The following text originally appeared in the catalogue published on the occasion of the exhibition Really Useful Knowledge, curated by What, How & for Whom/WHW and organized and produced by the Museo Nacional Centro De Arte Contemporanea Reina Sofía.
The catalogue offers a further occasion to the contributing artists to reflect on the intrinsic pedagogical dimension of their work—in some cases openly affirming the emancipatory power of art, in other cases critically reflecting on knowledge production, with different artistic and political strategies to resist and confront the neoliberal impact on education (or other historical systems of oppression), to reclaim space for self-organized learning processes, to turn to aesthetics to reconfigure poetic and intimate relations, to chart new experiments around commons and communities, or to investigate the past, the present and the desired.
In WHW’s research-oriented curatorial approach, the space of the exhibition itself and the capacity of the museum are engaged as educational dispositif, challenged in their institutional role in knowledge production and distribution, and invited to become both catalysts for ideas and reflection, and sites for public debate and civic participation.
In this introduction, What, How & for Whom/WHW offers an overview of the work of the different artists who took part in the show, representing the artists’ concerns and ideas around education, and a diverse array of contemporary discourses and pedagogical artistic practices.
Photos: Joaquín Cortés & Román Lores / M.N.C.A.R.S
The notion of “really useful knowledge” originated with workers’ awareness of the need for self-education in the early nineteenth century. In the 1820s and 1830s, workers’ organizations in the United Kingdom introduced this phrase to describe a body of knowledge that encompassed various “unpractical” disciplines such as politics, economics, and philosophy, as opposed to the “useful knowledge” proclaimed as such by business owners, who some time earlier had begun investing in the advancement of their businesses by funding the education of workers in “applicable” skills and disciplines such as engineering, physics, chemistry, or math. Whereas the concept of “useful knowledge” operates as a tool of social reproduction and a guardian of the status quo, “really useful knowledge” demands changes by unveiling the causes of exploitation and tracing its origins within the ruling ideology; it is a collective emancipatory, theoretical, emotional, informative, and practical quest that starts with acknowledging what we do not yet know.
Although its title looks back to the class struggles of capitalism’s early years, the present exhibition is an inquiry into “really useful knowledge” from a contemporary perspective, positing critical pedagogy and materialist education as crucial elements of collective struggle. The exhibition is set against the backdrop of an ongoing crisis of capitalism and the revolts and attempts to oppose it at the structural level. In examining ways in which pedagogy can act as an integral part of progressive political practices, Really Useful Knowledge looks into the desires, impulses, and dilemmas of historical and current resistance and the ways they are embodied in education as a profound process of self-realization. The exhibition considers relations between usefulness and uselessness, knowledge and nescience, not as binary oppositions but as dialectical and, first and foremost, as dependable on the class perspective.
Conceived at the invitation of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, the exhibition was shaped in a dialogue with the museum’s curatorial and educational team and is inevitably influenced by the discussions and experiences of the local context. The devastating effects of austerity measures in Spain have been confronted by numerous collective actions in which the forms of protest and organized actions fighting to reclaim hard-won rights have gradually transformed into formal or informal political forces based on principles of the commons and the democratization of power. Through these processes issues pertaining to the wide field of education became a prominent part of the social dynamic—from initiatives for empowerment through self-education, to the reconfigured locus of the university and the role of students in the current social battles, to the struggles to defend public education.
It is not by accident that Really Useful Knowledge includes numerous collective artistic positions. Although disclaimers about collective work have been issued on many occasions—beyond the lures of productiveness and mutual interest, working together is not a guarantee for change, positive or negative—it is a prerequisite for social transformation. In recent years a number of collectives have again come to the forefront of social change by building new systems for renegotiating and redistributing power relations in all spheres of life. Several of the collectives that take part in the exhibition explore its potential as a site for colearning and a tool for reaching out. The group Subtramas has included organizations and activists from all over Spain in a project developed in dialogue with the exhibition. Social actors such as self-education groups, occupied spaces, independent publishers, collective libraries, activists groups, social centers, theorists, poets, LGBT activists, and feminists will take part in assemblies, readings, discussions, and various public actions.
