Maumaus Independent Study Program: Acknowledging Space for “Trembling with the World”

Maumaus Independent Study Program: Acknowledging Space for “Trembling with the World”

Maumaus Independent Study Program

April 4, 2018
Margarida Mendes
Maumaus Independent Study Program

How does an art school respond to the current state of political restlessness in an era of advanced capitalism and globalized methods of cultural production? And as academia assumes an increasingly corporate character and established institutions of advanced education are strung up and scaled down by bureaucratic intervention and depleted finances, how does an art school create new pedagogical modalities for critical inquiry? By proposing a space for uncompromised free thinking and deceleration. As part of broader deinstitutionalizations, discussions of art and critical theory have taken flight to alternative, informal, and ad hoc cultural venues. The discussions, too, have changed, adopting a curriculum defined by an active engagement with the urgent social and economic conditions that influence twenty-first-century life in the West. The Maumaus Independent Study Program in Lisbon epitomizes just such a space and ethos, providing a platform where political reflection and artistic inquiry are developed in tandem.

One of the first occasions that I attended the Maumaus Lecture Series was on a rainy afternoon in November 2009. Around twenty people had gathered for sociologist Marcel Stoetzler’s seminar “Love” at Lumiar Cité, Maumaus’s exhibition space located in Alta de Lisboa, a neighborhood on the city’s periphery. For the next three days, we assembled on the space’s concrete floor and dove into speculations on queer communism while undertaking a close reading of Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia. At that time, Portugal had just entered the abyss of troika and faced extreme precarization and a steadily increasing unemployment rate. People were stricken with an immobilizing, apathetic restlessness, and encountering Stoetzler’s profound rereading of the conditions of reproduction in a seemingly sterile society offered salvation. The space for reflection and free ideation created by Maumaus was pure luxury, and the experience proved to be so precious that commuting to the far end of town became not only effortless but a path to disentangle intellectual desires.

Now, when the precarity of educational institutions in Portugal has tightened and the city’s museological infrastructures have been abandoned to administrators more interested in commerce driven by tourism and private investment, Maumaus has proven to be a resistant temporary autonomous zone. With a persistently sharp program that never wavered in the years that public funding for culture essentially disappeared, Maumaus has served as a welcome supplement to Lisbon’s cultural and educational infrastructures and has encouraged the kind of high-level debate unparalleled by any museum’s public program. The lecture series, open to all Lisboetas intrigued by the school’s projects and elite guest lecturers, complements the Maumaus Independent Study Program, an international English-language pedagogical project presided over by some of the best-regarded contemporary artists and theorists, where, over the course of the seven-month study period, eight to thirteen students partake in regular seminars of critical studies centered around textual analysis and debate, three to five days per week. Debates about artistic practice and research are supplemented by individual tutorials and group critique sessions, in which contemporary art’s modes and conditions are addressed through a critical lens that places artistic production squarely within political and cultural paradigms.

Setting the stage for rigorous intellectual debate and informal discussion is a hallmark of Maumaus’s director, the Wuppertal-born curator Jürgen Bock, who has been the program’s director since 1993, the year after the program was founded as a school dedicated to the study of photography. Upon becoming director, Bock reconceptualized the school’s sustainability and, with South African artist Roger Meintjes, established a new pedagogical structure that replaced two-month seminars with a year-long intensive program. In this iteration, the school adopted conceptual and practical methodologies of image production and reflection that could be traced back to the work of French filmmaker Jean Rouch and the American photographer Christopher Williams. Aiming for a direct, critical relation with image production, this quasi-anthropological approach to photography—considering the medium not only as documentation but as the production of reality itself—was enhanced by contributions from artists Allan Sekula and Harun Farocki, who began to regularly lecture at the school and, in turn, developed longstanding relationships with Maumaus. The school has evolved since, into its current seven-month independent study form.

