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by Zen Marie

The Paradox of the Art School in a University

The debates about art and research and the seemingly endless variations of art as research, research as art, practice-led research, practice-based research, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, all circulate around a fundamental paradox. It is a paradox similar to that in psychoanalysis of trying to access the subconscious through the conscious. Such at attempt in relation to art is filled with clever tricks, but those trying to access the subconscious are always aware of the difficulty, if not futility, of this ambition.

It is a paradox that moves across registers of the rational and intuitive, the linear and the non-liner. It is a paradox that I will explore here, in terms of the art school within the university. It seems as if we, in the art school, similarly deploy a myriad of tactics in order to fix, programme and rationalise processes that are in fact fluid, spontaneous, ephemeral and intuitive. I believe that it is a mistake to attempt to resolve this paradox.

We should rather hold onto the structure and challenge of this paradox in order to mobilise the fullness of the radical, critical potential that sensory, sensual and embodied forms of knowledge hold. We must value the paradox, as we resist mechanised, technocratic methodologies of measurement and assessment that are part of increasingly neoliberal and commoditized forms of knowledge gate keeping.

Forms of knowledge and decolonisation
The core of the matter relates to the kinds of artefacts or objects we deem to be legitimate carriers of knowledge. The university relies on forms of rational argument that draw on scientific method or variants of Hegelian or post Hegelian dialectics as authoritative and universally accepted vehicles for knowledge production and transmission.

While rational argument in its various forms may be universally accepted as a carrier of knowledge, it is by no means uncontested. Even within the history of the university (and Western knowledge) there are numerous contestations to the hegemony of what has more recently been enshrined within high modernism and structuralism. And certainly, the pushbacks that coalesce around postmodernism and post structuralism, for example, are important to learn from. However, while we can thank the likes of Derrida for concepts that are un-writeable or unspeakable, we need to register these challenges and attempt to go further.

Practices and modes of working that are performative, sonic, embodied, haptic, visceral, visual, (perhaps even olfactory), must resist the compulsion to establish equivalences, or to find programmatic systems of measurement and assessment. It is in this resistance or in the stubborn refusal of equivalence that we find the radical potential of the aesthetic as a form of knowledge production.

It is here that the aesthetic enacts the double movement of a refusal to conform, but at the same time, performatively asserting forms and contents that are not merely oppositional or reactionary, but substantively iterative of epistemologies that are unprecedented, new, and emergent.

In this way, the ambition and radical potential of the paradox of the art school in the university should be for nothing less than moments of epistemological breakage or rupture, which have implications that resonate far beyond the university.

These moments, where old orders of doing, making and thinking are undone, reorganised and revised are the kinds of radical moments that can contest positions of privilege that opportunistically feed on our daily lives for the enrichment of the academy, the state and neo-liberal global orders more generally.

For us, especially for those of us situated on the continent of Africa, working in the increasingly contested space of the university, it is clear that the urgency of the project to dismantle the hegemony of these global orders is also a project to dismantle the intellectual, cultural and economic legacies of colonialism and apartheid.

The terms of contestation move between, and across, post colonialism, decolonisation, africanisation and pan-africanisation, with such terms hotly debated as the ground for contestation is carved out and delineated.

If all of this sounds too revolutionary or even quasi mystical, allow me to sketch a few practical examples where the paradox of the art school in the university comes to challenge convention and would seem to align itself to a broader project of radical politics.

If we take seriously the aesthetic as a challenge to epistemological form, structure, and administration, then we need to question a number of aspects of the university that we currently take for granted. While there are many issues to add to this preliminary list, I will look specifically at four: entrance criteria, assessment, the privileging of the written text, and the peer reviewed journal.

Entrance criteria
At the moment, for university acceptance in South Africa, we use the Admission Point Score (APS), which is calculated from high school leaving exams. This is a form of evaluation that is based on two assumptions:

1. That the structure of exams, which are predicated on rote learning and memory retention, is the kind of pedagogical model and assessment tool that is appropriate for evaluating and projectively assessing a potential

2. That all high school education is delivered and received in a standard and consistent manner across sites (and across learners within sites), which in turn allows for a point-based system to be a meaningful index or metric that gauges a student’s

We know both these assumptions to be highly problematic. To blindly administer the APS system as if it constitutes an even playing field is to be complicit with the exclusion of students from schools that are under resourced in the most extreme ways. In South Africa this is effectively to exclude poor black students from university. And this is even before we get to the question of fees.

