Interview, The Making of a Course, Index (2018)
Index’ director Marti Manen interviews curator Bronwyn Bailey-Charteris and curator of learning Emmeli Person on the summer course, And Forever And, and the resulting exhibition, And Tomorrow And, currently on show at Index.
Martí Manen: “And Forever And” has been a 10 days course connected with our exhibition “And Tomorrow And”. Can you talk a little bit about the decision of organising a summer course? What was interesting about it as a format to apply?
Bronwyn Bailey-Charteris: For me the starting point was something like looking at art worlding and art making like gardening. It’s impossible to do it one day. It needs time to soak in, things to dislodge and mutate, it needs sunshine and water. It was exciting to have ten days with young people who had applied to come (via an open call) and wanted to discuss how art practice and the future intermingle. I also teach in other contexts outside of Index and I was familiar with the feeling that these things need time to be digested, which is why I was very keen to work with a summer course format.
Emmeli Person: The processes taking place in the gallery once a show is open has been my main focus working at Index. Once the proposal made by the exhibition is in place, its reverberations can start. Me and Bron have been thinking a lot about how you value these echoes and how you can give them a space to grow and intermingle. Placing a course entrenched within the thinking process of the exhibition itself became not only an institutional action – placing pedagogics before and not after the opening – but also an opportunity to let the physical reverberations exist in the space. In earlier cases, interventions could leave a mark during an hour or two before the exhibition shrunk back into its original mould. In inviting these processes to take root in the gallery before the exhibition, the gardening, the composting of thoughts could already start.
MM: On institutional terms is quite risky to organise a course that will have a result in an exhibition opening just a couple of weeks after the course itself. Has the idea of doing the course affected on the exhibition itself as a situation? How do we understand the exhibition in this project?
BBC: I suppose it is a little risky and I feel that was extremely important to this exhibition. Risk is a wonderful and important tool in the toolbox of curators! I think I had to make the exhibition this way, in direct response to the attitudes and ideas presented by the young artists. If I had formulated it beforehand it would have been terribly stale.
The exhibition is a platform that sits in dialogue with the rest of the project. It’s probably the loudest part (and the most colourful) but it’s not the only part. It’s a platform offering audiences a moment to glimpse the futures that the artists are proposing and hopefully engage with these methods of futuring and ‘thinking-with’.
EP: I agree, the risk is so important. The place of risk is a place where things are put in motion, not static and impossible to grasp from a still position. This forces you to take more active role of constantly replacing and re-evaluate your own productive position, which, in all honesty, I think is the key aspects of teaching in open-ended processes.
MM: You organised the course with an open schedule with the aim to react to the needs and desires of the participants. How have they been reacting to it?
BBC: I wouldn’t necessarily call it an open schedule, I have worked with completely open formats in the past and this wasn’t exactly that. This had a daily schedule that repeated (mornings for artists presentations, making lunch together, afternoon for art based experiments) this simple model allowed us to introduce the many compelling voices and ideas from artists, and meant that most days held to the same rhythm, while covering very different intellectual and philosophical ground.
Some of the participants said afterwards that they would have preferred to know more beforehand, to know how it will all play out, and I get that! It’s nice to have a map. But I think the unfolding of a course, the many unravelings into directions sometimes unexpected, is what makes a great learning situation.
EP: It’s and interesting contradicting relationship the one between open-endesness and repetition. To keep the structure open there is this need of repeating and rehearsing points that grounds you and offers a safe haven you can come back to and add on to. The grounding parts make the open parts more open.
One of these reoccurring elements that I really appreciated was the re-arranging of the physical space that took place after each day. The premises was simply to never sit/arrange ourselves in the same way as the day before. For me it was a way to acknowledge the impact physical arrangements have on learning situations and educational hierarchies. Where are we facing? Who is sitting, who is standing? Do we create a cluster of viewpoints or do we disperse our self in the space? This simple exercise also helped us in defining where to place the texts that were produced during the course. The choreography of the learning space is something that is carried by both the student, the teacher, and the bystander. Questioning our physical habits is one aspect in trying to break the student/teacher hierarchy. Using the habit, the repetition, to highlight our ability to break it.
