By Professor Kit Wise
The 2021 ACUADS Conference was developed in partnership with the DDCA to deliberately explore the theme of networks and their possibilities in response to the challenges and future agendas of the Tertiary Art, Design and Creative Arts sector. This partnership was itself a merging of networks, building upon many shared projects and instances of joint advocacy in recent years; a model and proof of concept for the value of further network building.
Presentations were invited that responded to the following prompts:
Ecosystems & posthuman networks: learning from the more than human, particularly in response to climate change, has never been more urgent. How is the posthuman addressed by art & design schools?
Decentring networks: action on our national reconciliation agendas is a critical priority for the Higher Education sector. How can art and design recognise and learn from alternative bodies of knowledge and contribute to reconciliation?
Online work and resilience: for many, teaching online has changed the scope of our work as educators. The need to reconnect individual and community wellbeing has also been acute. What have we learnt from online and ‘blended’ modes of delivery? In the workplace as well as at home, how do we move from hyper-individualism in our approach to resilience, care and recovery?
Local & global COVID networks: locally, the HE sector has been radically re-shaped, not just by COVID, but also the Jobs Ready Graduates bill. Is there a need to also re-shape how we deliver programs and consider IP, moving beyond insular / regional divides through new approaches to cross-institutional models? Internationally, the pandemic has been experienced in very different ways, depending not just on nationality but also race, gender, age and other factors. After the prolonged absence of global mobility, what modes of international collaboration and connection are possible or needed?
The origins of network theory can be traced back to the Seven Bridges of Königsberg, a famous problem in Western mathematics. Resolved by Leonard Euler in 1736, the topography of the city of Königsberg, Russia, included the Pregel River, two large islands and seven bridges. The challenge was to devise a walk through the city that would cross each bridge only once. Euler demonstrated this to be impossible; and in the process of developing his proof, new techniques for the analysis of the city’s “network” were established.
Today, mapping pathways through urban space has taken on new meaning. After the arrival of COVID, we think of networks in terms of vectors, tracing, upstream and downstream flows; patterns of concern as well as frameworks that protect. COVID also demonstrates the raw power of networks. As Bruno Latour suggests: “we must not think of the personal and the collective as two distinct levels. The big climate questions can make individuals feel small and impotent. But the virus gives us a lesson. If you spread from one mouth to another, you can viralise the world very fast. That knowledge can re-empower us.”
At the same time as viral threats, over the last 18 months there has arguably been a global “attack” on the arts as a soft target during crisis, scarcity and shifting priorities. New ways to survive and indeed thrive are needed. We were fortunate to be joined by Professor David McGravie, Chair UKNA (UK New Artists), Dean Arts Humanities & Education University of Derby and CHEAD member; as well as Professor Paul Gough, Principal and Vice Chancellor of University of the Arts Bournemouth and Chair of UKADIA; Liz Hutchinson. Director of Communications SHAPE initiative The British Academy UK; and Lee Hornsby, Senior Development & Partnerships Manager, Talent & Skills Creative Industries Federation. Collectively they pointed to a more positive future, based on the UK’s experience some nine months ahead of Australia in terms of learning to live with COVID; and arguably at least nine year ahead in terms of collective advocacy for the value of their creative industries.
Strengthening connection and collaboration – forming networks, such as the UK’s SHAPE and the Creative Industries Foundation – in response to our current challenges has perhaps never been more important. As Rosi Braidotti proposes, the need to think far beyond Euler’s approach to problem solving and our usual conceptual parameters: posthuman paradigms are required to address the social, technological, viral and ecological issues of our times.
The conference indeed demonstrated that “cross-species” collaborations in the creative arts are already apparent: many presenters commented on the “transmutation” of practices we have witnessed during COVID, as traditional forms have been forced online to engage with the digital, the screen and the performed. However further work on our collective ecosystem is increasingly urgent. Recovery for the HE creative sector will be hand in hand with the venues and institutions, both public and private, that share our ecosystem. A number of presentations shared new approaches to “symbiosis” that have emerged over the last 18 months, including expanded global partnerships (online teaching has made synchronous teaching across borders and time zones suddenly easy); as well as deepened local connections (the infamous pivot of events to virtual formats has increased equity and access in many instances). We need to provide a supportive, indeed sustainable environment to allow these to continue to flourish; but I am encouraged that the spirit of generosity underpinning this year’s joint event, as well as the remarkably collegial HE community both organisations enjoy, will only grow stronger. With refreshed understanding of the importance of care for each other as well as the world we inhabit, I look forward to moving from a time of reflection to one of action.
Professor Kit Wise is Dean, School of Art at RMIT University; and Chair, The Australian Council of University Art and Design Schools (ACUADS)