Leaving the creative safe haven of art school to try and take on the art world as a professional is a daunting move at the best of times, and in uncertain times such as these it can feel even more like a leap of faith. At The Net Gallery, we wanted to find out how art students are feeling about this move right now, so we reached out to Katie Mess, President of the Slade Society at University College London (UCL).

The Slade School of Fine Art is an art school with a world-leading reputation, and exists as part of the larger UCL institution. It is currently home to about a dozen MPhil and PhD students and 260 BA, BFA, MA and MFA students, and also runs a number of short courses, as well as an annual summer school and a four-week residency programme with Camden Arts Centre. The school boasts connections with arts institutions and organisations on national and international levels, and counts among its alumni Conrad Shawcross, Antony Gormley and Jadé Fadojutimi.

Since the UK entered lockdown in 2020 to curb the spread of coronavirus, the Slade’s courses have been moved online, and student studios have been closed in favour of home-based working.

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Katie Mess. Image courtesy of the artist.

The Net Gallery: The Slade School of Fine Art is an art school based within a larger university, a distinction which may set it aside from London’s other dedicated arts institutions. Do you feel that Slade students are given the same opportunities as students at other art schools?

Katie Mess: Slade being a part of UCL was one of the reasons I wanted to go there in the first place. What’s quite funny is that it seems many UCL students don’t actually know that Slade exists! This was a big motivator for me to re-establish Slade Society (there used to be a Slade Society in the 50s, but it dissipated due to the leading students graduating), to enable more of a collaborative relationship between Slade and other courses, but also to let people in the broader art community know that we are here.

Slade feels a bit like a secret, like “those who know, know”. Also, because Slade is so competitive to apply to, it on the whole is a lot smaller than most art schools; I think most students are proud to be able to call themselves Slade students, because it is an achievement to get in, but it also comes with a weird kind of prestige, which is not always a good thing. I think there’s a kind of mythical atmosphere surrounding Slade, which sometimes feels a bit impenetrable to other art schools, and it would be good to break this down, which is something I’d like to do with Slade Soc.

Something that Slade has is the option of two undergraduate degrees: the BA, and the BFA, the former being a 4 year course with Art History and Theory involved, and the latter is a 3 year course with more focus on Studio Practice Theory. On the BA programme that I’m on, you take another module in a subject of your choice, from any of the University Of London universities, which is a really great chance to open your practice to something new.

I’m currently studying Ecocinemas at Queen Mary’s University, a really interesting film studies module. We also get the opportunity to apply for an international exchange, which I’m currently working on as I’m in my second year.

I can only really speak concretely about Slade as a Slade student, but from what I know about other schools, we definitely get a lot more teaching contact with a large number of brilliant tutors, which is a great thing. But I also know that other schools have more advanced technical workshops than us. So it’s always a compromise between one thing and another. I feel that if Slade wasn’t as old as it is (it’s been around for 150 years!) then it would be easier to break with tradition, and for it to be kitted out with modern things, and rooms which could facilitate this.

But the sentimental part of me enjoys its history, and it is a special thing. You also definitely get a feel of all of the artists who have come through the Slade before us, which can be haunting and inspiring.

TNG: Has lockdown resulted in any positive changes or innovations at the Slade which are likely to continue once lockdown is lifted?

KM: Online tutorials have actually worked quite well for me during the lockdown, with the ability to share lots of different media with my tutors that might not always be able to take place in person, as well as researching and looking up references whilst the tutorial is happening, which really helps. The usage of technology obviously really helps with the storage and transference of information, like images, references, websites and further research.

But it’s not a huge innovation, and the effect that all this time on my laptop feels like it’s having on my brain is palpable, I would prefer not to continue it. It does present the possibility of a further kind of flexibility which can’t be a bad thing, except for maybe promoting a kind of laziness. Apart from this, I don’t think that any other positive innovations have happened, everything has been trying to keep up with whatever the pandemic throws at us, and so it isn’t really working as a substitute, it never can.

You can try and have a virtual studio, but I don’t want one, and it is crazy that we’re expected to carry on as if we are able to make work like we were in the studios. I cannot wait until I am able to come back into the studio because not having this dedicated space is something you really feel when it’s taken away.

