Has Technical Become a Dirty Word: Part Three - The Rise of the Tweed Jacket

Edge of Valley, Ben Dolman 2013

It has been thirteen years since the turn of the century and the beginning of the twenty-first century will be remembered by an incident that happened on a clear blue autumn sky. On that day the 11th of September four passenger planes were hijacked, two planes were flown into twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York and the other two planes crashed into the Pentagon and a field, the day was to become known as 9/11, the world changed on that morning in 2001, a world that since has become more polarised and fearful. It was a day that the declining west sought and found a new enemy, terrorism and it was the start of a new holy war that replaced the old cold war. A war that had the overtones of the Crusades, the Christian world seeking revenge on the Islamic world, these new crusades first took place in Afghanistan and then after the taste of first blood casted a lustful and suspicious eye over other Islamic oil rich states who challenged the its righteousness and world view, Iraq was later added to the list. The new crusades were led by the USA and were blindly supported by the UK that was formed by an ideological union between George Bush and Tony Blair. It was a war that kept the military industrial complex ticking over with money borrowed from China, it was a war that sought natural resources, it was a war that wanted revenged on an unseen enemy. Since that day in New York certain western governments with their hawks hidden in the shadows have lied to us about WMD [weapons of mass destruction] and reason for going to war, these hawks sought regime change and intervention of sovereign states, there was a relish for crusade, to dictate and rule under the guise of spreading western democracy to the ‘oppressed’. This led to a new kind of end-less war that seemed to have no mandate and saw the use of torture as acceptable just like the Inquisition back in the middle ages where the persecution was not only of Protestants but also Jews and Muslims. We have seen the emergence of strange reasoning in these times, the idea that to have peace and security at home we must bomb the shit out of another country and kill its people, others must suffer for our way of life. The terms national and homeland security were coined by our politicians to  take the opportunity to spy on their own people, to inspire free in their own citizens and to restrict freedom and liberty, ask any photographer or peaceful protester what this new world order feels like, look up and you will see CCTV cameras spy down across our towns and cities, George Orwell’s ‘1994’ made real, Big Brother is here.

The last decade witness the collapse of the financial sector in 2008, the root of this financial meltdown was the deregulation of the banking industry in the 1980s that was instigated by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. 30 years later we can see what deregulation of the banking sector truly was, a pyramid scheme, wealth built on speculation, cheap credit and fiction, the fiction of creating wealth without making anything thing. The financial collapse started in America with the sub prime mortgage industry and the credit boom, the lending of money to people who could not afford to pay it on the back and who brought property for more than it was worth. Over the past three years the world was plunge into recession, people lost their jobs, factories closed, in Europe some countries now totter on the edge of the cliff, their people in despair, the young and old baring the brunt of  the austerity created by the greed of bankers and speculators who carried on as before, bailed out by governments with taxpayers money. The poor were hidden and unnoticed during the ‘boom’ years, the state  kept them on benefits as there was no jobs for them since the collapse of the manufacturing base but now the state has decided to make the poor the scape goats and blame them for societies ills and woes to divert attention away from the real problems and villains. The countries coffers are now emptied from the bale out of the banks, the very same banks who actually created the crisis with our politicians and now our politicians seek to terrorise the most vulnerable in society. New investment has become scarce for infrastructure, education, health, industry and research, it was always low but now it has become almost invisible but their still seems to be money for bankers bonuses, sports and foreign wars, strange times we live in. In these austere times money for teaching in English universities has been removed and the onus for funding has now been placed directly on students, the country no-longer invests in our next generation, our future, instead we have indebted and shackled the next generation before they can even contribute and amend for our mistakes.

Heavy stuff I know but as noted in the past two parts of this post we need context and subject before we look at specifics. We now come to the final part of the post ‘Has Technical Become a Dirty Word’, lets kick off with a couple of thoughts, thoughts on the re-gentrification of the arts and design, overt aesthetic gratification and self referential practice over visual intelligence and quality [did I type in the word quality, how reactionary of me]. Lets start by looking at past art and design education and contrast it to what is be provided in today’s English universities and the legacy of incorporating the once independent art schools and polytechnic art departments into old and new universities. It will be also interesting to look at the future of higher education in England and see how it benefits or excludes society, creates new and/or reaffirms a subdivision of labour, do we invest in merit or heredity, what are the impacts of increased tuition fees on class and gender mobility for our next generation, what is the future of our creative, cultural and intellectual community, manufacturing industry, scientific innovation, technical and engineering pre-eminence?

