This text is a transcript of a conversation. It is complete and yet it is a fragment of many conversations that people of colour (primarily but not exclusively) will have had. It’s a conversation that we want you to have at every opportunity; when an institution asks for your opinion, and, more importantly, when it doesn’t. If it isn’t clear from the transcript below, we’re exhausted. We’re overworked and unpaid. We know that if you aren’t already, you soon will be, so when we ask for this conversation to continue it’s in solidarity. This text was first published within In Residence as part of the exhibition and symposium by the same name held 16-18 March 2018. During those three days over 50 artists came together across three venues. Simultaneously an act of self care, and defiance, In Residence created space for vital conversations and challenged the lack of visibility for artists and students of colour within this city.
A chat between Heidi (hc) and Harvey (hd) and Danny (dp) at Ranjits.
dp The idea of interviewing you and getting some context of how it’s been started from Heidi asking to put a note to Tom Inns at the end of the publication which said “Tom Inns don’t think we’ve forgotten you” which I thought should still be in there in some form but also wanted to understand where that came from. I guess that could be a way into talking about what it’s been like interfacing with the institution [The Glasgow School of Art].
Do you wanna work backwards from that comment?
hc After last term’s experiences, where towards the end, the school stopped even pretending to care, we refocused the society and our energies towards something which is actually more beneficial to us. But while we’re still working within the institution we don’t want Tom Inns to forget. We haven’t forgotten, but that it’s our choice whether we chose to act upon that or not, it’s not up to him.
dp You haven’t forgotten the lack of response to the demands? [the POC society has outlined demands which include, for example, reducing the 18% attainment gap between white and non-white students to 0%]
hc That but also the statistics generally, their attitudes towards us, their attitudes towards non-white students generally not just within the POC society.
hd I think the attitude was pretty much summed up by Ken Neil when he said to Carol in one of the meetings “if you don’t like it then why are you here”. That is literally what he said word for word. I think that’s the attitude of the institution. It’s kind of weird cos we’re paying 9 grand to be there and we both want an art degree, but we have to deal with all this shit. It’s very much if you don’t like it, don’t come here which is pretty shit.
dp That’s pretty amazing it’s pretty much like “Go home”, it’s the equivalent of that.
hc Definitely, the conversation about why are you here or why are you trying to do this even though this might not be great for you has come up quite a few times in the last few weeks. And it always comes back down to the fact that survival and success for people of colour, or marginalised people generally, is framed in very like traditional ways, and that has to be navigated personally and structurally. I don’t think white people understand that. It’s like “if you hate it then why do you still do this or why are you still fighting?” But it’s so much more than that. For us it’s not just a flippant decision. For me personally that decision could be the difference between being disowned by my family or not. That’s not the only way it can work, for each person of colour it’s nuanced in a different way.
dp So survival is the survival of the self as you want to self define.
dp So to be told to give up is kinda like being told to just die…
dp The death of the you that is able to express yourself freely.
hd Yeh and you’d think that art school would be the place to do that, but a lot of people have to dull down, their, not radical elements but, elements that don’t fit into the white-private-school-educated atmosphere that GSA and most other art colleges adhere to.
They’re the people that these institutions support, so yeh it kinda feels like you need to dull down certain things because if you’re in a crit or in your class you’ll probably be the only person of colour. That kind of social pressure is quite hard to battle to actually say what you feel.
You’re [hc] quite good at saying what you feel in front of people, and the consequences for you are harmful. Where as I dull down what I’m actually feeling, which is kind of bad but it’s the easier thing to do.
hc I think it’s harmful in both ways. Comparison is almost unnecessary because yes, I might get anxiety from having said something, but you get just as much anxiety from not saying something which is why the art school environment is so toxic. You can’t win at it.
But also, that phrase “if you don’t like it then why are you here”, implies that the problems that you’re pointing out are only there because you’re there to point them out. That assumes that if you’re not here then these problems don’t exist which is untrue.
dp It’s also akin to saying you are the problem. If it’s a problem to point out racism then that shows that the proper functioning of the school is racist, and obviously that’s not news to us but it’s interesting the way that through these meetings with management they can’t help but acknowledge it in a kind of round about way.
