British artists Jane and Louise Wilson began working collaboratively in the late 1980s when studying at different art colleges in Newcastle and Dundee. Nominated for the 1999 Turner Prize, the Newcastle-born twins are known for their moving image and photographic works that deal with place, history and ideology in always compelling, often unsettling ways. They share their experience of art education, both as students and teachers, with Jack Hutchinson.
What was life like as undergraduate students?
Jane Wilson: We both studied separate undergraduate degrees, with Louise at Duncan of Jordanstone College in Dundee, while I was at Newcastle Polytechnic [now Northumbria University]. The BA was an important time for me. Newcastle was fantastic, including the students and teaching style. We had a lot of facilities there, including media production, that were open across fine art.
So, there was painting, sculpture and printmaking, but having access to media production meant we could also make large-scale, 5ft by 5ft photographic works. We got these garden troughs and had a process to develop this large resin-coated paper. It was a really productive time, but it was the final year that we started working in earnest as a collaboration. Up until that point we hadn’t made it very public, but when we were approaching our degree shows I had a tutorial with one of my tutors and she said you are going to have to produce identical shows, which is what we did.
Louise Wilson: My experience of Dundee was a little bit different. At that point there were only really five art colleges in Scotland, and the facilities were so much more bespoke. Going to Dundee meant I got access to a range of facilities I probably wouldn’t have got in England. It was an extraordinary situation because you had 24-hour access to the dark rooms, even at weekends. You could spend ages in there printing and stuff.
In terms of the demographic, there were obviously a lot of Scottish students, but international ones as well. In comparison to Jane being in Newcastle, I felt I had grown up there so it was good to try something new – but then we ended up working together anyway!
Having that space to nurture a practice is really important. Everyone seems to think it’s fine to just give you a desk and a chair, but you do notice the difference when you can embed yourself in a process and a department where you can really start working with materials. It’s a real privilege because it grounds where you are. It certainly grounded where our art practice lead to.
Did you have a good relationship with the other students on your course?
LW: There was a lot of crossover with the other students. I remember in Dundee it had a very good electronic imaging course and we worked with students who were doing very early digital animation.
Students also worked with one another across the different year groups. You must remember, this is back in the 1980s when people still believed the lone genius idea, which is ridiculous. It felt like students were beginning to test that ground because of the nature of the mediums they were working in, whether it be digital animation, photography or film. By the very nature of the medium, you tended to have one or two people giving you a hand or setting up things. You made formulative connections quite quickly.
JW: At Newcastle there were a lot of very interesting students – people like Gavin Brown, Hilary Lloyd and Matthew Higgs, who were all in the year above me. A couple of years below there was Mark Leckey, so there was an interesting discourse going around the city. It was great!
How did the idea to collaborate on your degree shows come about?
JW: One of the worst things was being told just before I went into my final year that I was going to be kicked off my course! It was because I was on the painting course and wasn’t actually making much painting. I was mainly doing 16mm film, Super 8 film and photography. It kind of threw the department because they didn’t know how to deal with me.
With the support of the photography department at Dundee I went across to Glasgow School of Art. At one point I was going between Dundee, Glasgow and Newcastle, which meant I could use different pieces of equipment.
LW: It’s funny looking back. When you are in a situation where you’ve got nothing to lose, you take risks.
Did putting on a joint degree show create problems in terms of assessment?
LW: The idea of collaboration then was like ‘Oh my God!’ You can’t really imagine it now but there were a lot of questions about how the institutions would even mark and assess that. So we made two of everything and ran the shows concurrently, which meant at the end the two institutions were marking the same work. It shone a light on the assessment process and would have certainly raised questions if one college had passed it and the other had given it a fail. In a way it actually forced the colleges to collaborate as well and discuss what was going on.
I would like to add that it sounds like it was all wonderfully conceptualised, but it did really just grow out of the work that we were making featuring each other. It wouldn’t have made sense if it wasn’t actually part of our wider practice.
You then sent joint applications to various MA courses. How did it go?
LW: Most art colleges couldn’t understand the joint application. Whereas at Goldsmiths they were a bit like, “Who gets the M and who gets the A?”.
JW: It was definitely a case of “Here’s your studio…let’s get to work!”
Did you have confidence that after your degree show you would be able to continue as practicing artists?
LW: You forget the UK art world now is quite different to how it was 20-30 years ago. We saw artists in the US being successful, like Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine, Jeff Koons and Cindy Sherman. It was artists in America that we saw as having a practicing career.
JW: I remember it being really hard. This was just at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s when a big recession had hit. So people would much rather have headed off to New York than identify London as the place to be. The centre of the art world wasn’t anything to do with the UK.
