Vacant Chairs (2018) is an audio-visual intervention into the artists’ film ‘Messy Democracy’ (2018), which documents the @.ac residency of the same name.
The title is a reference to Jacques Derrida’s essay ‘Vacant Chair’ (2002), which re-reads Kant’s (1798) work on the university, and Plato’s ideas of philosopher-kings ruling the Republic (381 BC). Kant argued that philosophy, whilst traditionally considered to be the ‘lower faculty’ of the university, servicing the ‘higher faculties’ of medicine, theology, and law, it actually operates as the highest faculty in many ways. As well as helping the ‘higher faculties’ to develop self-reflexive knowledge through critical interlocution, the philosophy department, answering to no professional body, has a degree of autonomy and relative independence compared to the the others, which are heteronomous and thus restricted by external forces, bureaucracies, politics, and regulations. Effectively, philosophy deconstructs the hierarchies of the university at the same time as it salvages an educational idea of the university from a more dismal, instrumental tendency towards purely vocational or skills based training. Reprising Plato, and realising Kant’s suggestion, Derrida argues that universities should be ultimately run by philosophers, but concedes that nobody is sufficiently accomplished, as philosopher or educator, to satisfactorily fulfil this role. Nevertheless, universities should always keep a vacant chair open, perhaps for the philosopher-to-come, or education-to-come.
Vacant Chairs (2018) consists of a series of found and digitally manipulated images of chairs, produced by students in the product design department of the Royal College of Art in 1968, the year of the ‘French May’ and a wave of political occupations of UK art schools. The Royal College of Art was the country’s first art school, opening in 1837 as the Government School of Design at Somerset House, London. This quickly became the art school model that would be rolled out to the provinces. The timeline of the Royal College of Art from 1837-1968 could therefore be forewarded as a tentative critical history of the UK art school, from its inception as a bourgeois utilitarian institution, designed primarily to produce and reproduce a semi-skilled workforce for industrial capitalism (2013), to its implosion in the 60s, where the weight of over a century’s worth of romantic discourses concerning individual emancipation and freedom caused the institution to collapse under its own weight.
In the eighteenth century, Kant correctly recognised that the university was an institution animated by conflictual dynamics both internal and external to it. This is as true today as it was then. In the case of the art school, this conflictual dynamic has been exacerbated by the art schools’ forced amalgamation with the polytechnics in the 60s, which created schizophrenic institutions with noticeably incompatible practices, ideologies, and epistemologies. Our interventions are attempts to highlight this essentially conflicted quality of the art school, and its aporetic potential for functioning as immanent critique. The images of vacant chairs interrupt the narrative of the documentary film violently and abruptly, whilst introducing alternative narratives via voiceovers written by academics and philosophers but read by participants from the general public, including children. These voiceovers bring the radical context of 1968 into alignment with the present crisis of the art school, whilst critiquing its maladies through the lens of contemporary theory. This gesture acts as a form of counter-authorship to the equally conflicted and rival narratives of ‘Messy Democracy’ written by its participants and documentary filmmakers. Simultaneously, the grandness or aggression of this bid for authorial control is held by moments of embarrassing bathos as the readers of the voice-overs, particularly the children, stumble over the technical and philosophical jargon of academia. The empty chairs symbolise therefore symbolise the conflict within the university, particularly the conflict between theoretical and practical departments of the contemporary art school. In a broader sense this also connotes a conflict, perhaps even a mutual incomprehension, between the university and wider society. It also references the dialectical struggle between filmmaker, subject, and us, none of which have ultimate control over the works’ meaning.