Issue #45, 2014

“Always a Step Away from Art“
Diana Marincu

Nita Mocanu, Diary of a Discussion on Education and Other Things, 12–14 September 2014, Conset, Cluj


The format of contemporary art exhibitions constantly changes and distances itself from the notion of “great“ encounters with art, not in order to avoid the failure of this promise, but for achieving a conscious detachment from this sort of expectations. Under the influence of a need for introducing new instruments for creating a discourse more relaxed and more open to the public, exhibitions often become spaces for reflection, where single perspectives and hard concepts are replaced with uncertainties, partial demonstrations and multiple points of view. “Always a step away from art“, a phrase I extracted from Nita Mocanu’s Evasive Diary, best represents the essence of her last presentation at the Conset Workshops in Cluj and, more than this, can also expand a “diagnosis“ of the general situation in the Romanian art scene. In an attempt at renouncing to static display, Nita Mocanu’s workshop started with an exhibition of personal work on the status of education in Romania – which she knows well, being a teacher at the Art High School in Arad –, and later transformed itself into a laboratory of thinking and producing ideas about the school system, designed in consideration of the participants during three weeks of collaborative work. The last part of the presentation (12–14 September) has integrated this accumulated material in its entirety, cutting it in shape of diary-type visual poems representing the “voices“ of discussion partners or quotations of various clichés widespread in the field of education: “Where did you see a little girl with green hair?“, “the ballet around still life“, “the line defining the form“, “art education is a mystery/sacrament“, “contemporary art is a niche“, “and now, some draping from a different century“, “the gaiety of visual rhythm“, etc.

The Conset Workshops at the Tranzit House in Cluj started from the idea of confronting the domain of visual arts with other spheres of knowledge, whereby the expanded contextualization of art could determine new theoretical approaches. Standing on a position opposite to the rigidity characterizing art institutions, Conset defines itself as a temporary experimental institution meant “to widen the horizon of expectations and incorporations of possible productions of meaning“. The artists invited by Szilárd Miklós, the initiator of the workshops, build their projects in a dialogue with a number of partners and with the public interested in contributing, but the end product of such proceedings do not necessarily imply an exhibition as a result of the research. The structure of Conset is rather a form of intense “mediation“ between the frame of art production and that of art reception, via flagpoles such as the library, meetings with artists, video projections and publications.

Nita Mocanu, the first artist-in-residence at Conset, resorts to the exhibition as a flexible instrument for making public a project of critical analysis about the current situation in the system of visual education in Romania, contributing different emphases to this topic – from a singular subjective voice on the first day of the project to many voices, more coagulated, on the last. This change and solidarity between the participants means more than strengthening the artist’s position within her critical discourse, being also a methodological “trial“ for a future workshop that has set as its aim the transformation at national level of the curriculum in teaching artistic disciplines.

From a personal exhibition to a laboratory and, in the end, to a poetic-documentary, the trajectory of the Diary of a Discussion on Education and Other Things pursued two postures of the partners in dialogue – that of the artist and that of the professor – viewed as two distinct identities. How does one think and how does one act in these two registers? What are the urgencies of both and how do they communicate? What is the kind of support art receives as a subject matter in schools? How can one reassess the requirements of visual education in Romania in order to find the meeting point between “life“ and “school“? How can one develop critical thinking in a normative frame such as that of public education? These are some of the questions traversing the documentation started by Nita Mocanu in Arad in 2010 as a video questionnaire and continued here following discussions with Szilárd Miklós and Dénes Miklósi, another initiator and artist-in-residence at Conset. Each artist and curator invited by Nita Mocanu shared his or her school experience, and Mocanu transformed ideas and information into a sort of mind mapmade of texts and photos. Identifying the most sensitive points of the trajectory education-culture-politics, the majority of the teachers agreed that the requirements of the textbooks and the curriculum in their current state are nothing but systems for configuring a parallel reality about art, isolated from any social responsibility and immune to changes in specific instruments or art definitions with which we operate. Today, the relevant “objectives“ are not the contrast between warm and cold colors, neither the painterly treatment of a surface. These can constitute, as Nita Mocanu suggests, a practical guide of materials and working techniques, but cannot replace the formative role played by this subject as regards the motivation and goal of expression through art. Nita Mocanu’s 2012 video The Development of Sensibility presents an 8th-grader reading a text resembling Eugen Ionescu’s absurd writings – the reference skills for the “Development of sensibility, creativity and artistic imagination“ in the official school curriculum. Gradually, the rhetorical impetus of the girl recedes and errors and emotions appear. It seems as if the meaning of the text exceeds the semantic reference and a link is totally missing from the logical connection of activities and objectives. From the same series, The Development of Creativity conveys a collage of phrases quoted from the curriculum according to the principles of using elements of plastic language, without paying attention to the meaning of words and privileging the dexterity in cutting.

