Samba schools for the art world
Art and autonomy
Can there be autonomy in the arts?
A preposterous question, you may think, and understandably so. After all, such questions always carry a negating nuance, and it may seem to you as if I deny the existence of any autonomy in the arts at all, or that I may even doubt the potential for it to exist in the first place. While I cannot fully deny that these thoughts have crossed my mind at some point, I do not actually intend to write a polemic rant or demagogic diatribe with this text. No, my intentions are earnest. I would like to examine this question thoroughly: can there be autonomy in the arts?
As is well known, not only do artists and curators produce and curate works autonomously, the general idea actually seems to be that nothing would be possible in the arts to begin with without autonomy. And yes, that is true. So much for the artists and curators. But what about the audience? Is the audience able to act as independent, autonomous agents? This may appear like an obvious truth at first—obviously any audience member or visitor must be there of their own accord, after all! And they could just leave if they don’t like it! If anything, museums and art institutions have to prove themselves precisely because the audience is in possession of this power of choice.
And I would agree with that. But what about the space into which the audience is asked to step? When being confronted with works of art in that vague space of the exhibition room, are the visitors actually granted the conditions to perform as autonomous agents? Is there really no kind of coercion, no force involved? If not, is the audience at least aware of this fact? Are they able to disagree with their situation, to resist it and to fight back?
These are the questions that have prompted my rumination, and in search of answers I decided to take a closer look at the various practices summed up under the umbrella term of learning. We should not expect quick conclusions. The questions raised above are not of the kind that can be promptly answered. We will have to carry them with us, and it may be a while before we will arrive at answers. If there is anything to do at this point, it is to retrace my steps and examine how I arrived at these assumptions in the first place. It began with the realization that the art world is shaped by an interrupted flow of time. With this thought as my starting point, I will stumble my way towards the meaning of learning.
Whispers of the reading room
Every single exhibition in art museums and galleries as well as the more than 200 international art festivals that take place around the world each year are subject to certain time constraints. They are planned, prepared and carried out. They have a beginning and they have an end. These are undeniable facts.
The time constraints are part of the reason why people visit these events. Art is viewed, examined, cherished, criticized, enjoyed within these limited time periods. In some form, the exhibitions and the artworks do last beyond these time periods, insofar as they are recorded, remembered and referenced. Despite Walter Benjamin’s much agreed-upon observations regarding art’s aura and the importance of the here-and-now, the art world continues to be dominated by the intermittent nature of time resulting from the ebb and flow of time-limited exhibitions and events.
Of course, there is much more going on below the surface. Every position within the arts world requires continuous reflections, ongoing processes and repeated interactions. I myself know this first hand.
So, why is the art world nonetheless shaped by an interrupted succession of intermittent events? At least it appears this way. Maybe the better question should be: Why have all these reflections, processes and interactions that actually underpin art become so invisible?
The purpose of my slightly hyperbolic characterization is to help highlight the continuity involved in the act of learning. Learning cannot happen intermittently. It is a steady, continuous process. Ever since my view has shifted to a learning-focused perspective, the nature of time that currently dictates much of the art world has come to seem strange to me.
Allow me to illustrate this point with a particular experience of mine. It happened when I was researching art centers in Europe.
One of my subjects was the Camden Art Center in London, a brilliant venue that has hosted a number of important exhibitions since its launch in the 1960s. As I wandered through its rooms and halls after having exhausted the available exhibitions, I came upon a peculiar room. It was locked, but I could glance inside from the corridor. All the tables and furniture had been moved to the walls, and there were chairs forming a circle in the middle of the room.
Not a particular special sight, I thought; perhaps a room for workshops or discussions. The surprise came when I examined a signboard next to the entrance door: reading room. Below the signboard, there was a list of book titles and respective dates and times. Quite likely an announcement by a book club.
Although there was nothing more to this experience, I still remember the confusion I felt at the time. Why did this room confuse me so much? Maybe I was still suffering from a stereotypical understanding of art centers as places without their own art collection, forced to pursue a relentless schedule that features exhibition after exhibition. Even though I had come such a long way to research and learn, I have to admit that I arrived with my perception clouded by preconceived notions and an attitude that deserves little praise.
But seeing the name of this room, and learning that a book club held regular meetings there, gave my tired assumptions a much-needed blow and forced me to think. In the end, I realized that what had stumped me was the presence of continuous, sustained activity in this room. Or, to be more precise, my perception of continuous, sustained activity in this room. I never confirmed whether a book club truly was meeting in the room.
