When I was a college student in 2006, I signed up for a class taught by Peter Kubelka, the filmmaker. The name of the class was “Film, Food, and Other Arts.” The syllabus was announced before the first session; the list included Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, Konrad Lorenz’s On Aggression, Moliere’s Candide, the Bible, among others—seemingly unrelated texts and an impossible workload for just one class. Many students dropped the course, intimidated by the amount of reading. When asked about the syllabus, Kubelka was confused: he thought the syllabus functioned as a recommendation list of things he wished we read, not things we must read. This was a simple albeit crucial moment for my education as an artist—the shoulds contribute a lot more to an artist’s development than the musts. I kept remembering this anecdote during my year as a participant at Homework Space Program (HWP) in Beirut. How do you become a “better” artist? Or more on point, how do you teach a group of artists to become “better” artists? What should they do? I wrote the below text to elaborate on some of the questions through the very vocabulary we use in talking about art education.
I’m an artist based in Istanbul. I applied to and was selected for the Homework Space Program 2014-2015. I already had an MFA, so for me, this program primarily meant nine months away from my home base, participating in the structure of an educational program where I could meet like-minded peers working in the Middle East and North Africa region. The nine-month program is a complement to degree-granting graduate or postgraduate programs, focusing on MENAT (Middle East, North Africa and Turkey). On the website of the program, applicants from the region are encouraged to apply: “The HWP is open to international applicants; applicants from Lebanon and the Arab region are especially encouraged to apply.” Of the sixteen participants who completed the program (eighteen were admitted, sixteen finished the year), the countries of origin are: Egypt, Germany, Jordan, Lebanon, Canada/Pakistan, Palestine, Turkey, Ukraine/Russia, Lebanon/UAE/USA, and Yemen.
The term “participant” has been a point of contention among those in the program as well as the people outside it who try to understand what the program is. Alternatives that were used have been “student” and “fellow,” both of which come with their own associations. The institution uses the word “participant” in texts about the program while different members of the administration went back and forth between “student,” “fellow,” and “participants.” By those pursuing the program, the most common terms used were “student” and “participant,” not “fellow.”
“Student” is associated often with a pre-professional state. Rightfully coined or not, “student artist” is not a connotation that one desires. Also, it is hard to let go of the idea that being a “student” implies some sort of responsibility to the institution and a vertical hierarchy, of assignments, completion of tasks, and perhaps the illusion of a degree. We are unfortunately all too familiar with what a “student exhibition” implies—an incompleteness, a work-in-progress, different set of expectations than what would be applied to an “exhibition.”
“Fellow” carries the connotation of being a member of a group of people with a similar goal, a society of the likeminded if you will. This term does not work well in this instance, because the group of people are not there based on their research interests but are selected to be a part of the program. In other words, the thing that they share is wanting to participate in the program and not necessarily what they want to do with themselves or what they want to do with their work. Dialogues with other participating artists reveal different sets of expectations in terms of where each person wants to get out of the program, be it contacts, theoretical background, or just a scholarship to get paid to be an artist for nine months.
In other words, the only common denominator of the participants is that they are there because they believed the nine-month program would be useful. However, “participant”s implication in partaking in the process of the program is problematic, because the experience felt top-down and opaque in terms of decision-making processes. After having completed the program, I find using the term “student” more appropriate and I believe that if we had used this term consistently—both the administration and as artists in the program—, this would have altered the experience as the expectations, behaviors, and processes associated with being a student are pre-defined by the schooling that everybody had received. Definitions and terms used in contexts where relationships between institutions and artists are established are important; the slippery terminology in this case did not help with the already volatile nature of a post-degree arts education program.
The year-long program was thematically organized. The umbrella theme of the year was Setups / Situations / Institutions. The core educational model of the program was bringing in six practitioners, the “resident professors” to lead the workshops.  The premise was show and tell: artists and curators talk about their research and their issues of concern by inviting people to share their thoughts and ideas. By involving “emerging” artists in their processes, the resident professors shared their work by delivering artist lectures and their colleagues’ works, exposing networks of knowledge, friendship, and common research questions. It was possible to see through private workshops as well as public lectures how each resident professor addressed a concept in their research through interdisciplinary dialogues with other artistic and cultural practitioners. For example, while curators Eungie Joo and Maria Lind (as part of artist Walid Raad’s workshop) shed light on their curatorial practices through speaking about their research as they relate to institutions, artists, and opportunities, artists Josh MacPhee and Rick Lowe (as part of artist Greg Sholette’s workshop) separately discussed their practice within the social fabric of the communities that they belong to or hope to create through their work.
