Asturias Independent Studies Program


During my college years, the desire frequently arose among my friends to one day found a university or a teaching center, some kind of institution to which we liked to give all kinds of wonderful names: “Institute of Hermeneutical Studies,” “ Office of Critical Investigations”, “École Polytechnique d’Études Exégétiques” (in French it undoubtedly sounded more revolutionary to us) or the one that I proposed from the periphery, “Asturiana de Derribos”, which was never a favorite option. This was a dream that he told everyone about, as if he were already recruiting future teachers for this fictional place that occupied so many conversations. With the pragmatism of age, the foundation of this university today rests in the jumbled drawer of unrealized projects that we all have somewhere. In reality, that idea of ​​youth has mutated towards more modest approaches: perhaps a text seminar, or a reading group, or some type of meeting that in the language of contemporary artistic practices today we would call “durational.”

Although the objective then was to create a space that could dissolve the limits that separated the knowledge of the humanities and unite, for example, image and text, or aesthetics and politics, theory and practice (in this sense, there was something like a contempt towards the academic curriculum and the conventional university), today I have no doubt that this idea has to be institutional or it will not be. The experience of curating, my field even if it is at a theoretical and historiographic level, has been suggesting it to us since the “institutional criticism” of the 90s, the “New Institutionalism” of the early 2000s or the secretly Althusserian turn that I am seeing emerge. for a few years now in curatorial literature: we make art, we think about it, we debate it, we distribute it in frameworks and structures that are institutional, or in bodies/collectives that act metonymically as institutions. This does not exhaust its critical or emancipatory potential, precisely because the discursive force of institutions is not completely irresistible and they contain gaps that admit both complicity and subversion.

What, for example, twenty or even ten years ago was considered a decisive gesture (either to generate an alternative and “exstitutional” space, or to try to inhabit the voids that the institution contains) is now a perplexity. Above all, and ironically, when the entire barrage of critical texts on art and curating ends up being read and discussed, I dare say that by definition, in the places that this literature reviles: postgraduate curatorial studies, the MFA (Master of Fine Arts) or doctoral programs in artistic practices. If there is a place where institutional art knowledge is discussed in detail, it is precisely the equally institutional space of the university.

It was a matter of time before this logic was revised. With the increasingly closer relationship between the academic world and the cultural institution, it has been understood that much can be achieved from the interstices of this fusion. I would even dare to maintain that the overlap between university and museum has generated a new productive fabric that shows its wicks with greater visibility—or, at least, the last thirty years of contemporary artistic experience now allow us to see these structures more clearly— . The proliferation of cultural internship courses and programs, many of them official and approved, others on the fringes of privateering activity but equally inscribed in a reputational economy where cultural capital circulates, is not only a neoliberal triumph that has restructured higher education. —the triumph unfortunately has to be granted—. It also involves the creation of spaces where those who carry out some type of critical activity can delve deeper into it, subject their work to scrutiny, debate and confront it.

During the planning of the tenth edition of documenta, in 1997, its director Catherine David reminded us that the object, the work of art, is just one more moment in the complex process that is the production and distribution of art, a moment whose privileged place in the cultural circuit it obeys ideological reasons that must be scrutinized. The question, I think, is still valid: Is the painting art or what we say about it? And what happens to everything that was said before and behind the painting? Stating this as a dilemma antagonizes the production of art with the spaces where it is thought and rethought, as if one had the mark of authenticity and the other were an accidental nuisance that one day we will get rid of. Talking seriously about what you do, about what exactly an artistic practice questions, makes said practice better. This is what happens in those programs, often postgraduate, that many museums and contemporary art centers offer as part of their institutional work—perhaps in the Spanish imagination, the best-known example is the MACBA Independent Studies Program or, more recently, Connective Tissues, taught by MNCARS.

This jumbled drawer of projects that had no fruit, or that seem never to have fruit, has a large depth in Asturias, where it seems that we have been living in the end of times for forty years. Those who read this publication will have several of these projects come to mind. As I write this, it occurs to me that the University of Oviedo flirted with the possibility of opening a Faculty of Fine Arts, an idea that was finally discarded. Probably, the death of this idea was actually a relief for the region—I imagine it as a painting or sculpting school, closer to an Arts and Crafts center, than to a place where young artists had to write, speak. and deal with their work, with the imperative mandate of knowing that their proposals will reverse a world besieged by neoliberalism, cryptofascism and the climate emergency. But today, as is sometimes cornily said, a window of opportunity opens for a region that lacks spaces for criticism. I am referring to one of the key elements that the current director of LABoral, Pablo de Soto, included in his candidacy when he ran for the position a few years ago: that the center he now directs can aspire to offer some type of advanced study program, a course where the relationship between art and technology has a lasting structure, that has a home, and whose production can benefit citizens. In reality, in his vision, De Soto does nothing but rescue the spirit with which LABoral had been founded, knowing at the same time that this is a time in which those who are in charge of cultural institutions must manage scarcity and precariousness. .