But the cold, hard reality of the room is not of concern here. The name of the room and the implied continuity of its program were already enough to bring about a modest change in my way of thinking. Regardless of any actual events unfolding in the room, the mere hint of this kind of continuity led me to realize that there is something strange and alien about the staccato nature of time in art museums. Perhaps it merely reminded me that the disjointed nature of time that shapes large parts of the arts experience is at odds with the continuous flow in which we experience life.
Simultaneously, I was seized by another odd realization, one that is again difficult to convey. Put simply, I noticed that I imagined the people who participate in the book club as active, autonomous beings. It was only a vague intuition, but I felt it with certainty. The presence of continuity that I perceived in that room was directly connected to the autonomy that I imagined the book club participants to have.
Art museums and libraries
The building that houses the Camden Art Center was originally the Hampstead Central Library, opened in 1897 by Sir Henry Harben, a pioneer of industrial life assurance who later became the first mayor of the north London suburb Hampstead. Having survived the Second World War intact, the library was turned into an art center in 1965 and changed its name to Camden Art Center in 1967. The reading room may simply be a relic from the building’s past as a library.
With this in mind, perhaps the source of my strange impression can be found in the differences between libraries and art museums. Whereas the flow of time in art museums is interrupted by the comings and goings of exhibitions, the library performs its function without pause and little change.
Further, the comparison between libraries and art museums proves illuminating with regard to the question of autonomy, too. Art museums cast their visitors into the role of observers and receivers rather than active agents. The agents of the art museum are its artists and curators. They are places for visitors to experience the results of artistic expression or to get a sense of the backgrounds and ideas that went into their creation. Even if an exhibition allows its visitors to get involved, this involvement takes place in the form of interactions that have been intentionally designed in advance by the artists and curators. The initiative is in their hands.
In the library, on the other hand, the initiative is entirely with the visitor. They are free to arrive empty-handed, they have nothing to present and no responsibilities to fulfill. Everything they see, read or think about in the library is part of an actively, autonomously formed impression.
Of course, visitors of art museums are also bound to see and think about various things, but everything they encounter in the museum is part of an experience that has been carefully crafted by someone else. Also, despite their majority, the role of the audience is outweighed by the overwhelming presence of the artists who made the exhibited works and by the curators and organizers who have selected, approached and involved the artists. Their massive presence further diminishes the visitors’ autonomy.
This brings me back to the contrast between the reading room and the exhibition space. It goes without saying that the agents in the reading room are the participants in the book club. The agents of an exhibition space are the creators of the artworks and the organizers of the exhibition. Even though many exhibitions also include words and text, their visitors ultimately remain in a passive position and only experience what has been selected for them to see.
In the library, visitors arrive and act as autonomous beings. In the exhibition space they become passive recipients of the autonomous actions of other people. One place preserves autonomy, the other takes it away. Where does this difference come from?
While a deeper look at the histories of libraries and art exhibitions would surely illuminate the differences between their individual natures, for now I will focus my energy on what differentiates them today.
When he was formulating his concept of openness in the world of art, Umberto Eco analyzed artists and audience as ‘producers’ and ‘recipients’. One of his conclusions was that neither producer nor recipient are strictly divided into their roles but engage with each other in an intimate relationship. By freely interpreting the produced work, those in the supposedly passive role of the recipient are actually able to be productive, too. Conversely, through the new interpretations created by the recipients, the producers of artworks find themselves in the passive role of the recipient themselves. But although this idea could be elaborated and expanded, for example into forms of interactive art appreciation, that still does not significantly change the relationship between producer and recipient.
The method of interactive art appreciation, especially the way it was promoted by art critic Amelia Arenas, has been embraced by the Japanese art world, although it failed to as much attention in the rest of the world. While interactive art appreciation is often equated with VTS (Visual Thinking Strategy), I must point out their essential differences. VTS is a method of nonverbal thinking, and although interactive art appreciation is built on VTS, it has mostly picked the parts that can be conveniently applied to the act of viewing of art.
Interactive art appreciation should, in principle, enable the audience to productively create their own interpretations based on free thinking. But this is effectively undermined by the dialogue that takes place to share one’s viewing experience. The production of an individual interpretation is, by its nature, not an act that is particularly suited for sharing and dialogue; on the contrary, the absence of these acts ensures a higher degree of freedom and independence. No matter how much care may have been paid to secure the freedom of the participants of an interactive art appreciation, the very act of forcing people into a dialogue ultimately narrows and destroys the productive potential. Interactive art appreciation pretends to respect the viewers’ autonomy while subtly robbing them of it.
