Art, Arts Funding, Dean Hughes, E.C.A., Edinburgh, Edinburgh College of Art, Edinburgh University, Education, Euro Stem Cell, Humor, I'DGO, Landscape Architecture, Opinion, Politics, Professor Ian Howard, Research Assessment Exercise, Students, TOTem, Vision
If this country ever gets around to having an election and David Cameron is installed as our prime minister, then he has the unenviable task of financing the Labour Party’s final years in office (government debt now stands at about £30,000 per head). There are presently too many contraptions plugged into the nation’s overheating extension cord, and great decisions await over which plugs get yanked out.
The demand for public money is effectively written across every page of the Edinburgh College of Art’s brand new “research journal” Vision, or at least this remains the only explanation for how an institution which is ostensibly devoted to “art” could produce a glossy county-council style newssheet, packed with jargonistic “mission statements,” indigestible lumps of congealing clichés, and all the aesthetic force of a shampoo advert. If the Principal of the E.C.A., Professor Ian Howard, had painted “Give Us Yer Fucking Money” across the entrance of his building, it would have been a significant improvement upon this particular “vision.”
“Public engagement with academic research is becoming an ever more prevalent issue,” Howard admits in the journal’s introduction. He declares that “making academic knowledge accessible is key to both innovation and the success of our economy,” which is also, I think, a quote from Picasso. The “staff members” of E.C.A., it turns out, are all enthusiastic interdisciplinarians – keen to escape any suspicion of irrelevance by chaining their own specialism to something practical, with the desperation of kids at the end of a music festival trying to make friends with somebody who owns a car. And so one insists that “I’m fascinated by the relationship between art and medicine,” another will embark upon “cross-disciplinary research on young people and their public space” (accompanied, inevitably, by a photograph of a skateboarding teenager), whilst E.C.A. and “Euro Stem Cell” become locked in inelegant congress when collaborating on a propaganda film to make “stem cell knowledge” more publicly accessible.
In his introduction to Vision, Howard hopes that “future participation and collaboration in research practices can be expanded and realised through the book’s dissemination.” “Book” seems rather too strong a word for this publication, but perhaps the idea of a traditional book is itself too stuffy and elitist. With ivory towers tumbling all around, the “vision” has escaped and it is on the rampage:
It will be clear from these pages that we are not interested in vision alone but in vision in motion – a phrase that evokes the constant creative movement that brings together artefacts and insights into the world of today’s culture. Research must always aspire to deepen our understanding of the world we live in. The sense of motion we present here in the work of professional academics, far from existing in obscure circles, describes a forceful movement from the inside-out as our work circulates through museums, galleries, public buildings, websites, publications, the retail world and industries.
The phrase “vision in motion” makes me vaguely envisage the Mona Lisa running through the Louvre on robotic chicken legs. But as if these “professional academics” had not sufficiently humiliated themselves, Vision begins to cite their own results in the “Research Assessment Exercise,” and it henceforth attains a pitch of perfect Stalinism: “…the number of staff working to the desired levels of excellence had nearly doubled…” The point is thus hammered remorselessly home that E.C.A. is a very profitable investment gentlemen.
Unfortunately, Vision does not stop there. Many people give money to beggars on the understanding that they will spend it on something sensible like whisky. In addressing the sadly over-ambitious question “When does E.C.A. research make an impact in the real world?” the college reveals that it has wasted money on horrors which make the mythical “duck house” of the recent parliamentary expenses scandal look like a worthwhile public enterprise.
Something called I’DGO – which seems ten times more villainous than the Shakespearean anti-hero – received £678,760 worth of taxpayers’ money “to identify the most effective ways of ensuring that the outdoor environment is designed inclusively and with sensitivity to the needs of older people.” If one hopes that this had inspired monumental acts of stupidity and vandalism – such as affixing a stairlift to the side of Arthur’s Seat – it turns out that IAGO did not achieve anything quite so tangible. The nearest we get to a glimpse of IAGO in action is the line, “Sometimes the change in design involves planting more trees, or putting benches on the streets, as well as other ways of slowing cars down.” But with £678,760 you can plant an awful lot of trees.
One obviously does not wish to make light of the very serious challenges which confront elderly pedestrians – the “outside environment” is truly terrifying, the traffic goes far too quickly, and there are not enough trees to look at – but with their gigantic budget, IAGO could surely aspire to greater things for the decrepit, such as subsidised trips to Disneyland. Although it may remain unclear why an arts college is being paid for what used to be called “nursing,” IAGO identifies itself as a pioneer of “Landscape Architecture” – and a collector of important scientific data (“…where are people most of the time? Are they close to a bench or not? Are they where the trees are?”) – and it would be quite unfair to dismiss them as a pack of ambulance-chasing parasites.
It will transpire that IAGO is as much an enemy of the English Language as it is of inconsiderate “motor users.” IAGO establishes “shared spaces” and designates them “Home Zones,” which are neither home nor garden but a place somewhere out in the traffic where “non-motorised users” can apparently “increase outdoor social activities in the neighbourhood.” With such an idea on their hands, perhaps any further clarity is unwise.
Elsewhere, the “STONE” project has been awarded £365,765 to “look across cultures and their different types of relationships with stone.” Unfortunately none of those who possessed the “disappearing” traditional “craft skills of stone” had Skype, and so researchers Jake Harvey and Noe Mendelle were forced to travel “around the world” and interview them all personally. “Most people in most professions have got moans about their jobs but we haven’t found that anywhere at all with stone carving,” is one of their consequent insights. Meanwhile the “E.C.A. hosted project” TOTem received an eye-popping £1,211,886 to “explore the possibilities of taking ‘old objects’ and digitally embedding them with the same memories and meaning imbued through human use and consumption” – something which countless people manage to do daily all over the blogosphere for free.
Tychy would happily see the Home Office shut down for good, and all of its funding given over to the arts, but it is hard to make such arguments when a leading arts college seems no longer concerned with art itself, and instead produces “research” which is pointless, boring, and often flatly incomprehensible. Vision is lamentably bereft of beauty, emotion, humour, or anything which could genuinely inspire anybody (although Dean Hughes gets full marks for a rare spot of bravado: “My work is an argument against artistic invention… Between 1993 and 1996 I re-embroidered London bus seats with the thread of the same colour as the moquette pattern of the seat fabric.”) In half the pubs in this city, one is likely to meet an arts student with a head full of projects and an empty pocket, and perhaps Vision could have articulated the need for arts funding a little better if it had referenced some of these students’ “vision.” As it happens, the journal was put together by the marketing agency “H&A Motivation.”