Sunday, 18 May 2014

RCA's Department of Environmental Media, 1974-1986

Patrick Keiller - Robinson in Space

Recently I stumbled across a book version of Patrick Keiller's Robinson in Space at the RCA Library, seemingly by coincidence, but later found out that it was probably at RCA Library because Keiller was previously a student at the Department of Environmental Media, which only existed from 1974-1986. From what little I can find out about it online, it was founded by Peter Kardia who seems to have been quite a visionary educator. Prior to setting up the Department of Environmental Media at RCA, he was known for his "locked room" experiments at Saint Martins College.

From Shadowboxing: "The Environmental Media department, which existed from 1971 to 1986, was set up for ‘students requiring extended or mixed media facilities and for those whose work includes proposals for redefinition of conventional fine art boundaries’ (Annual Prospectus 1976-77). An experiment in interdisciplinary practice, the course was not well aligned with other College departments, which were defined by more traditional subject areas, such as painting and sculpture. ‘[Environmental Media] students [were] expected to create for themselves the conditions, which [would] enable them to work self-sufficiently for limited periods, isolated from criticism’ (Annual Prospectus 1974-75). Students were able to work conceptually, and with emerging media such as video, as well as embracing the more conventional means of production, seemingly free to create their own terms."

It seemed interesting to find out the origin of the Department; and where better than to have traced it to a book with a section by Peter Kardia himself. In "From Floor to Sky: The Experience of the Art School Studio" (Hester Westley, Malcolm Le Grice), in a section "Art and Art Teaching" by Peter Kardia, he writes it began with the Stained Glass Department, which initially worked within the administrative framework of School of Interior Design, but it had begun to admit students with fine-art backgrounds, students who were interested with environment and the effects on an particular environment of illumination coming in from stained-glass windows, and different types of media and technology was also introduced. So "in 1970 a Department of Light Transmission and Projection was formed, including what had hitherto been the Stained Glass Department but also a new section named Environmental Media, for which elementary equipment that was listed as being obtained included tape recorder, video camera, stills camera, and sound synthesizer." The next year Stained Glass and Acrylics moved back to School of Ceramics, and Environmental Media moved to Sculpture.

Sadly I also read in this account that it was the appointment of a new rector Jocelyn Stevens. "It was not long after [Stevens'] appointment that he proposed the closure of the Department of Design Research and the Department of Environmental Media. When this became widely known, there were many objections and the matter was even raised by the MP Tam Dalyell in Parliament. The rector however, would not go back on his decision, and the Department was finally closed in 1986."

It is fascinating to consider that alterations to, and the closure of a university department should even warrant a discussion in Parliament; education after all should be a priority. Why did Stevens want to close Design Research and Environmental Media? Was it really just because they were too politicised? How, and why? And what was it allowed to happen, even without knowing the details I question why someone should reject a way of learning and teaching or close a new and possible mode of inquiry? I should like to research and understand why this was so.

In the context of the current situation at RCA, I think we should not be complacent to think that even our department is immune to change - and immune to suddenly not existing. Seeing the situation with the large increases in intakes for the other design programmes which have caused such pressures on space and facilities for students and staff, and the introduction of seemingly commercially oriented courses which seems to be pandering to commercial interests - I worry sometimes that the direction may have been lost - I'd assume that the goal of a school like Royal College of Art would be to produce leaders who will make challenging work or experimental work. And I had specifically decided to come to RCA to study at Design Interactions precisely because I didn't want to study in a place where ideas would be dictated by money and politics... (ie. I didn't want to study in Singapore...)

As Cheo Chai Hiang puts rather eloquently in a recent article:

"Having lived and worked overseas for more than 30 years, I take it almost as a given that an artist requires freedom in order to engage in radical research and experimentation, especially when finding new ways of challenging established modes of visual arts practice. Since returning to Singapore in 2003, I have seen the cultural, social and political pressures that are exerted by the government to ensure that individuals conform to conservative and safe norms. Hence the artist is required to exercise extreme caution, which eventually stifles the will to think critically and creatively (...) Perhaps, in addition to Dr. Ellis’s question “Will the gifted blossom?” we should also be asking two further questions: Are current educational approaches really designed to nurture those destined to be our future arts practitioners? If so, how can we encourage these individuals to blossom in Singapore rather than elsewhere?..."

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