Design, education and the role of revolt

At Ideas on Revolt, the third annual Graphic Design Educators’ Network conference, there were calls for students to become more involved in resistance and rebellion. But perhaps their teachers should be leading by example, suggests Hannah Ellis

There’s an image I have in my mind as I try to process the third annual Graphic Design Educators’ Network conference, Ideas of Revolt.

It’s a photo that I came across, I can’t remember when. German artist and educator Joseph Beuys is leaving his place of work, the Staatliche Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, followed by his students and flanked by men in uniforms that look like police or security guards. Different sources say different things about the precise date. Some say it’s the day of his dismissal; others the day before – October 10, 1972 – immediately after the event that triggered his dismissal in the first place. Either way, at the moment the photo was taken, both he and his employers know that he no longer works there.

And yet – in this image – he’s smiling, looking downwards, and sort of laughing to himself.

A year later, the artist would turn the photo into a screenprint and scrawl Demokratie ist lustig (Democracy is merry) knowingly across it. As a pedagogue, Beuys’ believed there should be no entry requirements to undertake his classes, that anyone who wanted to learn should have the opportunity to do so. It was the direct opposite the Staatliche’s selective admissions process. He had found 142 of the applicants who had been refused a place, overenrolled his course with the 16 who still wanted to attend, and occupied part of the building in protest until there was a hearing held over their admissions.

He objected to and revolted against the system, and for that he was dismissed. And, as I sit alongside all the other graphic design educators at Ideas of Revolt, I can’t get this image out of my head.

Revolt, it seems, is a hot topic for institutional education because this is the most popular GDEN event yet. Tickets sell out by mid-August, and there are 135 attendees from graphic design or synonymous courses at 40 different universities across the UK and beyond. Most people already seem to know each other. The vast majority of attendees are academic staff, that is to say the lecturers contracted year-round by universities, who are eligible to claim the ticket fee and travel as staff development expenses. There are also a few associate lecturers, like myself, freelance educators who work sometimes occasionally, sometimes as regularly as their academic colleagues, but only during term time and, by being slightly removed have the benefit of being shielded from establishment politics. It’s a trade off; no holiday or sick pay, and you fall outside the catchment area of perks like the aforementioned staff development pot. It’s a struggle to involve associate lecturers because of that, I’m told by one of the organisers. I find out later that there are also a handful of students here, too, most of whom are helping to run one of the workshops.

Are the students considered too apathetic and disinterested by the world around them, instead of enraged and disgusted by injustices in society?

It’s not immediately clear to me what ‘revolt’ in this context really means. There’s a pre-event blurb that asks, incredulous, exasperated: “[t]he political and social landscape of 2017 offers graphic design students ample rich subject matter to react to, dissect and interpret, but where is the revolt?” And Robert Harland, GDEN chair and lecturer at Loughborough University, in his welcome to attendees, writes that “[i]ncreasingly, the problems that students tackle are defined by potential employers”, going on to suggest that perhaps we, as educators, ought “to reconsider the context of graphic design and place greater importance on political and social concerns”.

Are the students considered too apathetic and disinterested by the world around them, instead of enraged and disgusted by injustices in society? Are they – or we? – too obedient and willing to conform to the whims of the industry on the half promise of a job? Or is it that students haven’t, as yet, found a way to turn their grievances into active rebellion? I’m still no wiser, and as the two days progress and different conflicting perspectives are shared on a word that’s meaning has clearly – on all sides – been taken for granted, I’m even more confused that I was to begin with.

A point that seems relatively obvious, though: perhaps we could just ask the students themselves?

But no because, bar the few who have been roped in to help, the students are not here to ask; this is the Graphic Design Educators’ Network and, with a name like that, of course they are not here. Not even by accident, tripping about the building. The conference, which travels around different institutions and is being held this year at Sheffield Hallam University in the new(ish) refurbished Post Office building, is being held a fortnight before the frenzied start of the academic year, before any notion of free time for staff goes entirely out of the window, and so everywhere is still quiet and student-free.

