Interview with Camille Barton

What does the art school of the future look like? How does it smell, sound and taste? Which values are central to it and how do they take shape? What if you could dream freely?

The present confronts us with major interpersonal, societal, political and climatic issues. Changes are needed to leave a safe, fair and livable world for future generations. The arts are more important than ever. When we look at the world around us from an artistic, creative perspective, we learn to see where the pain and the beauty lie, where the opportunity is, and where we can think again. But are the educational institutions in which artists and art educators are trained still suitable for the new systems, questions and relationships that we need to be prepared for the future?

Els Cornelis and Catelijne de Muijnck spoke to a number of students, teachers, scientists, thinkers and makers about what the Art School of the Future could look like. The interviews cover a variety of topics, from social justice, decolonized curricula and inclusive pedagogy to manners, methodologies, values, power structures and the school building.

From the beginning of January, APRIA will publish a weekly interview. The interviewees are a diverse and talented bunch with unique and valuable perspectives: Camille Barton, Jeanne van Heeswijk, Daniela Fais, Louwrien Wijers, Pascal Gielen, Sophie Krier, Annette Krauss, Willem van Weelden, Jack Bardwell, Michelle Teran and Pascale Gatzen.

With special thanks to Barbara Collé, Demi van Kuijk, Marina Sasseron, Karlijn Oussoren, Manon Plomp and Milo Vermeire.


Camille Barton is an artist or, as they call themselves from time to time, a ‘renegade researcher.’ Barton works on the intersection of embodiment, healing justice and drug policy. With a background in activism, dance and immersive theatre, youth work and trauma work,1 they led the ‘Collective Liberation Project’ from 2015 to 2020, an organisation providing workshops, training and consultancy on embodied approaches to anti-racism for non-profits and arts organisations.

In this capacity, they were introduced to Sandberg Institute. Subsequently, Judith Leysner formed Unsettling Rietveld Sandberg,2 which aims to unsettle the Rietveld Academy, Amsterdam, and Sandberg Institute, Amsterdam, by offering intersectional programming, workshops and events in order to move towards truly inclusive structures within the institutes. Camille is currently the director of the temporary M.A. programme Ecologies of Transformation, in which participants research how art making and embodiment can create social change.


What comes to your mind’s eye when asked to visualise the school the future? Or perhaps it is the case you already manifested your dream school by setting up the temporary Master’s Ecologies of Transformation?

Camille Barton (CB): In many ways, this course is the dream programme that I wish I could have taken. And I feel like it is just the starting point.

My dream for education, and particularly for arts education, is that it is rooted in care. Not just care for the participants in a programme but also the faculty and the way the institution functions in general.

Secondly, for me purpose is really important. In the Western art world, it is taken for granted that there is no set meaning or purpose within art. It is seen as a sign of individual freedom that art can be interpreted any way and that people should just do what they want. I think there is beauty in free expression, but if that is the main thread within Western art, in many ways it feels like a missed opportunity to me.

For many indigenous and traditional cultures, art is connected to world building and is a way to reproduce cosmologies, as well as create pathways to belonging, in ways that support relationships. I think it is a shame that the Western art world prioritises lack of shared meaning, rather than trying to create more belonging and connection. Art has the power to support collective purpose or values, such as being in the right relationship with the earth or our kin. I feel art is most impactful when the maker is clear about their purpose and what they are trying to communicate. This becomes particularly important when the art is aimed at creating some form of social change or community engagement.

The next aspect I want to name involves interdisciplinary exploration. I think this is really important. It is a feature of colonisation to put things in silos or categories and present them as disconnected from each other. In the West, many great thinkers were interdisciplinary. Leonardo da Vinci, for example, was an artist, as well as a scientist, and active within political economy (a mixture of economics, politics and sociology). The contemporary education system in most Western nations rarely encourages students to have that breadth of entangled knowledge. I think this is a shame because we are living in a world that has a lot of complexity, with many challenges that require entangled solutions.

I hope that arts education and arts educators can deconstruct the vision of art as this special, elite area of education in its own silo, and see how it is inherently connected to the sciences, to politics, to environmental issues. To encourage artists to see themselves as workers who could benefit from being in conversation and relationship with other workers in different disciplines. 

Perhaps the world is asking at this moment in time that we do not think of ourselves as stuck in different categories, but that we look across boundaries and are open to combinations and fluidities. Because the questions we are facing are that urgent and that important. Would you see this as a kind of natural evolution?

