The point of Autograph’s first artist course wasn’t to be a ‘finishing school’ for radical pedagogies, but respite from those structures to rethink creative practice and education during crisis. Ali Eisa and Alberto Duman reflect on building an alternative arts course in a pandemic.
There is little doubt that this has been a year of crisis, acutely affecting both artists and the institutions that have traditionally provided formal arts education. In response to these challenges, Autograph’s Learning and Participation Manager, Ali Eisa, worked with artist and educator Alberto Duman to create a platform to explore what an alternative to university art school could be. Ali and Alberto’s aim was to set up an online environment for collaborative creative learning, exploring themes of rights, care and future over a 12-week course. They called it PILOT (Platform for Independent Learning Online Together) and brought together 18 artists and six guest speakers to share ideas and experiences, and create new work.
The PILOT participants made incredible artwork during the course, which we will be sharing on our blog in the coming weeks. In this first post, Ali and Alberto reflect on arts education, turmoil, rights, care and connection, alongside portraits by artist and PILOT member Chris Miller introducing the course participants. Thank you to everyone who took part, helped spread the word about the course, and supported us. This was something new for Autograph, at a time when even the old ways of doing things are rapidly changing.
ICYMI, we previously published an interview with Ali and Alberto: Care, Crisis and Arts Education.
Ali Eisa: PILOT was developed in response to the upheavals of the pandemic and its detrimental effects on formal education, such as university-based art schools. We both work in universities and have seen these impacts first-hand over the past few months, with students and lecturers increasingly isolated and under significant pressure.
Alberto Duman: Yes, I think there has been a great deal of trauma and pain travelling through our educational spaces in between institutional and human frames of memory, experience and understanding. The sticky matter of discomfort and dissociation worked through an accumulated narrative of fees and monetization, of lost purposes of pedagogy and care in art schools, of micro-aggression at management level, of hours and days of pastoral care spent shoring up the shortcomings of what we mean and do and say about an art education in times of change, as if the world mattered.
Mike Davis reminded us in the midst of the first wave of the pandemic: ‘Corona walks through the front door as a familiar monster’. The simultaneous surge of Black Lives Matter activity, which burst into planetary action in the midst of the summer, compounded the antigenic monstrosity of Covid-19 with a bigger human consciousness shake-up, and deepened the discourse around the pandemic as it was still in progress. It was as if all the intimated horror of things to come for those who felt them and experienced them, either consciously or unconsciously for some time, folded into the upheavals of the present.
AE: Yes, and this led us to thinking: ‘if not now, when?’ for opening up an alternative space for arts education – and PILOT was our answer. How do you think the course opened up new ways of thinking about and doing arts education differently?
AD: In some ways there is nothing really that new about PILOT and that is why it worked. We simply enabled the manifestation of desires that we have treasured intimately for a long time to act up as principles for a wished-for reality. Through Autograph, we were able to put in practice what we were taught as ‘radical pedagogies’ and make-believe them into existence.
Fuelled and charged by all those signs of a conjuncture shaping up in the present, we set aside accreditation, assignments and assessments in favour of a pedagogy of shared knowledge and shared learning, adopted from the many voices that we came to understand as messengers to an art school that wishes to exist.
In other words, we took out all the key components of the structure of art degrees in university settings whilst embracing its repressed inner calling, as an act of hope. Not as higher-level aspirations quashed by the pragmatism of the educational sector, nor as gestures towards radical / critical knowledge in academic and curatorial forums, but as actual blueprints for a kind of teaching and learning and care that we simply could not wait anymore to be a part of in our lives, in the here and now.
“I guess I would just say that I care deeply about education and I think this is one of the first experiences in my life of a genuine educational space and that's kind of a sad statement as I'm 29 years old, been through a master's degree and this is the most I've learned, the best I've learned ever.” – Elisabeth
AE: The course was structured around three themes: Rights, Care and Future, each with two invited guest speakers who brought radical (and often contrasting) perspectives to the table. What kind of discussions and creative responses did these themes and speakers open up for the participants?
