An Opening on Mars and Other Degree Show Solutions

UK art students are reimagining the end of year exhibition format during COVID-19

BY Ellen Mara De Wachter in Opinion | 19 JUN 20

Art schools in the UK have hastily implemented online degree shows this year, catching many students off-guard, polarizing opinion and causing additional pressure at an already heightened moment in their academic careers. Most students were far from ready to exhibit when the COVID-19 lockdown started in March, so they have had to develop new work with little access to materials and workshops. While the mediation of physical art into the digital realm can be an advantage for some students, it can be detrimental for those practices, such as painting and sculpture, that are more contingent on the viewer’s physical proximity to the work.  

Undergraduate Fine Art students at Liverpool John Moores University have responded with pragmatism and humour, announcing on their graduation show’s website: ‘The planet is currently broken. We are doing our degree show on Mars.’ Their ‘multiverse exhibition’, built using NASA’s 3D scans of the Gale Crater on Mars, is filled with objects representing each of the 53 graduating artists. The website also contains documentation of an exhibition the students staged shortly before the lockdown. It launched on 5 June with tours, prize-giving and recommendations from guests – including artists Kate Cooper and Ryan Gander, broadcaster Miranda Sawyer and the artistic director of Serpentine Galleries, Hans Ulrich Obrist.

Ellie Towers, 2020. Courtesy: the artist and Liverpool John Moores University

At University of the Arts London – which comprises Camberwell College of Arts, Central Saint Martins, Chelsea College of Arts, London College of Communication, London College of Fashion and Wimbledon College of Arts – representatives at faculty and student levels are being consulted by management, who are working with IBM to develop an ‘online showcase’ launching in late July. Each college will also curate a physical show when such a thing becomes possible. Final year Central Saint Martins student Martina Derosa told me she is concerned that the outcome will seem rushed: ‘I don’t want it to compromise on quality but, eventually, aspects of the work will be left behind. It’s like the difference between visiting a museum online and in person.’ Central Saint Martins typically has 50,000 visitors to its degree shows, but that number could be much higher for the online presentation. The Slade School of Fine Art in London has announced a similar two-pronged approach, with an online Degree Showcase launching on 30 June and a physical exhibition sometime in 2021. 

Degree Show on Mars, Liverpool John Moores University BA Fine Art Degree Show, 2020. Courtesy: LJMU

For many students, these new online degree shows have crystallized their doubts about the value of arts education. In recent months, high tuition fees, the reduction of teaching time because of industrial action and the intensification of a corporate ethos in some art schools has left many students frustrated. In March, MFA students at Glasgow School of Art – who suffered disruption following a devastating on-site fire in 2018, the university workers’ strike and the pandemic – published an open letter in response to the closure of college studios and workshops, on the website G$A MFA, stating: ‘The underlying feeling is that the graduating class is being promptly ushered out as preparations are made for the succeeding influx of a new cohort.’ On the online showcase, which launched at the end of May, many of the MFA students have posted blank pages linking to G$A MFA, on which they demand a deferral of their education or reimbursement of their fees. Similarly, at the Royal College of Art, London, students responded to the imposition of a virtual degree show by launching a petition on ‘to postpone and suspend our education until it is safe for us to return to our studios, make use of our workshops, collaborate together, speak to our tutors face-to-face and make work in safety for ourselves and others’. It has received more than 8,000 signatures to date.

December, 2020, entry from the calendar produced by MFA students at Glasgow School of Art to illustrate how their course was interrupted throughout the year. Courtesy: G$A MFA 

The pandemic has precipitated conversations about how to combine online and in-person teaching into ‘blended learning’ at all levels, from preschool to postgraduate. How this will work for art schools – where handling, transforming and responding to physical materials is crucial to learning – remains to be seen. Physical degree shows have shortcomings: they can foster unhealthy competition between students; they’re often expensive to produce; and they create vast heaps of waste. Online platforms provide a controversial solution that many students view as a poor alternative. However, in other areas, such as art fairs, virtual and physical formats offer separate advantages and will likely co-exist in the future; the same looks to be true for degree shows. 

Main image: Degree Show on Mars, Liverpool John Moores University BA Fine Art Degree Show, 2020. Courtesy: LJMU

Ellen Mara De Wachter is based in London, UK.