Think of the final frantic few days before an art school degree show and you picture frenzied activity as pictures are framed, walls are whitewashed and final details are finessed. But for one of the Royal College of Art’s six schools, the preparations take on a very different form.
“The degree show is tricky for humanities as we don’t have work to exhibit in the traditional way,” admits Jose da Silva, who’s about to graduate from the Critical Writing course. “The majority of students are producing small publications of their dissertations. There is no point in us making it into an exhibition space and trying to compete for attention with Painting, Sculpture, etc.”
Caterina Tiezzi agrees. “The RCA Show presents its own challenges for History of Design students because unlike the majority of the other students at RCA, our work takes the form of a 25 to 30,000 word academic dissertation. The main challenge that my fellow course-mates and I face is how to present our research within the format of the degree show and compete for visitors’ attention.”
She goes on: “Added to this is the challenge to arrange a group show that is cohesive and exciting to the viewer, but that at the same time provides opportunities for our individual and very diverse projects to speak for themselves.”
Caterina and the rest of the show team thought long and hard about how best to display their work at a time when so many eyes will be on the college’s creative crop. “We proposed to meet the challenge by displaying objects that relate to our dissertations. We have decided to focus on object-sources, because their analysis is key to the discipline of History of Design, and we felt strongly about presenting this perhaps little-known aspect of our work to the public.”
So each student was asked to submit a single object that related to their dissertation (or to a particular part of it) and the resulting line-up of exhibits is predictably and excitingly varied, ranging from 19th Century textiles to a Meccano model of the Eiffel Tower. Prints and digital displays on iPads will contextualise the pieces and help visitors understand what they are looking at.
For Jose and his colleagues, the solution came through not trying to compete with the visually-rich courses, but to offer an alternative. “We want people to read our work – that’s why we write – so we will be creating a space that encourages people to stop. Degree shows are tiring; there’s a lot to see (this year more so that ever) and our space will hopefully capitalise on that and offer visitors a place to sit, to rest and to remove themselves momentarily from the show. And hopefully they will immerse themselves in some of our writing.”
The critical writing students are also presenting three collaborative publications – As is the Sea, Ends Meet: Essays on Exchange and ARK: Words and Images from the Royal College of Art Magazine 1950-1978 – at a special party on 18 June, a dedicated day to celebrate this nuanced course in more of its complexity. Similarly the History of Design students are holding a symposium on 25 June where they too will present their internal publication. Clearly both courses have to think how they can best present their efforts away from the familiar format of the degree show, which may not quite do them and their efforts justice.
But it seems as though the humanities students put slightly less store on the final show as a career catalyst in the same way some of their colleagues do. For Jose, it’s about the rounded experience of being at the RCA, those things that first attracted him to both the course and the institution. “There was a sense of something exciting, of real ambition for the writing that we would produce, and the encouragement to make work that should exist in the ‘real world’ and not be inward facing. It’s a small course and relatively new (we are the third intake) so there was also a sense that this was the beginning of something important.”
Caterina too, who left Italy to do her BA in Visual Studies in California before coming to London, talks of it as her “adventure.” The History of Design course is run in conjunction with the V&A and combined the best of both worlds. “The course offered the possibility of being engaged within two leading art and design institutions,” she says. “The RCA offered contact with students and professors passionate about their subject of study, while the V&A offered the possibility of being immersed within a leading art and design museum. It was captivating because of its mission and ability to nurture future researchers and thinkers in a wide range of subjects and specialisms encompassed under the term ‘design’.”
But while some things are very different in the humanities school, there is a familiar sense of urgency as the days tick away. For Caterina her main focus is “ironing out the logistics.” And for Jose? “To make the plans above come to fruition. And to wallpaper walls in our awkward show space…”