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We Want People Who Can Draw

Danielle Child writes on an exhibition of art school dissent

July 25, 2015
6 min read

wewant1Images: David Penny

As students occupied rooms for free education in Manchester University, further up Oxford Road, at the Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections Gallery, an exhibition was opening devoted to art school dissent.

The exhibition is a collective endeavour co-curated by Stephanie Boydell, Simon Faulkner, Laura Guy and Jane Webb as part of the on-going ‘3 act’ Manifesto Show. The exhibition returns to earlier moments of student – and in particular, art student – protest from the 1960s through the 1980s. Despite the exhibition’s billing as a ‘manifesto’ show, co-curator Simon Faulkner explained that the exhibition only houses three manifestos: Valerie Solanas’ S.C.U.M Manifesto, Ken Garland’s First Things First manifesto and the Slade Women’s Group manifesto. It is the idea of the manifesto and what it represents – the politics of hope – that is important to the show.

Garland’s 1964 First Things First manifesto welcomes the visitor, a graphic designer’s anti-capitalist cry for a creative rather than simply commercial practice in his discipline. Each moment addressed in the exhibition demonstrates the ways in which art students dared to imagine the world in another way.

Specific sites of protest take precedence within the exhibition. You could begin with the six-week long 1968 Hornsey College of Art occupation, in which students took root initially over the withdrawal of student union fees by the local council. The sit-in allowed for an opportunity for the students to rethink their situation. They began to rewrite the curriculum, affording a more ‘networked’ approach to art education rather than the stifling linear approach which asked students to pick a pathway and stick to it. We see documents relating to the occupation and also visual materials, such as the two screenprinted Atelier Populaire posters, housed in MMU’s Special Collections, and relating to the Atelier Populaire visit to the occupation, which are juxtaposed with the students own pro-occupation lino-cut posters.

Hornsey was not alone: they visited other colleges and institutions to encourage UK-wide reform of the art school curriculum. Included in the exhibition is a typed list of responses from colleges to which the occupiers had written asking for support, with some amusing responses. The then Manchester Polytechnic’s response was simply ‘On holiday.’

Not all colleges were disengaged, however, and within the same year students at Guilford College of Art also began to demand change and occupied the college. Within this occupation, students wanted to take on a more cooperative role in the running and organisation of the college, adopting a reciprocal relationship with staff and students. Not unlike recent student occupations, the occupiers hung banners from the buildings calling for a ‘student voice’. Both occupations resulted in college closures, only re-opening once the ‘troublemakers’ were dispensed.

The exhibition displays a wealth of publications and visual material related to student protest over the two decades. The student’s commitment to getting their voices heard is evident in the collection of student and art school magazines brought together in this modest exhibition. Notable examples are the two issues of Icteric, produced in 1967 by students and staff at Newcastle University, including the studio instructors David and Stuart Wise (who would later form King Mob, the successor to the English branch of the Situationist International).

wewant2

Through the 1970s, we see a more conceptual approach within the publications; the influence of Art & Language is evident, for example, in Ostrich. The 1970s publications shown in the case alongside Ostrich, Faulkner informs me, present a more explicit understanding of radical politics and class structure. The curators are aware of the problems in exhibiting such valuable literature in these glass cases, limiting the visitor’s access to the pages. As Faulkner states: ‘Putting the artefacts on display at least makes aspects of an often hidden history visible to some degree.’

Neither is the exhibition static; not all the items are behind glass. Photographs highlight moments of protest, including an image of Kim Howells, later to become a Labour MP, participating in the Hornsey sit-in. There are also images of performances in Newcastle, often under the guidance of Ron Hunt – the Fine Art Librarian, originally invited by Richard Hamilton. Hunt remains a lively character in the narrative of Newcastle University’s dissent, helping form a collective of students – Icteric – working against the art school elitism encountered within the department and organising exhibitions such as Descent into the Street. He was also responsible for providing English translations of Situationist International texts to the students, which were sent to him from London and copied by Hunt. The group took a more performative stance and the exhibition includes images of performances that reference Kasimir Malevich (a student in a coffin with an image of his Black Square in the corner) and political street theatre.

Within the later periods, we encounter the ‘politics of representation’: films and materials relating to the women’s movement within the art school context. Connections traverse the exhibition, as Solanas’ manifesto is recalled from earlier in the show, when we look at the demands of women artists. In contrast to Patricia Holland’s 1970 film, which presents reenactments of the Hornsey College occupation, Katharine Meynell presents her documentary video of the RCA Women’s Group on a retreat. In contrast to the more explicitly political feminist material, such as the Slade Women’s Group manifesto, co-curator Laura Guy highlights the film’s political relevance: ‘ [The film] indirectly remains testament to the feminist desire to reframe communication between women as itself a political act.’

There remains value within an exhibition such as this, by bringing these events together histories begin to intersect. What may appear to be an isolated event in a North London college reads differently alongside events a year prior in a university in the north of England. The way in which subtle connections are built – the connection between S.C.U.M Manifesto, the Slade Women’s Group and King Mob and the inclusion of the RCA’s ARK magazine, which reproduced Garland’s manifesto – are testament to the informed curation of this project and also to the work yet to be done in writing its history. There remains little published work on this moment.

For the current and subsequent generations, there is much to be learnt from encountering archival material such as that presented here. While the exhibition is born from the archives, it does not isolate the history from the present – rather it concludes in asking ‘where do we go from here?’ A timely question for those once again preparing to barricade themselves in university buildings across the UK.

We Want People Who Can Draw: Instruction and Dissent in the British Art School, is at Special Collections, Manchester Metropolitan University until 31 July 2015.


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