Horizontal Thinking in Art Education: Miroslaw Balka
In this conversation, Valerio Rocco Orlando, and Miroslaw Balka (Artist and Founder of PDP-Studio of Spatial Activities) reflect on their experiences in developing independent institutions. They explore current educational models, social, institutional, aesthetic issues, and debate what it means to be an educator in such challenging times.
Valerio Rocco Orlando: Shall we start discussing how did your experience with Studio of Spatial Activities begin?
Miroslaw Balka: That’s such a long story, you probably don’t have enough tape.
VRO: Let’s see where we get.
MB: It all started when I left the Art Academy in 1985—remember that I am twenty years older than you—I lost contact with the Academy and I wasn’t really involved anymore because I finished it and I had to go my way. You know, I never thought about teaching. However, in 2003 my friend—Polish artist Piotr Kurka—asked me if I’d agree to arrange a guest studio project in the academy of fine arts in Poznań for one year. This was in the sculpture department, and after thinking about it for a while I agreed to go. In the beginning, I started to visit Poznań once a week for meetings, I had a group of six students because I was not so well known among the student body—I would say because most of the exhibitions I did at that point were abroad. So it is a very small group of students, and I could afford very comfortable conditions of teaching. At some point, around the end of the year, most of the students who were participating asked me to stay and teach more. I felt responsible—and also I wasn’t able to be there all the time teaching—so I thought that I should finish the mission and agreed to stay for one more year, you know, to keep the program going. At that point I didn’t really know what the program was going to be, I felt it should have been something related to sculpture but it was difficult to have a vision of what teaching sculpture meant at the time in 2003-2004. And after this one-year program, I had to change faculty because at some point I had to explain to other professors what I thought about their teaching, and they didn’t want me to stay in the department of sculpture because I didn’t agree with their concept of education, which was very naive.
VRO: What do you mean by “very naive?”
MB: Naive I mean traditional, I mean understanding the naked human figure as the main point of departure for any critical thinking, or considering clay as the preferred material. Maybe they were right, but for me, at that time I was working differently, definitely not using clay because it was a little bit old-fashioned, I would say. So, I was in a process, and I started moving around, first in the department of media, another year in the department of art education, and so on. I was moving around and the program was also changing, but slowly the group was growing to ten, fifteen students. The decisive moment was the year when I didn’t formally have the studio as a workplace, so I decided to rent an apartment in Poznań. It had five rooms, and I used it for meetings, as an education space, and also as an exhibition space. At that time it was not popular at all to host exhibitions in a private house, so this was quite an important step for me to understand that if you have a studio as further as possible from the main academy building, it’s definitely a good thing. I understood that the best teaching happens outside the walls of the academy. We developed a lot of good projects, and little by little the group of students grew bigger and bigger and we also started something which at that time was not yet known: to make projects directly in the city, using different or uncommon locations, like or street corners.
VRO: Something like en plein air?
MB: Not properly en plein air, but more like looking for urban landmarks of the city: architecture, squares, shops, milk bars, libraries, different contexts.
VRO: When was this?
MB: It was between 2005 and 2008.
VRO: Always in Poznań?
MB: Yes, this was still in Poznań. At this point in 2009, I was working on the project for the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in London, and that had a very powerful resonance on the program. When I came back in November 2009, I had sixty people who joined the studio in Poznań. Everybody signed to be in the studio, and I didn’t know how to work with so many students, so I made the decision to divide them and create working groups, and in the end, I decided to split them into ten groups of six people. This decision was important, and become a strategic part of my educational logic because I could start thinking about how to build teams in the framework of the studio and develop opportunities for the students to work among themselves.
VRO: Did you let the students choose how the groups formed? Or what were the criteria?
MB: Kind of a lottery actually! So it was another form of experience that I gained, another kind of knowledge about a new field of teaching. At first, it was an activity distant from the university spaces, private almost, because I was not involved in the structure of the academy and I didn’t have any title at that time, I wasn’t either nominated Ph.D. or professor, I was just a graduate from the Academy.
VRO: You were a professional artist.
MB: Yeah, and it was quite an interesting passage for me getting to know the ways of teaching.
When the number of students reduced a bit the following year, I established an exam system for the studio. To be clear, the exam was just like a conversation, but from sixty students it went down to thirty, maybe because some of them started to feel a bit scared. Being in Poznań, we started to collaborate with other institutions like other local universities, or even an important shopping mall, and the students were working on projects related to different contexts and spaces, and different relationships with people. 2009 could be considered my big comeback to Poland—after Tate’s project—and I started to be recognized, so it was easy to use my name and my position in the art system to bring in circulation the work of the students, that’s also when we started to have a conversation and collaborate with different academies worldwide.
VRO: Is it at this point that you moved the studio to Warsaw?
MB: Yes, I was offered the job in Warsaw, at the media department, and it was a time when I was already slowly getting tired of train travels to Poznań, because often that means that you arrive at the station, then maybe trains are late, so you have to stand in front of the train board waiting—during the winter that can be challenging. When they offered me this position it was quite interesting, because once I got it, I felt a different kind of responsibility. In Poznań I was very much outside of the structural logic of the Academy, I was just coming, meeting students, without really meeting any other professors, just doing my work, and then going back to Warsaw. I had different kinds of feelings towards the Warsaw Academy; it was the school where I graduated, therefore I decided I was going to reform the school, to open the school.
When I started to teach there, I started the program together with the Museum of Modern art in Warsaw, and we named it Open Academy. With the support of the museum we invited different artists and art historians, for lectures, workshops, and so on, but the academy at that time was not prepared at all for this kind of experience because it was something new, it was too much.
VRO: I know what you mean, I guess that’s something I can relate to, because that’s also part of what I’m experiencing in my professional career as an educator in the Art Academy, and part of the reason why I decided to develop South of Imagination.
MB: I and another professor were the only present in the meetings, together with twenty, maybe thirty students. We carried on, but we found out that the ground was not ready for this kind of program which was bringing something new in terms of educational strategies. What I noticed about the Academy is that it is still pretty much stuck on traditional forms of teaching, maintaining a master-servant relation structure indefinitely. But that’s how the Academy is.
Little by little I understood that I wasn’t going to change the Academy, I wasn’t going to change the department, but what I could do was to work hard and intensely, transforming the students within the program of the studio. This is something we have been working on for more than ten years in Warsaw, trying to change things a little, trying to bring different values to the educational model, like horizontal thinking rather than imposing hierarchies. When you talk about one artist-one student relationships, it feels different from the way we are teaching. We look at the group, and we are talking about groups because I tend to believe that an artist it’s not just a lonely rider. Specifically, in our times we should look for a system of communication between artists, art critics, historians, curators, and so on. We should aim at developing a collective circle of communications, not focusing on individual needs, but work with groups and create the opportunity to meet and talk to each other. And let me say that in the last year this has become a little bit complicated because of this e-learning, which definitely does not bring the same energy.