The activist and feminist collective Mujeres Públicas engages with various issues connected to the position of woman in society. One of their permanent causes is the political struggles around abortion legislation in Latin America. The group’s project for the exhibition gathers the recent material from their actions and protests in public space.
Chto Delat? initiate interventions examining the role of art, poetics, and literature in educational situations and integrate activism into efforts to make education more politically based. Their work Study, Study and Act Again (2011–) functions as an archival, theatrical, and didactic space, created to establish interaction with visitors to the exhibition. Many of the publications included in the Chto Delat? installation are published by the Madrid based activist collective and independent publishing house Traficantes de Sueños, who have also organized the continuous education project Nociones Comunes (Common Notions) on a number of topical questions, including the status of labor; geopolitics; and connecting grass-roots activists, militant researchers, citizens, and students with theorists and economists. The work by Argentinean artistic duo Iconoclasistas (Pablo Ares and Julia Risler) uses critical mapping to produce resources for the free circulation of knowledge and information. Their maps, built through collective research and workshops, summarize the effects of various social dynamics, such as the colonization of South America, the history of uprisings on the continent, and the urban developments brought about by neoliberal politics.
Works can only enter into real contact as inseparable elements of social intercourse. It is not works that come into contact, but people, who, however, come into contact through the medium of works.
— M. Bakhtin and P. M. Medvedev, The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship
Really Useful Knowledge explores the possibility of art initiating encounters and debate between people, works, structures, tools, objects, images, and ideas, embarking from two crucial notions—materialist pedagogy arising from the Marxist interpretations of Walter Benjamin’s cultural and political analysis; and critical pedagogy. The exhibition looks at diverse procedural, nonacademic, antihierarchical, grass-roots, heterodox educational situations primarily occupied with the transformative potentials of art, testing the role of images in that process. Without attempting to provide an “overview” of the various educational projects and practices of recent years, many of which use the rhetoric of education as a displaced politics and whose most visible outcome has been an inflation of the discursive realm and “pedagogical aesthetic,” the exhibition looks into the educational process as an existing and integral (but not to be taken for granted) part of the exhibition genre and the original role of the museum.
By considering teaching and learning as reciprocal active processes, Victoria Lomasko has developed Drawing Lesson (2010–), a project in which, as a volunteer for the Center for Prison Reform, she has been giving drawing lessons to the inmates of juvenile prisons in Russia. Lomasko developed her own methodology of empowering the socially oppressed by employing images to strengthen analytical thinking and empathy. Working closely with organizations for the rights of immigrants, Daniela Ortiz developed Nation State II (2014), a project engaged with the issue of immigration, specifically with the integration tests required for obtaining residency permits. Revealing this test as a mechanism for the further exclusion and extension of colonial dominance over illegal workers coming mostly from ex-colonies, Nation State II collaborates with immigrants in creating the tools needed to learn the critical information they require when obtaining their rights. At the same time, the project develops a critical analysis of immigration legislature in Spain.
Really Useful Knowledge develops through a number of recurring themes revolving around the relationship between the artist and social change, the dialectic embedded in the images and visual realm that can generate political action, and the tension between perceived need for active involvement and insistence on the right of art to be “useless.” In Cecilia Vicuña’s What Is Poetry to You?—filmed in 1980 in Bogotá—the artist asks passers-by to respond to the question posed in the work’s title. The answers offer personal definitions of poetry that are opposed to racial, class, and national divisions; and the collective voice emerges that delineates a direction for emancipation and articulates socialist ideas through art. While relying on research into military technology and operations as in many of his works, in Prototype for a Non-functional Satellite (2013) Trevor Paglen creates a satellite that functions as a sculptural element in the gallery space, its very “uselessness” serving to advocate for a technology divorced from corporate and military interests. Similarly, the Autonomy Cube (2014) that Paglen developed in collaboration with computer researcher and hacker Jacob Appelbaum problematizes the tension between art’s utilitarian and aesthetic impulses. While visually referencing Hans Haacke’s seminal work of conceptual art, Condensation Cube (1963–1965), the Autonomy Cube offers free, open-access, encrypted, Internet hotspot that route traffic over the TOR network, which enables private, unsurveilled communication.
