First things first – enrolment. The desk is manned, but we’re not allowed to address the staff. Instead, a robotic voice welcomes me to the school, and prompts me to write a personal statement in the form of a tweet. WHAT IS ART asks the voice. The queue builds up behind me as I struggle to sum up my response in 140 characters. DON’T WORRY EVERYONE HAS TROUBLE WITH THAT QUESTION. I settle on a cop-out answer, and move to the next stage of the process – a sort of camera, which turns out to be the future’s answer to school photos. WE ARE SCANNING YOU INTO OUR 3D LEARNING ENVIRONMENT, says the voice. I stand behind a black line (labelled red, very high concept) and look straight ahead, as though I’m at customs. A little avatar of me is generated, and a reassuring message flashes up on the screen: DON’T WORRY YOU LOOK NICE THAN THAT [sic]. Phew! And I’m in.
An Afternoon at Art School
Pitching up at Tate Exchange on Tuesday to attend an afternoon of their temporary art school felt both nostalgic and a little intimidating. It was only a year ago that I graduated, so the format of a university doesn’t feel far from my consciousness; I’ve enrolled in plenty of courses, and had many ‘first days’ in my time. On the other hand, this would be my first experience of art school per se, as I studied literature. I knew, and still know, a few art students; attempting to channel them, I summon up a radical spirit, will my hair to look cooler than I know it does, and push the door open.
A robotic voice welcomes me to the school, and prompts me to write a personal statement in the form of a tweet. WHAT IS ART asks the voice. The queue builds up behind me as I struggle to sum up my response in 140 characters. DON’T WORRY EVERYONE HAS TROUBLE WITH THAT QUESTION.
My first impression is of a charming chaos. All around me workshops are being set up and executed, and audience participation is the name of the game. I ease myself in at the ‘doodling’ table, contribute the manifestation of my deepest subconscious to a wall where the drawings build up throughout the day, and move across the room to ‘Camera Obscura’. This piece takes the form of a blacked-out tent, heavy with the smell of tarpaulin, which I volunteer to be zipped into. I’m rewarded with a hazy silhouette of London’s skyline, projected upside-down through a hole onto a screen velcroed into place once the door is zipped up. The artist is in there with me. ‘You are inside an enormous camera obscura’, she says. It’s a gorgeous idea, and one that fills me with a new faith in creativity and play for its own sake.
Speaking of play, my next stop is ‘Art-o-rama’. A girl dressed as a sort of caricature of an 80s gameshow host asks if I’d like to spin the wheel for my chance to win a prize. Of course I would. The wheel’s sections display various occupations and their wages, and my attempt lands me on ‘street cleaner, £13K’. The only way I could have done worse would have been if I landed on ‘artist’ or ‘unpaid intern’, at £10K and £0K respectively. The next stage of the game is to make a work of art; my occupation determines my resources (c'est la vie) and so I root through a bag of rubbish, choosing a plastic carton and milk bottle. My creation wins a prize, in the form of an envelope containing a statement. It seems clipped from Reddit, or the comments section of a website: “……I’d do anything to get noticed……..?”
As the art world becomes more and more monetised, this new generation of artists seem keen to produce work which can’t be sold or reproduced. Rather, it requires both the presence and the participation of its viewer to operate. For people who find conventional exhibitions alienating or snobby, this surely is the antidote.
My afternoon passes in the same vein as I bounce from station to station. I contribute a clay model to the foundations of a structure which I’m told will be made from steel; I sit at a booth and swap my secret for someone else’s; I watch a young man dance in his boxer shorts, and then climb into a box and sob; I attend a workshop based on Ira Progoff’s journaling therapy. What links these ideas, I think, is an interest in the experiential. As the art world becomes more and more monetised, this new generation of artists seem keen to produce work which can’t be sold or reproduced. Rather, it requires both the presence and the participation of its viewer to operate; for people who find conventional exhibitions alienating or snobby, this surely is the antidote. Eager to understand more about the political and social motivations behind the project, I sit down with the programme director, Alex Schady.
