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Radical education in a museum, Bojana Piškur, REC

Posted on | February 8, 2011 | No Comments

Talk at the Museo de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, 10 February 2011

The title of today’ s talk is radical education in a museum. The way we structured it is that in the first part I will emphasize the background of where some of the ideas that I will talk about came from, that is, I will contextualize them within the post-socialist condition and cultural practices of former Yugoslavia and within some of the researches that we have done in the Radical Education Collective* in the past five years. On that ground I will introduce what radical education in a museum means, that is, I will propose that radical education in a museum has to do primarily with interfering, distorting and changing the established chronological matrix. In the second part of the talk, the researchers of the Reina Sofia seminar will present their common investigation Workers’ Inquiry which, not surprisingly, also has to do with time.

We will argue that radical education in a museum today has not only to do with – contrary to what a majority of more progressive educational theorists /artists propose – creating new spaces of micropolitics, encounters, intermediate spaces etc. within these institutions, but it has to do first of all with changing the ideological, economic and cultural perspectives of time within these institutions, that is, interfering in the authority of knowledge on one hand and in the authority of time on another.

So what do we actually mean with this?

We are aware that every institution tends toward stabilizing and eliminating experiences of history that is not yet (such as gestures of resistance, imagination, poetics, behaviors, affects…with other words – everything that was expunged from knowledge at the beginning of modern science as unreal and what according to that science violates our sense of order) by producing conceptual configurations and rules of thought i.e. discourses, interpretations, narratives, habits .. and these rules not only establish what is meaningful, who has the authority to decide and who the privilege to speak, but – precisely through these processes – construct canonized histories and set up the authority of knowledge. It is on these foundations and on these historicizing forces that museums are based on. This is one perspective.

But the other perspective that we find even more problematic has to do with the relationship between work in the sphere of art/culture and the authority of time. If in communism the joke was: we are pretending to work and they are pretending to pay us, in capitalism time is strictly dictated and structured in units and certain rhythms are imposed on the body so it can be exploited. In capitalism, Jasna Koteska, a theoretician from Macedonia writes, time is linear, but that is not only valid for work, but for pleasure to.

The aim of radical education is to interfere in those imposed rhythms in such a way that the character of the new temporality becomes a condition for politics. Slovene philosopher Mladen Dolar says that it is important in our current situation “to fight without some big narrative, to always emancipate but temporarily and partly, to act singularly and avoid of universality. The first gesture of rebellion is an epistemological rupture which establishes authority as an object … it is not about a better description of what is, but an rejection of a certain structure and hierarchy of knowledge which constructively recognizes this object, thereby keeping it alive.”

Thus radical education is, on the one hand, radical in the question of how to initiate an effective political practice through distortions of time and, on the other, how to prevent the institutionalized discourses or the authority of knowledge from taking over the imagination.

**

When we first started to ask ourselves these questions in Radical Education Collective we were also trying to find the missing links to the ideas and practices that flourished in culture during the self-managed socialist system of former Yugoslavia. Of course this attempt was not a nostalgic one neither was a direct translation of those practices into our contemporary situation. What intrigued us was that in the 50s in socialist Yugoslavia, the emphasis was placed on educative function of culture rather than on the artistic one, where cultural needs of all levels of populations would be satisfied, that is: the state spheres of economy, education and culture were transferred to the people themselves. We can compare some of the today’ more progressive ideas about the new types of art institutions with those socialist cultural policies, museum models and their emancipatory utopias. These ideas interested us even more so, because they resonate in many of the current pedagogical / artistic / political issues which form a vital part of the contemporary visual arts where the questions on “production and sharing of knowledge”, on “museums as sites of informal learning” etc. have become a part of the new vocabulary. Subsequently, in the past decade education has become one of the important “creative” cultural practices (cf. “educational turn”), offering models for exhibitions not as a fetishistic sensation but as educational case studies. But is this really what radical education is all about?

Here I will show you few examples:

This image is from the “Didactic exhibition on abstract art”, an educational attempt by a group of artists from Zagreb in 1957, whose aim was to insert the idea of radical abstraction, which was gradually becoming a dominant academic form after the break of Yugoslavia with the Soviet Union, after socialist realism, into the mainstream art. The “Didactic exhibition” was consisting of reproductions rather than original artworks which were of course unavailable and it served almost entirely an educational purpose with the support of the ideological authority of the state, which in communism coincided with the authority of knowledge.

