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, Art, 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.

Brief history of DXARTS and its PhD program

• 1993:  with the approval of the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Music Professor Richard Karpen is named director of the The Humanities and Arts Computer Center (HACC). Karpen changes the name of the center to Center for Advanced Research Technology in the Arts and Humanities (CARTAH) subsequently obtaining substantial founding to radically change the mission of the center, which supported advanced project-based digital research across the arts and humanities including, video, audio, text and design.

• 1999:  Karpen and faculty from three different departments applied to a university funded grant called Tools for Transformation. Their proposal “Advanced Arts Technology Initiative” received $550,000 in funding for two years. With this grant, CARTAH expanded its research scope, funding graduate students from the arts that worked as research assistants at the center and creating two postgraduate positions.

• 2001: Professor Karpen and a team of faculty from three colleges applied to another internal grant called University Initiatives Fund (UIF). This grant was created by taxing academic units 1% of their budgets to create a large pool of money for new academic initiatives. Professor Karpen and his team were awarded $700,000 of annual permanent funding to create DXARTS.

• 2002-2003: DXARTS PhD program proposal is submitted and approved by the UW Board of Regents and the State of Washington’s Higher Education Coordinating Board.

• 2004: DXARTS moves into its new on-campus facilities in Raitt Hall. First group of PhD students start the program.

• 2005: Fremont Fab Lab off-campus facilities are created, including a 5000 square foot warehouse incorporating state of the art CNC fabrication tools, electronics laboratories, exhibition space, as well as more traditional wood and metal workshops.

• 2008: DXARTS goes through its first program review. The review committee included UW faculty form Biology, Law and Mathematics as well as two external experts.

• 2009: James Coupe is first PhD student to graduate from the program.

Lessons Learned

Since 2009, six PhD students graduated from our program, five of them are women, something unusual for a technology-centered program like DXARTS. Most of our alumni are currently teaching at media arts programs or working in the industry, all of them continuing their international artistic careers. In the last few years our PhD program has developed an international reputation, attracting students from around the world; we continue to have a permanent cohort of about fifteen PhD students that are fully-funded and work at DXARTS as teaching and research assistants.

While this could sound as a wonderful success story, there were a number of lessons we have learned through the process of creating and sustaining our PhD program. In particular the economic crisis unveiled many structural problems related to the way the center was run and funded and to its place in academic structure of the university. Below we list the most important ones in the context of SEAD.

• Our center doesn’t have its own faculty lines. It was originally created with four faculty lines from joint departments: two from the School of Music and two from the School of Art, a fifth line from the Dance Department was added in 2007. In 2009, in the midst of the economy crisis, the center lost one of its faculty from the School of Art, and that position was recaptured by the college. With only four faculty –two of them with important administrative appointments– and with some important austerity measures imposed on the UW by the State (including serious budget cuts and a hire freeze), the center couldn’t continue to grow at the rate expected and encouraged by the 2008 program review, which recommended DXARTS should be granted full departmental status with full control of its faculty lines and be given two extra lines on top of the five it had at the moment of the review. Having a reduced number of faculty and limited resources had two immediate consequences: first, our faculty couldn’t continue to do research at the level of intensity of the previous years; second, our PhD students had to share the teaching and supervision of our undergraduate students with the faculty, further reducing their research time.

• State budget cuts affected the state funding for education at all levels, in particular the funding for the arts was dramatically cut at the elementary, middle and high schools. This had a direct impact on the level of the students applying to our BFA program –mostly in-state students– and forced DXARTS to implement remedial classes to teach arts foundations and history to the incoming students, demanding more time and supervision from our graduate students and faculty. With the crisis, job security became a central concern of parents sending their kids to college, resulting in a strong interest in professional degrees, many parents and students wrongly considering DXARTS a gateway into the animation industry rather than a media arts studio program. This had a direct effect in the number of admissions to our BFA program, going down from two digits to one from 2008 to 2011. However, the reduction in the number of students incoming to our BFA program didn’t alleviate the teaching demands, still requiring many hours from our faculty and graduate students.

