A Bad Education

The School of Panamerican Unrest thumbnail
Mock Turtle thumbnail
Artoon thumbnail
Artoon thumbnail
The School of Panamerican Unrest
Mock Turtle

Pablo Helguera, The School of Panamer­i­can Unrest, 2003–2006. Cour­tesy of the Artist.

Pablo Helguera, Mock Tur­tle, 2001. Cour­tesy of the Artist.

Pablo Helguera, Artoon, 2009. Cour­tesy of the Artist.

Pablo Helguera, Artoon, 2009. Cour­tesy of the Artist.

The edu­ca­tional turn is a well-documented trend in con­tem­po­rary art as evi­denced by the pro­lif­er­a­tion, in the past 10 years, of artist-run schools and ped­a­gogy projects, such as work­shops, lec­tures, and dis­cus­sion groups. More than just bor­row­ing edu­ca­tional forms, artists are also adopt­ing processes and method­olo­gies that ped­a­gog­i­cal frame­works offer, such as col­lab­o­ra­tive dia­logues, action research, and expe­ri­en­tial learning.

Though artists and edu­ca­tors may over­lap in process, there are dif­fer­ent cri­te­ria, expec­ta­tions, and out­comes for projects that are invested in the world of art, and projects that are invested in the world of edu­ca­tion. Is it pos­si­ble that a good art­work amounts to a bad edu­ca­tion? What are the expec­ta­tions of each field, whose cri­te­ria will we use to eval­u­ate these projects, and where is there convergence?

Helen Reed met Pablo Helguera at the MoMA Staff Café, in New York to chat about some of the cur­rent inter­sec­tions between art and edu­ca­tion. Helguera has worked between these fields for over 20 years. He observes, in his pub­li­ca­tion Edu­ca­tion For Socially Engaged Art that “edu­ca­tion today is fueled by pro­gres­sive ideas, rang­ing from crit­i­cal ped­a­gogy and inquiry based learn­ing to the explo­ration of cre­ativ­ity in early child­hood. For this rea­son it is impor­tant to under­stand the exist­ing struc­tures of edu­ca­tion and to learn how to inno­vate within them. To offer a cri­tique, for exam­ple, the old-fashioned board­ing school sys­tem of mem­o­riza­tion today would be equiv­a­lent, in the art world, to mount­ing a fierce attack on a nineteenth-century art move­ment.”[i] With this acknowl­edge­ment in mind – of the blind spots between dis­ci­plines – we dis­cussed the rela­tion­ship between pre­sen­ta­tion and mak­ing, learn­ing out­comes ver­sus abstract edu­ca­tion, and how to be rev­o­lu­tion­ary and at the same time institutional.

Helen Reed: As a place to start, I want to refer to the intro­duc­tion of Edu­ca­tion for Socially Engaged Art. You men­tioned that you came to art and edu­ca­tion simul­ta­ne­ously, and that con­se­quently you noticed many sim­i­lar­i­ties between the two fields. Can you describe the kinds of crossovers that you noticed, and how these par­al­lels influ­enced your practice?

Pablo Helguera: I was at the School of the Art Insti­tute of Chicago, which hap­pens to be a school and a museum. It’s an insti­tu­tion that is con­nected by a bridge, between the school and the museum. Imme­di­ately, I was exposed to a rela­tion­ship with art that was between pre­sen­ta­tion and mak­ing. I was broke as a stu­dent and I started work­ing at the museum, first as part of a paid intern­ship. I would cross the bridge all the time, between one place and the other. I would be in my dirty paint­ing clothes in the class­room then I would get very preppy to go into the other envi­ron­ment. I did not think any­thing about being in the edu­ca­tion depart­ment, but I just hap­pened to grav­i­tate there because I was bilin­gual and because they needed peo­ple for out­reach, etc. I made sense there. So it’s not some­thing that I par­tic­u­larly chose.

