The digital classroom and the digital studio (Journal of Visual Culture & HaFI, 32)

This is the thirty-second instalment of a collaborative effort by the Journal of Visual Culture and the Harun Farocki Institut, initiated by the COVID-19 crisis. The call sent to JVC’s editorial board, and a wide selection of previous contributors and members of its extended communities, described the task as follows: “There is a lot of spontaneous, ad hoc opinion-making and premature commentary around, as to be expected. However, the ethics and politics of artistic and theoretical practice to be pursued in this situation should oblige us to stay cautious and to intervene with care in the discussion. As one of JVC’s editors, Brooke Belisle, explains: ‘We are not looking for sensationalism, but rather, moments of reflection that: make connections between what’s happening now and the larger intellectual contexts that our readership shares; offer small ways to be reflective and to draw on tools we have and things we know instead of just feeling numb and overwhelmed; help serve as intellectual community for one another while we are isolated; support the work of being thoughtful and trying to find/make meaning…which is always a collective endeavour, even if we are forced to be apart.'” TH



UCU (University & College Union) strike at the Royal College of Art, London


The Digital Classroom and the Digital Studio

By Juliet Jacques

Recently, my colleagues and comrades Pil & Galia Kollectiv contributed a piece to this series about how the Covid-19 crisis means ‘Art will now emerge from bedrooms, quarantined hotel rooms and parks as a default rather than as the consequence of failure to attain the historical conditions of studio practice or by vanguard choice.’ Pil teaches with me at the Royal College of Art, and was on the picket line with me in March, just before the UK began its fatally belated lockdown, striking against the consequences of neoliberalism in the art school: casualisation of labour, unsafe workloads, falling pay, and pay gaps relating to ethnicity and gender. One of the things we discussed, stood outside in the freezing cold, was the possibility of the institution forcing staff and students to move to online learning and how much that might diminish not just our employment rights but our pedagogical horizons. Before the strike even ended, the pandemic forced the issue: we might not yet have been asked to record lectures that can be paid for once but recycled endlessly, but we have been forced to teach students whose bedrooms are now their studios, running tutorials and seminar groups via Skype or Zoom. What have been the pitfalls, and have there been potentialities?

After a brief moment of optimism that the crisis might bring about the end of the UK’s heavily mediatised Culture War politics, if not the collapse of capitalism, it now seems that the post-Covid 19 world will probably be as Michel Houellebecq asserted: “the same but worse”. In the shadow of that crushing election defeat in December, ending our hopes of a Labour government that would address the catastrophic state of British arts education, the main issues behind the strike – the precarity for teachers and exploitation of students – have already been exacerbated. Art schools are laying off tutors on fixed-term contracts, with the fate of visiting lecturers (who are effectively on zero-hour contracts) still unclear; the RCA have unconditionally suspended fifty of 190 students who withheld their tuition fees ‘in response to the RCA’s handling of the outbreak of Coronavirus, their inaction on the UCU strikes at the beginning of the year, and their decision to move all learning online without consulting the student body’. (The RCA have even threatened to report non-paying international students to the Home Office.) Several of my Skype tutorials have been spent encouraging students not to quit – not always unsuccessfully – as they struggle to adapt to losing their studios and being expected to adjust their practice for a digital degree show, without any reduction in their exorbitant fees.

For the students, losing their Crit sessions, where a group take it in turns to assess each other’s work, moving between studios as they go, has been tough, losing that point where individual creativity and community collaboration meet. The conditions best suit those making work that can most easily be shared online – moving image, or text – and the most rewarding points of these traduced conditions have been the seminars I’ve done with Critical Writing MA students. Using Zoom, I ran three classes on identity, the first covering transgender writing, the second looking at patriotism, and the third exploring the links between colonialism, anti-immigrant rhetoric and government policy. The patriotism class was the most interesting, partly because the students hadn’t often been encouraged to think of patriotism (and especially Englishness) as a form of identity politics, but also because the conversation took place in a space that was global: here and in my tutorials, students called in from Europe, Asia and Australia, but given the lockdown, all were kind of nowhere places, the distinctions between them blurring into the little boxes that lit up whenever someone interjected. In a sense, this is exciting, introducing a new kind of equality between the participants, with interesting implications for the national identity politics being discussed. But what is lost is the creative and personal development that comes with moving to a different country: being immersed in a foreign culture brings about a perspective shift both for the individual who moves, but also for those they meet, and these exchanges cannot be replicated online.

In an interview I did for my podcast Suite (212) – another thing moved from a studio to Skype in lockdown – Oreet Ashery talked about the impact of Covid-19 on Ruskin students, and how the digital shift has benefitted (or at least not actively de-privileged for a change) people with disabilities, or those who aren’t privileged enough to be able to relocate like the RCA’s many international students, and how a blend of physical and digital learning is likely in future. On the face of it, this seems positive – despite the extra work this will engender for tutors, unlikely to be paid more for it. In a country in which everything that can be has been privatised, and in which every last penny has been squeezed out of students (especially international ones, who are the least likely to return for the first post-pandemic academic year), the further corporate/tech takeover of higher education is a huge concern. For such a development to be good, it really needed to happen after a revolution in the ideological climate – the one we were trying to bring about in December. For the art school to survive, let alone thrive, in the future that Houellebecq predicts, we will have to adjust not only our tactics for working and teaching, but also for industrial action.

