Collaboration and Assemblage: The Transformation of the First Year Program
By Dimitry Tetin
are filing in slowly into the Art Institute’s Fullerton Auditorium. It is a
night class and many are wearing their work clothes: they are porters, delivery
boys, cooks, and waitresses. A few of them chat with the model, a young woman,
adopted by a working class family from the South Side. The front row is reserved
for the best students: deemed most promising by the instructor for their treatment
of line, volume and space.
The woman reclines, as the students, their drawing paper backed by a board firmly
planted in their pelvises for support, attempt to record her pose: the curve
of her spine that brings forth her hips, the dynamism of her strained hands,
the way her hair carelessly outlines the shape of the pillow in dire need of
laundering. The more advanced ones strain every muscle to capture her illusive
essence. The hall is filled with the sound of charcoal scratching the paper,
the beat to the spectacle is provided by the instructor’s shoes, as he, in attentive
silence, ascends and descends the stairs of the auditorium.
Or at least that is how Theodore Dreiser described the School of the Art Institute
in his 1915 novel The Genius. If the function of introductory classes at an
art school is to inform the student of key art-making approaches, then things
have definitely changed.
It is 2004, and for more than 18 months, the School’s administration has been
working in collaboration with the faculty to redesign the First Year Program.
It is part of a wider effort to catapult the school’s curriculum and technological
resources far into the 21st century. In addition to structural curriculum changes
and the physical move of the Program exclusively to the Sharp building, the
School is also requiring all first year students enrolled in the Core Studio
classes to purchase an Apple PowerBook G4 laptop. The School is also implementing
a wireless network that provides umbrella coverage for all of the buildings.
The new computer portal, “go.artic.edu” will serve as a key communication and
service tool for faculty, students, and administration.
Time for Change
“In response to, and in support of the School’s interdisciplinary intentions,
the FYP is conceived as a group of studio classes that collectively introduce
beginning students to a breadth of art forms, methods, tools, and ideas,” the
School of the Art Institute’s 2001-2002 Self Study asserts. The studio classes
in the program taught students conceptual and technical methods within dimensional
approaches. In addition, the Research Studio component helped students learn
various strategies of research, both experimental and academic, in order to
expand the knowledge and understanding of their subject.
As Adam Scott, and Adjunct Assistant Professor in the FYP, describes: “The FYP
has been suffering from a number of structural issues for a while now. Students
entering the FYP would usually find themselves in one of two contrasting situations;
instructors that are expansive and allow the students to plug in and turn on,
or instructors who feel it is necessary to conduct remedial exercise in the
purely technical aspects of art making.” The consensus among the SAIC community
was that the students were not sufficiently learning the technical or the conceptual
aspect of art practice, nor receiving enough guidance to wade their way through
the myriad of SAIC’s departments and practices.
The Restructured FYP
The new FYP program seeks to address problems of previous years by completely
reshaping the incoming student’s experience. The new six-credit Core Studio
will be required for all incoming freshmen, combining them into classes of 60,
co-taught by four faculty members. Two Core classes will meet on two consecutive
days of the week in order to intensify the learning experience. The new facilities
can be modified to accommodate students in groups of 15 to
120. They can work in smaller groups on studio projects or come together for
The class will introduce students to various contemporary technical, conceptual
and critical approaches. For example, in the first weeks of one of the classes
co-taught by Michael Ryan, Adjunct Associate Professor and Faculty Advisor to
the Student Union Galleries, the students will be asked to build shelters from
rolled Sunday editions of New York Times. They will have to work as a team to
create mini-cultures for each of their shelters, and communicate with each other
without the use of speech. The project combines aspects of sculpture, design,
performance, critical thought and cultural knowledge that are indicative of
the new FYP. In another project, titled “Do It,” the students will have to communicate
the directions of how to complete a work to another student over e-mail. “Not
to say that the students are not going to learn drawing and address issues of
space, but the FYP assignments will be based on projects and ideas as opposed
to dimensionality,” as Lisa Wainwright, the Dean of Graduate Studies and Professor
in the Deaprtment of Art History, Theory, and Criticism, states.
The first semester Research Studio component of the FYP will supplement the
technical and conceptual skills acquired by the students in the Core classes
by exploring how to investigate the history, politics, critical issues and cultural
contexts in their work. Practices such as observation, collection, material
investigation, library research, as well as search for found objects, will be
utilized to help students approach their studio work, according to Jim Elniski,
the Co-Director of the FYP. In addition, starting at midterm of the Fall semester,
the faculty will work closely with an advisor from Student Life, in order to
help the students with class selection in the Spring. The second semester Research
Studio II will help students further develop ideas within particular themes,
such as building a narrative, working within a historical practice or using
color, chance and humor in their practice.
The incoming freshmen will not be able to take any elective classes in their
first semester, but they will be able to take up to two department-specific
Contemporary Practices classes in the spring, which will eventually replace
the introductory classes within each department. Some of the Contemporary Practices
classes will cross departments, such as painting and printmaking or art therapy
The restructuring of the FYP is a step in a new direction for SAIC. As Lisa
Wainwright points out, students are coming out of high schools better prepared
and the School needs to challenge them within a contemporary paradigm. The idea
of a single artist working in seclusion creating masterpieces for posthumous
recognition is hopelessly outdated. Under present conditions, in order to survive
and succeed, many artists rely on media-specific collaborations or practices
linking different disciplines around a similar concept.
