In lov­ing mem­ory of de­gree shows

The de­gree show is a sta­ple of art school life in Britain and the United States. Held at the end of the sum­mer term, they’re a an op­por­tu­nity for grad­u­ates to de­velop their work in a high-stakes ex­hi­bi­tion en­vi­ron­ment, cel­e­brate the time spent to­gether, and speak to a wider pub­lic. Since in­door events are still off-lim­its in most places, this year’s de­gree shows have largely moved on­line.

Looking through these shows (Lecture in Progress keeps a help­ful list 1, you quickly no­tice that most of them fol­low the same pat­tern: We land on a list of stu­den­t’s names, some­times led by an open­ing state­ment from the course leader or chan­cel­lor (in video for­mat if you’re par­tic­u­larly un­lucky). Each name links to a page that con­tains in­for­ma­tion about the stu­dent: Their name, a state­ment in­tro­duc­ing them­selves and their work, a list of links to their so­cial me­dia pro­files, fol­lowed by one or more pro­jects rep­re­sented by some com­bi­na­tion of im­ages, video, and text. While the ex­e­cu­tion of this varies, the struc­ture is largely con­sis­tent across dozens of shows from Britain, Europe, and the United States.

This leads to an ob­vi­ous ques­tion: Why is it that all of these art schools in­de­pen­dently came to the con­clu­sion that their de­gree show should not only be re­placed by a web­site (overruling stu­dent protests at the Royal College of Art2 and other in­sti­tu­tions3), but one that fol­lows the same struc­ture across the board? This col­lec­tive falling-in-line hap­pened re­mark­ably fast — as re­cently as March, the ques­tion of how the de­gree show should be adapted to the pan­demic en­vi­ron­ment still seemed wide open.4

Somehow, the on­line de­gree show be­came the ob­vi­ous choice ba­si­cally overnight. This might be partly ex­plained on tech­ni­cal grounds (we had our lap­tops open any­way), but it’s worth think­ing through how pre-ex­ist­ing in­si­ti­tu­tional cir­cum­stances may have con­tributed, too.

Administration

The artis­tic work that usu­ally hap­pens in the leadup to a group show — the hag­gling around wall space, the writ­ing of ex­hi­bi­tion texts, the pro­duc­tion of printed mat­ter, the de­vel­op­ment of the work it­self — usu­ally hap­pens al­most ex­clu­sively be­tween stu­dents and teach­ers. Students are en­cour­aged (or at least can’t be eas­ily pre­vented) to take con­trol of the ex­hi­bi­tion space, make their own mea­sure­ments and come to in­de­pen­dent de­ci­sions. Save for an elec­tri­cal in­spec­tion and a hand­ful of VIP events (which are tol­er­ated), the col­lege ad­min­is­tra­tion is kept at ar­m’s length.

In the on­line de­gree show, this re­la­tion­ship is re­versed. A sprawl­ing net­work of ad­min­is­tra­tive de­part­ments (IT, Marketing, Health and Safety, Alumni Relations, Chancellor’s Office) sup­ported by ex­ter­nal con­sul­tants and soft­ware de­vel­op­ers takes con­trol of most as­pects of the show. Digital plat­forms give ad­min­is­tra­tors so­phis­ti­cated tools to finely grade or out­right deny ac­cess to the ex­hi­bi­tion space, re­duc­ing stu­dents and teach­ers to sub­mit­ting ques­tions and hop­ing they will be brought up to the rela­vant comit­tee meet­ing. On my course at the Royal College of Art, this lack of vis­i­bil­ity was so egre­gious that the en­tire group of stu­dent cu­ra­tors re­signed a few weeks into the plan­ning process.

Following a year of wide­spread strikes, protests, and crit­i­cism lev­elled against uni­ver­sity man­age­ment, is­n’t sur­pris­ing that ad­min­is­tra­tors every­where would push through a de­gree show for­mat that shores up their po­si­tion and min­imises the pos­si­bil­ity of pub­lic dis­sent.

Content

Of all the ad­min­is­tra­tive de­part­ments, Marketing might be the biggest win­ner in the move to vir­tual de­gree shows. Marketing de­part­ments have long mined de­gree shows for con­tent by in­ter­view­ing grad­u­at­ing stu­dents, ask­ing them to write for the in­sti­tu­tion’s web­site, stag­ing Instagram takeovers, and comis­sion­ing pho­tog­ra­phy of the ex­hi­bi­tion to be used in next year’s cat­a­logue. The on­line de­gree show makes this work much eas­ier: Here is all this years’ work, al­ready pho­tographed and writ­ten-about in di­gestible chunks to which the uni­ver­sity has in­def­i­nite us­age rights — ready to be re­cy­cled, cu­rated, pro­moted across our chan­nels for­ever. In this turn to­ward con­tent, the move to an on­line show mir­rors the move to on­line teach­ing.5

Faced with a dev­as­tat­ing drop in ad­mis­sions in the au­tumn, these mar­ket­ing ac­tiv­i­ties have be­come more crit­i­cal to the in­sti­tu­tion than ever. An on­line de­gree show fol­low­ing the list/​de­tail model fits them, of­fer­ing a search­able, well-or­gan­ised data­base of all the avail­able con­tent, ready to be fed into up­com­ing re­cruit­ment cam­paigns.

