Reimagining Art School with The Otolith Group

There's more than one way to learn. Cooper Gallery’s third iteration of The Ignorant Art School series welcomes The Otolith Group with an exhibition of moving image works and a series of workshops-as-provocations

Article by Harvey Dimond | 17 Nov 2023
  • The Otolith Group, What the Owl Knows

The Otolith Group comprises of Anjalika Sagar and Kodwo Eshun, who work at the intersection of artistic practice, curating, researching and producing – but the roles they inhabit are truly infinite. The collective was founded in 2002, rejecting the individualism and artist-as-celebrity trope that the YBA (Young British Artists) rallied around in the 1990s and into the new millennium. As Ed Halter wrote in Artforum in 2022, The Otolith Group have, for over 20 years, "hijacked art-world structures to serve not the needs of investment capital and individual egos but rather the global circulation of radical ideas." ...But There Are New Suns, the title of their current project at the Cooper Gallery in Dundee, is very much ‘a study of study’, the artists tell me – a way of creating discourse around the provision of education, using moving image as a catalyst.

Sophia Yadong Hao, director and principal curator at the Cooper Gallery, says the wider aim of the programme is to nurture what Edward Said termed "interpretive communities" – communities in which "multiple and different perspectives and practices can co-exist and collectively question – against an ongoing economisation of education – Eurocentric assumptions of what knowledge is… and how knowledge is marked by the violence of power." These communities often come together (not necessarily just physically) around a particular text, artwork or set of theories. 

One key aspect of The Otolith Group’s work is their use of curation as artistic practice to draw attention to the work of artists that they admire, encouraging these ‘interpretive communities’ to congregate around these artists’ practices. As well as Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, who is the focal point of one of the two films on display, What The Owl Knows, the collective have programmed, curated and celebrated the work of artists including Black Audio Film Collective, Rehana Zaman and Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa, amongst many others. Sagar and Eshun describe What The Owl Knows as being "a study, in and by video, of study in and by paint." The film very much attends to the tones, textures and moods that Yiadom-Boakye embodies in her intentional acts of making, rather than focusing on the physicality or form of the paintings themselves.

The Ignorant Art School is an ongoing project convened by the Cooper Gallery at The University of Dundee, and is formed of five exhibition projects labelled ‘sit ins’, referencing a form of direct action that often takes place in schools, universities and places of work in protest at institutional and governmental neglect. The programme began in 2021 with an exhibition and constellation of events in collaboration with Ruth Ewan, while the second rendition explored alternative arts education models through a series of events, with a response by Jade Montserrat. The Ignorant Art School recognises that arts education is fundamentally flawed; in the UK, art schools remain stubborn bastions of elitism and whiteness while masquerading as the opposite. The programme instead aims to reimagine the art school as a potentially liberatory site. Hao recognises that one of the key issues with art schools currently is the "misleading demarcation between those who know and those who come here to know"; this classification is "insufficient in capturing the actual diversity of opinion and thinking that characterise any art school."

The Otolith Group inhabit the third ‘sit in’ as part of the series, using the structures of The Ignorant Art School as a way to stimulate critical conversations in and around the art school. To do this, they have created The Department of Xenogenesis or DXG, a ‘time space’ as a tool to extend the research practice of the collective out into the art school and into Dundee. DXG will operate across six workshops – three have already taken place, but three more of these public events will take place before the exhibition closes on 16 December.  

The Otolith Group: But There Are New Suns, Cooper Gallery, Dundee, until 16 Dec