This article shares thoughts on a year-long conversation between CAMPUS participants, collaborators and faculty. The contribution to The Contemporary Journal has stemmed from seminars, lectures, and informal conversations held throughout the programme – more recently over video chat and email due to the COVID-19 outbreak – allowing for a multiplicity of voices and extended reflections responding to questions generated by the group. This text was co-written by eleven 2019–2020 CAMPUS participants, and is therefore not representative of the views of the entire cohort.
How can a programme like CAMPUS foster solidarity between arts and educational institutions under attack by the neoliberal state?
Hugh Nicholson: This feels like a complicated question, because it compares different bodies across a vast scale: from individuals to CAMPUS, from arts/educational institutions to the state, and neoliberalism. The latter is a slippery term that describes a discursive regime enabled by, between, and beyond states. As neoliberalism is felt on different registers by different bodies, what solidarity might look like – both in its political potential and relative impact – also rests upon this breadth of inquiry. Perhaps solidarity might be conceived as mutual consolation, a rear-guard response; or a more powerful, collective critical or revolutionary praxis; or even, something seemingly subtler, more nuanced.
Gráinne Charlton: I’m interested in what nuanced solidarity could constitute to not reduce it to one thing, which I’m frequently at fault of doing when equating solidarity as action. For me the aim of solidarity is to untangle and weed out power and its violent roots. I’m unconvinced that today’s arts and educational institutions are designed or equipped to foster solidarity. The institutional ‘solidarity’ I witness is temporary, designed for PR campaigns and corporate social responsibility accolades. Institutional ‘solidarity’ washes over enduring complicities. For instance, art institutions’ reliance on oil companies, prison companies (the list goes on); and universities’ links to the slave trade, arms trade, and past (and current) imperialism, as unpacked in Gurminder K. Bhambra’s CAMPUS talk. CAMPUS highlighted some of these institutional deficits in both arts and educational institutions, but I’m not entirely sure it sought or fought to foster solidarity against neoliberalism.
HN: I agree, institutions often appear hermetic. CAMPUS, like many other study programmes, represents an attempt to carve out an independent space for critical reflection, whilst remaining a product of specific aspirations and interests. Many institutions conceal agendas that instrumentalise culture and interdisciplinarity – whether as flagship galleries, or ideas like Richard Florida’s ‘Creative City’, which superficially might not look dissimilar from the model of CAMPUS as a citywide campus. In this case, solidarity becomes a product of mutually-beneficial partnerships.
However, I’m wary of simply dismissing arts/educational institutions as neoliberal enforcers, branding institutions as monolithic or unworkable. As CAMPUS is not identical to its partners, so institutions are not identical to their employees, who as workers hold potential to resist, organise or act, even when institutions refuse. After all, many CAMPUS participants themselves work for different institutions. Moreover, ‘nuance’ is not necessarily a synonym for ‘compromise’. I agree, in one respect, that the immediate capacity for a small study programme to agitate or foster solidarity is maybe pretty marginal in the scheme of things. Nevertheless, I feel quieter solidarities might still be fostered by developing critical positions and exchanging ideas, in ways not immediately reducible to a value, or realisable as direct action.
How can a collective approach account for individuality and what does that mean for solidarity in a process of collective enquiry?
There’s going to be a picnic and to have a picnic you need a picnic basket, but before it’s opened and its contents consumed, it must be filled. Everyone attending must bring a contribution. This could be a bowl of potato salad, half a dozen sausage rolls, a jar of tomato chutney or the basket itself. But I can’t make potato salad or sausage rolls, I’m out of tomatoes and I don’t own a basket. I make an excellent lasagne, but what use is that at a picnic. I look outside and it’s started to rain.
I don’t think that a collective approach can account for individuality, not in the short term. A time-limited project like CAMPUS is hampered by both its ambition and its idleness; individuality can at the very least be overlooked, and at the very worst be brought into question by the individual themselves. Here the space, labour and care required is beyond what can be provided. The trilogy was required to accommodate and communicate the endless approaches to learning and manifestations of knowledge held by a group of individuals coming from different professional, socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. To quote CAMPUS faculty Tina Campt, ‘you don’t know less; you just know differently’. But when the formal elements of CAMPUS are so linear, how are participants from what are deemed lower socio-economic backgrounds, or with lower levels of educational achievement welcomed into a collective enquiry?