The future of the country is tried for better or worse to that of our higher education, from our universities and colleges come the next generation of artists, designers, scientists, engineers, they are thinkers and makers that will shape and define our future. This future is an uncertain one though, it may be bleak due lack of investment in the next generation as we repeat past mistakes or the future may offer new choices and opportunities for children and our environment. If we invest, what do we invest in, the ‘hard’ skills be they technical or empirical knowledge and enlightened thinking that could renovate our shrinking manufacturing base, a base that employs across the stratum of society, creates ‘real’ wealth and jobs or do we just go for the ‘cheap’ and easy ‘soft’ skills that can only be useful at the behest of service industries that seems after the past thirty years to lack any real substance and long term sustainability.

In this essay I will look in depth at art and design education and the markets it’s students go onto to be employed in but just before that lets ponder what a university should be in an ideal world. I can think of four corner stones that seem to sum what a university should aspire to, others may add to or dismiss what I propose but it is a start.

1. The pursuit of pure and applied knowledge, the questioning of knowns and the distribution of knowledge. 

2. To offer social mobility, giving everyone the opportunity based on merit regardless of their class, privilege or wealth the chance to study and then shape the future of the world we live in.

3. Universities have a social responsibility to society and visa versa, universities are custodians of the world’s knowledge and history, they question convention, offer new insights and sometimes to offer solutions for humanity and the world we live in. 

4. To offer sanctuary, once the preserve of the church, to be a ‘Noah’s’ ark for civilisation, academic freedom and the freedom of speech. We live in troubled and increasingly intolerant times, we need to have a place where failure and risk is not seen as negatives but instead seen as offering new possibilities, a place where we can be honest and truthful in our discord, a place where the current orthodoxies of the day can be challenged and developed upon and provide a humanist laboratory.

These four cornerstones may seem wishful thinking in todays England where university fees have sky rocketed alongside living and accommodation costs for students, simplistic league tables cast a heavy shadow over academia bringing to bare a risk averse culture in teaching and learning, research is being defined within a short term timescales and shaped by political whims. Even taking into account the external pressures put upon higher education it’s genius is still alive in the staff and students who still see the freedom to learn and question, to form new ideas and inventions, we just have to be watchful and mindful how precious higher education is and not treat it as nothing more than another sector of the service industry at the behest of a wanton and shallow consumer culture.

The first thing that worries me most in England’s current art and design education provision has been the re-emergence of class, a class of masters and servants, this might only be a reflection of what has been happening in our wider society since Thatcherism. Before the introduction of fees in higher education tuition it was free and entry to universities and polytechnics was based on merit. Margaret Thatcher cared little for local government and democracy, in 1989 she gave polytechnics independence from local authority control, this then lead to polytechnics being converted into Universities in 1992, it was done in the spirit of privatisation of the decade before. Polytechnics had originally been developed to support local industry and teach highly specialist skills to students in vocational degrees with an emphasis on practical and technical know how. Within three years of independence from local government polytechnics jumped at the chance of a perceived prestige of becoming a university and the access to additional funding, a hundred years of working with local communities and industry went up in a puff of white smoke all for the sake of hoping to dine at the same table of the ‘old’ universities. They were not accepted as equals by the established universities, old English snobbery and social class systems would not allow for that especially now they shared the same pasture and funding. The newly converted universities were the ones that open the doors to mass higher education for all in society, they were to become the most egalitarian of the higher education sector, the older red brick universities still remain a bastion for the privilege public school leavers.

