U Texas/Austin's ACTLab to close

Ludwigvan968 sez, "ACTLab at the University of Texas Austin is threatened with closure. I've highlighted current projects by the Extreme Freestyle Hacking course that showcase cutting edge work in New Media, such as a Grand Circuit Bending Box, Rave LED Gloves and a Dissertation utilizing Wordoress to explore the world of high performance automobiles in Central Texas."
As reported in the Daily Texan, classes for the ACTLab program in New Media at the University of Texas at Austin, for which I helped both build as a student and as a teacher, have been cancelled effective Fall 2010. This unfortunate event has come due to the retirement of its founder, Professor Allucquére Sandy Stone. Professor Stone is retiring from active teaching, however she will become a Professor Emerita, thus retaining the ability to teach courses at the University of Texas at Austin. Myself and other students have formally requested both the Radio-Television-Film Department and the College of Communications to reconsider their decision and retain ACTLab courses. The impact of the ACTLab's closing is not limited to the RTF department, but to the art and technology community in the city of Austin and around the world.

The ACTLab has a proven track record of advanced New Media research practice that combines media theory, media production, intermodal art and ever-evolving technology which has been recognized around the world in both academic and the professional circles. From its early 1990's virtual world research into the creation of collaborative spaces (both text-based and three-dimensional worlds) and behavioral research of the inhabitants to the early 2000's exploration and development of peer-to-peer video streaming systems, and its most recent work with BarCamps and social-media based interaction phenomena, the ACTLab has long existed at the cutting edge of New Media.

I lectured at ACTLab once, on EFF's behalf, and was struck by the incredible creativity and verve of the program.

UT ACTLab shutdown amid record courses and enrollment. (Thanks, Ludwigvan968!)


  1. As I live in Austin, I am aware of this. UT is cutting many things. They are cutting jobs and programs of all types. They will be discontinuing community education programs altogether and are probably going to end up closing The Cactus Cafe (a landmark of music history). Pretty sad. UT can afford to give their football coaches million dollar bonuses and million dollar increases in salaries, but can’t keep the truly valuable programs and people which benefit the community and the world.

    1. As a current student in the ACTLab I share your concerns. It was heartbreaking to hear that UT was cutting the program which many of us had based our college careers around. :(

      The fact that the athletics department is paid so highly shows that even though we are Austin, we are also still in Texas, and in America. :/

  2. kaffeen, this isn’t about budget cuts in any real way. “The ACTLab” was Sandy Stone’s brand for her classes; she also used it to describe the RTF department’s digital-media studio. Stone decided to retire this summer, so as she leaves, so does the ACTLab. Claiming that UT is closing the ACTLab is little more than a matter of semantics; it’s just a cuckoo professor retiring and some students making a fuss about it.

    1. Sandy is not a ‘cuckoo professor retiring.’ If that was the case, students would not be fighting to save the ACTLab.

      Sandy did not decide to retire on her own, she was forced to retire. Sandy is not the ACTLab, but a part of it. The great thing about the ACTLab is that it truly became a community in Austin, which actually fostered growth at the academic level within the department.

      When I was an ACTLab student, I was surprised to see alumni show up for classes or office hours just to hang out and share the projects they were working on. They would also even come and tutor other students for free. I have never seen this type of community in an academic setting before. At least not at UT or Austin.

      The ACTLab was never officially recognized by the department. In fact, friends of mine were repeatedly told by faculty and advisors not to register for ACTLab courses. ACTLab was never recognized even though we have sister programs at Carnegie Mellon and other universities!

      Bottom line is the ACTLab should be recognized as a part of the department and not ostracized due to the alternative pedagogy taught there.

    2. Hey Anon,
      You may think that the professor is “cuckoo,” but that doesn’t change the quality and caliber of work that comes out of the program and from a teaching paradigm that can most definitely be carried on by the incredibly enthusiastic alumni that love this program.

      I’ve taken two of these ActLab classes, and two of my projects from them have screened at film festivals as well as made impressive works for my “traditional” demo reel. The applicability of my projects range from personal, academic, and professional and have been some of my greatest work as a UT Undergrad.

      I have had several non-cuckoo teachers in the UT Communication department, some of them brilliant, others JOKES, whose crappy classes I’m sure will be pawned off for semesters as “cultural” classes and requirements because personal egos aren’t at odds with them, while the ActLab program which has established itself as a community as well as positive curriculum is cut the second “adults” have a chance to finally axe the perceived eccentricities because of personal ego rather than listening to the passionate students that are begging to be heard.

  3. “Rave LED Gloves” – how did we ever, ever live without them? Oh, the humani… wait, what?

  4. “The fact that the athletics department is paid so highly shows that even though we are Austin, we are also still in Texas, and in America.”

    The UT football team is a cash making machine–the single most profitable college athletic program in the country. You, like many people, mistakenly believe that UT’s athletics take too big of a piece of the pie, when they actually make the pie itself much bigger.