Despite my concerns around the values put on individual knowledges, I think that solidarity in a process of collective inquiry, such as that navigated during CAMPUS, is still obtainable. Oxford Languages defines solidarity as ‘unity or agreement […] among individuals with a common interest, or mutual support’. Unity, in a short-lived collective inquiry, may be unobtainable, but agreement isn’t. Some agendas are more urgent than others and so the collective will of the group can re-emerge from a rich discussion in agreement. But, without provision for mutual support, a ‘collective enquiry’ cannot be truly collective; we must first address the complexities of learning itself and the labour associated.
Raúl Valdivia: Not everyone is going to think in the same way in a collective, so we need to allow for ‘an agonistic confrontation between different points of view’. For me, solidarity doesn’t mean leaving aside individual interests in order to reach consensus, but to acknowledge different voices. The issue of voice – who speaks and who is listened to – is linked to the politics of recognition.
It takes time and care for individuals in a group to get to know each other and to understand others’ positionalities, which are intersectional. All these aspects affect the dynamic of a group and need to be explored in order to develop some common ground, a sense of togetherness, and collective leadership.
In a group of almost twenty people, like CAMPUS, strong personal connections can lead to the formation of small pockets of solidarity, which in turn can affect how democracy and collective decision-making are exercised.
Jade Foster: It’s a question of ‘equity’ versus ‘equality’ because everyone can be equal, if ‘equal’ is understood as everyone having the same amount of space to speak and to contribute. However, each individual’s knowledge is valued differently, so that’s a question of equity. It’s not just about creating a space where everyone can share experiences, it’s about actually acknowledging the inequity and inequalities within the value systems of knowledge. It’s not necessarily about the number of contributions, because we all share a platform. However even within ourselves, as practitioners, our experiences and knowledges are valued differently, institutionally and systemically, so that still has to play within the way that collectives form and how we actually engage with each other. We all personally respect each other, but it’s not necessarily about the individual or the personal – it’s about the systemic.
Jessica Piette: I agree, accounting for individuality is the act of acknowledging the complexities operating in how we relate to one another. I think that transparency – as well as care – is critical for the process of enacting solidarity within a collective. By this, I mean that it is vital to outline the social inequities present between individuals within a collective, in order to bring into question which voices are being centred. Subsequently, in what ways can resources be actively redistributed in order to begin countering these inequities?
As a group we spoke early on about the importance of mapping out how our individual experiences relate to one another, and in what ways our knowledges are endorsed or subjugated within traditional spaces of knowledge production, academia, and cultural institutions. Although we spoke about it, we never ended up doing this mapping exercise. I wonder what would have happened if we had. Potentially, such a conversation could have reinforced existing power structures, or instead allowed us to better understand each other’s positions.
Laurie Cummins: What CAMPUS enabled for me was an open confrontation of how much I am an individual or a member of a collective when it comes to learning. Maybe we’re concerned with individuality because our process of unlearning and re-learning was a negotiation between personal ingrained ways of learning and what we were forming by working with and around each other. A lot of our dynamic as a group was based on mutual respect and interest in each other’s perspectives. In being keen to hear how others – with whom we wouldn’t ordinarily be sharing a learning environment – responded to texts and seminars, I was working against what formal education had trained me to do. We were put into contact with world-revered academics and activists, but repeatedly changed the setup, in favour of learning from each other rather than the ‘teacher’. This isn’t a radical new form of knowledge production, but it did shift the modes I am used to.
Alexandra Chairetaki: I agree. CAMPUS brought together a multidisciplinary group of people that maybe, in ‘normal circumstances’, wouldn’t have met, and this diversity was what was fascinating about it. The heterogeneity of the group was also one of the reasons our discourses unfolded the way they did. Each of us had our own ambitions and expectations for CAMPUS, and I personally felt there was enough space in this collective environment for individuals to express themselves and interact in various ways. For example, sometimes I didn’t feel like actively engaging in discussions but I was there, listening and in my head a dialogue, an argument or an inspiring matrix of new ideas was taking place. For me, this is still part of the collective learning process and why not an expression of – silent – individuality?
