Alessandra Pomarico, you present yourself as a curator of “residency programmes for international and multidisciplinary artists in Italy and Europe, at the point of intersection between the arts, pedagogy, social issues, and the poetics of relationships within the construction of communities”. You are one of the founders of the Free Home University (FHU), an experimental space based in Italy and created by a group of artists and thinkers with a view to redefining art and education. How does this project square with your background and research?
FHU is a project and an ongoing process where a lot of my interests have converged and where different approaches and a wide set of experiences have intersected, also brought in by the people I’ve been co-creating with, such as the artist and now co-curator Nikolay Oleyinikov, who has been central to this initiative. This platform provided great continuity and further development for the programmes I’d created with artists and musicians in the past, my sociological research around migration, narratives of belonging and displacement, and a tendency to build “common homes” whether in my own house or in an institution, together with the interest of involving different social actors.
I have always privileged marginal positions, and informal, radical sites of experimentation. I grew suspicious of the art world, the self-referential attitude, and the mechanism that commodifies art making. In my understanding, art is more spiritual and relational: a social practice. It is a way of living and learning. What I enjoy most is inviting the artistic sensitivity and perspectives into the everyday lives of communities, activating processes that are embedded in the reality of people, in the social fabric, rather than in isolated bubbles.
I’ve always worked with artists and I am aware of the transformative potential and pedagogical dimension intrinsic to certain practices, especially those concerned with social and political realms, based on collective, collaborative, and participatory approaches. Art that is political and that centres on forms of care. The encounter with Musagetes, a philanthropic organisation from Canada that has a vision to make art central in the life of community and that committed to a deep process of learning as an institution, helped materialise the dream of creating Free Home University, a community of learners, with artists of different generations and members of the local and transnational community. The more we do this work and connect with others, the more it’s becoming obvious that a global movement to reimagine higher education exists: so many people across the globe are reclaiming learning, as well as other spheres of life, and re-organising autonomously.
In France, particularly since 2010 and the reforms of the Bologna process, we have been observing a kind of sclerosis within higher education in the arts; which is having difficulty conforming to the norms of evaluation and the structural difficulties caused by the institutional reform. Experimentation finds itself subjected to the norms that enable the delivery of European degrees. In addition, a real form of discrimination is being established following the increase in enrolment fees for foreign students… Did the FHU grow out of an observation of the failings in the tertiary sector?
FHU is indeed a project that stemmed out of an unwillingness to comply or a resistance to participating in this type of education system. Schools can be places for emancipation and freedom (knowledge is power!) but they are still places of exclusion, oppression, and reproduction of asymmetrical power dimensions. Another way of learning is possible; we can all share what we know and learn from each other to advance our knowledge without getting into debt, and maybe responding more freely and deeply to what we need to learn today, in our time and society, what our challenges are and how we can look at problems in different ways, so we stop reproducing them. For such spaces to truly exist, we need to work on some structural elements. I have huge admiration for those who work inside the system, as I know how much it takes and how necessary it is to try to change from within. But I also believe that someone has to work from outside the system, looking for a radical alternative not just a reform, trying to give foundations to what is not there yet, knowing that “the Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house” as Audre Lorde would put it. FHU is that attempt, it comes from a deep analysis and critique of the ways in which knowledge is produced and how it structurally reproduces power and asymmetry and offers a praxis, in which we are personally involved and in which we are all becoming with. To simply criticise is not enough. We are also interested not only in articulating what we are against, but enacting what we are “for”.
From my personal experience, in Italy the system is still very much nepotistic, meritocracy doesn’t exist, and it is a heavily patriarchal and misogynistic environment. My impression is that the work done in postcolonial studies, intersectional feminism, race and gender research, queer theories and other decolonialist approaches is far from having even scratched the surface of most European universities, as critical lens for reflecting on the structure of our education system as well as on its body of knowledge.
In the USA, you need to have the stamina and ambition for strenuous competition, and be willing to work in a very neoliberal system. Fortunately, nowadays there are more open talks against sexism, racism, ageism and ableism, and workplaces are forced to apply equal opportunity policies, but it’s still a fact that in our universities, older white male professors are predominant, and that their female colleagues are paid less or ostracised.
