On transpedagogy

with Pablo Helguera
May 2009

From: Helguera, Pablo. “Transpedagogy: Contemporary Art and the Vehicles of Education,” a panel discussion curated by Pablo Helguera and presented at MoMA in May 15, 2009, was the starting point for the conversation that follows.


Transpedagogy: Contemporary Art and the Vehicles of Education

with Pablo Helguera

Many art projects that incorporate pedagogy as a medium seem to be a reaction / response to institutionalized education – particularly museum education- functioning as a sort of institutionalized critique. Do you agree with this statement? And if so, what are the concrete aspects of educational methodologies that are being critiqued?

In my case, with the project Arte de Conducta, I approached Education as a material that functions in the frame of and as a political space. I was not so interested on the specific area of museum education but more on the political significance of the medium itself and its dynamic in the society at large. The way in which I worked on it was by dealing with the relationship between art and politics and setting up a possible place to create a conversation about it. I worked on learning as the visible expression of an experience. I did not use the belief in the process of learning as a passing of general concepts of knowledge or references but in the construction of the learning as a result of a reflexive experience. In our case that was done through the creation of artworks that generated those discussions. It was more a system in which one was putting into practice (with all the rules involved on that commitment) tools that were supposed to be used on their symbolic capacity. I never forgot that we were dealing with education as a political tool. Education was the methodology and the subject but the goal was never to change education but to seek political results through it. It was a strategy where I took the tool of power to create power. Now that the project is finished, I could say that its manifestation was the creation of a school for political art. The main element I was criticizing in terms of education was the pretended transition (paralleling the proto-capitalism in Cuba) affecting the social role of art, one that was comfortably assuming a complicit and servile collaboration between the power structure and the artist. I always hoped for the work not to become education as a mere reference to a form, that is something I’m a bit worried about due to the recent flourish of education-related art projects. Education can’t only be seeing as a series of sensible combinations but as a way to change or at least be a reference a point of view on someone’s life for a long time.

If there is anything I’m working on in terms of education is the desire to explore the affect of a concept: Revolution.

In my case I’m not so interested on art – as – education but on education as art. I’m interested to explore the ways in which things become artistic. I’m interested on seeing what makes a moment art, a moment that comes from the realm of the political.

Political art always assumes its educational side because it wants a result.

Educative was also the desire to create a context for the work and its set of rules to be experienced.

What is to be learned by institutions from artist-instigated pedagogical projects?

Art, as well as education, works in context and it is time and information sensitive. Once an institution is ready to “learn” from an artist-instigated pedagogical project it means that the capacity of that project to challenge has expired. Instead of trying to learn from artistic-generated pedagogical projects, which mostly mean copying a model and not adapting its intentions, the institution should prepare itself to be part of the creation of space and time for critique (self-critique in some cases) and propose to build moments instead. Some institutions simply can’t do any of it because they are mainly focused on not threatening the generation and justification for their expenses that is often based on a stable and popular sense of prestige due to a constructed idea of success that, so far, do not entails self-criticism or doubt. That as well as the need from the part of the institution to have and discuss pre-defined satisfactory (for the institution) concrete visible results (truths) to be executed as promised before the project starts, are for me the main struggles when an artist is commissioned to work with the institution on such proposals.

In order to do so, the institution should become an audience as well and lose its powerful role as specialist and never forget that education is a political tool, so maybe the discussion should not be about what form the artist will provide the institution with but what political discussion they are entering into by doing so. Education is about ideological formation, about the construction of a model to process issues, it is about the ethic of knowledge. Are museums interested in the relationship between ethics and desire? Are museums interested in creating a system by which people analyze while doing? Are the museums interested on this or just on using such tool to generate more prestige? Or is education just used to transfer information on specific art works instead of creating a sense of creativity in the receptor?

What is to be learned (if anything) by the art practice from the way in which pedagogical methodologies understand its audiences and studies their responses?

That audience is not a mere accident but its raison d’être. 

That knowledge and its affect have expiration dates. 

The time needed for a social transformation.

That creativity is not the goal but a tool.

That utopia is an accessible phase of reality not its fatality.

That everybody wants to understand.

Conventional pedagogy has set goals and parameters towards its audience. What are the benefits / downfalls in establishing similar structure to art projects that engage in similar practices?

If by pedagogy we refer to a learning process to acquire palpable knowledge / understanding of things, then its main benefits are: The possibilities to present art to society as something useful in practical terms and that it comprehends the idea of a tangible result, one where what is sensible is seen through the behavior. The political dimension of social actions. The need to construct an idea of a better human being. To prefigure what one can do with knowledge, art becoming the place where to propose applications for that knowledge.

But the impairment would be that people think about art as a structure, a style, and not also a place where to find that knowledge, if there is a mimetic approach to the traditional structures of power involved on a learning process. Another downfall could be the intention to create homogenous groups where knowledge is a gray area where to find community via shared references. To forget the important role of the outsider, of the drop out, of the ones that have no memory or can’t concentrate, of the ones that can’t understand. And the main thing for me would be to lose the double and simultaneous condition of observant and participant; doing something while being able to criticize it.

How can we characterize the kind of participation that takes place in a work with a core pedagogical component?