The notion that you can only learn through knowing what somebody else did is a legitimate and effective model of educating. This is where the model of education at Homework Space Program is on point. After all, a “further” education program is where artists can come to just think about the notion of “praxis” as it stands today. Not how you make work, but rather the question of how you build a practice. As contemporary art moves between media and methodologies, being an artist is becoming more and more about a way of ideation that informs the making. The doing is increasingly indistinguishable from the thinking and this is precisely why an artist has to have a firmer grasp on the coordinates—conceptual, formal—of the range on which their praxis moves.
For my year, the admissions committee, which consisted of the resident professors who would teach and the program director, selected eighteen participants. Approximately half the participants received scholarships from the institution while a few received their funding from institutional and/or private sources, secured through letters of support from Ashkal Alwan. Six participants were self-funded. My main question around the structure of this model is whether education and engagement can be level in a context where the financial conditions provided by the institution are not equal for each participant. In other words, how does whether or not one is getting paid by the institution affect their critical relationship with the program?
Before thinking about critical engagement, I’ll take a step back and look at how schools fund their students. While certain schools make their need-based criteria clear in the application process, some schools offer merit-based scholarships. The HWP’s criteria for financial support was never made clear on their website nor during the application process, which they have now amended per their open call for 2016-2017—every participant admitted to the program will be funded. (For the sake of transparency, I was among the students who did not receive funding.) A side effect of not receiving funding is that if you have to work elsewhere to be present in the program, your questioning of the utilitarian value of the program for your practice becomes more pressing.
A question that became a heated discussion topic among the participants is the issue of criticality and feedback. It is relatively easier to give the institution a hard time when you are self-funded. You can push the institution to change and to take in feedback because your livelihood does not depend on them—the dynamic could be compared to that between an employer and employee vs. between colleagues. How can there be a transparent feedback mechanism that treats each and every participant in the same manner and that has a horizontal power structure if we are to talk about creating new educational frameworks? Maybe this means that the funding from the program is guaranteed no matter what happens throughout the course of the year. Maybe this means the financial decisions and conditions are pre-determined and confirmed in writing. As with anything else that relates to money and self-sustenance, this is a tricky subject to tackle that I’m disappointed to say was not addressed directly, together, by the participants and the institution in my year.
What makes for a useful educational space for artists? Could education be enforced spatially? Ashkal Alwan is located on the second floor of a three-floor, formerly industrial building in Beirut’s Jisr el Wati neighborhood. The space’s architectural design (overseen by a board of advisors selected by Ashkal Alwan) somewhat mimics concerns with the “public space”—a nod to the roots of the institution in the 90s, reclaiming the public space of post-civil war Beirut by installing art works in public spaces—through various elements. The floor tiles are reminiscent of cobblestones, extending the outdoor space inside and vice versa. The offices have glass walls, contributing to the feeling of an open plan. While the openness of the space reinforces the notion of education as a shared and collective experience, working, thinking, and doing in the same space, the scale and the industrial vibe is not functional as a shared work space.
The open and “public” space notions are important conceptually, but the functionality of a space is and should remain a discussion topic that changes with the works of the participants each year. The space is functional for artistic practice stripped bare, which the institution embraces as an approach. The unspoken motto seems to be, “You make what you need to make, but first relate to each other.”
What do we have to learn from collectivity, from being together as artists in a space? (There are a few private spaces in Ashkal Alwan—everyone working there, including the staff, is basically in one big space. Sharing a space does not imply collectivity, but there is something about co-existing in the same space that at least begs the question of what brings people together.) Could knowledge be produced together in a group of artists curated by an institution? Although problematic, the use of the word “curate” is essential here since the instincts used to place the participants next to each other appear to have been more aimed at how they appear together and what that statement is. The selected participants appear to present an art public that the institution deems important to promote and I would have liked to hear more about the curatorial framework of selecting participants and what was hoped for in placing them in one space. Just like works placed next to each other in an exhibition relate both to each other and to the curatorial text, I think the HWP—the participants and the administration—would benefit from writing and thinking about the ideas that the artists in the program present.
As research becomes central to many people’s artistic practice and as processes become more convoluted, could artists be encouraged to work together? How can the institution encourage and nourish collectivity? Could they form an international artist’s union?  What exactly distinguishes this experience of being educated at Ashkal Alwan?
