Mafe and Robb - The Australian Council of University Art and

Mafe and Robb - The Australian Council of University Art and
Dr. Daniel Mafe, Senior Lecturer, Visual Arts, Creative Industries Faculty, QUT,
Charles Robb, Lecturer, Visual Arts, Creative Industries Faculty, QUT, Brisbane.
A Different Kind of Studio: Reflecting on the open studio and the artist-teacher
Keywords: Open Studio, Interdisciplinarity, Artist-Teacher, Contemporary Art, Process,
For more than 15 years, QUT’s Visual Arts discipline has employed a teaching model
known as the ‘open studio’ in their undergraduate BFA program. Distinct from the other
models of studio degrees in Australia, the open studio approach is cross-disciplinary: in
preference to notions of medium-specificity, students are encouraged to engage with the
more holistic notion of practice by focusing on experimentation, improvisation and
collaboration. However, while this activity proves to be highly relevant to exploring and
participating in the ‘post-medium’ nature of much contemporary art, the open studio also
presents a complex of challenges to the artist-teacher. The open studio, as we have
argued elsewhere, produces a different type of student than traditional, disciplinespecific art programs (Robb 2009) – but it also produces a different kind of artist-teacher.
By presenting interwoven accounts of each of our experiences as artist-teachers at QUT,
this paper will provide an account of our individual backgrounds and pedagogical
approaches and the subsequent way in which these have been influenced by and
presented challenges to our approaches to practice. As an emphatically reflective
account, it responds to Donald Schon’s observation about educational practice: “the
critical issue to begin with is not what the students learn, or their difficulties, but how the
teachers have their own understandings of the material at hand” (Schon 1996, 14). While
this paper primarily addresses the complexity that arises from open-studio teaching, the
examples it provides will resonate with tertiary educators who are likewise grappling with
the challenges of teaching contemporary art, regardless of discipline models.
1. Background
If traditional studio teaching will always require the artist-teacher to relinquish some of
his or her personal preferences, this relinquishment is fundamental in a crossdisciplinary course - especially when the teacher’s own practice is anchored in
exclusively discipline-specific concerns. It is precisely this tension between a disciplinebased studio practice and cross-disciplinary teaching practice that has given impetus to
this paper. However, while we both share a passionate commitment to cross-disciplinary
teaching, we have each come to the open studio with very different backgrounds that
have shaped our engagement with the process of studio teaching.
1.1 Daniel Mafe
My introduction to teaching in the visual arts studio began in QUT in the early nineties
when I was appointed to co-ordinate the painting studio. My own experiences of art
school, have helped form my approaches to teaching. I went to an at the time very
conservative art school where medium, at least within the painting studio, was never up
for question. This however was not the case with the sculpture discipline where students
actively investigated a broad range of media, seeking that which best suited their ideas.
This left me with a particular question: why did sculpture students not appear to take a
material for granted but rather looked at what was possible to construct work with? In the
painting studios by contrast however, everyone seemed to know that to paint was to use
paint (and oil paint at that). While in the mid-1980s the differences between disciplines
were more explicit, this disparity between the attitudes of these studios was instructive to
me. As a result, when I began teaching painting at QUT I made it as clear as possible
that students were free to use any material that they saw as most appropriate to their
ideas. In other words this studio initiated the principles of the open studio at QUT.
There was a problem though. A consistent sticking point with students what the fact that
the studio was named a painting studio. This name worked to inhibit experimentation
and encouraged students to be cautious when exploring a mode of working that did not
immediately ‘read’ as painting. Some years later, all the separate visual art studios at
QUT were merged into first year, second year and third year studios. This had the
immediate effect of shifting emphasis to the relatively broader question for students:
what kind of art will I make and what media best suit my ideas? They were now at liberty
to choose the medium that suited their ideas best and as staff we were similarly at liberty
to focus on helping the emergence of their nascent creative identities into contemporary
artists – feedback that was unfettered by the constraints of medium.
