Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Bournemouth's Grow Graduate Show

I went to see the work of some of the students from Bournemouth Media School's Interactive Media course at their graduate show on Sunday. I'm afraid to say it was a fairly sorry affair, set in what looked and felt like an old car park off Brick Lane. The venue was very hard to find, aided only by a helpful security guard and by some of the students wearing sellotaped A4 notices on their backs in a desperate bid to lure people in from the street. Best attempts had been made to partition and divide the big white space and inject it with some colour, but ultimately it was an empty echoing chamber with a few computers dotted around the outer walls.

That said, a space to think is important when you're taking in the cutting-edge innovations of the UK's leading bachelor's degree in the interactive media arts. It's unfortunate then that the work on show was as vague and disoriented as the notice-wearing students out in the street. On the whole, the content (each piece of which represented about 4-5 months of toil and each student's major degree submission) was bland and derivative, with very very few pieces showing glimmers of innovation.

I'll declare my interest, and my angle for this review, from the offset. I graduated from this same degree programme in 1999, having been one of the first cohort when the course started in 1996. I then worked at the School for two years, before becoming self-employed but continuing to Lecture and produce digital learning materials for them. I'm aware of a great deal of the internal machinations and politics of the school, and approach my review with (though you might not believe it) not a small amount of bias in favour of my old haunt, and with a continued interest in promoting the School and the course's better future.

When we started the course in 1996, it was a fairly brave new idea - the University took one of the most solid and well reputated Media Production degrees in the country, and split it into a conventional TV/Film course and this more contemporary New Media Production course (as it was then called). Back in 96, no-one really knew what they were doing (both student and professor alike) - the medium was new, the technology was rare, the audience was undefined; we always felt like the TV and Film students' poorer cousins. And I'm sure that some of the work we produced was shockingly bad. But some ten years later, the students and teachers of the class of 2006 do not have those excuses to hide behind. The medium, though constantly changing, is more defined and has a visible framework. The technology is everywhere. The audience is clear. And interactive media is both sexier and more ubiquotous than TV and Film. So why was this content so very dull?

The work could be separated into essentially two camps; the abstract arty pieces, and the more level-headed 'real world' web pieces. Of the two approaches, the former produced by far the more succesful pieces of work, though it was also by far the minority approach. The most outstanding piece of the show, by a mile, was Jack Hughes' abstract environment "Through The Glass... View From My Window" (shame about the name though), which offered an addictive exploration of all the different ways a mouse can be used to interact with an item on the screen, using delightfully simple graphics and a meditative soundtrack. The user was never quite sure if they'd discovered everything, and was spurred on to continue playing in the hope of exhausting all their options. Also falling into this category was "Amira", an interactive video drama built on a proper DVD-Video platform, using the built-in multiple camera angle functionality that offers. Though this piece didn't really pull it off technically, it showed an understanding of the platform and tried to use that lesser-known functionality as part of its narrative (and never have I seen so much attention paid to a Tutorial section, which was a clever complicated rap with music-video visuals filmed in a packed church hall).

That piece in particular summed-up what I had always thought Bournemouth's Interactive Media degree was all about - it is a Bachelor in Arts, not Science. It doesn't matter if you don't quite pull if off technically (that can be worked on), it's the ideas that matter, and you will be rewarded for innovation and breaking the mould. It worries me where that approach may have gone. The majority of the pieces I saw fell into the second of the two camps I described above - they were websites or CD-ROMs for real life (or pseudo real life) products or services. These pieces have to be judged on entirely different criteria to their more pure-art show-fellows. To start with, they can't be judged on the choice of subject matter - even if the student has gone to great lengths to think up an entirely revolutionary new perfume/aftershave line, this isn't a product design or marketing course, you can't give them good marks for thinking up a fun topic.

If they are setting out their stall to make a product that sits within the real-world realm of interactive design, they have to compete with the big boys. The pieces have to be navigable, they have to be usable, they have to be accessible, and most of all they have to have content. There is no excuse - NO excuse - for pages marked as "under construction" at this level of degree work. There is no excuse for a website that contains seven pages, three of which feature a single paragraph of text, and one of which is a web form for signing up to a mailing list which doesn't exist because it's a fictional product running off a local hard disk. Perfunctory add-ons such as downloadable wallpaper, ringtones, and off-the shelf re-skinned flashkit games are just padding; it's good to think that the student has considered their audience might like this, but I fear in many cases these were used to seemingly add more depth to a shallow piece of content. I counted at least five pieces of work that had no business whatsoever being Flash content - there was no material in them at all that could not have been presented more efficiently as a regular HTML website, with all the advantages of accessibility and web standards that this approach would bring.

Some pieces do remain in the memory, for varying reasons. James Griffiths' "Touch Me" offered a glimmer of inspiration, setting itself up as a touch-screen food ordering system you used at your table-side in a restaurant. He had limited all interactivity to emulate that touch-screen environment, and created a fictional community where the user spends their money and gathers credits for spending on bells and whistles. It was a shame that one of his bells was a bog-standard off the peg Bip Bop game which relied on the user having a mouse to be able to play, but it was an interesting concept that, notwithstanding burger-greasy fingers ruining all the monitors, you could actually imagine working in the real world.

Hannah Bliss' panoramas of the curiously semi-eponymously named Bliss bar and restaurant were good fun, though I was never entirely sure why the product existed and who might use it, and I feared she wasn't sure either. There were two almost entirely identical travelblog projects, both reinventing the wheel for products that already exist out in the real world, which I questioned the point of. And there was a marshal arts instructional CD which made good use of what I was told was called rotoscoping (the tracing of frames of a video to produce a fairly pleasing 2D/3D animated effect), though again I'm not sure the audience was well addressed and the content particularly navigable.

Credit must go to the students that organised the attendance at the show, put on as part of the wider "Free-Range" art schools' exhibition. I understand that each student had to put £75 of their own cash towards the show, and that explains the less than 50% student involvement. Though the University contribued some funds, it is easy to think they could have been more involved, since the show so directly reflects on their reputation - I hope for the University's sake that the better students were the poorer ones who couldn't afford to take part in the exhibition. Particular credit should go to the designer of the show's branding, Gregory Coe, for a really stunning visual identity for the marketing. The website may feature a really irritating soundtrack which you can't switch off, but the visuals are a delight.

I guess my ultimate disappointment came from knowing the process that these students have gone through to get to this stage. They are first taken through a process of prototyping their project and submitting it for approval - this is known as the minor project and they have to actually produce a fair weight of the project to get it approved. They then have the best part of the third year of their studies to turn that piece into something worthy of submission as their major project, making up something like 30% of their final degree classification. I cannot for the life of me understand how some of these projects, having gone through this rigourous process, have been allowed to be submitted in this state. The process of checks and double-checks that tutors should be going through to ensure the projects are of substantial enough scope in the first place should be catching some of these ideas and rejecting them out of hand. It is sadly a shocking reflection on the course, and I worry that my old tutors are out of touch with the real world, and what we as employers, but more importantly as part of the audience, expect of interactive media professionals.

It disappoints and surprised nobody more than me that I have chosen to right such harsh words about my dear old Bournemouth. But there's no place for rose-tinted glasses in an industry that only looks forward.