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by Annemarie Bucher

Emphasizing the “Co”-Factor: Practicing, Teaching, and Learning the (Fine) Arts Outside the Curricula

Since the 1970s, we have been witnessing globalization as a rapidly growing worldwide interlinking of economic, social, cultural, ecological, financial, and political activities. These ongoing processes have had and still have an enormous impact on life in general and on its subdomains, such as communication and knowlege production, in particular—and on the arts. Various forms, styles, and conceptions of art are now appearing at the same time, just as protagonists from the arts are exchanging ideas and experiences across the world. To cut a long story short, we are facing manifold ways in which art is understood, discussed, and practiced.[1] Moreover, art education is not immune to these large-scale transformations.

Shifting Art Curricula in the Course of Globalization
Art curricula and education programs are currently undergoing a fundamental shift, one that raises questions about how art should or can be taught.[2] In Switzerland, these questions became evident with the implementation of academic degrees in the arts. The institutional history of Zurich University of the Arts[3] illustrates how curricular reorganizations went hand in hand with institutions being renamed, or breaking away (e.g., when the F+F School became a private art and design school in 1971), or merging (e.g., when Zurich and Winterthur schools of music, theater, art, and design were united under one roof in 2007).

In the course of globalization, new functions of art, new roles of artists, and new art strategies have been promoted and have become effective. They include a growing interest in social transformation processes and in civic empowerment. Individual artists, art collectives, and art networks across the world are increasingly fostering direct relationships and involvement with their surroundings (living environments). As such, they play an active part in ongoing political, social, and cultural change processes. To describe this extension of artistic practice, Dominique Lämmli has introduced the terms “Art in Action”[4] and “artists working reality.”[5]  Obviously, these developments affect art schools and how the arts are taught. They challenge prevailing habits and open up new perspectives, as various roadmaps and position papers on art education suggest.[6]

The current precarious state of artist training is rooted to some extent in the Western tradition. The idea of autonomous art, which has long implicitly shaped art education in Western Europe, has been questioned from various viewpoints. This concept reflected the dramatic changes in the production structure of the arts after the French Revolution, when artists received fewer commissions from the nobility and a broader, dispersed market evolved instead. Ultimately, the notion of autonomy heightened the artist’s exclusive position in society as a genius, bohemian, or critical mind.

Increasing globalization meant that the concept of autonomous art not only received worldwide acclaim, but also revealed certain limitations. Comparing different art traditions reveals that the rise of autonomous art did not initiate an ontological turn, i.e., a total disengagement of the arts from all obligations. Rather, the concept of autonomy masked the artist’s dependency on a free art market. Thus, it concealed and absorbed other entanglements of art, and its functions in the public, social, and political realm. Hence, it is far from certain that the artist’s dependency on a corresponding art market is the only option for the future.

These multiple perspectives, merely hinted at above, point to the particular challenges of teaching and learning the fine arts today. To find a reasonable answer, it is essential to consider art education in terms of globalization, diverse traditions, institutional histories, teachers’ profiles and roles, and students’ demands.

The Affirmative Impact of Tradition
Traditions undoubtedly impact the present. Thus, a brief survey of the history of Western European artist training brings to light predominant concepts of passing on knowledge and experience about art. This history involved various seminal turns. For instance, ancient and medieval art workshops emphasized hands on-training and thus relied strongly on collaboration and “corporate” identities. In contrast, classical art academies of the eighteenth century referred to theories, principles, and canons. They also upheld the axiom of uniqueness. This was based largely on the artist’s academic stance and his or her claim to distinguished individual authorship.

Later, twentieth-century modernist art schools based their training on crafts, technical skills, and abstraction—beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries. These art schools had emerged from late-nineteenth-century ambitions to reunite the liberal arts and applied arts and manufacturing, and to reform art and design education. Artists were converted into the avant-garde of a new modern lifestyle.

