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Portrait of a Different Kind of Art School


Going to art school the first time around, I felt very very small. I was only one tiny person in a great big building made of glass and concrete and a tasteful amount of chrome. I didn’t know how to use a drill. I didn’t know who Baudrillard was. I didn’t know — GOD, I didn’t know anything! Honestly, no truly. Nothing at all. The world was a mystery to me — ha! Me, the tiny idiot baby. This time around was going to be different. I was going to be prepared. I did a big WH Smith back to school shop the day before. I had a sketchbook, a notebook, every conceivable colour of gel pen in a Groovy Chick pencil case.

In his defence, he said no prep no fuss needed. This wasn’t a formal interview, we were just having a chat. And the art school didn’t feel like an art school. No concrete, no chrome. No Baudrillard. It was just a set of studios — so, like. Just rooms really. I met him by the front doors. He was holding an enormous vape. The vape was, admittedly, the only chrome in sight. He led me through the school and its warren of studios, all empty for the summer. He vaped as he walked, leaving a trail of lemon drizzle flavoured water vapour dissipating behind us.

‘What we do here isn’t radical at all. We just don’t have the bureaucracy, and it’s not for profit.’

He stopped in his tracks and we looked at each other in mutual confusion.

‘I mean, maybe that’s very radical.’

I nodded, that was quite radical actually. He shrugged and we carried on walking.

‘But it’s not really, is it? We don’t do anything that — if you asked a hundred artists, how would you run an art school? They’d say, make sure everyone gets a decent space, make sure everyone gets along alright, make sure the people that work there are engaged and just let people get on with it. That’s what we do.’

What about marks, exams, essays?

‘No, no marks. No, no no. Fuck it. We interviewed someone a couple of years back who asked me about that too — writing. I said, you can write what you want but I probably won’t read it. Just let people do what they want. It’s just you, you run it. I’m only here once a week. My job here is to make sure that everyone knows where they are and what day things are happening. Apart from that, it’s all you. You’re here and it’s your space, you have the keys for the door and I’m not going to be rude and barge in to tell you what to do in your space. It’s nothing to do with me.’

We took a turn into a corridor with a wide staircase. He gestured, pointing with the vape, and I followed him up.

‘A lot of friends of mine work in other art schools and it’s — they’re all fantastic, they’re all incredibly dedicated artists and facilitators. The thing that gets in their way is all the fucking bureaucracy. They can’t do their actual job because of all the endless bits of admin. So we don’t do that. You leave here and you don’t leave with anything. Maybe a good time, but no degree.’

My steps faltered — no degree? He was already a few paces ahead at the top of the stairs, so he held the door open for me. I guess degree or no degree; that’s just splitting hairs isn’t it? You still learn and grow and adapt and become an artist (if you weren’t already). Imposing a little piece of paper on the students at the end of it all — that’s just ceremony. The art schooling happens before that ritual moment; when you’re in the studio with everyone else, just trying to figure shit out.

The room was a relatively empty studio with a table, a whiteboard and some chairs in the corner. Along the far wall there were stacks of paintings lined up, facing away from me. I could only see the backs of the canvases, where some had oil stains that had leaked through. We sat across from each other at the table, interview style.

‘My idea of an art school is—‘ he paused to hit his vape. ‘It’s the place you go to make mistakes,’ thick smoke poured out of his mouth and nose as he spoke, ‘to make a fool of yourself, to be wrong. Who cares if you’re not saying anything profound, just say something, make some noise. You go to make something that’s useless, something that might not have any function at all. You go to — uh, well to find out who one is, if you ever find that out. If you walk in that place immediately in debt, if there’s an immediate equation between financial input and your artistic output then,’ his vape hissed. ‘You must end up feeling like — oh my god it’s got to be worth it. I’ve got to do something, I’ve got to get my money’s worth. So you turn into a consumer, you start to act like a consumer. It must be hard. I just think that’s immediately wrong. This should be a space where anything can occur. The best things usually happen maybe one or two months, years afterwards, decades sometimes. You’ve got to be conscious and thinking about what it means to be conscious — but if even before the first day you’ve had to front up nine grand? And going in knowing that? The pressure, the anxiety must be terrible.’

I put my Groovy Chick pencil case on the table between us and unzipped it. I fished around through the stack of gel pens until I found it: a Mad Blue Elfbar.

‘The painters do pay to be here. It’s not for profit but they pay £6,500. The space itself is roughly £3k, their fees pay my wages and the visiting tutors and the — all of it really. This is kind of what you pay for.’

So it’s also actually still cheaper than actual university.