I think what we need to do today, as teachers and educators, should be the promotion of a different learning that prepares us for an environmentally sustainable and socially just future. First of all, this means critically revising and deconstructing the foundations out of which knowledge is produced, re-produced, and circulated; to deconstruct our discourses and habits, to investigate the ecology of knowledge in an attempt to decolonise learning structures through a wider epistemological diversity. How can we resist the model of commodification, competitiveness, hierarchical structures, and the hegemonic discourse of the educational institution? Knowledge production has become a costly commodity, universities base their programmes mostly in response to the market, and they have become places where debts are created.
I think the reforms and requirements proposed by the Bologna Protocols, are a way to smooth the road to arrive at this kind of education system in Europe too. First, it’s the standardising of courses, assessment, grades, and qualifications, so that they can be more “expendable” globally, then comes the privatisation process (even within public assets).
How do the FHU sessions work? How do you choose your guests? Who are the participants; how do you get the locals involved?
We invite artists that fit our inquiries, a specific theme or who bring a particular approach – mostly collectives or a few leading artists, so the session can be codesigned with a combination of practices. We discuss the issues more at stake locally, in the specific context of our region, connected to global questions, as everything is entangled in our globalised and digitalised world. The “study group” is usually made up of a ratio of local people (who we help identify), and national or international participants that the artists leading the inquiry or other close collaborators including host participants may have suggested. We don’t use open calls as we find the idea of having to assess or refuse someone problematic. Also, we have a strong, established collaboration with organic farmers, LGBTQI+ youth, asylum seekers and NGOs that support them, people coming from these communities are now participating fully in the work, actively proposing directions to follow. We work around their sense of agency, and we listen to their needs. The teacher/student opposition is something we avoid as we believe we all learn from each other, all the time, and everywhere; this required also inventing a new language to define what we do. Of course, there is a ‘pedagogical tension’, which happens both in formal (through artistic research, readings, even lectures at times) and especially informal ways, with conversations, field trips, visits to community members, and shared living spaces.
The core of our teaching is really this last aspect: although temporary, we share a home, and we don’t separate living from studying and working together. We experience a highly intensive collective life, with repetitive tasks (cleaning, cooking, getting the groceries, or the vegetables from the farmers we support). This hopefully brings identification, as co-creators, as collectively shaping our process, and an intimacy that allows to go deeper, to share stories, and undo patterns of patriarchy, race, class, or gender privilege, refusing the anxiety of being ‘hyper productive’ and letting go of control or expectations. We try to exercise horizontality, or at least non-vertical power dimensions, ways of allowing authority to circulate among all of us. We are interested in creating a sense of communion: of coming together and working together.
It is not always easy, as we are used to highly privatised spaces and time, to vertical relations, and internalised habits to value results more than processes, or to be told what to do, feeling lost if we don’t know the schedule or what is expected from us. This is understandable, as this is the way we have been socialised. We try to reverse these schemas, and encourage participants to be open to the unexpected and the emergent, which is where something truly new can happen; to exercise our capacity to adapt and improvise, and our internal compass to navigate new situations. It takes some effort to balance collective care and self care, to arrive at a loose yet functional structure, to mix productivity and reflectivity, being able to express and to listen, to take and allow space, and to acknowledge our limits. Learning is painful (just as it is joyful and liberating) and it’s exactly in those hard moments that we expand, transform, and improve the most. Audre Lorde says “The learning process is something you can incite, literally incite, like a riot. And then, just possibly, hopefully it goes home, or on...”
At this point, we have developed a degree of experience at knowing what works better and what helps the process. For example the value of including the wisdom of the body, somatic practices that help us to avoid always being only in our “heads” or in a discursive, rationalised space. Derives or wanderings are very important too, spending time in nature, re-wilding, roaming, exploring with our senses. We use convivial research tools and research-in-action methodology: spending time with local people, learning from them, and participating and contributing to their initiatives. We hope for a coalitional approach in the definition and construction of the inquiry, sharing aspects of life and getting deeper into the context and struggles of our local communities.
Collective learning, and learning about collectivism, are particularly urgent as we witness the segmentation of every sphere of life, an individualistic atomisation of the human being, the transformation of shared space and time, into virtual, so called “social” media. Twenty-first century education should be concerned with these issues, as we are undergoing a dramatic anthropological change in the way we relate to each other and to the planet. Learning to be fully present, to be in the moment, has become a challenge.
