FORGOT TO PUT YOUR HAIR ON"
The following transcription of an 'exchange-situation' took place at the Copenhagen Free University on 18th March, 2002. The participants, or 'conceptual personae', present were Josephine Berry, Henriette Heise, Jakob Jakobsen and Howard Slater.
JB: We are sitting in the top floor flat of a building in Copenhagen, we're surrounded by kids toys and cutlery and crockery and candlesticks and very homely things and yet this is a university, a free university. Maybe its best just to ask Henriette and Jakob how this came about, how you came to think of doing this? What were you reacting to, or, what were you thinking of?
HH: I guess the initial thing that started it was our desire to create small institutions where we can work with every kind of presentation of art and whatever. We somehow discovered, after coming back from London and living here again, that we thought that self-institutionalising is something that we like to do very much, that we somehow need very much. Building institutions is where our primary practice is materialising. It is here we can decide everything for ourselves. We can work with people and we can learn a lot. So we had this spare room that is close to the stairwell and has its own door and, more than a year ago, we came up with the name Copenhagen Free University and we saw it as a huge challenge somehow. We liked the fact of saying this is a university, it kind of created all sorts of demands and it drew us into a real big challenge which we find really interesting.
JB: If you compare it to the Info Centre that you did in London, which is another space inside a domestic space, a public/private space if you like, where do you think the emphasis has shifted in using the name university? Has it called into being something quite different to what you were doing in London?
JJ: With the Info Centre we were also working with the idea of self-institution. There were many discussions about the social relations created around an art project like the Info Centre. Maybe by changing the emphasis from an 'information centre' to a 'university' it was more an investigation of what actually went on in and around those social relations created in these institutions. So it was maybe that the Info Centre was more of an experiment as to whether we could produce social relations based around the politics of everyday life. It worked allright. So the next step was very much about trying to investigate the nature of those social relations and in a way trying to work more specifically with the production of social relations within the framework of this institution. So, that might be the background to the change from the information centre to the university. At the Copenhagen Free University there is, of course, more emphasis on the exchange between people whereas with the Info Centre the information may have been more specific and non-negotiable than this sort of social situation that is the university.
JB: So it's almost like trying to change information into knowledge? A shift from the dissemination of information to the social relations that produce knowledge?
HS: It seems to me like the shift might be one from a conventional art material of information to a new kind of material which we can call social relations. Social relations can be seen as material that you can work with, that can be created.
HH: We learnt from the Info Centre how much the active production of social relations actually can create. So, that was maybe an experience that we can use here.
HS: I suppose, in a sense, that if knowledge is created through the social relations then the proprietorship of that knowledge alters. So I guess knowledge becomes more a matter of the general intellect or a communal construction of knowledge through the social relations rather than specific individuals imparting a pre-formed knowledge.
JJ: At the CFU we are talking very much about everyday life and that's of course becoming a fetish in many respects. But then again we have everyday life experiences so we are trying to discuss them within the framework of the Free University as well as we were within the Info Centre. It's the place where we live and we try in a way to de-alienate information and knowledge in some way. So, as Henriette says, the university was an idea we put out and it was like building a hollow shell and from that we would like to see how we can produce content for that shell. So it was like an experiment in a way, but I think what we have been discussing is , of course, the relationship between knowledge and life. And instead of just seeing knowledge as some abstracted generalised entity or objectified thing, knowledge is, of course, related to the context and to the social relations in and around it. We are trying to make this university now, here where we live, in our flat, and we are trying to discuss [and experiment with] the relationship between knowledge and life. So that was some of the questions we started out with.
JB: Do you see the Copenhagen Free University as a prototype? If you can abandon the idea that a prototype can be perfectly reproduced do you see it more as a catalyst than a space that can fulfil a lot of those objectives in and of itself? Because what I'm thinking about is how - with this exploration of a relation between knowledge and life - can people have a lasting engagement in the free university? How can they because it's your home? There's this difficulty... there is a threshold beyond which there is a need for your own privacy and your own sanity and you're experimenting very much with this line. But, in a way, how can people engage? How do people come into this space and what do you think their experiences are with it and how does knowledge get negotiated within that? That's a lot of questions, but I'm just wondering about, I hate to use this word, the usability of the space for visitors and what they encounter?