It’s hard to imag­ine this did­n’t in­form the ad­min­is­tra­tor’s nearly uni­form re­sponse — their jobs prob­a­bly de­pend on it.

The new art stu­dent

In a re­cent es­say, the Oslo-based artist Ane Hjort Guttu writes about the de­cline of the old no­tion of the art stu­dent as a some­what inar­tic­u­late in­di­vid­ual who achieved in­sight through their sin­gu­lar, in­tro­vert prac­tice and whose main work­place was the stu­dio”, and to whom health and safety pro­to­cols, due no­ti­fi­ca­tion pro­ce­dures” and, to read be­tween the lines, em­ploy­a­bil­ity, were en­tirely ir­rel­e­vant. In the new mar­ket-dri­ven art school, this old, crum­pled fig­ure is re­placed by a new ideal:

[…] the pro­ject man­ager — a team leader of a re­search net­work, for ex­am­ple. This ideal per­son does not need a per­sonal work­space, but can work quite hap­pily in open-plan of­fices, for­mu­lat­ing pro­ject de­scrip­tions in col­lab­o­ra­tion with re­search clus­ters through­out the European Union. He/she is at the fore­front as far as spe­cialised tech­nol­ogy is con­cerned, but also very open to­wards work­ing across dif­fer­ent aca­d­e­mic dis­ci­plines — if not in prac­tice, then at least in the­ory. He/she likes to eat in the can­teen, is good with dig­i­tal plat­forms, an­nounces his/​her need for a con­fer­ence room well in ad­vance, does not spill things, and does not make a mess. He or she goes home at 17:00.6

Guttu traces this de­vel­op­ment in phys­i­cal ar­chi­tec­ture of con­tem­po­rary art schools, but her analy­sis ex­tends eas­ily to the vir­tual ar­chi­tec­ture of the typ­i­cal on­line de­gree show, which is de­signed for the same pro­ject-man­ager-stu­dent. They have well-lit, nu­dity-free re­pro­duc­tions of their work in web-friendly for­mats read­ily at hand, and have no trou­ble turn­ing out a con­cise sum­mary of them­selves and their re­search in­ter­ests. Their so­cial me­dia pro­files are up-to date, pro­fes­sional and ready to be listed in the con­tact sec­tion of their pro­file. When this fig­ure is the un­ques­tioned ideal, the de­sign de­ci­sions flow­ing into an on­line de­gree show do in­deed be­come ob­vi­ous.


The in-per­son de­gree show is a con­fus­ing, stub­bornly lo­cal, deeply un­prof­itable, of­ten in­ward-look­ing and at times rad­i­cal event. I’m not ar­gu­ing that this can’t be achieved in an on­line for­mat - ex­am­ples like Liverpool’s Degree Show on Mars7 show that, if you give space to stu­dents and teach­ers to truly en­gage with the medium, it can be done. But if you open up con­trol in this way, al­ter­na­tive pro­pos­als like de­layed in-per­son shows, books, and even the re­dis­tri­b­u­tion of the show bud­get to stu­dents be­come pos­si­ble, too. For the rea­sons out­lined here, most in­sti­tu­tions were un­will­ing to con­tem­plate those pos­si­bil­i­ties, and in­stead opted for a re­sponse that’s in line with the on­go­ing mar­keti­sa­tion of art ed­u­ca­tion. 8

  1. Lecture in Progress Degree Show Listings (2020). Available at https://​de­greeshows.lec­turein­progress.com/ ↩︎

  2. Anonymous (2020): How Coronavirus Ate the Art School. In Elephant Magazine. Available at ele­phant.art/​how-coro­n­avirus-ate-the-art-school-royal-col­lege-art-rca-de­gree-show-ed­u­ca­tion-01042020/ ↩︎

  3. David Batty (2020): Students crit­i­cise Royal College of Art’s plan to hold de­gree show on­line. In The Guardian, avail­able at the­guardian.com/​ed­u­ca­tion/​2020/​mar/​24/​stu­dents-crit­i­cise-royal-col­lege-of-arts-plan-to-hold-de­gree-show-on­line ↩︎

  4. Gabrielle de la Puente, Zarina Muhammad (2020): My de­gree show was can­celled — what can I do in­stead? The White Pube ad­vise. In Dazed, avail­able at dazed­dig­i­tal.com/​art-pho­tog­ra­phy/​ar­ti­cle/​48487/​1/​my-de­gree-show-was-can­celled-what-can-i-do-in­stead-the-white-pube-ad­vise ↩︎

  5. Juliet Jacques (2020): The Digital Classroom and the Digital Studio. In Journal of Visual Culture & Harun Farocki Institut 32. Available at harun-farocki-in­sti­tut.org/​en/​2020/​06/​26/​the-dig­i­tal-class­room-and-the-dig­i­tal-stu­dio-jour­nal-of-vi­sual-cul­ture-hafi-32/ ↩︎

  6. Ane Hjort Guttu (2020): The End of Art Education as We Know It. In Kunstkritikk, avail­able at https://​kun­stkri­tikk.com/​the-end-of-art-ed­u­ca­tion-as-we-know-it/ ↩︎

  7. Liverpool School or Art and Design (2020): Degree Show on Mars. Available at de­greeshowon­mars.com/ ↩︎

  8. This text is also pub­lished on Medium ↩︎