New words have to be made up to describe 2020. Amongst the many, *many* changes that happened in 2020, one of them is that unis resorted to online learning. We invited the always-very-candid Hugo Hutchins to write an opinion piece on what's it like to be an art student this year. As you will read, the CSM alumnus and RCA'er has a knack for mixing art with pop culture and a critical pov. Very refreshing.
It’s 9:55 am on a Monday and I’ve just woken up after setting my alarm for 9:50 and snoozing for 5 minutes. I have a “Studio Group Zoom” at 10 am. It’s my first one of the term and the new academic year, my final year on the MA Sculpture course at the RCA. So I thought I better show my face. I join the room late, everyone has their cameras on. Mine is off, so is my mic. The tutor leading the session immediately name checks me “Hugo! Camera and Mic on!” I’m in bed, I’ve just woken up and frankly not in the mood to be lectured about online etiquette. Inspired by Kourtney Kardashian I turn off my wifi and pretend I’m frozen, I then shut my laptop, put it under my bed and go back to sleep, my friends and I call it the Kourtney Freeze.
It’s an immense privilege to study, and that is not wasted on me, please don't be misunderstood, but this year has been a strange one, especially trying to navigate Art School online. That incident is an all too familiar one for me. It reminds me of nearer the start of the pandemic when I was having a FaceTime tutorial with Eddie Peake. FaceTime of all things! My connection was so awful and we kept cutting out. In a burst of anxiety and nerves I laughed and said “You’re like Kourtney Kardashian, you keep freezing on me!!” I’m not sure how he took that, probably thought I was a fool and a time waster. Yet, this is the problem with online tutorials or crits, you get into the flow of talking about your practice and two minutes later you suddenly realise that the person on the other end didn't hear a thing.
Art school is different now, somethings I like, somethings I don’t. Zooms like that being one of them. However, my introverted self has grown fond of group meetings or lectures being solely online. It does away with having to make small talk with fellow students outside the lecture hall. The Art world is a cliquey place and that is very transparent on an MFA. I personally can’t subscribe to that chat, like Gemma Collins once said: “I’m not getting involved, I just wanna be me!” Reading this you may think I’m very lackadaisical about the state of things, but I guess I’m past the point of caring. Forgive me, but I actually can’t make the effort for Art world nonsense in a global pandemic.
Every two weeks I have two weeks to use the RCA studio space and facilities, an egregious system called “Bursts”. It consists of being assigned a clinical and sterile booth to make in, which I kind of like, especially when considering last year’s studio set up: there was a student next to me who had a project which involved using their own urine in the studio, another used their blood and vomit. Now even before Covid-19 that didn’t sit right with me. Nevertheless, I’ve become so familiar with my home environment, with my laptop even being where I make most of my work now. I thankfully have some space to have a make shift set up at home and my sympathies are with those who don’t have that luxury. So now it’s a bit of a slog, for me anyway, to trek into uni to just sit in a white box for six hours and go home. Solitary confinement I’m paying £9500 a year for the privilege of. But at least it gets me out of the house.
Fees are a huge issue for a lot of students, including myself. Many haven’t paid them still as a protest to offering a course that is lesser to what they signed on for (see Pause or Pay UK). I missed my first instalment by one day and I received a hostile email from admissions along the lines of “If you don't pay we will BLOCK YOU.” This is what it’s come to now, being blocked online by my own university. It’s petty and redundant, but I understand how desperately these institutions need our money. RCA like many others is out of their depth. If things continue at this rate or get worse I can see student protests and the boycotting of paying fees entirely. What becomes then of these establishments when they lose their most vital commodity and when the balance of power is shifted?
Online learning has its peculiarities. I get nervous doing presentations on Zoom, I don’t know why! My voice gets shaky and my mouth goes dry, I’m literally talking to a bunch of blank screens and pixels!! One Zoom I had I’d put up a background of a beach and my tutor actually thought I was on holiday. When I told him I wasn’t he then applauded me on the effort I’d taken to set up a green screen for the call. I usually choose to do all my video calls against a neutral backdrop or use the background effect. I think the use of the green screen, a nomad space which can become anything, transform someone anywhere, becomes a sanctuary and a safe haven. With it we can choose to block off parts of our identity, in hiding our domestic spaces and in turn our vulnerability. There is an innate intimacy we have with technology, I am reminded of Apple’s ideology that their products are the most intimate things we own. The screen is everything. It’s part-machine part-portal. It’s both the virtual and physical combined. It can take us anywhere and connect us with anyone. In our contemporary society and current covid-culture, the ubiquity of the screen has become our most vital but wretched resource.
Some things make more sense, take dissertation tutorials for example. Half hour or fifteen minute conversations that I usually would have had to travel an hour into central London to attend. So it was nicer being able to do that on Zoom, it’s logical and more efficient. I guess with that though you miss the serendipity of Art School, those chance encounters and exchanges that it brings. The studio dialogue and frenetic energy that it is. I only realised how much I had learnt from my Fine Art BA course after I’d left it. After years of complaining that I wasn’t actually being taught anything practical. I realised that what a course like that lacks in the traditional exchange of knowledge it makes up for in how you develop as a person, you learn about yourself and of those around you. I’m lucky to have met some people who I would have never have crossed path with, in the bonds of friendship and hours spent together in the studio I learnt so much more than any lecture or tutorial I can recall. That’s what I feel saddened by for students now. Art School is a place of connection and community rather than a traditional learning environment, and that can’t be replicated online. It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the untold suffering that the pandemic has caused beyond the privileges of education.
However, I can’t help but feel sad for the students who are on courses but aren’t in the country and can’t even access what little physical facilities they are offered. I feel equally sad for the students who have to decide wether to move to London before this year ends because of Brexit and more complicated visa issues. Yet, more so, I feel let down, like many students, by the incompetence of the government and the institutions we trust our education with. So if you ask me, “Can Art School exist online?” My answer is a resounding no.