HH: You can have very many approaches to the university and I think that just by saying this is the Copenhagen Free University in our flat in the Northern part of Copenhagen people already start to visualise and imagine what it could be. So, this initial step must at least make some people ask themselves what is going on here? Then we have a very, very engaged version which is friends and engaged people who actually come here and live here in the room that we have made for whatever we can call something like exhibitions. You have been living here and so has Emma Hedditch and Anthony Davies. Really engaged people staying here and working here with us and presenting and sharing their knowledge. And then we have the visitors coming around where we present whatever is going on at the time. It is always us, Jakob and me, or people who know the material quite well and are very engaged with it, that are presenting it to the visitors and that creates this situation that almost every time a visitor has a knowledge of their own they then give back and it definitely makes sense somehow! I don't see any problems with 'usability' as such - who defines that anyway?
HS: It's almost like, as a self-institution, the walls of the Free University are porous because it's a domestic space as well. So if the university is seen as an investigation into knowledge and everyday life, then to quote Asger Jorn even... he describes culture as learning by experience, there's an experiential aspect here isn't there? People are staying, visiting... they're coming to a different form of institution where perhaps the experience of learning and discussing is as valuable as the subject-matter of what is discussed. And I suppose that experience would be an experience of the social relations that are being established here in the sense that there are no seminars as such, there's nothing organised along the lines of an academy. So there's not only this porosity, a leakage between being in the university and outside the university, but from that, because experience doesn't stop, an experiential knowledge becomes possible. We maybe have to play this against the normal education establishment and see really that the experiences that can be appreciated here and worked with or taken away, the imaginative expectations of what people are going to experience here, are different from the normalising academy where it's perhaps our very experiences that are jettisoned at the doorway. So the wall there is impervious, you have to almost leave your desires with your coat in the cloakroom. In that sense the self-institution of the Copenhagen Free University is also an experiment in a situation because a situation, in the terms of the Situationist International, is supposed to enable us to bring all facets of experience into the situation; there's no hierarchy of valid experiences. So, we've already discussed how to make ciabatta bread this morning and this exchange between us now has the tenor of that informing it.
JB: So, also the idea would be to create new desires, or allow new desires to emerge?
HS: Or make certain desires that are low in the hierarchy come to an equal footing like making ciabbata bread. There was a material we were discussing yeast. Why is that any less interesting than oil paint or videotape. It's a material, everything's a creative material really.
HH: We were all passionately engaged with having bread for the morning and one of the central themes of the university is definitely passion!
HS: And really why hierarchisise the passions? We've been talking about Charles Fourier recently and it's the same sort of thing; you cultivate the manias, cultivate the passions because that, in many ways, is what makes experience valid!
JB: I suppose I see that as not a contradiction, but a bit of a problem with the free university in that, how can I put this?: it's easier to share passions between friends, having jokes that lead to serious things and serious things that turn into jokes, the kind of freedom that goes with friendship and passionate attachment. And I was thinking about our conversation about ciabatta this morning, but then also the conversation we had with the students that came from the Art Academy in Sweden a few days ago, and how completely shocked two out of three of them looked and in a sense I suppose they were probably caught between expectation on the one hand and shyness on the other, and they were just slightly gobsmacked. I suppose the word is 'disorientated', and how in a sense desires and the kind of playfulness that is so central to what we're talking about and to the university and to knowledge and to experiment and to art, how does that get communicated or released with people coming as complete strangers?
HH: I am sure the students from the academy at Malmo had some kind of aesthetic experience. Maybe they don't see it like that, but I am sure there was something...
HS: The shock might have been the simplicity. It might be as well to play Josie's comments about passion and inclusivity back onto the institution the students came from, and say that that institution was in part responsible for the shock, because really the shock could have been that we were trying to communicate just that passion and sometimes that might have an element of performativity or strength of feeling to it, but it wasn't closed-off, it wasn't taboo. I think we tried to communicate passion as much as knowledge or we communicated that knowledge is, in fact, a passion.
HH: I'm sure that we managed to communicate that passion.
JB: There was no obligation for anyone to be there. Howard and I were sitting on the sofa and you said do you want to get involved and we sort of weren't sure and we were hovering and then somehow we sat down.