These reformatory endeavors brought forth several new schools of art and applied art in Europe, and it was from one such school that Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus. Together with his “comrades-in-arms and arts,” Gropius called for an educational structure in which all artistic disciplines and media would contribute to a modern society and lifestyle. Surprisingly, in the face of frantic modernization, he suggested returning to attitudes toward art and crafts once characteristic of the medieval age, i.e., before art and manufacturing drifted far apart.

The modernist concept of teaching and learning spread worldwide and developed even further. The example of Black Mountain College[7] illustrates how standard educational norms were replaced by a new experiential concept in the second half of the twentieth century. Founded in 1933 in rural North Carolina as a private alternative to traditional higher education institutions, the College followed the pedagogical and democratic ideas of John Dewey. Pragmatist and experiential perspectives dominated its teaching and learning both in theory and in practice. The goal was to educate autonomous individuals, not categorical individualists. The College clearly opposed traditional norms of higher education and therefore attracted some distinctive faculty and students.[8] Its innovative methods can be described as integral learning, co-learning, and co-teaching among teachers and students. Another formative moment was the community: students and teachers lived together on campus and had to find ways to organize their lives. No wonder that cooking and gardening were important activities and may well have contributed (implicitly) to expanding the traditional concept of art to basic life skills such as gardening or cooking. The campus was also said to be a community of (racial) diversity given the decision to admit black students. Its innovative teaching and learning structures helped this small liberal arts college to gain an impressive reputation. After its closure in 1956–57, it became a sort of myth, one that influenced and still shapes educational discourse at art schools worldwide. Its ideas and visions were doubtless revolutionary in its day. But can Black Mountain College still serve as an adequate role model for artist training today?

Departure Toward Collaborative and Active Formats
In our daily routine, we mostly think of (art) education within the existing institutional framework (curricula and departments, courses and subjects, credits and examinations). Yet, besides considering administrative contexts, we urgently need to discuss how to make sense of teaching and learning art and how to link art education to contemporary real life.

As I mentioned, globalization has brought forth new functions of art, new roles of artists, and new art strategies. These include a growing interest in social, political, and environmental issues, as well as in civic empowerment and transformation processes.[9] Individual artists, art collectives, and art networks are increasingly engaging more directly with their surroundings, and thus play an active role in ongoing political, social, and cultural transformation processes. This obviously impacts art schools and artist training.

In the face of these challenges, I would like to put forward two basic claims for discussion. First, art—including the classical triangle of artist, artwork, and recipient—implies agency. This term refers first to the philosopher John Dewey[10] and his understanding of art as an active process for engaging with the real world, and second to the anthropologist Alfred Gell[11] and his concept of the art nexus, of art being embedded in a wider social and cultural context. A second seminal claim concerns the policy/attitude of “cross” and “trans,” which points to transdisciplinarity and transculturality. Transdisciplinarity has become a basic configuration in research and transculturality has become a prerequisite in the wake of globalization. How to integrate these crossover moments into an existing art curriculum?

Hands-on Experiences and Action Teaching
On the one hand, the search for new modes of teaching and learning enters theoretical debates,[12] which are often divorced from reality. On the other, it leads into the field of practical experiences, where outcomes count most. How to tie teaching and learning closer to real life?

Amid constantly shifting ideas and realities, I recognized the benefit of establishing an alternative to existing institutional forms. In 2009, artist and philosopher Dominique Lämmli and I founded FOA-FLUX, also to bring our previously separate (yet related) projects under one roof.[13] This independent research venture enabled us to operate and network flexibly in transdisciplinary and transcultural contexts, moreover beyond institutional logics. FOA-FLUX meant (and still means) that prescribed concepts do not interfere with constantly changing realities. Instead, the open modes of collaboration made it possible to create powerful teams able to engage in innovative knowledge production and to produce unexpected results. The FOA-FLUX approach has helped us to develop new modes of collaboration, not only for art practice but also for teaching and learning. It has meanwhile become an essential archive and resource for constantly reassessing art practice, research, and teaching in global and local contexts. It promotes and provides a home for an alternative mental infrastructure aimed at empowering collaborative knowledge production, teaching, and learning.

