Ways of Learning at Grand Union

Ways of Learning is three-month exhibition and events programme at Grand Union gallery in Birmingham, England, focusing on non-formalised means of sharing knowledge. Co-programmed by Grand Union and curator-in-residence Lucy Lopez, and featuring Uriel Orlow, Mujeres Públicas, Alex Martinis Roe, Intervention Architecture, it includes ongoing or single works by Sean Burns, Cooking Sections, Kirsty Clarke, Juliet Jacques, Huw Lemmey, Cathy Wade, among others. Given the expectations for accountability and instrumentalization by the sort of ‘marketized’ education that the exhibition openly situates itself against, especially important here are the anecdotal, informal and communal ways of knowing rooted within feminism, inter-generational alliances, indigenous knowledge, and forms of solidarity and allegiance that intersect with queer culture. It is not incidental then that at the same time as growing question as to the now habitual role and kind of education that art galleries and museums can provide (usually that they can teach non-artists about how the world really is), that the pedagogical model foregrounded here is ways of learning.

Ways of Learning, curated with Lucy Lopez, featuring work by Alex Martinis Roe, Uriel Orlow and Mujeres Públicas, 2018. Courtesy: Grand Union; photo: Patrick Dandy

This reflexive, or rather, less pre-formed, approach to the sharing and building of knowledge and skills begins with the exhibition’s striking support structures. The modular and interlocking plywood structure, designed by Birmingham-based Intervention Architecture, is for most of the exhibition arranged into two curved walls that support the video projections and continue into two semi-circles of seating to form a pair of temporary classrooms. An overall effect of visual and aural softening is created by sheets of pink upholstery foam fitted into the gaps created by the structures’ repeating box construction. These shelter-like spaces are also rearranged for larger talks or groups. The modular, re-constructible approach continues in the rest of the space with self-assembly tables used for a slowly-accumulating radical education library or lunches, as well as a working kitchen, given equal presence in the space and used by Cooking Sections and Kirsty Clarke, or by anyone in the space wanting to make refreshments, as offered by gallery staff. This careful consideration of the needs of use over display, sets up the exhibition for various explorations of what the sites and activities of learning might entail, while clearly re-articulating the politics of ‘domesticized’ spaces such as the kitchen (and of course actual teaching) at the heart of these questions.

Ways of Learning, curated with Lucy Lopez, featuring work by Alex Martinis Roe, Uriel Orlow and Mujeres Públicas, 2018. Courtesy: Grand Union; photo: Patrick Dandy

Of the three installed works, the two chapters of Alex Martinis Roe’s film project To Become Two (2014–2017) shown here — Our Future Network (2016) and For the joy of being together, they didn’t have to agree (2016) — most clearly follow this approach of direct re-imagining. One part of a long-running experimentation and research project into the work of various feminist collectives, Our Future Network sees various participants of a feminist collective brought together by Roe discuss and enact a series of propositions that aim to challenge existing social structures. Even though these model scenarios, such as the shaping of personal ethical boundaries around what could be refused at work, are shown relatively briefly one after the other, the film’s length of over an hour implies that a more lived duration is key to any depth that might be necessary to enact them.

When Roe’s films were first shown in Amsterdam in 2016 at an event hosted by the Dutch Art Institute and the film’s co-commissioners, If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want to Be Part of Your Revolution, the relatively hermetic nature of the collective and its constituency was raised to counter the seemingly exemplary form its propositions took. In Ways of Learning, Uriel Orlow, showing two chapters from his Theatrum Botanicum project, Muthi (2016–2017) and The Crown Against Mafavuke (2016) provides a constructive counterpoint to the constraints of Roe’s communal experiment. Both films focus on how colonial power has been exerted through limits and enclosures of medicinal knowledge. Muthi, named after the term for traditional practice of medicine in South Africa contrasts scenes from the shops and foraging of small-scale healers with industrial farms and factories producing much the same products at vastly increased scales. In a revealing scene, workers in the latter are tasked with repeatedly and obsessively cleaning bottles of product before its sale.

Muthi sets the scene for The Crown Against Mafavuke, a dramatized restaging of the 1940 trial of Mafavuke Ngcobo, a South African herbalist accused of replicating and selling European medicines. White pharmaceutical ‘experts’ and lawyers question black witnesses and co-workers as they seek to show Mafavuke has broached the boundaries what was considered the limits of traditional medicine — and to which it is implied is all he is entitled to. In a cutaway the actor playing Mafavuke speaks to camera: the white man tells him where the beginning and end of his practice and its development should be while bringing and cultivating his own plants and medicines for sale in South Africa, the real problem he says, “is that he is too successful.” As if to underscore the double standards at work, the same white actor plays both colonialist prosecution and liberal defence lawyers, the character changing jackets doing little to alter who is ultimately deciding where those limits lie. Likewise, whereas white characters parse the categories of patents and knowledges, black characters, also played by the same actor, are asked to articulate the infraction of these categories against the whites’ idea of a stable and unchanging local practice.

Ways of Learning, curated with Lucy Lopez, featuring work by Alex Martinis Roe, Uriel Orlow and Mujeres Públicas, 2018. Courtesy: Grand Union; photo: Patrick Dandy

Making a similar point as to the ambivalence of the located and partial formation of social norms — if with the forcefulness necessitated by the omnipresent violence faced by its members — Mujeres Públicas’s series of public-educational posters bluntly re-iterate the basic dynamics of sexualized assault alongside the dominance of these behaviours as expressed by many of the West’s most revered male figures. The posters are used by the group both as protest and as the basis for workshops about issues facing women-identifying people in Buenos Aires; and they will also be used in Birmingham for Ways of Learning, to similar effect, but with this relocation in mind. The laziness and misogyny expressed by keystones of the Western philosophical tradition including Charles Darwin, St. Thomas Aquinas, or Pythagoras, is translated here as a powerful reminder of the entrenchment of both the speakers’ sentiments and the history of its acceptance. For instance, in the view of Albert Einstein (which is only worth repeating here to reinforce the posters’ point): “women are where they belong. Millions of years of evolution cannot be wrong, and nature has the ability to correct its own mistakes.” If the simplicity of this expositional gesture contrast with the more ‘complex’ discursive explorations in the other works, these works serve to both further ground that discourse in lived experience, but crucially, to show as well as this how that ground is differentiated depending on where you stand.

