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What's going on? (3) - An interview with Chris Wainwright

20 December 2009

The CCW Graduate School, positioning research in the arts, and the role of ELIA

Last September, University of the Arts London officially launched the Graduate School at CCW - integrating the MA and research programmes of Camberwell, Chelsea, and Wimbledon Colleges, and creating by far the largest institute for postgraduate arts education in Europe so far. As the Graduate School Launch Directory states, it currently consists of "over 80 research students, over 450 taught postgraduate students, 39 professors, readers and fellows" - in short, it's huge.

Now it's not just size that counts. Over the last few decades, there has been a steady but small-scale development towards a research culture in higher arts education - culminating, with the Bologna process, in the emergence of artistic research programmes and PhDs in the arts throughout Europe. The question is whether the launch of the CCW Graduate School also has an impact on these developments. So far, artistic research has not attracted very much attention from the wider public, and has been a somewhat marginal activity even within art schools. Apart from the sheer force of numbers, what does the launch mean for positioning research in the arts? How do these developments in arts education affect the role of art academies, and even the role of the artist?

And more modestly: if things are a-changing in higher arts education, what is the role of ELIA? This question is particularly pressing in interviewing Chris Wainwright, who is both Head of CCW and President of ELIA. (It has also been the topic of a 2008 position paper on artistic research, but the discussion does not end there.) And after arguing for the importance of artistic researchers making their voices heard, this is not merely an issue of facilitating discussion, but also of how ELIA can help making these voices heard.

It's been a few months now since the CCW Graduate School was launched, and two years since the CCW league has been created. What were the motivations for these mergers – both the CCW league and the graduate school? Was it also envisioned in the creation of the CCW league that there would be this graduate school?

There was some discussion about it, about 2,5 years ago. But not really very detailed. Because you can't progress the idea of the graduate school unless you got the merger. The merger came first and the graduate school came second. But one of the things that I wanted to do with the merge of the schools was create something that they could not do on their own. Each of the schools had its own graduate program, with Masters and PhD students – and also some research centres. But they were all quite disconnected from each other. I thought that one of the first things we could do with bringing the three schools together was creating a graduate school. That would allow for a large community of postgraduate students and staff to create something with a bigger identity. Which was one of the reasons the graduate school was developed. It made sense of the merger. There's no point in doing the merger if everyone stays the same – then we just have a better administration or better management. That's not really that interesting. But the graduate school creates another academic profile and gives some higher visibility to the postgraduate and research activities.

What you have now created is by far the largest institution for artistic research in Europe. But it's not exclusively artistic research – it's all the postgraduate programs of the CCW league. So what precisely is the role of research within this school?

One of the key features of the graduate school is to have the taught programmes, the MA programmes, working accross disciplines around common interests. But also we have a large community of professors and readers and fellows in research centres. Up until now, the emphasis for research has, in many schools, been to start in the school and look outward – and the rest of the schools activities don't always benefit from the research, because the researchers are looking into the broader cultural world. One if the things we have done with the graduate school is starting to recycle the research into the teaching. So the researchers – the professors, the fellows, the readers, whilst they do their own research – we're now requiring them to come back into the teaching environment and to put that back into the teaching.

Because the researchers would be, to a large extent, also the people who teach the MA programmes.

Historically, not always. Some do, but the majority do not really teach. They engage in research which is very valuable. But there's actually not a large percentage that involve themselves in teaching. So the graduate school is a means for making their voice more visible in the teaching spaces. The other thing that we wanted to do was to have an emphasis on the three schools as essentially art schools. There is a real difference between an art school and an art and design school. All three schools have a very strong tradition in the visual arts, in a way of working that is about preserving the ethos of art education. The graduate school is very much about capturing that ethos.

But one the hand these MAs are generally very specialized programmes, whereas on the other hand the PhDs are interdisciplinary by nature.