But the moment I started to real­ize that teach­ing is very much con­nected to per­form­ing then I started notic­ing points at which things started to con­nect. When I grad­u­ated from school I was already doing per­for­ma­tive lec­tures and the like. I started becom­ing inter­ested in what became known as Insti­tu­tional Cri­tique, artists who were appro­pri­at­ing the modes of dis­play within muse­ums. So I was doing a lot of that in the early 90s. I became very inter­ested in fic­tion and the whole idea that you, as an artist, can con­struct this envi­ron­ment that really ques­tions the limit of what you con­sider real­ity. Muse­ums become par­tic­u­larly attrac­tive when you are inter­ested in fic­tion. That is what a lot of Insti­tu­tional Cri­tique artists do, mod­i­fy­ing cer­tain aspects of the inte­rior of the space, which all of a sud­den make you real­ize that there is some­thing else going on. In doing so, you are alter­ing the pro­to­cols, the reg­u­lar expec­ta­tions. So I started doing that, but I still didn’t see a direct con­nec­tion to edu­ca­tion for a while. But even­tu­ally I real­ized that the best thing I can do is to bring what I’m learn­ing from the envi­ron­ment of the insti­tu­tion into my own work. And I started cre­at­ing fic­tional muse­ums, fic­tional artists, and those fic­tional artists started hav­ing biogra­phies and bod­ies of work and inter­pre­tive mate­ri­als. I was much more inter­ested in the periph­eral com­po­nents of an art­work than the art work itself.

I remem­ber once, in Port­land, I did a piece at a Uni­ver­sity that was called Mock Tur­tle. There was a whole exhi­bi­tion around an object that nobody could see, but there were hun­dreds of labels and inter­pre­tive mate­ri­als around this object. Sup­pos­edly it’s a tur­tle that you can see inside a box, but you can’t really see it. It’s this idea of how the object is basi­cally unnec­es­sary; it’s really more the sto­ries around the object and how the con­tex­tual frame­work, the inter­pre­tive frame­work of the object is what really mat­ters in the end, and that this is what really influ­ences our per­cep­tion of it.

By that time, Rela­tional Aes­thet­ics was in vogue. Artists were out there doing projects that were based on cre­at­ing inter­sub­jec­tive rela­tion­ships. But I became sus­pi­cious of the qual­ity of those exchanges. I remem­ber I was work­ing at the Guggen­heim, see­ing artists like Rirkrit Tira­vanija pre­sent­ing projects. And I remem­ber, for exam­ple, once, Rirkrit say­ing he wanted to do a project that used a gallery for children’s activ­i­ties. I remem­ber the cura­tor call­ing us in the edu­ca­tion depart­ment and being like “Quick, quick we have to come up with kids and bring them to the gallery to do activ­i­ties with them.” Noth­ing against Rirkrit, but I felt that the whole project was so hap­haz­ard and so arti­fi­cial. Because really, we are pre­tend­ing that we are doing edu­ca­tion here, that we were cre­at­ing a great expe­ri­ence for these kids. I have no idea what ended up hap­pen­ing with the project. But those were the kind of expe­ri­ences that made me sud­denly real­ize: isn’t it inter­est­ing that I’m here, a mere edu­ca­tor, like many other edu­ca­tors who actu­ally know very well how to pro­duce these expe­ri­ences, that’s our exper­tise; and yet we have absolutely no power over this cer­tain sit­u­a­tion where peo­ple, who know absolutely noth­ing about these audi­ences, decide they want to do an edu­ca­tional expe­ri­ence for them in the guise of an art­work, which has to hap­pen promptly and effi­ciently. And the action will likely be cov­ered by art mag­a­zines; by peo­ple who know absolutely noth­ing about these audi­ences, and then they will most likely be con­vinced that some­thing really great hap­pened. While those, who sup­pos­edly the activ­ity was cre­ated for, most likely were hur­ried into a sit­u­a­tion self-proclaimed as edu­ca­tional and per­haps manip­u­lated into being pho­tographed as part of the documentation.

