Teaching Overview

My teaching practice embodies an interdisciplinary art and design pedagogy I have been developing since the mid 80s. It involves a combination of technical learning, technical R+D, artisanal enskilling, design practice, studio practice, development of critically informed perspectives on art practices deploying cultural, media and science studies as well as other perspectives. Such interdisciplinarity is necessitated when dealing with the task of working creatively with emerging technologies and making sense of the cultural and social dimensions of emerging digital cultural practices. But it is in my opinion a generally applicable model for innovative and creative thinking and production.

Pedagogy in the ACE program.

In recent years, my teaching has been exclusively at the graduate level, in association with the interdisciplinary Arts Computation Engineering graduate program I established. Consistent with a strong commitment to work against both overspecialization and the dematerialising drive of academia, I offer a range of classes addressing aspects of the field from a theoretical and historical perspectives (including scholarly writing), from perspectives of cultural production, and regarding material (and immaterial) realisation, from project management to the fundamental realities of tool use, structural, electromechanical and electronic design and fabrication. This latter is currently a crucial aspect of ACE, for two key reasons.

Firstly, the downside of the so-called information revolution and its attendant commodity economics is that students lack experience and skills with actual material and seem naturalized to the idea that providing software 'glue' to hook pre-manufactured digital commodities together offers the full territory of invention in the field. Nothing could be further form the truth. Digital commodities come replete with constraint which reflect the functions conceived by the makers. Inventive design must necessarily go beyond such preconceptions.

A second reason for emphasizing material making is to counteract the pernicious aspect of the academic mindset, exacerbated by computer technology, that material realization is an afterthough, a mindless action to be undertaken by lesser technical staff. Contrarily, I believe that high intelligence can be exercised and evidenced in making, and that this intelligence is not reconcilable with the intelligences of alpha-numeric symbol manipulation. Such intelligences include spatial, structural, mechanical and material and embodied-interactional sensibilities.

Studio/Lab classes - graduate level

Hardware Intelligence – offered as a graduate lab/studio class 2004-2010, this shop class works through a series of exercises exposing students in a staged and graduated way to tool use, materials handling, development of drawing and notation systems, design and prototyping methodology and increasing ability in precision construction. (see below for further details)

Sewing for boys, welding for girls – a subsection of the above.

Microcontrollers Electronics and Programming – offered as a graduate lab/studio class 2006-2010

Interactive Installation and Performance Design. This studio/project based class addresses the task of coordination of diverse technologies in a spatio-temporal organization directed at artistic, cultural or social goals. Involves sensors and system design, program design, spatial and structural design, interaction/experience design, media design and narrative and dramaturgical dimensions and their sensitive integration. Projects are critiqued and developed through multiple stages, including presentations of concept, system and structural plans, hardware specification, work-in-progress and final presentation.

Studio/Lab classes - undergraduate level

Mechatronic Art 1,2,3. (2011-)
A new sequence of undergraduate classes offering training in analog electronics, microcontrollers and electromechanical systems, emphasising design for embodied interaction and creative projects.

Graduate seminars (selected) since 2001

Grounding practice - materiality, embodiment and sensorimotor subjectivity. (Fall 2011)

Embodiment, Cognition and Cultural Practices. (Winter 2011)

Embodiment, Ubiquity and Material Culture. (Winter2010)

Mind, Body, World. (Spring 2008)

Spectacle, Communication, Power: a survey of Technology and Social Context 1600-2000. (Winter 2007)

The Technological Imaginary. (Fall 2007)

Information, Representation, Knowledge, Cognition. (Fall 2006)

The Living and the Life-like: Emergence, Complexity, Artificial Life and Generative Art. (Winter 2006)

Machine Art and the Aesthetics of Behavior from Cybernetics to Artificial Life. (Fall 2004)

Computationalism and Discourses of Embodiment. (Fall 2003)

Representation and Embodiment in Digital Cultures. (Spring 2002)

New classes I’d like to teach:

Drawing and systems of visual representation. A drawing class which addresses drawing conventions and their denaturalisation.

Course would include exercise in anamorphic drawing (using reflective cylinders, cones and partial spheres) and drawing the entire field of vision. This would lead into discussions of the nature of visual perception, visual anthropology (especially African and Nuginian examples), cognitive archeology of Neolithic cave painting, conventions of perspective, cartography and map projection, Micronesian diectic navigation, etc.

We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. T. S. Eliot - Little Gidding, from Four Quartets

More detail on selected Graduate Seminars

Grounding practice - materiality, embodiment and sensorimotor subjectivity
Fall 2011

At some basic level, arts practices trade in the currency of embodied knowledges – sensori-motor engagements with space and matter, with gesture and artisanal skills. These proficiencies occupy an ambiguous status with respect to intellectual and academic notions of intelligence. Drawing upon material anthropology, cognitive archeology, feminist embodiment theory, philosophy of mind, enactive and situated cognition theory, contemporary neuroscience and other fields, we will formulate an interdisciplinary perspective on the intelligences deployed in arts practices. From a perspective of sensorimotor intelligences and embodiment theory, we will engage contemporary discussions around a ‘return to materiality’ and questions of ‘craft’. Assessment by class participation, tutorial and final paper.

