Practical guides

Critical Mass

Anthony Schrag, 'Wrasslin’ (wrestling)'. Photo: Claire Hazelton. performance on Margate Beach, 20 February 2010.

Anthony Schrag, 'Wrasslin’ (wrestling)'. Photo: Claire Hazelton.
performance on Margate Beach, 20 February 2010.

Rosemary Shirley reveals how can be integrated into teaching and used effectively by students on practice-based visual arts courses, art history and curating courses. This guide is punctuated by a series of four exercises that that can be integrated into a variety of student learning activities.


Whether through exhibitions, festivals, performances or publications, the presentation and dissemination of contemporary art is a vital part of an artist's practice, and the cultural industry as a whole. Interface is a-n's space to record, evaluate, discuss and promote the busy business of the presentation of contemporary art. This guide is designed to show how Interface can be integrated into teaching and used effectively by students on practice-based visual arts courses, art history and curating courses.

Interface has five main elements

  • Reviews unedited a space where writers can upload reviews of current exhibitions
  • What's on listings showing the breadth and depth of contemporary fine and applied arts in the UK and further a field
  • Venue index with information about galleries, festivals and other art venues together with the reviews of exhibitions or events which they have generated
  • Reviewer index a space where writers who contribute to Reviews Unedited can create a profile, promote their work and access all the reviews they have uploaded
  • Writer opportunities Interface works with leading arts organisations to offer regular travel bursaries, free tickets and books for contributors.

'Self Portrait (After Rembrandt)', 2010

'Self Portrait (After Rembrandt)', 2010

Writing and thinking and critically

Increasingly a reflective journal is becoming a key component of visual arts degree courses, and adopting a critical approach to works of art and exhibitions is equally important for art history and curating students. However developing critical skills takes practice and application. Writing short exhibition reviews can help students become more confident in forming and expressing their ideas. Writing a review calls for a meaningful engagement with the work on show, it requires taking time to think about each art work, to experience them fully and to work towards an evaluation.

Jessica Lunniss, an Art History Student at Goldsmiths sums up how reviewing an exhibition changed her behaviour as a gallery visitor "It definitely made me more aware of how I (and others) interacted with the works and the space, and it was an incentive to take it slowly, jotting things down, rather than racing through to try and get everything seen."

Writing exhibition reviews can help students develop the apparatus to place art works within an historical context and focus on evaluation rather than passive acceptance or rejection of a work of art. It is also a great way of giving a structure for recording the exhibitions they have visited. These are all skills which are vital to students' personal processes of reflection on their own work.

What makes a good review? Reviews are responses, and creative people respond in creative ways, but here are a few starting points for what a review should contain:

  • Some description of the exhibition and/or the art works on show, its important to record what took place.
  • Research the themes/ideas the artists are engaging with. How does this work relate to projects they have already completed and/or projects by other artists?
  • Think about how is the work being shown. What are the intensions of the curator (particularly in the case of group shows)? Does it relate to other exhibitions on show currently or in the past?
  • Evaluation - Is this show interesting and why? Does it effectively do what the artist (and/or curator) set out to do? Do some bits work better than others?

Exercise: Ask students to visit a current exhibition and write a 300 word review, uploaded onto Interface. Encourage them to consider questions such as: how is the work being shown? How does it relate to previous work by that artist? Does it effectively do what it sets out to do? Does it need to exist?

Steven Levon Ounanian and Thomas Thwaites, 'Honey Trap', performance, 2010.  Courtesy: Stanley Picker Gallery

Steven Levon Ounanian and Thomas Thwaites, 'Honey Trap', performance, 2010. Courtesy: Stanley Picker Gallery

Getting out there - taking part

At first the idea of uploading a piece of writing to Interface can seem intimidating, students are often worried that their review might look out of place or substandard in comparison the reviews by more established writers on the site. These are understandable concerns, but it needs to be emphasised that taking the step from moving your writing from a personal activity to a public arena is important. It means you are taking part in a conversation, that you are playing an active role in the contemporary art world, adding your voice to an archive which records how the art world is being experienced today.

Jessica Lunniss again on how she felt about uploading her review to Interface "I felt apprehensive at first, in case it would be seen as inferior writing, but I got over it! What's the worst that could happen?"

Once these initial fears have been addressed students are impressed by the potential audience Interface can bring to their work. Rebecca Dunn, also an Art History Student at Goldsmiths said "I think Interface is great for getting written work out onto the web for a wider audience to read as otherwise my writing is just locked away in a book for only me to read and what use is that!". Susie Cochrane, a Fine Art student from Nottingham Trent noted that "Interface has finally given me a platform for doing what I love in writing about current art, and gives so many people a chance to read it."

