The Australian street artist Peter Drew has found himself at an impasse with the renowned Glasgow School of Art (GSA), where he is, ironically enough, only weeks away from completing a thesis examining the tensions between big institutions and street art. The artist’s work — both legal and illegal — has previously found acclaim internationally and at home in Adelaide, Australia, and been featured twice on Scottish national television in recent months for projects he has undertaken during his time in Glasgow. Images of his artworks have also been used in promotional materials for GSA and currently appear on the homepage of his program, the Master of Research in Creative Practices.
Yet according to a letter obtained by Hyperallergic, Drew’s program leader and academic supervisor at the university, Ranjana Thapalyal, has threatened him with expulsion and possible deportation for his ongoing art practice:
[Y]ou stated that you had continued to post graffiti in Glasgow, and that you did not intend to stop, nor to seek permission from Glasgow City Council … I am now writing formally to request you to cease your non commissioned art activities until appropriate permissions have been sought and granted. If you continue without such permissions, there will be a need to review your status as a student with Glasgow School of Art.
One can imagine certain contexts where a budding art student could run afoul of their stodgy MFA program, but Peter Drew applied to his department with an established background as a street artist, and was admitted with this understanding in mind. “It occurred to me that [disciplinary issues] could happen, I honestly never expected that it really would,” Drew told Hyperallergic. “When I first applied there was an interview … it was always clear between Ranjana and myself that the work that I did by myself would not be part of what was assessed.”
That his program is a research Master’s makes the university’s position even more untenable. Institutions of higher education have long functioned as bastions of independence, and there is a long tradition of lawbreaking academics carrying out their work in the name of thought and inquiry.
The artist, whose wheatpastes and interactive sculptures deal primarily with issues linked to technology and alienation, would lose his visa status as a student should he be expelled. Ms. Thapalyal highlighted this fact, noting that his visa was issued “in good faith” in her letter to him, which is dated July 1. He has since attempted to pursue an alternative arrangement whereby a group of four volunteers will paste his artwork for him, though he remains uncertain if this approach will satisfy the school. Reached by telephone earlier today, Thapalyal declined to comment, directing us instead to the Registry section of the school’s website.
Ryan Seslow, a professor at Long Island University and an advocate for street art in academia, explained to Hyperallergic that GSA’s pre-emptive aggression in this case is likely unprecedented — though he notes that administrators are often anxious about the possibility of any “tagging” activities getting linked back to them.
“Nobody wants to be the person that’s in charge that gets the blame for stuff that happens in and around campus … It’s politics more than anything else. It’s unfortunately not something that’s going to go away any time soon.”
Further commenting on the “outdated” attitudes toward street art in the academy, Seslow, a street artist himself, added that it took him seven years to get his course at Long Island University approved and accredited. “The administrators would ask ridiculous questions like ‘If we teach a course like this what happens? Will [students] start tagging up the campus?’”
Addendum, 7/30: A reader, Jessica Fenlon, has brought a salient incident from 2001 to our attention, in which two SMFA Boston students — one of them a French national — were arrested for graffiti. The school chose not to discipline them. Fenlon, who was then a student there, writes that “[T]he administration just ignored it. There were no directives, at the time, telling students to knock it off … In the SMFA’s critique-based culture, creating street art was a lively topic of conversation as students sorted out whether or not it worked for them as a strategy.” It’s worth emphasizing that in this case Peter Drew has not been arrested or charged with any crimes by any state or municipal authorities in Scotland, nor has his work affected Glasgow School of Art property. This is what makes the school’s action particularly bizarre and unfortunate.