Outside the Curriculum: Rethinking Contemporary and Traditional Art along the Bhutan-Switzerland Axis
In 2010, FOA-FLUX and Choki Traditional Art School (Thimphu/Bhutan) initiated an exchange project that is ongoing (with occasional breaks and depending on funding).[14] Choki Traditional Art School (CTAS)[15] is a private educational institution. It offers training in selected traditional Bhutanese arts to disadvantaged and underprivileged Bhutanese youth. Besides enabling students to find employment and become self-sustainable, CTAS preserves and promotes the country’s traditional arts.

Collaboration between FOA-FLUX and Choki Traditional art School (CTAS) is rooted deeply in the uncovering and reshaping of the arts and art contexts paradigmatic of globalization. Its foundation was laid when the directors of FOA-FLUX and CTAS met in Zurich for the first time and suddenly discovered their shared awareness that particular art practices and art education were intimately entwined with local cultures, traditions, and economies. 

The project aims to rethink the functions, categories, and practices of art across cultures and in awareness of postcolonial and other contexts. It involves the comparative investigation of an art education that is dedicated to exploring and teaching contemporary European and Bhutanese-Buddhist art traditions. But how to deal with a multitude of coexisting and even competing art notions and practices as well as with varying educational modes and expected language problems? We decided to move directly into collaborative practice and co-designed and co-organized a first workshop in Bhutan. We operated with a very low budget and private funding.  From the outset, dialogue and negotiation were pivotal.

Workshop on Contemporary Art at Choki Traditional Art School in Timphu, 2013. Photograph: © FOA-FLUX

Workshop on Contemporary Art at Choki Traditional Art School in Timphu, 2013. Photograph: © FOA-FLUX

Joint Production of Artist’s Books at Steindruckerei Wolfensberger/Switzerland 2015. Photograph: © FOA-FLUX

Joint Production of Artist’s Books at Steindruckerei Wolfensberger/Switzerland 2015. Photograph: © FOA-FLUX


The complex exchange process involved constantly rethinking positions, renegotiating interests, and using media suited to making this process visible. The outcome was a jointly produced mural in Bhutan in 2013 and two artist books in Switzerland two years later. The collective wall painting on the CTAS campus resulted from exchanging art concepts and teaching modes, from joint action, and from rolling wave planning.  It revealed amazing novel formal and discursive qualities. Today, the mural marks a visible milestone in this project. Crucially, it extends far beyond the mere conception and production of a physical artwork and functions as a tool for negotiating and exchanging knowledge and visions across conceptual, cultural, and linguistic boundaries. It is truly “trans.”

The two collaboratively produced artist books—LUCKY SIGNS and 4FRIENDS[16]—bear witness to in-depth collaboration in the arts. They reveal the rapprochement between and coexistence of diverse notions and traditions of art in one and the same object.

Over time, this exchange project has slowly evolved into a stream of interrelated agreements, events, and productions undertaken jointly in various places at different times. It uses art to produce knowledge symmetrically for collective benefit. Neither CTAS nor FOA-FLUX was interested in rubber-stamping existing and imaginary dichotomies, such as “we and the others” or “contemporaneity and tradition.”

reallabs.university: Global Networking and Local Knowledge Production
reallabs.university[17] is an open global educational endeavor organized by practitioners and researchers from around the world. It fosters joint learning, joint problem-solving, sustainable development goals, and using the arts as a creative tool. The idea for reallabs.university was seeded by FOA-FLUX and further developed at a kitchen table meeting in Zurich by members of Wooferten,[18] Jatiwangi Art Factory,[19] and FOA-FLUX. Its current shape is based on the advice and feedback of many associates. Instead of referring exclusively to the Western idea of a university as an independent and mostly elitist educational institution, reallabs.university expands its basic principles to persaudaraan, zämehalt, and kwai fong, i.e., concepts highlighting the intrinsic value of close, loyal, and dedicated friendship. Inspired by Barefoot College and similar grassroots movements, and also by the pedagogy of the oppressed of Paulo Freire,[20]  reallabs.university advocates a bottom-up approach to gaining knowledge. It provides action learning and practice-based research on local real-life problem situations. In this way, the arts function as a pivotal creative tool for driving knowledge production and empowerment processes from the ground up.