JJ: Then again we come back to the fact that we are trying to set up institutions which aren't just playing along with the rational understanding of the public sphere as a neutral and common ground. The idea raised about the council communists was a discussion coming out of the extra-parliamentarian ways of organising. And it was 'extra' to the traditional understanding of the public sphere to organise and make a university like this instead of just playing along the lines of social life in the bourgeois society. As a point of departure it might have been a shock to the visiting students but I think it was very much due to their expectations, because they believed they were going to an art project in Copenhagen and they came here and it was quite chaotic because there was all kinds of different interests at play at the same time. You were here and so on. But I hope we were able to bring it together, to put the strands together in quite a good way. I learnt something from the discussion and that's quite important as well. It's a more situation-based way to gain experience. So instead of just representing knowledge, representing art, it's very important for us to take part when visitors are here. We are listening to what people have to say as well as doing the talking and it is becoming clear to us that that was the most important thing here.
HH: Usually people feel quite confortable about being here maybe because it is a home where people live. At some of the meeting we have arranged it seemed like people felt freer here in the living room compared to officials spaces like auditoriums and galleries. The discussions went on in an informal way and people were able to stay with their everyday language when speaking. So I don't see the informality as a problem, but I see it as a power.
JJ: When people come they enter through the display room by the stairwell which isn't very domestic, but is in-between the staircase and the rest of the flat, and that's a kind of buffer zone between the public space and the private space of our flat. But, of course, those borders aren't heavily demarcated and sometimes people end up in our living room and the discussions go on and we make tea and stuff. I think those encounters with the guests, strangers or not, have been the most intensive. They've been the situations we've gained most experience from and in a way gained most knowledge from. Of course it was meant to be like that from the beginning because people are coming into our home. But then again we didn't expect those encounters to be the central activity of the whole thing. On the other hand we are keen not to make the university into just a talking shop. We are keen on presenting ideas and presenting research materials and, usually we are presenting art works as well, because the discussions need a point of reference otherwise the exchanges are just going to be too individualised. We are quite keen on having some kind of field of reference as a point of departure. Then it can go into becoming more generalised or more individualised, that's not a problem, but we need to establish a situation that is introducing other knowledges into the equation so that the discussions do not just become a therapeutic exchange.
HH: We don't like having structures that have to be followed. So, if people don't want to say anything, if they don't want to have any discussions, if it doesn't happen somehow, its fine. You can come here and look at the stuff we have. That's fine. We don't like those set structures.
HS: In that sense it's quite close to improvised music. Like there's no set pattern to an improvised music concert, but there are general unspoken structures that don't impose themselves and so through improvised music you have an ongoing redefinition of what is music. I think something similar happens here. We have an ongoing redefinition of what is a university, a detournement of the meaning of university and then from that we can explore what knowledge is and can bring in the whole experiential level which is, again, the same sort of thing as happens in improvising: the context, the mood, the passion to play, the lack of passion to play, the collective sound, the micro-communication, mutual influence, the passion to be loud or the passion to be quiet. This music is quite fluid and similarly here I think it's quite fluid, but we don't play musical instruments we play, almost, you could say, the ambience, a sensitivity to others... which is almost an improvised musical approach, because you're playing the moment, playing with the social relation.
JJ: You have to remember that in improvised music one of the most important things is to listen to the other people who play.
JB: So what passion do you see attached to the idea of the university in a conventional sense? Because in a way detournement is about redirecting power to a, usually, oppositional end. There's a lot of passion invested in conventional educational models and I wonder if you see any of those passions as detourneable, those passions attached to a more conventional model of knowledge, a knowledge/power?
HS: I'd say it's not a matter of taking power as such as becoming acclimatised to being able to create a sense of power amongst ourselves. Again, that it's something like knowledge, like university, like institution, that needs to be questioned. It can be used. So you could say that conventional knowledge/power is detourned as well. A sense of power can be generated. You can say "fuck you I don't need your institution, it's not done any good to anybody". And so we can feel a sense of power, as Jakob and Henriette are saying, just through naming an institution or establishing an institution, because in some respects, for me, the self-institution thing is about recreating a public sphere or it raises the question has there ever been a public sphere? There's a power in that because there's automatically a conflict or opposition. All these things get opened-up simply by having a Free University, and that's power in itself, the power to question which is denied people in the education system because you can't question if your experience is left behind at the doorway. From what point can you then question? From what point can you feel a sense of power if your experience is severed from the knowledge that's going to be imparted to you? The conventional institution is very disempowering.
