NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Restless Knowledge

“What is to be done?” is a provocative demand employed by a number of diverse actors to call for change. Vladimir Lenin’s political pamphlet (1901), Barry Jones, our own former politician on the state of modernity (1982), and the Russian art collective Chto Delat, with a mission to combine political theory, art and activism are a small smattering of manifestos calling for change.

By Dr Fiona Lee

“What is to be done?” is a provocative demand employed by a number of diverse actors to call for change. Vladimir Lenin’s political pamphlet (1901), Barry Jones, our own former politician on the state of modernity (1982), and the Russian art collective Chto Delat, with a mission to combine political theory, art and activism are a small smattering of manifestos calling for change. This question also motivated Documenta 12’s 2007 magazine on education. “What is to be done?” which even then sounded wearisome, courtesy of its “throw-your-hands-in-the-air” call for radical change. Open-ended in intent, the phrase doesn’t answer anything, nor does it offer ideas for future change. Instead, in the case of Documenta,  it asks actors to come together in a call for “emancipatory alternatives” to an ever-proliferating standardised education caught between unyielding academic instruction and society’s obsession with consumption.1

Image: Fiona LeeOur Day Will Come (2011) by Paul O’Neill & Fiona Lee University of Tasmania School of Art  forecourt  Week 4 ‘What is Remoteness’ – Friday afternoon zine launch

Image: Fiona Lee

Our Day Will Come (2011) by Paul O’Neill & Fiona Lee University of Tasmania School of Art  forecourt  Week 4 ‘What is Remoteness’ – Friday afternoon zine launch

Image: Fiona LeeOur Day Will Come (2011) by Paul O’Neill & Fiona Lee University of Tasmania School of Art  forecourt  Week 4 ‘What is Remoteness’ – Friday afternoon zine launch

Image: Fiona Lee

Our Day Will Come (2011) by Paul O’Neill & Fiona Lee University of Tasmania School of Art  forecourt  Week 4 ‘What is Remoteness’ – Friday afternoon zine launch

Image: Fiona LeeOur Day Will Come (2011) by Paul O’Neill & Fiona Lee University of Tasmania School of Art  forecourt  Week 4 ‘What is Remoteness’ – Friday afternoon zine launch

Image: Fiona Lee

Our Day Will Come (2011) by Paul O’Neill & Fiona Lee University of Tasmania School of Art  forecourt  Week 4 ‘What is Remoteness’ – Friday afternoon zine launch

Again, this is not new. Joseph Beuys’ Free International University in Germany (1972), Black Mountain College (1933-37) and the Mountain School of Arts in LA (2005-), fill gaps in traditional systems of education and, more importantly, appeal for autonomy.  Art schools seeking to professionalise the field entered the university system in the 1980s, and had reached a “what is to be done?” moment by the mid 90s that defined an “Educational Turn”, prompted by the Bologna Process, a series of reforms throughout Europe seeking to standardise higher education. Talkfests, protests, publications, conferences, and alternative art schools popped up everywhere, placing emphasis on process, discourse, new pedagogical methods, and democratising access to knowledge.⁠2  But are these models and motives any different to those that exist today? 

The elephant in the room is perhaps best shaped by the question – is academic university art research and teaching in 2021 unravelling? Those caught up in University rationalisations would most likely say yes, with root causes ranging across a number of urgencies, but almost all to do with pecuniary anxieties.

The elephant in the room is perhaps best shaped by the question – is academic university art research and teaching in 2021 unravelling? Those caught up in University rationalisations would most likely say yes, with root causes ranging across a number of urgencies, but almost all to do with pecuniary anxieties; loss of government funding to the arts, lack of interest in creative departments across universities, and a student class that doesn’t want, afford, or can’t commit to a 3-5-year undergraduate/postgraduate degree that will more likely than not, keep them below the poverty line. For students in particular, timetabling doesn’t fit in with work, raising children or COVID restrictions. Rent exceeds student allowances, spending hours in a studio, buying materials or flights (if we could) to international residencies and exhibitions is likewise prohibitive on low incomes. Amidst this milieu, the Government decides to raise fees for the humanities – making it more precarious to undertake a degree in anything other than STEM subjects offering “real” job prospects. One could legitimately ask if the loss of support for the arts is underpinned by neo-liberal social engineering, ignorance over the value arts and culture bring to society, or a misguided attempt to prop up a lagging workforce economy. 

Most alternative art schools work because they don’t seek to replace traditional arts education, rather they supplement, and address serious gaps often lost amongst academic unit changes, course regulations and ULOs and GLOs. The subversive alternative art school Our Day Will Come (ODWC) (2011), by international curator Paul O’Neill, PhD researcher at the time, Fiona Lee, and academic and writer Mick Wilson, is a case in point. The carnivalesque para-school responded to a brief for David Cross’ Iteration:Again program of public art projects, that simply pitched a single repetition each week for four weeks; a perfect structure for a school curriculum that didn’t want to be a curriculum.4 ODWC’s four iterations addressed pressing situations such as what is a school, autonomy, usefulness and remoteness and was delivered in film screenings, school dinners, discos, radio programs, a weekly zine publication as well as a range of projects from international contingent of artists and curators.  In a 1950s Hydro-electric worker’s caravan, the ensemble landed in Tasmania to take up a parasitic relationship within the forecourt of its host, the University of Tasmania’s School of Art, well known at the time for its stoic modernist context. It attended to the idiom, “what is to be done?”

