Diana Al Halabi, Holding Palestine, 20-21, performance at Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam, photo Steven Maybury

How student-led artist initiatives are changing the institution from within

Issue no5
okt-nov 2021
Fluïditeit

Does the Dutch art education system uphold the illusion that a neutral position can be promoted when it comes to political issues? This is one of many frustrating and perplexing questions that have resounded through art schools in the Netherlands over the past year. A growing disconnect between art school management and their current students and alumni has prompted the emergence of student-initiatives in art schools across the country.

Recently, a number of student-led change initiatives have been founded in the Netherlands with the aim of instigating change from within the institution. By doing so, students from the Hogeschool voor de Kunsten Utrecht (HKU), Piet Zwart Instituut (Rotterdam) and Willem de Kooning Academy (WdKA, Rotterdam) aim to address a spectrum of issues ranging from outdated power imbalances and institutional racism, to xenophobia or other forms of discrimination. Students feel that they must remain somewhat compliant out of fear that they will see the ramifications of a rebellious stance reflected in grades or opportunities at the school – and in their prospective careers. While art schools promote and teach skills for critical analysis and discourse as well as post-colonial theory, some schools tend to demotivate student autonomy, creating a paradox.

I talked to several students from these art schools, who point towards the discrepancy between the progressive curriculum that is taught in school and the often superficial attempts at inclusivity and diversity that are implemented at an institutional level. Cultural organisations and schools are undoubtedly complex institutions, but there is an expectation, especially among international students, that a seemingly progressive art school will actively enforce the messaging through which the school is marketed to prospective students. In order to find out more about the motivations and goals of the student-initiatives that aim to tackle these challenges, I spoke to students from Piet Zwart Instituut, Tools.For.The.Times, Not The Old White Men, and @no.more.later.

FREE PALESTINE

Earlier this year, a clash occurred between the students and the management of the Piet Zwart Instituut in Rotterdam about the representation of political statements on the school premises. When Diana Al Halabi and a group of fellow students suspended banners reading ‘Stop Ethnic Cleansing #savesheikhjarrah Free Palestine’, on the exterior staircases of the building in solidarity with Palestine, the institute responded only by repeatedly removing the banners. The management of the institute eventually contacted Diana directly, claiming that the walls of the building were not to be used as a platform for ‘political, religious or commercial statements’. Although many students, teachers and faculty members have shown solidarity with the students in supporting the protest, the management emphasised that ‘the main issue here […] is one of didactics and safety within the school building’. However, the management did express support for all students and staff to protest and encouraged them speak out in other ways.

According to Diana, this statement illustrates the double standards held by the institute as the institute has allowed the display of banners and political statements on the premises in the past. In 2020 for instance, banners were displayed in allegiance with Black Lives Matter, and earlier in 2015, the institute allowed banners showing solidarity with the victims of the Charlie Hebdo shootings. To protest the removal of the banners, Diana along with several students and some teachers initiated a performance piece at the Piet Zwart Instituut called Holding Palestine, which relied on collective efforts. Participants volunteered to hold up banners in shifts, literally supporting the political message with their bodies. The critical performance called into question various modes of support and their significance, as well as the support and autonomy a student may expect within an institutional context.

Diana Al Halabi, Holding Palestine, 20-21, performance at Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam, photo Steven Maybury

TOOLS.FOR.THE.TIMES

A completely different example of a student-initiative is Tools.For.The.Times (TFFT) which is based at the HKU. In an attempt to stimulate change from within the institution and to raise awareness for the needs of international students, students and teachers combined forces. A student at the HKU, Kiana Girigorie, first signalled the need for such an initiative when she experienced xenophobic backlash for hanging posters around the school which stated: ‘Stop Blackface and Let us Talk About it’. Kiana recalls: ‘Clearly there wasn’t an open space in the HKU fine art environment to even talk about racism without it having a negative backlash’. Fellow-founder of the initiative, Megan Auður, adds that there was clearly a culture of silencing at the institute: ‘I do not believe that all instances of silencing are comparable or scalable, however, there is a culture of silencing in the HKU and a pervasive belief in the fantasy of neutrality’.

