We spoke about hippies

Conveying some persistent thoughts following a recent symposium at the ICA on the 'educational turn' in art.

Sarah Pierce

4 Dec 2008

At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love. Che Guevara

Recently, I was with a curator friend and we were speaking casually about upcoming projects when she said, "Nonknowledge is my next thing." I realised that by nonknowledge she meant it was the subject of an exhibition. As I listened to her plans for nonknowledge: the exhibition and her convictions regarding its promise, it struck me how certain institutional work requires us to project a level of certitude, despite our doubts about how to proceed. I have been struggling with a research topic for over a year, winding through an archipelago of ideas connected by rugged proximity rather than any grounded analysis. The institutional impulse to thematise difficult concepts and deliver them with ease, to effectively synthesise and 'do' knowledge without undoing how we know is at the heart of this struggle. The longer I remain stuck in my archipelago, the more I want to disown this type of certitude in favour of multifaceted, complex ways of knowing. With this in mind, I am hoping to convey some persistent thoughts following a recent symposium at the ICA on the 'educational turn' in art.2 Paul O'Neill and Mick Wilson organised the event. I was part of the panel. That it is difficult to adequately navigate this topic is at the core of my understanding of the potential of the educational turn. How we come to recognise this potential – without closing down its meaning – is what I hope to unfold here.

As an introduction to the issues in the symposium, Mick Wilson identified the educational turn in art as a piqued interest in contemporary art in education, identified as a preponderance of projects, exhibitions and ancillary activities that take on paradigms found in pedagogy to elaborate a cultural practice. Mick presented these as a counter-balance to mainstream art education. As formal art education in Europe undergoes a largely bureaucratic makeover, another space in contemporary practice outside of the academy is making an appeal to alternative notions of the pedagogical. Instances of such appeals came in the form of large-scale projects, such as Manifesta 6, which initiated a temporary art school in Cyprus and was subsequently closed by the city of Nicosia, and Documenta 12, which cited education via one of the exhibition's three leitmotifs. In addition, Mick made reference to a rise in visibility of small-scale engagements concerned with pedagogy as a group encounter or durational space beyond the timeframe of an exhibition. The evening's discussion was proposed as an opportunity to take account of this activity as it was taking place, specifically to think about what is at stake in the turn to an informal educational praxis.

The panel consisted of five speakers: Liam Gillick, Andrea Phillips, Dave Beech and myself, with Adrian Rifkin as the respondent. Early on, Liam signalled a problem. The problem, to paraphrase, is this: The productive potential of this educational turn does not rest on the moments when we stop to take account of it. Its relevance lies elsewhere, in other discussions. It's not that we can't recognise an educational turn, we can. It's not that this educational turn doesn't call for analysis, it does. It's that when asked to account for its productive potential, we lose sight of our subject. We pivot our observations around formalised encounters like art education and we enlist what we know. We forget that this educational turn is not one thing. It is not one place or one time. In taking account, we circumvent what is at stake: other discussions, elsewhere.

In the August issue of the Nought to Sixty magazine, Emily Pethick referred to a number of projects that resist institutionalisation through an emphasis on discourse and exchange rather than on presentation.3 I believe, as we enter a discussion of the educational turn, it is important to make a similar distinction between projects where education is a motif in an exhibition and those where the mechanisms of engagement are less easily recuperated as 'art'. Here, we can dismiss a whole set of projects where education appears 'on display'. While this might seem like a huge sweep, it is crucial to understanding exactly how prevalent this educational turn actually is or isn't. For example, although the curators of Documenta 12 identified education as a concern, it remained for the most part a thematic subordinated within the formalised structures of the exhibition. Yes, some kind of learning was taking place, but this rather facile observation weighs in lightly against extensions of informal education in contemporary art that dissent from the primacy of exhibitions. If we consider for just a moment what happened to Manifesta 6, we can begin to grasp just how precarious, how hard to come by and how lacking in support other, less visible activities actually are. Despite what appears to be a prevalence of activity, it is important to remember that we have to fight for the cultural, economic and political structures that support this activity; sometimes, despite our demands, the battle is lost.

