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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

“Everyone is just watching what’s happening…”

This text results from a collaborative experiment undertaken by five people who met in the “Spaces of Theory” track at HKW’s (Un)learning Place (January 2019).  We were around twenty international practitioners in our track (there were five tracks with different foci). Our track involved the Director of HKW, Bernd Scherer, and artist Gigi Argyropoulou and comprised a two-day workshop with diffrakt | centre for theoretical periphery, a two-day workshop with Raumlabor, and a workshop by Soft Agency (Rosario Talevi, Gilly Karjevsky) with their guests Elke Krasny and Hannah Wallenfels.

On returning home we were looking for a way we could reflect on the conversations, gaps, conflicts, and potential for collaborations we encountered at this workshop. We felt the best method would be one where we write conversationally, mirroring our interactions at HKW.  Five of us met on a shared Google doc, and for one hour we responded to a series of questions and to each other. At the start, we collectively eliminated individual authorship, so the voices and different experiences became blurred. These were the rules of the exercise:

– A text written by someone could only be deleted by the same person, but someone could add onto a text by another person. Adding on wasn’t limited to adding to the end of the sentence but included adding words within the structure of the sentence. This way, the resulting piece of writing became an irregular weave (or perhaps a felt) of all participants’ words.

– Similarly, moving portions of sentences elsewhere and copy-pasting became forms of co-writing/co-editing and were welcome. When moving parts of sentences, we paid attention to the portion that was being selected so we would not lose the use or meaning of the original sentence. We also paid attention to what was left behind, as it might still convey meaning on its own.

– If a person felt strongly about an edit made to their piece of writing, it could be addressed and negotiated through comments, but it was preferred that these moments be negotiated through the writing exercise itself as much as possible.

– Throughout, we kept in mind that the purpose of this exercise was not to create a finished and polished piece of writing that portrayed a linear narrative. Instead, a spherical model (a thought bubble perhaps) was a way to question traditional ways of thinking, learning, and knowledge production. It might be better to call what we created there expanded writing. Perhaps it was not even meant to be read from beginning to the end. How this text performed after the hour allocated to the interaction of the participants, was it fully determined the exercise within that specific time and space?

9pm, Berlin time:

When you think back on your time at HKW, which moments come to the foreground?

On several occasions, a child with his great-grandfather having breakfast together.

I spent a lot of time listening, which was a privilege; I'd like to listen more often. I was thinking on the time allocated in our work, paid time, real time, not stolen snippets, dedicated to reading and listening. There is an urgent need to unlearn creative work as practiced today.

Each morning, outside the cafe where I exchanged a little conversation with the great grandfather, a flock of sparrows made me smile.

The morning plenum with the images of museums of natural history from all over the place, and the questions people posed on the back of the images was a very strong moment of reflection. Formats of shared writing, shared silent production are the ones that stayed with me the most I guess, moments of movement rather than discourse… Even this moment now feels closer to the purpose and idea of “unlearning” than any spoken conversation we could have had—are we seeing the death of speech?

I’m finding the pace of this interesting; it feels as though now and then we each think, then come back into the conversation. There would be a formality and pressure in a typical meeting, on Skype for example—so performative.

I agree, it seems like everyone stopped typing now. Everyone is just watching what’s happening. Weird but exciting and fun at the same time. It’s making me laugh! 

When I’m stuck, I search for you guys, scrolling up and down the page. Tactics, dimensions rather than strategies...

Ha-ha. this is my favorite part so far, I’m in a bar, people are wondering why I’m typing and laughing.I can hear a sewing machine in the room adjacent…
My child fell asleep ten minutes before our session started, I poured myself a glass of red wine—and there is ABSOLUTE silence. No noise from outside, no noise from inside. Except for my fingers on the keyboard. BOOM!

Which conversations, encounters resonated most with you?

A confrontation between host and participant got out of hand... a fellow participant intervened, opening just enough space for reflection (a gap), that diffused the tense and unnecessary encounter. This moment resonated through that track; I didn't see it but heard a lot about it. The woman who intervened talked about the emotional labor behind that act, how much it cost her, how much it took from others. It also brought people together. In the tight schedule we had, there were no slots for conflicts. The unlearning place was not supposed to be agonistic, but it was very conflicted.

