This is an interview I created for the National Student Newspaper. Whilst, it was written last September as I have now finally graduated from art school it seemed appropriated to revisit now.
Susan Johanknecht, MA Course Leader in Book Art at Camberwell College of Art, and practicing artist and author, in conversation with Bethany Lamont
A visiting arts lecturer once pointed out the web of myths and contradictions that hold together all the old London art institutions. Put simply, it is the smoke and mirrors brand of ‘the art school’, a feeling perhaps epitomised by Central Saint Martins ubiquitous ‘Lifestyle not Education’ tote bags proudly worn by every other emaciated bird nest hair ‘fashionista’ the wrong side of the East Side London Line. However, it could be argued, that a sure fire way to cut short this ‘champagne socialist’ idealism is to, quite frankly, visit these places, sprawling dystopian masses of exposed brick work, harsh fluorescent lighting and laminate flooring: hardly the mythical creative utopia. As I am ushered into the starkly bare, quasi-medical classroom at Camberwell College of Arts, a place that would look more at home as a set piece for Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, I have to admit my preconceptions are asserted. I am here to meet Susan Johanknecht, Course Leader of MA Book Art at Camberwell College of Arts and practicing artist and writer. Graduating from the University of Vermont in English Literature in 1977, she went on to study Fine Art and Print Making at Central Saint Martins, since 1985 she has lectured extensively on the practice of Printmaking and Book Arts and joined Camberwell College of Art in 1997. Her own work is held in collections including the New York Library; V&A Museum, London; Tate Gallery Library and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, an intimidating resume to say the least.
The ambiguous concept of artist’s books and book art in the MA programme, initially, appears as complex as the confusing nature of arts education itself. However, the generally accepted definition of the practice is, simply speaking, a work of art realized in the form of the book, seen in the works of artists such as Dieter Roth and Ed Ruscha. Susan Johanknecht, however, challenges this simplistic definition explaining, “I think the course is about defining artists books and book art. It’s not a set thing…the students come from a wide range of backgrounds and they’re defining book art for themselves.” She continues this critique of the one size fits all perception of the book art, explaining, “we don’t define a specific medium. The content determines what the medium might be.” Her own artistic work continues this rejection of the reductive and the simplistic. Housed under the name ‘Gefn Press’, her chosen imprint she cites the trademark as “an umbrella name for anything I might do, in the same way the book is an umbrella concept for anything I might do.”
Eventually, we have to face the inevitable (and increasingly monstrous) elephant in the room, the culture cuts. “I’m really anxious about it” she admits, “I felt this before when the GLC was got rid of and town hall was closed and there were points were there were huge cuts and Margaret Thatcher was in and things were rebuilt. It’s so quick to destroy things and so slow to build them back up.” For the effects of the culture cuts on University of the Arts (the collegiate university comprising of Central Saint Martins, London College of Fashion, Chelsea College of Art and Design, Wimbledon College of Art, Camberwell College of Arts and London College of Communication) is undeniable. Set to lose £50 million in public funding by 2015, 75% of its income it is set to be reliant on the rising costs of student fees, with just 5-7% coming from the public sector. Furthermore a redundancy programme in UAL is looking to cut around £4.5m from staff costs. “I’m sure we’re going to seen an impact” she notes “but I don’t think we’ve felt it just yet”
Similarly, her own position as an artist and writer seems equally tentative. She explains, “It’s going to be affecting it [career as a writer and artist] more and more. As the arts council decides who to fund and who not to the organization Bookworks has retained its funding but an organization like Mute has completely lost its funding, so the range of organizations is going to be narrowed.” And in the practice of book art? “They’ll be a knock on effect, with artists books we’re very dependent on the publishing fair. They’ll be knock-on effects and again we won’t really feel it for a year or so. It’s quite sad and of course…and certainly with the libraries its going to be tragic…absolutely tragic”
Trained at Central Saint Martins herself, she admits, “It was very exclusive and very difficult.” And, upon returning to teach there years later? “I’m not sure if it had changed all that much” she admits. For the air of exclusivity and elitism of the ‘UAL brand’ certainly appears poised to expand following rising fees. “[Arts education as elitist] It’s very worrying”, she reveals, “It is becoming more exclusive, and will, obviously, as it gets more expensive.” For, the dilemma of the increased dependence on corporate sponsorship in the arts is a subject Susan Johanknecht is actively exploring in her own work. This can be seen in ‘The Barrings Bank Project’, a recent artists book about the notion of “finance in the arts”, aiming to highlight the “underlying ethical question of where money is coming from”. “It is tricky”, she sighs, “There is a lot of money needed in the arts and the question is where is it coming from?”
For, in these shifting times, it seems uncertain whether the myth of the art school, or even the brand of University of the Arts, can be retained. Whilst, it may be easy to mock the pomp and spectacle of the aesthetics of arts education, we are in a danger of these ramshackle institutions turning to mere artefacts. Perhaps, it would be most appropriate to consult the MA Book Art course itself. For, in the current shift in the book from physical object to e-book, it is not lost, merely changed. Similarly, in the case of Central Saint Martins move to Kings Cross in the autumn (and also in the general financial over hall of UAL) it is not a case of loss, but rather rebirth; a case of abandoning the myth and looking towards the future.