Connecting beyond art school (curriculum case study)

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Image courtesy of UAL

Workshop in the Workshop was an exhibition and symposium that took place within the 3D workshops at Chelsea College of Arts and allowed students to connect with academic and technical staff, alumni and other professionals in new ways.

The event was facilitated and initiated by Katrine Hjelde, Associate Lecturer on BA Fine Art, and FL∆G collective, a pedagogic art research group associated with Chelsea College of Arts, in collaboration with former 3D Workshop Coordinator at Chelsea College of Arts Richard Elliott and workshop technicians.

The exhibition included a social event and one-day symposium, with exhibitors and speakers ranging from artists, academics, technicians, alumni and students. The workshop was explored as a physical and discursive site for engagement around the themes of skills and material knowledge in and outside the contemporary art school.

Skill and material knowledge relates to an investigation of the workshop’s role in enterprise and employability for fine art graduates and how this interrelationship is considered in relation to current fine art pedagogy.

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Background

The project team was interested in the 3D Workshops as the workshop is at the core of the student experience for many at Chelsea, while their role in relation to, for instance, the fine art curriculum is not explicitly articulated.

It was an act of innovation to host a discursive event in the Workshop, as this temporary shift from ‘making to talking’ opened this space up to a range of students who do not normally use the workshop as part of their practice.

The project team sought to raise questions around skill and knowledge, particularly in relation to more material aspects of the art school experience in terms of what art students ‘know’ and how this knowledge can be useful for society as well as for the individual student as they transition into practitioners outside the institution.

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Design and approach

This exploration of skill and material knowledge in terms of enterprise and employability was addressed in several different ways during the event:

  • the exhibition - the exhibition was put together from a cross-college call out for working drawings, drawings created in the early process of making an artwork as opposed to drawings operating as finished art pieces. The remit was open in that it could be anything from a list of written instructions, a photograph, an architectural drawing or a sketch. The important thing was that it should be an expression of the important information collated to help create an art piece
  • refreshments and private view - the exhibition was open throughout the day with the private view including refreshments before and after the symposium in the evening 
  • the Arty Folk and FLΔG Lunchtime event - an invitation to find out more about what students from all areas of the college are working on in the workshops. The Arty Folk were current Stage 3 BA Fine Art Students at Chelsea College of Arts.
  • reading materials - a discursive exploration of materials and meaning by Bernice Donszelmann. Bernice is an artist and lecturer on BA Fine Art, Chelsea College of Arts
  • evening symposium in wood workshop
- this event included keynote speakers, alumni, and talks from professional artists
  • reflections - the evening event ended in questions for the speakers, an open discussion and a reflection on the day.

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Challenges and implications

For fine art students the relationship between employability and study is not predetermined, as fine art graduates go on to do a wide variety of work as demonstrated by studies like NESTA's (B Oakley, K., Sperry. and Pratt, A, 2008).

However, it is often more clear to fine art students how their discursive skills (critical thinking, talking, writing, etc.) can be seen as transferrable than how their embodied and more materially related skills of doing and making can be applied in the workplace. Discursive and material skills are often interlinked, but this event focused on the latter, even as it took the form of the former. The event aimed to address and understand what enterprise means for fine art students in relation to skill and material knowledge, while also including recent graduates to contribute their experience to the exhibition and symposium.

The symposium speakers were chosen not only because much of their practices embraced and explored the idea of materials, but because they considered and talked about this in relation to institutions and bodies who they collaborated with to facilitate work, commercially and educationally. These collaborations include a commercial ceramics fabricator, as well as technicians within Chelsea and outside (specifically the ‘London Sculpture Workshop’). As such, students could consider the reality of art and other fabrication as a professional activity outside of the institution. The event highlighted and critically explored another side of professional practice within the art world in which a large percentage of students will become employed.

'The site-specific approach was key to the success of the project, as every aspect of it was related to the workshop as an actual site. Using the space for discussion and thought, rather than making, allowed the audience to reconsider their relationship to this usually industrious space and its meaning in relation to their own practice as artists and fabricators. Additionally, it addressed the historical dimension of the workshop within art schools and the shifts in how we understand and consider skill in relation to art and design practice today.

The very good attendance and excellent feedback indicates that this way of looking at an area of interest from ‘within’ was an effective way to include students from the start (the planning stage) and ensure a sense of agency for students, as well as a sense of relevant and pertinent questions and issues at stake. Students recognised the value of the talks in looking at art practice from a material viewpoint and how important this might be to their own future practice or employment.

Advice for others 

  • consider the afterlife of a project, take into consideration that the project might throw up unexpected areas of interest and make sure these are also captured
  • consider practical aspects such as paying people and ordering or paying for services - tasks that are very time consuming and often confusing, particularly for staff who do not normally manage budgets - and that these processes need to be well managed and supported.

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Outcomes

About 90 students attended the event and a large number of students contributed to the exhibition, exhibiting alongside technical and academic staff. This exhibition was also a chance to consider how to exhibit and think about ‘process’ as opposed to finished outcome.

The project team set up a Facebook page where students could leave comments, sign up for the event and elect to take part in the organisation of the event.

The event helped to highlight not only the alternative prospects in terms of employment and enterprise that exist beyond the institution, but began to address some of the students’ concerns around future prospects and possibilities, as well as how to link art practice productively with employment or enterprise.

Students were also able to reconsider the relationship between academic and technical staff, seeing them as having an important team relationship in developing student work and ideas, rather than viewing technical staff as an adjunct with peripheral importance depending on their own particular art practices. This shift was also perceived as useful when it came to considering one's own practice in terms of future employment.

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Future developments

It was clear from the beginning that this project responded to a desire to explore the workshop both as a physical and discursive site for knowledge production, in terms of the student experience and as a way to think about specific graduate attributes for fine art and design students.

There is potential for further projects following this model, combining shared experience from alumni, with expertise from both the technical and academic worlds both inside and outside of the institution.

Future events within the workshops are planned to look at different aspects of material practice using the expertise base of the CCW technicians as a starting point. Again, the aim will be to collaborate and create links with professional bodies to build new connections focused on material and making.

One area for development is the use and dissemination of information gathered for this event and any future events, whether by blog or publication. This information could be developed into a valuable resource for future students, staff and alumni on creating links with industry and the art world, but would require much further work and collaborative effort with other bodies who have similar concerns.

There are a number of ways that this project could iteratively develop. More generally, this project has opened up for the workshop to be considered more explicitly and used as a specifically discursive site, with future projects in process. More specifically, this project has led to further proposals being developed that also have an enterprise and employability focus, but involving different staff and workshops, for example, the AV workshops.

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