by Gloria Cárdenas
Being a teacher in a rural setting so different to the urban one I grew up in, made me think I had the responsibility of not replicating my own story onto my students.
This conversation took place while Nicolás was in Spain working on a project he had dreamt up many years ago. On one hand, it’s a project in association with a gallery, on the other, it’s a project that won’t necessarily end up on the commercial side of the art world. Gallery Elba Benítez in Madrid decided to support an investigation of the relationship between art and education as part of the educational program at Fuhem Lourdes in Madrid. Through workshops, conversations, and get togethers between professors and high school students, they are working on, what Nicolás says “could be an anti-manual for educators.”
He had just arrived to Amsterdam where he was part of the collective exhibition, An Unstoppable Force at CoBrA Museum of Modern Art. This exhibition presents artwork by contemporary artists in dialogue with pieces produced by the CoBrA movement during the postwar era, where artists rebelled against rationalism and were looking to regain the powerful potential of childhood (reimagining childhood as not just a life phase, but an attitude). Nicolás’ piece dialogues with architectural and museographic elements creating a space where workshops (which were developed in hand with the educational department of the museum) will be taking place throughout the duration of the exhibition.
Simultaneously, Ladera Oeste in Guadalajara is exhibiting part of his work as a baker apprentice in Panadería del Río at the Santa Tere neighborhood. The exhibition was not a record of his experience at the bakery, but a start off point for visitors to reflect upon as they view traces of that experience and a summary of his days as a baker apprentice.
In order to get an in depth look into Nicolás’ work, this interview is about unraveling his initial days as an artist, understanding his fascination for education (learning processes), learning about the material behind his work, his opinion about educational models, and his future plans.
Gloria Cárdenas: After studying architecture, you decided to take on contemporary art. What made you decide this? What was the catalyst and what were your initial days as an artist like?
Nicolás Paris: The story is quite long. I did decide to study architecture in the school but I’ve never finished. During 1999 (half way through the process) I decided to apply for a job as a teacher in a rural school in Colombia where there weren’t any teachers. It was in the town of La Macarena, an area I consider to be very special since I thought of it as somewhat mythical. At 22 and without any previous experience, I started working there as part of a program with university students. It was a very small school with around 15 students. This program was part of a new model for rural schools called “Escuela Nueva” (New School) where a teacher works with students of all ages and academic backgrounds in the same classroom. It was a trial and error experience where I worked towards filling the educational gap caused by a lack of professors available to these students. It was a powerful experience. I found things during that time which I continue to research to this day.
After being there for a year, I had to leave due to socio-political reasons. Since I couldn’t be there any longer, I went back to Bogota (the city I grew up in) and it was there that I experienced somewhat of a short circuit. Going against my parents’ expectations and those close to me, I decided to quit school and develop my own learning process based on a desire to explore my interests. I continued to work in education. I also worked for a considerable amount of time at a bakery (I’m very interested in baking as a craft). I did some small scale remodeling projects in architectural spaces with my architect friends. As time went by, I also worked on more complex educational projects that eventually led me back to the organization where I had first started as a professor. They then asked me to participate in developing a project based on the same area. The project proposed the creation of a research group that could develop an educational model for the town of La Macarena. This borough is located within el Meta, a very powerful area of the country because it is the intersection between the Orinoquia, the Amazon and the Andes. When the governmental administration was in transition, Colombia was experiencing a change in its social and political order so the idea was to return to the area in order to develop an educational model with emphasis on environmental conservation and tourism. We had the opportunity of present our project, which was accepted and later became part of the program. I went back to the area and stayed there for four years as we developed the educational model.
By the end of this project, I started asking myself what the next step would be. I was about to turn 30 and came to the conclusion that, because of my personality, I did not want to continue working the same way; I wanted to do the same kind of research but with a different type of structure. That is how I consciously decided to go into contemporary art where I’ve always believed my interests lie best. I started making applications for grants, building my portfolio and producing artwork that translated my time at the town of La Macarena. I’ve been an artist for 11 years now and the research and work I do start off from the experiences I had in the classroom; it is a continuation of that experience where students tried to learn how to read and write, and I tried to learn to how to be a teacher. Being a teacher has been my biggest influence and probably my greatest desire.
GC: Following this line of thought; what have you had to unlearn about your own education in order to have the sensibility for creating, relearning, or reimagining new concepts?