• With State budget cuts reducing the UW funding by more by half in a few years and without external sources of funding available, the center was at the mercy of the austerity measures implemented by the university, that in 2009 asked departments to do budgets projections with up to 12% cuts. While budget cuts of these dimensions have never been put in place by the college, faculty lines were frozen as well as faculty and staff salaries (this also had an impact on our center, losing highly qualified staff that decided to leave their positions for better paid jobs). It is crucial for a young research center as DXARTS to find alternative sources of funding in order to keep its thrust and to avoid having its continuity challenged by State budget cuts that can continue in the next few years. The main mandate of DXARTS is to do artistic research, not commercially-sponsored research, this limits the possible sources of external funding to commissions, competitions, and local art grants. Our faculty has been successful at getting this kind of money, but unfortunately these grants aren’t substantial enough to support our graduate students and the large art grants (like Creative Capital grants) are usually once in a life time opportunities. Alternative funding sources that could support both faculty and graduate students could be found in national agencies like NSF, but having access to this kind of 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.

New Directions

The main mission statement of DXARTS’ PhD program is:

To give digital artists the opportunity and equitable institutional support to attain the equivalent level of intellectual and professional achievement at the culmination of their graduate studies as their peers and partners in all areas of the Humanities, the Sciences, Engineering, and in the allied generative arts field of Music Composition and Computer Music, for which doctoral degrees are the normative terminal degree for graduate students.

It is clear that this statement has been challenged by some of the points presented in the previous section. Both the level of support and the opportunities to do research have been limited for our graduate students during the economic crisis, and without State support it is hard to see the university having the funds to revert this situation. Rather than considering our PhD program doomed we saw this as an opportunity for making it better and even stronger. For achieving this, some bold measures had to be taken, some of them might seem controversial but were indispensable to get our program back to its original track and for it to have a sustainable future. Below is a list of the most important ones in the context of SEAD.

BFA program termination: as discussed in the previous section, our BFA program requires a level human resources that our department can’t keep up with without a serious impact on faculty and graduate student research. We also believe arts foundations and history classes should be taught by the traditional art units, which have highly qualified faculty to teach them. In the last two years we have put in place a moratorium of admissions to our BFA program in order to test what the effects of terminating the program would be. We discovered that –as we suspected– the positive effects of dropping our BFA program were multiple:

More research and artistic output: freeing up faculty and graduate students time demanded for teaching and supervision resulted in increased research and production. In the last couple of years DXARTS faculty have received numerous important commissions and grants and has recently produced and patented new technology that and is currently being considered for commercialization. Our PhD students also increased their artistic and research output presenting more pieces at international festivals and conferences and publishing more papers in peer-reviewed journals.

Open curriculum: over the years we have seen an increase in the number of students from other art units taking our courses. This seems to indicate that our curriculum is now embedded in the arts, something that we consider a success and that we will continue to foster, trying to cross-list more of our courses with the other art units. With no need to reserve seats for our own undergraduate students, most of the seats in our classes will be open for students not just from the arts but from all around campus. This should connect DXARTS even more with the other art units and also promote more connections with units in other colleges like CSE and EE, whose students tend to gravitate toward our classes. Along these lines goes the development of an online version of our popular survey class “Digital Art and New Media: History, Theory, and Practice” (DXARTS 200), which will be offered every quarter to a wide variety of students from around campus (between 100 to 150 students enroll to this class, for most of them this is their first exposure to media arts).

Curriculum flexibility: without the rigid class requirements demanded by the BFA, the faculty could teach a more varied curriculum and create new 500-level classes which are in high demand by our graduate students and advanced undergraduates from other units.

Academic clarity: dropping our BFA program makes it clear that the academic goal of DXARTS is advanced media arts research and teaching and that we are not a professional program.