It’s even possible to say goodnight to my daughter, as the conversation slows!

I was very pleased to be allowed to see another track every day. I was lucky because the groups were so different and had such different processes. It was a fantastic polyphony as long as I need not reduce it to conclusions :) Perhaps even reductively what learning is—and what unlearning tries to fight.

Fresh air really helps.

The exercise “silent conversation” was fascinating. It seemed to arrive at just the right moment. As a group, we started out sharing (in a formal and institutionalized way) our reasons for coming. We then kept on returning to this debate around how to conduct the discussion. Should it be structured, do we return to questions and outputs, or should we allow discussion to grow organically. I keep thinking about this challenge within the group—it seems to be fundamental—that some were resistant to the ideas of outputs and productivity, but that you need both.  On the third and fourth days, and when “care” became a focus, there was an expansion that allowed for both kinds of approaches.

I really took a lot (learnt) from the body/movement practices (qi gong and fun movement exercises), learning and play, learning and playing with care. It reflected on the missing sensual components of “institutional” knowledge production, particularly when being hosted by an institution that is working according to categories and disciplines defined a long time ago, with different ideologies and conditions—having otherwise forms of knowing, sensing was important. I’m trying to say it was eventually central to the unlearning thing—maybe someone can help rephrase here?

Perhaps watching the skills people have for holding, caring for, and building conversations. I’ve never really encountered that patience, without an added element of competition. I watched it on the last day when we did our plenum; we spread out flip charts with questions, and people gravitated towards questions they wanted to respond to—both people in the workshop and people just wandering in. The confrontation mentioned above was held and discussed in a way that worked, because there was a kind of patience and generosity.

I felt I learnt more about the labor people undertake.

Creating spaces of “care” became a subject I keep coming back to. And perhaps we (almost?) failed at HKW because of the tension we keep mentioning here. There were people who felt taken advantage of in the larger group and the tension kept building until the last day. I guess I said “we” failed because we were all sharing that space even though HKW created it, so I do feel that there could have been a collective effort to resolve it.

Which gaps did you discover, and did you consider them in another context outside of HKW as well? (as something you kept on coming back to)

I’ve discovered these gaps since I’ve returned; coming back to work. There are constant gaps and invisibilities in what we do, but there are also purposeful gaps. There are gaps created in the way we talk about things, we often describe things in a way that ensures our meaning isn’t clear, that it remains indeterminate. I feel like this is an example of how an institutional process can allow for a little wiggle room? 

Yes, more space for playfulness...and not knowing.

I have been thinking a lot about gaps since HKW. Gaps in knowledge, gaps in understanding, gaps in policy. These are moments of interruption to something that might be considered “a whole.”  These are moments that can be used productively. Blurriness and gaps are what we need. Also holding things open, blurring can often lead to collapse, whereas tension—as we learnt in the qi gong exercises—is about creating space by opening… articulation...

These can be utilized in resistance. These are entry points into a space where one might not be allowed to enter. They are doorways in some sense. Someone wrote about the reader below and how rigid it was and that it allowed no access point for the participants of the Unlearning Space. This is exactly what I am talking about.

Several weeks after returning to work, I found one of Gilly’s provocations positioned on a packing crate outside the museum’s research department door. It stayed there for about a week and then was gone... it could have been folded and hidden, somewhere in the institution’s fabric, but not the intended place of intervention! I learn that often our intentions are worth unlearning...

Which questions remained unresolved?

“I feel great discomfort regarding the translation of theories, common practices and forms of interaction between an urban and a rural setting, an academic and everyday setting. How do I metaphorically understand the environment to which I am foreign? How do I grasp the conditions of life in the site of intervention? How can I make my concepts and visions ‘intelligible’ without imposing them? How can we establish a common alphabet with which to construct a language of mutual understanding, support and care? How do we unlearn the place from which we are speaking to create a more respectful, socially fair platform of interaction?”

I drafted these questions in my application for the HKW (Un-)Learning Place, and I still consider them very relevant and somehow unresolved. I felt that we touched upon some of these aspects, but I missed an in-depth conversation on these issues. It turns out, though, that in retrospect I connected with many people from the workshops who had similar questions, and I hope we can continue to work on them together.

“Can we ever really dismantle the master’s house (that we ourselves inhabit)?” Diffrakt asked us to respond to this question on our second day, do you remember? Did we answer it?