TNG: From a professional perspective, how important is the Slade Society to Slade students? What impact do you feel it could have on students’ art careers moving forward?

KM: Slade Society is still very much in its infancy, but the goal is that it will be extremely integrated and important to all Slade Students. It could be a way for us to make connections and opportunities off of our own backs, but with support and funding from the student’s union. We were going to be able to get funding to hold exhibitions, rent out spaces, and do all this kind of work that it is so difficult to do on your own if you don’t have the money, and have no experience.

Not every student will get the experience of having a show, or even being a part of an exhibition; there is a lot of prestige around getting shows, which establishes a hierarchy of successful and unsuccessful between artists, and it is my aim that holding exhibitions together will become more normalised, instead of waiting around for someone to pick us. So this is something I’m really looking forward to getting started with when we return to campus. I think there is a lot of potential in the collaborations that could take place.

I’m also really excited at the new connections we’re making with other Art Schools around London. Imagine the possibilities, if everyone works together for the common betterment of each other’s practices!

There are also students studying curating, art writing, and art history as well, who likely will be the people ‘in charge’ of new institutions in the future, and as artists I think it is really important not just to meet other artists, but also meet these people who play such integral roles in the art world, and form certain structures which support and are supported by the artists. We need to come at this from a lot less of an insular, individualist way; there is no way anything will change unless we start to work together, it will give us a strong integrity as a whole.

In the past, the art world felt smaller, people were less constantly aware of so many other people in the world doing the same thing. And I feel that now, contradictingly, with so much freedom to ‘connect’ online with people, this actually can produce more of a feeling of isolation – we were never actually that ‘connected’ in the first place. So it is really important that we try to foster meaningful connections where we find them, and seek them out too, because they are much less likely to come to us.

TNG: This is the Slade Society’s first year of running. How have you found the experience of getting a society off the ground in the middle of a global pandemic?

KM: The experience was definitely one to remember, especially with all the paperwork and administration and training that we had to go through to get it legitimised. I remember just before the first lockdown, going around to all the area meetings, and talking with students about Slade Society, and collecting signatures. I only needed 30 but already had over 100 in just one day! So it was clear that people agreed that it was a needed thing.

I know that if we were able to be in-person at the Slade right now, Slade Society would be popping off. I had so many ideas which got destroyed because there can be no online substitute for in-person life and art-making. It has been very difficult to keep the Society afloat, whilst trying to do everything that I would have to be doing normally in these circumstances. A lot of students feel a lack of motivation for things right now, and in general we all just miss Slade, and our studios very much.

Something that is exciting though is a new project we are involved with, in collaboration with The Courtauld Institute, KCL Art Society, UCL Art History Society and Goldsmiths Fine Art & History of Art students, called ‘Reconnect’, which will culminate in an online exhibition, a publication, and an ongoing blog-type project, which we hope to maintain into the future, and get some kinds of conversation going between these schools.

There are still things that we can do just online, and I think it’s amazing to see all the things people have been motivated to do in the face of such instability.

I’m also really excited to be working with Slade to celebrate the 150 year’s anniversary of its foundation. We will be getting lots of alumni involved, holding talks, exhibitions, events, and there will be a big focus on examining those past 150 years: what was good and what still needs to change. A part of this project is to focus on the lost histories of certain artists who were discriminated against in the art world, and erased from its history, and were going to bring some of their oeuvres to light and show why they were so important, and why they should have been recognized for this at the time. So this is something to really look forward to.

TNG: As a representative of the student body at the Slade School of Fine Art, how do you feel about the current prospects for students at the end of their studies who now need to move into professional careers in the art world? Is it a particularly bad or good time to be in this position?

KM: I can’t speak on their behalf, because I’m still supported by Slade. But what I do know is that it must be terrifying to be graduating, when the art world is already very unsupportive, and that being an artist has never been easy, so I can’t imagine how much tougher it is now, and will be in the future. It is very hard to even think about making art now, when everywhere you look you are faced with the image of a dystopian present and future.

COVID-19 and the ongoing climate crisis confirm fears of the apocalypse, and it is really shaking the fragility of the unsustainable structures that everything is built upon. It’s really hard to see a future at all, and so we should be doing everything we can to make sure there will be one we want to go towards!