CB: I do not necessarily believe in linear progression—this idea that things are better now than they ever were. Even if we just think about gender and the role of women in society in Europe, in some ways we are worse off now than in the 1500s. Silvia Federici speaks to this in Caliban and the Witch. We do not have a widespread understanding of this, but at that time in Europe, there were female doctors and lawyers, as well as pretty strict laws in many states against sexual violence. So, that is just one example which troubles this idea that things are much better for women now in the West.

I think there is a remembering that is taking place with the tragedy and disruption of the pandemic. A lot of people are having time to reflect [during the pandemic] on what is important and on what has not been working well. More and more people from different parts of the political spectrum seem to realise that this economic system does not work for most people, and [that] the ways we live and work do not support most of us to feel healthy and satisfied. So, I think because of this questioning that is happening, there is inevitably going to be a lot more pressure on different parts of our society to change and reckon with themselves. Within that process, I imagine there will continue to be a re-orienting towards ways of being that support life and right relationship, with collaboration between and across disciplines.

You were mentioning care as the first characteristic in the vision on your future art school. How is that related to embodiment?

CB: We are treated in many institutions and societies as if our bodies are machines that do not have needs beyond those that serve production. When we introduce care as an organising or working principle, we operate with the understanding that we are all divine beings that need to feel looked after, accepted and feel part of the collective. A care ethos makes it more enjoyable for people to work in an environment or to feel able to participate towards a shared goal.

Institutions, including art schools, are much more related to this machine logic, where there is not much awareness of people’s personal lives, their care commitments, or other work responsibilities they might have. Many of us are on part time freelance contracts and this creates some precarity. The lack of care might seem like just small things, but overall these actions or inactions build up and the impacts ripple out to the students. As faculty or facilitators, we will not have as much capacity to be with them in the ways they might need because we are also not receiving the support we need from our institutions. It’s all connected.

Tying it back to embodiment again: the more stress we are experiencing, the bigger an impact that this will have on our bodies, impacting our health and our overall well-being. Care is necessary for the collective wellness and health. This goes beyond an individual framing of health. It is about the collective capacity for a relational ecosystem or organisation to function well.

What kind of building would such a school where care is key ideally be located in?

CB: My ideal building would play with indoor and outdoor space quite a lot. It would be in and around lots of trees. Circles and spirals would be dominant shapes in the building design, rather than squares. We would have food and medicine growing on site that the school could use in the meals made at the canteen. I envision a garden or space for outdoor learning to take place, especially in the months with nicer weather. I would also want the space to be warm and inviting, encouraging people to take care of their bodies. For instance, providing the possibility to sit on the floor with cushions, or lie down, lots of natural light rather than halogen bulbs. The building or space would allow the people to feel connected to the ecosystem by perhaps using natural materials or building techniques (such as straw bale or cob) as much as possible, and playing with regenerative architecture.3 The design of the building mirrors the intention of the school to support regenerative culture.

Would you call them students or would you call them differently? Would you call them participants, for instance?

CB: Yes, my aim is to say participants. Sometimes ‘students’ comes out of my mouth, but I consider them to be participants.

And what would be the official name, then, for the tutors or lecturers within your programme?

CB: I mostly refer to them as facilitators. Participants and facilitators.

In the introductory film on the Ecologies of Transformation,4 you call the participants ‘birds’ and the facilitators ‘trees’ fitting the metaphor of the ecosystem.

CB: I have not called them birds to their faces directly, but within our ecosystem for the course, that is definitely a way of thinking about how knowledge is being shared, transmitted and redistributed.

Could you describe this metaphor, with the mycelium networks, the trees, and the birds, that you used to set up the programme?

CB: We use a biomimicry model in Ecologies of Transformation and think about how we can replicate the relationships in nature within the course.

We think of the faculty as trees: we have banyan trees and baobab trees. Banyan trees have these incredible spreading roots and can grow branches up from the earth but also down from other branches. So, you have these incredible entangled connections. The faculty consistently present with the participants through the two years are banyans. Then you have those that are more seasonal or coming for shorter amounts of time. We think of them as Baobab trees. The mycelial network of the research connects all of the trees together in the ecosystem. So, there is a transfer of knowledge and care and nutrients. So that we feel connected in this holding together of the process.

We think of the students or the participants as birds who are eating the fruit of the trees, flying around the ecosystem and as they are releasing their waste (ideas/processing), the seeds contained produce more trees and different plants that then grow in the ecosystem.

