The Silent University

Ahmet Ögüt, Courtesy Silent University

By Göksu Kunak

On a Sunday, November 10, The 1st Conference of The Silent University took place in the neoclassical building of Berlin’s Maxim Gorki Theatre, as a part of the so-called exhibition parcour, “Berliner Herbstsalon”. A lecture about the history of Kurdish literature, held in Kurdish by Sherko Jahani; a presentation of Behnam Al Agzeer about ten types of Arabic calligraphy, in Arabic and without translation; the vigorous voice of Napuli Paul Langa from the Oranienplatz Refugee Protest Camp in Berlin – as well as several other presentations – reverberated in the air. Through it all, one had to think about the problems of asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants in ways that are never discussed in the media: despite limitations on their freedom of movement, and generally being considered as the Other by some governments, there are educated scholars among them too, who don’t have the opportunity to work in their profession, nor keep researching.

The Silent University, founded in 2012 in collaboration with Delfina Foundation and Tate, could be seen as the brainchild of artist Ahmet Ögüt, but ultimately, it is a collective initiative. The University aims at establishing knowledge exchange by a group of lecturers, consultants and research fellows who wouldn’t have the opportunity or the legal rights to work in their own professions due to their being asylum seekers, refugees or immigrants. Ögüt’s bright idea doesn’t intend to speak for someone else, but rather to establish a platform, avoid resentments, and raise hope despite the obstacles laid by apparatuses of power. Sleek interviewed Ögüt via Email while he was holding an event for the University in New York, as a part of the programme of Performa 13:

Göksu Kunak: What’s the significance of the word “silence” as well as the act of being silent for you and for the University?
Ahmet Ögüt:
“Silence” is a powerful and strategic tool – depending on how and when it is used. The Silent University is an active organisation that granted itself the decision of how and when the knowledge should be transferred. Instead of a free service, it uses knowledge transfer as a currency, where knowledge transfer is based on a two-sided exchange process.

Previously, university members have also done silent performances, so-called “silent lectures”. Can you describe this experience?
It was an intense experience for the lecturers but more for the audience. At that time we were not able to pay for their presentations so, instead, we did them in silence, and anyone interested in lending their time and skills could register on the website and listen to the lecturers’ voices or read their articles online. It was a practical solution at first, but later became very complex. Now we make sure the lecturers are paid each time, so they don’t necessarily do it in silence, but rather in their preferred or native languages. This is another kind of silence as most of the participants still don’t understand, but they can register online and access the translated content afterwards. We’re testing different methods based on our collective decisions. Priority is given the lecturers – they should feel most comfortable – and then we think about how the exchange could be done.

The Silent University is funded with alternative currencies instead of money. What kind of currencies may be used in this process?
We looked into existing time and skill exchange systems as a model such as bitcoin, Creative Timebank Leeds Project, Finance Innovation Lab, Ithaca hours, Rushey Green Time Bank and e-flux‘s Time/Bank.

In the 1st  International Conference of The Silent University some lecturers presented their researches in their own language, without translations. This possibly conveys what immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers experience when confronting problems related to the language of the country they immigrate to. Does this reading correlate with your intention?
As a constantly travelling immigrant, I often find myself in a meeting or a presentation in a language I don’t understand. Especially when one is forced to immigrate, the first thing that need be done is recognising the presence of the other. Instead, current immigration policies demand a so-called “legal existence” by deploying language and wordy documents as a filter, as opposed to the simple fact of being present somewhere, regardless of educational background. The Silent University skips this overwhelming, oppressive, and obstructive process and focuses instead on the immediate activation of knowledge production.

Mulugeta, lecture at Tate Modern, London. Courtesy Silent University

What are the possibilities for refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants to find their own voice, rather than having a body of power “lend a voice” to them?
In order to answer we need to question and reconfigure the current monolingual education system. Especially asylum seekers and refugees with academic qualifications don’t need anyone to lend their voice to them – they already have it, but it is a systemically oppressed and muted voice. So instead of waiting for accreditation, legitimisation, and recognition by the authorities, they can take immediate action by self-organisation, a short of autogestión, and taking these as a collective issue to address.

