S.P.A.N.K: Is This Your Art School?

Reflections on the 1980s student-led newsletters in the Glasgow School of Art Archives by Celeste MacLeod-Brown

While I was sitting at my laptop clicking through scans of S.P.A.N.K, a friend took interest and asked me to airdrop her the file. I did so, and something felt a little eerie; the tech-induced immediacy, simultaneously reminiscent, yet so far removed from the kind of spontaneity present in the newsletters. It’s a spontaneity I keep searching for, initiating half hopeful, half gloomy conversations with my fellow students about. The encounter, admittedly insignificant and formed around my pointing out of particular funny columns, left me wondering: If this format, something as simple as a physical newsletter, a representation of a seemingly close-knit community operating within the institution, might be at all replicable. Could our current day student communications ever possibly retain the same ability to dip in and out of naughtiness whilst maintaining credibility?

Amidst the records of the GSA Students Association and the holdings of student-led publications sits a series of newsletters spanning the mid-1980s to the beginning of the 1990s. The weekly publications take on a variety of five-letter titles but seem to appear most commonly as B.L.A.N.K or S.P.A.N.K, each edition manifesting as a maximum six-page, black and white handout, columns of text blocked densely onto pages, leaving gaps only for an interspersion of cartoonish motifs and the occasional handwritten element.

Black and white front page of publication "S.P.A.N.K." GSA Students' Association publication

Front page of S.P.A.N.K student publication from 1984, DC 009/4/3

A brief look across each page possibly wouldn’t elicit much response. Dry in aesthetic, the papers lack the noise and vibrancy of some other publications in the collection, but I found myself lured in by their somewhat more humble appearance. Upon closer inspection, I came across their true vibrancy and subsequent value: the language and tone used throughout them. I was suddenly hit by columns that titled themselves ‘PLEASE’ and ‘HELP,’ issues alternating between tracking timelines of the Tory government’s cuts to education on one page, then the next featuring arrays of overtly personal jokes and submitted advertisements for flats ‘this side of the galleries.’ Between the editor’s apologies for misspelled names, requests for ‘whoever informed Mona that the Cafe would be closing to get it right before opening their big mouth,’ and the numerous requests for participants in various drinking competitions, there’s an undeniable freedom at play, dedicated space for characterful, loose and opinionated writing, which would have once acted as a central site for connecting and informing the student body. Not so similar to the carefully measured methods of communication prevalent today, but somehow still simultaneously more familiar to the murmurings of the modern student population than I had expected.

I’m not sure if I should so freely admit to the strange comfort that washed over me as I stumbled across an all too familiar negative tone: a string of complaints, a steady stream of dirty-mouthed undergraduate woes, the somewhat desperate calling out from past sabbaticals, begging for attendance in the Student Representative Council. I think I find these records of past forgotten whinges welcome because of that sort of grass-is-always-greener mentality. The grass has been greener, or we think it was greener, at least we can assume so when presented with the nostalgia-tinged storytelling of those who generally never studied at Glasgow School of Art but will assure you that they remember the Vic very well. This, mixed in with the array of ephemera, photos a little more blurred, publications a little more tactile, slightly aged documentation, on the whole, playing into the endless opportunities to speculatively fiction what might have been before the days of Outlook and the PDF submission.

We are endlessly engaging in conversations surrounding a desire for community at GSA, possibly fuelled by our own assumptions of what came before, but between the pages I can read a subtext of a student body not so unlike our own, I wonder if the majority barely read the newsletters, like most with their emails today. Then I see one of the ‘Activities Week’ editions, presented in the same format, which sighs about the unfortunate time of year; ‘Always working, always wet, always broke,’ it laments about the feeling amidst students, but then goes on to list celebrations, fashion shows, demonstrations of the city’s creative hub in action, shamelessly indulging in event after event. The next time I walk through the Stow Building, I note the posters that scale the stairwell walls, I overhear someone stating something incorrect about the Vic’s reopening and I check my emails to see what’s on.