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Visual and Creative Arts Research: Get creative

If you are thinking of coming to the UK to study the visual or performing arts, you can expect more than formal study in the classroom or studio. Many universities across the country actively promote student involvement in all kinds of exciting events. Read on to find out more, says Gill Sharp

Tips for creative students

Dan Auluk, a student designer from Birmingham City University, offers some advice to budding creative students:

• Follow your dream. There may be many obstacles (personal, financial) in the way, but your enthusiasm, motivation and the work you produce will overcome many of these hurdles.

• Get involved with the cultural life of the city where you are studying. It’s the only way to experience new ideas, learn from others, work with others. I take part in charity initiatives, outreach work and art auctions, as well as mentoring.

• Be prepared to join in and to discuss your work and classmates’ projects with your tutors and fellow students. This is difficult if your English is poor, but Birmingham City University has a large number of international students and, like most other UK institutions, has a language centre which will provide help and support. Remember, some of the course will be written as well as practical – if necessary, write in your own language. Someone can help you to translate it. But don’t be shy: express yourself!

• It’s been tough for me financially and I know this is true for many EU and international students. But you will be able to work and this is important to broaden your outlook. I work 20 hours a week and it has opened up new doors, given me new contacts.

• Be true to the work that you produce.

The UK has a reputation for producing innovative and gifted artists in all of the creative areas. Think Stella McCartney, John Galliano, Nick Park, Ewan McGregor,  Daniel Craig, the late film director Anthony Minghella, Katherine Jenkins, Russell Watson and any number of rock bands. So how does such a small country train and nurture this huge amount of talent? By preparing them for life beyond their studies in a supportive but challenging environment.

Bright lights, big city
To see this in action, let’s go first to the very centre of England, where Birmingham City University (BCU) is at the heart of a thriving creative community. The University is involved in two major events that are run there in the summer months: the Schmuck Festival and the New Generation Arts (NGA) Festival.

Schmuck is one of the best-known international jewellery events, so it is appropriate that it should come to Birmingham, which is renowned for the craftspeople who work in its famous Jewellery Quarter. BCU itself has a flourishing School of Jewellery, the largest in Europe and it is hosting Schmuck, which this year has attracted applications from 500 exhibitors across 36 countries.

The NGA festival is wider-ranging, covering many aspects of design, music and performance. Joanna Birch is the Festival Director and Head of Corporate Relations at BCU: ‘Birmingham City University are the organisers of the New Generation Arts Festival. We originally came up with the Festival concept three years ago to fill a gap in the arts marketplace. [It will] improve the employability of graduates by providing a professional platform to showcase their work on a national level – a transitional ground between graduating and employment. The programme draws attention to the creativity and innovation coming out of the city – a great place to live, train and work.’

BCU is also home to one of the UK’s leading conservatoires – centres of excellence for the study of music and drama. So it is fitting that eminent musicians, such as Julian Lloyd Webber, will be appearing at NGA. The event has previously been supported by a host of celebrities, including model Erin O’Connor, social commentator Germaine Greer, sculptor Antony Gormley and author Philip Pullman.

Dan and Nita’s story
This year, NGA explores the rise of digital culture, and its theme is ‘Digital Utopia’. Two student designers from BCU who are exhibiting in the Festival are Dan Auluk and Nita Walters. Both mature students, they have worked together on several projects. They describe what NGA has meant for them:

Nita: The class was asked by our course director to put forward some proposals for last year’s NGA Festival. Dan and I decided to apply for a collaboration. Our skills complemented one another – I’m more of an installation artist and maker, he is conceptual. We worked with the University and it was exciting to find out how to get people to see what we’d done.

Dan: As a result, we are not just exhibiting this year, we are also mentoring other students and helping them with hybrid collaborations.

Nita: For the 2008 Festival, our installation is called Foley Detectives . We go back in time to 1929, when ’talkies’ had just arrived and films had sound for the first time. Jack Foley produced the ambient sounds – footsteps, creaking, etc – for what was originally a silent movie. We used an old film played by digital means and added sound separately.

Dan: We’ve kept the sound and vision in different rooms, so the audience may hear the noises or not, depending on when they come in. We want to see their reactions. We’ve created a folder of resources as well. We are really looking at creating a dialogue between art and audience, getting people physically involved with our work.

Nita: Sophisticated games already integrate the sound of footsteps that synchronise with the avatar. I wonder if motion sensors and sound banks mean the end of Foley as a physically performed skill?

It’s an interesting and exciting thought, and shows just how forward-thinking you have to be to succeed in the arts. Both BCU and the NGA Festival have given Dan and Nita a great chance to try out their ideas and create interest in their work.

