How Instagram Became a Tool of Resistance for Art Students During the Crisis

Covid-19 has seen art students chucked out of their studios and left without degree shows. Now students across the UK are coming together to demand more from their education.

Factory, 2019, Maddie Exton
Factory, 2019, Maddie Exton

Everyone knew it was coming, but one mid-March day we were given twelve hours to clear all we needed out of the studios. Amidst the nationwide uncertainty around Coronavirus, we were told that we would not be let back in for an indefinite period of time. In a quiet frenzy my peers and I took photographs of our studio spaces and bundled bits of metal, clay, canvases and other art detritus into Ikea bags and wheelie trolleys. This was the scene in art schools across the country where, after weeks of important UCU strikes against the  degradation of university workers’ conditions, Covid-19 forced everyone to give it up and go home.

Course tutors and lecturers in all university departments have had to struggle to find some way to make this new set of circumstances work. The business-oriented Zoom, which Max Kohler has written about the dangers of, is now a main communicative tool for art students—along with a host of other futuristically-named apps. “We’ve tried out every platform under the sun. We even had a meeting on Discord [a gaming chat app], that’s how bad it’s got!” laughs Lily Thomson, a final year fine art student at Leeds. “We had one call with our whole year and the tutors, that was seventy people…no one’s bandwidth can deal with that.”

Many students will find working from home, without face-to-face contact or access to libraries, near-impossible. As a result, there has been a proliferation of petitions calling for safety nets to protect final year grades. But for art students, grades mean little in comparison to a degree show. While they won’t make or break your career, they feel for many like the pivotal moment they’ve been working towards for the past three or four years. “A lot of our course mates were gutted; there were a lot of tears,” recalls Natasha Alexander, a final year at York St John.



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It is difficult to remember a time when Instagram was not near the centre of a global network of art students, artists, collectives, galleries and magazines, despite only being launched in 2010. Now it seems like one of the last tools standing; galleries are eagerly posting updates to maintain an audience, and initiatives like The Artists Support Pledge have taken off. With no possibility of a physical show any time soon, final year students have used the app as one way to keep moving through the mess.

“It is difficult to remember a time when Instagram was not near the centre of a global network of art students, artists and galleries”

The Social Distance Art Project, a website and Instagram account set up by a group of four students from York St John, is currently taking submissions from final years with cancelled shows. “We really enjoyed the studio culture,” explains co-founder Natasha. “The four of us, our studios are next to each other, and we were all talking about what was happening and what we can do about it, since there are obviously hundreds of students in the same position as us.” The platform has grown beyond their expectations, and the team are now taking submissions for a volunteer to help out. “In the comments other art students are getting together and having the opportunity to talk,” says Natasha.

Edinburgh final year MA student Jody Mulvey set up @sadgrads2020 “to try to combat the feeling that because we have lost this moment within our academic career, our artistic career must be doomed.” They post submissions from final years across a variety of art schools, as well as sharing petitions and other resources. “Sad Grads and The Social Distance Art Project have helped open that [dialogue across institutions] up,” says Maya Wallis, a final year at Newcastle who has been inspired to reopen submissions for her platform @_rubb3r. Many departments with existing accounts have also opened themselves up for takeovers, such as @sladepainting, Newcastle’s @jane_doe_101 and Glasgow’s @pee.and.peemaking, and @kingstonfineart3rdyear, while On Hold Video Festival has been set up on Facebook to showcase student video art.



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Students who have lost access to their workshops or studios are inevitably finding that their practice has changed, sometimes in surprising ways. “I have a friend who mostly uses concrete,” says Lily, “which isn’t going to work in a student house, so he’s just got really into pickling things instead”. Even some working digitally have had to give up projects close to their hearts without access to the expensive software and computers to process them.

“All of my footage is 4K, so even if I open the project my laptop will freak out,” says Newcastle final year Susie Davies. She’s turned to Ableton, learning to make music from scratch. “Some of my friends are doing tons of textiles in their house—making cushions and things. There’s a need more than ever to stay creative, but maybe it’s not about the result, more the process, and keeping busy”. Another submissions-led Instagram account, @quarantinedreams2020, has started an open call for students to share photos of home workspaces.

