Writing / Reviews

Direct Urbanism, Transparadiso: Barbara Holub and Paul Rajakovics
Art & the Public Sphere, Volume 3 Number 1 2015

Book review
Direct Urbanism, Transparadiso: Barbara Holub and Paul Rajakovics (2013)
Authors: Jane Rendell, Paul O'Neil, Mick Wilson
Verlag fur Moderne Kunst, (216 pp.), colour illustrations
ISBN-10: 3869844086
Language: English, German, Softcover
Jes Fernie, independent curator

Over the past fifteen years there has been a noticeable, if small, increase in the number of newly established practices that are exploring alternative approaches to urban issues, drawing on the work of theorists and artist groups such as the Situationists. But these practices often follow one of two distinct paths: those that drop the experimental work when 'real' buildings start to enter the frame, and those who immerse themselves in academia where they are more able to assume a critical, theoretical approach. It's clear that this type of fracturing is dangerous as it leaves both worlds devoid of a crucial component which ultimately impacts on the quality of our lived experience in the public realm.

Those practices that have stuck to their original convictions, developing a body of work that explicitly addresses messy social, political and environmental issues, as well as embracing a dialogue with other disciplines such as art, are few and far between. In the UK, there's muf, a practice developed by Liza Fior and Katherine Clark in the mid 90s which has managed, against significant odds, to gain a reputation for drawing out a more nuanced range of possibilities for public life, including space for play, conversation, and engagement of the human spirit, all within the unforgiving framework of the UK planning system.

Another practice that has managed to sustain this type of work is Transparadiso, an art / architecture group based in Vienna established by Barbara Holub and Paul Rajakovics. It was established in 1999 as a response to the a-critical stance that architectural practices seemed to be taking in relation to the market-based economy of excess that came out of the 1980s, flourished in the 90s and has firmly taken root in 21st century. Holub and Rajakovics became convinced that a radical change was needed, and that the active involvement of the user was crucial to the success of any architectural or urban planning project. This was best achieved, they insisted, through the pursuit of a utopia beyond the rigid framework of existing professions. Different disciplines such as art, architecture, sociology and urban planning should come together to create a more viable, rich experience of public and private space.

During the period that Transparadiso has existed, the rhetoric around 'participation' and the co-opting of artists and cultural practitioners to re-design neglected urban spaces has expanded ten fold. Holub and Rajakovics are unsurprisingly skeptical about this move by capital and neoliberal strategists, but what sets them apart is their willingness to engage with developers and clients who have vested interests in this system. Rather than employing an antagonistic approach to complex situations, they will, for example, conceive of a game which generates discussion about a set of issues experienced by a particular group of local people. The aim is to plant the seed for long-term engagement in issues associated with urban planning and its direct effects on people's lives, thereby creating more politically astute and demanding citizens.

Like other practices of its ilk, Transparadiso questions the dominant model of sole author as creator of an original idea, a model upheld by many star architects across the globe. When Holub was starting her career working for other architects she became aware of the construct of the 'master' architect in a male-dominated field, who was compliant with politicians' interests and fitted nicely into the clients' view of what an architect should be. Transparadiso's rostrum of projects is a clear rejection of this model. While Holub and Rajakovics don't shy away from making uncomfortable decisions and sticking their neck out where they needn't, there is always a sense in their projects of a conversation in which users, client and architect are building a project together, rather than a hierarchical one in which an impressionistic sketch by the star at the top is realised by the minions below.

Over the past fifteen years Transparadiso has carried out a beguiling array of projects that sets them apart from almost all of their peers. A snapshot of their practice includes a haptically sensual living room for residents of a hospice; the staging of a dinner party for local people in a gallery which questioned the dramatic rise in the corporatisation of the art world; a performative deconstruction of Kennedy's 'Ich bin win Berliner' declaration with an African American twist; and a large-scale urban realm project involving apartment blocks, retail units and public domain spaces. Direct Urbanism brings all of Transparadiso's projects together and positions them within the broader framework of the practice's conceptual oeuvre, but more importantly, the book constitutes a provocation to other architects, artists, planners and members of the public to play a part in overhauling a rotten and malfunctioning system.