MM: In terms of content, the participants have seen the work of some artists, watched films, tested performative exercises and produced written and visual material. Can you talk a little bit about your ideas behind the presented material and the invited teachers?
BBC: Absolutely! I started researching and developing this project, And Tomorrow And, around two years ago, after reading Naomi Klein’s speech ‘Let Them Drown’. It talks about the cost that fossil fuel extraction has always had on the planet and the people living and working in these environments, she helped me to see climate injustice as a part of the greater set of injustices, that is, in the light of intersectionality and climate change being so wholly connected to racism, sexism, and of course colonialism and inherited poverty.
Reading further, TJ Demos, Anna Tsing and Donna Haraway started me on the path towards my more specific question for this project – how do artists propose different futures, and to be even more specific, how do artists do this through language and text? I have had an ongoing relationship to text and artists, I find artists relations to language and text endlessly interesting. I see text within art practice as a watery substance, moving through cycles of precipitation and extraction. For this reason I wanted to continue my thinking around the formulations for text and language with young people in Index learning program and specially this summer course.
How do artists engage with language to develop proposals for the future? I am quite certain ‘Anthropocene’, both as a name and as a way of living, can not just be blindly agreed to by us who are living in it. I believe artists have the ability to politically and poetically disperse meaning, to refract and refine terms that can be swallowed up as ‘reality’. The artist manifesto was an interesting starting point for me with this.
This is a long answer to your short question, but basically this question of how artists (including younger artists) develop demands and proposals for the future, through the medium of text and language, was my main interest. I invited established artists to present works in the exhibition and teach in the summer course, to gather together a diverse choir of voices that showed the participants some of the strategies out there, currently being developed by artists. I also wanted the summer course participants to spend time with artists who are living and working here in Stockholm right now and to be able to speak about the realties of working as an artist. I chose three artists to visit the course, each with an impressive body of work, who works locally and internationally. Roxy Farhat, Iris Smeds and Ellen Soderhult each presented their artistic practices and led workshops investigating performance and performativity, collectivity and authorship. The time together with the artists also included cooking and eating together, which was an important inbetween time or liminal time, where the roles of teacher and students merged.
EP: I guess I can add on some reflections about the ideas materialized in the room and how they came about.
It was important to us that we’d not only continue on the discursive elements of the learning program but to learn from physical interactions that we’d seen in the space. An element that is rarely given much thought in the gallery space is the floor. Working with a stream of, sometimes restless, young people, it’s been clear that the floor has so much more to offer than foot support. A lot of the reverberations literally happen on that floor, with sounds and paths growing from the surface you only assume will carry your body. I wanted to let the floor be a carrier for the speculative processes the learning program will engage in during the exhibition period. Putting in a bluescreen carpet was not only a reference to the visual tropes of sci-fi, but will act as a tool to let other imaginaries and proposals leak into the room.
The four curtains that we start with in the room is the result of conversations of text and materiality. Text as materiality – taking on fluid, growing and virus-like abilities, but also materiality as text – reading the grammar of how materials are ordered and named for human purposes. Placing the text on modular curtains was an opportunity to have the generated texts present in the room without displaying them on structures that screamed AbsouteTruth! During the period our young Residents will add onto the choir of manifestations, hopefully making the curtains move further and further away from the sculpture-like appearance that they had at the moment of opening.
The same goes for the books, they present a wish to be generous and generative. All of them played a role in the thoughts leading up to the exhibition, but most of all they are thoughts we’d like to invite others to think with. Hopefully the words will be digested and given new formulations by the voices that pass through the gallery.
MM: Ten days is a long and intense period of time if we think about the emotional rollercoaster that means to work collectively with artistic content with a group of people that you don’t know from before. How have you been working to define the collective itself?
BBC: Yes it definitely did feel like a long time, things started to really get a good flow and boiling of ideas! The group started to work together quite smoothly and quickly actually, the participants were generous, open and brave. We introduced concepts of working collectively, and the teaching artists, especially Ellen Soderhult, spoke a lot about forming and strengthening collective practices. It’s obvious that art education in schools often focus on the dominant ideals of the individual (modernist/white/male/straight/able-bodied) artist. Many of these participants had never written or created collectively before, and I think they found the strength and freedom within collective processes very rewarding.
