Writing at the RCA

Writer, critic, editor and curator Dr Brian Dillon spoke with RCA Blog about the MA Writing programme, including the recent renaming from Critical Writing in Art & Design, the productive intersection of writing with other practices at the RCA and the interdisciplinary approaches and skills needed to practice as a writer.

Dr Brian Dillon
Dr Brian Dillon
Dillon is acting Head of Programme for the MA Writing programme at the RCA. His most recent book Essayism was published by Fitzcarraldo Editions and is a critical and personal reflection on the essay as literary form. His previous books cover diverse topics from photography to hypochondria, and include The Great Explosion (2015), about the 1916 explosion at a gunpowder factory on the north Kent marshlands, and Objects in this Mirror (2014): a collection of essays on contemporary art, literature and cultural history. Dillon curated Ruin Lust at Tate Britain in 2014 and Curiosity: Art and thePleasures of Knowing for Hayward Touring in 2013. He is UK editor of Cabinet magazine, and writes regularly for such publications as frieze, Artforum, the Guardian and London Review of Books.

RCA Blog: What is the essence of the Writing programme at the RCA?

The programme was set up as Critical Writing in Art & Design by Professor David Crowley in 2010 with writing at its core, and – importantly – was embedded in the teaching and research culture of an art school. A great strength has been the specific overlap between critical writing on art and culture, and creative writing, especially fiction. We’re recognising this breadth and fluidity by renaming the programme Writing.

RCA Blog: What does the art school context bring to the table? 

We teach in the studio model, which is used throughout art education. That means that students’ own practice, how they develop a voice and a sense of the scope of what they can do creatively and intellectually, is central to how we teach.

Being embedded in an art school means that the horizons within which students work, the kinds of subjects they write about, but much more importantly the kinds of processes, styles and voices that they are exposed to and acquire in their own work are wider than in a conventional creative writing programme. 

RCA Blog: What kind of teaching can students expect from the programme?

Critical Writing Seminar
Critical Writing Seminar
Photographer: Richard Haughton
At the heart of our teaching, week-to-week, are the writing workshops. These involve a brief, which may be something very practical, such as to write an exhibition review or a catalogue essay, or it can be much more open, such as to consider a particular subject, like ‘attention’. The workshops also range in terms of the length of piece that we might ask a student to produce. That could be three sentences, or 3,000 words.

Alongside the workshops, we run critical reading seminars where you might be reading art criticism, art history or cultural history, but equally we could ask you to read fiction, poetry, anthropology or philosophy. The range of disciplines that we draw on is very wide, but we’re always thinking about the writing itself, not just as a stylistic concern, but looking at how it is expressed, what its audience is, how ideas are encapsulated and communicated. 

All of this is heading towards a major piece of writing that we call the Final Major Project. We don’t call it a dissertation because we’re very open about the form it takes. It might be an essay, or it might be fictional or partly fictional. It need not necessarily be a piece of writing, it could be a sound work, for example an extended podcast or a radio documentary.

RCA Blog: What makes studying Writing within the School of Arts & Humanities at the RCA unique?

The School of Arts & Humanities offers an opportunity for rethinking the relationship between artistic practice and the scholarly or academic disciplines that work alongside that. We don’t just offer a historical or critical perspective on what artists are doing, we’re also engaged in practice, and the conversation takes place among all of these disciplines.

One of the principles that we’ve always worked with, and that I want to insist on, is that we learn from disciplines that are not our own, that are adjacent to ours. That certainly has been true for our students as writers, thinking about how contemporary artists, photographers, designers or curators work. It’s also true for creative writers that you learn from other kinds of writing discipline: a poet can learn from an art critic, a critic can learn from a novelist.

RCA Blog: Who should apply to the Writing programme?

We’re interested in people for whom writing is the centre of what they do. Our students come from diverse backgrounds in terms of disciplines, from art history or literature, to practising artists. We welcome people who want to write about contemporary art, and we’ve always had a strong presence of students with a design and especially fashion background. At the same time, there is a flourishing field of overlap between art practice, art criticism and creative writing. So we’re also open to students from a creative writing background, whether their practice is in fiction or poetry or even drama.

RCA Blog: Would you say that the Writing programme is for people who really want to understand what writing is as a practice, or who want to interrogate themselves as a writer through testing different approaches?

We have always encouraged experiment and therefore we’re open to failure. The writing workshops that we run are not graded; you’re not marked on the work for those shorter-term projects – they are experiments, and they can fail. There isn’t the sense that everything you write is a preparation for your first meeting with an agent or your first submission to a literary magazine.

That said, the programme has always been insistent on relationships with the real world of publishing. We expect students to produce work from the start that could live in the real world and very early on work that they write for us is published in contemporary art magazines, literary magazines, online and so on.

I’ve begun in the past year or so to expand the amount of time we spend thinking about and working on editing. Both at the very detailed level of how one works with sentences and paragraphs, and also thinking about the commissioning process, whether that is in an art or culture magazine, literary journal or among publishers of books.

RCA Blog: So it’s training for the professional realities of being a writer?

We remind our students of those realities all the time. And maybe there is a distinction to be made between how we teach writers of all persuasions and how a more conventional creative writing programme might do that. We’re hothousing our students to some degree, but we’re also expecting them to be out in the world 

RCA Blog:  What do students do after the programme?

Patrick Langley's first novel Arkady, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions
Arkady, by Patrick Langley, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions
Our students are like most of our staff… they have many strings to their bow, and they pursue their writing and thinking in several directions at once. That means typically that many of our students are working as freelance writers alongside editorial positions or administrative positions, or they’re curating shows and at the same time pursuing a literary work.

Some people have gone into editorial positions at magazines, such as Time Out or The White Review, others have gone into institutional roles. One of our graduates is leading interpretation texts at the Hayward. Many of our students have also gone straight from our programme to PhD study. The academic as well as creative benefits of our programme make it a good springboard.

Increasingly, it’s been obvious that our students have an ambition to publish fiction. There’s one novel coming out next month with Fitzcarraldo Editions, Arkady by Patrick Langley, an early graduate of the programme. I think that we’re going to see more and more of our students moving in that direction.

RCA Blog: What does the Writing programme offer people aspiring to be fiction writers, that a creative writing MA wouldn’t?

In the art school and the art world more generally there has been a real commitment to exploring the word and literary work in general. There is a sense that writing and publishing are fields of experiment, in ways that of course they are within traditional publishing and more conventional creative writing programmes, but there’s an insistence on opening up forms, on pushing out the boundaries of what those forms are that the art school seems very well placed to pursue at the moment.

Our contacts with the literary world are very strong – we have relationships with publications such as The White Review, and with publishers such as Fitzcarraldo. We’ve hosted events with prominent writers, especially the more experimental end of contemporary writing, such as Chris Kraus, Ben Lerner, Maggie Nelson, Lynne Tillman and Tom McCarthy, all of them people who are working in forms that seem hybrid or interdisciplinary, who are able to move between the essay as a form, or fiction, poetry or cultural criticism.

Find out more about the MA Writing programme at the RCA, and how to Apply.