Interview with Dr. Silke Lange

©John Smith


Interview with Dr. Silke Lange

Associate Dean for Learning, Teaching, and Enhancement and Reader in Hybrid and Participatory Pedagogies at the University of the Arts, London. Interview by LUCA School of Arts, 04.05.2021.


Silke Lange, Associate Dean for Learning, Teaching, and Enhancement at the University of the Arts, London discusses the impact of COVID-19 on higher arts education institutions, its challenges, and opportunities, such as the intersection of arts and technology. Lange also goes into the question of how artists can address capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy through activism and communication. She suggests higher arts education institutions become platforms for debate and collaboration with the broader community, stressing the importance of listening and engaging in non-elitist ways while emphasising that “the future starts today.”



Hello Silke! Please introduce yourself to our readers.

Hello, I’m Silke Lange. I’m Associate Dean for Learning, Teaching, and Enhancement at Central Saint Martins, as well as Reader in Hybrid and Participatory Pedagogies. My role across the college is to support colleagues in course development and curriculum enhancement. I work closely with staff, students, and technicians to develop creative arts education. For example, I have played an instrumental role in developing digital learning over the past year. I’m a member of the college’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion group and until recently was a co-chair of the anti-racism board at Central Saint Martins . I’m also overseeing all matters in regards to teaching, learning and assessment. I work closely with our Quality team to address our awarding gap , and retention and continuation data. So, you could say that I’m involved in all areas that are at the intersection of teaching, learning and student experience. I’m part of a team called ‘the academic strategy group’, which is a team that supports colleagues throughout the entire student journey, from recruitment through to the completion.

So, you are in a leadership position, but you are also teaching, right?

Currently, I supervise PhDs and master theses. We have a Master in Academic Practice, which is open to colleagues who have completed a PGCert, so a teaching qualification for higher education. Every year I supervise and occasionally I facilitate workshops for undergraduate students, for instance on ethics practices in ceramic design.

How do you see the role of your Institute developing in the future?

That’s a very broad question. I don’t know whether this exists in other European countries, but here in the UK you are given targets that you have to meet. So, for example at the moment we have one project which is called ‘the Access and Participation Plan’. It’s a way of formalising how higher education should contribute to society. So, widening access to higher education, targeting different socioeconomic groups, recruiting more students from underrepresented backgrounds.

I think the role of the institution is very much to work together with the wider community, to respond to the challenges that we all face within the current political landscape. And there are some very pressing issues. There’s ‘Black Lives Matter’ and there’s climate emergency. These are tough societal challenges. And then there’s obviously the pandemic also, you know, what will we return to? Some people talk about wanting to return to normal. Many of us know that the normal didn’t actually work well. So, why would we want to return there? So, let’s reflect on some of the new ways of working with each other, which we may have developed over the past year. I know from some focus groups that I have facilitated with students, that they think there are some really positive things about this different learning environment.

And obviously our practices can’t be fully online, we need physical workshops to make work. But there are some elements that we have started to develop due to the pandemic which could easily be kept online. Now we have an opportunity to reflect and refine those until the next academic year.

And in a way I think this is the first time technology has really been embraced by arts disciplines, by art and design institutions, to this extent. Some would have never thought one could deliver performances through WhatsApp for example. So, I think there are other possibilities that we haven’t even thought about before. This is really interesting, you know, how can we innovate? I think art and design institutions ought to be always at the edge of society and thinking a bit ahead, but unfortunately higher education institutions are not always in that place.

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From your perspective, with regards to both the present and the future, what are the most impactful roles of artists, art and creative work, for example, in society or in the economic sector?

I think artists and designers have the skills that our society needs, which are the soft skills. Like, for example, empathy. Empathy is something that artists develop a lot in their practice. And you know, that is something that could never be replaced by a robot. And there are also the skills to collaborate with people. If our challenges need to be met by a number of different disciplines, for example, somebody needs to bring these disciplines together. And I often find that’s one of the skills many creative people have: facilitation skills. And of course there is creativity, the ability to challenge conventions and blur boundaries. So, our students develop these kinds of skills throughout their studies which can actually have a really positive impact on our society.

And from the top of my head, I can not remember the figure, but I know that the creative industry in this country has a huge impact on the economy. And I don’t want to return to the politics around the pandemic, but the support of the creative industries has not been great. I think other European countries have done better than the UK. Of course there’s a slightly different situation here because of Brexit. So I know this is more complex of course, but these are political frameworks that will have a massive impact on how we will prepare for the future.

