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April 24, 2023

How Can Universities Adapt to Web3?

Through interdisciplinary education, The School of Digital Arts is helping students to engage with new technologies, from AI to NFTs
Credit: Manchester Metropolitan University’s School of Digital Arts. Courtesy of SODA
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How Can Universities Adapt to Web3?

A visit to Manchester Metropolitan University’s School of Digital Arts (SODA) feels different to other educational institutions. Maybe it’s the monumental LED facade on the exterior, or the high-spec editing suites, or the green-screen studio on the second floor. Perhaps it’s the cutting-edge art gallery, Modal, that exhibits works by pioneering digital artists (currently Rebecca Allen). Or perhaps it’s just the fact that, having only opened in 2021, it still lacks the institutional freight that weighs on other universities, especially in the UK. 

In fact, Manchester was still experiencing frequent lockdowns when SODA opened. But much like NFTs, whose popularity surged following the pandemic, the School is now helping to transform legacy modes of content delivery into a flexible platform fit for Web3. Just as co-creation is increasingly inherent to the new cultural economy, at SODA cross-disciplinarity reigns supreme. And while the inclusion of a “Village Green” for collaborative working carries with it a touch of Bauhaus nostalgia, who could deny that NFTs usher in a new age of equality between fine art and digital craft? 

In their “Introduction to Extitutional Theory,” Jessy Kate Schingler and Primavera de Filippi contrast institutions — which “focus on the static and inert qualities of social structures — with extitutions, which consider how individuals “interact and engage with one another through relationships and rhythms.” In the same way that Web3 rejects Web2’s centralized form of corporate enclosure, so SODA amplifies relations across disciplines, departments, and the wider university. This week, Right Click Save looks at how SODA is reimagining digital arts education for a new age of extitutions.

The Foyer at SODA. Courtesy of The School of Digital Arts

SODA on NFTs and blockchain

Holly Jade Stocks (BA Future Media Production): How can NFTs and blockchain empower artists and ensure fair compensation, while addressing concerns about ownership and creative freedom?

Marsha Courneya: That’s what I talk about with intellectual property a lot, in terms of trust creating another imaginary category of ownership. Ownership of ideas is already an imaginary thing where we’ve taken physical property and tried to apply those rules to intellectual property. If I have a cup in my hand — me holding the cup means that you can’t hold the cup at the same time. But with digital, that’s not true because you can infinitely copy something and everybody can have the same quality item. 

Anything that tries to put a fence around creativity and ownership, in my opinion, is ultimately taking us in the wrong direction. Unfortunately, it is a direction that we’ve been going in for the past 30 to 40 years, at least in the American and Anglo-American copyright tradition. Before 1978, the average copyright term was only 32 years, so you could see something as a child and then imagine that, by the time you were an adult, you could take that piece as though it were a Shakespeare play, do whatever you want to it: change it up, cut it up, put it back together. But over the last 40 years, the idea of ownership of creativity has been getting tighter and tighter, the restrictions are higher, and the term lengths are longer. Now it’s the life of the author plus 70 years, which no one is going to live to see. That’s in the interest of the corporation, right? 

Authors die but companies don’t, so their interest in an idea will never expire. They just keep rolling it over and trying to own it again and again. That chain of custody for ideas is not really how creativity is supposed to move through culture. It’s supposed to be open. 

On the flip side, we have this flawed concept of authorship based on an individual genius coming up with something brilliant that’s totally original, and then comes out and says: “it was me. I did it.” But there are many more people involved. If you think about the kind of creativity we value, it follows that romantic ideal of the author. Now is a really good opportunity for artists to have more than one point of negotiation when they get paid. But that’s also going to take a lot of group organization [...] and a form of unionization; it’s more information to give artists more negotiating power.

SODA’s virtual production studio. Courtesy of The School of Digital Arts

HJS: In what ways can NFTs be used to empower artists and creatives by ensuring fair compensation for their work and providing more control over their intellectual property?

MC: I’m a co-founder of the NFT Research Group at SODA, which has been running for about a year. Right now, we’re working with students from Manchester Fashion Institute to transform one of their final projects into an NFT to be released simultaneously with their exhibition. That’s important from a curiosity standpoint, an experimentation standpoint, and an employability standpoint because employers are struggling to fill these skills gaps. They need people who have experience with these technologies and a critical awareness of their good and bad sides. 