1.2 Charles Robb
My experience as a tertiary art educator began in a specific discipline area: sculpture. At
the time this seemed entirely natural: in my undergraduate degree I majored in sculpture
and three-dimensional form has been the exclusive focus of my studio practice. If I was
attracted to sculpture initially due to its affective qualities – qualities borne by my driving
interest in corporeality and the figure - by 2002 when I was unexpectedly invited by the
University of Southern Queensland to run their undergraduate sculpture program for a
semester, this interest had become more a habit than a carefully considered aesthetic
position. The experience of developing the USQ sculpture curriculum revivified my
interest in its specificity as a medium. I understood well the way in which this medium
was a artificial construct: a product of an academic system, informed by art-historical
heritage and the modernist disciplinary paradigm. And while the focus on mediumspecificity served as a productive way of orienting and directing the creative process,
and of ‘scoping’ the teaching program, what I did not fully appreciate was that they were
also a profound and unnecessary limitation to pedagogical goals.
This insight was one that was almost immediately raised by the challenge of the QUT
studio model when I began teaching there in 2006. A discipline-based focus proved to
be of little help as I grappled with student practices that ranged from performance and
video to drawing and painting. Now, my discipline specialization was a hindrance,
profoundly limiting my capacities as a studio teacher. Where spatial concerns were an
apt point of reference in the sculpture studio, in the open studio a broader framework
was required. Instead of looking to medium and approaching studio teaching from a
developmental perspective, I needed to tailor my teaching approaches to the specific
characteristics of a student’s individual practice. This shift from an external reference
point, to one that was located internally required a different pedagogical approach. My
teaching had to become much more dialogical, interrogative and collaborative. In place
of the hierarchy of the instructor-student relationship, as an open-studio teacher I had to
first learn about the student’s interests, fascinations, habits and apprehensions through
conversation and a close consideration of their working processes. As I came to see,
the open studio invites a more horizontal approach to teaching in which student and
teacher are frequently in a collaborative exchange of ideas and understandings.
2. Pedagogical Emphasis: Process
For both of us, the open studio has forged a different way of thinking about the
relationship between teacher and student that occurs in studio teaching. This shift in
emphasis is exemplified by the shift from seeing art as an historically conditioned ‘thing’
(an attitude underscored by both our different discipline backgrounds), to engaging with it
as a process. While we have both found that, as Robert Morris has written, when art is
considered as a process "the artificiality of media-based distinctions … falls away"
(Morris 1993, 75). This however is not done with a view to revealing some authentic truth
about art’s ontology, but rather to address the performative dimension of its production.
By focusing on the category of process rather than those of skill or technique, we are
able to address both the experimental, materially-based actions of the studio, as well as
the critical processes of analysis and interpretation. In this way, the open studio is able
to maintain a firm and rigorous foundation for student activities that are often
multifarious, dynamic and highly individual.
2.1 Daniel Mafe
As an artist and studio lecturer I have always understood and been sympathetic to a
view of art as process-based, but what does this term mean in the contexts of both
practice and teaching? Contemporary art has certainly been extremely interested in
process and rendering that visible at different times, and much art is also clearly and
obviously processed-derived and there has been research into this. Practice-led
research has made this view a pivotal plank to its self-understandings as writers such as
Barbara Bolt have articulated in publications like Heidegger, Handlability and Praxical
Knowledge (2004b) and Art beyond Representation (2004a). In these texts the focus is
strongly on understanding art art not just as representation but rather as a process
where the handlability of art can act as a material form of ‘concept’ making and in doing
so, expresses the performative nature of making. This line of thinking has also proved
important in the unfolding of my ideas about my own practice-led research and studio
This is very clear when working within the third year studio environment at QUT where
emphasis is placed on process as a complex of overlapping activities. In this approach,
process is regarded as the basis of practice understood as “all the activity an
artist/designer is engaged with. Practitioners think, read and write as well as look, listen
and make.” (Haseman and Mafe 2009, 214). In other words a practice “[…] not only
suggests the techniques or media an artist uses to create art, but also fundamentally the
artist’s conceptual approach or method by which he or she goes about making art.” (The
Andy Warhol Museum 2013). Practice and process are intrinsically linked in the
contemporary art studio.
This wholistic understanding of practice and the processes that define it, is important for
students to grasp. Without that larger understanding students cannot be encouraged to
find a personally relevant direction, conceptually and practically. In a way, ideas are now
to be worked with in the same way that materials are. What this means is that ideas,
rather than prescribing art, are understood as emergent entities within its making and
are therefore as fluid and subject to change as any physical media. In this way
handlability is now extended to cover a wide range of almost rhetorical tropes as
students shift from thinking to making to researching to exhibiting and back again. The
elements that constitute a complete practice are worked as a range of overlapping and
mutually informing processes.