At its core, strengthening an artist’s knowledge of critical theory and cultural studies to foment critical consciousness and position artistic production in an era of globalized politics has been central to Bock and the program’s mission. As such, one of Maumaus’s major distinctions is the strength of its faculty, whose impressive parcours bring to Lisbon enriching political views and projects, and references not typically encountered in a traditional Portuguese art program. The list of Maumaus guest contributors is extensive and diverse: theorists Claire Bishop and Isabelle Graw, art historians Sabeth Buchmann and Elvira Dyangani Ose, and a host of well-known international artists like Martha Rosler, Maria Thereza Alves, Matthew Buckingham, and Willem Oorebeek, to name only a few.

The school’s recurring faculty, who have shaped the program, its mission, and its syllabus, is essential to Maumaus’s identity. In the current program, discussions often begin with readings of Walter Benjamin and Daniel Bell and are steered through regular seminars by theorists Helmut Draxler, Toni Hildebrandt, and Alberto Toscano, and artist Simon Thompson. Geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore and postcolonial researcher Manuela Ribeiro Sanches have contributed to the school for several decades, and their research corpus has led Maumaus to become one of Lisbon’s key institutions for postcolonial studies. Indeed, Maumaus’s adherence to constructive dialogue, artistic presentations, and public debate on postcolonialism was adopted years before other cultural institutions in the city and has since pushed other cultural organizations in that direction. As artist Emily Wardill, one of the school’s regular tutors, said, “Now we see the Testemunhos de Escravatura (Witnesses of Slavery) incentive in Lisbon looking into the marks that slavery has left on Portugal (in place of a non-existent museum to slavery), Grada Kilomba finally having shows in the city, the Público newspaper running the Racismo à Portuguesa series. It feels like these issues are beginning to become more visible but Maumaus has brought up these issues for some time and, importantly, with a faculty that is not entirely white (so it doesn’t become a neo-postcolonialism).”

One could indeed see Maumaus as the radical edge of Lisbon’s art scene, as it provides space for continuous and informed debate about contemporary art’s role in registering political change, in a world of intensified conflict and pressing inequality. Investing in diversity and situatedness is a crucial component of building its curriculum of speakers and materials that argue from very distinct critical positions, geographies, and schools of thought. This is certainly to the program’s benefit, and over the years, this approach has informed not only the intellectual growth of the artists that take part in the independent study program but also the larger group of participants in the bimonthly lecture series, who follow presentations of the theorists and artists in residency or those exhibiting at Maumaus. In this sense, the vital role that small-scale institutions play in paving the way to in-depth critical understandings of the world, providing knowledge and a network that allows these new worldviews to emerge, must be acknowledged. Maumaus serves as a kind of an intellectual embassy, often pioneering connections with artists that begin a relationship with the city and contribute more regularly to its creative communities.

Seminars at Maumaus are organized around focused discussions of a guest-selected syllabus, as well as debates that follow artist presentations and lectures from theorists. Lacking studio spaces, the program privileges encounters with critical theory over creating artworks. Still, discussions of art are expanded throughout the school’s satellite spaces, where exhibitions are on continuous display. Depending on the lecturer, the sessions easily unfold over the course of an afternoon of debate, lending a certain degree of freedom and intensity to the creation of a nonhierarchical space for discussion. It is not by chance that Maumaus has drawn comparison as the Portuguese twin of the Whitney Independent Study Program, the postgraduate seminar program founded in New York in 1968 by Ron Clark. The two share a post-Marxist disposition and even some regular contributors, such as artist and filmmakers Renée Green and Isaac Julien (Farocki and Sekula were influential to the Whitney ISP as well). Seminars at Maumaus require the same intensive and free-spirited commitment as at the Whitney ISP, and lecturers at both programs are invited for their shared philosophical affinities and nonacademic approach to critical theory that does not sacrifice rigor for openness. And at Maumaus, openness and rigor can unravel arguments and test formats in real time, allowing for deep critical reflection and, crucially, different modalities and temporalities of teaching, provoking, rather than forcing, space for insight. An acute awareness of the instrumentalization of institutional critique provides a context for reflection. Debates often bend toward a self-reflexivity about the educational platform itself, leaving Maumaus positively unshielded as it becomes permeable to its environment and its participants.