JB: I suppose it's also empowering to know that when you get together you are a power which is also denied you in the day-to-day. Like a gathering, a party, there's so much energy. If you just think of a party situation and what can come out of it and what people, suddenly in an altered state, can start to say to each other. The relations at a micro-level can start to shift at just one party. But that, so often, is about taking the effort to just realise, acknowledge, that that is a power and then to act on it.
JJ: Our idea of making the university was in a way based on the fact that the economy is nowadays very often described as a knowledge economy and we can see knowledge becoming the order of capitalist production now. And in a way this knowledge that is being spoken about is productive knowledge within that system and in a way we thought "ok, if we're living in a knowledge economy we would like to open a university which could valorise other kinds of knowledge that wouldn't fit into that system, knowledges that are excluded from that system". And, of course, that brings us back to the discussion of knowledge and life. But we can see the knowledge going into knowledge economies has to be an alienated knowledge, a knowledge detached from a life outside capital. So that was, again, our question: was it possible to valorise other kinds of knowledge? We're still negotiating these kinds of discussion, because it's not clear what kind of knowledge the knowledge economy is actually chasing after. So, we are trying to discuss knowledge in that landscape, and you can see how other universities and educational institutions are very much trying to live up to the demands of the knowledge economy and producing the right kinds of knowledge-worker ready to enter this kind of economy. And I find the set of passions on offer in that economy quite limited. So, it's a playful or polemical statement to say "ok we will make a university and we would like to valorise knowledge like other universities do". That's, of course, to enter a struggle about knowledge and life - in a way we are opening a new discussion and opening new struggles by establishing this institution.
HS: I guess that points to why I brought up the historical example of the workers councils the other day. It's almost like if knowledge is used as a component of 'labour-power' then really we've got a parallel problem to the Marxist problem of how to define 'free labour' or 'living labour' in terms of knowledge. The Soviet, Workers Council form, could have been an experiment in redefining work outside of the capitalist economy: what it is necessary to produce, what is 'living labour', how can labour be socially useful... these sorts of questions rather than having labour dictated-to by capitalistic needs. I think similarly there's this interesting parallel, that, in a knowledge economy, with labour-power more explicitly informed by knowledge, a Free University becomes almost a revolutionary organisation. That might be to open a "ski-slope between passion and logic" as Jorn said, but I'm quite interested in this, because it seems like then there's another means to rhetoricise around a Free University, that such institutions can be modes of revolutionary organisation. There doesn't have to be four people around a table, it could be twenty, thirty or they could open-up to replace the party political form. It's perhaps useful to use these analogies between an industrial working class form of organisation and the proletarianisation of knowledge workers in a knowledge economy. Perhaps a good thing would be very local free university initiatives to sort of almost sidestep constituted institutions and yet, in the same movement, reinvigorate the constituting dynamic of institutions.
JJ: I kind of believe in 'mass'. I believe in lots of those self-institutions being around. In a way I subscribe to the idea of the 'multitude'. I think those kinds of institutions can generate a power by being many, and I think if you see similar institutions to the one you're occupied with around you, it is possible for you to push the work you are doing a little further, because then there's a language that is being developed and produced, and a language which can give form to the passions that you're struggling to find form for. It's not offered to you. You have to develop these kinds of languages. So, the ultimate experience of the free university would be for the people who come here to go home and do it themselves. But Henriette does not agree: people should liberate themselves.
HH: Maybe I'm more into abstract structures. I'm fine with self-institutionalisation all over the field, but I have problems with trying to set up a model for others.
HS: It says it here in the ABZ of The Copenhagen Free University: "It is our hope that you, instead of dreaming of the Copenhagen Free University or London Anti-University or Free University of New York or the Spontaneous University, go where you live and establish your university drawing upon the knowledges in your own networks". Do you think that's too much of a command that implies a model?
HH: Yes, a bit. I'm always like rearrange your brain somehow!
