Séan Kimber and Simon Periton chat
to Merlin Carpenter and Nils Norman about St. Martins
and the changes that have recently occurred there.

Tuesday 13th December 1994.
Merlin Carpenter and Nils Norman studied at Central St. Martins from 1986 to 1989. Séan Kimber and Simon Periton studied there from 1986 to 1990. Simon now works there as a part-time photographic technician. Séan works as a Fine Art technician and teaches in the Foundation Department[1] .
All four are artists. They describe themselves as having "gone to St. Martins" but in fact the school had already been merged with Central School of Art within a larger body called the London Institute[2].
"St. Martins" was then for them an imaginary normal and cool State financed art school, and they experienced the poverty-stricken bitter end of that system. But in fact things were already changing, in line with a general trend towards the marketisation of the public sector in the UK...
Simon Periton: When Nils and Merlin were there the colleges were amalgamated already but at that time it hadn't really had much effect. It was still thought of as being St Martins. The way the courses were set out was the same and the various departments were still in their original buildings.

Merlin Carpenter: It did have an effect on me, I spent 2 years at St. Martins and one at Central.

SP: Yes, but that's changed now, there are no painting students at Central at all now it's all Central St. Martins, part of the London Institute.

Séan Kimber: Which also includes several other art colleges such as The London School of Fashion, Chelsea, London College of Printing...(etc.)

SP: The biggest change in the last 6 months with reference to Charing Cross Road (what was the St. Martins site) has been the way the building has been changed. They've just put in whole new floors, moved the library, they've moved the fashion department, they've moved whole departments around, from one building to another. All done in the holidays, with 4 weeks notice, lots of staff being away on holiday and not knowing where their departments are on returning.

Nils Norman: But they knew it was going to happen?

SP: No!

NN: Why so clandestine?

SP: Well, the institute now has this policy of doing things, like closing the college coffee bar, almost effecting military coups during the summer holidays, because there are no students around to do anything about it.

SK: Or subvert it at all.

SP: The Student Union (if it has any power anyway) is always in a transitional stage from one year to the next. It’s the perfect time for any movement and change to occur. Not many staff are around, no students around to be up in arms about it. Lots of the fashion students last year, having had their interviews in May/ June for degree courses, all thought they were going to be in the centre of Soho near to fabric shops etc. Only to arrive in September, with agreed places on the course, to be told they weren't there at all, they were in Clerkenwell (East London). Miles away from anywhere. The textile centre was traditionally in Soho.

MC: They didn't really think about that?

SP: They did think about it, but they didn't rate it higher than getting more student heads in.

SK: Basically this is a result of the spatial review which was done very secretly.

SP: The first really big one was the college coffee bar going in the holidays.

NN: That was just trashed wasn't it? Even the guy who ran it didn't know about it.

SP: No, he was away on holiday fishing and got a call from a sympathetic school keeper saying: "you better come in and sort out all your equipment - till, fruit machines, snooker tables and all your various catering equipment, because it's all being dumped outside the door and if you don't come in you're not going to have a business!" And he was effectively removed. The only reason it seems it was necessary was that the college management objected to the fact that Dave (the owner) was an autonomous unit. The Student Union was piss poor anyway, and the only place students could meet was in his coffee bar. That's where everything occurred.

SK: Plus it's another 6 grand per year in fees for however many students they could fit into that now vacant space.... (£ 5,900 per year for overseas students, £1,600 for European Community students).

SP: The bottom line is money....

MC: Just how to get more students into the space.

SP: The whole thing this summer was moving, ridiculously long-winded and expensive moving. The official story now is that the reason why they did this so late was that they didn't finalise the budget until the last moment. So they didn't actually know if they could do it or not. What happens is that the Heads of College know what's going on. That's handed down from the Rector of the lnstitute, that's in turn handed down from a Government Minister. These various stages all know slightly less than the ones before them. Then the Deans, who come under the Heads of College, run the various faculties within the college.