She provides, as an example, the synergy exhibited by John Cage’s, Robert Rauschenberg’s
and Merce Cunningham’s seminal tour of Europe, which combined music, set design
and choreography, based around everyday sounds, found objects and movements.
In order for the cluster-based FYP to function as intended, all of the classes
will be held on the second, third and fourth floor of the Sharp building. This
is a definite improvement to the old system, where students had their 2-D and
3-D classes in the Columbus building and then had to make their way across Michigan
Avenue for time-based work. Every Core Studio class will have access to two
general use classrooms equipped with wall partitions to accommodate the fluid
class-size, as well as a woodshop, a peripherals lab, and a space for lectures
Caution and Challenges
Despite the 18 months it took to develop the new FYP, recent months proved to
be very challenging for staff, administration and especially the instructors.
As long-time SAIC faculty member Michael Ryan pointed out, “Things have been
asked of me that I have never done before.” While Ryan has previously team-taught
for “Art Across the Streets” class, many of other faculty have not. He noted
that preparation time for classes involving four teachers is much longer, and
there is a “greater chance for insecurity and vulnerability.” While some of
the faculty teams have been developing the curriculum along their specialized
dimension lines, others have been collaborating with each other across dimensionality
and media. “To survive you have to bring some part of yourself to the table,”
Most of the faculty in the FYP department happens to be part-time, and work
other jobs; the switch to collaborative teaching proved to be a strain. The
key to implementing the new framework of collaboration among faculty had been,
according to Ryan, “coming up with a communication structure, among faculty
and future students.” He hopes the new portal will facilitate that, while realizing
some will be initially reluctant or lack access to it. “It has been a huge challenge
to get to this point,” Elniski said.
Adam Scott emphasized that the “core clusters will act as an interdisciplinary
centrifuge, hitting the incoming students with concepts and techniques from
all of the disciplines that in the old model were discreetly separated; this
should prove to be nothing if not vibrant and somewhat chaotic first taste of
SAIC.” Paul Coffey, Director of the Undergraduate Division, agrees: “The truly
interdisciplinary nature of the FYP depicts the School at large.”
Despite the broad changes, there is very little room for failure. The faculty
has been developing curriculum to maximize the cluster format. “We have to make
sure the students are not the guinea pigs,” says Michael Ryan.
A successful implementation of the proposed changes to the FYP required an alternative
to the old system of communication. The curriculum changes and the implementations
of new technologies have ushered in the “go.artic.edu” portal. According to
Chas Scidmore, Director of Administrative Applications, the portal will function
as a private web site, reached through an authenticated sign-on, offering on-line
services, features and resources. It will consolidate various applications and
content, such as web mail, personalized calendars, and school-wide announcements.
It is proposed that the portal will support on-line class registration for the
Spring 2005 semester.
An important aspect of the portal will be the ability to foster a sense of community
between students and faculty. As Skidmore describes it, it will serve as a virtual
student union, consolidating the SAIC community split between three buildings.
Faculty will be able to automatically communicate with students in their class
via discussion groups. Students will be able create their own groups based on
their interests and post text, topics, share images, text files or links.
The portal is intended to eventually phase out the all-school e-mail system,
in favor of announcements posted on the user’s home page. SAIC’s website will
be transformed into an information resource directed to the outside community.
The School’s administration has been traditionally very serious about maintaining
computer user’s privacy, and intends to keep this policy with the portal.
The Laptop Revolution
In addition to the restructuring of the FYP curriculum, the School is also
introducing laptop computers as a requirement for all incoming first year students
to expose them to research techniques, image editing, and time-based art production.
While this year only the FYP students enrolled in Core Studio classes will be
required to purchase laptops, there are plans to integrate laptops and the portal
across most of the School’s classes.
One of the reasons for the implementation of laptops in the School, according
to Hiroko Yamamura, Assistant Director of Computing Resourses and Information
Technologies, has been the continuous increase in demand on the computer labs
in the Michigan and Sharp buildings. She strongly insisted that “we do not want
to intimidate anybody with technology,” a statement backed up by the continuous
training sessions CRIT has conducted for the School’s faculty.
In addition to training and resistance issues, one of the concerns that come
with the introduction of several hundreds of laptops to the School’s campus
is the problem of theft or simple absentmindedness.
Of course, computers will not completely change the classroom environment. FYP
students will still have to attend class and participate in live critiques,
but the faculty will be introducing numerous computer-based assignments. The
laptop is an added tool that will be made integral to the life of many SAIC
students; however, “computers are only as interesting as their end user. In
this specific case, the computers are being used as a digitally adrenalized
sketchbooks,” says Adam Scott. “The people that are really in trouble are the
faculty who do not use computers on a regular basis, not the students.”
The FYP faculty underwent extensive training on using the laptops and software,
because they will ultimately be responsible for training the students. There
will be computer technicians, who are part of the Student Computing office in
the Sharp Building, dedicated exclusively to supporting the FYP students. Michael
Ryan said that even though he was not very familiar with the new technology,
the more he learned about it, the more comfortable he became with it. He sees
the change in the FYP curriculum, and the integration of laptops and the Portal
as one of the biggest changes in the School’s history.
The reinvention of the program together with the technological improvements
will dramatically alter the School’s curriculum. The true test of the changes
will be the reactions of the students and the way they approach their work.
As Adam Scott says, “Exposing students to the real conditions of contemporary
art-making is always a sure bet. The conditions are this: there are no rules,
and everything is permitted.”