That Black Box on Kensington Gore

I’m currently working on an “index” or documentation of 10 years of the Design Interactions Department (Royal College of Art) which I hope to finish soon (ie: before December). Much gratitude goes to Nina Pope who was the one who suggested it in the first place and allowed me to retrieve whatever flotsam and ephemera was left in the studio. I still have many people I want to write to and I confess that I originally meant to finish it by September, but it has taken me more time than expected and I am also now in Singapore working on other things. But since this is already coming after the graduation and there are no real deadlines except the one where I throw in the towel – I thought I should exercise due diligence, and do a little more digging into the wider history of design education as well as other courses which have since ceased to be, such as the Environmental Media course which was intrigued about some time back (but found not very much information about it online)…

I had never been to the Special Collections prior to this, nor was I particularly enthused about the College Library with its considerably short opening hours whilst I was studying (Imperial’s library was very close by and I had access to it 24-hours). I suppose the thing is that I wanted a more general library at the time but the RCA Library collection does seem quite… idiosyncratic, as is likely to become the case with any modest-sized library of about 70,000+ books (in comparison with an extreme example, the British Library holds 170 million books). As a result, I’ve always felt that the RCA Library is more like a kind of place you wander into and encounter some pictures in an old book that you’ve never seen before – rather than a comprehensive place you could go to find any specific book in a university course reading list.

With the present difficulty of entering the college outside of term time without a pass (now becoming a real schlep with all the signing-ins, waiting to be collected, etc – despite ostensibly working on/for the college in some capacity!), I was determined to MAXIMISE MY LIBRARY EXPERIENCE! FIND ALL THE MATERIALS! SEE ALL THE BOOKS! And so scoured its lending shelves quite thoroughly for interesting, rare or antiquarian finds! (In this one respect, I recommend the very first section to the right on the ground floor. One usually might not think to go there as there are no books on the right wall which is the only wall you can see, but the left wall does hold what are probably some of the most expensive books which are hidden out of view. That one wall seems to be holding the bulk of the variously large and oversize books – where you will find gems such as an ORIGINAL 1904 edition of Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Natur).

Never did I think that one day I would actually read a book about the Royal College of Art from the context of a former student looking at its history. Several years ago, when I first entertained the thought of further studies, I began copying the statements issued by universities and departments to potential students into my wiki. Don’t laugh, but I was so serious about applying to RCA that I actually pasted a statement from the RCA prospectus onto the front page of my wiki: “The criteria for acceptance by the Royal College of Art are talent and potential, along with the commitment and the ambition to make a difference within an art or design discipline”.

If this is the statement issued by the university to the student, then what is the equivalent of the statement issued by the monarch to the institution which seeks to be a royal university? I mean, what makes the college so “royal”? There is in fact the Royal Charter that the RCA received in 1967 which made it a university (which I must admit I had not read before):

Royal Charter: Our objectives are ‘to advance learning, knowledge and professional competence particularly in the fields of fine arts, in the principles and practice of art and design in their relation to industrial and commercial processes and social developments and other subjects relating thereto, through teaching, research and collaboration with industry and commerce’.

Emphasis above is mine, but what is interesting is the repeated mention of industry and commerce in the charter. No such mention of industry and commerce is in the call to students, but I suppose the state of industry and commerce in the country is less the prerogative of the individual student and more that of those who are steering the college.

In former Rector Christopher Frayling’s book on the History of the Royal College of Art, Frayling writes that “it was clear in late 1970s that college was becoming test-case pour encourager les autres” – with the Undersecretary for Higher Education threatening that it might receive “less recurrent grant” in the future if the RCA did not respond enough to National needs and priorities as per its Royal Charter. In Spring 1981 a visiting committee also reported that although the RCA may be “thriving”, “it was neglecting its duty enshrined in Royal Charter” by not having enough links to industry and not making the revitalisation of the British economy its ultimate priority.

