Flexible Structures and Additive Histories

Often when we learn about the history of art, we get the impression of a chronology of groups of artists responding to and reacting to other groups of artists that came before them. This is the avant-garde, where the past is regarded as something to be crossed out and supplanted – substituted by the future.


Recently, I saw an exhibition of Japanese kimonos at the Art Institute of Chicago. The didactics excited me because they described a history of Japanese kimonos in which new techniques – for example, a new way of creating surface pattern – were integrated with the old techniques, rather than replacing them. The results were literally visible in the exhibition: the kimonos were arranged chronologically, and the later ones were astoundingly complex. They were beautiful. This exhibition presented an additive history where new developments are embraced and incorporated into a continuing practice of older traditions.


We can look to the kimonos for the example they provide of a flexible structure that allows for new and alternative possibilities to enter and be incorporated into a larger whole, or larger holes, and also as an example of what can happen when diverse elements are brought together.


Flexible Structures as a Political Question

This notion of additive history as a flexible structure – a form that is responsive and recursive, which allows contrasting opinions or techniques to sit side-by-side without demanding consensus or convergence – is also a political gesture. Cultural theorist Brian Massumi articulates it in this way:


Affective politics, understood as aesthetic politics, is dissensual, in the sense that it holds contrasting alternatives together without immediately demanding that one alternative eventuates and the others evaporate. It makes thought-felt different capacities for existence, different life potentials, different forms of life, without immediately imposing a choice between them. The political question, then, is not how to find a resolution.It’s not how to impose a solution. It’s how to keep the intensity in what comes next. (Massumi and McKim 2009) 

In other words, a flexible structure that does not demand consensus or conformity is one that leaves room for different ways of being to exist, keeping the previous layers to create aesthetic and political formations of increasing complexity. It cultivates heterogeneity as a valuable and generative form. This move is radically democratic. It is also of importance to artists, designers, and creators of all types. For laying two discrete objects or opinions together without asking that they merge can create a useful tension out of which something can be invented – something new can enter the world. The process of addition, of creating structures that allow for flexibility and openness is challenging, but it is also the space in which fundamental incompatibilities can become generative.


The creation of flexible structures that can retain these contrasting alternatives without demanding a definitive solution is invaluable for those interested in collaborative, nonhierarchical models of education. But what could a non-hierarchical model of education look like? What practices have people adopted to try to experiment with a radically democratic educational form?


Not Knowing and the Public Amateur

Heather, you asked what a non-hierarchical model of education might look like. I have recently been studying a handful of arts education organisations and projects that attempt a democratic, non-hierarchical approach to collaborating with their student participants. In these examples, which include Annette Krauss’s Hidden Curriculum, the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP), the Stockyard Institute, and Future Academy, the people occupying teacher roles in the group attempt to rid themselves of their authority – the authority they associate with an undesirable, hierarchical teacher-student relationship – by displaying a ‘not knowing’. In a conventional model of education, described by Paolo Freire as a transmission or banking model of education, a teacher disseminates knowledge to students who sit passively receiving that knowledge (see Freire 2000, chap. 2). In the projects I have been looking at, the teacher does not assume this knowing stance, but instead has the confidence to understand what they don’t know, what they can continue to learn. They take the position of not-knowing as a way to transform the student-teacher relationship and to reposition the role of learning as experimental and never-ending.


Like French philosopher Jacques Rancière, they reject the notion of an inequality between teachers and students founded on a division between knowledge and ignorance (see Rancière 1991). They attempt to transform the knowledge-power system. These artist educators purposely put themselves in a position where their knowledge of the topic they are about to study is as limited as that of the students they are working with. They openly admit to not knowing.


American artist Claire Pentecost writes about artists, and their roles as ‘Public Amateur[s]’ (2008, 33). In short, the public amateur is someone who ‘consents to learn in public and who does so via unofficial, informal, unconventional routes (ibid.). Beyond accumulating knowledge he or she also presents interpretations of knowledge, while making no pretensions to expertise (ibid.).


Learning in public requires courage. To admit to not knowing is to expose our vulnerabilities. However, ignorance of topics that fall outside our own acknowledged field is forgivable. For example, an artist may incur no professional consequences for his or her illiteracy in microeconomics, just as an economist is not expected to know what relational aesthetics is. For this reason, the artist does not suffer for acting as a public amateur. The problem arises when the economist is unaware of microeconomics and the artist has never heard of relational aesthetics. Pentecost (2008, 37–38) writes that ‘It’s more difficult for professionals to learn in public because they must protect their authority, which in most fields is not served by saying, “I don’t know” in a spotlight, or by openly performing a spastic struggle to understand something.’ And it’s exactly this – the professionalism – that some of these educators want to eradicate, because of its associations that run counter to a democratic approach.

