Sean Cubitt, Professor of Film and Television at Goldsmiths in the third of a series of conversations with leading researchers designed to take stock twenty years after the launch of the British experiment to introduce of research and doctoral programs into art schools.
Sean’s research into visual technologies, media art history, and relationships between environmental and post-colonial criticism of film and media is not only visible through his own extensive publications but also through his presence on the editorial boards of a number of key journals including Screen, Cultural Politics, Animation, International Journal of Cultural Politics, Visual Communications, Futures, Time and Society, fibreculture, MIRAJ and The New Review of Film and television Studies. He is also series editor for Leonardo Books, MIT Press.
David Garcia. Although you have travelled widely you were working in the UK at the point when the integration of art colleges into Universities took place. What do you recall of the process.
Sean Cubitt. I was at Liverpool Polytechnic In 1989 a small department of Media and Cultural studies to which I had moved from Central School of Art and Design in London. There were just three of us working in the department at the time and it was attached to the art school administratively.
The Art School in Liverpool was not like anywhere else. There was a great deal of connection to the city and a huge amount of interweaving between the School and a thriving photo-realist school at the time, and an exciting music scene including a lot of radical collectives. Although it had produced some really significant fine artists, it was broadly based and employed a large number of Liverpool’s intelligencia, including the Liverpool poets, many of whom earned their crust at the art school.
The interplay between these communities was fantastic. We built up a very nice department and when I left in 2000 it was very well regarded. We were also very closely connected with Liverpool’s Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (Fact). It was common practice for us to be closely connected to the art scene in that small but thriving city.
DG- In 1992 the transformation begins with Liverpool Polytechnic becoming chartered as Liverpool John Moores University and The Centre for Art International Research (CAIR) is established as the first Research Centre in the University. Can you describe how this transition felt on the ground?
SC- Well how should I put it? We got “Universitied”. The “Universification” of the Polytechnics had a huge impact at Liverpool. Administratively the University did not really know what to do with our department. At one point we were wedged in with architecture, which also included the school of building and engineering. So we were variously known as the school of “Painting and Pointing” or alternatively the “School of Construction and Deconstruction”, which I think is a reasonably good indication of the confused situation that accompanied the process of transition in 1992.
DG- On a day-to-day level how did this make itself felt?
SC- Although it took a while for us to wake up to the full implications, the change was profound. For myself and my colleagues, our motivation had been straightforward: we were a teaching-led institution. To us it was important that we were involved in front-line teaching of working class students, many of whom, approaching 80%, were the first generation of their family to go into Higher Education. That was why we were there! You would occasionally get a student to get a 1st class degree but our greatest satisfaction, and main reason for being there, was for the student who achieved a 3rd class degree, the ones you dragged through the process. The ones who finally managed to get that degree because you and they had worked, and worked really hard. Those were some of the most satisfying moments for all of us. The basic fact is we were a teaching institution. Then in 1992 with the introduction of the first RAE we were confronted with this situation in which we would be faced with a loss of revenue if we could not score on the research front.“To us it was important that we were involved in front-line teaching of working class students, many of whom, approaching 80%, were the first generation of their family to go into Higher Education. That was why we were there!”
DG- Was there really no choice but to change? Why not opt to remain focused on teaching?
SC- Once we became a University we received the block grant which as you know is split into teaching and research components with the idea that the research components would be concentrated on the research universities at the expense of the teaching universities, which was fine if you were happy to be a teaching university. But we felt we needed to continue to attract and retain high quality staff and in the new landscape without a research budget that retention of quality staff was going to be very difficult.
Many staff that were categorized as inactive as researchers felt under pressure. They were teachers: it was their vocation. Alas it is not a vocation that is well recognized in higher education in the 21st century. But nonetheless a vocation it is.
We were working to a well-established structure based on a employing a small core of full time staff to ensure continuity, coherence and pastoral care with the bulk of the teaching done by visiting practicing artists, a model that goes back to Henry Cole but can also be found in Pevsner’s report. This was seen to be of mutual benefit to all concerned ensuring you can maintain an artistic community and ensuring you get the most active practitioners to come in and work with your students.
This virtuous circle was broken by the imposition of the demand that instead of being artists who also teach they also had ostensibly to do this other activity in which they were expected to re-think their practice in research terms in order to make it fit into the RAE formulas, which for many was deeply uncomfortable.
DG- To what extent are these issues “teething problems”. It seems to me that there is still a distinction between individuals who have decided to make their career within the academy and so choose to take the idea of artistic research seriously and visiting practitioners who are less academically focused. Is this simply a question of the time it takes for new structures to bed down and new more formalised languages to become understood and internalized.
SC- Yes there is a generation coming through now beginning to make up a critical mass of doctoral degrees. Over the years I have supervised and examined a good number of PhDs by practice, many of whom have gone on to full time academic work, several moving into senior positions, and they have adopted varying kinds of research paradigms with nuanced differences between them.
