“Teaching the Co-Creators of a New Economy from Lincoln, Nebraska”
By Megan Elliott
Never before have storytellers and emerging media artists been so important to the world.
This is a kairological moment in time, and it is both terrifying and exciting.
It’s terrifying because of automation, algorithms, and artificial intelligence (AI). Routine and repetitive jobs are being automated out of existence, and we have scarcely begun to invent the jobs that will replace them. Algorithms decide if you get a bank loan or a security clearance. Mass surveillance is now intelligent and so are deep fakes. And we are fearful because there are currently no standards, testing, rules, or codes of ethics for any of them.
On the other hand—has there ever been a moment in time more thrilling?
I am writing this in response to this timely and brilliant National Arts Endowment report, Tech as Art: Supporting Artists Who Use Technology as a Creative Medium, as an international professional who has spent decades wrestling crocodiles in order to hold open the space for innovation, and to convince governments and agencies of the necessity of media artists and digital media in the development of innovation economies, and sometimes in the development of soft power and nation-building. In 14 countries and 23 cities around the world, across Asia, Australasia, Europe, and the U.S., I have coaxed agencies and industries to dip their toes in the water of change, to support the experimental, the unorthodox, and, ofttimes, the downright uncomfortable—in the service of bringing new economic futures that are more inclusive, diverse, equitable, and sustainable into being.
Now, here in the middle of America at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, as the founding director of the Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts, I am doing it again. Innovations happen at the margins, and in this country, the margins happen to be in the middle.
So, what is resonating most from the NEA’s report, here, in the middle of everywhere, is that:
1) hyperconnectivity and a bold vision mean that Research I and public land-grant universities in the Midwest can now become nodal hubs in this rhizomatic network of artists and art-making;
2) the pandemic is not only an accelerant to placeless innovation; it has turbo-charged these post-disciplinary artists to be the entrepreneurial collaborators and thought-leaders we need to grapple with larger societal and sectoral challenges; and
3) c’mon, get on board, let’s go already, the first quarter of the 21st century is almost gone!
This is a long game. It’s more than the quick fix or sugar high of an event or show, although it requires those too. It involves friction and the overcoming of that endlessly boring scarcity mindset where people feel that there is not enough to go around and that they are being pushed aside or left behind. This is not easy work. It requires resilience and vision, and the ability to be able to weave networks among artists and communities and businesses and corporations. It involves the collapsing of silos and putting egos gently aside. It means being brave enough to make the borders of your institution porous. It means being bold enough to call out the absolute centrality of the emerging media artist at this moment, for these times.
After all, “emerging” references both something that is happening now and something that will happen in the future—it is always happening.
The Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts dwells in possibility. Born out of a groundbreaking $57 million partnership between the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the Johnny Carson Foundation, and numerous private and industry partners, we opened our doors in the fall of 2019. The Carson Center exists at the intersection of place and placelessness.
Every university encourages their students to dream bigger—we’re doing something more. We’re challenging the boundaries of their wildest imaginations and teaching them to execute with brilliance.
We teach students how to boldly leverage new and emerging technologies, push them to pursue audacious new career pathways, and encourage them to tackle global-scale problems. Our goal is to produce transformative, creative leaders by building the ultimate student-centric program, whereby every graduate is able to invent the job or career path of their imagination or raise the funds necessary to start the company they envision straight out of school.
We now live within the most dynamic, complex, networked, and abundant communication system that the world has ever seen. The past two decades have witnessed the construction of a globe-spanning hyperconnected system that is becoming self-aware, embedded in every device, and even embedded in our own bodies.
We need artists to make sense of it.
Who else is going to better reflect our times than the interdisciplinary, genre-bending, hyphenated, hybridized, and nomadic artists, storytellers, technologists, and entrepreneurs of this report? They are working with the very fabric of it—the data and digital technologies that are terraforming new art forms, new modes of production, and new industries into being.
So, we are making more of these artists.
And we are doing this from a street corner in downtown Lincoln, Nebraska.
Blurring the boundaries between campus and community, entangled in both, we straddle the public and private sectors, the commercial and experimental domains, creating work for festivals and works that scale to large audiences of participants. Digital media is an industry that builds new industries. The Carson Center and our artists are intrinsic to the innovation networks of Nebraska—and we are connected to the world.
When we launched the Carson Center in November 2019, Preeta Bansal—thought leader, community servant, and former general counsel and senior policy advisor in President Barack Obama’s White House—led a panel on the New Economy. Bansal framed the panel within the context that we are at a unique inflection point in history, one that only happens every two to three hundred years. We are in the space between civilizational stories. And the four stories which are being disrupted the most are the stories of 1) capitalism and markets, 2) democracy, 3) the nature of being human and human consciousness, and 4) the notion of truth.
