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03.30 Wolfgang Münch

New Media Education in Singapore

  • Introduction:

Decentralization has always been regarded as one of the advantages of new technologies. But it might have come to a slight surprise for the old centers that a few places in between newyorkberlintokyo took this notion literally and started their own business. Blessed with an amazing economic growth, Asia has added itself onto the globe of art and media: China, India, Indonesia, and Thailand  are about to make their move. And strategically  placed in the center of South-East Asia, Singapore has started to re-invest a serious portion of its surplus in creative industries. Media art schools are delighted about new funding options while expectations for the return value are high. This is a time full of opportunities for a new generation of media artists on this side of the universe. And a challenge to new media education: will all this add some local flavor to our globalized artware-software-hardware world?

Wolfgang_muenchAbout Wolfgang Münch:

Wolfgang Studied fine arts in a pre-computer era, worked at ZKM, was teaching interactive media in stuttgart, hongkong and singapore, has been artist in residence in ZKM, AEC and IAMAS, and is currently dean of media arts at LASALLE-SIA in Singapore.

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New Media Education in Singapore

Interview with Wolfgang Münch (adjusted by Trebor Scholz)
As part of WebCamTalk1.0

Trebor Scholz: Singapore has a considerable focus on vocational training that is in contrast to notions of solid, balanced education. New media education programs that were presented at the Multimedia Art Asia Pacific Conference 2004 followed the objectives of trade schools focusing for the most part on an industrial skill set. Do you feel that these skill sets will be of lasting help to students?

http://molodiez.org/singapore.pdf (28.2 MB)

Wolfgang Münch: Singapore does not focus much on the arts per se but makes big steps towards the development of media industries. Singapore is a very small island of four and a half million people. Survival means to bring in money while faced with the absence of native resources. Singapore develops and sells its specific expertise to the rest of the world. The bright digital vision of Singapore's leaders is outlined in a number of initiatives, one of them is called "Media 21: Transforming Singapore into a Media City." Having a strong industrial emphasis at new media conferences in this country is understandable if you read this document. For people from other cultural backgrounds this commercial impetus may seem a bit strange.


TS: The criticism of merely teaching vocational skills is in line with business interests. Just-in-time knowledge such as specific animation skills will not equip the young media artist with a variety of skills that is divers enough to accommodate a dynamic market. What if students do not get their first job at Lucas Film' new facility in Singapore? What if the orientation of the market place changes? How do you train students to be able to pick up ever evolving skill sets? A combination of vocational skills, and knowledge in the humanities would position Singaporean students better. They would not be low-end tech workers in an animation factory.

WM: This is precisely the challenge. Who introduces students to conceptual thinking? Who trains people in creativity? Can creativity be taught at all? In our courses at LASALLE-SIA we emphasize both critical thinking and technological skills. That makes our media art programs quite unique in Singapore. Many students have no real sense of what critical thinking means. In Asia the more common model is that students are listening, and then repeat back to the teacher. Traditionally, education was much less about ideas expressed by an individual. We need to help the students to unlearn, to try and open up to collaboration, for example. All these efforts aim at making students more competitive. The main educational challenge in Singapore is to show students that there can be value in a project without immediate commercial outcome, which is not always easy. But discussions about this can be quite charming, and you can convince people. In general, students are very open to new ideas and with a bit of initial input, and a fair amount of patience-- they can go far.


U.S. American academia moves towards the corporate model that favors science over the humanities but here things are somehow opening up for the better. The country is open to new media art practices. It is increasingly easier to get funding from the state, also for a wide range of art projects. Singaporeans experience a new kind of freedom. A good example for this new approach was a recent conference at which Jeffrey Shaw, among others from the University of New South Wales, presented his research program. Collaborations between programs such as iCinema, and Singaporean education and research institutes are planned and encouraged by the local authorities such as the economic development board (EDB).


TS: I wonder if this all so sunny, embracing moment allows for the introduction of Free/ Open Source Software. Are there plans to introduce Linux and Open Source software on a similar scale that we currently witness in Brazil, and partially in Germany and France?


WM: From my experience, Linux does not really play a significant role in Singapore yet. And I am not sure this will change any time soon. Singapore likes big companies, big brand names from overseas like Microsoft, or Apple Macintosh. Singaporeans look over the ocean and think: these are good, powerful corporations. But I think that research communities will make use of Open Source software in the future.

TS: What should we know about new media art practices in Singapore? Is video today's new media of choice in Singapore simply because it is more readily available than, for example, net-worked computers?

WM: Singapore is a very good place for video and animation. Cameras are cheap and there is an emerging TV and Film industry here. Many Singaporeans come back after having made a name for themselves in the United States or Europe. The government welcomes them wholeheartedly as they bring back much know-how. But what we call 'new media' here is not exactly what you may think of as new media art in the United States or Europe. There is a very strong influence of Japanese manga animation, for example. Manga animation has a big market and Singapore wants to be part of that. Many short films are being produced here and new film schools flourish. We are starting our Film School this year at LASALLE-SIA, too. Many film businesses are currently set up, including Lucas Studios. Also iCinema may collaborate with local institutions. In general, new media in Singapore is still mainly about film and animation.


TS: The web-based work of the media art collective Tsunamii has some visibility in Europe and the United States.


