Of Art & Circumstance

Dear Colleagues,

It is with mixed emotions that I announce I have decided, upon much consideration and reflection, to move my tenure and faculty appointment to the College of Imaging Arts & Sciences (CIAS) at RIT. This appointment begins July 1, 2018. I am thankful for the support of the Provost, the Vice President for Research, and the Dean in facilitating this process. I am grateful to the faculty and staff across the university for your advice and counsel as I’ve talked to many of you over the past few years as I’ve tried to find my way in advancing my practice as an educator and an artist. I am continually grateful to former president Dr. William (Bill) Destler for the creation of MAGIC, and my ability to engage in and lead that center/studio on behalf of the university. I am thankful to CIAS and Dean Cass, and I will forever hold a place in my heart for the School of Interactive Games & Media (IGM), more on that later.

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I’ll start with the logistics since that’s in some ways easiest: I will continue to serve as director of the MAGIC Center and MAGIC Spell Studios. The new facility will still open in the fall, and I look forward to using MAGIC to advance the state of research, production, and entrepreneurial activity in digital media for the whole of RIT, including my colleagues in IGM, Computer Science, Information Sciences & Technologies, several programs in the College of Imaging Arts & Sciences, Digital Humanities and other College of Liberal Arts programs, the CASTLE Center, Imaging Science, and elsewhere. If you are an RIT faculty member affiliated with the MAGIC Center, I can assure you the service, support, community, and engagement of the center and the studio will continue to grow and expand, and that you are most welcome. New faculty are certainly encouraged to consider affiliating with the Center, as a way to further support their own research, scholarship, and creative activity — I am committed to supporting our affiliates in every way possible, and that is inclusive of those in IGM. I look forward to opening the new facility in the fall and engaging the entire campus community in the MAGIC Spell Studios effort.

Locally I will continue to report directly to the Vice President for Research, and my faculty appointment in CIAS is not with any specific School. I expect that my “day job” in directing MAGIC will keep me rather busy, as it has for the past 5 years, especially with the roll-out of the new facility. As always, I am grateful for the fact that I still get to teach, and will continue to offer a course or two per year, and with this change I expect that course will float around the university a bit more than in years past: my core interest is still in multi-disciplinary, cross-departmental experiences, and I hope to use both my affiliation in CIAS and my work as a fellow in the School of Individualized Studies to support experiences for students from a wide variety of programs and majors. In that respect I am looking forward to being closer (both physically and academically) to colleagues in Art, New Media, 3D Digital Design, Film & Animation, Industrial Design, Illustration, and more, in addition to the campus-wide purview of MAGIC itself. Which is not to say I don’t expect to continue to teach IGM students — hopefully they will continue to enroll in the courses and experiences I’m offering, particularly those in conjunction with game production and experimental media and MAGIC Spell Studios.

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A very dear friend who helped me review this piece pointed out to me that the rest of these words are not really for anyone other than myself. And this is true. It is a reflection on things, where I feel I am, where I feel connected to things, where I feel adrift. I am grateful for their input, their voice, their counsel. They warned me folks may not understand it, or will only see what they want to see in it. I expect that is true. I’m also not sure there’s anything I can do about it, and I wouldn’t feel right not saying anything.

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There will no doubt be many friends and colleagues confused by this change of venue, it may be a popular decision for some, unpopular for others. What I can say is that for me it is a deeply personal decision, based on a great deal of introspection and professional reflection. Maybe this is something that many academics go through, it certainly seems like some of my colleagues have of late moved from one university to another, exchanged one program, approach, lab, or grouping for another as their work leads them forward. A kind of mid-life intellectual crisis.

Locally at RIT, the form and function of the School of Interactive Games & Media continues to expand and grow as the unit and programs within it mature. I take great pride in their accomplishments, having led the formation of the GDD programs, and the school, with friends and colleagues, and having served as founding Chair, and later founding Director. I will always cherish those early years, the friendships, the astonishing success we shared in, the camaraderie and partnership of the faculty. I hold as a highlight in my mind the summer parties we used to hold, President Destler sitting on my back deck at our barbecue, and our collective threatening to throw the Provost in the pool. We were an anomaly in almost every way: brash, bold, daring, experimental, unproven. Departments and colleagues outside the school could not understand, I think, what was happening internally, our collective engagement and energy, our shared passion. IGM has served as a model for so many other departments, programs, and administrative practices, had such impact at a national and international level, I can’t really express my sense of awe at what it has become.

But as it matures and scales IGM is also re-contextualizing its relationship with the university, finding its own path forward in a world that has changed from a time when very few colleagues and fields explored games and media, to a time when games development, games studies, game art, and games-centric media and sociology activities are proliferating across the academy. ‘Game Design’ has become a muddied term in academia that sometimes means a core focus on mechanics, rulesets, process and playability, and other times means a fusion of several fields and experiences to produce a cohesive experience with multiple goals and objectives. How and where a given individuals work in games and media should ‘fit’ within the university is fraught with numerous potentialities now, it is no longer as simple as saying ‘go play on the island of people doing this’ — there are numerous islands, connected yet distinct, sometimes tightly integrated, sometimes not. Sometimes the natives are friendly, sometimes they go to war.

