There was something theatrical in ‘Playing Truant’, Adelita Husni-Bey’s first major solo exhibition in the UK. This was epitomized by the presence of a free-standing wall painted with images of palm trees and immaculate sandy beaches. For Husni-Bey – a Libyan-Italian artist based in London – politics seems to be about the establishment of an artificial sphere, and in this respect her work is akin to Jacques Rancière’s theorization of the emancipatory role of art (politics, he wrote in 1999, is ‘a matter of performing or playing, in the theatrical sense of the word, the gap between a place where the demos exists and a place where it does not’).
The image of a lush tropical island also forms the setting for a seven-minute film from 1958, produced by the Michigan district school board and entitled Holiday from Rules? The film narrates the mishaps of four kids who dream of living in a place free from parental rules. Despite its mesmerizing animation and fanciful scenery, the documentary is slightly disturbing: its apparent playfulness betrays the conservative ideology and anti-communist sentiment in postwar America. Each of the children’s attempts at self-government produces catastrophic results, while a seemingly benign but authoritative male voice-over constantly reminds them of the impossibility of living in a world without norms and regulations (the film ends with the children’s return to the reality of parental control).
Husni-Bey showed the film as it was originally broadcast, without attempting to expose its ideological underpinning, which emerged more clearly after seeing the second work in the exhibition, Postcards from the Desert Island (2010–11). The video was shot by Husni-Bey during a three-week workshop with students from the École Vitruve in Paris, for which children aged between seven and ten were asked by the artist to build an imaginary community on a hypothetical island. Using tape, crayons and cardboard, the kids assemble and design communal dwellings, farms and workshops in the school hallway. But they face serious political dilemmas, such as whether to institute prisons or to use money instead of bartering. Husni-Bey’s camera portrays them arguing and debating or running wildly across the stage. Unlike the wayward boys and girls appearing in the film by the Michigan school board, these share a striking spontaneity and a mutual respect for each other. The authenticity of the mise en scène is, however, no less dubious. The moments of interaction between the pupils and the artist have been edited out from the video so that a sceptical viewer may wonder whether these children are performing a script.
Also presented were two documentary works that address different moments in the history of education in the US and the UK. The Living House (2012) comprises a slideshow of photographs drawn from the archive of the Modern School in Stelton, New Jersey. Founded in 1911 and attended by many children from working-class backgrounds, the Modern School was one of the first anarchist free schools in the US (it was closed down in the 1950s, during the very same period when the Michigan board began producing its pedagogical films). As typical of Husni-Bey, the work is a combination of research and performance. The slideshow is accompanied by oral accounts of the life in Stelton read by actors of the Living Theatre, the American theatre company famous for its anti-authoritarian stance and its experiments with participatory forms of performance. As we are not told which of their anecdotes are invented and which are not, the work confuses the distinction between the documentary and the performative, between the real and the imaginary. Policy, Benchmark, Criteria (2012) is a big timeline written on a large blackboard that occupied two adjacent walls. The timeline traced key moments in the development of educational policy in the UK from the Thatcher era up to the present day. The entries for the years ‘1971’ and ‘2000’ read: ‘The 1971 Education Act abolishes schools’ obligation to provide free milk and meals to school children’ and ‘Labour Education Secretary David Blunkett announces the government’s intention to create a network of city academies – effectively private schools paid for by the state.’
While The Living House offers a powerful reminder of the revolutionary potential of education, Policy, Benchmark, Criteria provides a trenchant critique of the process of neoliberal privatization undergone by the UK school system in the past 30 years, culminating in the emergence of a new type of corporate-sponsored ‘free school’ at the hands of the current coalition government. At a time when education is treated as nothing more than a commodity to be bought and consumed, Husni-Bey’s thought-provoking approach is to be welcomed.