Virtual images

9th June 2000 at 01:00
John Steers of NSEAD says computers can be much more than 'just another tool'.

In last year's Reith lectures, Anthony Giddens, director of the London School of Economics, made the point that instantaneous electronic communication is not only a way in which news or information is conveyed more quickly. He argued that its existence alters the very texture of our lives and gave the telling example that for many of us the image of Nelson Mandela may be more familiar than the face of our next-door neighbour - evidence that something extraordinary has changed in the nature of our everyday experience.

It is clear that there continues to be some ambivalence about the use of digital technology in school art and design departments. Obviously, there are both resource and training issues that may help to account for this. Many have taken comfort from the mantra "computers are just another tool". But what if they are much more than that?

The arguments in favour of a greater emphasis on ICT in the art and design curriculum centre on the increasing importance of electronically published and transmitted media. The interpretation of pictorial data in one form or another is now an essential skill in just about every discipline. In the visual arts, digital technology provides the possibility of a virtual gallery full of images that can be added to or amended at will without jeopardising the integrity of the original. In a world where binary code can encrypt everything from virtual tours of the world's major galleries to simulated low-level flights over the surface of Mars, it becomes increasingly less clear where the border lies between illusion and reality.

There is ample evidence of transcultural practice in the international art market. A "school" of artists no longer needs to congregate in a particular geographical location; today, a print-maker in Tokyo can have close contacts with artists working in a similar idiom in Rio de Janeiro or London, and they might sell their work in Paris or Chicago. This is probably just the beginning.

The new technologies will bring an exponential rush of unimaginable changes to our lives and the way we perceive and relate to the visual world. Art and design educators may tend to think of the computer as just anther tool or perhaps a new medium in which to create, and more often manipulate, visual images. However, given the necessary hardware and software resources, the functions of the computer in the art room can go far beyond this.

Few art departments have yet explored the possibilities of 3-D imaging, animation, digital photography and digital video editing. Computer aided design in the art room, especially for desktop publishing and graphic design, remains surprisingly underdeveloped. Internet access can provide an almost infinite visual resource bank, including access to most of the world's museums and galleries, artists' studios and design practices. The internet offers a means of presenting the work of the art and design department to a worldwide audience. There are opportunities for exchanges of virtual artwork, or to develop collaborative artwork with students in any part of the world but, as yet, few art departments have direct internet access.

The computer in the art room should be an efficient teaching aid, helping with routine tasks and providing a means of generating sophisticated visual aids. It should also be a research tool giving access to ideas and information about art teaching worldwide. It can offer up-to-date information, a forum to test ideas and disseminate information, and to provide easy access to varied and stimulating visions of teaching and learning in art and design.

What is needed is a virtual art and design teachers' centre and a means of navigating useful art and design websites. The National Society for Education in Art and Design is currently developing a portal to the plethora of such sites. By combining and developing a number of existing websites it aims to provide a one-stop route to all the significant resources specific to art and design education that are becoming available online. The new site, which will take several years to develop fully, aims to support teachers and extend their vision far beyond the limitations of the statutory curricula.

To take a look at progress, visit our website.

Dr John Steers is general secretary of the National Society for Education in Art and Design, The Gatehouse, Corsham Court, Corsham, Wiltshire SN13 0BZ. Tel: 01249 714825. Website:

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