Questioning the Alternative

A conversation between Huda Zikry and Amr Amer

The following text contains excerpts from an ongoing dialogue on evaluating our educational practices in an attempt to understand their points of weakness. We begin with a simplified model of a contemporary arts educational program, whether through experiences we have encountered or worked on. And through this concept we try to determine: What do these programs consist of? What are their objectives and how do they work towards them? And how can the success or failure of its endeavors be acknowledged? Through this model, we attempt to dismantle some of the points that we see as problematic in the idea of an alternative educational program. We try to come up with tentative proposals for scenarios through which we can bypass this narrow structure, hoping for a more comfortable space and a more flexible structure that allows the transfer and exchange of knowledge that we actually need.

I will depart from the educational structure that we're discussing, which is lies outside the Art Academy and engages with contemporary art practices. Regardless of its forms, I imagine that it would be possible to simplify the structure of the program. It takes place over a specified period in which the participants dedicate their time, and are exposed extensively to a body of knowledge that is supposed to be tailored to their needs. The objective is to be more properly equipped to face the requirements of the art scene. This "alternative" position appears through a set of choices, which may reflect its stance from formal education. This happens by moving towards a contemporary form of practice or by creating a learning environment based on participation and discussion in an attempt to avoid the classical form of a lecture. We can trace with relative ease the problems that arise in such an endeavor, like falling in the trap of reproducing formal educational patterns but with different content, or the pressure resulting from having to produce a final product that summarizes the experience. Finally, another factor is the loss of communication between the program organizers and the participants, which leads to the absence of any common objective. The program, thus, turns into a lengthy task where each party tries to gain any benefit from it.

Huda Zikry: I want to start with keywords that can help us discuss the educational programs and what they produce. What is the point through which we can begin to understand this practice?

Amr Amer: To simplify, I think that the program can be summarized in structure, style, objective, location and results. We will admit that the general formal feature in most programs is to take some time and try to achieve some form of dedication and intensification. The next point for me will be to question the objectives of these programs and how they seek to realize them.

Amr: For short-term goals, the process of intensification depends most of the time on the conclusion of the program with an final product, regardless of its nature. This correlation makes the outcome much anticipated, which makes the whole process monitered in a way. This product —which is a requirement from support and funding resources— brings us back to how problematic is the relationship between formal education and the exam. What does an exam actually prove? The question here becomes: why do we need a final product? The most simple answer is to measure the extent to which participants benefit from a program. If we suppose, however, that we can measure benefit in this way, why do we even need to prove it to the world? What happens if this benefit isn’t realized in a measurable way? I think we're moving in a way towards commodification. I believe that considering education as a process of social change contradicts with how a program is put up as a commodity that provides guaranteed results, or how its beneficiaries are put up as a commodity that can perform the role of an established artist.

These inconsistencies almost call into question the entire process. This is what I personally face and I don’t see a direct solution to it. Perhaps to come close to a solution means we have to reconsider our concept of the final product. Even having to show experiments at their various stages may turn into a meaningless performative act. Maybe if we keep asking the question of the actual feasibility, it will allow the program space for honest assessment of its impact, beyond the way it presents itself.

Huda: The issue of the final product also puts us in direct confrontation with the factor of time. A program with a limited timeframe eliminates the idea of the time one may need to grasp the knowledge gained and to engage with it in an proper way.

Amr: Of course. This also brings me back to the critique of exam-based education, because passing an exam doesn’t necessarily mean anything in the long run. The second point is the long-term goals and the discourse we use when we approach them.

I see a great contradiction in our approach to the educational program that creates a difference in the art scene, whilst our practice implicitly seeks to bypass the local art scene entirely. If the objective is to push participants towards the global art context, why use the discourse of developing the local art scene? The discourse here becomes more directed to the funders than to the participants or the local art scene. Consequently, the program's objectives change from meeting the artist's needs to meeting the institutions' requirements. My question here is, can educational programs be only based on the what the institution requires from the artist? Probably. I believe, however, that the possibilities of alternative education should aspire to realize more than the individual benefit of a limited group of people.

