originally appeared in Frieze, Issues 149, New Schools: The Silent University, September 2012

The Silent University

by Ahmet Ögüt

‘It is not the case that a man who is silent says nothing.’
Anonymous, quoted in Keith H. Basso, To Give Up on Words: Silence in Western Apache Culture (1970)

In 1873, the writer and educator Anna Eliot Ticknor founded the Society to Encourage Studies at Home. This was a Boston-based network of women teaching women by mail that the literary scholar Harriet F. Bergmann recently dubbed ‘The Silent University’. Almost 140 years on from the inauguration of Ticknor’s society, the urgency for an organization of this kind has shifted from women in need of a liberal education to marginalized groups such as refugees and asylum seekers, in particular those whose professional lives have been interrupted by displacement.

Many people in the UK today are unable to practice their previous professions or use their qualifications, for reasons that range from insecure immigration status to English not being their first language. This situation led to the foundation of The Silent University, a collaboration between myself, Tate’s adult programmes curator Nora Razian and community curator Synthia Griffin, with the support of the Delfina Foundation. This project is a self-institutionalized, autonomous knowledge platform that aims to challenge the idea of silence as a passive state; we hope to explore its powerful potential through performance, writing and reflection. The Silent University aims to address and reactivate the knowledge of the participants, inventing alternative currencies in place of money or free voluntary service. These explorations attempt to make apparent the systemic failure and the loss of skills and knowledge experienced through the silencing process of people seeking asylum.

As Mladen Dolar argues very beautifully in his 2006 book A Voice and Nothing More: ‘We must not interrupt the silence unless we have something to say which is better than silence.’ Working with partners including Southwark Refugee Communities Forum, Migrants Resource Centre and United Migrant Workers Education Project, a programme has been developed that includes lecturers, consultants and research fellows. There are currently about 30 participants at The Silent University. Our lecturers include a pharmacist from Syria, an accountant from Congo, a marketing manager from Zimbabwe and a calligrapher from Iraq. Our academic consultants include an astrophysicist from Iran, a union learning organizer from Colombia and a journalist from Sri Lanka. Course topics will be connected to participants’ specific qualifications and presented in any language. The first of these will take place at Tate Modern in November, along with a one-day symposium, gathering together individuals and organizations engaged in alternative education, specifically those initiated by institutions, artists or artist groups, and autonomous collectives.1

Tate will host The Silent University until the end of the year, but – ideally – the participants will eventually take The Silent University over as their own institution. It will survive as a ‘University in Time’2 and will mostly be accessible online, appearing temporarily where hostedby collaborating institutions. We will hopefully manage to have a permanent course under the umbrella of larger universities, which can provide some sort of curriculum or qualification in the future.
In 1976, the British artist Stephen Willats published Art and Social Function, which includes analyses of The West London Social Resource Project that took place in 1972. As he explains, their fundamental concern was the relationship between coding structures and patterns of behaviour. Willats argues that the ways people code themselves (how they dress, how they speak) can reflect their desired or actual position within a community – he calls these ‘life codes’. Whatever the barriers are, The Silent University’s main aspiration is for all the participants to stop waiting in limbo, and to take the initiative right now by using their imagination, and collectively construct their own reality and life codes. As Susan Sontag wrote in her 1967 essay ‘The Aesthetics of Silence’, we must acknowledge a surrounding environment of sound or language in order to recognize silence.

1. To name some of the exemplary practices and projects in alternative education: Bank of Ideas – The School of Ideas; Tent City University at Occupy London; Free University, Berlin; The Public School, Los Angeles; Centre for Possible Studies, London; Özgür Üniversite, Ankara; Radical Education Collective, Ljubljana; The Autonomy Project Summer School, Eindhoven; ‘Wide Open School’, Hayward Gallery, London; Really Free School, London; United Migrant Workers Education Project, London; School of Missing Studies, Amsterdam; The Faculty of Invisibility, Amsterdam; Freie Hochschule Stuttgart; the School of Global Art.
2. In 1992, the Slovenian artist collective Neue Slowenische Kunst initiated the ongoing project State in Time, the ‘first global state of the universe’, which currently has some14,000 citizens around the world.