Interactive art appreciation was also part of the guided tours offered as part of the Learning program of the Aichi Triennale 2022. The claim that this would help to broaden and deepen visitors’ understanding and appreciation of the artworks left a certain taste in my mouth. There is the mistaken assumption that such things could be achieved through dialogue in the first place. Further, the dialogue in this case does not take place within a flat hierarchy, like between friends. No, these dialogues took place with curators and organizers who (so their claim) already understand the structures and goals of the works to be experienced. Now, even though it is entirely possible that new thoughts and ideas may still emerge under these conditions, we must not ignore that this imbalance, too, only undermines the autonomy of the audience.
This is nowhere close to offering an open field in which to explore, run wild and wander at one’s will. It is, rather, a controlled space where viewers are allowed the freedom to choose from predetermined actions under the guidance of those who hold more authority. Ultimately, as Eco already pointed out, those in the position of the recipients cannot help but traverse the exhibition space with diminished independence.
The problem of autonomy in art museums, it turns out, is more complex than I had imagined.
Teaching and learning
I need not point out learning is closely connected with terms such as schools or education in general. Ideally, places of education should be places of learning—that is, environments for active, autonomous actions. Unfortunately, however, they all too often diminish the autonomy of their visitors and participants.
People who visit schools and other places of education are not entirely deprived of their autonomy, of course, but considering the functions and aims of such facilities, it appears that the agency tasked with fulfilling them is not in the hands of the majority of those who attend them. They do not possess the same kind of autonomy as that of the library visitor who freely peruses books and magazines and newspapers and movies and audio sources based on their own intent. When I think of education, I cannot help but feel that the majority of those who engage with it—that is, those who obtain education—do so with impaired autonomy. In contrast to those who provide education, their individual position seems somewhat passive and externally-controlled.
I would not dispute that there are also a number of attendants who deliberately choose a less-than-active approach in order to pass through the educative processes, but even in their case the choice to attend (and to stay passive) still came from an autonomous mind. And yet it is the identity of the people, the program or the system providing the education that stands out. In a way, those who receive education are no longer completely treated as individual subjects.
Not everyone participates in education with the same degree of autonomy. In fact, there is a rather wide margin, ranging from people who have no real choice in the matter to others who act as fully autonomous subjects following intrinsic goals. Even though the educative system is clearly aware of these differences, it is not meant to accommodate these gradations individually nor to account for the varying preferences that may arise. While these differences are sometimes taken into account when planning educative programs, their content remains unaffected.
Reflecting the varying degrees of autonomy within the system itself requires regulation, governance and politics, meaning that the individual autonomy of its subjects merely becomes another variable to process, rather than leading to their treatment as autonomous agents.
The library, on the other hand, does not need to consider the individual autonomy of its visitors at all. Everyone is free to visit for whatever purpose anyway, whether to browse the bookshelves, to pile up endless documents and almanacs in search of information not yet available on the internet, to pass the time flipping through magazines, to catch up with the world by reading newspapers, or to let books be books and spend all their time in the cafeteria.
Of course, the library may consider the different autonomy of its users, especially those who visit with a specific purpose, in order to expand the magazine section, to offer a better coffee selection or to improve the book search functionality. But the specific purposes of each visitor do not directly cause any changes to the library.
Despite their differences, libraries and places of education are not in opposition with each other. The presence of libraries in many places of education proves their intimate connections, and it is easy to imagine that much of the work being done in libraries feeds back into the educative system and vice versa.
But there is a crucial gap between the way they approach autonomy. Of course, education is defined by more factors than the autonomy of its participants but the fact remains that this difference cannot be bridged. In education, the autonomy lies with those who teach, in libraries with those who visit.
If you forgive me the rough characterization, perhaps the reason lies in the fact that education is based on teaching and the library on learning—or, in other words, in the difference between teaching and learning itself. A look at the etymological roots of the words (teaching: to show, to demonstrate, to point out; learning: to gain knowledge, to study, to think about) hints at the delicate but crucial gap in meaning. The former presumes an object to be shown and declare, while the latter is concerned with the swallowing-up, the making-one’s-own of knowledge; importantly, it is an act that can be achieved on one’s own (even if one may still learn from other people, of course).
Teaching, by its nature, reserves autonomy for a special group that is not part of the people to be taught. Learning, on the other hand, allows everyone to participate with equal autonomy, at least in principle.
Here, it makes sense to recall the relationship between the reading room and exhibition room that we examined earlier. The autonomy of the exhibition room is limited and resembles that found in education, whereas autonomy in the reading room is open to everyone at equal measure.
Although they share many similarities and connections, it is vital to understand and remember the differences between learning and teaching.
