Why must art students learn coding?

I’m not opposed to it. I’m actively organising it for my particular barrel of monkeys. But the opinion seems to be much stronger than the reasoning and I would be glad to hear a well formed argument as to why Mary has to put down the paintbrush and start to type…

… what? That’s the other thing. This expert wants Processing. That one is all for Max. Is Max coding? There’s Python and Objective C and snapping blocks together Scratch style. Sometimes I hear that such and such is only scripting which isn’t coding and well that just won’t do!


Look, when I was a teen I bought one of the very first home computers (the Trash 80) and sat down and learned how to code. I exhibited my nasty machine code hacking of a C64 in public way back in the early 80’s and have tried very hard to keep up with developments since. So I’m not swayed by platitudes like ‘coding is just like sketching and artists need to sketch ideas’. Excuse me, it’s nothing like sketching and anyone who says that should write their own paint software from scratch as punishment (I did that once, it sucked).

I am grateful for any considered opinion from people who have actually coded. Please no philosophers. Why is coding something that art/design students should learn?

Also: http://workfunc.com/differences-between-programmers-and-coders/

Kurt Vonnegut explained the death of education long ago.

Back in 1952, Kurt Vonnegut wrote a novel called Player Piano. Back some time in the 70’s I read a copy. Now I get to live it.


If it weren’t for the people, the god-damn people’ said Finnerty, ‘always getting tangled up in the machinery. If it weren’t for them, the world would be an engineer’s paradise.

I like lecturing. It’s by far the best thing about being a lecturer. I like to get at least one laugh out of the hall, to get them doing some odd thing like clenching and unclenching their fists to experience tension and release in plot design. It’s an effective and personal way to reach 100 people or more and get them switched on about the important learning points. The last few weeks I’ve delivered lectures for my main video class. Next week, it ‘flips’. I’ve been sampled.

In the novel, Vonnegut explains how every skill can be measured and transcribed. A pianist is captured onto a piano roll, the woodworker can be replaced by a robot arm that repeats their motions over and over again. When I first started teaching art we would show how to do things. Now that has been moved over to online courses. That means I talk about the whys and then they go online to see the hows. Actually because I insist on teaching how to do things I am required to work more face to face hours. That is, one hour of why equals three of how, and I either re-write my courses or take the extra load.

Next week, the whys will be in a 20 minute long recording. Not perfect, certainly plenty more for myself and the designers to sort out – but eventually the robo-Tom (or a more attractive replacement) will be available 24-7 to lecture to as many students as the university wants, and at a discount. The staff are only there to assess the results.

I met the person in charge of this. He manages a growing, opulent concern, flush with funds – at a time where other parts of the university are being scaled back. It’s clear to me that at some point I will jump over to what Vonnegut calls the ‘north of the river’ where the managers and engineers live, and I’m already well on the way. But it’s worrying me, because whenever I see somebody pleased with their disruption, I foresee the disruption that will come to them in turn, and meanwhile everything I have ever loved gets turned into sludge. Managers and Deans and Chancellors can be sampled and automated too.

The foreman had pointed out his best man – what was his name? – and, joking with the puzzled machinist, the three bright young men had hooked up the recording apparatus to the lathe controls. Hertz! That had been the machinist’s name – Rudy Hertz, an old-timer, who had been about ready to retire. Paul remembered the name now, and remembered the deference the old man had shown the bright young men.

And here, now, this little loop in the box before Paul, here was Rudy as Rudy had been to his machine that afternoon – Rudy, the turner-on of power, the setter of speeds, the controller of the cutting tool. This was the essence of Rudy as far as his machine was concerned, as far as the economy was concerned, as far as the war effort had been concerned. The tape was the essence distilled from the small, polite man with the big hands and black fingernails…

Been some management going down.

This is not a real manager. They look too happy.

This is not a real manager. They look too happy.

Some people want to be managers, so celebrate their insanity for they are sheltering you from that odium. Others are taken to one side and given a little talk about the good of the company, that we need a steady hand, that it’s either take it or your nemesis Batshit F. McInsane gets the job and so on. This has been my first year as a manager and if I have nothing particularly new to say, let me just say it for my own peace. I think everybody should be made a manager for at least a little while, so that they can feel what it’s like to be somewhere between Solomon and one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Solomon because you’re going to become the focus of every built up grievance that you probably didn’t expect or deserve. Like A* has been with the company for 50 years and along comes B and this new prick is changing everything and what do they know, it was already fine and A wants you to make everything go back to 1995 when they were last happy in life. Being a manager means not laughing in their face for finally being challenged to actually develop a new idea. No. You understand their viewpoint and value everything they have achieved but put to them that the marketplace has changed and really the tasks at hand have evolved and so must we all must meet these new challenges. Perhaps they could finish off that very important filing system they had proposed back in 2005 we would all appreciate that.