To illustrate this point with another example; in former Yugoslavia in the 50’s the amateur cinema and photo clubs were established within factories, schools and other workers organizations all over the former federation. These clubs provided opportunities for avant-garde experimenting in the spirit of socialist self-management. This way certain links were maintained between the so-called high culture and the workers i.e. the masses. It is important to know that in the system of self-management every worker was brought into decision-making process, including culture. They were called cultural workers. It was common at that time for high ranking communist party politicians to address the issues of social change through art: “We want our artists to be freer to create than anywhere else in the world, with no one prescribing the form, the content, or the genre of their artistic expression. Our self-management democracy allows us a cultural policy that could be called the policy of a hundred flowers.”

Another example is from Belgrade – Museum of Contemporary Art in the 70s where in the spirit of self-manged socialism art was brought from museums to factories, to workers associations etc., and where special seminars on modern art were also conducted.

“Exhibition of airplanes”, Moderna galerija, Ljubljana, 1950. In a strange way, shows of this type appear to us more avant-garde than the art exhibitions of that time.They go hand in hand with Malevich’ saying from 1919: “After me comrade aviators sail into chasm … infinity is before you.” In communism where time was yet to come, the idea was to delete the art of the past and to rewrite it in such way as to introduce new (art) forms into art history. Or, put it another way: to introduce “airplanes” as an art form of the perfect future. Boris Groys said that communism was nothing more than the most extreme and radical manifestation of militant modernism, of utter commitment to the future.

As Jasna Koteska lucidly observes, all this had to do with time: the time of communism was some sort of a transfer from time to pre-time; “the tenses of communism were three and all three were future tense (I plan in the future, I live in the future and I remember from some point in the future as well)”.

Therefore time was first deleted and then restarted. In art, as well.

So, what I am arguing is that all these attempts, exhibitions, rewritings of art history etc. were in fact radical: they broke with the old notion of time, they brought the so called high culture to the working people, they brought workers into decision-making processes (including culture), museums were used by various publics and so on. But this does not mean that the situation in culture was perfect; on the contrary, since the socialist art museums were ideologically linked to the officially promoted art (first socialist realism then abstraction), any opposition, even in the form of irony or mocking the communist ideology, was sanctioned. The maxim was in a way Machiavellian: of course you are free to do anything you want, but we are watching you nevertheless.

I am now slowly coming to the core of my argument which goes like this: all really radical breaks in art in the communist Yugoslavia happened when artists “played with”, disturbed or distorted the ideological notion of time, its officially promoted optimism and patriotic education of the masses. This is what radical education was all about. But this does not have to do only with communist Yugoslavia. We are aware of course that time and space are inseparable, at least that is what they teach us in the Western philosophy, but we are also aware that it is not possible to manipulate space without first manipulating the notion of time. Let me illustrate this with a popular joke from our past: Three workers find themselves locked up, and they ask each other what they’re in for. The first man says: “I was always ten minutes late to work, so I was accused of sabotage.” The second man says: “I was always ten minutes early to work, so I was accused of espionage.” And the third man says: “I always got to work on time, so I was accused of having a Western watch.”

In the same way as the three guys who never got the “right” time, the ruptures in art were actually the experiences of the “real time” (and not representation of time as it should have been in the perfect future, remember the three future tenses!), and these artists “neither perfectly coincided with it” (that is, with time) for this would have been a dogmatic realism in its purest sense, “nor they adjusted themselves to its demands” (abstract art as an officially promoted art of the state). It means that they were not on time but in-time (cf Jasna Koteska). And this was, to paraphrase Agamben, a question of courage; a courage to hold the gaze to their own time so as to perceive not its light, but rather its darkness. The task of a thinker /artist then was, as R.W. Emerson suggests, “to be thinking his own time”.

So, how was it possible for artists to be in-time? Mladen Stilinović’ (artist from Croatia) short meditation In praise of laziness explains it well. He says that the artist in the West are not lazy and therefore not artists but producers of something. “Their involvement with matters of no importance, such as production, promotion, gallery system, museum system, competition system, their preoccupation with objects, all that drives them away form laziness, from art. Artists from the East, on the other hand, are lazy and poor because the entire system of insignificant factors does not exist. Therefore they have time enough to concentrate on art and laziness. Even when they do produce art, they know it is nothing.”

To be lazy means switching the regulated registers of time off. This is a passive approach to time, we are dealing here with the decelerated time and when time slows down we don’t do much because anything we do is unproductive, in vain etc.

But laziness (error, failure etc), on the other hand, can be a sort of counterpoint to obsession with productivity and efficiency, to the subordination and instrumentalization of one’s energies and the compulsory search for success in our current economic system. To be lazy (to make errors, to fail) today does not mean to act against the ideological authority, as was the case in communism, but to act primarily against the economic authority (i.e. capital). Eventhough we could argue that this is an ideological authority as well.