Carole Condé and Karl Beveridge’s series of photographs Art Is Political (1975) employs stage photography to relate social movements with a field of art. The series combines dancers’ bodies in movement with Yvonne Rainer’s choreography and Chinese agitprop iconography, with each photograph composing one letter of the sentence “Art Is Political.” The tensions and contradictions pertaining to the possibility of reconciling high art and political militancy figure also in Carla Zaccagnini’s Elements of Beauty (2014), a project that examines protest attacks on paintings in UK museums carried out by suffragettes in the early twentieth century. By outlining the knife slashes made on the paintings, Zaccagnini retraces them as abstract forms, while the accompanying audio guides provide fragmented information on the suffragettes’ court trials. One hundred years after those iconoclastic attacks, Zaccagnini’s work poses uncomfortable questions about where we would put our sympathies and loyalties today and how we know when we have to choose.
Like highways, schools, at first glance, give the impression of being equally open to all comers. They are, in fact, open only to those who consistently renew their credentials.
— Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society
How societies define and distribute knowledge indicates the means by which they are structured, what is the dominant social order, and degrees of inclusion and exclusion. Artists have often attempted to analyze the way in which the education system acts as the primary element for maintaining social order and the potential for art to develop progressive pedagogy within existing systems. Work Studies in Schools (1976–1977) by Darcy Lange documents lessons in the classrooms of three schools in Birmingham, England. The project uses the promise of video’s self-reflectivity and interactivity in its early years to expose class affiliation and the ways in which education determines future status in society, touching upon a range of subjects that would soon be swept away by Thatcherite ideology. While working as a teacher of visual arts in a high school in Marrakesh, artist Hicham Benohoud took group photographs of his pupils in the carefully posed manner of tableaux vivants. The Classroom (1994–2002) creates surrealist juxtapositions of pupils’ bodies, educational props, and strange objects, while students’ readiness to adopt the curious and uneasy postures opens up themes of discipline, authority, and revolt. En rachâchant (1982), a film by Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, humorously looks into dehierarchizing the educational process by showing schoolboy Ernesto, who insistently and with unshakable conviction refuses to go to school. Two Solutions for One Problem (1975) by Abbas Kiarostami, a short didactic film produced by the Iranian Centre for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, is a simple pedagogical tale of cooperation and solidarity that shows how two boys can resolve the conflict over a torn schoolbook through physical violence or camaraderie. In Postcards from a Desert Island (2011) Adelita Husni-Bey employs earlier pedagogical references, such as works by Francesc Ferrer i Guàrdia or Robert Gloton. For the children of an experimental public elementary school in Paris, the artist organized a workshop in which the students built a society on a fictional desert island. The film shows the children’s self-governance quickly encountering political doubts about decision-making processes and the role of law, echoing the impasses we experience today, but it also shows the potential and promise of self-organization.
Looking into ideological shifts that change how the relevance of particular knowledge is perceived, marxism today (prologue) (2010) by Phil Collins follows the changes brought about by the collapse of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the lives of three former teachers of Marxism-Leninism, a compulsory subject in all GDR schools that was abolished along with state socialism at the time of German reunification. The teaching of Marxism-Leninism, as described by the interviewed teachers, comes across as an epistemological method and not just a state religion whose dogmas were promulgated by a political authority. This recounting of the teachers’ lives complicates the success story of German unification, which sees the absorption of this aberrant entity back into the Bundesrepublik as a simple return to normality. In use! value! exchange! (2010), Collins reclaims the relevance of Marxist education for the present day by filming a symbolic return in which one of the former teachers gives a lesson on basic concepts of surplus value and its revolutionary potential to the clueless students of the University of Applied Sciences, previously the prestigious School of Economics, where she taught before the “transition.” The students’ ignorance of the most basic of the contradictions Marx discovered in capitalism—between use value and exchange value—is indicative of the present moment in which capitalism stumbles through its deepest economic crisis in eighty years.
Tracing the history of public education in most cases reveals an admixture of paternalistic idealism attempting to overcome social fears that, until the nineteenth century, had discouraged the education of the poor, and a clear agenda of worker pacification through the management of social inclusion. And yet, as Silvia Federici and George Caffentzis note, “In the same way as we would oppose the shutting down of factories where workers have struggled to control work and wages—especially if these workers were determined to fight against the closure—so we agree that we should resist the dismantling of public education, even though schools are also instruments of class rule and alienation. This is a contradiction that we cannot wish away and is present in all our struggles.”
