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Luis Camnitzer

The Unstitched Curriculum




In this session of AUDITORIUM, Luis Camnitzer will share his reflections and concerns in regard to the current educational systems of art: What do artists need to know and how should they learn it? What is the meaning of an art school today?

Luis Camnitzer: "Art and Education are Enriched if they Assume Responsibilities". Conversations, La Escuela___ (2021).

Throughout the path ahead, I intend to emphasize the importance of the exercises assigned to students. It does not matter much which pedagogical theories they appeal to and whether or not the exercises reflect them with full coherence and, therefore, do not implement them. I believe that a good education for everyone, no matter the subject, has to start from how we think and organize things as artists. I believe what has become commonplace: that it’s not about filling the student with information and training; this is a strategy that responds to a particular ideology and has its own way of teaching. I think it’s rather about facilitating as much as possible the ability to find and make connections, both in our surroundings and in what we think and feel. This reflects and enacts what we could call "the artist's mentality," which corresponds to a pedagogical ideology different from the traditional ones.

In terms of general education, it doesn’t matter that this skill results in producing artworks and that they make it to the museum. What matters is that the result helps individual maturation, both for those who want to be artists and those who do not.

It is not art as a production that seriously affects the construction and progress of the communities we inhabit but how we acquire and generate knowledge. Therefore, it is worth paying attention to art as a cognitive instrument and the ways it can affect pedagogy in general, according to exercises designed from this perspective.

The first discussion, then, concerns the word 'exercise.' As in many cases, the corresponding questions here are: "why?", "for what?" and "for whom?" Do we assign exercises to assert our power and wisdom as teachers? Do we do it to mechanize an activity, as happens in gymnastics? Are our exercises meant to satisfy the need of a market or do they intend to open perspectives and facilitate the student’s process of maturation?

Inevitably, exercises are assigned and, therefore, the very act already reflects a power structure that precedes the classroom. Even when an exercise is designed collectively, it arises from the leadership of the one who initiated it and grants permission for power to be distributed with and among the group of students. In this sense, the educational system is the result of an inevitable hierarchical structure. As Paulo Freire commented at some point: since we cannot eliminate authority, all we have left is to expose it, make it transparent, conscious, and use it properly.

An exercise, then, can be open or closed. It can be authoritarian, demanding a specific and quantifiable result, or it can be open and fertile for exploration. The act of assigning something reveals a power structure that in turn shapes its design. In English, the word ‘assignment’ refers to the concrete exercise that is imposed on the student. In Spanish, similarly, deberes (‘duties’) refers to the homework, and the use of the word asignatura (‘subject’) goes to the extent of covering a whole field of knowledge. To define this structure more precisely, the word ‘discipline’ is used in both languages. Let’s say, then, that if we want to combat the mechanization, automation, and oppression that characterizes closed exercises, we have to open them up through problematization. If we want to redistribute the power accumulated in the process of assigning, we have to incorporate collective decisions. And if we want to break with the authoritarianism and oppression of disciplines, we must position ourselves in transdisciplinarity. This is not about merging disciplines to create new ones but about approaching them from an extra-disciplinary platform, to use them freely and critically from there.

Luis Camnitzer: "La Escuela Perturbable" (2005). Courtesy: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (2018).

None of this is new. The criteria and the polemic go as far back as the 18th century, when William Godwin began to speculate about an anarchist pedagogy; when Johann Pestalozzi focused on empowering children and was followed by Friedrich Fröbel. In parallel, at that time, Simón Rodríguez laid the foundations for a pedagogy of decolonization, a process that led to Paulo Freire. After passing through thinkers and educationists such as John Dewey, Maria Montessori, and the like, progressive pedagogy continued in a process that more recently reached Loris Malaguzzi with his Reggio Emilia approach.