This is a very com­mon ten­dency of muse­ums that dates back to the 80s when insti­tu­tions were try­ing to do mul­ti­cul­tural inclu­sion in gal­leries. So you would bring a bunch of kids from the low income neigh­bor­hoods, give them a T-shirt from the museum and stand them in front of the steps of the museum, and then show the photo to the fun­ders. What­ever they do there, what­ever expe­ri­ence they have there doesn’t really mat­ter, what really mat­ters is that those kids of color are in front of the gates of the museum. Those are the kind of expe­ri­ences that made me real­ize that I don’t want to make that kind of “rela­tional” art. I don’t want to make art that’s about say­ing that I did some­thing. I want to make art that does some­thing. I don’t always care whether peo­ple under­stand or not that I am doing it, but I want to know for my own sake that what I did had that impulse.

And that is why the rela­tion­ship between ped­a­gogy and art is absolutely cru­cial, because ped­a­gogy and edu­ca­tion are about empha­sis on the embod­i­ment of the process, on the dia­logue, on the exchange, on inter­sub­jec­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and on human relationships

To me, that’s the enor­mous gap between art that claims to be about social change, and art that embod­ies social change. And that is why the rela­tion­ship between ped­a­gogy and art is absolutely cru­cial, because ped­a­gogy and edu­ca­tion are about empha­sis on the embod­i­ment of the process, on the dia­logue, on the exchange, on inter­sub­jec­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and on human rela­tion­ships. The prod­uct may or may not be nec­es­sary or impor­tant. But it can­not hap­pen if this exchange does not take place. Art, tra­di­tion­ally, has not always been about the process. Ulti­mately in a museum when you look at a paint­ing, the process of its mak­ing is inter­est­ing to know, but it is not essen­tial to expe­ri­enc­ing the work. What mat­ters is that it’s there; that it hap­pened. In socially engaged art, that is the oppo­site: what is impor­tant is the process, and the process is inex­tri­ca­ble from the experience.

What you are say­ing reminds me of some­thing that Shan­non Jack­son men­tioned in her talk at Open Engage­ment this past year. She said some­thing to the effect of what looks like inno­va­tion in one field may be old news in another field. And I’m think­ing about this in the way that some processes of edu­ca­tion are taken up in socially engaged art.

I was read­ing a bit about Reg­gio Emilia before I came to meet you, because I had learned that you have a Reg­gio Emilia com­po­nent in the show down­stairs. I found this quote by Loris Malaguzzi: “We need to pro­duce sit­u­a­tions in which chil­dren learn by them­selves, in which chil­dren can take advan­tage of their own knowl­edge and resources… We need to define the role of the adult, not as a trans­mit­ter, but as a cre­ator of rela­tion­ships — rela­tion­ships not only between peo­ple but also between things, between thoughts, with the envi­ron­ment.”[ii]

Sounds a lot like socially engaged art, right?

Right! But I wanted to ask you about where we diverge. It feels like we may be in a com­pro­mised posi­tion. As artists there is an imper­a­tive to par­tic­i­pate in a cycle of pro­duc­tion, to be acknowl­edged as authors, or to be thought of as pri­mary authors, and to par­tic­i­pate in an art dis­course. In what way do we have to diverge from edu­ca­tional processes?

We still belong to a tra­di­tion of art mak­ing where things acquire dif­fer­ent mean­ings depend­ing on the con­text. So like Duchamp’s uri­nal, of course it’s use­ful as a uri­nal and when it becomes art it becomes use­ful in other ways as art. And like what Tom Fin­kle­pearl was say­ing, it’s time to put the uri­nal back in the bath­room[iii], because we’ve come to a point where the use­ful­ness of art as aes­thet­ics has run its course. So it’s time to go back and think about aes­thet­ics as some­thing that func­tions in the world in a dif­fer­ent way.

Which cre­ates an inter­est­ing prob­lem: why don’t we just aban­don aes­thet­ics alto­gether? Why don’t I just become a Reg­gio Emilia edu­ca­tor since their phi­los­o­phy is close to what I do? Maybe I should just move to Italy and teach lit­tle kids. There’s this ten­dency by young artists of think­ing: “maybe I’m just doing some­thing ill informed and ridicu­lous, and I might as well just become a pro­fes­sional in what­ever field I’m inter­ested in. Maybe I should become a hor­ti­cul­tur­al­ist”, or what­ever. The other side is that the artist is per­form­ing roles that are osten­si­bly per­formed bet­ter by pro­fes­sion­als of those dis­ci­plines, like in Rirkrit’s case: the edu­ca­tors do it so much bet­ter than them, so why is he get­ting the credit? And why is what edu­ca­tors are doing not con­sid­ered art? Why should a mediocre edu­ca­tion pro­gram be cel­e­brated as this won­der­ful rela­tional aes­thet­ics piece, when a won­der­ful edu­ca­tion pro­gram that really changes people’s lives can never be con­sid­ered an impor­tant artwork?