The regressive tendencies of neoliberalism prompted a general retreat from the ideologies of social change, steering education further toward the function of legitimizing a deeply oppressive social order. But those engaged in the contemporary “battle for education” must shed all nostalgia for the progressive strategy of welfare provision associated with the “golden age” decades of European capitalism—a strategy that fostered social mobility within the prevailing economic structure and attempted limited educational reforms governed by the humanistic faith in education as the development of “people’s creative potential.” They must also be cautious about betting on the emancipatory hopes that have been inscribed in the affective and communicative possibilities of immaterial labor, because in the contemporary regime touted as the knowledge society, work has become a form of internalized vocation leading to creative self-fulfillment, while innermost thoughts and creative drives have been turned into activities productive for capital. The contemporary “battle for education” has to address new social inequalities and conflicts triggered by distribution and access to knowledge and must assess the effects that knowledge as the basis of capital reproduction has on the totality of knowledge workers’ existence.
History breaks down in images not into stories.
— Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project
Several works in the exhibition use the principles of collecting, accumulating, and reorganizing images or objects and assembling them into sequences in order to challenge the impulses of reification and to test the ability of images to “defin[e] our experiences more precisely in areas where words are inadequate.” Many works constitute informal assemblies or archives aimed at revealing the ways in which images operate, thus making the very process of viewing more politically aware. Photographs by Lidwien van de Ven zoom into the hidden details of notorious public political events, implicating the viewer in their content. Since the 2012, the artist has been capturing the complex dynamic between the revolutionary pulses of social transformation and the counterrevolutionary resurgence in Egypt. Depicting the contested period of the Egyptian political uprising through visual fragments, van de Ven portrays the oscillations of the very subject of the revolution.
Several works in the exhibition deal with the modernist legacy and the present-day implications and reverberations of culture having been used as a Cold War instrument. Starting from a reference to the iconic exhibition Family of Man, first organized at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1955 and later circulated internationally, Ariella Azoulay’s installation The Body Politic—A Visual Universal Declaration of Human Rights (2014) deconstructs the notion of human rights as a post-WWII construction based on individualism, internationalism, humanism, and modernity that at the same time also contributed to the formation of the hegemonic notion of otherness. By reworking the original display of Family of Man, Azoulay shows the cracks in its representation system and asks what kind of humanism we need today to restore the conditions for solidarity. The visual archive of Lifshitz Institute (1993/2013) by Dmitry Gutov and David Riff centers on rereading the works of Russian aesthetic philosopher Mikhail Lifshitz, one of the most controversial intellectual figures of the Soviet era. Opening in Moscow by D. A. Pennebaker documents impressions of the American National Exhibition organized by the U.S. government in 1959 in order to propagate the American way of life. By portraying the rendezvous of Muscovites and American advanced technology, it shows a propaganda machine gone awry: while the exhibition attempted to lure the audience with a “promised land” of consumerism, the documentary presents differences as well as similarities between American and Russian working-class life.
If the pertinence of the Cold War for the present day manifests itself through the recent revival of Cold War rhetoric that serves as a cover for military and nationalist drumbeats whose noise is making up for a suspension of democracy, the legacy of colonial rule is as vigorous today as it was in 1962, when Jean-Paul Sartre memorably diagnosed the situation in “Sleepwalkers,” (1962) an essay about the behavior of Parisians on the very day the Algerian ceasefire was signed: “Colonialism over there, fascism here: one and the same thing.”
