Tuned In

What happens when more than 100 graphic design students come together to create a live 24-hour TV broadcast? We caught up with tutor Robert Sollis and the Camberwell students behind recent televisual spectacle CHANNEL to find out...

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Photography by Thomas Adank

In the age of YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram Stories, broadcasting ourselves has never been easier or less formal, and engaging with video content has become part of our everyday lives. Yet the ways in which we watch TV, and our viewing habits in more general terms, are in a state of flux. Few shows can command a fixed space in our busy schedules, and with on-demand services ever on the rise and the opportunity to binge-watch ever present in our pockets, ‘event telly’ means something different today than in the days of unmissable weekly episodes, five terrestrial channels and the TV Times.

It’s with this context in mind that the tutors on Camberwell College of the Arts’ BA Graphic Design course set their first and second year students an intriguing and rather unusual brief this spring: to create and broadcast a live 24-hour continuous transmission, CHANNEL. Considering the creative potential of TV as a form of communication, they set students to work designing, editing, curating, commissioning, building, filming, performing, recording and writing to come up with a full day’s worth of video content, broadcast on 15 March from within the college itself, with surprising, entertaining and thoroughly impressive results.

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Photography by Thomas Adank

The brief for the project was originally written by Camberwell tutors Robert Sollis and Peter Nencini in 2012, around the time that the analog TV signal was switched to digital, so this is its second outing. “In the six years that have passed since we first run the project, viewing habits have changed dramatically,” explains Sollis. “With the emergence of on-demand television, watching a timed broadcast is a thing of the past for most young people today. Asking the students to create a live broadcast in the contemporary context might seem a little nostalgic, but I am interested in looking back in order to look forward. What are we losing and where are we going? These questions created a really interesting tension for the students to respond to…There are so many new ways of watching and creating content which are becoming second nature to our students, so bringing this knowledge face to face with the event created around a live broadcast feels quite special.”

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Photography by Thomas Adank

This time around, the updated brief, which was put together by Sollis and fellow Camberwell tutor Charlie Abbott with contributions from Tracey Waller, Olya Troitskaya, Thomas Adank, Alex Hough and Jim Fielding, grouped the participating students into small teams in an initial workshop. These were then combined in a series of unexpected pairings, to create departments such as Weather & Shopping, How To & Horror, Technology & Mystery and Chat Show & Slow Television. As is often the case when working with such a large group, working out a practical organisational structure for the project was an intriguing challenge in its own right, as Sollis explains.

“Part of my research as a tutor is about experimenting with organisational structures,” he says. “This is something I have been developing for a number of years. I noticed that as group sizes grow they become increasingly difficult to manage, and there are various ways in which you can break them down in order to create more manageable communities of practice. But there is also a lot of potential in these large groups to come together and create something significant. The challenge is getting them communicating effectively. Past projects, for example, have involved weekly meetings where we would ask the whole group to sit in a circle an discuss the overarching organisation of the project, with a moderator who would pass a baton around to ensure that people wouldn’t speak over one another. But this system, whilst seemingly democratic, still favours those who are more confident speaking in front of a large group."

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Photography by Thomas Adank

"The way Channel was organised was more structured. Everyone was in a department, but in addition to that, we asked the students to sign up to be in an organisational group for the broadcast event. These groups included: graphic identity, trailer, set and sound, production, social media and documentation. Each of these groups elected a representative to go to the weekly board meetings where Laura Kaminska, who was our general coordinator, made sure they were communicating with each other and that relevant information was filtered back to the groups. So, in many ways, we were creating our own mini version of an organisation like the BBC; one literally designed, edited, curated, commissioned, built, filmed, performed, recorded, written and broadcast by the students.”

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Photography by Thomas Adank

With the organisational structure set, the student groups set about creating programming to fill the 24 hours of broadcast time – a process that necessitated collaboration, lateral thinking, experimentation and improvisation. ”The biggest challenge of the project was the scale of 24 hours. It’s almost an impossible brief,” says Sollis. “To make just one minute of footage takes a serious amount of work, so how were they possibly going to fill 1440 minutes?”

In the resulting broadcast on 15 March, the students rose to the challenge admirably. Alongside the short films they created themselves ahead of time, they called upon performers and filmmakers from other courses and colleges to contribute, created a series of idents, broadcasted a live DJ set, band performances, live drawing and a yoga class, and Sollis himself was called upon to conduct a live calligraphy workshop against a green screen. From a technical point of view, the whole project posed a distinct and complex set of challenges in order to enable the ambitious programme the students had put together. “We said from the outset that we wanted to broadcast online whilst switching between live and prerecorded material,” says Sollis. “Then as the live ideas developed, the desire for numerous camera and sound setups grew, coupled with live green screen and VJ capabilities. On top of that, we wanted people coming to the event to experience the live activities first hand whilst also being able to view the live feed. Two of our students, Oliver Roles and Thomas Nicolini – who had little prior knowledge of how to deal with these technical issues – simply took it upon themselves to find out. It was amazing what they achieved by the end of the six week project. I also managed to get £3000 of funding, part of which was used for us to get the kit that we required to make all of this possible.”

