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Translated by Anna Knight

How do you make a class operate like a work of art?1
An Interview with Clovis Maillet

by Marie Bechetoille

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Marie Bechetoille:

Clovis Maillet, you’ve been working as an artist in a duo with Louise Hervé for around fifteen years and you’ve shown your work at many institutions in France and abroad, represented by the Galerie Marcelle Alix. You are also a researcher: you’ve written a thesis on medieval hagiographic kinship, you’ve done a post-doctorate diploma at the Musée du Quai Branly in 2015–2016, and you regularly publish articles in historical and anthropological journals. You started your duo with Louise Hervé during your studies: Louise was attending the École nationale supérieure d’arts de Paris-Cergy and you were studying History and Art History at university, with some classes at Cergy. How did that fuel your artistic practice?

Clovis Maillet:

Nowadays, many artists do tertiary studies. Some collaborate with academic researchers. They’re not (exactly) the same methods and above all, it’s not the same target. Disciplinary cannibalisms, in order to be fertile and allow emancipatory work on both sides, must first positively consider this very otherness itself. The attraction for university is not recent and dates from at least the 1950s, as Sandra Delacourt’s book shows.2 But art schools remain central to the development of future artists. We learn there, through practice, the artist’s profession and the design of exhibitions – which is more difficult at university owing to a lack of workshop space. I have my university degrees but no artistic degree whatsoever. The question of the artist-researcher was immediately obvious, because Louise and I only consider art through research methods, which we’d like to be rigorous, based on first-hand sources (archives, historical documents) and drawing on humour as a working tool.

MB:

You teach both the History and Theory of Art at the École Supérieure d’Art et Design in Angers (TALM) and Medieval History, first at the Université Paris-Diderot then at the Université Catholique de l’Ouest in Angers. How do you work with students at art school? What does this lecturer role bring you?

CM:

I have one foot in each institution. At art school, individual pedagogy, founded on the student’s project, allows you to guide them in a very personalised way. At university, you rigorously teach the method of shared, precise, and informed research. They’re two sides of the same coin, and the methods are almost opposites. Sometimes I make a transition between these two pedagogies, for instance by supervising a former student from the Angers school this year at master’s level at the EHESS, along with Pierre-Olivier Dittmar.
Art school is supposed to be the school of all possibilities, which sometimes tends to be a non-school. The dream is that it be like in News from Nowhere, the utopia of artist William Morris,3 where the children learn by themselves, with the tools made available to them. University is the reproduction of proven tools and seeks to teach intellectual honesty and the requirement of exhaustivity. Personally, I need both to feel balanced, but the two methods do not suit all students equally.
When I start a class, I think of bell hooks4 and Paulo Freire,5 of Donna Haraway,6 Jacotot, and Jacques Rancière.7 I also think of my wonderful history-geo teacher in quatrième at my rural collège,8 and of my first-year literature teacher,9 whose readings of Aeschylus moved me so greatly. There was also the discovery of the German seminar at the EHESS (teaching through research) where the (knight) students sit around a round table, of equal intelligence as the teachers.

The difficulty is that, at university, you become a teacher because you already weren’t a very good student at school (and that’s my case), with the risk of only being able to address the good students. I’m aware that, for me, the process of education through knowledge worked (I wasn’t very at ease in my life and in my body, so disincarnated knowledge suited me). You have to think about the fact that disembodied knowledge suits some individuals who don’t always want to think about their body and being, but that it won’t suit others who will never adhere to overly clinical ways of thinking. The position of teacher provides agency and power in this domain.
It’s not a question of interacting with a group of students in the same way as a social group in which you’d band together through shared affinities and questions, while excluding those who wouldn’t have these shared affinities. I don’t want to hide my position as speaker but I want teaching to be addressed to the “good” and “bad” students, to the feminists and the others, to the revolutionaries and the conservatives, to different students, who might mobilise the specificities of their knowledges and ability to act. bell hooks wrote: “It is often productive if professors take the first risk, linking confessional narratives to academic discussions so as to show how experience can illuminate and enhance our understanding of academic material. But most professors must practice being vulnerable in the classroom, being wholly present in mind, body, and spirit.”10

MB:

Is your feminist commitment important within your artistic practice and in your way of teaching? Which pedagogical practices seem interesting to you today? What alternatives exist or could exist outside of art schools?

