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— January 18, 2013

Playing Truant – Adelita Husni-Bey

William Kherbek takes a look at the artist’s video-instillations exploring education

Gasworks Playing Truant instillation shot

Courtesy of Gasworks Gallery

This week Liz Forgan, the head of the Arts Council, made one of those speeches you can only make before you quit your job, just before you quit your job. The speech was titled, A Farewell to Arts, which (if you can get past the headline-ready pun) might sound a little dramatic. Come on, Liz, surely you can still go the theatre even if they don’t let you in for free because of your position, right? But it wasn’t an autobiographical speech – it was very much about the future. Specifically, it was a fire-and-brimstone jeremiad aimed squarely at everybody’s favourite ex-journalist, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove. Forgan upbraided Gove for stripping arts education from his proposed educational reform package, the so-called “Ebacc” programme which sources tell me is short for something like, “E bacc to the 1950s”. Forgan’s speech read, “Just as we let a whole generation lose the capacity to cook so we are in danger of making the same break in the transmission of our cultural language”. Now, speaking as someone who’s eaten some delicious pastries made by people under the age of 30, it is possible that there might be a few rhetorical flourishes in Forgan’s speech, but her deeper message is indispensable: defund arts education and expect worse consequences than a few frothing letters-to-the-editor lamenting the decline of the semi-colon.

Wait, isn’t this supposed to be an art review? I was just coming to that. After seeing the exhibition Playing Truant by Adelita Husni-Bey at the Gasworks Gallery, Forgan’s speech seems less like a digression from topic than a kind of companion performance piece. See, Husni-Bey’s topic in the exhibition is education, specifically state education. It’s one of those exhibitions that doesn’t resolve itself easily; the works are all clearly connected but it’s really only the the invisible concept that unites the various pieces. That’s not a bad thing in the least for some of us, but if you’re looking for great brushwork, this probably isn’t the show for you.

With Playing Truant, you’ll definitely need to come in a mood to think. Husni-Bey’s project is somewhere between an essay and an installation. The works on show are diverse – three video pieces, a slideshow, a couple of rough wooden constructions and a wall chart. The video works compose a kind of suite; the first you encounter is a variant of the educational videos frequently parodied on The Simpsons. In it, a group of kids who want to live without rules are magically whisked to a rule-free desert island only to learn that it’s no fun, and that rules help us play.

“It’s one of those exhibitions that doesn’t resolve itself easily; the works are all clearly connected but it’s really only the the invisible concept that unites the various pieces”

Adelita Husni-Bey, Postcards from the Desert Island, SD video transferred to DVD, 23 mins, 2010-11. Courtesy the artist and Galleria Laveronica.

Husni-Bey must have liked that idea, because she follows it up with a video in which some French kids from an experimental school cooperate with her in a desert island project of her devising in which they attempt to construct a society from the ground up. There are lots of these kind of videos – kids supposedly creating societies of their own from zero whilst being observed by artists or documentarians. I’m not sure what they tell us about human nature, but they make fascinating viewing. Husni-Bey’s is no exception. The third video follows a group of students battling to save their school from educational “reforms”. It’s a courtroom drama of sorts, with the kids engaged in a battle of wits with the bureaucracy that is attempting to “improve” their learning environment, possibly by showing that if there are career opportunities for you even if you’re completely incompetent, for example, government solicitor.

But it’s not all so uplifting; the wall chart tells the grim tale of the “reforms” of the cabinet department responsible for education in the post-war period. You’ll learn all kinds of dispiriting facts from the chart, not least about the perpetual identity crisis of the department. Over the last twenty years it appears to have done everything it can to be more attractive to business, even naming the section responsible for universities the office of “business, innovation and skills”. That’s got to be the bureaucratic equivalent of plastic surgery. That Husni-Bey doesn’t offer answers in her work per se is much for the best, all the better to develop those critical thinking skills. Sorry, those critical thinking business innovation and skills.

Playing Truant is at Gasworks Gallery, 155 Vauxhall 155 Vauxhall Street, London SE11 5RH until 3 February 

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