By the time students at QUT enter the third year two things occur. In the first semester
they tend to draw together a range of work to achieve a kind of temporary mastery over
their chosen forms and areas. Issues that arose in second year move towards resolution
in this time. In the second semester however I engage them in questions relevant to a
longer view by encouraging students to think beyond the semester format towards a
more thorough engagement with independent practice. In other words, process as a
forming principle becomes dominant again. In this space, students think about longer
term projects either for further study in the Honours year or begin to prepare a practice
that might work best for them outside of the institution.
This has significant implications for teaching. In this context, my teaching role is
predominantly that of a mentor. The supervisor as expert is gradually replaced by or at
the very least augmented by the supervisor as a sharer of experience, and the modeling
of a flexible, adaptive and fluid approach to practice becomes ever more important. The
student now becomes the expert on their practice and needs to ‘own’ this new authority
– a development that can be quite challenging. As a mentor the studio teacher needs to
move from the power base that expertise can define to the more ‘vulnerable’ support or
advisory role. As a studio teacher this impacts dramatically on one’s own thinkings. In
this advisory role one is now very much a learner. For someone who has mainly worked
in a discipline specific way, this change of dynamic presents rich, engaging and pointed
challenges to one’s own creative processes.
2.2 Charles Robb
In my first year studio curriculum, process acts a chief point of reference for connecting
material experiences and form without recourse to discipline constraints. Towards this, I
have developed a scaffolded program that introduces students to experimentation via
constraint-based tasks in which they are asked to develop works through the process of
trial and error and improvisation, often working collaboratively. The program of tasks is
initiated by a focus on materiality through which students are challenged to explore what
the material can ‘do’ – to explore the actions and forms that are implicit to a given
substance. From here, the attention progressively moves to actions through tool-based,
gestural, ‘non-art’ and performative modes of activity. The objective throughout this
program is to give students an experience of an array of different ways of making art, a
processual repertoire through which they can begin to develop their individual ‘voices’ as
artists. This heuristic model of learning is broadly liberating to the student. An emphasis
on process rather than formal resolution enables the student to relax their attachment to
familiar ways of working.
But if the most immediate effect of teaching cross-media was the way it made me
recognise the importance of process in the studio, it also made me consider more
general questions about the creativce process. Over subsequent years, as I discussed
works with students, watched their works evolve and refined my curriculum, a body of
principles emerged that were to change my own attitude to practice. These can be
summarized as follows:
All experimentation requires sustained repetition;
No amount of preparatory work can substitute for ‘live’ experimentation with
No aspect of a work can ever be exhausted;
All art should be seen as a situated encounter;
All works can be analysed in terms of their qualities of contrast and
Ambiguity is the essential currency of art.
I found that these simple rules of practice, almost none of which had formed part of my
own undergraduate training, acted as a powerfully liberating force in the studio capable
of being applied across the full gamut of artistic mediums. These rules might be thought
of as a studio ‘discipline’ in the alternative meaning of the word: a code of practice.
Through this ‘code’ the rules of engagement are placed within the artist’s control.
‘Discipline’ becomes a method, tailored to the individual concerns of practice. We can
think of it as a system of rules, but it might be better interpreted it as a topology – a
dynamic set of elements and relationships that give direction and orientation to the
activities of the studio.
3. Personal impact
The open-studio can be characterized by two modes of ‘openness’ that distinguish it
from the discipline-based studio. On the one hand, as discussed above, the open studio
operates inwards, acknowledging the idiosyncratic, subjective and localized features of
contemporary art practice. But equally, the open studio faces outwards, fostering a
more porous relationship between the studio and world. In moving beyond discipline
boundaries, the open studio creates an opportunity for students to enlarge their concept
of practice to include the full spectrum of interests above and beyond conventional art
processes and forms. At QUT, this approach has resulted in student practices that
incorporate such disparate activities as pole-dancing, bricklaying, Death Metal
performance, swimming and axolotl-keeping as students draw their outside interests into
the space of practice. This two-way action – inward and outward – has likewise exerted
itself upon us as practitioners as teaching roles cannot help but influence the attitudes
we carry into our individual studio practices.