Co-creation of a mural on the campus of Choki Traditional Art School, Thimphu. 2013. Photograph: © FOA-FLUX

Co-creation of a mural on the campus of Choki Traditional Art School, Thimphu. 2013. Photograph: © FOA-FLUX


Mural on the campus of Choki Traditional Art School, Thimphu. 2013. Photograph: © FOA-FLUX

Mural on the campus of Choki Traditional Art School, Thimphu. 2013. Photograph: © FOA-FLUX


Joint Production of Artist’s Books at Atelier Dominique Lämmli/Switzerland 2015. Photograph: © FOA-FLUX

Joint Production of Artist’s Books at Atelier Dominique Lämmli/Switzerland 2015. Photograph: © FOA-FLUX


A first series of workshops (on cultural landscape development, land use, collaborative community-organized agriculture) took place in 2017 at Jatiwangi Art Factory in West Java, Indonesia. Topics were developed from within concrete problem situations, and the arts functioned as tools for collaborative problem-solving and research. All in all, reallabs.university promotes alternative action education in the arts, with the aim of boosting context-sensitive and problem-oriented socially and environmentally sustainable (art) production.

Field trip during the workshop on cultural landscapes at Jatiwangy art Factory, West Java, 2017. Photograph: © FOA-FLUX

Field trip during the workshop on cultural landscapes at Jatiwangy art Factory, West Java, 2017. Photograph: © FOA-FLUX


Having lunch together. Workshop on cultural landscapes at Jatiwangi art Factory, West Java, 2017. Photograph: © FOA-FLUX

Having lunch together. Workshop on cultural landscapes at Jatiwangi art Factory, West Java, 2017. Photograph: © FOA-FLUX


Workshop on cultural landscapes at Jatiwangi art Factory, West Java, 2017. Photograph: © FOA-FLUX

Workshop on cultural landscapes at Jatiwangi art Factory, West Java, 2017. Photograph: © FOA-FLUX

Within the Curriculum: Collabora©tion Luzern
In the 2017 and 2018 summer semesters, FOA-FLUX was invited to teach a compact module[21] at Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts (LUASA). The module involved students from different departments working on a specific topic for eight weeks. The first module focused on public interaction and the school’s spatial environment, the second explored food waste. To avoid a consumerist, fully planned program, we initiated an open collaborative process instead. This embeds learning in experience. After a short introduction to our methods, we invited students to co-develop module contents, a timeframe, and a structure. We held preparatory meetings and facilitated pragmatic modes of exchanging and sharing knowledge and material resources. Both courses were extremely productive, with tangible and performative results such as zines, artist books, stickers, a temporary poster exhibition in public space, cooking performances, walks, bin-diving, a final exhibition, and more.

This teaching format first required ample negotiation and time to grow a productive atmosphere and instill team responsibility. Second, it challenged the concept of evaluation otherwise prevailing at LUASA. The open working process, collective authorship, and permanent collateral reflection exceeded ordinary assessment. And yet, it provided a unique opportunity to share knowledge, experience, responsibilities, and materials, and to create a genuine sense of collaborative authorship.