In a way I feel like the dissolution of avant-garde courses such as Environmental Media in the mid 1980s foreshadows that of the present day situation. Of course, these are two different situations, but the point to be made of both is that there has always posed a great difficulty in quantifying the value of art and design education. I suppose this is why a design school prospectus is always sure to have lists of graduates who have made it big in the industry or with their own commercial success stories or commercial companies. And an art school prospectus is going to write of the big international museums, fairs, and prestigious galleries their graduates have gone on to show and sell work at. How else do you quantify success? With significant HEFCE education funding cuts in the UK, the pressure is definitely on to “prove” that funding education is still a good investment.

For example, the strategic plan 2010-2016 by current Rector Paul Thompson stated outright a goal of “Expand(ing) the programme of Master’s courses to advance new developments in design and art, ensuring twenty-first century relevance”. As to the metric used to determine the success of this particular goal, the intended outcome was to be “a 50% increase in student numbers to approximately 1,500 by October 2014; this will be caused by additional recruitment to existing courses, combined with recruitment to new courses that have been successfully validated”. Strategic plan 2016-2021 envisions four new research centres and ten new postgraduate taught programmes and the student body will consequently have increased to between 2,300–3,000 by 2021. [You can read the strategic plans here on the list of RCA’s Corporate Publications]

Personally I would have expected “increase in student body” to have been classed under “Finance” goals from the beginning – instead of under the goal of “Relevance“; it comes across a little disingenuous when phrased as such. Only 5 years away and an expected 200% increase in the student body from 2011? I really don’t see how massive increases in student numbers will directly ensure twenty-first century relevance; it will instead increase the college’s income from tuition fees and reduce its dependence on HEFCE funding – which is a perfectly legitimate goal for the college.

Also, I find it problematic when I see statements like “unified, customer-focused approach to the delivery of academic and operational services” and “value-for-money” bandied about. Is this how one must write or speak in order to be understood by funding bodies? But what happened to the human poetry of intellectual curiosity that should be the foremost driving factor behind art and design research excellence today? I’m not really comfortable seeing a document that is being disseminated to students and stakeholders entirely wrapped up in jargon that may not be universally understood.

And it is not just this issue of quantifying value, which we see when a document is expressed entirely in business jargon. To speak of terminologies, I suppose the bottom line of programmes like Environmental Media and Design Interactions was to some extent, an insistence on ambiguity. Ambiguity in its materiality in the former, and ambiguity through its materiality in the latter.

An account from Frayling’s “The Royal College of Art: 150 Years of Art and Design”: “One reason why conceptualism, minimalism and performance art never developed solid roots within the existing Fine Art schools was that from 1975 onwards, the Department of Environmental Media had been created to teach the more avant-garde students who were emerging from post-Coldstream painting, Sculpture, and Film courses. This catch-all Department started life as “the Light Transmission and Projection unit” under Bob Hyde, rather uneasily sharing studios with Hugh Casson’s interior designers. But as the unit came of age – and in particular, as it proved to be more expensive than anticipated, with increasing use of video (or rather “time-based media”) – no one seemed to be sure whether it had more in common with Stained Glass (coloured light) or Sculpture (spatial art).”

[…] “In which case,” yelled the Glaswegian, “you’re like a surrealist painter trying to paint a picture of someone trying to paint a picture of someone trying to paint a picture of someone trying to paint a picture… If you’re not a dialectical materialist you’re not in the picture at all.” At that point he stormed out of the room, muttering about the secret police.”

At Design Interactions, the goal as I understand it, was that tutors were trying to guide us towards the production of a work that might only be partially contextualised within our world, presenting itself ambiguously as a physical object from another world within our world, simultaneously juxtaposing multiple ‘realities’ but crucially never allowing total escape from remembering that we are still from our own reality. Doing so would allow the work to transcend plain commentary into something more uncanny? More perturbing? Something supposedly more effective in stimulating the audience into a deeper engagement with the work and issues at hand.

