Ron Burnett is President, Emily Carr Institute of Art + Design in Vancouver, Canada and was the Director, Graduate Program in Communications at McGill University.
I work and write in a collage-like fashion and so, below, are a series of thoughts and speculations that reveal at least a little about my interests and why after thirty years as an educator and administrator, I am still excited about all of the issues and debates that are at the core of our thinking about learning and culture.
In 1976, I started a journal by the name of Ciné-Tracts which went on to become one of Canada's most famous periodicals of that very fertile period in the history of Film and Cultural Studies. Here is an extract from the first editorial that we published. The entire collection of 17 issues is now available on-lne through http://rburnett.ecuad.ca.
"Cine-tracts is a journal that intends to intervene in the current issues of social theory and cultural practice. This intervention is premised on the desire to examine how knowledge is used, who uses it, and to what purpose. The production of knowledge is at least partially predicated on the specific ways in which theory relates to practical action; on the inter-connections between social theory and political practice. The function of criticism as knowledge must, in some way, be informed by these relations between theory and practice. For this reason we have attempted to both understand and give meaning to the notion of "praxis" - a term whose central tension resides in the dialectics of theory and practice. The elaboration of "praxis" within cultural theory is difficult; ultimately we are attempting to find a notion that would express both the normative and practical means of approaching the understanding and transformation of culture and society." It is interesting and testament to the continuity of one's own development that so many of those words continue to resonate for me today.
There is a very famous painting by Johannes Vermeer entitled, "A Girl Asleep at a Table" that provoked me to think about how one goes about critiquing and writing about art.
A Girl Asleep at a Table (after Vermeer)
- Inside daydreams:
- there are images, words,
- and the shadows of the mind,
- Johannes drew the mind as if it were a tapestry. He wove his paintings into existence by observing the people he loved picturing them in his thoughts,
- with a perfection that was almost photographic.
- Light dancing off fruit on a table.
- Inside daydreams light stops moving anxieties released, rational thoughts denied. Reflections bend and twist, turn inside out, lose their shape and then recover.
- She is anonymous, but certainly not asleep. Her tiredness comes from serving others. Her eyes are closed because she is looking for refuge. A carpet falls off the edge of the table where she rests and a door is ajar.
- Her master is asleep upstairs,
- and so he must be pictured as the one whose dreams have failed.
I come from a family of artists. My grandfather performed in cabarets when he was a youngster and my Uncle was a well known artist. His name was Henry Inlander and some of his work can be found at the Tate in London. I mention this because I believe that my model of learning and cultural practice are rooted in the childhood experiences that I had with my Uncle.
- Self-Portrait, Henry Inlander, 1956
I have written extensively on the National Question in Quebec and Canada. Here is an extract from a piece of mine written in 1991 and published in a collection edited by Bill Dodge (Toronto: Malcom Lester, 1992). My essay was entitled, "The Frontiers of our dreams are no longer the same: Quebec nationalism from an anglophone perspective."
"My voice is white, male, middle class, immigrant. I have spent most of my life in Quebec. I have married here and my children go to school in this province. However, beyond the stridency and simplicity of labels like anglophone or francophone the question of my identity cannot be reduced to the superficial boundaries of the nationalist debate and this applies as much to Quebec as to Canada. To say that I am either Québecois or Canadian is a caricature of the complexity of my daily life, a rather inept and derivative approach to the quandries of self and other. But I also recognize that the terms of the debate have been set, though the agenda remains uncertain. It is just not enough to respond to the national question in Quebec with an air of complacency, to retreat and then deal with all of the contradictions as if they have come from an elsewhere beyond intellectual reasoning or control."
Finally, I have completed a new book entitled, How Images Think. In the book, I raise questions about the nature of knowledge in a networked world. I ask questions about simulation and virtual reality and what it means for young people to interact with virtual spaces on a daily basis. Of course, we can ask ourselves the same questions. I explore the computer game industry and admit to being fascinated with games and why they have such a profound impact on the people who play them. Here is an extract from the book:
"I use the word digital with great caution. There is a tendency to oppose digital to analogue and this becomes a convenient way of talking about change. My orientation is to see the analogue and the digital as parts of a continuum. Each plays a different role in the use of technology by human beings and each has elements of both embedded within the other. The paradigm shift we are experiencing is situated in the ways in which the combination of the analogue and the digital are enabling and defining the simulated worlds that we are creating. It is simulation that interests me the most because the rules for simulated worlds reside in an odd convergence of chaos, linearity and non-linearity. Simulation is also about image-worlds defined at this moment in history through traditional screen-based environments."