Samba schools and computer languages
There is one person whose writings have illuminated many of my thoughts regarding learning and education: Seymour Papert, a South African artificial intelligence researcher and inventor of the programming language LOGO. Papert has not only worked directly with Jean Piaget, the renowned Swiss psychologist known for his research on child development, but expanded Piaget’s constructivist theories for his research into computer education. In the 1960s, Papert joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and developed a new theory of learning that incorporated Piaget’s findings. His entire approach to learning is perhaps best explained by taking a look at LOGO.
Though now mostly forgotten, LOGO is an educational programming language that garnered great attention upon its release for integrating research from fields such as developmental psychology and artificial intelligence. It is difficult to explain LOGO in a few words, but it is primarily characterized by its low hurdles, especially compared to other programming languages. It requires very little understanding to begin, and any results are immediately displayed. If something goes wrong, it is easy to find and correct the mistake. From the ground up, the language is ideal for learning.
LOGO also includes a graphics system called Turtle Graphics which translates commands from the user into movements of a little turtle robot, equipped with a retractable pen, on the screen. In effect, turtle graphics provided the user with a playful, rewarding and experimental way to learn about programming, geometry and many other things.
When drawing complex shapes on the computer, the process is fairly straightforward and mathematical, for example by specifying an array of vertices. But turtle graphics works with a different principle. Beginning at the current location of the turtle, you need to think about the direction and distance you want the turtle to draw and give it the appropriate commands. Rather than demanding the user to calculate and realize an already envisioned image, turtle graphics requires its users to proceed in little steps, to check their results, and to adjust subsequent commands based on what has been learned. By following and repeating these simple steps, the user will eventually arrive at an image.
As you can see, the user is immediately involved and (modestly) rewarded for their experimentation. Influenced by Piaget’s work, Papert has successfully created a programming language that focuses on gradual development.
When Papert devised LOGO, he had a peculiar model in mind. It began one summer in Brazil.
In his book “Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas”, Papert provides the following summary: “[W]e have considered how mathematics might be learned in settings that resemble the Brazilian samba school, in settings that are real, socially cohesive, and where experts and novices are all learning.”1
For Papert, the Brazilian samba school represented the ideal learning environment. In Rio de Janeiro, the yearly carnival—a festival featuring parades, songs, dances, decorations and costumes that unfolds on the streets for several days—is more important than anything else. To prepare for the festival, men and women gather in samba schools to exchange skills and knowledge, plan their choreographies and refine their dance moves. In the samba schools, novices and experts of all ages, even those who are no longer able to dance, come to together in the evenings and chat, eat, drink, play games and simply spend time with each other.
When teaching their moves, the more experienced dancers need to learn how to verbalize and convey their knowledge. At times they are be stunned by their students’ quick mastery of complex moves, but also deal with frustration when they have trouble learning simple gestures. The older attendants who no longer dance themselves contribute their invaluable aesthetic sensibility, sharpened by decades of experience. Watching over the younger generations with strict eyes, they sometimes stare in wonder at the daring, fresh, eccentric movements that had been unimaginable in their own time. The younger people, meanwhile, come into contact with folklore and local history and then update them to keep them appealing in today’s context.
Everyone teaches and everyone learns. Though not part of the institutionalized education system, the samba schools more than fulfill their role as places of education. They allow their participants to exchange knowledge and to produce something new. As Papert puts it, the samba school represents an ideal environment for learning, and his lifework was concerned with the question of how these conditions could be achieved within the education system, especially for the field of mathematics.
The associação model
I have actually experienced a place that is similar to Papert’s samba schools when I was lucky enough to spend a year teaching in Portugal, Brazil’s former colonial ruler.
On one day in summer, during the Feast of St. Anthony, the whole city of Lisbon is festively decorated, stalls selling grilled sardines pop up everywhere, and a huge parade marches through the Liberdade Boulevard, the city’s main street. Each neighborhood competes to have the most beautiful decorations and the most skilled dancers. Though it may lack the stunning exuberance of Rio de Janeiro’s carnival, there are undeniable similarities between the two festivals.
During my year in Lisbon, I lived in the Amalfa neighborhood in the downtown district of San Vicente. From the window of my room, just across the streetcar tracks, I could see the associação, the local neighborhood association. Although it took me a while, I soon understood that I was living next to a place like the samba schools Papert described in his book.
On weekends, men and women of all ages gathered at the associação (which had no signage or label to indicate what it was) to spend time together. Young men, beer in hand, brought out plastic chairs to the cobbled square in front of the building and chatted with each other, close enough that their foreheads almost touched. Sometimes they would be joined by a middle-aged, large-bellied man whose laughter echoed through the neighborhood. Or a young woman, the same age as the men, would walk over and offer a quick hello, with the young men’s eyes then secretly following her until she disappears from view. An elderly man, noticing the scene, was usually quick to poke fun at them.