Yes. Well, there's disciplinary work in both areas. One of the key characteristics – and we thought a long time about this – was to develop a thematic base. Because if you have lots of disciplines, it's very hard to bring them together. They don't obviously share common interests. Someone is working in text art, and another is working in painting or filmmaking or conservation – it's not always obvious to find a link between them. They often can't see the value in bringing things together. But if you take some of the themes which we have developed: climate change, identity, and technology, almost everyone is interested in one if not more of these areas. Thus we're having some cross-discipline discussions about climate, about identity, about technology. And that's bringing people from all these disciplines together – because it's a common set of concerns. So that layering of the theme alongside the subject is, if you like, the core philosophy of the graduate school.

But isn't there a risk of window-dressing? That they will just do something with identity or climate change because that's one the things they have to pick?

Yes. But we tried to avoid that by saying: it's not an absolute requirement that people engage in these issues. Some will not. And it will be interesting to have a discussion with somebody who says: I'm not interested in these things. Then you have to ask for a why. Then you'll have an interesting dialogue there. But it's not necessary to say: everyone who's in the graduate school has to address these themes. It's more a question of raising awareness of the importance of these themes. And sometimes there's an interpretation that's very obvious, other times it's not really so obvious – but it sits there as a sort of prompt.

And it also creates the opportunity to do a collective project. Because that's another thing that these themes are very much about: getting everyone's noses in the same direction.

Also you can maximize the potential. If you have, accross the three schools, maybe twelve people working on the same sorts of ideas, traditionally all these twelve people will try to get funding for their work. But if you can get them to work together, they make one proposal for funding which is much bigger. You might actually have more success by grouping people around common interests, and making a higher-level appeal for support than if you got twelve people all competing with each other for the same money.

A large problem with artistic research is making it cumulative, making other people profit from your results.

One of the things that is driving research in the UK – and maybe increasingly so in the rest of Europe – is the impact of research, the benefit to the public of all this research activity. Why should we do this if we can't guarantee that it will have some kind of external impact? And again, that's why these themes are quite important, because they can be linked to other initiatives around the same themes outside the institution. So for instance there's a project around identity which is being developed with the V&A museum. The researcher there is working on exhibitions, working with the archive, creating a public forum. Here's partnership with an institution based on a common interest with the same theme. That's where we hope to get a greater impact.

It's very much a problem now to position artistic research. Many people haven't heard of it, and many who have are deeply skeptical about it. In a way creating the CCW graduate school is a large step towards making it visible.

Yes, and we're not the first to create a graduate school. I'm really encouraged by the number of graduate schools that are now emerging across the higher arts education area. Maybe in a year's time it will be useful to bring all the graduate schools together to look at their experiences so far. There is a very well established graduate school in Ireland [GradCAM], last week I heard about the launch [of the UdK Graduiertenkolleg] in Berlin, and there's a number of schools doing the same thing. In time we can get some kind of unity, some kind of discussion about what they're doing. Because clearly it's a move that many people are seeing as the best way to embrace the potential for research in the arts.

But that would be a different kind of discussion, namely, between graduate schools, than has been going on last september at EUFRAD between students and supervisors.

There needs to be a separation between the discussion about research degrees and research as a professional activity. There is sometimes confusion because the discussion gets between the two. But I think there is a very particular discussion to be had around research degrees – about PhD qualifications, and what actually constitutes a research degree. And there is a lot of variation of opinion about that, which needs to continue to be discussed.

Because that's also something that rouses skepticism about artistic research, that it's largely identified with PhDs in the arts. And as for the sort of art-science-hybrids that have been pursued by artists on their own initiative, like the artscience lab in Paris or the Groupe de Recherche d'Art Visuel, the European Graduate School, concrete art and media art experiments, those have gone in a completely different direction and generally outside of art institutions – whereas artistic research has been from the beginning very much a spin-off of the third cycle in the arts.