Juliet Jacques (b. Redhill, Surrey, 1981) is a writer and filmmaker based in London. She has published two books, most recently Trans: A Memoir (Verso, 2015). Her short fiction and essays have been included in several anthologies; her journalism and criticism has been published in Granta, Sight & Sound, Frieze, The Guardian, The London Review of Books and many other places. She has made four short films, one with artist Ker Wallwork, which have screened in galleries and festivals across the world.


June 26th, 2020 — Rosa Mercedes / 02

Lauren Berlant, the brilliant theorist of “cruel optimism” and related issues, died of a rare form of cancer on June 28. The following, devastatingly optimistic quote is from a 2016 essay on the commons as “infrastructures for troubling times,” part of a book that they worked on with the typically double-edged title On the Inconvenience of Other People: “What remains for our pedagogy of unlearning is to build affective infrastructures that admit the work of desire as the work of an aspirational ambivalence. What remains is the potential we have to common infrastructures that absorb the blows of our aggressive need for the world to accommodate us and our resistance to adaptation and that, at the same time, hold out the prospect of a world worth attaching to that’s something other than an old hope’s bitter echo. A failed episode is not evidence that the project was in error. By definition, the common forms of life are always going through a phase, as infrastructures will.”


Some basics from the Strike MoMA site: “Campaigns, actions, and letters chip away at the regime’s facade from the outside. Inside, every time workers organize, defy the boss, care for a coworker, disrespect secrecy, or enact other forms of subversion, cracks are created in the core. Cracking and chipping, chipping and cracking. As the walls that artificially separate the museum from the world collapse, we reorient away from the institution and come together to make plans. Let us strike in all the ways possible to exit from the terms of the museum so we can set our own.”


via Hyperallergic on the environmental impact of blockchain referring to recent NFT (non-fungible token) art sales: “This is not the first time the art world has come under scrutiny for being on the wrong side of the climate conversation. Artists and activists have protested everything from the carbon footprint of physical art fairs to the fossil fuel money funding major museums. But some say the energy consumption of cryptocurrencies is particularly egregious, and research shows it’s relatively easily quantifiable. A study by Cambridge University, for instance, estimates that bitcoin uses more electricity per year than the entire nation of Argentina. (Ethereum mining consumes a quarter to half of what Bitcoin mining does, but one transaction uses more power than an average US household in a day, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.)”


Nicholas Mirzoeff on “Artificial vision, white space and racial surveillance capitalism”: “Based as it is on ‘epidermalization’ (the assertion of absolute difference based on relative differences in skin color), AI’s racial surveillance deploys an all-too-familiar racialized way of seeing operating at plan-etary scale. It is the plantation future we are now living in. All such operations take place in and via the new imagined white space of technology known as the cloud. In reality, a very material arrangement of servers and cables, the cloud is both an engine of high-return low-employment capitalism and one of the prime drivers of carbon emissions.”


Sara Ahmed on the performativity of disgust (from The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 2004): “To name something as disgusting is to transfer the stickiness of the word ‘disgust’ to an object, which henceforth becomes generated as the very thing that is spoken. The relationship between the stickiness of the sign and the stickiness of the object is crucial to the performativity of disgust as well as the apparent resistance of disgust reactions to ‘newness’ in terms of the generation of different kinds of objects. The object that is generated as a disgusting (bad) object through the speech act comes to stick. It becomes sticky and acquires a fetish quality, which then engenders its own effects.”

November 7th, 2020

David Graeber (1961-2020) on What Would It Take (from his The Democracy Project. A History, a Crisis, a Movement, 2013, p. 193): “We have little idea what sort of organizations, or for that matter, technologies, would emerge if free people were unfettered to use their imagination to actually solve collective problems rather than to make them worse. But the primary question is: how do we even get there? What would it take to allow our political and economic systems to become a mode of collective problem solving rather than, as they are now, a mode of collective war?”

September 7th, 2020

T.J. Demos on why cultural practitioners should never surrender, via  “For artists, writers, and curators, as art historians and teachers, the meaning-production of an artwork is never finished, never fully appropriated and coopted, in my view, and we should never surrender it; the battle over significance is ongoing. We see that battle rise up in relation to racist and colonial monuments these days in the US, the UK, and South Africa. While the destruction of such monuments results from and is enabling of radical politics, it’s still not enough until the larger institutions that support and maintain their existence as well as the continuation of the politics they represent are also torn down. This is urgent as well in the cultural sphere, including the arts institutions, universities, art markets, discursive sphere of magazines and journals, all in thrall to neoliberalism, where we must recognize that it’s ultimately inadequate to simply inject critical or radical content into these frameworks, which we know excel at incorporating those anti-extractivist expressions into further forms of cultural capital and wealth accumulation. What’s required is more of the building of nonprofit and community-based institutions, organizing radical political horizons and solidarity between social formations.”

August 21st, 2020
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