Interview with Mike Watson – The Gallery Apart

We are pleased to present an interview with Mike Watson, curator of Subterfuge, an exhibit at The Gallery Apart which presents Watson’s ongoing research for the Joan of Art project.

 Can you describe in a few words the Joan of Art Project you founded in 2012?

Joan of Art was born in June, 2012 as ‘Joan of Art: Towards a Free Education’ in residence with Nomas Foundation in Rome. The project aims at creating free alternative modes of education delivered using the resources of the art world in order to circumvent the existing State systems, which tend to propagate a limited form of knowledge and questioning oriented increasingly towards the needs of finance capital.

In 2013, following a conference and workshops held at Rome’s Macro museum the project moved into residence at the heart of the Venice Biennale, with Gervasuti Foundation. There I worked with co-curator Dorian Batycka and a number of local and international artists, activists and academics to write Joan of Art’s first free course on ecology, art and politics. You can see the course at

 Why did you choose the title Subterfuge for the current show at the Gallery apart and how is it conceived?

The word ‘Subterfuge’ means to undermine a system or power structure by deception or stealth and was chosen as the show’s title as the show aims at presenting a cohesive rather than an aggressive political message, looking to circumvent state and corporate power rather than enter into open conflict with it. Art in its apparent distance from political praxis offers some opportunity to think strategically, although it must always reckon with its embededness within the social whole of which it is part.

Subterfuge is Joan of Art’s first commercial gallery show, presenting a challenge. The aim has been to work within the gallery framework to provide a broad of overview of the project’s concerns, demonstrating that the commercial interests of a gallery can live alongside the need for a deep questioning of social concerns. It’s not intended as an easy show. The public is required to think around its themes and spend time with them.

 Have the artists been asked to react to the concept of the exhibition or did you simply choose some of their works?

The artists were asked to respond to the word ‘Subterfuge’ as described above.  In the cases of the Russian collective Chto Delat? and Ana Pečar and Oliver Ressler the artists chose to present two premier films which were produced with financial support from The Gallery Apart. Chto Delat’s ‘Shivering with Iris’ presents a ‘learning play’ presented in Germany in 2013, in which the notion of art as having a primarily aesthetic function is addressed in light of the political responsibility that people often ask of it. Ana Pečar and Oliver Ressler’s documentary ‘In the Red’ documents conversations held between members of Strike Debt, an activist movement which grew out of the Occupy movement in America. Strike Debt aims to question a situation in which US citizens all live quite in a literal state of debt by buying up bad debt from creditors and writing it off. This continues Ressler’s practice of presenting documentary and activism within an art context.

Julia Brown presents an existing body of photographic works entitled ‘The Swim’ which document the wade-ins which took place in segregated America in 1964 in which both black and white bathers defied the ban on mixed swimming in Florida.

Alessandro Rolandi and Jacopo Natoli both present new collaborative works. Rolandi, who lives and works in Beijing, presents ‘Message to the West’ a collaboration with local Chinese artists in which drawings and writings were written on sweet wrappers for Western consumers.  The work makes reference to censorship and the cultural divide between East and West. The piece references the Chinese Cultural Revolution in which the only brightly coloured printed materials available at the time were sweet wrappers, leading people to collect them. Natoli has worked with Dionigi Mattia Gagliardi and the artist collective Spazio Docili who have explored themes of empty, disused and occupied spaces in the Testaccio area, focusing on Campo Boario, an area which at the forefront of a process of gentrification.

Do you believe that people are given a false sense of freedom and autonomy created by current forms of governance and education?

Absolutely, yes. Whilst the Nation State can be a force for good and may be instrumental in making any sustained challenge to finance capital it is also quite clearly an entity which perpetuates class inequality and the government and education system are two of its principal tools. The Italian education system was developed to school the public in the values of the unified Italy. It was later used to educate the public for industrialization. This, similarly to in the UK, is why there is a great emphasis on numeracy and formal logic within the syllabus. Emotional and relationship skills are barely touched upon. To have a grasp on numeracy but none on emotional stability or building cohesive relationships is clearly a very dangerous thing. The innumerate emotionally stable person will know when they have enough food and goods and be content. The numerate and emotionally undeveloped person will know that there are always a higher number of goods to attain to and – unimpeded by sensibility towards other people – will often stop at nothing in order to gain more and more material wealth. It is important to get a balance. Of course, we often think our knowledge is adequate because our education system is self perpetuating. It fills minds with a form of logic amenable to the needs of the State and of the wealthy. Power has become its own justification and people have become mindlessly subservient to it. Arguably we can only begin to rethink by rethinking education and delivering it from outside State institutions.

 Have you derived influences from Non-Western cultures and philosophies from your travels?

A 2012 research trip to China, whilst being inadequate in terms of understanding this vast and diverse culture did hit me with the realization that the West cannot sustain its worldwide dominance and that its decline will be profound and sharp. This in part surely accounts for the huge swing to the right in government policy certainly in the UK. Britain simply won’t be able to compete with Far Eastern economies without scrapping many worker’s rights. The move towards forced unpaid labour for the long term unemployed is the tip of the iceberg. However, this is not all negative. Whilst Western governments and businesses may be envious of the wages and conditions which a Far Eastern employer can impose on its workers, an increasing Chinese middle class may demand positive changes to labour policy there. I’ll also add that China is much freer as a country than we tend to believe. The public talk openly about politics and in the art world there is a growing trend towards social and political art. We may increasingly see the Chinese as partners in a bid to overthrow – by subtle and cohesive means – an international system of finance and an increasingly international system of governance.

 What are the principle ways in which Joan of Art will break away from the traditional finance, grading and organizational structures of the State education system? Where do you see the project headed in the future?

During the six months spent in Venice it was decided that Joan of Art would maintain its focus on education, but also branch out to consider areas such as Welfare, Urban Regeneration, Freedom of Speech and Movement, and Peace Studies. The intention is to write courses in these areas alongside artists, activists and the general public. The writing of courses will link to an exploration of novel ways of approaching these subjects in a concrete sense. In the coming two years a full course will be consolidated and partner institutions will be sought to deliver it. A free online accreditation platform for independent learners will also be developed in 2014, enabling people to learn for free in art spaces, occupied spaces or alone and upload their learning in order to gain a recognized certificate without paying into a system which will leave them in debt. This is the principle means of undermining a system which not only teaches the logic of finance capitalism but also requires that people are indebted to it financially from the time they begin to work.

In 2014 Joan of Art will begin the process of becoming an NGO or Foundation and will commit itself increasingly to concrete social practices.

[Interviewed by Abigail Lewis]

The Gallery Apart – Via Francesco Negri, 43, 00154 Rome
Opening  January 18th 2014 – March 15 2014