AD: We never expected our participants to be ‘theme-ready’ in any academic sense. There was no reading list or name checking of bell hooks and Paulo Freire to be confronted with at the beginning (although those inspirations did eventually come in). When we proposed the themes to our participants, they came at them with their own richness, depth and singular tone of voice. Their subjectivities were the real curriculum, and the themes acted as the channels for their own ways of inhabiting the learning space. A space to witness a remarkable body of experiences - we had births, losses, major surgeries, tears, some powerful silences, schedule spills and oversights, as well as many moments of wonder, joy and love for each other.
AE: This was really important wasn’t it? The honesty and candid nature of each participant bringing their own life stories and knowledge to expand and enrich the provocations of the speakers. The point of PILOT was not to be a kind of ‘finishing school’ for radical pedagogists, to then be re-inserted back into the educational structures they emerged from, but to be a breathing space away from those structures, with room for respite and freedom to reflect on and pursue practice differently.
AD: I think because of that way of bringing them together, the participants’ discussions and responses have been astonishing and immediately grounded in the particularity of their experiences. They were already the experts of their own learning as they entered the sessions, and the invited speakers recognised and honoured the gathering’s soulful disposition with their generosity, attentiveness and care.
I’m thinking for example of the productive gap opened up in our first session on Rights, between the call for an abolitionist stance by Lola Olufemi and the confessional language of Phoebe Boswell. And, how one of the participants’ experiences of a protracted medical condition grounded the whole conversation, introducing a dilemma of positioning: where are the embodied histories of real subjects in relation to the demands of activist campaign targets and the symbolic power of representation in art?
During PILOT sessions, the spontaneous interactions between speakers and participants produced unexpected and precious moments for learning and sharing.
For example, Cassie Thornton’s presentation on care was abruptly uprooted by unexpected events surrounding a court case for the murder of an indigenous woman in her city of Thunder Bay, Canada. This altered the script of the whole session into an affective atmosphere, through which Kate Adams’ own stories about her life and work with people with complex needs, and a number of the participants’ personal experiences resonated in hugely amplified ways. Or when, in the midst of the Future session with Gregory Sholette and Jemma Desai, everyone in the room experienced that sharp pang of the moment of deadlock, which afflicts all those contending with irreconcilable positions between being and living, caught up between the path of truth-telling and liberation and the administrative complex of professional conduct which summons all forces against those who dare to follow those paths.
“I think PILOT reflects its own propositions – of rights, care and future – because, you know, it’s like ‘who has the rights to express outside of institutions’ and then creating a space where we care enough to be able to do that. And then the future basically, is up to all of us, isn't it? What we do with what we've cultivated here, collectively and individually as well. I don’t for a minute underestimate how important it is.” – Kiran
AE: I really think the speakers opened up the themes in provocative ways and this led to all manner of creative works produced by participants in response. In some instances, taking the time to reconsider and think deeply about their creative practices, or in other cases experimenting with entirely new approaches. It seemed liked PILOT gave people the confidence and permission to call themselves ‘artists’ or ‘writers’ having not done that before. This felt all the more important given how much pressure people are under in the current circumstances, facing multiple barriers including health issues and home-schooling for instance. Are you surprised at how much creative work was produced during the course and the care people took to make it?
AD: Yes, it has been an unexpected shower of beautiful gifts! We had some reasonable expectations of what might be possible to achieve in terms of production due to the duration of the programme, its intensity and the multiple barriers you highlighted. But our expectations could not possibly take into account the investment that each one of our participants would end up making and the quality of the outcomes as a whole.
In hindsight, we can see that the sense of mutual excitement and genuine interest in each other's presence (yes, online ‘presence’ does exist!) multiplied the energy levels within each session exponentially and amplified one’s sense of being in the group.
The high degree of rapport amongst them spun the caring for each other into the making for each other, materialising in words and deeds the axis of mutual attention and mindfulness of each other that characterised the time spent in sessions and the time spent between sessions, thinking of each other and opening up criss-cross paths of attention and regard.
