Interview with Neil Mulholland
Programme Director of MA/MFA Contemporary Art Photography
Associate Head School of Art / Head of Postgraduate/Context
Edinburgh College of Art The University of Edinburgh
Text by: Funky He
The Contemporary Art Photography programme at Edinburg College of Art (ECA) primarily enables students to use lens-based media to examine and explore themes of their own choosing and to produce a resolved body of work allied to rigorous research and professional practice. ECA Students consistently demonstrate exceptional levels of achievement across an impressive range of practice including Landscape, Documentary, Portraiture, Still Life, Video. Whatever the approach, it is undertaken within contemporary contexts allied to historical/cultural awareness of the medium in the context of contemporary art practice and underpinned by academic rigour.
ART.ZIP: Can you tell us about the Contemporary Art Photography course at the Edinburgh College of Art as a whole?
NM: Photography at the Edinburgh College of Art used to be a design course – not long ago – it was in the design school, but it has held a visual communication perspective for a long time. It sat inside animation, film and television and so was in that kind of design/photography niche, but the staff had always been fine art photographers. Undergraduate photography in that sense was very broad and it combined a fine art sensibility with a design photography technical ability. The programmes at ECA are kind of mixture whilst Glasgow School of Art, for example, has two programmes that are completely separate. The course here is more or less dominated by a fine art approach and recently we have moved over to the School of Art from the School of Design.
Photography students here all have studio space which they share with others. It is all about what kind of work they are making. Many of our photography students don’t need a lot of space as they spend a lot of time out – off site – or in the dark room. They don’t necessarily sit in the studio, but some of them take the opportunity to use the space they have and to use the facilities that the art school has. So they may spend time learning how to cast or they may do a lot of video, digital work, web work and electronic, that kind of thing. So it all depends on what their interest is, perhaps aside of a conventional lens based approach to making their work. But there is usually something that draws them back towards lens based practice. Take one of our students who graduated last year for example. She worked for a few years on lenses specifically, and collaborated with staff and students in the glass department to make lenses. Then she used the lenses to create photographs.
ART.ZIP: I have noticed that many young students are crazy about analogue photography? Are there any specific areas that your students are interested in?
NM: They are interested in hypo-technology in that sense, which is combined with a broader interest in new media. A lot of recent photography students have been drawn to look at lenses, or students have become fascinated with analogue equipment that is difficult to get your hands on. We found quite a lot of students who come over from America are interested in American vernacular photography. They start off investigating vernacular photography but very quickly that spreads into something broader which develops out of that interest in vernacular types of practice.
It is interesting because historically it is a kind of mechanised media but increasingly these days professional photographers use digital cameras, so it’s almost like that has created a space for people to double or re-engage with something more mechanical. That needn’t necessarily just be the use of large format or conventional dark room technology but they are kind of looking at things that are proto-photographic or things which sit alongside photographic technologies.
ART.ZIP: What is the competitive edge of MA/MFA course at ECA? And what makes you most proud of it?
NM: To some extend, I think all Masters Photography courses in Europe are same, in a lot ways. They sort of need to be part of a European critical framework or something like that. There is international debate and discourse surrounding contemporary art and photography that they need to conform to. We don’t necessarily focus on differences but on what makes us alike.
We are in the art school, which was until recently an independent art school and therefore it has that tradition which is connected to a workshop model. So the way our students are taught is coming from that kind of educational inheritance.
Having joined the University of Edinburgh, we found ourselves part of a gigantic College of Humanities and Social Sciences, which has incredible range of expertise. The photography students here can draw on the other fine art or design areas (glass, sculpture, film and TV, textiles), or whatever they think may be useful in their work. They are also able to access all of the workshops that take place in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, so there are actually thousands of lectures taking place every week.
Students also can identify various support mechanisms for something that they may be interested in, theoretically speaking; and they can work directly with experts as well. Also, there is a lot of room for cross-over into sciences and medicines department. For example, our MFA students did an exhibition at the end of 2012 with the Roslin Institute. The work was produced in collaboration with scientists who worked in the institution and then exhibited there. They brought some of the work permanently as part of the new Roslin Institute just outside Edinburgh. So, there is this kind of possibility to work with the huge University of Edinburgh on of all sorts of projects.
The last aspect is that Photography exists as a Fine Art programme and that programme includes theory and curating. Students who specialise in these areas also inhabit the same studio. You may see some institutions where humanity and theoretical areas are quite often separated academically. But students here at ECA share the same spaces, the same courses and often, the same assignments. For example, our first year students have a large exhibition at the Talbot Rice Gallery, which was both a curatorial project and exhibition opportunity for them. They do a lot of collaboration with the curating students and all of them were involved. And they also work with other Master students from other MFA programmes in Europe. So this year, they are going to work with some students in Leeds and others from Ghent.
