ShowRCA 2016: School of Humanities – Polyphony, Provocations and Bold Designs
In a curated exhibition that showcases experimental, critical and practice-based approaches, all the programmes that make up the School of Humanities show together at Battersea for the first time at ShowRCA 2016. Occupying a single space in the Dyson Building, prominently visible from Battersea Bridge Road, the work has been carefully designed to speak volumes, to broadcast, and to get the word out. There are lines of dialogue with the city, with the wider world, and across programmes, and a crucial positioning of history, theory, anthropology, philosophy, literature, criticism, and so on, within the RCA’s vital context of making, materials and performance.
Printed publications abound, with individual books by each Critical Writing in Art & Design (CWA&D) student and collaborative publications by all three programmes. The precise hand of designers – many of them from the RCA’s School of Communication – lends an elegance and coherence to the whole display, with distinct design languages that draw together the array of outputs, from books, to posters, to websites, to the promotional material for a series of events. These events, including symposia and book launches, further open up the writing and ideas, inviting critical reflection and provoking responsive discussion.
Work from the V&A/RCA History of Design programme is presented under the overarching title Zatsu, a term introduced in their collaborative publication: ‘Zatsu 雜, meaning “miscellany” in Japanese, captures well the different voices, subject matter and approaches brought to the research and writing of the students.’ Projects here prove that attending to the neglected, the overlooked, the miscellaneous, can offer great richness of insight into our world, from an oral history project that complicates and overhauls our understanding of the East London printing industry and its demise, to research into the design, production, promotion and dissemination of tweed in the interwar years in Britain, and an investigation into the role and rituals of floristry.
Echoing the statement of variety within collaboration summed up in Zatsu, the editors of CWA&D’s Honey, I’m Home: Writing on Property, Ownership and Access assert in their introduction: ‘The nature of Honey, I’m Home is necessarily unique, having produced a kind of polyphony as opposed to harmony, or a neat set of conclusions. But, of course, it is this polyphony that best represents its subject matter: as within any lived space, voices, opinions and accents overlap.’ In their consideration of property, ownership and access, the students show great depth of thinking, not just in theory but also in practice, ensuring their collaborative publication is not only affordably priced but also widely available as free PDFs after the Show closes.
This degree of critical rigour also ran through the process of conceiving and writing Honey, I’m Home, for which students invited critics and thinkers to respond to their ideas, including writer and Frieze co-editor Jennifer Higgie and Jack Self, architect, writer and co-curator of the British Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale, whose preface opens the book. With the same spirit of critical reflection, students from Curating Contemporary Art have followed up the presentation of their four independent projects in March this year with their publication, Tetralogy, which presents writing, artworks, documentation and commissioned essays. This is accompanied by a website, where Tetralogy can be downloaded for free, alongside a series of videos and podcasts drawn from events and conversations around the four exhibitions.
In 2016 the School of Humanities, and each programme within it, has come together to showcase individuals’ endeavours, each experimenting with pushing the boundaries of their fields, whether in terms of methodology, subject matter, or geographical or chronological reach. For one Research student with an interest in the voice and sound as a tool of practice in the humanities, that experiment has involved presenting excerpts from Research students’ theses, read aloud by each author. Not sitting back and taking for granted an audience for their words, here is a polyphony, bold designs, provocative statements, sights and sounds to behold. Students from the School of Humanities have something to say, and they are going to make sure you hear it.