It was nearly 20 years since I had felt the tingle of excitement at being graded. It was nearly a quarter of a century since I had last been ‘formally assessed’ (how dare they?) as an artist.
I was about to start a three-year academic commitment. In applying to be part of the Open College of the Arts 2014 cohort for Europe’s first distance part time Masters in Fine Art, I had signed up to deadlines and being a student again: a proper one (not the kind who says they are a ‘student of life’ and winks in an alarming way). I’d have an NUS card, discounts in Top Shop and more two-for-one pizzas than I could ever consume . What else would I learn? What had I to gain?
And then it began. My cohort came together like something out of The IT Crowd: bumbling and lumbering around our virtual Masters degree like Neanderthals who could not figure out how to turn the screen on, never mind access a ‘hangout’. And what the hell do they mean by ‘asynchronous seminar’?
“Can you hear me? I can see you but…hang on, type in the text box…you can’t see the text box…umm…the icons on the left, THE LEFT…*sigh* Just turn the computer off and start again!”
Those who were computer literate (the ‘hackers’ as we like to think of them) became the leaders of the pack – virtual royalty: they could initiate events, like shamans or magicians. They could mute the idiots who were broadcasting their tea slurping, toast munching, or shouting at their children. We quickly learned the benefit of deactivating the camera, not only to ensure that the bandwidth was working for everyone, but also so that we could wear a towel turban and pyjamas whilst at a lecture. These are the great benefits of virtual attendance at ‘school’. There were disadvantages too.
“Mwamba, are you still there…hello? Are you there Mwamba?…No, he’s gone.”
Realistically though, what had we to gain from the experience of being part of a multi-cultural, geographically diverse student collective? How would we grow by connecting weekly throughout life changing and world changing events? How would our practice change by being on show whilst learning about each other’s work, lives, and backgrounds? What riches would we gain from this unique and international dynamic?
That first tiptoe into describing our work to each other was replaced three years later by the group refusing to accept the artist’s version of events. Not in a creepy ‘I know you!’ way, but by feeling that we had all been on a road trip together – we understood each other. This road trip took us through Germany, America, Canada, Spain, Africa, Ireland and the United Kingdom. What sights we saw as we learnt about each others’ lives through the aperture of creative discussions and portfolios.
Relationships have started and ended, politicians have been voted (some controversially) in and out of power, wars have been a constant background noise. We have seen pictures. Pictures on screens, like a children’s book of art and life; a kaleidoscope of happenings and creativity. We have worked together and yet independently. A ‘making day’ required us to meet in our studios hundreds of miles apart, and to share our experiences, exchanging photos, discussing progress, exploring our own inadequacies as well as celebrating our successes. I have learnt about relationships I don’t understand, places I have never been to, journeys I will never go on and all from the relative comfort of my swivel chair. I have been exposed to creative takes on feminism, political angst, collective intelligence and polymaterialism without having to leave my computer. But it’s not about the exposure, it’s about the engagement: about being a cohort – learning about and supporting each other. Is that not symbolic of the importance of being human? Finding common ground and celebrating our differences. Learning by listening to each other.
“So sorry, I missed everything you just said. The babysitter’s here now and I’ve shut the dog away!”
Whilst the most important lesson is to mute the microphone before discussing a blocked toilet with someone who has just walked into the studio, the additional lessons have been endlessly insightful. We have had numerous outstanding lectures, and have been led by an award-winning team. Dr Angela Rogers and Caroline Wright know us and our quirks and our practice inside and out. They have been stalwart supporters; challenging us by asking those searching questions which made us address our insecurities and doubts, acknowledging these and moving on from them.
But we have never met. It is a fascinating by-product of this digital age that someone can know you so well and yet never have seen you in the flesh. It will not be until we gather in June in the Civic Centre, Barnsley for our exhibition hang that we will all come face to face. This feels like internet dating; will they look like they do in their profile photo? (It’s some semi-abstract insect painting: this should be fun!) Will they be shorter or taller than I imagine? (Everyone is roughly the same size on a computer screen.) Will I like their work when I see it in ‘the real world’? Will we hug? #awkward
In a world that occasionally forgets that the future is a place of diversity and that there is strength and dynamism in this, we could see this MA course as the United Nations of the Art world – reaching out across geographical borders to bring together ten people who would never have initiated this relationship independently. We are a collective and we are connected. This is, in fact, the title of our MA show.
It is irrelevant that Mathew lives in Nova Scotia and that his Prime Minister is Justin Trudeau (liberal leader supreme), that Tanya lives in New York and is having to put up with Trump, and that I’m surrounded by conversations about breaking up the EU….we have all ultimately been brought together under one ‘virtual’ roof and we have explored questions about our practice together. We have collaborated in a shared online exhibition: another bite of the virtual cookie.
So, back to my original question: what have we gained from our decision to embark on the OCA Masters? Everything. This is not just about letters after our names, or about making a move into new galleries or being picked up by a particular curator. It is about exploring in great depth the thing which drives us all – the motivation to make. I watch people who are great at hairdressing, flower arranging, sketching, science, construction, equations, parenting…we are all driven by a desire to make something different, unique, better…lovely. To explore that within a diverse community is richly rewarding. It is confirmation that we are all part of the same fabric of existence – the comfort blanket of creativity that wraps around the world. If only we could grip a bit tighter, hold on to our global brothers and sisters and reject all sounds of isolationism or jingoism.
We will be filling a gallery full of ideas, concepts and creations and they are part of all of us, part of being alive. They are for the consumption of all: those who can attend the exhibition 15-24th June in the Civic Centre, Barnsley and those who can view our work online. We welcome you all. We embrace you in. Stay a while.