Some parallels exist between Pentecost’s public amateur – mainly the dimension of public learning – and Rancière’s scenario of the teacher who learns alongside students. Rather than guarding the myth of their boundless, faultless knowing, a teacher can acknowledge the illusion and, in doing so, may disrupt the connotations and consequences that come with it.

Thus, instead of knowledge, the educators I looked at bring with them a question and then the work they do with students revolves around the questions posed and depends on both an open acknowledgement of not knowing and a recognition of everyone’s expertise and potential to contribute research to the project. Which brings us to interviews.



Why are you drawn to interviews as a method for research, Heather?


Interview-based research provides an opportunity to talk with a range of people, to learn through dialogue and exchange, to think about who is an expert and why, and subtly shift our notions of expertise and knowledge. Often, we come to know about something through the same few sources. While these ways of learning about the world are incredibly valuable, they can overlook the nuances of daily experience, and often entrench the same few experts and the same way of looking at things. What I appreciate greatly about interviews is both their intimacy as a method and that you often end up talking with many different people who do not necessarily agree, or who provide completely different ways of looking at the same topic.

When I say that interviews are intimate, what I mean is that they are based on a kind of immediate exchange between people, often in person. They sometimes provide the opportunity to get to know or interact with people who you would otherwise never run across. And through interviews, your own interests as a researcher are often revealed – you have to put yourself out into the world in a way that is more exposing than turning on your computer or going to the library. I also simply like meeting people and listening to what they have to say.

What is perhaps more politically motivating in interview-based methodologies is the opportunity to validate different ways of knowing or being in the world. Interviews can reveal the incommensurate nature of knowledge, the ways in which a particular topic often becomes more and more complex the more you look at it, rather than being masterfully pinned down to only one frame. Interviews provide space for all kinds of people to talk about their relationship to a subject, recognising that everyday knowledge can be just as valuable as ‘expertise
. Because of how they can connect to untold histories or stories of oppression, as in oral history projects, interviews can also be a way of addressing subjects that often get silenced or overlooked.


You mentioned the incommensurate nature of knowledge. How do you deal with all these different, sometimes opposing, voices that do not seem to fit together into a coherent whole? How do you deal with this quality when you are trying to form a thought or opinion about the particular topic you are researching?


I try to avoid fitting everything into a coherent whole. Conventionally, we are trained to do this, encouraged to synthesise, provide definitive answers, solutions, metanarratives, wholes, but this approach usually does a disservice to the complexity of the world, to the singularity of every encounter, to the innumerable holes in our arguments and thoughts. When writing, I try to incorporate many different styles and voices as an attempt to avoid this kind of truth-claim. When I begin to research a particular topic, I often find that I come to it with a very strong opinion, but the more I research, the more people that I talk to, the more I begin to understand the various systems of emergence and the less coherent or ideological my position becomes. I think this is a good thing, as it allows for a multi-faceted perspective that makes room to move in the world in a way that feels more open and compassionate. I think its an important democratic exercise to try really to understand the position of someone who radically disagrees with you, to understand his or her reasons. But this doesnt mean you have to agree. There is a limit to this kind of complexity and that is in understanding the difference between complexity and complacency – just because there are multiple ways of viewing something doesnt mean that they are all equally valuable in a public or political context. Here, having a strong sense of social justice or a commitment to a notion of the public, or something along those lines, helps to orient various perspectives. An ethical gesture is one that leaves room for possibility, rather than closing a system down through processes of normalisation and homogenisation. Often, the best way to proceed seems to be to own up to the contingent nature of any decision or opinion, and simply to lay bare the contrasting realities that lie behind it, rather than to proceed as if those realities didnt exist.


Amber: Future Academy, an international research project of the artworld, used a recursive structure to begin to imagine how to keep these contrasting alternatives together. And this is where I first encountered the term metalogue – in my reading about Future Academy.


Future Academy is no longer in existence. It began around 2002/2003 and ended in 2010, and was initiated, conceived of, and led by curator Clémentine Delisse. Future Academy brought together participants who worked together on the question of what an art academy of the future would look like or be like. They ended up talking about three main themes: the architectonic, the structural, and the epistemological.


An example of how that project is metalogic is that they asked what the building would be like and the students decided they didn’t need a building. They didn’t want a building. So in making this decision, Future Academy itself became a nomadic entity. They were active in parts of the United Kingdom, Japan, Senegal, India, and the United States. The group of people involved also changed and their number fluctuated, although Clémentine remained constant at the helm of the project. I found it incredibly interesting that the form of Future Academy was informed by this decision – that what was talked about by Future Academy is what Future Academy became.


