Arne Skaug Olsen

Productive confusion and the collaborative educational situation // Biennale Benin/Silvana Editorial // November 2012

Essay contribution co-written with Anne Szefer Karlsen for the catalogue of Biennale Benin 2012 – Inventing the World: The Artist as Citizen. Published by Biennale Benin and Silvana Editorial, November 2012. (ENG/FRA)

When an artist teaches, she is speaking from two positions: the artist’s position and the teacher’s position. Nevertheless she manages to speak without ambiguity. The particularity of the united role of the artist-teacher manifests itself in a ‘collaborative educational situation’, in which a sharing of knowledge and an interest in cultivating ideas and engendering discussions are the prevalent modes of interaction. Rather than making sure that knowledge is transferred from one individual to another in an act of training, the artist-teacher holds an intermediary position that helps make knowledge visible to a community of artists through what we would like to call the educational situation.

Art schools ought to be communities free of ideology. However, they are often still modelled on the historical master-apprentice relationship, or, more recently, on the research-based systems copied from academia. Both create elusive frameworks in which the actual educational situation created by artist-teachers has a hard time manifesting itself. Individual freedom of choice is restrained by unproductive bureaucracy, which enforces a set of limitations governed by an ideology of administration, or by systems in which knowledge is handed down in an authoritative manner in order to convey tradition, craftsmanship and aesthetic values. Both of these models often employ artists as teachers, but also a wide variety of other instructors, such as technical or academic teachers. The educational situation that we want to explore and define here – that of the intermediary position – exists within both these education models, but just as much outside of them.

In our thinking both teacher and student are artists in their own right, but at different stages of their development. By setting up a more egalitarian mode of engagement than the master-apprentice or research-based models, the educational situation create collaborations, rather than simply facilitating the needs or expectations expressed by institutions or traditions. The most important effort of the artist-teacher is to ensure that this collaborative educational situation is protected and sustained as a crucial component of being an artist within society, and within and outwith organised education. We want to explore a few of the collaborative efforts that occur in the sharing of knowledge and cultivation of new ideas in the educational situation particular to the artist-teacher practice, rather than explicitly discuss the role of the career art teacher. It is important to stress that our attitude is based on personal experiences rather than rigorous research.

We would like to somehow get closer to what is specific to the role of the artist-teacher and to create an awareness of that specificity. In our view the practice of the artist-teacher within both organised art education and informal educational models, is distinctly different from other forms of education. Our aim is not to reinvent the role of the artist-teacher, rather we wish to describe certain parts of art education as a collaborative forum for exchange and debate and identify it as an inherently oppositional strategy. Within educations that are based on a fixed curriculum, such as institutional universities, the dissident teacher is defined by the content of their teaching. The artist-teacher does not follow a curriculum, thus there is another set of distinguishing features for their role. Our claim is that an artist-teacher setting up collaborative and trans-disciplinary moments creates non-compliance with the prevalent systems by default. Ideally we would like to see the importance of the artist-teacher in this particular role properly acknowledged, both within and outside of formal educational institutions, and an appreciation for how these individuals through their teaching are contributing to society and artist communities at large.

In an attempt at making clear how art could be taught, we should look more closely at how the role of the artist-teacher creates and constitutes a collaborative educational situation, even though this may sit counter to prevalent educational models. We need to point out that being an artist-teacher is not primarily about upholding existing frameworks, but rather about challenging them by constantly introducing competencies and knowledge created outside such frameworks to its artist-student community. This knowledge is introduced through dialogue, rather than instruction and instrumental knowledge transfer. A dialogue-based collaborative mode of education ensures a vital alternative that can both help evolve the institutional framework in which it operates and simultaneously open up an autonomous space where teaching can happen. If this happens, the artist-teacher creates a contested site, which often places them in a precarious position. The educational situation set up by the artist-teacher together with the artist-students is a fragile one, because it is dependent on a certain degree of autonomy to be able to uphold a productive confusion and carve out a certain freedom to define a body of knowledge through collaboration rather than as a result of a prescriptive curriculum. The educational situation can in such case act as a buffer between art and political, financial or ideological instrumentalisation. In our view this must always be enabled and encouraged by educational institutions.

The intangible, yet decisive, moments when artists are taught through collaboration, are difficult to describe in a coherent way, as they cannot be reduced to schematic models. Because these teaching moments cannot be positioned neatly in categories and spreadsheets, they are not traceable, quantifiable or necessarily possible to repeat. In the context of the western European education system, we see that all the hopes and good intentions that might underpin the Bologna process are about to choke European art schools because the administrators have been given the mandate to create a system that is not based on trust, but on ‘empirical’ data supplied by teaching staff and students on topics such as teaching outcomes and transferrable skills. Thus, the pedagogical characteristics of institutional art education today have created a situation in which the artist-teacher whose aim is to educate through other means and who has set themselves different educational outcomes, is less than compliant.

