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The Medium is the Method: Activating Education as Experimental Art Practice with LA ESCUELA___

This conversation first appeared in English on Art & Education on May 31, 2022.

Artist, architect, and educator Miguel Braceli speaks with the curator, educator, and researcher Sofía Olascoaga to elaborate on the pedagogical framework of La Escuela___. The conversation unfolds some of the platform’s structural elements, including the Latin American context it seeks to recognize, the dilemmas inherent to the art–education relationship, and the socialization of the project’s activating experimental practices.

Since the March 2022 launch of LA ESCUELA_, a project initiated by artist, architect, and educator Miguel Braceli with the nonprofit Siemens Stiftung International, the digital platform has progressively developed its educational programming, spanning editorials, live conversations, artistic projects, and public events, both online and in-person. LA ESCUELA__ has come to life, not as a repository but as an active space for dialogue and encounter.

Elaborating on the pedagogical framework of this platform-in-progress, Braceli speaks here with the curator, educator, and researcher Sofía Olascoaga. The conversation unfolds some of LA ESCUELA___’s structural elements, including the Latin American context it seeks to recognize, the dilemmas inherent to the art–education relationship, and the socialization of the project’s activating experimental practices. Braceli and Olascoaga also discuss ways of broadening access to art education and complexifying the history of learning resources within artistic practices that intersect with education and participation.

Helio Eichbauer teaching a class on Piet Mondrian at the Garden of EAV Parque Lage. Courtesy: Acervo Helio Eichbauer.

Sofía Olascoaga: Prior to this conversation, I’ve been observing LA ESCUELA____’s social media and virtual platform, where your essay “The Naked School” positions amazement and disappointment as opposite ends of a field or range in which the possibilities of experimentation may fall. The essay articulates and proposes an educational space that is able to support in a lively and non-homogenizing way a “proposal of a building without walls which aims to bring artistic production closer to the social and political contexts that surround them.”

Miguel Braceli: This idea is at the core of LA ESCUELA___: to bring education closer to the social and political realities of specific contexts and to learn from and act on them. “The Naked School” emerged as a critique of my experience as an MFA student in the United States and questions a model focused on white-cube galleries and replicating the institutional market-driven dynamics of the art world. The Naked School, the school without walls, derives from the legacy of art and education practices in Latin America. It could be a building in Ciudad Abierta1, a performance at the Instituto Di Tella (Torcuato Di Tella Institute) 2, a party at the Escola de Artes Visuais do Parque Lage (Parque Lage School of Visual Arts)3, a school founded by Francisco Toledo; a class taught by Lygia Clark; or any number of artist projects that have sought new experimental spaces and places for education.

LA ESCUELA___ was intended as an artist-run platform seeking to make learning a collective practice in public space. It is not a traditional school with instructional classes but rather a space for radical experimentation where creators, universities, students, institutions, and communities assemble around the possibilities of art as education. This occurs through the development of collaborative “formative projects”—performances and interventions, among other manifestations—that create learning spaces in public as art practice. These pedagogical approaches are also addressed through researched editorials and online and on-site public programs. The platform is now realized as an open space where all programs are free in order to approach different publics and defend free access to education.

So, we could think of the digital platform as a building in which voices, references, examples, proposals, and practices come together into what I imagine is a multitudinous and ongoing conversation.

How do the diverse, transgenerational, and translocal voices in this ensemble communicate with each other? More than a compendium or a delimited set of references, I think of each dialogue as an encounter among progressive, resonant, interwoven, and also (perhaps, hopefully) discordant conversations—dialogues that originate in not one but several dissimilar, diverse, particular, situated, contradictory, and above all, lively contexts from which each conversationalist speaks.

Conversation is the basis of LA ESCUELA___’s different spaces and programs because communication is inherent to education and the platform is a collaborative project to think about and activate experimental schools. The platform’s architecture appropriates the organizational structure of a traditional school but expands its limits and subverts its logics and dynamics. For example, “Campus” is a digital and physical space, a hybrid system of online laboratories and classrooms that also take place in public space as collective works where the medium is education. “Emeritus” assembles key figures from the fields of art and education in Latin America—Gego, Lea Lublin, Helio Eichbauer, Claudio Perna, Celeida Tostes, Frantz Fanon, Lina Bo Bardi, Rubens Gerchman, Roberto Valcárcel, amog others —whose legacy we as a platform are researching to review, question, and dialogue with their methodologies. “Faculty” are the collaborators who contribute editorials, formative projects, and public programs. In this intergenerational exchange, historical research and contemporary creation come together, producing conversations and projects that respond to and grapple with the animating issues of art and education.

