Thursday, 5 June 2014

End of Year Exit Tutorials

I have been working five days a week as well as teaching two evenings, so blog posts are still a rarity in particular this time of the year the work load is extremely heavy. All modules come to an end and we have been assessing first and second years before the third year cohort. The final level 6 assessments take a full week, and once completed we re-hang the work for the end of year show. It is also therefore quite a stressful time for students, those last few days often being when people have extreme reactions to the pressure of deadlines.

Once assessments are completed for levels 4 and 5 (first and second year) we hold exit tutorials to ensure that the students have plenty to think about during the long summer break. These are designed partly to feed back on how they have achieved but more importantly to start them thinking about what they need to be doing next. These are short but intensive and at the core of each tutorial is an attempt to get a focus on what type of practitioner the student is becoming and to flesh out what the issues are that underpin their evolving practice.
Typically first years are asked to create an image bank or body of source materials, bringing together drawings, photographs, images from magazines, objects, video footage, materials etc. from which to draw upon next year. I also ask them to become specialists in their respective fields of interest. For example a student interested in ecology is asked to read deeply around the subject, to explore what is happening in terms of actual ‘real’ practice in her local area as well as world-wide issues; this research to be balanced by research into artists that have responded to similar issues. The important thing being to research without prejudice, to simply explore what is out there and to become more aware of possibilities. Other subjects brought to the tutorials included ‘how technology affects behaviour’, ‘the art gallery and how it changes perceptions’, ‘the construction of the human body and how it has evolved over time’. Supplementary questions are often also asked, such as can similar evolutionary principles be applied to other things in the world and / or the way materials are engaged with, can evolution be used in the development of construction methods? Can evolution be a sculptural principle?
Students are also reminded that writers write in order to discover what it is they are writing about and that as artists they need to do the same. The muscles of making need constant exercise if students are to attain the levels of control needed, as well as them responding to the fact that they need to ‘find’ the implication of their making. A break from doing can often mean that it takes a long time for them to get back into the ‘zone’ of creation. How many will actually continue making during the summer is probably quite small in number but at some point in their lives they will realise the importance of continually keeping the making /thinking process going. The break between years can for some students be problematic. It is hard to restart a practice after a gap, it is much healthier to work on different aspects of practice rather than simply stop. Working in new environments or adding alternative things into the mix can be important but doing this somewhere away from the critical engagement of others allows this to happen without the pressure of having to make work that succeeds all the time. Sometimes you just need to do things without any critical engagement, you simply need time to do things, once done of course you will need to re-engage critically but it is in these periods that you can sometimes surprise yourself. 
One student tells me she has access to an old barn during the summer and she has decided that it could be set up as a studio to work in. She might invite others to join her. By being open to the wider world outside college students can refresh stale thoughts and explore how much environmental factors influence their making.   I’m very aware my own ability degrades after periods of inactivity away from making.
By listing some of the issues dealt with I can give a flavour of the tutorials, the following notes below are simply transcribed directly from notes taken during level 4 tutorials.
Ideas related to traces, incomplete images that allow for deduction to be used in order to complete them in the mind. How much information should the artist give? The trace as a form of language. (Deer hoof prints etc.) Can you work as if you are making a visual detective novel?
The grid and how it is used as an organising principle and making a resource that documents this. Archeological digs, city layout, the graphic design grid, scientific measurement etc.
Moments of epiphany, looking for the magical in the everyday. (To read De Certeau) How can we shine a light on something ordinary and give it honorific value? (Change scale, replace with something else, spotlight, etc.) Can you provide a conundrum for others to solve, so that what appears to be everyday is now seen a part of something much bigger, (the tip of the iceburg issue)? What is it to see something from a different/unusual/strange angle or just a shadow of it?
How to make an image bank when what someone wants to paint are images of particular dreamlike states of mind? These are of buildings or landscapes that appear as if they are from particular film stills. Making models of imaginary film sets is a possibility and then lighting these and making drawings and taking photographs as starting points.
Psychological responses to colour. A student that wears black all the time is asked to explain the various rituals of wearing black (gothic, funereal etc.) To also explore the various hair dyes, clothing dyes, etc. as well as art materials, in order to assess how the cultural and material properties of black change ideas. An interest in textiles to be linked to a wider interest in human behaviour, for instance how introverts act in relation to extroverts and how could these observations be used to help forge a materials/colour language?
A student interested in portraiture is asked to explore the relationship between the photograph and perception. Drawing a situation with one eye closed and then the other. Combining the two, then comparing to a photograph of the same situation.
Often returned to is the purpose of practice, how the skills of making, filming, performing can be developed and allied to what needs to be ‘said’ and of course furthered as the techniques of analysis develop and a particular language of practice opens out.

For second year students another issue is COP3 (Context of Practice 3) which has now replaced the dissertation. They need to write a position statement, undertake a case study and develop a rationale for practice that articulates the processes that lay behind their decision making. They will need to put into words how and why they undertake materials investigation, how and why they have developed a context for practice…i.e. ‘why is their work like it is?’
Trying to get students to drill down into what it is they are actually doing can be very hard, as they are emotionally engaged at a deep level and it can feel alien to step outside of this situation. For instance if the student is engaged in a Feminist practice what is the focus within that? Is it the way we are gendered in childhood? The glass ceiling, how body language is gendered or cultural differences etc.? An image bank can be used to get a feel for how these things manifest themselves out in the world. This can then be a resource that can be re-visited and played with in order to open out new possibilities.
Theory is also import here but before getting too bogged down in this, I think students need to have a practical awareness of the issues. Part of the tutorial is therefore always a reminder to do some serious reading over the summer and to make notes that will be useful when writing up the COP3. The final reminder for level 5 students is that COP3 is a combination module of theory/practice and that they need to ensure that time is focused on making not reading and writing. Too many students fall into the trap of putting all their energies into the writing project only to find that their practice has foundered on the rocks of theory.