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Together Across Slippery Surfaces

Some works exist so purely as objects that words fail completely in describing them: Benjamin Gerdes, Senior Lecturer at the Royal Institute of Art, shares his thoughts on working with the graduation show of the Royal Institute of Art’s Bachelor and Master students, which was on display from 29 August till 27 September 2020. 

As one of two faculty curators for this BFA exhibition, I aspired to engage assumptions around degree exhibitions within our process. Circumstances proved more forceful than our pedagogy. March and after entailed transforming into flattened and folded bodies, many whole working days of moving between video meetings while sitting so still my legs often fell asleep. I have met these students from the foot of my bed, laptop on a stack of dictionaries, greeting their trans- missions from living rooms, forests, beds, break rooms, and kitchen tables. Stuttering connections come, go, freeze, return. It’s the most fragmented and simultaneously intimate form of teaching I’ve en- countered, presenting configurations uncommon to the studio visit or seminar room. I perceive a similar set of becoming-intimacies from these students, both welcome and strange. 

Works in this exhibition now rub up against a number of topics and concerns, including: cruising and queer codes, soft sculptural bodies and post-genital forms, the body as a source of material production, vernacular histories of painting, machine learning digesting nature, plastic convergences of art and biology, climate collapse and mourning for a lost future, lakeside family vacations with Neo-fascism lapping at the shore, mediating between the built and un-built, Pippi, masculinities, pleasure, pop songs, un-macho painting, the sun. This is only to represent them in language, which is not the works in themselves (and some exist so purely as objects words fail completely). I hope you were able to visit them in situ as we intended.

Our pivot toward “home work” virtualised our previously shared institutional space, challenging expectations about the divi- sions and functions of this culminating moment in the BFA education. This exhibition typically serves as a final temporal and affective punctuation mark on their three years. Now, a certain outcome was redirected. We were instead forced to think through the relationship of individual and group trajectories of practice, what it means to exhibit together as a cohort amid what it means to work together from a distance. Then even more so: What makes an artistic peer? 

What can be shared and what cannot move between us? These shifts were perceived most intensely in an institutional context where the horizon for work frequently appears, with respect to the wider field of artistic practice, somewhat anachronistically linked to the material encounters of the workshop and the studio, facilitating creative processes often rooted in the physical before the conceptual. In other words, we found ourselves perhaps singularly ill-equipped to realise the exhibition that this catalogue will accompany. And yet our tiny academy retained the independence – and perhaps the irrationality (commendably) – to offer one of only a few physical thesis exhibitions in Europe this year. 

We exit the virtual conversations with “the work” rendered differently for these BFA students who planned a May exhibition at Färgfabriken, particularly those engaging the ambivalence of that site: the former paint factory and soon-to-be cultural anchor for a major development project at Lövholmen. This exhibition then is always already doubled: only marginally possible now, it also car- ries within it the ghost of the never-to-be realised prior iteration. Another way of saying this is that the works exist in a potent and irreconcilable interval, offering themselves up as transitional not merely from one educational phase to another, but in their resonance as objects and encounters emerging in the midst of an exceptional moment: the first projects exhibited after and the last executed or conceived before, never arriving in quite the right place at the right time. We observe a suspension between arts’s ties to culture as an urban speculative mechanism and its links to a historical project fostering a national culture. Note then a considered renegotiation between the stakes and constraints of past and future repeated among works in the exhibition. 

Contemporary art as a professional discourse asserts a relationship (however limited or exclusive) to the social conditions of the present. Within the varied forms of production and labour we artists inhabit – from the artisanal to the outsourced to the coded to the performed to the just-in-time production of a projected digital video – the work carries the potential for a public future. To conceive something in the studio or on a laptop is not only to imagine a work, object, or process in isolation. It is also to imagine a project’s emergence unto a viewer, a place, an institution, a public. For art education, typically these rings on the water ripple outward from student to studio visit to classmates to degree exhibitions, and then to a wider cultural field that includes critics, curators, artistic communities, gallerists, etc. 

Despite the material conditions for art to be exhibited repeatedly and in some cases perpetually, there exists an incredible apparatus around the temporality of this public emergence as a singular event: the press release, opening, catalogue, review, and in more recent years the time-stamped post or update. Thus a work’s passage from the concept, the individual or collective assembly, the material work of the studio or academy, to public encounter or exhibition, sometimes with years of delay or phases of co-authorship in-between, highlights this temporal relationship between artists, institutions/platforms, and publics to suggest that art today is best understood as an event. What happens when the ossified activities and codifications around the professionalisation of a practice cease, at least temporarily, to viably exist? How do we now reconfigure and re-site our practices, with equality and attention to the conditions of the present, this now dislocated “event” of art and its publics? This straddling of two moments and spaces also frames intensifying questions about how we make and encounter art today, including access: who now receives a platform to exhibit and under what terms? 

To return to the artists represented here, for many of whom this serves as a first exhibition, student work often begins with the public moment postponed but anticipated. This spring we registered the sudden loss of both the internal public of the school as a shared space, and the imagined public of the exhibitionWe began meeting in March over a software platform called Teams, but this aspirational branding failed to disguise the splintered confusion of that moment. To work out from under increased isolation, the process demanded a patience and trust between us sometimes in tension with preconceptions of artistic individuality. We read, watched, listened, engaged in questions as a group and then also in online activities such as queer feminist dance tutorials. Some struggled, while some found it easier to work at a remove from the space and pressure of the institution proper. 

The week after Midsommar, I call my colleague Robert to discuss writing something other than a pandemic essay, a task at which I will fail. We discuss a paucity of imagination in the present, he mentions China Miéville’s October, the speculative fiction author’s take on the Russian Revolution. I later reflect on how it all kicked off: International Women’s Day, 1917, militant women pour out of factory meetings into the streets, striking with shouts for bread. A growing crowd heads for the city centre, only to be stopped at a main bridge by the police. It is -5C. Thousands climb down and riskily cross instead over a frozen river, continuing on to unexpectedly set the revolution in motion. 

This is not a revolutionary exhibition, but I end with this walk across the ice and the unintended consequences of creative disobedience. Somewhere between prescription and aspiration, kernels scattered throughout this exhibition glisten and vibrate against such a history, shared interests in physical investigations stoke my hopes for these students’ trajectories: to know a material’s properties intimately, to leverage them to clever ends, to walk together over slippery surfaces, to view obstructions as constitutive of a process rather than its conclusion, to remain open to returns exceeding the expectations. 

I am told the winters are no longer as cold in Stockholm. We cannot count on the ice to return, but must together seek a multiplicity of alternate paths across this mess we call the present.