“How Can We Imagine a School Culture Based on Solidarity?”

A conversation with Ahmet Öğüt
by Florian Malzacher

In: The Silent University. Towards a Transversal Pedagogy. Eds. Florian Malzacher, Pelin Tan, Ahmet Öğüt. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2016. 12-23.

Let’s go right away to a core dilemma of the Silent University: It is planned as a self-organized school, by and for academics who have had to leave their home countries and are unable to teach in the country where they are now living (due to their legal status, work permits, their qualifications not being accepted etc.), to enable their knowledge to be heard. But in reality the Silent University is usually founded top-down. It is your initiative. Most of the time there is an institution involved, a coordinator belonging to this institution etc. How do you deal with this contradiction?

I’ve learned a lot since we set up the first branch of Silent University in London in 2012. It took a while to turn it from a project into a small-scale organization. Within this process, my position and involvement have been transformed too. First I was the artist who initiated it, I then became a co-coordinator and co-organizer, now I mostly act as a supervisor, and I hope soon I will become just an ordinary member, a contributor, and a guest.

My original plan was four years of direct involvement as an initiator, staying in one city, London. But in reality things worked differently. Now, after four years, we have three active branches in Mülheim, Hamburg, and Stockholm and new autonomous branches on the way in Athens and Amman. We have also had a failed branch in Montreuil, Paris which operated for over a year and a largely inactive branch in London because after the third year we lacked the long-term collaboration of an institution.

In the beginning I thought a process of preparation would be required to reach the point where the community could take over and establish its own autonomous organization. We would start by working together with institutions, securing a budget for at least one year. At first this might look like a top-down process, but it should evolve towards a bottom-up-organization. In terms of long-term stability, I thought it was a good idea to start by having institutions, a budget, a place to meet, and a local co-coordinator, while acknowledging from the outset that it was a parasitic organization.

I still think this is the best way to start in some countries. But nowadays we are also trying the bottom-up model in cities like Athens and Amman, starting with a group of engaged and motivated people, not with an institution or budget. We still do not know which strategy will create a more sustainable and independent autonomous organization.

So the institution should accept a facilitating role which always adapts to local needs. Since there is a high turnover of participants—because they may move on, may have to move on etc.—the support of an institution can help to achieve stability but it should step back as soon as possible.
However, there is another question. So far you have always collaborated with art institutions. This has advantages. For example: they are able define their field of operations very broadly, they can make things possible and they can give a certain symbolic value to the people involved in the Silent University. However, the art world has the tendency to render things harmless. Everything it touches becomes “art”. It is part of a certain market and it has the tendency to create mainly symbolic value for its own purposes.

I am interested in how we use the facilities art institutions can provide. We often underestimate these facilities and what they can achieve. Whether they are a large institution like Tate Modern, or medium scale institutions like The Showroom, Tensta Konsthall or Impulse Theater Festival, even smaller organizations can achieve a lot in a short period of time. How can we place something like SU inside an art institution? Not just within existing formats such as events or temporary engagements, but also by making it part of an accredited system for students, giving the Silent University’s participants direct access and even paying them to give classes. Good intentions are not enough. There is an obvious danger of turning SU into a harmless tactical collaboration. It requires an on-going process of daily negotiation to work with an art institution.

Saskia Sassen made a point in her keynote speech at the Creative Time Summit in Stockholm in 2014 about the importance of something being unauthorized but recognized. It’s not about replacing or imitating the existing university structure or neoliberal education system. It’s time to revolutionize, de-colonize and really transform it in an ambitious way, but by starting on a small scale. Working with art institutions and established universities is one way to gain recognition, rather than by trying to establish a new and independent group which will effectively be marginalized. Instead, we can use the facilities of those existing institutions as progressive tools. But to be able to truly do that, those institutions need to transform themselves.