Affective relations in the studio: what does the future hold for studio-based pedagogies in fine art?

Abstract

The loss of the studio across 2020 has presented numerous challenges for many creative arts disciplines in higher education. This article analyses recent literature to identify and assess the implications of Covid-19 (alongside wider sector contexts) upon studio-based pedagogies in fine art. The article questions how virtual learning has impacted communities of practice, and as a result, the sense of belonging and wellbeing of students and staff across the past year. Following this, employing the concept of affect, I determine whether the studio is still the optimum ‘mediating artefact’ for fine art education, whilst also considering how studio-based pedagogies can change and evolve to centre forms of care


Written by Emily Hawes | PUBLISHED ON 13th January 2022 | Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash

Introduction

Over 50 years ago, a whole generation of artistsi abandoned studio practice in what came to be known as “post-studio” practice, yet the studio still remains a signature pedagogy in fine art education in the UK today. In fact, up until recently, the studio has been ‘at the heart of education in fine art’ (Hoffie, 2020, p.102). It is considered a site of possibility, integral to the social learning process and compared to ‘a mediating artefact (Vygotsky, 1978, Engeström, 1999), not simply a container’ (Sims, Shreeve and Trowler, 2010, p.24), fostering ‘creative ways of knowing, thinking and doing’ (Clarke and Hulbert, 2016, pg.36). Furthermore, participation in studio-based pedagogies, despite “post-studio” practice, is considered as a type of professional performance, which helps develop personal identities and values (Shulman 2005, cited in Pollock et al., 2015).

However, the loss of the studio across 2020 has presented numerous challenges for many visual arts disciplines. Although the switch to virtual and blended models of learning has been fast-tracked by Covid-19 (Marshalsey and Sclater, 2020), other key factors, aptly described as the ‘decades-long impact of neoliberalism’ (Gawronski, 2020, p.100) have been threatening the dominant model of studio-based learning for some time. Furthermore, Ann Stephen recognises the visual arts as ‘one of the most precarious sectors in tertiary education’ (Stephen, 2020, p.100). And, as Shreeve, Sims & Trowler remind us, although ‘traditional studio space is no longer available to most students and tutors, space remains an important issue and influence on what and how students learn’ (Shreeve, Sims & Trowler 2010, p.24).

So, what does the future hold for studio-based learning in fine art? Surely now is the time to reflect upon the wider contexts surrounding studio-based education, question how the pandemic has altered and/ or disrupted fine art signature pedagogies and propose ways to re-imagine studio-based learning and teaching moving forwards. Drawing on ideas by Stephen and Hall, amongst others, I intend to firstly, briefly examine the current political and ideological contexts in HE impacting creative studio- based disciplines. Then, following Marshalsey and Sclater, question how virtual learning has impacted communities of practice in creative arts disciplines, and as a result, the sense of belonging and wellbeing of students and staff across the past year. Following this, employing the concept of affect, and exploring the ideas of Belluigi, Ahmed and others, I intend to examine whether the studio is still the optimum ‘mediating artefact’ for fine art education, whilst also considering how studio pedagogies can change and evolve to centre forms of care.

The wider context surrounding blended learning and TEL in fine art education

Across the past few decades, a substantial amount of research has emerged in relation to integrating digital learning with studio-based practice, a model which is commonly termed blended learning. This is seen by many as necessary in the rapidly shifting landscape of HE, in order to ‘serve a large body of students without increasing faculty workload’ (Bender and Vredevoogd 2006, p.121). Indeed, it has been put forward that blended learning opens up new possibilities for more inclusive learning and teaching practices (Sahni, 2019). However, Stephen (2020) describes the merging contexts of Covid-19, neoliberal policy-making, and recent government legislation, and by extension blended learning, as an ‘emerging crisis’ (Stephen, 2020, p.100) in arts education. And Hall (2015) warns that technology enhanced learning TEL, in its current form, is part of a neoliberal global pedagogical project, which ‘aims at reinscribing all of social life inside the market and for the extraction of value’ (Hall, 2015, p.3). However, he does go on to question whether it is possible to implement TEL within University contexts to ‘reveal the mechanics of expropriation and alienation and to develop alternatives’ (Ibid., p.1). He suggests, to combat market-logic, we must engage in a ‘pedagogy of struggle’, and utilise forms of mutual cooperation to define alternatives and initiate a ‘roll-back (of neoliberalism); and roll-out (of new cooperative forms, modes of governance and regulation)’ (Ibid., p.10).