Coming back to work after being with all of you, I keep trying to pose it in meetings. I bought Audre Lorde’s book (The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House) and propped it up on my shelf. I feel—for me—this is unanswered: tactics, dimensions rather than strategies... revision is an on-going process of (un)doing, so tired of the artist/curator axis of institutional critique... perhaps we could discuss other approaches?

I bought Audre Lorde´s book. But as a gift to a friend of mine, who works on feminist activism, and I wanted to share this lovely conversation we had on the master's house. She didn’t know her work. We sat on the couch, and I read a passage to her. But it didn’t click with her the same way it had for us in the group. She said she needed more time to read it and possibly translate some passages. This again just speaks to the special atmosphere that was going on during that day. And I think the breakout groups were inspirational and will stay with me for a while.

What did you learn about unlearning? Would you say you un-learned something?

That un-learning is a process… we should undertake it with care, but not so much care it’s smothered, that we have much to learn from listening to others, ourselves as others, included...

I keep coming back to wondering whether unlearning can be done by an institution like HKW.

I think the approach of the institution here is very important. I am very curious how HKW will make use of what we did there, for instance. Bringing other forms of knowledge into the space of the institution is one thing; internalizing that knowledge is another. I’m thinking about the dynamic between the institution and the participants of the workshop. Were we all invited there to create new conversations amongst ourselves? Will the institution use our conversations in the coming months? Or are we responsible for keeping this dialogue going? Did the institution only provide us with a space to start these conversations? I think this is where I’m having trouble understanding what happened during the workshop. Is the institution only a resource or does it itself produce something? Should it?

What were your thoughts on the format itself?

The format itself took getting used to. Our group, “Spaces of Theory,” was lucky to have a space that wasn’t HKW (we visited Diffrakt on the second day). I think the day we spent there was precious for us to bond as a group, outside the institution of HKW.

This makes me think about the role of the institution in creating spaces of knowledge production. Something Rosario mentioned comes to mind, that it is important to work both inside and outside.

I didn´t feel the same anxiety about institutions as others did in the workshops, but I have to agree that leaving the open space of the lobby at HKW had something unique to it and fostered a much more intimate and productive conversation. I am not sure whether it is an institutional aspect or a matter of a spatial arrangement (more private space, less noise, warmer lighting, cozy atmosphere).

The atmosphere in the grand hall was intense... we went for a walk (five of us, if I remember correctly), we talked, looked at fungi, and realized how little we knew about them, but learnt a little more about each other. I think the intense atmosphere was in part because of the strip lighting.

I remember the walk; it was a moment of escape, mushroom roots, pointing at things and getting to know each other. It’s funny,the conversations I had on the walk are clearer than other conversations over the week… It was easier to ask people about their lives.

Walking alongside each other opens a very interesting space for exchange. It was raining (lightly) and at one point we had a destination, but that goal fell away.

Was there anything that upset you—and if so, how do you feel it connects to a collective process of unlearning?

There were tensions within the different groups, angry chain emails sent, strong accusations were voiced during plenum sessions, e.g. when someone took the mic from somebody else and said the Berlin crowd was colonizing the microphone. Critical comments were made about the set-up. For me, it felt disrespectful—and also very naïve. Someone said in a conversation over breakfast: “The call for applications was so interesting—it was envisioning a kind of utopia. But these workshops are very much planned and not utopic at all.” I have to say, at one point I left the conversation because there was no way we could agree. One cannot expect that an institution delivers yourutopia on a silver plate. This is nonsensical. The expectations that were there were beyond workable. And I believe they stem from the collective frustration of a) not understanding what un-learning might mean, and b) not having succeeded in un-learning within those five days.

I would argue that at the core of the frustration lies the relevance of the issue at stake, the relevance of collectively investigating what unlearning might mean. Without projecting the whole workload onto an institution. But making our experience within the institution productive; using our critique as a starting point of unlearning….

I think it’s important to realize that we as a group worked well together. Everyone was very respectful; there was a sense of a collective which is very difficult to achieve in such a short time. I’d like to comment on what we experienced in our group concerning facilitation. I think both our facilitators (Raumlabor and Diffrakt) did a great job in creating a space of blurry borders (within the structure HKW created)—which is difficult to do. I did not feel that there was a hierarchy between our facilitators and us. They were trying to learn as much from us as we were from them. None of the presentations were in a “lecture” format. It was more about sharing experiences and directing conversations according to the needs of the group.

