To do the right thing

Auguste Petre

An express-interview with Dr Marquard Smith


For DA and PhD candidates who study in the field of visual and performing arts, design, media or humanities, the Nida Doctoral School (NDS) might be one of the customary highlights of each summer. NDS, which is organised by the Nida Art Colony, will celebrate its 5th anniversary by moving to another location – the Research Pavilion and the Lithuanian Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale.

The curator of the NDS ‘19 programme is Dr Marquard Smith, who is the programme leader for the MA Museums & Galleries in Education at UCL (University College London) and a professor of artistic research at the Vilnius Academy of Arts. He’s also the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Visual Culture and a board member for the Live Art Development Agency and the Arts Catalyst. He says about himself that he’s a huge fan of curating public events and over the years has worked with numerous organisations, including the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts in London), Tate Gallery and Whitechapel Gallery.

As the curator of NDS, Smith has derived inspiration from Spike Lee’s legendary film Do the Right Thing (1989), thus also underlining the meaning of the year 1989 and the cultural, social and artistic events that marked it. The main question is: What does it mean to do the right thing?

Every DA and PhD candidate who feels able to answer this rhetorical statement is welcome to apply to the Nida Doctoral School 2019 by March 15.

Vandalism of work by Banu Cennetoğlu, Liverpool Biennale, 2018. Photo: Joe Anderson

This year the Nida Doctoral School will take place at the end of August in Venice, during the 58th Venice Biennale. Could you tell a bit more about NDS and the main objective of this project?

NDS always comprises an intensive programme for DA and PhD students in visual and performing arts, design, media and the humanities. It has been running since 2012 at the Nida Art Colony on Lithuania’s Baltic coast. It’s a context that enables PhD students to explore unorthodox approaches to research. Through making, performing, writing, exposing and discussing, the doctoral school tests possibilities for generating knowledge outside of the conventional venues and models of academic research. NDS’s goal is always to provide time, space and a conceptual framework for participants to gain insight into their research as well as to broaden and diversify their outlook and methodological tools.

Things will be slightly different in 2019, because, as you say, we’ll be bringing the Nida Doctoral School to the 58th Venice Biennale! We’re delighted to be staging NDS in Venice, at both the Lithuanian Pavilion (which is being produced by the Nida Art Colony) and the Research Pavilion, which is THE focal point for artistic research and doctoral students in the arts and humanities at the Biennale. We believe that this will be a unique, and uniquely stimulating, environment for students, speakers and tutors to come together in order to discuss what is at stake in “doing the right thing” in art and design praxis, in thinking and writing about art and design and the humanities, and in critical pedagogy in the art school, universities and art and museum/gallery sectors.

The title for the 5th NDS seems quite complex: “Fight the Power 2019/1989: We, the Ungovernable”. What ideas stand behind it?

It’s a complex idea for a complex world! NDS is energised by the 30th anniversary of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and its opening credit sequence soundtracked by Public Enemy. Convinced by the radical potential of research-as-praxis, the Nida Doctoral School utilises this 30th anniversary to ask: what does it mean to do the right thing?

It seems like a simple question – certainly it’s a simple question to ask. But it doesn’t get asked anywhere near often enough! And its answer? Well, its answer is anything but simple.

As you’ll see from the Art and Education announcement that was published a couple of weeks ago, in our call for applications we posed a series of questions relating to the potential of artistic research. These included: How can we as artists, designers, historians, theorists, educators and critics engage critically with power? Where does power reside? How is it secured, consolidated and utilised? And to what end? If power is embedded and embodied in systems – the financial system, the educational system, the culture system, the healthcare system, the system of government and law enforcement – how can we discern, participate critically and even transform such systems? How should we navigate our way through this quagmire of power-knowledge-control, which shapes truth and interpolates us as subjects of and subjects to its ideology? If such governmentality is the organised and organising practices (mentalities, rationalities, techniques) through which our society is rendered governable, why and how might we prove ourselves to be ungovernable?

Can art be a weapon in the fight for social justice?

Yes, we believe so. We believe that it is by being “ungovernable” – which is to say, to be familiar with these systems and practices and then to work with/in/against them and that culture (not just through art, but art and design and curating and criticism and programming and writing and thinking, etc.) – that we can intervene, redefine and transform those systems and practices. Art can be a weapon in the fight for social justice, yes. But artists, designers, critics, educators, academics, broadcasters, curators, programmers and other “culture workers” are the agents of social justice!