There is a sort of emphasis on collaboration between students to produce projects and exhibitions, and that is something they need to learn. If they don’t learn to work independently and socially, I would say, in Scotland there are no other options, where we don’t have primary art market. In Scotland, art students have to learn how to represent themselves and be self-organised. So developing connections with self-organised projects and spaces in Edinburgh is particularly important. MC Gallery for example, delivers all the professional practice components of the programme for the students that exhibit work there. The work on the project for MC takes place usually in late May every year. A strong sense of what we are trying to do is to involve our students from the beginning with the independent art scene in Scotland. So when they graduate from art school they have already become part of the art scene. Most of the people involved with those organisations did the MFA as well, so it gives a sense of moving from one platform to the next. We can see that is a certain kind of economy that exists in Scotland which is specific to a small country and that may be differently from Frankfurt or London.
最後，作為純藝專業的攝影課程設置中包括了藝術理論和策展部分的學習，因而無論偏向理論還是攝影實踐的學生都共享同一個工作空間。你或許會發現很多學院都在學術上都把人文和理論領域分的很開，然而愛丁堡藝術學院的學生則共享同一個空間，學習相同的課程，甚至完成同樣的作業。比方說我們一年級的學生每年都會在愛丁堡大學塔爾伯特·萊斯畫廊（Talbot Rice Gallery）舉行一次大規模的展覽，因而這次展覽對學生來說即是一個展覽，亦是一次策展項目，均由攝影實踐方向和策展方向的學生們共同合作完成。我們的學生還常常同歐洲其他專業的純藝學生進行一些合作項目，比如今年將於來自英格蘭利茲以及比利時根特藝術院校的學生展開合作交流。
ART.ZIP: It is a common truth that learning theory and critical study are a very important part of studying photography? If so, what percentage of the MA/MFA photography programme at ECA is made up of theoretical study?
NM: We have two related courses that run each semester. One of them forms 40 credits, which is effectively the largest component. It focuses on practice and research that links to their artistic practice. It is difficult to say exactly how much is theoretical study and how much is practice; but it is really the development of how those two come together. Students are examined based on the research that they do, how they communicate, how they have developed a discourse, and what they have worked on with their peer group. So we assess how they communicate, how they respond to other’s work; we also assess the studentship and how they exhibit and distribute their work. Some cases are maybe the exception – a lot of students are not that straight forward, it may be more projects based or they may have published their work. It depends on what their practice is but these are the main things that we look at.
The smaller course is worth 20 credits. It is usually more theoretical, which means it’s based on seminars that students have to attend and they have to prepare the content for it. We ask them to read, reflect, visit or examine something and they have to come and present on that. That forms an educational experience itself and they will usually write a paper relating to that. These are more conventionally theoretical approaches but the nature of these courses change quickly. They become more blurred in the second semester when students hold an exhibition at Talbot Rice Gallery. They need to work collaboratively and they need to produce a publication that comes with the exhibition.
We also have a two year MFA course. At that level students have the choice to focus on what they expect of the programme and chose the most suitable programme for them. So either they do a degree show, or they read a body of art reading or they do something in-between. They can do a project and an accompanying report – something that is between a thesis and a degree show. Their choice, in a sense, is based on what they have tested out before they get to that point. Our degree shows are not conventional in that they include other possibilities that our students may have pursued.
The MA show which happens during the Edinburgh Festival is also connected with a bigger programme that the art college runs. So our students are part of a broad spectrum of events at the festival.
The nature of the kind of theory we pursue here is one of being experimental, philosophical and so on. We are really interested in visual culture, material culture and we are looking at the new aspects of theory that artists are drawn to at the moment. Then we move on to things are maybe more practical in orientation, like curatorial studies and curatorial practices. We also think about the engagement with organisational practice, which should become part of their work rather than something which is done to them. Our students will not wait for somebody to spot them or tell them how to sell. They need to learn how to do that by themselves; again you don’t have any other choices in Scotland. If you don’t do that, you don’t have a career, you don’t have anywhere to exhibit. You need to make opportunities. It is not commercial; it is different sort of climate here.
Rather than imagine that one day you will make work which earns you a big enough grant upon which to survive or that someone will pay a lot of money for your works, the importance is that you learn how to make good work with what you have. You need to become savvy about using all possible resources that you can gather. The best resource you have is your peers because they are the people who have time and energy.
ART.ZIP: What is your suggestion to students who want to study photography at Edinburgh College of Art?
NM: We do have a lot of people apply who seem to think they can come to the MA course to learn photography. I suppose ‘taught’ in the UK means you go to acquire a ‘Master of Skills’. I think it is just a different comprehension of what taught means. We are a postgraduate degree structure that has courses, assignments and certain assessment criteria which is different from a completely open-ended research degree. I think the first thing is to understand is the difference between these two approaches, and to understand that taught is probably not what you think it means.
I think what they need to do is come with a practice that is robust, and they want to develop and be really open-minded about completely taking it apart – almost starting it again. They need to be prepared to deconstruct what they do, to be open to work of others and also be open to constructive critique.
About Neil Mulholland:
Professor Neil Mulholland is Director of the Postgraduate Programme in Contemporary Art Practice, Theory, Painting, Sculpture and Photography at the School of Art. He is currently associate Head School of Art at Edinburgh College of Art.