I agree with you—but I think a respectful language is necessary. It’s counterproductive to speak of un-learning and collaborative exercises with a social justice focus when you can't even stay respectful on a basic level.

I agree with this. It also makes me think perhaps HKW didn’t expect a conflict and was passive in reacting to what was going on. It seemed like they turned to us and expected us to resolve the situation amongst ourselves.

I’ve been thinking about how conflict can be useful, but how it can also be redundant. I feel as though it’s about having the skills or generosity to enable a difference of opinion but with space for commonality. Perhaps, one thing about our track was the ability to find common ground—particularly through the interventions.

In the answer to the previous question of the walk, I truly believe that movement creates a space of negotiation. It creates a commonality of some sorts. Language can be very restricting and, because it is the way we communicate with each other, it has very strict borders hard to break. These borders have made a mark on our tongues. Movement can be more experimental. I guess I’m saying language is harder to unlearn when compared to movement.

I want to discuss the reader of the Unlearning Place

I remember how heavily it bore on a lot of the participants; they kept referring to it—it was such a finished product, such a statement of intention. In conversations with Olga and Boris, the curators, they thought of it as a starting point but for many people it acted as the whole framework and as an impenetrable object of thought or knowledge. In another conversation with a guest, a fellow curator, we discussed the difference between making programs, making books, curating research, and curating practice. And I felt that the "unlearning" part of the school did not benefit from the reader as much as the institution did—what are your thoughts on this point?

I share this idea of the reader being this weight of knowledge. I felt this before I arrived; I tried to read as much as I could manage and felt inadequate not already having this knowledge already in hand. It seemed counter-productive to be required to have this theoretical understanding in a space for unlearning. But since then, I’ve used it and referred to it regularly as a kind of archive. I’ve shared it with people who didn’t attend. I wonder, is it something we could have shaped together in the tracks?

I agree that we could have produced something like the reader within our workshops, but then again it compresses the time we had—and puts the pressure of producing something ordinary, namely a book. And I think within the context of unlearning, it’s more useful to provide a basis for common discussion than to ask for a joint publication as the result of a very open conversation…

I didn’t have an issue with the reader. I felt it gave me a glimpse of the body of work, research, and conversations that went into producing this event. The readings were fragments; they included personal notes and sketches. For me, this was more of a playful introduction into the field, setting the ground for a very diverse audience from very different academic and cultural backgrounds. For me, the reader was not a pre-defined thing that limited my capacities within the program. It was more of a “service” to us as participants, to research, read, and get inspired.

Another question comes to my mind as we type: How does this creative, experimental exercise fit into a rigid logic of a curatorial magazine?

Here again, we face structural limitations, in terms of space that we are allowed to take up, but also somehow the expectations to produce something “serious” and respectable, which can serve within a privileged art context. I think we are so caught up within structural frameworks—which we have internalized so completely that we constantly self-regulate ourselves, that we comply with the structures and do not dare to re-imagine other ways (for example, other ways of publishing within a curatorial context). That processes of unlearning still should look like all other processes of learning, e.g. like objective, peer-reviewed scientific work. But isn’t this collaborative work also peer-reviewed? It obscures authorship, and the content comes to the foreground. The experience of writing this therefore becomes much more important than the reputation one might get from publishing within a respected journal. For it directly ties me to the questions of Un-Learning, which we encountered at HKW.

If what ends up going to the magazine is a page of Google doc tag BOOM BOOM I don't mind so much… to follow up on the above comment—it is up to us to redefine what we produce, not to wait for the framework to give us more freedom. I agree it is one of the biggest lessons of the HKW week—let us extitution[1] ourselves!