What artist-teachers are able to transfer is not necessarily supported by or cannot easily be organised in a formal curriculum, as it is led by the individual artist-teacher’s specific knowledge. The education they offer is a collection of elements that are interchangeable, sometimes even improvised. Because the artist-teacher cannot be compliant, the attempts at defining their role is similarly escaping us, simply because their competence is coloured by particularities such as ethics, religion, topography as well as climate. One could say that the artist-teacher has the power to make both the curriculum and the school appear in the act of teaching. To create the formative space necessary to foster teacher, student and ultimately the art school itself, we need to ask what kind of structures, if any, the artists want to create in the first place.

The Academy of Contemporary Art in Tromsø was founded in the political climate of the early 2000s. The ones to develop its teaching profile were artists, hired by the very structure they were about to develop. The Academy welcomed its first students in 2007 and they were met by concerns around artistic integrity, sustainability, critical awareness and responsibility. Key to this educational profile was also its focus on recognising the importance of the local context and the specific challenges that are present in the Arctic, such as environmental issues, the situation of the indigenous people of the region and the area’s increasing geo-political significance. These are aspects that root the profile of this Academy in a local context while connecting it at the same time to global discourses of art and artist’s roles in society. Furthermore these qualities are reflected in the organisational structure and pedagogical groundwork of the school in which a focus on critical reflection, collaboration and dialogue are key aspects. This allows the artist-teacher to utilise the potential of the educational situation – collaboration and trans-disciplinarity – to connect the artist-student to a wider social arena, both locally and globally.

In many schools art education is described as ‘studio practice’. However, this term is not necessarily in line with what artists actually do and where they are active, since much of the artists’ practices happen outside of studio spaces. Thus most of what we think of as artists’ activity takes place outside of the strictly marketable studio system. At the core of the issue around the choice of teaching methodology lies the question of what kind of artists we want to encourage and educate. In this context it is important to make a distinction between the artist-teacher and artists that subscribe to the so-called educational turn. As we see it, the educational turn is far from a non-instrumentalised artistic movement, but rather a set of artists’ responses to highly instrumentalised art institutions that are only given the opportunity to elaborate and produce educational programmes by their funders, rather than support artists’ practices no matter what outcome. The artist-teachers we want to speak of here do not create artworks out of the education they stage or conduct: the educational situation they set up is in effect unproductive. The rhetorical question to ask is: do we want a business-oriented genius-type artist with a secluded studio practice, or do we want to create an interdisciplinary set of skills and stimulate both the artist-teacher and the artist-students to develop thinking tools in the confusing process of learning artistic practice? Of course there is room between these two stereotypes for many more typologies, but for the artist-teacher role we would like to outline and encourage here we believe the answer is easy.

In the ‘confusion’ that occurs between a systematically organising institution such as a school, and a non-compliant teacher such as the artist-teacher, the challenge is to articulate what artist-teachers do and how they do it, to maybe come closer to why or what an educational situation can be. By creating a space for confusion in the formative process of art education, non-uniform thinking in turn creates new generations of artists. Through their formation they create spaces for ethical discussions, historical awareness and societal involvement. Thus the educational situation need not be defined in terms of physical spaces, but rather in terms of an attitude and approach.

The artist-teacher exists wherever we find artists. They appear in the exchanges between artists in general. The role of the artist-teacher is defined partly by being the instigator of confusion, rather than a carrier of authority. Instead of only inhabiting a physical space – the school building – they create a social space that is necessary for the collaboration generated by the educational situation. In this space we locate the sharing of knowledge. Within any educational situation, knowledge is circulating between the artist-teachers and artist-students in an ongoing conversation, which creates a trans-disciplinary space. This space is created through the realisation that knowledge and artistic practices in many cases are no longer useful when divided into isolated compartments and is fundamentally different from a multi-disciplinary space where one could say that knowledge and practice exist alongside each other. Contrary to trans-disciplinary thinking within the natural sciences, social sciences and technology, the trans-disciplinarity of the educational situation created by artist-teachers is not geared towards resolving problems that have been identified. Rather the situation creates and embodies trans-disciplinarity. We understand trans-disciplinarity as an activity in which a question from one discipline can only be answered through another discipline, and we see every individual – artist-teachers as well as artist-students – as constituting different disciplines. This means that since the educational situation created by the artist teacher is trans-disciplinary, every artist, be they teacher or student, can only find answers to their questions through other artists: this creates the collaborative effort that manifest itself in the educational situation. Thus, this trans-disciplinarity constantly creates new knowledge, which in turn is circulated in a collaborative mode of sharing.

The educational moment and situation are not about a collaborative effort in art making, but more about an effort to think and discuss together. Although the result of the educational situation might be art making, we also need to be open to the possibility that the artist-student ends up not making any art at all. This is maybe how the collaborative educational situation is crucially different from other educations. Education should not be product-oriented.

Anne Szefer Karlsen & Arne Skaug Olsen, Bergen, September 2012