BY Juliet Jacques in Reviews | 27 APR 20

The Locked Room: Saint Martin’s School of Art’s Most Controversial Experiment

In 1969, sculpture students were kept in isolation and prohibited from keeping whatever they made – an approach contested at the time and inconceivable now

BY Juliet Jacques in Reviews | 27 APR 20

The Locked Room – the title of MIT Press’s forthcoming book, edited by Rozemin Keshvani – refers to a pedagogical experiment conducted, if not imposed, by four tutors at Saint Martin’s School of Art in London between 1969 and 1973. Students on the sculpture course – 27 in total – were instructed to lock themselves in a white room every weekday between 10 am and 4.30 pm, given projects that only specified what they could not do, banned from speaking to each other or to their instructors, discouraged from discussing the course outside of school and prohibited from documenting or keeping whatever they made with the one specific material, be it a block of polysterene or a bag of plaster, they were given. The approach was controversial at the time – so much so that Saint Martin’s soon introduced another, more conventional course as an alternative – and continues to divide opinion some 50 years later, as this new collection of interviews, writings and archival documentation shows.

Rozemin Keshvani, The Locked Room, 2020. Courtesy: MIT Press 

Undertaken in the city that engendered both the ‘Swinging Sixties’ and the radical, if often rigidly formalist, London Film-Makers’ Co-operative, against a backdrop of anti-Vietnam War protests and the anti-psychiatry movement, the experiment formed part of a reaction to the sculptural canon and to traditional notions of teaching creativity, asking if such a thing were even possible. With its remote, authoritarian nature seemingly out of step with the counter-culture of the time – if not the neomodernist elements of British art and literature or minimalist music trends – the initiative provoked extreme reactions from its students: some followed the rules, others frequently rebelled and one kept smashing things. In The Locked Room, John Burke recalls he found it ‘lonely and depressing’, whereas Tom McPhillips enjoyed it, whilst reflecting on how being sealed off from the outside world made it harder to move away from creating ‘art about art’, and recalling his discomfort at being an ‘unwitting participant in someone else’s conceptual artwork’.

The story of the locked room seems simple, but the intellectual and psychological motivations behind it are left unclear, with two of the three surviving tutors refusing to contribute. Multiple interviews with students give a strong sense of how the working conditions influenced each artist’s practice – several of whom did not stay in sculpture – but do make the volume repetitive at times. The most interesting chapter is devoted to the boxing match for students and staff (excluding the handful of female participants), inspired by dadaist poet Arthur Cravan’s infamous (and farcical) bout against world heavyweight champion Jack Johnson in 1916, and organized by student Eddy Hemsley, now a landscape gardener.

Rozemin Keshvani, The Locked Room, 2020. Courtesy: MIT Press 

As the experiment only lasted four years and was not replicated elsewhere, it’s hard to gauge how influential it was, although it produced two well-known artists in sculptor Richard Deacon and filmmaker Tony Hill, and was the subject of a BBC documentary, A Question of Feeling, directed by Christopher Burstall, in 1970. Certainly, it’s impossible to imagine such a thing taking place now. The combination of an austere, top-down structure and lack of direct feedback from tutors or other students is inconceivable at a time when bottom-up approaches to social organization, politics and pastoral care are central to art teaching, as students saddled with massive debts have to juggle their education with several part-time jobs and attendant anxieties. I was on the picket line during the recent strikes at London’s University College Union, as 74 universities (including the Royal College of Art, where I teach) took industrial action against casualization, pay gaps for women and ethnic minorities, falling pay and unsafe workloads. There, I realized the importance of close connections between staff and students, especially as the prevailing precarity impacts us all. Gone are the days when staff in secure jobs, teaching students whose grants afforded three years of immersion in their creativity, could set up something like the locked room and not have to care about the saleability of their work.

Rozemin Keshvani's The Locked Room: Four Years that Shook Art Education, 1969-1973, is forthcoming with MIT Press on 5 May 2020.
Main image: ​Rozemin Keshvani, The Locked Room, 2020. Courtesy: MIT Press 

Juliet Jacques is a writer, filmmaker, broadcaster and academic. Her short story collection, Variations, was published by Influx Press in June. She lives in London, UK.