Have We Started Yet?

It’s that time of year again…

Before I waffle, Have We Started Yet? is the 2016 degree show from the BA (hons) Photographic Art course at the University of South Wales and it is on at Ffotogallery until Thursday 16th June. Go and see it! All information can be found on their Facebook page and on the Ffotogallery website.

Each year it’s the same old story for me: I go to my old course’s degree show, get inspired by what the students have done, catch up with friends, then come home and share my thoughts on it through a strange comedown fog, acknowledging my own personal bias whilst trying to separate it from how genuinely impressed I am. To do that with this year’s show is as hard as ever. So this post is not a review. I feel far too close at this point to do anything like that.

This is the 6th Photo Art grad show that I’ve had some sort of involvement in or connection with. I helped out as a first and second year student, then I had my own, I edited the publication the following year, celebrated my girlfriend Katie’s graduation the year after that (as well as DJing the after-parties of those last three) and now this year it is in my former place of work at Ffotogallery. Even as a nostalgic alumnus, this year are the final cohort to have been based at the Caerleon campus before it’s eventual demolition and the penultimate year before the course completes its merger and changes its name.

When I think back to my own degree show, I remember that a bubbling resentment towards these changes to the course drove us to want to do something different. In hindsight, we may not have been that successful but to see how increasingly and unquestionably successful these students have been compared to my year three years ago is mind-blowing. In light of this, I now see the irony of the show’s questioning title. It’s not uncertain or unclear, but a challenge to whoever will entertain the question to provide a value-judgement on their progress. But who are any of us to judge a presentation format this reductive and surreal for its participants?

Because of all of that, it’s difficult to know what to say. In my first post on this new blog, going over my highlights of 2015, I said of last year’s show: “Over the last three years I’ve been immensely proud of the way my old course has continued to push the boundaries of what a degree show and its publication can be.” The same applies here although simply attaching this year’s graduates onto the end of an increasingly impressive lineage feels like a disservice to their individual achievements. The show is brave, collaborative, colourful, experimental, and it pokes more holes in the prescribed format of a degree show than ever before. It is an exhibition that defiantly stands on its own feet and deserves consideration beyond an educational bookend for those exhibiting in it.

These students know what they want and are more than capable of speaking for themselves, and they do so very eloquently in their work and the texts presented in their stunning publication. They don’t need platitudes and gushing reassurances from an overzealous and loyal alumnus with his own blog. They know where they’re at despite attempts from the government and the university and whoever else to muddy the waters (and a similarly defiant sentiment could be applied to Ffotogallery itself this year). I hope that, if anything, my overzealous loyalty reveals something in itself about the course, its students and its staff. Walking around this exhibition I asked myself if I’d started yet and, saying that, started what? The expectation that a degree show will be a professional watershed moment is misleading. Whatever I started, it began in 2010 and it will continue its tentative progression way beyond 2016.

Lecturer Peter Bobby said it best in his speech at the exhibition opening: it is far too easy to see this show, like the last few, as the end of some sort of era but such an incredible amount of time and energy has been and continues to be spent on retaining and improving upon this course (by both students and staff in their own ways) despite the changes, amongst other things, to its name and location. It is more important than ever that we join these and all future students and graduates on their continuing journeys.

On my way back to the north of England yesterday, I popped by Caerleon campus to take what will likely my last look at the place. I’ve already made a separate blog post of the pictures I took as well as a selection of other favourites taken over the last six years. And that bittersweet revisit will remain rightly separate. This degree show doesn’t feel bittersweet, it feels provocative and life-affirming. You should go and see it for yourself.