• Isi Williams

An interview with Alt_D - A Student-Led Alternative Degree Show

Michelle Wolodarsky & Amber Brown were interviewed by Isi Williams. Illustration by Thea Bryant.

A lot has happened in the last 5 months of lockdown; seasons have changed, temperatures have climbed, and for the graduating students from Edinburgh College of Art (ECA), hopes and dreams of a well- put together degree show disappeared. For those of you not from the art world, a degree show is an exhibition put together to showcase the artwork/design work/illustrations etc of graduating students. At Edinburgh University, it takes over the whole of the art school and people come from all over the country to see it.


However, as coronavirus spread through the nation and lockdown was introduced, the final year students were left stranded with no studios, no workshops and no degree show. Their hopes were slightly lifted at the promise of an innovative online show but were dashed again when the website didn’t live up to any of ECA’s promises. So they decided to do it themselves, creating ALT-D, an alternative degree show that is entirely headed by the students. Below, I interview Michelle Wolodarsky and Amber Brown from Alt-D’s press and writing teams and delve into why Alt-D was necessary, what their aims are and when the degree show will launch.


What inspired you to break away from the institutional degree show which ECA provided?


We felt that the ECA was not representing us adequately and were enraged by the mishandling of our complaints.They gave us a clunky and ugly website which is hard to navigate, breaking their promise to create a revolutionary online space. Instead of this, we received an up-cycled version of the website which has been in use for at least the past six years, which only had minor changes, and excluded any of this exciting content they had talked about. They also failed to represent student voices throughout the process, including us only in a performative dimension in online meetings where we were met with empty words.


Basically, at the heart of this all, is an attempt to give us all a great online show. We should be recognised because of, and not in spite of, the current circumstances. Our cohort deserves to be celebrated for their hard work and talent.

Normally the degree show is an opportunity to put your best foot forward; students are encouraged to put in their best finished work to showcase. However, Alt-D are calling for submissions of proposals and unfinished work. Of course one of the reasons for this is because many students hadn’t created their degree show work by the time lockdown shut the studios, but do you think this is also something people like to see? And do you think some of this choice was influenced by social media, such as Instagram, where artists often show their process?

We need to normalise the work-in-progress of creations; art isn’t always a finished product. For many artists post- graduation, exhibitions are a pause rather than a full stop. Our artistic practice is constantly evolving. You’re right! Platforms such as Instagram have encouraged the sharing of processes and the day to day life of an artist, so maybe exhibitions can reflect this too.


Due to the pandemic, many of us didn’t manage to actually finish work, which means that it is unfair for only finalised work to be prioritised. This relates back to our mission to create a platform where everyone has an equal footing and inequalities created by lack of access to facilities etc. are mitigated. Naturally, we are encouraging more sketchbook work, research and trails of thought to be expressed here.

You’ve already got well over a hundred students participating. What benefits have you, as a group, experienced from creating a degree show which is separate from the institution?


From the beginning, we wanted Alt_D to have a grassroots, DIY feeling about it. We were inspired by other artist-run initiatives like The Social Distance Project or Vision2020 at Edinburgh Napier, which are very much about artists doing it for themselves, where the institutions have failed to live up to the standards they promise, as well as basic educational values. We’ve been blown away by how many students have signed up and submitted their work! Teamwork, lots of coffee and plenty of zoom calls have been key.


We split up into smaller teams early on, where members of the committee chose a group according to their strengths, or areas where they wanted to gain experience. Right now, we’ve got artists and designers working across writing, admin, press, web design and communications. Of course, we hope that we’ve all benefited from those focus areas. But as an artist-run non-profit, our most important take-away is knowing that we aren’t defined by these institutions. Institutions can’t claim any success or ownership over these platforms because we’ve done it as our own separate entity, which critiques the institution, and puts the artists and their visuals at the forefront.


We suppose the team-building aspect is the main benefit we have experienced. Our aim was to effectively community-build for the graduating cohort at ECA, in the absence of any real support from the institution we have all invested the past 4-5 years in. Knowing that we can self-organise very efficiently and create something of value is extremely rewarding, especially when there is little out there for artists at the moment. We are creating our own opportunities as graduates!


I feel like Alt-D has brought a level of hope to the graduates and shown that there is still an art school community, even with the art school removed from the equation. But what is the general feeling among the ECA graduates who are currently going into the work force with an uncertain future?


It is hard to say what the general feeling amongst graduates is, as, in a lot of ways, the terrible end to our degrees severed a lot of community contact and ties (which is what we want to fix!). It is safe to say that anxiety is a key word here though. We want to talk about how it is natural to have a slowed-down pace right now, and that post-graduate life is not a competition to see who gets ‘there’ first. This is why, for example, we chose not to include prizes in an overt manner, as we want to restructure the way that we celebrate artists through community support and collective action.


It mentions on your website that you’re creating Alt-D not just as a quick fix for a degree show problem, but hopefully as a long term project to help create a supportive ECA alumni network. I know you’re planning to keep the work up for a year but can you comment further on what you hope the future use of the website will be after this year’s degree show is up?

Yes! Ideally, we would like Alt_D to be a long-term collective for ECA alumni. Generally, there’s a fear that you’re pushed out into the art world to learn how to survive on your own. In hindsight, going to art school actually taught very little in terms of how to survive as an artist, how to sell work or how to go freelance. These are all things that institutions should be integrating into the curriculum from the very start of study, not as a one-off class right at the end to tick the box. We want to create a community space where we can go through all of these things together as a group, where we can support each other and also use it as a creative network. Quite quickly, we began reaching out to organisations, artist-led initiatives and various artist networks and have secured support across Scotland!


We’re working on various publication opportunities through our ‘Journal’ feature and are also putting together a calendar of events to run alongside the platform. We’ve just made a big announcement on our Instagram today which sees us beginning to work on creating opportunities for the cohort to physically exhibit work in the future. Zembla, a wonderful gallery in the Scottish Borders contacted us a few weeks back. They have a record of being supportive of emerging artists and things have been moving very fast since then! We’ve teamed up with some brilliant organisations to host a physical show in September, but it will be very DIY, very collaborative and very true to the Alt_D ethos! There’s some very exciting things coming up to look out for!


That sounds amazing and sends us right into the last and most important question - when will the launch of the degree show take place and are you planning any events (such as an opening) to go along with this?

Yes! The Alt_D platform will launch on August 10th at 5pm. The main asset of the launch is, of course, the website itself. Finally revealing in a clean, accessible way the work of every freshly-graduated artist who has submitted. We have also invited ECA alumni to host an Instagram Live gig to celebrate the opening of our graduate platform-- expect DJ sets and bedroom concerts from the comfort of your own home! As well as some other live chitchats and just general fun and games.


We’ll also be introducing the Journal section, a feature which will continue to grow over time as we keep adding to it with new and exciting content from our artists. Another great feature which will go live on the evening of the 10th, is the comment section on each artist profile. We’re hoping people will feel free to start interesting conversations around the works or simply just say say hello!


I encourage everyone to go and follow Alt-D on instagram at @alt_d.show to track their progress, and get regular updates on projects and events. They’re currently introducing some of the graduates' work ahead of the big unveiling on the 10th so it’s definitely worth a look!


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