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Emancipating Ourselves: the Desire to Think Together


by Yina Jiménez Suriel

The pedagogical programs of aesthetic thought in the region, conceived and managed by independent organizations, emerge from an intense desire to contribute to the emancipatory processes of the communities where each of them operates.

The desire to think together is the common denominator among the pedagogical programs conceived from independent spaces for the production of aesthetic thought in the insular Caribbean. This fact is not surprising if we consider that there are still several communities in the condition of European and American colonies in this region. Also, one of the main geopolitical strategies implemented to guarantee the survival of the colonial framework and control those territories until today has been restricting the circulation between the islands. Therefore, emancipation is possible to the extent that we can think together. This strategy repeats itself; one has but to review the independence projects and the constitution of a regional confederation... Linking up, getting involved, and thinking together is the main thing.

I return to this idea: the pedagogical programs of aesthetic thought in the region, conceived and managed by independent organizations, emerge from an intense desire to contribute to the emancipatory processes of the communities where each of them operates. Let some cases serve to map this hypothesis: Beta Local’s 'La Práctica' and 'La Ivan Illich' programs in Puerto Rico, launched in 2009; the Instituto de Artivismo Hannah Arendt (INSTAR), an independent space founded in Cuba in 2015, and the 'La Práctica' program initiated in 2019 by New Local Space (NLS) in Jamaica, which takes the homonymous Puerto Rican program as a reference.

Ada M. Patterson: "The whole world is turning" (2019). Courtesy: NLS.

Beta-Local's ‘La Práctica’ and ‘La Ivan Illich’ are two of the three programs that give body to this organization. Both are based on the intention of sharing knowledge: the former does it from an awareness of the ephemeral—that which produces a particular tuning between the situation and the moment and creates a reciprocal relationship. Thus, for some time each year, a group of participants, artists and cultural workers make up this ephemeral community, where they design their own curriculum through the circulation of knowledge, permeating the daily life of Beta-Local. The other program, La Ivan Illich, is an experimental pedagogical platform focused on experience, doing-by-doing, and wandering without an apparent aim. Anyone can approach the organization and, through La Ivan Illich, request a workshop, a lecture, a conversation, or activity of any kind that seems pertinent to them; likewise, they can also propose to do it themselves. It is a kind of copperwood tree that provides the necessary atmosphere for the djon djon to grow inside.

The Instituto de Artivismo Hannah Arendt (INSTAR) is a pedagogical project in itself. Its daily life is articulated through three main areas: wishes, ideas, and action. Three axes that, consciously or unconsciously, move us to think and reflect on the scale and the terms of the lived experience, looking to overflow the Cuban socio-political framework with these ideas. Just as in a trip we think with and of the other person, at INSTAR the bonds are dealt with following a logic of relationships that demand mutual (re)cognition. If it is a matter of imagining differently, stepping into a relationship is essential, and if aesthetic and pedagogical thinking hopes to contribute to the construction of different imaginations, a stove and people cooking around it will always be very useful.

New Local Space (NLS) Kingston’s La Práctica, perhaps the youngest pedagogical program in the region, takes on the model developed in Puerto Rico as a mechanism for conceiving its actions. The program creates a space for sharing and learning together, with a curriculum based on the participants' personal interests and knowledge. However, as each context demands to be thought from its own specificities, the singularity of this program is that it functions as an artists residency through which participants are exposed to experiences that contribute to their research and conversations of interest.

I like speaking of the NLS Kingston program as a result of the commitment that artists, curators, independent spaces, and institutions have made since the late 1990s to the circulation of those of us who live in the region and our diasporas.

When I thought of this mapping, it seemed fitting to share brief conversations with those who have participated in the creation and/or management of the programs at Beta-Local, INSTAR, and NLS Kingston, so that accessing this review may serve to have an expanded version told in their own voices.

18° 24′ 23″ North, 66° 3′ 50″ West: Beta-Local

Pablo Guardiola – co-director

La Práctica is a research and cultural production program from which to think and imagine conditions, relationships, and positions from which to produce and share knowledge. When Beta-Local began, La Práctica functioned partly as the anchor of the whole organization, while the other programs functioned around it.

