Blog / Texts

Care, crisis and arts education

Alberto Duman x Ali Eisa

POSTED: 04 September 2020

Ali Eisa and Alberto Duman discuss why alternative platforms are urgent now for arts education

Autograph is about to launch our first online course, PILOT: Rights, Care & Future, offering mentoring and development for artists in these times of uncertainty. We envision PILOT as a platform for collaborative learning and exchange, addressing issues of exclusion, marginalisation and precariousness. Want to join us? The deadline to apply is 9 September.

The creators of the course, Autograph’s Ali Eisa and artist Alberto Duman, discuss the problems in university art education, and why they developed PILOT as a response.

Ali Eisa: PILOT is the first short course that we’ve run at Autograph and it comes out of an ongoing conversation about rights, care and the future for artistic practice and education. It seems urgent for this course to take place now, in light of the major upheavals and challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic and campaigns for racial justice. Let’s expand on this, why this course, and why now?

Alberto Duman: Over the past few years, as artists and educators, You and I have been discussing the urgent need for alternative platforms of artistic practice and education. As teachers in higher education, too often the energy and enthusiasm towards our students was dissipated by an institutional structure that makes those bonds increasingly difficult to foster and maintain. We had both become quite disillusioned by mainstream higher education courses and the increasingly marketised politics of universities and arts education.

There are multiple barriers these formal spaces create for aspiring creative practitioners: in terms of unaffordable fees and incurring life-long debts; the relevance and (lack of) diversity of curriculums; the necessary time and space for imaginative learning and deeper engagements with practice to take place. There are so many people out there who either can’t access formal courses or feel like it’s not for them, but more than ever need spaces to share work and ideas - and to learn with others in order to develop their practice.

When the Covid-19 pandemic broke through and the Black Lives Matter movement re-emerged in full force, we sensed that in the midst of this unique moment the time had come for us to get serious about making PILOT happen. Our conversations became more focussed on the issues we felt were most pressing now and in the future. The pandemic is having such a major impact across society in terms of health, the economy and working practices, affecting our forms of communication and social relationships. All creative practitioners are having to rethink these things in our lives and as artists: responding to these changes calls out for radical ways of reimagining how to practice, how to organise and work collaboratively, how to care and create community through our work.

So, we built a course that is accessible, open to practitioners of all backgrounds and levels of experience, that creates a rich space for artistic, intellectual and political exchange - building a community and support structure. This felt like the kind of platform we need to convene at the current moment.  

"There are so many people out there who either can't access formal courses or feel like it's not for them, but more than ever need spaces to share work and ideas"

Alberto Duman:  We’re structuring the course around 3 core themes: rights, care and future. Maybe we can expand on the thinking behind this, and why such ideas are crucial for artists and practitioners to engage with in their work now and into the future?

Ali Eisa: As our desire to open up an alternative space for education developed, we both spoke about themes that made sense for us, the ones around which a teaching mission could converge.

At Autograph, I’ve been part of running conferences and a professional network around rights-focused arts practice and engagement work. This has opened up a unique space for exchange and dialogue around how the arts can embed human rights, how our work can address structural questions of marginalisation and discrimination in society, and how we advocate for and create social change through participation and community building. Your work, Alberto - running the Art & Social Practice course at Middlesex University London - has a real affinity with this. You work with students to develop a critical voice on what a socially engaged art practice can be in today’s world, and how to work collaboratively and ethically with communities.

Notions of care have been at the centre of all this too. Autograph has been deeply engaged in conversations around race and disability rights and justice. As an organisation, we’ve been exploring how collaborations between the arts and social care can centre disabled people, fostering connection across difference, build care and empathy, and challenge prevailing hierarchies between able / disabled, participant / professional, vulnerable / privileged. Given how the current pandemic has exacerbated issues of inequality for marginalised communities, particularly people of colour and those with health conditions and disabilities, it’s crucial for artists and practitioners to engage deeply and critically with issues of care in their practice.

As well as addressing what’s happening now, it’s essential to think through the future too. Alberto, we talked about this course offering up a space of hope and agency in a difficult climate where it’s easy to become isolated and despondent about the challenges we face. How can art and creative practice open up new spaces for imagining radically different futures? What could this look and feel like?

How can our work begin to make this visible? Who might this bring together in a communal space and how can that break open the conventional, often elitist structures of arts and pedagogical institutions? Big ambitions, but ones we hope could begin to be addressed by a new course that offers a platform to think through these issues together!

Ali Eisa: We created PILOT conscious that radical change is needed in arts education. It’s an alternative curriculum and collaborative space for participants to share and learn together. What are we hoping people will take away from it?

Alberto Duman:  I always maintain that we should practice art - or any other action in the world - as if the world mattered. By that, I mean that the education of art far too often remains obsessed with its own history and narration, its own ideas of what radicality means, its own context… and this can constrain rather than liberate those willing to spend time to understand their own creative potential as part of the world.

In the meantime, contemporary art practices cross boundaries in and out of art frames all the time. This richness is what we should be concentrating on, together with a student-centred approach that recognises their subjectivities as soul-searching engines in an uncertain world.

Those of us teaching in art in higher education have had drastic changes imposed on us, structurally and by managerial governance. In the process, teachers have spent too much time firefighting rather than asking ourselves ‘what kind of art school do we believe in here and now?’, or ‘are we truly listening and spending enough time with our students to learn and understand?’

How can we provide alternatives to those wanting to learn in the world other choices outside of the current university-based art school? How do we salvage our vocational skills as teachers from being wrecked in the university structure, without losing the vision of wanting art schools to exist and be different? For them to be for as many people as possible?

With the PILOT course, Ali and I want to keep open these necessary and complex questions. Maintaining a variety of viewpoints and experiences is key to PILOT and furthering the opportunities of participants, through mentoring, and guest thinkers and practitioners.

We want the artists who come through PILOT to better understand the intellectual positions in their work, be stimulated by leading practice and research material, and develop lasting peers that inspire and challenge. We want them to leave with a sense of purpose to guide them in their futures.

Find out how to apply to PILOT here – we welcome artists and creative practitioners at any stage of their career.


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Banner image: Detail from Alberto Duman, Future Now in a While, 2020