Soc in the spotlight: Contemporary Arts Society

The Contemporary Arts Society is a brand new addition to the broad spectrum of creativity-embracing organisations in Edinburgh. The society’s President, Holly, and Vice-President, Frankie spoke with The Student, giving insight into their unique ideas and how they encourage people to join them in creating lasting societal change through art.

The society occupies a niche among other artistic societies: it discusses contemporary issues and artists, concentrating on the present, not the past and isn’t production or creation oriented, as Holly explains. Having a background in the arts is not required to be a member. It’s more about being interested in the world and how it is expressed through visual means. 

CAS hosts bi-monthly seminars over Zoom. The talks vary with every meeting, and they feature a presentation followed by a collaborative discussion. It creates a cosy and welcoming atmosphere where everyone can feel free to contribute to the discussion. Their latest talk presented artist Lin Tianmiao and her work, which gave a fascinating insight into the work of someone outside the typical university canon. 

Holly and Frankie have covered the seminar talks so far. However, all members are welcome to deliver a presentation about the topic of their choice. It doesn’t require much structure or formality, just a passionate presentation of your interests or essential issues that you believe should be shared with a wider audience. 

The inspiration for the society came mostly from their mutual passion for their degree, History of Art. They both see art as a powerful learning tool that spreads awareness of important issues, both contemporary and historical.

Holly mentions yet another reason behind their inspiration: the current situation of the global pandemic. She reflects on discovering new artists on social media and attending talks online, which made her both inspired and frustrated that she couldn’t share this experience with others. She also mentions the power of art to communicate across cultural, political or geographical boundaries, which was especially moving in the context of Black Lives Matter protests in the US and around the world. Hence, the idea of a society that “explored art that related to contemporary society could be a beneficial way to help these artworks and issues gain greater recognition among Edinburgh University students.”  

A distinct lack of diversity within the field of academic art-historical education frustrated the founders. The Western canon is extremely exclusive and homogenous, and it is ubiquitously used in History of Art courses as a sort of bible that dictates what art is worth studying, which means students tend to only be exposed to works by white male artists, which are in no way representative of the world we live in.  As this is a perspective of the President, it sets a clear and unique vision for this new society. 

The initiative of CAS is refreshing and brings a still overlooked perspective on art. However, beginning the work mid-year and bound by tight Covid restrictions has made it harder to gain exposure and raise awareness of the society. With each event happening online, it’s not easy to get enough engagement and new participants. But every new society is a work in progress, and, as Holly said, “they’re getting there”. 

Challenging as it may be, the possibility to talk about issues the founders are passionate about is rewarding for them nonetheless. “It gives me an excuse to research topics and artists that interest and inspire me, and I love seeing members enjoy the talks,” says Holly.  Gradually having more people come to the talks was satisfying enough, and brought the founders plenty of joy to see that their attempts bore success. 

Holly and Frankie emphasise that anyone can attend their seminars, suggest content they would like to see be discussed, or volunteer to share content themselves in any form they’d like. “All we want is for our members to have a space to share their passions and feel they are part of an inclusive, inspiring environment!” Participation in the society is entirely free; the environment of CAS is non-discriminatory, and provides a safe space for everyone to get involved.

The society has already set out plans for the future, despite being in its early stages. As topics of the talks so far have mostly been focused on visual arts, a shift will be encouraged in the future towards other artistic mediums, such as music, theatre, poetry and film. Everyone from the University is welcomed at the CAS, no matter one’s degree, background or experience.

Holly also considers potential paths of expansions, such as a YouTube channel, a blog, a podcast, collaboration with artists and curators and many more. There are plans, when restrictions are lifted, to use seminars as small-scale fundraisers, where profits from the ticket sales would be donated to relevant charities.

The work of CAS is exciting and empowering. Launching such an ambitious project from scratch, in the middle of the global pandemic shows dedication and passion for creating a welcoming and inclusive environment of art-enthusiasts.

Image: Contemporary Arts Society