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.