Huda: There is a relationship between the contradiction of this discourse, and the educational program that was designed based on studying the needs of the participants. This is an extremely difficult point in my opinion, because there are problems that are very clear and self-evident. Sometimes just the mention of them suggests that there is research, an awareness of these problems and a way towards solving them. Though in truth that is not the case, which gives the general impression of repetition and redundancy, without any return in real life.

Amr: With real objectives and motivations for an educational practice, repetition automatically disappears. That is because the proposal is usually very generic and therefore void of any clear objectives. The intuition here emphasizes the complete lack of awareness of the problems we face, which is something that organizers and participants have in common. If I were to design a program with main motive that stem from filling the shortage in the production from artists, I would have to ask myself: Is this the goal of the educational process? I imagine that if I took a different stance from education, and considered that it could develop awareness rather than production, I could achieve both.

Huda: This takes us to the next question, which addresses the position/stance. There is a lot of discussions about labels like ‘alternative’ and ‘parallel’, do you think these terms are necessary? Is it necessary to disclose and adopt them? Would it be enough to identify these positions implicitly by the set of choices each program makes?

Amr: In my opinion, the position and the stance can’t be separated from the objective. The importance of thinking about our positions and stances lie in the belief that the educational process has the potential to transcend short-term objectives. The objective is the way one expresses their position from things. If one’s position is against, for example, hierarchy in education, then they accordingly attempt to create a non-hierarchical form of education, design the program and measure the success of the experiment based on it.

Huda: Do you not see that there is a difference between the two scenarios: objecting to the authoritarian form of education or objecting to how universities depend on foreign curricula, on the other hand confronting the Egyptian educational institution or foreign cultural institutions. I mean that there is a difference between situations related to practices, and positions that are almost political.

Amr: In my opinion, these are two sides of the same coin. I generally believe that no objective related to an educational practice can be separated from one’s attitude to reality as a whole, and not just to the art scene. I think that just being in contact with this issue, puts one in a political debate and discussions related to how one views the artist's role in society. The education process is political in nature. Part of the problem with structuring these programs is seeing things through a narrow lens that doesn’t see the education process as a social practice that focuses primarily on art.

Amr: I think that the lack of this clear perception often doesn’t produce an educational process, as much as it produces an image of one. Throughout its production, we ignore the potential of education to bring about real change. We produce an image that achieves a surface-level contrast to the problems we see in the formal education system, but in essence it isn’t very different from it. In the sense that if what we offer differs differs in structure from what the Egyptian Academ offers, it still remains to be similar to what is being presented in other academies (and perhaps in even lower quality editions than that). So if an academy of contemporary arts, let's say  was established and offered a different curriculum, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it is criticizing the formal education process in any way. This brings me back to the question of the objective of the programs we produce. It also makes me think about the problem bubble—or what we perceive as the root of the problem—and how we get busy trying to solve it, when the truth is much more complex than that.

The most difficult equation will be achieved, if the organizers of the program can highlight and direct its real motivation, and try to push towards the sustainability of this collective form of knowledge exchange. Only then, will the process move spontaneously and we will get past the negative reception, or the organizational issues of not realizing the true needs of the participants. To move from the mere awareness of world art history and the attempts to keep up with it, to producing a discourse of our own. I mean here that we work towards producing our own voice, a voice that doesn’t ignore our context, history, and reality, and isn’t affiliated with “global” issues without a proper incentive. Finally, to develop together the sensitivity that allows us to choose the issues that concern us based on criticism, and real engagement and relevance with our contemporary times.

Huda: On the topic of our own voice and developing an understanding of the particularity of the reality around us, there is a part about being aware of the participants' needs and the local context. It includes a collective sense of uselessness, a lack of trust that allows space for the individual to share his/her ideas, or a lack of trust in the other that opens room for colaboration. Recognizing this type of communication failures can offer different solutions. I consider this to be one of the most important factors that must be taken into consideration when we think of creating educational spaces or any space for exchange.

Amr: The learning process can’t stop at the scientific material, because it requires a form of communication at large, especially in the contexts in which we deal with. I believe that the creation of communities is necessary, and it can’t be created without achieving communication between its members.