The issue of ambiguity lies not only in the reception of the work but also each individual artist/designer/technologist who produces the work. How confusing that must be for anyone working OUTSIDE of the discipline looking at it, especially if the confusion arises for those trying to determine an institutionalised metric for calculating the efficacy of the works. Equally confusing it must be for artists or designers with a more malleable ‘voice’ – it is certainly not for all. My issue with the production of works (particularly in the case of student works, if I may be honest) was that sometimes as an outside viewer I simply could not read what the designer/artist’s intentions were. Whether a work is capable of concealing and revealing its position at the same time may be dependent entirely on the viewer’s common knowledge and shared understandings with the producer of the work, so the onus would be entirely on the viewer whom the author has no control over. In a sense then, the work doesn’t really end until you see what comes out from the other end (ie: the engagement of the viewer), leaving us with the problem of the black box that we have yet to unpack…

As this is getting quite long, I’m going to stop here for now and move on to… an anecdote about another black box!

Why is the Royal College of Art black?

It never occurred to me to google for a picture of the architecture of the school until I first personally visited it for an open day, but knowing on paper that it was in the grand old Albertopolis area with a long history with the South Kensington Museum, I actually expected it to be less… harsh and BLACK. One might imagine that this was meant to make the building stand out in the area – however, it appears the truth is actually quite the opposite!

The Royal College of Art royal college of art The Royal College of Art

Images found on flickr by Chmee2, typeoneerror and Vicky Teinaki


The Darwin Building (Grade II listed) was designed in 1961, some years after the great Smog of 1952, which purportedly contributed to the demise of up to 4000 Londoners. This was also just before the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968 banning black smoke emissions and requiring urban residents and factory operators to use smokeless fuels. Even in 1962 there was a significant fog which killed around 750 Londoners due to the extreme levels of pollution caused by black smoke (burning of coal, etc).

So in the 60s, the other buildings in the area such as the Albert Hall and the V&A Museum’s terracotta design would have been covered in decades of thick black soot. Therefore, the RCA had been specially designed to have a “black brick and black concrete fondus” (both of which were rather expensive at the time) to suit the fabric of Albertopolis!

The entry on Historic England (the public body tasked with preserving and listing historic buildings/monuments) also makes this clear: “Reinforced concrete clad in dark red-brown brick intended to complement Norman Shaw’s Albert Hall Mansions, then uncleaned, on the other flank of the Royal Albert Hall.” In appearance, it is so dark as to appear black or grey from certain angles.

A couple years after its construction, London decided to clean up in the 1970s, perversely leaving the Darwin Building as the only outstanding sooty black building in Kensington Gore…

The University, in jeopardy

20150421_110307_Kensington Gore

It seems necessary to respond and make a note on the whole situation at Royal College of Art. (But if you haven’t heard, I’ve put a list of some news/blog articles at the bottom of this post)

For most of my adult life I’ve been self-guiding most of my learning, of various things, from design to programming. But partly motivated by my desire to be closer to George in London – and also to make the most of what I saw as more progressive educational opportunities in the UK (compared to Singapore), I started applying for my masters, which turned into a bizarre exercise in narrativising the process of how I turned into a person or artist who wanted to return to an academic institution – a story which I would have to tell over and over again to college admission and scholarship boards. I was forced to think desperately about this: why return to university if you could teach yourself?

It is easy to forget that in the debate regarding the state of universities, that people don’t always go to a university because they want to go to that university, but rather that they want to go to a very specific programme, or there are specific people that they want to study under – who happen to be working within the university, but aren’t “the university”. And sometimes these aren’t skills we are seeking, but exposure to different perspectives on working. I thought of it like visiting a big library of people with a wider range of life experiences. For the student, the university may as well be some strange hollow plastic shell enveloping the course that they have decided to take, the workings of which they only become more aware of as they actually enter the institution.

In an ideal world, the university would indeed be a protective shell, a place which protects and nurtures its staff and students. But in the real world, it is a place full of contradictions.