As a practicality I’ll attempt to outline the schedule, as briefly as I can because timetables aren’t particularly interesting. The event is two days long. The first day starts at 11am, there is a keynote from Matt Ward who is Head of Design at Goldsmiths. Afterwards there are two parallel workshop strands that run over three one-hour slots. No swapping. Afterwards we all go to the pub, a mixer, except everyone stays in the groups they were already in to begin with. The next day starts earlier with a second keynote from Rathna Ramanathan, Head of Programme on the MA Visual Communication at the Royal College of Art. Again, three one-hour slots follow, during each there is a discussion, a workshop, three paper presentations or four Pecha Kucha style talks to choose from. I’ve already written about my thoughts on this elsewhere, but needless to say – it’s far too much; on the first day you can only go to half of the activities, and on the second you miss a massive three quarters of what’s actually going on.

Thursday

Matt Ward talks through some of the briefs they set students at Goldsmiths, the type of sharing that you would assume is far more common than it actually is in education, as well as some of the references that inspired them. Have you, for example, heard about the cowboys of Kinshasa or the Coney Island Baby Incubators? That sounds like the start of a bad joke, but in all seriousness – look them up. Fascinating stuff; a bit dark, though.

Matt Ward presenting at Ideas of Revolt

At Goldsmiths they are, if the title of the keynote is anything to go by, Briefing for the Revolution. Commercial briefs, Matt says, only encourage undergraduates to think in smaller and smaller circles about their practice and themselves. He says that it’s far more important for students to understand that everything is made with a certain view on the world, and (very) briefly adds that he himself has to acknowledge the limits of his own perspective as a white, cis male, too. Whether forcing students into civil engagement results in anything authentic is perhaps a separate issue. Anyway, one of the projects is called Anti-Social and it’s based loosely around social norms and the intentionally vague definition of anti-social behaviour as described by the Home Office. A paraphrasing of this – ‘any activity or behaviour that contradicts the generally accepted “norms” of a particular society’ – sits next to a very serious and profound quote from Rousseau: ‘man is born free, and everywhere he is in shackles.’

At a certain point in their degrees many students, overwhelmed by the seeming enormity of the journey they’re on, freeze like a rabbit in headlights

At a certain point in their degrees many students, overwhelmed by the seeming enormity of the journey they’re on, freeze like a rabbit in headlights and stress and worry ricochet around their brains and make it impossible to think straight let alone make meaningful work. (Don’t worry, students, that happens to me all the time, too.) The next brief, though – The Escape Committee – has them covered: 72 hours of tasks as a diversion tactic. Watch Thelma and Louise. Go North. Go South. Except some of the tasks have stipulations attached to them: try and sneak past someone without them knowing (don’t get arrested); climb over a wall (don’t get arrested); forge something (not money). I think it’s meant to be a joke. It’s hard to tell. The irony in telling students one week that they ought to be questioning social rules and then the next dictating which ones can and can’t be challenged isn’t acknowledged. I ask around later to find out whether this is, in fact, something you have to tell students, kind of like reminding people to think about Health and Safety so that the institution doesn’t get sued, but it’s not. Perhaps the type of revolt we’re after has just been worn away by our own unconscious conservatism.

Thursday afternoon

Cathy Gale, who teaches at Kingston, is joined by Laura Gordon (Kingston/RCA) to workshop some of the ideas from the Alternative Art School, as well as Laura’s research project, Elastic Octopus, on fear of failure in education. With them are four students – Ollie George, Joe Moreno, Emma Teasdale and Sheona Turnbull – who participated in the project at Kingston and are excellent throughout the workshop and the conference itself. We’re divided into groups and set a series of tasks, which include picturing what art schools might look like in different political scenarios: monarchy, utopia, republican… Only the ideology is set, the rest is left for us to imagine. The dictatorship art school is governed, it’s decided, by a mum. She’s harsh but fair, wants the best for her students so pushes them hard, and crits are done by pinning work to the fridge.

We’re told, by Cathy at the beginning of the session, to be as speculative or as pragmatic as we like during these exercises. Keep in mind, though, that what appears at first to be a binary is actually a sliding scale and at some point in the blurry middle-ground of what is and isn’t possible, those two things merge into one another. As long as you’re not carried away into pure fantasy, even the most speculative ideas can be dialled back and implemented somehow. Each part of the workshop is really clever and brilliantly designed, abstractly looking the holistic nature of the art school, how students perceive failure, the critiquing process… to try and find better alternatives.

If we really wanted change, would we be spending two days talking (or complaining), or would we be busy getting on and making it happen?