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Photography by Thomas Adank

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Photography by Thomas Adank

For the students, the CHANNEL project offered an exciting opportunity to experiment with new media, but working within the unfamiliar context of TV also took them out of their comfort zone, and raised some important questions about the content we choose to consume, and why. Ben Ibbotson, who was part of the Property & Satire department, explains: “Our starting point was analysing the different kinds of property shows on TV – we started questioning and critiquing why property shows are so established, and considering why we as humans want to see into other people’s houses so badly? What does it mean to have a house as a status symbol? Why is the idea of the home so established in every culture? We used existing housing shows as examples for this, incorporating philosophy, politics and history to form a foundation for our critique. From this we created three different concepts for our TV shows: A history of Scrotsdale, uncovering the history, exploitation and mystery of a town that no longer exists; Interior Wars – "George is in trouble! His house is bland and lifeless. Two top designers go head to head to battle it out to see who will be victorious"; and REDO YOUR HOOD, the story of two innocent hipsters who find that as their neighbourhood changes, so do they.”

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Photography by Thomas Adank

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Photography by Thomas Adank

This inventive approach was a common characteristic of the students’ programmes, and the critical re-examination of televisual trends was something that their tutors were keen to encourage. “The key to the project was that the students study television tropes and then use them in their work,” Sollis explains. “Television is full of these typical motifs that can be played with by sampling and subverting. For me this is a fundamental post modern technique that, once learnt, can be applied to any medium. I think the students really got this and had a lot of fun with it.”

The experience as a whole, and the chance to engage with new and different ways of working, also introduced the students to new ways of articulating their own communicative practice and offered proof of what they were all capable of. Maria Than, who was part of the Weather & Shopping department (who created a set of dystopian weather forecasts, using the increasingly disastrous environmental conditions of the day as an opportunity to sell a variety of hare-brained and surreal products), remarked that “We are 120 graphic design students and we were able to get hold of a green screen and use virtual sets extensively, which would have been impossible 20 years ago unless you were at film school. One student used Processing, a data visualization program which he ran on a Macbook and filmed the outcome. A lot of us were inspired by YouTube and visual content from the Internet, which created this odd mixture of Internet-based culture and actual film genres, which truly feels like the new broadcast of today.”

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A scene on the virtual set of the Weather & Shopping department. "Our ideas developed thanks to references such as Black Mirror, disaster films, and environmental research,” explains department member Maria Tran. “In graphic design, you get to draw upon other resources, other fields outside of art and design in order to develop a project. We did a lot of research about climate change, meteorology, geography, motion graphics, dystopias, journalism and host mannerisms and use of language, and finally tone.”

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Photography by Thomas Adank

For General Coordinator Laura Kaminska, the project offered a tantalising glimpse of the potential breadth of her professional practice in the future. “We had to approach the worldwide 24-hour streaming in a very professional way: looking at the copyright aspects, taking care of the sponsors and being aware of a potential audience across the globe when creating the content for the Channel,” she explains. “It was great practice to see how our jobs might look like in the future once we start working in the industry. Working as a part of a group, and especially as the person to coordinate those groups in order to make things work, required a lot of multitasking and taught me a lot about professional relationships. I have learned a lot about my strengths and weaknesses and what to more carefully look at in the future.”

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A still from one of the videos created by the Mystery & Technology department. “It felt so rewarding to see this community growing and knowing there are even more people watching us online from various different places on Earth,” General Coordinator and Mystery & Technology department member Laura Kaminska tells us. “At the end of the 24 hour broadcast, our streaming website had in total over 2,600 views.”

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Photography by Thomas Adank

In the wake of the broadcast, the students and tutors are now considering whether to create a more permanent record of the day’s events – no mean feat with 24 hours’ worth of footage to work with. “I’m slightly torn because I think there is a beauty in leaving Channel in the broadcast moment, but I also think it will now be interesting to think about how we turn that into an on-demand website,” says Sollis. “We need to discuss if we make some sort of edit of it – maybe a 24 minute showreel could make sense.” Some students are already considering how they might incorporate the new skills they’ve developed through CHANNEL into their future work – “Performance and acting definitely will influence my work in the future, though perhaps not in the ways it was expressed through this project,” says Ibbotson. “But using the body and language to communicate ideas is an area I will continue to explore pursue in the future.”

Interdisciplinary projects such as CHANNEL, and the Camberwell students’ Mock-Up fashion show project that we covered on Grafik last year, offer an exciting glimpse of the kinds of collaborative, innovative work that next generation of graphic designers might create. By encouraging the students to think in broader terms about the creative and communicative potential of different media, they are also prompted to consider what the role of graphic designer could encompass within an increasingly complex socio-cultural landscape – and the future looks bright indeed.


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Photography by Thomas Adank

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Photography by Thomas Adank