Although I wouldn’t call myself an NFT or AI enthusiast, one has to have a reaction to it. You can’t just opt out of this cultural conversation because it has so many real-world consequences for people. 

There’s a lot of suffering involved that you don’t see that is made opaque by the commercial process. Helping students develop their own opinions about it is what’s really important to me. 

A view of SODA. Courtesy of The School of Digital Arts

HJS: How do you feel about NFT art collections? Do you think they have a positive impact on artists being paid and credited for their work?

MC: I think they could, but what’s happening right now is that we’re still figuring out how to do that. I think where NFTs are most interesting is in their utility beyond being simply a JPEG attached to a bit of crypto. 

I do think it’s good because it shows a chain of custody of ideas, which is hard to fabricate and tamper with. That’s great for artists. Anything that gets rid of the gatekeepers, in my experience, is really good. 

For artists to have two-way channels and a direct relationship with their audience is wonderful. So much of the open-source community on the Internet is led by people participating in something based on values that they have. The Creative Commons and the General Public License for software all have very open roots. But if you have a system where people are electing to participate through goodwill, then it’s going to be hard to keep bad actors out, especially at the scale that the Internet affords with anonymity and lack of responsibility. 

Computer suite at SODA. Courtesy of The School of Digital Arts

SODA on AI in education 

Gabi Howard Jessen Baker (BA Future Media Production): How can AI be integrated into education and the creative process to enhance learning experiences, stimulate innovation, and drive success in different industries?

Michael England: Students might have concerns about the future, but I believe there’s still a place for human creativity. AI is currently in the machine learning stage, where it draws from existing information and reinterprets it in new formats. However, fundamentally, it’s built upon what has already happened, with humans contributing that input. 

Humans, who often draw inspiration from nature or reality, bring a unique perspective to the creative process. Thinking about the structure of your practice and how you approach it is something that AI might not be able to replicate entirely. 

I think the importance of critical thinking and the human touch is often underestimated when it comes to creativity. The essence of academia lies in learning how to think, process, and use various tools and concepts, and that includes AI. So students should focus on honing their creative skills while also embracing AI as a tool to complement their work.

Avatar creation workshop. Courtesy of The School of Digital Arts

GHJB: What challenges and opportunities do AI and emerging technologies present for educators and students, and how can they be leveraged to prepare for the future?

Gabriele Aroni: I believe that AI is going to change job roles rather than decrease them. There will also likely be a shift in the tools being used. For example, artists might go from knowing every detail of digital drawing software to understanding how to use AI interfaces effectively and refining the AI-generated content with other software. AI doesn’t do anything by itself unless prompted to do so. 

While it’s possible that people with no artistic skills might use AI to generate sketches or backgrounds that would have previously required an artist, I don’t see this as a significant threat to the art industry on a larger scale. 

Artists will still be needed to provide prompts and ideas for AI. There might be some role-switching, with people skilled in programming becoming adept at prompting AI and potentially transitioning into art-related roles. There will undoubtedly be changes, but I don’t think AI will eliminate the role of the artist. This is similar to how other technologies, like photography and cinema, have impacted the art world without erasing the artist’s significance.

The VR lab at SODA. Courtesy of The School of Digital Arts

Mark Thomas: It’s all about how you utilize AI in your creative process. I’ve seen students who have quickly adapted to using AI in their day-to-day practice in highly creative ways, which has opened my eyes. It’s like when photography emerged and people claimed it was the death of painting, there will always be changes. The key is to harness it creatively and bring the human side into it. Considering how fast things are moving and how sharp everyone is, I think students can do a lot with AI, both in utilizing its potential and critically engaging with it. It’s essential to play with it, pick it apart, and question it as well.

ME: It’s actually surprising how quickly it has evolved. I think this year, everyone has taken a step back and thought: “wow, I didn’t expect AI to impact creativity so quickly!” The speed at which AI has entered the creative realm is astonishing, and it’s fascinating to see how it will continue to shape and affect our creative processes and final outputs. 

With AI handling tasks such as face-swapping or recomposition, I’m always thinking about what I as a human can do to counteract or complement that. I find it interesting to create work that appears to be made by a computer but is actually crafted by a human. That interplay between human creativity and AI capabilities is something I enjoy exploring.

