Spirit of '68 alive in university perspectives

October 14, 2005

Forget May '68 - Paris was a picnic compared with campus carnage in the Eternal City. For confirmation, spend two hours on the south coast watching digitised film footage of Italian riot police beating up anyone who gets in their way, including a blood-splattered professor pleading with his scornful students to go home. The impact on the viewer is that much greater given the calming white space in which these blown-up newsreels are screened.

A university art gallery is the obvious location in which to stage Campus , a multi-media exhibition exploring "the unique environment of university campuses, looking at their recent past and ideas surrounding their future". Predictably, the "recent past" is 1968, an iconic year even for today's tyro artist.

Away from "the project room", Christian Philipp Muller's silk-screen prints offer a calming influence. The Swiss have a different understanding of what constitutes "dramatic", which is hardly the term to describe uniform, neatly framed plans of famous universities, each chosen according to a rationale articulated in essay-length labels. These accounts of how university architecture has evolved in Europe and North America over the past 150 years are of more interest than the prints themselves, on each of which is superimposed in red the footprint of Luneberg University, the project's eventual home.

Far more impressive are the digitally manipulated "New Brutalist" architectural landscapes of Canadian photographer Nancy Davenport. Shots of anonymous buildings in anonymous universities are bleak, stark and cruelly ironic: Performing Arts Centre personifies Philistinism; The Library constitutes a wasteland strewn with antiwar literature (for Vietnam, read Iraq); and Media Technology seems frozen in 1972, looking like the last place on earth that a digital hotshot would boast of as her alma mater.

Complementing the photographs is a TV "film" (actually a long panning shot based on multiple stills loaded on a DVD). A ceaseless succession of stalled and smashed vehicles is seen gridlocked in a nightmare search for the Weekend Campus - a small-town Midwest college that is as uninviting as it is unreachable.

Ms Davenport is fascinated by the new universities of the 1960s and 1970s; but hers seems a uniquely North American perspective. The University of Southern California and Kent State have little in common with Essex and Sussex, let alone my memory of the "other" Kent, where a six-week sit-in was over cuts in catering, not war in Vietnam.

In a filmed interview to accompany Campus, the Danish couple who constitute the Copenhagen Free University solemnly explain the "self-institutionalism"

of their flat as an alternative academy. The giant public address system, "quietly propagandising" their friends' belief in a university free of the free market, is fanfared as a major artistic statement. The reality is disappointing, with twin multispeaker systems looking and sounding like another legacy of '68 (provenance: Hawkwind's roadies).

The exhibition has strong echoes of the counter-culture and the "greening of America" alternative curriculum that flowered so briefly more than three decades ago; and yet this is no ageing hippy nostalgia trip.

Counterbalancing the artists' fascination with the birth pangs of the contemporary campus is a technology and an agenda rooted in today's universities, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Adrian Smith is a senior lecturer in history at Southampton University.

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