Edinburgh College of Art's online degree show aims to cause a global stir – Professor Juan Cruz

A reimagined degree show illustrates how Edinburgh College of Art has the scope, vision and verve to become the world’s best, says Principal Professor Juan Cruz

Reclamation of the Exposition is a work by photography student Tayo Adekunle
Reclamation of the Exposition is a work by photography student Tayo Adekunle

Since becoming principal of Edinburgh College of Art in September, I’ve been getting to know this unique and remarkable institution as extraordinary events have been impacting on all our lives. Never has it been more important to consider how we represent and reflect upon our experience of the world, and how we make decisions about what we need to celebrate and what we need to change. I am convinced that our rich range of subjects and disciplines have become all the more critical in these times of crisis and profound change.

It’s hard to think of another institution with the breadth of disciplines offered at ECA. Our academic interests include art and design, fashion, architecture, landscape architecture, history of art and music. We are also a specialist school of arts within a university lauded for its teaching and research excellence. Being part of a wider, international institution enables fresh, collaborative approaches to global challenges. We want to seize the opportunities afforded by new technologies that can enhance communication, design and manufacturing.

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The rich range of disciplines that ECA has to offer can speak to the heightened awareness of racism and other social, economic and cultural inequalities. It can help to address large-scale questions about how we design safe cities for a new future, or how we understand and humanise the implications of exclusively digital experiences and services that exploit more of our personal data than we might like. It’s also about more intimate aspects of our lives – I am not alone in rediscovering the restorative power of music during lockdown.

Disruption and uncertainty

Our engagement with emerging disciplines such as artificial intelligence, visualisation and immersive experiences are complemented by our continuing enthusiasm for more traditional creative approaches. Balance is the key. We must also be mindful of how a more fully automated future might stifle artists’ creative impulses. It is our job as educators to equip our students so they can address pressing issues in innovative, imaginative ways.

Young people now come to the arts not only through drawing, making, painting or music, but through activities accessed by screen; through games and engagement with social media. They have grown up listening to music, accessing images and communicating through a range of electronic devices. The arts are often in dialogue with other spheres of activity. At ECA, we are fantastically well placed to support our students as they engage productively in this complex realm of activity – even through disruption and uncertainty.

Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off is a work by Becky Hollis

One of the key impacts of lockdown for us has been the cancellation of our summer shows. These traditionally mark the moment when we celebrate our graduating students’ achievements and support the start of their careers by bringing their work to a broader audience. The shows are an important opportunity for our students to gain experience of curating and presenting their work, and gauging its resonance with a wider audience.

When it became clear that a physical show couldn’t take place, we entered into dialogue with our graduating students about what we might do instead. By reassessing the purpose of the show, we arrived at alternatives that could help us achieve the same objectives. As a result, we will develop online portfolios for each of our graduating students and host a series of events including virtual exhibitions, concerts and live performances.

The creative minds of tomorrow

Highlights will include players from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra airing work by our music composition students and an online catwalk showcasing creations by our fashion students, followed by a Q&A with industry professionals. We’re also launching an art criticism prize and liaising with a leading culture magazine to promote winning work.

Our alumni and other key figures with links to ECA will be engaging with the show. They’ll be lending messages of support to our students – offering feedback on our students’ work, supporting their fledgling careers and creating that all-important echo so often absent in online events.

Our new web platform will link to other exciting initiatives involving our students, which include an opportunity to have their work acquired by the University of Edinburgh. We also remain committed to staging a physical show, as and when that becomes possible.

It has been amazing to re-imagine all of this with our students, and so much of what we have thought about will shape our future exhibitions. These shows are a vital element of our vision to make ECA absolutely the best place in the world for inspiring the creative minds of tomorrow – unhindered by territorial concerns and informed by the excellence, diversity and relevance of our teaching.

While no one would have wished the impacts of Covid-19 on any group of students, the class of 2020 – its architects, designers, artists, designers, musicians, curators, critics and filmmakers – have responded with vitality, energy and enthusiasm to the constraints and opportunities. We all have much to learn from them.

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