This time has made a lot of people rethink their priorities and realise what is important, and it is crucial that people do not lose this radicality and turn to complacency. It’s such a massive rupture in everything. Seeing how governing structures have responded to the pandemic has definitely shown people their priorities; many have been making cuts to the most precarious sectors of the industry, and there have been a lot of conversations about industrial action, and this is nothing new.

The art world has been built on inequality from the beginning, and this is just being further exemplified, and those who didn’t see it before might be seeing it now. It definitely presents some kinds of opportunities for reformation.

TNG: Do you feel that the Government should be doing more to improve prospects for students moving into the art world?

KM: I am obviously biased, and everyone in every situation would like to be helped by the Government as much as possible. But I do believe that art is a public good which is essential to daily life, and arts education provides a mindset for the questioning of the foundations of everything, so that more art can be made that makes others ask these questions too.

I don’t believe that the government agrees, or sees the arts as an important sector; the arts and humanities has been bombarded with signals that it is not important or valued by the Government. Very recently, all arts and humanities funding, or what was left of it, was halved. And there were also the infamous “Fatima’s next job could be in cyber; she just doesn’t know it yet” adverts. So I’m not surprised that, as art students, we are being treated in this way, and so it’s even more important to fight against what they are trying to do, and keep arts education strong in any way we can, fighting all these acts of Neoliberalisation.

There are some really interesting alternative masters’ degrees available too, like ‘The Other MA’, which are a really positive sign of artist-led education, which gives artists what they know they need, when nobody else is listening, or going to do it for them.

TNG: Would you like to see more support from established arts organisations?

KM: Going on from the previous question, I do think that arts organisations and institutions should be doing more for students, but there are so many institutions which are built upon such messed up ground that they would need to be entirely rethought for this to even be possible. Most art institutions feel heavily exclusive and top-down, very private and inaccessible unless you can bring in the money.

I think an emphasis on student led and artist led spaces, communities and initiatives are the best thing, because they make for a less homogenous art world and more radicality can be produced.

I also feel that online platforms like Instagram need to be subject to the same critique. Just because they are online, this doesn’t make them any less real. There are lots of great accounts on Instagram to follow for radical politics, activism, etc. but there seems to be a trend in the commodifying of oneself and ones practices, which is a symptom of the way Instagram and similar platforms are set up.

People are relying on these platforms more and more right now because of the lack of social connection face-to-face, it’s quite toxic, and I continue to struggle with this. Existing on this alternative plane, where only the surface aesthetic value and social competition is emphasised, feels horrible to be a part of, and you can really feel it pervading the way you start to think and make work.

I’m really looking forward to when it’s possible to be face to face again, as I’ve realised how sacred it can be having real communities, outside of the control and pretense of these platforms.

TNG: What would you like to see change in the world of art over the next few years?

KM: Committed anti-racist, and decolonial action and education in arts education and institutions; Committed environmental sustainability in artistic practices, and institutional operations; More investment, emotional and monetary, from artists and the government, in artist-led initiatives and spaces; More of a drive for social connection with all people in meaningful ways; A fostering of an overall sense of radicality, and to take what we have learned in the last year into the future through urgent action.

Katie Mess: Artistic Practice

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“Branches of exchange” by Katie Mess. Oil on canvas, 20×16”, 2020. Image courtesy of the artist.

In her personal practice, Mess works in a range of mediums including painting, drawing, sculpture and photography.

“The basis for my work arises through my lived daily experience, and spiritual exchanges with the world around me. I am fascinated by the animals that live parallel to our lives, significantly birds, and the meetings that occur, and how these can provide different ways of thinking through the anthropocene. Humanity has separated itself so much from animality, and through my work I am trying to breach this separation.

“Landscapes, encounters, exchanges, communications, acts of being and becoming, allow for a sensitivity and openness to emerge.” Katie Mess

Wingspan 2021 graphite on recycled paper collage

Katie Mess – ‘Wingspan’ (2021). Graphite on recycled paper collage. Image courtesy of the artist.

Article by Toby Buckley.

To view more work by Katie Mess, check out her website and follow her on Instagram at @nocturnal_dust

Katie is also involved in The Soil Exchange, an online forum for discussing art, nature and creativity. More information can be found at http://www.thesoil.exchange/.