The Reign of the Cheeky Monkey
(or: The Case of Education V Participation)
This is the third and final text of my “Triad of Participation” and aims to expand on my two previous conceptualisations from the articles The Benefits of Being A Bit of An Asshole and The Artist As Social Worker Vs The Artist as Social Wanker by further elucidate the inter-relational dichotomies between artists, institutions and communities with whom they work, specifically in regards to the framing of working with people as ‘education’ or ‘participation’.
As with those previous texts, this does not constitute a formulaic classification of the practice as a whole, but rather descriptions of the practice as I have experienced it. Unlike the other texts, I shall attempt to keep my swearing to a minimum.
This text begins with a reference to a project by Incidental People called ‘Pontification, Prevarication‘ at the National Museum in Cardiff which I feel succinctly illustrates the issue of ‘participation’ and ‘education’ and how that plays out in the context of a participatory projects.
The written documentation of the project describes how the collective designed a museum-based programme that was premised, driven and formulated by lies – lies from the artists, lies from the participants, lies from the institution: all intentional and used as a methodology to explore the premise of an ‘educational’ project. The project contrasted the notions of pedagogy and participation and explored how to ethically and humorously engage an institution in its own self-reflection.
As I’ve said elsewhere before, education is a “process of ‘knowing/unknowing;’ a power system of knowledge, and the assimilation of ‘those who don’t participate’ into ‘normal’ structures via hierarchies such as schools and correctional facilities (i.e., prisons). Participation suggests a more collaborative and egalitarian process that has no premeditated outcomes. While the two are often collapsed, and complexly interwoven – no doubt participation involves some education and vice versa – the clarification of whether a state-funded project is educational or participatory will reveal whether or not a project it is engaged in a form of social engineering to “construct civic identities” amenable to the state, or if it is a true collaborative approach that is based on a dialogic, relational model with a mutual, shared and common inquiry.”
What the ‘Pontification, Prevarication’ project above did was to problematise the relationship between education and participation within a museum context and thereby reveal the power dynamics in play, thus neutralising their unethical impetus. The project did this via a “uniquely British” trait of cheekyness, and being ‘cheeky little monkeys.’
Before I explore this trait and how it functions in the realm of participatory projects, it is important to briefly unpick the pedagogy vs participation dichotomy. Unfortunately, the best way to do this is via everyone favourite obtuse and impenetrable Frenchman, Jacques Ranciere.
The definition of pedagogy literally means “to lead the child” and it evokes images of a child being dragged to the front of the class by an angry school marm, or a headmaster pulling an unruly student by the ear down the corridor: it evokes a vision of all the things that are morally and ethically wrong about ‘education’ – authority, uncreative rote-learning, and the attempt to create educated citizens in a certain and specific form via violence.
Ranciere suggests that this is not a Victorian, dated model of education, but that contemporary education is based on a such ideals and it predicates a false promise of providing emancipation through learning. This is false because it is premised upon a notion that those that those ‘who do not know’ should be filled with ‘knowledge’ by those that ‘do know.’ Ranciere suggests that this form of education is flawed as it assumes a pre-conditioned inequality – that there are certain kinds of knowledge to be valued and those without that knowledge are lacking. Simply put, the current emancipatory education in the west is a system wherein the actual system of emancipation recapitulates inequality though the assumption of the correct things that need to be learned/assimilated to be granted liberation.
Within his novel, The Ignorant SchoolMaster, (1987) Ranciere tells the tale of a teacher of French Literature who takes a job teaching French Literature in a Dutch university, despite him having no Dutch and the students having no French. This relationship is metaphorical of the ‘knowing/unknowing’ system of education, but is also synonymous with many of the current museums/gallery/public art projects that present one group of people that ’know’ and one group of people that ‘don’t know’ – be that knowledge of art, culture, history, class, notions of ‘civilisation’ or any myriad of ideologies.
How the hero of the book – Jacotot, The Ignorant Schoolmaster – ‘teaches’ the students is via organising his lessons “around an object which they can nonetheless study together – a bilingual edition of Fénelon’s Télémaque. With the help of an interpreter, he asks the students to read it by using the translation, to review continuously what they are learning and then to write, in French, what they think of the book. Having expected work of lamentable standard he is surprised by the quality of the students’ work. Although he has taught the students precisely nothing, they for their part have learned to read French Literature…. This experiment leads Jacotot to revise his prior assumptions, notably the assumption that in order to teach, a teacher needs to be in possession of knowledge that s/he can then explain to the students…From this [Ranciere] concludes there is no necessary link between teaching and having knowledge. In other words, the inequality which education is designed to address should be remedied not by seeking to transfer knowledge (be it either through progressive or authoritarian means) but by establishing a relationship of equality between master and student, between the one who demands that intelligence manifest itself and the other who develops his or her own intellect.” (Pelletier, C. Emancipation, Equality and Education: Ranciere’s Critique of Bourdieu and the Question of Performativity. Discourse, October, 2008)
This succinct presentation of Ranciere’s concepts point towards an understanding that if an educational process that aims redress inequality is, in fact, actually predicated upon that very inequality, it therefore would be impossible for it to be employed in an emancipatory manner.