I was reading about some of the research funding GSA receives. They’re funded on certain projects by BAE systems – the huge arms manufacturer and dealer – which have just sold £10 billion worth of jets to Saudi Arabia. Also funding this DDS project into 3d real time visualisation, is the very ominously named Thales – Future Integrated Soldier Technology. [DDS became the School of Simulation and Visualisation at the GSA the project in question ended in 2016]
I was thinking of the intersections of these things sorts of things. What is anti-racism within an art school and how does that connect to anti-imperialism and anti-war? The flip side of that is how imperialism and war connect to racism through the institution. Why it would perhaps not be so surprising for them to say “if you don’t like it then why are you here” – which I’m likening to “go home” – while also being funded by BAE systems. It’s common, you know, BAE fund a lot of universities around the country, but it was surprising.
hc At the same time, thinking back to the places like the Tate Modern – they’re funded by BP (British Petroleum) and have had shows with BMW [after sustained protest campaigns BP ended their 26 year sponsorship of the Tate in 2017, but the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Opera House, the Royal Shakespeare Company still receive money from BP] and I guess that hammers in the point that the art school is a microcosm of the art world at large. That’s why the society is so important to me, because even though we’re only within GSA not even Glasgow wide, the society is a place where we can mobilise and learn for the future.
But in terms of imperialism and war and GSA I think that speaks for itself.
dp It would be interesting to look further into the school and those kinds of links, I suppose because the GSA was founded as an industrial design school and obviously industry has always had links with the war machine because the British state is an imperial state.
hd Is it publicly visible that information?
dp Yeh on their website.
hd Saudi Arabia are involved in the war in Yemen at the moment so basically the GSA are like “oh it’s fine yeah we’re funded by a company that sells arms to Saudi Arabia who are killing people every day”. I mean it all comes with like the commodification of education. That’s not an excuse for the GSA but as soon as you put fees up to 9 grand and you charge people that much it becomes a business which takes peoples money and as soon as that happens you lose integrity and morals go completely out the window and I think that’s whats happened to a lot of elite universities.
It’s never been easy to be a person of colour in an elite institution but when it costs that much money to go there in the first place, with the intersection between race and class you relegate a whole group of people.
hc I think also art schools function differently to more generalised universities in that art school grade statistics are, how do I put it? People don’t really care about them as much because it’s generally about the names that have come out and so with GSA it makes even more sense for them to become an enterprise that churns students out because the more things they can throw at the Turner prize the more likely they are to hit it people out and so it’s not even about finding the student that’s appropriate but just getting as many as possible through the system. I think you can really feel that at GSA.
dp This reminds me of something that came up in a directors forum in second year…I got all emotional talking about how art schools should be utopian spaces and that the directorate and Tom Inns have a responsibility to society to use the power they have to be a progressive force…that they should use their leverage to provide below market rate or free accommodation for lower income students. But by 4th year that hope of art school as a utopian space fades. You’re ground down by this factory mentality and you just try to get in, get what you can, and get out. Tom Inns’ reply to me was that actually the GSA name will follow you around long after you leave, that you will always have been a GSA student.
Do you have any thoughts about the inverse of that, which is whatever we do, what every success we may have, they can claim as their own? despite some of the inexcusable stuff we’ve talked about so far?
hd It’s a very colonial attitude to have; any success you have now belongs to us. They trade on reputation so any success a graduate has they can use to their own advantage. Unless you publicly shame them like Jenny Saville did but then they’ve distanced themselves from her because she didn’t enjoy being there.
hc I purposely don’t put that I’m studying at the GSA on my website. There are multiple reasons for that but one of the main ones is that I don’t want to be feeding into that brand without saying what I need to say. In terms of when I leave; making sure to always be truthful about the experience. My cousin recently applied to photography courses in the U.K and was asking which places she should go. So to answer, it was again recognising that as a person of colour you will probably have to go to university because that changes your prospects, but not romanticising the whole experience and being very clear about the problems you may encounter, and recognising that these problems are legitimate and valid even though other people may say that they’re not.
This text piece was read out at GSA’s Director’s Forum on Friday 16th March, 2018. For GSA students the minutes can be found here, under the link ‘Our Survey Says…’.