Practices of this type are notoriously hard to relay in photographic form. The 'thing' that we are being asked to focus on is very rarely the end product but a process of dialogue, including dead-ends and other moments that aren't easily captured within the pages of a book. The first impression of Direct Urbanism, as it is flicked through, is in direct contrast to the experience of reading it. Dry architectural drawings, models and plans are accompanied by small photographs of participatory workshops and social situations (the curse of many publications that attempt to document socially engaged practice). The designer has done a good with the available material (particularly since it is dual language text - German and English), but the seduction for me lies in the text rather than the images.

The book is divided into three sections: Urban practices, interventions and tools; Architecture & urbanism; and Urbanism and art, all of which sound pretty amorphous until you get to the pieces of text within these sections which take on a distinct language of their own. An interview between the members of Transparadiso and a curator (Paul O'Neill) and artist / teacher (Mick Wilson) which takes a selection of their projects to draw out the philosophy of the practice, is followed by a piece of experimental text by architectural theorist Jane Rendell, which plays with the prepositions in Transparadiso's name ('trans' and 'para') through a trivalent essay. The final text is a manifesto of sorts by Holub and Rajakovics in which they set out their stall.

It's a rather fantastic combination of texts from a diverse range of voices which clearly reflects Transparadiso's interest in creating lines of thought that lead from one world to the next. And, against all the odds, it works. At moments it is genuinely exciting, and the possibilities for assuming such an approach become very real. What if we lived in a world where words like 'ambivalence', 'disruption' and 'desire' were used in the urban planning system? Wouldn't it be great if more architects worked at the interface of politics, culture, life and architecture? And how much better would civic life be if citizens were engaged in conversations about where and how we live?

The title of the book is a direct reference to Guy Debord's concept of 'unitary urbanism', a theory of 'combined use of arts and techniques for the integral construction of a milieu in dynamic relation with experiments in behaviour'. It also nods to the dichotomy of tactics (direct) and strategy (urbanism as city planning) found in the writings of Michel de Certeau. As Holub and Rajakovics point out in their manifesto at the end of the book: 'By uniting 'tactics and 'strategy'… we have attempted to overcome this dichotomy'.

The commitment by Transparadiso to a broader social good, as well as a rigorous intellectual programme, is undeniable. However, if this book is primarily about encouraging non-specialists to take part in a dialogue about urban spaces and planning, where is this voice and what is its legacy? Who is to say any of these projects have been a 'success' in the eyes of the participants? In projects such as Commons come to Liezen, for example, Transparadiso installed a pavilion in a public garden which included a large scale Tangram game (a dissection puzzle) that engaged residents in a discussion about art as a space for reflection and action in their neighbourhood. How was this project received and did it manage to wind its way into public consciousness? It would be good too, to read about what the residents of Stadwerk Lehen (an ambitious housing scheme on the outskirts of Salzburg) think about their experience of living in an environment that was designed to position the user at its heart. A raft of thoughtful acts were carried out by Transparadiso to help tackle issues relating to social isolation and access to a public voice: a sociologist was invited onto the steering committee to help guide the project; specific designs were implemented for single parents, homes with children and communal areas; a subsidy was brokered for the public ground floor buildings which are inhabited by not for profit organisations (including a contemporary art gallery); and connections were made to link the area to adjacent parts of Salzburg in order to combat community isolation. Did all of this 'work'? What didn't?

Many architects, planners and urban thinkers will view this type of practice as desirable but economically unviable. Reading through the précis's of each project, the reader gets a clear sense of the considerable amount of personal and emotional commitment, as well as on-the-ground physical presence, that projects of this type require. Many practices that start out with socially-engaged manifestos are unable to sustain the model beyond their initial, youthful years, when they have the energy and time to commit to such schemes. If this type of model were to be rolled out on a grander scale, the processes of procurement, realisation and community liaison would have to be radically restructured, particularly in relation to remuneration for design team members.