WM: Yes, they are Singaporeans. And since its a small country, you can meet them quite easily. There are only few independent places where artists meet in Singapore. Such places include SubStation, which also plays an educational role. But artists like Tsunamii are somewhat less prominent at home than they are abroad.


TS: Do you think that a lack of access to the internet is a reason for this? Are cellphones the more widely used means of communication?

WM: Access to the Internet is widely available in Singapore. There is a big cable going in and out of Singapore. Prices for broadband access are quite low but fairly large parts of the population do not want to spend the extra money and may indeed not have Internet access at home. The setup of society is quite different to Europe or the U.S.. Chinese families, for instance, have very strong ties. Students mostly live with their parents until they get married, usually sometimes between the ages of 20 and 25. And state-supported flats do not necessarily have broadband connection. That may be one of the reasons why there is a lot of cellphone use. But people in Asia are crazy about mobile phones anyway. Contacting students by email, for example, is usually not entirely successful. You have to call them or text them. Then they will immediately respond. Cellphones are definitely a great area of artistic inquiry but I am not aware of art projects using cellphones here in Singapore. At least I can't think of any right now.

TS: You also taught in Hong Kong. What is the state of new media education there?

WM: I taught a 'master class' in creative media at The Art School / Hong Kong Art Center. In general, the situation in Hong Kong was a bit bleak in terms of media art. Even the film business has some problems now. There are many highly skilled people in this extremely commerce-centered metropolis but very few of them have the intention to make media art. But there are art initiatives and festivals, such as videotage/microwave and the Asian Art Archive. But many artists seek their successes abroad. I have been at an international panel discussion about the creative industries, new media and art in Hong Kong. Right in the end, one person in the audience said there is no point in debating creative industries as there is no creativity in Hong Kong. Nobody said anything against it and the event was over. I was stunned. But this describes the situation somehow and not too much seems to change.


The future for media art seems to happen rather in Singapore than in Hong Kong. For mainland China the situation is completely different. If 1.3 billion people decide to make economical changes- that will have a major impact. They have cities with more than 5 million people in each of them and we have not even heard of their names. These cities, mostly unknown to people outside of China, have large universities. There are over 200 art colleges in the bigger cities in mainland China alone. The emphasis is on the fine arts and music, not so much on new media. Unfortunately, China is not paying teachers very well, so there is little financial incentive for a teacher from the U.S. to work in China. And the Chinese government still does not invest much in this kind of art education. But I think that this will change in the near future. They have to get some people from the outside into the country. This will start most likely in the context of the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008.


In Thailand there are attempts to bring media art into public awareness with the Chiangmai Media Festival and the Thailand New Media Arts Festival in Bangkok. So far such festivals are much less polished than their European sister programs like Ars Electronica or Transmediale because they are underfunded and quite new. Thailand starts to understand that there are possible markets following cultural events like that. With the Switch Media Festival, Chiangmai tries to become the IT capital of the North. Indonesia has a growing and interesting arts scene specifically in video. One thing is missing throughout Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia and all these countries that are situated between India on the one side and China on the other. There is a lack of a transnational network of people who work together on new media initiatives. There are all these small yet very different countries and unfortunately there is very little unity. But there are attempts to network media artists of the Asian-Pacific region, in an initiative with UNESCO and SARAI in Delhi. In the Western world such new media network was an amazing advantage 15 years ago.


TS: My last question relates to situated media criticism. Much of new media theory is written and published in the United States or Europe. While these materials are unquestionably important, their use in the context of Asia has a connotation of cultural colonialism. Texts may not speak to the local situation. Are there Chinese or Singaporean media critics?

WM: Not all Singaporeans read Chinese. And Chinese books have a sufficient readership in their own country. There is no desperate economic need for them to be translated. What you pointed out about Western text is quite crucial. For the most part Western media critics speak to a Western situation. But in Asia, books from the outside are perceived as somewhat better, and it is very hard to change that perception. A new mind set that matches their own cultural background needs to be developed here. For example, a group of students wanted to address structures of fascism in their project, and they locate their discourse immediately in Germany in the 1930s. I ask them why they are using something about which they know hardly anything. Do not they have their own local massacres to work about? If you set out to work about such topics, why do not you look at dictatorial structures in Asia?

To summarize: Singapore is a very pragmatic country. People here locate a problem and then they are trying to solve it. Many students are of that same spirit. And this peculiar pragmatic mixture of business, technology and art could be something that Singapore can contribute to the international new media scene. I am curious if this will be perceived as a new approach to new media. We may have this old fashioned approach to the artist as a lonely maniac who dies at the age of 28 because of an excessive life style: one person against the rest of the world. Singaporeans come from a different point. They have new technologies at their avail and they will be open to use it for artistic ends. Maybe there is a new idea coming out of that, which might be different from what we see in Europe or the United States. Lets see whether it is possible to combine artistic with commercial agendas.

Wolfgang Münch studied fine arts in a pre-computer era, worked at ZKM, was teaching interactive media in Stuttgart, Hong Kong and Singapore, has been artist in residence at ZKM, AEC and IAMAS, and is currently dean of media arts at LASALLE-SIA in Singapore.

Posted by: ts | 2005-04-05 6:01:50 PM

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