It’s a big group though, half of the attendees and chatting, off topic, is inevitable. Complaining comes next. People hate the NSS, marking, the grade system, dissertations, time poverty… “Oh yes, but in the good old days of art school –” These impotent conversations loop on repeat, for the two days, never getting any closer to resolve.

As we all know, the most productive conversations happen later, in the pub. A sentiment that came up in the workshop – less talking, more doing – reappears. It doesn’t have enough rage, yet; not enough fire to bring about action. If we really wanted change, would we be spending two days talking (or complaining), or would we be busy getting on and making it happen? Another: shouldn’t these conversations be more transparent, involve the students who have an equal stake in education, rather than mystifying the situation further?

Friday

It’s important to understand that everything is made with a certain view on the world.

The afternoon’s activities are run by the delegates themselves. It’s difficult to say too much other than there is a lot happening, and so I end up missing most of it. I’m disappointed not to catch more. There are discussions about how to engage students with difficult topics that they might have preconceived ideas about or be put off by, feminism being one, and how to make these subjects accessible. Importance is placed, in many talks, on critical thinking – arguably the catalyst for revolt. A number of briefs are shown, too, backed up by visuals of the work of students who excelled and, on more than one occasion, I find myself wondering if this is an accurate representation of the cohort or just posturing for other attendees’ sake.

It’s important to understand that everything is made with a certain view on the world.

As an overarching series of events, it equates to a very narrow perspective on what ‘revolt’ might look like, though. On the subject of representation, consider this: have you ever imagined a room full of 135 graphic design educators? It’s something you almost never get to see, for obvious reasons. Everyone is usually off teaching, scattered about the country. But it’s interesting to contemplate who exactly is responsible for the next generation of designers, no? The sample group at Ideas of Revolt, I think, is broadly reflective of the whole. And, either by design or by accident, it exposes an uncomfortable reality; we’re almost completely homogenous as a group of people – mainly white, mainly British, mainly middle-class.

This singular view is graphic design education’s ‘social norm’; would that be enough of a topic for an Anti-Social brief? I don’t know how many people notice. It’s difficult, then, not to find the level of focus that so many attendees place on the details of what ‘art school’ is now, looking at our practice through a rear-view mirror and fetishising over the bureaucracy, infuriating. I completely acknowledge that, as an associate lecturer, I don’t get to see how far it impacts working culture, but collectively we seem to be happily ignoring the structural discriminations and resulting effects that we, a discipline of almost exclusively white and privileged practitioners, prop up, benefit from and proliferate.

With that in mind – are we aware enough of the systems we operate within? Do we challenge and find ways to rebuild the social structures we inhabit? And if we don’t – can we, with integrity, expect our students to?

Rathna Ramanathan at Ideas of Revolt

Can we do more? The highlight of the conference is the day’s keynote from Rathna Ramanathan who raises these questions, as well as others, in much more detail, and is brilliantly lucid about the action educators might take after Ideas of Revolt. I suspect (and hope) that we will see her presentation, I am: Graphic Design (Education) in a Pluralistic World, published in another form somewhere soon; it feels deeply necessary as a critique of our practice, and I’d like to avoid covering too much of its ground. “The answer to the questions about encouraging revolt, proposing alternatives, and reframing design education all come to back to us setting an example for our students,” she says, “not just creating briefs of revolt, theorising revolt or projects which mimic revolutionary methods, but to consider and reframe our own selves as living acts of dissent.”

For radical change in education to really happen, we have to be prepared to make the same kind of sacrifices and take the same sorts of risks that we regularly demand from our students

It’s a sentiment that comes back to the image of Joseph Beuys, dismissed but leading the way for his students, that I still have in my mind. Beuys is the most extreme version, of course; there are levels of rebellion. But for radical change in education to really happen, we have to be prepared to make the same kind of sacrifices and take the same sorts of risks that we regularly demand from our students.

So I’m interested to see who takes the first step towards change, who rebels first as the example that shows the way for students to follow suit. And I’m interested to see, too, who will go away and congratulate themselves for having spent two days in Sheffield, playing at revolt.

Ideas of Revolt, the third annual Graphic Design Educators’ Network conference, ran from September 7-8. Hannah Ellis is a designer and lecturer. She tweets @hnnhlls

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