Further afield
However, Birmingham is Britain’s second-largest city – so is it only the major towns and institutions that give students this sort of exposure and enable them to take part in large-scale events? No! At national and international level, competitions and opportunities to show work are available to all students based in the UK. 

The annual D&AD awards for creative people in advertising and the Graduate Fashion Week, which takes place every summer, are just two examples of many possibilities open to artists and designers. In the performing arts, there are all kinds of showcases for musicians, actors, dancers, producers and film makers – for example, the Edinburgh Festival and student-focused events like the Sunday Times newspaper’s Student Drama Awards.

Did you know? 

• Collaboration is a key feature of creative life in UK universities. If you want to work alone, that’s fine, but it is very common for people to team up, whether it’s in the same discipline, in related areas (fashion designers and photographers, performers and film makers) or across separate fields, such as music and art.

• Most tutors on creative courses will encourage students to show their work in public or to perform to an outside audience. It’s all part of getting yourself noticed and learning about how to market your talents before you leave the safety of university.

• Some of the biggest drama, dance and music colleges employ staff to co-ordinate and publicise students’ work and performances. As well as attracting the general public, agents and potential employers often attend these events.

• Although Jack Foley’s technique is so widely used now that it has become known worldwide by his name, back in the 1920s he was not originally given the credit for the work he did.

It’s true that studying at the bigger or more prestigious universities may give you more opportunities, but, if you take an arts course almost anywhere in the UK, you are likely to become part of the wider creative community. Let’s look at Brighton. One of the UK’s newest cities, it has two universities that offer creative courses – Brighton in the town itself and Sussex, which is nearby in a more rural area. It’s a small and lively seaside resort that runs all kinds of arts activities throughout the year.

In 2008, one of these was the Expo Festival, the UK’s largest weekend of free sound art and experimental music. Local art and music students alongside more established performers and artists have just taken part in a variety of individual and team exhibitions, installations and performances. The Festival is arranged by the Sonic Arts Network, which runs similar activities across the whole of the UK, often basing them in universities and colleges, and working with faculties and students.

Jonathan Webb, Sonic Arts Communications Officer, explains: ‘We are a national organisation that enables both audiences and practitioners to engage with the art of sound in diverse, accessible and innovative ways. Sonic Arts Network fosters a culture of creative risk-taking and experimental approaches to sound through a cutting-edge programme of festivals, events, commissions and education projects.’

This sort of partnership with leading arts businesses is very common in UK institutions, and the benefits to students are very clear.

Another viewpoint
Perhaps it’s time to find out what a non-UK student thinks of the opportunities available to would-be artists and performers. This time last year, I spoke to Muriel  Swijghuisen Reigersberg, a talented singer from the Netherlands, who was taking an MA in Music at Goldsmiths College in London. Twelve months later, she’s completing her PhD in Ethnomusicology part time at Roehampton University, London alongside a full-time job as a research administrator in the School of Education at the same institution. She also helps to administrate the journal Education and Ethnography .

Muriel is presently looking for jobs in academia as a researcher and lecturer in ethnomusicology.

‘I have found living in London exceptionally rewarding – although not cheap! The variety of arts available on a daily basis has helped stimulate my own creativity. London has also offered many opportunities to develop my career as a researcher because many performance and research events are hosted there.’

Muriel adds that London is so culturally diverse that there are many postgraduate students who share her experience of living away from their home countries.

’Roehampton has a beautifully green campus and a wide selection of courses. For instance, in the Department of Music and Education, new courses are being designed in applied music psychology and music education. It is also well known in arts education and its dance courses have also received critical acclaim.’

Carol Prior lectures in Roehampton’s Arts Department and agrees with her colleague’s assessment: ‘Students here are expected to get involved with the community, and to enter local and national events. For instance, our dance students have all sorts of projects with local schools and other groups, and are currently taking part in a London-wide festival. Part of my job is to arrange placements with employers in the media and this has been very successful.’

Carol points out: ‘We are very friendly and welcoming to non-UK students here. I think a smaller university like ours is less intimidating to students moving to a different country for the first time. We have built up a good reputation in the performing arts, music and film and media studies.’ 

The last word
Let’s leave the final comment on the visual and creative arts with Nita Walters: ‘We are trying to build bridges between ourselves and others: the artist can be a force for good.’ So it seems that there is no better place than the UK to be seen, to bring the public’s attention to your work, to meet those who can help and motivate you, and to inspire others as well.

Gill Sharp is a freelance careers adviser and careers writer who has worked with many creative students and graduates.

Read other Visual & Creative Arts Research, including 2006 research on Intelligent Fashion and research from 2007 about Animation & Computer Games.