Teaching and Learning from Art: consideration from the 2011 Encuentro Internacional de Medellín (MDE11)
by Bill Kelley Jr.

The Encuentro Internacional de Medellín (MDE11) was an opportunity to propose an assertive realignment concerning the kinds of art practices and communities that can operate within an international biennial or an art event of this magnitude.1 Of course a “biennial” implies an entire team of people being on the same page and a variety of collaborating organizations willing to do their part. After being brought together by Jose Roca, as a member of the curatorial team2, and two years of work that contained numerous trips to the city and countless hours conversing online, and now a year after its closing, I see the MDE11 asking certain questions about the nature and sustainability of art’s relationship with the public and the entire biennial endeavor itself. This self-reflexivity is a normal outcome and a constant reminder of a healthy self-doubt that takes over when you undertake something this complex and intensely interconnected. Questioning, “who is the public?” is naturally a central inquiry for the MDE11, for reasons I’ll explain momentarily.

Given the central theme of pedagogy, and a title taken from Paulo Freire’s principle tenet on the emancipatory linkage between teaching and learning (To Teach and to Learn: Places of Knowledge in Art), it would only be natural to start to question what are art’s pedagogical limits and possibilities.3 I personally think the discussion is far more fruitful if we don’t talk about art, but rather, talk about the various methodologies and communities art has at its disposal. What are artists doing now and, more specifically, what are they doing in Medellin? How can we apply this to the logic of the MDE11?

When Roca first called me to discuss this project the only concept that was on the table was that it should take “education” as a principle area of research. Given the numerous educational programs in the city, it made sense. But education is a very general term that has no guiding trajectory. It is an idea and a signifier that is as open and vague as “art.” Our conversation quickly shifted towards “pedagogy” – a more specific term that implied methodologies of work. When I proposed we start discussing Freire as a possible connecting point, we understood that we were dealing with a very specific and the unambiguous methodology. The shift from education towards pedagogy, and later towards a methodological perspective that was intrinsically tied to emancipatory and community-driven forms or practice, was the turning point.


* * a curatorial perspective on biennials and communities * *


When the MDE11 took a “pedagogical turn” so to speak, meaning that the topic of its conceptual emphasis started to be developed around research, knowledge formation, and their respective methodologies, it became clear that Medellin had much to offer to the conversation. As a curator, I understood from the beginning that to impose other regional intellectual trajectories, however radical they might seem elsewhere, would be a mistake. Imported or translated discourses were no match for what was happening on the ground. Any proposals would have to be framed through, and in dialogue with, the contextual filter of Medellin, its history and its cultural practices.

That is no easy task given the pressure we, as international curators, face in being invited to organize such events. The role of the floating, desk-less curator has been much discussed but rarely is it ever challenged as one that continually magnifies and promulgates the established linguas franca of the art world. There is something rather subversive in opening up the proverbial Pandora’s Box, in part because biennials are expensive and, more often than not, their effects must be quantified.

The role of the curator has been so-often discussed that it almost feels redundant to bring it up. The resurgent discussion on curating as Institutional Critique seems outdated to me. Very little can be learned from formats and inquiries that are made to lead you back to where you started. By this, I mean that the role of the curator was defined within a certain historical paradigm of art and aesthetic theory that we all know, can be critical only up to a certain point. Yet on the other hand, the fear of the institution as some contaminating zone of influence speaks of a kind of conceptual purity, a return to pure autonomy, that has no place in the world today. The reason you can’t win in this either/or situation is because you’re not meant to.

Social practices, community-based research, dialogical processes and the like, seem to be gaining momentum and attention and one can certainly make the case, as others have done, that biennials have played an important role in creating a platform for this kind of work. This is partly true. Yes, the biennial is nimble and temporary and it allows for curatorial structures to potentially be more experimental. The inherent local vs global nature of its context – at once situated in a city while simultaneously belonging to a global circuit – instantly allows it to create tensions that bring both sides into play while allowing its temporality to set its own limits on what can be done and how much it will cost. But this traditional model also comes at a price. Local communities are rarely engaged on their terms – terms that require a sustained presence and an invested discourse. Curatorial strategies become formulaic, more interested in translating international projects4, safely tucked into the fold of some sort of biennial canon while the museums/institutions that host them are equally pressed to bring, what one might call, an established “curatorial paradigm” to organize the entire event.

