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A Covert Operation

My first week on residency is a fairly covert one. I’m mostly in the background, in the corner, unnoticed. I was even mistaken for a student a couple of times.

Café as Workspace

I wanted to be resident in the shared spaces of Hardwick Campus, rather than holed up in a closed studio or gallery space. As it happens, the one space where all students and staff in the building pass through is the coffee shop, just inside the main entrance.

For me, coffee establishments are a home from home. They’re the sites of meetings and where new collaborations are born. They’re where I practice my customer service skills and latte art. And they provide heated, cosy desk-space for the price of a flat white.

To become an artist in residence in a café is not an easy task. First, I staked my claim on a chair. It’s in the corner, but by the window, with a spiky plant for company. I learn that the sofa has a history too: the details are sketchy, but apparently it was shipped especially from China, because the chrome frame matched and is a copy of a more famous design. In these first few days, I’ve heard it described as “stylish”, “awful”, “modernist”, “horrid”, and “expensive”.

Listening In

Almost by accident, I end up listening into conversations. I try to drown out others. The café is populated by students and lecturers from photography and fine art courses, support staff and visitors to the building. It hosts tutorials, meetings, lunch breaks, coffee breaks, cake breaks, complaints, laughter, shouting, whispering and plotting.

A few people are a little more knowing about my presence and wary – they speak in lowered tones. I try my best not to listen.

It’s a fairly unexceptional scene for an art college: discussions of Kant and socially-engaged practice mingle with debates about Game of Thrones and the recent election result. What’s different is that this time I am not directly involved, I am not a participant, I am an outsider.

The Outsider

My position in relation to the degree show is a strange one. For the first time, I’m not a participating student, lecturer or technician. I’m not serving the wine, I’m not designing the poster, I’m not even preparing for an exhibition, really.

Coming from the outside, being uninvolved, I’m starting to notice things. How the space of the art school operates, its hidden boundaries and secret rules.

And how the degree show itself – the preparation, event and aftermath – follows a distinct set of instructions, becoming almost performative…