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  • New Designers at the Business Design Centre, London

Rethinking the Grad Show

With graduate shows around the country cancelled, postponed or moving online due to COVID-19 restrictions, we gathered a panel of experts together to talk to students about the alternatives.

2020's craft graduates have faced huge challenges this year, with university workshops closed and no access to materials or students support networks during the lockdown. Izzy Roope, a final year student on Brighton University's 3D Product Design course, chaired the panel for us and asked our experts for their advice to students forging ahead in uncertain times. Here is a summary of the key discussion points:

James Tooze—designer, maker and researcher

  • Most craft practitioners are flexible and creative enough to find new ways of working, and we’re seeing lots of students working with alternative materials and tools—and that is to be celebrated. The challenge comes when you don’t have the headspace to tackle this—we’ve got to recognise the challenges around isolation, financial pressures and mental health that students are facing.
  • What role is there for open making spaces and Fablabs when the restrictions lift? After the financial crash in 2008 we saw a resurgence in interest in craft and a communal approach to making. What can we build within communities to bring making within reach of more people? What role do local authorities, universities and government play in supporting makerspaces?

Bridget Harvey—maker

  • There’s no need to learn new things if you’re not feeling comfortable doing that—sometimes there’s a comfort in doing what we know. Equally, now is a good time to respond to what’s around you--have a look at Adhocism: the case for improvisation by Charles Jencks and Nathan Silver
  • Distributed manufacturing—Gareth Neal on the Materials Matters podcast was recently talking about how he outsources some of his making process to others. If you can’t make something at the moment, is there a way of getting someone else to make some or all or it?
  • Low-brow materials and materials that mimic traditional ones—for example low temperature enamel that you can put in your oven. We should be aiming high in terms of outcomes but there are room for different materials within that. Shane Waltener is a fibre artist who does this really successfully. 

May Rosenthal-Sloan—curator, writer and educator

  • This is a moment to down tools and really think about what we want for the future. There is a lot in curatorial practice that I’d like to leave behind or rethink. In terms of degree shows—I would argue that there is a lot in the traditional approach that doesn’t work for everyone, as The White Pube have highlighted brilliantly. 
  • Talk to people about what you want for your own practice and degree show practice going forward—share ideas and stay connected with each other. Talk to staff in your institutions—a lot of the time they will be people who really want to support you through this. They may also be feeling uncomfortable and uncertain about the positions that your institution has taken, and they’re all in different positions in terms of decision-making—but if you reach out to people you might be surprised at the support on offer.
  • There is something about the disconnectedness we’re all currently experiencing which has made people really excited about the idea of material experience and tactility. Surprisingly, there is an opportunity here—something we can look to for a different kind of togetherness, possibly a different kind of market--the Artist Support Pledge is a good example.
  • I am concerned about the impact on the kind of art, craft and design that is not made for a commercial market, and isn’t going to profit anyone. This was already a difficult landscape to work in, with fierce competition for grants, but in many ways we will need this type of work more than ever—and this is something we should all be fighting for. The arts are going to need really clear voices to champion what we value

Abdollah Nafisi—designer craftsman

  • The opportunity you have at the moment is the time you have—to develop your practice, think, draw. Often, the ideas you have as a student will be sustaining your practice for many years.
  • This is the time to build a unique brand. At the moment a lot of big brands have had to put their work on hold—this is the time to reach out to them and offer to create content for them. Look within yourself, find what you like and are comfortable with, and use this to build your identity. Give away content for free—today, if you want to sell a book, you give the whole thing away for free and people will trust you and come and buy your book.
  • Take limitations seriously—they are your biggest tool. Work with what you have, turn problems into opportunities and think positively.
  • If I can give you four things to take away from what I’m talking about, they would be patience, consistency, give value, and care about your branding!
  • Use TikTok! Don’t worry about other platforms, this is really new and up and coming.

Anna Stewart—Brompton Design District

  • It’s a really positive thing that we’re rethinking the grad show—this is a conversation that’s happening around the world—e.g. Ineke Hans’s German Design Graduates. We’re aware of the unnecessary travel and the waste that fairs and exhibitions produce.  When Net-a-Porter launched, it was unthinkable that you would buy luxury clothes over the internet, but it’s now one of fashion’s most important platforms and the design world has followed with Etsy, Made.com—so the design industry has paved the way for the grad show to move online.
  • Drawing on what Abdollah has said, now is a moment when we have time, and although it can seem quite daunting to start a digital platform it can be done in small steps: writing down words that you think apply to you and your practice; thinking about the kind of photography you like; looking at other makers’ and designers’ platforms and think about what would suit your practice; using your network—exchange skills with friends who are graphic designers, photographers, illustrators.
  • Images and visuals are so important in this industry. If you’re thinking about press coverage, it’s useful to have a variety of images for different publications—think about different backgrounds and including some human element in photos; some magazines will prefer cut-out images on a white background. Look at different publications---Dezeen, Frieze Magazine are good examples.
  • Publications are tangible support for your online presence. With websites you need to be concise, but with printed materials you can go into more detail and expand more on your practice. Publications can be really simple—some of the best exhibition guides are A3 folded with just one colour or two colour print. The most important thing is that it’s well put-together and reads well.
  • Think about things holistically—be concise, and think about how everything links together—your Instagram, website, print materials, TikTok! Think about what your visual language is.
  • As a curator, the preparation and the planning is the most exciting part of putting together an exhibition, because that’s the time when you’re thinking about the narratives, what works together and the composition. So even if the exhibition isn’t going to take place, this is a really useful process to go through.

Georgina Voss—artist, writer and researcher

  • The current situation is really just amplifying what was already there—so it’s a great moment to be rethinking the degree show. At UAL we’re doing a virtual show and a venue-based one later in the year. What comes next? It's a good point to think about what we want from the future. There is a sense of loss for what would have been, but things are changing, and will be working differently for a long time to come.
  • What is the degree show for? Is it so we can display our work? To find clients or collaborators? To make a public platform? To show off to our parents (which is completely valid!)? To show alongside our cohort? To get institutional or reputational support? Having the space and the resources to do this?
  • As May mentioned, there’s the excellent piece by the White Pube (which is worth reading in its entirety). They point out the limits of the degree show: it can prioritise a certain form, depending on what the institution’s priorities are; it’s there for a limited time and space; the space can be very crowded; it operates with multiple agendas; even with a digital space, if its delivered through an institution, there are limitations—are you using proprietary software, who owns the images, do you have control over those images?
  • The degree show is a very pressured moment—as the White Pube highlight, it’s a moment when you show a piece of work regardless of whether you’re ready to show it. Can we relieve some of this pressure and use this as a moment to reflect on what you actually want to show?
  • What are the alternative physical spaces that you could show work in? If the degree show becomes decentralised, are there other organisations or institutions, galleries, community centres, council buildings that you could exhibit in? I’ve seen a lot of thinking about how the lockdown has changed urban space, and how we might be living in more rural or localised spaces—does this change how you think about where you want to be and what is available to you there?
  • If it’s not the university that’s showing work, what might be another model for bringing artists together? The examples I’ve found are of artists and activists coming together to create a platform for specific groups of people, e.g. BBZBLKBK Alternative Graduate Show, a space for Queer Womxn, Trans and Non-Binary artists of Black Ancestry and Guts Gallery, which shows work by underrepresented contemporary voices in the art world. 

Katie Dominy, Arts Thread

  • Graduates are invited to upload a portfolio to the Global Design Graduate Show—an international showcase and competition
  • We’re really interested in seeing creative process, and how students have adapted to new circumstances and created something new.

With thanks to all our speakers for their contributions.