Sascia Bailer is an interdisciplinary researcher at the intersection of curating, critical urbanism, and social justice. She is Artistic Director (2019-2020) at the contemporary art space M.1 Arthur-Boskamp-Stiftung and a PhD candidate in a practice-based curatorial program at the Zurich University of the Arts and the University of Reading. Both in her PhD and her curatorial work, she focuses on issues around care-work, aiming to connect, support and provide visibility for the often unpaid and unrecognized care-work within our society (https://www.m1-hohenlockstedt.de/en/). She has worked internationally in different cultural institutions (MoMA PS1, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Kunststiftung Baden-Württemberg) while also developing her own curatorial projects (“URGENCIA TERRITORIAL” at the Sheila Johnson Design Center in NYC https://shiftingurbanecologiesblog.wordpress.com). She holds an MA in Theories of Urban Practice from Parsons School of Design and a BA from Zeppelin University in Germany; she is the recipient of several awards and grants, amongst them a fellowship by the German Academic Merit Foundation (2009-2017), a student fellowship for Art and Social Justice by the Vera List Center for Arts and Politics (2014-2016) and a doctoral studentship by the British Arts and Humanities Research Council (2018 onwards). She lives in Germany with her son.

Lucy Bayley is a writer, researcher, and lecturer. From 2007 to 2013, she was Curator of National Programmes at the Contemporary Art Society; prior to that she worked in London galleries: The Drawing Room, The Serpentine, Matt’s Gallery, and Peer Gallery. She holds MRes from the London Consortium and was recently awarded her doctorate for the thesis Mediating Histories: an exploration of audiences and technology in London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts (1949-1986). Lucy is currently Post-Doctoral Researcher at Tate working on the Andrew W. Mellon-funded Reshaping the Collectible: When Artworks Live in Museumswhere she is engaged in research into artworks which challenge the structures of the museum. Lucy has lectured at Middlesex University, London Metropolitan University and is a Sessional Tutor at Sotheby’s Institute. 

Simon Fleury is a senior conservator at the V&A, currently responsible for the conservation and care of the Museum’s photograph collections. This wide-ranging role is underpinned by a background in photography, which has included extensive commercial experience, postgraduate study at the Royal College of Art, and an ongoing research-led practice. Simon is also actively involved in promoting conservation-centered arts projects at the V&A. This has included organizing and chairing a recent roundtable discussion exploring the emerging field of “experimental preservation” (featured in the publication, Experimental Preservation, ed. Jorge Otero-Pailos, Lars Müller Press, 2016) and a project with the artist Marie Lund and several paper conservators. Fleury’s research-led practice fabricates new museum(-objects) with which to explore and test the intimate entangling relations between artworks and their environments in the museum. This research is the basis of a PhD study at Birmingham School of Art and Design (M3C AHRC).

Gilly Karjevsky is a curator working at the intersection of art, architecture, and the politics of urban society. Gilly is founder of the City Artists Residency program, a platform for artistic intervention in local politics. She currently serves on the international artistic boards of Visible—the international prize for social practice from Fondazione Pistoletto, ArtCube—a municipal studios residency program in Jerusalem, and the residency program at the ZK/U - Centre for Art and Urbanism in Berlin. In 2016, she curated the newest edition of the Parckdesign biennale in Brussels under the title Jardin Essentiel, and in 2013-15 she co-curated Glocal Neighbours—an ongoing program for inter-neighborhood knowledge exchange, in collaboration with the Israeli Center for Digital Art. Her newest project, Playful Commons, sets out to explore what kind of licenses administrators and users of public spaces can agree on when it comes to allowing a commons approach towards management of public space. Gilly holds an MA in Narrative Environments from Central Saint Martins college in London and is currently a PhD candidate in Curating in Practice at the ZhdK in Zurich.

Asli Uludag creates interactive and performative installations based on research. She received her BFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2013 and is currently pursuing an MA in Research Architecture at Goldsmiths University, London. Her work has been exhibited at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art and the Pera Museum. “My process starts with research, through which I find images that relate to the political or social conflict, geography or culture that I am working with. Architectural concepts or components make up a large portion of my research since it is how we define space and land. Folktales, beliefs, processes of making, materials used, crops grown, in short anything that is specific to the culture I’m exploring is relevant to my research. By repeating, layering, or geometrically modifying these images, I create patterns that I cut, cast, stitch, etc., in materials that are also related to the concept. The pieces I create tell a narrative, each component symbolic and its own sentence; much like how cultures are identified and history is recorded, through stories and myths.”

[1] André Spicer, “Extitutions: The other side of institutions,” in Ephemera: Theory and Politics in Organization. (http://www.ephemerajournal.org/contribution/extitutions-other-side-institutions).

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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