NP: I had a very Latin-American upbringing, very traditional, catholic, based on external references. Being a teacher in a rural setting so different to the urban one I grew up in, made me think I had the responsibility of not replicating my own story onto my students. The best way of adapting to this new environment was to unlearn.
For example, when I first arrived to the classroom, there was a group of older students who already had some knowledge about how to read and write. In order to strengthen their learning process, I had to keep in mind that their process should be fun and flexible and at the same time useful to students of all academic backgrounds. I couldn’t just replicate the same process through which I learned to read and write. I learned by first memorizing letters, signs and symbols. Then, with time, I started forming syllables; then words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs, until I learned how to narrate. As a teacher, I realized humanity had learnt the opposite way; first there were experiences, they were shared among peers, then condensed into graphic representations, which with time (at different speeds, with different means, and explorations), were slowly transformed or condensed into the alphabet.
That was the kind of experiments I tried out as a teacher; turning around old methods and trying to develop collective thinking systems to help us unlearn or go in reverse. Taking this on from a different perspective has been challenging, but above all, so much fun. What I’ve tried to do as an artist is to build learning environments where we can explore new ways of coming together. Carrying out these experiments has in a way liberated me, emancipated me and helped me unlearn my own thinking structure in order to find new ways of thinking and being.
GC: In a way, it’s like swimming against the tide. All, or most, of these systems tend to go in the same direction (they are all structured systems). Education, in most cases, is the same for everyone. I do feel that in some way you are free, more receptive to see things from a different point of view. Do you think you no longer have resistance to see things from a different point of view? Or is there still something in your life where you would like to be more flexible at? Something where you might still be more rigid or structured at?
NP: Yes, of course. I have this “thing” for a Cartesian way of thinking; it’s all over my work, I can’t deny it. In retrospect, it is something I would like to change. I understand learning as an attitude, not as a moment in life where you need to develop specific skills to be able to stand up for yourself. I understand it as an attitude that opens up the possibility of taking advantage of any and every situation you find yourself in, as an opportunity to change, to find new ways of being together, but most of all, as an opportunity for self-verification. It’s a complex, continuous and constant process. There are many things where I’d like to be more flexible at. I need to confront, not only the way I am with myself, but what I do in any situation. Every time I find myself working in a different environment, I demand more flexibility. Every project I do consists of adapting to new ideas and situations, which pushes me to reevaluate those ideas, behaviors, and situations.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how if I ever consider myself I’m good at something, I should stop doing it. Those are ideal situations for me, where nothing is established and the point of equilibrium is constantly changing. I need to work towards shifting that point of equilibrium. The more unstable these learning environments are, the better. For example, I’m eager to change the workshops and gathering points. It’s a core and essential part of my work as an artist and I need to change the way I’ve been doing them all these years.
You say that you see a certain freedom in me; I’d like to think otherwise. I still have a lot more self-verification to do and I should probably stop doing the things I might do well, which means I constantly need to be at unstable places.
GC: With that in mind, is there something you wouldn’t want to change? For example, is there a specific element that you think works for you? Or, do you make sure to change everything constantly so you can have different results?
NP: I’d like to reach a point where I’m comfortable with instability and change so I can find new ways of bringing people together. At a personal level, this isn’t easy for me and it’s something I’d like to accomplish. For example, everything always points towards creating stable and safe environments at a personal level, but I think it’s interesting to rethink that idea and manage to build unfamiliar (or unstable) environments with different people. Eventually taking this idea to the public scale, for example with cultural institutions.
It’s complex but I think it’s worth giving it a shot. I believe art, culture or at least I, as an artist, have the responsibility of rethinking or redefining institutions, which means taking on slow transformation processes.
GC: In a way, I feel like one must be emptied out in order to be more receptive everyday. Life goes fast and we’re constantly surrounded by so much information. What do you do to get rid of that information and deal with this invasion of systems, social networks, and general media? What do you do to keep a distance and assume a more receptive and experimental role?
NP: There’s several factors. The first requires that you base this kind of investigations on error through erratic processes. The second has to do with what we discussed about the importance of learning as an attitude that must be based on curiosity.
I feel comfortable working collectively; it’s something I bet on. It is through the collective that I can reevaluate myself, trying to build spaces for dialogue and taking advantage of every opportunity to work such as the idea that I can take speech, togetherness, and shared time as a material to work with and transform to construct and develop concepts. This is very important to me. Making contact and executing mental experiments with other people, is to me fundamental and what motivates me. I believe it is through this collective thinking where we construct the present.