The numbers attending higher education in the post war years up until the late 1980s were modest but a new labour government decided to increase the numbers attending higher education, the goal being 50%. The then government felt the need to increase the number of students enrolled into higher education in order to respond to a changing world, to develop a knowledge based economy to replace the loss of the industrial and manufacturing economy that lay in tatters after years of slow decline as production moved to cheaper labour markets and through the lack of investment in R&D, innovation and plant. With the decline of the manufacturing base there was also a decline in traditional apprenticeship schemes, universities were used to soak up displaced young people regardless that higher education might not offer the best skills and training for them. There was an aspiration of social mobility ‘we are all middle class now’ through education that led to an expansion in university student numbers but there was a problem in this seemly benevolent act, the expansion in student numbers in the long term actually undermined the good intentions to equate young people with degrees rather than apprenticeships. As student numbers increase so did the cost to educate them and the higher education institutions became stressed by the additional demands placed on them. To inject new money into the system students were charge fees, initially small but quickly the fees increased so that today England is one of the most expensive places in the world to study. By thinking that the traditional university model was the best method to offer the type education and the kind of social mobility that society needed it actually narrowed the opportunities for young people. Perhaps there should have been technical universities/colleges looking at the successful higher education model in Germany where their technical institutions are treated as equal to and funded as well as their traditional universities. For a more sustainable and cohesive future perhaps we should give little credence to the outdated snobbery and hierarchical systems from our countries arcane past as they can undermine our education and by extension our society.

With the introduction of fees students changed, they starting becoming customers and consumers. Burden with massive debts students naturally choose subjects they felt they could pass with a decent grade and would offer them decent employment so they could pay off their loans. But with so many students opting for certain popular vocational subjects it created a paradoxical situation, with the increased of graduate numbers in the market place it has actually lowered wages due to the oversupplied of graduates and undermined any notion that the financial sacrificed of studying at universities were worth it in the hope for better future prospects, the rejects are now left with nothing but life of debt and regret. By creating a student led market economy in the higher education sector it has created imbalances in the labour market that have had a knock on effect on the requirements for a successful economy and warped academia in the process. Harder and more demanding STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] subjects that are essential for a knowledge and/or manufacturing economy to thrive struggle to recruit home students and now we have to look aboard for talent. An over supply of students studying ‘soft’ vocational subjects actually condemns them to a social immobility, the skill set they learnt are university is not specialist enough and its market is over-saturated. In the past when higher education was free and paid for society we could expect some kind of social responsibility from students and throughout their lives as they contributed to society. Now we saddle young people with a questionable debt from an early age they naturally just think of themselves, how to survive and work out the best way to get out debt so they can then make a start in the world, any contribution back to society is delayed and sometimes indefinitely postponed.

Reflecting on the state of art and design in higher education since the implementation of high tuition fees, the conversion of polytechnics and assimilation of independent art and design schools into universities it has had a massive impact on the creative sector. In the arts there is not a defined career path, there is not a factory down the road making paintings for example. In the past if you came from a poor background it did not really matter that there was not a defined job at the end of your degree, the study was free and when you finished the course of study you may have been left unsure of the future but you were unburden by debt, you were free and within time you could find your feet and start contributing to society. Before fees there was a good social and gender mix in art and design schools, social mobility was prevalent and you got a place to study based on merit, competition for places was fierce and even when you managed to get a place you had to work hard to keep it. Now with up to £9000 a year charge for fees there is a subtle but profound change in the social and gender mix in art and design schools.

I was the first in my family to study at higher education, I came from a state school, my family at the time were poor as my father cared for my mother but I thought nothing of trying my hand at fine art. Before the second world war fine art was the preserve of the middle and upper classes, by the 1960s it was for everyone and those students went onto create what is termed the creative industries, recognised throughout the world as cutting edge, inventive and making large contributions to society through its vibrancy, energy and job creation. I went to a Polytechnic 28 years ago, my education was free and they even gave me full grant, art materials, supplemented my rent and gave a travel allowance to go to exhibitions. After graduating in Fine Art it took me some time to find my way but the experience had given me skills to adapt and cope with the many different jobs I undertook from a prototype technician, a theatre scenic artist to my current job a technical tutor in creative digital arts and photography. My approach to making as noted earlier in the essay is what some may term blue collar, something that has an element of graft, of labour and hard work, a hands on physical process of making, I would make a useless art director. The toll of making is central for me, the hard won image, mind and body working in unison. Before art and design schools were consumed into universities they offered an artisan mode of working which still exists but is being squeezed due to it’s costs, the artisan space for me is defined by studio and workshop. The lecture theatre mode of delivery used today in universities was rarely used when I studied for my degree in fine art, perhaps once and again by cultural studies or a guest speaker, the module did not exist and you were taught by art practitioners and technical staff in the studio and the workshop. The question I ask myself today if I was 19 years old again after my foundation course would I apply for a fine art course, the answer would be a sorrowful no. I was brought up that debt was not a good thing which to this day I still hold  this tenant to be true as debt holds you back and denies you freedom. At the start of your adult life it seems madness to me to be burdened in such a way, later in life you may take on a mortgage for a house but not on your life, the house can be sold off and you can move on. When I finished my degree I had a £500 overdraft which I thought at the time as massive and made me worry, I quickly cleared it by doing painting and decorating work, today’s finalists debt would be more than my mortgage. 19 years old again I would have either tried to get an apprenticeship or if there was no choice but university for me to move forward in life I would looked at studying one of the STEM subjects or industrial design but not the arts, that would be in my mind only for the well off or the dreamers.

