Issue #46, 2014
Scene

Visible Walls And Invisible Walls: On Art, Education And Potentiality
Diana Marincu

Dividing the structure of a city through physical and symbolic barriers is a reality as disputed as practiced, from the Wall in the West Bank to the frontier between Mexico and the US. In a global mapping made by journalists at The Guardian, “Why are we building new walls to divide us?“1, there is a counting of walls and barriers that separate countries, cities, communities, political regimes and determinations, reinforce age-old borders or create new ones. In all presented cases, walls polarize the identities of those whom they separate (on ethnic, national or religious criteria) and deeply affect the natural urban development of a city. Conflicts and breaks suffered by each geographical area through building walls, historical relics that seemed since long gone, reshape day by day identities and communities. The contrast between this need to create physical barriers and the illusion of fluid communication in networks in use today is at least surprising. If we compare them, these two simultaneous phenomena shed light on their mutual limits, contributing to a logic of exclusion, on which the entire global economy2 is, in fact, based, as well as to the spreading of ultranationalist ideologies against ethnic or religious minorities, and to the increasingly concerning expansion of measures against immigrants (in lack of a coherent program to integrate them).

The question of the wall from Baia Mare, built by the local authorities in 2011, came back in the attention of the public, especially of independent cultural organizations and of people involved in the life of the polis, in November 2014, by the action of “beautifying“ it through painting, in which participated the University of Art and Design (UAD) from Cluj and the Baia Mare branch of the Association of Visual Artists. The “task“ has been delegated to a number of art students from Cluj, for whom an ordinary workshop has become a controversial issue, hard to deal with both at a personal level (because of the accusations brought to them for their lack of information about the meaning of the wall) and an institutional level (the university bearing the responsibility for this “project“ as a main partner). The wall, built on the initiative of Mayor Cătălin Cherecheș – who also intended to place a number of surveillance cameras and guardians around the wall, but, fortunately, this thing has not happened –, creates an inner tension, always treated with superficiality in the political public discourse or camouflaged in apparently inoffensive cultural gestures. Although, due to the discrimination it produces, the wall on the Horea street has been intensely criticized by local and international NGOs, Cătălin Cherecheș, the mayor who won the 2012 elections (with 86.3%, after he has also been elected in partial elections of 2011), seems unstoppable in implementing his own vision, authoritarian and moralistic (through displacement, evacuation, stigmatization, etc.), on the problems of the Roma community in these area that he calls “the poverty pockets“ of the city. According to the public presentation of his program, among his priorities are “cleanness and order“, applied with the complicity of his voters, citizens who are now calm that poverty is hidden behind a wall. The paradox of the painting on the wall is precisely the cultural camouflage – a racist political discourse is disguised in a cultural discourse that neutralizes from the outset the entire blamable and inacceptable content of building this wall, moving the emphasis on a new problem, on its status as an artwork.3

On 4 December 2014, a debate hosted by the Paintbrush Factory took place in Cluj. The topic of this debate was the involvement of the UAD in the “project“ of painting the wall4, in order to nuance this situation of conflict and to give – both the university and the students – the opportunity of expressing their positions publicly. The core of this discussion corresponded rather to this new layer, of the educational context, in which the real problem signaled by the presence of the wall – the discrimination of the Roma and the segregating actions encouraged not only by the local authorities, but also by a large number of citizens from Baia Mare – receives new meanings and gestures that, instead of eroding it, symbolically reinforce this presence. The guests of the debate titled “Art at the Wall: The Artist between Freedom of Expression and Public Responsibility“ were Bogdan Ghiu, Mara Rațiu, Dan Clinci, Călin Hințea, István Szakáts and Mihai Pop, with Horea Avram as a moderator. Only one of the students involved in the project from Baia Mare participated to the debate. He tried to explain the vulnerability of his position and the lack of information that lead to transformation of the wall into a mural painting with an aquatic theme. Also, the university has publicly taken upon itself the failure of its involvement in a public space art project that ignores precisely the context in which has been developed. It is difficult to identify the victim and the culprit, and this was not the intention of the debate, but I believe that a critical self-assessment of all the parties involved would be necessary or, as István Szakáts remarked, “what we do with the wall should be the result of a process of reflection, of self-knowing“. Also, it would be necessary to create a continuous program of public debates among cultural actors, artists and representatives of the civil society about the symptoms leading to this situation, symptoms that populate the education system in Romania. And not only in moments so critical, directly affecting our professional circles. A next step – that of finding long-term solutions – would naturally follow from this first stage and would organically shape itself in accordance to the real needs of students, the art scene and professors. The initiative of such a project has already been formulated within the debate through a proposition of the AltArt Foundation in collaboration with the UAD and the Painbrush Factory, based on a long-term (4–5 years) research project, during which the academic curriculum in the visual arts would be reformulated and, at the end, proposed for implementation. Forming a new field of references and new repertories of ideas could lead to many conceptual possibilities and forms of organization for art workshops both in an institutional framework (through new types of approaches, assessments and criteria) and outside of it (through collaborative and community forms of functioning).