Although there is a fair amount of research into blended leaning in design-orientated subjects (Marshalsey and Sclater, 2018; Bender and Vredevoogd 2006), there is far less in relation to the subject of fine art, the archetypal studio discipline. Therefore, it could be argued that there is too little research and in order to make considered judgements about how blended learning and TEL will impact learning and teaching in fine art in the long term. However, the past year has provided a good indication of some of the key challenges fine art higher education courses may face moving forwards, which I will expand upon below.

Communities of practice across 2020

In Marshalsey and Sclater’s 2020 article, ‘Together but Apart: creating and supporting online learning communities in an era of distributed studio education’, the authors consider how the fast-tracking of blended, virtual and distributed learning due to Covid-19 has affected students’ ability to perform to the ‘depth and rigour required for creative art and design practice’ (Giroux & Aronowitz, 1986, cited by Marshalsey and Sclater, 2020). They identify some of the key challenges that have impacted student learning, which include: staff and students struggling to adapt to new technologies and screen exhaustion, amongst others. Perhaps their most significant finding however, is the loss of social connection and fragmentation of community, and how this has had detrimental effects upon both staff and students’ mental health – participants describe feeling ‘distant’, ‘alienated’, as if ‘a wall had been put up’ (Marshalsey and Sclater, 2020, p.388). Rather unsurprisingly, many of Marshalsey and Sclater’s findings are echoed by a research survey carried out by Jisc, which highlighted isolation and loneliness as a key factor of digital learning across 2020. While Riva’s (2021) ‘care-rooted’ recommendations for online wellbeing pedagogies are undoubtfully helpful, many still feel disconnected.

In an earlier article, Marshalsey and Sclater, link studio-based pedagogies to the geographer Edward Relph’s concept of ‘existential insideness’ whereby there is a deep connection or immersion in a specific place. Relph’s idea suggests that when a person feels ‘existential insideness’ they feel safe, enclosed and at ease. Using a variety of ethnographic research methodologies, they found that the friendly, informal day-to-day interactions between staff, students and their peers in situated studio communities are central to collective and individual learning, feeling connected and fostering a sense of belonging (Marshalsey and Sclater, 2018, p.77). Whereas, forms of hot-desking and temporary online communities are found to decrease sense of belonging and increase feelings of vulnerability amongst participants (Ibid.).

These findings are reflected by Etienne Wenger and Jean Lave’s theory communities of practice, which proposes that learning is primarily a social practice and is a result of collective participation within a community that has shared concerns. For Lave and Wenger, communities of practice are everywhere, and we are involved in many of them simultaneously – ‘a band of artists seeking new forms of expression’ (Wenger circa 2007, cited by Smith (2003, 2009)) is one such example. Communities of practice have three key characteristics, which are: the domain (the shared point of interest); the community (the members who take part); the practice (the shared repertoire of resources or practices) (Smith, (2003, 2009). One of the key ideas which underpins Wenger and Lave’s idea is that collective learning develops over time; ‘learning is ubiquitous in ongoing activity’ (Lave 1993: 5, cited by Smith (2003, 2009)), and this ‘results in practices that reflect both the pursuit of our enterprises and the attendant social relations’ (Smith (2003, 2009)). In this respect, communities of practice moves beyond the studio, and acknowledges that ‘we interact with each other and with the world and we tune our relations with each other and with the world accordingly’ (Wenger 1998: 45, cited by Smith (2003, 2009)).

If we consider Marshalsey and Sclater’s findings through the lens of communities of practice, it could be said that the loss of the studio across 2020, has incurred the loss of a key element within the ‘practice’ of fine art education, and for a community of practice to function it needs all three elements. The practice is critical as it develops ‘various resources such as tools, documents, routines, vocabulary and symbols that in some way carry the accumulated knowledge of the community’ (Smith, (2003, 2009)). Furthermore, Wenger and Lave propose that through active participation in communities of practice, members develop trust and construct ‘identities in relation to these communities’ (Wenger 1999: 4, cited by Smith, (2003, 2009)). The feelings of alienation, isolation and vulnerability that Marshalsey and Sclater and Jisc report, can perhaps be attributed to the fragmentation and disruption of traditional studio-based communities of practice.

Marshalsey and Sclater do suggest that there are some advantages to virtual and distributed learning, for instance, their research points to the fact that hierarchies between staff and students becomes less visible in a digital sphere (Marshalsey and Sclater, 2020, p.338). It is suggested that this is a result of the online space being more informal, for instance ‘students and staff introducing their pets as part of the class’ (Ibid., p.8). Although this is just one finding, it is significant because it echoes one of Freire’s central ideas; in order to resolve the teacher-student contradiction, there must be a reconciliation, whereby hierarchies are collapsed and ‘both are simultaneously teachers and students’ (Freire, 1970, p.45).