I was wondering if you could tell me what the sentiment behind setting up something like this was? I know it’s a reaction to, a pushing against, the current state of arts education. Why did that feel important, and how does it do that?
Well, I think anyone working in arts education right now is very concerned by the current climate. We know that art is looking like it won’t be on the Ebacc, we know that there’s less emphasis on art at primary school, we know that the move is towards what they’re calling STEM subjects – maths, science, engineering. I’m not for a second suggesting that those things aren’t important, but creativity isn’t something peripheral that happens on the side. It’s something that should be at the heart of education as well. And I would argue that art school has a long history of working very creatively with an idea of teaching, of being experimental in the way it teaches, and producing students who are exciting, dynamic thinkers, often quite brave thinkers, and that can be something really important and useful to the culture of the country. Now, I don’t think that a project like this can change anything, but I think what we have a duty within arts education not to sit back and let things happen. We might not be able to change them, we’re not a political organisation, but at the very least we can put a spotlight on it – to say, this thing is happening and we shouldn’t pretend it’s not. To say, this is what’s in danger, this is what might not be here.
Absolutely. I never went to art school, so I don’t know what this looks like compared to a typical experience. What are the main differences?
So this is, if you like, a condensed, distilled version of what an art school experience might be. I don’t think there’s anything happening here that wouldn’t happen in art school, but it probably wouldn’t be happening all together at the same time, with all these students! Some of the way I’ve structured it was with an invitation to students who wanted to take part, that they needed to rethink their practices through the context of a lesson plan. Everything that happens needs to be a lesson plan. And partly I did that as a way of exploring teaching, because it’s good for students to understand what teaching is as well – and they do want to know about the other side, as well as from the receiving side. But also I thought that approach would make it clear that what’s happening here this week is not an exhibition. It’s a different sort of engagement, and that’s how we framed it. Art students are often a little perverse, tangential in their ways of approaching things. They’re certainly not going to be led by me! They kick against it. And a lot of what they’ve produced, even though it’s within this idea of a lesson plan, it’s such an expanded idea of a lesson plan that it ends up feeling very much like art school.
Art students are often a little perverse, tangential in their ways of approaching things. They’re certainly not going to be led by me! They kick against it. And a lot of what they’ve produced, even though it’s within this idea of a lesson plan, it’s such an expanded idea of a lesson plan that it ends up feeling very much like art school.
Yeah, there’s a really nice radicalism, a nice playfulness going on. Those constraints of things like lesson plans can often be more productive than restrictive, counterintuitively.
I absolutely agree. I’m not saying that my way of teaching is the right way of teaching, just that it works for me, but certainly my approach with people when we’re trying to do something together is to impose restrictions which then get bashed about by the people taking part. Like a wall to kick against.
So what can people visiting this week expect?
You can expect the opportunity to take part in a wide range of activities, from a game show in which you make art and get a prize which is a statement, to watching a lesson which is a performance, to physically cutting things out and sticking them in bits of the Tate, to watching students get tutorials from members of staff… We’re up for engaging with the public in any way they want to.
As Schady explains, CSM at Tate Exchange is not an exhibition. It’s a fresh approach to engaging the wider public with contemporary art, characterised by inviting them into the driving seat. Just as the students get to experience the other side of teaching, so the attendees are offered the chance to see art through the looking glass: as both its creators and consumers. Instead of simply turning a standard formula upside-down, the programme offers a hybrid of two roles for both the students and visitors. The barriers between artist and audience, piece and practice, become blurred, and the hallowed space of Gallery with a capital G is in flux. With the future of arts education at stake, CSM at Tate Exchange makes a compelling case for its preservation. As spaces dedicated to creativity fall away in a world geared more and more towards financial rather than intellectual profit, the significance of those which remain cannot be overstated.