Today in London’s art history: Camberwell Art College occupied by students, 2010.

During the wave of occupations of universities and colleges over the winter of 2010, part of a wider movement against increased student fees and cuts generally, students took the upper main room at Camberwell Art College’s Wilson Street building, staying throughout the Christmas holidays.

“University of the Arts London, Camberwell College of Art is now OCCUPIED! We now have an Amazing space at Wilson Road (SE5 8LU) which is occupied…!! The Lecture Theatre will become a space for students to plan action, make, work and perform. It will act as a student union and catalyst to create ideas for action and organisation. We call for more support and involvement! The space is open and everyone is invited to be involved in discussion making and workshop building. Open meeting today: 6.12.10 at 3.30pm”

Arts groups such as London’s Radical Education Forum and Ultra-red presented workshops at Camberwell as part of an open program. Food and support were brought by local groups in solidarity.

A Statement from the Occupiers:

“We, the students of Camberwell College of Arts, believe that if the massive cuts proposed for education happen, it is unlikely that academies such as ours will continue to exist. Arts and humanities courses are being targeted with the largest cuts, while still requiring a great deal of funding, which even a rise in fees will not cover. In response, we have decided to occupy the Wilson’s Road building at our college.
We see the arts as occupying a vital place within society, one which benefits us all, both culturally and economically. If arts education ceases to be a viable route for students, that benefit will be lost.

An artless society is a heartless society!

We oppose the transformation of education into a market. Education should be a forum for all publics, not just those who can afford, to learn, experiment and debate.

Therefore, we call for all arts students, especially those from UAL to join this occupation, and call for more arts-led occupation and actions. We propose to use our space for a practice led resistance.  We will run workshops, performances, debates and experiments, creating a collective space of generative discourse. At no point will we disrupt any fellow student’s education, allowing all scheduled lectures to continue. We wish to propose, rather than simply oppose!

We demand that UAL:

  • Issue a statement condemning all cuts to Arts education, and the rise in tuition fees and defending the value (economically and culturally) of Arts education for society, and its place within government funded education.
  • Put pressure on the MP of every borough that UAL has a college in to vote against the educational reforms.
  • Guarantee that there be no more course closures, or course amalgamations. This includes, if possible, the re-instatement of the Ceramics course at Camberwell.
  • Safeguard all jobs for our teaching, research and support staff.
  • Issue a statement guaranteeing no further cuts in access time to workshops and facilities. This means no losses of current facilities, studio space or access time to workshops.
  • Provide full details of the existing budgets, and any projections of how the budget is likely to be spent if cuts and fee reforms do happen.
  • Provide all cleaning, catering and security staff with a full living wage package, again with no loss of jobs or hours, and that all outsourced staff and services are brought back in-house.
  • Provide a more effective, regular structure for student feedback which effects positive change, in the normal running of the University.
  • Do not victimize anyone taking part in this occupation.
  • Allow free access in and out of the occupation for all students, staff, speakers and other visitors.

The Occupiers, Camberwell College of Arts.”

Over two-hundred students and lecturers from Goldsmiths, the Slade, St Martin’s, Camberwell, and other art and fashion colleges also occupied Tate Britain during the live, televised presentations of the Turner Prize.

Some more info related to the Camberwell occupation here

Here, a lecturer discusses the movement against cuts in arts education, in its wider context:

“The college occupations were not something that occurred while lessons ceased, but were themselves a reimagined artistic and educational alternative in action. In one go, boundaries were dissolved – the borders separating one discipline, subject area or medium from another, one year from another, even one college from another, as well as the divisions between so-called theory and practice, and between students and teachers. Education became a critical problem-posing process necessary for the immediate task in hand, and one which therefore opened up naturally to a much wider curriculum. Something emphasised on the Slade Occupation blog is how valuable the physical space offered at art college is in educational terms – studio space being precisely something which from a marketing outlook becomes a quantifiable commodity, and therefore under threat from more ‘resource-efficient’ courses. So a declaration of what is precious becomes simultaneously a new use of space as a communal forum rather than something to be individually allotted, or fought over (one thinks of the annual scramble for degree show space). In Deleuzian terms it was a question of nomadic distribution rather than monadic division. The profound change that occurred, mirroring the more general mood of the historic moment, was the shift from the individual to the collective, signalled by the proliferating use of the word ‘we’ – an inspiring transformation in an environment that prizes individualised development and the authorship of isolated works. One RCA student spoke of ‘an enormous sense of togetherness and empowerment’. Occupying BA students at the Slade honed particular skills towards the collective good, with mini-groups working on banners, on ‘outreach’ (making contact with other organisations), on Twitter, on video production etc.