So the issue is really, what is the con­tex­tual social ter­ri­tory where this takes place? Where are you stak­ing your claims? And where are you pro­duc­ing crit­i­cal­ity? To sim­ply say that Reg­gio Emilia is a great art­work is com­pletely untrue. That’s not their goal; their goal is to cre­ate bet­ter cit­i­zens for the world, etc. As an artist, what becomes really inter­est­ing is to con­sider this think­ing within the con­text of art mak­ing, the con­text of the role of art in soci­ety. Art, for bet­ter or for worse, con­tin­ues to be this play­ing field that is defined by its capac­ity to rede­fine itself. You can­not say, “This is not art!” because tomor­row it could be, or “It can be art,” because I say it is. Art is a space, which we have cre­ated, where we can cease to sub­scribe to the demands and the rules of soci­ety; it is a space where we can pre­tend. We can play, we can rethink things, we can think about them backwards.

But just to clar­ify: when I say that Reg­gio Emilia is not real art, I don’t think it’s enough to make art with “pre­tend” edu­ca­tion. I don’t think one should jus­tify the use of any sem­blance in edu­ca­tion for the sake of art, as was the case of that children’s activ­ity by Rirkrit I described, unless if you are just meant to be jok­ing or play­ing (which is not very inter­est­ing to begin with). My point is that when you are mak­ing cer­tain claims, or even gen­er­at­ing cer­tain impres­sions about what you are doing, you need to do them in an effec­tive way in order to really affect the world, oth­er­wise your artis­tic inter­ven­tion in the social realm is no dif­fer­ent from mak­ing a paint­ing in the stu­dio. And there is a dif­fer­ence between sym­bolic and actual intervention.

In your chap­ter, Notes Towards a Transped­a­gogy, you talked about the phe­nom­ena of edu­ca­tion as art projects resist­ing pre­con­ceived learn­ing out­comes because they didn’t want to be per­ceived as didac­tic. You used the term “abstract edu­ca­tion” [iv] to describe these kinds of projects. Can you talk about this term a bit more?

This term came from my own dis­sat­is­fac­tion with see­ing artists sup­pos­edly mak­ing edu­ca­tional projects, par­tic­u­larly alter­na­tive school projects. It has to do with the edu­ca­tional turn in curat­ing where peo­ple who came from a very vague and gen­er­ally stereo­typed knowl­edge about edu­ca­tion all of a sud­den thought it was a great buzz word. They would not use the term edu­ca­tion; they would say ped­a­gogy because that sounds more aca­d­e­mic, or more intel­li­gent. I remem­ber once in a con­fer­ence, as part of the Liv­er­pool Bien­nial in 2007, I attended a panel. I was an audi­ence mem­ber, and the speak­ers included Charles Esche and a few artists, and an artist pre­sented a social prac­tice type of project. And I remem­ber ask­ing, well how do you even know what the out­come was? How do you cal­cu­late the out­come? Don’t you think you need to know whether what you did really had any effect? And I remem­ber the artist say­ing, “well that would instru­men­tal­ize the work.” Oth­ers sup­ported her view. At that point in time, to try to learn more about the expe­ri­ence was bad because it would make the doc­u­men­ta­tion process bureau­cratic; to me, it was a con­ve­nient way to make a project that lacked accountability.

Granted in the UK espe­cially, the notion of eval­u­a­tion has a bad name because edu­ca­tional insti­tu­tions have to func­tion within some overly rigid frame­work called the Bologna Accord, which is about meet­ing stan­dards of edu­ca­tion. So, par­tially the reac­tion against eval­u­a­tion comes from that. But I also felt that there was a com­plete mis­un­der­stand­ing of what eval­u­a­tion means. In fact, we eval­u­ate every­thing all the time in art. Oth­er­wise art crit­i­cism wouldn’t exist. We’ve had art crit­ics pretty much since art started.