Less administration: without our own undergraduate students there is no need for a full-time adviser. Parts of the funds from this position can be used to offset the increasing costs of running our Fremont Fab Labs including funding an new instructional lab technician.

More staff time: without the need to put a large BFA show every year, technical staff can be dedicated full time to give support to research and production.

After a two-year moratorium of admissions, the majority of the faculty has recently voted the termination of our BFA program which will be effective in the 2014-2015 academic year after all our majors graduate from the program.

New MFA program: without an undergraduate program in place DXARTS can refocus on its graduate program. Over the years, it has become clear that not having a masters degree in place could be a hindrance for recruitment for our PhD program. Every year we reject applications from many students who aren’t ready for our PhD program but could be just fine for an MFA program. These artists, who could be good candidates for our PhD program after completing an MFA, end up in other institutions where that academic path is in place. Having a masters program that could function as a gateway into our PhD would fix this gap and would further help consolidate our new mandate of research with a focus on graduate studies. Also having a masters program could allow international students with funding from their national governments to come to study at our center over a shorter period of time than the one required for a PhD (these grants are usually for one or two years).

After a long debate, the majority of the faculty has recently voted the creation of a new MFA program that should be in place in about two years after it is approved by the university.

CARTAH closure:  the Center for Advanced Research Technology in the Arts and Humanities (CARTAH) –the center where DXARTS was engendered– continued functioning as a service unit inside our department for many years. With many other digital humanities initiatives funded on campus CARTAH lost most of its clients becoming obsolete. The recaptured funds from this center –which included a full-time staff person and a small operational budget– were used to yearly fund two graduate students and two postdoctoral positions, and the physical space of the center was used to expand our on-campus research facilities.

Technical staff consolidation: staff positions in DXARTS responded to an old IT model based on a centralized server which required a full-time senior computer specialist. This position has been consolidated into a research scientist/engineer position giving support to our on-campus research facilities.

Administrative staff consolidation: our BFA program demanded a full-time adviser, without our own undergraduates, our main administrator can take care of graduate advising and the funds recaptured from the adviser position used to offset the increasing costs of renting and running our Fremont Fab Lab, including funding a new instructional lab technician.

New research positions: we have recently hired a postdoctoral student in computer science who is doing research in computer vision and later this year we will have a search for another postdoc for our sound area. Our plan is to keep expanding our postdoc and research scientists pool in the next few years.

New Visiting Faculty position: we have recently hired Edward Shanken, art historian whose work focuses on the entwinement of art, science and technology, with a focus on experimental new media art and visual culture. Dr. Shanken will join the faculty of DXARTS in the Fall of 2013.

New Visiting Artist position: we have created a two-year Visiting Artist position, in the 2013-2014 biennium this position will be occupied by media artist Yolande Harris.

Roadblocks and Suggested Actions

While DXARTS PhD has proved to be a successful model for SEAD research at the national and international level and a catalyst for change within the University of Washington, steering the program in the new direction we want presents some mayor challenges in terms of academic flexibility, founding and sustainability. The list below presents the most important roadblocks we have identified, some solutions are suggested for them, including strategies we have recently implemented at DXARTS and which are currently under evaluation.

1) Roadblock: no access to funding for DXARTS faculty, PhD students and post docs to work in science and engineering labs.

Opportunity: there has been a lot of abstract talk about how important it is for STEM researchers to interact with artists (the famous “A” missing in STEM), but for the most part there is a huge misconception of what the role of the artist should be in this exchange. In our experience most of the times science and engineering PIs consider artists as content providers or illustrators of their research rather than peer researchers with a different research methodology which could provide a radically different vantage point to their own work. Therefore its very hard for our faculty to become grant co-PIs for NSF grants or for our graduate students and postdocs to have access to science and engineering labs. Fixing this funding gap could be a major turning point and have a strong impact for interdisciplinary research.