Even well-meaning policies like tenure – which are meant to ensure that staff have the right not to have their positions terminated without good cause (ensuring that there is no institutional censorship to fear) – even this process of tenure can potentially be turned into an instrument which still reduces academic freedom: if the criteria for tenure is opaque, or turned into a complicated review process, then you end up with the fear that tenure is used as a filter to only hire certain people with similar political views or approaches. Or valuing research over teaching standards – dropping professors who might be great teachers but are less productive in churning out research papers – this runs the risk of turning departments into nothing more than over-glorified self-congratulatory echo chambers of archaic practices and entrenched thinking.

In a way, even before I went back to to do my masters, universities in the UK were facing brutal funding cuts – especially with regards to the arts. And these cuts were affecting the way universities were run, changing their orientations and their ability to be flexible, and affecting the overall accessibility of higher education.

Besides the university, there are many places where people can learn without having to attend classes in a specific city, a specific campus, and where people don’t have to pay inflated tuition fees. An example: Several years ago, I worked in a flash design job. It wasn’t a university education or polytechnic education that directly equipped me (or many of my colleagues) with the skills to do that job, but it was years spent fooling around online on forums like newgrounds and flash/javascript/php forums, making crazy websites and learning new things in my free time. Who would have known that all that time spent playing on the internet and experimenting with things online for the fun of it would become a kind of work itself? Once I saw a company hire a freelancer at a completely overrated freelance rate for a one-off project, and this apparently qualified person with some formal degree in interactive design could not even make a simple animation within the timeline, let alone make a scripted animation – so I ended up having to do it for them. In this area, people became good/great at what they were doing if they were personally interested in exploring and building new things, and not because someone told them at school that they had to learn it.

The main thing was that you had to be flexible, and there was always more learning and experimenting to be done. That Flash job which I did once upon a time does not exist in its same form today, as technologies and platforms have moved on quickly; for years Flash has been on the decline, and now Flash doesn’t even automatically run in browsers like Chrome anymore. If one had to write up an adequate curriculum to teach people about something regarding digital arts or digital design, it would be a lesson plan that would need to change and be reassessed from year to year. And one thing I’ve always been suspicious about – was whether universities and huge institutions on the other hand could be flexible enough to accomplish a truly honest review of itself from time to time.

In my opinion, there are few programmes today which are flexible. But Design Interactions was one of the few good ones – worth me relocating and spending two years at at considerable cost. I didn’t even apply to another school or department, there was no second choice in my mind. But even the generous scholarship I had received from NAC could only cover the eye-wateringly exorbitant international student tuition fee, so I had to find my own means to support my living costs there (and Countless thanks must go to my parents and George for all their help and understanding).

I was interested in Tony and Fiona’s approach to it as a kind of pedagogic exercise. (See their School of Constructed Realities). The core of what we did was not learning skills or technologies, but exploring aesthetics and form and how we represented a complicated idea or scenario, or at least that was how I perceived it. Possibly the most interesting part of being there was all the headbutting with people who expressed bafflement at my approach, and people who didn’t understand what I was making. As a writer, I admit I was at times more concerned with the words we used to describe things, more so than the things themselves at times, which I know is probably a bit of a weird way to approach what is still at heart a design programme.

In fact, if we had to add a word of caution: at times it verged on becoming too flexible, which allowed design projects to mutate into monsters of unrealistically ambitious scale and scope. Some of the work also tended to be clustered around certain recurring themes as students took cues from one another or sprung forth from the tightly managed briefs issued by the tutors. Some also were self-aware of the problems of making work which might look too “DI”, as if the department could be summed up in a certain visual style. But if you saw our graduation show this year, this was as far from the case as you could get. Some visitors walked in to our show in the basement grotto of RCA and did double-takes – “Are you guys IED? IDE? DI? Where is the Interaction??? Where am I? What is happening? And what is that unearthly sound?” I loved it when as a whole the room produced confusion in people, toeing the line between what the world might perceive as confused, naive blitheness… or being a complete troll.