At a time when artists have moved away from accepting the authorial position within their public space art projects, the curator has become increasingly present in authoring biennials and other forms of cultural events. The fact that curators, like myself, spend as much time thinking and writing about curating as we do about art making, speaks to a blurring of roles and a certain self-reflection that is required to do the job. Despite the curator being seen as a mediator between the institution and the public, or even playing a mediating role between the art and the public, it is the curatorial mission that gives biennials their emotional and intellectual weight. 5

Biennial formats are still very popular, they reach an increasing number of people and show no sign of decline, but the actuality remains that art – or at least the mainstream version of it – remains outside the purview of what is deemed vital in people’s daily lives. This essential and uncomfortable fact cannot be ignored. To put it in Steven Wright’s words: “one of the most enfeebling accusations with which art is often, implicitly or explicitly, targeted: that it’s not for real; or to put it bluntly, that it’s just art.”6 At the same time Wright argues for complicating the relationship art has with the real world be disengaging it from its ontological definition that has it operating as an analogy of the “mere real thing” and moving it towards a more 1 to 1 relationship with the world around it.7 As long as the funding is there, neither the art world nor its swarm of curators is in any rush to address such theoretical or operative complications.

This text is not the space to critique the global marketplace, Kantian hermeneutics or begin to describe how this came to be or why we constantly have to defend art as a worthwhile pedagogical investment. What I hope to concern myself with is raising certain questions about what we can do in a site like the MDE11. What was our curatorial role here in Medellin, really? The question is: can we use what’s given to us in this format while using the opportunity to address this ossified system that has self-constructed and regulated the field of critique at a meta-discursive level? By this I mean that the market/discourse of art has regulated and normalized the limitations by which its own critique is even possible.

Politics at the level of linguistic critique clearly distances itself from politics being done on the streets. This is an unfortunate theoretical byproduct of our collective post-68 disillusionment. By somehow failing at the revolt on the streets, we came to the conclusion that true activism could only happen on and within the text. By doing so we, in the art world, have come to accept one form of politics (linguistic) as any other and thusly formed an ineffectual critical paradigm of our own making. By confusing being political in aesthetics with being political within a community, the art world has no way to conceive of an art practice that can do both. It is for all intents and purposes the lingua franca of art. This inability to reconcile the historic tension between poetics and politics, in any meaningful way, has limited our critical zone to the realm of only aesthetics, only the poetic, only the symbolic. If we are to take this situation seriously then, at the very least, for the purposes of examining what an art event focused on critical pedagogy can do in a community, the form and content of curatorial mediation should begin to be questioned.

Additionally, this concern cannot be disconnected from the bigger cultural shifts we see happening around us or the contexts and terms in which we currently work. Given the border-less nature in which many biennial curators work, those terms are often transnational and our concerns have become globalized. Platforms for art making that situate the pedagogical as a central aim are being formed daily around the world while at the same time institutions of education are being dis-invested and neo-liberalized beyond anything our parents would recognize. The capitalist excesses of the ‘90s, and their subsequent and inevitable crises, reinvigorated many artists to form collective groups that began anew to question the role of art and politics. While technology has brought on considerations on the malleability of the consumer as producer, one also has to question to what extent technology is able to shape new forms of community. The list of ancillary considerations is immense.

At the same time, Medellin must contend with this same list of questions while it also writes (and re-writes) its own tragic and hopeful history. The results of which can be seen in the richness and diversity of current artistic proposals, many of which are engaged with the MDE11. Projects ranging from community theater groups greatly enriched by the pedagogical trajectories of Agosto Boal and Paulo Freire, or collaborative video and film collectives engaged in memory recuperation, a massive network of formal and informal learning centers, music schools and urban study centers dot the map of the city. The challenge here was not to vaguely center our proposal within a general understanding of “Public” or “Art” but rather to assist in building a structure, as curatorial guests of the city, to inquire, give feedback and enrich on the teaching and learning already happening; to situate these local practices in dialogue with concerns and ideas from other sites of cultural work. We needed to find a way where the local vs. global was not just a slogan, but a formula for enriching both. We needed to find a way to learn from the projects already happening in the city and share them with others, even if they didn’t fit comfortably within our curatorial model of art.