This work resonates, for example, with the impact of authors such as Paulo Freire, a pioneer of critical pedagogy; Gabriela Mistral, a poet and advocate for the political role of education; and Simón Rodríguez, who took the first steps toward building a Latin American identity in the early nineteenth century. Beyond their anti-colonialism, we understand these figures’ emancipatory politics from an educational perspective, especially in their regard for free and radical pedagogy.

There are also tensions in the multiple voices and practices, as we see, for example, in the development of the formative projects: the same idea of education as art in the “Laboratories” is not the same as in the work of Nicolás Paris or as in that of Patricia Domínguez, both “Faculty” members. Each project responds to different interests, localities, and works. Additionally, these digital laboratories gather participants from across the continent, which further enhances transgenerational and translocal exchange. Both through participation in the educational programs and editorials, the platform achieves its primary goal of creating a dynamic and complex community.

Beyond LA ESCUELA____’s website platform, there are also happenings “offline,” free from internet-connected devices and social networks, that produce a creative surplus that fuels curiosity. A reminder to exceed, the complexity of readings and presentations revealed by the enormous and valuable process of creating its robust container, its building.

For example, LA ESCUELA___ published dialogues on the educational work of artists from Latin America from previous decades, outlining a transgenerational account of the effects of those practices, spaces, and propositions over time. The dialogues are not an end in themselves, and they touch on subjective and contextual transformations influenced by these educational practices. One can think of them as crops that have germinated and will bloom with time.

What are the implications of referring to a context as “Latin American”? Is it relevant to continue to think of it as an actual region? How and where is this definition useful? For whom, from whom, and for what purpose?

Latin America is a culturally diverse, institutionally unstable, and politically convulsive region that has always sought to look inward to find an identity of its own and resist processes of colonization. “Latin America” is a construct or a place to be constructed, a territory historically marked by precariousness as an originating condition. Returning to the multiple voices that make LA ESCUELA___, in a conversation with Cecilia Vicuña, we discussed “the precarious as a creative space” in the face of real Latin American contexts. This is something that can also be read in Hélio Oiticica, when he says, “from adversity we live.” This is not an apology for poverty or crisis, but a demonstration of the will to create truly communitarian, alternative, and independent spaces based on care and solidarity.

Many of these approaches concerning alternative models based on community have recently developed from the fields of art and theory in other latitudes, but that we, in the South, have come to empirically, out of need. These approaches are also rooted in indigenous practices and pre-Columbian cultures. Hence the richness of Latin American independent spaces, artist-run schools, and other forms of activism and participation. These models coincide in their self-management and in their educational aspects; the value of these practices increases when they are conceived from and for education.

Cecilia Vicuña in a children’s workshop at the exhibition “Homenaje a Vietnam” (1977), Bogota. Courtesy: Cecilia Vicuña.

LA ESCUELA___ responds explicitly and implicitly to the need to connect experiences within and also beyond the centers of cultural and discursive production, particularly those in Europe and North America (or more specifically the United States), with those conceived under different circumstances in the countries that make up the so-called “Latin American” region.

However, in the context of colonization histories and their operability in contemporary culture, it seems relevant to recall the role played by canonical discourses in the formation of “legitimate” artistic practices, i.e. those recognized by the art market and institutions… In other words, art education and art history often reproduce centralized and hegemonic thinking even in artists educated “on the periphery.”

Those of us trained as cultural agents in South America, Central America, and the Caribbean (regional designations that are necessarily questionable) likely studied in capital cities or urban contexts. There, the frames of reference, discourses, authors, and readings from which we learned were configured in such a way that we encounter the historical narratives and iconic figures of Western Europe and the United States before those of our own countries. As well, our education was marked by a profound ignorance of diverse local cultural histories and the particular differences of neighboring countries with which we share much closer affinities and the consequences of institutional and structural crises.

How might LA ESCUELA____ listening commitment to these specific contexts and recognize their power and complexity so as to address our deep ignorance of them at local, intercultural, and transnational levels?

