The art school is too airless, inaccessible and contactless. Artist Mark Leckey is trying to change that

Artists have inevitably been tempted to imagine alternatives to formal art school education since it first appeared in the Renaissance in the form of academies, with their sophisticated, traditional, and exclusive associations.

“An oasis of decency for artists outside the system,” promised a prospectus for the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing, founded in Suffolk, England, in 1937 by artists Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett-Haines. The legendary school would count Maggi Hambling and Lucian Freud among its students.

In recent years, YBA artist Marcus Harvey founded the artist-run Turps Art School of painting in London. Described in the Guardian As a “renegade,” his stated goal is “to challenge the one-size-fits-all, inch-deep, mile-wide approach to arts education.”

Earlier this year, Tracey Emin also announced plans to set up TKE Studios in Margate, with a focus on blending different generations and encouraging critical rigor.

Music and Video Lab students. Photo: Perran Tremewan.

In an even more ambitious attempt to increase access to art, artist Mark Leckey piloted his music and video lab this summer. The free, month-long art course is designed to appeal to people aged 18-25.

This first run took place in the old mining town of Redruth, Cornwall, initiated by Teresa Gleadowe, curator of arts organization CAST, and Auction House, a project space by artist Liam Jolly. The project cost £15,000 ($18,000) and was supported by Arts Council England.

The final works will be shown at CAST from August 5th to September 3rd. We caught up with Leckey to learn more about his reasons for starting the course and the complicated process of reaching new audiences.

What were your own experiences with art education?

I left school at 16 and was unemployed for about four years. That was in the early 1980s when there were things like the Youth Training Scheme and the Youth Opportunities Program, so I did that but got into trouble and had no direction. Because I could draw, someone suggested I go to art school. I’ve always liked music and I knew that many musicians and bands had gone to art school, so both my ability to draw and the romantic notion of being in a rock band drew me into it.

At that point, I was an adult student, so I got a full scholarship and my housing benefit was paid. All of this made going to college financially better than staying at home. Those opportunities are now completely gone, along with other public services I enjoyed, like youth clubs. One of the reasons for the course is this lack of opportunity, especially for people from backgrounds where college is unaffordable or beyond their cultural visibility.

Mark Leckey speaks to a student at the Music and Video Lab. Photo: Perran Tremewan.

Why did you decide to start the course and call it the Music and Video Lab?

That’s an idea I’ve been carrying around with me for a long time. The idea is to reach people who would not normally have such access. Redruth is a disadvantaged neighborhood and we wanted to find young people for whom going to university is not an essential development in their education.

We have avoided talking about an artistic course, because then all applicants are already thinking of an art college. To try and take that a little further, we decided to just find people interested in taking a creative editing course. If you can encourage it more as a way of expanding technical skills or as a network, it doesn’t seem as daunting as I think art can be if you haven’t been enculturated into it.

What was the challenge in finding applicants for the course?

I had tackled this idea before and the problem is always reaching the public and finding the right channels to those people. We have applied to local community colleges and social groups that are based in Cornwall. I don’t know Cornwall so I couldn’t easily navigate it. If we do it again it will probably be in Blackpool or London.

My idea was to promote it through music and recruit fairly well-known musicians. We made a poster with their names to get people’s attention. [Musician guests included Gazelle Twin, Patten, and Lee Gamble.] The problem was that we were trying to reach people in a physical realm, while their information is all in the digital and I don’t have access to it.

How did you develop a curriculum and how was the course structured?

I wouldn’t call it a curriculum and it wasn’t very structured. There was a lot more messing around and there were aspects more akin to a youth club. We had no idea what phase they would be in, so we had to do it a bit spontaneously and get to know them. I started by showing them things I’d collected on YouTube and TikTok and then mixed that with artist videos and movie clips.

They would then go to their laptops and either I or Liam would talk to them one by one. We talked about whether something they saw interested them or sparked an idea, and then I showed them gadgets—auditory and visual tricks—that they could use. The curriculum just tried to give them both the tools and the thought to edit creatively.

Music and Video Lab students. Photo: Perran Tremewan.

Do you think artists start their own schools to try and improve the art school system?

I think university courses are under a lot of pressure but I don’t want them to be replaced. I went to art school 30 years ago and in terms of teaching I would say it was more of a mix but the art schools were also almost entirely white so there have been changes for the better.

My studies would perhaps be more of a basic course, but not necessarily with the aim of continuing my education. It could be easy to keep being a musician and make your own music videos or do something on YouTube. My interests lie in both art and visual culture as well as social media and I find them equally creative and productive.

Why did you decide to take out the critical aspects that are usually a big part of art school?

I have an ambivalence there because one cannot work without critical knowledge, but at the same time this criticism can have an inhibiting effect. I had read novels, but I hadn’t really read like I was asked to when I got into art school. I found that very difficult. This ability to read critical texts without being intimidated or feeling like it wasn’t my language came to me much, much later. But this critical path can also be opening and transformative.

[At Music and Video Lab] You can start making something without worrying about whether it’s art or whether it’s in discourse. You can come to the questions later and move toward a criticality, but not start there.

What kind of work was done in the course?

There was a variety. One singer made a music video for her songs, another kid made a techno track, and another collected all the videos he had on his phone into a grime track he wrote. The success for me was that everyone produced something and nobody got stuck. When I look back on my time in art school and teaching in art schools, that’s the biggest hurdle. The good thing about this course is that they all flowed and that was really rewarding to watch.

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