I’ve framed the Nida Doctoral School very much in the context of social justice – in the present, and as the present is a hinge between the past and the future. I’ve said that, as a call to arms, Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing vibrates with our own climate of rising national populism and localism, #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo, structural racial and gender and ableist inequalities, the global immigration crisis, civil unrest, the rise of the precariat and the gig economy, feelings of helplessness and exhaustion, and the whimsy of truth. As such, the Nida Doctoral School is an occasion to take stock of the present as it has come to be shaped by the historical-political-cultural events of and around 1989: the revolutions in central and eastern Europe, the supposed demise of communism, the end of history and the beginning of the post-Cold War period, the suppression of mass political protest in Tiananmen Square, the beating of Rodney King and the LA riots, the pre-eminence of neo-liberalism, and the advent of an ethics of planetarity. Simultaneously the NDS is, I’m very much hoping, an occasion to look to the future, to how we might envisage the future, and to do so in order to not only interpret the world in various ways but to change it.

Dir. Michelle Williams Gamaker, The Fruit Is There to Be Eaten (still), 2018.

How has this year’s programme been created and what speakers have already confirmed their participation?

We’re thrilled by the contributors who have confirmed for the NDS in summer 2019. And we’re very much looking forward to working with 15 or so doctoral students from across Europe and the world. We can’t wait for the applications to start arriving!

After careful consideration and conversation, we identified speakers and tutors from across the art, design, museums and galleries, higher education and public knowledge sectors with extensive experience of carrying out practice-led research and supporting doctoral students to do likewise. We were mindful of the fact that everyone involved in NDS in 2019 – students, speakers, tutors – needs to come from diverse communities of practice, be committed to community and the idea of thinking in terms of community, and sincerely believe that together we can change the world, even if just a little!

Some of the speakers and tutors include Professor Mika Elo, who is the head of doctoral studies at the University of the Arts Helsinki and co-convenor with Henk Slager of the Research Pavilion in Venice; Dr Michelle Williams Gamaker, an artist working with moving-image art and performance art who teaches at Goldsmiths; Professor Guy Julier, a design activist based in Aalto and author of Economies of Design, Design and Creativity and The Culture of Design; Dr Vytautas Michelkevičius, the artistic director of the Nida Art Colony; Professor Joanne Morra who runs the Doctoral Platform at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design; Professor Sofia Pantouvaki also from Aalto, who’s a scenographer and exhibition curator; and finally Morgan Quaintance, a London-based broadcaster, editor, curator and cultural critic. And me!

I really do believe that making, curating, programming and exhibitions as practice-led activities generate new ways of thinking, seeing and knowing.So for me, curating the Nida Doctoral School in the context of the Venice Biennale is particularly thrilling.

What, in your opinion, does “do the right thing” mean? 

This is a great question! And a tough question. I’ll refer again to Lee’s movie, which really is my inspiration for the Nida Doctoral School. The movie ends with two quotations, one from Malcolm X saying that he is not against using violence in self-defence, and the second from Martin Luther King Jr. advocating nonviolence in the fight for justice. The film doesn’t resolve this; in a sense, it’s irresolvable, but it’s nonetheless an irreconcilable contradiction that needs to be posed.

What interests me is how, in our own search for justice, our research-as-praxis – our labour, our communicative bodies, our performative acts, our conversations, our commitment to communities and to our own creative practice itself – can declare our resistance and dissent, our agonism and dissensus, thereby enacting our right to speak, which in turn enables us to not so much fight the power as fight for power and, in so doing, honour our obligation to do the right thing.

Recently, I’ve been speaking regularly with a group of PhD students (artists, designers and history/theory students) in the Department of Doctoral Studies at the Vilnius Academy of Arts. Together we’re organising the 2019 Doctoral School Exhibition at the huge Titanikas Gallery at the academy. The exhibition with its related public programming activities (we’re hoping to collaborate with communities beyond the academy, including informal art spaces, pirate radio stations, local activist collectivists and non-official educational initiatives) also deals with the subject of “doing the right thing”. It’s been incredibly instructive for me to listen to the 22 PhD students contributing to this exhibition; it’s perfect preparation for the Nida Doctoral School at the 58th Venice Biennale. The doctoral students at the academy have offered many incredibly thoughtful insights, and the most significant so far, at least in relation to your question, is that art school and the art world ask us to do the thing right, but this is not the same as doing the right thing!

I’m really enjoying collaborating with the PhD students from the Vilnius Academy of Arts on this exhibition and the public programming activities that will unfold in Vilnius in March and April 2019. I cannot thank them enough for helping me think through and engage critically with many of the issues that are also at the heart of the Nida Doctoral School that will be staged in Venice towards the end of August 2019.

I’m really looking forward to receiving applications for the Nida Doctoral School from PhD students from Lithuania, the Baltic states, Europe and also internationally. I think the question of what it means to do the right thing is raised and struggled with, and answers are sought, in very different ways in different parts of the world, so I’m very much hoping that we’ll receive applications from PhD students worldwide.

I’m relishing spending an intense week in Venice in August together with these incredibly bright, stimulating and thought-provoking PhD students, struggling together to engage with some of these issues, thinking through these challenging questions and hoping to, as I’ve already said, not only interpret the world in various ways but also to change it!

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