Notes on physical degree shows, exhibitions and carrot smells.

José visits the Goldsmiths MFA Degree Show, one of the only degree shows this year to take place in real life due to the pandemic. As a 2020 graduating RCA student unable to have a physical degree show himself, he unpacks the need and importance of physical exhibitions.

On the morning of the 2nd of October 2020, I began getting ready to go to the Goldsmiths MFA Degree Show1. It had been a long time, probably around two months, since I’ve been to any exhibition due to the pandemic. This window of time, where I hadn’t been physically and visually stimulated, made me more sensitive, aware and reactive to all the rituals before, during and after an art exhibition. I notice that from the minute I start getting dressed, within the comfort of my home, the exhibition experience is already taking place. 

I left my flat. I walked about 15 minutes to the bus stop. I waited 9 minutes for the bus to arrive and then, it took me 25 to 30 minutes to get to Goldsmiths, University of London. In total, I spent a little over an hour just getting there. Despite the weather being cold, foggy and rainy, I wanted a first hand experience. As I highlight these steps, I realise that the amount of time invested in getting there is the minimum amount of commitment to observe and analyse the space; including its displayed works of art. In contrast, this commitment is lacking in online exhibitions that are currently taking place. A click from my bed doesn’t require more effort than blinking.

When we are in an environment where art is being exhibited, we have an experience that is socially and spatially constructed. Our surroundings are transformed into theatrical spaces where human and non-human2 encounters are the main ingredients to the broth. These spaces have also been explored as ‘metamorphic zones’3 by Bruno Latour explaining the transformative experience that takes place when the audience, the space and the work on display “exchange properties, qualities, and performances”.

I graduated from the RCA this year and had exhibited at the Royal College of Art Digital Show 20204. My practice uses mainly participatory performances to bring awareness to specific topics through interactivity — so imagine what a digital show meant to me. It felt I was given a pig in a poke with no refund policy. An online exhibition turns the volume down on the artist’s work. There is no echo; I felt my work was muted. I can’t complain in the current global context, but it’s important to highlight that an online show, especially as a student, is definitely not a replacement of a physical show…

This online display of works for the RCA degree show–with profiles, short descriptions, and stories–imitated better the feeling of flicking on Instagram, rather than the essence of a physical show. The philosopher Rosi Braidotti was right when she said “the entire body thinks. You don’t think with the mind; you think with the entire fleshed existence”5. And for this reason, in order to occupy the space, you need the exhibition apparatus as a physical medium to convey a certain mind-and-body setting. Believing that an online show is a replacement of a physical show is like believing that we exist in the reflection of a mirror – we can’t be6 in the virtual space, we are merely translated as avatars. 

When navigating the degree show, the first thing I did was to queue to access the space. It already made it more exciting (the waiting time)7. Once I got in, I received a printed floor plan of the exhibition showing where each artist is located (getting lost)8. The first room was completely empty, but the second one had more than six people staring at one projected video (acting in concert). From one room to another, you had to either walk around a hallway, cross open doors, or go up/down the stairs (refreshing). In another room, I found a friend, and he brought me to see his favourite piece at the show (social encounters). As I was leaving the room, I saw black tape hiding cables, either for aesthetics or safety reasons (installing). I kept walking and in the middle of the room I saw these beautiful life sized hand-crafted masks hanging by Anna Perach9. Seven Wives immediately reminded me of Mexican wrestling masks used in Lucha Libre (dimension). I began moving as I wanted to take some fresh air, however as I walked out of the Laurie Grove Baths building, I was confronted with a persuasive and surreal carrot smell (senses).

With all this, I realised how much we, the 2020 graduates of RCA, have lost by having an online show.

The waiting time: When you are about to get in, but still waiting. This time encourages curiosity and excitement, whilst simultaneously providing time to clear your mind from what you were doing to what you will see.

Getting lost: Allows you to discover the unexpected and to make your own connections. Each gallery room has its own atmosphere that cannot be forgotten.

Acting in concert: Looking at what other people are looking at and to interact with how other people are interacting.

Refreshing: The time in between where you walk from one room to another, helping you to transit both mind and body to the next artwork. 

Social encounter: A chance for networking10, branding, chatting and sharing. 