HS: Picking up on what Jakob said about giving form to passions. I think, in many respects, that's where the aesthetics comes in because there's always a struggle with articulation for many people. I think maybe that artists and writers are amongst the privileged in the sense that they can work to get access to a means of expression or articulation. I think an initiative like this gives space to many forms of articulation and practice because the aesthetic element, redefined, could help us approach our own desires rather than having the desires or passions made for us. This is really what occurs in capitalist society, that the desires, obviously advertising and branding are a key example of how desires and passions, are actually manufactured for you and it becomes a kind of vicious loop in the sense that if you're not partaking in those passions that are circulated for profit, or can be harnessed for profit, then somehow you're abnormal and the whole issue of anti-psychiatric institutions comes again into play, overlapping with educative initiatives, because we've got this kind of barrier to desire in that giving forms to passion is seen as perversion, not normal, it's like that's a good rallying cry. Where the aesthetics comes in is in that boost it gives to an articulation of passion and desire.
JB: But how do we find this path or means to collectively identify desires without imposing them or without lapsing into a kind of solipsism of narcissistic desire alone?
HS: In a way that is, for me, the misnomer of desire under capitalist society' because desire is kind of stratified with bourgeois individuality and its individualistic form is rife throughout the whole society, say, in terms of going into a little room and putting your 'X' on the ballot paper and also in the coinage that says "I promise to pay the bearer....". It's always an individualistic relation that is encouraged when really, as it's been said, desire is in the social structures. It might be negative desire that builds a skyscraper with rabbit hutches for people to live in, but it's still a desire, there is still some 'plug-in', and, in a way, capitalist society does create mass desires. Maybe it's a way to detourne this creation of mass desires because if we all watch the adverts we all 'plug-in' and that desire is being created as a collective desire, an individualised collective desire, the desire for being 'English' or 'Danish', these are collectively manufactured desires. To me the issue of the aesthetic aspect as sort of being downgraded into an access to the means of production is a presupposition of an access to your own desires. For me you explore desires with a material, with a means of expression that you've got to struggle with. And then I think from that you begin to enter into a sort of situation of the 'general intellect' where you come 'through' individuality to a sensation of all these links... different people coming to things at different times, different paces, with different vocabularies. And it reveals desire as collective and knowledge as collectively generated passion. Even if we look at neuroses, a kind of negative of desire, we see how we tend to keep them to ourselves, see them as individual problems, and then when we tell them to someone else we find that they've had the same or a similar problem. Deleuze and Guattari say something like "the individual gives access to the most general", and from that it becomes possible to share desire as a motive force. So when you see someone else is full of desire for their subject and even if that subject or enthusiasm might not turn you on, you can still at least make the link, a social glue link in a social relation, and say "that person is very desirous, very passionate, very honest about what they're saying" and there you've got a link. So desire can be this sort of societal glue, it can be this thing if you just step back from the content and always being hoodwinked by knowledge. There are other factors in an expression other than the coherence of a statement, its quanta of information, that enable a link to the emotional side of the expression, an experience of knowledge, an aesthetics. The more desire there is the more you become desirous and can articulate, give form, to passions. The perversions just spiral and there's many points of linkage. That's a 'desiring-machine' type thing. Perhaps self-institutions can give form to desire so it's not so much a matter of imposing desires on others as encouraging what Deleuze & Guattari call 'collective assemblages of enunciation' and being inspired by the wealth of the passions of others. 'New desires' can be 'desires that are new to me' and their forms, the differences between self-institutional initiatives, resist the idea of 'models'. I think the thing about self-institution is that singularities, the nuances of desire, aren't repressed, but are used as a material.
JJ: To return to the fact that the university is going on in our flat and that the activities here could be seen to be mediated through our personalities, we try to deconstruct that by saying "we are living in a university" and not that "the university is in our home". In that way we try to turn the discussion around and look at it being a question of institutions more than looking at the question of what are doing. In that way you can see how, as Howard is saying, how all those social relations and desires are defined socially and maybe get closer to an understanding of their way of working. I think that institutions are a kind of hub of different interests in society and they are maintaining some kind of power externally and maintaining some kind of power hierarchy internally. Like a cell in nature a level of pressure inside and another level of pressure outside and then a membrane to control the flows between the inside and outside. Our method is to try to learn from those discussions in practice. Because, of course, institutions as such are becoming internalised in our own psyche. Then again, the psyche is already always social and so on. So, instead of being anti-institutional we're saying "we are building an institution" and in this way we aren't maintaining the romantic notion of an outside of institutions, because institutions are in language and minds and in desire as well. I think that the DIY strategy of setting up 'grand' institutions, like a university, according to your own passions, are productive, and we try to engage in this kind of discussion in both a serious and a playful way.
