What a week.
(a response to the Mackintosh Building fire)

31st May 2014

I’ll stick with ‘surreal’ for now as the one-word descriptor, but so much has happened, so much been changed or irrevocably altered by the fire and the events of last week that no one word will suffice.

For some time I have been impatient to complete my course, move on (and potentially away) from Glasgow School of Art and Glasgow itself. After having a year’s leave of absence, returning to study was not easy since I had to reacquire my motivation and regain momentum for making – both precious (and in my case scarce) commodities in the school environment. As this academic year progressed, I trudged through early projects and the winter (my own personal nemesis) at a leaden pace. The dissertation beast roared louder and louder but was finally vanquished.

Then it was time to make work for Degree Show, and how I relished this new challenge! So I made and made, planned and schemed, processing mountains of technical research into a work that more than any other was a true expression of my interest; practice; curiosity; talent; self. In short, it was to be the most ‘me’ work I had made to date, and I riffed on this theme as I gradually wrestled steel and glass beads and motors and electronics and all sorts into a piece of which I would be proud. Whatever their medium or discipline, fellow students all have their own version of the journey to this point. Every one different, every one reaching the same collective end point.

Though I freely admit I get a huge kick out of people seeing my work exhibited, I am normally reticent (internally at least) when it comes to actually getting it out there – I work slowly and obsessively and nothing is ever perfect… Many of you will feel similarly. Degree Show, however, was a different matter. The show does more than just exhibit your work. It is a threshold, a rite of passage, a metamorphosis from student to graduate, from art student to artist, from the security and support of the institution to the responsibility, freedom and risk of independence. Degree Show is also a true showcase, a proper platform upon which friends, family, colleagues, professionals and the wider public are able to engage with the collective energy and output of that strange, dynamic and at times enigmatic student body atop the hill. We get to stand next to work and say: I made that! Pride is allowed. Relief is inevitable. Uncertainty is, well, certain. The completion of study means different things to each and every student, but its significance is indefatigable.

The sense of climbing the mountain of making work for Degree Show, preparing documentation and hitting that deadline knowing that there is no ‘flexibility’ or ‘wiggle room’ or ‘turning a blind eye’ was the impeller to the sleepless nights, physical exhaustion and feeling mentally and emotionally drained. Fuelled by tea and coffee and biscuits and cigarettes and noodles and sheer bloody determination and grit and supportive conversations and copious swearing and stares into middle distance and hugs and setbacks and the losses of faith and epiphanies and actual blood, sweat and tears, the work gets made.

Each student and staff member has lost something different, and to account for those losses here is impossible – and not my place. Yet, our collective loss is of the moment of transcendence that Degree Show provided, sweeping us all up in the draught of its sheer might and velocity, heft and unflinching magnitude.

We will mourn that unknown experience for time to come, for sure. The Portuguese word ‘saudade’ was highlighted by a fellow student – a sense of loss for something one never fully possessed – and there is no more apt word I know. The school, though, cannot, and will not dwell on the tragedy, the loss, the mourning, for it has a job to do, and that is to educate, support, enlighten, protect, enable, empower, inspire, provide, facilitate and a thousand other verbs such is the diversity of the ways in which we students, the staff and the wider community benefit from its continued and ever-changing existence.

This past week has seen goodwill arrive at and be shared around our little Garnethill campus in overwhelming amounts and a breath-taking diversity of forms. From all over the world, the significance of the need to continue the good work of Glasgow School of Art has been made clear. The response by staff and students to the almost poetically timed fire and its impact has made us all proud, entwined in mutual understanding, and proved collectively what a tough old dog we are.
This was all made possible too by the fire crews, who will be forever our heroes. Much has already been said of the outstanding response they gave to the esoteric challenge our burning school provided, but I’ll say it again and again as time goes by: thank you.

The staff of the school has shown an incredible and humbling dedication, resolve and clarity of purpose this past week as they have moved mountains to preserve the integrity of our assessment procedure, and thereby the value of our entire student career. They have tended to our welfare yet also gone further by devising the Phoenix Bursaries, the forthcoming showcase event and the numerous as-yet unfinalised but imminent ways in which the school are seeking to ensure that we not only graduate with honour, but also their love and support… All these things demonstrate their immense and sincere respect for us as individuals, as students, as artists, as members of the Glasgow School of Art community. Thank you to all. Their professionalism and efficacy is of the highest possible standard, and will be legendary long after the Mack is restored. That is a legacy worthy of their service.

The fire changed things. Some of that change was loss: some of it was damage. Some of it was material: all of it was emotional. Some of the change, however, is inevitably growth and renewal, a new closeness and shared experience. In a pragmatic way, I am grateful for those feelings, no matter the circumstances.

Above all though, the fire forces us to utilise the most proven method for overcoming difficulty, to be who we are and do what we do best: create.