MC: I believe it’s a complicated issue because we’ve always had ideation tools, haven’t we? Perhaps, at some point, people argued against tearing things out of magazines to create collages, which is somewhat similar to what visual AI does, and that’s where the danger lies. 

When it comes to students’ written work, AI does pose a threat in the context of finished work. However, I don’t regard it as a threat when it comes to ideation, developing one’s thinking, and providing something to react to. 

We’ve always had access to different resources to experiment with, especially in educational contexts. It’s true that you can’t cut up a film and release it as your own creation. However, in the protected space of education, students should be free to explore and experiment with a wide range of influences. In essence, AI models are like conglomerations of everything that has been said and done, combined and reimagined into something that looks polished and complete. While the issue is indeed complex and I can see where the dangers lie, I wouldn’t be overly alarmist about the impact of AI on individual creativity.

The entrance to SODA. Courtesy of The School of Digital Arts

On SODA as a model of interdisciplinarity

Tom Fitzsimmons (BA Future Media Production): How does SODA’s approach to cross-disciplinary collaboration across courses, disciplines, and schools benefit students and educators?

GA: At SODA, I have seen students collaborate across disciplines like animation and photography, which is especially important in game development as it is usually a collaborative effort. This medium, by nature, consists of different arts, involving animators, fine artists preparing sketches, and others depending on the scale of the project. It is rarely the product of a single artist or person. 

At a university level, having a collaborative framework in place is essential, as it not only provides valuable training for working in this medium but also enhances employability and job prospects. 

In medium to large companies, students will be expected to collaborate with colleagues who may come from diverse backgrounds, including game design, which, despite the name, is not the same as game art. The tools and approaches can be quite different between these disciplines. In technical and logistical terms, being able to work with different professionals without necessarily being an expert in their field — having an understanding of their software, formats, and workflows — enables a smoother transition into the profession. This collaborative experience is far more beneficial than being limited to a specific segment in an industry that is, by nature, highly varied and collaborative.

Hilde Heim: The collaboration between Manchester Fashion Institute and SODA has been a journey of discovery and learning. Initially, we didn’t know much about the potential opportunities, but as we delved deeper, we realized the immense value in working together. Since then, SODA has grown, and the industry has evolved, demanding new skills and approaches. As fashion educators, we’re aware of the rapid changes and the need to adapt our programs accordingly. We might be scrambling a bit to keep up with the latest developments, but the alliance between our institutions helps bridge that gap. SODA specializes in technology and sophisticated software, which can be daunting for us and our students.

Barbara Nigro: Our collaboration with SODA has been a natural and organic process from the beginning. It all started at an impromptu networking event last year, where Hilde and I realized how our skills complemented each other from the perspectives of both lecturers and students. We saw an opportunity to work together to enhance student experiences, curriculum, and research. We initially focused on NFTs, and the collaboration has since expanded to cover various aspects of how technology is integrated within fashion. The experience has been incredibly rewarding for students. For example, last year, an impromptu workshop with Alasdair [Swenson] led to numerous creative outputs and enhancements from both our institutions.

A view of SODA. Courtesy of The School of Digital Arts

TF: What makes SODA an effective model for fostering adaptability, innovation, and industry-relevant skills among students? How can this approach be replicated or improved upon in other institutions and disciplines?

GA: Although I’m relatively new to SODA, having started only three months ago, I’ve already noticed some unique aspects to it. One significant difference is the level of collaboration between disciplines. In the Games Art masters, for example, I have students collaborating on joint projects with other postgraduate students from animation. 

This level of collaboration was difficult to achieve in other schools of Architecture and Interior Design where I have taught, as those faculties were often segmented, which resulted in limited collaboration that was also reflected in the wider profession. 

SODA’s collaborative environment is not only reflected in the teaching and in students’ work but also in research. We have an excellent Game Studies research center where colleagues from diverse backgrounds such as English, film, history, and digital media contribute to research on the topic of games. This inclusive and collaborative approach benefits practitioners, teachers, and students alike.