So within the context of being in the space between stories and in a constitutional founding moment, she asked us: What should an educational and cultural institution do? She challenged us to prepare students and artists not as workforce for the new economy, but by acknowledging their role as co-creators of the new economy—including as creators of the new stories and new systems in which we will operate. We should, she said, encourage them to learn to live new questions and to love those questions rather than trying to offer answers—to be comfortable with ambiguity and exponential change.
On our street corner, through soaring right angles of glass, what we do is visible to our communities. Our borders are transparent and porous. When we designed the Carson Center, we did so to intentionally send our students out to other parts of the city to live and love their questions. We didn’t replicate the maker space at Nebraska Innovation Studio, or the large-volume television studios of our local PBS station. Instead, we send our students out into our communities’ facilities, where they embrace intergenerational and interdisciplinary learning opportunities. They think and make alongside veterans, grandmas, refugees, and grizzled professionals. We house the university’s dance program inside the Carson Center. We experience Black, Brown, white, thick, thin, disabled, abled, and augmented bodies in space. We hear drums and embark upon rich collaborations exploring embodiment, extension, augmentation, and new modalities of performance.
We are building new audiences for traditional art forms: Come for the extended reality (XR) hackathon and stay for the dance.
Computer scientists, philosophers, biologists, entrepreneurs, architects, engineers, business majors, painters, performers, and musicians jostle for space inside our windows. Retirees, office workers, start-up founders and investors, the newly arrived, and mothers with babies press their noses against the glass or wander in, rubbing up against the emerging media artists: messing with the tech, participating in the stories, watching the films, playing games. Corporations hold their conferences, their fundraisers, their awards inside our center. We are creating a culture of interdisciplinarity, of inside-outside innovation; a community hub. We are place-making: intermingling the campus and the city, Nebraska and the world.
The place does matter as we build this in Nebraska, co-creating with our communities, exploring the ethics of AI alongside them. We explore the white space of emerging media arts as they apply to agriculture, athletics, architecture, performance, mindfulness, and rural and urban design. We take part in civic conversations about the future(s) of our state and join angel-investor networks. Our emerging media artists are integrators. Facile in code and storytelling, with design and entrepreneurship, they are systems, critical, and creative thinkers. We send our artists to work, intern, think, and create inside or alongside local start-ups, festivals, city councils, and businesses. Embedding them. In. This. Place.
This is a university town in a state of two million people. The emerging media arts are having an impact here.
At the same time, placelessness borne of hyperconnectivity gives us effortless global reach. Our international advisory council members, guest artists, scientists, and entrepreneurs convene in person and virtually, introducing our street corner to a network that spans industries and the world. Our students in the less-saturated middle of America are exposed to intersectional artist identities: artist-entrepreneur, artist-activist, artist-founder, artist-CEO, artist-fundraiser, artist-investor, artist-scientist, artist-inventor, artist-warrior.
By partnering with Fortune 500 companies such as Hewlett Packard to become an HP/Educause Campus of the Future (the first in the Big Ten to do so), we give our artists and communities access to the latest XR technologies. This puts us in the company of private universities such as MIT, Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth College as we investigate ways augmented reality, virtual reality, XR, and 3D printing and scanning technologies benefit learning, teaching, and creative research.
The pandemic accelerates the vaporization of geographic boundaries and the city as the economic unit of competition, as festivals, conferences, exhibitions, artist talks, and communities all go online—and we participate in them. Our artists create as part of distributed, networked, creative teams—only paying Lincoln, Nebraska, prices in rent. The Carson Center is proof positive that placeless innovation can occur in an affordable city.
Our students are building worlds with their peers in Los Angeles, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Copenhagen, Milan, Amsterdam, and Nairobi. They are partnering with local business owners, hemorrhaging from the impact of the pandemic, to speculatively design new futures for our city. They are rebuilding their own learning spaces inside virtual worlds, living and learning in XR.
Bring on 5G and make it faster! We are impatient for the future.
All that we don’t have easy access to is the ocean. And that’s just “in real life.”
Megan Elliott is the founding director of the recently launched Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts—a $57M investment at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln that supports creativity, innovation, technology, and next-gen storytelling. She is the co-founder of X Media Lab—one of the world’s most distinguished digital media and entrepreneurship programs, held across 22 cities and 14 countries around the world and featuring some of the world’s biggest brands and media/tech stars. Prior to this, she was the executive director of the Australian Writers’ Guild. Elliott was named by Advance Australia as one of the “Leading 50 Women for the Future” and by the Australian Government as one of the “Global 50 – Australia Unlimited – Global Achievers.” Elliott was the co-founder of the China Creative Industries eXchange and is the recipient of the 5th China Creative Industries Award for "International Contribution" to China's creative sector. Elliott’s oral history is one of five recorded by the National Film and Sound Archive in recognition of her contribution to the development of the digital media industries.