SK: Also they did this moving when they knew the subject leaders would not be there. Under the Deans are the subject leaders, they don't have very much power but they have enough power to kick up a fuss and stop things happening. But they are only employed for 36 weeks a year. They are not employed for the summer, especially that part of the summer which is prime holiday time. But don't forget that it is now The London lnstitute. It’s not a college anymore.

MC: But what specific thing are you talking about?

SP: They moved another department into one part of the painting department.

MC: Which department?

SK: Critical Fine Art Practice[3]. (C.F.A.P.).

MC: They just took over part of the painting department without telling the actual painting department?

SP: Not even telling the department who was moving in there either! It's just a re-jigging of space. For instance the sculpture studio, the main hall where they held fashion shows, whatever, pantomimes....

NN: That was actually built as a theatre.

SP: Right. The building is a listed building[4] and what they have done is they've built this massive (you couldn't get more permanent) mezzanine floor. They've theoretically nearly doubled the floor space.

NN: They've just extended the mezzanine so now it reaches half way across the hall.

SK: Right. It’s now another floor.

SP: It stops just by the stage really, which prevents any sculpture taller than 10ft. I asked my friend Alan, who works on a building site, how much would this job cost? They had builders in from 8 a.m. working right through till 9 p.m. sometimes midnight for 5 or 6 weeks during the holidays. At no notice whatsoever, so they were obviously on really good earners because there's no way they could afford to have those people there unless they're seriously funding it. The total cost is not known, but it would have been two to three hundred thousand at least. What they've actually gained are maybe spaces for 40 students and what they are hoping is that those 40 students will then be from overseas.

SK: Which means 18 grand apiece.

NN: Those students would be fee paying foreign students?

SP: Well that's what they hope. But there's no guarantee that they are going to get that.

SK: Well there is actually because the subject leaders are forced to take in overseas students without even interviews.

SP: The prospectus is only available in one other language, which is Japanese. They printed it in Japanese, opening the same way as an English book, so effectively they published it in Japanese, back to front!

MC: By mistake?

SP: By mistake.

SK: Structurally they want the place to have a Fine Art degree with different modules which you go into, rather than a dinosaur departmentalised system. So that there would no longer be a painting department, there would be a painting facility.

MC: That's all fine but I mean, if they are just cramming in more and more students, without thinking they would have to give one "p" more in teaching time or facilities, then it's just going to get worse.

SK: They've reduced the teaching time and facilities since you were there. They've basically halved the resources and doubled the student intake. That is why the Rector lost his validation from the C.N.A.A.[5], apparently.

MC: So your degree is not validated anymore?

SK: Well it is now, it's self-validating, they now have self-validating status. There was a time in between you and us and what it is now where the only institution that would validate the institute’s degree was the Open University[6]. And they had to pay a hell of a lot of money for that. So for one year everyone got an Open University degree from St. Martins!

NN: So they could have all just stayed at home and watched T.V.

SP: The way the courses have changed, which is something to do with the course which moved into the painting department, what was the F.A.C.S.[7] course, a 5 year modular course, that ran different days with different students, is what's seen as the future of further education. A kind of shift system.

NN: Mainly older people who would come back to school, having done other things.

SP: That's good, it attracted lots of, for example, women who had been housewives and it's really excellent to encourage that sort of people, but the way the staff ran the course was a bit of a joke, it wasn't done properly.

SK: The C.F.A.P.[8] course is much better.

SP: Yeah, this is a new course which seems to have attracted much younger students and older ones too. It’s a bit sort of funkier.

NN: And is that still over a period of 5 years?

SK: No it's a 3 year degree.

NN: But you do your 3 year degree in 5 years. Part-time.

SP: No but there are part-time ones as well. I think in an ideal world they wanted to get lots of M.A.[9] part-time courses. The thing about St. Martins in the past was that it didn't have a very good image in terms of being like Chelsea or the Royal College. It didn't run M.A. courses.

NN: But surely if they start setting up M.A. courses they need more space.

MC: They need more teachers, you can't just have a M.A.. course and not teach anybody anything.