It is a way of conceptualising how we are all connected and engaging in this research web which is somewhat countering the banking model of education, which is more common in arts education and mainstream education.

Do you think the people you gather around you within such a metaphor build different relations than in these more institutional descriptions of formal relations?

CB: I think it is lovely to have a different framing to explore. We are still very early in the course so it is definitely an ongoing experiment and it will be lovely to see what comes out of it at different stages.

We are committed to operating in the ways that we want to, and we have a lot of freedom from the institution we are still part of to do so. You could see it as these semi-permeable membranes. Some ways of working are specific and aligned with our framing and others maybe have to adapt more to how the institution functions in order for us to operate on a daily basis.

And how does this metaphor show in the programme at this moment? What are the ideas to make it specific? Or perhaps it is too soon to answer this question?

CB: It is a bit too soon to answer that. I think that with this approach, there are inherently going to be more questions than answers. At least for this part. [laughs]

What I can say is that we work with a spiral model in our approach to social change which starts off with the self in the centre of the spiral, then ripples out to the community and the wider world.

The participants are coming from different worlds, with different backgrounds. They are learning from each other about different experiences and perspectives about how to engage with social change and art. I believe that will continue. They also seem to be noticing the vocabulary that is developing between them around engaging with these themes and connecting personal stories to something that is a bit bigger than themselves alone. Other than that, it is a bit too early for me to be specific.

How do you document this process?

CB: The participants are keeping records of their personal experiences. I am keeping records of my observations about how the process is going and of all their work. I am also in the process of writing a book,5 which is setting the stage for how these ideas came about for me to develop the framing for the course. There are different things in the pipeline.

You were referring to the semi-permeable membrane between Ecologies of Transformation and the larger institute. How do you deal with possible tensions you experience between, for instance, your organic approach and the formalisation, such as assessments, that the institute requires?

CB: Due to assessment being a requirement, we have to engage with this during the course. I think the most important thing has been around how we frame the assessment, moving away from a model of competition to one that is about shared learning opportunities. We are also thinking about developing a consensual agreement about what critique or criticism looks like. This is an area within our schools that has been taken for granted to an extent, that everyone knows a) what critique is and b) how to do it in a way that is generative and is not just tearing people down. It is important to be on the same page with each other about how critique is going to be shared and what the objective is with the critique, in order to allow the participants to grow and develop.

And this is a process in which participants are involved?

CB: Two participants, Jules and Jerrold, suggested a text that gives a good framing of how to offer critique in a way that is generative.6 We are going to look at this, have a discussion in the group, and come to some shared agreements. We already have similar processes like that around community agreements for how we engage with each other as a group. It is not so much of a departure from that. We can always revisit; anyone can ask for its revisiting throughout. So, it is a shared responsibility to be checking in about what is working well and what might need to shift for the group dynamic. Is it still in alignment with regards to what is happening now?

I also liked the idea of accountability, and composting and transforming it into another resource if it is not working for the group. Could you tell us a bit more?

CB: Sure. We do not necessarily have good or useful mechanisms to deal with conflict as it arises in our societies in general. I felt it was important to engage with this. Rather than seeing conflict as this surprising bad thing that happens, I propose seeing it as inevitable and as about the different needs that people have. How can we give ourselves tools to navigate this, and to get to a stage where we can compost or break down the parts that are not useful? Those parts that maybe relate to the frustration or the moment where we realise: ‘Oh, I do have this need that is not being met.’ How do we get to the nutrients, the pieces that are useful and allow us to be more in connection and to move to a different place?

It is not something that will just magically materialise for everyone after the two years of the course. But this is hopefully a starting point to build on other practices that participants have been using to deal with conflict. We have some sessions with Kai Cheng Thom7 on loving justice, a specific embodied approach to conflict resolution. In year one, we have used a practice called ‘forum,’8 which is one way of engaging with conflict resolution. More recently, the participants have been working with Mar Maiques on conflict transformation using a play based and Gestalt influenced approach. We will continue to explore different models. The idea is to have more skills around this because we seem to need it as humans.

How would you approach ownership within the art school?

CB: Ownership of what specifically?

A lot of students do not seem to see themselves as the owners of their own growth or development but behave more like consumers. In art education, there is a lot of discussion on how to make students the owners of their own development and develop ideas about what they want from a school. But this seems to be already inherently present in your model.

