Conversations on Art Education: Klaas Hoek

Themes: Genealogies of influences and learning, the universe is expanding, but the university is shrinking, the practice of space, the potential of the dilettante, and breakfast as a catalyst.

Klaas Hoek, illustration Cesare Davolio

[question]I’ve been thinking about lineages or legacies within teaching. At the Rijksakademie voor Beeldende Kunsten, you were my tutor and a very influential one. You, along with others who taught me, like Harmony Hammond, Joan Jonas and Juergen Strunk, are a part of what informed my understanding of the potential of art and the art school. So when I go to any tutorial or teach a class in one form or another, you all accompany me. Who do you bring with you in your teaching? How have they shaped your thinking and approach to learning and understanding of what art education makes possible?[/question]

When I became an advisor at the Rijksakademie, it was my first job in education, so I learned a lot from talking with participants and my direct colleagues like J.C.J van der Heyden, Pieter Laurens Mol, Joan Jonas, Jurgen Partenheimer, John Hilliard, Ansuya Blom and, in particular, Jan van Toorn, who became a friend and shaped my thinking and approach to learning more than anybody else.

In 1988, I began teaching one day a week at the Hogeschool voor de Kunsten Utrecht (HKU) within Fine Art across all years and media, meaning drawing, print, sculpture, to painting and photography. And then in 1998, I started teaching on the MA Fine Art Media at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London. This meant going to London and staying there for four days every other week.

For those weeks, I would stay with Bruce and Rosy McLean, and during our commute to and from the Slade, and in the evenings, we would endlessly discuss art and education. Through those conversations and my work at the Slade, I came to situate my approach between John Hilliard, who was then Head of Graduate Fine Art Media, and Bruce McLean, who was then Head of Graduate Painting. My approach was in between someone like John, who is grounded in thinking through language, concepts, and contextualisation, and Bruce, who instils trust, encouragement, and enthusiasm in students.

[question]I recognise these qualities in your work as an artist too. Recently, I was reminded of that awful George Bernard Shaw maxim: “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.” It made me think about how our work imbues our teaching—it positions us. You’ve had an on-going and vibrant practice, and printmaking has been integral to your thinking. Can you talk about the relation of your practice and what it means to your approach to teaching and learning? Also, connected to this, what specifically has printmaking given you as a craft?[/question]

Well, I disagree with George Bernard Shaw’s maxim, especially in this case; it is far too simplistic.

Regarding printmaking, I was a lithography printer with Galerie Clement Printshop Amsterdam, making editions for and with artists between 1970 and 1977, and it was there that I really learned to look at art. If you had to print an edition of 150 in, for instance, five colours, you would look at just one colour on a piece of paper for almost a week, and then at two colours, and so on until all the five colours formed the final print.

Before that, I might spend a couple of days with the artist making the proof, mixing colours, proofing, changing them, and proofing again until the artist would be satisfied. Those collaborations were the most interesting part of being a printer.

I think I have learned to place myself in someone else’s shoes, to try to imagine someone else’s ideas there and then. I worked with CoBrA artists like Constant, Karel Appel etc., and with artists of the so-called new figuration movement like Roger Raveel, and Reinier Lucassen etc. Later, being disappointed about what people did in printmaking in general, I started publishing prints together with Rento Brattinga as “Ink on Paper.” Between 1984 and 1992, we specifically invited contemporaries without previous printmaking experience. I would talk to them about how I could see them doing prints and made suggestions on how to approach this.

Looking back, I realised that those years were the most formative and have been informing my practice the most, even without my doing many prints myself at the time. I came to find I had developed, maybe even without being aware, an analytical approach, similar to a lithographer who makes the films for offset and does, or did, the colour separations. All this surely played an important role in my approach with students, as Head of Photographic Media at the Rijksakademie, and later as Head of Print in the Fine Art Media Department at the Slade.

Much of my work has focused on the image and what it consists of, almost in a Brechtian sense. Most of my work is based on found footage or printed matter.

Skype 2
Conversation with Klaas in 2017 – an act of virtual domestic relay across the ether.


