How Might Generative Art Be A Proposition For Cross Curricular Learning In Schools
Computing is the dominant media of our times and a cultural artifact; generative art is a subject to make art and technology relevant to young people’s experiences and bring art and the Stem subjects closer together as a value proposition for Steam. Generative art, the creation of visual and aesthetic form using computer programming, promotes the value of creativity and the creative industries within education to art, design and the core science subjects. It can also address the gender gap in Stem. It makes the scientific become the organic and can be used for young people to express themselves, socially, politically and economically. Whilst there is a declining uptake in GCSE art and design, arguably being not supported by the incoming EBacc curriculum, computer science forms part of the core science subjects. Policy makers are insistent that every child learns to code, but code what? 14 – 17 year olds, dubbed by the media in the UK as the “Gen Z’s” view learning computer science as boring, for the geeks and male dominated. Generative art is a fun and approachable way of teaching programming and fits the curriculum as an extension of existing units of enquiry.
The context of this article intended to offer in some way a roadmap of how might we as practitioners, researchers and educators prepare young people for work in the foreseeable future. In order to avoid a talent pool crisis, both the designer and the technologist are needed. Gen art may go some way to introducing these areas of practice with the intent of a broad understanding and empathy spanning Stem, art and design.
So, what exactly is gen art and how can it be applied to learning in the classroom? Gen art is not built with plans, materials or an objective outcome. It is grown and cultivated like a tree or flower, emerging from simple functions and mathematics. The art of the creation of the organic from the logical. William Blake’s painting of Newton having his back turned to the natural world in favour of “science” (his compasses) is a common interpretation of logic. Gen art can be viewed as Newton turned round; order vs chaos, which applies rather well to creative coding. Gen art can imitate nature and break linear narration creating a fluid, non-repeating world.
The current situation
To offer some background context it is worth reviewing the current general lack of satisfaction of art and design teaching, both from teachers and students in the national curriculum. Students opting for design and technology in schools at GCSE level has decreased from 440,000 in 2004 to less than 190,000 this year, an average drop of 43% (JCQ 2016).
Ged Gast, Immediate Past President of NSEAD, claims the current curriculum is a major factor in the declining pipeline of young people needed to fill the UK’s creative industries talent pool. “Owing in the main to the national standards agenda policies driven by the DfE and consequence of the removal of the Creative Diploma, reductions in applied learning, EBacc, Academisation and general disregard for the value of creativity and creative industries promoted within education in Britain at the moment. This has impacted on the numbers coming through to study and appears to be narrowing the pipeline into HE from schools and FE at the moment”
Government is telling us to code, but code exactly what? How do we nurture young people to visualise, think and understand creativity coding in a world where more and more young people limit themselves to be just being passive “users” of technology and have no idea what is under the bonnet. This raises the question that the current provisions for programming and are missing the point. In short, it’s a male dominated boring subject. There are many computer science undergraduates who echo this view. So how do we turn on students, from users into creative coders and digital artists who can express themselves socially politically and economically?
Young people see technology and creativity as important facets of their identity. A report by Adobe published in October 2016 shows UK 14 – 17 year olds, dubbed by the media “Gen Z” learns best by doing and creating.
Towards a solution
In January 2017 the government published its Industrial Strategy green paper which was met with muted praise. In response to this, the Creative Industries Foundation commented that the creative industries would be one of five named sectors in the new industrial strategy was a major step forward for a sector which has never been formally recognised in a national industrial strategy before. This is a step in the right direction and one would hope that teaching technology, art and design (the basic building blocks of creative practice) should now fall into line with this policy. So why not use gen art as subject to nurture these skills. Simon Katan from the Department of Computing, Goldsmiths view is the teaching of generative drawing techniques make for an ideal introduction to creative programming. Learning these skills not only gives an intuitive insight into the power of computation and its expressive potential, but also brings together concepts from across the curriculum.
Given art is subjective, computing is objective; gen art is the point where the two should meet. We need more diverse students, better prepared students and make art feel more relevant. Gen art encourages, boys and girls to collaborate and brings the art teacher and computing teacher together.
Currently, the two best examples of gen art tools are LiveCodeLab, developed in London and p5js. LiveCodeLab is intentionally designed to be immediately accessible to an audience with low computer literacy. p5js is a community interested in exploring the creation of art and design with technology by using the original metaphor of a software sketchbook. Both tools can provide units of enquiry to young people interested in coding and the arts, design and technology. There is no reason why this can not be taught from Key Stage 3 (7 – 9 yr olds) upwards.
Currently only a handful of UK schools are running gen art courses. As exactly how to develop ideas and techniques for delivering this theoretical and practical content in the classroom remains to be seen. What is currently lacking in schools is a cohesive strategy between computing and art teachers. Considering only basic programming knowledge needed to create high impact, non-linear visual art through coding, this is a great opportunity for Stem and the arts to work closer together. Both the logic behind the coding and the aesthetic outcomes should be reviewed for critical analysis and rigorous investigation into how the outcome was achieved, rather than examining the outcome based on a set of pre-defined parameters.
Pilot studies ran in partnership with Computing At Schools (CAS) community and Goldsmiths Creative and Digital Arts BSc course leaders in Lewisham last year revealed teaching generative art had the support of science and arts teachers, and students. Through practical and creative experimentation students can enhance their understanding on a range of topics from across the curriculum including 2D and 3D geometry, abstraction in art, Newtonian physics, evolutionary theory, probabilities and ecosystems.
GCSE assessments need to shift parameters and focus on the tacit knowledge learning outcomes that exist between form (of art and design) and function (of programming). This will go some way to answering the needs of future employers who will needing a workforce equipped with a hybrid skillset of art, design, technology and science: able to solve complex equations and deliver conceptual thinking. Instead of marginalising creative subjects, we should provide young people with a mix of creative and technical skills required for success. These add to the growing clamour for a substantial change of direction in education.
Children should experience technology as theatrical performance; the browser is a stage for creative coding; high impact, visually rich artistic content and the ability to look under the hood of technology. This environment should be encouraged in schools to incubate the next generation of artists, designers and engineers if the UK wants to remain a world leader in innovation.
The two gen art platforms discussed here can be used in the classroom immediately. They cost nothing, are open source and thus have an unlimited scope for contributions. They offer students unit of inquiry from the arts and sciences; it’s the glue between the two that is of interest and consequence to all. Teachers from the arts and sciences should work closer together. None of this happens without the kinetic energy between students and motivated teachers.
The author is indebted to Dr Simon Katan, Creative Computing Programme Leader, Department of Computing, Goldsmiths; Ged Gast, Immediate Past President NSEAD; Davide Della Casa and Guy John, Creative Coding Lab; Lauren McCarthy, NYU ITP; Eliza Easton Deputy Head Research and Policy, Creative industries Foundation and Ken Baynes.
- Adobe Inc, “Gen Z in the Classroom, Creating the Future”, October 2016. http://www.adobeeducate.com/genz/UK-education-genz
- Archer, Baynes and Langdon, “Design in General Education,” Royal College of Art, April 1979.
- Ken Baynes, “Brexucation,” Loughborough Design Press, October 2016. http://www.ldpress.co.uk/brexucation-by-ken-baynes/
- Creative Industries Federation, January 2017. http://www.creativeindustriesfederation.com
- Della Casa, Davide, and Guy John. “LiveCodeLab 2.0 and its language LiveCodeLang.” 2014.
- Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) 2016
- Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, “UK Digital Strategy 2017 Policy paper”, March 2017.
- TOPLAP, 2010. https://toplap.org/wiki/ManifestoDraft
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This article was originally written for NSEAD AD magazine and published in September 2017