The Evolution of the plywood walls

Article by Rebecca Livesey-Wright

There is a plywood wall at Central Saint Martins. There are many walls of this kind, but one stands out in particular: the one with the slogan ‘Let us paint the wall, dickheads’ plastered across it.

Scrawled three metres across in black crayon, this punchy request is hard to miss and hard to misinterpret either. At art school, it seems there is always an implicit expectation from new attendees that students will be able to express themselves fully, and to decorate the place with paint splatters and kooky pieces of art. But how easy is this to achieve in a building which has only existed as part of the university for two years? Constructed with sheets of cutting-edge glass, concrete and that infamous plywood, students have commented on the difficulty of connecting with the building, expressing frustration at its lack of identity as an art school.

dickheads croppedImage courtesy of Gemma Williams

When speaking with Jeremy Till, Head of Saint Martins, we began to discuss the nature of graffiti in shared spaces. The university is, of course, a space for students and as such will be used for their degree show exhibitions. With this in mind, is it appropriate to have handwritten, quick and messy sentences scribbled across the walls when graduating students are presenting their work to prospective employers and buyers? However, Jeremy anticipated the emergence of graffiti in the school. It is for this reason, he tells me, that the plywood walls were installed in the first instance. They are easily replaceable and can be painted over.  But, I ask him, did the very nature of the plywood walls themselves invite the graffiti? Why should students have respect for a material which is so ugly and so transferable?

Although Till and I spoke at length about the respect required when applying messages and drawings to shared spaces – indeed, not everyone will want to see ‘offensive’ language or a pair of cartoon tits – he described our slogan as “brave”. Perhaps this was the reason that Till and Mark Dunhill (Dean of CSM) decided to frame the graffiti.

However, it was not public knowledge that two senior figures had appropriated and elevated the work of a graphics student. Till’s actions led to a series of witty happenings: the framing had actually been a move to prevent more illicit work occurring, and for a month or so it did. But, when a rather large penis was improvised around the curve of the ‘D’ on the famed sign, an onslaught of other doodles and scribbles gradually appeared. Dunhill believes these additions were not ‘offensive’ or ‘destructive’ – but I do wonder if they really reflect the reputation of an art school considered to be one of the best in the world.

On returning to the college after Easter break, I encountered yet another adaption of the plywood walls, this time in the form of a series of blackboards, spelling the word ‘blackboard’ itself. The frame around the original graffiti had also been removed.

blackboardImage courtesy of Gilad Vistosky

When meeting with Gilad Visotsky, the creator of the new addition and a second year Graphic Design student, he expressed his thoughts that the slogan’s “strength [had] diminished significantly” after other students had added their own sketchbook extensions. He felt he was simply performing a duty in removing the frame when installing his own work.

What seems so resonant about Visostky’s work is the multi-layered connections it has with school. In using an alphabet inspired by the letterforms drawn by Edward Johnston, one of the original tutors of the school, Visotsky has created a bridge between the college’s historical and present creativity. Furthermore, photographs of Johnston’s letterforms can be found in the college’s very own museum collection and archive, meaning the project began, arrived and remains at Central Saint Martins. And the fact that he has chosen to place it in a location used and appropriated by so many students and staff over the past few months, ties it with the modern history of the school.

Perhaps then, the word ‘blackboard’ says more than ‘Let us paint the walls, dickheads’. Perhaps.

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