Another factor, which is a personal choice and may come off as anecdotal, is that I don’t use social media. I never have. I’ve always felt it doesn’t go well with me and I really didn’t want to invest time on it; it works for me. It also has to do with protecting myself; I wouldn’t know how to deal with social media. I feel I’d end up wrapped up in it. This is all very anecdotal, though. Obviously, I don’t think or mean to say that it wastes time or it’s bad for people. I simply enjoy not having them. There is also a kind of morbid pleasure in not having smartphones. I don’t have one.
Furthermore, another fundamental aspect of my work involves thinking about where I want things to happen. More than just asking myself how or why, it’s about asking: “What for?” A lot of important decision making in my life helps answer that question. I’m constantly in the lookout for allies. I try to reimagine and rework the structures (the ones I live in and those I choose to be part of little by little—being that they are slow processes), so I can turn colleagues into allies in the research of ideas I’m working on. For example, I managed to reach a point of dialogue and trust with a commercial gallery that agreed to back up a research project that will not be commercialized. I’ve also succeeded in turning art collectors into allies of my projects; with art pieces that are part of the art market, the collectors know they end up financing educational research projects. It’s about trying to make allies out of the people I work with, develop projects with, and with whom I may exchange ideas, services or objects. Being able to have them as allies of my research is also an effort of finding new ways of connecting and “being together.”
I’m constantly repeating this idea of finding new ways of being together because this is fundamental to me; it’s what I like to do and the reason I do it. This has to do with what we talked about earlier regarding the responsibility of rethinking and reimagining institutions at every level; from the marriage institution to public and cultural institutions, family, friendship, and ultimately school, or any learning institution.
GC: Going back to the topic of social media; don’t you think there may be a niche there so that your research or investigations reach more people if you try playing around with them a little? After all, it’s a game, right?
NP: Of course, I totally agree. They are very powerful tools but the decision to not engage in them has to do with my personality. It’s not that I’m trying to be rebellious because everyone is in there and I choose not to. It’s just that I try to be true to myself. I don’t believe it’s a tool that works for me or serves me in any purpose. Obviously, I do work with people that use or need social media so I end up being there by domino effect, but not directly. This is my position today, but thinking about this idea of instability and constant self-verification I might have to change. There may be a time when I will need it. But I insist, I’m not trying to be a rebel, I’m just making a decision based on my personality and how I like to operate at the moment. When I decided to start working as an artist, it was a fully conscious decision based on my personality and how I wanted to operate; the same goes for when I quit college. It was a decision based on how and what I wanted my learning process to be, making sure it was in tune with my personality and interests. This is why I’d like to link this to the idea of constantly checking myself, putting myself to the test so I can see what else I can discover.
I just came to realize that this idea of the workshop, where I try to build learning environments based on doing and association can be a kind of “low tech” social network. I don’t know if it’s the correct term but maybe we can both build upon this idea. It is a sort of social network that simply works at a different speed, let’s say based on rumor, on face-to-face time, on “doing;” the image is built with the ongoing dialogue. It may not be as effective in terms of visualization, but I do believe in slower moving processes. Slow transformations are important to me and something I’m willing to bet on. The thinking process might be the same, but the method is different.
GC: I really like this idea or concept; and I agree your workshops are some kind of a social network. Maybe it isn’t the correct term to use for what we all know as social network. In the end, digital social media (let’s name them this way) is the place where we connect but in an ephemeral way, as if just passing by, quickly passing by; and your social network stays.
NP: Exactly! In 2015 I was invited to the La Habana Biennial and, as ideas were coming and going with the curator, I ended up getting to Cuba with the intention of working for three weeks with several groups of different people. I worked with teachers, students with behavioral problems, bakers, gardeners, and social activists in La Habana. Imagine! As part of the Biennial I had the intention of creating a diagram or installation based on my work with these people. I soon realized this was unnecessary and not something I wanted to do. So, the project happened using different strategies, in different places and moments leaving no trace behind. I had previously done something similar in 2012 at the New Museum Triennial and in 2009 at the Porto Alegre Biennial. The day of the opening I bumped into a curator who I’d worked with before and he asked me where my piece was. I told him it was happening in and around La Habana saying, “It’s ephemeral!” He stared at me and said, “No, it’s not ephemeral! Ephemeral are all the others, the ones that go. Yours will stay one way or another.” I was very happy because he not only seemed interested in my work but also because the conversation made a sort of click in him. Work based in rumor, meeting up, slow transformation processes, dialogue, shared time and association possibly (or at least in his point of view) is what remains.