‘When we do interviews, we’re very quick. We don’t talk about the work. It’s not like we’re going to interrogate you — what’s the work about? The main question we ask is, how are you going to fund yourself? Some of the answers actually wrench my heart. More than once someone’s said that a grandparent has died and left them two or three grand, that’ll go towards fees and then they’ll get a job or they’ve got savings. And you think, oh my god, this is someone’s inheritance. They’re going to give that to us because they have a dream and — I find that massive to think about. When you know how someone’s paid for something—‘

It raises the stakes, doesn’t it? Somehow it feels different when it shrinks back down to a human scale. Student loans are just fictional money. You hand it over but you never actually see it, so in a way it doesn’t exist. I owe the government or the Student Loan Company about fifty-five thousand pounds. But it’s not scary-debt, it’s funny-debt, really-really-hilarious-debt. Because they will never see that money ever again! Because I’ll probably never pay enough or pay it off! They must’ve been delusional when they issued it to me, and don’t even get me started on the interest. Fine Art degree, what did ya expect? You mugs! It’s not real! I got my art education from art school but art school is just a big shop where I, a savvy consumer, went to purchase my art degree — the education was like one of those freebie gifts you get for spending over £100.

‘People sacrifice a lot to be here. And — this isn’t just true of artists, with most people I think — people have a lot of goodwill. The painters are here and — they do lots, they give out a lot. So there’s a kind of unspoken trust between us. Like, well look. I will if you do, if you’re here, I’ll do what I can.’

‘It only really works if people are here and engaged. The problem is — it always comes down to cash. If you have the time, you don’t have the cash. And if you have the cash, you don’t have the time. Even with the programme here—‘ he gestured around the room at the studio. ‘You’ve got to find somewhere and when you find somewhere, to rent it, you need that initial input of cash. It’s always the cash. If there was a big wad of it somewhere, that you could apply to and say we found this disused thingy, give us fifty grand upfront so we can rent it for a whole year. You know, not many artists have fifty grand hanging around to just sort this kind of thing out. But if that magically just got paid, everything becomes so much easier. You can do anything, most things, once the space is paid for.’

I felt stressed thinking about money and space. Really, in an ideal world, we’d all have a room of our own and we wouldn’t even have to ask for it like it was a novelty or a luxury. I hit my elf bar and, through the Mad Blue cloud, I asked him how they paid for the space here.

‘It started as a publication. Two painters in 2005, they knew other painters and they fundraised by doing an auction. I think they knew a lot of painters who — you know, you’d want to buy their work, so that helped. That auction funded the first ten issues of the publication, they do two issues a year so it went a long way. Then maybe in 2012 they applied to the Arts Council for fifteen grand to continue the magazine. The first studio programme was funded by the fees, which — pretty precarious. If someone dropped out or didn’t pay it could’ve all folded. They had a space in Bermondsey, this old biscuit factory. It’s funny, when I was on my Foundation course I used to get the train past it. Fucking massive. But something happened with the lease, they ended up being there one year. So then they ended up here and that’s when I joined.’

It sounded a lot more DIY than I thought it would be. Non-derogatory. Just, when you say art school you think: concrete, chrome, nine grand upfront thankyouverymuch.

‘It is quite DIY. Oh my god, yeah.’

Non-derogatory! Because the alternative to DIY is a corporate arts education — there’s an oxymoron. Art schools have become arts universities. They are businesses with corporate needs, corporate structures and corporate concerns about their bottom line. And the oxymoron means that those two forces — art & business — can be at odds with each other.

‘Fine Art, it’s a wasteful thing. Because if you think about it, there’s a room in there,’ he gestured over at the empty studio. ‘You can maybe fit three, four painters in there? But you could get those standing desks and fit ten architects in there instead and charge them the same amount each. Or twenty business students and put them on even smaller desks. Fuck it, what course should we not do? You’d obviously get rid of the art course because it’s so much more wasteful— waste of space and, if you’re thinking along those lines about profit margins and efficiency, painting’s a killer. I’d be a terrible businessperson though. I’d give everyone something. You need a room, just some space to sit down and put your shit up on the wall and somewhere for you to think and for other people to come in and sit with you — you know?’

Not just A Room of One’s Own, but A Room of Everyone’s Own. For conviviality, or community, for being around other people and for it not to be solely sociable, not public space or domestic. But you’re just there, together. Somewhere people could come and work together — a workplace. I’d just invented a workplace. I don’t know if offices could feasibly be described as spaces for conviviality. But artists mostly benefit from being around other artists.