And then there is the loaded question regarding the 'duty' of the architect - the moralistic overtones of which are implicitly rejected by many architectural and urban design practices. Is it the duty of architects to consider social and political issues as well as formal, logistical and economic ones? Holub and Rajakovics are explicit about this and state in the book that they are a 'transdiciplinary practice that considers architecture, urban planning and art a responsibility towards society'. This subject has recently had a public airing with Richard Roger's statement on the eve of the opening of his exhibition at The Royal Academy last year that 'architecture's civic responsibility has been eroded in "an age of greed"'. Clearly, the conversation needs to continue.

What's exciting about this book is that it takes a series of disparate subjects (Situationism, socially engaged practice, architecture and urban planning policy) and links them together in a way that is both beguiling and practical.

It is wonderful to consider what might be possible if only this type of practice wasn't the exception but the rule. The book highlights the woeful limitations of much architecture, urban design and the planning system, as well as broader issues such as structural inequality and encroaching neo-liberalism. At a time when societal responsibility and the welfare state are being slowly dismantled, Transparadiso's approach is not just desirable but critical.

Jes Fernie
April 2015

'This is what we do: a muf manual', Ellipsis, 2001
See Site-Writing, The Architecture of Art Criticism, Jane Rendell, I B Tauris, 2010Situationistische Internationale 1957 - 72, Museum moderner Kunst 1988
Michel de Ceteau, The Practice of Every Day Life, 1980
Dezeen Book of Interviews, May 2014, publisher: Dezeen Ltd

Art & Arcitecture: A Place Inbetween
RIBA Journal, February 2007. Book published by I B Tauris

Art located in the public domain has been called all sorts of things since its rapid growth in the 1970's, many with scatological overtones: 'site-specific art', 'plop art', 'public art' and 'turds in the plaza'. In her new book Art and Architecture: A Place Between Jane Rendell proposes that we give it a new name: 'critical spatial practice'. Using the work of 'spatial thinkers' such as Walter Benjamin, Doreen Massy and Michel de Certeau, Rendell forms the argument that this term allows us to engage with the social and the aesthetic, the public and the private, whilst also highlighting the importance of the critical and spatial aspects of interdisciplinary practice.

In my view, the dearth of in-depth critical analysis of art in the public domain is symptomatic of the gap that exists between critical thinking in the fields of art on the one hand and architecture on the other. With its analysis of key issues such as the increasingly important role that relationships between people play in the production and occupation of art and architecture, as well as the tricky ground that is to be negotiated between the terms 'site', 'non-site' and 'off-site', this book goes some way to rectify this.

Rendell has borrowed three concepts of 'space', 'time' and 'social being' devised by the postmodern geographer Edward W Soja to organise her book into three sections: Between Here and There; Between Now and Then; Between One and Another. This division serves her purpose well and provides a sturdy hanger on which to drape her argument. In 'Between Here and There' she looks at the current vogue for locating work outside the gallery domain and addresses the sensitive issue of accessibility: do the growing number of off-site projects and biennials merely reinforce the institutional boundaries set up by galleries? Is the 'expanded field' (a phrase coined by critic Rosalind Krauss in 1979 to refer to the work of land artists) best understood in terms of site, place or space? And can we use the terms 'space', 'place', and 'site' to refer to different processes involved in critical spatial practice?

'Between Now and Then' focuses on the fascination that many current artists and architects have for buildings and sites that are derelict or abandoned. An investigation into the way 'inappropriate' materials and languages are used to displace dominant meanings and interrupt particular contexts is highlighted through examples ranging from Conford & Cross' intervention into Norman Foster's Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts in Norwich, and Sarah Wigglesworth's Staw Bale House in London.

The last section, 'Between One and Another' is a rather more whimsical plea for artworks to be considered less as a set of 'things' or 'objects' than as a series of exchanges that take place between people through such processes as collaboration, social sculpture and walking. Rendell uses the analogy of a preposition in a sentence to highlight how art facilitates connections between people. 'I offer tea 'to' you, in return, you offer me something from your pocket. As vehicles for interpersonal exchange, prepositions, in this case the tea bags, provide the potential for transformation; through a simple conversation… there is always the possibility we might change and rethink the position we occupy in the world.' This potential for art to change fundamental viewpoints is discussed through the work of Mierle Laderman Ukeles whose seminal work 'Manifesto for Maintenance Art' (1969) existed in a place between art and society: in the forming of relationships with the 8,500 rubbish collectors of New York through repeated ceremonial handshakes, in recognition of the role they play in maintaining the fabric of the city.

