Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Omni-arts and Imagineering

CalArts: the first degree-granting institution in the country specifically for students of both the visual and performing arts.
 Photo: California Institute of the Arts

“I love Walt Disney’s original concept of creating a school in which the arts could intermingle with each other. “
–Rick Haskins, CalArts Board member

Last month I toured California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, CA, and began to reflect on its meaning.   

The school came into being out of budget hardship in 1961, with the merger of the Chouinard Art Institute and the historic Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, when both had financial troubles. One of the benefactors of Chouinard was Walt Disney, who had been training and finding his artists there since 1929.  His vision culminated in the merger of the two institutions to create the first degree-granting institution in the country specifically for students of both the visual and performing arts.

CalArts was imagined by Disney at the end of his lifetime in the mid-1960s as a tribute to the many arts that supported his studio empire-enterprise.  Now nearing its half-century anniversary, CalArts has already graduated major talent in music, graphics, film, and theater, besides its best-known suit, animation.  It is also a hub for advancing the global reach of avant-garde communities across Latin America, Europe, and the Pacific Rim.  As one example, CultureHub is an international streaming incubator linking artists and audiences to promote collaboration across continents., with studios at CalArts, SeoulArts, La MaMa NYC, and Manchester UK.  

The school’s deliberate one-building design, mandated by Walt, provides a single-planet creative space for a unified arts experience.  Part of the arts interplay is learning one’s way around the tunnels without signage—much like the infrastructure at Disney World park.  The CalArts mission for the arts is interactive, integrative, and international.  The curriculum reflects the broad as well as intricate knowledge base of the original Disney Imagineering team who were tasked to think like storytellers and filmmakers as they executed on architecture, city planning, wayfinding, exhibitry, and ride design.  By this method of imagination plus engineering (Imagineering), they pioneered the gold standard of themeatics as “venu-ology,” the creation of meaning out of space. 

Imagineers were constantly asking questions about the ideal forms to match up to the demands of the exhibit, ride, landscape, parade, or pavilion on the drawing board:  how would any given artform or effect, drawn from the treasury of cultural history worldwide, fit into and advance the story and theme?  It is the ongoing question of every filmmaker everywhere.  Disney’s talent was to apply that question in three dimensions on the ground. 

To respond, the Imagineering studio had to know how the guest—the theme-park arts audience—thought and felt about an array of themes and stories, and the potential of each art form to bring it to life as a design suite.  Leading portfolios of their solutions can be experienced as Main Street, USA (Hometown, childhood), Adventureland (exotic places and people), and Tomorrowland (the imagined future as it blends back into present-day technology).   These theme cores actually form the heart of the Disney parks and re-create the core values of the American experience in symbolic form, choreographed to be experienced in small (mainly family) groups.

Such in-depth insight called for a solid grasp of culture as it exists in the collective imagination—the way people perceive and value the world as a shared mental and artistic expression.  This turns out to require approaches and appreciation going far beyond replication of authentic and documentable reality.  John Hench, as lead Imagineer, outlined this archetypal understanding of the park guest psyche in his career portfolio, Designing Disney: Imagineering and the Art of the Show (2003).  Hench lays out the operating principles of theme design based on human perception and behavior as his Theory of Constraints.  This theory runs what designers can and cannot do--by defining and drawing the limits, first, to describe the range of physical and cultural spaces that human beings experience, and second, to understand that creativity has to take place within those limits of perception, expectation, thinking, behavior, and social awareness.   

Disneyland was an entirely new artform in 1955. Critics didn’t quite know what to make of it.
Photo: J. G. O'Boyle, The Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis 

The Disneyland proto-park concoction was first unveiled in 1955.  This was a new artform/ critics didn’t quite know what to make of it.  It was clearly far more than an amusement park.  By now it has far overreached its original concept of public space drawn from film, pollinating and breeding dozens of new design platforms across the past six decades (malls and history museums are just two).  It is also the most comprehensive artwork ever devised, conflating and incorporating every other known art within the theme-space berm. 

These range from the folk arts to the fine arts, performance (dance to speech), graphics in every mode from murals to signage to digital; architectural innovation, film, sculpture, light and sound, and of course, special effects of every sort imaginable, and hybrids of all these derived from Ars Mixto technology.  It is the complexity from pairing-up of forms that makes up the native creativity of Themeatics.  “This model of creative exchange,” says the college’s outgoing president Steven Levine, “the crossing over of different perspectives and influences, has always been in our DNA,” at the root of the college’s dedication to cross-pollination. 

Now CalArts has a new lease on the future of design and the creative imagination that feeds the “arts in concert.”  Elsewhere in Creative Intelligence I’ve written about Visioneering as the coming phase of creative artsmaking, outlining the interplay and interbreeding of formats, history, and styles.  As these become a working assumption, the school, with its already global reach and reputation, has a jump start on becoming the place where Visioneering grows and thrives.  

How, then, should this new Omni-arts vision be instructed and practiced within an arts academy?  The professional organization for theme park design, The Themed Entertainment Association (TEA), will hold its annual SATE (Story + Architecture + Technology = Experience) conference on CalArts’ campus this year in October.  Design now operates within a world in which the theme park is an established arts institution and in fact a core concept of practice and collaboration that has spun off its magic into the many arts that created it.  However, there are still few academic centers dedicated to this vision, taking it apart to make sense of its dynamics, preserving and curating its process and histories, or teaching it. 

An engine of the new age of the arts is the strength of the colleagueship behind any project and its operation for multidisciplinary specialization. Here Carnegie Mellon, Savannah College of Art and Design, and Valencia College are in the forefront of entertainment design.  Programs and majors are so far a rarity.  Most theme-park designers are the self-made product of their own CalArts-style personal programming in the tradition of project-based experimentation.  The challenge is to find more systematic ways of capturing, curating, and transmitting their hard-won work and knowledge to take it to the huge stage that off-screen entertainment will occupy for the coming century. 

The lead role is now open for the perceptive institution that can envision itself inventing and reinventing  the theme parks of the future—and other launching pads and creative platforms to come.

1 comment:

  1. You never fail to go so much deeper; and you never fail to enlighten.