This point is highlighted by the instrumentalised approach of “Social Inclusion” and is further illustrated if one considers the education programmes within art museum/gallery settings and how often they are designed to “lead the child” towards some sort of understanding that is possessed by the museum/gallery/artist – be that skills, concepts or insights about art, culture or even politics. Importantly, these programmes do not necessarily pertain to actual children, but could refer to the equally infantility presented working class, juvenile delinquents, ‘deprived’ communities or the elderly, and illustrates Ranciere’s point that outreach/education projects are often designed/intended for those that do not participate in the correct form of existence – children without knowledge, uncultured working class, the criminal underclasses, the poor or the isolated/infirm. These programmes – and even progressive education programmes are presented as an emancipatory experience – are still predicated on knowledge flowing from the ‘knower’ to the ‘unknower’ and therefore can never be truly emancipatory, as they are just recapitulating the dominant hegemony.
Rather, as Ranciere suggests, real ‘education’ can only occur when there is an equality between those that are in power and those that are not – between those with ‘something to teach’ and those that ‘wish to expand their intellect on their own terms.’ There is a wider discussion in The Ignorant Schoolmaster about class and relevant concerns about democracy within his thesis, but the salient point in regards to ‘participatory projects’ is that the majority of ‘emancipatory education’ that many arts institutions (and artists) undertake are unethically and problematically designed – regardless of well-meaning intention – and thus ‘education’ within participatory settings can only replicate power structures, rather than offer real and honest emancipatory insights.
Instead, Ranciere proposes a different sort of emancipation and my proposal is that this Rancierian educational experience runs along the same lines the ‘participatory projects’ I presented in contrast to education above: dialogic and relational projects that enshrine equity between the ‘master’ (ie, those in power) and the ‘student’ (ie, those who are not). It is only through this equity that true ‘participation’ can occur and the potential for emancipation can emerge.
To illustrate this point, consider the Incidental People mentioned above, in designing their Museum of Lies project, they looked at a way the project isn’t “just about the politics of creative participation. It is also interested in different approaches to learning and engagement within Museum contexts. In conversations with our partners at National Museum Wales, we discussed how an emphasis on accessible learning in museums across the UK can meant that they gloss over the uncertainties, the leaps of faith, the necessary fictions underlying both archival exhibitions and historical practices as a whole…We wondered – what if both the museum and the project producers let go of their traditional roles? What if an educational museum project sought to cultivate mystery as well as clarity? How should we go about this? How could we create a project that was coherent but did not dictate the terms of its own construction?….As a way of exploring both of these dynamics, we chose to work with the idea of lies.”
In presenting a project wherein not only the concepts of the the project were placed in equity, but also the participants and the institution, the artists developed an ethical and engaging participatory project that was not only insightful to all those involved, but also presents insight into the structures that formulate, limit and constrain participatory projects, while also revealing the ethical issues attached to educational programmes. I suggest that this sort of participation can only happen when the artist is set up as a sort of mediator between the institution (a representative of the master) and the public (standing in for the student): to be a sort of middle ground, a translatory text; a living embodiment of the bilingual Télémaque text between the institution and the community.
As the vast majority of participatory projects are now funded, designed and co-ordinated via institutions (as opposed to individual artist run projects) this relational dichotomy between the artist, the institution and the ‘public’ is not only becoming the main format of ‘participatory art projects’ but also a vitally important dichotomy to interrogate. Within this relational interchange, it is my contention that it is the artist’s role to ensure that equity between parties is present. It is only once the this equity is created that the potential for both emancipatory insights can develop and those that wish to seek to expand their own intellect can do so without being moulded into the form of the powerful institution/state. Elsewhere, I have called this ‘emancipatory insight’ the Potential For Transformation and it is a sort of holy grail of ethical participatory projects because it does not assume a transformation, nor does it suggest what that emancipation can be, only that it provides the context for the transformation to occur, the exact form and shape of it being left in the active hands of the participants to, like Jacotot’s students, develop his or her own intellect.
How a participatory artist does this – as I have suggested elsewhere – is by being a bit of an asshole and/or a social wanker, but it can also occur via cheekiness. And this is where the cheeky little monkey comes scampering into my thesis, chucking faeces about like it were confetti at a wedding.
Those from an international context who might not know the specific nuances of cheeky and cheekiness can read up on it here or listen to the transcript delivered word-for-word by the author here, but the author, Dr Farrah Jarral, suggests that cheekiness is hard to describe, and it seems best to “define what it’s not. It’s not quite the same as audacity – it takes itself less seriously than that. And it’s not as rude as impudence because cheekiness never sets out to truly offend. Cheekiness, then, is neither high-minded nor aggressive. Its hallmark is good-hearted humour, a certain cheeriness of spirit. Often it is loud – think of the effectiveness of the whoopee cushion left on the unsuspecting teacher’s chair. But it can be just as deadly when silent, or even sartorial. Cheekiness isn’t just funny, though. It has the power to deflate pomposity faster than any whoopee cushion….Despite the chances of social humiliation, it is a low-risk way of breaking the rules and protesting. It says, in a gentle way, that you do not consent to something – some dynamic, some power structure, some constraint imposed on you by a bigger force.”
