Conversations on Art Education: Binna Choi of Casco – Office for Art, Design and Theory

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Interview was done on April 2, 2015

Casco’s office is open in design, and staff work snuggly next to each other. The bookshop and library are nestled together in the same room. The architectural message is clear – the mechanisms of production and public profile of Casco are seamlessly intertwined with each other.

Binna greets me warmly with an offering cookies and tea. We sit in a small alcove by the entrance, where one of their smaller on-going research projects is profiled. Given that I’ve come to discuss art education – specifically, what skills younger artists and designers need today – it is fitting that the showcased project is entitled Site for Unlearning (Art Organization), a collaboration between artist Annette Krauss and the entire Casco team (Casco Case Study #2).

[question]How does the combination of art, design and theory operate as a framework for Casco’s activities?[/question]

These descriptors are a means of saying we are engaged with and looking at the public realm. We are a part of different social contexts and influenced by political thinking.

There is a useful correlation between these registers and the way they operate in relation to each other. However, it is important to acknowledge that they are not divided proportionally; instead, there is a flow between them. As artistic research, these activities operate on two different levels, as both subjects of enquiry and as methods or tools for conducting enquiry.

[question]When you are working with different disciplines, how do you establish the grounds for collaboration?[/question]

Cross-disciplinarity is a fascinating way of operating. On the one hand, you have to acknowledge specialisation or specific disciplines, and at the same time, you need to open up space where specialisations can enter into dialogue and influence each other.

Grounding in this respect is often based on loosely shared political or ethical perspectives. Without this foundation, one quickly co-opts the other. It’s exactly the combination of autonomy and heteronomy where agency lies.

Artists and curators are good at creating space for this to happen, as they are both practices that operate at the interstices. Neither is completely specialized, but each has a set of varied skills.

[question]And connected to this idea of cross-disciplinarity, what are your thoughts on difference – cultural differences, that is?[/question]

Cultural contexts impact the way people work, the material condition of their practice and their approach. However, there is one commonality I have noticed across cultures – wherever you are, the institution is perceived as oppressive.

[question]Can you explain what you mean by that?[/question]

When institutions are fixed, they are experienced as some sort of violence or oppression. That said, I’m in favour of instituting, meaning that a group of people working or living together form a set of common rules that are flexible enough to be continually readapted. However, it is important to keep in mind what the act of institutionalization does; how it can freeze those rules and reduce living organisms to them. This also includes bureaucratization.

[question]I suppose the same can be said about educational institutions. The question is, how can art schools provide the structure and support that comes as a result of institutionalization while at the same time remain in a continual state of flux, self-interrogation, if not even undermining their own institutionalized authority.[/question]

Exactly, often institutions don’t see the value of difference (or the process of constant differentiation) and its importance in terms of critical reflection. Perspectives such as feminism, post-colonialism, ecology – whatever deals with differentiation is important, as it has to do with understanding the self in relation to others and one’s own practice. Here is where philosophy and art are very close; they are self-interrogating and bring diverse disciplines together.

[question]I want to ask about difference in relation to generations. You have been the director of Casco since 2008. Have you seen significant generational shifts in practices, meaning have artist and designers approaches changed?[/question]

Well, although we bring different generations together, we don’t really think from that perspective. Instead, we focus on learning from each other, in the past and the present, and we think together around the same issues or similar concerns. However, I have been following quite a strong discourse around generational difference in South Korean society, particularly within the field of art, where the younger generation is defined by precarity and reduced social mobility.

This seems to have also hit the Netherlands, as we have seen in the student-led occupation of the Maagdenhuis. ((In February of 2015, students from the University of Amsterdam occupied the Maagdenuis in protest of a lack of transparency by the administration and the monetization of education.)) In fact, there’s a clear difference between this generation of students who live under a crumbling welfare state and the ones who benefited from a fully-fledged welfare system. They are recognizing and acting upon the social and political crisis we are facing. To speak specifically of the Dutch situation, you could say there’s “no more ‘gewoon’!” ((In Dutch, “gewoon” means “normal” or in this context, it could be translated as “no more doing things as usual!”))

[question]If you were to open your own school, meaning the Casco School, what would it be founded upon, or what are the key elements you would integrate into your curriculum?[/question]

mmm… That’s a good question. If I opened an art school, it would be founded on ethics, values, and space. By space, I mean a place that gives room for inhabiting – a kitchen, living room – an area for “hanging out”. Space is important because it facilitates individual and collective work. It allows for grouping processes to happen, a changing of habits and new common habits to form.

And space is also temporal. It’s the time needed for things to unfold or evolve as a process. You need space for self-reflection and to engage with the collective. It’s only through this process and movement that values, ethics and systems emerge. In this kind of scenario, ethical principles or systems are not imposed from the top-down, but rather they emerge.

For a few years now at Casco, one significant change in the way we operate is to be less driven by existing function descriptions that reduced personalities and capabilities to specific activities. Now our respective roles are shaped by what people are good at and what fascinates them while at the same time negotiating with what is generally required to run the institution. This negotiation also needs space in both senses, meaning both time and space.