When asked how he positioned his publicly sited works, the American artist Chris Burden said recently: 'I just make art. Public art is something else, I'm not sure it's art. I think it's about a social agenda'. Whilst I take issue with Burden's refusal to engage with the political, social or even critical matters involved in siting his art in the public domain, my inclination is to go along with the idea that to make a distinction between gallery and non-gallery art is problematic. Rendell proposes we give 'public art' a new name; I take the view that we should abolish it altogether, acknowledging that every site (indoors or outdoors) is loaded with some sort of meaning. The extremely well researched and considered arguments in this book have made me rethink my position. It would be easy to dismiss Art and Architecture as overly academic (it is) and unrealistic (it is) but it is important to recognise that Rendell's attempt to lay the foundations for a new form of practice is genuinely exploratory and significant.

Elmgreen & Dragset: The Welfare Show
Review of exhibition at Serpentine Gallery, Icon, April 2006

There was an outcry at the 2003 Venice Biennale when a chimpanzee was hired to sit on a platform and spell the word UTOPIA using stacking blocks. A few performances later, the show was cancelled; the ensuing law suits and demonstrations were too much for the artists, Elmgreen & Dragset, to deal with. The previous year, the artists invited members of the Zurich art world to a private view which consisted of the noisy, smelly, dirty demolition of an interior fit-out of an eleven-thousand-square-foot Kunsthalle. In 2005 they built a permanently sited, non-functioning Prada store in the desolate Texan landscape. In all of these works, Elmgreen (born 1961, Denmark) & Dragset (1969, Norway) investigate mechanisms of ideological control through the reconstruction of architectural or institutional spaces. Power structures and behavioural patterns are put into question, throwing audience members into varying states of confusion and edgy self-reflection.

Elmgreen & Dragset have now brought their increasingly global brand of social, architectural and artistic critique to London's Serpentine gallery where their Welfare Show is currently giving gallery-going viewers a kick up the arse. Eleven installations, sculptures, performances and text pieces are displayed in the re-configured spaces of the Serpentine gallery. Each piece in the exhibition questions the role, effectiveness and decline of the welfare state and places the viewer in the uncomfortable position of having to perform in order to complete the work. No clear route is prescribed; audience members are either empowered to propose their own, or (depending on your state of mind or your position in society) are left to get lost in a maze of alienating white corridors and confusing spaces.

On entering the exhibition the viewer is greeted by 'Birthday', 2002, a wheelchair attached to which is a forlorn-looking balloon. Maybe be the wheelchair and balloon highlight the way that disabled people are often treated as children, but the wheelchair alone provides a poignant reminder that the one-size-fits-all fare of standard NHS equipment is in fact the wrong size for most, leaving people feeling uncared for, vulnerable and in a state of constant discomfort. Like most viewers, I took the left-to-right approach to navigating the exhibition and was confronted with an ATM which had been installed in the wall, beneath which lay a baby lying snug in a carrycot. As a mother who spends more on child care than I earn, this piece struck a chord with me. 'Modern Moses', 2006, raises questions such as 'What is human life worth?' 'How limiting is the concept of the family in relation to the welfare state?' and most bluntly 'How much can I buy that baby for?'

The piece that demands the most complex form of performative engagement is 'Reg(u)arding the Guards', 2005. Seven uniformed guards sit in a small gallery space - a space that must be navigated in order to reach the rest of the exhibition. What are they guarding? If this is a work of art, why can't I look at it without feeling nervous? I make eye contact with one guard, trying to elicit a form of human contact, he tells me to move on, unsmiling. Is this the feeling that millions of disenfranchised people have when faced with alienating power on a daily basis? Elmgreen & Dragset often introduce elements into their work which makes it effective in a wider social or economic context; for this piece, all the guards were recruited by the gallery from job centres, making the subject of power and control all the more potent.