The advantages of having a program like this in Lisbon are many. In its twenty-five years, Maumaus has provided an alternative to the conservative art programs at universities that are restricted by the kinds of public reforms that effect many Southern European academies. With their lack of employment renewals, Portuguese art universities often fail to satisfy an educational institution’s responsibility to respond to urgent, current topics of recent decades (such as gender studies, postcolonialism, and environmental studies), and adapt their programs and diversify their staffs. Instead, more traditionally organized programs are subjected to severe cuts and ideological suppression, suspending the development of their students’ critical abilities. As tuition fees have risen, so too have enrollment numbers, leaving students evermore anonymous to their teachers as they graduate faster into the joblessness that has characterized postrecession Portugal. Furthermore, the absence of models outside of the commercial cultural sector has often burdened much of the younger generation of artists with a lack of exposure to different modalities of inquiry that artistic research can inspire, foreclosing the imagination of possible futures and modes of practice.

Since it began, Portuguese artists have enrolled in the Maumaus Independent Study Program in tandem with or shortly after their graduation from these local art schools with the aim of broadening their theoretical knowledge and discursive tools. By situating itself outside the mainstream, Maumaus has prioritized strengthening its faculty and privileging the potentiality of exchange encouraged by a small peer group while also following the urgencies of contemporary political debates. As New York–based lecturers João Enxuto and Erica Love said, “In an environment (Europe and the United States) where accredited graduate and postgraduate academies are measuring performance outcomes, Maumaus, under Jürgen’s guidance, remains refreshingly independent as its model is not burdened by bureaucracy but is rather based on interpersonal connections, trust, and intellectual affinities.”

Privileging continuous dialogue has defined Bock’s role as a commissioner and a curator; it is granted that contemporary art production is considered in parallel with external issues in the teaching apparatus he devises for each year’s session. He often comments on intersectionality, an essential element of his practice, promoting, as he said, “a symbiosis between the lectures, the program of independent study, the artistic residences at Maumaus and the curating.” During his directorship, Bock has curated major international commissions that unfold across the axis of the school’s programs and discursive angles, highlighting his continuous research, such as Allan Sekula’s Ship of Fools / The Dockers’ Museum (2010–2013), a series of thirty-three photographs about historical and contemporary labor solidarity in and around docks around the world, and the iteration of Harun Farocki and Antje Ehmann’s project Labour in a Single Shot that included contributions from Maumaus students.

Regular Maumaus lecturer Angela Ferreira’s Maison Tropicale, a project for the Portuguese pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale that addressed colonial critique through a revision of modernist architecture via sculptural and documental forms, has also brought the school’s pedagogical practice into direct contact with artistic practice. Maison Tropicale was later reinterpreted by another regular Maumaus guest lecturer, Manthia Diawara. His homonymous documentary filmed in Mali in 2008 was recently exhibited in Lisbon in conjunction with a Maumaus seminar program devoted to both artists’ work. Diawara, a Malian film director, art historian, and cultural theorist spearheading the Institute of Afro-American Affairs at New York University’s Tisch School of Arts, has produced many of his films with Bock, including his latest work, An Opera of The World, which premiered at Documenta 14 and intersects reflections on contemporary philosophy and the problematics of migration with images collected during the rehearsals of an opera held on the banks of the Niger River.

The interconnection between the study program and exhibition-making is furthered by the regular inclusion of students in solo and group exhibitions throughout the city and at Lumiar Cité, Maumaus’s exhibition venue. This space, housed in a strip of empty storefronts in the Alta de Lisboa neighborhood, hosts many shows and seminars by the school’s tutors and acts as a public extension of the independent study program’s classrooms. (The public Maumaus Lecture Series is held here, often coinciding with the exhibition opening days.) Occasionally, there are inscriptions of the surrounding context or communities in the exhibition content, as was the case in Tasmania-born artist and filmmaker James Newitt’s video installation Uma Espécie de Sombra (A Sort of Shadow), which involved the local boxing club, where the artist practiced for his year-long research project. This exhibition also included several public encounters, such as the lecture “Between Representation and Marginality” by City University of New York Graduate Center sociology lecturer Lucia Trimbur.