[question]Printmaking is also interesting because, even before photography, it was the medium used for reproduction. From news to pornography to books or art, the history of printmaking is a mixed bag. I think one of my strongest memories of studying with you at the Rijksakademie was that our studio conversations would weave together art, popular culture, and media theory. I often thought that was the legacy of your printmaking background, which brings me to another aspect of your teaching, which is the presence and importance of theory. You’re someone who is constantly reading. You often photocopied texts for us or gave recommended readings. And it was at a time, in the early nineties, when there was an anti-intellectual stance within the arts in the Netherlands. In fact, theory would not have been a part of the curriculum at any art school—this was quite different than, for example, in the UK or the US. What are your thoughts about theory within the art school? Of course, now in the present, Dutch art schools are at another juncture. In most, art history has been phased out and replaced with cultural studies and its legacies—media studies, gender studies, post-colonial studies etc. If you were designing an art school, what theory curriculum would you implement? And what would be your approach?[/question]

My approach has been informed through my various experiences in art education. I have had the privilege of co-designing the Fine Art Master course at HKU, MaHKU, having taught there since 1988; I worked with bachelor students there across the years. Since 1998 I’ve been teaching at the Slade in the MA Fine Art, Fine Art Media Department. Also, my experiences at the Rijksakademie played a role in formulating ideas about what a curriculum, and the place of theory in it, should look like.

On the one hand, I noticed during conversations at all those various places that some students were very vocal with a lot of language at their disposal. But the work didn’t always measure up to the language and concepts they were speaking about. Often it was used to legitimize the work. On the other hand, I would find students, admittedly mostly Dutch, who would literally say, “If I could say it, I would not be painting it.” Yes, usually, they were painters.

But in my classes, I found it important that all the students not only read, write, and inform themselves but also participate in and contribute to the discussions and discourses going on around them. So, I first presented them with a variety of readings. I began with artists’ texts to show them that writing was not alien to artists. It’s not only the so-called “literate” people who were writing and talking. Next, I would show them texts by critics and other writers about art and culture, and then later made connections with philosophers’ writings about art and culture.

The texts I gave students were challenging but never meant to subjugate, or, as Walter Benjamin, when speaking about education more aptly phrased, they were not about “intellectual humiliation.” The most important thing for me was to encourage them to read and write and, moreover, stimulate them to go on to challenge themselves, their work, and their thinking.

In my opinion, for artists, the work should always be leading the way. The writers that influenced me most were Paul Valery and Walter Benjamin; all the others were understood and digested following the clues they offered me. Reading them and many others enabled me to see and understand things in my work. Conversely, doing my work gave me the capacity to better understand the things I was reading.

[question]And this intimacy of reading is what you brought into your teaching?[/question]

Yes, since we wrote the curriculum for MaHKU ourselves, we could also adapt it to the needs of the times and of the students when needed—they came from a wide variety of backgrounds and all parts of the world. Each of us had a different but interrelated approach. For my own seminar, I started with a close reading of Arjen Mulder’s Understanding Media Theory. I wanted to establish a common ground and understanding of concepts and language amongst the group, with which we could discuss their work. Later, I continued with Boris Groys’ Art Documentation in the Age of Biopolitics and Post Production by Nicolas Bourriaud.

I would always identify myself as an artist with reading glasses—my perspective would be from the practitioner’s perspective. I could do these things knowing my colleagues Henk Slager, Annette Balkema, and Dominiek Ruyter would approach theory differently and complement what I was covering. My aim was always to introduce the students to the different ways of writing about and around art and offer them tools to look at or read their own work. I wanted to stimulate them to start writing themselves and discover that writing is not just about legitimising work, but a practice too, and a means of thinking. Like the Belgian poet, Herman de Coninck says, “I would like to write about the Phenomenology of Tears, not because I understand anything about it, but because I want to learn to understand it. Writing is not about making announcements.”

