the website of owen byron roberts
This fall I began teaching at The College of New Jersey as an adjunct. I didn't see myself going into teaching until midway through my experience getting a masters at NYU, when I started thinking about careers beyond freelancing and being an artist. The College of New Jersey job happened pretty randomly—I wasn't getting called back from the majority of jobs I applied for and was scrambling to get a some teaching work at the Borough of Manhattan Community College where many ITP alums start out. There are a lot of things that are inconvenient about the TCNJ job, mostly the location and resulting commute, but I am also pretty lucky to be teaching at competitive four year school in a an art program.
I teach to sections of a class called Web 1, which is part of the Art and Art History program, and required for graphic design students. It's an anomalous class, one of the few in the program that requires students to learn computer based skills that aren't Photoshop or other Adobe software platforms. It seems like it would fit more in the Interactive Multimedia program which shares the same building, but at some point in the last decade, someone decided graphic design students should be versed in web design and I've become the most recent in a series of adjuncts to teach the class since the original professor left in 2009.
The funny thing is, I'm not a graphic designer. I'm an artist who uses tools that designers also use, and while at NYU I often found myself in courses where my sensibilities and the sensibilities of graphic designers were directly at odds with one another. I find much of the history and practice of graphic design really interesting and informative, and I somewhat accept that there is an overlap between graphic design and art, especially when looking at movements like Dada. But the objectives of design and art, to me, are inherently at odds. Design is meant to present information in a captivating and alluring way. Which is why design and advertising feel like synonyms. Marcel Duchamp, one of the Dadaists, wrote about "retinal" art, art that is meant to be aesthetically pleasing and nothing more. His work was meant to be conceptual, to provoke thought and reflect on life. This captures my feelings about art. My feelings about design are more cynical. I really like the writing of designers like Josef Albers and Johannes Itten, but I often find their work, as captivating as it can be, lacking any reflection of the real world—it often feels like they are hiding behind forms and aesthetics in order to make art devoid of meaning and therefore able to avoid judgment. Contemporary practices in design often operate in a similar or even more nefarious way, especially on the web, where designers work to make the difference between advertising and content, or what is referred to as content, more and more ambiguous. Good design might then be the most effective way of tricking a viewer into absorbing information about and eventually purchasing a product.
I feel like I can defend design as a way to communicate information, which is inherently valuable. I feel less certain about my role as a web design instructor and the skills that I am introducing to my students. When I walk around the halls at TCNJ I see examples of student work, most of them designs for products, fake or real, advertisements for movies and television shows and other branding exercises. Of course, these college students are trying to learn skills to get jobs in the real world. But it feels absurd at the same time, that we are only able to express ourselves through appropriated corporate branding.
Last week I gave a lecture on Internet art. I talked about Dada and Duchamp. I realized that it was as impossible for me to explain the impact of Nude Descending a Staircase on the art world, which is hard considering how difficult it is to understand the context of the art world 100 years ago when the painting was first introduced, as it is to explain the impact of the Internet on art or design. They are so used to looking at things on the web, so over saturated, that the history of the web, and the development of web aesthetics, are completely taken for granted. So of course my lecture, while it had its moments, also started to feel like some droney professor out of touch with his students. I don't expect these kids to adopt my ideas about art and design, but I do hope to make the thing I find exciting about the Internet feel exciting to them. So I'm struggling with how to present this information, whether to talk about the influence of corporations of web development, or the history of art at all. But it's nice that, being in the Art and Art History department, and having control over the material and syllabus, I am in the position to debate about these conflicts at all.