Embodiment, Ubiquity and Material Culture
Winter 2010

This seminar focuses on paradigms of distributed, embodied and enactive cognition, contemporary neuroscience and philosophy of mind as they inform our conceptions of being, mind and consciousness. Emerging research increasingly supports the notion that addresses consciousness/mind/self (pick one) not only permeates the body proper, but is relational - occurs in engagement with material artifacts and social/cultural formations. These new paradigms therefore have direct bearing on understandings of design and creative process in human computer interaction, interaction design, ubiquitous computing and the aesthetics of media art and culture.

Of particular interest in this seminar is the way artifacts inhere knowledge and perpetuate culture. Computational artifacts as well as artworks will be discussed from these perspectives. Readings will include works by Hubert Dreyfus, John Haugeland, Lambros Malafouris, Andy Clark, Edwin Hutchins, David Kirsh, Evan Thompson, George Lakoff, Bruno Latour Andy Pickering, and others.

Information, Representation, Cognition, Knowledge (IRCK)_
Winter 2007-

This class is a broad-ranging transdisciplinary inquiry into questions of information, representation and knowledge with respect to changing technological and philosophical discourses, engaging perspectives from history, philosophy, anthropology, artificial intelligence, cognitive science, neurology, science and technology studies (STS) and other fields. Specific attention will be paid to the question of how the concept of information may have drifted over the last 50 years due to the growth of computer techniques. The nature of representation in different disciplines will be addressed, with special attention to computer science, and to theory and practice of the visual and media arts.

It would be absurd to propose that one might address all these areas in a comprehensive way in ten weeks, and that is not the intention. The goal is, rather, threefold: to expose and denaturalize assumptions, to introduce some key texts and thinkers, and to allow the student to place themselves with respect to multiple histories and on the plane of contemporary discourse. A contextualization in basic concepts of semiotics, epistemology and ontology will emerge through the course. Such a gloss is required in order to engage questions around the kinds of knowledge which possess/can be commodified as information, and those that cannot, ie cultural and body knowledges which cannot be resolved to alphanumeric expressions. This inquiry naturally leads into exploration of the perceptual, cultural and social contexts of knowing. Situated cognition, actor network theory, intelligent agents, and theories of interaction will be discussed. Different perceptual/cognitive issues will be addressed, such as embodied cognition, active sensing and nonsymbolic 'knowledge' derived from proprioceptive and pheromonal perceptions.

The Living and the Life-like: Emergence, Complexity, Artificial Life and Generative Art
Winter 2006

The basic claim of science is objectivity: it attempts, through the application of a well defined methodology, to make statements about the universe. At the very root of this claim, however, lies its weakness: the a priori assumption that objective knowledge constitutes a description of that which his known. Such an assumption begs the question 'What is it to know?' and 'How do we know?'. —Humberto Maturana, Biology of Cognition, 1970.

Advances in biology over the last century have thrown into high relief the questions 'what is life?' and 'what is consciousness?'. Advances in computer technologies over the same period have raised the possibility of creating artifacts which, in one way or another, can be considered life-like. The pragmatic creation of such artifacts has become a concern in the arts as well as in the technical sciences. Interactive, robotic and computational systems exhibit behavior. They behave in some senses like living things, ecologies or societies. Traditional artworks do not 'behave'. So artists and developers working in this field get little guidance from traditional aesthetics and art theory. On the other hand, biology, neurophysiology, sociology, cybernetics, artificial intelligence, cognitive science, complexity theory, artificial life and related fields over the past century have looked deeply into this territory. In a parallel and related vein, over the last century, the reductivist, objectivist and mechanistic worldview of nineteenth century science has been challenged by a range of studies in self-organising systems, 'chaos' and complexity theory and non-linear dynamics. This seminar brings together a wide range of texts from the above fields, in order to give a substantial introduction to the main trends of thought, theoretical resources and history of research relevant to the crafting of interactive art, autonomous agents and multi-agent systems, genetic algorithms, reactive robotics, ubiquitous computing and related fields.

Machine Art and the Aesthetics of Behavior, from Cybernetics to Artificial Life
Fall 2004

This class seeks to give an overview of the history of cultural practices involving behavior and machines over the last half century, with reference to precedents reaching back centuries. This class does not focus on 'new media art' in the sense of computer graphics, video, animation, and web/net practices because such practices are image centered. Nor will it focus on electronic music and sound. Instead, this class will explore practices in which technologies perform, or manifest behaviors, or interact with each other and with humans. This practice has a long history, but has as yet been poorly historcised, presumably because its inherent interdisciplinarity and innovativeness made it too complex for art historians to attempt. So this class is an attempt to address that shortcoming. This history is seen as central to the spirit of ACE.