When theorist Grant Kester speaks of artists working within “politically coherent communities,” he is pointing out how they problem-solve issues on local levels of interaction and communication with communities already invested and working in their own context.8 The Museo de Antioquia, the hosting venue of the MDE11 has, for the past decade, developed programming that promotes contextual community-wide and pedagogically intensive practices though a series of initiatives. The Museo Itinerante frames the logic and the meaning of the art object within the history and dynamics of specific neighborhoods. The numerous artist-run corporaciones in Medellin have been busy operating in specific areas of the city working in video, theater or music, and have developed long-standing relationships with their community. The network of parque-bibliotecas have equally well-established relationships with local community groups and artists.

We curators needed to create a structure that built off of what was already in place and create moments that Habermas called “ideal speech situations” where open dialogue can happen – where teaching and learning takes place, where those invited, and those hosting, were encouraged to do both.9 It was important not to reinvent the wheel for the sake of the “new.”

The fact that these sites of exchange, however temporary, are also central to Habermas’ theory of how public and civic space is developed is no coincidence. The role of oral traditions as a space for learning or the role dialogue and communication plays in the larger community organizing efforts found within Feminism in the United States or Liberatory Pedagogy in Latin America needs to be taken into more careful consideration. It is also no coincidence that Medellin has been an important site where these kinds of projects develop. The reasons for this are too extensive to be carefully drawn out here, but needless to say, the process of memory recuperation and civic re-identification are not undertakings reserved for any particular kind of person or identify any specific political position. Artistic efforts are undertaken in various media and in any number of settings and communities – many of which never set foot inside a museum. The crisscrossing of disciplines, media, vocations, and knowledge is not so much an assault on traditional forms of art, as it is a survival tactic in a region that needed to address such issues.

Social practices and collaborative methodologies have allowed us a space for revaluation.  And though they have been with us for quite some time, many more artists are investigating new ways to engage public spaces and communities and at a pace that was not foreseeable a decade ago. Many projects ground themselves within experimental trans-disciplinary practices that question our tentative and uneasy relationship we, in the art world, have with expanding the parameters of aesthetic theory. Understandably, for many of us, this brings up certain political and theoretical ghosts from the past while the risk of losing art to some other discipline keeps hard lines drawn in the sand.


* * theory of the self and the community * *


Community as a concept is so lamented in Western theory that even discussing it here feels like opening another Pandora’s Box. When Friedrich Schiller first published The Aesthetic Education of Man in 1794 he was lamenting the social alienation that came with the violence and emerging capital-democratic revolutions in France. His promise that aesthetic education could set humanity free is, to a great extent, still with us today. Terms he coined, such as the play-drive or the aesthetic impulse, have helped individualize the process of self-awareness and development. In Schiller’s world – and others like Emmanuel Kant whom he borrowed liberally from – it is the singular, the individual that through reason must find him/her self. The idea that art and education, and more specifically aesthetic education, is tied to freedom is still a central argument for art’s inherent qualities. It is the reason why museums fancy themselves educational institutions. It is also the reason why art is taken seriously as an area of humanistic study and why, above all else, art is still at its very core, an endeavor in pedagogical study and labor.

In Schiller’s time, on the heels of the French Revolution, the notion of the self was still in development and since a “public” – our modern understanding of public – can only exist as a collection of autonomous and individual selves, we see that the two ideas were intrinsically tied and are born together from the same set of emancipatory preoccupations. But Schiller’s conditions are not ours. He lived at a time when the self was, for the most part, subject to someone else – a monarchy – and a king’s subject cannot be one’s own. Centuries later, individuality isn’t under threat. Today we have quite a different problem. One only has to consider the current social, economic and ecological urgencies, and those yet to come, to realize that we will be required to radically re-think our collectivist game plan. Are there sites where art can make a difference? Where we take the art world and its priorities, and where it will take us, will continue to be intensely debated. Undoubtedly there is much to do and our current western mainstream art discourse will have to come to terms with its post ‘68 disillusionment, dismantle its euro-centric borders, reconsider its neo-liberal alliances and classist gatekeepers, and rethink its entrenched apprehensions towards speaking in terms of “we.”

