I’M HERE AND I’M BLACK, BUT I’M NOT HERE TO BE BLACK
ART.SCHOOL.DIFFERENCES: REPORT ON THE FINAL SYMPOSIUM by Quentin Delval*
Arriving at the Toni Areal after a long day and a longish train ride, I wasn’t in top form when I entered the Hörsaal 1 around 7:15pm. But the setting instantly refreshed me. Attendees were engaged in an intense discussion. “So you’re basically saying you can’t improve living conditions of minority students because that’s not what the market wants, even though you’re part of what creates that market?” was an attendee asking, the microphone in her hands. An art school representative sitting on stage had just explained to the audience that schools depend on what the “market” wants, in terms of student output. “The reality is that we depend on that”, he said, “so it is a bit more complex than just changing curriculum and practices”. He wouldn’t get away with such a “chicken and egg” contradictory stance. I heard someone whisper “so we don’t end colonialist thinking because it expects us not to?”. I raised an eyebrow. Art.School.Differences, you had my attention.
The conversation revolving around how to circumvent institutional inertia (“of course we need to change things, and of course we can’t wait until society’s ready, but we need to do it the smart way”, i.e. not now, not radically) was brought to a halt by the categorical imperative of the clock. But it was only to give us time to attend the next part of the evening, a performance that would show exactly why Art is a necessary part of thinking and changing (minds about) inequalities. Half part prejudice-triggering show, half part Fanon-based concert, the performance was a real chance for one to burst their little own racist bubble. Emphasizing that “I’m here and I’m black, but I’m not here to be black”, the artist also reminded us that “black people can write (books) too” and we should read them. How many books have you read, this year, that have been written by black authors?
Refreshed by the scent of smart, radical questioning emanating from this first evening, I went to sleep with a feeling of impatience for the next day.
TRANSFORMING THE GAZE
It wasn’t just out of personal need for academic brainstorming and entertainment that I appreciated this start of the week-end. One of the main challenges of equality in Universities of Applied Sciences in Switzerland today lies in the need to make contact with and convince the ones who need to be. Transforming the gaze of the people operating at key positions of the power structures. Extend the talk beyond the inner circle of the people already working in the field of equal opportunity and/or social justice. How do you convince people who, most of the time, won’t even hear the words you have to say, won’t share your definitions, perceptions of reality, and immediate interests? The second day of Art.School.Differences’ final symposium would provide ample choice of answers.
The keynotes, to start with, highlighted what certainly are major aspects of how domination is maintained, namely the illusion that it comes from a rhetoric construction one would just have to debunk in order to see equality advance, and the illusion that theoria is how you rebalance the access to the power structures of society. The focus of the talks therefore opened room for a materialist understanding of domination (in Delphy’s sense) coupled with the need of praxis spaces: the sexist and racist theories and distribution of power are the symptom of a power structure that also has to be addressed by granting access to a praxis, a collective experience, interaction, even at a local level, which empowers the individuals with more than words, and potentially changes the minds.
DECENTRALIZE YOUR ASS
And coherently enough, this is what the parcours was all about. Five hours of workshops, interactive performances, questioning discussions – and walking around the building, here getting a glimpse of ballet dancers practicing, there being caught by the red sound of a trumpet – all served the purpose of bringing your senses to your attention. Inequality is not (only) staged in the conscious mind, it is performed by all senses, by all forms of attention, and they all need their time of deconstruction and reconstruction. “What is this?” asks a performer, holding coffee beans in her hands, standing in a dark room in which selective lighting directs your attention, “what is this?”. Someone says “coffee beans” and she reacts “really? Really?”. It is true that we could have said “the direct consequence of a collusion between colonialist structures of power and neoliberal economy” (ah, are those different?), which are also alive in the other items on that table, chocolate, tea, bananas…. It is true we should decentralize our perspective if we were to understand the fabric of the worlds, both objective and subjective. It is true that what we have to decentralize is not only our minds, granting us with the comfortable feeling of having “understood” exclusion or privilege, but it is our very ass that needs to move aside. It is true we have a responsibility in giving birth to the freedom of our perception. That we have to remove our mask and stop expecting others to put one on.
Maybe it is my background in philosophy (or, as one workshop organizer emphasized, aren’t backgrounds rather foregrounds? I had spent the week reading about students with “Migrationshintergund” and that remark hit the right spot), but I found these phenomenological experiences quite on point. They were asking us to think with more than the theoretical bits we had acquired through the years, they were actually asking what thinking really was about. In another workshop, art-related feminist practices were “offered” to the attendees. One could listen to a video by Judith Butler and/or draw and/or look around the room for feminist manifestos and/or take interest in national statistics on gender inequality and/or do nothing. Which was a good revelator of our relative incapacity to seize our curiosity and be an active part of our “decentralization” – most of us were just expecting to be told about this passage from talk to action. But it was ours to build.
HOLDING POWER STRUCTURES ACCOUNTABLE
Another very important part of the symposium had to do with discussing the institutional obstacles to social justice in art schools: often through a clever mobilization of bourdieusian sociology, attendees were invited to reflect upon the conditions of possibility of failure and success in an art school – which, of course, bears important similarities with the rest of the educational landscape. What kind of capital(s) do you need to get in? And once you’re in, how is the institution allowing you to adapt to its contradictory, ambiguous demands of normalization? How do you become this original artist (teacher standard) who still has to evolve in a school standardized to fit the global market (institution standard)? How do you reconcile being asked to develop your own style, your individuality, when diversity is not allowed structurally? How do you deal with being judged solely on your own individual work within one individual class, while at the same time being supposed to be ready for a job market in which you’ll be requested to work in groups on different disciplinary tasks at the same time? How can you succeed when the teachers’ set of skills does not include diversity training, and they confuse your working-class critical perspective on mass-produced aesthetics with a lack of (established) taste? How do you survive never being sure of where you are and why?
The symposium also offered great opportunities to deal with those realities (and I am intentionally not using the word “questions” here), providing some tools to start creating our own synthesis. Art schools can try to “fix the women” and “fix the minorities” by injecting them with skills, resources, networks and access to the established competition. But that won’t serve any other purpose than perpetuating the inherently flawed social logic of the said competition. Art schools have to fix themselves, and have to be held accountable for their involvement in the solidification of discriminating power structures.
This mirrors the priorities of higher education at large today. Whether it is about horizontal (access to the training) or vertical (progression in the structures of power) discrimination, words are not enough, and it is not the minorities who solely “need help”. Educational institutions need to help themselves, educate themselves too. Open praxis spaces, decentralize their perceptions, think of how they can rebuild those on critical grounds, and implement changes – at least those were, among others, leads discussed over the week-end.
And maybe this can start with a simple question, which was also generously given to us in the conclusion to the symposium: to whom do the schools belong? To whom do the schools belong?
*Quentin Delval is working with the development services of Human Resources and diversity at the French University of applied science HES-SO. The team he works with is responsible to coordinate actions for the equality and diversity – and to intitate new ideas – within all the schools affiliated to the structures of Universities of Applied Sciences in the French speaking part of Switzerland (Romandie). In his doctoral thesis in philosophy at the Uiversité de Louvain-la-Neuve in Belgium he wrote about how scientific expertise ultimately generates the exclusion of the groups it claimed to represent or protect.