Teaching Experimental Cinema Online

CJ_Final.indd Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier
 Volume 3 (1) Winter 2015
 Glyn Davis 
 University of Edinburgh

In April and May of 2014, I ran a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on Andy Warhol via the Coursera platform. ‘Warhol’ ran for five weeks and had over 27,600 participants. It will run again in February and March 2015, and for a third time in early 2016. I am regularly asked the same questions about this course: How do you manage, on a day-to-day basis, teaching thousands of students? How have you been able to include works of art by Warhol, and what have been the associated copyright complexities? Is MOOC teaching genuinely innovative, or does it just replicate classroom formats and tactics? In this short essay, I’ll reflect on each of these topics.

‘Warhol’ initially grew out of the ARTIST ROOMS research partnership, an ongoing collaborative project between the University of Edinburgh, Tate, and the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS). ARTIST ROOMS is a sizeable collection of modern and contemporary art that was jointly acquired by Tate and NGS in 2008 from the art dealer and former gallerist Anthony d’Offay; it includes over 200 works by Warhol (mostly drawings, paintings, and prints). The research partnership proposes and then carries out investigations of specific parts of the collection, through symposia and conferences, various forms of writing, interdisciplinary interrogations of materials and techniques, and so on.

The University of Edinburgh was one of the first in the UK to invest in MOOC development and delivery. I proposed a MOOC on Andy Warhol to the ARTIST ROOMS research partnership because I was interested not only in the challenges of teaching art history and film studies using this format, but also, reflexively, in the wider pedagogical implications of the development and spread of MOOCs. Before building the course, I took a dozen Coursera MOOCs on various topics (including climate change, dinosaurs, and continental philosophy), to see how other subject areas and teachers were deploying the platform. I also spent over a week at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, working through parts of their vast archive, talking to curators, and discussing with education staff the various ways in which they engage different target groups about Warhol (both in the classroom and online).

Early written reflections on the MOOC landscape posited the existence of two distinct types: xMOOCs and cMOOCs. The xMOOCs have limited contact between students and teachers, relying on video lectures and automated assessment; cMOOCs, in contrast, are more collaborative, emphasizing shared forms of learning. The former tend to replicate top-down classroom teaching methods in which the course tutor is the voice of authority, whereas the latter are more democratic, enabling multiple voices and perspectives to be aired and negotiated. Although a recent Higher Education Academy report argues that the “cMOOC/xMOOC binary [is] no longer representative or particularly useful,”[i] these different models influenced the shaping of ‘Warhol’: the course team was keen to adopt a format close to the ‘cMOOC’ ideal, and to use the Coursera platform to attempt experimentation with innovative forms of pedagogy.

The content of ‘Warhol’ was organized thematically around five topics – celebrity, sex, death, money, and time – in order to facilitate broad engagement with Warhol’s career and output. Each week’s content was initially constructed around the Warhol works in the ARTIST ROOMS collection, as well as those in the holdings of Tate and the NGS. With the help of a team, I assembled the course site. Two teaching assistants formulated forum discussion topics and marshaled reading materials; a web technician helped me to shape ‘Warhol’ around the basic Coursera template, providing advice on tactics other MOOCs have used; a filmmaker produced professional-looking videos, many of which were shot in the Tate or NGS. Each week’s teaching materials would eventually include brief video introductions to the course themes, reading extracts, short video interviews with specialists (conservators, curators, academics) with experience of working with Warhol’s archive and output, and audio files of talks and discussions. We ended up using around 55 images of works by Warhol: the costs of including these were negotiated and jointly paid for by Tate and NGS. All University of Edinburgh MOOCs run for three cycles; after the 2016 iteration of the Warhol MOOC, the ARTIST ROOMS research partnership will discuss ways in which to most usefully repurpose the content.

Every week, once they had worked through freshly released course materials, students could engage with each other, and the course tutors, in discussion forums. We built the overarching structure for these, but anyone could create a new discussion thread. This was where we teaching staff spent most of our time: provoking discussion, recommending links, correcting and clarifying when necessary, commending those who made insightful posts. Though it took up substantial amounts of time – I was often on the forums for several hours every day – our sustained online presence helped to foster a sense of course community. Although many participants chose just to consume the video, audio and reading materials, and others decided only to read rather than participate in forum discussions, the forums were a crucial crucible for exchange: by the end of the course, 1023 discussion threads had been produced, 8764 posts had been made, and the forums had been viewed 101,885 times.