During the summer of 2019, three sessions were held by the FHU. In June, the feminist activist Silvia Federici and the feminist platform Recherche sur les Violences contre les Femmes [Research into Violence Against Women] discussed some of Federici’s theories about patriarchal capitalism and systemic violence (The Time is Now. A time for bodies. A time for care and reproduction of life); in July, the Chto Delat collective produced a film with a group of refugees, artists, and activists (People of Flour, Salt, and Water); in August, artist Babi Badalov devised a mural painting workshop with social workers (Refugees Welcome. Refugees Will Come). Could you describe the work you did together?
The session with Silvia Federici was held in Parma, where she originally comes from and it really felt like a homecoming, in many ways… We were a group of ten women from various places, ages, working, and living through the lens of feminism in different contexts, resonating with Silvia’s work. She was writing a new book focusing on the body and she would send chapters for us to read. We would then discuss them with her… In the morning, each of us offered some type of practice like somatics, or filming with a super 8 camera, or the art of mandalas, a massage session, or a laughter workshop. We watched art films and cooked together. There was a lot of sharing about family, work, our context, and self-organisation. Silvia took us around the city, which was a chance to discuss its history and political history. We were hosted in a squatted building, a social centre run by students and migrant families, and we were invited to their assemblies to introduce our work. To be there was really meaningful as we were discussing different forms of political struggles and resistance, solidarity and communion, and what it takes to regenerate life in communities. So the session became a way to really be aware of our own social reproduction. It was magical and quite empowering, and a wonderful opportunity to exchange our experiences, balancing an intellectual approach, and a more embodied and emotional, empathetic, feminist knowledge.
The Chto Delat group (six members and a couple of daughters) joined us for their second time in Castiglione d’Otranto, a tiny village in the south where we’ve run many of our sessions since 2014 when we joined forces with Casa delle Agriculture, an amazing activists’/farmers’ group that creating a solid community around the protection of biodiversity, food sovereignty, and social and environmental causes. The idea was to experiment with Chto Delat’s set of pedagogies (they’ve had a learning platform since 2013 called School of Engaged Art) and to use film as a tool to analyse, explore, and learn. The group was a mix of activists, young asylum seekers, and international artists. We shared homes and stories, starting from the fables of Subcomandante Marcos, translated into many languages but especially transposed into our own contexts. The translation is never just literal, but transcultural, a search for our own understanding and truths, a collective collection of different interpretations. The first week we enrolled in an intense process of getting to know each other, situating our positions, and sharing through many approaches: body and movement, theatrical games, breathing exercises with Nina Gasteva, the choreographer of the group; we sang and explored sounds, rhymes and lullabies from different places; we had sessions of “Political Information”, a kind of news update from the countries represented by the group (Gambia, Congo, Italy, England, Russia, Nigeria, Iraq/Kurdistan); we made fresh pasta, at first enjoying cooking and eating it, and later on using the dough to create strange creatures, the characters of our stories; we drew a landscape that would later become “our motherland”, our commons, with rivers, mountains, seeds, and forests.
We learned about Zapatismo with an activist that was part of the “caravans” in support of the indigenous from Chiapas when they first fought back in 1994. Everyone was fascinated by the courage and strategies of the Zapatistas, and we discussed their laws and demands. Everyone resonated with those principles from their own personal perspective and experience. Inevitably, we spoke about displacement, dispossession, colonialism, land grabbing, racism, and various forms of oppression, including capitalism. During the second week, we started our Learning film: People of Flour, Salt and Water, a story of war, invasion, and eventual resolution, which emerged from improvisation and guided exercises. The film is a montage of moments of living together, the creative process, and our storytelling, and a few interviews. The first edition of the film will be presented in Italy through a series of workshops in which the artists will discuss it with the participants and collect their feedback. Chto Delat will work on further edits and new versions, as a way of extending the film into a learning process that continues with the audience involved in a dialectical discussion, reversing the usual passivity of the audience, who normally receive the film as a definitive, finalised object. In parallel, we are preparing a publication called When the Roots Start Moving: Chto Delat and Free Home University, between Displacement and Belonging.
With Babi Badalov, an artist and refugee from Azerbaijan, the session revolved around questions of displacement, refuge, the systemic violence of the borders, and the construction of illegality and regimes of fear. His personal experience opened up an intimate reflection on the disposability of certain bodies, the limited mobility for human beings versus unlimited trade of goods, and around the multiple traumas that asylum seekers and newcomers face, including linguistic trauma. We acknowledged the conditions in which displaced people are forced to live almost everywhere in Europe currently, when new racist, fascist and xenophobic ideologies are spreading and legitimated by right -wing governments, and how we become complicit if we don’t react or engage in civic actions. In Italy, the government passed anti-migration and deportation measures that will stay in place even if a new government forms. Being a refugee, which was the condition shared by more than half of our FHU group, was analysed as a status of oppression but also as a future subject of resistance and autonomy, a way out, a way of being in motion and forging transformation. Sharing space and stories, hosting difficult public conversations against privilege and stigma, reflecting on our own dehumanisation was important, in a village where half of the people support these restrictive policies and demonstrate identitarian fixations. Unemployment makes people angry with those who are portrayed as ‘the others’.