I hope so. I think the model creates that. By being in a neoliberal institutional context, paying for education, this consumer dynamic is there. I think the participants within the programme do feel a lot of agency over their learning experience, which is great, and hopefully that will continue to increase as the programme goes on.

Jeanne van Heeswijk, an artist working on community and social art, and our guest in this interview series, considers themes such as ‘values’ or ‘labour’ as specific materials to work with. If you have a different idea of what art can do, play a role in this social, political, economic context, then it is probably essential to introduce other instruments or materials into art education. Could you see how some of the principles that you work with can translate into new topics within bachelor’s studies?

CB: I think it can be incorporated at any level really, but I do think the limitations can come with having a curriculum that is very set. For example, the basic year of the Rietveld wherein every student has to go through various departments and get to grips with these different mediums. But I think, even then, there are still mechanisms to allow for more participatory education or feedback mechanisms.

I know that in some institutions in the UK there are yearly surveys for asking students about their experiences. One would hope that this information informs changes or improvements in the school. But for me personally, once a year is way too little to have feedback. I would hope that there will be an opportunity at least once every semester, if not once every couple of months. So that there is an ability to be in dialogue and make the changes that are possible. Of course, not everything can be thrown out; that is not practical. But a lot can be done by even just giving space to participants to understand what their needs are and to be in dialogue about what is possible and how the faculty and the participants can work together to make a learning environment that works for more people. This can be done at any level of education.

It requires a lot of good communication and listening.

CB: Hopefully all teachers have or are open to cultivating these skills.

Do you offer special training programmes concerning communication in the programme or do you introduce certain techniques?

CB: I am not evangelical about it, as I take other influences as well, but Non Violent Communication has been quite instructive for me and really helpful. I know that Pascale Gatzen9 was working with Non Violent Communication within ArtEZ Master of Fashion as well.

I have also been influenced from my experience as a peer counsellor and by trauma-informed principles. The latter are ways of engaging in communication that will not reinforce traumatic experiences by trying to cultivate safety, collaboration and mutuality, and supporting voice choice and agency, trust, transparency, peer support and cultural humility. So, if I get into a difficult situation and I am unsure of what to do, usually there is one of those trauma-informed principles that allow me to make an intervention or respond in a way that feels aligned with my values. Communication feels like an endless rabbit hole, but definitely one I am very interested in.

And how is communication concretely practiced within the programme? How do the ‘trees,’ for instance, communicate with each other?

CB: We always begin with a check-in and an embodiment practice, so that we are being able to communicate from all of ourselves rather than from the neck up.

In terms of timing and boundaries, we try to communicate anything involving a request, a response or a change, to give at least a week’s notice—just to give people time with other commitments as well to know what is going on.

And again, just using trauma and forum principles as the main guide. I think many of the trees have their own somatic practices. So, there is a shared understanding and desire to bring the body in and to communicate in a way that supports the body being relaxed and present.

Would you embrace the implementation of this embodiment approach in every art school?

CB: I think it would be great if that is the case. But I think the framing is really important. There is a lot of corporate mindfulness, and whereas I am sure it is nice for the workers who work there, this framing is more about how do we allow you to be more efficient workers and not rock the boat too much. So, I would be interested to know more about the framing in an art school context and to find out if the use of embodiment will also ripple out in other contexts.

You use ‘pleasure activism’ within the programme.

CB: Very much so.

How do you use it and what is the core of it?

CB: For me on a personal level, the core of it is around trusting that if I am enjoying myself and if I feel satisfied with what I am doing, I am going to be able to give in a way that feels more aligned. That will have positive benefits for everything I am doing and everyone I am working with.

In terms of the course, when I was putting together the curriculum and reaching out to different trees, different faculty being involved, one of my first questions to all of them was: ‘What would be the most pleasurable for you to offer?’ instead of me saying: ‘OK, I need you to do this.’ I trust that them doing something exciting and pleasurable will also transmit and make it more enjoyable for the students and create a nicer learning container for everyone.

You also included seasonal aspects in your programme. How do you do that specifically? And what are these aspects based on?

CB: That is a great question. It is based on the rhythms of nature and the understanding that there is a continual shift with different moments for different kinds of activity and energy and different focuses. I was also influenced by the seasons within the northern hemisphere and aimed to map the flow of the curriculum in alignment with the seasons.

