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Duke's First MFA

Sitting in a white wicker chair on the front porch of the Bridges House, home to Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, CDS Director Tom Rankin knows that the new program he helped pioneer is novel. And he says so: it’s so novel, some people might call it a little crazy.

And yet, without this bit of institutional innovation, Duke would continue to lack any terminal degree in the fine arts: a genre of program common to Stanford, Yale and Columbia, as well as hundreds of other universities across the country.

It is these two milestones, two first-of-its-kinds, that make the new Master of Fine Arts in Experimental and Documentary Arts the colossal occasion that it is.

For anyone unfamiliar with this type of degree, it’s important to note that “Master of Fine Arts” is a deceptive term.

Although many master’s programs are meant as steps in professional development and possible lead-ins to further study, the MFA is, as mentioned, terminal; it’s conventionally the final degree an artist can obtain, generally pursued after earlier study and practice. There are no—well, very few—beginners in the nation’s ranks of MFAs, particularly the higher-powered programs Duke seeks to be among.

Duke’s two-year program is a three-pointed effort, represented by the members of its executive committee: Professor Stanley Abe, director of Duke’s Arts of the Moving Image program; Rankin; and Professor Hans Van Miegroet, chair of the department of Art, Art History and Visual Studies. Their three departments comprise the core of the program and lend it its focuses, concerns and content.

Covering a swath of artistic disciplines, the MFA’s proposal mentions “large-format photography, writing, web data mining, spoken word, nanoscale computing, audio and 16mm film” as some of the possible means of production, directed toward creating “powerful new works that engage and interrogate the world we live in.”

This fusion of different mediums is what makes the effort so unique: the attempt to marry the documentary instinct to the experimental has precedent in history but little presence in today’s formal methods of training. A key buzzword for the program is “interdisciplinary,” and it shows in the end result, a curriculum that will take lopsided artists with diverse interests and essentially force them to learn from each other, informing each other’s skills. At minimum, graduates will become capable in conventional and experimental film production; coding and computational techniques; and documentary analysis, creation and methodology.

“Anybody who comes in, we could expect that they will be strong in some area, at least one, and nearly completely unfamiliar with one of the other areas,” Abe said. “But teaching these courses, we would utilize the experienced students that have more background in these areas to actually help teach the others.”

Here is some of the hybridization the program seeks, which will help to create a new kind of artist.

“Are we going to produce students like ourselves? I hope not,” Rankin said. “I hope that they don’t just work the way I work. I want them to think about working the way I work but, in the process of being here, they’ll grab a few more tools and add them to that.... That is experimental, that’s experimental for us.”

But whatever the student, as finished product, ends up looking like at graduation, one thing is unequivocal: matriculants will be mature, developed artists, primarily in the mid 20s to late 30s. Most importantly, they will produce something while they are at Duke, the thesis that receives their full attention during the middle summer and entirety of the second year—a feature that makes the MFA different from many other graduate programs.

“That’s going to be the real crucible: you’ve got to make something,” Rankin said. “You’ve got to produce. You’ve got to close. You’ve got to finish.”

Clearly, no one involved in this program lacks the necessary ambition. But two questions arise from this premise: why an MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts, now, as Duke’s first MFA? And how, in a setting with limited gallery and exhibition space and without bringing in a host of new faculty, is this even going to work?

Though I spoke to them separately, with both Rankin and Abe a noticeable sense of university zeitgeist shadowed the conversation. The professors made it seem almost as if Duke’s current momentum could lead it nowhere else but here—an impressive feat when considering where here actually is.

“If we’re going to build a more vital arts community at Duke, which is one of the goals, it’s going to come from building an environment that privileges the production of art as well as developing audiences for art,” Rankin said. At a school that often stresses the study of a practice rather than its actual execution, he added, this distinction is important.

Rankin mentioned his hopes that the new program might break a “logjam in the stream of intellectual discourse” that has so far kept Duke from establishing MFA curriculums—yet with the acknowledgment that most likely Duke will “always be more interested in Ph.Ds than MFAs.” Abe stressed the rationale was not “MFA for the sake of an MFA”; instead, the MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts was a deliberate creation, growing out of previous collaborations and the joint faculty shared between AMI, CDS and Art, Art History and Visual Studies.

“We’re in a period at Duke where there’s a lot of emphasis on working across different kinds of disciplinary boundaries,” Abe said. Because of this cross-pollination, an approach Art, Art History and Visual Studies Professor Bill Seaman, one of the program’s core practicing artists, calls “multi-perspective,” the opportunity arose to develop something new and unique.