There is a difference between this historic, but now universalize, European notion that one owns consciousness individually and alone, as opposed to the notion that one begins a “process” of consciousness building with others. How one goes about understanding these concepts depends on a lot of things, and we don’t want to create an either/or dialectic. What’s clear is that our understanding of art today is, and has been, greatly impacted by those ideals developed centuries ago. The dream of the autonomous self is as complicated by today’s world as the autonomous object of art and understanding and unraveling that individualistic paradigm will require some work. This will not been easy. The art world has historically pitted the progressive individual artist against the conformity of community consensus.10 Grant Kester has pointed out how this mistrust is deeply rooted within aesthetic theory and its historic prioritization of the “purposelessness” of art – its autonomy. This paradigm requires that the self must be unburdened of politics. S/he must, in fact, be autonomous if s/he is to encounter and learn from the aesthetic experience.11 The trans-disciplinary nature with which many contemporary artists work – many found within the MDE11, working outside the realm of art, in politics and other disciplines, unconcerned with art’s autonomy – immediately comes to mind.  The aesthetic paradigm, now centuries old, is still very much in effect and artists using collaborative and dialogical methodologies have to contend with this history at some level.

Either in Habermas’ case when he speaks of ideal speech situations or when contemporary thinkers like Argentine philosopher Enrique Dussel discuss the idea that citizens have a stake in their “obediential” system of government and power because it ultimately is born from them, they are talking about having a stake in how we collectively form, and have formed, systems of organizing ourselves.12 Habermas cites this originary transformation in Europe, Dussel speaks from a Latin American perspective, but what is important here is that this line of thinking is a legitimization of community decision making, at the theoretical level, and it allows artists and others to begin to think of their labor in dialogue with a larger structure of social and cultural work in politics.

One of the most interesting fields of research deals with epistemological studies from the conceptual territory of “the South” or “desde el sur.” Thinkers such as Anibal Quijano, Boaventura de Sousa Santos or research groups such as La Red de Conceptualismos del Sur and others have argued, this shift in perspective not only implies an inversion of the hemispheric map as a gesture [image 1], it is in fact, a roadmap for research and labor. Decolonizing efforts within the humanities date back to Bartolomé de las Casas, and possibly earlier, but there has been an important level of recent movement in this area that is finding its way through various disciplines and political processes. 13

When Sousa Santos speaks of expanding and enriching our “ecology of knowledge” he speaks to the importance of questioning the pedagogical paradigms we’ve inherited and begin to ask what and whom have been left out? What kinds of knowledge have we set aside or have been set aside in our name? Can we imagine the field of art, theory – the humanities in general – taking a widely understood inter-cultural position with regards to how it views the history of knowledge? Can we imagine an epistemology of the South? Can it begin to look at sources, cultures, and histories outside its own traditions? If it is true, as he points out, that there can be no global social justice without global cognitive justice, then we must begin at the point of pedagogical studies to understand if what these practices are aiming for is indeed that – an expansion and enrichment of our “ecology of knowledge.”

Enrique Dussel paints an instructive image of this struggle within European modernity. Keep in mind it is modernity, not modernism, and for Dussel modernity begins with Euro-American contact. He begins by drawing a picture of a flashlight, turned on and illuminating a disc of light on the floor beneath it. A western understanding of modernity is this flashlight. The flashlight of modernity has illuminated what it needed to see and prosper – information obliging its necessities. Certain forms of knowledge, histories, and communities were included in this illumination. What he is interested in is the exteriority, the occluded other that is outside this illuminated disc. His decolonizing perspective seeks out this seemingly discomforting knowledge. To begin to consider this darkened pool of histories, peoples and ideas is to act inter-culturally – to enrich our own pool and expand the ecology of knowledge.

