Class of 2021: How Art Graduates are Reclaiming their Futures


Class of 2021: How Art Graduates are Reclaiming their Futures

Renin Bilginer

As restrictions lift across the UK and life returns to some semblance of normality, it’s hard to forget the effects the Covid-19 pandemic has had on our day to day lives. With the majority of job and education sectors moving online, we find ourselves questioning; is this the new normal? 

Whilst many sectors have found that they are able to function normally under these new conditions, it has become clear that this is not the case for education, with close to 50% of students still receiving all their tuition online. In particular, for students enrolled on practical art courses, the general lack of organisation and support from universities across the UK: rejected deferrals, lectures moving online, limited or no access to studios and the mass cancellation of real life degree shows, has left students feeling isolated, neglected and unprepared to enter the industry. 

Graduating in 2019, my experiences of the pandemic were different to those in the following years. Upon returning to London, I had a part time job, a studio, a few exhibitions and several others lined up for 2020. However, in the months following the first lockdown, these exhibitions were cancelled, along with a redundancy and the consequent loss of my studio. As the momentum that followed my degree show gradually faded, I found myself in a state of flux; I had to reassess my career under the conditions of this new reality. This led me to create a new body of work, apply for the Royal College of Art and left me with a desire to curate and create my own opportunities, rather than relying on online and social media platforms. 

This year, whilst the majority of degree shows have remained as solely digital showcases, a few universities have organised physical shows alongside online platforms. Although capacities have been limited, these institutions have proven that it’s possible to achieve during the pandemic - some more successful than others. 

At the Goldsmiths MA show, I was in awe of the amount of space given to each student and the consequent, professional quality of the work. In particular, students working across installation and moving image were given entire rooms, which allowed them to fully realise the fundamental, immersive quality of their work, rather than being reduced to a single image or video on a screen. Eleni Zervou’s ‘SPF 50+/ Don’t bite the hand that feeds you’, particularly caught my attention; transforming the space with sand, objects, low level lighting and multiple projections, Zervou truly immerses the viewer into the work.

Similarly, at the RA school show, students were given large spaces to showcase their work in innovative and exciting displays. Ranging across all mediums, it was obvious that the RA had supported and nurtured it’s 2021 graduates; having halted new intakes last year, they were able to give their students an extra year to make up for the time they had lost during 2020. Clara Hastrup’s wonderfully strange ‘Fishdriver’ installation allowed the viewer to interact with the work; by scanning a card against the fish tank, the work was set off in a chain reaction; from spinning house plants to toy cars racing around a multi-story track, along with a disco soundtrack.  

In contrast, the RCA’s handling of the pandemic has come under much scrutiny during the past year, with claims that the institution prioritises profit over student’s learning and welfare. Whilst, last year's degree show was entirely online, the 2021 MA Painting and Sculpture cohort, were granted a smaller scale physical exhibition at Cromwell Place. I felt an eyre of disappointment amongst the students and visitors alike, as most graduates’ showcases had been reduced to one piece of work, rather than a culmination of what that they had produced over the 2 years. Whilst the quality of the work itself has retained a high standard, with some pieces crammed into small spaces and others poorly curated, it was evident that there hadn’t been much, if any support from the university.

Other major arts universities, such as: Brighton and UAL have continued to cancel their physical shows altogether, providing the bare minimum for online shows, in terms of ingenuity; many students have opted for alternative ways to showcase their work and create their own opportunities.

With most universities choosing not to accommodate degree shows on-site, a number of courses from several universities have showcased their work at this year’s Oxo Tower Wharf new creatives graduate season at Bargehouse. With Kingston’s illustration and animation students pushing the boundaries of materiality and many choosing to explore their practice in an expanded field, it was evident that this challenging year has given birth to an incredibly resilient and innovative group of graduates.

Other students have taken a more guerrilla approach. With their physical show completely cancelled, a group of Brighton’s BA painting students opted to curate and stage their own show independent of the university. The exhibition, FUSE “celebrates this coming back together after a period of anxiety and isolation through the experience of viewing art in the flesh” and aims to “reconnect viewers to the physicality of art”.

Similarly, the RCA’s 2020 MA Sculpture graduates, organised an independent exhibition this year: Spacelapse. Held at the Royal Society of Sculptors the exhibition text states, “this cohort resisted limbo and strode forward with their practices: they embraced novel restraints”. Whilst, a number of students couldn’t show work in the flesh, as they had moved abroad during the past year, the exhibition accommodated this by providing QR codes that accessed digital showcases and a catalogue.

Another group of graduates, from MA Material Futures at Central Saint Martins have founded their own innovative collective: United Matters. Working at the intersection of craft, technology and science, they aim to use design to “reflect upon and unravel the complexity of the 21st Century”.

Sean T Ross Calathea plant connected to ECG pads

As we come to the end of over a year of lockdowns, the beginning of a new world order and enter a troublesome digital age, it would seem that a revolution has already begun amongst this year’s graduates. Where universities have failed their students, their determination has thrived. Through student-led movements, alternative exhibitions and newly formed collectives, the graduates of the pandemic have learned not to rely on universities; whether it be physically or digitally, they stand in solidarity, forming a new community of artists that are unified in their resilience. As a current curation intern at Acrylicize, recent BA graduate and prospective MA student, I am left wondering; what lies ahead?

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