It has had many lives and versions, but we could summarize it by saying that its focus has always been to think collectively about what it means to have an artistic practice in a place like Puerto Rico and the Caribbean in general. It works through open calls and has had between 5 to 12 participants in its various versions.

Our programs are structured by intertwining ways and without knowledge hierarchies. Beta-Local is designed as a tool that serves the people who participate in our programs. To a large extent, this is what drives our pedagogical approaches, whether they come from participants, residents, or neighbors.

Although the focus is on the interests and projects of the participants of La Práctica, we have incorporated several work axes that interconnect with them. For example, the Caribbean, artists’ writings, collective work, editorial work, food, but there really have been many, some even transcend the timeframe of each edition. We want our programs to leave a kind of usage footprint, which in turn shapes the organization at large.

La Ivan Illich has also had several lives and versions. It is an "open school" without a curriculum, where workshops, lectures, study groups, etc., are offered on demand or as a resource. We try not to offers events that repeat what is already happening in other spaces; we don’t privilege any particular types of knowledge. We believe that everyone can contribute to the process of liberating knowledge.

This structure continues today and it is also the program from which all of Beta-Local's public programming is articulated. From here, we experiment with various formats to discuss ideas, know-how, and above all, share knowledge.

23° 6′ 59″ North, 82° 23′ 18″ West: Instituto de Artivismo Hannah Arendt (INSTAR)

Marta María Ramírez – INSTAR coordinator

I like the image with which its founder and director, the Cuban artivist Tania Bruguera, has defined us: "we are a breathing, feeling and reacting animal." Thus, we fulfill our mission to collaborate in the education of the people through civism and art as human expressions.

What began as a face-to-face pedagogical program, was forcedly pushed into virtuality by the Covid-19 quarantine, from March 2020 until today, functioning through our social networks. This has allowed us to grow in terms of the number of events, variety of guests, scope and diversification of audiences, inside and outside Cuba. Currently, we have three core virtual lines of work:

AKÐMicas: it is the pedagogical project most connected to the Cuban reality, to the real practical needs, without ceasing to be propositional, to project the future. Its formats have varied from face-to-face to the one we have presently positioned on social networks.

esTratos: allows the historical connection between the present, the past and the future of independent creation, community projects and dissidence in Cuba. esTratos is aimed at people and groups that are currently looking for what to do on the island or solutions for their projects, which can be found in the recent history that has been poorly or not at all told. It aims to create a sense of community.

Lecturas en Tiempo [Readings in Time]: is our oldest space on social networks. It is also the one that allows us to relax—if that were possible in a hostile political context—at the end of each week. It arises as a physical space for Cuban literature. After two events, the pandemic brought an opportunity in virtuality to expand the connections between authors of different generations, both those who remain on the island and those in exile. More than a map, Lecturas en tiempo proposes a different and non-hierarchical guidebook, which approaches Cuban literature from a broader field of action and/or production.

However, we also collaborate in the production of knowledge with groups of the Cuban civil society, making our expertise available to them; we create spaces for the production of books, journalistic reports, audiovisuals, and film festivals, which result in the empowerment of Cuban artists, intellectuals and activists, from inside and outside Cuba; we work on rescuing archives to make them freely available to researchers, students, and all those interested.

Structurally, the institute has three main areas:

Wish Tank: a space where any Cuban can express their opinions and share their desires for the country they live in, in complete liberty and with respect for others’ opinions.

Think Tank: a space for rethinking collective desires through the study of proposals and policies capable of bringing them into existence. Work in this area deals with the Cuban context, whether directly or through samples of work done in other contexts that resonates with the current social and political transformations in the country. It includes residencies for everyday Cubans, artists, activists, political scientists, economists, urban planners, etc., who participate in working groups centered on the issues selected from the Wish Tank.

Do Tank: the working groups’ proposals and the knowledge generated in the Think Tank will be put to the test through actions in the public space. The goal is to develop a common language with creative tools for individual and collective expression in the public sphere that encourages freedom of expression and social responsibility.