JF: For me, learning is not only about what you agree with, but also learning what you don’t want to do and what you don’t agree with. And I think for me CAMPUS has been a vital instigator in reinforcing where my passions or energy need to lie. I feel that it is essential to go through a process of figuring out ‘this doesn’t feel right’ or ‘this is not how I want to work’. It helps with having a position on how you approach knowledge production, working collectively, and it helps to reinforce where you sit within that. CAMPUS has been a learning point. This learning reinforced my decision to set up Black Curators Collective. This initiative aims to bring together the voices of black curators and cultural workers in discussions around knowledge production, curating, visual and cultural practices and studies. These voices are expressed in lived, actualised, and embodied theories and practices, like some of the aspects we have been discussing during CAMPUS.
How have the spaces of CAMPUS changed how we learn? How have informal conversations and learnings on the margins of the programme been brought into the ‘institutional arena’?
Phoebe Eustance: Collective knowledge production shaped by the spaces of learning foregrounded CAMPUS and its initial articulation, with emphasis on it being a ‘city-wide independent study programme […] taking place in different locations in Nottingham’. Inevitably, and probably for a multiplicity of reasons including various technicalities, Nottingham Contemporary and its carpeted ceiling boardroom (CCB) remained the central space in which more formalised learning happened. For me, this aspect of CAMPUS didn’t work in the way it was perhaps envisaged. Personally, the dialogues that resonated most took place in transitional spaces on the periphery of the programme: driving to and from Nottingham; late night chats in kitsch Airbnb’s; pub intervals; and reflections atop the Basford Beam Engine. These were moments of critical reflection that, when brought into the institutional arena (CCB), seemed to take on a different meaning.
It seems relevant to talk here about what Irit Rogoff terms ‘embodied criticality’, described as ‘inhabiting a problem rather than analysing it’; moving away from inherited knowledge (academia, perhaps), towards working responsively from conditions. One of the most animated debates of CAMPUS was sparked by a guided talk on Nottingham’s lace industry at Nottingham Industrial Museum. The set of conditions we experienced in this moment contributed to how we learned: the tensions between the ‘inherited knowledge’ of the museum’s guide and our respective knowledge(s); the spatial set-up of learning amongst machines of the past; and the power dynamics at play.
I also want to mention the spaces of learning that occurred after COVID-19 put an end to physical proximity. I’ve been thinking about waiting rooms – not the waiting room of a doctor or a dentist, but a similarly sterile one. It’s something that comes to mind when considering the conditions we’ve experienced learning post-COVID-19 – essentially, the spectral vacuum of the Zoom waiting room. It also resonates with something that I’ve explored through my research on ‘institutional psychotherapy’: pathologising the institution rather than those inside it. In March, when the uncertainties of COVID-19 left the group scattered and remote, CAMPUS faculty Anselm Franke, ‘zooming’ into the CCB, spoke about liminality as a transitional, de-structured space between two points. To me, liminal spaces are interchangeable with waiting rooms.
AC: To add to that, I don’t think the spatial context of CAMPUS changed the learning process. Being an urban designer, I am familiar with spatial qualities and their significant role on how we experience our everyday lives, but there are a number of other factors – or to borrow from Céline Condorelli – ‘support structures’ that affect these dynamics too. For me, CAMPUS was about exploring collective learning and sharing conversations as part of a group, with ‘a space’ as backdrop. For example, I remember how uncomfortable I felt entering Nottingham Contemporary’s boardroom – or as Phoebe nicely put it, CCB – for the first time. A room full of strangers. But this perception changed over time as we got to know each other better: in the breaks, ‘off-the-record’ discussions in between scheduled sessions, and while walking to and from another CAMPUS venue. The urge to question the boundaries of our ‘defined space and limits’ came quite early on as an outcome of the group’s collective curiosities. This led to a number of collaborative and playful exercises amongst us followed by sharing our reflections and experiences. Formality and informality alternated in such an interesting way.