Amr: I think it is also possible to reconsider the relationships that arise in the educational context and try to change them. Rather than sticking to fixed roles for participants and lecturers, we can create more complex relationships that may bring about diverse forms of exchange. I don’t have a very clear concept, but I think the beginning can be to establish a common objective, then to form small groups of individuals. It doesn’t matter whether the group agrees on everything, except for the desire to create self-motivated circles of learning. It is possible to imagine circles of different generations and practices, each striving to build knowledge out of a real need. These circles can be envisaged to undoubtedly intersect, and that this intersection will create complex relationships and allow a unique and experimental exchange.

Huda: I imagine it is possible to treat collective learning as an essential part of our artistic practice. If we consider that we are obliged in any case to produce an accumulation of knowledge if we are to continue, we can imagine a collective form of this process. We need to, however, give it the same attention and commitment that we give to production processes and seeking support, without having to constantly prove its adequacy by presenting a product. I recall here a model such as the "Study" by Fred Motin and Stefano Harney, and the possibility of developing an educational practice in which individuals come together and decide what to learn.

Amr: I think that this is of course possible, and we don’t need to limit our thinking to spaces. Cafes, like the university outside school hours, serve as suitable space for teaching and learning if we want it to. Which brings me back to what I envisioned about the shape of circles and societies based on the dissemination and exchange of knowledge. The question however of how to achieve this vision remains. For me, I believe that whatever we bring up will take us back to discussing motives.

There is a lot to say about the problems and shortcomings of “programs”, but the idea of the setup itself is interesting. This allows us to imagine the possibility of reaching a point where one is ready to face situations. The truth is, we don’t really need to give it up entirely yet, but it must be constantly accompanied by the question of how to create a 'real' space for participation and discussion. Besides how it can develop into an educational process with the capacity for ideas from different contexts, that is able to produce knowledge, solutions and ideas within its context. Additionally, these solutions should be able to deal with the needs and hopes of the community, with the same seriousness as it deals with the needs of technical and theoretical knowledge. Finally, there has to be a real critique of the situation, far from being overwhelmed by the sense of the futility of the development, a critique that can provide a real understanding on which we build various perceptions.

How can this space be created without the organizers’ developing a true knowledge and full awareness of what they are facing? How can this accumulated knowledge be created without failed attempts that lead to continuous revisions of objectives and mechanisms? It is easy to imagine that the structure of a program can fill all the gaps, but upon experience you discover how far your perceptions are from the truth. It is relatively easy to make a basic and intuitive critique of a model of a program, and build upon it other ideal models that solve its problems. Nevertheless, it won’t be able to achieve anything without being constantly tested and adapted, which allows it to reconsider its nature, location and impact.

Huda Zikry is a visual artist and researcher in art history, born in Cairo in 1993. She has studied painting at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Helwan University, where she received  bachelor’s degree in 2016, and is currently pursing a master’s degree from The Department of Art History within the same university. She joined StudioKhana for Contemporary Art and Cultural Development in 2016. Since then, she has worked on designing and facilitating three editions of the annual Student Council Program, and the culminating group exhibitions. She explore her interests in contemporary art history, art education, and translation, and hopes to develop a interdisciplinary practice that freely moves between translation as a method for learning and research, and between writing and text as a medium.

Amr Amer is an artist, designer and curator. He graduated from the Faculty of Specific Education and worked as an artist, designer, then art curator and project manager. Amer founded Studio Khana Contemporary Art Group in 2012, and in 2014 began working on the first session of the Student Council Program. His practices as an artist and art curator started from a research perspective that focused on analyzing the role of the artist, and the discourse processes within the artwork. His vision focused clearly on the intersections between educational practices and the social role of art.

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🇵🇸We Will Not Stand by in Silence:  ︎︎︎ Read the Statement & Add your Name to the Signatories🇵🇸 Read the latest text by Karim Kattan, At the Threshold of Humanity: Gaza is not an Abstraction  ✦  🇵🇸 Visit our page Resources for Palestine for a compilation of texts, films, podcasts, statements and ways to donate.