"Technology is all about painstaking simplification, driven often by a desire for order and predictability, which produces complex - and unpredictable - effects. It's a kind of mania for short-cuts which leads to enormous and irreversible detours. Now this is my business in a nutshell." ... "Imagine a world where every desire can be instantly frustrated, indeed where every desire can be guaranteed to arise precisely customised to the means for its dissatisfaction, where every expectation will be immediately, and yet unexpectedly thwarted. Technology cannot fail to bring about this world, since this would be a universe brought fully under control, consistent with the very nature of technology." Excerpts from "An Interview with Satan" by Frank Dexter in 'Future Natural' (multiple editors) Routledge 1996.

Computationalism and Discourses of Embodiment
Fall 2003

The notion of Embodiment is critical to any theorising of digital arts and cultural practices. This is because the Cartesian dualism and the privileging of an abstract and disembodied notion of mind is axiomatic to computer science. Contrarily, arts and cultural practices are, traditionally, holistic embodied practices which depend upon perception, often active perception. We must recognise that at a basic level, there are two dissimilar, though not contradictory, usas of the term 'embodied' in the literature. One referes to the nature of human embodied being, the other refers to physically instantiated quai-intelligent machines: robots. Along with 'embodiment', several key terms join many of these papers. These include: situation, emergence, and intentionality.

The seminar explores questions around the relationship between embodied being and digital cultural practices, through the juxtaposition of texts from diverse fields including: cognitive science, neuro-ethology, phenomenology, situated anthropology, human computer interaction, cultural studies, critical theory and art theory. These texts are assembled from diverse sources: practitioners and theorists in many disciplines address this subject. These disciplines include biology, robotics, cultural history, cognitive science and the arts. This may seem an odd mixture, but they are linked in their interest in understanding the relation between physical experience and thought or computation. Each discipline projects upon the topic different methodologies and different preconceptions. In many cases the texts speak at cross purposes because of this. In the process of the class, we will discern the qualities of various positions.

Hardware Intelligence: Electronic and Mechanical design and fabrication
2004-10

Mottos of the class:

  • The difference between theory and practice is greater in practice than in theory_
  • You always build everything twice_
  • Good, fast cheap: pick two

The interdisciplinarity of ACE is premised on reconciling the theoretical and academic with the holistic and embodied intelligences of the arts. An artist must have a deep sensitivity their tools and their medium. There is a tension between the academicism required of the university, and the traditions of bodily training and kinesthetic and proprioceptive sensitivity development so crucial to virtuosity. In many fields, computer technology is causing a problematic drift away from embodied and material intelligences. "Hardware Intelligence" argues against the dualistic academic dogma which proposes that the more engaged with the physical world a practice is, the less intellectual or intelligent it is. Far from being just a remedial skill building class, this class brings students who have been alienated from the physical world by software, back into a rich engagement with it.

The title of this class has multiple meanings and may be understood as a tautological joke. This would be a mistake. It is intended to pointedly assert two values key to ACE. First, that intelligence and manual skills are not mutually opposed, that handwork can involve high intelligence and sensibility, and that hardware can be intelligently expressive. Secondly, it asserts that 'intelligence' is not exclusively identified with 'software'.

At ACE we like to consider the big picture, and determine what combinations of mechanical, electronic and software technologies might be appropriate to a given project. As programmable technologies have become increasingly usable, basic mechanical and electronic skills have seemed less relevant. The ACE program has a commitment to the intelligent manipulation of matter and the production of material product. By developing diverse basic skills and knowledge, this class will facilitate a comfort level and competence in the manipulation of materials, components and tools. The goal is to teach practical design and construction of electronic circuits and mechanical systems. Emphasis will be on:

This class enables the student to imagine and develop a wider range of possibilities in material design and fabrication and will serve as a foundation for later classes and research.

Appreciation:

I’m a conscientious teacher and happily, students fairly regularly send me notes of appreciation. I do not log these in any organised way, but here are a few unsolicited notes I dug up:

“I just wanted to say (write) hello and, give you thanks for last semester. I appreciated it greatly, … I never thought I could be so involved and interested in a class. I really learned much about myself as a student and an artist. I thank you again.”
(undergraduate,1999)

“just wanted to say thanks for the observations and remarks that you included when you returned my paper. … i realized that the set of comments you made are among the most pointed and helpful that i have ever received.”
(PhD candidate, 2002)

“Thanks for letting me sit in on your fabulous seminar; the readings and discussions were tremendous, and your expertise was much appreciated”.
( PhD, and faculty member, 2011)

“I just wanted to let you know how grateful I am to have had you as my professor this quarter. I honestly thought the class would be too challenging for me and was even considering dropping the course in the beginning. However, throughout the course I was able to learn and understand a lot more than I expected. I truly want to thank you for such great guidance with the new field of art which I thought was too far and complicated for myself and turning it into another very interesting subject. Thank you again and I hope to possibly take more of your classes in the future!”
( undergraduate, 2011)

teaching

SIMON PENNY