Alternative art education is in session: an interview with Toleen Touq & Noura Al Khasawneh

Author & Photos ···· Ali Suleiman
Published ······ Online, Jan 2015

Section ·······  Art & Design

In the earlier months of 2014, a group of over twenty participants were invited to take part in a communal learning experience and arts residency programme called Spring Sessions in downtown Amman. Unfolding in the historic King Ghazi Hotel, and organised by Noura Al Khasawneh and Toleen Touq, the participants produced work on a variety of subjects and joined artists-in-residence and other invited guests in a series of workshops, lectures, talks, and urban explorations.

Toleen Touq is an independent cultural operator based in Amman, Jordan. She collaborates with initiatives locally and internationally to run visual arts, music, storytelling and discussion-based programmes. She is the co-initiator of the cross-disciplinary platform The River Has Two Banks that operates between Jordan and Palestine since 2012.  Her latest project is Spring Sessions, a communal learning and arts residency programme in Amman. Noura Al Khasawneh is a freelance curator interested in collaborative and site-responsive projects. Her work focuses on the spatial manifestations of civic engagement and issues of cultural presentation in both formal and informal spaces. She was previously assistant director of Darat al Funun, and is currently a member of Gargantua Collective and co-director of Spring Sessions. She is currently working on a book on the experience of Jordanian museology.

I sat with the two to learn more about the programme, the experience, and the socio-political dynamics of art education in Jordan.

Toleen (left) and Noura (right)

AS | When you first took on this project, did you have specific subjects to focus on?

TT and NK | It wasn’t so much about pursuing specific subjects as creating an educational platform focused on experiential learning and discussion-based workshops. The idea was that all of the workshops, even those with more defined topics, would be responsive to the space and situation we were in as well as the specific collaborative dynamics of each workshop. The approaches ranged from reading and discussing texts in Raed Ibrahim’s sessions on Art and Politics for example, to Rheim Alkadhi’s use of exploratory downtown walks as a way of collecting and giving narrative context to objects as part of her ‘Museum of Objects’ workshop. It was a mix of subjects and styles.

AS | You say the format was organic and that it changed. But was there any methodological process to the programme?

TT and NK | It was a combination of two things. First, based on our experience working in the arts in Amman, both of us felt that existing art-education programmes were overly formal and constrictive in terms of both [the] approach and setting. We wanted to provide an alternative mode of art education that was more consciously site-responsive and collaborative. We also observed that arts audiences in Amman - and this is probably true of many art scenes in the region – consisted of other artists and so from the beginning we wanted to create a programme that broke down the distinction between artist and audience, treating everyone as collaborators in the creative process. We felt that the learning experience would be richer for everyone if participants weren’t staring at each other from opposite sides of a conceptual divide.

AS | That’s similar to what we heard from Uraiqat Architects when we interviewed them [see Kalimat Issue 06]. Even architecture education here is very paternal, one directional.

Yes, we definitely wanted to get away from a one-directional model. It was challenging in some ways, but the experience was so much more interesting because the roles of “student” and “teacher” weren’t as rigidly defined. We discussed with participants from the beginning that we would like them to be active in the sense of introducing their own interests to the workshops or even, which happened a couple of times, leading their own workshops. It’s much easier to just say “this is the invited guest artist and he’s running the workshop” of course, but it was interesting to watch the educational process unfold in response to the collaborative dynamics of each workshop with its various participants and their different interests. The last workshop with Liane Al-Ghusain involved re-imagining a collection of poetry by Arar as a dramatic performance piece, for example, and various participants took the lead at every level – from research and interpretation right up to writing and directing the final performance.

AS | Since you opened up challenges, maybe you can tell us about a few?

TT and NK | Logistically the biggest challenge actually grew out of peoples’ positive response to the project. We invited too many artists and conveners for the time we had, and so [we] ended up with a very compressed programme that was difficult for us to manage and very demanding on the participants and artists as well. The upside was that the compression created a strong bond between everyone involved, a level of intimacy that emerged from the simple fact that we were all seeing each other more or less every day. So there was this [feeling of] community [as we were] constantly meeting, working and talking in so many overlapping workshops and activities. That wouldn’t have happened if we met on a weekly basis, or if there were long gaps between workshops. Another set of challenges had to do with various socio-political tensions that we found ourselves not only witnessing but actually complicating as well. The relationship between street vendors and municipal authorities in the downtown area was a recurrent source of friction, for example. To try to understand the situation, participants in one workshop took part in a protest organised by the street vendors, not by way of straightforward advocacy but as a creative intervention hoping to stimulate new – or at least renewed – sorts of interactions among the stakeholders. The intervention ended up inserting us, both individually and as a programme, into the life of the neighbourhood in ways we hadn't expected, and the most acute challenge that emerged for us was a genuine need to think through and question our place in the neighbourhood: what is our role as artists in [the] downtown [area]?

Toleen (left) and Noura (right)

AS | Perhaps around identity?

TT and NK | More around gentrification. None of us live downtown but here we were occupying this space, both surrounded by and altering the area’s social, political and economic life in ways that raised all sorts of ethical questions. What is our place? Not just in downtown, but in Amman general. What is our role as artists? What are we producing or saying? What should we be producing or saying? These were topics of discussion throughout the programme, in a way that was conditioned by the demographics and backgrounds of the participants, which weren’t as diverse as they could have been. It would have been nice to reach outside the art-scene’s usual circles.

