SPoKE | Art history beyond the page

| In advance of the January submission deadline for SPoKE 2018, Founder Tom Parson discusses how the idea of getting his students to create short films on their chosen piece of art has gone from strength to strength. |

SPoKE, the art documentary competition for students in years 11, 12 and 13 was launched in 2015 and has been growing slowly but steadily ever since. I have great hopes for its future.  The idea is to get students to make a 5-7 minute documentary on a single work of art of their choice.  Entries are judged by a panel, a shortlist is published followed by an awards ceremony where the winners are announced and winning films shown to the audience.  The quality of many of these films has been astonishing.  If anyone would like to view them then please contact me at the email address below.  Even I, digital immigrant, understand how much time, precision and craft goes into creating a five minute documentary.  As Tim Porter, production manager on Neverland and one of the judges at the first ever award ceremony pointed out, each student was having to get their heads round a set of skills performed by separate teams in the industry: edit, transition, sound, integration of clips, animation.

SPoKE came out of my classroom teaching at St Mary’s Ascot.  I was asking my class (A level History of Art) to research a particular topic in the weeks following the AS exam, a period when it was tricky to get them to work fruitfully on the A2 syllabus.  To make the task different from our normal manner of working I decided on a topic which I subdivided into sections: visual analysis, materials and techniques, social and historical context.  The students were asked to make a short film of their particular section which could then be spliced together to form a whole.  Their technical skills with image manipulation, I hoped, would make the task more enjoyable than formal essay writing, especially for those who found the latter more challenging.

The idea of extending this sort of exercise into a competition that could extend outwards was a short step.  I think the example of ARTiculation was crucial here and I very much hope that SPoKE will in time reach a similar sized audience.  Back in 2015 I sent out details to as many art history teachers as I could find.  The head of art history at my own school, Helen Oakden, was very supportive and we made the competition part of our Lower Sixth teaching.  Sponsorship for the prizes was generously provided by our school and Art History Abroad whose director, Nick Ross, is also one of the judges.  Further sponsorship from Frieze is in place for next year with plans for more from The Horseboy Foundation, whose founder Rupert Isaacson (author, director and producer) has been a judge since the competition started.

Important things happened that first year.  One of the winners came from Godolphin and Latymer whose head of art history, Caroline Osborne, invited me to speak at the conference she organises each year at her school.  It was there that I met Trevor Horsewood of the Association for Art History who approached me offering support.  My head of department then got in touch with Abigail Harrison-Moore, professor and head of art history at Leeds University, who joined the judging panel.  She and Trevor then made it possible for me to give a short presentation about the competition at the Ways of Seeing conference.  A similar offer came through from Jo Meeson, head of art history at Heathfield School, for the conference she organises there.  I am very grateful that SPoKE has been embraced in this way by the wider art history community.

A word about the SPoKE judges.  They have exceptionally generous with their commitment.  Watching 30 or more 5 minute documentaries and judging each one’s merits takes a lot of time and careful thought.  Nick Ross, Tim Porter and Abigail Harrison-Moore have all attended the awards ceremony itself and spoken thoughtfully, humourously and eloquently about the films.  One judge from the first year’s competition, James Gay-Rees, went on to win an Oscar for his work as producer of Amy.  I like to think that one led to the other; but if one of the SPoKE entrants was to end up in the industry, with or without an Oscar, that would be, in part, what this competition has been about all along.

Tom Parsons, SPoKE  / spoke@st-marys-ascot.co.uk

Image: Still from a recent film that was submitted for the competition