And that mixed economy of research will continue I think. There are many schools of thought. There are some which say that the arts and arts research have to link itself to science methodologies because the research degree is a research degree, and you need to have some common means of evaluating and creating parity so it's possible for artists and scientists to work together on common issues. And there's another school of thought which says, the arts are so special that we have to stay away from the common methodologies and create our own, and find a means of recognizing our own particular identities. So one is staying within the art academy, and the other is moving out of the academy into the university. These are the two extreme positions, and I don't think it's anybody's role to try and bring these two together and create a joint model. The difficulty we have is that there are different models, and we have to make sure that they're all supportable.

A larger problem is that there is very little discussion between these types of approaches.

It's starting to happen more. I was at a really interesting meeting Friday in Utrecht organized by the EARN [European Arts Research Network] group. It's only a small group of maybe seven or eight institutions. But they are having some really interesting debates. Quite soon the Handbook for Artistic Research will be published, which collects about fifteen chapters of very important texts which show where the discussions about arts research are at the moment. And there are other networks being formed for creating an online publication, that brings an all too abundant debate into one place. Whilst there are many different views, there start to be now mechanisms for disseminating and discussing those views. And of course the work that ELIA has been doing has been vital in creating a condition for networking those ideas.

Still artistic research has very much tended to go inside the walls of the academy. On the other hand there has been much discussion the last few decades about art in public space, almost as if it were a cure-all that will cure the arts of their own seclusion. Artistic research has a similiar kind of iconoclastic attitude, in that it breaks the myth of the divinely inspired artist – if anyone still believes in it. But it does not bring them out into the public space so far.

Well, it depends on what you mean by "public space". Art in public places is a very literal interpretation of what committed art is in public space. Some of the work that has been undertaken in that area is necessary to review and to revaluate because some of it is succesfull and some of it is less than succesfull. I think the more subtle ways that art can be integrated in a wider public sphere are not so much in the public positioning of artifacts as in the participation of artists in political and social decision-making. To get a voice for the arts in the changes that are going on in our cultures and our economies and so on – particularly in the situation that we now find ourselves in, where the financial world has been completely discredited, and the political world is in internal turmoil. The place of culture has a much greater value now, and maybe some people who have undertaken a high-level art education through research can find a voice in creating new agendas for the future. So for me it's more complex than a question where art exists, it's a question where artists can exist, as part of broader influential networks.

So in that sense art education can really change the role of the arts.

Yes. Maybe it's time to say what is a legitimate curriculum for the art schools. There are lots of new models and new potentials – say, around developments in technology that artists work with, developments they have to respond to and take part in. That is only possible through experimentation.

And yet the CCW graduate school is very different from the model in which most PhD research in the arts has been done at UK universities so far and most American universities, in that it is a community of artists and not a faculty within a regular university.

That's both the strength and the weakness. The strength is that it gives a really high profile to arts research, because we have large numbers of people. It's a critical mass. It's quite persuasive, and it can define itself because it's a specialist art institution. The disadvantage is if you want to link the arts to the sciences, they might not be as easily accessible as when you are within the same institution. It's not as easy to make the link but it's not impossible. If you do make links with an external institution you're doing it on your own terms.

In a way you still have to define the discipline; in regular university education there is a track which leads from BA, MA, PhD to postdoc, lecturer, associate professor to tenured professor. So it's also more or less clear what qualifies someone as a supervisor. And this also raises the issue of teacher training. Because I guess it's not as easy in the arts to determine who has authority to judge whether or not something is good artistic research.

Well there are some criteria – which are often criteria imposed by funding bodies. And you have certain outcomes to measure research: particularly what is in the public domain. But I think you're right: the value of artistic research is harder to pin down. It's contributing to knowledge but it's not using an empirical process. If you would do research in the sciences you would have a model that says: this research is actually extending knowledge, or it's just repeating knowledge, or it's not even meeting the standards. In the arts you don't have that, there is a body of knowledge that is accumulative because it's a continued rethinking. I guess the bottom line is that it's not so crucial to the world. If you get medical science wrong, you're in trouble. If you get artistic research wrong it doesn't have much impact.