It is a little frightening that this story has been around for more than two centuries already and conventional education not only remains unchanged but commercial and war pressures have increased its distortions. Studies translate into an accumulation of credits or purchasable units, and knowledge is increasingly restricted to the areas regarded as practical. This leads to what is currently known as STEM, the acronym for 'science, technology, engineering and mathematics.' In STEM, the creative part is reserved for practical ingenuity and business innovation. The Humanities are disappearing, along with the possibility of speculating about the impossible and the unpredictable. Art as a visual philosophy, on the one hand, is moving towards the world of finance and part of the so-called "orange economy," and it is also becoming an enhanced form of social service. Its essential function as a cognitive tool protected by practical uselessness is gradually being eliminated. Computational thinking, experiential thinking, and spaces for making are valued as long as they are integrated into STEM thinking.1 Literalness is favored while the exploration and discovery of what cannot be are ignored. The separation is no longer about whether something is useful or poetic but only about whether it is useful or not. The possibility of simultaneously being useful and being poetic does not exist or is not used with sufficient rigor.2

There are many analogies for understanding art more accurately than standing in front of a work and trying to absorb it. Using analogies, like structural models, allows stepping outside the constraints of a given field to reevaluate what is presented without the biases that come with the display. Therefore, an artwork could be understood as a proposal or the result of a problematization in which artists formulate or solve an interesting problem. The work is one way of visualizing the process but it is not necessarily the only way. The person viewing the work does not do so in front of or inside it but standing behind the work, together with the artist, attempting to grasp the problem and participate in its solution. Thus, they accept or improve the proposal as colleagues of the artist and not as consumers.

On the other hand, a work of art can also be considered part of a game. In this analogy, artists create new games or play—preferably as virtuous teachers—games that have been created by others. Observing art is like watching a chess game between masters located throughout history, where the audience mentally suggests moves, admires the ones presented or disagrees with them, and decides whether the game is over or incomplete.

A third analogy, which is the one I want to discuss here more in-depth, is that of the map. The work presents us with routes to different parts of knowledge. The paths may be direct or full of twists and turns, but they lead us to explore, discover, and adjust the areas presented or suggested while teaching us how to circulate.

None of the three analogies excludes the others, nor are they exclusive to a discussion about art. They are useful for avoiding the simplism of taste and elucidating cognitive processes. I propose them here because they allow us to emphasize that the relationship we establish with art is, fundamentally, of pedagogical nature. Moreover, it is a far more inclusive relationship than the one that can exist with other ways of thinking. Art as a cognitive instrument encompasses both the rational and the quantitative aspects of scientific thought. But it is not limited to these categories; it allows us to imagine (and also to feel) what in everyday life is discarded as useless and unimaginable. Formal education denies this possibility and is based on the accumulation of knowledge over the qualitative ability to establish connections and give shape to them. This type of accumulative education, which is generally accepted as a paradigm, admires erudition. If a person comes to acquire multiple diplomas, they are praised for the amount of knowledge that entails, not because it may be a symptom of rebellion effected against the limitations imposed by monodisciplinary education.

When universities evolve to adapt to the current needs, they do so by adding courses while maintaining traditional formats, instead of studying the connections that make knowledge more flexible in transdisciplinary areas. Thus, there is a constantly increasing backlog. In art schools, first, it took a long time to accept photography courses and, later, videography courses. Creation in literature and music is still separated from creation in the visual arts, with separate schools. The demands posed by new artistic movements are always accepted and codified once they have asserted themselves in the market’s awareness. This way, the present ends up being a delayed synthesis of the past instead of a preparation for the future.

In the early 1970s, during a curriculum-planning session for a new school, I dared suggest to my colleagues to avoid the traditional model, illustrated by the string of pearls. This model, which is the usual one, allows for the continuous addition and infinite accumulation of independent courses—each, perhaps, perfect in itself. The string of pearls uses the university as a base string, instead of pursuing the construction of meaning as a fundamental mission. At some point, the necklace has so many pearls that it chokes us with its weight.

I proposed to use Jorge Luis Borges’ idea of the Aleph instead, the one from his short story. The Aleph turns out to be a small ball, about an inch in diameter, which is suspended in space in the basement of a not entirely appreciated friend of Borges. Despite its small size, in the story, the Aleph simultaneously contained all the existing images in the universe. My American colleagues had never heard of either Borges or the story I mentioned. They regarded my proposal as an esoteric and inappropriate commentary, made by an artist whose presence at the meeting was tolerated but not welcome. They went on accumulating their pearls and, predictably, ended up fighting over whose pearls should belong to whom, in order to define the departments and scope of their domains.