“I've spent most of my young adult life thinking of myself in a very specific way, as more of a researcher, more of a campaigner. Basically, what PILOT did for me was to give me a space where I have people to just be like “actually what you do is worthy of being felt, is worthy of being received, not just by your friends who like you because they're your friends, but by a group of people who actually receive, who actually looked at me and considered me as an artist."
"The power it gave me to say 'yeah, I'm an artist'! … I'm just like, 'yep, I need to change my life'! How do I make space in my life to create? This is the way I want to exist in the world and the way in which I want to give to the world.” – Laurie
AE: Yes, I would say more than seeking tangible outcomes, PILOT worked towards creating that space for participants to flourish. It was much more about the process than the product - although I’m very excited to present the wonderful videos, music, writings and the other riches participants produced on Autograph’s blog in the coming weeks.
This leads me to another reflection, about how, in many ways, PILOT was all about the people in the (virtual) room. The course attracted an incredibly diverse range of creative people: different ages and backgrounds, different levels of practice, with different interests and ways of working. It was this rich variety – across identities, experiences of health and disability, race and class, living in different countries and drawing on a broad range of artistic practices, cultural heritages and political commitments – coming together which really shaped the kinds of conversation and creative work that emerged.
AD: We stated as a principle in the welcome pack for the course: ‘PILOT will be its participants’.
It was the sound of our voices that first carried our mutual recognition of who was in the room, broaching the affinities that were to develop throughout the course in such remarkable ways and forging bonds built on trust and on the knowledge of each other’s yet unspoken promises and commitment.
If I can allow myself some name-checking (!) it brings to mind this quote from bell hooks: "My intent is to bear witness so as to challenge the prevailing notion that it is simply too difficult to make connections—this is not so. Those of us who want to make connections, who want to cross boundaries, do.” 
“It touched me that I felt so connected with other people and I hope other people connected with me.” – Sophia
“I wanted that connection, I wanted to be able to challenge myself. I wanted to also honour the 17-year-old me who knew that she was an artist but you know, had to work and had to do other stuff. And I think that PILOT has helped me with that and has supported me. I've met some mentors, some peers, some other people that I know will have my back, if I need help with an idea or just how I'm feeling.” – Nana
AE: Connection is really the fundamental basis for any true learning space and is exactly what we have been challenged with in these unprecedented times. Many of the course attendees reflected that PILOT was unique because of the intimate connections they made with others and they felt safe enough to open up and explore their personal experiences during the sessions. It was humbling to see people talk about their lives in such brave and honest terms, week in week out. Why do you think this intimacy and trust between participants emerged?
AD: I would say the participants were “invited to bring their whole selves...invited to come with their pains and their traumas…” 
The affective atmospheres of the present (with reference to Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter especially) have cut deep into our consciousness as artistic and cultural practitioners. Imagination and anxiety got entangled into new formations, simultaneously awakening previous ones, all in the space of isolation and hardship, producing moments of dread and flashes of epiphany in equal measures.
Within such circumstances, to look out for the other, to reimagine our relationship with others in different ways, to test our own moral structures and to raise new scaffolding to prop up things we want to assert, in regards to the horrors of the present, can be a reflex rather than a fully conscious decision. Maybe it was this reflex that initially brought our PILOTs together?
But as we moved into the actual space of the programme, I sensed that the bonds we were all looking for were those of intimacy and trust above all. Perhaps we all dared our hopes for that space to exist, to come into being, and tell us that another world is not just possible, but that it already exists.
Perhaps the undeclared fourth theme of PILOT was ‘love’: the nurturing of each other’s presence and respect for each other’s pain and trauma, the wilful acts of giving up fear and learned helplessness, the rejection of dissociation as defence mechanism and the embrace of emotional intelligence and academic sensibility as mutually nourishing life learning vessels.
“The most powerful aspect in this course is knowing we are all very different, we all have our own narrative and we all have our own ideas, but somehow there was space for this collective narrative to flow. There was respect and then there was a genuine, good sense of intimacy. Everyone had to respect everyone and there was no need for that to be imposed. We all knew we just had to respect each other and that's beautiful.” – Henrique
AE: Our call out for PILOT used a beautiful quote you introduced to us from Raymond Williams: “To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing”. I think this rang true throughout the process, where often sensitive and difficult conversations felt energising and productive – I think someone described it as "exhausting, but in the right way".