JP: I’ve also been thinking about the boardroom and the space that was created between us by the language that we used, an academic language full of references and terminology that requires prior knowledge in order to understand what is being discussed. I don’t think that this language was solely introduced by the material we responded to during the programme – texts, lectures – but that we were reproducing it ourselves, having learned its code within academic contexts. We agreed that this mode of communicating alienated us, it kept us far away from each other. The informal conversations that took place at the beginning of the programme when there wasn’t a faculty member present were important, because we began to explore what a shared language would look like. These conversations set up a place of openness, vulnerability and not knowing, in which we resisted judgement and the assumption of common knowledge. Over the course of the programme, it was interesting to see how our relationship with visiting faculty evolved to become more reciprocal as we became clearer in this shared language.
LC: I do think the alternating of formality and informality was crucial. We saw the Still Undead exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary about the Bauhaus school (1919–1937) on the first day of the programme. We heard about the strictness of the Bauhaus classes vs. the creativity that came out at their parties. I think that this duality did become a theme in our conversations. There was a lot of chat about interstitial spaces. But like the Bauhaus, we wouldn’t have had the creative release at the pub if we hadn’t struggled with academic theory earlier in the day; and without the CCB there wouldn’t have been the walks around the city and real sharing of perspectives. It seems clear to me that discussions of Paddington Bear and playing card games were as crucial to our processes as the rigorous lectures given by Gurminder Bhambra or Anselm Franke. That is to say, I’m not sure where we would have been without a perceived institution to push back against. What then follows is how to create these alternates without first having or making an exclusionary structure to learning that instils a desire to rebel.
GC: As Jessica mentioned earlier, it’s necessary to think about how we each experienced the time and space of CAMPUS differently. Having grown up locally, my connection to the spaces of CAMPUS were not so much to physical places, but to communities of people. People acted as structures within each space – for example, Jennie Syson’s local knowledge of the history and evolving art scenes of Nottingham acted as a welcoming scaffolding in each session.
How can traditional modes of knowledge production be subverted, disrupted and decentred? Can these processes start within existing structures, or from the margins?
RV: I think it should be done simultaneously from the margins and within institutions. In the case of CAMPUS, it was hosted by an art institution, but promoted critical dialogues based on aspects of theory that have emerged from the margins, such as Black feminist theory and postcolonial studies.
Paulo Freire argued that words (or theory) without action result in ‘idle chatter’. For him, pedagogy in action meant acting upon the environment in order to transform reality. In my view, collective knowledge production is a form of praxis, meaning that critical dialogues are central to subverting the tools of dominant systems of knowledge. By subverting the tools, I don’t mean destroying them, but exercising what Gayatri Spivak calls ‘affirmative sabotage’.
However, a key question is who can do this sabotage – is it only well-educated, highly mobile, middle-class professionals? It is important to make experiences like CAMPUS radically inclusive, which means ‘taking a position of solidarity with what is outside of the institution, with actual social debates, fights and movements’. At the same time, we need to be mindful of the risk of appropriating and cannibalising knowledge produced at the margins in the quest for alternative epistemologies.
Ese Onojeruo: Over the course of nine months, the compositing of CAMPUS entailed the participants, the organisers, and invited guest speakers, all of whom, in one way or another, embody sites of personal research (either through lived experience or academia). It also included the different CAMPUS venues and the way they interacted with one another: Primary, Bonington Lecture Theatre, Nottingham Contemporary, museum and gallery spaces. Moreover, this composition allowed for learning in the in-between spaces, i.e. on walks, at the pub, in the exhibitions.
Even before we arrived at CAMPUS, emphasis was placed on creating spaces of dialogue between us, the hosts, the speakers and environments, which took into account our backgrounds and subject knowledge. Not-knowing was as encouraged as knowing, and this approach was a nurturing ground for knowledge production.
This process has made me reconsider the potential of arts and exhibitions as sites of knowledge production, particularly in the roles of outreach and engagement. In my work as a curator, I engage with groups that have limited exposure to exhibitions and are given fragmented accounts of their histories. More broadly, it has made me question an exhibition’s ability to unveil itself and the discursive accompaniments that are provided to the public. Additionally, it made me think how those who sit outside the exhibitions’ preparations and the institutions perceive the displays.
