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Alternative to What?

A roundtable discussion at Tate Modern contemplates the role of alternative education

004 / 21 December 2012

How do you educate displaced people and for that matter, who is displaced in the twenty-first century? For artist Ahmet Ögüt, the project is simple: with the cooperation of the Delfina Foundation and Tate Modern, Southwark Refugee Forum, Migrant Resource Centre, The Silent University, a knowledge and skill-sharing platform, was started in 2012 in collaboration with refugees and asylum seekers in London. It was a similar story for Occupy London's School of Ideas or The Public School, a project initiated in Los Angeles in the basement of Telic Arts Exchange in 2007, though both examples stem from more localised issues, namely, the public education system and rising tuition fees. In all of these cases, so-called 'alternative' education projects are started in response to a system's failure to respond to the educational needs of either a migrant or particular population.



It is with this in mind that The Silent University hosted a roundtable discussion at Tate Modern. Titled, 'Alternative to What?' the conference explored the work of alternative education platforms currently in operation. The first panel, chaired by Associate Editor at frieze Sam Thorne, included speakers Penny Evans, Assistant Director at Knowle West Media Centre, Laura Marziale, Community Education and Employment Team Coordinator of The Migrant Resource Centre and Caleb Waldorf of The Public School Berlin.


A fluid debate was had in this session, with Marziale emphasising the importance of 'users' needs at The Migrant Resource Centre, where focus is on securing employment and the necessary skills for migrants to function in society. Marziale cited the Centre for Possible Studies as a project that uses 'participatory approaches where people can really become actors and not passive recipients'. Similarly for Waldorf, participation in such projects as The Public School is key. He discussed The Public School – something Waldorf says will only exist as long as its participants wish for it to exist – in terms of necessity. He drew corollary examples with the tuition fee protests at the University of California in 2009, noting how the UC itself had originally been set up as an alternative to East Coast Ivy League schools. From this, another debate took place, encapsulated by Penny Evan's question: 'When is it art and when is it creative organising?' However, Waldorf suggested that the question is besides the point: 'Art as activism is a concern for critics and institutions but should not be a concern for the practitioner,' he said.


This concern was echoed in the second discussion, chaired by Tate's Emily Pringle, Head of Learning Practice, Research and Policy, who made note of the position of the Tate's learning department, 'framed within this institution' and specifically named 'learning' and not 'education'. In Pringle's assertion of an institutional context (and perhaps agenda), the question of space and place came up amongst speakers Pelin Tan, Assistant Professor, at Kadir Has University, Istanbul, Carlos Cruz Garcia, Learning Organiser at the United Migrant Education Project and Janna Graham, Projects Curator at the Serpentine Gallery, where she leads the Centre for Possible Studies.


Graham talked about the field of art education as a neo-colonial process. Earlier, Evans had noted something similar, in that, 'there is a failure going on especially in non-western countries where foreign academies are planting themselves'. This idea of the academy as a reproducible and transportable 'thing' is something that perhaps alternative education platforms seek to overcome through the engagement with more progressive and more immediate approaches. In this, the conversation quickly moved on to the general role of the institution; namely, Pringle asked how the institution and the alternative organisation could work together and finally, what is education for? Cruz responded with a simple answer. Look at the specific needs of the context. 'Go outside and see the world!' he said. 'What is happening now? What is happening here?'


Cruz's was an enigmatic call for action; an invitation to build new systems out of the old in response to the immediate needs of a particular place. Given everything that has happened and is happening in the world – the increasing economic gap between 'us' and 'them', the Arab revolutions, the recent tuition fee and union protests amidst British universities, as well as the continued, complex and manifold issues being causes worldwide by migration – the need to find new ways in which to produce creative solutions to current problems is becoming more urgent. Taking on the very idea of how we learn is by no means a small undertaking. As Waldorf noted, all assumptions that you know what you are doing should be pushed to the side in taking on such a challenge.


But such independent ventures often require the time and resources they do not have in order to grow into a true alternative. Consequently, solutions often come in the form of private sponsorship, or collaborations with larger institutions such as the Tate, an institution enmeshed in its own web of social and political associations and obligations.


Nevertheless, as Ögüt asserted in his closing remarks, the intention for alternative platforms such as The Silent University is to foster conditions for collaboration, to protect the autonomy of the individual and challenge those who pass through The Silent University's space, both as individuals and intellectuals. It is also about finding ways to 'turn passive issues into active issues,' as Ögüt noted; issues so often left by the wayside. Things like how to create and sustain a productive space for those in the world 'the system' has provided no place.