While the issues raised in Welfare State are no doubt pressing and vital, what is more compelling is the relationship of the audience to these issues. Is this a voyeuristic opportunity for largely middle-class, educated gallery-goers to feel a frisson of what it would be like to be alienated, secure in the knowledge that they have enough money, contacts or education to be able to by-pass the system? At every turn this exhibition invites you to engage with the work while simultaneously denying you access to it. It is dumbfounding and uncomfortable, but probably not as uncomfortable as an NHS wheelchair.

Dish: International Design for the Home
Book review, Icon, 2006. Book published by Princeton Architectural Press

The cover of this book is cool, white and minimal. It consists of one picture: a white plate with two pubic hairs lodged to its surface. This is a promising start. Turn the page and you are greeted with the word 'Dish' written in that 'needlework font' so favoured by prissy 19th century middle England. This is even more promising.

'Dish' is a selection of recent work made by forty female industrial designers from across the globe. It may seem deeply unfashionable to produce a women-only line up or even to point out inequality of the sexes in any given field, but the under-representation of women in design and architecture is so pronounced that desperate - even unfashionable - measures are called for.

The editor of this book, Julie Muller Stahl, a curator based in New York, proposes that this imbalance is due to the approach many women take to a career in the industry: unlike their male counterparts, their identities do not revolve around being 'a designer'. They take on multiple roles, each of which retains independent potency and autonomy - roles such as mother, wife, designer, entrepreneur, artist, writer and teacher. This wider identity matrix results in an approach which many manufacturers and design firms find difficult to contain and one which doesn't fit nicely within the established economic framework.

Flipping through this quirky collection of photographs and short statements by the selected designers, I am struck by the similarity of outlook expressed by many of them. Many are interested in collaborating with partners, creating self-produced work (thus maintaining control over the end product) and generating an emotional connection between the user and the object. They use wit, fantasy and ingenuity to produce intensely personal and sensuous objects which can often be adapted to suit the needs of the user. Ayse Birsel's Red Rocket desk, for example, is a radical rethink of the traditional work station. Biomorphic shapes make up a space which seems to mould its way around the user's body, giving her (it could only be a 'her' or a truly liberated man) a sense of comfort and control. It's a desk for girls with attitude and a habit of putting their box of tampons in the see-through filing cabinet next to their station.

Recent years have seen a return to an interest in the decorated object and a sense of whimsy in industrial design. After twenty years of obsessive, hard edged, 'boy' design, things seem to be lightening up. This move has freed up women, in particular, to enter a world where the baroque is embraced and ornament is celebrated.

French designer Florence Doleac is an extreme example; she makes sculptural objects which are devoid of function but would make any home look like the set for a theatrical show. Danish designer Anette Hermann produces light installations which project daisies and clouds onto benches and tables and Camilla Groth camouflages her ceramic tableware by leaking pattern from cups and saucers onto tables.

The expression of the difference between the sexes and what they have to offer leaves the contributors, editor and designers in this book negotiating tricky ground. They have boldly decided to state a difference and risk marginalisation rather than pretend second place is really quite comfy. 'Dish' irreverently abandons the pathetic 'Go on - include me' plea of many all-female line-ups and instead seems to say 'Ok, do what you damn well want, but if you pass me by, you won't have such a good time'. Pubes and all.

Knit 2 Together
Review of exhibition at the Crafts Council, Icon, April 2005

The other day I caught the tail end of a radio interview with a member of Cast Off, a group of guerrilla knitters. The speaker (a man) was talking about knitting in public places such as the tube and it crossed my mind that this could be the last great political act. A man knitting in public is a truly shocking sight, far more shocking, perhaps, than a couple imbibing class A drugs in public or even each other's bodily fluids.