AD: No matter on what terms we opened the doors of PILOT’s learning space, or what we hoped to gain from it or give to it, the actual experiences of being together throughout the 12 weeks of its programme were a collection of truly overwhelming memorable gifts, heart-warming gems, and yes, emotionally and intellectually humbling.
Maybe the success of PILOT comes from the distributed agency of this act of shaping: we all simply aspired, in our different ways, to make that level of recognition the very first checkpoint of our gathering. An acknowledgement that what bell hooks calls the ‘world as classroom’  can overlap with the ‘classroom as world’: I See You, You See Me. We Are Here.
“Maybe there's something about it feeling quite non-hierarchical in the way it's been structured and everyone is learning from each other. A sort of alternative space to learn. It's just been really nourishing at a time where it's felt so stressful in lots of other ways, you know, between the pandemic, people's home life, work, everything.” – Nadia
AE: We wanted PILOT to be a catalyst for these artists to better understand their work and be stimulated by leading practice and research material to take it further. We wanted them to leave with a sense of purpose to guide them in their futures. Do you think the course has achieved this ambition?
AD: One way of describing what we wanted to achieve with PILOT is: To enthuse, empower and help develop their becoming as creative practitioners, capable of seeing through “barriers and walls…things that prevent people from coming together”. 
It would be overreaching the power and scope of any short-term educational project to claim to be able to transform one’s approach to practice and worldview. But the nurturing of learning operates also on multiple timelines: knowing our limits and making decisions to invest our time together rather than on delivery of pre-packaged course material was a given from the start. The material eventually did accumulate - a PILOT library now exists, and all our sessions are recorded and captioned for future returns - but it was not the condition for them to be in that space.
Freed of obligations, but committed to care, the boundaries of our being together stretched to accommodate everyone as a ‘pilot’ of other spaces to be with and be a part of in the future. Indeed, to go ahead and initiate other PILOT-like learning spaces: figuring out and passing on.
AE: It’s also brilliant how in quite a short time PILOT created a close network of peers and potential future colleagues that can continue to inspire, challenge and support each other now that the course is finished.
AD: Yes, the proximity is less tight now, and the world slips in and conspires to close in the gaps between us, but the bonds made in the connections of PILOT are still amongst us and will emerge again in many shapes and forms.
"I really feel that PILOT would have been completely different if one person wasn't here. It's really a sum of everybody's knowledge, talent and expertise and I think I will remember lessons from every single person that I'll take forward.” – Georgia
AE: As well as sharing the work made by participants over the coming weeks on Autograph’s blog, we are currently developing an online event to bring the conversations, ideas and energy of PILOT to a wider audience. And, of course, we’re planning to run PILOT again later this year. So an exciting opportunity to meet more artists, create this learning space anew and go through the rich process of exchange again.
If you are interested in taking part in PILOT 2021, you can register your interest and read more about the course here.
 p. 7, Mike Davis, ‘The Monster Enters’, New Left Review, Mar-Apr 2020.
 p. 11, bell hooks, ‘Teaching Community, A Pedagogy of Hope’, Routledge, 2003.
 Angela Davis in ‘Colonial Repercussions - Angela Davis and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: Planetary Utopias’, 24th June 2018. See here. Last accessed on 14th February 2021.
 p.18, bell hooks, ‘Teaching Community, A Pedagogy of Hope’, Routledge, 2003.
 Rian Brown and Geoff Pingree (dir.), ‘The Foreigner's Home: An exploration of Toni Morrison's vision and work’, Ice Lens Picture Film, 2018.
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Banner image: Anna Jane McIntyre, Digital Collage Featuring Portraits by Chris Miller, 2021.
Images on page: Chris Miller, Portraits of PILOT Members, 2021.
Autograph is a place to see things differently. Since 1988, we have championed photography that explores issues of race, identity, representation, human rights and social justice, sharing how photographs reflect lived experiences and shape our understanding of ourselves and others.Donate Join our mailing list