The Art school, by virtue of the kind of work we do, has the opportunity to contest this. We already augment the APS system with the audition, interview or evaluation of a portfolio. While it would not be a huge leap to propose a more fundamental overhaul of acceptance criteria, it would address the limits we place on access and thereby diversify knowledge production.

Assessment
We also need to radically and critically revise our processes of assessment: the examination structure as it currently stands is modelled entirely on the examination of written work. The application of exam policy from the social sciences to the creative arts is as clumsy as it is crude. Aesthetic or practice led work urgently calls for a complete overhauling of the examination system as studio or practical work is clearly at odds with many elements within current exam policy.

This begins with (but is not limited to) the awarding of a mathematically derived percentage to creative work. Again, the challenge posed by the aesthetic can be mobilised in service of broader questions of how we assess knowledge as successful, valid or legitimate.

Written form
The insistence on the written form as the privileged and authoritative vehicle of knowledge production needs to be reconsidered. The challenge of post graduate work in this regard is especially important, as we are increasingly asking why it is that we need a written component to support often rich, rigorous, critically and theoretically engaged practice.

To challenge the privileging of written form is to ask questions about the legitimacy of orality and other modes of knowledge production outside of Western traditions. Connected to this issue, is the primacy of the English language as the prioritised medium of instruction and examination. Again, the fact that the aesthetic explicitly proposes alternative modes of communication means that it can potentially work in line with broader calls to reform the university in terms of its language policy.

The peer reviewed journal
We also need to question the peer reviewed journal as the gold standard of research. Journals and their attendant economies have become profitable to a few select publishing houses that increasingly support insular and often mediocre networks of people and institutions. The peer review as a form has long been unquestioned as the accepted method of assessing and legitimating knowledge production.

Aesthetic and creative practice has struggled to fit into this economy and now poses serious questions about its continued legitimacy. This issue has recently been taken up in an online journal, Ellipses, a project based at the WITS school of arts, which aims to challenge the peer reviewed journal from the vantage point of the aesthetic.

End Comments
These are just some of the urgent tasks facing a university that is committed to change. In all these areas the nature of aesthetic practice and creative research poses challenges that begin in the respective creative disciplines but go beyond to affect the very core and nature of academic work across the board.

Often, the argument for not being able to do this work is that the problems seem too big, too deeply systemic or that there is simply no time—student numbers are too high and academics and administrators are barely keeping up with processing the roll-out of what already exists.

What is clear from recent events in, especially, the student movement, is that these are excuses and that they are not enough. Mediocrity will not be tolerated. The pace and rate of such debates needs to quicken. It is not safe anymore for lacklustre, bellicose, slothful academics, technocrats and administrators to preside and profit over institutions that have in most senses failed.

What is needed are creative and brave leaders who possess the imagination, and are willing to take the risk, in challenging the very terms and conditions of knowledge production. These are leaders who will be able to think of knowledge as something other than an instrumentalised commodity to be sold according to increasingly neo-liberal business plans. They are people who can embrace the revolutionary potential of the epistemological break that both the aesthetic and the project of decolonisation provoke.

I realise here that the manner and specifics of such a project — which sees the aesthetic as part of an epistemological break or rupture, which can work in line with the call for a more public, engaged and critically responsive university, and which treats the university as a space that challenges rather than creates privilege—is a complex and immense task. But it is a task that I believe is not only urgent but imperative.


Zen Marie is an artist who works in a variety of media. Core to his practice is a concern with how meaning is formed through different media, spaces and processes. While working from a position that begins with photography and filmmaking he increasingly works in performance, sculpture, graphic processes and writing. While Marie has engaged with many thematic areas of focus, including international sport, identity, nationalism, and public infrastructure, the binding link between these diverse areas has always been the relationship between power and the subversion of power. Marie lives, works and lectures in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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