Around 2005, an Argentinian artist friend of mine, Graciela Sacco, started a project called M2. Her idea came from an attempt to identify the minimum surface area needed to accommodate a room. For an exhibition of her work, she asked several of her artist friends to write about what a square meter meant to them. In complying with her request, I realized how important the "square" part was in this. The "meter" didn’t really have a very valid definition here, beyond its descriptive value, and only materialized when coupled with the word ‘square.’ That is, if there is anything absolute to this, it is the square part, while the meter is arbitrary.

Originally, the meter was conceived as a linear unit. It was a French invention in 1793 that pursued an absolute and universal unit. It was agreed that the meter would be one ten-millionth of the distance between the North Pole and the Equator on the meridian passing through Paris. Although resulting from a totally arbitrary decision, it is thanks to this consensus that both the linear meter and the square meter still appear to be fairly steady measures today. This was and still is important because it not only gives stability and credibility to the measures themselves but also to the act of measuring and the communication of measures. This trust, also shared by other measure systems, ended up generating a pedagogy based on quantification. Objectivity is measurable and this, in turn, ended up favoring “hard” disciplines.

Luis Camnitzer: "El Mirador" (1996). Courtesy: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, Spain.

Hard disciplines are useful for many things in practical life, and they are also lucrative. This makes them more appealing than activities considered to be linked to leisure, such as art and philosophy. The fact that this now leads to STEM curricula is the result of a process that intensified when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. The United States felt it was losing its edge and began to emphasize quantitative subjects to solidify what we could call a warmongering, competitive pedagogy, which results from an inferiority complex.

As someone standing in the arts field, I felt that conceptually separating the square condition from the idea of the meter granted me an entry for bringing the Humanities into that closed-up world of the units of measurement. I realized, for example, that if instead of the square shape I use the four meters of the perimeter as a reference point, it creates changes in the surface that, at least for me, are surprising. When the square becomes a rectangle measuring 1.25 meters by 0.75, the initial 10,000 square centimeters become only 9,375. And there are even fewer—roughly 7,500—if the rectangle is 1.50 meters by 0.50. I don't know where those centimeters end up; that's part of the mystery. But somehow, what started as a mathematical issue, unexpectedly became a philosophical problem for me.

Clearly, there is nothing wrong with hard disciplines, as long as they are used in a broader context than that allowed by STEM. We are currently in the paradox of enduring a pandemic that is a consequence of last century’s anti-ecological technification, while also admiring that same technology because it created the vaccine that allows us to partially overcome it, at least for a while and in the countries that can afford it. But the problem with STEM in the cognitive field at large is that it is narrowing the margins allowed for thinking. Hard disciplines assume that knowledge is based on what we already know and what we can predict from what we already know, even if for the moment that is still unknown. The Humanities, and particularly art, have never been used to their full potential for these quests; however, it is them that allow us to explore the unpredictable and the inexplicable in the field of the unknown. The Humanities show us that objectivity is an ideological construct and that it is possible to deviate from it without falling into obscurantism.

In 1860, William George Spencer wrote his little book Inventional Geometry. In his introduction, without many philosophical aspirations, Spencer made a series of very simple and clear commentaries. He separated speculation from application and he also differentiated between what something is and what represents it. He stated: 1) "The science of relative quantity, solid, superficial, and linear, is called Geometry, and the practical application of it, Mensuration." 2) "We cannot with a pencil make a line on paper—we represent a line."3 And, 3) "As a point has neither length, breadth, nor thickness, it is said to have no dimension. It has position only." Spencer wrote this book to encourage the pupils to reinvent geometry rather than memorize its rules, thus avoiding getting trapped in a tangle of prepackaged formulas.

Although the perception of the relativity of mensuration did not make much of a dent in conventional pedagogy at the time, nor today, at least it affected scientific thinking. In the artistic field, Marcel Duchamp had already illustrated this relativity in 1913, in his work Three Standard Stoppages. From a height of one meter, Duchamp dropped three one-meter-long ropes to the floor. Maintaining their placement, he glued them to a cloth and cut sheets of wood following the curves in which they landed on the floor. These wood sheets became new "rulers," which represented "a new image of the unit of length."4 Duchamp later confessed that he made the work as a joke but, unknowingly, he did it in the spirit of Spencer. Joke or not, this contributed to opening pedagogical thinking and gave us a possibility for escaping traditional disciplines.

