teaching DIY practices in a university : Manifest 3 in context

I recently wrote this as follow-up to the teaching I did last semester....

In this short article I will reflect on the content of the Mani.fest 3 course and event production as held in a university context. A detailed description of the course lessons and the process of producing the event, as well as student comments are available on the course wiki, at the links mentioned below.

intro: the project
From April till July, 2010 I taught a course under junior professor Ben Sassen in the Experimental television department at the Bauhaus University in Weimar. The 6 credit work module (held 1 morning/week) was entitled "Organizing multi-media events : Mani.fest III". The course was attended by 4 undergraduate students and 1 graduate student from the faculty of Media. The course had been held twice previously, taught by Ben Sassen and had produced 2 events.

The primary goal of the project was to provide the students with a comprehensive, practical experience in organizing a large-scale multimedia performance event at a professional level. The second goal of the Mani.fest project was to create the first quality platform for presenting multimedia performances in Weimar. The third goal, specific to this third edition of the course was to initiate the participating students to the field of multimedia performance, to its historic and contemporary examples, in order to empower their curatorial skills.

Three undergraduate students were in their second semester and the fourth in the fifth semester. The graduate student was in the second semester. The only student with pervious event organizing experience was the undergraduate student in the fifth semester who had worked as an intern for the Transmediale festival for art and digital culture in Berlin. The group undertook all aspects of the event production; sponsorship, curating, technical management, scenography, budgeting, communications, volunteer management. 6 volunteers (friends of the students and teacher) helped out with technical aspects and catering for four days surrounding the event.

The course proceedings and student reports were recorded progressively on the university wiki page: http://www.uni-weimar.de/medien/wiki/EXPTV:Organising_multi-media_events:_Mani.Fest_III

The students' project, "MANI.FEST III : live audio visual weimar" was presented in the Audimax auditorium in Weimar on the 18th of July, 2010 and in the blog format website :

Since 2004 I, Kyd Campbell, have worked as independent curator, event producer and consultant on individual and institutional, local and European level cultural projects. The bulk of this work has been focused on projects i the fields of digital art, video, audio art and multi-media practices. The projects I have managed range from having no budgets (voluntary basis) to having generous multi-annual production funding. I am currently a student in the MFA program of the Media program at the Bauhaus University, Weimar. The Media department is an educational program focused on practice and creative production.

From the beginning of the course, following the example of the previous 2 Mani.fest projects, the expected outcome was a one evening stage performance event, with 5 performing groups and a total budget no larger than 1500e. (the final actual expenses being 1181.20e). Because this event was held in a university context, many real costs, such as venue rental, electricity and webhosting were outside of this budget, absorbed by the school. The team, consisting solely of credit earning students and of myself, teaching the course unrennumerated, receiving credits for an "independent-project" as a student in the MFA Media program, was not paid monetarily. Each student received 6 credits and a grade for their achievement over the semester, upon receipt of a final report. The artists presented during the event were not paid for their performances.

the context
For most students, the choice of enrolling in a university program is to gain the professional skills and recognition towards knowledge and technical growth, towards a professional future. There is a high level of trust a student has for their chosen institution. The expectation of most students is that their teachers will provide them with practical and theoretical information of a high standard, which can be recognized globally. Particularly idealistic students may even hold the vision that all content and practices learned within a university are the absolute best.

In this course, as with the previous two Mani.fest courses, it was the first goal of the teacher to provide the student with "real" practical knowledge. Both teachers, having extensively worked in the cultural field, are well accustomed to working in conditions requiring extreme personal sacrifice, different from regulated working standards (ie. 40 hours/week, minimum salary ranges, realistic budgets).

During the course, it was explained to students that in the cultural field and especially in community or independent projects, budgets and working teams are often very small compared to the expected results. In summary, we told students that it is not unusual to work for free or a very small payment and not to give artist fees when organizing such an event, even in a professional context.

Within the university course context the sub-standard working conditions may be admittedly more acceptable, as the benefit is a learning experience. Many of the artists were also students and as the event was held to a very professional standard with excellent public communication, they all were grateful to take part and understood the benefits they gained. We explained to all the significance of working networks and communities and the value of a DIY (Do It Yourself) working method, as one that allows for the advancement of important and new cultural life, regardless of financial means. The imparting of this working attitude is a regular topic within our university.

All in all, each member of the team and all other participants worked very hard, to near exhaustion, but all remained positive throughout the project and in the end recognize their success and their personal growth from this process. When interviewed, each one is genuinely happy and even proud to have been a part of the project.

the question
Never-the-less, in light of my own ongoing struggle to advance as an independent curator and producer in the cultural sector, I cannot help but to feel somewhat uncomfortable with the "reality" I shared with my student. In simplified terms, I taught them how to realize a project working unrennumerated, with unrennumerated artists and to rely on their personal contacts to fill needs which could not be covered by an inadequate budget.

Now, I do not mean to remove the value of learning to be reactive and creative, the two base aspects of a DIY practice and important life skills. It can be confirmed that each student left the course with additional abilities, and a greater positive vision of their own capabilities (confidence) much beyond that which they entered it with. They also received extensive knowledge about the history, techniques and theories important to the field of digital multi-media performance.

I also do not wish to discredit the value of making use of communities, networks and connecting with other interested parties, nor of ignoring benefits which are not monetary.

What I wonder is whether I went too far, preparing my trusting students to accept sub-standard working conditions and sharing a belief that it is standard in the cultural field to accept this. Although the rock-and-roll style lore of the independent cultural worker is seductive, I hope that the surrender of personal right and comfort is not really a final destiny for most cultural workers.

What is "reality" is that as a cultural worker is often torn between demanding what is deserved, recognizing what kind of contribution one is making and searching to see one's benefits in each situation. This triangle of pressures, with the addition of holding personal and/or intellectual interest in each project, is a good recipe for leading one to have the feeling you have to be humble. This is the question I am left with after a successful semester in which dedicated and stimulated students produced a very successful event.

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