COVID-19 Lockdown and the Creative Arts Disciplines: When the hitherto ‘reasonable’ becomes an unrealistic ask.

June 24, 2020

This Blog has kindly been supplied by Professor Vicky Gunn, Glasgow School of Art.

A View from a devolved Nation.

On 23rd June 2020 the Deputy First Minister of Scotland and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney) moved the country’s parents from imagining the impossibilities of hybrid-flexi primary and secondary education to the relief of the resumption of fulltime schooling approaches (if the magical reproduction rate – R number – continues in its downward trajectory).1. On 24th June the Scottish Government additionally announced their hope that we will be at the new normal stage 4 of lockdown come mid-August.

Sitting in my step-daughter’s bedroom (vacated when she left home at 18 but still on call when necessary), I looked slight aghast as John Swinney declared his political educational truce. My angst is not about the schools (I keep that particular angst locked in an imaginary cupboard marked, ’only look when resilience is at maximum’), but more what it means for our higher education sector. This is a creative sector which has pivoted towards a hybrid model of provision, where teaching is to involve far more remote interaction via digital means, where corridors will be controlled for footfall flow, where bathrooms will be contagion-control nightmares for all heads of estates, where fieldwork will be risk assessed in terms of numbers within given fieldwork pods, and where the development of creative practices will be constrained by health and safety limitations which would have seemed unrealistic and unfair four months ago. This is all happening through redesign decision-making going on behind the scenes by academics and tutors being dependent on assumptions about what is realistic in relation to the stages of lockdown.2.

This notion of realistic and its antonym, unrealistic, is coming to haunt me. Scottish Government quite sensibly noted that, in their approach to lockdown, they must address themselves to the viable and effective options, to the realistic (in a package of principles underpinning their decisions listed as: safe, lawful, evidence-based, fair & ethical, clear, realistic, and collective). But what is realistic challenges what is a reasonable right at this point in time. With respect to our students, what such a crisis as COVID has done is make their hitherto reasonable asks around their education (and the partnership approach that developing such asks has implied) temporarily seem unreasonable to institutions turning their education and estates to the new normal.

From the perspective of the creative arts disciplines, it is clearly reasonable for our students to wish to continue with the access to studios they were used to in pre-COVID times (we believe that creativity and space to create go together and this has been stressed to them). This requirement is not, however, realistic under lockdown rules; It is reasonable to request access to maker spaces, given our prior offer, but this is not viable in the current context; it is reasonable to hope for continued live projects at the same rate within the curriculum as before, but unrealistic in the face of the cliff-edge fall that the creative and cultural ecology is experiencing; it is reasonable to want a physical degree show – the absolute curatorial, if not assessment, apex of all the work to develop creative expertise that a student has undertaken – but impracticable if a make-shift exhibition space that once held 200 people can now only hold 10; and it is reasonable to want the joy and at times nonsensical liturgy of a physical graduation, with pomp, ceremony, counter-cultural student challenges, and too much bad sherry, but unworkable to party in such a way at the moment.

Effectively, there is now a misalignment between the original disciplinary offer and expectations this fostered and what is realistically doable (when realistic is actually defined from a risk-assessment perspective as safe, lawful, evidence-based, fair & ethical, clear, and collective). The viability of options that we have come to take for granted (which could be said, therefore, to represent a consensus of the reasonable) have suddenly become difficult to fulfil in any known way and our usual cost/benefit assumptions seem no longer fit for purpose.

As we go into the next phase of our COVID response, it is hard not to predict that the tensions between the hitherto reasonable and the current ‘unrealistic’ will grow. This appears especially the case for the cohort that will make up next year’s finalists and already counts for this year’s graduates, whose education has been disrupted and whose economic futures are destabalized. Realism’s current approach to limits, however, needs to remain critiqued by all with an interest in art and design’s educational creative communities and the bi-directional porosity with the creative ecology they have.3.

This critique must ask questions of the systems of resource management applied by our society as embodied through the work of our parliament and it should perhaps do so using the principles established by the Scottish Government. The continued sense that resource inequity as seen in the creative ecology is either a viable or an effective option for our students needs to be challenged on the grounds that it is not safe, lawful, evidence-based, fair & ethical, clear, and is only collective as a collective of the disadvantaged.

What this means for the Scottish Government’s approach remains to be seen. Most of us will continue to contingency plan so that in Autumn we can support all our students to develop their creative expertise and possibly their pragmatic wisdoms to address themselves to creatively mapping and challenging the new normal. I will continue to be concerned by the tensions in the spaces between realistic and reasonable.

1. https://www.gov.scot/news/return-to-full-time-schooling/

2. Coronavirus (COVID-19): Framework for Decision Making: Scotland’s Route Map through and out of the crisis on 21 May 2020: https://www.gov.scot/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-framework-decision-making-scotlands-route-map-through-out-crisis-phase-2-update/

3. For more about this in the Scottish context see: Gunn, Vicky, Mackay, Jamie, Shrag, Anthony, O’Neill, Shaleph, Bennett, Stuart, Judd, Pauline M., Clifford, Alison and Campbell, Alasdair (2019) Describing and Understanding the Learner Journey with the Cultural Ecology of Scotland. Project Report. Quality Assurance Agency Scotland: http://radar.gsa.ac.uk/6887/ (full range of project outputs at: https://www.enhancementthemes.ac.uk/current-enhancement-theme/defining-and-capturing-evidence/the-creative-disciplines

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