Or then there’s C that says every time that D and E call a research meeting they just ignore everything C says – obviously because of C’s gender and that look they both gave in the corridor – well it tells you everything doesn’t it, they want C out of here, C can tell. Management does not mean telling them to for fuck sake get a grip. It means reminding C to understand that D & E are not excluding C as such, just that they are collaborating on a new phase about which we are all concerned and so stress plays its part and really your own important research is just as valuable and perhaps we could call a meeting where we could all have an adult discussion about our shared progress.


Horseman because you will be first to hear from above what needs to be explained below. You are a sub manager in the widget department. Your boss tells you that widgets are in decline, the demand is falling and the company must diversify into thingamajigs or fail. You remind the boss that you have 20 people who are world experts in widgets. Some of them have spent their whole lives in widget making and to now make thingamajigs would require retraining, which isn’t possible in the time available and means that both thingamajig and widget quality will suffer. The boss smiles and ushers you out the door. In the room outside the 20 widget makers are waiting for you.

This is why I buy cheap keyboards off eBay. There is nothing finer than inanimate objects with instruction manuals, racks, screwdrivers and cables. They have no feelings to hurt.

In general the Australian tertiary education industry is being ‘challenged’. The government, partly through ideology and partly because they think the main population won’t care, are proposing to save money by deregulating fees, while the same time allowing a wave of private colleges to enter the market. So if you are a student you are now supposed to ‘shop around’ for the price versus quality. My workplace is a top end university and think they can put fees up and hang in there. That might work for engineering students, but it might not win over potential fine arts students. The solution to that seems to be to re-badge as a “design faculty with lots of cool engineering shit like robots”. That’s a bit hard on staff in painting and drawing.

My concern is that one day Harvard and MIT will open their doors here. Why not? They can get funding from the government. At that point we will feel the pain that the regional universities already feel.

But in the meantime the effort to steer an art college into a design/engineering model requires endless cuts and adjustments and soothing of ruffled feelings and sympathy. Yes, X is an important art form and certainly one that we must always cherish, however there’s not really a future for it in a design faculty and so I’m shutting down classes even if you do hold your breath and turn blue. It brings me no joy, it really doesn’t. But I’ve seen the future in the management meetings and it’s like The Dead Zone. The number of people that are going to get a job in X is dropping, the news will reach the people that plan to study X and you, dear worker, will no longer be gainfully employed.

Don’t point your finger at tertiary education, for the grim reaper is hanging around your industry as well. Be happy that you can’t see him, as much as I am unhappy that I now can.

* All stories are hypothetical and blended from all kinds of experiences, so.

Modern Education

As any teacher knows, the so-called ‘breaks’ that dot the educational year are there to pack with urgent reviews, meetings and ‘professional development’. The only chance to get people all in a room at the one time and thus an exhausting and sometimes infuriating race to complete a forest of competing agendas. This last week was a ‘break from teaching’ which left me with a piercing headache as if belted in the forehead with a claw hammer.

Australia is going through a ‘modernisation’ of the education system. As with all things ‘modern’ it must be made measurable, homogenised, ‘open’ and entirely filtered of flashes of brilliance. It is the best of ideas, it is the worst of ideas.


I agree that every student deserves to be measured by the same rubric, that a distinction is a distinction no matter who does the marking. I think it’s fair that you be able to look up what the criteria are, and not be mislead. In principle it’s a fine idea which is to be expected as most fine ideas work in principle. The details are not as well behaved.

A high distinction in mathematics means that you have solved all the puzzles on the paper. That’s to be respected. A high distinction in art means … what? We were provided with a table of definitions which were sensible, no dispute there, just that everyone in the room struggled with their ghosts – the student that said very little but painted dreams, the low effort big talker that ended up in feature films, the smart one that never graduated – you know – people, individuals – that you struggled to place on any grid. The convener was firm. No. No intuition, no bargaining between opinions. You can write the grid, but there is a grid.

I looked at what a ‘fail’ means. In Australia, below 50 is a fail and it’s a pain to be only able to mark within the region between 50 and 85, with most students horrified to ever go less than credits. The grid elaborated that 50 percent, it expanded on all the ways you could fill that abyss – like Dante’s Inferno in Excel. I thought the vast majority of students would end up in there. And then there would be the inevitable investigation, firings and adjustment to bump everyone over the threshold. The headache started.

How do we assess? We assess on what we think they should become. Everything is tailored to fitting the criteria. The current jargon is about ‘Global Citizens’, which I can’t help think is ‘we are only impressed by people who leave’. I imagine some Gilgamesh in a suit striding through airports, shaking hands and hiring 1000 workers to mass produce jewelled skulls.

Really we’re back into the whole game of worker’s uniforms and idealised architecture that the post-modernists had to crush underfoot years ago. Instead of endless regimented housing and clothing we have regimented identities and aspirations: having to join Facebook gave me a chance to see what so many people choose as their home – an identikit worker’s cottage that you can accessorise with a few family photographs. They will live in these cottages and dream of being a CEO or at least a celebrity on YouTube. Whatever force was thwarted in the late 20th century bided its time and climbed in another window.

I parked my home here somewhere

There’s a pile of paperwork in front of me, to be absorbed into my thinking so I can produce measurable and accurately boxed ‘artists’. The headache is intense.