That is precisely one of the premises of the project, to learn from and with each other and to compose a network of proposals that resonate with one another. Research, educational practices, and art projects can articulate themselves and nurture future work. Hence the decision to use a name in Spanish, without translation, which is not free from colonial associations but is capable of consolidating a shared territory. Latin America is a collective identity construct that encompasses a wide geographical, historical, linguistic, and cultural diversity. One of the keys to approaching this shared territory is through learning spaces and history, and this is where we engage in dialogue creative agents who might not have exchanged ideas themselves, for example, Lygia Pape with Diego Barboza, Lygia Clark with Manuel Casanueva, Antonio Caro with Felipe Ehrenberg, Antonieta Sosa with Margarita Paksa, and so on. Many of these artists have produced globally recognized art historical work—largely a result of the legitimizing processes of museum institutions—whereas we still have much to learn about others. With this project, we also want to provide a platform on an international scale to very important figures such as Roberto Valcárcel and Mirtha Dermisache who are still only known locally. We believe that sharing research can generate regional connections between neighbors and be of interest to a global, international audience. LA ESCUELA___ aspires to be a platform for and about schools and a collaborative project that creates schools. The aim is not only to set our eyes on Latin America—as is often the case in foreign Latin American studies programs—but also to place our feet on its ground, to situate ourselves in order to invest in our actions and efforts in the region.

Undoubtedly, meeting spaces are necessary to explore the deep and possible resonances among diverse practitioners and to recognize the processes of colonization and the colonialities at work and their specificities in each context. but also the escapes, agencies, and practices, as well as the contagions and dialogues generated despite these. The different languages, means, and processes, not only in each country but those that arise from each artistic proposal.

How does LA ESCUELA___ intend to build a site where diverse regional conversations come together with artistic dialogues and specific interlocutions?

Beyond the diversity of a collective archive generated through research and editorial content, the formative projects are an appropriate place for regional exchange. In “Classrooms,” guest artists develop on-site projects in collaboration with students, teachers, and local communities. To complement these, “Laboratories” are online spaces where people from different regions of Latin America participate in a kind of ongoing, free-form seminar. We understand these programs as collaborative projects where contexts, roles, and forms of creative production can be dislocated. In both cases, some displacements allow dialogue and are addressed to the public realm, either from digital platforms or from the specificity of the on-site locations.

I’m thinking about the inherent limitations in documenting, editing, and curating and the consequences of proposing edits that always leave, to greater and lesser degrees, an “offline” portion. We must remember the need in mind to keep context, process, dialogues, and experience that fall outside the proposed framework. What we do not see, or what is not recorded, is that which also constitutes subjective, dissimilar, and perhaps even discordant experiences of the participants in a collective encounter.

Considering artistic and educational practices and the codes and media through which we document, articulate, and socialize complex experiences, how can we communicate, share, or socialize our practices, their power, their validity, and the needs and drives they entail?

Documentation is one of the biggest challenges of educational practices. The most important thing is to make peace with the idea that, in formative projects, the primary audience is the students, participants, and community, and so their dynamics generate a non-transferable experience, and therein lies the true value of the work. However, acknowledging these practices as art also implies communication with an external, secondary audience. For that, one way is to bet on sensibility, to turn documentation into a trigger for imagination. As with any work of art, it is not a documentary record but a sensitive construction to create possible situations, situations that only occur in the dialogue between the work—as documentation—and a new spectator.

It is important to understand that documentation is not a form of validation but an evocative space for expressing the multiple possibilities of the original work. Another way is to record their pedagogical codes so that these projects can be communicated through their methodologies. That is to say, to interpret the original work through processes, as alterable or questionable strategies capable of becoming an object of study as formative projects. A good example of this is Augusto Boal's workshops of the Theater of the Oppressed, a space where performing arts and social practices come together through education, and it is thanks to his methodologies that these workshops continue to be useful today.

Augusto Boal: Workshop-Theater of the Oppressed in Paris (1975). Courtesy: Acervo Cedoc/Funarte.

Some of the frequent tensions in the interstitial practices of art and education lie in the exchanges between the legitimizing systems of the art world—how the objectual or curricular works’ presentation, exhibition, and reproduction requirements are codified—and the openness and uncertainty of destabilized learning processes that must take exploration as a precondition and dispense with objectifiable results.