As the festival drew near, the square began to fill with more decorations each day. A huge amount of people visited the association during the weekend now, drinking, chatting and barbecuing, perhaps to take a break from their busy work week.
On the day of the festival, I saw women and men dress up and leave for the parade in the early morning, together with the decorations. As I went into the city myself (I did not want to miss the festivities, after all), I was not around to observe the association for the rest of the day. But when I returned during the night, I found the exhausted dancers relaxing in the square, drinking alcohol and blowing smoke into the air. I wondered, had they achieve what they spent a year preparing for?
Even though the scale may differ slightly, the daily goings-on of the associação were similar to those of Papert’s samba school. In addition to the associations dedicated to the festival, there are also those for people playing soccer or to stimulate the local economy, and even cultural associations dedicated to music or movies.
Some of the associations are open for everyone to visit. There were a number that I visited frequently. Inside, they are not so different from what you may imagine. People from all walks of life meet, chat, eat sweets, drink bicca (espresso), beer and wine. Some associations have billiard tables to kill time, others a library in which to study, and some even include dance halls. At the associations, it is not easy to tell staff and visitors apart. I often saw people whom I had assumed to be guests walk behind the bar counter to prepare drinks. Similar to the association across my apartment, many did not have any markings or signs to help identify them. You needed someone to introduce you first. But after the initial visit, you will find yourself coming back regularly, as the atmosphere in the associations is much more comfortable and relaxed than the cafes or restaurants crowded with tourists.
Education in such environments is possible precisely because knowledge is not shared top-down but communicated as part of a flat hierarchy. Everyone teaches and everyone learns. In the association, the old cliche actually comes true: learning as a lifelong process.
The semantic fragility of learning
Ideally, learning and education in the art world would be informed by the writings of Seymour Papert. Or, more precisely, they would follow the ideal of the samba school.
Samba art schools—what a beautiful term to drive away the boring, rigid, restrictive formality of the educative programs organized by museums.
I believe I have made it clear that an environment in which everyone can learn constitutes the core of Papert’s approach and the samba schools. The important distinction to make here is that the emphasis is on learning, not on teaching. Many of the current educational programs in the art world fall short of this simple idea, and many do so because they do not clearly distinguish between learning and teaching.
The word learning appears so often in the names of such programs that it has been absolutely trivialized. One person who takes great care with her choice of words, however, is Mami Kataoka, director of the Aichi Triennale 2022 and of the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, where she also organizes a learning program. But even in her case I am not sure if she has probed the full depth of meaning imbued in the word.
The inclusion of interactive art appreciation in the learning program of the Aichi Triennale 2022, for example, suggests to me a certain lack of consideration for the act of learning. Interactive art appreciation, by its nature, excludes the flat hierarchy required to allow everyone to learn equally—an environment effortlessly realized by the samba schools and associações.
The statement outlining the learning program of the Mori Art Museum reveals a similar lack of care. According to the Mori Art Museum’s official website, “We all have different interests, know-how and experiences, and the idea is to share these while we come to understand various artists and their work along with the historical, political, social, and cultural contexts that inform it.”2
Despite the use of “we all” as the subject, this sentence does not include everyone in the act of learning. The artists (and their work) are excluded and cast as objects to be studied. The goal, however, should be an environment in which everyone can learn equally, and that includes the artists, curators and directors, too.
Further, I cannot help but find issue with the word understand. Why is it necessary to imply that art is something to be understood in the first place? Where is the necessary concern that “understanding” art often simply aims to make it more accessible to commodification?
In the statement for the learning program of the Aichi Triennale 2022, we can find close ideological ties to the approach of the Mori Art Museum. One peculiar line says that, “Art is not just for art lovers, itʼs for everyone to enjoy in their own way3.” Here, Eco’s recipient is overemphasized almost into a caricature, and all the efforts by people like Amanda Coomaraswamy or Joseph Beuys who proclaimed that “everyone is an artist” have apparently been in vain. With much sympathy and good will, I could accept that enjoyment of art can be a productive, creative act. But I cannot ignore the impression that this emphasis on the passivity of the audience robs them of autonomy, even though I appreciate the overall effort to treat everyone equally.
Like many learning programs before, the individual events of Aichi 2022’s learning program appear to mistake learning and being taught. The events seem to rely on a specific group of people distributing their knowledge to another group of people, rather than allowing everyone to learn freely. Naturally, this would never be stated in such an explicit manner in the texts themselves, but reading the available material with a careful eye on autonomy and learning, it is impossible not to be concerned by their wording.