    ACTLab might be great and deserving of more support. But it has nothing whatsoever to do with athletics.

  5. As a PhD candidate in Education at UT, I find Stone’s pedagogy innovative. I actually took her blackbox-pedagogy class and loved it! I learned so much about teaching for students and not for he university or yourself. I learned that education is different than schooling. Schooling is something where you are disciplined to be an A student, you are disciplined into finding the right answer and nothing else. At the ACTLab you get an education about how to be self reliant, self motivated, and how to be innovative. You are educated. I think that at the ACTLab you learn how to follow your passions and take it to the next level in a supportive environment.

  6. As a PhD candidate in Education at UT, I find ACTLab’s pedagogy very progressive and in line with culturally relevant pedagogy.
    I have taken the ACTLab blackbox-pedagogy course and I found it so innovative. The course focused on education not schooling. Schooling involves disciplining the “body” into getting an A, and doing only what is needed to get that A. Education is much more, it is about actually learning something you are invested in. When you are invested in what you are working on the project or lesson takes on a personal meaning to you, which inspires you to be something much more. It also pushes you to do much more with what you are learning.
    @Anon, have you ever had a teacher or professor invest in you so much that they inspired you to do more than was just required? If so you would not call Dr Stone cuckoo. The students may be making “a fuss” as you say, but its for someone who has believed in them, inspired them, and actually taught them something of value to them. This is obviously something they have not experienced in the impersonal big box nature of UT, and so when they finally experienced actual education and not schooling they choose to fight for it.
    Save the ACTLab, do it for the students.

  7. Sandy is “retiring” because she has not been welcome at UT since she first got there. The RTF heads have attempted to get her fired from the start. She is retiring because of the hostility. It has nothing to do with money. It has everything to do with conservative politics.

  8. @ #6 I’m with you, I read the article twice looking for what the hell ACTLab stood for. Quality editing there, lou! thanks to #7 for responding so quickly.

  9. Not to be a troll, but I did a word count and all I read was media, research, something computing, something social, something behavior and assorted huggy-feely stuff made to sound like science. For real?

    Well, it is perhaps good that they are closing down. They don’t seem to be doing anything particularly useful. They are not researching the cure for cancer, they aren’t solving any of Hilbert’s problems, they aren’t discovering any new particles — ad infinitum. I had some hope after seeing computing, to see if they did something worthwhile like theoretical comp sci or even electrical or comp engineering. No such luck.

    You want to do art? Do art. Be a fine arts major. Be a fantastic violinist. Sing opera. Write a book. Dance ballet. Sculpt the next Pietà.

    But this is neither here, nor there. Just a bunch of buzz words from both ends of the spectrum, excuses for people pretending to do “research”. How about doing REAL research into some hard subjects instead, like math, biology, law, linguistics etc, rather than these fluffy buzzword-filled subjects? Hell, the MIT Media Lab, for all its faults, does some hard science research.

    Is this how people’s tax money gets spent on universities? No wonder the US is falling behind. We need more REAL engineers and REAL scientists, dammit.

    1. @Anon#15

      I know very little about the program, but your comment contains some serious logical fallacies. If “hard science” research is good, then shouldn’t ANY amount of scientific method injected into art be an improvement (I’m thinking A/B testing and content heuristics). A friend of mine used his time in ACTLab to develop a distributed 3D media experience that runs in a browser. Each node covered an angular range and displayed video and played sound from that direction.

      I’m a Computer Science graduate from UT who switched from English/Psychology halfway through my education. I’ve seen both ends of the spectrum, and understand the frustration at shallow classes in the Liberal Arts program. However, it doesn’t make sense to attack and make generalizations about a program we don’t understand, particularly when that program seems to be making steps in the right direction.

  10. As a current UT undergraduate student, I just want to say that being introduced to the ACTLab, Sandy Stone, and the community she’s provided the space for has forever changed my life.

    I never could have imagined this alternative pedagogy before stumbling into my first ACTLab class. I don’t understand why it isn’t practiced more commonly or even recognized for all its merits. She provides the space, resources, and heaps of theory for every student to explore their creativity; and steps back to allow them to freely create. It inspires our natural ambition to “make stuff” in a manner that helps us grow as individuals and develop a deep appreciation and respect for the process. Even more magnificent, it’s opened up a highly creative and intelligent network of inventors, creators, activists, and artists in the Austin community that grows exponentially every day!

    I could not be more profoundly impressed with how hard Sandy has fought just to provide this space for her students. ACTLab has become something bigger than I think even she could have imagined because of how well it suits our generation of students; and its unfortunate the university isn’t more welcoming or nurturing of this progressive new media program.

    Whatever the outcome, her inspirational methods of teaching and resourcefulness will be spread though every student who’s life she’s changed by providing this experience. The spirit and practice of the ACTLab pedagogy will always live on ;)

    1. Most interesting. #15 and #16 seem to say exactly the same thing, to very different conclusions.
      @ #15: could you point me to some hard research from MediaMIT?