LW: I remember a couple of years later when we did the MA at Goldsmiths we were stunned that there was a gallery system in the UK in operation at all. We’d come from a background where there were almost no commercial galleries, apart from a couple in Edinburgh. Instead the focus was performance and film festivals. It was a lot less object based and more temporal.
Have your BA and MA experiences influenced your own approach to teaching?
JW: When I was studying it was very important for me to have tutors who were also practitioners. We had people like Gerard Hemsworth, Nick de Ville, Susan Hiller, Jean Fisher, so you were conscious that teaching is what they did, but it didn’t define them.
LW: I think Goldsmiths had a bigger impact than our undergraduate courses. On those, we never did any group crits or tutorials, whereas now we do them all the time. It was more of an assessment basis – you hung your work, went off and then came back to be given feedback one-to-one.
At Goldsmiths the emphasis was much more on group discussion and exchange. You would do breakfasts where everyone would talk about each other’s work once every two weeks, and it was a bit like a studio visit.
One thing that always struck me about Michael Craig- Martin at Goldsmiths was that he always referred to the students as artists. There was obviously an element of separation, but the way he spoke to students, they were taken on board as artists. I think we have retained that approach. Whether interacting in group crits or simply sharing ideas in tutorials, it is about support. I think ultimately our students respect that we are also artists.
JW: A key part of art education is what you are quantifying and assessing. The parameters of where it needs to be academicized are difficult to pinpoint, so it becomes more about those moments of exchange and the development of ideas.
Interestingly, after we finished at Goldsmiths we went off and did some teaching in Norway for a year, commuting backwards and forwards to Oslo. That was really interesting in developing our teaching style.
LW: It’s also a two-way process. When you are in that discursive situation, you engage with the students’ ideas too and take them on board.
JW: Some of the visiting tutorials on my undergrad course were fantastic. We had people like Sonia Boyce and Lubaina Himid. A real cross section of people.
In terms of the business side of things, there was no real mention of it on the undergrad. It was only on the MA that people were strategizing what they wanted to do career wise.
How did you find things after you graduated?
JW: We took a year out after our undergraduate courses and worked in Newcastle doing temping jobs to pay off debt. At the time, I don’t think we would have considered doing an MA in Newcastle but now things are different. There is much more of an infrastructure there now, with a work-life commitment for artists when they leave art school. It means that there’s potential for you to graduate and stay in the city that you studied in.
When we moved to London we were self-employed and did anything to survive. We qualified for the Enterprise Allowance [a government initiative that paid £40 a week for a year to unemployed people who set up their own business], signed on and took part-time jobs. Our studio was initially just in our flat until we could afford one elsewhere. It was a really slow process to build things up.
I can really empathise with students at this point, because it is a struggle and you can’t always manage everything. When people ask what success looks like, for a lot of people it is simply surviving, maybe doing supplementary part-time teaching and with a studio space that they are running, which then allows them to make work. That’s actually pretty good success!
If you could give one piece of advice to a graduating artist what would it be?
LW: That there isn’t just one model to follow. Look at someone like Phyllida Barlow who didn’t really take off until her sixties. There’s no set methodology except go where the support is in order to keep going.
JW: You have to be pragmatic but also think a little further afield. This might mean looking for residencies outside the UK, and other opportunities that are not within you immediate networks. You might have to leave the country and challenge yourself to do other things. Stepping sideways might feel a little bit like going backwards, but these are experiences that can enrich you and move you forward.
Some people think there is a hierarchical structure, i.e. you graduate, you leave, you get a show. But it doesn’t always work like that. So long as you are pushing yourself and your ideas, then it might be OK to go sideways.
LW: I think women perhaps feel this more acutely, especially if they have a child. Sometimes it’s not as straight forward. If having a child is right for you, you should definitely have a child. There’s no reason not to.
JW: Community is the main thing. It’s key to how you make sense of what you are doing. We have a lot of young mums on the MFA course who really want to get back into that context of an art community, and are juggling a lot, but we try to run it in a way that helps people with other commitments. In the context of being at college, try and think of it as a space where you can nurture, support and create a framework for yourself to take those risks. It can be the most liberating thing that you will carry with you for the rest of your life.
Interview: Jack Hutchinson
1. Jane and Louise Wilson, Suspended Island, installation at Low Yard, Newcastle upon Tyne, 2018. Commissioned by BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, as part of the Great Exhibition of the North.
2. Jane and Louise Wilson, Gapado Island, South Korea, 2018.
3. Jane and Louise Wilson, Turban Shell & Seaweed, 2019.
4. Jane and Louise Wilson, ferry crossing to Gapado Island, South Korea, 2018.
5. Louise and Jane Wilson, 2018.