I have been teaching Warhol’s films – and experimental cinema more broadly – for many years. Screening Warhol’s films in the classroom can be a challenge: 16mm prints of a limited range of works can be loaned from MoMA’s Circulating Film Library; a smaller number of titles are available on DVD from the Italian label RaroVideo (though the legality of these is hazy). Galleries and museums can access digital copies of many of Warhol’s films from the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Illegal dubs of a few titles sometimes surface on ebay, YouTube, and other online spaces, though the quality of these is usually poor. Despite these access restrictions, I was determined to try and explore Warhol’s film output with the MOOC students.

This happened most productively in three ways. First, in the initial week of the course (‘Celebrity’) we opened up discussion about Warhol’s Screen Tests series. We started a forum devoted to this series of films and the questions they raise: the differences between a still film portrait and a painting; the challenges of maintaining a static pose before a film camera; Warhol’s broader interrogations of portraiture (in painting, Interview magazine, a: a novel, and so on). A number of Warhol’s Screen Tests can be found on YouTube; although we could not condone the illegal circulation of these, students themselves sought out the films, and used them as the basis for their observations. Deborah Howes, the former head of digital learning at MoMA, drew my attention to an interactive Screen Test website that the gallery had created: participants make their own 90 second films and upload them to a shared Flickr page. We are hoping, for the second iteration of ‘Warhol’, to attempt something similar.

Second, in week five (‘Time’), we created a forum on Empire (1964), Warhol’s eight hour film of the Empire State Building. In an interview published posthumously in Flash Art, Warhol claimed that his films were “better talked about than seen.”[ii] We used the Empire forum to open up this topic: is it necessary to see the film in its entirety in order to properly discuss it? Hypothetically, how should a viewer endure an eight hour screening? Is Empire, as Justin Remes has argued, a “furniture film” that is “designed to serve as a backdrop for other activities”?[iii] Fragments of Empire often surface on YouTube, most often ripped from the RaroVideo DVD that includes an hour extract of Warhol’s film. Again, without prompting, students often sought out these clips.

Third, throughout the run of the course, students regularly returned in forums to the topic of the frustrating limitations on accessing Warhol’s work. Participants highlighted the gap between the small number of images that we (legally) used on the course site, and the (mostly illegal) widespread circulation of images of Warhol’s output on the web. We routinely had to remind students that we had paid for all of the images we had used, hence their limited number; we also recommended that our teaching materials were supplemented with others sourced by the students themselves. To help with this, we set up a Twitter account – @warholmooc – through which we highlighted resources we thought especially valuable. (We ultimately linked several external spaces to the course site on Coursera – Twitter, Tumblr, Zeemaps – which allowed us to augment the somewhat limited platform structure, and to extend the online reach of the course.) The student concerns about access led to valuable discussions: on international differences in Open Access, copyright law, and intellectual property rights; on how some galleries and museums are increasingly posting their holdings online; on the ways in which the widespread (often unauthorized) online dissemination of some materials – music, TV, cinema – leads to false expectations about availability.

In August 2014, some time after the first iteration of ‘Warhol’, MoMA and the Warhol Museum announced a plan to digitize Warhol’s film output. This process – involving over a thousand rolls of 16mm film – will take a number of years. Not only will it preserve Warhol’s films for the future, but it will theoretically enable more widespread distribution. How this will be handled will be fascinating to monitor. Might many of his films become available for streaming and download? Due to the digitization project, it is likely that, in a few years, teaching Warhol’s cinema in both the classroom and online will have altered significantly.

[i] Sian Bayne and Jen Ross, “The pedagogy of the Massive Open Online Course: the UK view” (Higher Education Academy, 2014), accessed 23 January 2015, https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/detail/elt/the_pedagogy_of_the_MOOC_UK_view, 8.

[ii] Paul Taylor, “The Last Interview,” in I’ll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews, ed. Kenneth Goldsmith (New York: Carroll and Graf, 2004), 389.

[iii] Justin Remes, “Serious immobilities: Andy Warhol, Erik Satie and the furniture film,” Screen 55:4 (Winter 2014): 448.


Bayne, Sian and Jen Ross. “The pedagogy of the Massive Open Online Course: the UK view.” Higher Education Academy, 2014. Accessed 23 January 2015. https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/detail/elt/the_pedagogy_of_the_MOOC_UK_view

Remes, Justin. “Serious immobilities: Andy Warhol, Erik Satie and the furniture film.” Screen 55: 4 (Winter 2014): 447-459.

Taylor, Paul. “The Last Interview.” In I’ll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews, edited by Kenneth Goldsmith, 382-394. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2004. Originally published in Flash Art 133 (April), 1987.

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