The confusion between learning and teaching constitutes one of the biggest hurdles towards implementing better learning programs. The questions to be asked are: Can everyone learn equally? Is everyone able to participate as an individual with unimpaired autonomy? The use of an important word like learning should demand a certain amount of care.
Of course, it is difficult to judge programs based on their statements alone. But to highlight a better example, allow me to refer to the British ICA (Institute of Contemporary Art) and the careful choice of words in their learning program statement. Their goals are stated as “stimulat[ing] debate, experimentation, creativity and exchange with visitors.” Further, “[t]hrough our varied offering of tailored talks, events and workshops, we invite visitors and audiences into the creative process,” thereby “deepening visitor engagement with contemporary arts and practice.4”
Compared with the statements by the Mori Art Museum and the Aichi Triennale 2022, I find this text much more reassuring. And yes, the impact of such statements may pale in relation to actual practice. But as the experiences with feminism (which has repeatedly dealt with similar issues throughout its history) are able to demonstrate, a slight but conscious change in wording can greatly affect the distribution of power within society. Paying attention to language in this way is not a strategy restricted to the feminist cause alone. When we apply such techniques and experiences to another field, however, we must be cautious to include the different context in our course of action. But then that, in itself, is part of what it means to pay attention to language.
I am convinced that learning is an important keyword for the realization of autonomy and continuity in the arts. However, since the true meaning of the word is not yet firmly established, its fragile vagueness may bring about results that are the opposite of its aims. Unfortunately, the efforts to clarify and avert such problems are still painfully insufficient.
The Silent University
If the ICA conducted its learning program according to the way it is described in the statement quoted above, they may actually have realized something akin to Papert’s samba school environment. Sadly, I have not had the chance to experience the ICA’s program myself, but I do know about other art activities whose approach resembles that of the ICA.
One of them is the Silent University, an experimental project founded by the Kurdish artist Ahmet Öğüt that is directed at refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants who, for various reasons, cannot make use of their professional or academic training. Run by migrants and asylum seekers themselves, it acts as a platform to exchange knowledge and co-create solutions together with locally-born people.
Öğüt initially launched the Silent University during a one-year residency at the Tate in London in 2012, in collaboration with the Tate’s migrant resource center and the Delfina Foundation.
The Delfina Foundation is a non-profit organization founded in 2007 by Delfina Entrecanales, daughter of the founder of the Spanish multinational conglomerate Acciona. The foundation succeeds the Delfina Studio Trust, an initiative that provided artists with studios, residencies and other resources. The long list of artists who received support from the Studio Trust includes many who managed to establish themselves in the art world, including people like Thomas Demand and Tomoko Takahashi.
Recently I learned that Delfina began her patronage even earlier than that. In the 1970s, for example, she hosted a number of musicians at a farm she had turned into a studio. The first of them was Robert Wyatt, who used the opportunity to start working again while recovering from a spinal cord injury. The credits of his first solo album Rock Bottom (1974) include the name of Delfina’s studio as well as the wine glasses and trays whose sounds he used in his songs. Delfina Entrecanales unfortunately passed away in 2022, but the foundation will continue her patronage of the arts in the future.
Öğüt’s Silent University has become one of the Delfina Foundation’s signature programs, with instances founded in London, Amman, Athens, Hamburg, Ruhr and Stockholm. The program offers services such as counseling, interpretation, translation and cross-cultural exchange and networking to revitalize invaluable professional and academic skills that would otherwise lie idle. The program relies as much on the migrants as it does on the locals; both sides are equally required to share their knowledge and learn about issues beyond their own perspectives.
Neither does the Silent University have a defined goal nor does it end once a specific problem has been resolved. It continues to deal with various problems that continue to emerge on an ongoing basis. Consequently, the learning needs to be continuous as well.
Allow me to qualify my introduction of the Silent University as Ahmet Öğüt’s project. In a dialogue with Florian Malzacher, Öğüt mentioned that although he may be the initiator and co-coordinator of the project, he tries to become one of the regular guests of the Silent University, one member among many, as soon as possible.5 He hints at a dilemma that everyone who creates and conducts such programs will eventually have to face when trying to achieve true equality and flatness, and I did not want Öğüt’s exceptional awareness of this circumstance to go unmentioned here.
Manifesta: How to fail successfully
International art exhibitions are one of the primary causes of the intermittent nature of time that dominates the art world. But there are also a number of events that, like the Silent University, pursue a continuous approach.
One such event is Manifesta, a nomadic contemporary cultural biennale that moves between European cities.