Proposed Action: National funding organizations such as NSF should consider creating special incentives for PIs to include artists as co-PIs in their grant proposals. Perhaps a new “Artist in the Lab” funding program should be created to address this issue. Universities should also consider having internal funding sources for interdisciplinary projects that could allow DXARTS graduate students and postdocs to have access to science and engineering labs. DXARTS has already created an important network of connections with science and engineering labs at the UW to secure access for its PhD students, but for the most part access is restricted and depends on the goodwill of the lab directors or PIs. Having university policy in place that would encourage this kind of access or even fund it, could help make these connections official and access to labs more universal for the students.

Stakeholders: NSF and other national agencies founding science and engineering research, university deans and provost.

2) Roadblock: no access to funding for science and engineering faculty, PhD students and postdocs to work in DXARTS.

Opportunity: this presents the flip side of roadblock #1. We consider science and engineering research an essential part of what our center does and while our faculty and graduate students are “polymaths”, their artistic research methodology differs from the scientific method needed to foster new discoveries in technical areas which are crucial to advance the field of media arts. While DXARTS has enough funding to support its own faculty and graduate students our current budget wouldn’t allow us to pay release time for science and engineering faculty, or graduate students and postdocs salaries. Having access to funding for hybrid positions could be a major turning point for DXARTS and have a strong impact on interdisciplinary research at the university.

Proposed Action: National funding organizations such as NSF should consider creating special funding programs for scientists and engineers to work in art research centers as DXARTS. A “Science in the Studio” funding program could address this issue providing funding for release time for faculty to join art research centers at least part time and for graduate students and postdocs to have their research hosted in these centers. To mitigate this issue, DXARTS has recently created a postdoc position for a computer scientist to work on machine vision in collaboration with our faculty and staff. While this model could certainly lead to some interesting results, it presents multiple challenges including mentoring and supervision for our computer science postdoc, as well as an uncertain career path for him, as usually postdocs in science and engineering are expected to host their publications and grants in research labs within their disciplines rather than in art units as DXARTS.  One possible way to mitigate this problem would be to have our postdocs be co-hosted by DXARTS and a lab at the CSE department, allowing him to have access to CSE faculty supervision and potentially catalyzing collaborative projects between our labs. Realistically, it is hard to imagine creating this kind of hybrid positions with the current university structure which is highly compartmentalized, in particular between colleges (Arts & Sciences, Engineering, etc.).

Stakeholders: NSF and other national agencies founding science and engineering research, university deans, provost and president.

3) Roadblock: tenure track lines at most research universities are created within departments and not across departments and even less across colleges and this represents a major barrier for interdisciplinarity.

Opportunity: it is clear that universities would benefit from more interdisciplinary research, in fact in the last decade many universities have formed committees to address this issue but no major policy has been implemented in order to foster interdisciplinarity except for some small projects at the college level. Creating tenure track lines across units and colleges can not only address this problem but also be a more sustainable hiring model that could reduce duplicate lines in different areas of the university.

Proposed Action: the university should consider tearing down their current silo structures and promote the creation of interdisciplinary tenure track positions in arts, science and engineering. DXARTS could be a great testbed for this kind of new lines as it is already a successful model of interdisciplinarity within the arts (all tenure track positions in DXARTS are joint appointments with other art units). New guidelines would need to be created for merit evaluation and promotion for these new positions, DXARTS could again be a good model for future policy as our tenure cases are already evaluated by an interdisciplinary committee within the arts.

Stakeholders: university deans, provost and president.

4) Roadblock: funding organizations like NSF are highly compartmentalized into small narrow programs making it quite hard or even impossible to submit applications for interdisciplinary projects.