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In your opinion, what are the most influential trends and developments in society, economy and the arts?

Well, let’s go back to climate emergency and the Black Lives Matter movement. These are absolute urgent themes, and that’s what we need to focus on. When you talk about developments in terms of climate emergency, you know, where does sustainability sit within our curriculum? How can we work differently with our materials? Just think about it, we are educating the next generation of producers. We have about 100 Product Design students every year. Do we really need to create more products? Or should we think about different applications for products and reuse of materials?

I remember a project on creating material out of pineapple skin, focusing on a circular approach. That’s an exciting path to follow, isn’t it?

And thinking of Black Lives Matter, there’s a big question around who is producing knowledge and how to make sure that the voices that have not been heard or listened to for so long, get a voice. A lot originates from the colonial structures, which are still in place today and are being perpetuated by our approaches. And you know, that again also has an effect on climate emergency. If we think about some of the countries that are most affected by extreme weather or floods… A lot comes from the actions that Western countries have carried out there. So, for me, it’s very political.

Yeah… Do you see that trend also in the arts, for example?

Silke Lange
I do, you can use arts to communicate those issues or to work differently with communities. I touched earlier on participatory art or participative practices and how to ensure that underrepresented voices are being brought into the conversation.

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Let’s shift the discussion to the domain of the economy. What is the most important trend there?

Well, I think there’s a huge problem with capitalism. I think that’s the bigger project. I’m not sure that it is the artist who will solve that issue. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the book ‘The End of the Cognitive Empire’ by Boaventura de Sousa Santos? It’s about the Global South and the Global North, about capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy, and how those structures need to be unpicked. And I think everything we do sits within these structures. So, we really have to consider these structures and reflect on where they have taken us and think about how we can change direction. And I think it’s everybody’s role, no matter whether you are an artist, an economist or physicist or whatever…

Yeah. It’s everyone’s role, I totally agree with that.

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In this context, how do you imagine your Institute of higher education to change and evolve in the next few years? What would be the main challenges and drivers of this change?

I think one challenge or drive will be to engage different kinds of learners. And I think the use of technology has shown that this can be done more easily now because it provides solutions for some restrictions in the past, such as getting a visa for example, or simply the cost of living in a city like London. So, if we want to open up our community to different voices, then that would be one way of working with different communities. You know, we’ve already got a few courses that are what we call ‘low residency’: the students only visit London one week in the term, and all the rest is done by teaching and learning online. And then we have other models where the same course is taught in different countries and then once in a while students all come together.

I think because our challenges are global, we need to work together in different ways. So, again, this is why I think technology can support us. And this is what has been shown in the past year. Also, I think there is something about the disciplines as we traditionally know them. They may no longer be relevant. So, we have to open up to thinking about how our disciplines could be developed. And it’s a bit like what I was saying earlier, none of the performance tutors would have thought that you may use WhatsApp to teach or to even produce a performance. And that’s just a very simple example, but the essence is about being open to it and to imagine what impact you can actually have with this. And sometimes the very simple things can create such an impact, like class recordings or the way in which events have been held so that many more people could access them.

And this is why the FAST45 project that you’re doing is very timely. Obviously you didn’t know that the pandemic was going to happen when you applied for project funding. But I do think that there has been this total change for all of us, that the pandemic was an eye-opener. And many of us have been thinking about our values and have been reassessing our values. And I think it’s really crucial not only for this project, but for all of the projects that we’re and will be doing.

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The future starts today! FAST45 works from the perspective of 2045. From your point of view, what might be meaningful in that longtime perspective for your institution?

What’s the purpose of an institution like ours? I think that’s something to keep in mind. I also believe it’s absolutely crucial that we work very closely with our students, in a true partnership, a true collaboration, to have that dialogue with the students and involve students far more in some of the decisions we make. So, I see it as a collaboration rather than some top-down kind of approach. Co-creation is the future!

What roles can artists and institutes of higher education and the creative sector potentially play concerning the trends, challenges and drivers that we have discussed? So, what specific roles could you formulate for the institutes in the upcoming years in light of the trends and developments that are coming up?

Maybe its role might be providing the platform for these kinds of debates, and creating spaces where some of these issues can be explored in a playful, yet meaningful way, using creativity to unpick or understand some of these challenges in a different way. And also: using our channels, our ways of communication to reach a wider audience. I think for example about the Science Museum in London, the way in which the museum communicates with the public has changed dramatically over the past years because it’s crucial for them to engage with the public.

