Tomorrow's Artists Plug Into Broader Ventures

Multimedia education trains artists for a central role in commerce and communication

Jim Petrillo doesn't think small when it comes to the multimedia arts program he is putting together here. He aims to accomplish nothing short of returning artists to their historic central role in society.

Mr. Petrillo is head of the art department at California State University, Hayward, one of 20 campuses in California's huge state university system. He sees his program breaking the ground for a critical new field of professional education and fulfilling the ``interdisciplinary'' ideal that has bounced around the academic world for decades.

The working definition of ``multimedia'' at Cal State Hayward is ``the practical use of computers to integrate text, graphics, video, sound, and interactivity.''

``Multimedia insists on interdisciplinary work and development,'' says Petrillo, who came to Hayward after a long career as a practicing artist and 20 years as a teacher at the College of Arts and Crafts in nearby Oakland.

A multimedia curriculum eschews the old system of taking a single course and getting a single grade, he says: Every course is linked to every other within the program and to subject matter in such fields as sociology or history, and students are ``out in the world'' working in teams to produce ``meaningful'' products.

An immediate goal is to give students a familiarity with the newest technology for creating visual images, moving images, audio tracks, and text.

The software that makes multimedia production possible is steadily becoming more ``transparent,'' or user friendly, Petrillo says. Artists, musicians, and writers with little or no computer science background can move into the field ``very rapidly,'' he says. ``We design our program so that people with no experience at all - who've never touched a mouse before - can sit down on their first day and do something.'' Petrillo's students start off with a software program called MacroMedia Director, which allows them to dip into animation.

``They build an inventory of techniques,'' such as digital imaging he says, but they also acquire more traditional skills like camera work, film editing, and using storyboards to outline plots.

Central to it all is engaging the imagination. ``This is about imagination, being creative, invention,'' Petrillo says.

Beyond its creative appeal, this know-how is the meal ticket of the future, in Petrillo's eyes. ``If you can create images and you can draw, and use a computer to do it, you can get a job this afternoon,'' he says.

Cal State Hayward is well-suited as a proving ground for multimedia education, he adds, because ``it's a working-class environment,'' drawing students who wouldn't have access to higher education without the state university system. Art instruction here is ``not about an enriching experience,'' says Petrillo. ``It's about life or death.''

Computers, scanners, audio and video digitizers, and other ``high end'' equipment fill the laboratory - or ``studio,'' as Petrillo prefers - where undergraduates are learning to manipulate three-dimensional images on their computer screens.

An adjoining room is being outfitted as a studio for the graduate program Petrillo hopes to have going soon. The undergraduate program is only in its fourth year of operation and the number of students enrolled has ballooned from eight the first year to more than 200 now.

The goal Petrillo has that probably won't show up in a syllabus is to reclaim for artists a central place in society. ``The new media have returned the role of the artist to the mainstream of life,'' he says. For the last century, he asserts, the ``whole idea of an art program and art education became very rarefied, separate from everyday life.'' He sees programs such as his equipping art students to become major contributors to society's communication and commercial activity.

Artists used to be at the forefront of social and technological change, says Petrillo, pointing out that the Renaissance masters were applying the leading scientific insights of their day - such as a grasp of perspective and mathematical space to their art. A coming generation of multimedia masters will do the same for modern society, he predicts.

Sitting down at a computer in his soon-to-be graduate studio - where boxes carrying Apple, NEC, Panasonic, and other corporate logos are piled high - he demonstrates what accomplished artists can produce with a medium like CD-ROM, which allows users to interact with what they're viewing.

First, he plays a study of women and technology by a faculty member at nearby California State University at San Francisco. This work includes a menu in the shape of a daisy, with each petal a different facet of the subject - just point to one with the mouse and click. Next is a piece by another San Francisco multimedia artist. It's called ``The Freak Show'' and gives viewers a boggling array of options to probe the dark alleys and backstage secrets of an electronic carnival.

Finally, Petrillo slides in a CD-ROM of his own - ``Cinema Volta,'' which explores connections between childhood impressions of how the world works and the ideas held by some of the pioneers of modern science. While visual images abound, it's designed to be ``a reading experience,'' Petrillo says.

What these works illustrate, and what Petrillo insists on from his students, is a clear story line or message. Multimedia productions - with their plethora of options for both creator and viewer - could easily slip into ineffectiveness without that, he says. This sampling of polished multimedia productions also underscores another tenet of the art - that ``old'' media, like print, are almost never dropped, but just used in different, sometimes startling, ways.

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