In 2019, the Arte Como Educación [Art as Education – ACE] collective, to which I belong, was invited by the Uruguayan organization Una Escuela Sustentable [A Sustainable School – UES] to collaborate in the design of artist residencies for their project. UES builds schools that are energy independent and, to some extent, also food independent. The buildings, one per Latin American country, are assembled in two months using local materials and with the help of the surrounding communities. Until now, they have built schools in Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, and the last one was recently finished in Colombia. Our involvement began with the Chilean version.

Together with SOA, a cultural management collective from Uruguay, we proposed the idea to use art as an instrument that goes beyond the material part and generates a "sustainable culture."5 To this end, we tried to influence the curricular structure of the schools, integrating artistic ways of thinking into all disciplines. If any tangible art was produced during the residency, it had to be ephemeral and interactive, with ongoing ramifications for the students.

Generally, teachers who aren't trained in arts are not motivated to touch on the subject. When they can, they invite artists to talk about their work in the classroom, or else, they resort to crafts. But in terms of the pedagogy we propose, we only ask that they understand that it is not about talent, crafts, or information about art history. It only takes a change of attitude. We ask the teachers to open up to the idea of connecting systems of order usually considered to be non-relatable and to temporarily suspend the practical demands of everyday life, in order to better evaluate them.

LUIS CAMNITZER con Miguel Braceli: Arte y educación se enriquecen si asumen responsabilidades

We were given an initial suggestion to work on a "sound path" that would be activated by the children as they walked along. The idea seemed very attractive from a performative art-show point of view, but it struck us as too conceptually closed from an educational point of view. In response to that and as an example of our way of thinking, we used the analogy of the map. We proposed to keep the idea of the path but using the pupil’s home as a starting point, going from there to the school and using the path to explore further experiences. In addition, we sought to show the implications of the ramifications of the square meter and how they cross different subjects in the school curriculum. In doing so, we intended to illustrate a methodology that could be applied by teachers without needing to rely on the presence of artists in the classroom.

The project’s idea was to start from a point (something similar to what I proposed with the Aleph) and, from there, unravel as much information as possible in all directions. Any example will do to illustrate this, but I want to elaborate on a simple theoretical walk, which is what we suggested in Chile, with a mental exercise to show how a starting point can generate a curriculum.

For the walk, I kept the surface area constant instead of the perimeter or the square. A square meter is 100 x 100 centimeters, therefore it contains 10,000 square centimeters. If I place these one-centimeter squares back to back, I get a rectangle 100 meters long and one centimeter wide. If I go further and pull out a string one millimeter in diameter or, for that matter, in breadth, the square meter extends up to one kilometer. By wearing progressively thinner, the length can reach infinity and the notion of ‘surface area’ becomes very problematic. If the rope was made of rubber, we could also discuss issues of volume, density, and elasticity, besides the possible topological changes that may be introduced. After a certain point onwards, the idea of a rectangle stops working. When we speak of a string, we move on to the representation of a line. As such, it is capable of outlining other shapes, even a labyrinth, as proven by Ariadne in the story of her relationship with Theseus and the Minotaur. At this point, geometry is not only transformed into mapping but also invades the realm of fiction.

In the story of the Minotaur, a rope served to map a territory that was not only unknown but was in fact designed as an anti-map. Daedalus, its maker, created it so that the Minotaur would be lost in a gateless prison. The topic works for discussing not only Greek mythology but many other things, among them also the function of architecture, classroom design, and the meaning of walls and prisons in general. But the possibility of using a rope (real or imagined) to make a map leads us to discuss the route between home and the school more specifically, and how a map is traversed on a 1:1 scale. And even how that map can reflect pure geography, as it did in the case of Theseus.

As it is a continuous line, the rope follows a somewhat limited range of decisions that determine the map. In its most basic form, it seeks the straightest path in order to save walking time. Adding complexity, it can register points of interest as long as they fit on a single line. This mapping is equivalent to making a drawing without lifting the pencil. The line can go straight to its destination or go around trees. It can follow established roads or go across fields and use shortcuts. It can be defined by touching permanent or passing points before finally reaching the goal. The interesting thing is that from each decision we can unravel a different discipline; it’s a process that takes knowledge in endless directions.