But does that call for a more charitable or a more critical view?

I think it creates its own, self-critical perspective, more than an external. The art school environment is more self-critical than some other environments.

So in fact it's much more a work of self-selection: if you get stuck, OK, you get stuck.

Yes. It's a much more peer-related process.

Still, I think, teachers will spend part of their lives outside the academy. There is now something of a tenure track emerging in the arts, and whether that's a good thing is a second question, but still they have to prove themselves, as artists, to have some authority as teachers.

That's why again the graduate school is crucial, in that it provides a platform for people who are succesfull teachers and supervisors to also engage in research. Everybody who is involved in the graduate school is a highly respected professional artist or designer. And that has always been part of art school culture, to have people who sit inside and outside of the academy, and who play an active role in their work as professional artists, designers, and curators, as much as they do as teachers.

So in a sense, a good teacher must also be a role model.

I think so, yes.

But then this also raises a problem with regard to critical attitude from the students, because you don't just want them to think: I wanna be like that guy.

No, I think you want to create a stimulus for them to follow their own identities. Role models are important but the best role model is someone who says, don't be like me, be like yourself.

That sounds like “don't do as I do, do as I say”.

Something like that. [laughs]

Something different now: was there also a political debate surrounding the creation of the grad school?

Well, in the institution. We have four college units, two are developing graduate schools and two are not. We have a large critical mass of researchers, so it makes sense for us; where there isn't such a critical mass maybe a graduate school is not such an important development at the moment. You do need a critical mass to make it work, otherwise the dialogue becomes rather restricted. When you have a small group of people fully engaged in supervision and research you run out of steam quite quickly.

But on the other hand, much artistic research takes place within international conglomerates. Much of the discussion is actually an international discussion. And there is a danger here that CCW will be too big for this they now have their own discussions and their peers next door so to speak, and there might be an unevenness in the relation with other artistic research institutions.

That might be the case, and we have to avoid that. One of the reasons we built the graduate school is that it allows us to have different partners. So we have partnerships with the Southbank Centre, the V&A museum, Tate gallery; and we're working with six or seven other academies worldwide. It's important that we don't just have an internal debate, because there are so many others; that we link projects externally as well as internally. That's why in time there should be a discussion among graduate schools. We should maybe bring them together, maybe ELIA should promote this too; to bring someone from each European graduate school into a forum, to have a debate on what the problems and potentials are for it. Maybe twelve months from now that will be possible.

Maybe it's also an issue of forms of presentation. Most artistic research conferences are still more or less regular discussion symposia – whereas a good deal of artistic research is not the discussion, but the performance or the exhibition. And maybe artistic research still has to find its proper way of presenting itself.

Yes, there are many forms yet to explore. One of them for me is the importance of getting the creative voice into deliberations where there is no creative voice. We can carry on making work for exhibitions and conferences forever, but you need to get inside government, inside institutions, where you can have the voice of culture more amplified than it is at the moment.

So you're saying, artistic research is engaged artistic research, by a very strong inclination if not by nature.

It has to be engaged. Completely.

There is no such thing as "recherche pour la recherche" ?

No. Not for me. And that's a difference [with other forms of research] that we have to develop.

Yet political awareness is not one of the very strongest points of art schools.

I'm not sure. There is political awareness. If you talk to any student these days, they're all very concerned about things happening in the world, about human rights, the environment, the financial world, the betrayal of industry that made things bad for everybody. There is awareness but there has never really been a sense of how to channel that through the work.

For instance, in Holland there is no one from arts education in parliament, and there are hardly any people from arts education writing in national newspapers.

This is where we have to make progress. We opened the graduate school to equip people to make the case to be included.

In that sense it was a political discussion.