SK: The bottom line is that most departments need more teachers anyway.

SP: What you've hit on is the idea of the part-time course.

NN: One student can use the space for half a day then....

SP: Another shift comes in.

NN: Like time share. You share the space....

SP: And you share the staff. That's the ideal.

SK: At the moment C.F.A.P.[10] is a 3 year course, it's just a fine art degree, but it's critically based so you can go into any other area and do your stuff.

SP: There is also a whole part-time B.A.[11] structure.

SK: There's a much stronger part-time structure. There is also this thing called D.A.L.I.: Developments at the London lnstitute. They are a money-making operation. So basically if Simon, as a technician, wanted to run a summer course he would just go to D.A.L.I.[12] and say "I want to set up a summer course" they would say "fine, you write it, we'll pay you to do it and we'll take a percentage of the money you generate." The whole thing is money orientated.

SP: Now at the last degree show when I walked around (this isn't a problem just a noticeable difference) next to all the spaces underneath all the labels of people's names, there was this little D.A.L.I.[13] sheet which had the titles of the work and price and it said if sold, you were supposed to put a little cross next to it. These would all be sent back to central office which works out how much money the college gets.

MC: Everyone had an A4 xeroxed sheet next to their work with a chart which you could cross to fill in if a piece of work had been sold?

SP: It was supposed to be filled in as the work was sold.

NN: Who priced it?

SP: I think it was still priced by the students.

SK: No, no it was priced by D.A.L.I.[13] they have a woman who goes around and assesses what she thinks the students would get....

MC: For all the student work in the shows she assesses the price?

SK: Yes she does.

NN: Did you find out how much they took, what percentage?

SK: The painting department sold about £15,000 worth.

SP: You mean what D.A.L.I.[14] take? 1 don't know, they probably only take about 30% or something, it's not a ridiculous sum but they do enforce taking it.

MC: So the buyer writes a cheque to D.A.L.I.[15]....

SP: D.A.L.I. then pays the student the difference.

SK: But the institution won't let you take your work out of the building without their say so because it's the institution's work. It’s not yours.

MC: But you still take your work home.

SK: You still do but you're not supposed to.

SP: That was the old way it worked and what happened was, theoretically, all the work that's made while you're a student, when you enrol at the beginning of each year, you effectively sign away the rights to any of it, but what happened was at some point in the past then they obviously tried to enforce the rule. In some college in the Midlands I think....

SK: In Leeds.

SP: What happened was a lot of students said OK in that case we'll just leave all our work here. And they just went at the end of the summer term and left all their work there. It was more of a problem for the college to then get rid of all this work or store it, than it was to have the students take it away with them anyway.

MC: Well the students clean up and paint the college every year, don't they? It’s very cheap labour. And then they clear everything out. So you're left with a clean empty college next year.

SP: Having a show at the end of the year is an ideal way to get the college virtually ready for the next year.

SK: Another important thing that's happened is that because Central St. Martins is self-validating (the Institute is as a whole), the Rector has now awarded himself a professorship and he's awarded the Head of Central St. Martins a professorship as well. This is what I was talking to you about the other day, this pseudo-academy that they have created, rather than one which has existed through conventional systems in this country.

NN: And what are these people trained as?

SK: Well, the Rector has a M.A. in philosophy and a B.A. in economics. I think the Head of Central St. Martins has...

SP: I don't think she actually has a M.A.

NN: Then what are they now professors of?

SK: Presumably as educationalists, which is quite disturbing, they are professors of the lnstitute.

SP: What's supposed to happen is a self-inflating situation whereby the tutors and staff, even us, are encouraged to up our credentials as much as possible and to tell everybody (students) what's going on (in the art world). Which is a way really of trying to make the college sound more attractive to prospective students. There is this thing called "staff development'' now.

SK: There is also ''performance related pay". On Monday I was invited to a party which was paid for by a staff member's performance related pay.

NN: How can they assess your performance?

SK: Money. Number of students placed and students retained on the course and fee paying.

