“We are standing in Šaloun, within a construction that existed before us, and one that we have built together. We enact a series of movements, and we perform them again and again until the resonances of these actions and interactions reinforce themselves so that any semblance of their origin, with perhaps the exception of the base structure, is discarded. What you can see, then, are the connections between parts, articulated by a shared but not singular voice. We regard this not simply as a re-presentation of absent work, but more as a way to make explicit the collective foundations that are, for us, beyond dispute.”
‘Beyond Dispute’ is the title of the 1994 book by the British cybernetician Stafford Beer that describes ‘Syntegrity’, his system of organising a three-day, open-agenda meeting in which 30 people can come to an agreement about 12 different issues. Beyond dispute, which as an idiom means a state of certainty, is here to be taken more literally. Instead of confrontation, this is a process that allows ideas to be developed and refined until they can receive the support of everybody, through consensus rather than conflict.
This is one of the structures that existed before we started ‘How to Build a Platform’, and which we adapted to our specific situation and needs as part of the four month project. But it is not the only one. There is the building itself, its history and its singular purpose – the production of the Ladislav Šaloun’s Jan Hus monument for the Old Town Square. There is also the shorter history of what Šaloun has become, the students and teachers that have worked together there over that last 10 years. There is AVU, which Šaloun sits partly within and partly outside of, and there is the idea of ‘international’ – in terms of art and education – where the programme places itself. There are the existing structures within the people involved, ideas of how to be creative, how to be expressive, how to teach and how to learn.
These different structures are often in tension but – drawing on the ideas and geometries of Richard Buckminster Fuller – Beer emphasises the importance of tension as a balancing force, allowing things to be responsive and resistive to external pushing and pulling. Tensions can help keep a structure flat when its being pushed or pulled to become a hierarchy.
It’s the ‘arche’ of this hierarchy – this leadership – that for me is the strongest pull. How to make something anarchic within a system, or from a system, that might not want leadership but certainly expects it. It is the tension that’s the hardest to balance. We need leadership. Without it we can do nothing, or at most we can only keep doing what we were doing before. This is the reason to invite a visiting artist. The power of leadership is not about who gets to make the decisions, it’s much more about who gets to say what needs to be decided. The jury decides, but the judge leads, by framing and constraining the available options.
For Šaloun I was not just invited, I was also being paid to lead the studio, leadership was my job and my responsibility, not something I can abandon or just give away. To lead others towards leaderlessness is contradictory. It has a tension that can too easily snap back to the old way of doing things, at best democracy, trial by jury, and at worst a chance to input into decisions that have already been made.
Beer solves the problem by making a system that – in theory – no one is able to fully control. Communication is constrained in such a way that it’s impossible for any single person to get a commanding view. And for us, this worked, to an extent. There are things about our programme that I still don’t fully understand, works and choices were made that I simply had to accept. But structures re-emerge that demand a gods-eye view. Exhibitions – which in our case was largely a performance – are meant to make everything that matters visible to an audience. Documentation, like the material presented here, renders the world as it appears to a single eye, the eye that directed the camera (and that eye was mine). This re-presentation of absent work – part archive, part document, part exhibition – is now the fixed point from which this project can be seen and judged, but all the decisions have already been made.
To lead a studio is first of all to take a position from which your judgement is correct, because you make the context in which things must be judged. But accepting the role is part of the structure of the academy, you accept that you’ve been judged capable of this role by the institution. By leading you follow the rules from above, you give people grades and feedback, within a system constrained by outside forces. You might be judged upon your judgements, but not from bellow, where your judgements take effect.
How can you oppose this hierarchy? What can be put against its pull so that the tension remains productive, and doesn’t just snap. One answer is to reverse the direction of judgement, which would be institutional critique, but pushing or pulling something as big as an institution tends to require a lot of energy, which the institution can easily absorb. Another is to hide, or at least obscure, the work and workings of the group, putting them beyond judgement and critique from outside. This works up to a point, but to follow through you must also reject exhibition, archive and documentation. By refusing to account for how you’ve spent your time, the value of what you’ve done is unrecognisable, and at the end of the project it is likely to be lost.
One answer is to learn as well as teach, to follow as well as to lead. This means that the context and framing of your judgements are changed, so that those judgements become not fully your own. This will happen through discussion, perhaps through dispute, but also intuitively. It’s important to be aware of the tension that exists between selfish learning and selfless facilitation, neither of which are leadership. This is the approach I took, and I hope that it’s a tension I managed to keep in balance for the duration of the project, but its limits were clear. When it mattered, the power to frame and to judge were all mine.
Is it possible to go beyond this? Is it possible to lead others into take the lead? It needs a lot of time and space. But the idea that you can simply allow others a moment to take the lead, for their judgements to have power, is not enough. Real tension comes from not knowing whether they will allow you to have that power back.
John Hill, Summer 2018