There have been articles on design blogs online and newspapers, parroting at first the Rector’s newsletter which was worded in a way that ended up insinuating that it was the departure of Design Interactions staff which caused the college to be “in jeopardy” – something which Paul Thompson has now retracted and apologised for after media attention on it has intensified. Clearly, he must have become aware that sounding like he is blaming staff for leaving doesn’t quite inspire confidence or help in the now highly publicised search for replacements for the department; no intelligent academic needs the damocles sword of “in the future we might consider legal action if you tender early but decide you cannot serve six months notice!” hanging over their heads.

On the wider level of the college, there seemed to be a failure to produce an environment in which students felt that their views would be adequately heard. I remember attending one of the Student Union meetings with Channing and being struck by how dismissive the Rector was towards even the simple questions I wanted to ask on behalf of a course mate. A great anxiety had built up within School of Design over issues of workshop access, as the workshops were plainly oversubscribed in terms of numbers of students. We also saw how other departments experienced their studio spaces becoming smaller and smaller as intakes got bigger and bigger, which no doubt affected the studio environment – how big could you dream and build if you constantly had to look over your shoulder to make sure you weren’t getting in the way of others (or… getting in the way of fire regulations)? Very close to our exams graduation we also received emails that workshops would be closed a week before the final show and that the spray booth was permanently broken for the rest of the year and might not be fixed any time soon.

Even if things were resolved eventually, and even if somewhere in all this there had been some logical plan which would be implemented, the seed of fear had long been planted within students. The overall feeling was that the university would be willing to dilute the educational experience if this would bring in the money it needed. And at what cost? The morale of staff and students? The reputation of the institution? Whilst I’m sure that the remaining Design Interactions students have the strength and courage to shape their final year into something awesome out of all these unexpected events, the fact is that no enrolled student wants to have to worry for the future of the institution they are in, nor should they have to!

Yesterday when I went to a talk/reunion of SPUR (Singapore Planning Urban Research Group), a group of young architects and planners from Singapore who came together in the mid-60s to independently discuss, research, and convince people about alternative strategies that could improve and modernise Singapore. Years ago, when I first found out about their work and writings, I felt so incredibly heartened to realise that Singapore had so many thoughtful intellectuals who were trying to examine and make proposals for Singapore’s planning at such a crucial juncture of Singapore’s formation, and with such a can-do spirit. It was an honour to see many of them in person gathered in one room.

Perhaps it was because we were seated within the National University of Singapore (also my alma mater), perhaps that is why William Lim kept reiterating the importance of the role the university needs to play in facilitating the creation of alternative ideas and in nurturing independent research groups.

If a university is constantly thought of to be in and out of “jeopardy” by students and staff, then how can it become that nurturing space which we wish for it to be?


And on next week’s imaginary reality tv live blog episode:
Tired of becoming constantly entangled with various institutions in crisis(es), Debbie runs away to live in a small shed and attempts to establish a non-conventional school on a temporary island in the sky, floating through the metaverse…


See also:
2 March 2015: Wired.co.uk – Royal College of Art design legends step down
10 March 2015: Dezeen – “Changing of the guard” as more senior staff step down at Royal College of Art

11 May 2015: #silentRCARCA Student Union: Protest at the RCA” – Press Release: This morning at 8.45am students of the Royal College of Art staged a protest to manifest their disagreement with the way the College is being run. Students pay tuition fees of £9,500 and £28,900 per year for home/EU and international students respectively. The Senior Management of the College is perceived by students to make decisions based on operational considerations rather than academic requirements, while excessively complicated administrative procedures dictate the day-to-day agenda of the College.

28 September 2015: Dezeen – RCA in “state of jeopardy” after Design Interactions staff departures
29 September 2015: Channing Ritter – In response to Dezeen Magazine: RCA in “state of jeopardy”
1 October 2015: The Independent: Royal College of Art ‘in a state of jeopardy’ as staff quit and students protest
2 October 2015: Dezeen – Royal College of Art rector apologises for statements about staff

RCA’s Department of Environmental Media, 1974-1986

Patrick Keiller – Robinson in Space


Recently I stumbled across a book version of Patrick Keiller’s Robinson in Space at the RCA Library, seemingly by coincidence, but later found out that it was probably at RCA Library because Keiller was previously a student at the Department of Environmental Media, which only existed from 1974-1986. From what little I can find out about it online, it was founded by Peter Kardia who seems to have been quite a visionary educator. Prior to setting up the Department of Environmental Media at RCA, he was known for his “locked room” experiments at Saint Martins College.