Bradbury rang up on the Friday. We talked shit for a long while as per usual, part of which was trying to figure out what ‘school’ ever got us started on our ways. It just seemed so obvious at the time and both of us still create as ‘the birds’ require. For my part I was stupid and ignorant enough to be impressed by everything and angry enough that I wanted to better it all. The notion that this grid will produce a nation of artists seems a vanity. Better this – to throw out ninety percent of them and beat the remainders into the scourges of society. Of course there’s no money in that, is there.

The temptation is to do what they ask, but ferociously, without mercy. Apply the rubric, mark like a machine. They will be horrified to see their monster unleashed, and will all the sooner come to see the folly in it all.

The Academic Industrial Complex

Right now: Work is renovating our curriculum. Fan shen is not the stated goal but you’d be crazy to miss the chance to scorch earth and build a new church you’d be proud of in 2016, when the first graduates come plopping out the other side. Years of frustration are bubbling up along with the usual academic flights of fantasy. Kind of like pink champagne.

The stated goal (put simply) is that students choose a more flexible structure in their degree. They choose a kind of ‘spine’, for example sound production or mathematics, then they add modular tracks that create a good collaboration. So for example Built Environment and Game Design, or Video Production and Performance, or what ever becomes useful in the years ahead. Then sprinkle Electives on top. The idea is good, but mind numbingly difficult.

Figuring out what to do with Audio is a good example. You might want to make Audio a spine to which other courses are connected. But a bit of analysis (pushing pieces of paper around in circles) makes it clear that a wide range of artforms can benefit from sound design. You’d thus place it as a secondary track. But then you have people who just want to create sound work. It has to be both a primary and a secondary track… and also an elective for people who just need basic skills in sound production – hell, put it in EVERY possible configuration. Now you have to make versions of every course for the level of specificity and your attempt to simplify everything ends up making it more complicated.

Or my area – video production. Let’s say I place their first documentary production at the start of year two. That means that they haven’t had a photography course yet, so either I move it along a bit so that photography gets them first, or I bring photography into the course as ‘cinematography’, which then duplicates some of the photography course. If I move it along, then Audio has to move along, because they’ll need to be composing later and … So maybe then I could require a photography course in year one. But year one is earmarked for conceptual learning and one of the things we want to do is have the students actually build concepts before whining about how-big-is-my-camera. And my conviction is that in 2012 anyone that needs to write an essay also needs basic camera skills – so Electives.

It’s like doing multiple jigsaw puzzle at once, where the pieces move on all of them. Which leads to…

I keep reading about how the university system is doomed. Usually the author goes on to tout some kind of ‘online revolution’. That’s a nonsense. People are still squabbling about how to provide a single course online. They are nowhere near figuring out how the hell to guide people through an entire programme of courses. Not. even. started. Go and have a look at Open University or iTunesU courses – they’re all isolated bits and pieces – hobbies and enthusiasms. Popular Mechanics. The word ‘university’ encapsulates that which online libraries cannot achieve.

It’s a good thing that we’re not relying on online teaching because it’s a toxic dump. Any time a paradigm is danger of forming you can bet on some structural weakness causing an embarrassing collapse, finger pointing & excuses. Since I’ve been at Kunst Kamp we’ve had three Learning Management Systems come and go, wasting effort and breeding more Luddites. Last time the Death Star shelled out maximum dollar trying to force some stability – but overspending has not stopped the latest tower from visibly leaning. I’ve backed down from such ideas until a system lasts more than 2 years running.

BUT: I must admit that having delivered the same lectures 7 or 8 times over the last few years, I’m ready for some other way to deliver the goods. The temptation is to change things to keep yourself from being bored, but the students are still arriving at the ideas for the first time every semester, and the Lumière Brothers still created the Cinematographe whether or not I’m over it.

I need textbooks, electronic documents, with movies and quizzes and all that. Must be the hot spot because that’s where a battle is raging: on the left are Adobe with their InDesign/Folio system, to the right Apple with iBook Author, in the middle are muddles of middleware for Moodle.

That iBooks are poison for information should be clear to anyone (even that utterly predictable shill John Gruber momentarily denounced the idea before his leash was yanked). There is NO WAY I am ever going to make a document that can only be seen on a ‘book’ sold by one publisher. People that defend this because ‘Apple doesn’t owe anything to publishing in general’ should try to remember THE ENTIRE DAMN POINT OF A TEXTBOOK. Jesus, people it’s not football.

That leaves Adobe by default. There’s been an awful lot of leaving Adobe by default recently.

I’ve peeked at InDesign and the folio format. Maybe. I think Acrobat is probably a better idea, even if it’s not designed for Pads it will run on most things and even on paper. The ambition for the coming years is to start making teaching aids that will do the lectures for me – adds work at the front, takes it away at the back. Means that I can segue from running ten tutorials a week to running a script on Mondays. And if indeed universities are going to crumble, well I’ll be on the life raft won’t I?

Pip pip!