Contemporary art and the Educational Turn

Had you entered the Winkleman Gallery in New York’s Chelsea neighbourhood between February 19th and March 20th, 2010, you would have found the space looking more like a graduate seminar room than a commercial exhibition venue. With its wall-to-wall chalkboards and easily rearranged folding tables and chairs, the gallery clearly evoked its feeder institution: the art school.

The framework for #class, a month-long project by Jennifer Dalton and William Powhida, is an installation that is part of a recent trend in contemporary art wherein artists take on pedagogical models and educational forms. Indeed, school has become a topic de rigeur in the art world over the past five or so years. From the continuing legacy of the Copenhagen Free University to Anton Vidokle’s unitednationsplaza in Berlin and Night School at the New Museum in New York to the Malmo Free University for Women, a critical mass of artists have galvanized the interrogative possibilities of working between art and school, and in doing so have formulated a mode of production that can be called, however tentatively, art-as-school.


Responding to this trend in a text that has quickly become a touchstone for artists, curators and critics with an investment in art practices that appropriate educational models, Irit Rogoff asks whether, as talking has become a mode of art-making and group discussion a form of display, we are putting any emphasis on what is actually being said. An important question indeed, and others follow. Have the bringing together of people, the participatory character and the theoretically open dialogue that constitute the art-as-school model been taken for granted as interesting, substantial or even generative forms? If yes, what is at stake in this assumption? If no, what questions have we asked and what questions should we be asking, about the content of these projects and what is actually being said through these forms? How and why have models for schooling become so interesting and so urgent in contemporary art?

With university budget cuts, tuition hikes, conservative curriculum regulations and student protests happening at the same time as artists and art institutions are working through the legacy of the institutional critique, relational aesthetics and research-based practices of the past two decades, the immediacy of the art-as-school model goes without saying. To interrogate art via school and school via art is to call into question the typical spheres of operation of each, collapsing the formal distinctions between already fraught official sites of creative practice, performance and the display of commodities on the one hand, and traditional institutional spaces of education, learning and professionalization on the other. By initiating, and even forcing this collapse, the art-as-school mode of production interrogates the frameworks of “art” and “education,” looking to trouble the inclusions and exclusions that have invested them with meaning in the contemporary world.

The terms “education,” “school” and “learning” function in several ways in the projects described here, sometimes exhibiting a semantic slipperiness and other times defined clearly as the imparting and gaining of knowledge, an institutional framework, and a mental process, respectively. The flexibility of these terms is reflected in this essay. However, in the broadest–and, in this case, probably most important–sense, education, school and learning can all be understood as modes of knowledge production. Despite the wide-ranging manifestations of the art-as-school paradigm, almost all of the works and practices that fall under its auspices express a desire to create and explore modes of producing knowledge that are at once alternative to, but which also open new conditions of possibility within, institutionally sanctioned ones.

Of course, the relationship between the terms “knowledge” and “production” at stake in many art-as-school practices is not as straightforward or even necessarily as self-evident as it may at first seem. When we discuss the production of knowledge, we must also concern ourselves with the forces and relations of this production, particularly the specific and necessary ways that subjects are bound together by knowledge as well as by the structures that establish and reproduce these bonds. Challenging the unidirectional, top-down exchange of pre-formed knowledge that takes place at most universities and art schools, art-as-school practices begin to imagine how these relations can be thought, and even made, differently. They consider how education and learning can be unhinged from their determining structures, so that knowledge is formed through rather than formed by social relations. This struggle is between knowledge as the domain of the self-possessed and knowledge as the creation of situations and the posing of questions that push the limits of what can already be conceptualized.

In other words, the concept of art-as-school is predicated on the contemporary truism that art should be transformative, make an impact and socially engage its audience. At the same time, many of the more interesting projects that work within the art-as-school model at least implicitly trouble the “truth” assumption of this statement by proposing modes–beyond the parameters of relational aesthetics–that question the utility of this language now that it has become the norm. This mode of production is activated by the desire to rethink the relationship between art workers, institutions and publics. But, instead of looking at the market, the gallery system, museums or any of the other sites of exhibition and exchange that have dominated recent conversations about democracy or publicness in art, they turn to a foundational moment in the genesis of the artist: to art school. Appropriating educational models and terminology to construct a critical language to discuss contemporary art, artists like Dalton and Powhida invest the concept of school with potentially transformative connotations, staging the classroom as an open forum and privileging conversation as a mode of socially oriented artistic experimentation or inquiry.

