Experimental research in art and design and developing individual creativity
If one brings up the term “visual communication” today in art university circles, then many people will react with skepticism - doubts, reluctance, sometimes an open refusal. This is probably a sign that the term “visual communication” has become questionable in the age of political restoration, in a society obsessed with discussion.
Indeed, the creation of the term “visual communication‚” which has evolved over the years, stems from a time of salient changes in cultural paradigms, which, also in Germany, began sweeping through society from the mid-1960s. In the course of the consolidation of postwar society in the German Federal Republic and the astounding pace of economic recovery, the field of the arts set about to “dare more democracy.” The time was ripe for a critical analysis of traditional hierarchies that had suffocated the various disciplines of the arts over the decades and had created very distinct and opposing camps: on the one hand, elite education and advanced culture; on the other hand, everyday pop and trivial mass consumption; here an autonomous and self-made picture; there applied graphic art and the commercial; here the queen of the arts; there the whore of the desires . . .
The term which was brought into circulation, “visual communication,” aimed to overcome such monarchist and Freudian-influenced constructs of consciousness and its ideological demarcation by means of distinct boundaries. It moved the actual political core of artistic work into the foreground, on the basis of an egalitarian communication process. At that time, a new productive pragmatic and scientific analysis of the artistic process rejected the pathos and theories of genius underlying earlier concepts of creativity, looking instead to processes of the efficient exchange of information between transmitters and receivers.
The founding fathers of the Academy of Art and Design Offenbach were the democratically inspired protagonists of a new rational and enlightened concept of art. In 1979, a new research and educational discipline was set up under the label Visual Communications, combining such contradictory disciplines as architecture and (constructivist-based) consumer graphics into a synergetic unit. Over the course of the decades, new subjects were added: poeticized stage design, seductive film, moody free-form art, and finally cool new electronic media. In the university reform of 2006, the subject once known as Free Design was more aptly retitled simply Art. And Applied Design now goes by the name of Communications Design. Together with Media and Stage Design they make up the four subjects in the department of Visual Communication.
Despite these changes and additions, which have created even greater differences and upheavals in education and research, and despite the technical modernization of the individual areas of visual production, in Offenbach the sobering terminus technicus “visual communication” is still persistent today as the internal house amalgam. Perhaps exactly because of these diversities and tensions, in the small urban, but peaceful town of Offenbach this egalitarian view is preferred, for historical reasons - and also probably because of the contrast to the wealthy city of Frankfurt am Main, where everything orbits around the goose laying golden eggs. So one thing leads to another. Visual Communications at the HfG Offenbach in its current form takes what might seem to be an old-fashioned name to unite the creative power of a great many artistic and theoretical disciplines, both traditional and contemporary, and sets them within modern and sophisticated dialog and competition with each other.
Since all universities and academic subjects somehow resemble living beings, they develop their characteristic profiles not only through the mechanics of their academic programs and the dynamics of their courses, but particularly through their psychology. This complex factor, understood above all via the emotions, relates to the interaction of such aspects as, for instance, the historical coinage and the awareness of tradition at an institution, the architectural aura of the premises, the specific radiance of the social environment, the political-cultural impulses of the region, and the working climate in the academic circles. Today, the psychological disposition of our Department of Visual Communications is, in my opinion, strongly determined in all areas of artistic work by the penetrating technical and technoid potential of the digital media and naturally also by the functional worlds of modern communication and product design. The increasing operational readiness level of most modern technologies and production ideas creates an atmosphere which is highly technophile, engineer-obsessed and futuristic-oriented – which all help form the first outward appearance of this subject area.
The resulting – conscious or unconscious – confrontation of the teachers and students with questions concerning rational and pragmatic methods of artistic work, the analytic plausibility and the technical precision of drafts, and finally also their usability in a globalized post-industrial society, also has an effect, of course, on the artistic and philosophical climate of the discipline. Continuing confrontation of analogue with digital and independent art with applied design has resulted in an enlightened concept of art that is characteristic for HfG Offenbach, whereby the artwork is understood as an individual imaginative experiment in the social context of our fragmented and drifting industrial society. This analytical concept of art, which aims to overcome all esoteric clarifications and mystifications, distinguishes the university’s self-image from that of a traditional academy of arts. At the same time, it functions as a foundation for understanding the specifically defined research and educational mission at the appropriately named “university of design.”
Yet today’s discipline of Visual Communications is far from merely a hegemony of the rational, thanks to a certain aura surrounding the more idealistic, artistic programs of study at our university. Thus, the fields of fine art, stage design, analog illustration, animated film, narrative and experimental film all pursue poetic and more purely imaginative means of artistic innovation. This latent presence of the “romantic” in today’s discipline of Visual Communications serves to represent the position of the whole Offenbach Academy – to providing a countermodel to the notion of the pragmatic art engineer. There is a tension inherent in this constellation which, in the process of their studies, students learn to come to terms with.
In keeping with the educational mission of art universities, the academic program in all four disciplinary fields concentrates on the experimental study of artistic-design content and the development of the students’ individual creativity. One goal of our program is to help students acquire the artistic, design, scientific, and technical basics for a command of methodical working methods and technical implementations, and to train their ability to judge aesthetics.
In the workshops, labs, and studios both the digital computer and media technologies as well as analog and classic artistic-design techniques are presented, investigated, and developed. Because qualified practice in an artistic and communicative profession also requires a profound knowledge of certain historical, cultural, social, and economic conditions and effects of art, media and design, the training in all four fields is shaped by various theoretical subjects: language and aesthetics, history of art, history of visual communication, film history, dramaturgy and theory of directing, cultural perception theory, media sociology – in general, art theory in the broadest sense. These theoretical subjects accompany the development of the students right up to their extensive final theses (diploma) with the goal of giving the graduates the capability of objective, critical reflection.
Prof. Adam Jankowski
Dean of the Department Visual Communication