And there is no doubt the procedures and protocols are evolving. When I was based in New Zealand I was involved in the development of the New Zealand equivalent to the RAE and one of the problems which came up in practice based media PhDs not only in art but also from other practice orientated disciplines, ranging from nursing to engineering, was how to distinguish professional practice from research. Is there a boundary? And if so how do you recognize it? By which I mean the boundary between the normal investigative practices that is the bread and butter of say journalism or teachers doing curriculum design into a practice that is recognizably research?“one of the problems which came up in practice based media PhDs [….] was how to distinguish professional practice from research. Is there a boundary? And if so how do you recognize it ?”
There was pressure to establish such boundaries. On the one hand we can all recognize what professional practice is. And in most professional fields we will have a reasonably serious set of external benchmarks or peer review equivalents for evaluating quality.
DG- such as?
SC- In art it is fairly clear: where do you exhibit? Group shows or solo exhibitions? Local gallery or is it a national collection? Are you in any biennales? Has your work been reviewed and if so in what kind of journal? So in art there are all kinds of ways of measuring in terms of peer esteem the quality of your research.
But still the arguments persist what is the thing that distinguishes the practice of research from painting a picture or building a bridge.
DG- Stephen Scrivener talks about the need for the elements of doubt and surprise as a benchmark?
SC- I go along with that for a certain kind of PhD, but not always. There is another defining quality of the PhD, which is that it should be original, it should cover fresh ground and that I think may be sufficient. I am not sure if it also needs to be surprising. For example a great deal of feminist research, especially in the early years, began with the proposition that the feminist perspective had been addressed in, lets say literature, so now we do a feminist analysis of film, ok now lets move on to television, followed by social media and so on. So research projects that apply an established set of feminist critical practices are deployed to investigate how they operate in different contexts. This work did not always create a great deal of surprise but it is nevertheless valuable and necessary that somebody has done that meticulous work.
Another example was actually the first PhD by Practice I read, by Bashir Makhoul. This work was not supported not by the usual reflective statement or research question but rather began by asserting that a history of Palestinian modernism simply did not exist. And starting from zero it was necessary for him to write an account simply in order to place what he was doing in a historical context. His PhD was a historical account which then helped to frame and explain why his form of abstraction looks the way it does and does not look like say American abstract expressionism. It is a Palestinian history of Palestinian modernist art whose very personal driver was to be able to frame his own abstract art informed by Islamic motifs into a history that had simply not been written.
So I would be less convinced that surprise was utterly central. Particularly now the pressure is on for a PhD to be completed within a three-year time frame. An artist planning to utilise sophisticated technological media would need to do a great deal of planning in advance. They will need to specify that they are going to make something requiring this and that piece of equipment say a five screen installation or 12 channel video piece or whatever it might be and on that basis you cannot simply work from the basis that “I’m going to surprise myself”.
DG- So you paint a picture in which you have migrated from the traditional art school model, which you clearly value, to the University model of which you were highly critical. Given your earlier stance I am surprised that you do not feel more “cognitive dissonance”.
SC- A lot of things have changed. One of them is the social purpose of the PhD. It is not only that the PhD has become an increasingly important passport to teaching in Higher Education, it is also becoming an advantage to those seeking work in many Arts related professions, particularly curators and other kinds of arts administration roles. So a PhD is no longer exclusively training the next generation of teachers: it is also expected for other professional roles.“It is not only that the PhD has become an increasingly important passport to teaching in Higher Education, it is also becoming an advantage to those seeking work in many Arts related professions, particularly curators and other kinds of arts administration roles.”
We also see this reflected on the demand side particularly from the USA, where we have a large number of American PhD students studying with us. As in the US the MFA is the norm in the States is a terminal degree. This adds weight to the view that it may no longer be exclusively the academy that is driving the growth of research in our sector but rather that a certain distinctive mode of thinking about art practices.
DG- Beyond professional ambition, are we also looking at changes within art and design that might also contribute to the emergence of research ethos in art colleges?
SC- Well yes there is the rise of conceptualism. And in the UK individuals like Victor Burgin, who comes out of the conceptual art movement, or Rasheed Araeen whose practices consistently involve an engagement with public debate and a critical appropriation of contemporary philosophical ideas. Internationally the wide circulation of French structural and post structural thought all the way through to the influence of Ranciere, present in the pages of the major art journals these days. You might highlight someone such as Boris Groys who famously suggested, the driving force of art is philosophical. Those are the kinds of writers who are being read by artists, critics and curators.
But this can have a frankly delusional aspect. Some of the dangers were highlighted by the American political theorist Jodie Dean in her book “Communist Horizon” in which she launched a cogent attack on “politics conducted through artistic means”. She asks whether any of these practices make a significant difference to the possibility of living effectively in the 21st century and even suggesting that these practices divert energy from more effective forms of direct action and political engagement.
These however are not the kinds of questions being posed by the REF and other examples of the explosion of audit culture. Their concept of impact is restricted to economic value. So, crudely put, the REF in its current form exists to migrate as much money as possible to the STEM subjects. These are the areas where research is easiest to monetise. The rest of us can collect some crumbs to squabble over usually mopping up the detritus of neo-liberalism.