But art schools don’t typically make the same claims to openness and public-ness that exhibition spaces do. This is, in part, what makes the art-as-school model such a fascinating, if deeply contradictory one: it is an attempt to explode the social possibilities and utility of art through a channel that relies on its radically closed format to function and to survive. The creation of value, designating the title “artist” and protecting mastery over knowledge are fundamental, even if often invisible, operations of almost all art schools. This contradiction may for some be reason enough to challenge the efficacy of art-as-school practices. For others, the theoretical complexities, contradictions and ambiguities of this model are in themselves meaningful or useful. Still, for others, the excessive talking that characterizes these projects has, very simply, become a bore. In any case, one of the interesting things about this turning back to art school is that it forces us to revisit an issue that, having emerged again and again, has become taken for granted in discussions of contemporary critical art. If the question framing debates about the social possibility of art has, up until now, been “Who experiences art?,” in the context of the art-as-school model it must be coupled with another, related, question: “Who makes art and what do they produce?”

That works functioning within the art-as-school model share an investment in criticality has very quickly become an accepted, even naturalized, fact. Yet despite the excitement and energy sparked by the implicitly oppositional, or counter-hegemonic, possibilities of these projects, there are some lingering questions: What are the specific objects of these critiques? Access to education? The commercialization or commodification of the academy? The conceptualization or de-conceptualization of art? The bureaucratic structures of both education and art? And how, precisely, are these critiques enacted? How are these projects different from the official modes of education and art-making that they appear to challenge? If the art-as-school model is a mutation of the institutional critique or relational aesthetics that dominated the 90s, how is it different from these modes of production?

Dalton and Powhida’s response to some of these questions is, in many ways, formulated as an inquiry into the economic pressures that determine the conditions of production of contemporary art. According to the statement they circulated prior to this project opening, the gallery-cum-classroom of #class was designed to interrogate “the way art is seen in our culture and to identify and propose alternatives and/or reforms to the market system.” Although the question of why school was chosen as a model to facilitate this conversation was never addressed outright, the project’s semantics suggest that, within the context of the transformed Winkleman Gallery, school serves as a signifier for open discussions, problem-solving and even experimentation. Two definitions of the word “class” are utilized here: “class” as in a group of students or the period of time during which students meet, and “class” as in a social body of individuals sharing a common relationship to the dominant mode of production (i.e., an economic class). Within this dualism, the concepts of school, classroom, or what Dalton and Powhida call a “think-tank,” are positioned as a possible antidote to the individualizing pressures of the commercial art market, driven as it is by the logic of the capitalism. As such, the classroom becomes a potentially oppositional site, open to questioning and critique in a way, it seems to imply, that the commercial gallery is not.

Divided into three theoretical spaces representing often competing areas of artistic practice (“Think Space,” “Work Space” and “Market Space”), Dalton and Powhida’s installation functions very much like a graduate school studio with sites designated for labour, for seminars, conversation and critique, and for exhibition. There is certainly a sense that this project is a performative re-presentation of art school, in which the gallery-going public plays the role of Dalton and Powhida’s peers. #class also puts Dalton and Powhida’s practices on display as they use the “Work Space” to make new art. It also contextualizes their practices in relation to a series of events–artists talks, lectures, informal discussions, readings and so on–designed to call into question the relationship between the act of making work and what happens afterwards. This connection between the work produced and the exhibition’s programming follows academic models designed to facilitate correspondences between individual studio work and overarching curricula.

The “Think Space” is the most dynamic of these conceptual divisions and it is here that the participatory aspect of the project lies. Visitors to the gallery are invited to become actors in a performance by engaging in formal and informal conversations, contributing to an ever-changing series of lists, questions, diagrams and maps written and rewritten on the wall-sized chalkboards, and by attending scheduled events. The individualized act of looking that often defines a visit to the gallery is thus coupled here with an emphasis on listening, and even on talking. The effect is an intriguingly heterogeneous site, one that seems capable of accommodating a temporary collapse of the formal divisions between creative practice, performance, display and even activism. In short, Dalton and Powhida’s critique of the complexities of art-making and the art market seems clear. But what are they saying about education?