Originally produced for Algerian state television, How Much I Love You (1985) by Azzedine Meddour is an ingenious mixture of the genres of educational film, propaganda, and documentary. Meddour uses excerpts from advertising and propaganda films found in colonial archives, expertly edited with a distressingly joyous soundtrack and turned on their head in an ironic chronicle of colonial rule and the French role in the Algerian War of Independence. The installation Splinters of Monuments: A Solid Memory of the Forgotten Plains of Our Trash and Obsessions (2014) by Brook Andrew includes a wide assortment of objects: artworks from the Museo Reina Sofía collections, artworks borrowed from the Museo Nacional de Antropología i Museo de América, records from local community archives, original Aboriginal human skeletons used for medical purposes, and paraphernalia such as postcards, newspapers, posters, rare books, photographs, and smaller objects. Their juxtaposition challenges hegemonic views on history, art, gender, and race. The possibility of renegotiating relations of colonialism and power through engaged acts of viewing and by bringing a hybrid social imaginary to the symbolic site of the museum is also explored by This Thing Called the State (2013) and EntreMundos [BetweenWorlds] (2013) by Runo Lagomarsino, works that rely on historical narratives related to the colonial conquests of Latin America and the question of migration. Looking into how society relates to its past and projects its identity, Lagomarsino borrows a collection of retablo votive paintings commissioned by Mexican migrants after their successful illegal crossing of the border to the United States.
There is not only such a thing as being popular, there is also the process of becoming popular.
— Bertolt Brecht, Against Georg Lukács
Really Useful Knowledge reiterates the necessity of producing sociability through the collective use of existing public resources, actions, and experiments, either by developing new forms of sharing or by fighting to maintain existing ones now under threat of eradication. Public Library: Art as Infrastructure (www.memoryoftheworld.org) (2012–) by Marcell Mars is a hybrid media and social project based on ideas from the open-source software movement, which creates a platform for building a free, digitized book repository. In that way, it continues the public library’s role of offering universal access to knowledge for each member of society. However, despite including works that investigate the progressive aspects of complex new technologies and their potential to reach a wide public, the exhibition avoids idealizing them, because the technological leap for some has been paralleled by dispossession and an increase in poverty for others. The project Degenerated Political Art, Ethical Protocol (2014) by Núria Güell and Levi Orta uses the financial and symbolic infrastructure of art to establish a company in a tax haven. With help from financial advisors, the newly established “Orta & Güell Contemporary Art S.A” is able to evade taxes on its profits. The company will be donated to a local activist group as a tool for establishing a more autonomous financial system, thus using the contradictory mechanisms of financial capitalism as tools in the struggle against the very system those tools were designed to support.
The exhibition also looks into artistic practices in which social and communal messages are conveyed through folk or amateur practices, insisting on the importance of popular art—not as an ideologically “neutral” appreciation and inclusion of objects made by children, persons with mental illness, or the disadvantaged, but because it creates new forms of sociability, because it is popular in the Brechtian sense of “intelligible to the broad masses,” and because it communicates between presently ruling sections of society and “the most progressive section of the people so that it can assume leadership.” Ardmore Ceramic Art Studio is an artists’ collective founded in 1985 in the rural area of Ardmore in South Africa. As a reaction to official government silence on AIDS, the artists made ceramics that, in addition to commemorating fellow artists lost to AIDS, explain how the disease spreads and the possible methods of protection. Expressing important ideas related to HIV prevention, this didactic pottery is used as a far-reaching tool for raising awareness. Primitivo Evanán Poma is an artist from the village of Sarhua in the Peruvian Andes populated by indigenous people, many of whom migrated to Lima during the second half of the twentieth century due to economic hardship and the devastating effects of the “internal conflict” of 1980–2000. Art produced with the Association of Popular Artists of Sarhua uses the pictorial style of their native village to address social concerns and point out the many-sided discrimination of indigenous people in Lima, thus becoming a catalyst for building community self-awareness and solidarity.
In his film June Turmoil (1968), Želimir Žilnik documents student demonstrations in Belgrade in June 1968, the first mass protests in socialist Yugoslavia. Students were protesting the move away from socialist ideals, the “red bourgeoisie,” and economic reforms that had brought about high unemployment and emigration from the country. The film ends with a speech from Georg Büchner’s revolutionary play Danton’s Death (1835), delivered by stage actor Stevo Žigon—one of the many prominent public figures and artists who joined the protest in solidarity with the students’ cause. The film’s finale testifies to the centrality of education and knowledge to the socialist worldview and shows how the barriers separating “high” and “low” culture can be broken in crucial moments of political radicalization.
