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updated by elke van campenhout -- Tue 6 Sep 2011 - 14:39

veil of ignorance

text on the strategies of not-knowing in artistic self-educating programs, published in the web magazine Prospero

The Veil of Ignorance

1. How do you educate an artist? The absurdity of this question has haunted the artistic education system for years and years. In late modernity, art is no longer defined by the appropriation of artistic skills. Nor is the artist delineated by a clearly marked ideological or esthetic framework. Today artists are said to be 'hybrid' or 'transdisciplinary': they no longer fit in the grid of the well-defined disciplines. More than painters, musicians or dancers they have become flexible workers, using ever-changing strategies to develop their work, their distribution and their communication.

On the other hand there also is the question of what kind of knowledge an artist needs to become a 'skilled' on, a 'better' one, or one that sells better on the market. What does an artist need to grow, to find his or her own language, to make a mark. These questions also relate to a broader societal problematization of knowledge and knowledge production, like it has been developed since the 1970's. A thinking about the de-hierarchisation of the passing on of knowledge in theories and practices of self-education. A lot of these initiatives (like the work of Freire, the online university programs, the free knowledge movements, etc...) were at first very ideologically coloured. None the less we see today an exponential growth of education projects that offer qualitative knowledge and practices to interested, but not necessarily 'qualified' students. A more recent example of this line of thinking is the work of the French philosopher Jancques Rancière, who in his book 'The Ignorant Schoolmaster' makes a plea for an 'emancipated' method of learning: the construction of knowledge out of the hierarchical framework of the institutions. In this line of thinking the relation between the one who 'has' and the one who 'hasn't' got the power of knowledge, in other words, gets broken. The teacher no longer decides on the chronological process of the learning process (f.e.: first you have to learn the grammar, then you can start on the speaking). But not only the chronology of the learning is altered, also the way different disciplinary fields are no longer strictly delineated as they are in the academia (where f.e. the learning of a language is a complete different discipline from the knowledge produced in biology). In a transdisciplinary frame of learning these different fields do touch upon one another and open up ever-changing possibilities for re-evaluating the knowledge at hand and come to surprising connections and learning trajectories that have nothing to do with an education that makes you 'fit the frame' of the requirements of a specific disciplinary field.

2. What does that all mean for the understanding of a new approach in arts education? If we don't think about the education system any longer as an institute which prepares students to take up their positions, their function within a clearly defined field, then how do we perceive of the process of knowledge transmission? If we think about the artistic sector, not so much as a amalgam of disciplines (visual arts, music, theatre, dance, etc...) but as a space-in-movement, a field in a constant state-of-becoming, then any kind of educational system should mirror this plasticity, this constant re-arranging of its basic self-understanding and position. I very consciously do not use the word 'flexibility' here, since the connotations and parallels between 'the artist as a flexible worker' and the precarious victims of capital are all too obvious a pitfall. In the last years a lot of texts have been written on the deceivingly romantic vision of the nomadic artist as a figure of resistance, whereas he in fact fits the requirements of  contemporary capitalist production modes perfectly. If we think about an education system for artists today, this should not be aimed at producing 'flexible workers' that are as versatile as the different grants and institutions ask of them. Instead of this figure, I would like to propose the concept of plasticity, as defined by Catherine Malabou: the potential to on the one hand be formed and shaped by circumstances, but not without having the power to change your environment back, in one and the same movement. The artist is not a node in the grid, or a little piece in the machine of producers, programmers, communicators and politicians. In fact, the artist today very often if not only an artist, but also a curator, manager, programmer and communicator of his own and other artist's work. The arist, as much as a maker, is in a lot of cases of communal work, also a facilitator and an organizer, a creator of circumstances in which things can grow, take another course, make another connection. The 'plastic' artist, in other words, is not only a maker, but also a thinker, a worker, a product is his own invention.

