What Does Education Mean to you?
An international group of educators, cultural producers, artists and scholars convened in Athens and Kassel for a reprise of an ongoing debate about the state of education in the arts and beyond.
by Aïcha Diallo
Circle as Method
It is a bright and beautiful morning in Kassel. There is an invigorating breeze and some warmth flowing in from the sky. I also sense some sort of excitement in mid-air. We are standing on the dark green grass between the Parthenon of Books, a grand installation, constructed from 100,000 banned books, by Argentinian artist Marta Minujín and the Fridericianum Museum. In between one site embodying the endangered facing the other one appearing safe, there is a thin oak tree. Sanchayan Ghosh from Santiniketan, India, our host of this opening, tells us that it is one of Beuys' 7,000 oak trees. With the support of volunteers, artist Joseph Beuys planted these oak trees over several years in Kassel. In response to the extensive urbanization of the city, this work was a long-term artistic and ecological intervention aiming at stimulating people's mind and lives and altering the public space of Kassel.
We are carefully encircling Beuys' tree. Sanchayan Gosh invites us to introduce ourselves. By forming a circle, we face each other. I feel ambiguously awkward and curious to see and get a little sense who is actually there, who we are in that space. After a little while, I also see how some people, visitors and staff alike of documenta, are looking at us. From outside the circle, between the open and closed documenta sites, they are trying to make sense of our performative act.
Performance and games are the central points of interest in Sanchayan Ghosh's practice and research. He explains how games can be used as a pedagogical method for activating dialogical situations and critical engagement in a shared space in which individuals interact with one another. Sanchayan Ghosh opens this circular formation for us to let us embody the idea of a non-linear, communal and continuous process. Through which, "making, learning and failing" are rendered inevitable in this kind of settings. The circle as a tool proposes the holding of individual points of view by raising the question of how a "we" can mirror and allow a space for different attention points, multiple positionings.
Following this introduction, we continue with our ritualistic opening. We remain in a circle by making sure to stick to one's neighbours on the left- and right hand-side, drawing us to care for one another. We are forming small circles within a circle by moving from the first site to the park to finally end our journey under other Beuys' trees there next to Kassel's University of the Arts Kassel. We are taking part in an experimental pilgrimage, an invitation to honour the present moment, and to be in nature.
In the framework of documenta 14 - Learning from Athens, the gathering Under the Mango Tree – Ulterior Sites of Learning served as a platform to reflect and share practices, knowledge and perspectives revolving around the notion of education. Sepake Angiama, Head of Education at documenta 14, whose program is called aneducation, and Elke aus dem Moore, Head of the Visual Arts Department at the ifa – Institute for International Cultural Relations, spearheaded and named the program Under the Mango Tree inspired by Paulo Freire's thoughts from his book Pedagogy of the Heart:
"To come under the shade of this mango tree with such deliberateness and to experience the fulfillment of solitude emphasize my need for communion. While I am physically alone proves that I understand the essentiality of to be with."
With the idea of communion in mind, the gathering Under the Mango Tree was conceived as a meeting point for exchange with a specific emphasis put on group work, active listening and body-based methods. Experimentation and interdependence lied in the core of this forum. With this specific backdrop, critical issues contesting institutions and their lack and/or limitations of structural access, curricula and educational policies were brought to the table in an attempt and for the urgency to propose alternative, new as well as revisited forms and networks of learning.
Under the Mango Tree was staged in two chapters in four consecutive days. The first two days were held in Athens where practitioners were invited from non-formal and artist-led initiatives, mainly coming from the Global South and Indigenous perspectives. In the Greek capital city, the guests all regrouped among themselves first to get to know each other and start the conversation. The discussion was reiterated then on the second stage set in Kassel that was opened to a wider group of fellow experts.
Among the 10 invited contributors of Under the Mango Tree, there was, for instance, KUNCI - the School of Improper Education from Yogyakarta, Indonesia, represented by Syafiatudina Saja at the gathering. This multidisciplinary platform explores and questions the notion of school and opens these issues and conversations to participants from diverse socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. In addition, the nomadic project Wood Land School in Ontario, Canada, founded by Duane Linklater and co-run by Tanya Lukin Linklater and cheyanne turions gives indigenous knowledge systems center stage through a wide range of projects and formats. Moreover, the Johannesburg-based Keleketla! Library, co-founded by Rangoato Hlasane and Malose Malahlela, is another perfect example showing how knowledge can be produced as a collaborative and democratic process through multimedia approaches and tools. In Kassel, Hlasane presented a sonic lecture about the legacy of the South African music genre Kwaito and its crosscultural connections with other genres like House Music. Through oral history, he showed his ongoing research by intercepting this with sound pieces. And by doing so, this was a unique and interactive way of transmitting words and sound, of passing and making room for alternative forms of knowledge production and for the intangible that we as human beings experience and share collectively.
Thus, to quote scholar and activist Françoise Vergès :
"Let us for a moment consider a world in which the intangible matters as much, if not more than the tangible where culture is embodied in human beings, in exchanges and encounters, rather than in stones and objects. We are a narrative species with an endless faculty to fantasize. We grew up with stories and they contribute to making us who we are. We live in an intangible world of images, sounds and words."
Following the walk, we are sitting in the leafy park facing the canal. Even though our circle has dispersed itself, we are still able to see each other. Elke aus dem Moore passionately shares with us hers and Sepake Angiama's idea and motivation behind curating the gathering Under the Mango Tree. Under the shadow of the trees, we listen to her standing and sounding touched. It is a reflective moment. After recalling the strong moments of our opening, Aus dem Moore explains how the program was designed as an invitation to slow down and allow embodied knowledge to come into play in this temporary community.
As a backdrop, the term aneducation, which means "experience" and is the name given to documenta 14’s education department, refers to the process of unlearning. The aneducation team has introduced to the documenta participants and public methods and activities that encourage the altering of perspectives, for example, as Sepake Angiama asks in an interview: "Why, for example, was I taught at school about Ancient Greek civilization but not about the Kingdom of Benin?"
The atmosphere is still. Sepake Angiama is reading out loud her inner thoughts and observations that came about while co-producing this project. She utters these words with a calm voice. In her opinion, voice is the emotional barometer of expression that needs to be more paid attention to. By concluding, Angiama also asks: What does it mean to be with? And do how we feel and think from one's own positioning while listening actively and encountering others?”
As bell hooks puts it in her book Teaching to Transgress:
"Accepting the decentering of the West globally, embracing multiculturalism, compels educators to focus attention on the issue of voice. Who speaks? Who listens? And why?"
Education is, after all, a matter of caring about what we do in connection with the things others do, and hence about making sense of the relationship between oneself and the world.
From start to finish, the gathering Under the Mango Tree kept situating itself under the trees - the metaphorical mango trees, the physical oak trees... - extending new and old branches of learning experience. Under the shade of these trees, crucial questions or even blind spots are present making us aware of hidden and open normative, oppressive mechanisms. For instance, how do we make the transfer to and figure out strategies to challenge established normative systems? Looking further, how do we acknowledge and include a diversiy of voices and knowledge, for example diasporic and migrant perspectives being present and active in local contexts in the West? Which and how do bodies have access to spaces in art and education?
Like a pilgrimage, these conversations are to be a continuous journey with a strong purpose, and on a quest for new possibilities and self-awakening.