When the Copenhagen Free University (CFU) closed down in 2007, its founders – artists Henriette Heise and Jakob Jakobsen – published a text under the victorious headline ‘We Have Won!’, in which they stated: ‘We have always found it important to take power and play with power but also to abolish power.’ In accordance with their project’s particular form of institutional critique, which took the form of a self-organized place for ‘education’ outside the university system and the white cube, the CFU had to dissolve its identity in order to continue producing knowledge and investigating the social and political potentials of aesthetics.
The claim to victory was the conclusion of six years of continuous activity, which had made the CFU a lively and rich meeting place for a heterogeneous collective of people interested in developing a critical vocabulary to respond to the increasing dominance of right-wing politics merged with neo-liberal economics. Run by the artists in their apartment in the northern part of Copenhagen, the CFU hosted a multitude of events including film screenings, residencies, discussion groups, presentations of archival material and talks, connecting a global network with an intensified local opposition to the hegemonic narratives of accelerated xenophobia and capitalism. These activities were set within an intimate framework, in which theoretical thinking and dirty dishes were never far apart. Finding an orphaned bird in the courtyard and seeing friends being sent to jail for protesting against the closure of the city’s Youth House were integrated in the activities, aesthetics and politics of the CFU. As it reads in its founding manifesto-style text, the CFU investigated ‘aesthetics beyond disciplines […] as a part of life’.
It is this important and personal chapter in the recent history of socially engaged art that Heise and Jakobsen – with the assistance of former ‘students’ of the CFU, Howard Slater, Anthony Davies and Emma Hedditch – revisited at the Museum fur Samtidskunst in Roskilde. Titled ‘Trauma 1–11: Stories about the Copenhagen Free University and the Surrounding Society in the Last Ten Years’, the exhibition was structured around a series of 11 retrospective reflections on the artists’ work with the CFU. The reflections playing from individual loudspeakers were staged to form a dramatized yet personal narrative that invited the audience to follow a timed tour through the galleries, where selected materials produced by the CFU over the years were also displayed. Several rooms featured colourful, text-based posters, such as the ‘ABZ of the Copenhagen Free University’ (2002), which in its latest version, defined notions like ‘mess’ and ‘fellow travellers’ in a language mixing poetic sensibility and political passion. On the floor of the first room was a box containing the ‘escape rope’ that Heise and Jakobsen hung from their window for more than a year, while another room included a video about a playground slide that the CFU made in association with the self-organized television station TVTV. Further along the tour, the reflections were accompanied by overlapping projections of dust and fluff. Both visually and conceptually, these quiet yet powerful images of the traces of daily existence captured the CFU’s dynamic exchanges between the material realities of life and the abstract possibilities offered by aesthetics.
Rather than a retrospective, ‘Trauma 1–11’ reanimated the significance of the CFU as a potential model to counter and escape the mechanisms of political control that are increasingly taking over education systems. This point seems all the more relevant in light of the fact that Heise and Jakobsen were contacted in 2010 by the Danish Ministry of Science, Technology and Development and told that if they intended to pursue the CFU’s knowledge-producing activities they would be violating a recent law forbidding self-organized universities from operating on Danish ground. In response to this letter, the artists will open a new free university somewhere in Copenhagen this autumn, challenging the boundaries of the law and posing critical questions about what an institution is and who owns education in the contemporary knowledge economy.