  11. “You want to do art? Do art. Be a fine arts major. Be a fantastic violinist. Sing opera. Write a book. Dance ballet. Sculpt the next Pietà.”


    Oh yea… ACTLab!

    (where innovators are born)

  12. #15, it’s not just huggy-feely stuff made to look like science. It is an interdisciplinary program. The projects you get vary from class to class depending on the students you get and their interests.

    “They don’t seem to be doing anything particularly useful. They are not researching the cure for cancer.” The ACTLab never aimed to solve the world’s problems, like cancer, as you said. If that should be the aim of every academic program out there, then lots of programs would be closed by your standards.

    I encourage everyone to take a look at the videos on ACTLab TV to see what students are doing:

    Or take a look at one of our most famous papers:

    I am posting under my real name and Twitter handle, not hiding behind anonymity. I’d be happy to answer any questions about the ACTLab and its validity.

  13. #8 you are correct football brings in tons of money and I have no problems paying them well for it. Football pay’s for tons of great other programs. Besides I can’t stand it when the longhorns lose. This is not a question of money however.

    #15 you are a troll!!! RTF which act lab is under is a liberal arts communication program, not an engineering program. That being said it’s the class where I learned how to program, solder, weld and create small format electronics. Hell, I even build a robot I programed and created myself. Are those real enough skills for you!

    For all those that think it’s about cost Sandy has offered to continue teaching for free. So it’s in the best financial interest of the university to allow her to do so.

    The great thing about the Actlab is you can decide what you want to learn and then have a program and team of people available to help you learn it. I’ve learned more useful job related skills in my couple of act-lab classes than in all the rest of my other classes combined. I’m not saying my other classes are bad either, the Actlab is just that good.

    The added benefit of the Actlab is in addition to being really useful it also kicks ass and is a ton of fun to take classes in. It will be to the detriment of many students if the Actlab is ended. SAVE THE ACTLAB!!!

  14. #15 It is pretty ludicrous to expect a new media/interdisciplinary program to achieve something along the lines of “a cure for cancer.”

    Perhaps if we were a medical institution, that would make some sense.

    You want to talk about real research? How about when people in the ACTLab had setup video streaming services well before the days of youtube? Multiple ACTLab alumni have interviewed with BitTorrent, the most advanced and longest lasting P2P protocol to date.

    So I am sorry we are not out studying law and government and “changing the world”, but I think to compare us to the MIT Media is ridiculous. And what have they done? Negroponte has OLPC, and we all saw how well that is going. ;)

  15. It’s sort of too bad, but many innovative programs don’t survive their creators’ moving on. I knew Sandy Stone back in the mid-80s around the time she first moved to Austin and started this program. I’m sad the program won’t survive her but perhaps some of the people involved will be inspired to create the next great thing in its place.

  16. Wow, Anon #15. So only the “fine arts” get funding? Do you realize that NO current art is “fine art?” That everything innovative and contemporary and post-contemporary and progressive is NOT “fine art?” Do you also ask the government to cut funding for pure research? Just as pure research eventually gives us the cure for cancer, progressive and innovative art eventually gives us the “Pieta.”

    I am a professional theatre and installation artist in Austin. I can say with absolute certainty that Austin is producing some of the MOST progressive art in the entire country right now. Sandy Stone is very much a part of that. While working on my MFA in lighting design (a “fine art”) I was fortunate enough to take one of Professor Stone’s ACTLab courses and it was a life-changing, career-altering moment for me. The ACTLab is a space to create. Students are given free use of computers with all the creative software you could want installed, access to projectors, cameras, screens, a room with a stage and lighting and sound system, and people who HANG OUT THERE and offer critique or help for free, because they truly believe that they’re making a difference. What else are we as humans supposed to be doing? To argue that research into pure contemporary art and the fusion of art and technology is absurd – in order to relate what Professor Stone and her students are doing to something like the Pieta, or any product of fine art that is over a hundred years old, you need to ask whether or not that piece of art was accepted as “fine art” in its own lifetime – most of the time, it was not.

    You mention ballet dancing. What about Martha Graham? What about Pina Bausch? Where do you draw the lines in stage and film? David Lynch? Robert Wilson? Music – Phillip Glass, John Cage, David Bowie?

    And as a final thought, if you’re including theatre and performance as “fine art,” the work these students are doing results in the most “cutting edge” theatre work out there. If you were recently in Austin, we have an international experimental theatre festival, the “Fusebox Festival” – and just about every performance that is part of that festival could easily have begun as an ACTLab project.

  17. As a UT graduate, I can honestly say that the three (Weird Science, Blackbox, and Extreme Freestyle Hacking) ACTLab courses I took easily rank amongst my top all around beneficial and memorable courses. Sandy’s classes allowed me to explore and greatly expand upon what I was simply being taught from tutorials and text books in other classes.

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