EP: For me, it’s clear that collective processes were never an educational priority for us growing up in the 90s and 00s. That we are now seeing so many initiatives asking – how to think together, how to live together– I think is telling of our inadequacy in dealing with the political questions that are screaming for collective action. Responding to the Open Call were a group of young people that like us shared the need to extend their toolbox in how to come together and understand how we are all entangled. Climate anxiety, which was really present during this heated summer of 2018, can be such a lonely place. We started the first day with just sharing our experiences and methods of dealing with the emotions stirred up by the heat. The experience of being this one cell without the power to affect the rest of the body to move, for a couple of days it was nice to fall into the fantasy of us all moving and thinking together in a bigger body, maybe stumbling but using the power of the collective in learning how to walk.
MM: Are you surprised with what the participants have been doing?
BBC: In a way, yes I was surprised, but I was also very sure that these people would have something to say about this topic. I was hoping to create an environment that was a fertile and rich ground for the coming together of ideas and I believe this happened. As Donna Haraway says in the documentary film from Fabrizio Terranova – thinking is a material practice and a collective practice. After the course one of the participants told me – many people in Sweden say ‘how can we get young people to engage?’ and her answer was ‘we are engaged, we’re here, we’re thinking, we just need a space to be listened to in, a space to be heard’. The artists involved, both the young ones in the course and the established artists who were teaching and presenting their works in the film program are at the core of this whole project – how do artists propose futures, and the answer to this will always be a little surprising!
EP: Surprised, no. Moved, yes. Like Bron mentioned, this engagement and intensity of thought has been so evident in the groups we meet and get to know though Index Residents and Index Teen Advisory Board. To create this course was a natural continuation of the potentials we had seen and knew just needed some room and time to develop. If I have to mention one thing that exceeded my expectations was the courage and acceptance of risk. At the end of the course the group decided that they’d like to do a collective performance at the opening and one of the participants asked to choreograph it. Walking around the exhibition room, chanting sentences and words form their text, their individual risk was put into motion by the group. Again, the risk they were willing to take, moved at least me in unexpected directions.
MM: You have been talking about many ideas during these days. If you have to put in words, which ones would be the most interesting ones?
BBC: Oh so many! I think my favorite has been sharing ideas around the term Anthropocene. Many of the participants were unfamiliar with the term and were interested in the critique of it. The suggestions that they built for new terms linked to experiments in materiality that the students undertook with Emmeli and Ulla-Britta Westergren, and they arrived at incredibly exciting new proposals such as Pulseocene, Noocne, Empathyocene and Avocadocene.
EP: Puh, yes, being boring now and admitting that it was also one of my favorite moments. We ended up having many clear, and at the same time very poetic suggestions for how we could re-imagine the future. The power that words enact supported by the re-formulations of our material reality, was a combination that I think echoed strongly in many of the ideas being put forward during the ten days.
MM: The course was happening at the exhibition space at Index, not in a secondary one. For me it is something important as it shows that the Learning Program can be the starting point or a layer that affects the idea of the institution itself. What are your thoughts about it?
BBC: It was very important that the course take place in the environment of the exhibition itself. It just would not have been appropriate for it to be anywhere else. The model of the small konsthall (and art institutions in general) is currently in deep review, by artists, curators, producers and funders. This shift relates in one part to how we understand the role of learning and audiences in the konsthall. For the first time in Index’ history (that I am aware of), the exhibition was built from the inside out, with research questions brought into the space, proposed, discussed and deciphered in the space, resulting in an exhibiton that presents slices the process. It’s an exhibition made with learning practices at its core, but it’s not a ‘learning exhibition’, it is not didactic in being ‘about education’, but it does share modes of thinking around learning with art, alongside strands of artistic practice. These ways of working affect the institution as a wave in the ocean, with ripples and swells. By the end of 2018 Index will have completed an intensive three year learning focused program, that has bent and shifted the way institutional knowledge is formed and understood. I am so pleased to have seen this shift and to have contributed to it.
The exhibition And Tomorrow And runs at Index from August 25 – November 25, 2018. Find out more here.