IN CONVERSATION WITH MEREL ZWARTS
Departing from MOED’s online exhibition Onion/Union: Crafting Teenage Identities, a collaboration between MOED and artist, art educator, and researcher Merel Zwarts, we invited Merel to discuss her work with us. This resulted in an interesting exchange in which she reflects on her own work, the political, and social dimensions of it and the way she amplifies children’s voices in a world that is dominated by adults.
Collective creation as a catalysator for social action and change
MZ: In my work, I explore diverse topics including body language, ecology, and playfulness. I try to stimulate a lively dialogue between these topics, in which the participant’s collaboration shapes the outcome of the projects. I work with groups of human beings to collectively question the current status quo, create awareness, and construct alternative imaginations. For this reason, I work with different groups and communities, ranging from children, youngsters, and migrants to teachers. I consider gatherings and collective creations as a catalysator for social action and change. My artistic practice finds itself on the crossover between (visual) art, pedagogy and situations, illuminating social relations and human encounters. Human beings form the main material of my work, which I often combine with photography, drawings, print-making, object-making, installation, sound, and performance as possible mediums. Departing from my background in art education, my practice is context-based and is often the result of moments of collective creation and exchange. Driven by my interest in the social structures that make up our (Western) society, my artistic practice aims to make the world a more social, thoughtful place where people try to have a more sustainable and responsible relationship with other living beings and their environment. I like to work with children because they are still able to wonder about the world and look with an open vision to established social norms in a world dominated by adults. In our contemporary capitalist society, where work, economy, and profit dominate, I put my focus on the youngest generations, who are not yet fully shaped by these constructs. They are still able to question and criticize systems in a playful and honest way. For this reason, I choose to employ a playful visual language. Inspired by radical pedagogy, such as the exercises of the Brazilian theatre practitioner and drama theorist Augusto Boal and the ideas of the British anarchist writer Colin Ward, I initiate workshops and participatory projects in which I invite young people to construct and imagine new models for a future world.
The participatory versus the autonomy
MOED: How do you engage with the notions of education and autonomy in your work? What is their link? Do you regard them as separate issues, or do they rather go hand-in-hand, in a more dialectic relation?
MZ: My ‘education-based’ projects are my artistic practice – I deploy aesthetic, cultural, visual tools, and techniques. Departing from my background in art education, my work finds itself in a twilight in both the art and educational spheres. Art educator María Acaso refers to it as “not education or art but art education”, where practitioners are called art(ist) educators. I rather prefer to describe my work as social or conceptual. The notion of teacher implies an authoritarian relationship which automatically installs a hierarchy between student and teacher. Even though I am in charge of the result of my project, I often struggle with this position. I aim to leave the process very open and reliable on the participants. The first thing I do is try to listen to the community I’m working with: to talk to people, to listen, and read. The project is also a way to learn and unlearn myself, and for the participants to listen and learn from each other. But when I am responsible for the outcome, with my name on the credit, what’s in it for the people participating? I try to solve this conflicting element by making clear to myself and the participants what the project is about and how these participants are responsible for the way they will be represented. I don’t speak for anyone; rather I try to create a situation or platform where people can express themselves and exchange experiences and thoughts. Especially when it comes to children, I think it’s crucial to learn to listen to different voices from their peers. I use (art) education as a vehicle to work with people, discuss things they wish to talk about in an imaginative manner. It’s my task to transform it into a coherent result to present to a wider (art) audience. Foremost, children have a voice often unheard or underrepresented in different domains. Depending on what the project is about, the aim can be to exchange knowledge, focusing on representation and collective creation, or just to have fun. It has to be clear what the importance and urgency are to discuss a specific topic and why we work with a certain method, without knowing what the specific result of the process will be. Because my practice is dependent on different people, it’s necessary to be flexible to stimulate the process in the best way possible. I feel more like taking on the role of initiating or coaching teacher/artist. For example, when I worked with a group of children to create a public radio show, I was the one who was in charge of the production and the framework. After a lot of conversations with the children, I realized they needed some guidance. I created a game with statements to which they could respond, without it being obligatory. What the children said or wished to discuss was up to them, depending on their selection of statements and who they wished to respond. I organized the platform, which gave them an audience. With creating these situations, I aim to work together on a more equal level. I consider those participants as collaborators with ownership over their input. I try to contribute by building a framework in which people can express or can exchange something valuable and present themselves to a wider public. It’s mainly on the intersection of art and pedagogy where there is space for communities to find a common ground, a way to be together and learn on an equal level, to initiate transformation for not only the art world but society as a whole.
Regarding my understanding of the ‘autonomy of art’, I like to turn to the work of the British art theorist Claire Bishop. As Bishop argues in her book Artificial Hells (2012), social artworks still need to be considered and valued as art because all kinds of participatory art “are equally essential to the task of repairing the social bond”. According to Bishop, it is important to conceive “this work critically as art, since this is the institutional field in which it [the social bond, ed.] is endorsed and disseminated”. When social art projects are evaluated on their capability of positively increasing the ‘feelgood’ sentiment of social groups or examined on their ethical qualities, they lose their artistic value and therefore lose their crucial aesthetic autonomy, according to Bishop. This autonomy is important for the work because it conveys a specific autonomous kind of experience. For me, it’s a key element of the arts to do so because aesthetics and arts maintain different rules than the ones operating in regular daily life. This is the thing with the ‘autonomy’ of art: you could do something in a community to discuss a topic, but when you label it as an ‘art project’ it immediately creates more space for the imaginative. This imagination creates visions of looking ahead, of dreaming about other possibilities. I think that contributes to social change; both as a visual aspect to convince people and as a tool to exchange.
