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RCA Students Nurture Community through Research Biennial

The Royal College of Art is home to a vibrant community of researchers. Right now, as you read this, there are over 180 students enrolled on MPhils and PhDs across all of the College’s Schools – Architecture, Communication, Design, Fine Art, Humanities and Material.

While these students do produce the written theses that are the most recognisable outputs associated with research degrees, the RCA also has a strong tradition of practice-based and practice-led projects. These studies allow researchers to engage with ideas around materials, materiality and process, and push technological and technical innovations, creating new knowledge and expertise in art and design.

Why Would I Lie?, the 2015 Research Biennial, opening this Saturday, 18 April, tackles head on the challenges of representing a cohort of researchers defined more than anything by diversity.

Martina Margetts, Senior Research Tutor overseeing the Biennial, explains its purpose: ‘ The RCA is at the leading edge of art and design in the world, and it is the research students who are germinating the next generation of key ideas with their brilliant, speculative approaches to the ethics and aesthetics of their subjects. This fourth research biennial at the RCA is a creative crucible: events are all free and open to the public, aiming to provoke thought and lively discussion for everyone attending.’

Deliberately conceived as a series of interlocking events, including a major two-day conference, exhibition and publication, alongside linked talks, film screenings and symposia, the week-long biennial offers a flexible, open-minded model that seeks to reflect the full spectrum of research practices found at the RCA.

In attempting to capture the huge breadth of outputs, approaches and enquiries that sit under the umbrella of research at the College, Why Would I Lie? also puts renewed focus on what we mean by that student research community and, more importantly, how it can be supported and nurtured beyond special one-off occasions.

Susannah Haslam, PhD candidate in the School of Communication funded through the AHRC’s Creative Exchange research programme, and Helena Bonett, an AHRC-funded Collaborative Doctoral Award holder in Curating Contemporary Art, are part of the team that realised this year’s event, involved respectively in producing the accompanying publication and curating the biennial exhibition.

In the midst of the final stages of preparation, they reflected on the experience of organising the biennial, as well as their hopes for its continuing impact, offering comments that echo those of the event’s eleven-strong organising committee.

Both agree that the biennial is expressly designed to create momentum and encourage further cross-College collaboration – something that can be tricky to manage, especially after completion of the cross-College Research Methods Course, which all RCA MPhil and PhD students take together in the first year of their projects.

As Helena observes, ‘Our own collaboration on the biennial has demonstrated that continued collaboration is possible, although it has meant that those who have continued working on the biennial have been incredibly busy!’

Thinking about how the biennial galvanised the RCA’s research student community, Susannah suggests that the components were already in place, ready for consolidation: ‘It has been more about building up from the existing institutional infrastructure and progressing forward. The foundations of a research community are here: an academic institution and a widely cast research student body. It has been about realising and putting into action the potential of this foundation’.

Asked whether the College’s research student community is unique, both are quick to acknowledge that the experiences of MPhil and PhD students at the RCA are broadly similar to those of research students elsewhere, while also reiterating that the embedded nature of practice does result in distinctive perspectives.

Susannah elaborates, ‘Because practice-based or -led research is more or less commonplace, as research students at the RCA we get to experiment a lot more with, and push, the otherwise rigid and traditional frameworks of academic assessment than, perhaps, are more common elsewhere. This means, together, we can work through the challenges presented by these relatively new areas of research.’

She also notes that one of the key issues the biennial team engaged with was forging inclusive discursive forms that were expansive enough to accommodate the wealth of methods and approaches found at the RCA. She says, ‘Perhaps the challenge, rather than trying to speak or make decisions on behalf of an enormous group of people, is to essentially build a space for everyone to speak and make decisions. The biennial has allowed us to do this, to build a space in an attempt to move forward as a group, unified by the nature of being enrolled as research students at the RCA.’ 

Similarly, Helena highlights the importance of the biennial’s wider programming: ‘The discussion groups and film screenings that we have programmed in the run-up to the biennial, as well as the event itself, have been an attempt to keep cross-college dialogues open.’

Looking ahead, both are keen for continuation of the spirit of cross-College and cross-disciplinary discussion encouraged by the biennial, with Helena noting the ‘generous funding from the RCA Research Office’ the event received, reiterating the importance of continued support for future research-community-building ventures.

Emphasising the vital importance of building and supporting networks and collaborative activities, Susannah takes a holistic view of the research student experience, ‘It is about the environment which you build and sustain as a research community and in which you produce the work and all the other composite parts that make up the work: from the people you connect with, to the materials you use, to the disciplines that you contribute to.’

As she concludes, ‘I would like to continue inhabiting the space that we have built through the biennial and, in doing so, attempt to sustain the community this way – by pushing forward research and pushing it outward, beyond the College. It would be great if the next generations of research students can continue to build on this’.


Why Would I Lie? Royal College of Art Biennial 2015 is organised by Manca Bajec (Sculpture), Helena Bonett (Curating Contemporary Art), Susannah Haslam (Communication), Benjamin Koslowski (Information Experience Design), Peter Le Couteur (Sculpture), Carol Mancke (Sculpture), Brigid McLeer (Photography), Emily Richardson (Visual Communication), Kyuha Shim (Information Experience Design), Mercerdes Vicente (Critical Writing in Art & Design) and Natalja Vikulina (Visual Communication).

The conference takes place from 18–19 April. Attendance is free but delegates must register for a place through the conference website.

Admission to the exhibition is also free; the gallery space is open daily from 12.00pm to 6.00pm from 18–25 April.

Full details of the conference programme, exhibition, publication and events programme can be found here. For more information, please contact lie@rca.ac.uk.

Why Would I Lie? Royal College of Art Research Biennial 2015, 18–25 April, Royal College of Art, Dyson Building, 1 Hester Road, Battersea, London, SW11 4AN.