The other, more active approach to time is (according to Laclau’s concept) a moment of reactivation, which is a process of defixation of meaning. Examples of this in former Yugoslavia are the so called Black Wave films – since films are perfect examples of alteration of time anyway – from the late 60s and early 70s which were openly against the bureaucratic dogmatism of the state, promoting free expression and experimentation. These filmmakers rejected the dominant style of socialist realism, opting instead for exposing the darker side of the socialist state with its corruption and hypocrisy and even criticism of the communist regime. In the communist Yugoslavia, the authority of knowledge almost always represented the ideological authority which often, because of such negative tendencies prosecuted the artists.

I am going to show you a short film from 1972 by Karpo A. Godina which includes all the above-mentioned characteristics and is an example of destruction of ideology through play (play being another distortion of time), and which is, in my opinion radical education par excellence. For this film Godina nearly got a seven-year prison sentence and was not allowed to direct any more films for the next 10 years. All the copies of that film were destroyed, only one survived by chance. The title is On Love Skills, or A Film with 14,441 Frames and was originally commissioned as a promotional short film for the Yugoslav army, with a purpose of enticing young people to join the army and boosting the Army’s image. Instead the film was, as Karpo Godina recently said to me, pacifist (he even took a hippy maxim: make love not war as a point of departure) and as such represented a threat to that system and to that ideology. It seems that Godina already in 1972 attempted to show what Hard and Negri wrote in their text Of Love Possessed a couple of years ago: “Love is an ontological event in that it marks a rupture with what exists and the creation for the new.”

What can all these works, all these “ruptures” from the communist Yugoslavia, from the margin of the Western universality, tell us 20 years after the break of that country and the fall of communism? And I don’t mean in the moralist-humanist tradition but more in a sense of Chico Marx who said: If you are in trouble get yourself some history; you will still be in trouble but at least you will have history. Well, these ruptures tell us that no innovations were created in a void and that all the revolutionary events of today already bear with them certain historic moments which could be understood only when and if they reach their extractive conditions. Rastko Močnik, Slovene sociologist, pointed out that in order to produce more activist, revolutionary past we should intervene in the present. Therefore, in order to do that more efficiently, history should be re-written not only by those on the margins of space, but also by those on the margins of time itself.

**

If we turn now to a “contemporary” museum the question is: what kind of time does it actually exists here? And is it possible to produce more activist past in order to interfere with it in the present time? As we have seen, the museums under communism were all the time dealing with time; the space was ideologized and manipulated via the very notion of time: its mixture, distortion and confusion. Radical breaks happened not when the artists interfered in the future, but when the artists distorted past time so as to change the very present, the in-time. But since this never happened within museums we can make a conclusion: yes, there were some kind of progressive educational practices going on in these spaces (education of masses etc), but really radical practices – “events” – happened only when the artist manipulated the official ideological time in such a way as to became historians of their own practices, of their own time. And this enabled them to rethink art history in a completely different way; not necessarily as a sequence of representations but rather as intensities or affects, where art had a performative rather than representational character. This performative potential – representational unbinding – constitutes the power of imagining which we, at the REC, call radical imagination – a history that is not yet – a revolutionary thought where the new politics can arise.

But on the other hand, within the contemporary museums, things get even more complicated. Art museums are primarily heterotopias of time: there exist different kinds of time in a museum; besides linear time of strictly regulated opening and closing hours, there is a temporary suspended time (when observing an exhibition, for example), physical time (the notion of climate light, etc), as well as a metaphysical time (contemplating). But most importantly; there are many processes going on in the museums that have to do with the new authority of time which is primarily linked to the cognitive capitalism. As we know very well the space of economy tries to accelerate, dictate and organize time according to its operational logic and this is precisely what has been happening in the sphere of culture as well – the rhythms of work have become more intermittent, fluid etc. and the accelerated time of capitalism has caused among other things, the new modulations and regulations of work.

Eventhough there are many interpretations of what radical education is, for us, radical education in a museum means to think and to act politically within our own situation. Therefore radical education should not only re-consider the museum’ many temporalities but also re-think the possibilities for their change in such a way that these new temporalities become a condition for politics of dissent.

It is in this context I would like to introduce the investigation Workers’ Inquiry which was carried out by the researchers of the Centro de Estudios of the Museo de Arte Reina Sofía: Alfredo Aracil, Carolina Bustamante, Ines Moreno and Yunuen Sariego.

* Since this text is a direct transcript of a talk there are still exact references missing. However, the two main sources of inspiration were Giorgio Agamben: Infancy and History and Jasna Koteska: Spaces without time.

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