Working with Babi’s approach, politics, and artistic practice, a visual poetry in which language is stretched to open multiple meanings and references, the group ended up painting a collective mural called Refugees Welcome, Refugees Will Come, and participated in the exhibition Pane no Frontiere (Bread no Borders) with drawings, banners, and flags featuring the slogan painted on recycled fabric, bed sheets, or old t-shirts. We also started a solidarity campaign in support of refugees in distress with a limited series of artist-made shirts, which were sold to collect money for those in need.
“No one educates others, no one educates themself, people educate themselves together through the world.” (Paulo Freire, La pédagogie des opprimés, 1974). Do you support popular methods of education, or education of the people, by the people, for the people?
I’m an educator. I was very young when I enrolled in the Italian public school system, where for many years I taught History and Italian Literature, mostly in vocational high schools and disadvantaged areas, with working-class students. I had to constantly negotiate and adjust the programmes to their lives, showing how history or literature could change the way one understands the world and acts within it.
Those years were difficult and it was a very frustrating (the rigidity of the programs, the assessment system, the bureaucracy) but also very rewarding time, as positive change manifested whenever space for relationships was made and there was less rigidity and verticality in the pedagogy. I learned so much with my high school students, especially about questioning methodological assumptions and the oppressive structure on which the school is built (including architecturally). We really are at a point of no return, and it is so important to include and support the younger generations, whose future has been stolen. In this time of social, economic, and environmental crises, as an educator, I ask myself what it is and how we need to learn and unlearn to survive in the Anthropocene, to produce a change and shift from current paradigms, in order to resist and thrive as human beings. I believe education is where this “revolution” can happen.
Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Illich’s Deschooling Society are both books by visionary thinkers whose ideas still resonate in our time. We also look at the many examples of communities of practice and how artists are building learning platforms, which nowadays – interestingly – are multiplying. In our understanding, emancipatory learning processes – those that focus on life, freedom, and justice, --are also healing processes and regenerative practices. If the education system as it is historically can be an instrument of oppression and subjugation, processes of learning constitute instead a step toward self-development and collective transformation. To quote H. Giroux, it also means we have to “reject modes of education removed from political or social concerns, divorced from history and matters of injury and injustice”.
The FHU project refers to Beuys, to the “Free International University”, a place of research, work, and communication created in 1971 in order to reflect on the future of society (including political economy) but also on his vision of “social sculpture”. The FHU brings artists, activists, and refugees into contact. Why does art play an important role in that? Do you think it provides tools for political thought?
Artists and cultural practitioners are implicated in every aspect of the material and immaterial conditions that affects communities, so to me art is also a way of situating ourselves and taking sides. From where do we speak? Where do we stand? Artistic thinking is useful for analysing the macro level, and operating at the micro or even the nano levels, in the cracks in the system, in the relationships among people, objects, places, stories, and between the human and the non-human.
Beuys, an artist that in his time had subverted and expanded what was considered art, is definitely one of our references, as we focus on artistic research in the social realm. Art is a tool to question, mobilise our collective energy, provoke thoughts, and connect people. And art can be political and is an instrument for rethinking and reimagining politics.
As feminists used to say, the personal is political, and I believe that we are confronted with political choices all the time within our everyday lives, even when we choose what to eat and how we consume. We cannot delegate political questions only to the moment of the vote, especially as the current representative ‘democracies’ have become so insufficient and so exclusive.
Not only aesthetic processes can be political, I especially consider pedagogy as politics. A pedagogy of tuning in, a pedagogy of entanglement, to reconnect with each other in “multispecies well-being” (as Donna Haraway would put it): to dream, with, within, and beyond our differences, from a polyphony of positions and with fierce humility, on the ground, with the human and the non-human or other-than-human elements, attempting new practices of imagination, resistance, revolt, repair, and healing. Assuming the ‘response-ability’ of restoring local ecosystems worldwide, as well as autonomous zones of cultural production.