GC: In relation to this and taking into consideration that much of what you do is about leaving traces for reflection or contemplation, do you document any of the reflections you generate? Is it something you’re interested in?
NP: No, I don’t document that aspect of my work. We’ve discussed the idea of rumor, I’m not interested in documenting for the sake of justifying my work or much less, to prove something has happened. I like to work and act under the idea that these moments of contemplation belong to their place and time and that they should remain out of my control. I’ll explain in a cliché, I don’t want to be the artist that works with kids and then presents the documentation of his work in an exhibition setting. That’s why I believe these moments belong to their time and space, and this, in my point of view is really interesting because these workshops are not parallel to my work process or my work as an artist, they are a structural and integral part of my research. They are situations in which I am learning to be an artist and in which I happily accept I will forever be an apprentice. Since they are integral situations and not parallel to my work, they end up being the foundation of what I continue to work on.
If we are to discuss documentation, documentation of these workshops is what has not happened and what I haven’t done. I don’t want my work to be a document that verifies what has occurred. I like to think of art as that which hasn’t happened. More than trying to understand what art is, I consider it is essential to understand and talk about where art happens.
GC: Speaking of which, do you believe the space where your reflections take place affect the outcome? For example, do you get better results on a sunny day, a rainy day, if they take place outside, or in nature? Does space have an influence?
NP: What matters the most is being able to change the space and have it transformed constantly into something new. There’s no romanticism in that. I don’t think it’s important whether you’re in the open or some ideal place for these exchanges to happen. What is important is being able to build a moment in which people can forget about what the space was originally meant for. For example, that the museum stops being a place that doesn’t interest me, where I don’t understand a thing, that I don’t know how to use, to become a place where I feel comfortable in. It stops being a container of things and turns into a place where I’m able to make connections and I can use for my own interests. I’m interested in being able to transform these spaces into places. Another example, being able to transform a classroom from a boring place that I have to go to, to a place where I can confront myself at and where I can feel safe making mistakes. That’s what I’m interested in, not the idealized space. The ideal situation doesn’t exist. What does exist is the ability to transform any situation into a new one and that these new situations offer the opportunity for self-check, for creating new constellations and transforming the space between us.
GC: Have you met people with a resistance to learn or that are unwilling to move away from their own concepts so they can be more receptive? What is their contribution to the workshops?
NP: Of course there’s been resistance. They aren’t isolated incidents or specific people. I believe it is part of the human condition in which by default we always have a resistance to people we don’t know or to unfamiliar situations which we don’t really understand. It’s also one of the main objectives of the workshops; breaking the ice, putting your shoulders down and starting to build reflections, not only by concept, but also by doing. Paraphrasing, yes, there is resistance but it’s a constant. It’s a physical, almost chemical condition of what we are. Bodies are always creating resistance; it’s one of the things that lets us be.
GC: Maybe it’s part of the process; it’s another element.
NP: t’s a given; you’re going to find it. If we understand the workshop as a support or medium and dialogue as the material, in order to take on a process of finding new ways of being together based on doing and association, it requires a sort of “protocol” in which I have to use words and body to create space where that resistance starts to give; where acceptance of the situation happens and people start to open up. One has to use these elements to build the unstable environment we discussed, to turn that resistance in your favor. It’s an ongoing experiment and you have to develop the tools to transform these “materials.” Just like a sculptor works with his stone or a carpenter with wood and they manipulate those materials trying to understand them and know when to push harder, when to brush it off, etc., something very similar happens during the workshops. You have the materials and necessary elements that can be abstract, but you also have physical bodies, attitudes of those involved and you have to begin to transform those situations, attitudes, resistances, interests, and desires in order to slowly build up the moment of reflection, the medium, the artwork.
I like to associate the idea of the workshops with happenings. It’s some sort of instructions that allow me to continue building these unstable environments that, the more unstable, the better. It’s a bodily experience that has to do with time, or art based on time, and I like to associate it with happenings. Allan Kaprow is an idol of mine; I consider him a very valuable artist.
GC: Moving on towards the final questions, I understand your work and much of your research as proposing new ways of learning. What would you change about the current learning models and what would you keep?
