In a wide-ranging conversation, Professor Chris Bennewith (Head of School, Art, Design and Architecture) and Professor Katharine Willis (Professor of Smart Cities and Communities), discuss what inspired them to enter the creative arts, how our School of Art, Design and Architecture is nurturing graduates to make a difference in the real world, and the future of teaching in a post-pandemic digital space.
What is it about the creative arts that drives you?
Chris Bennewith: I always enjoyed art at school so it goes a long way back. But it was when my great uncle came to visit us in the 1980s and he talked about this thing called graphic arts that really intrigued me. This single conversation about commercial application in art spun me off into a new direction.
My growing interest in posters and graphics led me to take a foundation course in Falmouth, which set me up to study at university in Newport. At this point, digital was really starting to take hold and the internet was becoming really media-tired, so there was a lot of interesting content being developed. I got caught up in this exciting trend and started using my graphic skills in the digital space and landed in London to begin my career.
I imagine it’s a similar experience for students now. That's the interesting thing for me about the subject; the continual change and the challenge of what you can do with digital.
That idea of coming at technology from a creative and artistic point of view makes it more human, more usable. It also creates an experience rather than technology driving us for the sake of it.
The space I'm in is experimentation and innovation through technology. I like to think this drives the students as well. Through our new cutting-edge labs, students can pretty much try anything – the only limit is their imagination.
What got you into your subject?
Katharine Willis: I trained to be an architect so I came from a slightly different trajectory. I was really interested in the link between arts and creating something that might be around for a while. Interestingly, when I came out of my degree, I also felt that digital was starting to become a whole different area of exploration.
I had a summer job working on the Jubilee Line extension, which was very boring as I was stuck on a building site in Canary Wharf, primarily spent in Portacabins, or climbing ladders. However, there was an epiphany moment where I was thinking about the tube and how it connects London.
I was just really interested in the underground as a space and the spaces we live in.
My first job after completing a masters was working for a company called Imagination where there was a really interesting mix of different people from creative industries in one space. If you couldn't do something, you go and ask the person to do the website or do the interaction. It felt very experimental and really introduced me to something new.
I ended up working with someone from Imagination who had set up their own agency doing interactive arts. This was the point where the potential was within the creative space – how you revolve around and interact with these different agencies.
Digital was the point where it all became transformational. In our School of Art, Design and Architecture there is a broad long-term engagement with digital media as a creative experiment. And it's not seen as a technical thing, it's a creative space. I think that's quite unique in Plymouth.
We meet alumni who have gone onto amazing things because they had the freedom to be the most experimental they could be. This relationship between creativity, arts and digital media feeds into the way we teach and research and it’s unique.
Chris: I think also the crossover with the physical and the traditional crafts in this part of the world is one of our unique selling points. Fusing craft traditions and techniques with digital technology can create very interesting outputs.
How does studying these subjects in the school differ when it’s part of a larger university?
Chris: An underlying ethos of the school is to ensure students are pushing out and working in multidisciplinary areas. We've got examples of photography students working with students in environmental sciences and coming up with interesting marine projects. Students in fine art working with health and well-being students.
When you study at Plymouth you get the full art school experience – you can become an illustrator or be a graphic designer – but you also gain the awareness and skills to use your visual point of view to make a real impact in other areas in the world.
How do you think the school prepares students for the real world of work?
Chris: Practical experience. Our students have many opportunities to connect with local and national industry to really gain that valuable experience. We have many live briefs, such as a range of architectural projects with Dartington Trust, one being a shelter – the Tiny House – for part of their woodland experience.
It's about creating long-lasting connections. iMayflower is designed to build Plymouth’s creative industries and nurture creative people power across the city. While our research and development projects and virtual internships continue to create opportunities for our students to network and make a difference.
This practical hands-on experience, in-sync with the University's connections with industry in the city and beyond, really helps with student employability once they graduate.
Katharine: It is part of our commitment to engage with the real world through the nature of the work students do and the actual practice of doing it.
For example, our Smart Urban Futures programme is about working within the context of the world the students are going to go into. They work on real-world challenges, with an industry partner, doing a project that is both creative and will actually add value to companies and organisations.