When­ever you do an abstract paint­ing that looks exactly like Mon­drian, peo­ple will tell you that your work is not very rel­e­vant because you’re just copy­ing Mon­drian. And yet, you’re com­pletely home free if you do this con­cep­tual project of a school that doesn’t teach any­body and where nobody learns any­thing, but it looks really great in the press release.

Why is it that we can be very crit­i­cal of stan­dard art­works that we under­stand the para­me­ters of? We can be very crit­i­cal of this work because we are very famil­iar with for­mal­ism and with abstrac­tion, and there are a slew of the­o­ret­i­cal approaches. When­ever you do an abstract paint­ing that looks exactly like Mon­drian, peo­ple will tell you that your work is not very rel­e­vant because you’re just copy­ing Mon­drian. And yet, you’re com­pletely home free if you do this con­cep­tual project of a school that doesn’t teach any­body and where nobody learns any­thing, but it looks really great in the press release.

So by “abstract edu­ca­tion” you meant projects that use the lan­guage and frame­work of edu­ca­tion, but don’t func­tion as education?

It’s com­pli­cated. Because I don’t want to say that it’s bad to do that. Some­times you just want to do a project that’s about the idea of this or that. You want to do a project that’s about dance; it doesn’t mean that you have to dance. It’s very dif­fer­ent to do a paint­ing about war, than to par­tic­i­pate in a war.

That’s why in my book, Edu­ca­tion for Socially Engaged Art, I tried to address this prob­lem by mak­ing a dis­tinc­tion between what I under­stand as sym­bolic ver­sus actual prac­tice. What I tried to argue in the book is that in art, the strongest, more long­stand­ing tra­di­tion is art as sym­bolic act; art that’s a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the world. You make an art­work that is a thing on its own, but it addresses the world. Guer­nica is a sym­bolic act. It tells you about the hor­rors of Guer­nica, the mass killings.

In the 60s that starts to change, artists don’t want to do things about the world; they want to do things that are acts in the world. That’s why per­for­mance art emerges. I’m not going to make a the­atre piece where I pre­tend to be x, y or z. I’m going do a real live action where I am Pablo Helguera and I’m talk­ing to you, Helen. And we’re going to have this expe­ri­ence, and this expe­ri­ence can only pos­si­bly exist in this moment in time and never again, any­where else. And that’s what this art­work is about. That’s what Fluxus was about, that’s what John Cage talked about, and that’s what Alan Kaprow’s hap­pen­ings were about; it’s a very Zen idea. Suzanne Lacy’s per­for­mances, for exam­ple, they were about these women at this moment. It might be art his­tory later. It might later become a prod­uct. But the fact of the mat­ter is that what it is at that moment can never be repeated.

So, to me, socially engaged art emerges from that tra­di­tion of the here-and-now. What the “here-and-now” means, in my view, is that the artis­tic act is inex­tri­ca­ble from the time/place con­text, but that it also affects it in a very direct way. The work needs to be under­stood, described, and pos­si­bly eval­u­ated and cri­tiqued in terms of what those actual events were. When­ever you don’t have that infor­ma­tion, which is unfor­tu­nately most of the time, there is no way to know whether it hap­pened or not. Those projects that you know are really cre­at­ing an impact, that they have a pres­ence; it’s almost self-evident. I mean what­ever you want to say about Tania Bruguera’s Immi­grant Move­ment Inter­na­tional, you can go there today and see it. It’s hap­pen­ing right now. She isn’t mak­ing it up.

Can you talk about the ten­sion between use­ful­ness, ambi­gu­ity, and learn­ing out­comes? You men­tion that we eval­u­ate things all the time any­way. How do you eval­u­ate art ped­a­gogy projects?

Cre­at­ing an ambigu­ous expe­ri­ence doesn’t mean that you can­not eval­u­ate it. It only means that you have to think about it dif­fer­ently. We are not doing a Reg­gio Emilia School down­stairs in the Com­mon Senses Instal­la­tion. If some­one came here and said, “well this is not a Reg­gio Emilia School, so you have totally flunked!” From this per­spec­tive we cer­tainly have failed. But that’s not what it is meant to do; it’s meant to bring vis­i­tors to the museum, to encounter it.

