In December 2010 the graduating students of the MA Curating Contemporary Art at the Royal College of Art invited me to contribute to their final project Shadowboxing, by responding to Giorgio Agamben’s essay ‘What is an Apparatus?’ (2006). As the invitation came at a time when students across the UK were protesting against the passing of laws enabling the further privatisation of education, I took this as an opportunity to investigate institutional hierarchies and the history of student protests at the RCA. Early on I begun by looking at an archive of all student-generated publications and from there begun my enquiry. All the subsequent decisions about the different parts in the project were closely related to the ideas articulated through publishing.

My project Subject to Change (2011) was developed through a close collaboration with CCA students Antonia Blocker, Robert Leckie and Helena Vilalta. Several months research into the college archive and art collection prompted questions around how knowledge is produced and made accessible, or ‘common’, to a public. By bringing attention to the politics of the educational institution, Subject to Change exposes the tension between threats of enclosure and gestures of openness in the production and dissemination of culture.

The Senior Common Room is a members-only space in the RCA, not accessible to students and non-academic staff and where all members pay an annual fee. For the duration of the exhibition, we relocated the Senior Common Room lounge to the public space of the gallery, temporarily inviting all to use it. We also enlisted all RCA employees to choose a work from the college’s art collection, to be presented in this new context. By usurping the Senior Common Room and by giving all staff a say in the choice of artworks exhibited, our gesture brings attention to the hierarchies of the institution, often embedded in out-dated rituals hidden from public view. The ‘Charter Day’ ceremony, which took place in 1967, celebrated the granting of a Royal Charter to the RCA, endowing it with university status and the power to grant its own degrees. That part of the intervention evoked a shadow of the event by projecting a series of archival images (originally colour slides) taken by an unidentified photographer.

Largely omitted from official accounts are moments when students have challenged the institution that both supported and controlled them. In stark contrast to the prevalence of painting and sculpture in the RCA art collection, a ‘memory room’ created as part of the project, acknowledged the legacy of the experimental work produced in the Environmental Media Department, which existed between 1971 and 1986. Supporting critical and politically motivated practice, the course and its faculty, among them artist Stuart Marshall, encouraged students to work with emerging mediums, such as video, and embrace immaterial and often ephemeral event-based outcomes. After much controversy, its closure in 1986 put an end to more radical approaches in the formulation and dissemination of ideas.

The political and educational context that surrounded the rise and fall of the Environmental Media Department in a sense anticipates the contemporary student unrest. Located in the very space occupied by students in December 2010, a lineage of protests at the RCA inscribed the current upheaval within a historical trajectory. An extensive collection of archival materials presented that trajectory by focusing on the students’ publications, emphasising the connection between publishing, publicity and the public realm. Although the RCA is not notorious for an activist history, what emerged are moments when students have struggled for greater participation in the governance of the school, transparency in decision-making processes, as well as greater freedom in accounting for socially aware art practice away from object or manufacturing based production.

A set of 4 publications beautifully designed by James Langdon order here

As part of the seminar The Art of Not Being Governed Quite So Much, we screened The Hornsey Film (dir. Patricia Holland, 1970, 63 min.)

Review by Emma Cummins