By Professor Paul Gough
We live in benighted times, of that no doubt. So, what better to lift our spirits as the UK absorbs the russet hues of autumn than to break open our brand-new brightly painted orange building here on the campus at Arts University Bournemouth.
If orange is the new black then someone needs to share the news with the highly esteemed array of architects snapped here, at the very moment the eminent French architect and town planner Odile Decq brandished the scissors alongside Mike Davis (architect in red), Brian Clarke (artist, stained-glass designer, and executor of the estate of Zaha Hadid) and to the right, the significant figure of Sir Peter Cook RA (black-hatted architect, Archigram-originator, and AUB alumnus) who designed the building and led a two-day jamboree of European architects to launch the design event.
Surrounding the newly-opened building – which will serve as the part EU-funded AUB Innovation Studio – is a rather striking (and mostly) Yellow Brick Road, which meanders playfully around the floor plate. This though is definitely not Kansas: we are firmly planted on the Creative Coastline of the English south coast. But I’d like to think that the building and its environs represents themes familiar to the fabulous fantasy film from 1939, which pits an innocent youthful Dorothy (played with utter brilliance by Judy Garland) against the forces of evil, illness and inertia. For how else can we describe the wicked virus that has gripped and plagued our world for far too long.
On her journey, Dorothy is joined by a motley crew comprising a scarecrow who needs a brain; a tin woodman who seeks a heart, and a sad and cowardly lion who desires courage. Most of us know the tale, can whistle along to the songs, and marvel at the magic.
For me, the many travails that assail the quartet as they seek the Emerald City recall the tortuous path of our recent times: during month after month of lockdown here in UK and also across Australia there were times we veered from acting the Scarecrow (seeking rational solutions and rarely finding them) then the Lion (drawing constantly on a fast depleting reserve of courage) and yet, I know from talking to many of my colleagues we rarely lost heart, although at times it felt a close run thing.
Looking back on the moment of UK lockdown, at the end of March 2020, it now seemed all too easy to quit our offices, walk out of the workshops and shut the studios. We learned how to flip up the laptop lid, stare into the dispassionate eye of the computer camera, and share our wisdom. For a while we fooled ourselves into thinking this was online learning. It wasn’t really, but look how fast we adapted, how ingenious we proved, how adaptable and resilient our students and our colleagues.
However, it was never easy, in fact, it was – and still is – exhausting, enervating and at times even unedifying. Certainly there have been some positives from “hybrid working” but some essentials were lost too. What our students gained in online delivery they lost in other skills: at home, in halls, they learned how to make, to design, to perform, to project, and to recite online, in real time, in boxed compartments reaching out through the ether to forge connection.
At times, peering into the blank screen seemed to have more in common with an Edwardian séance than an educational seminar: “Hello … Margaret … hello, is anybody there….?” Howling silences were accompanied by the disembodied message: “We’re in another room…” Like walk-on parts from the Fall of the House of Usher at times we were trapped in a mansion of mirrors, waiting with increasing impatience to return to the business of making – making things, making meaningful experiences, making contact, making a difference.
And what will we make next? In the UK the right and middlebrow press has turned against online delivery regarding it as short-changing fee paying students. In actuality, much good has been gained. Some universities have forever closed their lecture theatres, recognising their day has long gone; others hang onto them, some staff still relishing the performative act of the “sage on the stage”. The truth is it’s a false dichotomy: online versus face-to-face; being there versus being anywhere. It makes for good headlines but it’s not helpful as we recover from the scale of disruption and upheaval. Put simply, students crave connections that are meaningful, authentic and tailored, whether they be online or in the studio. Dialogue is at the heart of our pedagogy; staff help curate and contextualise content; creative Arts thrives on praxis.
To do so takes imagination, brains, courage and above all heart. Good luck as we each set off again on our own brick road, yellow, orange or whatever hue of designer-black you so choose to wear, Our sector, wherever you are in the world, has long provided resilient and adaptable. With values-driven and people-based leadership it will continue to do so as we bounce back boldly and bravely, and of course brightly, even if the colour is not orange.
Professor Paul Gough is Vice-Chancellor and Principal at Arts University Bournemouth, having moved from a role as Vice-President of RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.
A painter, broadcaster and writer, he has exhibited internationally and is represented in the permanent collection of the Imperial War Museum, London, the Canadian War Museum, Ottawa, and the National War Memorial, New Zealand. In addition to leading roles in national and international higher education and global research assessment, his research into the imagery of war and peace has been presented to audiences throughout the world. In addition to an exhibiting record, he has published nine books, including monographs on the British painter Stanley Spencer, Paul and John Nash and several comprehensive studies of art from both world wars. He worked in television for ten years and is currently writing his second book about the street artist, Banksy.