One important example near my home in southern California, is Feminist art. The Feminist Art Program established at Cal Arts in Los Angeles in 1971, two years after hiring Allan Kaprow, would be instrumental not only to Kaprow, but to a generation of women artists as they began to establish a “feminist” methodology of practice. The consciousness raising sessions he witnessed, and later incorporated into his practice,14 and that later found resonance in other artists’ work, makes us begin to ask if similar tactics found, in say, the Occupy Movement or contemporary dialogically-based art can be read within a similar frame? If we expand out and back in time, we may understand how those consciousness-raising sessions, the use of dialogue in art, and haptic and body-centered learning were actually understood as part of a larger strategy within the civil rights movement. They also operated within a distinctly decolonizing effort in the work of pedagogical theorist Paolo Freire. We then begin to see a larger network of ideas and methodologies, one that considers those artistic strategies within the lineage of liberatory pedagogies and philosophies that Freire and others promoted during that historic moment of decolonial struggle.

In his foundational text, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, published in 1968 and translated into English in 1970, Freire defines his key term praxis – acts that shape and change the world – by invoking the singular term “action-reflection.” He explains, “Within the word we find two dimensions, reflection and action, in such radical interconnection that if one is sacrificed-even in part-the other immediately suffers.”15 Freire sees these actions as concurrent. To separate the processes is to create a dichotomy that is akin to dichotomizing and separating theory from practice. The reflective and dialogical component within his pedagogical methodology is inseparable from action, it gives action its purpose, and this form of praxis is the key to liberation. Furthermore it is this ontology of praxis and our possibility to achieve it that defines us as human, and as subjects – not objects – in the world capable of transforming reality.16

It is perhaps for this reason that pedagogy and dialogue have been a central focal point in so much of what we now call Social Practice in the United States. In its most collaborative and dialogical form, it can play a role in not only the decolonization of knowledge – the enrichment and expansion of this collective ecology – but is an artistic embodiment of a Freirian praxis. The methodologies found within dialogical and community-based art in Latin America begin to raise these aforementioned questions in ways that are unique to the region (liberation theology) but that speak to more universal concerns (community-driven decision making). We in the north, are just now becoming aware of the richness of practices in the region.


* * the curator and the community: an inquiry into priorities * *


This reflection should not be confused as a “call to arms” to replace existing epistemological paradigms with some essentialist notion of art. Rather it is a recognition that artistic processes have begun to question how and why we collaborate as communities and individuals. The larger question is what are we as curators going to do about it? As noted earlier, the art world is a wide-open space where many things can happen. Artists working in a collaborative method should be able to practice alongside artists working in their studios. This is not an either/or situation. The fact that collaborative and community driven processes, many found in Medellin and elsewhere, are only just now finding their way into the discursive paradigm of art and theory (not to mention curatorial interest) should be embraced and seen as a teaching and learning opportunity – to consider the re-constitution of a civic space and identity, a learning, a re-learning and consciousness building process that is fundamental to this kind of work and its larger cultural project.

How one taps into this kind of creative work is where curatorial methodologies come into play. Being aware of what the city of Medellin could give us requires a sustained form of research, a dialogically-based presence within various communities that isn’t easy to maintain in this kind of platform, where one is working outside the host city for a great deal of the planning period. This focus on time and sustained work is not without its demands. Apart from the practical difficulties this implies, it also requires us to question Modernity’s focus on and privileging of “ideas” as an artistic act in and of itself – art as idea as idea. Ideas can be easy to come by and conceptualism’s staying power, despite the brevity of many of its gestures, is testament to the facility with which the art world’s economy, turns over new ideas and new works of art with blazing speed. It certainly can be argued that today this conceptual privilege of the “new idea” has more to do with a certain “entrepreneurial” spirit or “cognitive economy” that we misguidedly value above all else.17 Not coincidentally, this “entrepreneurial” mind-set, requires a skill-set perfectly matched for curatorial work, banking its future on managing data and producing new bits of information.

A related inquiry is the history of the curatorial act as a “gesture” – a model inherited from Modernism’s affinity for the speech act and the artistic enunciation as a linguistic metaphor. In this model, as mentioned above, art and other forms of cultural actions are seen through the lens of linguistic criticism and so everything is discursive, everything is speech, and every political or social action is inescapably wrapped within the critique of language and its power to frame the world. All social action (speech) is unable to operate unless it is thoroughly critiqued because action – and speech – is always, a priori an operation of power. This makes any form of collaborative or community action nearly impossible. A more appropriate response would be a move towards a focus on listening. As mentioned to above, the pedagogical methodologies of Freire, various iterations of the feminist art movement, and countless other contemporary artists make the case for a “dialogical” model that tries to equally balance the listener as much as the speaker – creating ideal speech situations – and in doing so create operative moments where understanding happens and collective knowledge and action take place.