I have always approached my work in games as an artist. I came to RIT from an art program, specifically with the goal of learning to code and build things with technology, but focused directly on the end product, the artifact, and its relationship to audience. I described it at the time as wanting to build better tools because in learning to make art with the existing tools, I was pretty sure those tools were awful. My early work in graphics was motivated by a desire for visual quality and aesthetics, in learning the ins and outs of how pixels came to be. My early work in databases, networks, AI, genetic algorithms and VRML was motivated by a dissection of story and narrative, an exploration of persistent experience. My early work in web systems focused on visual design through programmatic manipulation. My engagement with games has been one of visual and emotional rhetoric through computing. I have tried to always approach technology as a paintbrush, even when form and circumstance has forced me to adopt language or discourse needed to advance a shared agenda (‘entertainment technology’ comes to mind — these are means to an end, a path to synergy or legitimacy, but to reframe creativity entirely in their mold is pure dismay)

Increasingly, I find that my view and practice is at odds with the form and practice of the ways and means in which computing sees itself in a research context, even an applied context such as that prevalent at RIT. I’ve heard from colleagues and friends their vision of what our programs are for, the students we aspire to teach, the experiences and careers we hope to help prepare them for, the goals and objectives of our work in teaching, scholarship and mentorship. I’ve seen challenges to adding the ‘A’ in STEAM. At times I’ve tried to address these issues by arguing for more academically inclusive policies and metrics, at times by trying to negotiate deals to support individuals in various projects and endeavors, and honestly at times by just ‘carrying on and doing it anyway’. I was allowed to create a University Research Center around this intersection. But increasingly these various goals, objectives, practices, and modalities of collaboration are partially disjoint from my own approach and motivations as a member of the faculty in my own work, and the dissonance is becoming a distraction.

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When I began my work as a member of the faculty at RIT 18 years ago, it was in the Information Technology department within the College of Applied Sciences & Technologies. I remember when the College of Computing and Information Sciences was formed, and our department and program moved to this new home, wondering whether I was actually a fit for the practices and objectives of the new college. I am not a computer scientist. I am not an engineer. These are not the identities in which I feel comfort and recognition. The creation and support of IGM recognizes in some respects the strange synergy between computing and the arts, but to me personally it is no longer enough. It does not feed my soul.

I have been so very fortunate to work with so many talented students over the years. My early students from CS/SE/IT in the concentration courses that would one day become the GDD degree, MS-IT students engaged in exploring different facets of interactive media, GDD and New Media students pushing the boundaries of both experimental practice and the educational experiences we designed. MS-GDD students in those first few years, pushing highly technical students to success in multi-disciplinary teams. I am blessed.

But my work now is no longer that work. I direct a digital media research center and associated studio for the entire campus — a different purview, a different responsibility, and a different focus. While I am still actively working in games, I have focused now on production, on process, on entrepreneurial activity, on presentation, on scale. I am working with students, faculty, and administration alike to try to establish new models to support collaboration across disciplines, new modalities of working and creating things at a university, new structures and capabilities for the campus community. I am focused on building a playground. And while this work is related in some respects, it is not identical. I believe it to be important, I believe it to be of value, and I believe that, given time, it will have equal impact to some of those early successes a decade ago, and will continue to expand upon itself in ways that serve as a model for many. Time will tell.

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At the same time, personally, my work is focused ever inward. I am personally interested in media that expresses emotion in subtle ways inside of pre-established forms, on what I have begun to think of as ‘experiential games’ — games that change the player, games that teach, inform, or just convey a feeling and idea through the very action of contact, the paradigm of art as a mirror of the soul. My interest is in story, in fantasy, in fiction, in immersion, in escape with meaning. I am returning to my roots, in some ways more confidant in my ability to create and deliver designs of value, in other ways just as frustrated and frightened as the kid who drew illustrations for friends during school lunch periods. Art has been at times a refuge, a safe space, a friend, even when it has been frustrating, relentless, and overbearing. I remember once in a conversation I was asked by a senior administrator why I couldn’t just delineate work as work and life as life: I’ve never known how to do that, I never will. There are pieces of me wrapped up in what I build and create, for better and worse.

I am working with students on their stories, I am working with students on their designs, but I am intent again on also creating my own. The act of choosing to be a faculty member was, for me, not a purely selfless act of service as a teacher, it was also a deeply selfish need to use the academy as a shield to create a space to create, a practice to explore, a library to learn, and a field to grow without the constraints of short-term commercialism or corporate risk aversion. There are times when I’ve lost myself in more mindless work, or other pursuits, but invariably they fail.

And in the end I think one can only find peace in who they are and how they live through some sense of honesty, if only with oneself. I find myself in a place where I feel an imposter, a role to play rather than a sense of belonging. I need something else, something that feels like home, something that feels like it is supposed to feel, something that supports my version of the strange, the beautiful, and the weird. I aspire to make so many more things with my time left, even things that serve purposes other than to be a showcase for MAGIC, things that challenge our assumptions of educational effectiveness and modalities of practice, things that extend beyond the status quo of career preparation for our students, or what a funding agency or patron will feel comfortable supporting. I need a separation between my personal work and administrative efforts, and a structure that supports and nourishes the former as well as the latter. I will never be recognized as professor emeritus of the School I founded with so many friends, and that gives me great pause — it has in fact held this at bay for years. I will miss IGM. No appointment or engagement with a university will ever be perfect. So I am in many ways starting over, hitting the reset button, looking to play again after hopefully having learned something on the last level. I am looking forward to the future, to new horizons. I look forward to making and teaching and learning anew.

I want to close with a thank you to one of my best friends in the whole world, Dr. Christopher Egert. We have built so many wonderful things together, and I have no doubt we will continue to do so. And hey, now when we build stuff together we can check the box that says ‘multidisciplinary’! (haha) The other ‘thank you’ is for my family: I met my wife in art history class. It is a part of who and what we are, I thank you for the freedom and support in continuing my crazy path.

We learn by making things.

-A Phelps 2018