One of the program’s emphases is the integration of theory and practice: not only teaching artists how to make their art, but also situating them in the history of the art they make, those practitioners and schools of thought who came before them, and making sure they can discourse as artists in the thought processes that go into their work. For an effort so heavy on synthesis, this also seems to be a practical concern; if students can’t identify the connections and common ground between the different disciplines, straddling methods and mediums will become that much more difficult.

Seaman cited a need to galvanize the different aspects of the program into interacting with each other, as a means to bridge the previously separate documentary and experimental areas, theory and practice alike.

“There’s two ways you can look at it, and in my mind they’re very clear: there are documentarians who want to begin to deal with new technological processes and interactivity and the database aesthetic and so on,” Seaman said. “And then on the opposite side, there are experimental artists who want to learn much more about the documentation of their own work and being able to tell a story about what their work is.”

On this note, Seaman also raised the issue of credibility as an example of this dynamic—though most documentaries are framed as truth, they are all edited and made, and you can fake almost anything digitally. This methodological curiosity will inform how students approach and consider the documentary instinct, especially in marrying it to the experimental. Though some may choose to explore the topic more than others, such considerations play a significant part in a multi-perspective mentality.

Along with this integration, another characteristic of the MFA’s approach is generating work that is significant for the public, art that has applications both within and outside the academy—one of today’s greatest champion of contemporary artistic achievement. Such an attempt to connect to the public incorporates the documentary ethos, which seeks to tell or record a story, often humane in its values, and may be one way in which documentary ends up interacting with the more esoteric and academic experimental film and new media.

Seaman did resist the label of esoteric being applied to new media, and he explained that, in an age of widespread internet- and technological-savvy, the public greatly appreciates computational and interactive art. But Abe agreed with the suggestion that some experimental film had less accessibility to the common viewer than other documentary work. This MFA, however, would seek to produce content which engages with the world.

Rankin sounded a similar note, explaining that experimental, in this case, has a broad definition: “I don’t think we should see this as experimental in the sense of so conceptual and so new and so techno-driven that it might be hard to find an entry point.”

Rather, he said, the experience of making art that nobody has made before is inherently experimental, and there is experimentation in navigating new techniques of creation. He gave the example of students having homeless people shoot film and then editing it themselves as something that would be experimental in this vein. Rankin added that the dynamic of dialoging with the public and not just other artists makes for the “interesting tension” of many MFAs.

So far, there’s been plenty of thinking about what the MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts will do; soon, it will be put to the test how exactly these things are going to get done. True to the program’s modus operandi, the manner may in many aspects be unconventional and new.

At first, the process will be standard: prospective applicants apply alongside other aspiring grad students with a deadline of Jan. 30 and are accepted in the spring.

Once the first class, which has been targeted at 15—with another 15 to follow the year after, for a total of 30 students enrolled at any one time—arrives in the fall of 2011, they’ll begin their core curriculum. The first semester includes two practice-based studio classes—Documentary Process and Experimental Film/Video—and one theory-based seminar, Genealogies and Theories of the Experimental. In the spring, the studio is Computation Media and the seminar Introduction to Documentary Arts, with a smaller thesis studio designed to get students thinking about their second-year project and the first of four electives, which will be drawn from an assortment of already available and newly created courses in the various participating departments.

The summer after year one and the bulk of the second year are devoted to working on the thesis—comprised of an artistic work and an accompanying paper.

Where this will all take place has already been defined. The MFA will be based out of the Carpentry Shop, an area of about 4,000 square feet, where, unsurprisingly, Duke’s carpenters currently operate. Renovations on the space are set to begin this spring, but Rankin said the area will purposefully be left adaptable for the first group of students, giving them an opportunity to help shape the physical headquarters of their program.

“I want the MFA program and the building it occupies to have a history, and to have a history based on the people that were there, not just the way the building was built,” Rankin said. “And it’s kind of wonderful that the people that were in the building do things with their hands, they make things; they probably merge theory and practice too, but they mostly practice.”

In addition to the Carpentry Shop, the program will draw on the facilities affiliated with its parent departments: the Center for Documentary Studies facilities, the Visual Resources Center, labs and gallery space in the East Duke building, the Smith Warehouse studios, labs and gallery space in Bays 11 and 12 and classroom and presentation space in the Nasher Museum of Art. The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, one of the premiere documentary festivals and now under the auspices of CDS, will also be a resource for the program; students will have the opportunity to work with Full Frame and its participating documentarians in both formal and informal roles, providing an immense roster of working artists to interact with and learn from.

The facilities mentioned here hint at another of the MFAs unique qualities, and one that might be more divisive than others. Many arts-teaching institutions place a heavy emphasis on galleries for displaying student work—creating the promise of exhibition and exposure to help motivate and attract the student-artists—but Duke has a relatively low amount of designated gallery space; instead, the executive committee believes the entire city of Durham and beyond will be available as a prospective gallery, and part of the artists’ goals will be to determine how.