Over the past 30 years teaching and research in the arts and design has changed, now it operates within a university governance and it’s new funding mechanisms. Some of these changes have been good, some not so. Lets deal with the good changes first, it always nice to look at the positive first. Universities over a certain size have a wide range of different subjects and exposure to all these varying disciplines and their learned staff is intoxicating and invigorating, for the curious mind to be shown all possibilities and knowledge from the humanities to the sciences, from engineering to maths, geography to history to name but a few will find endless delight. There is the well stocked library and wealth of other resources from workshops and labs, open lecture presentations and social activities, universities if you manage to study and work at them can be a privilege and a life changing experience.

Now lets look at changes that might have not advantageous for art and design practice when taken into a university teaching and research framework. The first is contentious and is variable depending on the university, department, subject or individual. I call it the ‘rise of the tweed jacket’ this refers to the professionalisation and gentrification of academia in art and design practice and study. In the past a large section of teaching staff in art and design were employed part time as they also pursued their own personal practice and career outside of academia, usually they would only come in during term time to teach, most full time academic staff were management, subject area co-ordinators and lecturers in cultural studies. Over the past twelve years there has been a sea change, this change has come about from the assessment of academic staff research outputs, if they were good an institution was awarded additional funding, if there were no outputs at a given grading no additional funding is given. With more and more universities chasing the same pot of money competition is fierce. For an academic to properly deliver their teaching workload and create international class research outputs requires time. Over the past 12 years the appointment of academic staff has veered to that of full time contracts and qualifications of the appointees move from that of practitioner with perhaps a MA to researcher with PhD, this has had a positive impact on research but teaching I am not to sure about, the jury is still out.

The distinction between a lecturer and technical staff in the past was blurred for they shared the same space and purpose, they worked as team often working together offering slightly different insights and ways of doing things. There was a mutual respect and understanding of each others knowledge and skills. Now there is an increasing separation between what is academic and technical. This separation has come about from the new research remit of an academic and the professionalisation of the job role and new teaching methods. Practice in art and design can be submitted as research but it is not straight forward, a simpler route is publishing but this tends to move the academic away from the studio and the workshop, away from making and the technical aspect of a discipline. The professionalism of academia tends to favour the employment of those from academia with a PhD rather than those from industry or the studio, in each new cycle of staffing the academic as practitioner is slowly being replaced by the academic as researcher and in doing so in the future fewer practitioners will be working in the art and design at university level. New teaching methods developed to cope with the increase of students have moved teaching from the studio to that of a lecture hall and the seminar, it has become less personal, direct and hands on. As academics move away from the studio and the workshop the bond between academic and technical staff becomes stretched and sometimes broken, the language and knowledge distant to one other.