If you ana­lyze a Fluxus per­for­mance and you say, “Well this guy is a really bad actor, he’s not Ham­let.” Of course he’s not Ham­let, this is not Shake­speare; it’s Fluxus. It sets its own ratio­nale. And when you start becom­ing inter­ested in Fluxus you real­ize that it has its own inter­nal logic. Then you real­ize that this is a bet­ter Fluxus piece than this other one, because this cre­ates a bet­ter sit­u­a­tion for what Fluxus is try­ing to do, which is cre­at­ing this open space of play­ing, of irrev­er­ence, of attack­ing bour­geois ideas about art. For these rea­sons this one piece is par­tic­u­larly suc­cess­ful. So you can set your own terms of success.

You might say, well I am not doing a school, I’m just going to pre­tend I’m doing a school; I’m mak­ing this fic­tional school. If that’s clear from the onset then it’s much eas­ier. If, on the other hand, you’re try­ing to have your cake and eat it too, which means that I’m going to say that I’m doing a trans­for­ma­tional project but in real­ity I’m just going to pre­tend I am doing it. That’s when your project com­pletely falls apart. And it’s com­pletely clear; the moment that you scratch it you real­ize that there is no sub­stance to it.

I’m inter­ested in your rela­tion­ship to insti­tu­tions. You cre­ated an insti­tu­tion, The School of Panamer­i­can Unrest. And, of course, your work here at MoMA is embed­ded in the insti­tu­tion. You talk about Insti­tu­tional Cri­tique in, Notes Towards a Transped­a­gogy, and men­tion that many artists are still work­ing with these ideas. Can you talk about your rela­tion­ship to insti­tu­tions and Insti­tu­tional Cri­tique?

Insti­tu­tional cri­tique was very impor­tant to me. Andrea Fraser, Hans Haake, Fred Wil­son, all these peo­ple that I very much respect and have had a dia­logue with – what was really inter­est­ing to me and shock­ing at the same time was that I started see­ing their works when I was already work­ing in a museum. It was inter­est­ing because I felt like while I loved this work, it was really cri­tiquing the museum, and who was it really cri­tiquing? I thought it was cri­tiquing me because I was part of a museum. And then I thought what does it really mean to cri­tique myself in that way? If I’m hon­est with my own cri­tiques shouldn’t I just resign and move to, say, the hills and farm? Shouldn’t I start a rev­o­lu­tion from the hills?

I grew up in Mex­ico under what was known as the per­fect dic­ta­tor­ship, which was a party called The PRI who ruled Mex­ico for 71 years. The Mex­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion was an incred­i­bly com­pli­cated civil con­flict, which was really about the land and about social classes. It finally ends when the strongest gen­eral of the rev­o­lu­tion, cre­ates a polit­i­cal party and solves the prob­lem of power by say­ing that there’s this party and that every 6 years there’s going to be an elec­tion. In real­ity, the elec­tion was more of a tran­si­tion of power within the party. The PRI never lost an elec­tion for 71 years. In a way, it was not ruled by a sin­gle indi­vid­ual, but it was ruled by the same few fam­i­lies. This all ended in 2000. But what is inter­est­ing is that the party was called The Insti­tu­tional Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Party, Par­tido Rev­olu­cionario Insti­tu­cional. Just think about those words, it’s just com­pletely non­sense. How can you be rev­o­lu­tion­ary and at the same time insti­tu­tional? That’s what we were for 71 years.

All these reflec­tions lead me to think that I don’t want to move into the hills, I like work­ing in muse­ums. And at the same time, I real­ize that these cri­tiques also get insti­tu­tion­al­ized and that the museum actu­ally loves them. Now Andrea Fraser is in the gal­leries; she finally has been col­lected and so what does that mean?

