Deschooling Society: art, education and “knowledge production”

by | Jul 5, 2010 | Conversations | 0 comments

Thanks to my friend and fellow curator Shaun Dacey, I found out about a two-day conference being co-organized by the Hayward Gallery and the Serpentine Gallery during my stay in London titled “Deschooling Society”. Though the conference was nearly sold out, I managed to get tickets and then spent April 29th and 30th taking more than 20 pages of hastily scribbled notes about the proceedings.

Named after Ivan Illich’s 1971 book of the same name, the conference brought together artists, curators and critics to discuss “the changing relationship between art and education.” The list of names speaking and in dialogue with one another was impressive–including Martha Rosler, Claire Bishop, Irit Rogoff, Carmen Moersch and Hans Ulrich Obrist–but unfortunately the organizers never specified exactly how they wanted to tackle the enormously complex and open-ended “relationship between art and education.” This meant that, although the lectures and discussions were fascinating, speakers were often speaking past one another, tackling topics as diverse as artistic practice that uses pedagogical models, museum education, university programs for artists and curators and the epistemological implications of the creation of knowledge itself.

Despite some of the confusion, there was a lot of worthwhile discussion and especially debate. (It was only my first week in London and the first “art world” event I’d been to and the type of discussion and level of engagement and well, respectful antagonism, involved in the conference was surprising to a Canadian. Good surprising – I wish artists and academics had it out with one another, in public, on an intellectual stage more often in this country.) The Hayward Gallery’s blog has recently uploaded podcasts from all of the major sessions and they’re worth a listen, but here are my highlights from the conference:

Christopher G. Robbins‘ keynote lecture “Escape from Politics: The Challenge of Pedagogy and Democratic Politics in the De/schooled Society”: Robbins, who teaches at Eastern Michigan University and is currently working on the militarization of US public schools, was given the daunting task of contextualizing the history of the move towards pedagogy in public culture and to trace the legacy of Ivan Illich’s book on education. His talk was, perhaps with the exception of Rogoff’s (more on that shortly), the most academic of the conference, but was organized around three central questions that helped clarify the terms of the rest of the discussion and debate. They were:

1.What are the pedagogical dimensions of neoliberalism?
2.How should we approach Illich’s book and think about critical and public pedagogies?
3.How can neoliberalism be contested through education?

Robbins seemed reticent to wholeheartedly accept Illich’s tenets in Deschooling Society (which I haven’t read) because of its “radical humanism” which Robbins finds dangerously apolitical, but his summary of the text’s main points was useful. Illich, according to Robbins, argues that formal schooling confuses learning with education (or process with substance). Schools (and I think Robbins was mainly thinking of universities here) then become credentialing mills where students acquire skills and knowledge as a form of private property and seek to hoard these rather than sharing them with the public sphere.

As Robbins pointed out, neoliberalism has already adopted some of the strategies of pedagogy in a similar way to the formal schooling systems Illich critiques. So the question then becomes “can you contest one kind of (neoliberal) pedagogy with another kind of (critical) pedagogy?”. Robbins’ short answer was yes. He distinguished between critical pedagogy and public pedagogy.

Critical pedagogy is the philosophy and praxis through which critical theory confronts the world. It asks “how did the world come to be this way?” It is a dialogue with others that attempts to be self-reflexive. It is aware of its material location and is not group therapy. It commits to revealing who can speak, where and when – since these are the products of human activity, they can be changed or resisted.

Critical pedagogy has largely been theorized in formal educational settings which is, ironically, where it is the least effective. Hence the need for a public pedagogy, which is already happening through processes such as militarization, media representations, protests in response to these developments such as the WTO or G20 protests and even popular culture (his example was rap music). It is pedagogy in action on a large scale, both being used by neoliberal agendas and by the forces that respond to it. Robbins warned that, since schools are not nearly as autonomous as we would like to believe them to be, it is critical to start focusing on a public pedagogy, which is I think where he sees artistic practice coming into play.