When we discharge education as a curatorial 'trope' or aesthetic, we begin to understand the relevance of projects in contemporary art that are serious about the types of exchanges that are not possible, are effectively unavailable, through art's dominant mechanisms of 'display'. Not coincidentally, here we could simply expand on the list named by Emily of projects that resist institutionalisation, whose emphasis, as she puts it “lies in discourse and exchange rather than presentation.” I'll follow Emily's lead and extend the varied intellectual and non-academic paradigms set up through projects like 16 Beaver and Sarai, and by artists like Wendelien van Oldenborgh and Annette Krauss, to include a range engagements that find the terms for locating social change in how we mediate learning and how we negotiate spaces for speculation and reflection. And suddenly, we are no longer just talking about contemporary art. We are opening our discussion to an expanded network of non-aligned projects that inhabit education as a transformative practice. The very behaviours by which we come to 'know' education begin to shift away from institutionalised notions of pedagogy and instruction towards something more convivial and expansive. It is perhaps useful to consider 'conviviality' as set forth by Ivan Illich, the Austrian thinker known for his polemical work on informal education, who enlists the term 'conviviality' to describe a range of autonomous and creative exchanges among people.4 For Illich conviviality is the opposite of manipulation, which is the dominant type of institutional treatment. Conviviality is humble and spontaneous, interpersonal and facilitating. It is here, in a distilling of the institutional impulse into something more mutual, reciprocal and interdependent that we can recognise the productive potential of an educational turn in contemporary art.

I first began to feel this potential in 2004 with Annie Fletcher, when we began to think – without knowing at the outset what this might mean – about modalities and potentials in paraeducation as a way to proceed through an exhibition. For us, paraeducation was a way to gather around certain urgencies without confining ourselves to an a priori event. As a counter-balance to debates that occur within institutional and educational settings – which hinge on the distance between speakers and listeners – paraeducation hinged on common points of reference reinforced as collectiveness. Pursuing the question of whether education is an activist position and thinking about how artists might organise in different situations, the Paraeducation Department developed along the lines of an affinity group. Affinity groups are self-sufficient support systems of about 5–15 people. A number of affinity groups may work together toward a common goal in a large action, or one affinity group might conceive of and carry out an action on its own. Sometimes, affinity groups remain together over a long period of time, existing as study groups and only occasionally participating in actions. Affinity groups serve as a source of support and solidarity for their members. Feelings of being isolated or alienated from the movement, the crowd or the world in general can be alleviated through the familiarity and trust, which develops when an affinity group works and acts together. Every affinity group must decide for themselves how they will make decisions and what they want to do. This process starts when an affinity group forms.5

In 1996, Tom Finkelpearl, then Director of New York City's Percent for Art Program, interviewed Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator and philosopher who emphasised informal education and dialogue as key components of a transformative 'educational process' – outlined in his seminal work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Finkelpearl noted the broad influence of Freire's methodology – not just on education but also on art (an influence that endures with even greater impact today) – and he asked Freire if he experienced problems with the application of his notions of 'dialogue' in other fields. Freire responded: [T]he only way for one not to have this kind of experience is not to produce and not to think. The moment you make a proposal you risk both understanding and misunderstanding, distortion and respect.6 Freire also noted that the response to misunderstanding is not for the speaker, in his words, “to commit suicide”, but rather to use misunderstanding productively, as an opportunity to recompose one's ideas and declare one's position. This process of reunderstanding requires testing information in both directions. Here, analysis is not the end point of a process but proceeds somewhere in the middle of an ongoing exchange between speakers and listeners. A process of education based on dialogue involves thinking, shifting, producing, reflecting, imagining, displacing, observing, translating, leading and following in a generative manner that does not always move along one path; there are u-turns, diversions and distractions along the way.

As we negotiate what is at stake in the educational turn, perhaps we should think about the moments when we gather to take account of its productive potential. It still seems important to resist the institutional imperative to measure potential through this type of legitimating exercise. At a certain point in the discussion at the ICA, the term nostalgia came into play. First, it was in reference to exhibitions that use a pedagogical aesthetic to signal the kinds of reclaimed, equalised spaces found in popular education. Then, when Dave Beech cited civil disobedience as an example of grassroots organising that has particular resonance in art practice, one member of the audience wondered if this too tended towards nostalgia. What soon became clear was that nostalgia was a pejorative. It was a way to regulate certain expressions of desire in need of correction. This left us somewhat bereft. It seemed that nostalgia befit any practice that identified with education on any level. It is hard to answer why we needed to read the kinds of productive potentials we were dealing with as misguided misreads of past political situations. Was it to make their outputs more legible or less relevant? Either way, we obscured other perhaps more relevant and compelling conflicts in these practices. In the moments that we disavowed those who desire other discussions, elsewhere, we simultaneously dismantled our own productive potential.

