Interview with Daniela Fais

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.

Daniela Fais was an international student at HKU, Utrecht, doing a Bachelor of Fine Art. She was determined to apply an interesting ‘care structure’ she came up with to different walks of life and in different systems such as art schools, prisons and hospitals. Sadly, Daniela passed away in December 2021 at the start of implementing the care structure at HKU Bachelor of Fine Art (BFA) and is very much missed.

The care structure suggested by Daniela is based on ‘Student Synapses.’ Student Synapses function as conjunctions between staff and students of the school, with the goal of stimulating healthy communication and thus preventing grievances in any way. Students volunteer for distinct roles within this care structure, such as organizing weekly group ‘check-in’ meetings, providing options for receiving anonymous concerns or comments, acting as the first person students can go to with comments and concerns (before being passed on to a school psychologist), and hosting monthly secret kindness missions. 

We deeply feel that the world can benefit from the inspiration, power and vulnerability she brought. We hope that this interview can contribute to this. Close friends and former fellow HKU students, Siem de Boer, Lobke Roenhorst, and Lapis Lazuli, who were well acquainted with her ideas, were willing to check this text so as to make sure we came as close to Daniela’s ideas of as possible, for which we are enormously grateful. Also, thank you to course leaders of HKU BFA, Nathalie van den Bovenkamp and Milo van der Maaden, for the update on the implementation of the Student Synapses at HKU BFA.

Some basic stepping stones of the care structure proposed by Daniela were implemented last year at HKU BFA, led by the coordinator of community inclusion Sarita Bajnath and international officer Travis Geertruida. This year, the Student Synapses is being integrated into the project Diverse Campus. Diverse Campus originated out of the wish to fully understand each other within an international education system that is filled with a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives.

In this series of interviews, we spoke to a diverse group of people about the different ways that art schools could be organised in the future. One thing we have learned from recent developments within art schools is how extremely important it is to talk to students. How do you think the relationship between the institute and the students can change for the better? Can you explain your ideas about a care structure with regards to this relationship?

Daniela Fais (DF): The care structure I came up with is called Student Synapses. The core of this care structure within an art academy is to encourage healthy communication. Within this structure, there would be, for instance, weekly ‘check-in meetings,’ where students can voice their concerns one-on-one, anonymously, face-to-face or online. These meetings would be consisting of students and also ideally a professional psychologist. Subsequently, the Students Synapses meet and the information from the weekly check-in meetings is discussed here and passed on to the professional. From here, a nuanced protocol is then chosen.

Within the structure of Student Synapses, there are mandatory communication workshops, such as on different cultural languages—I don’t mean languages in the literal sense, but different ‘communication languages.’ Basically, in an art school, it is always asked of students to communicate or discuss difficult topics, but students are never really given the appropriate skills or tools to do so. And so, there are always accumulated tensions. In the care structure, students, as well as staff members, are given the appropriate tools to communicate and discuss, and also to mediate discussions in an appropriate way.

I would also like to implement ‘kindness missions.’ With respect to communication, kindness missions can be dialectically separate and together at the same time. Validating someone’s feelings, for example, in a class discussion while at the same time disagreeing can also be kind.

Since you consider proper communication as a basic skill, is this training something that you propose to add to the curriculum then?

DF: I think an ideal situation would be that a student would have ‘smart goals’ within a ‘student synapse care structure.’ To be able to say, this semester if I am unhappy within this class I am going to communicate it with myself, or I want to be able to communicate it with the teacher. Or I am going to be OK with the fact that I don’t like this class. That is even a start, I think.

There does not seem to be a continuity between communication and learning within art schools. I noticed that there seems to be these questionnaires that come out once a semester. When filling in this questionnaire, you can win a gift voucher for something and that sometimes seems to be the most communication that happens. However, I find that it is the continuity of communication is where the gem of learning really lies.

You are referring to systems of evaluation. On the one hand, a student is being evaluated concerning his, her or their work. On the other hand, students are asked to give their opinion on the functioning of the school by means of filling in a survey. But this is not a part of the learning trajectory. And if I understand you correctly, you propose this to become part of a learning curve and a learning trajectory, not just for the students but for the institute as a whole.

DF: Yes, definitely. And I think this should be implemented continuously. So not just at the start and the end of a course, but continuously. So that it becomes a habit.

It also sounds very much that your idea of school feels more like how a family functions. That you are part of a group that functions different than a collection of individual students in an institute.  

DF: I think so. Maybe I am an idealist. Actually, when I was preparing for this interview, I kind of found myself scolding myself and thinking ‘Oh, I’m thinking too naively.’ But ideally, I would like it to function a bit less like an institute and more as a family. Yes.

Communication is a broad topic with different components. It is not only about linguistic communication, or verbal communication, but there are other ways of communication as well. You referred to it by ‘communication languages.’ Perhaps especially with regards to an art school, in which there might be a gap between the practice of making and the verbal communication about the practice, it is interesting to explore alternatives to the usual (verbal) communication. In addition, it is also very much culturally dependent. In the Western world, we think it is very important to express ourselves, and be assertive, and be able to take a stand, and talk about that.

