BA(Hons) Fine Art, Sculpture and Environmental Art, Glasgow School of Art final year student Jack McElroy speaks to Jamie Limond.

“It’s about making an artwork that can be enjoyed by people who don’t want to enjoy it as an artwork”

Sculpture and Environmental Art student Jack McElroy has a socially-engaged practice which leans more on the environmental than the sculptural.

Graduating this June from The Glasgow School of Art, he has ambitious plans to cut through the institutional space of the degree show, literally, with an indoor-outdoor stage wedged through the building.

While a degree show can so often be a time of frantic, isolated activity, McElroy is determined to use it as a way to bring people together and to collaborate with others. And, crucially, to have a good time.

We’re a few months away from degree show. Can you tell me a little about your work leading up to it?

I tend to make artworks as events,  rather than objects. I recently put on an alternative Burns Night with contemporary artists, drag artists, poets, which also looked at how Burns events are funded. I’m not a DJ, not a drag queen, not a comedian, so I have to have all these other people there to make it happen. I’m a facilitator, almost. So if you have that kind of practice, and you study environmental art, and the degree show is these four white walls – how do you deal with that? That kind of freaks me out. I’m conflicted about just putting documentation up, just photos on the wall. So the plan for the degree show is to put up a stage that people can perform on. The idea is to have this stage that interferes with the building in some way, and on the night I want to create a bill of acts, performances and events centred around ‘wellbeing’ – which for me is going to gigs, going to see drag acts, doing yoga. I want to use the stage for that.

And when the stage is empty?

I think I want it to be looked at as a sculpture as well. An installation. It has this illusion that it’s cutting through the building, or the building is cutting though the stage. They’ll align so it looks like they’re joined up. You can come up and stand on it, and see the rest of it out the window. It is site specific, so it can only work in certain spaces of the building.

Do you see the degree show as a sampling, as an end point, or more of a mid-point?

I’d say mid-point. I was worried at the start I’d have to make an artwork that encapsulates all my interests over the last four years. But how can you? I think the work I am actually going to show takes advantage of the fact that there’s going to be so many visitors. And takes advantage of the fact that it’s an event, that it can be an event or a series of events within an event. There was no degree show street party last year, The Vic bar [GSA’s student union] closed down this year. So I kind of want the stage and the outside space to be a place for some of that, at least while the degree show’s on.

Is the need to document your work for crits and tutorials ever a problem?

It’s usually a tricky one. You never get a full sense of the work. You need to have been at that event to know what it was like. That’s something I’ve maybe learned most through the course, how to document my work, how best to document it, experimenting with ways of documenting which are more appropriate.

What do you feel the course could have given you more of? 

Maybe it’d be helpful to know more about the processes and permissions you need to go through, especially with environmental art, when you’re doing things in public. You can’t just put an artwork out there. Maybe a bit of ‘how do I get a job?’. But I feel ready to leave art school. I used to feel really nervous about it, but now I’m happy to go! Before I went to art school I thought, ‘Oh you need to get a gallery’, but now, because I work with communities and I’m interested in people who think they aren’t interested in art, and I’m trying to involve them in it through subtler things like events and workshops, that’s not so important.

Are you determined to enjoy degree show?

Yeah! I really enjoyed first year in art school. I just made so much work – didn’t think, just made it. And I was always going to parties, just enjoying student life. I think I have to just take that approach now; just give myself time to go to gigs or go drinking with friends. It’s quite beneficial, I think, even just to debrief, having that balance of working and just enjoying life.

That seems a big part of your work – there’s a lot of art where enjoyment’s pretty low on the agenda. Do you find a fun even in the admin side of things?

Yeah, sometimes I think ‘what have I done today?’, but then I look and I’ve sent all these emails, and I’ve confirmed this, and they’ve agreed to that. So the admin is the ‘beginning’ part, contacting people and organising chats and meet-ups. I do enjoy that.

Do you find a kind of confidence in that? Affirmation in things becoming concrete?

Yeah, when you have an ambitious idea and you think, ‘I really want to work with these people’, and then they say yes, and then they involve other people. Everyone brings something and it changes, things don’t just go your way. It’s exciting to have a sketch of what you want to do and to see it coming together.

How’s the written side of things? Has it been helpful or more like homework?

I did the extended essay. Dissertation is so lengthy it would’ve taken too much time away from my projects. My essay was about the role of wellbeing in the arts. The big Van Gogh show in London was promoted online as being about mental health, but it wasn’t like that in the actual show. So I wrote about my disappointment in the curation, and presented it like it was me ‘re-curating’ it. A lot of the research for that looked into wellbeing in the arts and access to the arts, which is a big thing for me. I do make works that are research driven, that can be enjoyed as artworks, but it’s also about trying to make an artwork that can be enjoyed by people who don’t want to enjoy it as an artwork.

Jack McElroy on Instagram

Degree show: A digital showcase for 2020 graduates will go live on 29 May and remain online for 12 months.

Interview by Jamie Limond, one of eight a-n members on the a-n Writer Development Programme 2019-20

1,2. Jack McElroy, Alternative Burns Night, 2020.
3. Jack McElroy, Paper for Alternative Burns Night, 2020.
4. Jack McElroy, Stage, 2020.