BN: As researchers and educators, we have different focuses — it’s been essential to find a balance between our respective areas of expertise. While my interests lie more in supply-chain transparency, it’s also fascinating to observe developments in other fields. I’m excited for SODA’s students, who are well-positioned with their digital literacy and technical knowledge. However, I do believe that having a strong understanding of the commercial aspect of fashion is crucial for success. 

There’s a bit of a give and take [in the collaboration between SODA and the Manchester Fashion Institute] as our students might benefit from more digital literacy, while SODA’s students may want to know more about fashion. I believe that there’s a sweet spot between the skills and knowledge from both schools that could be advantageous for the near future.

Protect your NFT collection and discover new artists with ClubNFT

With thanks to Alasdair Swenson and Kadja Manninen.

Gabriele Aroni is Senior Lecturer in Game Arts at the School of Digital Arts of Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK. Trained as an architect (University of Florence), he pursued his studies in digital media (MSc Oxford Brookes University) and communication (PhD Toronto Metropolitan and York Universities). His research is situated at the intersection of architecture, game studies, cultural heritage, and semiotics. His publications range from architectural history and semiotics, to the aesthetics of digital games and copyright law. His latest book, The Semiotics of Architecture in Video Games (2022) is available from Bloomsbury Academic. 

Marsha Courneya is Senior Research Assistant at the School of Digital Arts. A writer, editor, and open licensing specialist, Marsha’s work centers on copyright law reform and using open licensing to create sustainable economic models of collective authorship. She has run workshops with Creative Commons, Mozilla, and the Cologne Game Lab, where she applies systems thinking to storyworlds and empowers participants to build on elements in the public domain. 

Michael England is a part-time Lecturer in Filmmaking. He has been a practicing multidisciplinary artist for 20 years, working within film, graphic design, photography, animation, installation, and audio-visual live performance. He has worked commercially for clients including Adidas, Sony, Xbox, Channel 4, and BBC. He has also worked with record labels such as Warp, Polydor, Virgin, and Skam, working with musicians like Autechre, Bola, Leila Arab, Andy Stott, Graham Massey 808, Demdike Stare, and Afrodeutsche. His work has been shown in leading galleries and museums including the ICA, BFI, Barbican, Roundhouse, The Maritime Museum (Greenwich), and The Imperial War Museum North.  

Hilde Heim is Senior Lecturer (Deputy Division Head, Fashion Communication). Dr Heim is a former fashion designer and entrepreneur who ran her own brand, wholesaling and retailing formal wear in France and Germany and later in Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane. Prior to starting her label, Hilde worked as a graphic designer in elite international fashion magazines, Vogue and Elle, in Munich, and Le Figaro in Paris. Hilde completed her Doctor of Creative Industries studies at the Queensland University of Technology. Her early research included studies on support mechanisms for small-scale entrepreneurship through digital platforms. Hilde is continuing to research changing fashion business models and the adoption by small-scale enterprises of emerging technologies for sustainability. This includes the use of blockchain for more transparent supply chains, virtual design, and sustainable marketing. 

Barbara Nigro is Lecturer in Fashion Communication with over sixteen years’ experience in international retail working for high street multinational brands such as Marks and Spencer, H&M, and Mango in more than twenty countries. Throughout her professional career, she has played a pivotal role in bringing innovative business solutions, leading several projects focusing on the introduction of innovative store design and customer experience propositions, consistent international branding, omnichannel communication, and integrated technology-driven customer journey strategies into an international franchise business model. Barbara’s research interests lie in the future of retail and integrated technology-driven customer experience solutions, innovative customer engagement strategies, fashion psychology, and the impact of AI on consumer behavior. 

Mark Thomas is Senior Lecturer in Filmmaking at the School of Digital Arts. Since founding Soup Collective in 1999, he has developed his role as both an independent Filmmaker — directing promos and documentaries for acts such as Elbow, Doves, and Editors — and as a Creative Director, developing large-scale AV projects and installations for clients such as the Science Museum, Imperial War Museum North, the National Football Museum and the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. His work has been screened at the National Film Theatre and more recently at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam. He holds an MA in Creative Technology from the University of Salford and currently divides his time between Soup and teaching on the Filmmaking BA (Hons) at the Manchester School of Art, Manchester Metropolitan University. 

Gabi Howard Jessen Baker, Tom Fitzsimmons, and Holly Jade Stocks study BA Future Media Production.