Indeed, this is the very nature of the Incidental People project mentioned at the beginning of the text, who via a good-hearted humour protested against the dynamic of the educational institution, and in doing so, facilitated the ‘potential for transformation’ not only with the institution, but also with the participants.
How an artist is cheeky will be dependant on their context and their skilful negotiation of relationships and expectations of both the institutions and the communities, and so I would be hesitant to suggest a formulaic structure of how one is cheeky. Instead, I would suggest that it is via cheekiness that an artist can create a good-natured equity between those of disparate powers, and that this is an essential action within the participatory realm due to the ethical concerns of ‘working with people’ mentioned above. I would hasten to add, additionally, that it is a trait not wholly limited to the realm of participatory arts and is visible in many other forms – David Shrigley’s humorous drawings, the tongue-in-cheek videos of Erica Eyres, the street art works of Banksy, even the monolithic ‘Fountain’ by Duchamp could easily be read as a cheeky interventions into the system in which the artist is working. As Jarral suggests, cheekiness is multifaceted in its approach and while the asshole or the wanker might have contain an underlying sense of aggression (which can also be challenge to hegemonic structures of order and restraint) cheekiness “is a way of creatively, often playfully, injecting resistance into the quotidian. It creates a space in which to push back against inequality, against commoditisation, colonisation, against the rules that say who you can talk to, what you are allowed to talk about, and how you talk, what your aspirations can be, what constitutes success or beauty, or how you are supposed to wear your masculinity or femininity. Scratch the surface, and you will find that beneath the silliest acts of cheekiness, there is often a deeply important matter that is being negotiated.”
Being a bit of a cheeky monkey myself, I have explored this in many ways in my own work. For example, in 2013, I was invited to develop a response to the bicentenary of the Highland Clearances in a small village in Scotland by the Timespan Museum and Gallery. I was aware that the museum was invested in the exploration of the Clearances as a locally unique circumstance on which they could capitalise. I was also aware that it gained international cache attracting many national and international visitors that brought income into the village via the ‘returning Diaspora’. As such, I was interested in how an institution might or might not be over-compensating in their exploration of the topic, and whether or not it was as pertinent to the locals as it was to the (financial) life-blood of the institution. I was also keenly aware of the local youth who were indoctrinated into the mythology of the Clearances at quite a young age via the exhibitions the Heritage Committee of Timespan presented at the museum, talks in schools and other village events.
I was curious, then, to develop a critique of this educational framework and explore how I could present a more egalitarian and participatory project, and thus I asked the Heritage Committee of Timespan to divide into two groups, each one to present a case for or against: to argue either ‘The Clearances are Still Happening’ or ‘The Clearances are Over’ in a mock trial. I informed them that I had found an incredibly important judge, who was impartial and not invested in either outcome, and would they agree that whatever argument the judge sided with would be considered a binding social contract? They agreed to the proposal and set to preparing their cases. What I did not inform them until the moment they entered the ‘courtroom’ (i.e., the gallery) was that the judges would be made up of the 23 Primary School children, and it was they that would decided the case of the Clearances. I wanted the event to highlight the fact that it is the youth who are receptacles of perceptions on history, who are the keepers of ‘how we talk about history’ and so it should they who decide what might or might not be relevant. The school children listened to the cases and decided at the end of the debates that “The Clearances are Over” which presented a challenge to those within power (the institution/the schoolmaster/the Heritage Committee). This cheekiness playfully undermined the power of the decision-makers: it placed their interests and the children’s ability to develop their own intellect in equity and provided the Potential for Transformation to all involved – allowing the children to formulate their own understandings which history is important, but also setting up a non-political modality that challenged the institution to explore its own political hegemony on its own terms.
The event (History on Trial) acted within the Rancierian formulation of education – ie, an ethical participatory project – by using cheekiness as a methodology as a “low-risk way of breaking the rules and protesting.”
Jarrel presents an argument that: “Cheekiness is the checking of power…. Our lives are monitored, constrained and pressured both explicitly and implicitly in almost every waking minute of our existence. Open protest, staring down tanks, self-immolation, is hard, but if we can’t bring ourselves to mount a full-scale rebellion, we can still exercise our right to cheekiness in little everyday ways – loudly, quietly, in song, art, or style, jokes or poems, to push back for the things that deep down, do mean something to us.”
Being cheeky then stands as nuanced critique of power stands in stark opposition to a political activism of other artists that aim to undermine traditional hegemonies by direct action or oppositional critique. As I have argued elsewhere, this more activist-led challenge to hegemonic orders “turns the arena of the social (and the ‘artistic’) into a competition between one idea of utopia and another – it does not reveal the actual power structures, but merely replicates the dynamics between opposing ideas. It reiterates politics: it does not reveal the shape of the political.” By this, I am suggesting that the light-touch of cheekiness can be more an effective contribution to developing emancipatory insights and the potential for transformation than direct confrontation.