CM:

My habitus is intersectional and antispecist feminism, which infuses both my personal and professional life. Unfortunately, both in society and in schools, transphobic, racist, classist, and ableist systems of oppression exist. I give classes in Art History based on theory in art history and offer students both knowledges about art and ways of thinking about the way knowledges are developed. Thinking about pedagogies can only be collective. With several feminist teachers, we swap our practices, cannibalising each other’s methods. We offer shared workshops. We’re preparing a manual of intersectional feminist art history.
The pedagogies that interest me stem from autonomous movements and from the history of anarchism. The Paris Commune instigated free co-ed schooling: Louise Michel was a primary school teacher and the École Nouvelle came from self-governing principles.11 More recently, the experiences described by Joan Jordan and Isabelle Frémeaux also changed my perspective regarding the capacity for libertarian autonomy at all ages.12 Today, the communities connected to the ZADs are organising autonomous schools that combine theory, techniques, and art.

Art school is an institution governed by its rules. But pedagogy is research through practise, in perpetual motion, because what you learn by teaching is above all that that you can never do lessons on pedagogy.

MB:

Do you have some examples to share of important moments in your development as a teacher that you experienced with the students?

CM:

My teaching combines moments of transmission of knowledges and experimental workshops. In the first case, the evaluation is done by the acquisition of knowledges and method, in the second, I do not evaluate the content of the propositions but the involvement in the collective work. Without any prescriptive dimension, I can cite two recent examples that were experienced by the students as very productive, and put me in a situation that was both vulnerable and enthusiastic. In both cases, the pedagogical proposals came directly from student requests.

In March 2019, we were launching a core programme on questions of gender with the Université d’Angers (famous for conserving the Archives du féminisme). The idea was to design a self-organised programme, with a guest, an exhibition, and a programme of performances. First of all, I received some positive reactions, but no student proposals. I was getting worried, the date was approaching, a title arrived (proposed by a student from self-organised pedagogy). Their aspirations tended towards queer theory, so I suggested inviting Sam Bourcier. I sent their documents and introduced them to the author. The worry returned because the exhibition was not taking shape, the students were busy with their end-of-semester reviews. Finally, a collective of variable dimensions sent out a call for participation, sorted the proposal, and self-organised projects were mounted. After a lot of anxiety, I experienced the week like a moment of grace, the students presented performances every evening and some extracurricular activities (lip-sync, drag, make-up…) became artistic mediums that they continue to invest and connect with their other projects. Students from first to fifth year participated and tested installing the exhibition and performances, with extensions into the personal and professional levels.
The second example, during a workshop with my colleagues Vanina Géré (Villa Arson) and Martha Salimbeni (ISBA Besançon). We suggested the design of an “intersectional feminist survival kit”. We introduced ourselves, as teachers, as vulnerable to attacks. The first day was excellent, the participation was active and propositions flowed. From the second day onwards, the problems evoked by the group overwhelmed us, we were no longer sure of being able to provide any tools at all to survive in a world full of so much aggression. We rearranged the methods and subdivided the group; the students had spread out and could no longer stand (no more than we could) dwelling on all of this violence again. On the last day, a more modest group worked hard, mobilising its knowledge, constantly seeking to verify all the sources. A gamebook, reporting back on its adventures, is currently being prepared and will be distributed in open source. This type of project is essential, but dangerous – it reveals a lot. These projects are entirely distinct from the exercise/response dimension. These are spaces between human individuals capable of discussion, which are essential and possible within art schools.
Postulating about the “equality of intelligences” like Jacotot13 within a group is essential, even if within it there are people who teach and others who learn. But it is about forcing teachers to leave the comfort of their field of competency and requiring students to be honest about their own knowledge and their desire to learn and do.







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On Städelschule, Frankfurt
conversation with Anders Dickson