SP: That's not specific to Central St. Martins, that's a really big employment issue in the whole country.

SK: It’s a kind of post-Thatcherite idea, as also is this homogenisation of different fine art disciplines. But I don't think that's such a bad thing.

SP: Performance related pay has come from the industrial sector. The uproars occur when they try to apply it to the health service for instance, how do you decide how well a nurse has performed or a social worker, when it's not quantifiable like that. It’s the same in teaching.

NN: In the recent degree show, or the last two or three, do you see any noticeable difference or swing in what artists have made or are doing?

SK: Yeah, you do; the C.F.A.P.[16] show was outstandingly different from any others that have been at St. Martins.

SP: The C.F.A.P. show was different mainly because it was a different kind of course. A lot more critically based topical work. It stood out from all the other departments.

MC: But basically when I was at St. Martins I thought it was just a complete disaster area. A nightmare disaster area. Which I could sort of exist in. I had very little input from any teachers. I didn't know about any of these regulations. I didn't know who the boss was. I never spoke to them. I just came in and used the studio space. But the thing is it seems almost more extremely like that. OK maybe C.F.A.P is better. But it's still an incredible rabbit warren of horrible little studio spaces. The whole annex is a rabbit warren now of studios which it wasn't before and it just has a quite oppressive, incredibly disorganised feel to it.

SK: But structurally it's actually opening up. It’s becoming less bureaucratic and less compartmentalised.

MC: I didn't think it was bureaucratic I thought it was just chaos basically, and I think it's even more chaotic now.

SK: Well all subject leaders[17] are basically just administrators. This goes for all art schools in this country. All these artists are told to be administrators and they don't know what the fuck they're doing.

SP: One of the other important things was they were making a lot of cuts on studio teaching hours. So all the studio-based staff started to get up in arms about this and said "if you're going to make cuts on studio-based staff you also have to make cuts on the Cultural Studies staff". So what happened was they then drastically severed the hours for Cultural Studies staff: thesis tutors and complementary studies tutors. What we now have is a situation whereby the heads of various departments have to now act as thesis tutors. So now painting tutors are thesis tutors too!

MC: Basically these are people without brains.

SP: They have brains but they have no grasp of the kind of things that most students will be wanting to write about. Other than red and blue makes purple.

MC: They are just not qualified for that job.

SP: What it meant before was that if you were writing a thesis the tutor that was your thesis tutor would have to have some knowledge or read the books that you were reading. Suddenly now there are these tutors who haven't maybe even read an art theory book from the last 20 years and are being bombarded with 50 students each.

MC: Even though you are working in that place, don't things like that make you think you're just in a nightmare? It’s so extreme.

SK: No not really. Our input to the students is probably more useful than what they get from their academic heads.

MC: As technical teachers?

SK: No, as, as....

NN: As friends?

SK: As friends and as other artists. They come and talk about things that we used to talk to the Cultural Studies people about. This is another shift, we're used as teachers as well.

NN: What do you think they are trying to get to with these changes, what is the ultimate operation?

SP: They want a production line, an eye catching, self advertising...

SK: The degree show is a product and if the student has a good career that's good product for the college.

SP: The emphasis, in terms of departments, is the financial factor, it probably always was but it's so much more apparent now. The departments that control and have the biggest say in how the college is run are the industrial design and fashion departments. And also those with high profile media advertising...

MC: The fashion department is quite successful.

SP: It’s incredibly successful and it gets good press for the college, even though it tries to pretend it's still St. Martins fashion, it is now Central St. Martins. The way the whole business is run is actually much more efficient from the top down. There's a much greater emphasis on the corporate identity of the London lnstitute logo being on everything that leaves the college. That wasn't really played on that much when we were there. To go back to what I was saying before, if the fashion department or industrial design department wanted to have a particular place in the college they would more than likely get it at the expense of some of the more quiet departments like painting or sculpture.