“It’s not easy to keep sharing work when the space and resources to actually make it have been lost”

But it’s not easy to keep sharing work when the space and resources to actually make it have been lost. For some, a bedroom studio is never going to happen. In a CSM postgraduate survey carried out by the UAL student committee, 79.3 per cent of students said they did not have the facilities to complete their final project without the use of the college building. “I mean I would Zoom-call the technicians, but I don’t have any saws here,” says Newcastle final year Roman Vaughan-Williams. And, as Aisha S. Ahmad reminds us, care (for ourselves, each other and our communities) has got to come before work at a time of global disaster.



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“It’s exciting to be exposed to so much artwork made by students, because normally it’s quite difficult to even attend a degree show in another university. They’re either too far, or economically it’s hard for people, or you just don’t have the time,” says Gul Jilani, another Newcastle final year student. “But looking at so much art when you have to make art right now can also be quite burdensome…especially when some people are really able to get on with things or they haven’t been really disturbed by these circumstances.”

It’s clear that accounts like @sadgrads2020, @thesocialdistanceartproject and @quarantinedreams2020 are not alternatives to degree shows, and while there’s exciting work on them, an Instagram post is a pretty limiting format for an artwork for obvious reasons. But an opportunity has been thrown up for art students to organise in a meaningful network across schools. “Reducing an artwork to how many ‘likes’ it can get on Instagram is problematic in itself, which is why I want to be able to use the platform to facilitate live crits or artist takeovers and interviews once I’ve finished my university work” explains Jody.

Credit @freeze_magazine
Credit @freeze_magazine

Whilst most students I spoke to told of transparency and huge support from tutors who really care, some universities are resistant to even basic communication. The outcry against the RCA’s underhand attempt to move their courses and degree show online has helped to spark a number of petitions from those at other institutions. These aim to begin a dialogue with management about what their school and show could look like.

“Reducing an artwork to how many ‘likes’ it can get on Instagram is problematic in itself”

Petitions from ECA, Gray’s, Belfast and Brighton are circulating on Instagram, and UAL students have launched the #pauseorpay social media campaign—which asks for a postponement of studies or reimbursement (according to the CSM postgraduate survey 91.3 per cent of students want partial reimbursement). “The problem is not the tutors who we see on a day-to-day basis, but those higher up in the institution,” explains Natasha. “It’s the ones who don’t really have any understanding of how vital it is to be with the work; or the opportunities for networking you can’t get from, say, sending an email.”



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The responses to the crisis further illuminate the vast gap in motives (and in salary) between university upper management and teaching staff. It also shines a light on the flaws that physical degree shows have long been riddled with, and which now cannot be ignored. Even if shows are postponed, there will be issues with installing work in studio spaces occupied by other year groups. At Newcastle University, one suggestion has been a city-wide show that will involve multiple venues, which has the potential to make a degree show more accessible, as well as help build better relationships between art schools and their local communities.



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For art students, the most important impact of this period may not be the work that comes out of it. It sometimes feels as though the recent shifting of our worlds and communications online has been an unconscious form of preparation for a crisis that forces you to work (if you’re lucky) and socialize from home. Now, art students in the UK are a tiny fraction of the population who are having to look beyond their institutions, to each other, for support, and to organise.

“We are signing each other’s degree show petitions, providing each other empathy and helping with situations that once seemed totally out of our hands,” Emily Clarke from @quarantinedreams2020 tells me. Hopefully, when the storm is over, we might start moving towards a scenario where art schools and universities are able to be held to account, with students and tutors at the forefront. And whilst Instagram, a platform owned by a data-selling billionaire that algorithmically privileges some posts over others, could never be the ultimate protest tool, students are making the best of what’s available. They are working together in ways that might just help the art world to finally demand more from its education.