The mantis shrimp, a little crustacean you might encounter in Egypt’s Red Sea, is blessed with the most elaborate visual system the animal kingdom has to offer. It has 16 different photoreceptors — the earthling, in contrast, mostly has three types of light-detecting cells in their retinas, sensitive to red, green and blue (RGB). Four seems plenty, but the mantis has 16. It can see colors that we can’t imagine.
Despite the difficulty of longing for something we don’t know, a void can also lead to the creation of alternatives to seek for the things we cannot see yet. Perhaps this is the fate of many attending a state educative system based on old methods, uninspired teaching and/or overworked teachers. The lectures, workshops and programs places like Townhouse, the Contemporary Image Collective (CIC), Medrar, Mahatat, Beirut (now closed), CILAS, ASCII Foundation and others offer to people from all educational backgrounds can appear like a fourth photoreceptor.
Listening to a talk at CIC by Zurich-based filmmaker Kerstin Schroedinger in December felt like seeing a new color, which might have actually been the case because color is her passion and it was what she talked about. She pondered if we remember or dream in color, how the color of film stock was optimized for white skin through the image of a white woman who came to be known as Shirley (introducing the “Shirley card”), and connected color to nationalism and propaganda. In 1935, the redness of the Nazi flag on the Agfa-Color film’s test picture defined red in German films. Schroedinger’s aptly titled Rainbow’s Gravity is to be screened soon at CIC — but most likely not for fine arts students at one of Egypt’s state universities.
Education alternatives can be found everywhere, like Campus in Camps in Palestine, the International Network for Alternative Academia or The Public School. They react to education systems, whether state or private, that have reduced humankind to isolated productive and consuming units, condemned to a permanent state of competition and the manufacture of small elites.
British writer and artist John Berger compares this to reducing animals to machines, and later to raw material to be processed like manufactured commodities. In Why Look at Animals? (1977), he also mentions pets, animals devoid of useful purpose, as a modern innovation: “The pet is sterilized or sexually isolated, extremely limited in its exercise, deprived of almost all other animal contact and fed with artificial foods. This is the material process which lies behind the truism that pets come to resemble their masters or mistresses. They are creatures of their owner’s way of life.”
Education and its instructors mold students. Anyone who’s ever taught knows the influence you can have on young people’s minds. When we project on a pet that it completes and understands us, Berger says, it is conditioned to react as a mirror. Through this projection, both parties lose autonomy and “destroy the parallelism of their separate lives,” much like an education that doesn’t aim to challenge the individual — to raise questions, think outside the box, learn beyond the book and know curiosity is a good thing (that might kill you) — but instead to observe, regulate and produce a mass of tamed conformists, of pets.
Institutions that offer alternatives to state-run educational offers are increasing worldwide. Self-run and free or low-cost, they come with educational and symbolic capital rather than an official certificate — in a time when, sadly, the certificate is literally the currency of the educational market. But official and alternative forms of education do influence and question each other.
MASS Alexandria — a seven-month interdisciplinary study and studio program in Alexandria’s Miami district — is one such place offering art education in parallel to state-run schools. Besides a high standard of theoretical input, its young artists encounter prominent lecturers from Egypt and beyond — in previous years the list has included curators Sarah Rifky and Bassam El Baroni, and artists Malak Helmy and Asuncion Molinos Gordo — and develop their own work. As is usually the case with education, the time students are able to devote to it depends on their financial and social situation, and whether or not they are studying elsewhere at the same time.
MASS was founded by well-known artist Wael Shawky, which increases its symbolic capital, in 2010. After a break of two years it launches its next round this month, with German curator and researcher Berit Schuck as program director. With her substantial resume — for example, curating an artistic radio initiative in Alexandria (with Julia Tieke, 2012) and an exhibition of research-based art in Marrakech (with Laila Hida, 2015) — she starts this challenging and responsible role with more experience in the field than MASS’s two former program directors, who were also much younger. And meeting her, it feels like this might be the rare occasion of having a mantis on board, one who might make available a few different colors.
Humans see the few colors we are able to visualize by making comparisons between our three receptors. This is called the “color-opponent process,” and it takes a bit of time. The mantis shrimp analyzes outputs from all its receptors at once, which is a much faster process because no signals are being sent through intermediary neurons.
