RCA students protest degree show going virtual due to coronavirus
This year the RCA will not have physical final degree shows

RCA students protest degree show going virtual in light of coronavirus pandemic

A group of students are petitioning London's Royal College of Art to delay their final degree show due to the coronavirus outbreak, rather than having an online-only version.

The students launched the petition entitled "No to the Virtual Show" following the university's decision to move all courses and annual degree shows to digital platforms.

"An art or design degree without a physical degree show is not an art and design degree," said the petition.

The petition, which has accumulated over 4,000 signatures since it was launched last Friday, argues that the shows provide a vital platforms for students working in non-digital mediums such as sculpture, painting or performance to present their final projects for assessment, as well as bringing them to the attention of the press, galleries and collectors.

"Our education is not transferable to online platforms"

The students argue that it is not possible to accurately represent their work on a screen.

"My degree show project is an immersive, room-size video installation with a virtual reality component," one second-year masters student in contemporary art practice told Dezeen.

"The work highly depends on the viewer's physical experience, so it would be impossible to simulate it adequately online. After two years of work, taking on thousands of pounds in loans, and working side jobs around the clock in order to realise my project at the RCA, to say it is a huge disappointment puts things lightly."

Another key concern is the inability to create their final projects in the first place, given that all college buildings have been closed since Friday.

"As we cannot access our studios or workshop facilities at the RCA, we do not have the physical space to produce work to be displayed in a virtual degree show," said the students, who have asked to remain anonymous.

"Our education, which relies on seminars, artist studio visits, specialist equipment, and in-person tutorials, is simply not transferable to online platforms."

Student's fear impact on their future

As the degree show functions as a forum for students to gain exposure and make industry contacts, many are worried about the knock-on effect a virtual show would have on their careers.

"The show is a monumental moment for many students, where they sell their first piece of work, or receive their first commission," explained the students behind the petition. "Students will miss out on amazing commissions, job opportunities and contacts."

"Even if your work is seen online in June," they continued, "many employers, galleries and project spaces won't be in the position to make guaranteed offers due to the pandemic."

"Viable to plan on a degree show for October"

The petition calls for the university to adopt similar measures to the Royal Academy of Art and University College London's Slade School of Fine Art, which the students claim are postponing their degree shows until they are safe to hold in their physical form, as well as giving students the option to take a leave of absence with guaranteed re-enrolment next year.

"If the government begins to lift the lockdown and has lifted social distancing by August, it is certainly viable to plan on a degree show for October," the students said.

"What senior management is failing to see is an opportunity," they wrote in the petition. "An opportunity to create a show that lives long in the memory. We, as creatives, cannot focus on making work right now. We want to help, look after, and care for ourselves, our loved ones and our communities without the anxiety of a callously enforced deadline."

If social distancing measures have not been lifted by October, the students are calling for a further postponement of the show, and for the university to actively to consult with the student body on how they want to proceed.

"Life will not have returned to normal by September"

In response, the RCA stated that, while it had reviewed the possibility of deferring the show, this seemed unrealistic given the unknown timescale of the pandemic.

"One significant difficulty is that many students will be unable to stay in London for that extended period," said the university in a statement.

"To commit them to the significant additional costs that would be involved, and further costs to return to London in the future with the present level of uncertainty seems unreasonable. The latest reports from the WHO and others suggest that life will not have returned to normal by September."

The university says it hopes to make the virtual show as representative as possible, following in the footsteps of the Pace Gallery and the Art Basel fair in Hong Kong, as well as a number of other art spaces that have taken to letting visitors virtually tour their collections.

"We made the decision to move to a virtual show now so that we can all work as a college to make the 2020 iteration as dynamic and representative as possible," the university said. "Giving students the profile of a globally accessible platform, opportunities to meet visitors, commissioners and potential employers virtually, with an online legacy for many years to come."

A slew of universities across Europe and the US have pivoted to virtual learning to avoid large gatherings of people in light of the pandemic, while museums are offering virtual tours of their collections.

Photography is by Richard Haughton.