Alternative pedagogy is still around but perhaps different. Instead of being run by artists, they are run by NFP art organisations, national arts advocacy groups, ARIs, local government art development programs, art fairs, museums and galleries. They deliver art labs, public programming, symposiums, testing sites, intensives, bootcamps, creative engines, workshops, art fairs, festivals, and residencies.

The ODWC project addressed the urgency in practice sought by emerging artists, which is often lost in translation and subsumed within standardised university rhetoric. By the time the internal course structuring has caught up with the happenings of the world – it is all over. 4 The teaching staff that continue to practice in the field and drive exigent matters into the classroom through their critical practices, prevent this being a disaster. Now, with massive job cuts throughout the university sector, the critical educators who fill the gaps are being sent out on redundancies, challenged to reapply for lesser positions or competitively against their friends and colleagues.

Alternative pedagogy is still around but perhaps different. Instead of being run by artists, they are run by NFP art organisations, national arts advocacy groups, ARIs, local government art development programs, art fairs, museums and galleries. They deliver art labs, public programming, symposiums, testing sites, intensives, bootcamps, creative engines, workshops, art fairs, festivals, and residencies. They service the intellectually elite and time poor, those seeking alternatives to standardised education outside work hours; night schools, MOOCS, international online courses common, not just in the arts. Business, health, and technology are all being offered in short, sharp intensives delivering large quantities of knowledge over a condensed time frame. Sometimes there are certificates and rewards, but often the experience of intensive forms of pedagogy, that value add to existing skills, far out ways the desire to slog through a 3-year degree and get a framed certificate and a few letters after your name. 

So, we might ask, “What is to be done?”:

  • dust off the old alternative art school model,

  • channel Lenin, Beuys, and Jones

  • find a super-rich benefactor

  • employ all the redundant creative geniuses let go from the strangles of university bureaucracy

  • promote criticality, relevance, caring and urgency 

  • start a free alternative art school.

It is a call to arms – this is what is to be done.

References

1 Documenta Magazine N0 3, 2007 editorial Schöllhammer, G (ed) ‘Education’ Taschen Cologne

2 Lázá E ‘Educational Turn’ Transit.hu http://tranzit.org/curatorialdictionary/index.php/about/

3 Cross D (ed) ‘Our Day Will Come’ 2011  Iteration Again; 13 Public Art Projects across Tasmania. Punctum Books NY pp. 131-141

4. Lee F (2016)  Rogue Academy: Conversational Art Events as a means of Institutional Critique. PhD thesis, University of Tasmania https://eprints.utas.edu.au/23042/


Fiona Lee is a Geelong based artist-researcher, curator and founder of the art-education collective, The Rogue Academy. She lectures in public art, social practice and art history and theory at Deakin. With an interest in conversation and education as art practice, she also works across architecture, installation, and community participation. She co-produced the international project Our Day Will Come, an alternative art school with Paul O’Neill, developed, with artist Amanda Shone, Conversations at the Mission to Seafarers (2017), and Rabbits and Numbats at the MPavilion (2018). She has given talks, lectures and undertaken international residencies in Paris, Scotland and Canada.

More from this issue

More from this issue

By Professor David Cross — School of the Damned is not the type of anodyne name we usually associate with international art schools. With faintly Hammer House of Horror overtones, this alternative educational programme was founded in 2014 by a group of UK-based students “as a reaction to the increasing financialisation of higher education”.[i]
By Professor Cat Hope — I am always glad to hear a representative from the Australian Academy for the Humanities (AAH) in the media, speaking so articulately for better support of the humanities in higher education and demanding recognition of the humanities as key to a healthy society.

One of the noticeable disconnects between creative arts higher education and industry is that we train many more artists than our sector can support. For our graduates, this situation is often experienced as a personal failure … Recent research on musicians’ mental health and well-being tells us that training and industry cultures can be detrimental to musicians’ health both during their studies and after graduation. We might have continued to gloss over these limitations were it not for COVID, which has highlighted how unworkable many people’s creatives lives became without the option to work as normal.

In Australia we train artistic Higher Degree students in the creative arts – it is one of the things we do best … As part of this process, we sometimes work with critical theory, applying it to the making of creative works. The exegesis which underpins this process offers the chance to be both convergent and divergent at the same time. The Orpheus Institute in Ghent, Belgium offers a compelling example of an approach to research and post graduate study in music practice.

As the landscape of higher education continues to shift in response to COVID-19, alternate art schools have become a competitive option for prospective university students. Comparisons between alternate art schools and Australian university degrees may focus on economic and structural differences, yet another key consideration necessitates that education systems support and protect students’ wellbeing.

Reflecting upon the current state of higher education in the arts, the pre-COVID lyrics from Inertia Creeps, a song by Massive Attack in 1998, come to mind. As the songwriter, Robert “3D” Del Naja, explained of the lyrics, “It’s about being in a situation but knowing you should be out of it, but you’re too fucking lazy or weak to leave”. The inertia of online learning has been “creeping up slowly” on creative arts programs for more than 20 years; indeed, the University of Phoenix Online offered the first online degree program as early as 1989.

This text is an edited transcript of an interview between Swedish-based academic and artist Maddie Leach and David Cross. It specifically examines differences between the Swedish and Australasian art school models and questions whether the pre-conditions exist in Scandinavia more broadly for alternative education models to flourish at the expense of the current university-based system.