In the future we could find ourselves having technical staff on one side of the fence and on the other side academic staff working independently from one another. At this point one may say fine, things change but we can work with this as long as the students get the right tuition which is now residing in two distinct areas and hopefully they have the ability to put it together and make sense of it in their work and practice. The problem  that occurs in my mind is now that academia is slowly moving away from the workshop and the studio through no fault of their own but due to the new demands of the job it can lead to a gentrification of academia and fetishisation of technology in art and design, each party or area of activity can become more extreme in their vocation. If the technical is no-longer fully engaged with a programme of study but seen as only supporting from a distance it can begin to look inwards upon itself as it is no-longer informed by subject or context, it can become feral. This can lead to the development of processes and skills that are alien to academic staff and sometimes beyond the ability of the students to learn within the tight module time slots. The same can be said of academia, if student course delivery is research led this can be problematical as research by it’s very nature is narrow in scope, it is of the individual academic, it can lack breath and depth and dismiss the true range of possibilities a discipline, other academic subjects and that of industry and the world beyond university. Developing an art and design course content from a research perspective can led to the self referential, the introspective, the obscure, isolationism and elitism, the cerebral replacing the act of making. We need to make sure that both the intellectual and technical/making modes of learning and understanding are engaged with one another or otherwise this being England the once buried, outdated and reactionary class subdivisions of the hierarchical social systems from the post war years may rear their ugly heads. I ask myself in an age that is now being shaped by digital ‘technologies’ do we want the technical to be seen as taking on a supporting role to that of the academic, a servant to it’s betters, a blue collar activity whilst the academic irons it’s white collar. Academic staff who once got their hands dirty now pull on a tweed jacket, the technical processes of making deemed now beneath them as they become the ‘new’ country gentry of the past who watched from a distance the workers in the coal mines beneath their lands. Class war and envy is counter productive, the lowering or rising of esteem of an activity over one another on an assumed pretence of worth and arcane snobbery is wasteful and illogical and should have no place in higher education and in our wider society, everything should be taken on merit. England was one of the first countries to experience the industrial revolution, the white heat of technology but there has always been a section in society that resented this transformation of the country. They want an England that was never was, the ‘mid-shires’, an arcadian land of gentle rolling green hills with secluded Georgian follies, a romantic idyll, an intellectual detachment from the world of toll and reason.

You may be thinking that the gentrification and lack of social mobility of the arts and design in higher education maybe of little concern to those out in the ‘real’ world. The problem is that universities provide the country with the next generation of artists and designers just like they provide the next generation of scientists and engineers from STEM subjects. If the students are separated from the technical because of a more conceptual and research led teaching delivery and removed from the workshop then the ability to make and invent actual and useful things declines. As the academic delivery becomes even more remote and elitist, and the research in art and design veers from the technical and workshop/studio based activities questions start to rise, why do we need these expensive workshops staff by technical staff. The workshops are not dissimilar to that of STEM subject labs, they are expensive to run and in these time of cost sensitive management they are at risk. In STEM subjects there is lack of student choosing hard subjects that may put it’s resources at risk, in the arts there is a lack of applied research and a rise in conceptual teaching delivery that puts making and it’s resources at risk.

At the beginning this essay I spoke of the balance between the technical, the subject and the concept and how different elements can be united using a given context as a glue, a context that is open minded and curious. When balance these different elements when treated as equal in the act of making and of creating an image or object in the arts for example the discipline can gain greater depth. Removing or treating one element less equal though intellectual snobbery or neglect narrows what is possible. If the technical element continues to be seen as something lower, second rate we will mirror what has happened in England over the past 30 years, the decline of our manufacturing and industrial base and its replacement with a service industry that does not actually provide any real new wealth for the country and instead only besets society with debt and an unsustainable economic model as we buy things we cannot afford and no longer make ourselves.

There are other paths that we could follow in art and design education, and in the last paragraph I wish to note the latest work of John Maeda’s STEM to STEAM. John Maeda is currently the President of RISD [Rhode Island School of Design] and has a long history of working in art, design and technology that can be seen in MIT’s media labs he established. STEM to STEAM is an initiative that John Maeda and others have setup to bring art and design into the same national agenda of other STEM subjects in the USA. STEAM adds A [arts and design] to STEM and the hope is to create a new forum for artists, scientists, and technologists to work together and access the same national research funding. By bringing the arts into the same national agenda as other STEM subjects it gives art and design a new relevance and role within society, the arts will always have its dreamers and romantics which is fine but it also needs it’s makers and rationalists with a shared passion for creativity with others outside its narrow subject field. A current project I am working on with colleagues across Loughborough university is called ‘bridging the gaps’, a scheme that allows different departments and disciplines in a university to work together. The project is looking at the sustainable uses of noble metals in photographic processes, it is an applied research project that brings together technologists, chemists, photographers and artists. Bridging the Gaps is a progressive and enlightened initiative and I see this as one future path for art and design education. For students of art and design it would also be good for them to experience other disciplines, to do a minor subject in chemistry or geography, to put their work into a wider context and test themselves in the unfamiliar. Students should be able meet people who work in industry or run their own practice, the future is not just about thinking and using it is also about making, it is time to get our hands dirty again.