SK: In themselves they are being marginalised not just politically but physically: they are being pushed to the very edges of the building. As you said the annex is now this rabbit warren of painting studios. The core of the place is now the School of Fashion. The 9th floor is painting, the 8th C.F.A.P.[18], the 7th is painting and from then on down to the first floor is fashion, then sculpture.

MC: So the painters have been jammed, jammerikkied[19] together in the top.

SK: I think they are trying to reduce the whole fine art activity into one course so they can centralise all the technical resources. But I don't think they will make it physically smaller in terms of student intake.

NN: Does the college now help students get gallery deals?

SK: Yes it does.

SP: C.F.A.P. does.

NN: They liase with gallerists?

SP: The way C.F.A.P.[20] is different and much more successful than its predeccesor F.A.C.S.[21] (it was set up in the same way as F.A.C.S.) was because the tutors on F.A.C.S. had no understanding of any contemporary art issues at all. For example you now have Mona Hartoum teaching on the C.F.A.P. course, she might not be everyone's cup of tea, but you've got people who are around and are in shows on a regular basis, so there are connections through their gallerists.

SK: They have a policy of inviting people like Eigen + Art. They might be rubbish but they (C.F.A.P.) are doing something, that's not maybe a useful connection but it does show the right direction.

NN: Have they removed certain teachers to get these younger people?

SP: No, they've invented a whole new course!

NN: When I was there I just wondered why most of the teachers were there.

SP: A lot of them have a job for life from I.L.E.A.[22]

SK: Now some of them are just too old. Some of them are so decrepit they can't get in!

NN: I’ve noticed they've dramatically changed the reception area. Instead of coming up to a security guard at a small desk you now come up to an official secretary at a very long, large circular desk.

SK: If you look at what they are doing, this is all part of the new London lnstitute. They are trying to merge all these things (Buildings, departments, courses, people) into one massive art school (the biggest in Europe) and I think its model is the Royal College.

SP: No the model was supposedly the London School of Economics which was the knock on to the Royal College.

SK: So they are trying to recreate an academy very quickly, not from any ancient ideas like Oxbridge....

SP: But in the summer holidays basically!

MC: It all strikes me as being slightly unconvincing. It’s always about these things that will happen in the future. It’s not sorted out now. As a Thatcherite revolution do you think it's actually going to succeed? Is it going to be a successful Thatcherite college? Is it actually ever going to be sorted out and clean?

SK: They don't want it to be a Thatcherite college. This is a post-Thatcher idea. I think it will be successful. It will work. It might even be better for the students but then in some ways it's going to be rubbish.

SP: It won't be good for the students. It will be good in business terms because if nothing else it will be making money. And how it makes money is by a glossy exterior and a quick paint job. They've sand-blasted the building but they only sand-blasted 10ft up in the air!

SK: You have to be a little generous here. There's a room full of Macs there. Now there's £1,000's worth of software. There are editing suites, there's stuff you never dreamt of having.

SP: I know, but you've got to compare that with what other colleges have and on those terms the lnstitute is really poorly equipped. It’s got basically 10 years to catch up. Buying 3 or 4 Macs isn't going to do it. I can't see how it can possibly be in the interest of the students when everything is done in such a way as the students are never consulted. I don't know of any members of staff who are consulted about what students are expecting.

MC: It sounds like members of staff are being treated like students. Students are being treated like "just get them in and shut them up".

SP: Everyone is treated like they're a pack of animals basically and they are herded around without being told anything.

SK: Only by upper level management, not with people they work with directly.

SP: When the Head of the lnstitute says something, then the heads of all the colleges jump. When the heads of college jump, then the Deans all jump. It just gets more diluted as it comes down but basically no one is turning around and saying, "Hang on! No, stop!" No one does that.

SK: It’s panic managed, to prevent people from saying that.

SP: You have a management structure whereby you are unable to say anything to anybody higher than the person who's your direct line manager. So what that stops is anybody going over someone's head to complain to where the complaint really should be made, it's just passed one rung up or one rung down, which is a tried and tested way of stopping dissent. That exists now in a way it didn't before.