It may in fact have been the culture of openness at these relatively more ‘privileged’ art schools – with regular group seminars and less emphasis on processing students through units and modules – which facilitated the move to occupy and the sense of shared ownership which came through that. Also, while the Slade occupation was not ‘militant’ – it was described to me as more like an extended sleepover; no regular activity was disrupted and it ended when a court order was issued – students did become politicised precisely through their communal experience, issuing declarations of solidarity with public sector workers and demanding a London living wage for UCL service staff, who might otherwise have remained a fairly invisible entity. It was, as one Slade student put it, an ‘awakening from apathy’.

Like all substantial communities, the college occupations, teach-ins and other events were formed in clear and meaningful opposition to something – in this case the education cuts and the coalition government. One can imagine a privately run experimental art school operating loosely along the lines of collective production and debate, free of grinding state-imposed assessments, with porous borders between departments, year groups etc. And yet without the political dimension of opposition and resistance, which seeks in the singular instance a universal application (such as the welfare state allows), would not such a school be a parody of the radical and experimental, and, in all likelihood, boil down to a Summerhill-style bastion of eccentric privilege, or else a bargain basement ‘alternative’ attempting to out-price competitors in the new education market (lack of resources masquerading as a radical new DIY programme)? Those like Mike Watson (Polemic AM342), who see the education and arts cuts as an opportunity for both art colleges and artists to escape the bureaucratic marketisation of art in the form of funding and accreditation criteria, are simply playing to the government’s ‘big society’ agenda, turning New Labour tragedy – the artificial marketisation of education through the state (auditing, monitoring, personal development plans, satisfaction league tables etc) – into Tory catastrophe: the total privatisation of education through the withdrawal of the state.

The truth is that for all the moaning about business-model bureaucracies on art courses, the ‘professional development’ skills of personal branding and self-promotion fit extremely well with an ultra-competitive art world beholden to the market. What, I wonder, would independent art colleges alter in this respect except perhaps to eliminate clunky assessment criteria from personal career plans, the better to make a fine art out of the informal commodification of personal relations that comes with the prestige, value-by-association economy that operates in the art world, while exacerbating the entitlement to success of those who already possess money and connections? An effective change in art education requires not just the removal of the business-model assessment culture, but a change in the culture of art. Take the recent Save the Arts campaign. Compared with the grass roots, radical approach of the education protests, the campaign against cuts to arts funding was not only limp (‘cut us don’t kill us’) but distinctly top down and conservative, adopting a two-pronged strategy of art star endorsement and claims for the economic benefit to the nation; in other words, a strategy which, despite its promotion of ‘art for everyone’, fits smoothly with the neo-liberal agenda of status-driven individualism and economic profit as the measure of value.

The historical moment of the student protests of winter 2010 is bookended in the public imagination by the breakaway storming of Millbank Tower and the ‘prodding’ of the Duchess of Cornwall – both in their own ways an irruption of the real into a media-generated spectacle of normality at a time of the most brutal, ideologically driven attack on the population. The stakes could not be higher. What John Beagles has called the ‘incomprehensiveness of art education’, that is the increasingly homogeneous social class make-up of fine art students, will almost certainly be exacerbated under a system where fees are justified according to the market rationale of returns on your investment, ie a higher earning capacity. Will a fine art education become a luxury only the rich can afford? And isn’t the spirit of art education already poisoned when the college is essentially a business, with customers (students) being administered to by service-providers (lecturers)? The substantial challenge the anti-fees movement represents is not simply to education cuts but to a whole neo-liberal agenda whose rot set in a long time ago.

In terms of art the task should not be to defend what already exists – a socially divided, economically driven and hierarchical art system – but to affirm what art might be, a universal, potent and seductive alternative to the status quo. The social case for art and its public funding should be far more bold and challenging. For example, its democratic function in contributing towards a public sphere, drawing on a provocative, critical and imaginative avant-garde lineage to fight the crushing corporate agenda of self-interest propagated by the media. Great art finds common value with collective action in its ability to take us beyond ourselves. Rather than sitting on the periphery figuring out ways to survive, art should be at the heart of the fightback against the total privatisation of existence. This is not a time for ‘opting out’, but for collectively reclaiming what is ours, and for making everything new.

Dean Kenning is an artist and visiting lecturer at Central St Martins.

First published in Art Monthly 343: February 2011.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

 

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