Final exhibition of the IDA modul Collabora©tion LU, 2016, Hochschule Luzern. Photograph: © FOA-FLUX

Final exhibition of the IDA modul Collabora©tion LU, 2016, Hochschule Luzern. Photograph: © FOA-FLUX


Up-cycling materials and implementing ideas, working situation during IDA modul Collabora©tion LU, 2017, Hochschule Luzern. Photograph: © FOA-FLUX

Up-cycling materials and implementing ideas, working situation during IDA modul Collabora©tion LU, 2017, Hochschule Luzern. Photograph: © FOA-FLUX


Our mission at FOA-FLUX is to work together with artists and artist groups across cultural and linguistic boundaries in order to support the diversity of artistic engagement with realities and to empower art to achieve change. The “Co-factor” is the main driving force behind our efforts. All our projects and collaborations have revealed that going into practice together creates inclusive environments, ones that allow different perspectives and positions to enter into dialogue. But is it art? This perpetual question, we argue, matters less and less. The diversity of art production and reception has not only increased but also invalidated universal evaluation criteria.[22] The essentialist question “What is art?” is replaced by a functionalist one: “Does it work?” Or: “Does art change things?”

Annemarie Bucher is a senior lecturer BA Arts and Media, and Co-head of MAS Art & Society at Zurich University of the Arts. She studied art history, ethnology, and philosophy at Zurich University and made her phd in Landscape Architecture at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. She has been a research fellow at Graduate School of Design, Harvard University. She co-runs the research venture FOA-FLUX (foa-flux.net). She co-founded reallabs.university, a grassroot education association promoting art & research & action (with focuses on experimental/collaborative/performative art in global contexts, art in action, artists working reality). Furthermore she is works as an independent researcher, curator, lecturer (e.g. for ETH Zurich, Srishti, Institute of Art, Design and Technology Bangalore/India; Hochschule Luzern and other universities) and as a consultant (for transdisciplinary and transcultural projects, garden history, ethnobotanics, cultural landscape and urban public space). She is the author of several books and articles on art, garden, cultural theory, landscape, and theory. She has curated several exhibitions in the field of arts and cultural studies.


[1] Hans Belting, Andrea Buddensieg, and Peter Weibel, eds., The Global Contemporary and the Rise of New Art Worlds (Cambridge, MA: ZKM/MIT Press, 2013); James Elkins, Zhivka Valiavisharska, and Alice Kim, eds., Art and Globalization (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010); Jonathan Harris, ed., Globalization and Contemporary Art (Malden MA: Wiley‐Blackwell, 2011); Dominique Lämmli, Art in Action: Make People Think! Reflections on Current Developments in Art (Zurich: FOA-FLUX, 2014).

[2] James Elkins, Why Art Cannot be Taught, A Handbook for Students (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press: 2001); Steven Henry Madoff, Art School: Propositions for the 21st Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009).

[3] Hans-Peter Schwarz, ed., ZHdK. Den Künsten eine Zukunft. Publikation zur Gründung der Zürcher Hochschule der Künste (Zurich: Scheidegger & Spiess, 2007).

[4] Lämmli, Art in Action.

[5] Ibid., Artists Working Reality: Connecting People (Zurich: FOA-FLUX, Zurich). See also Dominique Lämmli, “Globalisiertheit der Kunstproduktion und die Rolle künstlerischer Forschung,” in Jens Badura et. al, eds., Künstlerische Forschung – Ein Handbuch (Berlin/Zurich: diaphanes, 2015); Dominique Lämmli, “Artists Working Reality: Towards the Capability Approach, a Means of Evaluating Art in Action,” in Hong Kong Visual Arts Yearbook 2016 (Hong Kong: Department of Fine Arts and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, 2017); Dominique Lämmli, “Collaborative and performative painting: A tool for joint learning and research,” in Donatella Bernardi, ed., Art & Crisis (Zurich: Zurich University of the Arts and JRP | Ringier,  2018).

[6] UNESCO, Road Map for Arts Education, Building Creative Capacities for the 21st Century, The World Conference on Arts Education: Lisbon 2006; UNESCO, The Seoul Agenda: Goals for the Development of Arts Education, The Second World Conference on Arts Education, Seoul 2010; ZHdK Institute for Art Education (IAE), “Another Roadmap for Arts Education/ Another Roadmap School, International Network” (https://colivre.net/another-roadmap; https://www.zhdk.ch/forschungsprojekt/426616, accessed August 30, 2018).