Returning to the role of the curator, we see that this shift towards listening has important implications for curatorial methodologies. Apart from requiring more time, being present requires a variety of different skill-sets. It requires spending a great deal of time visiting and building relationships with various actors in the city, not just artists, but the various communities, sites and organizations that frame their work. This kind of contact and conversation rarely happens at the curatorial level and that’s partly because there is no time for it. Museums and foundations that sponsor these events don’t have the resources, nor the time, to fund this kind of research. The other reason is that curators have never really worked that way. Contemporary art has never really required such sustained dialogue with a local site. The “dialogical” practices we are discussing here may very well force us to change that.

This new form of curating requires understanding that the formation of knowledge is done through interactions with people not just objects, and the dynamics of those conversations are, and should be, conceived and cared for with the same detail as the selection and placement of a painting in a gallery. There are “dialogical” methodologies that must learned and a learning curve that is equally based on knowing what is “in” a community (time) as it is based on learning “how” artists operate there (methodology).

We will invariably have to learn this new form of curating once again from artists – and that’s the way it should be. As curators we must always remember, despite our ever-growing influence, that our curatorial methodologies have to be aligned with the artists we work with. Despite the institutional and professional challenges this may imply, it cannot be any other way.


* * reflections on the MDE11 and its structure* *


When asked by Jose Roca to be a part of this curatorial team I was looking forward to the opportunity to work with such a talented group of people both within and outside the museum. Artists, writers, teachers, administrators, organizers, all have played an important role in shaping the MDE11. As a curatorial group, our varied experiences and backgrounds created a dynamic balance of ideas and proposals.

When we began the discussions two years ago of how we wanted to define the MDE11, it became clear that certain aspects and relationships from the MDE07 had to stay. The Espacios Anfitriones program, for example was a success in that it generated a network of collaboration amongst independent art spaces in South America that is still active today. Other elements weren’t as appropriate for this version as we focused on learning and pedagogy. So we set about organizing a three-part structure (Laboratorio, Estudio, Exposición) that gave us the freedom to build-off and develop these three central categories.

An important consideration, given our varied curatorial backgrounds, was that we didn’t want to create an oppositional dialectic that positioned one kind of practice or methodology against another. This would not have been useful to anyone and art is a big enough camp to accommodate them all. What we wanted was to carve out a space where the theme of “teaching and learning” could be considered from various perspectives. We also wanted to push the pedagogical metaphor as far as possible through exhibition formats (Taller Central), extended research proposals in the city (Trabajo de Campo), experimental collaborations with other organizations (Interlocuciones), and lectures and workshops (Aula Dialógica and Taller de Construcción). Through this structure we could move away from the either/or ghetto and begin to think about what one form of work could learn from another. An investigation in one area of the MDE11 was encouraged to find its way into other areas and formats of working. For example, a concept that drives a project in the exhibition is also investigated in a panel discussion, it is then a point of inquiry for artists in the city, and later a strategy shared with collaborators that then gets presented back to the public for discussion, and the cycle goes on…

As I see it, the MDE11 as previously mentioned, had to be based both conceptually and curatorially on local artistic methodologies taking into consideration how pedagogy was being practiced and redefined everyday here in Medellin. The topic might be universal, but its form and content is not. One of the critiques of Relational Aesthetics is that it isn’t critical of the post-fordist informational and sociability economy – how it feeds into the way our very relationships are being marketed back to us – sociability as a medium or a field of capital investment. From my perspective, one of the reasons this critique has taken hold so strongly is that many art organizations and events have followed suit in riding the “sociability” wave. This is partly the reason that public practices (many of them working out a counter-logic to this marketed-sociability template) have gotten the global art circuit’s attention. It’s also one of the many reasons why the MDE11 needed to take a clear position on what it was trying to achieve.