What do you think would be the best solution for an alternative education?
There is a great history of critical thinking around pedagogical methods; Modern School Movement starting in the 1910s, initiated by anarchists, socialists, and syndicalists such as Emma Goldman; in the 1970s, Freire’s problem-posing education as the alternative to banking education and Illich’s radical critical discourse on education in “modern” economies; or more recently Spivak’s bold case for “an aesthetic education in the era of globalisation”, who in fact defined the field of postcolonial studies and introduced the “strategic essentialism” concept.

We should look into all historical examples of alternative models of learning and education. I think there is no such thing as the best solution; there could only be case-by-case solutions, thinking and working together with localities, communities, reacting to social-cultural backgrounds etc. As Matt Hern suggests in his text “The Promise of Deschooling” (published in Social Anarchism #25, 1998), instead of simplistic monoculture of compulsory schooling, schools could be transformed into community learning centres that fit into the local fabric, and be replaced by a vast array of learning facilities and networks, specific training and mentorship programmes, public utilities like libraries, museums and science centres.

One could question the relation between your project and art. As you have mentioned at the 1st Conference, the art context, or the artistic practice of the University is crucial. How would you describe this thin yet crucial line between art and a social project in relation with The Silent University?
Creativity is essential in both cases, especially when one faces tremendous problems. I’m not interested in definitions like “art” or “social project”, but rather in how we use the facilities each can provide. We often underestimate the potential of art, its capacity to achieve things. The Silent University is encouraged by necessity, urgency and need. It’s both people’s and institutions’ concern to think and take action on this issue. The Silent University can easily collaborate with an art institution or an NGO, as long as it’s not described and understood as a “project” or a “workshop”, but as an organisation that demands policy changing.  

How is participating in an exhibition relevant to the goals of University?
The Silent University can engage with one-time events if it contributes to the progress of its organisational structure. The 1st International Conference of The Silent University at Maxim Gorki Theatre did bring together some London participants and Stockholm participants for the first time, so it was not only an introduction to a Berlin audience but also a chance to introduce some of the participants from different cities to each other.

As I explained in my text “The Pitfalls of Institutional Pedagogy”, published last summer on World Policy Blog, the Silent University is a challenging institution within different host institutions, which establishes its own adhocratic structure while being fully recognised by the hosting institution. Decentralisation and participatory horizontal models of transferring knowledge must be its inevitable priorities. Even if many cultural institutions want to take this challenge and collaborate with the Silent University, their bureaucratic and administrative structures often rupture or slow down their engagement.

Resource Room. Courtesy Silent Library

Should The University become an institution?
The Silent University is already an institution, but a different kind of institution than we’re used to. It exists as long as it has its own active autonomous community and continues to establish transformative and progressive collaborations with other institutions.

Recently, for Performa 13, participants of a workshop have created a Student ID of The University in order to interrogate the hidden ideology behind an identity card. Would you tell us more about the workshop and its aims?
For Performa 13, we have organised Student ID Card-designing, -defining and -production programmes. It was an invitation to register and become a Silent University student, and engage in the creation of a Silent University Student ID Card, which allows students to lend their time and skills at some point in the future by actively participating.

There were around 50 participants. We discussed what can be achieved and accomplished with a Student ID Card. How can participating in the knowledge-exchange platform challenge existing education industries as a critique of the formal system and its bureaucratic domination? How can an ID Card become an ideological construction of one’s own life? And how they can contribute to and improve an asylum seeker’s, a refugee’s, and an immigrant’s life within and without the existing system. 

What’s the next step?
We have actively engaged participants and members in London and Stockholm, where we are trying to find more permanent solutions and presence beyond short-term temporary collaborations. We’ve previously collaborated with the Delfina Foundation, Tate Modern, Migrant Resource Centre and The Showroom in London. Collaborations with Tensta Konsthall and ABF Stockholm are currently being established. At the moment we have a central office space set up in Montreuil, Paris in collaboration with Le 116 Centre d’art contemporain, which is an important new step for a more long-term collaboration.

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