[7] Eva Diaz, The Experimenters: Chance and Design at Black Mountain College (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

[8] These included above all the contributions of Joseph Albers, a Bauhaus master and one of the many German immigrants in the US after 1933. At the Bauhaus, he had developed a new pedagogy of art that he was able to continue at Black Mountain College until 1947. He introduced many fruitful elements from the European avant-garde such as self-organization, interaction (of color), an appreciation for of artisanry, etc. Another, though more eccentric, key figure was Buckminster Fuller, who tried to create a better world through technology. Many of his inventions were ultimately flops, but others such as the geodesic dome can still be found around the world.

[9] Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (London: Verso, 2012); Tom Finkelpearl, What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013); Grant Kester, The One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011); Annemarie Bucher, “Co-art: Remarks on Collaboration, Community Building, and Addressing the Public in Contemporary Art Projects” (Zurich: FOA-FLUX, 2014), foa-flux.net/texts/, accessed August 30, 2018.

[10] John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Norton, 1934).

[11] Alfred Gell, Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory (London: Oxford University Press, 1998).

[12] See, for instance, the collection of essays: Pascal Gielen and Paul de Bruyne, eds., Teaching Art in the Neoliberal Realm. Realism versus Cynicism (Amsterdam: Valiz antennae, 2013).

[13] See foa-flux.net. (accessed August 30, 2018). Both founders have transdisciplinary backgrounds, including art practice, art history, curating, philosophy, cultural studies/anthropology, landscape history, pedagogy, and didactics.

[14] http://foa-flux.net/contemporary-and-traditional-art/, accessed August 30, 2018. Collaboration also involved other institutional partners, e.g., National Institute for Zorig Chusum (NIZC) in Thimphu, Zurich University of the Arts (ZhdK), and Schule für Holzbildhauerei in Brienz. See further Annemarie Bucher, Sonam Choki, and Dominique Lämmli, “Tigers and splashes: An action-oriented exchange on art and education between Bhutan and Switzerland,” in Arnd Schneider, ed., Alternative Art and Anthropology: Global Encounters (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), 163–181.

[15] See https://www.chokischool.com, accessed August 30, 2018.

[16] In 2015, we co-produced two artist’s books: LUCKY SIGNS and 4FRIENDS. Both included paintings, collages, digital- and hand prints, and lithographic works.

[17] See reallabs.university, accessed August 30, 2018.

[18] Woofer Ten was an independent art space and a community building operation in Yau Ma Tei/Hong Kong. It has become a core part of the community’s habitat via contemporary art. http://wooferten.blogspot.com, accessed August 30, 2018.

[19] Jatiwangi art Factory (JaF) is a nonprofit organization in West Java/Indonesia that focuses on discourses of local rural life through arts and cultural activities, such as festivals and exchanges. http://jatiwangiartfactory.tumblr.com,  accessed August 30, 2018.

[20] In his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968), Freire criticizes the "banking" approach to education—meaning that students are considered empty bank accounts that should remain open to deposits made by the teacher. Instead he advocates collaborative knowledge production and teaching.

[21] IDA-Module collabora©tion.

[22] As Nina Felshin’s book with the same title already revealed twenty years ago; see her work But is it Art?: The Spirit of Art as Activism (Seattle: Bay Press: 1995).

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Issue 43

Revisiting Black Mountain
Cross-Disciplinary Experiments and Their Potential for Democratization

by Dorothee Richter and Ronald Kolb

by Ronald Kolb with Bitten Stetter, Brandon Farnsworth, Dorothee Richter, Jochen Kiefer, Martin Jaeggi, Paolo Bianchi

by Daniel Späti

by Steven Henry Madoff

by Mieke (Annemarie) Matzke, She She Pop

by Susanne Kennedy

by Olga von Schubert, Caroline Adler and Boris Buden

A collaborative exercise by Sascia Bailer, Lucy Bayley, Simon Fleury, Gilly Karjevsky, and Asli Uludag to reflect upon our shared experiences at Un-Learning Place at Haus der Kulturen der Welt

Interview by Ronny Koren

by Raqs Media Collective