Newitt, a former student and now regular tutor at Maumaus, has adopted Lisbon as his second home after completing the independent study program in 2012 while on sabbatical from his regular position at Hobart University in Australia. Newitt positively describes his time at Maumaus as a “destabilizing experience” that revealed a deep existential process critical to his practice and prompted him to divide his life and teaching between the two hemispheres and become part of Lisbon’s art scene. Another student, Pedro Barateiro, who has become a prominent figure in the new generation of Portuguese artists, has extended his period of studies at Maumaus by pursuing a Masters degree at the Malmö Art Academy, the Swedish school directed by Gertrud Sandqvist, which offers a three-month exchange program to Maumaus students. For Barateiro, this period of study at Maumaus was foundational, having given him the opportunity not only to reposition his work critically and deepen his practice but also partake in exclusive seminars with the faculty. He particularly recalled the importance of a week-long seminar with artist Martha Rosler and a memorable lecture by Harun Farocki on the first twenty minutes of Godard’s Le Mépris, which he recorded for the school’s archives. Alumnus Arendse Krabbe emphasized the opportunity of working with Farocki as well, having participated in Labour in a Single Shot, and noted important encounters with authors that are not part of the Western canon (such as Aníbal Quijano, Valentin-Yves Mudimbe, and Santiago Castro-Gómez). But, with some unease, she also recalled the difficulty of undertaking such an intensive learning process, mentioning that “it would have been productive if there was more space in the structure of the program for the students’ and group’s desires.”

The independent study program is designed to fit a part-time schedule but nevertheless demands a high degree of commitment. Satisfying the extensive syllabus for each session requires a certain flexibility in a student’s schedule, often precluding the possibility of being employed full-time. Coupled with the fact that the sessions are conducted in English, this could evidently reflect why Maumaus attracts a core group of Central and Northern European students who are able to apply for scholarships in their home countries to supplement their attendance. Given Portugal’s economic conditions, this is not the case for their Portuguese classmates, who do not have access to such resources and are faced with the task of paying their monthly tuition without the support of grants. Quotas here count, otherwise the very institutions that we defend may be subsequently recolonized by healthier economies, creating loopholes in education, predetermining those who have access to it, of which, as a pedagogical platform engaged in social and political equity, Maumaus is well aware.

In the spirit of the Maumaus Independent Study program “trembling with the world” (to quote Jürgen Bock quoting Édouard Glissant), the critical community it supports permeates the city in an exciting fashion. Its gang of students are easily spotted in town assiduously engaging in Lisbon’s cultural activities, expanding their critical circles through debate platforms with distinct energy and presence, sometimes even initiating their own project spaces. I myself have been in continuous exchange with members of the Maumaus community. At The Barber Shop, the small project space dedicated to critical inquiry that I ran from 2009 to 2016, Maumaus students proved to be the most participative audience members, often asking the sharpest questions or inciting thoughtful debates. I cannot imagine a Lisbon without Maumaus, or a Maumaus without Lisbon. The city’s art community has answered the program’s calls, adopting a new infrastructure of critical education where the old ones did not prove useful.

Margarida Mendes

Education, Marxism, Postmodernism, Colonialism & Imperialism, Contemporary Art
Postcolonialism, Post-Communism, Love, Anthropocene, Decolonization, Experimental Film, Europe, Neoliberalism, Precarity

Margarida Mendes is a researcher and curator, and is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Research Architecture, Goldsmiths. She is a founding member of the environmental movement Oceano Livre, a coalition of Portuguese NGOs working against deep sea mining.


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