In loving memory of degree shows

The degree show is a staple of art school life in Britain and the United States. Held at the end of the summer term, they’re a an opportunity for graduates to develop their work in a high-stakes exhibition environment, celebrate the time spent together, and speak to a wider public. Since indoor events are still off-limits in most places, this year’s degree shows have largely moved online.

Looking through these shows (Lecture in Progress keeps a helpful list 1 ), you quickly notice that most of them follow the same pattern: We land on a list of student’s names, sometimes led by an opening statement from the course leader or chancellor (in video format if you’re particularly unlucky). Each name links to a page that contains information about the student: Their name, a statement introducing themselves and their work, a list of links to their social media profiles, followed by one or more projects represented by some combination of images, video, and text. While the execution of this varies, the structure is largely consistent across dozens of shows from Britain, Europe, and the United States.

This leads to an obvious question: Why is it that all of these art schools independently came to the conclusion that their degree show should not only be replaced by a website (overruling student protests at the Royal College of Art 2 and other institutions 3 ), but one that follows the same structure across the board? This collective falling-in-line happened remarkably fast — as recently as March, the question of how the degree show should be adapted to the pandemic environment still seemed wide open 4 .

Somehow, the online degree show became the obvious choice basically overnight. This might be partly explained on technical grounds (we had our laptops open anyway), but it’s worth thinking through how pre-existing insititutional circumstances may have contributed, too.

Administration

The artistic work that usually happens in the leadup to a group show — the haggling around wall space, the writing of exhibition texts, the production of printed matter, the development of the work itself — usually happens almost exclusively between students and teachers. Students are encouraged (or at least can’t be easily prevented) to take control of the exhibition space, make their own measurements and come to independent decisions. Save for an electrical inspection and a handful of VIP events (which are tolerated), the college administration is kept at arm’s length.

In the online degree show, this relationship is reversed. A sprawling network of administrative departments (IT, Marketing, Health and Safety, Alumni Relations, Chancellor’s Office) supported by external consultants and software developers takes control of most aspects of the show. Digital platforms give administrators sophisticated tools to finely grade or outright deny access to the exhibition space, reducing students and teachers to submitting questions and hoping they will be brought up to the relavant comittee meeting. On my course at the Royal College of Art, this lack of visibility was so egregious that the entire group of student curators resigned a few weeks into the planning process.

Following a year of widespread strikes, protests, and criticism levelled against university management, isn’t surprising that administrators everywhere would push through a degree show format that shores up their position and minimises the possibility of public dissent.

Content

Of all the administrative departments, Marketing might be the biggest winner in the move to virtual degree shows. Marketing departments have long mined degree shows for content by interviewing graduating students, asking them to write for the institution’s website, staging Instagram takeovers, and comissioning photography of the exhibition to be used in next year’s catalogue. The online degree show makes this work much easier: Here is all this years’ work, already photographed and written-about in digestible chunks to which the university has indefinite usage rights — ready to be recycled, curated, promoted across our channels forever. In this turn toward content, the move to an online show mirrors the move to online teaching 5 .

Faced with a devastating drop in admissions in the autumn, these marketing activities have become more critical to the institution than ever. An online degree show following the list/detail model fits them, offering a searchable, well-organised database of all the available content, ready to be fed into upcoming recruitment campaigns.

It’s hard to imagine this didn’t inform the administrator’s nearly uniform response — their jobs probably depend on it.

The new art student

In a recent essay, the Oslo-based artist Ane Hjort Guttu writes about the decline of the old notion of the art student as “a somewhat inarticulate individual who achieved insight through their singular, introvert practice and whose main workplace was the studio”, and to whom “health and safety protocols, due notification procedures” and, to read between the lines, employability, were entirely irrelevant. In the new market-driven art school, this old, crumpled figure is replaced by a new ideal:

[…] the project manager – a team leader of a research network, for example. This ideal person does not need a personal workspace, but can work quite happily in open-plan offices, formulating project descriptions in collaboration with research clusters throughout the European Union. He/she is at the forefront as far as specialised technology is concerned, but also very open towards working across different academic disciplines – if not in practice, then at least in theory. He/she likes to eat in the canteen, is good with digital platforms, announces his/her need for a conference room well in advance, does not spill things, and does not make a mess. He or she goes home at 17:00. 6

Guttu traces this development in physical architecture of contemporary art schools, but her analysis extends easily to the virtual architecture of the typical online degree show, which is designed for the same project-manager-student. They have well-lit, nudity-free reproductions of their work in web-friendly formats readily at hand, and have no trouble turning out a concise summary of themselves and their research interests. Their social media profiles are up-to date, professional and ready to be listed in the contact section of their profile. When this figure is the unquestioned ideal, the design decisions flowing into an online degree show do indeed become obvious.


The in-person degree show is a confusing, stubbornly local, deeply unprofitable, often inward-looking and at times radical event. I’m not arguing that this can’t be achieved in an online format - examples like Liverpool’s Degree Show on Mars 7 show that, if you give space to students and teachers to truly engage with the medium, it can be done. But if you open up control in this way, alternative proposals like delayed in-person shows, books, and even the redistribution of the show budget to students become possible, too. For the reasons outlined here, most institutions were unwilling to contemplate those possibilities, and instead opted for a response that’s in line with the ongoing marketisation of art education. 8