Back in the day, people spoke of “building the bike as we were trying to ride it.” Today, digital artists are defining the art as they create it, said Mark Amerika, founder of TECHNE Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Amerika, a college professor of distinction of art and art history who has been described as a “pioneer” of digital art, founded the TECHNE lab in 2002 to develop “innovative approaches to the invention of new forms of knowledge generally considered to be both artistic and scholarly.”
He said the field offers no shortage of material on which to focus artistic and scholarly attention: “I’m covering a lot of ground: internet art, live multi-media performance, digital fiction and feature-length films shot exclusively on mobile phone.”
“When they hired me, there weren’t that many universities supporting this kind of work, so this meant we were able to attract some of the better students because we were out there early,” Amerika said. “Now almost every university has a digital arts component to their research program.”
There may be no art field expanding as quickly as the digital arts—which is art that made or presented using digital technology—Amerika said, adding that most of the undergraduate students have grown up immersed in the field through social media. Nonetheless, there is a great need to enable a more focused approach, which the TECHNE Lab provides.
“We attract students from art and art history but really from all over campus: units in (the College of Media, Communication and Information) like communication, advertising and critical media practices, the College of Music, English and creative writing, as well as students in the ATLAS Technology and Arts and Media program who want to stretch their arts and humanities muscles using creative technologies,” he said.
“The TECHNE Lab provides more of an arts-centric focus; we’re very conceptual, very experimental, very politically engaged.”
CU Boulder is instituting a PhD program in digital arts and humanities; the recently established doctoral program in Intermedia Art, Writing and Performance (IAWP), where Amerika serves as the founding chair. By operating as an interdisciplinary digital arts and humanities research unit, IAWP allows graduate students to pursue practice-based PhDs where the students create elaborate creative projects for their final thesis.
“We are trying to make things more flexible for students who don’t want to put themselves in some sort of disciplinary box,” he said. Because of this, graduate students can produce a wide array of art, ranging from museum pieces and live performances to digitally expanded forms of creative writing produced for the internet.
This past summer, the TECHNE Lab exhibited artwork from both current and former students at venues in both Brooklyn and Governors Island. Current PhD students Laura Kim, Ryan Ruehlen and Ryan Wurst had pieces in the show, as did former students Melanie Clemmons, Rick Silva, Nicholas O’Brien, Zak Lloyd and Paul Echeverria.
All of the former MFA students from the Department of Art and Art History featured in the exhibition had previously taught and conducted their practice-based research inside the TECHNE Lab before the inception of the PhD program and have since gone on to help establish digital art programs in universities across the country.
“In Brooklyn, the artwork was displayed on these big, beautiful screens customized for animation and 3D works,” Amerika said. “It was great fun, and visitors got to see a variety of artwork created by former and current students who passed through the lab.”
Some of that work is widely disseminated on the internet, as well. Amerika said all students who study the field seem to be automatically wired to get their work in front of the masses in some form.
“The word these days is ‘public-facing,’ and because they grew up exposed to this kind of insta-art, artists are sort of wired to go out and find an audience for their work. It’s embedded in their psyche. It’s just something that comes naturally.”