Local practices, tempered by what the curatorial team brought to the city, gave the MDE11 its form and content. By doing so we didn’t confuse representations of the social for the haptic work being done by artists to generate new social fabrics. We found a place for numerous methodologies to dialogue, understanding that artists work in different ways. Given the multiple factors at play, I think the MDE11 found some synergy. We formed relationships with a wealth of willing collaborators who, given their day-to-day work in the practice of teaching and learning, were immensely generous. I hope they took away as much from these exchanges and the MDE11, as I have from working with them over those two years together.

There is one key example of how this generosity helped us address a curatorial problem. The issue of not having enough time to commit to a more sustained curatorial presence could not have been easily anticipated. That is because we were not aware of the kind of event we were planning beforehand, but after a few trips to Medellin I started to identify some key relationships that the museum had with key groups. I also started to understand that the community-driven work of the various corporaciones in Medellin were a litmus test to what was happening in the city. The mediums of video, music, and theater were identified as key areas of activity. Given the museum’s ongoing relationships with Corporación Nuestra Gente (theater), Corporación Pasolini (video), and Territorio Sonoro (music) it made sense to ask them to act as interlocutors between their community of supporters and the curatorial team. We asked the three interlocutors to invite 3 other groups in their respective media – for a total of nine – and for each group to present their work in the Aula Dialogica as part of the MDE11. It was an attempt to have collectives and corporaciones who have never had a relationship with the museum or the mainstream art world to be a part of the conversation. These presentations would then be followed up with the group opening their sites/spaces in the city for programming of their choosing as part of the MDE11.

If the artists, the city and its discourse had benefited from the Museo de Antioquia developing key relationships before the MDE11, then it only made sense that the MDE11 try to incorporate this methodology and platform into its programming, particularly given the pedagogical nature of these interactions. This program was a way to have both the museum and the MDE11 open its doors to a new community, while asking these other independent groups to do the same. Both sides opening its doors to one another, building new relationships, and learning from one another.

It seems clear to me that the work of these corporaciones are as much about things the art world could openly and confidently debate as it was about things it has very real problems discussing – from art’s role in remaking civic discourses and art as a site for re-modeling nonviolent forms of consciousness building to inquiries into the city’s educational infrastructure and its pedagogical traditions and histories.

Working with multiple organizations and actors in a city is not easy. There are have been failures and missed opportunities, false starts and several mid-stream adjustments. There were numerous meetings with municipal civil servants and heads of various organizations – too many to count. I made it a priority to meet as many artist-run corporaciones as I could during our intensely scheduled visits to the city.

As a curatorial team, we considered and discussed many ideas. We debated the role of the archive, both lost and established, the materiality of learning, as well as the role of performance, libraries and the academy. Projects are planned all over the city and we have invited theorists and artists from Colombia and around the world to expand on these topics and fill in the numerous gaps. Everything was, and is still, up for discussion. By that, I mean my curatorial position, and the MDE11 as a whole, took Paulo Freire’s idea to heart: everyplace is a site for learning and everyone is both a teacher and a student.


Bill Kelley, Jr.

May 2013

(This essay is an expansion of my yet-unpublished curatorial essay for the MDE11 written in early 2012. The original curatorial essay will be published as part of a larger compendium of theoretical texts that frame the MDE11 in the near future)