Today, more than ever, education is posited over and over again as a mechanism of self-realization and is linked to the possibility of social freedom and economic security. Education is frequently described as an “investment,” rhetoric that reveals its bond to late capitalist modes of production. We invest in ourselves like we invest in real estate, in the stock market or even in art: by betting on a high return. But it has become increasingly clear that the ease with which this relationship is reproduced in Western culture conceals a troubling paradox. Statistics tell us that unemployment is lower among individuals with university educations, and the official commentary on these statistics more often than not treats education like a safeguard against economic hardship: “You have to spend money to make money,” or so the saying goes. While it certainly points to one of the characteristics of our contemporary condition, this seemingly straightforward alliance between economics and education also has a tendency to obscure many urgent questions about the latter. If the post-secondary education system is part of a capitalist mode of production, what relations does it depend on and what relations does it produce? What communities does it form? What are we getting when we “buy” into education? What is the disparity between different “brands” (local college or large university; humanities degree or science degree) and how will it affect us in the future? And where do the pursuit of knowledge and learning, education’s theoretical goals, fit into all of this?

A recent CBC radio program on joblessness in Canada delved, perhaps unwittingly, into the discursive and material complexities of the relationship between education and economics in the context of comparative interviews with a woman who had lost her job after 20-odd years in manufacturing and a group of young computer programmers. Aside from reinforcing the disconcerting reality that jobs in many of the sectors that have long upheld economies across Canada are disappearing without new ones to take their place, and addressing the fact that the very definition of “work” is always changing, the program’s comparison also brought up several pertinent issues surrounding the disparity between our cultural “values” and what we actually value–a disparity that was clearly demonstrated by the uneven distribution of possibility evoked in these interviews. Weighing the pros and cons of the reality of going to school to get a job, the probability that the types of jobs available to graduates are dependent on their degree, and the utility of many university degrees in the workforce, it became clear that many Canadians, young and old, are in a double bind. We are told that “education isn’t for everyone” at the same time as we are told, at least implicitly, that education is becoming, if not necessary, then at least increasingly important, for fulfilling our basic needs within our current economic condition. Perhaps it goes without saying that in this formulation certain types of education are more “valuable” than others culturally and economically. Indeed, this fact was reflected by the radio program’s conclusion, which, it seemed, was intended to be a hopeful statement: that the young men with degrees in computer science were not concerned about their job prospects in the future because if they couldn’t find jobs they could create their own. Dropping one subject, the out of work woman, of the initial two-part comparison, this conclusion raises the question: What about everyone else?

Inherent to this statement is a culturally constructed hierarchy between forms or types of education and their outcomes–that is, the types of subjects they yield. Who are the subjects that are most “valuable” in terms of reproducing and advancing the current economy? The only forms of education that are still useful to us, it seemed to imply, are institutionally sanctioned models that produce specifically defined skill sets and expertise. Independent learning, the experience-based and oral types of education that take place in the traditional workforce, in communities, and in other moments of day-to-day life, and educational models that emphasize criticality, self-reflectivity and open-form exploration were all but overlooked. While this designation of “value” may be an economic fact, it does little justice to the complex ideological underpinnings of education and its stakes in the contemporary world.

Albeit in the peculiar and arguably solipsistic economy of the New York art market, #class did begin to address some of these issues. For instance, even with its explicitly art-oriented focus, critic Ben Davis’ public reading of his didactic “9.5 Thesis on Art and Class” challenged many of the assumptions and power relations that also underwrite contemporary debates on education. Although I would be wary of simply swapping the word “art” for “education” in his manifesto, it is easy to see how, in several of Davis’ many theses, this replacement would yield a rather insightful result. “Thesis 1.2,” for instance, reads, “Since classes have different interests, and [education] is affected by these interests, [education] has different value depending on from which class standpoint it is approached.” And “Thesis 2.6” states, “Another role for [education] is to serve as financial instrument or tradable repository of value.” The slipperiness of the word “class,” with its dual meanings, is the unarticulated content of Dalton and Powhida’s project. Using the first definition, the classroom, to give form to the other–questions about economic class relations as they are manifest in the art world–#class creates a space for coming together and for critical dialogue at the same time as it carves out a position as an artwork itself.

