HD: What does the form of the interview do for you as a useful concept or strategy in education, especially in relation to nonhierarchical or collective educational models? I am thinking of this question both in terms of your own Master’s project (your own educational transformation) and education more broadly.
AY: Okay. Well, as you know, I am currently working on a Master’s degree in art education at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). My project revolves around questions of the role of the teacher, collaboration, and physical space. For example, can encounters with unfamiliar spaces disrupt habitual teacher-student relationships and open up possibilities for other approaches to educational collaboration? I’ve been going about researching these questions by conducting interviews with participants and leaders of two organisations and two projects connected to the artworld: the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP)in New York, the Stockyard Institutein Chicago, Annette Krauss’s Hidden Curriculum project in Utrecht and elsewhere, and Clémentine Deliss’s Future Academy, which took place internationally. In these particular projects and organisations, people in teacher roles are trying hard to interact with students they work with in a nonhierarchical way, or in a more democratic fashion. They try to give students a lot of say in what goes on in their work together and they encourage them to help direct the collaboration.
Why am I drawn to doing my research by interviewing these people? Well, there are a number of reasons, but I’m going to talk about just one for now because I think it’s the most relevant to your question. I think a lot of us associate the hierarchy of teachers to students in education as having to do with knowledge. And that makes sense since the school system purports to be about accumulating knowledge and attributes higher value to greater knowledge. So, I think that to dismantle the hierarchy, to subvert their authority, a lot of these educators work with students to learn about something that neither group – teacher or students – knows anything about. They take on a subject where they have little or no knowledge.
This is a bit of a long way of saying that, in an interview, the person with the expertise is the interviewee. And that means that the teacher’s role can become freed or loosened, or be refashioned to a very specific purpose – for example, facilitating or coordinating the investigation rather than dispensing knowledge. So it can change habitual understandings of who is presumed to have expertise and knowledge, where teachers and students can be co-learners. As soon as you set up an interview, you acknowledge the interviewee as having something to contribute. And especially if you set up multiple interviews, you can show that lots and lots of people have something to contribute and that anyone can be an interviewee – everyone is an expert in something. So I see the interview as a possible alternative methodology for learning, for education. And maybe I’d even like to see it being incorporated into formal institutions of learning. Or not.
HD: How have you seen (or how can you imagine) interviews being incorporated into more formal educational models in a productive, interesting way?
AY: Many years ago, in my first year of art college at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD), I stumbled upon a book in the library called Interviews with Sound Artists (Lerman et al. 1992). I read it and was fascinated. I felt a very special relationship to the material in the book because I was connecting to someone’s perspective, to someone’s voice and individual experience. It was magical. There was a lot of history in that book. It’s where I first learned about Fluxus, for example. That made a huge impression on me. So that’s an example where not even conducting, but just reading a set of interviews was a powerful experience.
In 2006, I did an internship at the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP) in Brooklyn. It was part of my Bachelor of Education. I think that was my second significant encounter with the interview, and it’s a great example of how I’ve seen interviews being incorporated into more formal educational models in a productive, interesting way. CUP does a lot of different things, but one realm of their activities is their ‘urban investigations’. They work with a teaching artist and a group of students to investigate how some aspect of the city of New York works. They also collaborate with a community organisation that has some interest in the topic.
The basic structure of these projects is this: the students, teaching artist, and a person from a community organisation, as well as sometimes a staff member from CUP, conduct a series of interviews with people connected to a previously chosen topic. They document the interviews and then they review the data and create some kind of product – for example, a video, poster, brochure, or zine. That product can be used by the community organisation for public education about the topic. Valeria Mogilevich, the program director at CUP, recently told me that it’s ultimately about making the decision-making processes of the city accessible and knowable so the students and other members of the public can take part in shaping the city.
Of course, as soon as you bring the interview component in – and this depends as well on how it’s done, but if you take it seriously and make a real effort – then the classroom is no longer traditional. And that’s kind of the point, right? To disrupt these habits and traditions that have become so stuck to our way of doing school or of approaching learning as a group.
HD: What do you think are the limitations of interviews as an educational method? For example, I am thinking here of Paige Sarlin’swork on the interview where she discusses how the interview as a form tends to reify and individualise knowledge because it focuses so intensely on one person, or the production of personality (see Sarlin 2012). I'm curious about how the interview – which is often conducted between two people and can be seen as a solidification of identity – can function as a collective production of knowledge.
AY: I'm going to go back to CUP here. While I was there, I was doing some mundane intern tasks – transcribing video documentation of interviews from a past project. But it turned out to be an amazing experience. It was like a little light went on. Because as I moved along in this task from transcribing the interview with Martha Rosler talking about her body and the city, and then some stiff government official, and then this animated woman who lobbied on behalf of public housing tenants with a specific focus on rats … I began to see the disconnect. All these people were interviewed for the same project. They were talking about the same thing. And yet, what they were saying couldn’t be pieced together into a simple statement or a coherent picture.
Recently I’ve begun to dip my toes in something called complexity theory. There are some pretty rad diagrams associated with it. In a traditional classroom situation there would be a dot at the centre – that’s the teacher or the classroom experience – with a bunch of lines radiating out to a collection of other dots – the students. A complexity theory diagram would not be as direct or as clear as that. Instead it looks more like a constellation, like you see in an astronomy book when you look at the Seven Sisters or Scorpio or whatever. Complexity theory, as I understand it, is about this idea of not reducing. And I think it makes sense to talk about CUP projects in that way. Because when they bring together this group of interviews, they do the opposite of reducing the topic to a coherent, legible message or truth. Instead, they show the complexity of the topic. So I think in the case of CUP, the interview format does not reify knowledge. And I think a key part of that is this collection of interviews (rather than a single interview). I think it’s really important to talk to more than one person about the same thing.
HD: I really like the way that you talk about complexity theory as an elaboration of how CUP works, about the complete and utter disconnect that we encounter, both daily and within a particular question. It makes me think about Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network-Theory where each element, object, etc., are given a particular agency and understanding of how they act or push something in the world, and that the compilation of all these actants – which is the word he uses to avoid the distinction between a subject and an object – and movements and forces results in this kind of complex network that you are talking about (see Latour 2005). I’m really drawn to the incommensurability of knowledge, the way in which knowledge cannot be reduced to or pinpointed in a single truth, and I like the way that you highlight in your examples how this happens through the form of the interview. I'm also curious about the way in which the singularisation of a response (through one person) can draw a reader/listener in through empathy (I’m thinking of the living library project here) and am thinking about how an interview is as much a process of learning to listen as it is an opportunity to ask questions or to provide answers. It’s almost as if an interview foregrounds this slightly hidden and extremely important aspect of knowledge, which is listening. But what I would like to ask finally is, is an interview always so formal? In other words, do we ever find ourselves in the middle of an interview without knowing it?