A University Occupation
By Mark Amery
The role of the university as public space is explored in John Lake's The Campus, currently at Adam Art Gallery.
Implicit in Lake’s project is comment on how the market is increasingly infringing on universities’ openness.
How much do we still expect them to be bastions of free thought and expression, rather than business units that train workers? From the outside they seem increasingly compromised. As writer Alain De Botton advocates in a recent NZ Listener story, “ideally universities would be modern monasteries – refuges from the pressures of capitalism.”
One of the most interesting art events of 2011 was a Tao Wells talk at Massey entitled How to Make Money From Art (see video below). Wells argued persuasively that universities have been compromised by a focus on lecturers’ artistic outputs, seeing them with greater resources dominating gallery exhibition. On the one hand he sees their ability to be free thinkers compromised, and on the other those artists outside of the ivory tower at an increasing disadvantage.
The power of the university in the art world has increased dramatically in recent years. Students benefit from being taught by respected artists, but the balance feels like it has swung too far one way when the most common complaint I hear from students is that lecturers have more time for their practice than them.
At the same time Wells was delivering his talk, John Lake was on residency at Victoria charged with documenting university life. Lake has proven an intelligent documenter of underrepresented groups in the past, and so it is here. Lake chose to focus some of his attention on the campus Occupy movement We Are the University. When he then turned his attention to photographing university administration consent was withdrawn.
When the gallery proposed hosting a meeting entitled How Do We Occupy the University, permission was declined by the university on the basis that it might prove a risk to artwork (a space regularly used for performances of all kinds). Interestingly, for a documentary project there have also been restrictions on what film could be exhibited based on the consent of those pictured taking part in political actions not always being able to be given.
This raises all sorts of questions about the university as a public space. The Adam has laudably used its position in the past to be a space for work that pushes boundaries. With this project it has found limits.
What of the exhibition itself? On arrival you're presented with a desk with a red banner above it proclaiming 'Free Discussions', with a giveaway newspaper on it. Lake has revived Student, a publication of The Free Discussion Club at Victoria during the 1930s depression. He equates the need then with that during the current recession. The 1930s publication was banned after three issues. Lake’s publication contains his own photographs and snippets of recent student discussion – a dynamic way to present his work.
The installation is effective, if visually overly reminiscent of Louise Menzies’ work in the gallery a year ago. On the wall are pairs of photographs featuring portraits juxtaposed with images of objects and spaces in the university. The dialogue between these images are often funny and poignant, though it's a shame given the scope of the project there aren't more.
The Occupy movement is represented by an installation of videos playing of student meetings. It seems then that if discussion is edited and contained in boxes it has a place in a gallery. With a tangle of cords and machines, collapsed screens and projections running over windows and walls it represents the cacophony of different voices and symbolically, perhaps, the disruption of market economics. Yet with the volume kept low, reducing voices to a babble it feels like a case of artfully arranged form over content. It’s as if the artist is inadvertently expressing the censorship in the work.