How does an education program place practice at its center? What is a realistic time requirement? What are the activities that contribute to artistic practice? Perhaps ambiguity is exactly the field of interactions that an artist in the making seems to need—questioning, pushing up against, retaliating, recoiling, making, and unmaking. Having had a few months of contemplation after the ebbs and flows of the program, I still question what I need as an artist from interdisciplinary, idea-driven educational program. Maybe this is idyllic, but education should retain its status as a space of contemplation.
Within educational structures, it is important to set feedback mechanisms and expectations from the beginning. While participants make a formal and informal pact with the institution to attend the program, the program and the institution also need to say clearly what they expect from the participants in order for the program to work. This is something that does not necessarily need to exist for an exhibition or a forum—selections are made, works are created, events are held—things need to happen. Education is necessarily process-driven and all the parties involved in this process need to have an equal agency in determining the content and the direction of what happens in the program.
In the case of Homework Space Program, the institution’s desire not to self-define ended up creating a more “rigid” framework than the academy and this is something that can only be changed if we initiate dialogues on what artists need and want prospectively rather than how they can navigate the treacherous waters of what already exists. We need flexibilities, voids, bends, and curves—not rigid structures, if artistic practices are to be nourished for and through what they are. The artists need to talk about what is happening at the program throughout the program and this criticality, dialogue, conversation, whatever you want to call it, needs to somehow be built in. What’s happening? What works? What doesn’t?
Nine months is a relatively long time and I see it as a missed opportunity that the structure did not find it within itself to change within that time. Setting no expectations, no rules, no requirements meant that all of these were implicit and unfixed. Expectations changed, shifted, appeared and disappeared throughout the course of the program, resulting a general sense of underachievement. Even a simple distinction between “recommended” and “required” would help participants manage their time and divide their energies between the program and their own work.
The most teaching experience of the whole year started in March, when the participants started to plan for a “workshop” that they would determine the content for. The participants would be the final “resident professors” of the program, holding their own workshops, creating content to fit their own research questions, just like the previous resident professors did. All the participants were aware that they would be asked to organize this workshop from the moment they were accepted to the program and it was something that everybody was thinking about throughout the course of the year. Voting procedures were set, subcommittees formed, agendas discussed extensively.
At the end, the process unravelled at a meeting with the administration of the institution when it became evident that the participants not only could not agree to move in the direction of that the majority had determined, but also that the institution’s expectations of what would constitute a workshop was not aligned with where things were heading. The collective workshop not happening  taught a valuable lesson to all parties involved: it takes more than sitting in the same room to make something happen. After all, while self-determination is something that is desired, its actual implementation within institutional frameworks is thorny. Where do you draw the line between the institution and what happens within the institution? Is it even possible to imagine a blurring of these boundaries?
This experiment in self-determination was also a teaching experience because it became obvious that the artists in the program were not aligned in terms of what they wanted to do with a workshop, making it very clear that six months into the program, nobody was really sure what a workshop was or what our collective research could be. This failure made obvious that the participants did not share a common concern and they had not produced a safe discursive space where different concerns and ideas could be discussed.
The question of what kind of an educational framework creates the most fertile ground to develop different artistic practices is one that remains pertinent after having completed HWP. The most momentous element is the time aspect. In our age of precarity where public support is extremely limited and the commercial art world functions as an independent beast with its own criteria of merit and success, what is a realistic time requirement to expect from an emerging artist? How much time does it actually take to develop a practice? What are the activities that contribute to artistic practice?
And this is where I find Kubelka’s teaching philosophy helpful: education is a space of shoulds and not musts. I like the idea of thinking about what could be, not what is. Education should be a space where we, collectively, with and through the institution, think about what we need and what can happen.
Edited by Özge Ersoy
 Resident professors were: Lina Saneh (preface), Khalil Rabah, Walid Raad, Kader Attia, Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, Gregory Sholette, and WHW. Running throughout the year was a seminar by Jalal Toufic that takes place every three weeks. In this seminar, participants of the program, along with interested members of the public, discussed Toufic’s writings in an intimate environment. Toufic consulted the participants in deciding what to read/discuss next, contributing to a sense of continuation and of shared vocabulary. Participants could also request studio visits with Toufic, who had an office at Ashkal Alwan, a constant in the peripatetic nature of the whole program.
 As another participant, Salwa Aleryani, pointed out to me in conversation, the use of the term “emerging” as it applies to countries is perhaps a good point of comparison. There are countries with long histories who are emerging and who have larger populations, area, and resources than other non-emerging countries, so obviously, the term “emerging” is quite flexible.
 Thanks to artist and fellow participant Mary Jirmanus Saba for her unrelenting insistence on this word.
 A few participants led individual events in the time slot designated for the collective workshop.