Every January since 2017, hundreds of Central Saint Martins staff and students have occupied a floor at Tate Modern. Here, Alex Schady, Director of the Art programme, explains why everyone benefits when art practice goes public.
Can you introduce what Central Saint Martins did at Tate Exchange?
It was bonkers, and all the better for it.
The initial challenge was to find a structure that allowed for both the maximum student involvement to reap the benefits of doing something on a public stage but also to engage the maximum number of members of the public. So, we devised an over-arching theme and then built up a schedule of around 100 events over a week. Each year we brought together over 300 students with thousands of visitors.
Do you have favourite moments from across the three years?
The umbrella theme was a way of holding diverse practices together in one place so there were many different moments. From the moving – in 2017 there was an Islamic prayer held inside the gallery and it was transformed into a hypothetical mosque – to the ridiculous – in 2019 three inflatable pandas, with the most charming and loving gestures, escorted people out of the show and ejected them from the building. At its best, our participation shows that diversity isn’t threatening; it isn’t “oh my god, what is that, art?” but instead “that’s interesting, I don’t need to worry if it’s art or not, I’m just going to be in it."
Why did you want to take part?
It’s a moment for a more horizontal hierarchy, one that’s open and genuine. In terms of teaching, the minute you introduce assessment it’s difficult to flip or play with the power dynamics. I dislike the idea that teachers have knowledge and students don’t; Tate Exchange is one of the ways we can have a more dynamic relationship.
What are the benefits of placing fine art practice and education in the public gaze?
It’s good for their practice, they figure out things about their own work and get new perspectives – that’s the critical one. It’s also good at flattening power structures, it doesn’t distinguish between a student, a staff member, a technician and a member of the public. They all get handled equally within that framework. I think this is also what our initiative CSM Public is all about.
Beyond the educational benefits, it takes art school ways of doing things out to the broader public. Art schools are often behind closed doors and there can be a problematic mystique. These events debunk some of those myths and make it something people can engage with in a way that isn’t combative but instead an invitation.
Each year has a theme, beginning with the crisis in arts education in 2017, London’s cultural life at risk in 2018 and the interaction between art and politics in 2019. What did you learn from the students’ responses?
There was such a range of topics and debates that they wanted to tackle: ecological, identity, race, sexuality, finance, political structures, patriarchy. Across those debates, I think what’s vital about resisting the status quo – that dark matter – is that we find commonality. It’s not my politics or your politics but what about our politics.
Artists don’t ever work in a vacuum, so I wanted to better understand where the urgency for our students lay. The political landscape at the moment is volatile; new agendas are being brought to the table at a very fast pace and I think our students are better placed to describe that than I am. They’re experiencing the world in so many different ways.
Will there be more of these public collaborations in the future?
Definitely. Our presence at Tate Exchange will continue. There are so many possibilities and we need to be open to them. There’s a temptation to see the art world as singular but there are art worlds. Some are more appropriate to particular practices than others and we have a duty to question all those models. If you’re producing yourself to fit a model then you’re onto a loser, you have your own work and interests and if the art world doesn’t fit that then you change the art world, not your practice.
The three years feel like they’ve come to a good conclusion. Now we can open up that question to the students and ask them to find ways to bring their practices and the public together in a collaborative effort.