Ruth Pelzer-Montada: International cooperation more vital than ever in an era of Brexit

Dr Ruth Pelzer-Montada is an artist and scholar with particular expertise in printmaking and visual culture. She is a lecturer in contemporary art and theory at Edinburgh College of Art, the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

Earlier this year, Pelzer-Montada was invited to the Academy of Fine Arts to teach a thematic course on different aspects of contemporary printmaking. Pelzer-Montada’s stay at Uniarts was part of the visiting professor programme, allowing international artists and scholars to take part in the teaching activities of the academy.

In May, Pelzer-Montada returned to Helsinki to take part in the Kuvan Kevät 2019 graduate show seminar, where fine art master students present their work and receive feedback from supervisors across the different subject areas.


Could you tell us a little about your work as a scholar and teacher and your professional background?

Like many people in the arts, I have a mixed professional background. I first studied German literature, political science and pedagogy at undergraduate and postgraduate level in Germany from where I moved to the UK as a teaching fellow of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) to teach German at different universities. I then studied painting at Edinburgh College of Art and gradually became interested in printmaking as part of my site-specific art practice.

Concurrently to developing my artistic practice I was appointed as a lecturer at ECA in the area equivalent to thematic studies at Uniarts. This entailed introducing students to more general as well as specific histories, theories and practices of art. In my research I have been working with questions around printmaking and contemporary art, practically and theoretically. Like many in the field of printmaking, I felt that there is no strong theoretical discourse relating to printmaking and this has driven me to contribute to the development of such a debate through writing, lecturing and curating. To this end, I also obtained a PhD in art practice.


What brought you to teach at the Academy of Fine Arts?

My relationship with UniArts Helsinki goes back many years, having first met Päivikki Kallio, the former professor of printmaking at the Academy of Fine Arts, at a conference. Päivikki introduced me to Professor Annu Vertanen and we felt that we would enjoy working together. I have visited Finland before and am well aware of the local scene, so I was very happy to be invited to teach and be more actively involved in the cultural life of the city and the country.


What are your research projects or interests?

Overall, my interest as a scholar, artist and teacher lies in the connection and relay between theory and practice. More specifically I aim to investigate the issues around a subject-specific mode of practice such as printmaking in the larger context of contemporary art and visual culture.

For reasons of the aforementioned lack of theoretical discourse in contemporary printmaking, I edited an anthology titled Perspectives on contemporary printmaking - Critical writing since 1986 that was published last year by renowned British publisher Manchester University Press.  The first such collection of its kind world-wide, the anthology presents a topology of the field from ‘within’.

Like most colleagues I am working on several projects, some small, some large: I have just completed an article based on an interview with international artist Thomas Kilpper for his project at the new public access workshop Edinburgh Printmakers here in Edinburgh; there is also a larger essay for Päivikki Kallio’s retrospective at Aboa Vetus & Ars Nova in Turku; essays on contemporary printmaking for a symposium publication last year in Rome and for a forthcoming print festival in Haugesund, Norway.

I am in the process of conducting an interview with acclaimed international artist Claire Barclay who has held the first printmaking residency at Edinburgh College of Art and hope this will help to give printmaking more presence at my own institution. I am also planning to work with Edinburgh Printmakers on the curation of an exhibition in their new gallery space – hopefully with Finnish artists! I am also preparing another book project and essays for peer-reviewed journals considering aspects related to contemporary print.


How would you describe your teaching activities?

As already indicated, as an artist, scholar and teacher I am very interested in the interrelationship between practice and theory and try to bring questions related to both into my ’thematic studies’ as well as my studio teaching at postgraduate level.

In my day-to-day work as a teacher and supervisor of PhD students I draw on more than twenty-five years of teaching thematic theoretical courses for students in Art, design and Visual Communication, be they introductions to visual culture, modernism-(post)postmodernism, postcolonialism, narrative in art, identity politics, history and theory of photography, new materialism, artistic research and methodology and so on.


What were you interested in developing while in Helsinki?

My aim was to develop a medium-specialist course while creating a broader link to contemporary art, loosely in connection with my anthology. The question is, in an era of multi- or post-disciplinarity, what can a subject or discipline specialism offer to the discussion? To me what is interesting are the tensions and possibilities between an expanded or post-medium practice and what might be specific to a certain medium which itself is constantly undergoing change. The invitation to the University of the Arts allowed me to do this for the first time.


How do you think your stay will benefit you and your home university?

The exciting work in teaching and research at the University of Arts Helsinki is of course something I will promote at my own home university. In my home institution, printmaking is not a subject area as such, but there is the aim to revitalize it, so it is really interesting to see how the teaching of printmaking is organized in an institution where it is a specific area of study. I very much enjoyed and also benefitted hugely from the responses and discussions I had with staff and students in the printmaking department.

More generally speaking, I believe that in such turbulent times of international relations, especially Brexit in the (not so) United Kingdom, it is absolutely vital to develop and cherish international cooperation and exchange. For my generation, the European project was foremost about cultural exchange and mutual understanding, when today in the UK the debate around Brexit is mostly focused on economics and a short-sighted nationalism – the possibility of teaching at the University of the Arts is a wonderful example of keeping those larger issues alive.