When the path is scaled down to fit on a sheet of paper, it can be read as a set of instructions. Traditional maps use symbols and colors, and the instructions become precise as long as the code used is understood. In other words, the map, just like the much-emphasized literacy taught at schools, is a form of encoding and decoding that serves to communicate specific instructions as precisely as possible. Maps mark points of interest and rely on being read as objective means of information. It was the presumption of objectivity that led to the publication of maps with false information during periods of war, to divert from vulnerable points. But it is the purpose, the type of instructions that are meant to be read, and the hierarchies under which the information is arranged that settle how a map is made and read. Borges' Aleph represents the unnavigable, impossible-to-memorize chaos. To survive, we have to organize the information by giving it some meaning, and this determines the particular map that matters to us within an endless number of maps. Therefore, a map reflects more than the information used for visualization, it shows the interests, purposes, and power of the map-maker. In terms of pedagogy, it is the constant possibility of making choices and configurations that determines whether an activity is transdisciplinary, even if the initial purpose is disciplinary; in other words, what kind of map is referenced.

Most conventional maps are based on geography and present borders, morphological features, population data, and traffic routes, all of which are useful for getting from one place to another. While mapping is an ongoing activity, maps are, like photographs, records of a moment in time. The concept of finding the shortest route integrates the notion of time in itself, when, in fact, the stability of a drawn map does not incorporate it too well. Road signs that announce distances and synchronize with maps are now shifting to indicate the estimated time to reach a chosen point rather than distances. GPS-based systems combine the ‘where?’ and ‘how far?’ information with the "how long will it take?" information. To do this, they input data about traffic conditions, presence of police patrols, and accidents, which is information that does not account for geography but for travel time. The GPS is a hybrid of a map and a clock. I presume any philosopher concerned with the intersection of space and time could have conceived of such a system, only to search for measurable applications for concrete cases afterward. But instead, it was physicists at the service of the military industry who sought the ability to measure the combination regarding the "when and where" of an enemy. Its usefulness for the general population was only a by-product.

All of the above suggested a variety of exercises for a given path:

a) Locate and mark possible resting points. Discuss what is, in fact, to rest and why it is needed. What is the anatomical structure that requires it? What is energy consumption? What is the relationship between food and motor fuels? What is energy efficiency?

b) Locate and mark optimal points for observing and admiring the landscape. Discuss the presence and absence of a natural landscape, its psychological effects, and its connections with tourism and the economy.

c) Point out historical landmarks. Define the meaning of ‘historical’ in terms of relevance to whom, whose history is written, and for what purposes. Compare the family history with that of the town, the country, and humankind, and the values they reflect.

d) A map of the colors found along the route. In what kind of order do they appear? What is a pleasant order? Could it be improved by adding or changing the colors along the route? How would you propose to achieve it? What are the values attributed to these colors? What is the anatomy of the eye that allows perceiving them? What is color blindness? What are the cultural effects of blindness? What is the minimum number of colors necessary in a map to successfully prevent colors from touching in contiguous zones?

e) A map of the distinctly pleasant and unpleasant sounds along the route. The anatomy that allows hearing, acoustics, the difference between hearing and listening, relative deafness and absolute deafness, echoes, lightning and thunder, the sound barrier, communication between hearing and non-hearing, sign language.

f) A map of odors for different zoological species. The function of smell, cultural anthropology of odors, the meaning of odors in terms of pleasure and disgust.

g) Documenting useful spaces for dance. Conflict and integration between performances and daily activities, symbolic meanings of body movements, goose-stepping in military parades.

The list could go on endlessly. The examples could mix reality with fiction, for instance, a map of hidden treasures; or incorporate sensations, for example, colors, putting together a visual melody. The point is to understand that maps are ordering systems and function as forms of mapping. Biographies, both fictional and real, are mappings that envelop the events between birth and death. Autobiographies, on the other hand, are limited to the lapse between the moment of gaining awareness and the moment of writing.

In the end, one realizes that the three analogies I laid out at the beginning—problematization, the game, and the map—apply as much to art as to our lives. Life and art are perhaps nothing but mutual analogies, reflections where one does not know at what point and which one acts as a mirror for the other.

Perhaps this blurry zone can give us the true starting point for a good pedagogy, one that understands that points of view aren’t fixed but function like moves on a game board.