Tania Bruguera:
School of Integration

School of Integration installation view. Image by Andy Broadey and courtesy Manchester Art Gallery.

Tania Bruguera’s School of Integration at Manchester International Festival is a three-room installation in Manchester Art Gallery of rotating activities that raise issues around immigration, otherness and authority. Participants can take a ‘citizenship’ test sat by migrants to the United Kingdom and attend classes delivered by people who have migrated to Britain, including cooking demonstrations. These activities operate alongside sessions targeted at specific social groups, for example, during my visit staff were preparing a screen-printing workshop for a school group. The resulting installation rolls together the format of the adult education class, museum education and outreach sessions and home office gatekeeping into a quasi-institution that redirects the question of how one belongs in Britain onto festival attendees, who might rarely need to address this issue in the context of their own lives.

During my visit, I participated in a painting class run by Iranian artist Moj Bakh, who has lived in Britain since 2010. I was part of a group of around 25 participants, seated on six tables equipped with paint, brushes, paper, etc. just like a conventional art class. Moj told us a bit about her life, took us through some examples of Iranian painting and set us a task of either copying one of the examples, or directly painting onto a print of it. Our table chose the latter (perhaps easier) option and set about the task collectively. This afforded us the chance to interact and achieve something together, so through the activity we learnt a bit about each other, and our interests. The classes bring people from different backgrounds together to share in different cultures and learn about the experiences of migrants to the United Kingdom. The atmosphere is convivial and the politics embedded in the modes of hospitality produced; a sensibility towards the cultural other Emmanuel Levinas has described as ‘a non-allergic relation, an ethical relation; […] a teaching.’[1]

Beyond the tropes of the schoolroom, this is the pedagogic dimension of the project; the proposal that we learn from those who society has marginalised, a powerful idea and an inversion of much of the political rhetoric we currently experience. It is also what qualifies the project as art. Bruguera is an exponent of Arte Útil, a mode of practice that has over the past decade challenged the role of art in society. Bruguera considers that historically forms of avant-garde and critical art practice have proposed ways of living that do not yet exist in the world. This is good, she considers, because as provocation, art can stimulate people to act, but it is also bad because such forms of art cannot produce change in themselves. The solution offered by Arte Útil is to realise art as a social tool. In the context of School of Integration, John Byrne, who authored an explanatory text distributed as part of the installation identifies three modes of usefulness or functions of the installation as a tool: (1) natives experience life through the eyes of immigrants; (2) we belong with others unlike ourselves; (3) the museum enacts changes in how people regard each other.

As instances of Arte Útil, Bruguera’s previous projects have sought to initiate sustained processes of change, for example, from an office in Queens, New York ‘Immigrant Movement International’ (2010-2015) promoted recognition of the contribution made by immigrants to different societies. The ongoing nature of a school fits this model and Bruguera has previously set up ‘Behavior Art School (Cátedra Arte de Conducta)’ in Havanna, Cuba (2002-9), and ‘Escuela de Arte Útil (School of Useful Art)’ at California College of the Arts (CCA) (2017). In various ways these projects derive their value from their long-term effects, so we might also ask about the legacy of School of Integration within the context of Manchester International Festival. For now, this question appears open-ended, though in a cultural atmosphere that often accentuates divisions the opportunity to come together with people unlike ourselves is most welcome.

[1] Emmanuel Levinas (1961) Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, Duquesne University Press: Pittsburgh. p. 51.

Andy Broadey is an artist based in Manchester and lecturer in Contemporary Art, History and Theory at University of Central Lancashire.

Tania Bruguera: School of Integration, Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester.

5 July – 1 September 2019.

Published 29.07.2019 by James Schofield in Reviews

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