCIRA Spotlight on Shahrokh Yadegari: Scarlet Stone

18 Apr

photo by Jim Carmody

A dazzling image emerges from Scarlet Stone, UCSD composer Shahrokh Yadegari’s fusion of music, dance, poetry, and interactive electronics. A long haired young man stands still, arms at his sides, as he is being slowly wrapped from the feet up in sheets of scarlet silk. The cloth flows from a bolt held by a woman in filmy black who declaims sonorous poetic cadences as she circles and immobilizes the anguished-faced youth.

In the ancient Persian story being told in Scarlet Stone, the young man, Sohrab—danced by Yadegari’s collaborator, French-Iranian choreographer Shahrokh Moshkin-Ghalam—is dying from a wound inflicted by his father. But another tale is being spun as well. In Yadegari’s version—based on a poem by the 20th century Iranian writer Siavash Kasrai and performed by members of the contemporary Iranian diaspora—storytellers and their subjects are engaged in a continuous dance. A hero is wrapped in the fabric of one era only to be set free to illuminate another—an image brought alive by the buoyant unfurling of the silk as Moshkin-Ghalam, left alone on the stage, whirls and whirls.

Like stories and storytellers, politics and culture are the warp and weft of Scarlet Stone. The story of Sohrab and his father Rostam was first written in Shahnameh (Tale of Kings) by the poet Ferdowsi at the end of the ninth century. Muslims had successfully invaded the kingdom of Persia two centuries earlier, and Arabic had become the dominant language. In collecting and turning into verse the tales of fifty mythic and historic kings of Persia—an enterprise that took Ferdowsi more than thirty years—he succeeded not only in creating a national epic, but in preserving the Persian language for continuing generations.

In Ferdowsi’s telling, the hero-king Rostam is wooed and seduced by the daughter of a neighboring king. She intends that their child be a force to bring their peoples together, but events conspire to separate the lovers. In time her son grows into a great warrior and is sent to battle against Rostam. The father does not recognize his son, and Sohrab receives a fatal blow

Poet Siavash Kasrai was born in 1927, two years after the Pahlevi regime took power. A leftist, he welcomed the end of the shah’s rule in 1979 but later was driven to leave the country. Mohre-ye Sorkh (Scarlet Stone), was the last poem Kasrai wrote before dying in Vienna in 1996. In his version of the ancient story, Sohrab confronts the poet Ferdowsi, demanding to know why his murderer-father seems to be the hero of the tale and what meaning his own death has in the face of his and his mother’s hopes of peace and brotherhood.

For Yadegari, Kasrai’s  poem remains a pertinent commentary on present events. Writing about his own Scarlet Stone which has been in production since the 2009 uprising in Iran, he notes: “For many years, the only option for defining a structural basis for a social or political movement was either leaning towards the left or the right. We feel the current movements in Iran, where all sections of people have come together to voice their desire for peaceful reform and freedom, are a living example of what Kasrai has presented in this work.”

One striking portrayal of changes that have already come: The roles of Ferdowsi and that of a modern storyteller in Yadegari’s production are both played by a woman, Fatemeh Habibizad (a.k.a. Gordafarid). Habibizad is recognized as modern Iran’s first female Naqqal, the name given to the professional storytellers who have, in the centuries following Ferdowsi’s writing of Shahnameh, recited its tales to rapt audiences in king’s courts and village coffeehouses—the latter, especially, a traditional male preserve.

When Habibizad as Ferdowsi in Scarlet Stone tells Sohrab that he is both responsible for his own fate and a hero to others, a story begun with the ancient oral traditions that were Ferdowsi’s sources, and shaped for the needs of fresh audiences by generations of Naqqali and poets, spirals up and outward like the scarlet silk on the performance stage. An unbroken line in a new figure.

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Ariel Swartley
San Pedro, CA
aswartley@att.net

Adam Tinkle: The Universal Language Orchestra of Spring Valley CA

3 Apr

Music may be a universal language, but the music made by the Universal Language Orchestra of Spring Valley CA is deliberately designed to emerge from the specifics of time and place. Among those specifics—the contemporary existence of cheap electronics; San Diego County’s network of recreation centers; and the region’s long tradition of visionary eccentrics.