Everything is summarized in these three axes: the pedagogical, the artistic and the social, which go hand in hand. Each space has a weekly frequency, adding up to three broadcasts per week, if State censorship permits it. We have developed strategies to circumvent it, which are almost always effective. We have alliances with intellectuals, artists, activists, Cubans and others that we have identified in our work, for topics related to our mission.

We move in various formats ranging from workshops to lectures, but mostly there are interviews moderated by professionals with expertise and express mandate. Everything is discussed with the team in a horizontal way; we put together both the program and what we should not miss in each space with each guest. All activities are free, although we do have the disadvantage of living in one of the countries with the highest Internet costs and the worst services.

17° 58′ 17″ North, 76° 47′ 35″ West: La Práctica - New Local Space (NLS) Kingston

New Local Space team

La Práctica is a communal intensive conceived to build capacity for a group of younger artists. It creates a space for sharing and learning among participants, with a curriculum that draws on the participants’ own interests and knowledge to guide them in developing language around their practices, gaining confidence, building a community, becoming familiar with the organization, and acquiring professional skills (such as proposal writing, art writing, and budget creation) to advance their practices. Further, the curriculum model of La Práctica is an opportunity for NLS to increase exposure to more nuanced conversations around social issues, expand participants’ collection of references, and equip them with a range of professional skills.

The La Práctica program was a response to several observations the NLS team made about our programming, over the life of the organization but particularly in the year preceding the first iteration. We had come to see recent graduates of the Edna Manley College (EMC), the only four-year visual art program in Jamaica, as an important group to support since we had seen many promising young artists stop practicing within months of leaving school because of a perceived (and real) lack of opportunity. Our residency program also seemed to attract largely foreign or Jamaican artists based abroad, with very few applications coming from local artists. We initially thought this was because it was not fully funded, so we sought funding and made it temporarily exclusively available to Jamaican artists and foreign artists based in the global South.

After one year of these changes, however, we ran into another problem. We found that more applications were coming in from local artists, but identified a number of commonalities in the applications that we saw as areas in need of strengthening. These areas were: effective documentation and portfolio creation, effective communication about the concerns of their work, navigating processes like requesting letters of recommendation, and research. We wanted to take a more sustained approach to the development of the cohort rather than putting on a series of workshops.

In addition, NLS had selected gender as a strategic priority for a three-year period. In interviews and applications, we asked applicants to say how their work and practice engaged issues of gender (in the broadest sense of the term). We found that there was a very narrow understanding of what engaging “gender” might mean. We saw this issue as extending beyond our own recruitment challenges; it was indicative of attitudes in the broader Jamaican socio-cultural sphere. From our individual engagements with EMC (as individual external examiners, and as institutional partners on programming), we knew that the culture of the academic experience could be insular. We were also aware that discussions on gender in Jamaica had been definitively and troublingly shaped by what has come to be known as “male marginalistion theory,” a set of ideas that has even gotten some traction in Gender Studies at the local university level.

A member of the NLS team, Nicole Smythe-Johnson, had participated in a seminar-style program at Beta-Local in Puerto Rico and had been interested in developing something similar in Jamaica. Through consultation with the rest of the team, we designed a program targeted to NLS’s particular context for four emerging artists. It took place through a special project with the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development Next Gen program.

We have had one successful first iteration: in less than a year since the end of the program, two of the four participants have secured competitive grants to support the continuation of the work they developed during the residency and one has been accepted to an MFA. We are currently seeking funding for further iterations.

The program began with an open call and the selection of artists with an eye toward the potential for a cohesive cohort and engaging project proposals. Then, a twelve-week syllabus was developed on the basis of the interests described by participants in their applications. Each week, the participants and a facilitator would discuss a combination of reading and artwork. About half of the sessions also included visiting speakers, usually artists who talked about their own practice.

The participants were also given a stipend and studio space to support their work over the twelve-week period. The studio and seminar aspects enjoyed significant overlap with regular presentations, individual studio visits by several visiting speakers, and of course, discussions of reading material or artwork often circled back to the participants' own studio practice. At the end of La Práctica, the participants developed a public engagement program that was a combination of an in-person exhibition and short video pieces on each participant and their work.