Actually if it is art it should precisely propose a new kind of participation, one that is not clear for anyone and that is created in the midst of the interactions. Confusion is a handy element because it provides the un-feared possibility to participate and to relocate. This is where some political art has fail in my opinion, when on its recognition of the educational side of political gestures it appropriated the literal expressions of learning instead of creating new ways to engage, ones where the distribution of power is negotiated, where people have to re-think their place, where the political is acted by the participants. It is important that the project plans at several times (specially when successful) to stop and create again a sort of chaos or a sort of disorganization of its structures so again new distributions can emerge as well as a new rotation of possibilities to be accepted and the space to validate new proposals. The learning process, if used in art, should not be appropriated to justify a sense of truth.

Also in the use of education in art one should negotiate the location of the destabilizing strategies used in art.

There is a fundamental difference between education and art. Education is about transmitting elements of consensus; art is the disruption of them. Education is the transmission and memorization of elements that makes us a collective based in a sense of truth that has being agreed previously and before the actual delivering of the data. Art is a space leading into new organization of meanings and that some times is done through chaos or through confronting an established sense of truth. The difference is that even when both are ideological activities, education has a clear goal toward constructing a defined identity that is related to its function in society and to the expectations of the role of the individual and the collective. Somehow the only thing I can see as similar between art and education is the fact that there are both procedures to convince people about something we believe in (that being data or ideas). In education the demand for creativity and the demand for confrontation towards a norm seems to be more like a training process where students learn how to behave and how to create a structure to deal with it and hopefully how to create a system to introduce (and impose) their point of view. Education provides a common ground of understanding, a common world of references that makes us fundamentally equal (at a very basic level), in art you are demanded to get inside the artist’s world and it is “your” responsibility as an audience to find a common ground with the artist (and become an equal). 

It seems possible for one discipline to appropriate elements of another but it needs to be aware that expectations are different. The ideal would be to have those expectations meet at a middle point where the collective acknowledges the legitimacy of a different point of view; one where the path to accumulate knowledge and to create knowledge meet.

The excitement about the “new” is different in education and in art. In education, what is new is related to the excitement of when one found something that is understood, that we have understood. In art what is new is discovering what we do not know, what we do not understand (and some times discovering that we are not sure we want to).

What is the distinction of approaches between using art as a vehicle to teach art vs. using artistic strategies toward creating a better understanding of issues outside art (social, political, etc.)?

It is helpful to use art as a vehicle to teach art if you believe that art is an experience in itself. If you believe that art, no matter what else is talking about, is always about art.

I advocate more for teaching non-art (issues outside art) for art sake. Teaching philosophy, engineering, ethnography, sociology, law, science, etc, prepares better the artist for when they use those references they really know what they are talking about and they have a bigger spectrum and current approach to issues languages and strategies on those disciplines. Also that way we can prevent a future of mostly self-referential artistic subjects (if I want to get really fatalistic).

Using artistic strategies to understand issues outside art gives the sense of freedom that may be needed to lose fear, to feel empowered and change the dimension of things.

How can pedagogy, through the work of artists, can contribute to reinvent the gallery and museum practices?

It depends on the amount of control the museum wants to have, the concept they have of the demographic of their audience and what is the mission of the institution (because pedagogy always has a mission). Pedagogy is about authority and authenticity as well as museums but while pedagogy is about ethics and desire the museum is about appreciation, one that should not be related to moral issues. While education is about providing knowledge that could and would be used on the everyday life (practical use), the museum’s perspective on the usefulness of art model is not that clear (not even when they show actual useful art work). While education wants to create a concept of citizenship / social being (expected active role) the museum wants to create a concept of spectatorship (expected, traditionally, to be a passive role)

In the activist realm, in what ways can artistic / pedagogical projects impact an audience that straightforward activism can not? Why is it important  (is it important) to keep this practices within the artistic realm?

Again, it is a matter of emphasis, voice, sense of clarity in the message and the ways the ideological is used. It has to do, also, with the erosion of the language used as well as how one wants to enter the discussion; it is not the same to start by questioning, by giving information or by making something emotional. It depends also on what is expected in terms of processing information by the audience. If the goal is to create a short or long term effect, if the desire is to have an immediate reaction towards the problem or to create an atmosphere for something less reactive, more reflective. I find that all of the options (activism, art, pedagogy) are strategies not a mean in itself, they are tools for political work they are not just languages or forms but adaptable resources to form conscience and ways to activate action (whether reflexives or proper actions). There are all dealing with setting states of mind and a sense of appreciation of a situation. There are all demanding something from us, the difference between those tools is what each demands: confrontation (activism), institutionalization (pedagogy) or negotiation (art). Another difference is if one wants results (concrete results) and how quickly, how time is conceived in the response to a situation. Activism, education and art, have each their own and different tempo due to their reception and engagement techniques. Another difference is the way one wants to use a sense of immediacy and to work with a sense of authorized criteria.

How are these current practices indebted to institutional critique and relational aesthetics, and how they contrast?

I’m more interested in the para-institution. The idea that one could build up parallel institutions, working institutions, that do propose and show in its operation other working systems, being a temporary frame of action where art enters as the self-reflective, self-critical, tool while it is simultaneously being conceived and happening, a para-institution that sees itself from the outside, from the spectator’s point of view.