Since its start in 1996, Manifesta has taken place 14 times and has moved from Rotterdam to Luxembourg, Ljubljana, Frankfurt, San Sebastian and many other cities until its latest installment in Pristina in 2022. Given the different geographical features and cultural context of each new host city, and the fact that the biennale is headed by different curators each time, you may imagine Manifesta as a series of intermittent events, disjointed rather than continuous. But on the contrary, the festival possesses a much more coherent continuity than many international art exhibitions held at fixed locations. The cultural and geographical differences actually seem to enhance one’s awareness of what is kept and inherited from one biennale to the next. Although each Manifesta adopts a different organizational structure, the festival is supervised by a team headed by founding director Hedwig Fijen, who stresses the importance of openness, collaboration and the sharing of knowledge for the continuous character of the festival6.
One of the clearest examples of the festival’s remarkable philosophy was Manifesta 6. Scheduled to take place in 2006 in Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, the festival was suddenly cancelled three months before its supposed start.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Nicosia remains the last physically divided city left in the world. The island of Cyprus is located in the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea and has seen a dizzying change of rulership since the Middle Ages, from the Venetian Republic to the Ottoman Empire and the United Kingdom. After the end of the Second World War, Cyprus gained independence from the United Kingdom but the deep-rooted conflict between the Greek and Turkish population on the island smoldered on, eventually leading to military intervention by Turkey in response to a coup d’état. Today the island is split into two countries: the Republic of Cyprus in the southwestern part of the island is a member of the EU and has been recognized by most countries in the UN, except for Turkey. The northeastern part of the island, meanwhile, is host to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which has only been recognized as a state by Turkey.
The situation is complicated further by several military bases that have remained under British sovereignty, resulting in exceptionally complex borderlines across the island. The two Cyprian countries are divided by the so-called Green Line, a buffer zone maintained by the United Nations, that cuts right through the city of Nicosia. Most of Manifesta 6 was going to take place in the southern part of the city, with several events scheduled for the northern side.
For reasons still not entirely known, the city of Nicosia suddenly terminated the host contract with Manifesta, and Cypriot officials later even filed suit against the organizers for breach of contract. A possible reason may have been fears by the Republic of Cyprus that events like Manifesta partly taking place on the northern side of the city—which is under the control of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus—would pave the way for its recognition as a state, with the cancellation of the contract being the simplest way to mitigate this risk.
While it is difficult to discuss an art festival that did not take place, the letter of intent, titled “Notes for an Art School”, at least tells us of the intentions of the Manifesta 6 organizers. In her text “On How to Fall With Grace—or Fall Flat on Your Face”, the Cairo-based co-curator Mai Abu ElDahab points out that a politically and socially sensitive place such as Nicosia requires the festival to arrive “as a humble guest rather than an arrogant intruder on the island7”, indicating that there was no intent was to provoke controversy.
Further, one of the alternate schools involved in the organization of Manifesta 6 was the Lisbon-based association Maumaus. Since I know Maumaus reasonably well and am friends with its director, the German curator Jürgen Bock, I believe that Maumaus’ activities may help us a little in imagining what Manifesta 6 would have been like.
Maumaus is a graduate-level art school known for its non-regulatory curriculum and its unique management style, such as renting out artworks and donating the collected rental fees. As outlined in “Notes for an Art School,” Manifesta 6 was planned to take the form of a temporary postgraduate art school to discuss the problem arising in diversifying cultures. In order to better reflect this approach, the festival would have been titled Manifesta 6 School. In other words, the idea was to have ongoing activities and practices for the entire duration of the event instead of merely installing artworks. Moreover, these practices and activities were designed to avoid having to bow to authority or outside pressure.
At the end of her text ElDahab writes,“The Manifesta 6 School is a chance to fall gracefully, and then stand up and walk a new path. Perhaps this is in itself the education we need.” The importance of failure and retrying has been a repeated subject of ElDahab’s activities.
When places of education stop teaching only that which has been established and successful, and instead break free of their ingrained top-down structure to become environments in which to stumble, fall, and experiment, then the teaching side will eventually be able to take part in the learning process, too.
ElDahab describes the nature of Manifesta as “sowing some fresh seeds, rather than just using generic vacuum-packed merchandise8”, and this wording again hints at the deep interest interest in a long-term, continuous perspective. Once sown, seeds need time to grow. It should not be the art world’s goal to build a display shelf of finished products but to provide a workbench for unfinished prototypes. In my impression the Aichi 2022’s learning area, directed by Takayuki Yamamoto, represented a fruitful attempt to realize this approach at a larger, more comprehensive scale.
What is needed for continuous autonomous practice?
I am only cautiously confident that there is a cohesive connection between the host of topics I discussed in this text, from samba schools in Brazil to time continuity and autonomy in libraries. But I am sure that the intermittent flow of time that has come to dominate the art world is connected with the secret dilution of the autonomy of its audience.