If the orchestra has a spiritual godfather it’s probably Harry Partch, the maverick American composer, instrument designer, lover of found language, and student of universal myth, who spent the last decade of his life in and around San Diego. ULO creators—UCSD Music Department graduate student Adam Tinkle along with Bonnie Whiting Smith, Joe Marigilio, and others—believe like Partch, that instruments exist to serve musicians and not the other way around.

Orchestra players may or may not have musical experience. The 8 to 12 year olds who attend once-a-week ULO classes in the Spring Valley Community Center, begin not with traditional scales but by customizing their personal instruments. One that Tinkle is especially proud of is an electro-acoustic kalimba, which, he claims, “to our knowledge, bests all extant designs for a portable, amplifiable, user-customizable, and inexpensive musical instrument.”

The kalimba’s parts cost less than ten dollars, and the wiry keys are made from straightened hairpins (a green enterprise some girls particularly appreciated: providing new life for outmoded fashion accessories.) An introductory session is spent adjusting the length of the wires with a teacher’s help to create a range of pitches the student chooses. The next step: using music to tell a story.

The sound of rain is particularly prized in dry San Diego, and it’s the dominant note in the ULO opera students and teachers created last fall from a resonant piece of local history. A mile and a half south of the Center’s now suburban location the Sweetwater Reservoir was built in the 1880s as a hedge against the area’s frequent droughts. In early 1916 tradition reversed. Rainfall was so heavy that the Sweetwater dam failed, and countywide flooding washed away miles of railroad track and whole communities. Ironically, a month earlier the city of San Diego had hired local rainmaker Charley Hatfield whose experiments with chemical evaporations had produced results and testimonials from Texas to Tujunga. But the city, fearing lawsuits after the flood, refused to pay Hatfield, claiming the rains either weren’t his doing or weren’t covered by his contract.

For storm effects ULO players relied on recycled vegetable cans filled with rice or dried beans, sections of steel conduit of assorted lengths mounted on wood blocks—referred to as  metallophones—and plastic tubing restyled as didgeridoos. The performance, recorded at UCSD studios in December, was spirited and also underscored the project’s point: creativity like rain arises from a number of factors working in concert.

New sound-makers, too, may arrive at any moment. The ULO practicum offered at UCSD this spring focuses on alternative musical instrument design. In addition to touring a banjo factory and exploring signal processing, its students will draft their own innovative instruments as well as help Spring Valley children build their orchestra parts.

But the underlying purpose of ULO is less DIY than what Whiting Smith described as “a system in which the creativity and being of each individual is valued and collaboration between those individuals is essential.” Coming again this June under ULO’s aegis, is the Spring Valley Center’s Intergenerational jazz camp—a one week intensive led by saxophonist Tinkle. The faculty includes an undergraduate and a graduate student, a middle school bandleader, a retired teacher, and a former New Orleans musician. If a flood of never-before-heard-sounds inundates the area—so much the better.

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

SOTA: Report Back: Alternative Pedagogies and Uses of the University

29 Mar

SOTA: Report Back: Alternative Pedagogies  and Uses of the University

UCSD’s Sixth College Conference

Education in Action: Mobilizing the Next Generation for Social Reform

January 26, 2012

by Kim Yasuda (UCIRA Co-Director)

http://sixth.ucsd.edu/experiential-learning-conference/#more

A day-long event of concurrent panels hosted by UCSD’s Sixth College proposed numerous case studies in undergraduate and graduate education emerging out of the UCSD campus.  Cross-cutting “experiential learning’ projects from the arts, design, planning, education, media studies, STEM, social sciences and business contributed to thought sessions under an array of thematic frames, such as Public Dialogue, Digital Literacy, Global Education as well as Student Development, Business Opportunity and Campus-Community Collaboration.  Regardless of discipline, the integral role of the arts featured prominently throughout the presentations.

The conference was an outgrowth of the Sixth College Practicum ((http://sixth.ucsd.edu/) and its collaboration with campus and community partners. With close to 1,000 students engaged yearly, Sixth College Practicum promotes “civic engagement and global consciousness, satisfying general education requirements through alternative, innovative projects”.

