Welcome again to our 2017 By Day/By Night series. Here we profile a range of design teachers from our tertiary institutions to find out what projects they’re involved in outside of work hours, and how their personal creative endeavours feed back into their teaching roles. Fifth up we speak with Dr Bruce Russell from Canterbury’s Ara.
Ara Institute of Canterbury was formed in 2016 from both CPIT and Aoraki Polytechnic. Both institutions have been delivering art education since early in the twentieth century. Art and Design programmes form part of the Department of Creative Industries. In Christchurch we have been teaching the Bachelor of Design degree for twenty years, building on previous diploma level qualifications. The current three-year degree has five specialisations: Applied Visual Art, Visual Communication, Photography, Fashion, and Motion Design. Ara currently offers an honours and masters post-graduate pathway in association with Wintec.
Hello Bruce, can you tell us a bit about your background, your career path and how you initially got into teaching?
When I was much younger I taught at Otago University while doing my Masters. I then gave up teaching for a couple of decades and worked as an archivist, until I retrained as an information designer and fell back into teaching. I taught online for about five years, learning the ropes of academic management as a programme leader at the old CPIT (now Ara Institute). I got the chance to work in Art and Design after the earthquakes, when there was an urgent need to rewrite the Bachelor of Design degree, so that’s what we did.
Outside of tutoring, what do you do?
Well to be honest, I don’t get to tutor regularly, since I’m more of an academic manager, but outside of that I have a long term practice as an improvising sound artist. Some would call me a musician, since I do ‘play’ in bands (notably the Dead C), but I always argue that the title is misused. As a musician I’m a failure, but as a guy making a noise, I’m very inventive. My practice involves performance, recording and installation work. The other main thing I do is writing. I’m always writing journalism, or theoretical essays. I recently completed my doctorate in my ‘spare time’, and I’d like to rework that into a book to add to the other couple I’ve done.
Dead C: New York
What are you inspired by and how do you keep the momentum for your personal work alive?
I always think of a documentary I saw on The Ramones. Those guys had no choice, if they weren’t The Ramones, they were nothing. They were all such freaks and outsiders that being The Ramones was their only option. I’m kind of the same, I don’t have a choice but do what I do. I can’t envisage having a life where I don’t have a creative practice, where I don’t write. In terms of my inspiration, I was lucky enough to be young in the South Island in the early 80s when the country was awash with exciting bands, many of whom were also artists (and many still are). It was the obvious thing to me to take that punk energy into a more abstract sound practice, though to be fair I understand it wasn’t obvious to everyone else!
How does your personal practice feed into your role as an educator?
I’m really interested in teaching critical theory, and in thinking of ways that art practice can be a form of research. That’s the area where I think I have a contribution to make. I’m starting to move into post-graduate supervision, which I think I could be quite good at. I’ve been mentoring and supporting my colleagues at Ara in their research for quite a while, which is pretty much the same thing. My sound work isn’t directly relevant to anything that is taught at the school where I work, but the ideas behind it are certainly applicable.
How do you balance these two very different roles? Are there any particular benefits and or challenges?
For me the key is developing a form of improvisational practice that is very ‘slap dash’ or un-premeditated — that enables me to work very fast and to achieve a lot in short periods of time. That speed of work makes me productive, which is important because my job is pretty demanding of my time. The benefit of having a paid job is obvious. The benefit of the creative practice is that it stops me being bored by the job!
What are the best bits about working at a place like Ara?
Helping to write a new degree which simultaneously increased both the students’ exposure to ideas and their opportunities to engage in real world projects was awesome. Ara was always strong on teaching skills and techniques, but not so good at combining that with the other stuff. I think we’ve nailed that now. Students are doing really exciting work, and some of the staff are starting to get quite ambitious in their own work. That’s important. If we aren’t stretching ourselves a bit, how can we expect that of the students?
And finally where can we see more of your own work?
Although I don’t engage in social media, the internet is worryingly full of me. You can see a great little documentary that my daughter made at school, which is at https://vimeo.com/73436706. There’s a big written feature on my career here http://www.audioculture.co.nz/people/bruce-russell . If you Google ‘the Dead C’ there’s heaps of stuff, though we do not have our own website — we prefer to let other people do the work for us! I do feel artists who engage too much with the world look a little desperate. I’ve always found a whiff of mystique works wonders.
Find out more about Ara by visiting: www.ara.ac.nz
Or, more specifically: http://www.ara.ac.nz/study-options/our-study-interest-areas/art-and-design