Life’s lesson

Adrian Shaughnessy previews the Royal College of Art’s animation and interaction degree shows

The purpose of education is to learn how to learn. Obvious really, yet few of us grasp this at the time, and we fail to see the relevancy of memorising the names of the Plantagenet monarchs, or the value of quadratic equations. This simple fact certainly escaped me.

If only someone had told me that the point of those interminable history lessons, not to mention algebra, physics and half a dozen other subjects, was to help train and discipline my ragbag adolescent mind, I might have paid a bit more attention.

Nowhere is the notion of ‘learning how to learn’ more relevant than in the training of a designer. No matter how good the school, college or institution, nothing fully equips you for professional life.

But what about the postgraduate student? Does he or she have an advantage? Do they glide straight into pole position? In my own experience of postgraduate students from the Royal College of Art (the world’s only ‘wholly postgraduate university of art and design’), a postgraduate education is both a valuable asset and a mild impediment.

The benefits are clear: a fertile period of experimentation and contact with talented co-students and inspirational teachers (all RCA tutors work as well as teach). And the disadvantages? A tendency towards complacency that comes with heightened expectations, something RCA rector Professor Sir Christopher Frayling touched on in a recent speech when he talked about the corrupting of the ‘ideology of instant success’.

I was able to test my layman’s view of postgraduate education when I was given a preview of the work of two groups of graduating students in the animation and interaction departments, as they prepared for their final exhibitions.

I began by talking to Professor Joan Ashworth, who is head of animation. She has the quiet demeanour of a natural teacher. You sense that she inspires her students with controlled vigour. The sort of teacher, in fact, who makes you want to go back to education.

I asked her where her students came from: ‘Mainly from graphic design and illustration, with one or two from architecture,’ she explained. ‘All 12 of them are new to it, none of them come from animation courses.’ She further defined them as individuals with ‘vision, an interest in spatial relationships, an interest in space.’ She cited Shynola’s Richard Kenworthy as a recent graduate, who epitomised the type of student the course aims to produce.

Nearly all the work I saw was characterised by two factors: a dark aesthetic and an aversion to slick digital animation techniques. Animation software has been eschewed in favour of a traditional, even old fashioned, approach to making things move: lots of knitted puppets, models and hand-drawn figures, mostly in the unsettling style of classic eastern European animation.

Subject matter was rich and varied. I saw films dealing with the poetry of Walt Whitman, a meditation on hypnogogia and a recurring obsession with food. Rosabelle Believe, a short film by Tim Shore, who worked as a professional graphic designer before finding himself drawn to studying moving image and animation, was based on the death of Houdini’s mother. It has a charm that reminded me of classic title sequences. Emotive and enveloping.

Two pieces stood out from the rest. They commanded attention not because of their technical or aesthetic merit, but because of their narrative power. The first was Yuki Tsujita’s puppet animation film The Restaurant of Many Orders. Humorously grotesque, it had the iron-hard narrative grip of a good fairy tale. And it made me laugh.

Equally compelling was Celia Galan Julve’s Mexican bandit queen epic Story of the Desert. If Oliver Stone did puppet animation, it would look like this.

According to Ashworth, no great emphasis is placed on craft skills. But there is, in her words, ‘a big focus on drawing’. You can see this in the ‘pen and ink’ work of Lewis Campbell. His film Capoeria is a tour de force of traditional hand-drawn animation. In fact, you’d be forgiven for thinking it had been made any time during the past 50 years.

And this is true of most of the films in this year’s animation show: they look back nostalgically to animation’s glorious past. I saw nothing that pointed the way ahead.

In contrast, my visit to the interaction design department was an euphoric dive into the future. The department, formerly known as computer-related design, is run by the inspirational Professor Irene McAra-McWilliam. She was previously director of design research at Philips in Holland and now heads the renamed department with evangelical zeal.

I arrived expecting a catalogue of zippy Web projects and some monkeying around with next-generation text messaging. Not the case. Instead, I found a humanistic preoccupation with our relationship to technology. Or more accurately, a preoccupation with a world where technology is humanised.

McAra-McWilliam defines interaction design as ‘a discipline that explores the relationship between people and technology’.

‘You could say interaction occurs in the space where technologies and users meet, and that interaction designers inhabit this space, looking in both directions simultaneously,’ she says.

She has certainly got her students looking both ways. ‘It isn’t enough simply to understand the possibilities offered by new technologies,’ she points out. ‘Interaction designers also have to understand people: how they experience things, how they themselves interact and how they learn. It’s not about the design of the next microwave, it’s about the role of the kitchen.’

I saw three projects. All three of them were eloquent expressions of McAra-McWilliam’s vision. The first, by Stuart Penny and Gianni Tozzi, was an ‘intelligent mousetrap’. When it catches a mouse, this futuristic trap sends a text message to your mobile: ‘kill or set-free?’ You decide the rodent’s fate. Don’t expect to see this in the next Innovations catalogue. But Penny and Tozzi’s thinking, and their melding of old and new technology, carried a whiff of futuristic black magic. They also showed me their smart milk carton and their intelligent fly swat.

Jacqueline Higgins, a research student, showed me her almost novel charting of the humble doorbell. Not an especially fertile subject you might think? You ring it and someone answers it, surely? But not so, it seems. We all respond differently to the doorbell’s warble. For many, especially the old and the frightened, it is a cause of anxiety. Higgins spoke to an old lady who confessed that she ‘never answers it after dark’. Another man explained that if e e his front door bell rang he knew it ‘wasn’t a friend’. All his friends came to his back door.

Higgins’ beautifully catalogued research might lead to the development of ‘smart’ bells that work in the way we want them to. Certainly, I’ll never again think of a doorbell as a mere doorbell.

The final piece that I saw was a ‘self-aware clock’: half surveillance camera, half archive, this mind-boggling piece of inventiveness by Ross Cooper and Jussi Angesleva, almost defies description, yet like many great inventions it is howlingly simple.

You’re going to have to pay attention to the next bit. Imagine three concentric circles on a monitor. The outerring represents the second hand of a clock. The middle ring represents the minute hand. The inner ring represents the hour hand. The monitor is linked to a Web cam.

Still with me? OK, here’s where it gets interesting. You record a 12-hour scene with the Web cam. Anything you like: a busy street corner, a reception area, a playground. You could even do what Cooper and Angesleva did and point it at a TV screen for 12 hours.

Images are sent back to the monitor, and using a mixture of Macromedia Director, and some whizzo bespoke software, the ‘clock’ begins to tick down. Every second a record of what the camera sees is deposited as a chunk of visual information. Next, one second later, another chunk. Then a third, and so on, until a full minute of action is archived. In other words, a ring is formed made up of 60 consecutive moments in time.

Then the next ring fills up with a minute-by-minute record of a whole hour. Finally, the inner ring fills up with an hour-by-hour record of an entire 12-hour period. Sounds weird, I know, but you end up with an astonishingly easy-to read mandala of archived time, as beautiful as a sundial, but unlike a sundial you get a permanent record of the passage of time. And you can get a print-out.

What have Cooper and Angesleva achieved? Interesting research into methods of archiving information from a surveillance camera or a work of conceptual art? Both really. But the true worth value of this project is the voyage of discovery undertaken by its inventors. I suspect they learned a great deal on their journey.

Adrian Shaughnessy is creative director of design group Intro

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