Foundations of Digital Art and Design: A Q&A with Designer and Educator xtine burrough
Peachpit: How do you think modern digital tools such as Adobe Creative Cloud have influenced design? What are the positives and negatives of access to these digital tools?
xtine burrough: As you suggest, there are advantages and disadvantages to the ubiquity of digital tools for artists and designers. On the plus side, it’s not too expensive or exclusive for those who want to start a digital art or design studio in their own home. Aside from the cost of starting a studio, the tools are not too difficult to learn to use. And of course, digital tools render copying, pasting, and revision easier tasks than they were in the days of analog production. But all of this comes at the price of perception and value. When design was an exclusive activity—one in which mastery seemed to require countless finger cuts by the unforgiving X-Acto knife—outsiders valued the specialty of the craft. Now some people seem to think that applications such as Photoshop or Illustrator “create” designs, when in fact it’s people who still need to do the hard work of brainstorming and executing an idea from start to finish. I often begin my foundations class with the reminder that even though we all have some type of word processing software on our home computers, very few write the great American novel.
Peachpit: As a teacher in a university setting, you understand the needs of both teachers and students. What need is your book fulfilling for both teachers and students?
xtine: This is one of my favorite questions because I spend a lot of time trying to fulfill the needs of my students and myself (and by correlation, other educators). I think both educators and students need the same guidance: an organized plan for teaching foundational materials that relate principles and history to the practical act of creating. In my experience, students place a greater emphasis on the practical skills (this is addressed in the exercises throughout the book). However, educators understand that these skills should not be taught or learned in isolation. The hardest thing to “sell” to students is the idea that learning where to find inspiration—namely from those who came before them— is just as important as mastering digital tools. This in turn puts a great value on reading and learning about art and design history, and on understanding not just “how” to create, but to consider “why” decisions are made in the creative process. I included as much inspiration in the book as I could to express this shared territory with design production and history or principles. I hope this helps fulfill the needs of educators to teach classes that are often labeled as “software classes” or “skills courses” in a manner that brings a rich dialog to the classroom and escapes the burden of those nasty, one-dimensional labels. Well known artists and designers who donated images for the book include the new media duo Thomson and Craighead, graphic designers Sagmeister and Walsh, web design companies such as 2pxborder, and historical images from Eastman Kodak and the National Gallery of Art.
Peachpit: Higher education seems to be on the precipice of rapid evolution, if not revolution, due to the converging forces of technology (eBooks, virtual classrooms) and economic forces (the rapid rise in the cost of a university education combined with a sluggish economy). How do you see education changing at your school, and what are you predictions for the future of higher education?
xtine: I teach at a California State University campus. We are the largest university system in the country, which means that there is some motivation to be revolutionary and a lot of red tape hindering truly unique ideas. Our campus is participating in Cal State Online, a program that enables students returning to higher education to fulfill their degree in an accredited, completely online program. I have not yet become involved in this effort (our pilot program just began and it happened to be stemming from the Business College), but I hope to do so soon. I see these types of affordable, online and/or distance learning programs as a normalized part of a student’s educational experience. Beyond this, I can imagine a time when students can cherry-pick from online courses available via programs around the globe in order to create their own programs of study. The potential for a student to have so much autonomy and selection really excites me. With that in mind, I also feel strongly that community and socialization opportunities are essential for growing, young adults—in both virtual and face-to-face arenas.
Peachpit: Your online biography says, in part:
“Informed by the history of conceptual art, she uses social networking, databases, search engines, blogs, and applications in combination with popular sites like Facebook, YouTube, or Mechanical Turk, to create web communities promoting interpretation and autonomy.”
Can you tell us more about these web communities and give us some examples of what you’re working on?
xtine: Well, for the past year or so I’ve been working on this book, ha! Past projects, such as Delocator.net, the Mechanical Olympics, and Let’s Go Crazy fit the quote you’ve pulled above. Each of those projects were created for, or “took place on” the web.
Delocator fostered a community of café-goers who prefer independently owned shops to corporate stores (such as Starbucks). I developed this project in 2005, before Yelp and before there were loads of mash-ups all over the web. So for a little while there it was widely used and unique in its approach to bringing folks together in order to develop a free-to-use database of independently owned stores.
The Mechanical Olympics is an online, alternative version of the Olympic Games, played out between the Mechanical Turk website and YouTube. Starting just before the 2008 Summer Games I hired workers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk website to create videos of performances of Olympic events. I encouraged my virtual workers to get creative when performing their athletic events and use any type of props to stand in for athletic equipment. The videos were posted to YouTube, and for the first two versions of the alternative Games they were then hosted on a blog where anyone could vote for the Mechanical Olympics gold medal winners. In later versions of the Mechanical Olympics (in the summer of 2012 and alternate versions of the Mechanical Games developed specifically for new media festivals) the blog was no longer necessary as voters could make their opinions known using the Like button on YouTube. For this project, the virtual community on the Mechanical Turk website was my target for intervention. Rather than have them perform typical Mechanical Turk tasks (sorting images or key words, for instance), I wanted them to think creatively about their own interpretations of what the Olympics might look like.
