Playing with fire: risk-taking in visual arts practice

Play_at_your_own_risk_csmStaff and students from across UAL recently came together for a mini conference on the theme of risk-taking in arts practice. The event was a collaboration between CLTAD and CSM, hosted by Mark Dunhill (Dean of Academic Programmes, CSM), Alex Lumley (Associate Dean of Academic Support, CSM) and Professor Susan Orr (Dean of Learning, Teaching and Enhancement, CLTAD).  Dr. Simon Bell, Head of Graphic Design, Coventry University, gave a thought-provoking keynote which attempted to outline a ‘meaningful mandate for risk’. Drawing on his recently completed PhD, ‘The promise of the short text: writing risk into visual arts practice’, he explored various forms of risk-taking in both personal and institutional practices, and presented an apparent paradox: If risk is supported institutionally it can become ‘safe’, and lose its creative potential. A question arising from this was how can we create an environment where risk-taking is implicitly acceptable, but not sanctioned to the extent that its creative potential is stifled?

During a lively Q&A session, further questions were raised: How should we judge and assess risk? How can we ensure students are able to risk subverting core disciplinary tenets in their practice? What are differences between personal risk-taking, and creative risk-taking? How can we expect students to take risks in the face of competitive marking? The high level of energy and audience engagement was testimony to the provocative nature of Dr. Bell’s presentation.

Participants then broke out into groups to discuss a further question: “If taking risks plays an important part in the creative process how is this underpinned, recognised and understood within the teaching and assessment of our courses?” Groups fed back their insights, with some common themes emerging around the need for trust amongst course teams and the value of setting the scene for risk-taking by adopting it as a ‘state of mind’. One participant remarked that rather than sanctioning risk, perhaps we need to find a pathway towards it.

Participants were then invited to take part in a ‘risky lunch’ designed by CSM BA students, Elisa Nader and Mona Wang (pictured above). The students created a Jenga tower out of food containers, and invited us to play for our lunch. What did we risk by taking part? Was this the kind of sanctioned risk-taking we had been grappling over during the morning? Who was taking a risk – the conference organisers, the students, the participants? What about those who didn’t take part? Perhaps they were playing out Dr Bell’s final remark that the biggest risk might be to play safe when urged not to do so…


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