Installing: When working on a physical show, cables must be covered, nobody wants cables to stand out – either for safety or aesthetics reasons or both. The hidden cable is always a collective challenge that reinforces collaboration.

Dimension: If I would have seen this on my screen at home, I would probably have thought that they were either smaller or bigger. 

Senses: Smell, texture, taste, vibration, sense of space, volume, temperature, and so on. We even lost the sound of people clapping after a performance. 

Kant was right on the idea that “we can only know the world in which we live, in so far as we can perceive it through our senses.”5

Back to that carrot smell. I kept following the persistent sweet and earthy scent until I encountered an impressive mountain of thousands and thousands of carrots (referred to as dumping11). Immediately, I saw this tiny stall next to the pile where two people were selling carrot cakes. At the back of the stall, they had this paper written with a pen saying “raising money 4 local food banks”. I saw the dumping in the news that morning, however I didn’t read into the details and was unaware of its purpose. After I donated two pounds for a piece of cake, I asked if this was some sort of socially engaged artwork in itself, one of them replied: “No, we have nothing to do with the carrot pile. We are only using them to raise money.”

The way the four students (@goldsmithscarrots)12 responded to Rafael Perez Evans’ project, Grounding13 exemplifies, visually and conceptually, the distinctions between social art and provocative art14. If there is something that Rafael’s work has conceived, it was to ignite antagonism and initiate much-needed discussions around food waste. A picture of a pile of carrots was all over the news, but journalists seemed more interested in questioning the polemics of an artist dumping 29 tonnes of food15 than food loss in itself. The artwork is described as site-specific, however it only acknowledges the confrontation between the carrots and the Ben Pimlott glass (Goldsmith building). This, inevitably feels like a vague definition of site-specificity.16

Regarding the backlash that Rafael received which posited the artwork as an insensitive act, dumping tonnes of carrots in Lewisham,  exemplifies how sometimes we don’t feel comfortable confronting bitter realities. As the old saying said, “we can’t cover the sun with a finger”, food is being wasted every single day for aesthetics reasons (misshapen). Hingston and Noseworthy, who wrote the article “On the epidemic of food waste”, show through a simple question, how we have developed biased prototypes of beauty: “If asked to draw an apple, what would you draw? Would it be misshapen and bruised, perhaps with minor imperfections in coloring? Probably not.”17

Stating that this artwork is insensitive for showing what is happening at the backstage of our consumption system lacks criticality. Grounding replicates something that already existed (food waste), and reinforced it by putting a sign up that says “these carrots are not fit for human consumption.”18 The hyper-visible installation created a successfully palpable confrontation between the consumer and the general unwanted product.

By contrast, the four students of @goldsmithcarrots, as a response of Rafael’s gesture, brought a more constructive solution by taking action19 and making cakes and carrot soups to prove that these carrots are, in fact, for human consumption. It’s crucial to highlight that what expanded the conversations of waste, and brought along with it community awareness, was the dialogue between both projects. The cakes made out of ‘unwanted carrots’ wouldn’t have raised much money without the dumped carrots in front of our faces. These two works unwillingly question and challenge the role of artists and their responsibilities. One without the other, the outcome would have been wobbly. Imagine this encounter in cyberspace – thousands of carrots shaped in three-dimensional computer graphics. The making of cakes from unwanted carrots, and all the press, would not have happened. I probably would not have even been writing about it.

I left the carrot pile behind, leaving to visit St James Hatcham (A.K.A The Church). Wandering around, I was amazed when I saw a yellow ochre Inca-style vessel (Archeological Vestige 1) made by Rebeca Romero20 showing an intriguing fusion as she mutated ancient culture with a medium created by our vast technological advancements (3d print in PLA). Afterwards, I went back with a friend to get another carrot cake and we sat down on a bench chatting about the degree show. We talked about a range of topics from how moving image works felt like a new trend, perhaps as a side effect of working from home, as well as how the futuristic aesthetic remains a feature for many of the projects shown. This half an hour conversation, while eating carrot cake, brought to light curiosities, questions and a desire to dive into the variety of topics those artists were raising at the show. These dialogues and post-exhibition exchanges are needed – they are the dessert to end the meal and begin digesting. This is unlike any online exhibition. 

