The Artist and Disruptive Technology in Art and Education

The Artist is a mostly silent movie that tells the story of the advent of "talkies" in the late 1920s and their near-fatal effect on a silent-screen idol who resists the change. In doing so, the picture reopens a closed chapter of film history by itself assuming the constraints of a silent black-and-white film. But what may seem like nostalgia or anachronism in a film made in 2011 is actually a timely parable of the disruptive effects of technology facing art and education today. The movie is at once homage to the expressive power and beauty of silent filmmaking and an exploration of both the anxieties and opportunities created in the face of technological change.

Technology, in The Artist, is a double-edged sword. The movie centers on the protagonist's escalating feelings of obsolescence as he is superseded by a younger generation of actors more adaptable to the new conditions of art-making and more consumable by a fickle public. The movie's own resources for capturing the fracturing of the film star's self-image include both the purely visual images of silent film (his shadow detaching from his body; talking mouths silently and surreally filling the screen) and the new resources of the talkies. The film literally incorporates the invasion of sound into the silent film we have been watching: suddenly, the actor and we, the viewers, are able to hear the sound of everyday noises within the film. And in hearing sound within the movie for the first time, we experience the realization of what we have been missing in the silent film -- the shock of the technology of sound, with all its possibilities for a new kind of storytelling.

Technology is altering the landscape of higher education in fundamental ways, driven in part by students who come to college with new tools at their disposal and substantial new expectations. A mixture of anxiety and excitement attends this expanding role. Particularly at liberal arts colleges -- whose very being depends upon human presence and the specificity of place -- we must consider seriously how to harness technology as a tool to enhance our teaching and learning practices and extend our reach, without the fear that it will substitute for those practices.

At Sarah Lawrence, where 90 percent of classes are small seminars, with additional, biweekly individual meetings with the professor a required component of the course, faculty and students are exploring technology as a catalyst for creativity. It is transforming the creative process and the modalities and delivery of art. Dan Hurlin, director of our graduate program in theatre, cites an explosion of interdisciplinary and inter-media collaboration in the making of theatre: "When I'm thinking about who I want to work with for my next project, one of the first collaborators I imagine is a projectionist, or a media designer. Innovative ones are using every surface as a possible projection surface, from gauze curtains to furniture to the human body."

Our pilot Arts and Technology Initiative, begun in 2010 with seed funding from the Blavatnik Family Foundation, has enabled us to bring computer science and the arts together in digital game design and helped us to expand offerings in interactive and media arts. The latest wave of production in animation classes has included interactive technologies where viewers have agency over the images via sensors for movement, light, and sound, and students write code to create their own film editing strategies. Through technology, the art and science of movement in dance can illuminate each other. And there is more we would like to explore in the performing and visual arts as we capitalize on the College's educational roots -- the centrality of the arts as a model of creative thought and practice, the porousness of disciplinary boundaries, our healthy skepticism of the merely faddish and our openness to creative evolution. As The Artist suggests, art can help us understand the dilemmas presented by technological change, just as technology can help unleash the creative possibilities of art.

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