The outcomes of this project are uncertain, contingent on the ideas, on the relationships and on the works that are produced over the course of its one-month existence. Yet this project isn’t limited to these relations. Put differently, it is not the relations–neither between the artist and the audience nor among the individuals that create the audience–that constitute the work as such here. Instead, the work is constituted by the formal exploration and questioning of how spaces of art can be opened up, interrogated and thought differently through sites of education. That interesting relations are formed through this exploration speaks to the efficacy of the project.

Dalton and Powhida’s use of educational forms to open a set of possibilities on the topic of contemporary art has a clear, and temporally close precedent in Anton Vidokle’s ongoing exploration of art as site of learning. Vidokle’s unitednationsplaza (2006-2007), which was borne out of the cancelled Manifesta 6, and Night School (2008-2009) are large-scale experiments in education as a model for artistic practice. Described as an exhibition and an artwork, respectively, unitednationsplaza and Night School set out to use the form of temporary schools to engage the public in a collaborative effort to make what are, effectively, self-producing cultural forms. As such, they claimed not to depend on entrenched systems–the gallery, the university, the art market and so on–to give them academic legitimacy or to designate them as “art.” While both of Vidokle’s projects were open to the public, they demanded an extensive commitment. Often the programs that constituted unitednationsplaza and Night School were run as multi-part series and required attendance at a number of hours-long sessions over the course of several months. And many of these sessions appropriated the lecture-discussion format familiar from university seminars. In other words, unitednationsplaza and Night School looked a lot like school.

When local governments forced the cancellation of Manifesta 6, the experimental biennale scheduled to take place throughout Nicosia in 2006, the politically and culturally divided capital of Cyprus, Vidokle realized a self-organized, re-imagined instantiation of the biennale in a small building on United Nations Plaza in Berlin. A year-long series of seminars, conferences, lectures, film screenings, installations and performances, in addition to serving as the subject of a film, unitednationsplaza was based on the model of free universities, with a rigorous curriculum divided into several thematic sections. Together with an impressive roster of international artists, curators, historians and critics acting as a sort of informal faculty, Vidokle’s “experimental school” was a proposal for creating modes of knowledge production that attempt to side-step, or offer an antidote to, the privileging of institutionally structured education over the types of learning that can happen in unsanctioned forums, particularly small-scale ones that bring together contingent, temporary, groups of peers.

When Vidokle brought his ongoing exploration of art that takes the form of sites of learning to the New Museum in New York under the title Night School, he added a core group of 25 students (admitted through an application process) and granted additional access to the artists, critics and historians acting as lecturers to the ever-changing, self-determining public for whom the project was initially designed. Other than this revision, and the fact that its home was an official art institution rather than an abandoned building turned academy, Night School made few modifications to the unitednationsplaza format.

In a sense, both unitednationsplaza and Night School rely on the public space of museums and other sites of exhibition to expand the potentiality of art schools as places of multi-disciplinary experimentation, research, discussion, explorative processes, scholarship and collaboration. These projects attempted to harness the exciting possibilities of art school and to give them a public form at the same time as they challenged some of the restrictive characteristics of traditional academic institutions, which are closed to the public, regulated by administrative structures and homogenized curricula, and governed by standardized modes of evaluation. By appropriating their forms, Vidokle and his collaborators-cum-faculty members, including Martha Rosier, Boris Groys, and Liam Gillick, among others, at once interrogate the usual operations of universities and art schools, and spark a debate about how knowledge and learning can be situated differently within them.

Several questions underwrite Vidokle’s projects. First, can learning can be extracted from some of the restrictive structures of the academy and, if it can, to what effect? Second, how, and by what means, can we create alternatives to, or ways to modify, the structures themselves? However, in order to ask these questions, perhaps we might begin by asking, very simply, what do we want from school?

In the form of unitednationsplaza and Night School, the art-as-school model offers a proposal for how to engage the public, here defined as a community of people brought together by shared interest, investment or curiosity. Whether or not it was a representational strategy on Vidokle’s part, or if he hoped to realize this engagement, must be reserved for another time. Either way, the relation between conceptions of “audience” and “public” that he interrogates is an important one. Whereas the audience in typical art-viewing situations and the class-as-audience format of most post-secondary education are characterized by inactivity, even passivity, and by consumption, Vidokle conceives the public as a transformative body invested with agency and with the capability to actively effect social change. This distinction has been an urgent issue in debates on recent art and curatorial practices, but it also gets at one of the fundamental and most insidious complexities of contemporary education: What kinds of subjects does it produce?

