‘Education can also be an artistic medium.’
Pavèl van Houten
Interview by Sanne Kersten
What relation do arts assignments have to your practice?
In my practice I concern myself with the question: how can you teach as an artist? In order to explore how didactics can be applied as an artistic medium, I conceived the ‘Didactic Experiment’. As a designer of a didactic experiment you are being challenged to play with the elements that make up a lesson or class. Think, for example, of time, location, instruction, division of roles, giving feedback, sound, test formats, or the subject of a lesson. But also think of certain rituals, such as: in each class there are students who need to go to the bathroom, how do you handle that?
I give students of Art in Education the assignment to work with one element of a lesson, to make it ‘extreme’, or tweak it. For example, I first give them a lecture about digestion and then the students may choose one aspect of that lecture and design an experiment based on that. The results can be very divergent. For instance, one group of students placed all the tables in a row in the shape, whereby the students represented the food and as everyone was crawling underneath the tables, the lesson was delivered. Another group of students tried to evoke the idea of a digestive tract by placing a bin with water over our heads. The stress induced by the fear of becoming wet can activate our bowels.
Which arts assignments have made an impression on you, and why?
I tasked students with designing their own feedback interview. One student asked me to lie down under the table while she was lying on top of it. Under usual circumstances a feedback interview can be tense and hierarchical, but this absurdist situation created room for a very open and creative discussion.
Another student pitched her work in five minutes, standing at the top of the stairs. I had to stand at the bottom of the stairs and run her work completely into the ground, but while ascending the stairs become increasingly positive about it. Having arrived at the top I was to praise her work euphorically as the best ever. The student knew: I’m being heavily criticized because it is necessary, but with this method she became the owner of the feedback process and got from it what she wanted.
Based on these forms of feedback we designed a card game. Sometimes, during the interview, students can hand me a card that may say: please be quiet for five minutes, or: give a tip, or: can you tell me a story? The game provides room to communicate about a student’s needs, which allows them some measure of control over the feedback interview.
Who are your arts assignment ‘heroes’ or sources of inspiration?
I am interested in people such as Jorge Lucero and Maarten Bel, who operate on the intersection of art and education, because there are parallels with my own work. I find artists who dare to use restrictions inspiring. The Amsterdam artist Marieke Coppens, for example, created the work Blue Creates the Open Space, in which she organized seven ‘healing’ nights, informed by elements from a sect. In this setting, texts were read out and people sang together, but there was also almost half an hour of silence. Taking the liberty to do that and then see what happens, despite feelings of awkwardness, that takes guts.
What defines a good arts assignment?
Education is different in each situation. The dynamic of a Monday morning class is different from that on a Friday afternoon. I think that it is important to have a flexible way of teaching: be well prepared, but also open to what happens spontaneously. Don’t be afraid to interrupt your class if you feel that it’s not working. Run up and down the stairs together three times, go for a walk, or have students draw an animal that is inspired by the model you just discussed.
I also think that the degree of freedom in an assignment is important. Students often think that they want to work on assignments in all freedom, but paradoxically that can be very restricting. I once designed a plan in which all the elements of the lessons were empty. The plan only showed inspiring spaces on various locations, such as a roof terrace, a gym, and so on. The rest of the plan was completely free and the students found that very complicated. Still, I think it’s important for them to experience this because as an artist you are confronted with much emptiness. If you work as an autonomous artist, the need to create something must be felt from inside. You begin to doubt everything and are confronted with very basic questions such as: why am I here? What am I doing here?
How has your perspective on arts assignments changed over time or throughout your career?
Teaching influences my art practice, and vice versa. I find that I am more and more working with students instead of for students. And I notice that art disciplines are becoming increasingly hybrid, both in the art world and in art education, but the study programmes are still lagging in this respect. It is now my mission to see how the teacher training programmes at art academies can come to be regarded as more of a positive force. Art teachers don’t just teach about art but can also be the creators of education as such. They possess the skills to make this happen. Education can really also be an artistic medium.