A Beautiful Tension

By Professor Jon Cattapan

Arts training institutions, and indeed the artworld itself, reflect the complex and rapid shifts of information and technologies available to us. Is it really possible to be immersive and discipline-specific in a world where access to many knowledges provides such rich counterpoints and ruptures to singular practices?

Since working at the ANU’s School of Art and Design in 1992 and 1993, where I was tasked with helping to establish that school’s first computer lab, I have been deeply aware of technologically augmented ways of, for example, creating new pathways for painting – what, I suppose has become known as post-digital painting. There was, in those days for me, an immediately evident and useful tension between the quick, somewhat haphazard “play” using very early versions of Photoshop - in particular the innovation of electronically layered images – and the deep slow immersive facture of an “old school” oil painting on canvas.

Is there an optimum moment where being bound by the learning strictures of a discipline and its attendant craft, maybe, could give way to collaboration, cross-disciplinary dialogue, playful interdisciplinarity?

The necessity for waywardness and play, along with methodologically-focused making that comes out of training, is something I muse over in my role nowadays as Director of the VCA: the ability of a young dancer to intersect with sound technology in particular ways has moved dance into a more experimental less formal place. Like-wise a young actor being able to record themselves in real-time allows for an entirely different tempo and collaboration with director. We see now a preponderance of theatre-making, rather than straight drama. These days, a young art student is more likely to be making “sketches” using an i-phone than pencil and paper. But there is something else – the will and the ability, often enabled by technology, to assemble artistic enquiries across disciplines. To be cross-disciplinary or interdisciplinary seems to me to be so prevalent these days, that we probably need to foreground this attribute as part of teaching. Or do we?

The artistic understanding generated through slow progressive task-based instruction imparts in my opinion a deep embodied knowledge to making. Here, I mean “making” in the sense of the physical act that delivers action through one’s body via focused creative thinking. The vicissitudes of making are not however, necessarily tied to just instruction-based learning, or isolated repetitive practice. The young creative practitioner’s artistic fluctuations can also be the result of unexpected interactions, of improvisations, of collaboration. Indeed, chance interactions and the ensuing fluid dialogue between practitioners are absolutely necessary for any intelligent practitioner’s development.

Two important pedagogic questions that have arisen for me have always been: is there an optimum period in creative development where deep discipline-specific instruction and theorisation can so embed itself as part of the artist’s armoury that we see rich development of a solid platform of knowledge; of techniques; of specific methodologies; of historical demarcations? And, is there an optimum moment where being bound by the learning strictures of a discipline and its attendant craft, maybe, could give way to collaboration, cross-disciplinary dialogue, playful interdisciplinarity?

The discipline-specific creative act in a post-digital world must of necessity speak to the ghosts of analogue methodologies too – there is reach there across histories of making

These two questions continue to inform my own pedagogical preferences and indeed my own practice. They form an interesting but irritating dialectic. On the one hand there is clearly merit in artistic practitioners having to learn through a guided search and quiet struggle so to attain a deep understanding of focused “making” and studio engagement. This in my opinion is particularly pertinent in an increasingly speedy, technologically driven and enabled world. In a discipline-specific model, the likely attainment of ‘craft’ becomes important now as the world of making takes on board other skills, that are not necessarily driven through the body. And the discipline-specific creative act in a post-digital world must of necessity speak to the ghosts of analogue methodologies too – there is reach there across histories of making.

On the other hand, there is so clearly a timely and often technologically-savvy dialogue that emanates from collaboration and interdisciplinarity, that is seems somehow more right for our fluid times. The excitement and genuine enthusiasm that we have seen at my university for example, when visual artists have worked with pharmacologists, or theatre-makers are embedded with software engineers to create a zone of creative play has been striking, not just for the potentialities of the art produced, but for the genuine mutual enquiry that has been engendered. Manifestations of performing and visual artists working across the scientific/medical/engineering/technology disciplines are not a new thing of course. I think of MIT’s Centre for Art Science and Technology, or our faculty’s own early efforts with the now disbanded Centre for Ideas. But what is new is a perceived desire by teachers to embrace these kinds of practices whilst student artists are still in early training. There is a more formed set of collaborations and correspondences between specific areas and perhaps a greater confidence from the teachers themselves. Potential interdisciplinarity is further enhanced at a faculty such as ours because visual artists, filmmakers, dancers, designers, actors, scriptwriters, musicians are within easy reach of each other. And yet it is only relatively recently that the siloed nature of our faculty’s discipline areas has begun to give way a little with more visible result. It is as if the current artistic zeitgeist of the times has been assembled with playful interdisciplinarity as the preferred tool.

So, to conclude, there is a beautiful positive tension to be had between focused artistic training such as is delivered in an atelier/conservatoire model and the collaborative interdisciplinary momentum we see abounding more broadly within the creative arts at universities. I return therefore constantly to my initial two questions and think that from a pedagogical viewpoint, timing is a worthwhile consideration, in fact it is everything. It is not necessary or even possible to be definitive, but overall a more critically engaged experimental experience requires a certain readiness, a maturity. Maybe, just maybe, the tuned enquiries of graduate projects is right for foregrounding collaborative and interdisciplinary play after first undertaking the set pieces of training through disciplinary knowledge.


Jon Cattapan is the Director of The Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne. Cattapan is a painter and printmaker who was born in Melbourne, but whose family are from Castelfranco Veneto, Italy. His works deal primarily with ways of representing urban topographies and narratives. He has a long-held preoccupation for the way human beings negotiate territories both actually and virtually. He is known in particular for his expansive cityscape variations. We see in his work the influence of tense global environments, and in particular now, images that reference the perpetual conflict of our times. In 2008 a monograph Jon Cattapan: Possible histories written by Dr Chris McAuliffe was published. Jon Cattapan’s work has been exhibited very widely in Australia, UK, Italy, United States, India and in Korea. His work is held in many major Australian public collections as well as private and public collections in Australia, India, Korea, United States and the UK. His most recent exhibition was The Ghosts of Analogue at Dominik Mersch Gallery, Sydney..