My con­clu­sion was that we can best be rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies when we best learn how to be insti­tu­tional. Occupy Muse­ums tried to occupy here at MoMA. The moment they got inside MoMA they didn’t know what to do, because they were like, “Do we burn it down?” What does that do? I’m com­pletely aware of how power sup­ports art and how we’re com­pletely depen­dent on that power. But to have this atti­tude like, “Let’s just destroy the museum!” Look at the Bagh­dad Museum, for exam­ple. At the recent Cre­ative Time Sum­mit Michael Rakowitz showed that image of the looted Bagh­dad Museum and it was hor­ri­fy­ing. No one said, “Great! They destroyed the sym­bol of power!” No, it’s a huge tragedy. We lost an incred­i­bly impor­tant part of civ­i­liza­tion and cul­ture, which will never come back. They erased a chap­ter of his­tory. There’s noth­ing worse than that.

Instead of cri­tiquing the cur­rent sys­tem, you have to make a new sys­tem that will ren­der the pre­vi­ous sys­tem super­flu­ous or irrel­e­vant. So as artists we need to build insti­tu­tions, we need to be institutional.

So yes, I want to pro­tect the museum. The idea of pre­serv­ing the past doesn’t have to be in con­flict with the idea of being rev­o­lu­tion­ary. Instead of burn­ing down insti­tu­tions, why don’t we just build some­thing else, like what Buck­min­ster Fuller used to say. Instead of cri­tiquing the cur­rent sys­tem, you have to make a new sys­tem that will ren­der the pre­vi­ous sys­tem super­flu­ous or irrel­e­vant. So as artists we need to build insti­tu­tions, we need to be institutional.

That’s why I cre­ated The School of Panamer­i­can Unrest. It was real in many ways. We con­ducted more pro­gram­ming and more work­shops than many muse­ums have done in many years. The School of Panamer­i­can Unrest was my attempt to explore or defend the idea that these two things are not con­tra­dic­tory, the idea of rev­o­lu­tion and the idea of sta­bil­ity could coex­ist. The PRI was very prob­lem­atic but it did exist for 71 years, and the cul­ture did not dis­ap­pear. Maybe it is also part of what art mak­ing is; art mak­ing is that com­bi­na­tion of rev­o­lu­tions and sta­bi­liza­tions. Noth­ing can be con­stantly rev­o­lu­tion­ary for­ever. It’s almost impos­si­ble to find an artist who was chang­ing for their entire career, who rev­o­lu­tion­ized all the time.

Insti­tu­tions also pro­vide some safety for these kinds of prac­tices. Edu­ca­tion depart­ments, for exam­ple, fre­quently sup­port socially engaged art. Some­thing that I think about, while work­ing out­side of art insti­tu­tions, is that the safety net is gone. Is that some­thing that you expe­ri­enced with The School of Panamer­i­can Unrest? Was there hos­til­ity around you being iden­ti­fied as an artist?

I expe­ri­enced incred­i­ble hos­til­ity in almost every respect. Not always because I was an artist, more usu­ally because I was com­ing from New York. In Venezuela peo­ple were say­ing that I was pro-Bush. There was an impe­ri­al­ist feel­ing to it for some peo­ple and there was a mis­sion­ary feel to oth­ers; peo­ple wanted me to solve their lives.

In respect to what you were ask­ing about edu­ca­tion depart­ments in muse­ums, I did expe­ri­ence a very inter­est­ing dif­fer­ence between the north­ern part of the project and the south­ern part. The north­ern part was rel­a­tively well sup­ported by local insti­tu­tions. Like in Port­land, I did it at PNCA and a bunch of other places. We had a very com­fort­able gallery to hold our con­ver­sa­tions and we had a bud­get. I stayed in a nice place. That did not hap­pen in other places. I was in the plazas, we were try­ing to pre­vent peo­ple from steal­ing our stuff in the street and we were com­pletely exposed. Many times peo­ple thought I was an evan­ge­list and peo­ple would tell me, “We’re catholic here, we’re not inter­ested in your protes­tant ideas what­ever.” Other peo­ple thought I was an Opti­cian, because the school sym­bol is a bell with an eye. So peo­ple would come want­ing to get their eyes tested. But there was a won­der­ful ambi­gu­ity there, which was much more inter­est­ing than when I was with an insti­tu­tion. When you enter a place like the MoMA and you see a project you say, “Oh, this is an art­work.” But when you are in the mid­dle of the city, like in Hon­duras or Paraguay, then there is no ref­er­ence, except that it is very odd to see this kind of pub­lic art there. So I loved the pos­si­bil­ity of what you could do with that ambi­gu­ity; in a way it was liberating.