For me, exhibitions are symptomatic of knowledge productions, as opposed to being a mode of producing knowledge. In that way, an artistic practice is symptomatic when its method of knowledge production (stimulating debate or appropriating the subject matter) also offers reflection and critique on the very subject matter it engages. Then the exhibition is symptomatic in the way it simulates a commonplace rather than producing one; the symptom never functions by itself, but in relation to what it obscures and what it stands in for. Although this new understanding can be liberating, it leaves me with questions over the appropriation of cultural context and who are these exhibitions for.
The question of redistribution became a significant point of discussion within CAMPUS. Do you see an analogy between redistribution and the central themes of CAMPUS?
Milika Muritu: My initial motive for enlisting on CAMPUS was to focus on open-ended forms of engagement without predetermined or fixed outcomes, and to remove myself from some of the constrictive patriarchal barriers that I encounter within my professional life. In agreement with Raúl, I found the scramble to remediate hierarchies of attention one of the most formative aspects of the programme, as our common interest in radical pedagogy was constantly tested by the political frameworks that enable them. The lockdown conditions of COVID-19 and global responses to George Floyd’s death gave rise to a renewed urgency amongst the group. As writer Susan Sontag stated: ‘illness exacerbates consciousness’. In crisis mode, the group interrogated the foundational aspects of CAMPUS’s institutional structures, making a decision to remove Nottingham Contemporary from the role of moderator during online meetings, allowing us to respond more openly with one another. Despite a majority of participants finding financial frameworks an exhausting obstacle to the ethos of ‘learning’, these conversations raised important issues related to cultural capital and the pedagogic role of public institutions, heightened by the disjuncture and pressure of the pandemic. In an unpredictable turn of events, the financial infrastructure of CAMPUS took precedence over the outcome itself.
Whilst in semi-lockdown, I reflected on why the funding for CAMPUS seemed so fundamental to the group. CAMPUS faculty Nora Sternfeld had written how ‘museums are not radical places of education but merely uphold existing relations’. Her argument stresses how the conditions of learning are more important than the structures themselves. In the case of CAMPUS, the pandemic created ‘a reset button’ and a new way of talking to each other. In Sternfeld’s words, we generated ‘a para-institution’, a place to critically explore the margins. Social restrictions and physical separation from Nottingham Contemporary enabled the group to remove what had been the institution’s function, i.e., to gauge and validate knowledge. In Air Traffic, Gregory Pardlo affirms that the fettering rules that profit from slavery are a defensive operational tactic to prohibit or restrict natural circadian rhythms. Although fraught at times, I believe that these new conditions created a moment of rupture; a radical texture to CAMPUS in stark contrast to the steady hegemonic framework mediated by the omnipresent and unintentional teacher-pupil relationship upheld by Nottingham Contemporary before lockdown began.
HN: Echoing Mili, I felt these conversations revealed different feelings about the value of galleries, arts funding, charity, and art itself. While for me, theory and praxis are always tightly interwoven, this represented a critical moment when theoretical conversations were put to work in relation to global political events. These discussions almost felt like a final project in themselves.
GC: I think Mili’s idea of an omnipresent teacher-pupil relationship relates to how we approached redistribution within the group; the first thing we had autonomy over. Before these animated discussions about redistribution, as participants we lacked (or failed to enact) shared responsibility. I feel that our autonomy was predetermined in part because the programme had demarcated time slots with seminars (work) and free-time (leisure). This links to Céline Condorelli’s CAMPUS Talk around splitting our daily 24 hours between work, leisure and rest: eight hours each (888). How, with removed moderation, did our animated discussions around redistribution shape the structure of who and how we organised our 888? Finally, I am left wondering what can we learn from our organising as a group to exceed thematic discussions and leap towards sabotage and solidarity for redistribution in our futures?
With thanks to Nottingham Contemporary and the CAMPUS faculty.
2019–2020 CAMPUS participants:
Alisa Blakeney, Alexandra Chairetaki, Gráinne Charlton, Laurie Cummins, Phoebe Eustance, Andrew Fisher, Deborah Joyce Holman, Jade Foster, Colette Griffin, Joshua Lockwood-Moran, Katy Morrison, Milika Muritu, Hugh Nicholson, Ese Onojeruo, Aniela Piasecka, Jessica Piette, Benji Rose, Ossie Sandalon, Raúl Valdivia.