[question] I’ve witnessed similar phobias with my students when it comes to writing. To be honest, I can’t blame them for having that anxiety. They don’t get too many examples of positive interactions between theoreticians and artists, where the former are equally vulnerable in discussing their work as a form of speculation. [/question]

I have become very disappointed over the years by the absence of dialogue between practitioners and theoreticians in all areas of academia, but specifically in and around art. There were very few people like Heinz Paetzold ((Heinz Paetzold was a German philosopher who headed the Theory Department at the Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht when it was under the direction of graphic designer Jan van Toorn.)) who could communicate with both sides. Again, it is usually those with a lot of language at their disposal who continue to do the talking and maybe impress many young artists. But at the same time, these same people cannot see or even read an image. I think more and more that visual art has become rarer; a lot of work is linguistically-driven and therefore easily lands in language instead of challenging language (which I prefer), producing the need to come up with a different language and vocabulary. That is where I prefer art to operate—to challenge our understanding of things and challenge language to enable us, in the end, to try and make sense of things.

[question] I often find that we underestimate the impact of physical learning environments. You walk into a room, and a stage is set, which establishes hierarchies, modes of production and reception, and ways of interacting. I’m thinking here of Michel de Certeau’s ideas about “space as a practiced place.” In terms of art education, it brings up images of Buckminster Fuller constructing geodesic domes out on the lawn with students at the Black Mountain College.Fuller
Or Joseph Beuys speaking before his chalkboards filled with notes and diagrams.
Or Sister Corita Kent teaching serigraphy in her workshop at Immaculate Heart.Corita
What are your thoughts on the space of education and how it influences or constructs learning?[/question]

Since the 1960s, we supposedly live in a post-studio situation, according to different theorists. Therefore, assuming that the students need to have an individual studio is highly influential in shaping artists. In my opinion, this is highly underestimated in relation to the policy-making and ethos of art schools—the idea of individuals with their “own” working space instead of a collaborative working space, or vice versa. One form enhances the belief in the individual artist and relegates collaborative activities to group tutorials and seminars, and the other, privileges the collective. The Slade was a space of desks and laptops, and hardly any work was visible. At the Rijksakademie, it was the opposite. Each has its own dynamic and related consequences.

Some of the great spaces for teaching and exchanging ideas are the workshops, the lawn, the bar, or other incidental spaces. Schools are fantastic places to teach, but not necessarily only in one-hour tutorials in their studios. I have done whole day tutorials, silent tutorials, airport tutorials, and all sorts of other experiments.

We were expected to have a group tutorial with our students, usually a group of eight to ten, a couple of times each term. A long time ago, I suggested the students in my tutorial group had to come up with a place to travel to and to visit. The only restrictions were that it had to be within one day’s travel and affordable to all. Most students considered these trips afterwards among the best days during their studies. We would talk on trains, buses, and tubes, and in bars, or on the beach forever, but without the work of one of them being up for critique. This affected the atmosphere in the groups in a very positive way and also enabled them to talk more freely about each other’s work during critiques. We went to Smithfield Market at five o’clock in the morning, the BBC studios, the Mass Observation Archive, Hampton Court, Brighton, Oxford, and many other places.

Together with Bruce McLean, I set up Breakfast at the Slade with the idea that most students and staff came in at 10.00 and the school was empty until then—very underused. The idea was to invite people we were interested in to have breakfast with us in the school each Thursday I was in, every other week, between 08.00 and 10.00.

Our first guest was Cedric Price because he initially inspired me with the idea of breakfast. I heard he was having lunch once a week with someone who was politically at the other end of the spectrum, and I thought that was such a brilliant idea. The other reason came from the exhibition and catalogue Cities on the Move by Rem Koolhaas and Hou Hanrou in the Hayward. In the catalogue, Koolhaas writes that he went to study in London because of Cedric Price and Peter Cook teaching there. I wanted to invite Koolhaas and thought it would be good to first invite Cedric Price and Peter Cook.

At the end of each Breakfast, I would always ask our guest two questions: Why did you accept the invitation, and who would you suggest for the next session? The reasons they accepted the invitation were usually twofold: their agendas were rather empty between 08.00 and 10.00, and they were curious about us. They didn’t have to do anything or prepare. They would just have breakfast, and the conversation would develop. Also, it is important to say that we could not and did not pay them to come. If you pay well, you can get almost everybody. They came out of interest, which I think I value the most.