I looked over at the far wall with its stacks of paintings. This was specifically a school for painters. Did painters have to be around other painters? Was there something unifying about sharing a medium?

‘On the one hand, it’s good to be with others that deal with the same thing. The discussions you have are a bit more nuts and bolts. You can just get into the basic practical details of what you’re trying to do. Talking about art doesn’t have to be about, you know, art. It can also be about logistics or how you do this or what you use. We can talk about, you know, the difference between chrome orange and chrome orange deep. Or about painting wet on wet and not wet on wet. Those are valid things to talk about. But on the other hand, if you come here and you were painting but you start thinking, fuck that — do what you like. I don’t care what you do.’

This was a freedom that characterised my first art school experience. The studios were the Wild Wild West where anything goes. The lawlessness made everything feel alive, urgent, entirely my own.

‘That freedom, with a small f, is frightening as well. Even just from my experience, when the boundaries aren’t there, very quickly I begin to doubt myself. I think if there’s something to push back against, that’s kind of nice. But with art you never quite start from point zero. You’ve probably been to the Tate or you have at least some preconceived idea of what it is. You’re already in the middle of it, even when you begin. That’s one of the things I find quite interesting and difficult: you never ever start with complete naivety. You’re always so full of handed down ideas. You assume they’re your ideas but when you actually think about them — and then I guess you question them or accept them. With me it’s usually that I meet someone that goes ’hang on, have you thought about this? What do you feel about this? Because my experience is this with it And then I realise I’ve not actually thought about it, I’ve just accepted it. It’s like I’m always re-updating my software. That’s one of the fantastic things about working here. I should pay them. I learn so much, continually. The learning is very two-way.’

The interview was almost over. I felt a bit like I’d been interviewing him rather than the other way around. One last question before me and Groovy Chick hit the road.

‘Well, what is art?’

The question echoed back around the space. What is art? Whatisart?

‘I don’t know. I think at its most basic, an answer is that you look at something and it’s like: how does this make me feel? And how do I feel about the way that I feel? So it’s immediately reflexive. Or reflective, I can never tell which. It’s very easy to look at something and just recognise it and begin to talk about it in a state of recognition. Maybe you’ve seen lots of examples of this, maybe you understand the language around this. But look at something and think, how does this make me feel? That can be hard to answer with painting because — there’s something about painting which has an over-there-ness. Paintings are over-there and I can choose to engage, I can shut my eyes. It’s subject object relations. I’m subject, I’m over here. That’s object, it’s over there.’

He gestured over into the distance, pointing with his vape.

‘But painting’s also like a sponge. It can mop up other things. You know, if we’re talking about painting here — first of all we’re talking about the image, the frame.’

Painting as window, as mirror, as portal.

‘The next thing I talk about is my subjective position. I’m looking at a painting, but I’m looking at it as, middle aged, white male, slightly cynical of the art world. That’s me, the unit which is me — so however I talk about it, it comes from this. You’re then maybe talking about a particular trope, a particular history or histories. You think about the desire of the painter or the lack, of what they think that they don’t have. You’re thinking about the way that language is used, how one talks and what sort of language. Is the painting poetic, is the painting about the painting? Is the painting meta? Is it about something else? Well, then we’re not talking about painting, we’re talking about something else. If we’re talking about materials or touch, are we talking about a kind of facture touch? Facture like the quality of execution, the characteristic handling of the material. We talk about touch and we’re talking about the subjective. Are we talking about this idea that somehow a painter’s consciousness is transmitted through touch? Where does that myth come from? Who invented that myth? Is it the right myth? Is that how we should think about things? If we’re talking about a painting which is like, you know, bad — what is bad? What do you mean bad and what’s it trying to go against? — so you see? If you talk about painting then immediately— if it tries to be a vacuum, very quickly, a vacuum is going to suck in other things and it just depends whether you want those other things sucked in or not. Painting is a sponge that sucks all these other things up and — we’re never having one of those expert conversations which prohibits something. We’re all experts in our own lives and so if there’s something in front of you, tell me: HOW DOES IT MAKE YOU FEEL? And what does it mean to feel like that? And where did that come from, have you learnt that?’

And that was that. My interview was over. I felt like it had gone well but I couldn’t tell. Maybe I’d be back in September for the new term, maybe I wouldn’t. How would I try and afford it? Little jobs to save whatever money was left after rent and bills — I shook his hand and felt like it didn’t really matter. I’d learned so much just being here. An elfbar cloud formed the words HOW DOES IT MAKE YOU FEEL? in the air above us as we parted. As I walked away, I hoped the cloud would follow me home.