Dr Natalie Ferris
Dr Natalie Ferris graduated from Critical Writing in Art & Design at the RCA in 2012. Since then she has established a career in academia and as a writer. After leaving the RCA, she graduated with an AHRC-funded DPhil in English from the Queen's College, University of Oxford, and was awarded a Getty Research Institute Visiting Scholarship in spring 2015, and research scholarships at the Harry Ransom Center and Yale Center for British Art in 2016. She is the Arts & Architecture Editor of the Cambridge Humanities Review, the English Editor of the Korean Architectural Journal SPACE and has contributed pieces to the Guardian, Frieze, Tate Etc., The White Review, Oxford Poetry and a number of galleries. She is currently a Junior Teaching Fellow 2018 at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
How did your time at the RCA informed what you’ve gone on to do?
The Writing course blurs the distinction between imagination and intellect, committed to the idea that writing is a practice composed of creative and critical elements like any other craft. This took its hold, and has influenced all of my subsequent work as a writer, editor, and researcher. The course introduced me to so many voices that have continued to shape the ways I see, read and think: John Ashbery, John Berger, Christine Brooke-Rose, Brian Dillon, William Gass, Elizabeth Hardwick, Georges Perec, Susan Sontag.
My tutors also gave me the confidence to pursue a career in academic research and to apply for doctoral degrees. I graduated from Oxford with my DPhil in 2017, with a thesis on ‘Abstraction in Post-War British Literature 1945–1980’, which I am now revising for publication as my first monograph. So many of the ideas that emerge throughout this book took root while at the RCA: What is a literary object? How can writing be experimental? How have collaborations between writers, artists, and designers influenced new theories and technologies of seeing?
What attracted you to study on the Writing course?
A chance to undo the knots that had been tied throughout my undergraduate degree! In my final year, I had come to write in quite an exacting, mechanical way, largely for the purposes of exams, and the Writing course offered the space to explore more imaginative forms of critical writing and critical thinking, and the time to cultivate my own voice. I wanted to experiment, to write in a range of ways and for a variety of purposes, and to learn from other writers.
The opportunity to work within an art school was also very important to me: I wanted to write about art and design, but I also wanted to be amongst its makers. I was excited to spend time in studios, see works in progress, talk to artists and designers, become familiar with methods, concepts and techniques, and to think of critical practice as working in tandem with art practice.
What were you doing before you started studying at the RCA?
I was living in Cambridge and studying for a degree in English. After I graduated, I was not very clear on what I wanted to do: I moved back to Sussex and spent a lot of time in the months following in Brighton, weaving through the North Laines to tutor several German and Turkish students in English. It felt like a gift to find the call for applicants to a new course in Critical Writing at the RCA.
Do you have good memories of your time at the RCA?
I felt extremely lucky to be part of such a progressive new postgraduate course, and to work alongside so many talented people. It was such an exhilarating two years! The tutors created a unique context in which to write – we read key texts, spent time observing objects or environments, discussed each others’ work, and defended our own. I found the art school format of ‘crits’, by which we would write to set briefs and then meet to comment on each other’s work, really liberating. We were writing to be read by our peers, and to be challenged by them.
Some of my best memories lie in and around the old coppermine quarries at Coniston, while on a course pilgrimage to the home of one of the greatest critical thinkers, John Ruskin, and on a solo trip in the Vaucluse to write about the absence of the writer, Christine Brooke-Rose.
What are you currently working on?
I’m currently a Junior Teaching Fellow at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, developing a new interdisciplinary seminar series that explores periods and themes through objects drawn from the collections. So much of what I was taught to value during my time on the Writing programme – curiosity for the object, modes of attention, explorative discussion – has supported this role.
All the tutors at the RCA are eager to support the careers and ambitions of their students, and opportunities arise throughout the course to present your work to visiting journalists, publishers, producers and academics.
One of my most rewarding moments was witnessing the coming together of a conference I organised in 2013 to celebrate the life and legacy of Christine Brooke-Rose, a figure central to my masters dissertation. The speakers that gathered that day, such as John Calder, Tom McCarthy, Rick Poynor, Ali Smith, cast new light on Brooke-Rose’s fiction and criticism, argued for its relevance today, and set in motion conversations about women writers and experimental writing that have continued to run.
I would never have been able to coordinate an event of this scale without the faith and support of my tutors and fellow students. The event introduced me to many other readers and researchers just as I was about to embark on my DPhil, and prompted me to found the Christine Brooke-Rose Society with a colleague. Through Twitter and annual symposia, the society champions the work of neglected women writers and innovative contemporary critics (@CBrooke_Rose).
"I felt extremely lucky to be part of such a progressive new postgraduate course, and to work alongside so many talented people. It was such an exhilarating two years!"