Knitting is a predominantly female craft. It is usually carried out in the privacy of a domestic environment and is strongly associated with grannies and unwanted items of children's clothing. In the last twenty years it has suffered an identity crisis verging on the apocalyptic, but recently, this dim view has begun to shift. A surge of interest for anything remotely home-spun or hand crafted has brought the art of knitting back into vogue. As our lives become increasingly reliant on alienating technological advances, it seems we are finding solace in uniquely crafted items which connect us to a tangible value system.

The current exhibition at the Crafts Council, Knit 2 Together, curated by Freddie Robins and Katy Bevan, builds on this recent interest by implicitly but boldly asserting knitting's status as art. Craft has long played second fiddle to art because of its requirement to provide a function, but the fifteen artists in this exhibition make things which have no inherent practical use. Like art, these pieces are made to elicit a response and provide viewers with the means to engage with thoughts, propositions and dilemmas. Knitting, with its emotive connection to domesticity and comfort, is used in all of the work as a tool to draw out these responses. Donna Wilson, for example, knits alien forms which have sprouted hairy chests, gnashing teeth and one too many legs. Vaguely reminiscent of childhood toys, they are both amusing and disturbing and highlight the uncomfortably thin line that exists between naivety, trauma, and abuse. The American artist Andy Diaz-Hope knits balaclavas which come fully equipped with knitted shirt and tie. 'Everybody is Somebody's Terrorist' alludes to the increased sense of fear we are encouraged to feel in public spaces, where even mild-mannered office workers are viewed with suspicion.

Humour is also used to great effect, for example in wall hangings by Kelly Jenkins who employs a digital knitting machine to subvert stereotypes associated with knitting and the sex industry. Chat lines are advertised as 'Man to Man - Knit live with Guys', and 'Knitting Nancy's Problem Page' displays letters from desperate correspondents exclaiming that they can't keep it up, or lamenting the fact that they keep dropping stitches during sex.

A section of the exhibition is devoted to wistful tales of people's first experience of knitting: favourite jumpers made by great aunts or bobbly hats made for teenage boys. These stories forge an intense connection with audience members (who range from chic young urbanites to doddery old couples) which is touching and rare. The care and love that is invested in knitting is palpable and the enthusiasm for a craft which is at once satisfying and mesmeric is evident in every part of this exhibition.

Since its current director Louise Taylor has been in post, the Crafts Council has done a very good job of unpicking our understanding of the word 'craft'. Knit 2 Together will further this understanding and, with any luck, produce the next generation of guerrilla knitters.

Women’s Places: Architecture and Design 1860-1960
Book review Architects Journal, May 6, 2004 Book p

It would almost be funny if it weren't so depressing that I can't think of one successful female architect who is both head of her own practice and a mother. Every one that comes to mind (Alison Smithson, Farshid Moussavi, Patti Hopkins, Amanda Levete) is - or was - in partnership with her husband. Those who are internationally renowned (Zaha Hadid, Eileen Gray and Jane Drew) are - or were - all childless.

It's hardly surprising then that almost every woman in 'Women's Places: Architecture and Design 1860 - 1960' is either single, gay or married to an architect and only one of them (out of eleven) has children of her own.

This book doesn't delve into the reasoning behind this pathetic state of affairs, but rather attempts to place the making of architecture into a broader context, setting out an important role for a significant number of female clients, theorists and commentators. Affirming that women were only able to become professional architects in the early part of the twentieth century, the eight papers included in this fascinating book make the case for a broader understanding of who makes architecture.

Ellen and Emily Hall commissioned a Mr Richard Shaw to remodel their house in the second half of the nineteenth century. Diaries kept by the sisters record a fractious relationship in which the male architect assumes a superior, patronising tone, telling the sisters that he knows best. Trevor Keeble argues that the sisters' sovereignty as a client was imposed upon by the professional authority of their architect: 'The only direct role for women within the practice of architecture during the late nineteenth century was as a client and…even here the possibilities for participation …were often limited and circumscribed by the expectations and demands of the 'professional' sphere'.

Modernism, it is argued by Brenda Martin, is represented through a dominant, masculine experience of modernity, which excluded women with its 'elite' and 'rational' tone. Interior design, with its focus on the domestic, rather than the monumental, seemed to be a far more suitable vocation for women to busy themselves with.