DF: Definitely, to me it feels a lot like teaching students to think and create in a certain way, but then to communicate in a completely separate way. I completely understand what you mean, and sometimes I do wish that there wasn’t this need for everything to be said, and there was this space just for the subtlety of things to be felt and understood. I do not have the exact words to answer this question, but ideally staff members would understand the subtlety of body language of students within a class.

And I think also for students who are neurodiverse, this is definitely an important topic. Because a lot of students communicate things in very diverse ways and some staff members cannot pick up these subtleties. I just think more training needs to be given, and more time needs to be given for these sensitivities.

So, you see it is a kind of continuous and mandatory trajectory?

DF: I think it definitely has to be mandatory for everyone. Not only for students but also for teachers. Otherwise, there would be this disconnect between students and teachers, and I think in a way that this is what is happening now. That is where outbursts come from and that is where the inability to mediate these tensions come from. This disconnect cannot be fixed unless everyone is on the same page and can feel these tensions, and can understand them.

So, how would it work? How could such a group then be formed? And what happens in it?

DF: Every week, there would be a ‘check-in meeting,’ completely optional to join, with a chosen structure or layout for how the meeting is going to look like, using a different method each week. This is actually inspired from Els, her classes. Each time, we are going to see who needs or would like time to talk that week, to make sure that there is a fair opportunity. Additionally, in each meeting, there is a mediator. Ideally, that would be the head of the ‘student synapses,’ which is the professional—by preference, a school psychologist.

The meetings can be about anything. They could be about issues in school or personal issues. The latter is still something that I am thinking about because obviously there are limitations to this. The goal is to tackle the tensions before they get too big. This does not always have to be in a group setting, it can also be one-on-one, or anonymously online. And it can just be for an hour or so. The most important thing is that there is a chance for everybody to have a healthy discussion, and within these discussions, the mediator would encourage healthy communication skills, such as validating the other person’s opinion, using ‘I’ statements instead of ‘you did this.’ Just these little, little things which really make a difference in the discussion.

I am thinking of students at art schools who recently reported on experiences of racism or sexism or other situations in which they felt unsafe. Some of these students felt that the institute they were studying at steered towards solving issues by means of a dialogue. However, the issues that these students were referring to were not just miscommunication or misunderstanding of each other. They were really about them feeling that either fellow students or teachers were crossing borders. How would approaching these kinds of problems fit into the care structure you propose?

DF: The care structure I thought of actually stems from these deep-rooted issues. And it is a tricky one. I also do not have a concrete answer for it, if I am very honest. I think that there needs to be radical changes made. For example, I think something that can change these things slowly is the mandatory workshops and a really concrete protocol for different situations. I think that will make a big difference because right now when issues are addressed, often they remain unresolved or unclear.

A third point is that I want to start piloting the ‘care structure’ from the first year on to see if it can stop problems at the beginning. I do not know how much difference this is going to make on a deeper level because the system is already there, the staff members are already there, and these power structures are already in place. It is not a very, clear answer, but these points are the best I can do for now.

If you would have the opportunity to form your own art school, what would it look like?

DF: I would completely get rid of the curriculum. I know some people will say that this is a shame. ‘You should work with what you have; there has already been so much advancement.’ You can swap parts and subtract parts: I do not believe in it. I think you have to make radical decisions. And also, I think that it is not good enough right now for the head of the art school to be saying, ‘Oh, we are going to employ international people, and we are going to try and change it.’ I think the people employing the people need to be the international people. Everything needs to change, everything. It needs to start from scratch.

And why would you get rid of the complete curriculum? Is it because you do not feel represented in this curriculum? What is wrong with it? 

DF: I believe because it [has] already been colonised, it cannot be decolonised. That sounds a bit radical, but I think it needs to start again. If not, I think it is always going to kind of work from some old power structures. We need new ways of thinking, and letting go of what we think we have to be and what the world is.

My answer to the question ‘What does the art school of the future look like?’ would be: it should look like it could hold some tears. Because right now, I think art schools as they are cannot hold any tears. That sounds very silly, but I think everything is so cold and clinical. I think everything just needs to start again.

What do you mean by the ability of holding tears. Do you mean this with respect to the building itself or perhaps also in our ways of communicating?

DF: In the social space, in the building itself, in everything. But also in the curriculum. We always say we are going to have conversations about things, but the actual conversation never comes. We always say we are going to make the difference, but the difference never comes.

Perhaps this sounds a bit ungrateful, but sometimes it feels to me like, for example, that when the heads of some art school say: ‘We are really trying to find international staff,’ they are actually saying: ‘We are trying to listen to the complaints, and shut you up.’ Instead of saying, ‘I understand that it hurts you that you feel like an alien in this school, and that you just want to feel less alone here, and have a richer education and a more colourful experience.’ I do not think they understand that it is not about being politically correct, but about feeling less lonely.

It is all about listening. About communicating and understanding and the intention.