'Memory Screen', photograph. Photo: Alan Halsey

'Memory Screen', photograph. Photo: Alan Halsey

'Interface reviewers index screengrab'

'Interface reviewers index screengrab'

Promoting Yourself

With so much online activity it's difficult to make your review stand out. Uploading it to Interface, rather than a personal blog for example, guarantees a certain amount of exposure, but how can students increase this and start using interface as a professional tool?

One way is to make use of the Reviewer index. When a writer uploads a review to the site they get access to a Reviewer profile page which can be used as a place to promote your work and your writing interests. Jack Hutchinson is a regular Interface contributor. He started uploading reviews to the site when he was a student at Wimbledon School of Art.

You can make links to personal websites and blogs, and because all your writing is available on this page you can direct interested parties to it.

Other ways students can promote their writing include:

  • Sending a link to the gallery, curator and artists involved.
  • Using the 'email notifications' function. This is where you can ask Interface to send out emails to a number of people selected by you letting them know about your review.
  • Using the Bookmarks button (top right next to each review) this allows you to share your review quickly through Twitter, Delicious, Stumble Upon and others.
  • Posting a link to their review on their Facebook status.
  • Including a link to their review on their email signatures.
  • Linking to their review or reviewer profile from personal websites or blogs.

Exercise: Once students have uploaded their reviews, ask them to customise their reviewer profile to reflect their interests and link with other relevant online content. Ask them to write a short action plan of how they are going to promote their writing through online networks.

Mark Garry, 'Another Place', installation view (showing detail of Folds, sizes variable, threads, pins and beads).

Mark Garry, 'Another Place', installation view (showing detail of Folds, sizes variable, threads, pins and beads).

Interface as a research tool

The Reviews unedited section of Interface is a free searchable database of thousands of reviews reflecting the state of contemporary art practice. Students can use Interface to research artists which are relevant to their own practice and to keep up to date with the latest exhibitions.

A comment in response to Gillian McIver's review of the Expanded Cinema event at the BFI, shows that while a student from Nottingham Trent University had been unable to attend the conference and exhibition in London, she had found the review helpful and used it in her course assignment.

Exercise: Use the search function on Reviews unedited to find reviews of artists work relevant to the student's individual practice or research, ask students to leave a comment in response to one of the reviews.

The What's on listings section can also be a valuable research tool for students. As well as being useful for planning gallery visits, it can also provide an excellent picture of the artist-led activity taking place in a particular area. Used in conjunction with the Venue index students can build up an understanding of the types of activity undertaken by galleries and other organisations both locally and nationally. This kind of information can be used to identify which organisations it would be most useful for a student to contact and build links with for exhibition opportunities or employment. For example the venue profile for Aspex Gallery in Portsmouth contains details about the gallery's work with artists' professional development, combined with the reviews of its recent exhibitions, combining to give a useful flavour of the organisation.

'Bus Stop Graffiti', Photograph, 2009. Joanne Lee exercises her other amateur pusuits, allotment gardening and bus stop watching.

'Bus Stop Graffiti', Photograph, 2009.
Joanne Lee exercises her other amateur pusuits, allotment gardening and bus stop watching.

Jennifer Drake, 'typewriter'. Photo: jennifer drake. bancroft archive final

Jennifer Drake, 'typewriter'. Photo: jennifer drake.
bancroft archive final

Debates around critical writing

The process of writing about art is an important field of inquiry and critical development tool for students and artists and one that is debated in specially commissioned Interface articles. Here, the debate on style, engagement and content of critical writing shows that it can be just as contentious as the art itself. In 'Unprofessional development' Joanna Lee proposes "I want to step sideways out of the fray in order to recognise the virtues of critical writing done by those who do not want to consider themselves professionals of either [academy or journal] field. Here I find a more improper criticism, one that is unafraid of the partial and temporal, and one able to amplify the pleasures and possibilities of real-life critical conversation, as it takes place in studios or across dinner tables."

Eleonora Schinella discusses the development of the impact of user-generated material archives in 'Gods and Monsters in the Infinite Archive'. These articles are an excellent introduction for students to discuss and expand ideas about critical writing.

Exercise: Use Joanna Lee's and Eleonora Schinella's short articles as starting points for students to discuss: what does it mean to be critical? What is the role of the critic in the online arena? What does an amateur critic have to offer? How can online resources provide alternative archives?

Interface is a dynamic site which changes from day to day, reflecting the diversity and vibrancy of the contemporary art practice. In becoming regular users of the site students not only keep up to date with this world, but actually contribute to it.

If you are interested in arranging for the Interface editor Rosemary Shirley to run a review writing workshop with your students, or you would like further information about incorporating review writing into your course please email

Rosemary Shirley

First published: June 2010

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