A Site for Affective Learning. The Festival as/is a School
Silvia Bottiroli | 02 09 2020 | Essay
From education to learning
Art academies and schools are striving to reinvent themselves, not just to respond to the quickly changing needs of the theatre field – where artists are required to develop multiple, complex skills, that go much beyond mastering particular techniques or disciplines – but more interestingly because of an inner seek for meaningfulness. The art school is more and more, in the contemporary, transnational field of theatre and performance, a hybrid institution that adapts to different circumstances, is resilient towards the public policies that shape it and responsive to the particular forms in which artists develop themselves. Nowadays, the school is a site for critical thinking way more than a place for knowledge transmission: it often questions canonic knowledge and invites invisibilized forms of knowledge into an idea of education that does not mean to reproduce a model but rather to create new, possibly multiple ones. As such, the art school operates between the fields of education and art and is consistently positioning itself – at least in its more advanced manifestations – as a common ground for artists who, often with a diverse background and a transdisciplinary approach to art practices, wish to question, challenge and expand their own languages, and seek for inspiration, exchange, support and contextualization.
The capacity of art schools has important limitations though. First of all, although a school is always, per se, open to anyone, the art school is traditionally a place for artists only, and therefore it misses out the opportunity of involving curators, dramaturgs, scholars and experts, but also theatre spectators and citizens into a consistent conversation, one where everyone would be lead to put their own perspectives and assumptions into question. Second, the institutional school always has a particular bond to the location (the city, and also the national policies, cultural assumptions and so on) that it is connected to. Pushing the borders of what locality means, and yet insisting in being meaningful for a particularly located community, are opposite and complementary forces that shape the work of any art school that tries to do its work. Some of the constraints posed by the local context, as well as some of the institutional constraints that come with being an accredited programme, are certainly productive. Others are undoubtedly not though, and are often in the way of the freedom that should be prerequisite of any practice of learning.
The main source of inspiration for art schools that are rethinking themselves come from the multiple, divergent and often radical experiments in art education and knowledge production generated in the last decades within independent, non-institutional contexts: artistic collectives, artist-run organizations, and lately festivals, that seem to take up the role of designing and proposing alternative forms of knowledge generation and sharing .
The free schools curated and hosted by artistic organizations, more often festivals, ideally complement the potential role of institutional schools, by creating sites devoted not necessarily to education but rather to learning. This shift in terminology is significant: the free school is indeed focussed on the learning as a continuous, open-ended process that involves bodies and subjectivities, enhances a collective dimension, and is based on the exchange and circulation of different forms of knowledge.
Within artistic organizations and festivals, programming a school often means creating a time not oriented to production, and yet productive. What is produced by the school then? Any school produces in the first place relationships: distances, proximities and exchanges based on asymmetrical positions that decide to engage with the power structures that produce them, in order to dismantle them, swap positions and create new constellations, also negotiating the individual and the collective as two intertwined dimensions.
Any free school is a particular form of prototype that does not have to prove its sustainability on a larger scale, nor to reproduce itself in time, although repetition and insistence may play an important role in exploring the potential of such a form. Not having to sustain its own vision over time and make it into a recognizable identity gives the school a great degree of freedom: temporary schools are always context responsive, yet in a very different way than institutional schools are. Within a festival or an artistic organization, a school can become a site for the exploration of particular questions generated by the artistic programme, the curatorial practices behind it, the artists themselves or their research processes. Being intertwined with performances and other artistic manifestations that may comprise forms connected to the learning – residencies, workshops, relational or participatory works, lecture-performances… – the school can benefit of, and contribute to, a unique context where artistic production is entangled with public fruition, critical reflection, and often – as it is the case at Homo Novus and in other significant festivals – the life of public space and the city.
In such contexts, as well as in today’s art schools, there is no specific thing – toolkit, theoretical reference, skill or methodology – that a participant needs to learn. In this sense, the sites for learning in the arts are based on a generative paradox: a utopian spirit that applies to a temporary, asymmetrical collectivity, gathered by the desire to question and learn, and unified by not knowing what precisely they are doing together, nor what the school is there for and can or must do to and with them.
Artistic practice as a school
We may state that any artwork is already an expression of a particular knowledge, and experiencing it, individually and together with others, is a form of knowledge production. More often this is meant as a unidirectional transfer, as if the work was there to affect its viewers and contribute to their learning, without being affected by them. What is particular within the performing arts, though, is that the work can also learn from its viewer – and, as any theatre artist knows, it often does. The knowledge exchange within the performative domain is therefore a complex set of streams of information and affection, that meet and transform each other, generating connections and exchanges that are not easily traceable. The live attendance of a performative work is hence a school in itself, if only we can look at it that way.
This seems to be an important stance for artists who, especially in the last two decades, have expanded the notion of performativity and the forms of performative works, embracing the artistic process as a form of knowledge exchange and sometimes engaging with forms of learning and knowledge production from the perspective of their performativity or from a desire to inhabit them as possible artistic practices .
The contribution of spectators to the knowledge exchanges initiated by a performative work is pivotal in some artistic experimentations and projects, such as for example Lotte van den Berg’s Building Conversations, Sarah Vanhee’s Lecture for Every One, and many more. These examples are only indicative of the broad diversity of artistic practices that, within the performing arts, pay attention to the contribution that the audience bring to the work. When looking at these kinds of practices from the perspective of the possible interactions between school, performance and curation, the main finding is how performative works can generate complex, emancipatory exchanges that affect each subject involved and, although triggered by the artwork, go way beyond it.