Joaquín Torres-García. Mapa invertido, 1943



1 The MDE11 is purposely not a biennial as it attempted to challenge certain biennial structures. One very important distinction was the extension of the event, September 1 – December 10, 2011. Its first, and more recent iteration, the MDE07, lasted almost six months. My point is not to approximate or use them interchangeably but to highlight certain challenges that still exist among similar formats.
2 Jose Roca, a Bogota based curator and critic, along with Museo de Antioquia’s former director Lucia Gonzalez are both responsible for organizing both the MDE07 and the initial structure of the MDE11. The curatorial team, of which Roca originally was a member, was organized by him and included Nuria Enguita Mayo (Valencia, Spain), Eva Grinstein (Buenos Aires, Argentina) Conrado Uribe (Medellin, Colombia) and myself (Los Angeles, USA).
3 One central point of interest in my ongoing research has been the relationship between community art practices and liberation theology. One very interesting historical connection was Medellin in 1968, site of the first art biennial of Medellin, named the Coltejer Biennial, after its central sponsor, and the Second Latin American Episcopal Conference, also known as CELAM 2, an important historical meeting of Catholic Church officials that defined liberation theology for generations. The MDE07 was founded on the concept that it was a continuation and an examination of those early Medellin biennials that brought the very best of contemporary art to the city while CELAM2 was heavily influenced by the emancipatory and pedagogical theories of Paolo Freire. The two events had no relationship but the pedagogical underpinnings to both events  find us curiously converging the two at the MDE11, over 40 years after this missed opportunity.
4 Olga Fernandez. “Just What is it That Makes ‘Curating’ so Different, so Appealing?” 08/11 (2011) 40.
5 Michael Brenson. Acts of engagement: writings on art, criticism, and institutions, 1993-2002. (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004).
6 Stephen Wright. “The Future of the Reciprocal Readymade: An Essay on Use-Value and Art-Related Practice” 16 Beaver (2005)
7 Wright’s critique of the framing of culture and its usology – or its “use value” is implemented to designate a condition he calls “the crippling prohibition of usership in art” and the subsequent need of certain practices to “escape” the ideological and ontological capture of just being art. This shift towards usology is contingent on how artists in this field develop relationships and strategies for work outside the field of art. For numerous reasons artists are working within experimental methodologies that move in and out of the field of art, often having to create functional relationships with groups and organizations working with other modalities. For Wright this is a question of whether art is a useful frame.
8 Grant Kester. Conversation Pieces. (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004).
9 Jürgen Habermas. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1991).
10 Grant H. Kester, The One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).
11 Kester, (2004).
12 Enrique Dussel. Twenty Theses on Politics (Latin America in Translation). (Raleigh: Duke University Press, 2008).
13 One clear example is the work done alongside the 2008 Ecuadorean constitution, which includes recent legislation granting constitutional rights to Nature among other important rights affecting indigenous peoples. The continuation of an earlier national plan known as Sumac Kawsay – “good/full living” in Kichwa – will be ratified following President Raphael Correa’s recent re-election. This National Plan for Good Living follows the logic that macro-economic indicators such as the GNP are developed from an abstracted critical distance and are not accurate reflections of “meaningful human-scale indicators” or “good living.” For further research on similar economic proposals see: Manfred A Max-Neef, From the Outside Looking in: Experiences in ‘Barefoot Economics’. (London: Zed Books, 1992).
14 Eva Meyer-Hermann, Andrew Perchuk, Stephanie Rosenthal, Allan Kaprow: Art As Life. (Los Angeles:  Getty Research Institute, 2008), 49.
15 Paulo Frere, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. (Handsworth: Penguin, 1972), 75.
16 Raymond Allen Morrow, and Carlos Alberto Torres. Reading Freire and Habermas: Critical pedagogy and transformative social change. (New York: Teachers College Press, 2002), 34.
17 Ultra-red, “Art, Collectivity, and Pedagogy: Changing the World in which we Live,” Chto Delat 08-32 (2011): 16.



Bill Kelley, Jr. is an educator, independent curator and theorist based in Los Angeles. He graduated with a Master’s in 19th Century Colonial Art Studies from the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque (UNM) in 2001. His current research focuses on collaborative and collective art practices in the Americas. His most recent project included the exhibition ¿Por qué no te callas? Arte, activismo y medios de comunicación, Arte Actual, FLACSO, Quito (2008)  together with a public month-long workshop namedLaboratorio de Arte y Espacio Social (LAES), sponsored by the Museo del Banco Central del Ecuador. In 2009 he organized the collective research project Proyecto Cívico: Diálogos e Interrogantes for the Centro Cultural Tijuana, Mexico. He is the former Director and current Editorial Adviser of the online bilingual journal Bill teaches at Otis College’s Graduate Public Practice program and was most recently the co-curator of the 2011 Encuentro Internacional de Medellín (MDE11: Museo de Antioquia, Medellín, Colombia 2011-12). Bill is currently completing his Ph.D. in Contemporary Art, Theory and Criticism at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD), is co-editing an anthology of public and dialogical art practices in the Americas with Grant Kester and his current 2012-2013 curatorial residency at 18th Street Art Center in Santa Monica will be focused on researching the field of Social Practice.