[question]Time, space and the longer view are quite a contrast to the age of measurability we find ourselves in now. For example, often, the government measures the success of our students by their employability. From your point of view, what makes artists or designers flourish?[/question]

Measuring success based on employment is too simple. I think it’s actually more complex. My advice would be to invest in relations (not networking!) Build a community and secure time to continue to foster those relations. Here is where the book Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich is still highly relevant. Already more than three decades ago, he expressed a deep concern that the institutionalization of education would eventually increase social inequality and necessitate privatization due to high costs. Instead, he advocated for learning wherever social relations are fostered.

While I feel uncomfortable with the use of the word capital in the face of governmental pressures to monetize and measure, I wonder it might be useful to use a notion like “social capital” as a way to eventually value the social over the capital.

[question]In terms of valuing thinking as a form of social capital, what is the role of research? Of course, research is a buzzword within art education, but it is broadly interpreted. What does it mean within the context of Casco?[/question]

Research has become the umbrella for art, design and the other disciplines Casco brings together. When I speak about artistic research, I don’t mean it in the sense of some types of practice-based PhDs, which are more synonymous with being self-reflexive of one’s own work. But here, I’m speaking about research that takes place at the interstice of different practices and institutional knowledge, opening it up and making new connections.

For example, with Adelita Husni-Bey’s project, White Paper: The Law, which we are currently working on, she proposed to draft a law challenging anti-squatting legislation made in the Netherlands in 2010. Together with Casco, she has been organizing public drafting meetings where different themes were explored, and various experts and practitioners, including squatters, lawyers, anthropologists etc., were brought in.

Seeing conversation as the main medium, this is a kind of participatory research or action research. It was done in relation to others as opposed to being solely reflective or an individual study. Participatory research brings together different voices, and through collective thinking and exchange, a tipping point brings about change.

[question]I guess this comes back to your insistence upon space being necessary, meaning both time and place to allow for things to emerge or unfold. And given this process, how do you measure success or failure in terms of research.[/question]

Oh, that’s an interesting question. That’s difficult to measure as duration is a crucial factor. There is a certain continuity required, and Casco carries research threads through different projects. I do believe that value is established through a continuum of living and doing, which involves differentiation. It’s not that you do the same thing again and again, but instead, you learn, try to do things better, and mature or refine ideas in that way.. Seen in this scope of continuity, failure can be understood as the articulation of work to be done or a problem to be further thought through – rather than being considered as regression.

Likewise, a students’ practice could be measured by how they become “different” from one phase to another and not by a totalizing standard.

[question]In this respect, much like art schools, cultural institutions like Casco are also learning environments.[/question]

Yes, exactly, and we host workshops and seminars related to our projects.

[question]And how do you see this when you work directly with art schools such as the DAI? What is your role or relation to more formal educational structures?[/question]

By working with the DAI, our learning communities were able to tap into each other. And we could offer a space outside of an institutional boundary. I see that we can mutually support each other, and ideally, these zones could become one, even to include operational staffs to work in learning mode! For example, the relation between the Stadtschule and Porticus offers an insightful model for how this can be done, although I don’t have much knowledge about how they are doing at this moment.

[question]And your own relation to formal education – Can you talk about that?[/question]

Well, I did my BA in philosophy and minor in psychology. In that period of study, it was great to try and learn many different things – to both wander and wonder across a broad range of knowledge in the humanities and social sciences.

My master program was far more focussed. I studied Aesthetics. One of the good things about this highly specialised time of study is that it offers you the basic ground from which you can then go on into an open and wild field. Also, during that time, you learn to concentrate over an extensive period of time. For example, working on my thesis was a tremendous lift in my thinking. It was quite a challenge to accommodate that kind of long flow of enquiry. In this sense, learning also involves a “self-disciplinary” practice. It is one of the key components. And I should also mention that while completing the thesis, it was vital to have the space to research with close colleagues!

[question]As a student, one can be vulnerable – there isn’t any shame in not knowing as school is about learning. But you’re working within the frame of a public institution and exhibition space. Does that put pressure on your capacity to do research?[/question]

Of course, that pressure is there to an extent. We did a “project” – which we simply call “June”, as it took place then and we did not want to define to any known activity, with artist Sung Hwan Kim: His proposal was closing Casco for a period of one month or so with the underlying intention of criticizing the totalizing public rhythm of working these days and disrupting it. The normal production costs would then be channelled into this period where a group of practitioners gather and “do something together”, with outcomes that may not be visible at all.

While conceptually interesting and challenging, this proposal was admittedly difficult for me. We could be accused of not using public money for public purposes. And in the end, I compromised with only two weeks and the relativized budget. Nonetheless, that project or “June” remains crucial for our current work. Risk was taken, though relativized, it gives us confidence and a reminder too as we keep forgetting! – about the fundamental value of taking time, finding common rhythm among people who work together…

I also thought about how the lab might be a useful model. Rather than being hidden, the lab can be something in between, while it’s essential to bring so-called “innovative” technologies….

And I started to think about how learning and research could be done both through and with vulnerability in front of a public: in other words, vulnerability exposed or displaying it could be seen rather as a value and strength, instead of a weakness.

[question]It’s interesting that you say this because vulnerability is rarely discussed as a value. At the same time, it seems to be the foundation of any learning process.[/question]

Yes, exactly. I suppose it’s what constitutes openness and gives space to encounter and engage with others and the unknown.