Critical Pedagogies at Castrum Peregrini

By Jemima Wilson

On Friday 9th March, our Artist in Residence and senior research lecturer, Renée Turner, hosted 2018’s edition of Critical Pedagogies at Castrum Peregrini for students enrolled in the two-year Master Education in Arts programme at Piet Zwart Institute, an interdisciplinary research programme merging theory and practice. As a current intern at Castrum Peregrini as part of my MA in Arts and Society at Utrecht University, I was lucky to be able to listen in to the day of talks and discussions held in in Gisèle’s studio. With a breadth of teaching experience within (and outside) the mainstream education system and a diverse span of ages and backgrounds, the small group of students brought sharp observations and a supportive atmosphere of creative, critical enquiry. With a morning introduction to The House of Gisèle and Castrum Peregrini’s complex heritage, the afternoon began with Andries Hiskes from Leiden University sharing his PhD research into disability and its affective affordances. Renée’s own ongoing artistic research project based at Castrum Peregrini, The Warp and Weft of Memory, was explored later in the afternoon. Renée was joined by senior lecturer and interdisciplinary research advisor, Professor Frans-Willem Korsten, to moderate the day.

Firstly, Frans welcomed the small group of students with a tour of the two historic apartments within Castrum Peregrini’s building, contextualising the history of the organisation and the setting for a day of critical enquiry. Alongside the story of Gisèle’s eclectic upbringing, Frans explained the intense wartime period where Jewish students hid in Gisèle’s apartment along with their teacher, poet Wolfgang Frommel, and the later establishment of a creative community in 1952. The group were also introduced to Castrum Peregrini’s contemporary artistic programme, including Dutch artist Amie Dicke’s poetic emergency blanket installation, After Goldschmidt (2012). Thinking through other mediums or approaches to contemporary artistic research, sound was raised as an important sensory aspect of hiding, along with the vast collections of books, both of which have inspired work by previous artists in residence.

Prompted by Renée, who is unfolding stories from Gisèle’s wardrobe and letters, Frans told the story of the German’s second raid on the apartment, when an officer decided to make no arrests despite making it clear that the papers provided for the hiders were insufficient. Was he having a good day? Was he pleased to meet a German-speaking household? Did he take a liking to someone? The impact of personal decisions and challenges to the status quo flowed on, in a day that played with ideas around the personal and the societal.

In Gisèle’s ‘Salon’, the top floor apartment she moved to after the war, students keenly observed Gisèle’s own painting in the midst of her collections of natural objects and artefacts. The five-panelled painting, Moira, sparked conversations over organisational links and cultural responsibilities with the painting now owned by Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam with the stipulation that it remains in the house. The students were mesmerised by Gisèle’s multi-panelled painting, Cycladic Ritual, mechanised to enable thirty two different compositions with undulating forms giving way to goddesses and back again, with requests for one last turn! Renée makes the point; Giselle was ¨digital before digital!¨ Indeed, Gisèle herself believed it to the first ‘mobile painting’ of its kind. Semantics, rhythms and connections tumble on throughout the day. With no snow or ice to keep us inside, we venture out onto the roof terrace: here we could see across Amsterdam’s historic rooftops and facades, but we ourselves remained hidden.

Descending to Gisèle’s studio, a glowing, book-filled, gallery-like space, the students settled in a horseshoe formation to begin the more structured element of teaching. Since last yearś Critical Pedagogies day, the context had changed with the recent articles in Vrij Nederland exposing the abuses of power within the building before the death of Wolfgang Frommel in 1986. Discussions turned to the Ancient Greek concept of ‘pedagogical eros’, where love connected students and teachers with both sexual and platonic relationships. They discussed the difference between ethics and morality, and how to address such histories from an ethical perspective. Within a small, intergenerational academic setting, the conversation broached ‘vulnerable topics’ that are often shut down in society; everyone agreed that safe spaces are needed to discuss and challenge societyś constraints. As professor Frans-Willem Korsten reminded us, after all, people are ‘just bodies’, and therefore bring with them embodied complexities.

Bodies then, and those considered disabled or deformed, were the focus of Andries Hiskes presentation of his PHD research. Utilising media, art and literature as resources, Andreis asked his audience to analyse and question  their own responses ‘deviant bodies’ presented in examples including photos used on inclusion flyers (school children in wheelchairs smiling instead of working) , Michelangeloś David (propped up by a tree stump) and Tiny Tim in Dickenś Christmas Carol; ‘God Bless us, Every one’ (every one, but not a homogenous whole). Can we treat students and pupils fairly? Is it possible? And, what, asks Renée, does education lose from its inherent standardisation?

A group of educators in 2018, embarking on two years of critical research, are indeed likely to have thought about inclusion in the classroom, lecture hall or workshop, but Andreis provoked a thorough rethink. ‘What does inclusion mean?’ Andreis asked. An embrace. Those excluded. A whole. A rabbit hole of problems opened up: if, for instance, there is a functioning whole, there is no one outside to make the embrace. We were pointed to the etymology of these terms that proliferate education, the arts and society; in fact, inclusion has roots in ‘confinement’ whilst diversity stems from ‘difference’, ‘contradiction’, ‘disagreement’ and even ‘wicked’ and ‘perverse’. Andreis invited us to read, or to ‘materialise the complexity’ of disability via art and literature, and through this active engagement with our emotional response, allow ourselves to question society’s language, protocols and behaviour. As students observed, the same practice could be applied to colonialism, and my thoughts returned to how we can broach the relevant issue of historic abuse. Nothing is black and white, Andreis states, just as Frans-Willem had earlier suggested that Castrum Peregrini’s heritage should not be reduced to a simple dichotomy of light and dark.

In the afternoon, students got to learn about their tutor’s own artistic research project, The Warp and Weft of Memory. Reading aloud from The Female Perspective, Castrum Peregrini’s publication for the 2017/2018 programme, Renée takes us on a journey into Gisèle’s closet, shows us the private Wiki which serves as a digital sketchbook and conceptual archive as well as unbuttoning a timeless cape that occupies a mannequin in the studio space alongside a red Dick Holthaus dress. Renée is open about her process, including her search for the right voice (in first person? Via letters? Renée as actor? A stranger?) and the recent idea of filming items of clothing, such as heavy skirts spread out, to express the sensory aspects, sound and movement, via digital (flat) means. Renée’s two year process will end in the summer, and so we all, myself included, are reassured that ideas, and experimentation take time.

Renée explains that she is used to writing for online rather than print mediums, and so she heavily edited her words for the printed magazine style publication. Here, unlike the Wiki and its tagging system or semantics developed by Renée and her collaborators, the placing of the images is static. The printed page cannot not express Gisèle’s fluid use of scarves, hats and costumes in her experimentation of performing, posing and painting with herself muse. A large, ornate mirror still occupies the studio space, hung on hinges like a door, and numerous photographs show Gisèle reflected in its glass. Renée references To the Lighthouse and the poetic vestiges of people and actions (like buttoning and unbuttoning) that it signifies. The flatness of the mirror and the digitally scanned black and white archive photographs of Gisèle reflected in that mirror, are again flattened behind glass on Renée’s laptop screen.

 ‘Are you like me, am I like you?’ Renée asks in her writing, and we discuss whether Gisèle preempted that her personal archive, including her closet, would be researched by an artist. Or was her need to classify, to make inventories, the habit of a girl who grew up with servants with a sense of entitlement? A student asks where will Renée’s research go next, and she tells us about moving onto two other archives, with textile objects opening entirely different narratives. The day ended with wine back on the ground floor, connections whirring and questions firing.