The things that educational institutions currently promote in terms of academic curriculum and cultural values lead to forming a gap between the information offered to students and its function within society, in spite of individual efforts trying to avoid this. On this background, hazy and neutral, there could only be developed confused discourses, easy to manipulate in a direction or another, as it was the case with the students who contributed, in fact, involuntarily to the “project“ of the mayor in Baia Mare. It is in this insufficiently covered area that I locate the stake of independent institutions, such as the Paintbrush Factory, which could formulate definitions of art and roles for the artists different from the “official“ ones. And there were, in fact, a few initiatives of developing education through critical thinking, some of them still active: e-cart (Bucharest), h.arta (Timișoara), Salonul de Proiecte (Bucharest), The People’s School of Contemporary Art (Cluj), transit.ro (Bucharest, Cluj, Iași), Conset (Cluj), etc.

Considering the case of the painted wall a symptomatic manifestation for the art education in Romania, a discussion about the layers that compose it, and the underlying definitions of art and the artist, could be a useful exercise, with a stake in finding solutions, and not only identifying causes. Much deeper than it might appear at first sight, the break between the school and the “reality“ beyond its walls is more visible than ever. The effects of this break are scattered, sometimes difficult to clearly coagulate in a verdict, but increasingly present in the discontinuities that are formed between the academic curriculum and the working tools of contemporary artists. Such unequal discourses have always existed, and it was progressively that an “adjustment“ could take place between what artists brought in the field of education and art theory, and what the university and the academic discourse produced in this perpetual exchange, sometimes more tense, sometimes more relaxed. Also, there was always a clear identification of entities playing a role in this disparity; artists wanted to advance and to transgress barriers in the way of knowledge, while the school wanted to keep and to organize information and values accumulated over time.

In a text about the potentiality of pedagogy, “Academy as Potentiality“, Irit Rogoff draws the portrait of a possible university, in which the capacity of opening a way towards the-not-yet-known-knowledge and openly tackling a possible failure of this would lead to a space of experiment and speculation, to the detriment of utility, the most widespread value on the competitive market. Irit Rogoff, in the footsteps of Giorgio Agamben (for whom potentiality has multiple forms and interpretations exactly at the level of political action), identifies in potentiality the substance of incapacity and lack, and not only as regards doing and producing (objects and ideas equally). Working within potentiality means here distress, too, each competence simultaneously claiming its refusal: „So thinking ’academy’ as ’potentiality’ is to think the possibilities of not doing, not making, not bringing into being at the very centre of acts of thinking, making and doing.“5 In this way, the bureaucratization of education through the production of quantifiable results would withdraw to a secondary level, leaving room for questions about how we could get to know things that we cannot access yet.