Another interesting institution in London is the Wellcome Trust. They do a lot of scientific and medical research. And they also have this whole section dedicated to public engagement. This is something that we can also do as an arts institution: engage with the public and provide the space to have these dialogues and debates and promote the methods of art and design. The iterative design process as an approach can be helpful in coming up with different solutions or helping change people’s lives.

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The institutes of higher arts education are often perceived as slow, inward looking and even elitist institutions. Imagine your institute in 2045, how would you like it to be perceived? And what steps need to be taken in order to achieve this?

Elitist is certainly how we are being described or perceived. So yes, we need to think about how you bring different societal and economic groups into this building. Maybe potential students are intimidated by some of our structures. And maybe we should be working differently with companies, embracing ideas like work placement, work-based learning, developing different modes of learning that will also open up opportunities for students, and attract students currently underrepresented. And maybe we shouldn’t be doing two year and three year courses only, but also have courses that run alongside your day job. It’s about exploring different models of provision and different models of engaging with the arts and design.

What are the most important issues, tools or goals for teaching and leading staff to stimulate, embrace, adapt, and utilize a change in the daily work in institutes of higher arts education? So, what can we do or what can we embrace or adapt to stimulate teachers and leading staff to bring those changes that we have already discussed in the institutes?

So, to use the pandemic again as an example, I think it really has shown that things are possible and that in the past art and design institutions did not embrace technology in a fast and creative way. It did for some subjects, but this pandemic has really shown that there are other ways of working. We’ve learned that there can be a more flexible approach to our work and that is something to consider. And also, some disciplines have been more successful than others in translating their curriculum to an online offer, but it’s remarkable how quickly we were able to all do that.

And normally, as you just mentioned, normally institutions are extremely slow. In fact I think they’re often about 15 years behind industry. And I think one thing that’s missing is trust, because we are all accountable, but as individuals we’re not always given trust within institutions that we will actually do the job that we said we would do. So I do think that probably it’s also about having different leadership models, even within our institution.

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Do you think that English speaking institutes have an advantage in this development of globalisation? English is a world language and for example in Belgium, Dutch speaking institutes are not allowed to just turn a Dutch program into an English one.

That’s a really interesting point. At the same time it’s also very problematic because of colonial histories the use of the English language is now very dominant in the academic world. And for me, it says a lot about the colonial past. So, what about Spanish? Although Spain too has its own colonial history, Spanish is also a language that is spoken across many other countries. I do think some cultures feel disadvantaged by not being able to express themselves in their own language.

And it goes further than this, if we’re thinking about research methodologies for example, they’re all based on the Western canon. What about some of the indigenous practices? It’s quite complex. I would welcome institutions to look at different models in which we can move forward. So, less focused on those practices we’ve all been using and looking at other practices from other cultures that were never considered in this English speaking environment. I know it’s very idealistic. I’m very aware of that, but I do think it’s important.

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It’s a utopian thought maybe, but that’s not a reason to not consider it as possible. The future is very open. Let’s explore the future a bit more! How would you imagine and describe your institute in 25 years?

That’s a very interesting question. There are a number of options. Maybe it will be in several places. Maybe it will exist more in the virtual space and it might become a more connected place. You know, Central Saint Martins is part of the University of the Arts London (UAL) that has already got six colleges. But there’s more, maybe you have heard of the Shared Campus initiative? It’s a UAL wide project, Central Saint Martins is involved and also institutions in Melbourne, Taipei, Athens, Bangkok, Kyoto, and Zurich. It is an online provision where the different countries have come together to teach summer schools and create a transcultural collaboration semester. It’s all about engaging very differently across the globe in ways that we had never considered before.

You know, there’s a lot of uncertainties that we all have at the moment, but we should actually be open to them and test them. And there are a lot of constraints, like our quality assurance systems, the bureaucracy etcetera, are partly the reasons why institutions are slow (although there are times when slowing down is better, taking time to consider things carefully and reflect on the process). Like, if you have an idea for a new course, it takes at least 18 months until this course can start.

And again, it all boils down to trust. If people would be confident in the processes that they’re using, it wouldn’t take 18 months to develop a course. And it’s similar when we talk about resources. Where do you invest? You know, interestingly that goes back to your economy question. If you’re investing in something that you think will have an impact, then you need to do that properly. But if you always invest in the cheapest version of a system, then it is a nightmare for those who have to work with it.

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Is there anything else you would like to add?

Well, there’s one thing you just mentioned earlier, you said “the future starts today”. We talked about Boaventura de Sousa Santos, I would like to recommend his talk  “The Future Begins Today“.


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