At its best, education opens critical possibilities, pushes on theoretical boundaries and encourages debate and contestation. At its best, school is, among other things, a site of personal and collective exploration, friendship and creative knowledge production. But education can also be a restrictive set of parameters that forecloses curiosity and experimentation by insisting on predetermined outcomes, and by assigning and maintaining relations of value and power among its subjects and its objects. On the one hand, students may realize their own agency vis-a-vis their relationships to the world; on the other hand, their activities, progress and even thought processes are, for the most part, determined by the institution’s projected goals. Indeed, many of our common pedagogical models are perpetuated by privileging certain forms of intelligence over others, by maintaining an inequality of intelligences, and by imposing a pedagogical structure on all that is know-able in the world. Learning, in this formulation, is a top-down dynamic determined by a set of permissions delimiting how we produce knowledge and how we ourselves are produced as subjects.

The distinction between audience and actor–or a public made up of actors–and its relation to the power dynamics of education is the subject of Jacques Ranciere’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster (1991) and, more recently, The Emancipated Spectator (2010), which are texts that challenge assumptions about viewing, spectacle and the denigration of vision that have preoccupied cultural theorists and artists alike over the past half-century. Taking equality as a starting point, making it a presupposition rather than the goal of education, Ranciere’s critique of pedagogy touches on many of the issues that are taken up in Vidokle and Dalton and Powhida’s projects, and is thus a useful interlocutor for the art-as-school paradigm.

The theoretical premise that underwrites both books began with the 18th-century educator Joseph Jacotot’s radical position that all people are equally intelligent and that knowledge is not necessary to teaching nor is explication necessary to learning. Explication, rather, is the myth of pedagogy that divides the world into two: the knowing and the ignorant; the capable and the incapable. While ostensibly increasing capacity or knowledge, explication as a mode of imparting knowledge actually serves to limit it by creating the appearance that it is only gained progressively, in a linear fashion, with one idea or fact logically and necessarily following the next. The result of this structure is a “delay” that allows the “master” to always remain separate from her student. Against this, Jacotot, and after him Ranciere, turn their attention to the types of learning that happen through experience and observation, and by repeating experiences and observations–in which knowledge is formed through our relationship to the sensible world rather than imparted upon us from a self-possessed and pre-formed conception of that world. At stake in this theory is not only a critique of education but also critiques of the concepts of equality and democracy, education’s foundational promises in contemporary society.

Through his analysis of learning, Ranciere reminds us, contrary to popular neoliberal formulations of equality as an outcome of democratic consensus, that “equality” can also express an altogether different, even oppositional, logic of radical heterogeneity in the knowable, sensible, world. Equality is not a goal here, but a fact. Education’s claim to equalize is a misnomer–all subjects are always already equal. To start from equality, Ranciere tells us, effectively dismantles the master/student (or actor/spectator) hierarchy of the traditional educational structure, and doing so creates new conditions of possibility for the production of knowledge–a premise that the practices constituting the art-as-school paradigm struggle to realize.

In an “exchange situation” on the topic of knowledge production at the Copenhagen Free University in March 2002, Howard Slater, Josephine Berry, Jakob Jakobson and Henriette Heise discussed the possibility of finding alternative organizational modes, driven not by information and formal knowledge nor determined by outcomes. They described moments of learning that can only arise through the temporally specific communities that emerge when people come together not by any subjective affiliation but with a shared investment in, or curiosity about, thinking things differently. “Self-institutionalization” was put forth as a possible way of creating spaces in which these types of learning might happen. However, in this sense, the connotations of “institutionalization” are diametrically opposed to our typical definition of the word. Instead of implying the processes of self-development, building-up, becoming whole, and gaining “value” as we are institutionalized (or invested) with pre-given knowledge in academies and art school, “institutionalization” here seems to involve a giving up of oneself, an openness to permeability by others, the imaginary and the potentiality of what is unknown. If the art-as-school mode of production appropriates institutional forms to call into question the operation of these forms, to lend these operations a sense of critical clarity and, finally, to bring attention to interests that are opposed to–or, at the very least, which are skeptical of–those institutions being emulated, the unknown may be a good place to start.