HH: At the same time as we're engaged in this institution we're also trying to deflate it a bit. We've had quite a lot of discussions about not becoming a kind of 'super-subject'. At the same time as we are this institution called the Copenhagen Free University we are also individuals working within it, because we are interested in the vulnerability that the individual has as well. And we want to be something that it is possible to criticise instead of being too big and pointless to criticise. We want this feeling of a porous institution.
JB: And that seems to relate to the fact that you're living in this institution, that institution might materialise here and now in this flat, but sometimes the institution, as Jakob was saying, is already within us and is never exhausted in one manifestation of itself. So, because you're creating this thing in your flat that doesn't make the university yours, or the institution yours and therefore you have a kind of freedom to be in and out of it at the same time, and criticise it and be it at the same time. So you have this kind of internal dialectical movement of critiquing and being, being outside and inside.
HH: And moving on!
JB: Exactly! One of the things I wanted to ask was about the sustainability of this kind of a project and in a sense that kind of answers it. Because if you see it as a sort of energy, a machinic assemblage, that is operative already, then the sustainability is within the social relation. It is ongoing... If institutions materialise and dematerialise then institutions kind of continue, but they can be appropriated and reformulated by others. But I'm just wondering about sustainability and the way that the onus is not just on this place necessarily here and now to sustain something.
JJ: In a way the institution hasn't got anything to do with this place. It's of course an abstract entity and it's simply unfolding here most of the time and it's generally open-ended and people who would like to invest in the discussions are just kind of a part of the institution. That's the great thing about it: being able to generate a field of discussion. That is the university: these kinds of situations and these investments. Instead of just understanding it as a closed-circuit, it is open-ended and open for other passions being invested in it. And that's really great. It's actually working quite well with Howard engaging in the discussion of knowledge and how to define knowledge and people, such as Jean Sellem, approaching us and asking to become Associate Researchers. It's kind of mushrooming out of the abstract entity which is the institution. I think that's in itself another set of social relations instead of just kind of trying to sit on your own knowledge and promote it in the most...
HS: ... corporate way.
JB: I think that's important as well, because if it were to be your and Henriette's production then that would of course create problems with overpersonalisation and individualisation. Also, from the other side, it would create problems in the sense of being a very heavy weight on the two of you, in the sense of requiring too much of your energy to sustain it. That can become very dangerous. That sense of being solely responsible for keeping something running. The mere idea can paralyse you.
JJ: Then again were not shy about saying the Free University is our perversion. That's a part of the discussion. That's the whole trap of the ideology of the bourgeois public sphere as being the platform for free, equal and rational individuals expressing themselves and making sense. In relation to that we are perverts and, as far as possible...
HH: ... we try to be proud!
HS: Interestingly that almost answers the question about self-institutional sustainability. What's the most sustainable thing we know? Perversions and passions? If perversion is compulsion then it's almost the same thing to say perversion and sustainability. Also, on the issue of sustainability there's a means of expression dimension that Giorgio Agamben has written about: what spurs us to communicate is what is 'unsayable'. We're all struggling with language here, now, trying to express ourselves and that's a form of sustainability. Ok, it can degenerate into a talking shop, but in this instance this has been structured, we've decided to do it at this time, this day, not go on all day. And that struggle with the means of expression, again linking back to aesthetics as a way of getting access to a means of expression, is to give form to the passions and also to find new areas that are 'unsayable'. The 'unsayable' or the unknown - what you don't know or what you haven't experienced - if that's always ahead of you it means you're always struggling, always trying to get somewhere. It might not be forward it might be back. You might be struggling to get back, to a memory, to bring a memory of an experience into articulation. That's a kind of sustainability. The struggle with the means of expression helps a project become sustainable.
JJ: That's the central struggle as far as I see it: the struggle with language. The struggle to produce a space where you can express yourself. That's really a struggle. To come back to life in the knowledge economy, there are no means for those kinds of passionate expressions, those kind of perversions. You have to invent them again.
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