3.1 Daniel Mafe
The two way action discussed above is certainly relevant to my own expectations of my
arts practice as I had to adapt my thinking to understanding painting as art and not
simply as ‘painting’. Painting for me was no longer a dialogue within self-contained
discipline specificity. It is not that those discipline narratives were no longer relevant but
rather I had to include the broader narrative of what constituted art and how my use of a
painting medium contributed to that or at least occupied space within it. A broader
example of this concerns the ‘end of painting’ dialogues through the eighties and nineties
which were I think symptomatic of this very process of painting engaging with a poststudio contemporaneity, and it was in the so-called noughties that painting at least in
some quarters, began to throw off this solipsistic introversion and engage with the world
and art world more proactively.
This challenge to my previous thinkings lead me to engage in constructing digital works,
real time patterned animation, sound works that commented on and developed the
extant narratives of my work formally and technically. Within this new working space I
challenged the speed with which pictorial ideas developed, as well as the material nature
of what I worked with, its facture. All the various material elements I work with feel to me
to be practice-led expressions of that unnamable core motivating factor that drives my
work as a whole and my painting in particular. My ideas of a making practice opened to
include creative and critical writing, and with that a swarm of possibilities opened up
before me. And yet I still think of myself as a painter and I think of this expanding range
of work as painting. The writing emerges from the same sources as the painting and
digital work; it comments on other work critically and creatively, each aspect supporting
and working with other aspects to form an emergent whole.
This expanded understanding is a direct result of my teaching and the challenges of
doing that in an open studio environment. I speak to students working with film, sound,
installation, photography, sculptural practices, or text, and sometimes all of these
approaches. To wrap my head around that multiplicity I have to understand or at least be
sensitive to the individual core motivations of students, that which drives and orientates
their approaches to making, and it is in doing so that I have renegotiated my own
motivations and their ways of manifesting.
3.2 Charles Robb
The emphasis on process and experimentation in the teaching studio, proved to be
instructive in my own studio practice as it allowed my thinking about to process to move
beyond a strategic method of consolidating form, towards seeing process as an active
experimental agent. In my own studio, this has seen my interests shift from a concern
with sculptural self-portraiture to a more process-driven investigation of replication and
resemblance – a focus that now forms the basis of my studio practice.
As discussed above, the open-studio also engages broader methodological ideas about
how a practice is constituted above and beyond medium or personal style. The basic unit
of reference is not the work, but rather the more field-based subject of practice. When
providing feedback in the studio, proximity is all-important: responses and suggestions
need to be located within the creative matrix formed by the student’s working methods,
and its material, formal and processual ‘palette’. What the open studio has thus revealed
to me as a practitioner is the topology of practice. Drawn from mathematics, topology
treats space not as a static field but in terms of its properties of connectedness and
movement. Introduced into the studio lexicon in the 1960s by pioneering Post
Minimalists Dan Graham and Bruce Nauman (Graham and Wallis 1993, 42) (Auping
2004) , topology has the capacity to capture the mercurial structural dimension of
practice, without reducing it to a mechanical or didactic system. This insight has been
elicited by my experience of teaching in the open studio and the study of ‘deep’ process
that this teaching model demands. The effect of this new way of understanding the
ontology of the studio now forms the basis of my current PhD research – a practice-led
project that seeks to consider the implications of a topological account of practice. It is a
powerful example of how teaching in the open-studio, invites questions and insights that
can fundamentally transform one’s relationship to practice. My practice may remain
focused on the sculptural medium, but the questions it now explores far exceed the
conventions of that medium, to address more complex issues of methodology and
The open studio encourages a rethinking of the ontology of practice – and this has
pedagogical as well as individual implications for the way artist-teachers engage with the
studio. In our cases, the open studio ultimately reaffirms our decision to remain
connected to discipline within our respective practices; it has made discipline a
conscious mode of working, rather than simply a default category of practice. The open
studio model does not demand that artists dispense with discipline, but simply that it be
recognised as merely one of the multitude of reference-points that an art practice can
engage with.
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———. 2004b. ‘Heidegger, Handlability and Praxical Knowledge’. In Canberra:
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GRAHAM, Dan, and Brian Wallis. 1993. Rock My Religion, 1965-1990. Cambridge,
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HASEMAN, Bradley, and Daniel MAFE. 2009. ‘Acquiring Know-How : Research Training
for Practice-Led Researchers’. In Practice-Led Research, Research-Led Practice
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the Challenges of Teaching Contemporary Art’. Scope : Contemporary Research
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and Lessons.
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