AS | Demographics of participants was also something I noted. But first, I want to go back to your relationship with the street vendors and ‘breaking boundaries’, how do you feel about this?

TT and NK | Well the experience certainly troubled any easy notions of solidarity and marginality that we had going in. Issues that we hadn’t considered appeared. For example, one of the activists among the street vendors turned out to have been involved in attacking the participants during the 2011 protest at the Jamal Abdel Nasser circle. So this romantic notion of us linking ourselves to the community and municipality as artists…let’s just say that the picture wasn’t so rosy. Certainly as an exercise in participatory research it problematised many of the dominant clichés about community-based projects.

AS | In regards to the participants, now this is just my observation, but it seems most them are of a certain class. Their English was really good, and lifestyle was of a certain background. Was the Arab identity considered?

TT and NK | Well the issue of the language of artistic production isn’t limited to our programme of course, and English has come to play a major role in contemporary art discussions in Amman and across the region. We felt that trying to impose a monolingual approach on the workshops would have been quite exclusionary and limiting, and so left the choice of language up to the artists to work out with their workshops’ participants, with the goal of enabling everyone to follow and understand. We chose artists and participants more for what they could offer rather than the language they could offer it in.

AS | Language aside, were you conscious in your workshops to produce collaboratively an artistic spirit that resonates from the community itself? (That is an Arab identity, a local talent and source). Often we have workshops or projects that just import things from outside…

TT and NK | The limited timeframe of the programme actually determined a lot of this issue for us. All the participants were from Amman and the artists leading the workshops were either from Amman or had a previous connection to it. Simply put, since the programme was not long enough to be fully immersive, we made sure that everyone involved had some local connection or experience to draw from. In general though, since the programme was fundamentally experiential, it would have been almost impossible for it not to reflect the local context. The issues discussed were personal as well as site-responsive and based on interaction with the setting and its situations in some way.

AS | So de facto that becomes local?

TT and NK | Yes.

AS | What happens now? You talked about the education process, any ideas on expanding this microcosm on a bigger and different level?

TT and NK | The question for us is what sort of relationship to try to build between Spring Sessions [2014] and [Spring Sessions 2015]. Originally we were thinking of each iteration as a sort of independent programme, an experience from which participants would emerge to pursue their own independent work. But it has been so intense that we are thinking of ways to continue mentoring and working with the participants with the idea of linking the [next] sessions to their on-going interests. Of course, the idea would still be to welcome to new participants, but have some of the concerns be cumulative in a way that enables sustained engagement and development. We need some time and distance to reflecton this though.

AS | Out of the experience what would be your major take-away from it all?

NK | For me the overall feel of the programme was captured as soon as the Amman Symphony Orchestra’s string quartet began their public performance from our balcony on the closing day. We had invited the Orchestra as an example of the sorts of suspended cultural projects that seem to proliferate in Amman, but their performance resonated with the participants as well as the neighbourhood in ways that went beyond the concept of suspension. It was great to see how naturally people accepted and engaged with the performance, and how relevant it seemed to the situation in a much broader sense than the typical notions of artistic relevance. I think that is what is so important. The performance troubled many clichés about elitism and engagement, and really showed how relevance can be reimagined to apply to the entirety of an artistic experience and not just to the “work of art” itself. It was also an effective reminder that there’s no need to choose between a work’s didactic significance and its aesthetic beauty.  

TT | [For me it was] that the participants and artists genuinely embraced the project. I didn’t expect [that] this sentiment, which we [personally] had, to manifest in others. It worked. I felt there was a productive energy between the participants and artists throughout. The most beautiful part was seeing how committed everyone was to the programme. Another take-away was that questioning hierarchy in education is much more challenging than I thought. As an organiser you have to take some sort of control of the situation, while at the same time trying to be as loose or fluid as possible. Can you completely be non-hierarchical? A lot of interesting issues come up in this regard, and it makes me think about structures versus non-structures in general. How they operate, how organic they are, and their basic contradictions.

AS | It’s interesting that you talk about art education like that, because Kalimat also addresses education in design.

One thing to consider about challenging the hierarchy is the setting and its various uses. Hosting outdoor screenings and regularly eating together, for instance, really activated the space in informal and unexpected ways and made everyone much more comfortable and willing to ask questions than [say if they were] in a typical lecture setting. We found it useful to think in these terms starting from the design and restoration of the space, using our limited resources to craft something flexible and inviting. Since the artists-in-residence were actually living there, the space became intimate and hospitable in the fullest possible sense.

Ali Suleiman graduated from the University of Waterloo's Civil Engineering programme in Canada, and holds a Project Management certificate from the University of Toronto. Of Palestinian and Turkish origin, he is fluent in Arabic and Turkish. His professional experience draws from work in Canada, Turkey, Jordan, Germany, and Saudi Arabia. Currently he works with an engineering firm in Jordan on industrial and renewable energy projects, and is an avid supporter of sustainable development. His interests include history, film, and music. At the moment Ali is completing his MBA studies in Germany.