The question of the reach of popular art and its relation to high culture and art institutions can often be observed through the position of the autodidact and by resisting the authority of formal education and the ever-increasing professionalization of the art field. Beyond the refusal to follow the customary and accepted paths to the career of art-professional, the approach of developing knowledge through self-education and peer learning offers the possibility of building one’s own curriculum and methodology, as well as moving away from ossified and oppressive intellectual positions. Trained as a painter, in the early 1930s Hannah Ryggen taught herself to weave tapestries to comment on the political events of her time, such as the rise of fascism, the economic crisis of 1928 and its devastating effects on people’s lives, Benito Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, the German occupation of Norway, and the Spanish Civil War. Using “traditional” techniques, she created a powerful body of politically progressive work imbued with pacifist, communist, and feminist ideas. Since the mid-1970s, Mladen Stilinović has been developing artistic strategies that combine words and images, using “poor” materials to engage the subjects of pain, poverty, death, power, discipline, and the language of repression. His pamphlet-like, agit-poetic works offer laconic commentary on the absurdity and crudity of power relations and the influence of ideology in contemporary life.
People get ready for the train is coming
— Curtis Mayfield, “People Get Ready”
Bringing to the fore a number of works that center on the question of political organization and art’s capability to produce imagery able to provoke strong emotional responses, the exhibition affirms the role of art in creating revolutionary subjectivity and explores how forms of popular art reflect the ideas of political movements, evoking the original meaning of the word propaganda, which can be defined as “things that must be disseminated.” The work by Emory Douglas included in the exhibition was created for The Black Panther, the newspaper of the Black Panther Party published during their struggle against racial oppression in the United States from 1966 until 1982. A number of artistic and propaganda activities were integrated into the Black Panther Party program, and as their minister of culture Douglas produced numerous posters and newspaper pages with strong political messages against police brutality and for every person’s equal rights to basic housing, employment, free education, and guaranteed income.
During the antifascist and revolutionary People’s Liberation War in Yugoslavia (1941–1945), numerous expressions of Partisan art contributed to the creation of a new revolutionary subjectivity and the articulation of revolutionary struggle, in the process changing the notion of art and the understanding of its autonomy. The Mozambican Institute by Catarina Simão researches the film archives of the Mozambican Liberation Front, or FRELIMO. As a part of their struggle against Portuguese colonial rule, and in an attempt to fight illiteracy, FRELIMO created the Mozambican Institute in Dar es Salaam in 1966 to enable study outside of the educational framework organized by colonial rule. Working with the remains of the institute’s film archive kept in Maputo, Simão reinterprets and researches this heritage in which political struggle intersected with radical educational and artistic ideas.
Many new models and alternatives to the current social system have been proposed, but applying what we already know on the individual and collective level is much more challenging than acquiring that knowledge. Really Useful Knowledge affirms the repoliticization of education as a necessary condition for recovering politics and pedagogy as a crucial element of organized resistance and collective struggles. The exhibition brings together artistic works imbued with ideas that reconfigure social and intimate relations, and it attempts to create an interchange of convictions and histories in order to infect viewers with the works’ proposals, convictions, and dilemmas.
 Cited in Raymond Williams, “The Uses of Cultural Theory,” New Left Review 158 (July–August 1986).
 Silvia Federici and George Caffentzis, “Notes on the Edu-factory and Cognitive Capitalism,” The Commoner, no. 12 (Spring/Summer 2007).
 John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: BBC & Penguin Books, 2008), 33.
 Jean-Paul Sartre, “Sleepwalkers,” in Colonialism and Neocolonialism (New York: Routlege, 2001), 73.
 Bertolt Brecht, “Against Georg Lukács,” in Aesthetics and Politics: The Key Texts of the Classic Debate within German Marxism (London: Verso, 2002), 81.
 The song “People Get Ready” by Curtis Mayfield from 1965 became an emblematic protest song of various civil rights and revolutionary movements in the 60’s and 70’s in the US. The original spiritual message embodied in Mayfield’s lyrics: “People get ready, there’s a train a comin’ (…) Don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord” was transformed by Black Panthers’ R&B band The Lumpen into the rendition: “We said people get ready; Revolution’s come; Your only ticket; Is a loaded gun”.