Particularly striking and atypical of most academic conferences was the degree to which the student agency was valued as a critical part of the discourse.  Student-lead activism guides the work of Sixth College community and this was evident in the mixed panel sessions in which students, faculty, administrators and community members presented as co-investigators in research, repurposing the academic space as we know it and desperately need to rethink it.

Student presence was a primary goal for lead conference organizers, Sixth College Acting Provost and Professor of Mathematics, James Lin, Practicum Director and Diane Forbes , Director of Academic Programs, Liz Losh and Associate Director, Eliza Slavet.

The youngest of UCSD’s six college divisions, Sixth College was established in 2001 as a “21st century pedagogy” and alternative to “disciplined studies of the previous millennium”. Sixth College curriculum was designed to arm students with a distinctive skill-set in “self knowledge, technical know-how, interpersonal skills and cultural awareness” to become “effective global citizens who engage creatively and ethically with the complex issues facing the world”.

Experiential learning strategies emerging from Sixth College address the pressing need for larger institutional change on the part of the university to invest its intellectual capital beyond campus borders. Whether local or global, conceptions of classroom learning took place within vastly expanded fields, with students actively engaged in the broad and complex arena of public culture. Projects highlight student-centered research that confront emerging questions around the efficacy of current learning models in higher education, especially at a large public research university, pressed to educate its increasing and diverse California population.

Sixth College has undertaken its own ‘repurposing’ of UCSD’s existing academic structures and resources into more relevant instructional strategies. Through the College’s unique co-curricular programs, undergraduate students are encouraged to think nimbly across disciplines, while becoming “more engaged innovators within an ever-expanding global arena”.  For example, to address campus GE requirements, Sixth College Practicum courses have been combined under the CAT: Culture, Art+Technology program (http://cat.ucsd.edu/). CAT curriculum fulfills the basic writing requirement for graduation from UCSD, while providing a more relevant foundation for students to gain “an understanding of society in an integrated, interdisciplinary way”. Discussion sections of each course in the CAT program are led by graduate students from many different departments to encourage interdisciplinary discussion. Faculty are also recruited to CAT from across the disciplinary spectrum (anthropology, communication, history, literature, music, philosophy, sociology, visual arts, etc.).

As part of its expanded mission, the CAT learning model tackles research questions such as “In the 21stCentury, how do we shape the world and how does it shape us? What are the ethical questions raised by designed objects, environments and interactions? How do cultures manage change? How far back in time should we look? What forms of production and consumption do we take for granted in contemporary life? How do new solutions sometimes create new problems?”  These lines of inquiry shape CAT curriculum, programs and activities.

ARTiffact Gallery, housed in the public spaces in and around the offices of Academic programs at Sixth College, showcases works conceptually related to the courses in the CAT program.  Currently on exhibition this winter is Mapping Occupations, “an exhibition that explores our preoccupations with space through the practices of mapping, diagramming, modeling and speculating. The exhibit, curated by Associate Director, Eliza Slavet, features the work of UCSD arts faculty, Teddy Cruz, cog-nate Collective, Matthew Hebert, High Tech Media Arts program, David Kim, Stephanie Lie, The Periscope Project, Hermione Spriggs and Patricia Stone

With the support of a second UCIRA art-science planning grant for its curricular launch in the CAT program next year, “Something from Nothing: Audacious Speculations in Art, Science and Entrepreneurialism” CAT 3is a teaching-research initiative to explore “connections, overlaps and productive tensions” between conceptual/activist art, scientific research and business.

CAT program director, Liz Losh, recently appointed to UCIRA’s system wide advisory board, came to UCSD in 2010 to assume her interdisciplinary appointment as faculty and director of academic programs for Sixth College.  Teaching in 3 departments (Literature, Visual Arts, and Communications), Losh’s own research investigates multiple vectors across digital humanities, public culture, offering theoretical reflection on the role of democracy and new media.  Losh’s commitment to alternative pedagogies and creative practice translates effectively between her roles as researcher, program administrator and faculty member.

A interview with Liz Losh will be featured in an upcoming post of UCIRA’s SOTA blogpost.


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