NP: First I need to clear something up; rather than understanding my work as proposing new learning systems, I’d like to be more modest and state that my work is about trying to understand how we learn. I’m not interested in questioning the institutions. I want to make questions in or from the institutions.
I really like the idea of school and classroom. Etymologically, the word school comes from the Greek word scholé which means “leisure” or “that in which leisure is employed.” It’s the most useful time we appoint to learning and the moment where we decide what’s worth learning. It’s interesting because the idea of leisure, from this point of view, is the opposite of doing nothing. I’d like to claim that notion. I like the concept of school and learning systems without structure where learning can happen anywhere (even under a tree) and based on the interests of those involved. It is not related to an academic objective; it’s something that happens naturally. I would like to think this is the future, where there’s no building to which you go to learn but a place where you choose what to learn. I’d also like to claim the process by association and the process based on “doing.” That’s where my interest in the concept of craft comes in, not as specialization but a learning process through doing. The development of learning processes based on crafts, or profession, is a very good way of communicating and finding new ways of being together. For example, to me, one of the most important aspects of the crafts is that they are exercises by demonstration. A lot of this has to do with my time working in Guadalajara.
I like this idea of a learning system without infrastructure. This may sound very utopian or idealistic, but it can also offer some kind of a dystopia to how we allot time to learning. I find the idea of not having academic objectives fundamental. I could elaborate so much on this because it’s interesting trying to understand educational models as models for thought. It’s not a training model, but a moment or system in which you develop strategies and tactics for self-verification. It ends up being some kind of a learning system that offers possibilities for self-verification. That’s why it’s so interesting to work from an art perspective because I feel that it is within cultural institutions that you choose how and what to learn. There’s no curriculum, and I do not intend to come up with one. It’s an attempt at putting out everything I’m interested in and being able to create a space for dialogue or exchange where people can choose what they want to learn. It’s something I would like to change in the education system. Actually, it’s turning it into an actual system.
What would I like to keep? I think I’ve responded to that a little bit, getting back to the idea of unlearning, you have to unlearn the structures that you’ve been taught and go back to that classroom or school as the valuable time for leisure; as that useful time in which we learn, or try to learn what we consider to be worth learning. It’s interesting because instead of receiving information through the learning process, it becomes finding what’s valuable to you.
Another aspect that grabs my attention, or that I’d like to keep, is the idea of the teacher. There are many players in the learning system that I would like to claim or redefine or that I would like to work with, but the idea of the teacher is one I consider really valuable. We have to think about how to preserve it but definitely restructure it and develop new strategies for it. We could talk a lot about this idea. I find the idea of the teacher as a social agent very powerful; the teacher as a connecting point between many desires and interests and as a place (trying to avoid calling it a person) where many aspects of society, or about what we can become, are put together.
GC: What comes next for you inside or outside of contemporary art?
NP: One of my desires, and the reason for my work and aspirations, is that I like to think that I do not produce art for the art world but to speculate about how we learn. I like to think that the reflections that come up from my work and projects not only belong to the art world. Based on this idea, at the beginning of this year (2018) I started a project (financed by my work as an artist) called “El instituto para el aprendizaje radical” (The Radical Learning Institute). It’s a situational project that attempts to develop collaborative projects in order to speculate or find new ways of being together. I’ve been working with people of different backgrounds, interests, and know-hows in order to take this on. I aspire to incorporate the “institution” into my work and my work into the institution to further expand my research, invite more people and continue to create new ways of being together. Through the institution, I want to channel the projects that come to me and that I manage. I want to restructure the work method to redefine it and share it so that it can self nourish and continue to change. I’m shooting towards creating this kind of research centers without structure or academic objective where the most important thing is that it serves as a starting point for a place that can bring together intentions, ideas, people, but also plants, birds, etc. It should serve as a place where we find new ways of being together (I repeat and continue to repeat this phrase, ten thousand times more).
Since the day this conversation took place to its publication, Nicolás has continued his investigations from different perspectives and cultures. He’s gone back to Colombia, travelled to China and New Zealand from where he’s enriching his interests and begins to envision new projects. The Fuhem Lourdes Project in Madrid will continue for the rest of this semester, the show at CoBra is about to end and his show at Ladera Oeste just closed recently. We are left with all the pieces he has left in different collections, biennials, triennials, and residences. His projects, workshops, researchs, and his idea of the day-to-day are left for us as a start off point for reflection, as a sort of ephimeral or permanent art piece.
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