If there would be an ideal situation and you would have all the opportunities (and money) in the world, and you could choose whatever you like, how would you start your new art school?

DF: I think step one would be to just listen. In addition, I would base the educational structure on communication, on my kind of ‘care structure,’ in fact on learning styles. Having the students have their education in their own hands. So, students are able to choose their education based on their own learning styles and formulate smart goals.

I think then there would be more intrinsic value in it and more intrinsic motivation. And I get excited when I think about this combination of your own style of learning and smart goals, mixed with communication. I just think this is then a kind of a will to live, you know.

And do you have any ideas on the building of this new art school? What do you see before you?

DF: Again, I come back to the point of the literal aspect of the building being able to hold some tears. I always think about the fact that students go to the toilet to cry. I think the building would have to be based on this care structure. So, it would not be some kind of clinical school structure or meeting structure. There would be rooms where people feel at ease talking with one another, or at ease letting their emotions out. I do not know exactly how this would look like. It’s kind of easier to say what it would not look like.

Maybe more like a family home than like a factory?

DF: Exactly. Which is ironic because Pastoe [the location of HKU University of the Arts Utrecht BFA] actually was a factory.

Of family furniture.

DF: I don’t know exactly how, but I think I would definitely want to pay attention to the fact that it would be a building suitable for neurodiverse people as well. This is something that is not paid attention to enough in buildings. I think of people with autism, for example, having to bring headphones or suffer in silence, and I would not want that in the art school of the future. So, a building in which you can truly feel your emotions and not have to suffer in silence. And that you do not feel that you are in a dragon’s den or you are the apprentice.

So, then a building should have a diverse character as well, containing spaces that satisfy various criteria?

 DF: Yes, there is variation and diversity in the building so it can hold everybody, and everything, and every emotion. That I think would be my wish for a building.

Would there be diplomas in your academy?

DF: I think so, but I am not sure if it would be in the traditional sense. Because I guess now I am thinking of the world as it is now where you need a diploma to navigate your way in this life but I wonder if you would need one in an ideal world? Perhaps if everything is just working intrinsically, and you’re just motivated by your own intrinsic values you do not even want a diploma at the end of it. That it is not even desired by a student. And that would be, I guess, the goal.

What qualities would the ideal teacher have?

DF: Aside from having the ability to pick up subtleties in class, and mediate the class, I think it would be the ability to truly believe in the student. Sometimes, I’m not sure if teachers are aware of how much impact they can really have on a student. When a teacher really believes in a student, they may give the student an impression through even something tiny, and perhaps the student has misinterpreted this, or comes to a wrong conclusion somehow. It really gives, at least for me—I’m speaking very personally now—a huge impression. And I think for a teacher just to be aware of this creates a fine line between a good teacher and an okay teacher.

It’s a tricky one. We are in art academy to be artists, but to be an artist you have to believe in yourself, and so there comes that midway point of a teacher coming in between that. Obviously, we all have responsibility over our own emotions and misinterpreting teachers and actions and words… It is such a hard question, actually. Perhaps just the ability to really listen to a student. To communicate with a student on the same level.

I want to say that you can learn to be a teacher. That it is skill based. But then some people are just innate teachers. But I am going to just say no: you can learn to be a teacher. It is just like any muscle. The more it is used, the stronger it gets. I have to believe that.

Could you say something about the ‘kindness mission’?

DF: Maybe I am an idealist. But it always puzzles me why there are things on the agenda like meetings, but we never have things like surprising people with flowers, or leaving little notes in people’s studios. I think that is just as important because you never ever know what is happening in someone’s life.

Within the ‘care structure,’ these small little things are scheduled. They actually do not take much effort at all and would be a monthly part of the ‘care structure.’ It is also a very creative process, I think. Thinking of these little things to do just brightens up the school atmosphere. They can be just simple things like a little note. They can be thought of together, or one person can think of them; it can be completely creative or not. It is just a little simple idea, but I am quite fond of it. It is a little addition to the ‘care structure.’

Along with the monthly ‘kindness missions,’ we would also have every week a new international dish on the menu. So, every week, you would have a new smell to the building. That thought brought me joy.

And why would this kindness mission be scheduled monthly?

DF: If it was up to me, it would be weekly. I want people to kind of warm up to the idea. I do not want to force people, in a way. I would like to invite them to dip their toe in the water and then see how nice it feels. That’s why it would be monthly.

But in your own art academy it would be weekly then.

DF: Yes.

That’s a clear definite yes.

DF: I did my own ‘kindness mission’ today, actually. Caithlyn—she’s my classmate—was going to an exhibition, but because I have this interview I could not go with her. So, I surprised her, and I texted her ‘Look up,’ and I put a huge poster on the window that said in Papiamento ‘I love you Caithlyn.’

Thank you for this interview—very strong and powerful and vulnerable at the same time. Wonderful to hear that your ideas resonate and you will be starting implementing this care structure at your school. You call yourself an idealist, but I think we need you.

DF: Thank you.

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.