In the programme, we are thinking about how the different energy of the seasons, whether it is how much sunlight we are getting or how much desire there is to be outside, could mirror the content that is being explored.

In the first term when we are moving towards winter, things are decaying and changing, and we are moving into an inward space, we started doing nervous system regulation work and orienting to core concepts, spending more time thinking about the self.

In the spring and the summer, we are going to be moving outwards again, and towards the community and the wider world. And thinking about how that relates to festival culture, for example. In the summer, there will be a module on base music and sound system culture, and meeting people where they play. I cannot remember who said this to me, but it has always stuck with me: If you want to create change, you have to meet people where they work, where they pray, where they play.

I have always been interested in what it looks like to create change in work containers but also in leisure spaces. Spaces often seen as not political are not considered to be important. I think they are a powerful site for transformation and for meeting people when their guards are a little bit less up; they might be more open and receptive to explore new things. So, we will have a module in that season where there is more space to explore and put those ideas into practice.

And then in the transition from winter to spring, we will be doing a speculative science fiction and ecology course, called ‘queer eco poetics’, with Ama Josephine Budge.10 Hopefully, this will allow them to start visioning new possibilities and to think about the world they would like to see. And hopefully, this will mirror looking outside and noticing that things are starting to open again: the first signs of life after winter are coming back.

Again, an experiment that feels exciting.

Els Cornelis

Els Cornelis is a teacher/researcher/visual artist who trained as an experimental psychologist (PhD) and visual artist (B.A.) The common thread in her teaching, research and visual work can best be described as questioning social and psychological constructs. Currently, she is interested in how artistic interventions and strategies can contribute to actual social change and strengthen critical thinking, as well as critical acting within art education and (art) institutes.

At HKU, Cornelis mainly teaches at Fine Art and Design in Education and at Master of Education in Arts. In addition, she is one of the founders of the working group Roadmap to Equality in the Arts. In association with ArtEZ studium generale, she is investigating the Future of the Art School/PLURIVERSITY OF THE ARTS. As part of this project, artists, art educators, thinkers and students are invited to radically dream in order to think through alternatives. The subsequent question to all of us is how to take specific steps according to new values towards a future in which everyone feels at home.

Catelijne de Muijnck

Catelijne de Muijnck works at ArtEZ University of the Arts as programme maker for the Studium Generale and as editor of APRIA, the (online) Platform for Research Interventions of the Arts. At ArtEZ Studim Generale, she is involved in the research group Future Art School, in which visions of the art college of the future are researched and shared.

 

References
↑ 1

See, for instance: https://globalenvironments.org/toolkits/grief-toolkit/.

↑ 2

Read more about Unsettling Rietveld Sandberg here: https://unsettling-rietveldsandberg.net/about.

↑ 3

‘Regenerative architecture’ is the practice of engaging the natural world as the medium for, and generator of, the architecture. It responds to and utilises the living and natural systems that exist on a site that become the ‘building blocks’ of the architecture.

↑ 4

The introductory film to Ecologies of Transformation can be found here: https://sandberg.nl/temporary-programme-ecologies-of-transformation.

↑ 5

The book will be about play and festival culture.

↑ 6

The text is called ‘Critical Response Process: A Method for Getting Useful Feedback on Anything You Make, from Dance to Dessert’ by Liz Lerman and John Borstel.

↑ 7

More information on the approach of ‘loving justice’ of Kai Cheng Thom can be found on the personal webpage https://kaichengthom.com/ and on https://ariseembodiment.org/. This video on ‘What is loving justice?’ is also interesting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O3L3ZH3sRgI.

↑ 8

Forum is a practice to bear witness to difference and the experience of people. It was created by Zegg and Tamera (alternative communities in Europe). See more information here: https://www.zegg.de/en/program/zegg-forum/52-zegg-community/144-zegg-forum.html). At the time of publication, the group is no longer using Forum. They are experiencing conflict transformation sessions with Mar Maiques Diaz, who is a Gestalt therapist and uses a play-based and peace-building approach to conflict transformation.

↑ 9

Pascale Gatzen set up a new curriculum as part of the M.A. Fashion Design at ArtEZ, ‘Practice Held in Common,’ in which Non Violent Communication is used as a basic communication framework. Within the present interview series, we also had the chance to talk to Pascale Gatzen. For more information on the use of Non Violent Communication, you can read this article: https://apria.artez.nl/communication-as-a-radical-tool-in-times-of-societal-shift/.