Yes, and this is where art education should not adapt itself to the protocols of the art world but rather learn from radical education. That is why at LA ESCUELA___ we seek to approach formal spaces of both education and exhibition to transform their dynamics and open other spaces of creation where the artistic project becomes a formative project. In Mexico, we are working with the Museo Experimental el Eco, the Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo of the Autonomous National University of Mexico (MUAC-UNAM) and the UNAM Faculty of Arts. We are developing a formative project with artist Adrián Balseca that explores issues of sustainability and mobility in Mexico City. The project involves designing pieces that integrate local knowledge from the car repair shops with the students' research to produce objects that can be activated in public spaces but, above all, function as a collective creation process. Emphasizing the methodology, turning the audience into a community, operating in public spaces, and creating space for collective learning are proposals that destabilize artists and institutions, as well as the dynamics of the public space. This field of friction is a fertile territory where potentialities are as endless as the results are uncertain.

These practices are not new, but their complexity and dynamics outside the art system have made them difficult to consolidate, perhaps because of their non-objectifiable nature or their total lack of objecthood. On the other hand, they have not disappeared either and continue to renew themselves; hence the interest in consolidating a platform: a common space.

This work is a personal and communal reminder that we are dealing with living practices in which a dimension of the process that is not documented fortunately persists. As proposals for collaborative or participatory conditions tend to be configured, perhaps it is necessary to remember that conventional means of documentation devices do not usually reflect common situations such as polyvocality, friction, tensions, disagreements, contradictions, trifles, that is, the subjective and situated experiences of those who participate.

On the one hand, the he learning process requires or demands a temporality that exceeds that of the event, in which reflections on its experiential dimension unfold, where it is possible to recover meanings without objectifying, “commodifying,” flattening, “sanitizing,” or reducing them. That is, to honor the complexity of each situation, participant, and context. What happens to each process that the camera cannot register—the different temporalities that sift through experiences and their possible meanings as they arise over time?

On the other hand, beyond the discussion of documentation and socialization strategies, I think it is important to call on ourselves to reflect on the ways in which the discourse also “commodifies” or commercializes educational and participatory practices. In recent decades, “social practice” or “community practice,” or “socially-engaged art” have entered the critical context and the discursive field, determining particular sites where this critical production is generated.

This commodification through language tries to assign fixed meanings to practices whose nature relies on indetermination. Then, learning practices seek to respond to certain categories instead of finding their own dynamics, even when their place is at the liminal spaces of the crossings between art and education. It is also there that language becomes exclusionary, and English, as the supposed global language of art, leaves out practices that come from other cultures and which do not fit in the discursive standardization of a single language. For example, in what category do we insert or in what other way could we refer to the Oiticica’s Parangolés? Sculpture? Performance? Social practice? This is not only a conflict between cultures and languages, but also evidence of the tendency to make art an increasingly hermetic, encrypted, and inaccessible space. This commodification of the art language is a market and marketing issue, which is completely opposed to the public vocation of education.

I agree, but it also refers to codes of presentation and the reproduction of what certain logics of productivity and professionalization demand and sustain as contemporary art within an efficient production model. In view of this, I think it is necessary to remember the difference between event and process and how collectivization challenges conventions such as authorship in the educational or experimental art-learning field.

Absolutely, authorship in the educational field will always be a shared space, and that is why it is so difficult for the art world to acknowledge these creative processes as artistic products. The same tension exists between teaching art as a professional career and learning as an artistic process. Regarding the former, in art schools, students are trained to enter an art system that we know does not work, instead of opening up spaces to transform it. At La Escuela___, we do not intend to solve this problem because we do not educate artists as professional training, but we do work in alliance with universities that do. In a way, this platform is a space that exists on the margins of that reality, emerging as a reactionary response to the system in order to speculate together about building new ways for learning and creating within shared spaces. Regarding the latter, approaching artistic practice as a formative project is the main interest of LA ESCUELA___, to find in the relationship between art and education a place to inhabit the social and political challenges of the present, working from and around public spaces. On the one hand, art offers the freedom of creating, on the other hand, education is the realm where transformations can happen. To turn education into an artistic medium is to open up an endless field of possibilities, shifting the interest toward processes and displacing singular objects for collective learning. Thus, art becomes a form of knowledge-production that manifests in the doing as an emancipatory act.