From Shadowboxing: “The Environmental Media department, which existed from 1971 to 1986, was set up for ‘students requiring extended or mixed media facilities and for those whose work includes proposals for redefinition of conventional fine art boundaries’ (Annual Prospectus 1976-77). An experiment in interdisciplinary practice, the course was not well aligned with other College departments, which were defined by more traditional subject areas, such as painting and sculpture. ‘[Environmental Media] students [were] expected to create for themselves the conditions, which [would] enable them to work self-sufficiently for limited periods, isolated from criticism’ (Annual Prospectus 1974-75). Students were able to work conceptually, and with emerging media such as video, as well as embracing the more conventional means of production, seemingly free to create their own terms.”

It seemed interesting to find out the origin of the Department; and where better than to have traced it to a book with a section by Peter Kardia himself. In “From Floor to Sky: The Experience of the Art School Studio” (Hester Westley, Malcolm Le Grice), in a section “Art and Art Teaching” by Peter Kardia, he writes it began with the Stained Glass Department, which initially worked within the administrative framework of School of Interior Design, but it had begun to admit students with fine-art backgrounds, students who were interested with environment and the effects on an particular environment of illumination coming in from stained-glass windows, and different types of media and technology was also introduced. So “in 1970 a Department of Light Transmission and Projection was formed, including what had hitherto been the Stained Glass Department but also a new section named Environmental Media, for which elementary equipment that was listed as being obtained included tape recorder, video camera, stills camera, and sound synthesizer.” The next year Stained Glass and Acrylics moved back to School of Ceramics, and Environmental Media moved to Sculpture.

Sadly I also read in this account that it was the appointment of a new rector Jocelyn Stevens. “It was not long after [Stevens’] appointment that he proposed the closure of the Department of Design Research and the Department of Environmental Media. When this became widely known, there were many objections and the matter was even raised by the MP Tam Dalyell in Parliament. The rector however, would not go back on his decision, and the Department was finally closed in 1986.”

It is fascinating to consider that alterations to, and the closure of a university department should even warrant a discussion in Parliament; education after all should be a priority. Why did Stevens want to close Design Research and Environmental Media? Was it really just because they were too politicised? How, and why? And what was it allowed to happen, even without knowing the details I question why someone should reject a way of learning and teaching or close a new and possible mode of inquiry? I should like to research and understand why this was so.

In the context of the current situation at RCA, I think we should not be complacent to think that even our department is immune to change – and immune to suddenly not existing. Seeing the situation with the large increases in intakes for the other design programmes which have caused such pressures on space and facilities for students and staff, and the introduction of seemingly commercially oriented courses which seems to be pandering to commercial interests – I worry sometimes that the direction may have been lost – I’d assume that the goal of a school like Royal College of Art would be to produce leaders who will make challenging work or experimental work. And I had specifically decided to come to RCA to study at Design Interactions precisely because I didn’t want to study in a place where ideas would be dictated by money and politics… (ie. I didn’t want to study in Singapore…)

As Cheo Chai Hiang puts rather eloquently in a recent article:

“Having lived and worked overseas for more than 30 years, I take it almost as a given that an artist requires freedom in order to engage in radical research and experimentation, especially when finding new ways of challenging established modes of visual arts practice. Since returning to Singapore in 2003, I have seen the cultural, social and political pressures that are exerted by the government to ensure that individuals conform to conservative and safe norms. Hence the artist is required to exercise extreme caution, which eventually stifles the will to think critically and creatively (…) Perhaps, in addition to Dr. Ellis’s question “Will the gifted blossom?” we should also be asking two further questions: Are current educational approaches really designed to nurture those destined to be our future arts practitioners? If so, how can we encourage these individuals to blossom in Singapore rather than elsewhere?…”