Which brings me to a poignant moment in the evening, which Adrian Rifkin introduced, and which I will name here as, The Marxist vs. The hippy. The Marxist arrives with politics intact, prepared and knowing the correct course of action to follow. The hippy arrives chaotically, unprepared, unknowing and distracted. Yet, really, the hippy knows everything and the Marxist knows nothing. With a sense of displaced nostalgia, Adrian longs to be the hippy, the one inscribed with the anticipation of not knowing anything while knowing everything. He mused, I'm faintly nostalgic for what happens next, which is tomorrow... because I want to see what it will contain and how we can rethink art and education in their unfixed and changing relations. What if we were to read the productive potential of an educational turn in anticipation of what we may find out, as opposed to what we already know? How might this allow us to speak about the things we love and believe in without feeling embarrassed, retrograde or fanatic?

While sitting outside on the UCLA campus last April, I observed a small group of students convene and begin an anti-war demonstration against the US occupation of Iraq. Carrying placards and with a megaphone at hand, they took turns calling out several rounds of chants as they strolled along the pathway that encircles the Arts quad. After a while, they concluded the protest and dispersed, giving each other hugs and kisses and high-fives. I suddenly felt like I was watching Epic Theatre. Like a band of actors in Brecht's Galileo, the protesters momentarily suspended the scene of the academy, demonstrating the political as anachronistic ritual, available and remote at once. I was drawn in and confused: Do I get up and join the demonstration? Do I stay where I am? I happened to be on the campus to interview Mary Kelly for my research in relation to Nought to Sixty. Specifically, I wanted to ask her about the State of British Art Debate, held at the ICA in 1978. In speaking about the event, which she remembered well, Mary noted that it was always acceptable in those settings to situate your political thought in Marxist theory, but as soon as someone tried to shift this to include gender, it was like a bombshell had been set off in the room.

As I write, I wonder about several projects that take on the tensions between pedagogical strategies and enabling fictions that condition how we know what we know. Projects like Catherine David's Contemporary Arab Representations, Maria Lind's programme at the Kunstverein Munich between 2001–2004, and Ute Meta Bauer's 2004 Berlin Biennial. Behind each of these extended curatorial projects is a tenacious insistence on shifting yet potent durational frameworks that involve research over a long period of time. Their focus is on minimally articulated, less visible and less visually-orientated radical examples of political debates as they occur in other discussions, elsewhere. As with Manifesta 6, each of these projects is fraught with contradictions and questions that expose the inequities and territories of our own plurality. These questions, which Manifesta 6's curators invoked before being shut down, implicate all of us in the politics we deplore. It is not lost on me that each of these examples has been cast in some instance as a 'failure.' I suspect this has little to do with their inherent organisation and more to do with conventions of power that persist in contemporary art, where clearly demarcated and authored visibility makes for better career prospects. In a text that introduced the International Summer Academy in Frankfurt 2004, Marius Babias and Florian Waldvogel described the political motivation behind their idea of education as firmly grounded in a sociopolitical realm, where knowledge has always been closely associated with conventions of power, institutions, pedagogy, ethics, and politics.7 These associations are equally present in the socio-political realm of the artworld.

During our interview, I mentioned to Mary the demonstration I had witnessed a few hours before. She smiled, which I read as approval. Not just for what the students were protesting, but for their organised presence on campus. It was our take on the students' experience of course, but we decided protest is better when it's fun.

Sarah Pierce is an artist and organiser of The Metropolitan Complex.

1 Che Guevara, 'Socialism and man in Cuba', 1965, The Che Reader, Melbourne, Ocean Press, 2005.
2 Paul O'Neill and Mick Wilson, 'You Talkin' to me? Why art is turning to education', 14 July, 2008, ICA, London.
3 Emily Pethick, 'Resisting Institutionalisation', Nought to Sixty publication, Issue 4, August 2008, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London.
4 Ivan Illich, 'Tools for Conviviality', http://clevercycles.com/tools_for_conviviality [originally published New York, Harper & Row, 1973].
5 Sarah Pierce, 'Organising and Art Practice', The Paraeducation Department reader, Eds. Sarah Pierce and Annie Fletcher, Belfast, Interface, 2006.
6 Tom Finkelpearl, 'Paulo Freire: Discussing Dialogue', Dialogues in Public Art, Ed. Tom Finkelpearl, Cambridge, MIT Press, 2000. p. 284.
7 Marius Babias and Florian Waldvogel, 'Political Art Practice', http://www.internationalesommerakademie.de/sak2004/en/03/00_01.htm

This article is posted in: Articles

Tagged with: Nought to Sixty