The coming of age of a PhD program in digital and experimental arts practice: lessons learned and challenges for the future

Coordinators: Juan Pampin, James Coupe, Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media (DXARTS), University of Washington

The Center for Digital Art and Experimental Media (DXARTS) is based at the University of Washington in Seattle, USA. Over the last five years, it has established itself as one of the leading research centers for digital art in the USA. No commercially-sponsored research is undertaken, and DXARTS’ highly selective PhD program offers full tuition waivers and stipends to its students. Students are expected to develop original research specializations based on their art practices, and receive support and resources to establish long-term legacies for the program. Unusually for a digital arts program, DXARTS has invested heavily in non-screen based studio facilities, including a 5000 square foot warehouse that incorporates state of the art CNC fabrication, electronics laboratories, exhibition space, as well as more traditional wood and metal workshops. DXARTS actively pursues interdisciplinary collaborations across the University, including affiliations with Music, Dance, Computer Science, Engineering, Physics and Biology. Visiting scholars include scientists as well as artists, and the program includes post-doctoral researchers with PhDs in Computer Science and Engineering and other STEM fields.

As such, DXARTS is positioning itself to fully explore the notion of artistic experimentation in the 21st Century. This experimentation is a cross-disciplinary endeavor that requires a new generation of artists, with expertise in computing and the sciences who have followed a research and teaching agenda equivalent to those found in other fields (rather than the traditionally terminal degree in the visual arts, the MFA). New and unusual research strands have emerged as a result, resulting in publications and patents that make broad contributions across multiple disciplines.

DXARTS can therefore be considered as a new kind of research center, asserting the value of artistic knowledge and problem-solving and claiming it as equivalent to that in other fields, and of vital importance. Nevertheless, funding models for DXARTS are to be found in the arts rather than in the sciences, resulting in a lack of substantial, long term resources to pursue its research trajectories. In the arts, with a lack of national arts funding organizations, this means commissions, competitions, and local art grants. Access to NSF-style funding is problematic due to a lack of recognition of the value of creative research, and a lack of access to program managers in funding agencies. Whereas a scientist would develop necessary funding relationships via their PhD and postdoctoral advisors, a PhD student in creative technology fields has no conventional route to acquire funding appropriate to their research.

This paper will outline research areas emerging from DXARTS that demonstrate cross-disciplinary outcomes, and include detailed proposals for funding interdisciplinary creative research.