Meet Jeremy Millar, Acting Head of Programme, MA Writing
Jeremy Millar is an artist. He has curated numerous exhibitions and written extensively about contemporary art. At the RCA he is Senior Tutor for MA Contemporary Art Practice and Acting Head of MA Writing. We spoke with him about writing, how it is taught at the RCA and what makes it good.
What makes good writing?
Many things, and many of them mutually contradictory. Sometimes I say to potential applicants to the programme that their writing should make me want to read more, but that doesn’t always mean right now: some writing insists upon being taken more slowly, or in smaller portions. This might have something to do with a certain density of language, or richness of form, or it might be the opposite, and one might like to put down the text in order to consider it, or allow it to consider us.
Perhaps what makes good writing – or writing good – is that it makes something, whether a thought, an experience, or a sense. Circumstance is important: whether one is introducing an artist who may be unknown to an audience, or is asking them to think differently about one with whom they think themselves familiar, requires different things. There is scarcely anything more exciting than reading about an artwork one thinks one knows well, only for the writer’s description to make it new.
What most interests you in the process of writing?
Writing is mainly not writing, and the not-writing parts can often be the more interesting – meeting people, eating food, looking upon things both beautiful and not. But writing is mainly reading anyway, not just the writing of other people, but also one’s own, reading back over what one has just written. What is most interesting here is that it can – sometimes – reveal a thought which is better, more original perhaps, than one which one had had before: the thought wasn’t written down, but the writing had the thought.
Which writers have had the biggest impact on you?
Many, and for many different reasons. I am about to start writing a piece on the American artist Robert Smithson – with whom I was long ago obsessed – and I can see how important his writing has been upon much of what I have done, whether as a writer, curator, or artist. Sometimes what is most important is not the biggest impact but the most sustaining uncertainty, and for this I shall always have Anne Carson and Susan Howe, Lisa Robertson and WG Sebald.
How do you teach writing on the Writing programme at the RCA?
One learns how to write by writing, and so that is what we do. (We do a lot of reading, also, but then as I said, writing is largely reading anyway.) For most of the programme, students are asked to respond to particular briefs – to write a review essay, or to interview someone they consider important – although how they do so is at their discretion; word counts and deadlines provide some structure, and a sense of how they might operate outside of the programme, too. The students then read each other’s work and we discuss them in turn. It is in these discussions that the most wonderful things can be learnt (rather than taught).
My colleague Emily LaBarge leads a publishing project during which students conceive, write, edit, and produce a publication; this past year it was an issue of the RCA’s student publication, ARC, and it shall be this coming year, too. This encourages students to consider how best one might work with others, and their work, whether that is in editing a text, or commissioning a designer. This year students were able to work with some extraordinary writers, such as Wayne Koestenbaum, Travis Alabanza, and Juliet Jacques, amongst others.
The student’s final major project (FMP), their equivalent to a final show or dissertation, is something which they largely conceive themselves in both form and content, and is often the point where lots of the things which they’ve learnt over the previous year come together to produce something wholly new. Many of these have become published books, or the first steps towards a PhD, and it is always fascinating to watch these emerge, often from something largely unformed and often unknown.
How has the programme adapted to Covid-19?
Our classes now take place over Zoom, and this allows us to be joined by those whom we would not have been able to previously. Last term students had a session with Season Butler, who was in Berlin, and also three extraordinary sessions over as many weeks with Lisa Robertson, from her home in rural France. Before Covid-19 neither of us could have afforded these sessions – whether due to time or money – but now we are able to do so. We’re excited by what this new form of teaching can make accessible, and not simply in terms of who it allows to join us as visiting lecturers, but as students, too. At a time when it is ever-more important to hear a greater diversity of voices, we hope that students might join us without the practical difficulties of actually being in London.
While the past few months have been a lot of work for the Writing team – Emily, Sally O’Reilly, and our administrator Tess Piggott – I think that our ability to respond quickly to new circumstances is what made last term so successful, and what is so exciting about the year to come.
What do students write about on the programme?
If the range of subjects about which our students write can be overwhelming – whether a critical bestiary of Singapore, or writing behaviours in the form of ancient architecture, to take just two examples from this year alone – then the form that they take makes this greater still. Simply to say ‘balconies’, or ‘rooms’ (another two of this year’s subjects), reveals nothing of the sense of the unexpected which comes from actually reading them, that sense of revelation itself. And this sense is not simply the reader’s alone, but often the student’s, too.
And what do they do next?
Many things: some continue within academia, while others take on roles as editors, whether within universities or galleries, newspapers or magazines; some have even launched their own publications, such as Dirty Furniture, or Tinted Window. Of course many continue to write – there is seldom an issue of Frieze or Art Monthly which does not contain something by one of our graduates – and there are books to be published shortly by Hatty Nestor and Jeremy Atherton Lin which grew from their work on the programme.But even if our graduates don’t continue to write I’d still hope that the programme has been important for them. When John Ruskin established his school for drawing in Oxford it was not simply that he considered drawing important in itself, but because it was the means by which one could give the world its due attention, whether that be a tree, or the conditions of labourers, and we think of writing similarly. After being on the programme our students notice more, and understand it better.
Find out more about MA Writing and how to apply.