Opportunity: this roadblock it somewhat similar to the previous one (#3) except that it targets national funding organizations instead of the university. Organizations like NSF have distinct divisions, each of them with its own fairly narrowly targeted funding programs representing the division’s goals. The panel review structure within NSF divisions discourages widely interdisciplinary proposals, as the panels that are formed to review the proposals only look at proposals within the narrow discipline of the division. As a result of this narrow structure, researchers don’t even bother writing interdisciplinary proposals for NSF until there is agency acknowledgment of the value of interdisciplinary research, and well-established ways of submitting and evaluating interdisciplinary proposals. DXARTS tenure review process might serve as an abstract model for evaluation of broadly interdisciplinary proposals at an agency like NSF. Creating ad-hoc panels for evaluation of interdisciplinary proposals could not only help fund SEAD projects but also change the silo culture of the organization that seriously affects interdisciplinarity in all fields of research.

Proposed Action: national funding organizations like NSF should create special programs for interdisciplinary research with ad-hoc evaluation panels from across divisions of the agency and with external experts with experience in interdisciplinarity. It should be noted that other countries already have this kind of model in place, for instance the FQRSC from Quebec, Canada, puts together panels with international experts from different disciplines to evaluate interdisciplinary applications to their founding programs in arts, science and technology.

Stakeholders: NSF and other national funding organizations.

4) Roadblock: internal funding at the university level for research in the arts is very limited and insufficient.

Opportunity:  the Royalty Research Fund grants (RRF) are currently the only source of internal research funds for faculty at the UW. While this program can be quite helpful for junior faculty to develop their first large research projects, access to these grants is very limited (all the arts compete for a small number of grants) and is usually reduced to a once in a lifetime opportunity. Creating new funding opportunities with emphasis in interdisciplinary projects could be a great catalyzer for new ways of doing collaborative research and help tearing down current silo structures at the university.

Proposed Action: the university should create more internal funding mechanisms for interdisciplinary projects. These funds could come from a shared pool of money created between the different colleges or academic units. Again, DXARTS could be a great success story for this kind of model in the arts, as it was created by a University Initiatives Fund grant (UIF). This grant –which only existed for a few years– was created by taxing academic units 1% of their budgets to create a large pool of money for new initiatives. DXARTS, the Center for Nanotechnology and a few other young research centers were created with UIF funds.

Stakeholders: university chairs, deans and provost.

5) Roadblock: The notion of risk is treated differently between the arts and the sciences.

Opportunity: In the sciences, it is assumed that innovative research will involve a degree of risk-taking. Here, risk-taking is taken to mean work that consciously challenges existing paradigms within a field. Constructing such work may require institutional support to navigate the various legal, practical and educational implications of the research, as well as coping with the public perception of such work. Examples from the sciences may include Stem Cell Research, Human Genomics, Animal Testing, etc. In the arts, there is not the same expectation of risk-taking, or at least it cannot be considered to be on the same level as in the sciences. Many institutions, museums and galleries may describe themselves as risk-taking, yet are unable to provide the legal, practical and funding support to facilitate work that can be considered as genuinely paradigm-shifting. The result is that art research moves much slower than scientific research, and that it is very difficult for artists to maintain pace with scientific developments and innovations.

Proposed Action: The university should apply equivalent standards and resources to risk-taking in the arts and the sciences by establishing a set of criteria that can apply to both. This may require a significant shift in the expectations for arts faculty research output, which is to be encouraged.

Stakeholders:  university deans, provost and president.

6) Roadblock: permanent space is not available for new SEAD units.

Opportunity:  when DXARTS was created a very limited amount of on-campus space was assigned to it. It was soon clear that for the program to succeed we needed a large space where we could host our research and fabrication labs so we decided to rent a warehouse off campus. This unit –called the Fremont Fab Lab– became the core of our PhD program and we couldn’t function without it, but the cost of renting and keeping the the place running represents a huge toll on our operations budget (a cost that other academic units don’t have to pay as they have their own buildings). The university could benefit from having a facility like our Fab Lab on campus, as many more students from other art units would have access to them and the reduced yearly expenses could go to fund research projects rather than paying rent.

Proposed Action: the university should consider moving facilities like the Fremont Fab Lab to permanent spaces on campus. Capital campaigns for the development of new buildings on campus should include square footage for spaces like this.

Stakeholders: university deans, provost and president.