Spike Island

Artists and Peer Learning

Researcher and writer Megan Wakefield has been based at Spike Island for the last few years as part of a PhD in collaboration with the University of the West of England. Her work investigated peer learning amongst artists outside of formal educational systems, whether within networks like Spike Associates or looser affiliations of individuals.

Wakefield completed her PhD in late 2012 and here shares some of her experiences and findings:

I first came to Spike Island in October 2008 to start my PhD studentship, an AHRC-funded collaboration between Spike Island and University of the West of England.

Essentially I was looking at peer learning between artists, at the many ways in which artists learn from one another after they leave college. I made a qualitative exploration of artists’ interactions that are contingent upon practice, but peer-oriented – involvement with events, groups, networks, projects and collaborations – and I investigated how and why artists construct various situations of interaction with their peers. 

I was interested in how artists support one another, how they critique one another, how they inspire each other, how artists share knowledge, how they can sometimes anger or frustrate one another and how the effects of numerous peer interactions feed into the development creative and ‘professional’ practice.

I was based in the Associates Space and I used Spike Associates, a membership programme of around 90 practitioners, as a starting point for my study. For the first two and half years I was working with the Associates Coordinator, Lucy Drane, feeding into the development of the programme. I took over coordination of the Associates Reading Group (2009–2011), a generous-spirited platform for discussing art and theory outside of an academic context. We explored a diverse range of texts from contemporary Gothic to Ecocriticism, and reflecting on what I, and others, got out of these discussions helped to inform my research.

Spike Island also provided a platform for collaborations like Art & Writing with Sovay Berriman, looking at the intersection of writing and visual arts practice. Enormously inspiring workshops from the likes of Neil Mulholland and Brian Catling encouraged me with the development of my own creative practices extending from a research context and led to me to initiate the language salon Tertulia with Phil Owen at Arnolfini.

I adopted a mixed methods and a ‘critical ethnographic’ approach, including participatory action research, reflexive practice and semi-structured interviews to explore artists’ peer learning. I recorded peer critiques and talks, went to innumerable private views and generally got entangled in Bristol art networks. I interviewed members of Spike Associates, and talked to them about their significant peer connections and collaborations, building up a map of creative constellations stretching across Bristol and the UK. This helped me to later select appropriate groups to visit in other cities.

Significant sites of peer learning in this period were some of the many artist-led initiatives around Bristol, such as Central Reservation in Stokes Croft, the Bristol Drawing Club, the former Plan 9 at Bridewell Island and Bristol Diving School, which I visited in its first and second incarnation.

In my second and third years I travelled around the UK to such glamorous locations as Birmingham to visit Eastside Projects, Nottingham to see Moot Gallery, Belfast to visit Catalyst Arts and to Transmission Gallery in Glasgow. Meeting committee members from these artist-led groups and others like Outpost in Norwich and The Royal Standard in Liverpool led me to trace commonalities and differences in artists’ experiences of self-organisation. These links were invaluable for my research: I invited groups to events back at Spike Island and, in some cases, developed creative projects with them.

Again I used Spike Island as a platform to interrogate particular questions that came up during the course of my research. In 2009, ‘Membership Groups: Reunion, Exchange & Debate’ brought together original members of the Spike Associates steering group and created a forum to capture knowledge, otherwise distributed in time and memory. ‘Peer Collaborator, Comrade Friend!’, a one-day symposium in 2011 with artist-academics Sophie Hope and Andy Abbott, looked at the tension between friendship and collaboration, participation and differing conceptions of democracy.

My research looked at both contemporary organisational and artist-led cultures and at how changes in formal arts training have partly precipitated the increased considerations of education in contemporary practice. I considered the contested definitions of knowledge in the arts and identified some existing learning theories that inform my work, such as Communities of Practice, radical pedagogies and experiential learning. I also traced philosophical perspectives on the encounter, existing writing on ‘precarity’ and artists’ work. My thesis is situated in what has been a dramatically shifting political climate over the past four years: a new government removed the cap from tuition fees, and the recession and subsequent Arts Council England funding cuts took hold. These changes coincided with an art world preoccupation with alternative forms of education, reflected in events like Deschooling Society at the Hayward Gallery and Paul O’ Neill and Mick Wilson’s book Curating and the Educational Turn. For me, this all added urgency to the relevance of informal learning in the arts.

The final year or so has been all about writing and trying to stay sane while writing 90,000 words that make sense. I’ve done a lot of running up and down the Avon Gorge towpath and finally, bar some minor corrections, I passed my viva on 12 October!

My conclusions identify dimensions of peer entanglements that emerge as particularly important for artists: valued structures, approaches and skills portrayed as forms of learning.

  • Firstly I made an exploration of the specific ways in which artists negotiate the transition period after leaving university in reflexive relationship with their peers. I traced how, during transition periods, peer relationships affect personal beliefs and values contingent upon practice, as well as access to resources and decisions about where to base a practice. 

  • I made a case for how the development of practice identities and artistic subjectivities, at any point in an artist’s career, can occur in reflexive relationship with one’s peers.

  • I also explored the structural qualities, social dynamics and ethical values associated with artistic peer-led entanglements and highlighted the apparent differences between artist-led and organisationally-facilitated contexts. This included an exploration of informal conversation and peer critique as important sites of learning and an analysis of aspirations for a kind of ethics of entanglement.

  • Lastly my findings also revealed the importance of visibility to artists and considered strategies for gaining personal and group visibility and ways of gaining an overview of activity through peer entanglements.

I’m now starting to write papers, to plan dissemination events and to develop an online resource based on my research. I am keen to hear from anyone else engaged in or interested in informal learning between artists. Do get in touch: megswakefield@gmail.com