MC: There is no reason why the students shouldn't demand things, they are paying a lot of money.

SP: They are demanding things, but you're a student, you've paid your money to come to college and this is why I think the Student Union at St. Martins just petered out; unless it's up and running already, no one's got the time to spend setting it up. Because they are like you and I were, quite happy just to get on with it, if you were a bit self-motivated and you could get on without the staff, you knew the system and used it how you wanted it.

SK: We used the system how we wanted it, we didn't use the structure that was there.

MC: I’m not comparing it now to when I was there, because I thought it was complete crap when I was there.

SP: I would still say it is!

MC: There seems to be this other structure within the management now, compressing everything into this other shape. I wonder if that is going to actually work? Is it actually going to get it on course to something else.

SP: Like I said before what has happened is the business side is where most development has been. The D.A.L.I.[23] unit generates a lot of money, in its first year it announced £3 million profits.

NN: Where does that money go?

SP: It does go back into the college, some of it. What happens is, it goes back into the departments that generate the most cash. This is how it works; if as a department you generate enough D.A.L.I. unit activity then you get the money back in. So photography is a really big earner, everybody wants to learn photography. Photography has been more popular in the last 5 years than it ever has been in Britain before. So photography generates a lot of D.A.L.I. activity. D.A.L.I. then pays money back to photography but at a much slower rate than it's supposed to. The painting department might not generate that much business so basically it doesn't get fed back. There are supposed to be more general school of art funds. But it seems to be so slow in trickling down and back from the D.A.L.I. office.

NN: Simon you've been there for around 4 years, how has your pay differed? Has it changed at all?

SP: It’s gone up slightly. But not a great deal.

MC: You have quite nice buffet lunches in photography.

SP: That buffet lunch means we are on the premises more than tutors who go to restaurants for one and a half hours and drink a few bottles of red wine.

MC: There is nowhere to eat in the college, there's nowhere even to have a cup of coffee. There are a thousand students in there and nowhere to have a cup of coffee. There's not even a coffee machine.

SK: No!

MC: But that is extremely bad.

SK: The social life in the college has gone (rasssssp!).

NN: There is nowhere for the students to meet at all?

SK: No. They have a lot less money, a lot less than we did as students. They have less money, they have to work, no social life.

SP: Grants were pegged 3 years ago.

SK: Grants are about 40% of what we got in real terms.

SP: In the summer holidays they don't get any housing benefit. Housing benefit to students has stopped in London even if you have a full grant.

MC: You basically have to start work the first week of the holidays.

SK: No, you work through the term!

SP: Say you've got a £70 a week grant. There aren't many places in London you can get to rent for less than £50/£60 a week and you're talking Tottenham and Brixton. So it doesn't leave any money for materials, which has an effect on work produced... lots of sponsorship deals.

SK: Students are demanding things. But I don't mean demonstrating or protesting. They demand from us, they say things like, "I pay lots of money not to bang in my nails, you have to bang in my nails for me!" They are Thatcherite kids who will get sponsorship from somewhere.



1 The first year of art school, general art and design training
2 The London Institute of Higher Education Corporation
3 a new course
4 protected against changes
5 Council for National Academic Affairs, governmental board which oversees universities and colleges.
6 British public university without a campus, which operates through television broadcasts and the postal system.
7 Fine Art Critical Studies (old course)
8 Critical Fine Art Practice (new course)
9 Master of Arts, a higher degree than B.A.
10 Critical Fine Art Practice (new course)
11 Bachelor of Arts
12 Developement At the London Institute Ltd.
13 see footnote #12
14 see footnote #13
15 by now you should know it
16 Critical Fine Art Practice (new course)
17 artists employed to head the teaching of a specialised subject
18 Critical Fine Art Practice (new course)
19 Jammerikkied: Dope-smoking students squashed into an ever decreasing amount of space.
20 Critical Fine Art Practice (new course)
21 Fine Art Critical Studies (old course)
22 Inner London Education Authority, defunct local government education division
23 Developement At the London Institute Ltd.

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