Employers appreciate our students because there is a real depth to what they do and their outputs always speak for themselves.
Is Plymouth’s thriving sense of community underrated?
Katharine: Plymouth is an amazing city and it has got so many exciting things going for it.
Our student projects and research are very much grounded in where we are in the South West. There is a strong sense of us working with, and belonging to, the region.
Chris: It is fantastic that we can match all the interesting work happening in the University with a city that is so receptive and one we can work with. For example, the annual Illuminate light festival brings 50,000 people to come and see our students show their work in a fantastic setting in the heart of the city. There are many exciting opportunities to be part of the city's ongoing development.
At the University, The Bridge drives knowledge exchange initiatives for the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Business. It brings together academia with communities, organisations, businesses and the self-employed in order to exchange ideas and expertise. The aim is to fuse the region’s creative talent and digital resources.
While Ignite is dedicated to connecting emerging talent with industry and the public to ignite economic growth, productivity and employment – presenting our graduates and emerging talent more effectively, giving them the best chance to be found online and deliver the right talent to solve problems, transforming businesses and providing solutions to complex social issues.
Katharine: Another example of a cross-city community research project is Future Parks Accelerator – a joint venture between The National Lottery Heritage Fund and the National Trust – an initiative to secure the future of the UK’s urban parks and green spaces. In collaboration with Plymouth City Council, some of our undergraduate students became involved in their talk programmes and one of our students, Jonathan Lettmann, developed a poster series called ‘What’s That Worth to YOU?’, which was all about engaging people with the parks in Plymouth – this poster series actually got taken up by the other cities involved in the programme.
It's really interesting to consider how this project, which was started in Plymouth and was about a relationship between the city and the students, got used nationally to show how a programme which came out of what we were doing can actually be applied elsewhere. This is inspiring because it demonstrates we can lead on approaches that can be really valued elsewhere.
How do you see the school’s subjects changing post-pandemic? What innovations can we expect?
Katharine: What we've learned from COVID-19 is a lot of the ways we use digital as part of creative practice can also be part of the way we do teaching practice as well.
We've been innovating in the use of digital in terms of the subjects in which we teach, but we can also innovate in the way we deliver the teaching and make it a better experience for students.
There are lots of real positives to take away about how we might think about digital as part of a space we will be inhabiting in the future, as well as face-to-face, and how they work together in a beneficial way.
Using digitally enhanced teaching means we can bring a wide range of resources and expertise from across the country and beyond to Plymouth, linking our local networks with national and global ones. In a way, the pandemic has helped us reconnect and shows that you don't have to live in a big city, or rely on a train line, to be connected.
We are moving to a world where people can work from anywhere and do great work and we can learn from that in terms of the way we teach, which ultimately benefits our students.
Plymouth has a background in offering remote teaching, such as through the Planetary Collegium, which is concerned with the advancement of emergent forms of art and architecture and is run remotely internationally. We've got a remote masters in fine art as well, so although we're not obviously delivering all our courses remotely there is an expertise in remote learning alongside still rich teaching that can be used to inform learning going forward.
Chris: As technology changes, the way in which we teach and practice across our subject areas, will change. When we look towards immersion, automation and big data and what our Digital Fabrication and Immersive Media Labs offers in the delivery of teaching, research and innovation for the University and local community, it will be interesting over the next little while to see what constitutes an art, design and architecture school.
What we are trying to do at Plymouth is take our core subject areas and shift them forwards through some of these digital interventions. We want to really push our teaching and the experience our students gain in order for them to make an impact in a changing world.
Right now is a very interesting space for students to come in and do some impactful things where technologies are at a tipping point.
I'd love to be going back to university at this time, studying these subject areas, because it really reminds me of the time I came into the industry at a pivotal moment when something was shifting and you had an opportunity as a creative graduate to do something really impactful in the world.
Explore the School of Art, Design and Architecture
We're a connected community of creative thinkers, makers and professional practitioners
The School of Art, Design and Architecture offers high-quality, student-centred degrees, postgraduate programmes and research opportunities focused on adaptability and relevance to today’s cultural industries.