Under the name Tools.For.The.Times, Kiana and Megan, along with other students and teachers, organized a series of workshops to devise and produce a set of ‘tools’ that serve as a practical communication guide, focused on sensitive topics such as colonialism and ‘zwarte piet’. Since its first event late 2019, TFFT has expanded greatly and its identity is increasingly defined within the frame of institutional activism. Their reach expanded greatly due to their digital presence and promotion through social media, a major tool for broadcast since the onset of the pandemic. TFFT now organizes regular Open Sessions on Zoom to practice and discuss issues in a round-table format. In their Open Session #4, for example, they discussed the concept of a ‘code of conduct’, how such a document takes shape within an institution, and what it takes to implement such a document as a set of guiding principles.

TFFT is not the only initiative operating out of the HKU, another initiative is Not The White Old Men (NTWOM). Members of NTOWM explain that their initiative is motivated by the limitations and uncertainties created by an asymmetrical power structure within the walls of the art school institute. This culture facilitates and reinforces the ‘artworld bubble’, which ultimately dictates who will be successful after leaving art school and who will not. NTOWM brings together several permanent members as well as a small group of young artists that rotates every three months. During these months, the artists build a collective exhibition with which they can reach a broad audience as well as gaining new contacts within the art world. The aim of NTWOM is to create a sustainable network for young artists alongside the institution so that they can experience more agency in their aspirations for a career, and to become less dependent on the ‘artworld bubble’ that is circuitously promoted by the cultures of certain art schools.

@no.more.later

Student-led initiative @no.more.later also functions to create new networks, specifically among international students of art schools throughout the Netherlands. The initiative was founded early 2020, after the onset of the pandemic, and is aimed at connecting students, collecting stories and sharing information in order to fill in information gaps within individual schools. Maja from No More Later explains that ‘one of the most important things for us was that we research things that we don’t get taught in school – for example what our options are for visas, things that people working at the universities don’t know’. The issue of hospitality appears to be an underlying, but significant issue here. Although schools like WdKA actively promote the school internationally to increase student numbers, there is a lack of adequate services and information to accommodate the basic needs of these international students. No More Later formed to address some of those issues and to help international students navigate the murky waters of the Dutch bureaucracy. Ultimately, this also benefits the school. According to Maja: ‘I have learnt that sometimes you have to be part of the system to change the system.’

@no.more.later collaborates with the institute to realise their aims. This year, Maja has joined the faculty board of the WdKA as a student representative. Maja and the other four international student board members have successfully lobbied for translators and interpreters to attend the board meetings, which are usually held in Dutch. Maja indicates that, as a result of their activities, ‘there are really good things happening now, although it’s still a slow process”. Thanks to @no.more.later, WdKA now hosts an Inclusivity Office, to draw attention to and promote practices of diversity and inclusion amongst the academic staff and art students within the school. This welcome trend of collaborations between initiative and institute also exists at the HKU, where TFFT has developed a programme in collaboration with the management, including inclusivity trainings. Teachers and faculty board members were included in an Open Session titled Educating the Educators, in which conversations were initiated between teachers and students. TFFT also organises events, such as reading groups and movie screenings around topics of inclusivity, and has initiated a podcast series in collaboration with Not a Playground and HKU Salons, titled Hushed Tones.

Solidarity, activism and inclusivity are at the core of the initiatives mentioned above, which have sprung from the motivation to change the culture of art schools and push back against organisational conformity in the face of change. The initiatives operate at different stages in their development, from the protest stage of reactive and immediate outrage, to the formation of well organised working groups and elaborately organised networks that advocate change from inside and in collaboration with the institution from which they emerged. In whatever stage the initiatives may find themselves, however, the resourcefulness of these groups is only paralleled by their ability to form astonishing creative insight into the necessity for ongoing change and progressive thought within art schools in the Netherlands.

A SLIGHTLY ALTERED VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE WAS PUBLISHED IN DUTCH IN METROPOLIS M 2021/4: ONBEPERKT TOEGANKELIJK.

This article was made possible thanks to the time and effort each group provided to talk about their efforts. Acknowledgement and gratitude must go to the members of Tools.For.The.Times: Practicing Inclusivity, No More Later, NTWOM and Diana Al Halabi, who, along with the vast network of other groups, have shared their stories of  tirelessly working behind the scenes, and labouring far beyond the boundaries of what it means to be a student.

Alyxandra Westwood
is an artist, writer and curator and is based between Utrecht and Melbourne

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