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Building Worlds: Faculty Spotlight on Kurt Ralske


Kurt Ralske, Chair of Media Arts, teaches Digital Media at SMFA. In his course Sound and Moving Image, students learn not only how to use sound as a filmmaker might, but also more broadly, perhaps as it may be applicable to a performance of any kind. Within Digital Media, he also teaches courses in 3D and Virtual Reality. He ensures that his courses are never just skill-based in which students learn new technologies and processes, but instead encourages students to use the occasion to think about what the technology means for their own practices and the world at large. This is central to the approach of teaching Digital Media at SMFA. Students are expected to not only master the tools, but also to think about what the tools imply for art, culture, the economy, and politics, among other spheres.

Kurt’s background, like many SMFA faculty members, is interdisciplinary in nature. He holds degrees in both Computer Science and Art Criticism. The core of his own artistic practice surrounds creating new software. His conceptual interests lie in history and the archive. Ralske aims to use technology artistically, to allow us new ways of thinking about or relating to history.

One of his influences is Walter Benjamin, specifically his writings on history. Ralske summarized some of his favorite Benjamin ideas as, “When people in the present, think differently about the past, that’s what creates the future. The way that we can help resolve the traumas of the past is to find new ways of engaging in a dialogue with the past. That [dialog] changes the present and changes the future. It’s a bit mystical. But maybe being an artist is not a very rational proposition to begin with.”

Ralske’s work extends beyond the digital realm, into a variety of analog mediums. He creates large prints, the images being the result of the custom software that he creates. His video pieces are displayed in galleries and museums. He has done book projects and some of his projects have a performance element to them.

Ralske explains, “There was a time when I first got involved in computers and art, around the turn of the century. At that moment, it seemed what was interesting about working with newer technologies was figuring out what the qualities of these new technologies were. Now, it isn’t important what tools are used to make the work, what’s important is the artistic statement..”

An example of Ralske’s interdisciplinary, shape-shifting practice can be gleaned from his project, Rediscovering German Futurism 1920-1929. Ralske started the project as he was looking for examples of a niche sub-genre of German Expressionist Cinema while trying to research the extent to which futurism was an influence on German Expressionist Film.

“I didn't find futurist films, the sort of films I was hoping would exist. I thought, if these films don’t exist, I’m going to make them and reinsert them into history. I created forgeries of the genre that didn’t exist, that I wanted to exist. They’re rather convincing forgeries. They started out as a series of stills, then videos, then lecture performances. I would lecture on this alternate history of a genre that doesn’t actually exist and display this work as if it were not my own. He transferred the digital work to 16mm film and then into a book.

Ralske says the conversation surrounding his work has changed as the political scene has evolved over the past ten years. The lines between a “forgery,” “misinformation,” the make-believe, and the fake have been renegotiated and recontextualized. Ralske is looking forward to teaching a course for incoming students this July titled, Art, Truth, and Misinformation as part of the Tufts Summer Accelerator program.

“I think artists should be building worlds that don’t exist. This is a great use of anyone’s creativity. To create possible worlds, besides artists, -who else can do that? It turns out others can--propagandists with an agenda that they are trying to accomplish. They are also doing work in the realm of the imaginary.”

On teaching, Ralske shares, “Making art is very democratic, it’s equally difficult for everybody to create something new and exciting. I approach a classroom with the attitude that there’s no monopoly on the understanding of how anybody should make good work or good ideas. We’re collectively engaged in the process of figuring out what’s the best approach for each individual. Can we collectively come up with the direction that you might put your energies toward? I love it when the class feels like it has its own momentum. Everyone agrees that we’re working on the same sort of questions and wants to collectively work on those questions together.”

“By the time our students have graduated, they have developed their ideas and a way of working. They have skills in a variety of mediums. They have learned how to develop a concept and choose a medium that will be best for that concept and how to execute that. Our graduating students tend to be original thinkers. The ultimate goal of art school, specifically SMFA, is to help you figure out how to integrate your creativity into your life. It can help you develop skills and give you practice in conceptualizing those projects and executing them, but the most exciting part is that it helps you figure out how you can lead a creative life, where your creativity has a proper place. There are people that have enormous creativity and can’t channel it. There are people who end up in a place where their creativity isn’t honored and nourished. The idea is that our students graduate and feel confident that they are ready for many sorts of situations and still hold onto a proper place for their creativity.”

Header image courtesy of Kurt Ralske

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