I have written about the stark contrasts between art museums and libraries (both public facilities) and the unusual things I noticed about a small reading room in London. I also explained why the autonomy of that reading room (and, by extension, libraries) is not accessible to visitors of art museums.
The library visitor is a true agent who is allowed the freedom and autonomy to shape their own experience. In the art museum, agency is limited to the organizers of exhibitions and the creators of the exhibited works (or, in some cases, the artworks themselves). No matter how much interaction is involved in the design of the exhibition, the autonomy of the visitor will always end up feeble and tenuous.
Ultimately, the difference between art museums and libraries comes down to the difference between teaching and learning. In my opinion, this realization only highlights that we should treat learning programs with more importance and care. That said, the close links between learning and teaching make matters complicated. It is impossible to separate them entirely, and their complex entanglement gives way to misunderstandings whose unfortunate results include the introduction of educational hierarchies and reduced autonomy into environments of learning.
Many of today’s learning programs are composed of a vague mixture of learning and teaching, and most programs only employ the most convenient elements from both. But this approach hinders the immense potential of learning programs to establish autonomy and bring more continuity into the art world.
Seymour Papert’s groundbreaking achievements have shown us how learning can be facilitated despite difficult conditions. With the Brazilian samba schools, he even provided a working model that could guide the design of learning programs. Even if it may be some time before we will see true samba school-like programs within the art world, we should still try to implement whatever is currently possible and continue to aim for this ideal.
Events and projects like the Silent University or Manifesta 6 have already managed to close the gap towards this ideal. Both of them give me the impression that the autonomy and continuity required for true learning are intentional parts of their design.
I am aware that it is not easy to achieve an environment that enables equal autonomy for everyone and a continuous flow of time. But such environments will only become more important within an art world that is still in the firm grip of intermittent timelines. The resulting insistence on emphasizing the agency of artists and curators to the detriment of their audience currently deprives the art world of much potential that will be unleashed once there is equal autonomy for all.
But in order to get there, we have to update our meagre concepts of learning. Even though the Aichi Triennale 2022 still treated its learning program as a kind of satellite event, they have actually achieved a sense of the continuity that I have hinted at. Ideally, the Aichi Triennale 2022’s learning program will have a lasting impact as “a chance to fall gracefully, and then stand up and walk a new path”, to borrow the words of Manifesta 6 School co-curator Mai Abu ElDahab.
It is possible that a better, deeper understanding of the true meaning of learning may lead to drastic changes not only to the nature of art museums and festivals but to a different awareness within art, too. The way in which we will implement continuity and visitor autonomy will decide the future relationship between public institutions and arts.
Manifesta has demonstrated that continuity is possible even for intermittently held events. As a biennale that changes not only its curators but also its host city and country every two years, Manifesta has a stronger need for a sense of continuity than most other international art events. And as Manifesta’s founder and co-director Hedwig Fijen has pointed out, the only real way to achieve this continuity is through openness, collaboration and the sharing of knowledge. However, I would like to stress that these are crucial elements that should define many other international art events.
On that note, I must admit being disappointed by the way in which the Aichi Triennale 2022 approached its own continuity. I can sympathize with the decision to focus, first and foremost, on the organization of the 2022 edition of the triennale after the wide-ranging controversy that took place during its 2019 predecessor. But at the same time I was puzzled by the lack of any kind of opportunity to learn and read about the previous installment. Given the extensive media coverage, there must have been visitors of the Aichi Triennale 2022 who came to find out how the situation would be addressed. But, strangely, the festival opened with barely any information to reference its past and was eventually completely sanitized of it.
I understand that it may not have been possible to address the issue directly. But it would have been a much better choice to not ignore the incident altogether, for example by exhibiting materials that allude to the controversy.
But then this approach is symbolic for the art world in postwar Japan and its stubborn reluctance to acknowledge and examine the country’s actions during World War II. Any kind of social advocacy will be doomed to meaninglessness as long as we choose to remain ignorant of our own problematic past. Why was a certain poet and art critic recently revived in critical discourse for his role as “Japan’s first surrealist” without a word about his patriotic poetry urging young people to take up arms? Was it not necessary to provide at least the bare minimum regarding this facet of his life, even if one would choose to turn a blind eye?
While this issue is mostly of ethical nature, it is also deeply related to the lack of continuity within the art world.
Without continuity, there can only ever be a semblance of learning rather than the real thing. The crux of the matter is that learning may be a prerequisite to demonstrating the importance of continuity.
To conclude: the true act of learning remains stuck in a difficult predicament.