Let’s Go Crazy was a response to the Lenz v. Universal case. Lenz’s young son Holden was published in a video posted to YouTube, dancing to the minimally audible song, “Let’s Go Crazy,” by Prince. Universal Music Group (UMG) requested that YouTube send Lenz a takedown notice (which they did) based on the premise that Lenz’s use of the song was a copyright infringement. Lenz countered that her use of the song was protected by the fair use clause. When YouTube did not report the video after two weeks’ time Lenz was ready to take action with legal support from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The video was reposted after six weeks. At this time, I presented this case to my students as a learning opportunity about fair use, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), and user-generated content (UGC). As a final assignment, I suggested that students remix Lenz’s original video or create a parody of the video using their own actors to publish as a “video comment” on Lenz’s video. At that time (around 2008) a video comment required that the original YouTube user approved publication. Before half of the class posted their comments Stephanie Lenz made contact with my students to learn about their work. My students interviewed Stephanie and I continued to assign a remix or paradoxical video “comment” for the next several years as a way of expressing solidarity with the case. Other educators and their classes also added to the bank of remixed videos so Prince and UMG not only had Stephanie Lenz’s video to frown at, but the additional remixes of her video on YouTube. (Many of the videos can be seen on a playlist I curated on YouTube, but I noticed recently that YouTube no longer shows the video responses on Lenz’s page.) The last time I viewed the response page it included more than 100 videos.
Peachpit: You have a significant portion of your book devoted to digital manipulation and fair use, and recently you collaborated with Genelle Belmas on a presentation about rethinking fair use. Can you explain why you think the current legal definition of fair use is problematic? Can you tell us more about your class video assignment relating to Lenz vs. Universal Music Corp?
xtine: I guess I answered some of this question in the description of Lenz v. Universal above, but I can expand on why the current system is problematic. My primary area of concern (and I have to thank both Dr. Belmas and Dr. Emily Erickson, with whom I published an article about teaching the Lenz v. Universal case, for helping me to understand a lot of the legalese that would have been lost on me in the law review articles) is for web users who publish user-generated content (UGC) with fair use in mind. Sites hosting this type of media—YouTube, Facebook, Flickr, and others—are guided by the Digital Millennial Copyright Act (DMCA). As a result, users agree to a policy either actively (by pressing a simple “I agree” type of button) or passively (by uploading to the site the user agrees not to infringe on copyright protected materials). Takedown notices are superfluous because large companies that own remixable popular media (music, television, and movie production companies, for instance) use web crawlers to find suspected copyright infringements. What should be a paradigm of “innocent until proven guilty” is turned on its head. In other words, the usage of popular media should be suspected as fair before it is judged to be an infringement; but instead takedown notices are sent without consideration for the fair use of popular media. Someone who creates UGC should have a way to indicate that she acknowledges an awareness of using copyright protected materials and believes that her usage is not an infringement due to the fair use clause.
Peachpit: What advances in technology do you see shaping the future of design?
xtine: I think there are many answers to this question. In the web design niche, the popularity of tablets and touch-screen mobile devices has already altered design trends. Of course, with function dictating form (especially when dealing with low, or lower-bandwidth and/or relatively small screens), design and layout can sometimes seem rather limited. At the same time while touch screens have gained a lot of popularity for technology users, we haven’t seen much change in the way media for these screens are developed. I would be interested in attempting to design by touching the screen with my fingers, or even gesturing towards the screen, rather than using a mouse, keyboard, or stylus pen (I pretty much always use a mouse and as many key commands as I can remember). Design is so catered to the end-user that it’s difficult to predict how advances will shape design itself.
Peachpit: What media and design trends do you find interesting?
xtine: I’m an optimist. I love the idea that the internet has the potential to create a democratic platform for free, individual expression. I recognize that this is not completely true—loads of people don’t have access to digital tools or the internet, or the access they have is obstructed or monitored. So what I find interesting are the tools that encourage people to express themselves online, and the ways in which these tools also hinder creativity. I think it’s great that people are using the web to express themselves, even in the most banal ways via ordinary tweets or Facebook status updates. However, it worries me that so few people have, for instance, a home page that they’ve designed themselves. (To be fair, I started using a blog template for my own website years ago.)
Peachpit: What project or portfolio item are you most proud of, and why?
xtine: It’s really hard to choose. Each project has its own development story and outcomes. There are projects that never went anywhere that I find myself thinking about more than the ones that were in some way successful. Right now the project that I keep thinking about is called On The Web. It’s not a project that engages a community to take action. Instead, it’s a play between net.art and literature, which takes a different direction from some of my other work. I would like to pursue this more, some day when I have loads of time. On The Web is a version of Jack Kerouac’s road novel (On The Road) designed for viewing on the web. I read Kerouac’s novel (probably for the fourth time or so) one summer and replaced the word “road” each time it appeared in the book with the word “web.” I wanted to see how the novel would read if the narrator was taking us with him on the web instead of on the road. I then scanned every page and reassembled the book on my website. I also made an “edition” of the project using just 5 kilobytes of space (you can read more about that here).
Peachpit: What’s the most important advice would you give to a student who is interested in learning design?
xtine: Read! Although design is primarily a visual endeavor, it includes symbolic play, organization, and the logical development of (visual) systems. Authors play in the same formal sandbox. Reading is a great way to study principles applicable to both design and writing, in a less familiar context. Have you ever noticed that you can’t look at a sign without judging its kerning? Sometimes viewing art or design for inspiration is difficult because we start to formulate opinions before we spend the time required to learn from what we are seeing. Reading is a great way for designers to get away from all of that. In my opinion, reading is like forcing your mind to stray from the main highway and take alleys that you never knew were there. What could be more inspirational?