In the last decade or so, a further shift is occurring within the relation between art practices and learning processes, with artists being increasingly attracted by the school as a possible artistic form, either creating school projects as fictional institutions (see The Silent University by Ahmet Ogut, McDonalds’ Radio University by Akira Takayama among the others), or setting up schools as a form of their artistic practice (see Body of Knowledge by Sarah Vanhee, Decoratelier by Josef Wouters, but also School of Integration by Tania Bruguera in Cuba, among others). Within these practices, the school becomes the artistic project, it is not just a trait or side effect of it. By reversing the terms of the usual equation ‘any artwork generates a knowledge exchange’ and assuming the production and sharing of knowledge as a possible artistic practice in itself, artists are appropriating the coordinates of the school and transforming them into machines for desire and transformation, for emancipation and exploration of the unknown.
The festival as a school
The fruitful conversation that is occurring between performative festivals and free schools has its roots and its raison d’etre at the crossroads of the different dynamics underlined above.
Festivals are indeed an extraordinary framework for aesthetic experience and for the encounter between individuals and collectivities with art works and art practices. Unlike other institutions or programmes, festivals provide a density of time and space that invites to intensity and complexity. They create dramaturgies between very different art forms and artistic voices, inhabit and operate within cities and social environments, make the artists into temporary citizens of a locality, and the inhabitants into foreigners and artists within their own city. These are all preconditions of a productive learning process, where positions can be exchanged and new forms of knowledge can emerge, forms that are not necessarily already acknowledged and that, by their own complexity, can question the canonic understanding of knowledge itself, of art and in the end of politics.
The political potential is one of the most stunning features of the forms of collective production, exchange and sharing that temporary schools held within festivals set conditions for. Here, strangers come together for a short time and gather around specific questions, interests and desires; differences are enhanced as a pleasurable form of transformation instead than managed as a source of discomfort that requires negotiations and compromises . These are schools with no schoolmaster, in this sense marking a difference with the habit of big festivals and other artistic institutions to invite ‘masters’ to give masterclasses to students and younger artists. No one is at the center here, no one embodies a knowledge worth being passed on to others, and no one is there to be filled in with contents they are supposed to not know well enough about. The learning is mutual and circulates in multiple directions at the same time, drawing streams of information that cannot be captured into a single picture.
This circularity does not require the context of a school to exist, yet creating the signifier of a school operates as a form of invitation, a shift in perspective, an acknowledgment of something that artists and spectators might be anyway experiencing together, but are not necessarily aware of. In this sense, the signifier of the school operates in a performative way: by naming something, it makes it exist for those who are already part of it but, because of the complexity of their own experience, might not know how to interpret it and what values associate to it. Even more, it makes the essence of the festival as a school visible to a larger community, that is not necessarily involved into it but comprises important stakeholders of the artistic and cultural field.
The most accomplished examples of schools within festivals are those that stay loyal the etymology of the school – from the Greek skolè, indicating the time devoted to leisure as opposed to the time dedicated to work. By doing so, the festival offers its performativity as a ground for forms of coming together and learning that embrace pleasure, the fulfillment of a temporary suspension from ordinary life, and the freedom from the obligation to subjugate an experience to the logics of production – be it production of art, of knowledge or of the self.
A school generated or hosted by a festival is per se temporary and provisional, concrete as well as fictional: it is an act of speculation and collective imagination, and can thus become a powerful way of reimagining what performance, spectatorship and curation are and can do. Indeed, by setting conditions for a learning process, festivals also make space for their own learning. For an artistic organization, creating a school is an act of self-determination, a way of expanding its own understanding and practice, a trick to create time when there is no time. This may find even stronger connotations in the infra-pandemic context that we are currently living, that demands to resist the narrative of the ‘back to normal’ as well as an easy acceptance of a state of emergency and distancing as a ‘new normal’. While acknowledging the unprecedented crisis that a tiny, non-human entity has been able to trigger at a global level, it is necessary to find delicate forms of getting together to experience the profound bonds that connect us and the responsibility that we have towards each other, learning together how to nurture forms of imagination and our collective capacity to see what is not there yet.
Within this framework that is so strongly imposed into us from the current moment, artistic institutions can be sites of learning and more importantly must find ways to keep learning themselves, and by learning keep evolving, even changing radically, deciding to cease to exist or maybe transforming into other organisms, with other subjects, in other places. One component that is critical of this political dimension is the use of time that festivals do, and schools can do too. Within a festival, the school makes indeed use of a meantime: it parasites an existing context and intensity of exchanges – the festival – and makes a queer use of it, bending it to other purposes than the sheer production and fruition of art. This enhances something that is, in the best cases, already there in the idea and practice of a festival: the possibility of creating vulnerable and temporary, yet powerful and emancipatory, sites for multiplicity, encounter, mutuality, knowledge exchange and, in the end, circulation of affect.
Silvia Bottiroli is artistic director for master programme DAS Theatre in Netherlands, curator, researcher and organizer in contemporary performing arts. Silvia obtained a Ph.D. in Visual and Performing Arts at Pisa University. Silvia Bottiroli is author of numerous writings about the XX Century and contemporary theatre and dance scene, focusing in particular on the political and ethical values of performance, the societal implication of artistic creation and spectatorship and the issues raised by curatorial practices and instituting processes. From 2012 to 2016 she has been the artistic director of Santarcangelo Festival, one of the most relevant contemporary performing arts festivals in Italy. Additionally, she has supervised diverse critical, curatorial and educational projects in collaboration with art organizations including a.o. SNDO School for New Dance Development in Amsterdam and Homo Novus Festival in Riga. She has worked as guest curator for the project “The May Events” in KunstenFestivalDesArts in Brussels and Vooruit in Ghent. In 2017 Silvia Bottiroli curated the ten week study programme “Anywhere, Anywhere Out of This World” at DAS Theatre.