Price suggested Marcy Kahan, a playwright because he liked her style. She, in turn, suggested Alan Rickman, who only came a year and a half later because our diaries didn’t overlap until then. Next to that, Bruce and I would suggest to each other who to invite. We had Rupert Sheldrake, Will Alsop, David Winner, Lutz Becker, Alexi Sayle, Jonathan Meades, Will Gompertz, Mel Gooding, Rick van der Ploeg, Boris Johnson, Richard Sennett, and many others. When Alan Rickman came, funnily enough, he didn’t even talk about playing in Harry Potter. Instead, how art school influenced him (Rickman went to Chelsea and studied graphic design, but then became an actor and director). That aspect is often overlooked when art schools are being measured in terms of what they teach because the measures are different and exclusionary.

But sometimes we also didn’t have guests. It would be Gary Woodley, Bruce, and me, with a couple of the students having very animated conversations and planning all sorts of subversive actions. We would never advertise who was coming; people had to find out for themselves by being a regular or asking us. We did not want people only showing up when we would have a well-known guest. After a while, people would almost compete over who would bake the best cakes, and others would bring stuff to eat and drink. It was a very generous, convivial thing.

These gatherings, amongst many other things, resulted in outings to Athens, Crete, and other places and were the most precious days I spent in any art school anywhere, and many of the students who were regulars agreed. You can do fantastic things in art schools besides teaching or doing tutorials.

When Bruce McLean and I were still teaching or advising at the Rijksakademie, we organised three workshops. The first on “print,” the second on what we advertised as “video,” but when we actually met the students, we told them we were RATV, a television station. We told them that it was forbidden to make a video, but they had to do TV instead.

At the end of the day, we would look at what the different groups had produced. Then the next day, another group responded to the first. It was a kind of relay back and forth that was fantastic and hilarious. The third and last workshop we did was also during the weekend because the school was mostly empty and we could do and use whatever we wanted. We all agreed on making a remake of “Le Mepris” by Jean Luc Godard. People split into groups on Friday or started making stuff on their own. At the end of that day, we would look at the rushes in the auditorium and continue filming there too, and the same happened on Saturday and Sunday. We had lunch and dinner in the auditorium or editing suites. There was no hierarchy between us. We were all artists doing something around a fantastic film and motivated by a vague idea. In the end, we had twenty-four hours of film, mostly still unedited, but it was fantastic to look at. Such days were my favourite and the best way to spend my time in art school. There was a sense that we were all in it together and learning from each other.

The last year at the Slade, we had a fantastic group of students, and I wanted to try something different. In a small introduction, I questioned why we take so many things for granted, such as furniture, space and its layout, etc. I suggested we would start by making our own furniture for our own studio space as a beginning, and next would be the locker, table, and so on. I wanted to point attention to the fact that we could potentially, beginning with the furniture, change the whole school. I showed a video about Enzo Mari from Artek. He speaks about his experience, and specifically about his Autoprogettazione, or DIY furniture. Imagine an art school where all the students made their own chair and table or easel as a start.

We did this for a whole day Breakfast and had a fantastic day of discussions, drinks, and entertainment, and some great chairs were produced.

It’s important to acknowledge that I never had to transform these activities into a formalised curriculum, and I didn’t have to justify my working hours or time at the academy. We insisted that these activities remain extracurricular from the start. We all kept a degree of independence and could do whatever we wanted to do. Everyone was present at these meetings. I did not own it as such—or perhaps we all owned it. Gary Woodley, Bruce McLean, and I were always there with whoever showed up at 08.00 on Thursday morning. We were there like anybody else, steering the process together.

[question] One of the things that strikes me about what you’re describing is that it is conversational, responsive, and dynamic, which means you don’t have total control over outcomes. One has to think provisionally and embrace the contingent. But, more and more, within art academies, and all education for that matter, we are facing pressures to create predictable results, define learning outcomes in advance, and assess students on set criteria. What are your thoughts about this shift?

By the way, as I’m asking this, I’m reminded that I spent the first year at the Rijsakademie completely lost tossing tennis balls across my studio floor. You said to me: “Why make anything? What if you did nothing?” That was such a confronting but important question to ask. Months passed before finding my way. [/question]

In my opinion, teaching art is about educating students to become autodidacts. You teach them to learn from and for themselves and to understand what they want to do. This is an on-going quest. Each work you do informs you, and so on, and so on; it is a never-ending cycle of search and research.