DG- How would you see research in specifically design? It seems as though there are very different agendas at play.
SC- There are certainly newly emerging research trends, particularly in the burgeoning field of Communication Design. If you look at the kind of subsidies available from the AHRC in this area, the emphasis is very much on public communication or PR ostensibly to inform the public, but actually to “persuade” public opinion of the desirability of controversial policies in areas such as genetic modification of foods.
Another area I find concerning (and this is also beginning to inflect some parts of Fine Art Practice and curatorial practice) is research investment in “trend spotting”, as in methods for spotting and tracking trends through various real-time data mining processes. This is now becoming huge driver for research funding in the UK. And I find it extremely dubious, part of the process of continuous commodification. A process of economic management based on algorithmic trading, real-time automated responses to observable trending in markets. And that notion that the statistical management of the future is a viable kind of political economy, given recent history, seems frankly suicidal.
DG- Are we not in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Surely having part of this university, critically engaged with these technologies, ensures that it is not just industry monopolizing this expertise. Why should the devil have all the best tunes?
SC- I am concerned as I see it overwhelming other forms of knowledge. For example the arts and the humanities as well as the Social Sciences such as anthropology, are particularly good at understanding the world from the perspective of the singular, of the anecdotal. A taboo that needs to be confronted in many research cultures is the allergy to anecdotal evidence. Capturing and managing this kind of evidence is the one thing that we are especially good at. History not only occurs in large the Big Numbers, in the large swathes of data. History also resides in the individual unique events of experience, decision, struggle and suffering. By swamping our notion of what research might be with stats, we are in danger of moving into a crude version of utilitarian culture that reduces variety to a crude majoritarianism.“A taboo that needs to be confronted in many research cultures is the allergy to anecdotal evidence. Capturing and managing this kind of evidence is the one thing that we are especially good at. History not only occurs in large the Big Numbers, in the large swathes of data. History also resides in the individual unique events of experience, decision, struggle and suffering.”
DG- So as a politically engaged academic engaged in both teaching and personal research where do you see the primary points of struggle?
SC- What we are seeing is the ‘proletarianisation” of culture through the concept of the creative industries. That term “creative industries” always puts the emphasis on the word “industry”. It was meant to cheer us up, and make us feel part of the world, by giving us an economic rational. But what it means for the tertiary sector in education is that we are being asked to produce the new proletariat for the creative industries. The precarious wage laborers of those industries are to be educated but not educated enough to give them a radical critical edge.
DG- Especially as it becomes clearer that there are simply not enough jobs being created in these industries.
SC- I am not sure. For example, the employment destinations of our media students are, in the majority of cases, not what you would traditionally think of as media companies. They are being employed in ordinary companies who increasingly have communications and media departments.
DG- But where does the criticality come into this? Surely the kind of reflective awareness you are trying to encourage simply gets in the way of business as usual?
SC- Business as usual is not what is required for modern capitalism based on continuous innovation. Let me tell you a story that I have found illuminating.
I was involved with the animation school at Liverpool very early on in 1990 and at one of the animation festivals, our staff had an informal meeting with the big players from the then burgeoning animation industry in Wales who had big successes with The Snowman and so forth. They said to us “the trouble is you keep producing these fine artists who do all this weird stuff. We don’t need them. We need inbetweeners”. In animation, inbetweening is generating intermediate frames between two images that provide the illusion of movement between the key frames which are created by the main artist.
Now if we had followed this advice, it would have taken us three years to train the students. By the time they graduated inbetweening had become automated. We would have trained up an entirely redundant workforce.
As educators we must understand that industry, typically has a horizon of one to two years maybe three in the best cases. Only a critical inquiring mind, able to self educate, can cope with the pace of the current media industry.
My “inbetweeners” anecdote demonstrates the need for a broader approach to research and education. And this includes as sense of a wider purpose for the arts as a primary medium through which we conduct political life in the true sense. That is to say the location for popular deliberation over how we ought to live. I am arguing that to live well we have to create utopian avenues, which to a degree art is.“The critical and utopian drive of both teaching and research aren’t really things we can defend because in some sense we have never achieved them.”
DG- Looking back over our discussions I am struck by a sense of ambivalence. On the one hand you appear very positive about many aspects of the regime prior to the changes in 92 and obviously feel that something important has been lost. On the other hand you appear quite positive about the presence and contribution of a research culture. Do you see this as a dilemma to be resolved or a contradiction to be navigated ?
CC- The downgrading of teaching as a vocation in higher education goes along with the orientation of research towards a more instrumental, business friendly orientation. The critical and utopian drive of both teaching and research aren’t really things we can defend because in some sense we have never achieved them. They are goals, challenges, and the arts and humanities have a special role in bringing them to life for the two groups who we serve, our students and humanity in the widest sense. That’s after all why we call them Humanities