However overall, the literature suggests that there is a clear preference for physical, situated studio-based learning (in creative disciplines) as a way to meet and interact with others, and strongly points to the fact that the lack of access to studio spaces has had a detrimental impact upon the sense of belonging, and consequently, the mental health and wellbeing of both staff and students across the past year.

Affective encounters in the studio

Hoffie claims that studios are ‘indispensable because they offer the space to work together’ (Hoffie, 2020, p.102). It is perfectly possible to work together online, so how do the two environments differ? She goes on to elaborate; ‘the actual energy of the studio reshapes individuals in a range of different ways’ (Ibid.). The idea of energy is crucial here and could be connected to the concept of affect. Affect, as described by philosopher and social theorist Brian Massumi, is an encounter in the world between two bodies, which have the ‘capacity to affect and to be affected’ (Massumi, 2002). Affects precede emotions and have been described as ‘intensities’, ‘event’, ‘body’, ‘vitality affect’, ‘autonomy of affect’, ‘shock’, ‘pure experience’. Linda Åhäll quotes Teresa Brennan who, in tandem with Massumi, understands affects as ‘energies transmitted through bodily encounters’ and describes the ‘“affective atmosphere” as that feeling that you get when you walk into a room and sense a particular mood in the air’, (Brennan, 2004, cited by Åhäll, 2018).

Importantly, affect is also considered a key component of feminism – the writer and scholar Sara Ahmed explains; ‘feminism often begins with intensity: you are aroused by what you come up against. You register something in the sharpness of an impression. Something can be sharp without it being clear what the point is . . . Things don’t seem right. ‘(Ahmed 2017, 22). Furthermore, Noddings notes how there is a cross-over between social scientists concerned with affect and the concept of empathy, or “feeling with” (Noddings, 2010, p.7). In Noddings’ ethics of care, empathy is a key component, and therefore, affect could be said to play a central role in caring.

It has been proposed that the tacit and affective relations in the studio enable learners to navigate threshold concepts. What makes a threshold concept distinctive is that it often requires the acquisition of knowledge that is troublesome (Land and Meyer, 2003). Land and Meyer expand what is meant by ‘troublesome’; knowledge which is tacit, alien, counter-intuitive, conceptually challenging, inert, ritual or includes troublesome language (Ibid.). Once grasped, a threshold concept is transformational, representing a previously inaccessible way of thinking and enabling the learner to progress.

This is highlighted by Zoe Belluigi, who argues that affect can be engendered through fine art studio practice and should be considered as integral to the student learning experience. She explores how the context of the studio creates specific conditions conducive to fine art education. Although Belluigi makes it clear that by conditions, she does not mean the environment alone (she is also referring to curriculum, assessment etc.), she does suggest that ‘inappropriate contexts and barren environments can debilitate learning engagement, with the result of being disempowering and emotionally demotivating for the student’ (Frederikson, 2001, Belluigi, 2013, p.14). Furthermore, she proposes that environments create the emotional tenor of the learning experience (Ibid., p.8), which is of vital importance, as emotion is linked to motivation, mindset and the search for meaning and identity (Ibid). Through engaging with emotions, which are traditionally seen as a negative in education (Ibid., p.14), a student may have a transformational experience within the studio, ‘not unlike a “high”’ (Ibid.), which in turn increases the student’s confidence and self-knowledge. And, as Belluigi points out, this change in self-perception, increased confidence in self-directed learning and trust in one’s own abilities, is seen by some as the main outcome of a fine art undergraduate degree (Edstrom, 2008a, cited by Belluigi, 2013 p.15).

Others have argued that affect can occur in virtual learning contexts. In a 2013 study, Lally and Scalter argue that virtual worlds ‘have now emerged as a powerful medium for education’ (Lally & Sclater 2013, p.334) and that ‘they allow powerful social and interactive experiences for participants’ (Ibid.). Furthermore, whilst questioning whether technology enhanced learning (TEL) can enable learners to connect in meaningful ways to wider, serious issues of global concern, Slater comes to the conclusion that ‘virtual worlds can facilitate the expression of the affective aspects of our selves and offer positive emotional spaces for learning’ (Slater, 2016, p.304). This is achieved through ‘engaging in self-expression, socialisation and play’ (Ibid.), which are not dissimilar to the activities which are central to studio-practice. In fact, she goes as far to say that the ‘virtual learning space mediated ‘closeness’ among members of the community and, in that process, dissolved national and international boundaries, resulting in a form of activity that hitherto would not have been feasible anywhere else’ (Ibid., p.304). Slater determines that this is made possible through being ‘highly supported by mentors, and this enabled participants to engage in an iterative process of reflection, reinterpretation, re-evaluation and reintegration of the social, emotional and cognitive aspects of their experiences’ (Ibid., p.302).