Eileen Gray had a whole bunch of things stacked against her: she was self trained, her early work was primarily decorative, she was interested in practical requirements and comfort and, worst of all, she was a woman. She was dismissed by Banham as 'not a major' talent while her work was commonly misattributed to her collaborator Jean Badovici. But at least she won out in the end, unlike Elizabeth Denby whose ghost is still battling against Maxwell Fry and his appropriation of her work.

One of the most interesting chapters in this book focus' on the importance of gender, sexuality and race in the history of architectural design. Alice T Friedman takes us through a series of 'outsiders' houses (including those commissioned by Truus Schroder and Josephine Baker) and points to the unnerving fact that women had to be either single, gay or down right pig-headed to be involved in making a seriously interesting piece of architecture. Friedman's thesis is that those who do not conform to accepted norms are 'frequently expert at navigating the treacherous waters of public imagery and representation' and are therefore more likely to produce something which is a catalyst for change.

This book might just as well have included the years 1860 - 2000. Nothing much has changed. A very, very small number of women manage to effect our built environment, and those who do, invariably choose not to get involved in making a new generation of architects.

A Curriculum for Artists
Book review Contemporary, 2004 Book published by The Laboratory at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, University of Oxford and the New York Academy of Art

Can it really be true that twenty-seven out of thirty-five fine art courses in the UK believe that they teach 'networking' at an undergraduate level? And that more courses regard 'black and white photographic processing and printing' as a necessary core skill for contemporary artists than digital printing?

The Laboratory at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art has published details of a questionnaire it sent to 85 art schools across the UK. Its findings are odd, but reassuringly English: we don't quite know what we should be teaching, what it means to be a graduating artist and how long we can pretend that training to be an artist provides students with useful 'transferable' skills.

As Antonia Payne points out in one of the sixteen commissioned essays in this book, written in response to the findings, the number of students in higher education has tripled in the last 30 years, while State funding has reduced by 50%. In an area of study where high student / staff ratio is crucial, this is a killer. But even more importantly, it is the culture of accountability, 'value for money' and the increasing pressure to 'modernise' that is eroding the system from within: there is an insidious sense that the word 'modernise' in an art school context implies that artists are redundant and that art students should find something useful to do. Art schools are responding to this pressure by providing their students with a pathetic array of skills which reflect the institutions' lack of conviction and ability to fight back.

The current crisis in art schools is not a new phenomenon: the idea of an art school has long been considered a contradiction in terms. It is a fantastical idea that you can train somebody to become an artist. Louisa Buck and Dan Fox point out how the most important things at art school are learnt in the 'gaps between curricular activities', often from one's peers, practising artists and unlikely visiting lecturers. These gaps are diminishing in size due to increased pressure on students' time, a decrease in the number of visiting lecturers and a squeeze on all non-curricula activities. Fox provides us with a list of lectures he vividly remembers delivered by:

a recovering alcoholic chess genius
a philosopher who turned the lecture hall lights off and played Book 1 of The Well-Tempered Clavier by JS Bach
an ostracised Cambridge scientist who believed in the psychic power of domestic animals
I cannot imagine these lecturers would be invited to speak at many art schools today.

The fragile basis of art schools was given a serious knock when the notion of the avant-garde collapsed (since there suddenly appeared nothing to fight against, no rules to break, no people to piss off), but this is nothing compared to the pounding that universities and colleges are currently receiving from the state in the name of modernisation.

Nobody in this book puts it better than the artist, writer and curator Richard Grayson: '...these courses present a dispiriting series of vaguely art-shaped signifiers that have no real function other than to be ticked off in the student's path towards an inevitable degree - a degree that increasingly indicates nothing other than itself - and generate a vortex of qualifications that threatens to swamp the cultural landscape under meaningless letters.'

The one worrying theme in this book, for me, came from the writers who claimed special dispensation for art schools, on the grounds that art students need to be able to stand outside of the 'system' in order to critique it - as if this should not be an expectation we should have of all students, not to say all citizens.

Jes Fernie

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