Irit Rogoff’s discussion with Carmen Moersch, “From Discursive Practices to the Pedagogical Turn”: Moersch’s description of her programming for the documenta 12 education program was fascinating (especially her point that, despite the “pedagogical turn in art,” most artists refuse to call themselves “educators” because of its associations with a particular gender and class position), but it was Rogoff who set the pace for subsequent disagreements with a few other panelists.

Rogoff, who teaches at Goldsmiths University in curatorial studies and visual cultures, began by discussing the school’s reaction to her proposal to offer a program at the university for free (it obviously did not go over well or succeed) and what this indicated to her about the status of arts education. She argued that art and its institutions are not accustomed to responding to or dealing directly with policy, which determines the course of much education, but instead tends to deal with the effects of these policies. She positioned education as an “unstable entity” between institutions, social dynamics and “the weird permutations of knowledge” and provocatively argued that the “crisis in education” which has inspired the pedagogical turn in art is in fact a crisis of knowledge production, where the circulation and dissemination of knowledge cannot catch up with itself.

I’m not sure I entirely followed her argument (which she explores in more detail in her “Turning” article for e-flux journal), or completely agreed with her. But she then pointed out that within curatorial work, there is a kind of gap or stoppage between the impulse to take up critical pedagogy (the crisis) and its enactment (the final exhibition) which risks turning the impulse to create knowledge in a new way or new environment into a trope or an exaggerated mannerism without content. If, as she argues, the work of knowledge production is to undo the possibilities for conditions of containment, can this kind of work be done in institutional settings, which are often the site of curatorial work and exhibitions?

That seemed to me one of the essential questions that kept coming up at the conference and which was never fully answered or addressed. How does one work in a critical pedagogical mode within an institution where the kinds of publics that have access to your work is already limited? Sally Tallant, one of the organizers of the conference and Head of Programmes at the Serpentine Gallery, at one point responded by pointing out that admission to the Serpentine and Hayward was free and therefore it is open to everyone. But as Robbins and others quickly rebutted, just because it’s free doesn’t mean it’s “free” to all social and class positions or accessible to those who might most benefit from it.

Harrell Fletcher and Nils Norman in conversation with Claire Bishop, “Insertions, Alterations and Rearrangements within Existing Institutional Frameworks”: Finally, in some ways in response to Robbins and Rogoff’s presentations, Claire Bishop moderated a discussion between artist Harrell Fletcher and artist/educator Nils Norman. But it was in no way a quiet or usual moderation.

Bishop opened with her own introduction and immediately stated her own qualms about using a term like “knowledge production,” which has become associated with corporate culture and neoliberalism (and was a not-very-veiled attack on Rogoff’s presentation). She also discussed the discrepancies in the discussion so far between artistic practice that employs pedagogical strategies and pedagogical strategies used by curators and institutions in the gallery space. To her, these are important differences since the institution does not need to represent its activities to another audience – by offering educational activities or pedagogical exhibitions to the public they make their work and educational position explicit – whereas artists would need to communicate the shift in their practice to their audiences in a more nuanced or roundabout way, through documentation, artist talks, their own writing, etc. This raised the question, how do we represent education to the public? and , perhaps more importantly, why are we so interested in education at this moment?

Bishop’s guess, and I would agree with her, is that both educators and artists/critics/curators are concerned about the diminishing autonomy of universities and galleries alike. They are both affected by what Robbins termed the pedagogical effects of neoliberalism. And yet, despite their commonalities, it seemed apparent throughout the conference that educators like Robbins are not really speaking to “art people” like Moersch or Rogoff, at least not directly. The week of the conference, for instance, Middlesex University announced it was closing its philosophy department, to great public outcry, while programs such as Goldmsiths’ PhD in Curatorial Knowledge and dozens of Studio Art doctorate programs continue to proliferate in the UK and abroad. This seemed like the ideal example of how policy and neoliberalism are affecting education and artistic practice in similar but uneven ways and yet none of the speakers addressed the event in their presentations. It seemed to hint at the continuing divide, or as Rogoff put it, stoppage, between real life crises and the staging of their solutions in the gallery and pose an ongoing problem for the “real world” and the “art world” to be able to speak to one another.