joanne lee


I’ve written an essay to accompany The Nine, an exhibition at Bank Street Arts, Sheffield, featuring work by students completing the Open College of the Arts’ distance-learning MA in Fine Art.  It begins with a short text for the exhibition postcard and continues online.

Nine artists.

Four years of making, thinking and dialogue.

Countless questions.

Different methods.

Diverse practices.

Multiple interpretations.

A conclusion and a beginning.

The conversation continues.

The nine artists gathered here are as diverse in their practice as one would expect in the heterogeneous field of contemporary art: they work through drawing, in figurative and abstract painting, use analogue or digital photography, multiply imagery into pattern, shoot video, record sound, employ popular apps like Vine, make projections, realise installations, engage in performance, work with prints and books, manipulate found objects… Some acknowledge the slowness of their making, the labour of repeated attention to multiple paintings, the meticulous craft of drawing, the countless physical or digital iterations of pieces tested and reworked, and the protracted editing and piecing together of moving image or sound. At times, chance plays its part in the work: the outcome of certain darkroom processes cannot be fully anticipated nor success guaranteed; wet paper may either thwart the hoped-for progress of paint or ink, or provide results better than could ever been imagined. Working quickly and intuitively may create results that immediately satisfy, or prompt unexpected options, which in turn reveal avenues for further exploration. In studying for a masters degree in Fine Art, the nine artists have variously used their intelligence and their emotions, their social, technical and research skills; there have been times for rigorous analysis, and occasions when it was necessary to trust a hunch that something odd might just work. There is evidence here of projects whose reach and substance have been enriched both by concentrated effort and creative agility.

Some of these makers have chosen to focus on the formal and critical questions specific to art practice, whilst others have sought explicitly to connect with broader intellectual ideas. For some the work seems to emerge from direct family history and personal experience; for others it derives from the online spaces of social media or wider questions of human society. The artists have encountered philosophy, literature, aesthetics and psychology, considered bodies and gender, explored the nuances of popular culture, wondered what it means to be a human, or an animal, to be a tourist in a real place, or to wander through a fictional landscape. They have recorded the world around them through journals and diaries, acting as curious anthropologists of quotidian life, dreamt up compelling new narratives, created defamiliarising systems for translating one thing into another, imagined alternative futures, or dwelt for a while in the realm of myth and fairytale. It’s fair to say that many of them pursue multiple strands of investigation, and clearly intend that the work can hold ideas and perspectives in tension, without ever wholly resolving into one interpretation or another.

These nine have pursued their master’s study via what is still a relatively unusual educational route, in Fine Art and the UK at least: the Open College of the Arts course is taught online and at a distance, with staff and students based in diverse locations and physically coming together only a few times before this, their final exhibition. But the circumstances that may have led to them choosing this mode of study are surely familiar to many of us involved with contemporary art: the need to stay in a particular place in order to maintain the job or contacts that earn sufficient money to facilitate an art practice; children being settled in a good school, a relative needing one’s care, or the necessity to manage one’s health; a desire not to undermine networks one has already established in the locality… Of course it also provides a significant connection to people in entirely different places, and enables this difference to inflect one’s own daily perspective, and thus it mirrors the dispersed opportunities of a globalised art world. For some an MA is a creative and critical break from everyday life: these artists by contrast have been immersed in the thick of it, having to carve out the space and time to make and think, to show and discuss their work, amidst the pressures of all those existing responsibilities. It is an education very much engaged with the realities of twenty-first century practice, and one that will strengthen them in what lies ahead.

The blogs that the artists have been using to record their journey throughout the course give a clear picture of what really happens when one makes art. They tell of self-doubt and confusion, slow weeks of uncertainty about what direction the work needs to take, moments of revelation and clarity during which decisive progress is made, long periods of hard work struggling to perfect a particular technical skill, or to read certain texts that seem important but resist comprehension. There are instances of feeling lost or vulnerable, and reaching out to peers, and then key conversations during which something is really expressed and understood. There are excited discoveries of previously unknown practitioners, or a theorist whose ideas provide insight for an aspect that had hitherto seemed inadequately worked through. Then, as the end of the course approaches, there are the challenges in conveying the nature of the actual work, its nuances and rich complexity, via the always-limited means of press releases, websites or artists’ statements, and the practical considerations necessary to take the work into a space whose exact parameters will not be fully known until the install. And thanks to this sustained immersion in practice, theory and the professional context, there is also the realization that future possibilities are now opening up well beyond the MA itself.

An MA in Fine Art provides a framework within which focused creative and critical investigation can take place, and grows a community to support the challenges each individual is bound to encounter as they pursue their work at this level. What seems especially distinctive about the experience of the particular course that these artists have undertaken is the serious attention necessarily paid to matters of communication; after all, conversing online offers a curious mix of accelerated intimacy and huge potential for misunderstanding, as well as the associated practical issues that inevitably occur when people have fluctuating connections, are using diverse types of computer, and making contact from different time zones. Extra effort must be made to convey one’s meaning, for one’s interlocutors to listen hard and establish clarity, and patience must be shown when technical problems interrupt or delay what one is trying to say. It seems to me that these lessons about the difficulty and rewards of communication are key in what happens next, for though we may need periods of solitude, artists rarely operate in isolation and dialogue is usually what keeps us afloat when drowning in the messy business of making. This exhibition marks a conclusion but it also signals another beginning, as life and art practice are reestablished in the fresh contexts beyond masters study: the conversation amongst this community has flourished, and the time has now come for it to continue in the wider world.


a continuing conversation