The students involved in the “beautifying“ workshop of the wall in Baia Mare have not known what that wall represents and have not received the necessary information for correctly measuring their involvement. It seems that neither the UAD has been informed transparently. However, with all the gaps in communication and in the unfolding of the action, the question remains that of the functional connection between the inside of the school and its outside, between theory and practice, between the pressure to do and the refusal of this system of working. From the debate “Art at the Wall“, it seemed, through the voices representing the university, that there is a constant pressure on the educational institutions coming from the Ministry of Education to provide palpable results, to get involved in projects, to participate in various events quantifiable and measurable as activities of the school. Encouraging the training of students for prescribed social roles, offering formulas of social integration, and not ways of changing society in a good direction, the school contributes in this way to the exclusion of certain practices that could erode the borders between the inside of the school, as a place of discovering and accumulating knowledge, and its outside – the place where that knowledge is verified and becomes a working tool.

Education in general and vocational training in particular suffers from its standardization (through the Bologna Agreement) and the corporatization of universities (through fees and the subsequent industry of diplomas), which lead to the pressure of providing the labor market with professions and competences perfectly integrated into the system, and into a culture of consensus. The definition of art in this context, especially in its relation to society, tended at best towards a function of social mediation, and the students (at best, again) have become sensitive towards ideas such as multiculturalism and essentialist identity politics, which do not only reinforce present walls, but build new borders and illusions also.

History shows us that the progressive character of a new vision on education most often confronts the resistance of the system to changes. University generally fails to answer the new working conditions of artists, most often supporting only those cultural gestures and products that enforce its authority or its own program of knowledge economy. This is why, in Europe, there are increasingly more alternative education initiatives, think tanks,debates, workshops and informal meetings, which contribute to the extension of the theoretical and practical framework for thinking, doing and teaching art. The most difficult task of independent institutions and ours – all of us included – is to identify how to arrive to know and to think what is not offered to us by the school in a ready-made form and of which perhaps we do not even know it exists. Only provoking our own limits, not only as regards the ideas that we circulate, but also as regards the system through which we can access them, the invisible walls that separate us, much more numerous than the visible ones, could be eroded. Their erosion is a long process, which involves simultaneous action at least in three different directions: methodology, institutions, language. These three directions, proposed by art historian James Elkins for overcoming the hegemony of a single, Western conceptual model in approaching and analyzing art history, would equally involve artists, theorists and educational institutions not yet reformed in accordance with the new conditions of thinking and producing art. To link all of these aspects and to act upon all of the components could generate new currents of thought, which would be able to renounce to the clichés used so often in teaching artistic subjects, in writing on art or even in producing art.

Translated by Alexandru Polgár

 

Notes:
1. ‑http://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2013/nov/walls# mexico (checked in December 2014).
2. ‑The hypothesis of exclusions on which global economy and politics are based has been developed by Saskia Sassen in her most recent work, Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014.
3. ‑“From now on we cannot speak of a fence or a wall, but of an artwork regulated by the law on copyright. Therefore, this fence could not be demolished without the notice of the Ministry of Culture, which is needed to demolish or destroy a work of art. I believe that in this moment we can speak of a touristic objective, of a place of pilgrimage, a place where we can bring tourists to see that we have not done bad things, but something good and beautiful. Nobody can say this is a concrete wall; all must recognize this as an artwork.“ – Excerpt from the press release of Cătălin Cherecheș, mayor of Baia Mare.http://www.emaramures.ro/Stiri/107471/STREET-ART-Gardul-de-la-blocurile-sociale-de-pe-strada-Horea-a-fost-transformat-in-opera-de-arta-de-catre-opt-studenti-din-Cluj-Napoca
4. ‑A debate partially transcribed in Romanian and published on the website of the Observator cultural magazine. http://www. observatorcultural.ro/Arta-la-zid.-Artistul-intre-libertate-de-exprimare-si-responsabilitate-publica* articleID_31451-articles_ details.html
5. ‑Irit Rogoff, “Academy as Potentiality“, in Angelika Nollert and Irit Rogoff (eds.), A.C.A.D.E.M.Y., Frankfurt, Revolver, 2006. Checked online in January 2015 at http://summit.kein.org/ node/191.