The idea that support from mentors should be at the heart of a teaching is supported by Stommel, Friend and Michael-Morris. As proponents of critical digital pedagogy, they recognise one of the central challenges is ‘finding ways to teach through a screen, not to a screen’ (Stommel, Friend and Michael-Morris, 2020). In order to navigate this, they suggest we pay less attention to the mechanisms or tools we use to teach, which although important, are less so than the ‘wherefore of our teaching’ (Ibid.). They propose that ultimately digital pedagogy is about ‘human relationships and the complexity of humans working together with other humans’ (Ibid.) and as we move forward into an era of technology-enhanced education, their advice is noteworthy. Quoting bell hooks, who writes ‘at its best, teaching is a caring profession’, they also call for care to be at the centre of teaching.

Forms of care in the studio is of upmost concern for Hoffie, who suggests that ‘there is so much, much more to studio teaching than just learning the skills to make and learning the skills to think. There is – along with many other forms of imparted knowledge– the learnt skill of shared caring’ (Hoffie, 2020, p.102). She continues, ‘at its core, it unculates the commitment to care: care about materials; care about space; care about the choices made during the creative process; care about responses and care about contexts. And when the praxis of care is shared, communities of understanding form’ (Ibid). In Hoffie’s example, care can be for an inanimate object, or a process, or an idea, or a place – what matters is that the caring is a shared praxis. This is again reflective of Lave and Wenger’s communities of practice, whereby ‘members are involved in a set of relationships over time’ (Lave and Wenger 1991: 98, cited by Smith (2003, 2009)) and ‘communities develop around things that matter to people’ (Wenger 1998, cited by Smith (2003, 2009)).

The studio is seen as indispensable by Hoffie, as it enables a shared understanding to develop, which extends beyond the parameters of the learning context, into wider social contexts and worldly relations. She explains, students ‘understand how crucial that shared situation of collective-making-and -thinking is to the process of forming new art communities which produce new languages of caring for the publics beyond them – again and again’ (Hoffie, 2020, p.102.) This further echoes Lave’s assertion that ‘learning is ubiquitous in ongoing activity’ (Lave 1993: 5, cited by Smith (2003, 2009)) and that ultimately, learning is social endeavour.

Conclusion

The future of studio-based pedagogies is at a significant crossroads, and Covid-19 has undoubtedly added to the air (or perhaps smog) of precarity already circulating in creative arts higher education. In this article, I have traced how creative arts studio-based learning has been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic and the implications of this upon students’ situated learning communities and consequently, their sense of belonging and wellbeing. In doing so, I found that there is a correlation between lack of access to shared, physical studio spaces and experiences of disconnect and alienation. As a result, I have attempted to articulate why the studio is more-than just a site for learning and teaching – rather, it is a mediating artefact (Vygotsky, 1978, Engeström, 1999) full of slippery relations and affects, commonly cited as ‘sensations’, which are often hard to pin down through language. Affect is an under-recognised, yet central element of fine art studio practice; what Land and Meyer might call ‘troublesome knowledge’ because it is tacit and conceptually difficult (Meyer and Land, 2005). Affect is a pre-cursor to emotion, which is linked to motivation, mindset and the search for meaning and identity (Belluigi, 2013). Additionally, affect has much in common with empathy (and care) because it too emerges from feeling-with (Noddings, 2010, p.11). In this sense, care and affect are two interconnected and under-researched aspects of meaning-making in the studio, and I suggest further research is needed in this area.

As we move forward into an era of blended and technology enhanced learning, it is paramount that we place more emphasis upon these kinds of relations and how they impact the sense of self which is developed through and within studio-based pedagogies. Although there is literature which suggests these kinds of relations can be facilitated in virtual spaces, there will need to be further exploration of how this can be manifested moving forwards, specifically in the subject of fine art. The ideas proposed by Stommel et. al and Slater, who emphasise developing a shared praxis of care is a good place to begin.


About the author

Emily Hawes is a Fine Art specialist and educator at Arts University Bournemouth. She is a member of the Arts Advisory Board and her commissioned work has been exhibited across the UK. She has taught at the Slade School of Fine Art, London, and co-led the inter-institutional Fine Art Symposium.

References

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