But have politicians already realized that you're going to be a pain in the ass?

Yes. Two weeks ago I did a seminar in government. I was asked to go to Whitehall and talk to MPs, how they should talk to their constituencies about climate change and culture. Very interesting, because it doesn't win votes at the moment, it's not high on the list of people's interests. Health is what people think is the most important right now. So we had a long discussion about how to link into the health issue. So things are changing; I find that I'm being asked more and more to be part of those forums. I've just been asked to talk about the worth of culture in adressing climate change at the G40 summit in February.

What do you think ELIA can do in this regard?

I think ELIA has, first of all, a healthy relationship with the European Commission. That's a good place to continue making progress about the need for culture to be seen as part of the broader agenda. Also, to try and influence parliaments in individual countries where we have members is very important, and continuing to bring people together to focus the debates, and to make sure that agendas for ELIA events have some focus.

But when you're talking about ELIA influencing parliament, you're also talking about ELIA asserting a public role.

Yes, ELIA was set up to do that, it's one of its core aims. And maybe we need to underline this a bit more than we have done recently.

This is problematic with regard to getting the members aligned. It's very hard to speak on behalf of 350 art schools. Particularly I remember Kieran Corcoran saying: “Well, Floris, thank you, but my school can very well speak for itself.”

Well it can. But it's a question of amplification more than speaking for yourself. If you speak for yourself then everybody else is speaking for themselves. It's not trying to speak for people, it's trying to get them to speak for themselves and to give them the confidence and the terms of reference to do that. Not trying to speak for them but to get everyone to shout at the same time.

Also there is need for discussion in that there are large cultural differences in approaches towards research in arts. I remember that from EUFRAD, that at some point the relations between UK and other approaches really got hostile.

Yes, there are pedagogical differences, and that's good in a way. We should not have one approach, there should be room for these different models, different histories too, to continue.

But it's bad if it's a binary opposition between UK and continent.

Yes, but it's changing. You find that many people are changing their tradition now because of Bologna as much as anything. That's giving people a different focus and a different framework to work in. I don't think there is such a huge difference any more. It's interesting how parts of Australia are looking to adapt Bologna, some parts of America too, and even in Asia, people are asking: what's this Bologna thing?

As we are speaking, there are also banners hanging out of German and Austrian universities and art schools protesting against Bologna.

Germany has always had a different model. I don't know the specifics of those protests but I'm quite sure they're not just about Bologna. Maybe also that we're running into a post-economic age at the moment is having a big effect on how people think about institutions.

These protests are very much about the decline of an academic culture. Now what CCW does with its postgraduate education, particularly in making it somewhat separate from the rest of the curriculum, resembles somewhat the old model of the Meisterklasse.

There are some resemblances. But I hope that it's based on a contemporary relevance, not just on historical precedent.

Do you think that ELIA can also play a role in the academization, or scientification, of art education?

I think ELIA can play an important role in asking questions. Not just facilitating debate, but asking the right questions. That's where ELIA should be.

You're also talking about our relations with the EC. But cultural projects in collaboration with the EC are very much on their terms.

Yes, and a question I'd ask is... It's more than a question actually. I don't think ELIA or any other organization in the arts should become a mouthpiece for the European Commission. If the Commission has an idea and wants to say something, then it should say it, not make ELIA a mouthpiece for its own propaganda. And we have to be careful in taking on projects that we're not becoming instruments of the Commission. We need to have an integrity about what we do and say: yes this is fine but it's not the way we want to do this, we want to do things in a different way. That's where the dialogue becomes critical.

Say, if you look at the manifesto the “EU ambassadors for Creativity and Innovation” came up with, a committee in which there were leading and very outspoken artists like Rem Koolhaas and Philippe Starck, and what they came up with was a list of EU guidelines. Here I think of Carla Delfos' remark that we should teach artists to speak in the language of politics. Then we should teach them to be critical friends.

That's exactly what I think we should do.

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