Blog 25 January 2022
In times where the periodisation of our lives is done through the count of Covid waves, it is interesting to identify the linearity developed across the recurring partiture. Even though it seems as if humanity is caught in an inescapable loop, what are distinguishable are the main features that were introduced into our lives following the outbreak of the pandemic. We therefore may ask: according to what narrative and from what perspective will this period be remembered and historically written? Will it stress the increasing surveillance and control of everyday life? The era of isolation and digital acceleration? The toll of environmental destruction and mass mobility? Regarding the current pandemic, time will tell. However, questions of memory building, history narrating, and knowledge dissemination have been of interest for decades and are known for their close bind with the possession of power and economies of access. Reflection about, and direct action within, hegemonic, patriarchal, and neoliberal fields of power are at the heart of Socially Engaged Art and radical pedagogy initiatives. During my stay in Scotland, I had the opportunity to visit Sit-In #2 To Be Potential at The Cooper Gallery of the University of Dundee that is now exhibiting radical pedagogy projects from the early 20th century until today under the exhibition series The Ignorant Art School.
Similar to the provoking nature of the projects presented, the choice of name for the exhibition series, the Ignorant Art School, comes to destabilise the conventional perception of what education is. It is inspired Jacques Rancière’s, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, in which Rancière recounts the story of Joseph Jacotot, an exiled French school teacher who dared to confront traditional pedagogy practices by introducing teaching methods that dissolve hierarchies. Composed as five ‘sit-ins’ the Ignorant Art School follows an activist strategy and occupies the Cooper Gallery – an educative art institution – and transforms it into a laboratory for “radical, ethical and accessible pedagogies for the many, underscored by an economy of solidarity”. The Ignorant Art School grants us, visitors, the opportunity to be introduced to and learn about a wide array of past and present socially engaged pedagogical projects from the global North and South. Modest in display, the ‘teaching’ about each project is done mainly through text, and at times with the incorporation of other documentation means (that in the special case of past projects were in reach) such as audio, photos, and videos.
Simple materials such as chalk and blackboard for hand-written titles and hanging of prints of texts and photos.
The exhibition, stretched over two floors of the Cooper Gallery, reviews projects mainly from Britain of the 60’s-80’s, alongside contemporary initiatives from the Far East and Europe. From Edinburgh Arts and the Free Universities in New York and Copenhagen, through the long tradition of the Bauhaus until the Womanifesto in Thailand and the Rooftop Institute in Hong-Kong, the projects demonstrate the understanding of education and power in different periodic and spatial contexts, featured through the specificities of their assemblage of alternative conduct and action. Accessible and imaginative in the creation of systems where values, other than financial, are of benefit and appreciation, their collaborative practices articulate a progressed apprehension of freedom and agency. In different manifestations of slowing down, resisting dogmatic structures, and disrupting exploitation and injustice, they conduct a bold examination of a Winnicottian notion of freedom – to live genuinely and free of any self or external boundaries – and labour for the creation of a utopian refuge where play, and free expression and being are embraced.
The exhibition of the Ignorant Art School should be approached as a teaching event, a seminar. What I mean to say is, that this is not an engaging exhibition in the sense that one can expect, considering contemporary galleries’ sophisticated methods, to attract visitors and disseminate knowledge. Alternatively, the exhibition behaves, aesthetically, more as an archive, a library, that is exceptionally rich in content. Spectators who are curious about and engaged with activism, education, and social practice would enjoy a very enriching visit and take the opportunity to glean precious information and teaching materials. Less engaged visitors would likely to complain about the exceedingly cold temperature in the gallery and depart to the nearest café or to the more attractive V&A. Having said that, it is important to remember that one of the biggest challenges of Socially Engaged Art projects is the phase of display which is often not as strong as the impact and outcomes that the process has managed to achieve. Nor necessarily are its merits aesthetic, as the focus lies in the social and as such, the goal is often intangible, as opposed to product-oriented projects that aim at a palpable completed artefact.
The Cooper Gallery identifies with a practice of collaborative exhibition-making and focuses on the importance of critical enquiry, discourse, and engagement. From an institutional perspective, it is impressive to learn how they bring their vision into practice. For example, the conjoining with artist Jade Monserrat, who serves as an associative occupier to accompany, reflect, and contribute to the Sit-in series, reveals their attempt to diversify the curatorial choices. Participatory curriculums in the form of workshops that run alongside the exhibition indicate an intention to attract visitors in more ways that bolster a critical take on the exhibited. What remains in question is the type of audience that the Cooper Gallery is aiming to attract. I left the building with a strong feeling that the exhibition plays within a niche that thematically is accessible to a few. Unfortunately, the monotonous and dull presentation of the projects does not seem to help in making it more communicative and stimulating.
Gudskul. A collective and contemporary art ecosystem formed by Ruangrupa, Serrum, and Grafis Huru Hara. They came up with a cool card game, whereby interesting questions about collective’s organisation, culture, finance, and art are posed.
I will finish with one work that strongly resonated with me and a revelation!
The Free University is Changing as You Listen to This: An Audio Play for Six Voices and Three Speakers made by Jakob Jakobsen in relation to the Free University of New York. Jakobsen recorded three speakers who voiced the testimonies of six individuals in different phases of their engagement with the Free University of New York. What brought them to look for alternative circles of learning, their impression of the class and teachers, and their thoughts around leadership, revolution, mainstream, and institutionalism consist of the more informative part of what one can learn about the university, while the complementary aspect is the spirit of the place, imparted successfully by the sensitive dubbing. The piece delivers a polyphonic view of a place that, to my impression, was envisioned to faithfully sustain complexity, diversity, solidarity, and conflict. The enthusiast speakers portray a place where imperfection and spontaneous actions reside. I listen to them for a while, gradually feeling like I can identify with their energy, like I can personally relate to their experience of curiosity, belongingness, and draw to this communal dynamic of exploration. Wait, of course I can(!). It was this mere second of “how have I never thought about it in the context of what I am labouring for every day?!” For six years of my childhood, I have actively participated and guided in a youth movement. Hanoar Haoved VeHalomed (the working and studying youth, in direct translation from Hebrew) was a socialist voluntary afterschool programme that took place twice a week, where we would learn, create, and discuss a wide array of themes, from present political issues until our own interpersonal dynamic and concerns. It worked in a format of groups that were guided by one or two guides that were older than us in a few years. The group that I was a member of consisted of about fifteen members and was assembled when we were in 5th grade. We have started our path as kids and matured together through the voluntary work, the seminars, the camps and trips; we pursued utmost solidarity and care for each other. It was always my conviction that my upbringing concerned much with the youth movement that took a huge part in the consolidation of my moral and ethical ground. Today I realise the movement from a more informed angle; it was a social experiment, distinctively different in form and matter than ordinary school. Formally, it was an alternative, emotionally it was my home and family.
Go and watch the Ignorant Art School. Curious what you will discover…
Sit-in #2 To be Potential, open to view until 19th February 2022, at the Cooper Gallery, University of Dundee.