[question] You seem to be speaking about a very fluid process that is internally driven, but often art academies are pressured to create checkpoints and external validation measures. [/question]

I am very worried about a certain way of thinking about art education only in relation to learning outcomes etc. I have often at conferences expressed my fear about the rule that only with an MA can you teach BA, and only with a PhD can you teach within a master’s program. The MA for BA I can understand, but in the given context, both in the Netherlands and the UK, only a few people have the stamina and funding to pursue a PhD. And they are not representative of art in general, especially since doctoral studies in the arts is relatively new. Now, I could never have been teaching at the Slade since I don’t even have a BA, but just a diploma from the Rietveld Academie. It was a different system then.

What worries me most is that we, as artists, are letting this happen. We are caught in validation procedures, and they have an enormous effect on how we talk about art education. Before we know it, we talk like administrators about the subject we love and care about so much. We are forced to define what we do in a vocabulary and set of terms or conditions that gradually transforms the subject. Now you can have very good students who are not artists but who nonetheless, according to the assessment criteria, might even deserve a diploma with distinction.

I always thought if we expect our students to challenge things, we as tutors should also challenge our ways of teaching. For instance, after a while, I offered the students the possibility to book half or all-day tutorials instead of the usual one-hour tutorials. I have done airport tutorials. If you think about the texts written about artists jet-setting here and there, then wouldn’t it be interesting to do tutorials at airports? So we travelled to Heathrow or other airports and had tutorials there. I also did five-minute tutorials, which I have to admit were much more difficult than the all-day tutorials—time and space matter in art education.

[question] I want to come back to theory again. You have taught in the Dutch and English education systems, and you hinted earlier at a kind of crucial difference in the educational models. [/question]

In reflecting on the place of theory in the curriculum, which we were thinking about at HKU in the master’s program, we had to ask a fundamental question. Why would we have theory in the curriculum? It starts with that basic question. In my view, it’s so that you familiarise yourself with the language or concepts surrounding your work. Ideally, that enables you to locate what you do in a broader field. It’s a means of finding an affinity with the thinking of others, and it’s a way of challenging your thinking through others.

Klaas touring me through highlights from his bookshelves.

In Utrecht, we worked with small groups and could adapt what we were reading accordingly, meaning in relation to their work. Not only the staff proposed texts, but the students also proposed texts, and some were not in my scope, which means I learned too. Although it is certainly changing, theory was not a part of the Dutch art curriculum until relatively recently—by that, I mean the past ten to fifteen years, which is historically a short period.

But at the Slade, it was sometimes the opposite. Discourse was high, but the relation to the work was not necessarily evident. I don’t mean that in an illustrative way, but to come back to this idea I mentioned earlier, that theory allowed me to see certain things in my work, and vice versa, my work gave me a grasp on certain theoretical works.

So in the Anglo-Saxon model, sometimes the practical approach was missing, meaning, thinking through what you actually make and do.

[question] It’s interesting you say that because I was educated in an Anglo-Saxon model, where the verbal, or maybe more explicitly, reading and writing were integrated into my education. But sometimes the discursive became the dominant driver, and at times, I’ve envied my Dutch colleagues who immersed themselves in making. They learned from doing. I guess that’s the gift of working in other cultures and frameworks—seeing how things can be approached differently and the affordances of what each educational model has to offer. [/question]

For me, these perspectives are like two lighthouses, which illuminate each other. And I’ve taught in contexts where there is a mix between both the Continental and Anglo-Saxon models. The Rijksakademie was one of those places bringing different cultural paradigms together. It was one of the first places I noticed a kind of disparity between approaches because we had students from across Europe. Often students from the UK were more versed in theory and fluent in English. They quickly took over the conversations—not because they were trying to dominate, but because they were equipped to verbalise thoughts. I wanted Dutch students to be able to do this while at the same time resisting the idea that works should fit into theory or be an illustration of theory. Again it comes back to establishing a dynamic relationship.

