Meet Dr. Penny Florence, New Chair of HDS

Next month, Art Center will welcome Dr. Penny Florence to her new post as Chair of the Humanities and Design Sciences Department. Florence comes to Art Center from The Slade School of Fine Art, University College London, where she led the research programs. Prior to that, Florence was a professor of contemporary arts and director of research at University College Falmouth, U.K., where she inaugurated and led the Ph.D. program.

We recently spoke with Florence about her educational philosophy, goals for the department and her interest in electronic poetry.

What compelled you to move halfway across the globe and join Art Center?
Art Center is a great school, and I have always been impressed with the students, faculty and staff during my visits. But there’s something more—the College feels very dynamic at the moment and I want to contribute to this. HDS is a cross-disciplinary program whose potential interests me a great deal, and I aim to bring my experience to benefit and develop it. It’s so relevant today because jobs change so fast that you can’t just train to do one thing. You have to be able to transfer skills. Thinking across disciplines is really useful in assessing how best to move from one arena into another. That’s a big reason why a background in the humanities and design sciences is valuable for artists and designers. Another is that it enables you to look at the field of art and design in its entirety. This will always be useful, and sometimes essential.

How would you describe your educational philosophy?
I hope to engage the students as whole individuals and to be able to draw on a number of disciplines. I’ve always been a cross disciplinarian. You never know when you may come across an issue where your normal disciplinary framework just isn’t working or even breaks down completely. To have exposure to a number of other related disciplines and to understand those relationships is really important.

At the same time, I strongly believe that interdisciplinary learning has to be connected with an understanding of when specialism is needed and what a specialist can bring.

Education is about learning to think.  You need to respect the facts, but you also need the flexibility not to be ruled by them, because they may change. I approach any pedagogic situation and ask: What kind of thinking is needed here, and where do I look for it?  What are the precedents? Who is participating? So again, having contact with a number of disciplines is very helpful. That’s not to say you just take something from another discipline and apply it. We must question whether this can actually help in relation to the problem at hand.  And if the relationship between the disciplines runs deeper, then there is an opportunity to research it further and understand more about the specialist element of that discipline.

You worked as a feminist filmmaker in the 1980s. How does that experience inform your approach to a humanities education?
The experience of surviving as an artist—as a filmmaker—was full of challenges that are quite different from those you meet in academic life. I realized how much courage it demands to have only your own inventiveness and conviction to fall back on, and to have everything at stake on one project. Even though as a director or editor you may have a team, the point at which you cut is your decision alone, and you have to be able to dig deep into your whole understanding to be sure of it. Feminism in the 1970s and 1980s was an adventure, driven by a kind of historical necessity, and it seemed to need art to explore it. I think each generation has to invent its way of dealing with sexual difference. Sometimes the message of feminism is needed more than others. That’s one reason why it should never be institutionalized. So my experience as a filmmaker taught me that while feminism should inform my approach, it can’t determine it. Just like theory!

Tell me about your interest in electronic poetry.
I’m fascinated how the Internet is constructing our thinking, and electronic poetry is a case in point. What is there in electronic poetry that couldn’t be done before the Internet? It’s a language-based art in which the digital element is indispensable, whether in terms of its production, reception or delivery. I could recite a poem to you now that uses the code from a Web page as part of the way it’s been composed.  You wouldn’t know it was electronic, but it couldn’t have been written without the Internet. Similarly, if we wrote a poem together online, you in the U.S. and me in the U.K., that would also be electronic. But if I just put a famous sonnet online and read it, that wouldn’t be electronic poetry. Poetry tends now to be thought of as highbrow, but that wasn’t always the case. Before writing and recording, rhyme and rhythm were the ways people remembered their stories and enlivened their social gatherings.

So Art Center students will be writing electronic poems before next year…
Oh, I certainly hope so! Especially at times of change, people need to develop new sensations together with ways of expressing them. Poetry can do this. It’s in the body. An obvious question would be: Where would songwriting be without poetry? But ask yourself also: Where would advertising be? The ability to say exactly what you think when it really matters? To speak convincingly about your art or design? Add to this the synaesthetic potential of e-poetry—its capacity to mobilize sound, motion and vision as well as language—to work in 3-D or in real space, and you have an incredibly powerful mode of expression that can help you even if you aren’t interested in poetry for its own sake.

What are the biggest challenges facing Humanities and Design Sciences education today?
The reinvention of ethics is a very important challenge, given the number of changes that are happening.  With the Internet, there can be a lot of unintended consequences. You can assume a different persona, for example, which is playful and inventive.  But once it becomes social, there’s potential for damage because you may affect someone else. Similarly, it’s much easier to realize you’ve said something damaging when someone is in the same room with you.  But the Internet is so removed. So I think we must safeguard, without losing courage or invention.  We need to question the general design of a project, determine what you do with the results of your research and decide what values you convey, discuss and get students to think about.

How we understand groups is another big challenge. In her 2008 book, Chaos, Territory, Art, Elizabeth Grosz examines how you can reconfigure territory.  Territory isn’t a question of drawing a circle around something and owning it. It’s how you design areas, both their insides and their outsides. This applies within HDS as functioning within art and design, as a space within which new formations can occur, and which we can relate appropriately to the particular occasion or application.

What’s your first order of business when you begin in June?
I plan on doing an awful lot of listening. If I were to come in from the outside and have a preset notion of goals, this might not be appropriate. I can certainly think of things that I’d like to achieve in general, but my first goal will be to understand Art Center’s take on what HDS is in context, and then to take matters forward in ways best designed to foster the work, right here, at Art Center.

Florence holds an interdisciplinary Ph.D. from the University of York, U.K., and has lectured at universities across Europe and the U.S., including Art Center’s Graduate Art program. She has written or edited six interdisciplinary books traversing visual art and theory, film, poetry, painting and feminism, and  contributed to 17 others. Her most recent publications are Sexed Universals in Contemporary Art (2004), Looking Back to the Future with Griselda Pollock (2001) and Differential Aesthetics (2000). She recently held a series of events at Tate Modern, London, on the relation between modern art and electronic poetry titled “e and eye.”

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