So Future Academy’s research took the form of talking, think tanks, performances, interventions, and itself changed in response to whatever ideas their research took them to. Clémentine used the word floating to describe this process. She said that it’s important to recognise that nothing about Future Academy – the people, the practices, the spaces – was reified at the time of the project, so it shouldn’t be reified in looking back and speaking about it now. The word floating fittingly encompasses the movement, mystery, and amorphousness of Future Academy. The lack of a fixed physical identity or association – the near literal floating – allows the project to have a more flexible identity.


Heather: That’s super interesting, and quite a unique example. Many other projects emerge through or take dialogue, conversation, or interview as form, but they often work within another kind of preset structure, where interviews often function to fill in a pre-existing form. Many community-based theatre companies, such as Jumblies in Toronto or Cornerstone in Los Angeles, use long processes of conversation, interviews, and questionnaires to come up with ideas to be adapted into a play or performance. These processes are used for their orientation to social justice, to validate marginalised ways of living or stories that are not often heard. But the form of the play, even if not set as a rigid structure, even in its possibility for experimentation, is what is being worked toward. I find it interesting that Future Academy, in part because of its long term and educational goals, could reimagine its structures entirely on the basis of conversations students were having.


Amber: Also, the name Future Academy is misleading because it makes it sound as if there were roles such as students and teachers. But it went so far beyond the current understandings of an academy. So the term student here is inaccurate. Future Academy did not have students as we understand students to be. And it’s important to say this even though most of the participants happened to be students at various art colleges. I find the names that people call themselves in these projects to be really interesting.


Heather: What do people call themselves?


Amber: Things like ‘teaching artist’, ‘lead inquirer’, or they come in and they say ‘I’m an artist’. And they tend to avoid words like teacher. And then what the students are called – for some reason this seems not to matter as much, because maybe being a student is a less fraught or problematic position.


Heather: Or maybe because you interviewed the people who occupied the role of what might look like a ‘teacher’, rather than the ‘students’. The students themselves might not be as comfortable with that label. But, why do you think people don’t want to call themselves teachers? Isn’t this in part an elision of the power that they do actually hold over the other participants?


Amber: One reason people don’t want to call themselves teachers is that they find something offensive in that word. It has associations with power and authority that are distasteful, but not only that, the word ends up being insufficient and counterproductive. It’s a word that imposes too many limitations on the kinds of behaviours or methodologies allowed to someone identified as a teacher. Even the word ‘educator’ is less uncomfortable than the word ‘teacher’. Of course, the education system is always integrating new vocabulary into its politics, approaches, and official documents, with a vision of new language paving the way for and establishing new practices.


Heather: This is similar to the turn away from identity politics, which despite its necessary political gesture, was found to be too limiting for many people. A refusal to be identified as any one thing started looking like a better political strategy, the ability to shift and move into many different contexts was a way to proliferate ideas, thoughts, feelings, ways of being.


Amber: Yes. And one strategy for refusing to be identified is by identifying yourself in a way that explains nothing about what your role might be, or what you are doing, or how you relate to the people around you.


Heather: … which remains intentionally ambiguous.


Amber: When I interviewed Clémentine, she said she doesn’t like clear identifications. Annette Krauss also mentioned someone who had said something about chairs: ‘The fact that we know what a chair is and how to use a chair actually restricts the possibility of what a chair can be, and what we possibly can do with it’ (pers. comm., 5 September 2011).  The reason why I mention this is because clarity implies a legibility that can limit flexibility.


Heather: Being able to name something can carry a presumption that things can be fully known, know-able, which implies that they can be mastered, possessed.


Amber: And not only that, but that they can be complete, too. Of course, I worry when I imagine being in a world where nothing is firm. It seems crazy. But, it’s not about trying to say something definitive. It’s about saying something and then allowing yourself to say something else after.


Heather: Cultural theorist Lauren Berlant talks about how concepts are often placeholders. They work as a conceptual tool to begin to try to describe or imagine something, but problems arise if you forget that the concept was a placeholder, and mistake it for a truth.


Amber: Yes. To return to the metalogue, it would seem as if the form is not empty, but becomes a kind of invisible constraint, something like gravity, that it deeply informs and contains the possibilities for relation, for its content. The nature of ‘education’ is similar: the form that it takes limits what can be learned about any given topic, and perhaps even limits the topics themselves. Form becomes a kind of content, even as it seems paradoxically to remain hollow. What a muddle!