Known for its alternative learning programmes, this year Wysing Arts explored the term ‘polytechnic’ by re-visiting the experimental art practices of the 1970s. Donna Lynas reports on the results.

Photo of blue water tanks and white machine
Joey Holder's solo exhibition Ophiux

Damian Griffiths

Each year at Wysing Arts Centre we theme our annual programme to state what will underpin our interests for the year, and to engage artists and audiences around a specific set of concepts and ideas.

The themes emerge from discussions that take place during events the previous year between us, the public and visiting and resident artists. All our programmes are generated in response to dialogues and concerns raised by those who work with us or attend our events and exhibitions.

Changes to higher education

One such discussion centred on the 1970s, when artists were experimenting with early video, sound art and live performance. It became clear that many of these experiments were taking place within polytechnics, which were at the time centres of leftist thinking and experimental art practices.

The overriding lesson learnt is that spaces for this kind of artistic experimentation are greatly valued

That discussion clarified my own thinking about the changes to higher education that we are seeing today, specifically in the way that the arts curriculum is being aligned to the creative industries, and what this means for those studying art.

If art, particularly art education, is linked to an economic case for culture, where do the places for an open-ended artistic exploration – one that has no pre-defined outcomes – lie? The discussion, alongside our ongoing role in delivering an alternative learning programme, led to the decision to explore these questions under the heading ‘Wysing Poly’.

Fundamental to the concept was that every element of the programme would be devised by artists, and where possible the events would form part of an art practice, so that enacting the events would be both useful in informing individual art practices, as well as engaging wider audiences.

Residencies and events

The key part of the programme was the artist residencies, which see artists relocate their homes and studios to Wysing for two months, living and working together in small groups. Once the artists had met one another, and began sharing ideas with each other and with us, the question of what it means to learn and be taught continually re-emerged.

Some of the most memorable and challenging events came from this process. They included a study night where the audience participated in experiential learning from dusk to dawn, and a radio study day that explored learning through concentrated remote listening, which was broadcast live from Wysing. Later in the year, a study day explored the history of video gaming culture and included a live gaming tournament.

Discussions and symposiums

We invited external contributors to respond to the Wysing Poly theme for a discussion series. Gavin Butt of Goldsmiths College devised a symposium that explored Leeds Polytechnic in the 1970s, out of which came a number of highly politicised bands and theatre groups including Scritti Politti. It was fascinating to hear Green Gartside of Scritti Politti recount the band’s origins as a Marxist collective. It also revealed the exclusions of the period by missing the opportunity to include artists outside the preconceived white mainstream of punk.

Other symposiums explored the role of online and digital space as a creative commons and the role of music and dance as a site for commune and dissent.

Space for many voices

Across the year, the Wysing Poly theme touched on many concerns and interests, making it a rewarding programme to be part of. The overriding lesson learnt is that spaces for this kind of artistic experimentation are greatly valued.

The question for us now is how to make sure that no one is left behind, left out or overlooked, both in terms of the diversity of artists we work with and the audiences we are reaching. We need to make sure there is space for many different voices.

Donna Lynas is Director of Wysing Arts Centre.
Tw: @wysingartscentr
Inst: @wysing_donna

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