“My hope in this experimental landscape is that some of the work is going to be banners on the sides of buildings in downtown Durham, some of it’s going to be in vacant industrial buildings, some of it’s going to be in ATC, some of it’s going to be on campus here,” Rankin said. “That is going to be one of the things that students have to wrestle with: the exhibition space has a lot to do with how it’s communicated to the audience.”

Going on to mention the possibilities of murals across the city or projecting a film onto the side of a building, Rankin seemed to leave open the possibility of pretty much anywhere as a canvas. Abe went on to mention more conventional spaces as also being part of the equation, including the various galleries available to the program and the possibility of creating new galleries out of vacant industrial space, and he drew a parallel between how the setting of the exhibition and the work’s content should relate and the documentary instinct, which seeks to embody something, whatever it might be.

Computers also play a role, as does the internet, essentially its own limitless gallery, and Seaman was quick to point out the potential of exposure and audience that technology brings to works that are computer-based, taking much of the physical exhibition space and putting it on the Web. The program’s assistant director, Teka Selman, has an exhibition background as well, and she’ll be working with the students to decide what’s the best way to display their theses.

Regardless of where exactly the work will be shown, the work will be shown. It allows for the public and the community to be right at the crux of the experimental and documentary, and even absorbs this facet into both disciplines.

And the presence of new art at and around Duke will have an effect beyond mere curiosity, as will the presence of so many new artists. Especially in AMI and film, many of the classes are taught by instructors and adjunct instructors, people from the community, and the MFA students will not only provide a fresh pool of talent to draw from as TAs and even possibly instructors, their presence should help enhance the undergraduate artistic experience.

“For the students, undergraduates, I think it’s going to be great,” Abe said. “What you have potentially is 15 and then 30 students who are going to be working basically with undergraduates, and possibly doing group work and activities.... It’s going to completely change the way we see art activity on campus.”

With the public aspect of the art, and the student artists’ basically requisite need to be out in the community rather than holed up in a studio, Abe also said the interaction of undergraduates with the MFA groups will fuel itself beyond the classroom. The TAing also serves to defray some of the MFAs cost for students; though the tuition per year is projected at $24,740, with about $19,105 in other costs, Rankin said the program hopes to make available merit-based methods to soften and in some cases avoid tuition altogether, with an ultimate goal of covering students’ tuitions sometime down the road.

All this is suspect, however, if the program can’t provide the faculty to teach these students—artists placing a great emphasis on learning from and work with particular other artists—and Rankin and Abe are both confident in the crop of practicing artists and teachers from which they can draw.

Each department has its own group of faculty to support their particular pursuit, though, naturally, the varied artists will be working together with various types of students in the program. Rankin listed the Doc Studies core—regular rank faculty—as himself, photographer Alex Harris, writer and ethnographer Charlie Thompson, sociologist Katie Hyde, all professors in CDS, and then visiting lecturers like documentary filmmaker Gary Hawkins and documentary radio reporter John Biewen, who will also be teaching.

Abe added to the list new media practioners Tim Lenoir, Kimberly J. Jenkins Chair of New Technologies and Society, and Literature professor Mark Hansen, as well as Seaman. With AMI, Abe mentioned AMI Associate Director Josh Gibson and Shambhavi Kaul, both filmmakers. Professors and practicing artists William Noland and Pedro Lasch, both members of Art, Art History and Visual Studies, will also be key to the program.

One lecturer, however, provides a representative example of how Rankin and Abe hope to expand the program’s roster of teaching talent. Experimental filmmaker David Gatten, world-renowned for his work with 16mm film and old materials—fully analog—has been a visiting artist and lecturer at Duke since last year. Though he isn’t currently listed in the proposal, the executive committee is hoping to include him considerably in the program’s fold, with an increased teaching load, whether it remains part-time or not; both Rankin and Abe emphasized the importance of incorporating visiting artists and part-time lecturers to enhance the MFA, eliminating a need to go out and hire or rely on new, full- or tenure-based faculty.

As the program approaches its beginning, rapidly and unavoidably, there’s still much to be done. But the model is in place for a successful MFA and a roster of graduate students that could potentially remodel Duke’s artistic landscape, and throughout the preparations, Rankin at least has a driving model he’s using to help inform his decisions.

“I’ve always wanted to build the MFA program I wished I could’ve gone to,” Rankin said. “That’s one that was multiple mediums, had documentary woven through as deeply as other aesthetic ideas. And I see this as being that version in 2010, 2011, 2012.”


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