It would not be enough to say that Ways of Learning uses art to fill in the ever-widening gaps left by state-led education, however. In May 2018, a symposium, “From Critical Studies to Public Programming: Public Knowledge at the Post-Democratic Impasse,” was held at Goldsmiths, University of London to map the shared legacy between critical studies programmes developed alongside studio art practice in Higher Education and public programmes in galleries. Enlivening this debate — and adding to the mix the affinities, alliances, methods, durations and hospitality and of that which either exceeds or has been excluded from the gallery or higher educational spaces — Ways of Learning could perhaps be viewed not as an exhibition, but through its events as a curriculum.

Certainly this could be felt in one of the events that I attended, “Navigating Spaces Switching Locations.” Presented by Teresa Cisneros and b.Dewitt gallery, and moderated by writer, Ama Josephine Budge, the discussion considered the double edge of ‘passing’ in the art world as a person of colour, while also seeking to extrude through this structures and practices of self-identification. Beginning from the experience of the participants as they navigated the expectations that their identity-positions be legible within the art world, the conversation quickly moved towards framing this as a practice of care, emphasising that this cannot be reduced to an issue of representation. In so doing the discussion,which quickly spilled out to audience-members, brought into sharp focus not only the existing imaginaries and knowledges created, distributed and made accessible by the exhibition and education models of the art world, but also presented the organisation itself (and others like it) with a moment in which it could or should learn.

Backgrounded by Budge’s interest in science fiction — reflecting the both speculative and actual — the event both made clear the need to build infrastructures of access, while also shaping and creating the contours and connections which would substantiate that support itself. As one participant described, there is a shift towards making these spaces, not just accepting a ‘seat at the table.’ For Budge, this reflected a sort of ‘abundance thinking,’ that is, resisting the narrative of scarcity — often presented by those who also present themselves as the gatekeepers to the need scarcity creates — and that the group already had many more tangible and social resources already available to it. For the panel, this also had the important effect of de-centring the gallery. Indeed one of the standout propositions was made by producer Amahra Spence, who discussed her attempts to start an affordable artist hotel, making it possible for often marginalised young producers to both travel and feel safe doing so.

Ways of Learning, curated with Lucy Lopez, featuring work by Alex Martinis Roe, Uriel Orlow and Mujeres Públicas, 2018. Courtesy: Grand Union; photo: Patrick Dandy

From this perspective then, the customizable, modular architecture and resources offered by the exhibition seemed to offer more than an update to the cannon of what counts as or should be counted as the concern of critical education. One could draw a line to other exhibitions by the co-curator Lucy Lopez, which have articulated their concept through built or structured means, including Instituting for the Contemporary, at BAK, 2016, or her work with the display-structure driven Eastside Projects. More interestingly however, is how practices of staging, which in those organisation’s practices might be best thought of as experiments in exhibition-making, here the question of pedagogy around the accessibility and distribution of resources and the constituency this creates is positioned as a form of education in itself.

Questioning the presentational and pedagogical roles of the gallery in this way, Ways of Learning re-stages the movement between the personal study of art works or texts and the formative possibilities of group learning. And if this is held in place by the careful consideration of the architectural space as one requiring the robustness of a multi-subject ‘classroom,’ the exhibition’s willingness to be guided by what specifically is to be learned from its participants, keeps at bay the historically troubled and contested role of the institution as the educator. Personal study is a useful tool, but perhaps a better one now is how the institution is exploited to, in the words of Teresa Cisneros, platform those groups who have been ignored by the dominant cultural imaginaries — most often people of colour, queer communities and women — to engage with the building an educational collectivity as a way of learning itself.

Like this, the exhibition has served as a starting point for a number of continuing discussions including the Queer Conditions reading group; a long-term collaboration with Cooking Sections to research the food ecologies and related politics of the local area in Digbeth; and Huw Lemmey, Juliet Jacques and Cathy Wade will all contributing new writing which won’t materialise until the end of the project. Similarly, these discussions have created and reinforced both new and existing relationships with local members of crisis, interfaith youth groups, such as Digbeth Community Garden, SHOUT Festival for Queer Arts and Culture, and the LGBTQ+ community; relationships which will likely be key to Grand Union’s future plans for expansion at the nearby Junction Works.

To return to the central message of Orlow’s film: culture neither pre-exists nor stays still; nor should it be made to. While it is a resource, if the gallery space is to be truly pedagogically radical, then it cannot rely on the pre-existence of the correct cultural references that it can then share with others. Ways of Learning suggests that it must participate as one organizational constellation among others. That this is difficult and fraught with power imbalances, dis-trust, and paternalistic agendas is obvious: and nothing spontaneously appears in the gallery. If this programme comes at a time when the ever-present difficulty for community-specific art spaces to exist as resources become more leveraged, and less of a priority for the UK government, Ways of Learning, points at the increasing consideration given to the creation of platforms and structures that support and sustain cultural imaginaries — not only critiquing those which deserve it, but actively re-distributing the relationship between collectivity and the institutions that create them— and with it how to change them.


(Editor’s note: The author worked with Lopez during 2016 and 2017 at BAK, Utrecht, NL.)