ESR 3 Blog April 2021: Maria Mkrtycheva

What does it mean for something to be accessible? And why institutions, art projects and the public sphere that claim to be approachable, reachable and usable are not always perceived that way?

In my research I’m looking at the intersection between the notions of access and knowledge. I wonder how the questions of what it means to know, to understand and to learn can be challenged and if this can be the key to creating an open, free and inclusive environment, be that an art institution or a society in general.

It has been a while since the concept of the liberating power of knowledge has been spread globally together with the Western educational practices. What has been seen as a key premise of progress, now seems to become a disadvantage. We are now seeking to abandon our learnt progress-driven and pedagogical attitudes – and unlearn. “Unlearning denotes an active critical investigation of normative structures and practices in order to become aware and get rid of taken-for-granted “truths” of theory and practice”.[1] It’s goal is to challenge “structural forms that prevent common rhythms, which don’t enable collaborative[ness] and a sense of structurelessness”[2]. But how is this process different from learning? And can getting rid of your skills, experience and behaviours actually contribute to creating a free and collaborative environment?

Unlearning practice through experience-based and collectivist approach has been key in many educational initiatives since the 19th century till nowadays.

The cover image to this blog entry shows a building constructed in 1907 by architect and educator Alexander Zelensky for the Moscow branch of the global Settlement movement. The building which still exists and houses something like a bank, was created as a “habitable sculpture” and was inhabited by children of workers who were before that spending their time on the street. Settlement as an organization was established by a teacher and writer Stanislav Shatsky whose experiments derived from the pedagogical ideas of John Dewey and the rise of liberal education in the United States[3]. Settlement functioned as an environment organised by the children themselves where the role of the teacher as a schoolmaster was eliminated. It was a school which itself tried to unlearn being a school.

Unlearning as a metaphor is now one of the popular approaches to organization of participatory art and its institutions, which strive for social transformation that leads towards equality and thus accessibility. As proposed by research in psychology, neuroscience and cognitive science, our cognitive performance is “driven by the past”. Thereby, our thinking and behaving is always affected by what we have already learnt[4]. I’m wondering if this social transformation can be created not by erasing “the past” in favour of producing new knowledge but by recognizing different types of knowledges that already exist.

[1] Description of the book ‘Unlearning Exercises. Art Organizations as Sites for Unlearning’, edited by Binna Choi, et al, 2018.

[2] ‘Site for Unlearning (Art Organization)’ in Learning Organization, Volume 25, Issue 5, 2019

[3] Stanislav Shatsky ‘Years of searching’, 1935 (in Russian)

[4] Unlearning before creating new knowledge: A cognitive process, edited by Thomas Grisold, et al, 2017

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