It’s about tapping into something fundamental—someone’s curiosity and fascination. It’s the theory of closely listening, making, reading, looking, and being transformed by these encounters—this is actually a kind of chemistry. Sometimes we pick elements that resonate, and they trigger and inspire us. They provide a new way of looking and understanding. Since 1972, I could see these things influencing my work. The most relevant books I’ve read have changed the way I think about what I do. ((While saying this, Klaas picks up his computer and with his internal camera shows me all the books surrounding him—they are wall to wall.)) Of course, this has something to do with the interpretation or even misinterpretation of these works. It might mean I distort Derrida, Benjamin, Valery, or Brecht’s work because it’s not about them but what their works and thoughts do to me. Their writings introduce a new language into my work, which informs my way of looking at it. I go over their works, again and again, acquiring with each reading another understanding.

More from Klaas’s bookshelves.

And with all this reading and thinking, I also think it’s important to value a degree of stupidity or not knowing. It’s important to emphasise that there are many ways of learning—all in parallel. I did a work that I thought was such a stupid thing, and then I decided to have it framed in cherry wood, something quite precious in terms of material. When I got it back, I felt it was the best thing I’d done in ages. It was of a slide projector screen. In English, you say “to execute a work,” it has a nice connotation—to do and to kill. And that’s what happened with this piece—it was both.

[question] It’s the incidental that unexpectedly becomes the main course. [/question]

Yes, and within the art school, seemingly unimportant events are sometimes the most significant. Those encounters you have in the hallway, over a beer or casual conversations that seem minor or are seemingly inconsequential are actually at the core. The most important connections you make are with your peers. I can certainly say that friendships formed around Breakfast infiltrated the studio, but also my thinking. In each space, there were different discussions. Those friendships lasted beyond any period of study or degree.

[question] I agree. The friends I made at the Rijksakademie, Jan van Eyck and places I currently teach remain indispensable. They are a part of my mental fabric and challenge and support my thinking. In this way, I think the arts have an incredible culture of peer review and peer learning—we’re always looking at each other’s work.[/question]

At the same time, we can be isolated and need to reach out. While at the Slade, I asked myself: What does it mean to teach at a place where you are in the context of a larger university? I wanted to think through this idea that while the universe is expanding, the university seems to be shrinking. We all retreat to our small corners due to various reasons—a lack of time and resources. I wondered how we could map this knowledge across borders, resist this shrinkage, and truly get to know each other across disciplines and share knowledge.

So, when I organized a symposium on drawing, I really wanted to reach out to other disciplines, to focus on what we might have in common. I literally knocked on doors asking, “Would you use images within your field, and how would you use them?” I’m interested in how knowledge is produced, disseminated, and visualised. But I hit the very practical issue of the fact that they were all very limited in time. But eventually, I spoke to one scientist about cells and tissues, and he was very receptive. He said he had students look through an electron-microscope and asked them to draw what they saw. I asked whether what they saw informed the drawing or vice versa—in other words, how did the act of drawing and seeing inform their understanding. He was a great dialogue partner because he was familiar and sympathetic to the arts. Eventually, I was invited to participate in a conference on Research as Art Image and Art Image as Research.

To come back to the map, I wanted to plot a universe that began with astrophysicists and went on to include artists and designers. I did interviews with, amongst others, Jan Van Toorn, Jurgen Bey, and Joke Robaard. Then we had a conversation about making this map, which was, of course, an excuse to talk about something else. And when we spoke, I would always ask: “Who would you bring to the table to make this map?” Such an approach is productive, even though often there is hardly any time for these exchanges—to let things unfold. Through that mapping and drawing, I wanted to create a common language across disciplines. I wanted to acknowledge art and its methodologies rather than having traditional academic methodologies imposed on art.

In a way, it reminds me of something I once read somewhere that said a consultant is someone who steals your watch and then tells you what time it is for a lot of money. Within the art school, artists often forget they have their own research skills—in other words, they have the watch and keep their own time. Sometimes we lose sight of our own work, knowledge, and rich histories, yet that’s truly what drives art schools. It is central to who we are, what we do, and, moreover, what we can potentially achieve.

Klaas Hoek, illustration Cesare Davolio