Between Artistic Intention and a Digital Sunset


The Paradox of Constraints

by Miki Ambrozy and Tomas Blinstrubas

Tomas Blinstrubas was awarded the Outstanding Cambridge Learner Award for achieving the highest mark in the world from Cambridge International for his AS Level Digital Media and Design portfolio. Below is a conversation between Tomas and Miki Ambrózy, Digital Media and Design teacher at Vilnius International School. 

Miki Ambrózy: I open the book Draw it with your eyes closed: the art of the art assignments. On page 9, I find out that there are three ways of teaching art. Be a cheerleader, be a role model, or be the dialogue facilitator. A red signal starts flashing in my mind, even though I understand the fun principle of this book, where a lot of different types of approaches are collaged into one thin volume. The red signal reminds me to remain cautious with anyone who starts a sentence with: “there are X number of ways to do this thing.” Surely, there exist other ways… 

As a teacher, I made long-lasting observations on learning in a fifth grade classroom, where I saw how my brilliant colleague Jemma Thomas created a system for each student to get a challenge that was both appropriate, and felt like there was room for choice. Simply magic. It’s called differentiation in the jargon of international education. In other words, create a structure for everyone to feel that they are grappling with something they’ll manage to solve, while feeling successful and, to some extent, free. So how to achieve that in an A-level design course? Art and design are notoriously difficult when it comes to assessment – a fact that is multiplied by the huge impact that exam grades have on high school students’ self-perception. 

Through five years of trial and error, my colleague Dayana Titarenko and I have arrived at something that may start to look like a method for organising successful guidance in this field. Before our conversation with our award-winning student Tomas Blinstrubas below, I am going to share one aspect of this pedagogical practice. 

As noted in the publication Wicked Arts Assignments, “finding a balance between limiting and enabling assignments becomes an art in itself” (Bremmer and Heijnen, 2020, Valiz). What the authors mean is a well-researched paradox of experiential learning, namely that the more freedom we give in creative tasks, the greater the chances of less creative outcomes. In our program, however, building unexpected connections in students’ portfolios is absolutely essential, because their work is assessed alongside thousands of students globally. How to stand out? Our answer is simple: squeeze the exam briefs until all they can do is become singular, unique and, occasionally, outstanding.

In the daily practice of teaching Cambridge AS/A Level Digital Media & Design course, I often squeeze the briefs through assignments with enabling constraints: conditions that narrow down choices while opening up possibilities. Tomas, for example, was encouraged to set his projection-based installation “Digital Sunset” in the most public part of school (the atrium), instead of the smallest space possible (the recording room). I’ll never forget how his eyes grew wide. He took on the challenge gracefully, as it coincided with his interest in architecture. But that’s where my theory ends - and that’s where Tomas’ work needs to be given its own well-deserved space.

MA: So now I’ve revealed my cards, it’s your turn. How did you win the award for the world’s best portfolio? 

Tomas Blinstrubas: The breaking point definitely was when you proposed the use of the atrium as the location for my installation, because then I was pressured to develop something worthy of people’s time. I had less than two weeks to produce the visuals, so I was filming everyday after school. In early spring in Vilnius that’s exactly the time when the sun sets, so the footage turned out to have the perfect amount of light, the colours were the most vivid and the sky had a complex texture. What ended up being the most successful factor of my work was that I had to simplify my idea drastically and then exaggerate it and thus I created an installation that was primitive yet effective. I chose to develop an initiative for wellbeing out of 5 other briefs, guided only by intuition. I hadn’t given it much thought, but the word “wellbeing” just seemed the most genuine and meaningful.

My primary inspiration came from the local church architecture, because that was the main space where wellbeing would be practised in the past, that’s why I tried mimicking a chapel with my design. Art Nouveau was another key stylistic element that defined my work. It was an art and architecture movement that put the emphasis on the human and nature after the industrial revolution, so I hoped it would have the same effect when I employed it in my installation with the visuals that mimic the colourful stained glass windows of the era.

MA: How did you land the title Digital Sunset?

TB: The title refers to the colour palette similar to a sunset; mainly blue, with yellow and pink accents. Additionally, because the installation is designed for a wellbeing initiative that’s promoting mindfulness, the word sunset connected nicely with calmness and contemplation, whereas the word digital signified the medium and means that make the installation interesting and accessible.

MA: What was your most rewarding moment during the process of making this portfolio?

The end result was one of the most satisfying moments I’ve experienced as an art student. We organised a small opening for the school community, where we served tea. Everyone sat down and hung around sitting on couches, which we positioned strategically. I felt satisfied with the viewers' interactions. People either stared at the projections, immersed, sipping tea, or listened to the soothing ambient sound of the river and had a conversation. Yet what I’m most proud of is that my project was not really demanding any input from the viewer, rather it was a subtle nudge inviting the viewer to calm down.

On behalf of the VIS community, we congratulate Tomas and Miki on receiving global recognition for their work and we wish you both the best of luck in your further creative endeavours. 

Tomas Blinstrubas is finishing his Camridge A-levels at Vilnius International School.

Miki Ambrózy is an artist, educator, and writer based in Vilnius.