3. Roughly speaking, these constatations were the starting point for the development of the a.pass (advanced performance and scenography studies) research environment, of which I am one of the artistic coordinators,     and which I will discuss here as a case study in the thinking about artist education. In a.pass we are working with participants from very different ages and disciplinary backgrounds, both 'practice-based' artists, and theoreticians. In the transdisciplinary framework of working as it is used in a.pass, the emancipated artist/researcher takes a central position: every participant can make up a personal curriculum that responds to his/her specific needs. What a.pass offers is the possibility for any artist/cultural worker/theorist/organizer/curator/.. to orient himself in a complex, diverse, and ever-enlarging field of knowledge, in which the disciplinary boundaries can be (temporarily) suspended. In his hunger for knowledge she takes up her own responsibility and he is not (or only minimally) restricted by a pre-conceived curriculum. What comes in its place is the imagination of possible fields of knowledge that could nourish his practice, a creative practice that is initiated by the breaking, (re)negotiation and re-phrasing of the disciplinary knowledge fields. Not only of the artistic disciplines, but also in-between arts and sciences, sociological and political discussions, urbanistic and architectural projects, etc....
In practice this means that a.pass offers its participants the possibility to choose from a wide field of theoretical and practical workshops, but more importantly gives them the chance to develop their own workshops, or invite the mentors of their choice out of their personal budget. The self-organisation aspect is for us an absolute necessity in educating a contemporary artist, that is no longer bound to the restrictions of his medium, but is a 'plastic' player in a much bigger field of possibilities. Next to the self-organized component, we also encourage collaboration within the program. Not so much on the basis of developing work or research together, but on the level of Rancière's 'ignorant schoolmaster', who point sout that the master is not necessarily the one with the most knowledge: it is in the method of transferring, of comparing, and of re-arranging that knowledge is produced and learned. Since most of our participants come from very different fields, with diverse knowledge backgrounds, we encourage them to share that knowledge, which makes the group the most important critical body in the evaluation of knowledge.

4. The belief in the 'emancipated artist' is the horizon for the development of the educational model of a.pass, a model based on the principles of self-organization and collaboration, a model that is constantly in a state-of-becoming, being re-evaluated, re-modeled, re-thought, with and through the input of the participants. In that sense the idea of knowledge transfer as we see it is directly related to the idea of a proactive movement of knowledge exchange: an innovative, recyclative way of thinking and working that opens up new perspectives on the artistisc work and the relation of this work to a broader societal platform. This relation is extremely important for a contemporary artist, since the link between the cravings of the artistic sector and society seem to be on the forefront of artistic production once again in this new millenium. We do not only talk to the artist, but also to the citizen, the consumer, the individual participant. How is his position as a maker related to his (ir)responsibility as a citizen? What is the translation of civil (des)obedience in the artistic practice? To what degree the attitude of the one is different from the other?
In that sense an education of the artist can not be separated from a thinking about contemporary society, economy, politics, ethics, etc... To educate the artist of tomorrow, he needs the tools to re-create his own production modes of knowledge. He has to have the freedom not to be restricted from a knowledge that is 'incomprehensible' or 'unimportant' for his process. He has to have the possiblity to become aware of entangling of the arts and broader societal processes. He has to have the chance to develop himself out of the slipstream of plagiarism and pre-set insitutionalized requirements. I believe that a research into new forms of thinking and educating should allow for failure, for experiment, even for 'stupidity' as Brian Massumi describes it:
“That is the experimental aspect. If you know where you will end up when you begin, nothing has happened in the meantime. You have to be willing to surprise yourself writing things you didn’t think you thought. Letting examples burgeon requires using inattention as a writing tool. You have to let yourself get so caught up in the flow of your writing that it ceases at moments to be recognizable to you as your own. This means you have to be prepared for failure. For with inattention comes risk: of silliness, or even outbreaks of stupidity. But perhaps in order to write experimentally, you have to be willing to “affirm” even your own stupidity. Embracing one’s own stupidity is not the prevailing academic posture (at least not in the way I mean it here).”
I believe a.pass in this search is just one of many possibilities. The artist initiatives that have popped up in the last years, organizing their own education models within their artistic practices and contacts prove that there is a need for other models of thinking and working together.
Let's dare to think, work, re-think and re-work our potential fields of knowledge.