As One Door Closes – Moving On Up In Postgrad Education.

The images, opinions and occasional ravings of an MA Fine Art Student Arts PHD Candidate.

Keen readers of this little book of diatribes, may have noticed a change to the tagline (those who haven’t, please see above). The reason for that is fairly self explanatory, all the same it might be time for a bit of an update.

So, back in September I headed down to the school of arts gallery, and nailed a large number of pictures to a wall. This is how one has a final MA assessment when you’re an artist. Some time after that I presented said work to two learned professors and one external examiner, and that was about that. Technically speaking I don’t get to hear if I’ve passed until December, but I’m reasonably sure that if I hadn’t then someone would have mentioned it by now.

That raises the question of what I’m going to do next.

Well, I have always fancied a PHD. Partly for the research experience, largely because I think it’d be great to have people call you doctor. Part of that is due to my prior employment in Her Majesty’s NHS – should I wind up back in my old role, I will now be able to demand an ID badge giving my identity as “Dr Alex Gilbey – Ward Clerk” which I think would be hysterical. Knowing the NHS, they’d insist on making it “Ward Clerk – Alex Gilbey PHD” because NHS management don’t have much in the way of a sense of humour. Ward Sisters, Nurses and Auxiliaries do have a sense of humour. They need it.

I should probably have more of a reason for investing three years of time and effort, than an intention to perhaps one day annoy people with a misleading name tag. And I do. So, here they are.

  1. It keeps me in school of art – a large building full of things for doing photography. Things which are large, expensive and difficult to procure and maintain, but which I would miss if I didn’t have access to them anymore. I get three years to keep getting better at my craft, refining techniques, discovering new ones. I’m rather looking forward to it.
  2. Being a PHD sounds like a good thing to be. Jobs can be found. It’s likely to be easier to emigrate. It’s a higher qualification with an international adaptor.
  3. I’ve arrived at a project which indulges my interests in history and performance as well as photography. I’ll return to that point later.

What else was I going to do? I want to keep going places and taking pictures. This gives me a built-in excuse to do so (and to access archives, photo-collections, conferences etc) and the facilities to get on with it. The only other option that I was seriously considering as my MA drew to a close was to join my generation in getting into #vanlife. Turning a second hand van into a combination of rolling darkroom and man-cave on wheels seems like an interesting way to spend a large amount of money (and lets face it PHDs aren’t cheap, and funding for arts based ones is about as common as a cross-eyed cyclops – the amounts involved for either project would not be dissimilar) and one which I could have a lot of fun with. It rather sticks with the theme of going places and taking pictures of stuff.

And speaking of stuff, it would help with the ever growing amount of impedimentia my photographic endeavours seem to require these days. A week or two back I was taking publicity pictures for a local theatre company. My kit consisted of three cameras (Digital, Film SLR, Medium Format SLR), four lenses, background, two studio lights with softboxes, tripods for the lights, tripod for the camera, cables for the lights, reflector…in fact it’s hard to imagine that not so long ago all of my photo gear fit into one rucksack. Frankly, a van to haul it around in would be just great.

Anyway, getting back to the PHD.

I figured out during the second half of my MA that a PHD was a fairly likely next port of call, and started getting the paperwork filed, but it wasn’t until much later in the game that I made a definite decision. There’s a few reasons for that. The main one is that I’d been out of academia for a decade when I came back to do my MA, and signing on for another three years when I was only six months in and before I knew quite how well I was likely to do at this whole “being a student” business seemed premature. There things rested until I formally pulled the trigger with a few weeks of MA left to run, and then naturally spent the next few weeks sprinting form office to office with pieces of paper that needed to be signed, approved, entered onto the computer system (assuming tech support managed to get it running again) and so on and so forth.

That was a month ago. I have moved from the initial phase of the PHD “What The Hell Am I Doing” to the second phase – “Where The Hell Do I Start?”

The working title of the project (this week) is: Beside The Seaside – Holiday Photography in Coastal Resort Towns 1880-2020. The reason for this is simple. My hallowed seat of learning is in a resort town, which was a fairly big deal in the world of holiday resorts back in the day. Not big like Blackpool or Margate or Brighton, but we’ve got a promenade, a pier, a Victorian funicular railway and a few other oddities. But we’re also a university town, which means the community fared better than a lot of other towns when people started going abroad for holidays. But the photography, the documents, everything recording those bygone days is sitting in the county archives and museums waiting for someone to come and dig it up.

The other reason lies in the nature of the PHD. When I eventually get this thing finished, it will consist of both a dissertation and an exhibition. The plan is to exhibit both historic images and my own creative work, documenting what happens on the promenade now, in the early decades of the twenty first century. To hang pictures of Edwardian Pierrot Troupes next to my own images of community-based physical theatre groups. That’s the plan. What it’ll look like in three years I know not.

Being a PHD, it requires a research element – that’s the archival part. Being arts based, I also need to make use of my own creative practice, and I’m doing that as well. It’s meant a lot of time sitting in front of computers searching the catalogues of various archives, reading online articles about historic theatre, reading up on the economic models of holiday resorts – in fact I’m pulling together so many disparate strands at this moment that every time I turn around the project seems to change. And that’s without getting onto the creative part. Which I will – although frankly November is a bad time to see much happening on a promenade bordering the Irish Sea.

So, like so many rising professors of yore, I’ll be splitting my time between the archives and the laboratory. Sifting the records of bygone days of yore, and driving forward my own artwork. Studying, scribbling, burning the midnight oil, and then…one day some years from now…seeing the final result, and with eyes upraised and words to fork the lightning that will hopefully scorch the sky, declaim unto the heavens:


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