Berit Schuck talks fast and a lot. It is almost impossible to interrupt her. “Deleuze,” she instantly replies when asked which theoretician has most influenced her. She seems old-school in a good way: book-loving, compassionate, sensitive about language, waving her hands excitedly in the air while talking about linguistic theory. She has been to Alexandria several times since 2008, knows her way around and says she has a sense for the Alexandrian art scene. Foreigners bring some internationality into a city, Schuck says, so “what they read, discuss, what they’re interested in, it all adds to the common jumble, and you have a good distance to a city if you know ‘the outside’.” But “the outside,” which in this case is perhaps based more on class than on coming from outside of Egypt, can also translate as exclusive, catering to one social field only, which prompts the question of what exactly is meant by “foreigner.” Whether or not that is problematic remains debatable.
Schuck is clearly driven by passion; she likes to find the gap in the system in order to tickle it. Finding gaps in localities that are not yours is a challenge, whether or not class is an issue. But the question of why higher positions in Egypt’s art and culture sector are often occupied by highly qualified white people remains contentious. These positions might not appeal to locals for various reasons, and might also come with a different form of symbolic capital for white employees — in many sectors, not just art, a few years spent in the “third world” looks good your CV. On the other side – personal passion and qualifications aside – having a white person in charge idealizes Western education. This power structure can at least be challenged through a personal capability to reflect on positionalities, and how one situates oneself. When Schuck talks about Alexandria, about creating a research library with specific purchases for the MASS students with the advice of local and other experts, about the studio situation she envisions and focusing on the pedagogical skills of invited lecturers, she does not come across as selflessly serving a developmental cause, but as being passionate about what she does.
“Fully stranded!” she laughs when talking about how her teaching of Deleuze’s book on Nietzsche at a German university failed in 1996. She now feels more comfortable as a facilitator who encourages students to learn in a self-organized manner. Schuck studied comparative literature, art history, film studies, French, theater studies and language philosophy, and alongside the usual suspects (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida), she brings up other interesting biographies: Monika Gintersdorfer, Knut Klassen, Franck Edmond Yao, Jochen Roller, Gert Mattenklott, Fredric Jameson, Jürgen Trabant. It’s true that most are well known in the German culture scene, but the list still achieves a sense of the unknown that whets the appetite: Who are they, what do they stand for, what do they have to offer?
The list of invitees who will come to MASS to give talks, advise the 20 students and give workshops, and the list of institutions (for example, Beirut’s Ashkal Alwan, where Schuck has previously been resident curator) with whom cooperation is being sought are both impressive, and a high number of local individuals and institutions are part of the program. Yet they are all well known, which questions the program’s originality: Smaller, less-established institutions and lecturers, which might come with more risk and work because one has to find them, may reveal unseen colors. But that project might be one for a more established structure, where the framing program does not necessarily have to be the bait for funding, but allows one to focus and challenge the content. This year, MASS is secured through funding from private supporters and seeks additional back-up, mainly through European cultural institutions.
“I like building houses,” says Schuck when I ask what her perpetuum mobile is. “To found something, to build a school.” She likes to initiate a structure, and see whether it is able to renew itself after a while – sort of like the sea cucumber, a friend of the mantis with whom it shares a habitat. The sea cucumber can liquefy its body and pour itself into a space it wants to squeeze through, but also defend itself by expelling enlargements of its respiratory tree, which renews itself after a few weeks. At some point one must make oneself redundant, says Schuck. The school should not be fixed; it should be fluid and, through the students, able to renew itself. This is a position. With her ideas and resilience, Schuck is certain to breed a space of criticality, something intrinsic to the idea of creating alternatives, of seeking the gap.
Scientists find the speed of the mantis shrimp’s color-visualizing skills fascinating because it raises questions about how nervous systems make sense of outside information. How do we make sense of our outside world? Who taught us how to think, ask questions? Do we imagine and invent, or take things as they’re presented, yapping after a hegemonic canon that also promises to make things easier?
Putting together a program is like setting up a story, one that may become someone’s life story. It comes with responsibilities, but it also just sets the frame: MASS will be inspired by the people coordinating and moderating it, by Schuck who is compassionate because she likes and lives what she does, by the lecturers, but mainly by the students, their interests and passions. With them, the program will meander, find its way, move like the image of the program’s title. The German Agfa-Color factory Wolfen was sold to the Soviet Union in 1946 and ended up in Egypt with imprints of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pre-revolutionary propaganda. Connecting points that seem random might create thoughts and imagination we haven’t seen before, change the color of memory, make a red appear as another red, re-calibrate what we thought we knew and prompt us to navigate the world differently. Alternative institutions are essential in providing us with these possibilities.