Switched on to culture

January 12, 1996

Stella Hughes speaks to graduates of an innovative multimedia course at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris.

A dozen fledgling multimedia authors and editors, the first graduates of the advanced multimedia diploma set up last year by the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, take on cyberspace as qualified professionals this month.

One year ago, the group of thirtysomethings gave up jobs in advertising, broadcasting and computer consultancy and paid Fr 30,000 (Pounds 3,750) for the highly intensive, new course. "I looked at the different postgraduate multimedia courses and this was the least technical, the first to focus on training authors and offering a strong input on integrated design, bringing together all aspects of content and interactivity," explained Stephan Becker.

He and fellow student Edouard Lussan expect to stay with the multimedia publisher Index+ (producer of the Louvre and Cezanne CD-Roms) where they did their traineeships. At the graduation ceremony, they were unable to show their project developed at Index+ as it requires new interactive techniques. "At least at the start, I think I need to work in a company and learn more about interactivity, organisation and technique," explained Lussan. "My great interest is in entertaining educational material. I think we're about to come up with a huge breakthrough in truly intelligent interactivity."

While Lussan was a fed-up advertiser before he joined the course, Isabelle Fleuriot was a freelance TV producer who intends to make a smooth transition, using her former network of contacts, to become a freelance multimedia author. "I was making two films on Gauguin and decided to take the course and make a CD-Rom on Gauguin which can be packaged later with the video," she said. "Very few people in television understand multimedia, yet online and offline developments will affect it directly. This diploma gives me an edge over a lot of other people."

Being a mature student was a bit of a shock, she says. "It was terribly hard to start with, especially as all my life I've been used to the linear form." Non-linear forms were a struggle, but Fleuriot made the leap from no previous use of computers to hypermedia without any difficulty.

Another freelance, Pascale Fidji, used to be a computer consultant and is now launching into freelance children's publishing. Her traineeship with Philips involved carrying out a market survey of the multimedia market for children. Now, with a clear idea of that market, she is putting together an educational package for schools.

The students studied both offline and online media. About half the group worked on CD-Roms for their trainee project while the other half worked on Web sites. One student set up a site for the Ecole des Beaux Arts while another redesigned the site of a French radio station. "It is important for them to integrate into their projects the current limitations to Web design. Users don't want to waste time downloading complex images and they have worked on overcoming such limitations," said course director Alain Zimeray.

The group were given enough technical training to get to know the potential of the various multimedia software packages. That knowledge serves as much to guide programme specialists in a team towards exactly what is wanted in a project as to enable them to make their own creations.

The 1,000 course hours were too much for the group and this year's intake was offered less theory and more time for hands-on exploration. However, the hallmark of the course, a foundation in high-level general culture and intellectual training, remains as intensive as before. "The students follow classes in general culture, which include Shakespeare's scenarios, literary genres and artificial intelligence and they also study the intellectual history of hypermedia over the past two decades," explained the head of the Beaux Arts, Yves Michaud. He says a house style is already emerging: "There is a visual inventiveness, a feeling for the content which comes from all the hard thinking about multimedia and from the number of different course teachers who provided input."

The course is developing international exchanges this year but has not yet found a British partner. The Royal College of Art already has a partnership with the Ecole Nationale de la Creation Industrielle, which set up the first postgraduate multimedia course in Paris.

At least one of the graduates is thinking of a move to the United States where the industry is on an entirely different scale. "There are more users, more resources and really wild ideas are more easily accepted," explained Veronique Gasnier. "As Europeans, we can offer a different aesthetic. Americans are stuck in set formulas, systematic techniques for holding the user's interest."

Ironically, the success of courses such as this and France's flourishing fine arts multimedia industry come in spite of rather than because of any involvement by French artists in "Net art". The course may be based at the s, but only one resident teacher - sculptor Tony Brown - has thrown himself into it.

The first attempts by artists in France to branch out have been disastrous, says Yves Michaud. "The French attitude has been to reproduce in multimedia the kind of experimental art which survives on government subsidies and the result is unsellable CD-Roms," he said. This is why he wants to open a small multimedia research centre in the next few years but did not want one at the outset, when it risked being dominated by "the usual French process of doing research with no possible applications".

Artists, he complained, "have not caught on to the industrial dimension or the nature of networks. They launch into a pseudo-experimental approach with no sound technical foundation, no outlets, no networks and no real public."

Applications for the next course close on February 26 1996.

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