The other day, whilst I was viewing an art project on my screen, I suddenly received an email from my job. I started replying, and when I sent it, I closed my laptop and started cooking — end of the story. I can’t even remember what the artwork was about. The waiting time, getting lost, acting in concert, refreshing, social encounter, installing and dimension didn’t exist on my screen. The exhibition experience can’t be replaced by pixels.

  1. You can view the artists featured at this year’s degree show via this link: https://art.gold.ac.uk/exhibitions2020/mfa/index.html
  2. Non-human here is defined as anything else non-organic,, from art objects, plinths to lighting.
  3. N. J. Lekkerkerk The Standard Book of Noun-Verb Exhibition Grammar. Netherlands: Art Libro. p.21.
  4. You can view the show via this link:https://2020.rca.ac.uk/.
  5. R. Braidotti & T. Vermeulen (2014). Borrowed Energy, Frieze. 10 Oct 2020. https://www.frieze.com/article/borrowed-energy
  6. ‘Be’ as in state of being
  7. Roland Barthes pointed out in his book A Lover’s Discourse that “tumult of anxiety provoked by waiting for the loved being [exhibition], subject to trivial delays”, as all types of exhibitions “can be futile, or immensely pathetic”.
  8.  I never find my way with floor plans. They are confusing to me and almost become a finding game.
  9. Anna Perach’s website: https://www.annaperach.com/
  10. Even though I don’t like to use this word as it commercialises the social aspect of exhibitions, it is what at end many art visitors use these spaces for.
  11. Artnet news, one of the first publications to report the dumping here: https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/31-tons-of-carrots-goldsmiths-mfa-show-1912145
  12. You can view the instagram page here: https://www.instagram.com/goldsmithscarrots/
  13. Text for Rafael Perez Evan’s work: https://rafaelperezevans.com/grounding/
  14. Uncomfortable opinions to confront. This type of work aims to put a finger on the sore spot by challenging beliefs of ethical values, also known as ‘shock value’.
  15. It may also be 31 or 30 tonnes depending on where you read about it.
  16. Goldsmiths University is located in Lewisham. This borough is widely known as one of the poorest boroughs in London. Unavoidable, the way people react to this pile of carrots is subject to this site-specificity fact, rather than the architectural confrontation.
  17. Hingston S. & Noseworthy T., (2020) On the epidemic of food waste: Idealized prototypes and the aversion to misshapen fruits and vegetables. Food Quality and Preference, Volume 86, p.1. Link: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0950329320302688
  18. Dazed article quote here: https://www.dazeddigital.com/art-photography/article/50614/1/artist-dumped-truckload-of-carrots-outside-london-goldsmiths-uni-grounding
  19. Visually illustrated here: https://www.instagram.com/p/CH3YiJplxfq/
  20. Rebeca Romero’s website: https://www.rebeca-romero.com/

José is a Venezuelan-Spanish artist based in London with a practice observing the collision of identity, place and labour informed by the socio-political context; the living colony’s ashes and its hierarchical echo embedded in our contemporary society. His practice is research-led and situated taking the form of participatory performance, installation, print and drawing. He founded The Window Cleaner Society (2019) during his studies at the RCA, which question the inter-relationship between art and activism through talks and workshops. He has worked in an interdisciplinary and collaborative scheme for participatory art projects and organising workshops, working alongside with Fussée de détresse, Arlington House, LADA, Lancaster Art and Justice4Grenfell. His work has been exhibited internationally at Bozar, Brussels; Centro Cultural Isabel de Farnesio, Madrid; Embassy of Brazil, London; The Design Museum, London and other independent settings.

  • Signage of the exhibition. Image courtesy to the author.
  • Anna Perach, detail from Seven Wives, 2020. Tufted yarn & artificial hair, hemp rope and metal hooks. Image courtesy to Matt Ashford studio and the artist.
  • Rafael Perez Evans, Grounding, 2020. Image courtesy to the author.
  • José with a slice of carrot cake. Image courtesy to the author.
  • A screenshot from the @goldsmithscarrots Instagram page. Image courtesy to the author.
  • Rebeca Romero, Archeological Vestige 1, 2020. Reconfiguration of pre-hispanic vessel (100 bc - ad 900) 3D print in PLA. Image courtesy to the artist.