Furthermore, I’m inspired by artistic practices related to the 90’s using relational aesthetics and the so-called ‘educational turn’. The latter notion is based on Irit Rogoff’s article “Turning”, in which Rogoff refers to collaboration or participation-based art in which the research or process convey the core of the work, rather than the “result” or the object. The main focus is on new methods of creating art, where alternative knowledge production, art mediation, and education are intertwined with artistic production. Although ‘educational turn’ is kind of a buzz-word nowadays, I still think it can be relevant to critically explore the relationship between art production and how this can be participative, or pedagogical.
Exploring boundaries: breaking down the stigma of working with children
MOED: How is your work received?
MZ: Generally, people not related to the art world see my work mainly as educational or sometimes as children’s crafts. I don’t mind that. There is such a stigma on working with children, as if they are not people with valuable opinions or if my practice solely exists to provide entertainment. This strengthens my belief to continue working with children and youngsters. Besides, there are art institutions who understand my way of working and give me the opportunity to develop my practice; Casco Art Institute Working for the Commons has been very supportive. I also gained a lot of valuable experience in the art world as artist or art educator at institutions such as Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, TENT, Buitenkunst, Sharing Arts Society and HKU University of Arts. But not all my work has a direct relationship with the art world. I think it’s important to simultaneously work outside the art domain to integrate into the daily life of not necessarily art-minded audience; in schools, community centres, and in the neighbourhood.
Some object-oriented artists ask me: what is your autonomous work? Or what is your real work? This question is interesting because it shows how pervasive the idea of making objects or works which are sellable on the art market is. It also upholds the clichéd conception of the artist making works of art purely for themselves, as an act of self-expression. I think I’m just not that kind of artist. Personally, it’s more valuable to work with children on a self-designed playground on a public square in Utrecht than to make, for example, a painting to be hung in a gallery or above the couch of an art collector. Even the drawings I make in a non-collaborative way have some sort of social value to me: I have them printed on postcards or t-shirts. It’s an extension of the limitation an image is only to be looked at; you can send or wear the image. For me, the core value of art is in the experience: whether it’s social, aesthetic, or preferably both. You might appoint the role of educator, social worker or artist to me, I think I’m a bit of everything. That’s why I’m so much drawn to ideas of Acaso, Bishop, and Rogoff.
The collective as inspiration
MOED: What inspires you? How do you think working with people adds value to questioning the current status quo and imagining alternatives?
MZ: I draw a lot of inspiration from social movements. I think being together and discussing points of view are the first steps you need in order to initiate change. I definitely consider it my role to contribute to this process. In my opinion, creating in collaboration is a way to exchange ideas, to raise more questions, and to explore alternative models being, living and learning. It’s expressing thoughts through speech and images as a vehicle to talk about experiences and ideas while listening to others within your community.
I’m also aesthetically inspired by the visual language and media deployed by social movements. Public forms of expression, such as printing, zine making, protest signs, and radio are elements with a rich history. I like to combine this sort of imagery with a playful visual language, as I mentioned earlier. I take a lot of inspiration from games, toys, and children’s drawings. I think visual culture made by and designed for children needs to be taken more seriously. Playful visuals, such as drawings made by children or toys and playgrounds designed by adults, have the potential to be a leisurely counter-image to a society dominated by production and work. An example of a work which illustrates this is my on-going project Playground Press. It is a zine-making project which collects, through different printing and collage techniques, children’s stories about the importance of play, public space, and the use of imagination. In this project, children cut up different photographs of playgrounds, cut their own stencils, draw or print.
MOED: Why and how do you try to stimulate children to gain agency in a world dominated by adults?
MZ: Almost every decision-making process which affects our daily life is being done by adults: politicians, business people, teachers, etc. Even voting is only permitted by people over 18 years old, while 16,25 % of the Dutch population is under 15 years. Although young people might not be prepared to make decisions on issues they don’t yet understand, I think it’s at least important to listen to what they have to say. A clear example of a current situation is the wave of youth skipping class in order to protest and to raise awareness for climate change and to hold politicians and corporations accountable for not taking enough responsibility. Again, some of the general media were not taking the children seriously. I see my projects as a way to give those young ones a platform to express their world views and present those to a wider audience.
Merel Zwarts is an Utrecht-based artist, art educator, and researcher. The main part of her practice consists of workshops or participatory projects where she invites different communities to join situations of collective creation and exchange. Mediums she uses are drawing, print-making, installation, and objects. Inspired by alternative pedagogy, visual culture of social movements, and children’s culture she explores topics such as play, the body, public space, and language. In addition, she works as a researcher at the HKU University of Arts at the department Research in Creative Practices.
 María Acaso, “Rethinking Art Thinking,” 28.
 Claire Bishop, Artifical Hells, 13.
 Bishop, 13.
 Irit Rogoff, “Turning”.
Acaso, María. “Rethinking art thinking,” in: 100% Contemporary Magazine, 2018, pp. 21-29.
Bishop, Claire. Artificial hells: Participatory art and the politics of spectatorship. London: Verso, 2012.
Nederlands Jeugd Instituut, “Cijfers over Jeugd en Opvoeding,” 2018.
Rogoff, Irit. “Turning,” in: e-flux, 2008.