Ahead of Central Saint Martins' first Climate Emergency Assembly, we hear from staff and students about their perspective on, and hopes for, this open and experimental process to creative collective action across the institution.
Clare Farrell, Short Course Tutor on Sustainable Fashion at Central Saint Martins
"As part of Extinction Rebellion, I’ve been doing various lectures on why the movement began and what we, as a society, are facing. I was invited to give a lecture at UAL and from that have been connected with communities of staff and students. For the upcoming Climate Emergency Assembly, my role is to share an overview of some of the evidence on climate breakdown and biodiversity loss to give a context to the discussion.
There are several things that could come from having an assembly in an academic institution. One could be commitment from staff and students to form a united front on pushing for best practice within the university – from ensuring that divestment has begun to making sure there’s no single-use plastic. From big, conceptual things to smaller, everyday things. But equally the day could inspire people to look at their own curriculum.
Embracing people from different disciplines is key; the success of Extinction Rebellion has come off the back of sociologists working with scientists working with artists working with lawyers working with doctors and so on. Bringing that collective wisdom together and sharing different perspectives.
Science cannot do this alone. Culture can send huge shocks through politics and the wider public. There’s a need, more than ever, for people who create culture to step up and recognise that we’re all in an emergency."
Lily Tonkin Wells, second year BA Fine Art student
"I don’t know how normal this is; students making decisions that, in theory, could have a great impact on how their institution works. Whatever we learn through this process could inform how other universities tackle climate change. It could be radical.
On the other hand, I really hope this isn’t for show, it’s not a performance. I hope that the objectives we decide on collectively are implemented in the college and that the student voice is respected."
Margot Bannerman, Senior Lecturer in BA Fine Art
"The notion of the assembly is adopted from Extinction Rebellion. Whether on a national or local level, this format allows for a different sort of discussion and decision making process. One that moves away from binaries and oppositional positions. It’s predicated on the assumption that we all recognise that there’s a huge problem and that the problem is not being properly addressed within prevailing mechanism. The process might appear a little messy but there isn't the time to finesse finding the form so we're approaching it as an experiment.
We’re trying to keep things horizontal in terms of hierarchy. You acknowledge that everyone has different experience but you need everyone on board and everyone’s position respected. Yes, this institution is hierarchical – education is by its nature – so it sounds idealistic, but there are incredible people all across this building.
The climate and ecological emergency has to be at the foreground within art and design or we look increasingly ridiculous. We’re ranked second in the world for art and design education and in some ways we’re still carrying on like it’s the 90s.
We’ve got a particular responsibility which sometimes catches my breath: we’re sending these extraordinary students into their careers across the world and if we’re part of the status quo then that’s a wretched place to be.
The challenge is so daunting that it sometimes makes us question why do it at all, but the truth is it’s also the most extraordinary time to be an artist or a designer."
Lily Stevens, second year BA Fine Art student
"We’ve been working with other students and staff since last year, building a set of demands and talking with Jeremy Till, Head of College and other members of senior management. It’s been helpful to see the energy and frustrations that the staff have, to understand that we all need a mechanism to connect and make changes.
When I’m telling people about the upcoming Assembly, I feel like I have to say: ‘this is commitment. It is only the first one, it’s going to be at least three hours long and, hopefully, there will be more. And then between those moments you’ll be working in your group.’ That’s been on my mind. It’s not extra-curricular, it’s not a distraction, it sits alongside our individual work. It’s a moment to take agency and action over your future rather than have something imposed on you. Yes, there’s a necessary dullness that comes with making institutional change but it’s an incredible opportunity."
Jeremy Till, Head of Central Saint Martins and UAL Lead for Climate Emergency
"UAL is in a unique position, as an arts and design university, to address the issues of climate emergency. An institution like this can imagine new futures. It's not about refining the current systems but creating new ones.
This Climate Emergency Assembly is a real opportunity that must be followed by sustained action from us all. None of us can know what will result from this process of community consultation and collaboration, but what I do know is that our students and staff are agents of hope. So, I approach this Assembly from a position of optimism combined with a deep-rooted pragmatism and the need for action."
The outcomes of the Climate Emergency Assembly will be documented and shared throughout this academic year.