Other projects attempting at destabilizing clichés on education can be found in the work of h.arta group, for which emancipation, de-canonization of culture and “usefulness“ of art are constant concerns. On Art and the Way We Look at the World, a project included in the International Biennial of Contemporary Art – Periferic 7, Iași, 2006, has kept its relevance today, after 8 years since the proposition of some principles, a quasi-manifesto, indeed, for a re-definition of our relationship to contemporary art in a public institutional context, principles such as: “We can believe that the artist is always a genius, who is not understood in his or her time, somebody completely different from us, ’common people’. It depends on us whether we want to perpetuate these ideas on art and keep a reverential and humble attitude regarding art (and culture, in general), or – instead – we want to consider art as something close, normal, natural and useful, something about which we talk in our lives, something that not only reflects reality in a passive way, but can effectively change things.“

If one always ignores the thought producing potential, and its possibility of shaping new identities, visual education ends up as the least respected subject taught in schools, the one with the smallest potential for being integrated as an instrument of knowledge in the life of pupils. Henry Giroux, a known exponent of multicultural critical pedagogy in the United States, argues in his Pedagogy and the Politics of Hope that the current crisis of pedagogy has one of its causes in the lack of sensibility the system displays when it comes to the way in which pupils perceive and assimilate information, as well as to the relationship built between teachers and pupils at the level of power structures legitimizing and perpetuating a dominant culture, supposed to not challenge too much the social and institutional frame in which the transmission of knowledge takes place. Objectivity, efficiency and technique, viewed as priorities, separate, instead of bringing together, history and the present, the idealism of public education and the space we live in, harmony and the struggle for a better society. What is taught in schools is not synonymous with what happens outside of the classroom, and this tension manipulates our vision about the relationship between information and power. Inhibiting any attempt at a moral inquiry about the relationships between privileged and subordinated, the current educational system depoliticizes and programmatically excludes any critical initiative aiming at the asymmetry of power relations. Henry Giroux pleads for a “radical pedagogy“, which would consider three important directions: state policies that influence school identity, texts as ideological instruments and life contexts of all participants, with their specific cultural heritage, experiences and languages. Observing these directions, a “pedagogy of possibility“ opens up, one that includes the voice of the school, that of the pupil and that of the teacher.

Thus, art education should take as a priority the focus on rebuilding the connections between the closed space of the classroom and the society in which pupils are living, as well as their “urgencies“. Nita Mocanu has offered teachers the possibility of making their voice heard, which is a first step for an essential dialogue for recognizing long-ignored concerns. Placing quotations from the discourse of teachers in various locations in the city and taking pictures of them, Nita Mocanu oscillates between two manifestations of the message, from the aesthetical to the ethical and back. The most poetic work of the exhibition, a video titled March, is a metaphor about indestructible links, motherhood and obligations. Two sleeves, one of the mother and the other of the child, are sewn together in a constrained but necessary closeness. The fact that at some point the threads are cut determines detachment and liberation from the protection of the grown-up and the beginning of new relationship, this time of equality. This natural gesture, transposed in the theoretical field of the question raised by Nita Mocanu, can translate as a complete assumption of a balance between the two positions, that of the teacher and that of the pupil, viewed with empathy and responsibility. With the definition of the meeting place, of the polyphony of voices and of the various historical layers of this relationship, I have trust that the school could also integrate, in time, “the little girl with green hair“.

Translated by Alexandru Polgár