If we had to imagine what this study program that LABoral would host would be like, what would it be like? What would it need? We can always resort to the institutional experience of other similar initiatives to be able to glimpse the answers. I can think of (there are so many examples actually) the BxNU Research Institute directed by Andrea Philips in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom, which arises from the collaboration between BALTIC and Northumbria University. The similarities between Asturias and the Tyne and Wear region are not few: both had buoyant economies based on the exploitation of coal and the naval and steel industries; In both, workers’ political mobilization was strong, and both are now among the poorest regions in their respective countries. Even LABoral and BALTIC have a similar origin in the history of artistic institutions: Both were created at a time of economic and institutional optimism that attempted to replicate throughout Europe, with mixed results, the so-called “Guggenheim effect” of Bilbao. This was a time of expense and starchitecture, when no one would have thought that the cost of heating would be unaffordable in a few years.

With no small irony, when Philips talks about BxnU, he describes it as little more than a room with just a few laptops and work tables. He knows that, materially, it may seem that what he provides is little. But he also knows that this is a superficial look at what such a space can generate: it embodies a collaboration between the region’s main contemporary art center and one of the city’s universities—where Fine Arts students can have a exhibition space for your work; provides a place for meeting and critical discussion, with invited artists and lecturers, with a structure and program of texts and readings where those who investigate artistic practices can expose the vicissitudes of their creative process and exchange their ideas, learn about what is happening in other places. And all that is needed is the institutional glitter of this collaboration and a room with computers for this to work and for the artistic community of one of the least prosperous regions of the country to be able to get on a first-name basis with cities that in any other field would be ahead of it.

As a practical case to draw on, BxNU is more like a project incubator whose programmatic nature is relatively flexible. Although it offers two master’s programs, it is almost a vampire structure that draws on what already exists (an art center and a university institution). But there are also other examples that use this exploitation strategy to propose a study program that also speaks the language of the educational market.

A brilliant example of curricular intelligence, designed by Professor Sarah Perks and artist Paul Stewart, is the curatorial master’s degree offered by Teesside University with the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA). Unlike other similar postgraduate courses, whose main obstacle, as in Spain, is the payment of exorbitant fees (plus the living costs that one has to assume when dedicating themselves completely to study), the Teesside team has embraced to the apprenticeship program (vocational training) financed by the British government. A university degree is offered in which teaching hours are greatly reduced and the main workload is carried out independently. The success of this proposal lies in the fact that students have to already be working in a cultural institution (it could be a library or an interpretation center, not necessarily a museum). The time dedicated to studying serves to rethink your work performance and places you in a new discursive space. The conversations are often unglamorous and focus on the everyday life of curatorial management and artistic practices (by definition prosaic when they leave the white cube) but they also delve into how things could be done differently, what the limitations are, political and symbolic, of the institution where they work, how the hierarchies of which they are inevitably part can be subverted, what biases their perspective has as cultural workers and what voices are normally not heard. The result is the conversation of the technical employee into a practitioner, the transformation of inherited patterns into critical doing. Again, this only requires an online platform, a modest staff of associate professors and a space in which to meet once a quarter. Without a doubt, pedagogy and political will are needed, dialogue with the administrations and the university community and the overcoming of bureaucratic barriers.

By considering the possibility of a similar program in LABoral, for Asturias in particular as well as—why not?—for the rest of the country, the region is offered the opportunity to occupy a sparsely populated space in which Asturias can position itself at the forefront. of the platoon. For Asturias to be a region whose artistic and cultural power places it in a scenario analogous to that of Newcastle or Middlesbrough, it not only needs spaces for the exhibition of art (whether or not they are accompanied by a specific conference), but also spaces for discussion. and horizontal and prolonged learning, spaces that desire to return to the territory, revisit it, turn it upside down, even if at first it is a disaster (or do we want contemporary art not to take any risks?). The project of designing and carrying out a training program for advanced artistic practices at LABoral is an opportunity that we should not miss. Although it is difficult to imagine what it could look like, the desire for it to exist must already begin to circulate among those who are concerned about these issues, whether completely or indirectly, if we want to save ourselves from the cultural winter into which our region is falling.

Pablo Luis Álvarez is a doctoral candidate at the Royal College of Art and associate professor on the MIMA/Teesside University master’s degree in curating.