What I’m try­ing to say is that projects like this, they can have the abil­ity to ben­e­fit from the dif­fer­ent con­text in which they appear. In the spe­cific con­text of the museum, the rea­son why edu­ca­tion depart­ments appear to be very wel­com­ing and very appro­pri­ate for this kind of stuff is because they are designed for peo­ple. Edu­ca­tion is about peo­ple and about vis­i­tors and they are adjusted to the poros­ity of social rela­tion­ships. Cura­to­r­ial depart­ments, his­tor­i­cally, are about objects and con­nois­seur­ship. They are about under­stand­ing the object and how to exhibit it and how to main­tain its nar­ra­tive and things like that. More and more these divi­sions are eroding.


[i] Helguera, P. (2011). Edu­ca­tion for a socially engaged art. (p. 80). New York, NY: Jorge Pinto Books.

[ii] Malaguzzi, L. (1994). Your image of the child: Where teach­ing begins. Early child­hood edu­ca­tional exchange, (96), 52–61.

[iii] Fin­kle­pearl, T. (2012, Octo­ber). Cre­ative time sum­mit, New York, NY.

[iv] Helguera, P. (2010). Notes towards a transped­a­gogy. In K. Ehrlich (Ed.), Art, archi­tec­ture, ped­a­gogy: Exper­i­ments in learn­ing (pp. 98–112). Valen­cia, Cal­i­for­nia: Cen­ter for Inte­grated Media (Helguera, 2010)


HELEN REED works with spe­cific groups of peo­ple such as Twin Peaks fans, les­bian sep­a­ratists, and high school art teacher can­di­dates. In each project, col­lab­o­ra­tion is a work­ing process from which the art­work emerges. Reed favors col­lab­o­ra­tors that reflect her inter­est in par­tic­i­pa­tory cul­ture, affin­ity groups, and fantasy-based sub­cul­tures. Her projects take ver­nac­u­lar form such as tele­vi­sion shows, pub­li­ca­tions, post­cards and other forms of eas­ily trans­mit­table and dis­persed media, so as to cir­cu­late back into the com­mu­ni­ties from which they are generated.

Reed has exhib­ited work at Pre­fix Insti­tute for Con­tem­po­rary Art (Toronto), apexart (New York), Smack Mel­lon (New York), Port­land Art Museum, Seat­tle Art Museum and La Cen­trale Galerie Pow­er­house (Mon­tréal). She holds a BFA from the Emily Carr Uni­ver­sity of Art and Design (Van­cou­ver), an MFA in Art and Social Prac­tice from Port­land State University.

PABLO HELGUERA is a New York based artist work­ing with instal­la­tion, sculp­ture, pho­tog­ra­phy, draw­ing, and per­for­mance. Helguera’s work focuses on a vari­ety of top­ics rang­ing from his­tory, ped­a­gogy, soci­olin­guis­tics, ethnog­ra­phy, mem­ory and the absurd, in for­mats that are widely var­ied includ­ing the lec­ture, museum dis­play strate­gies, musi­cal per­for­mances and writ­ten fiction.

His work as an edu­ca­tor is inter­sected with his inter­ests as an artist, mak­ing his work reflect on issues of inter­pre­ta­tion, dia­logue, and the role of con­tem­po­rary cul­ture in a global real­ity. This inter­sec­tion is best exem­pli­fied in his project, “The School of Panamer­i­can Unrest,” a nomadic think-tank that phys­i­cally crossed the con­ti­nent by car from Anchor­age, Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, Argentina mak­ing 40 stops in between. Cov­er­ing almost 20,000 miles, it is con­sid­ered one of the most exten­sive pub­lic art projects on record.

Since 2007, he has been the Direc­tor of Adult and Aca­d­e­mic pro­grams at the Museum of Mod­ern Art, New York.

Comments are closed.