Notes Regarding the 2011 Winter School Middle East, Kuwait
Originally published in Fillip 15.
The Winter School Middle East is a localized, small-scale hub, which regularly performs cultural and educational activities in collaboration with local NGOs, schools, and individuals, and—through its new, longer-term local presence—houses a critical platform for exchange, focusing on issues such as the labour camps in the Emirates, the notion of institution building in cities where small-scale independent institutions do not exist, and the socio-spatial typology of dewaniya, which allows for both an understanding as well as potential in regards to the notion of a decentralized and bottom-up urban network of political decision making.
The core group of this practice-based, multi-disciplinary exchange is designed around the production of space—i.e., the belief that this “space” we are talking about is never just designed by a city planner and architects, but is the result of a complex and multifaceted multiplicity of processes in which many authors and stakeholders are involved. Hence, the Winter School attempts to work with this multiplicity and invite, as a temporary community, students from diverse disciplinary backgrounds, including architecture, urbanism, design, communication, engineering, medicine, law, and economics, to name a few.
Launched as an idea in 2007 and initiated in January 2008, the Winter School Middle East was set up as a roaming, mobile institution realized in a variety of formats, including a series of workshops, seminars, mini-schools, and conferences. Within the set-up of the Winter School, the most crucial aspect of teaching revolves around the idea of bringing established practitioners and theorists from outside the Middle East together with local and regional practitioners and theorists, who did not have the resources to set up such exchanges previously. Teaching methodologies and briefs are then developed in teams of (usually) two; i.e., one outsider works with a regional practitioner to form a “unit” or studio that then develops an approach for the workshops and seminars together. Students can then choose in which unit they want to study.
Among the conferences that have taken place through the Winter School Middle East are “Learning from Dubai” (2008, Dubai), which engaged with the issue of housing for workers in the local context, and “Spaces and Scales of Knowledge” (2009, Dubai), which proposed questions around institution building across several sites in collaboration with the Architectural Association (London, UK), the Third Line gallery (Dubai), and the American University of Sharjah. In 2010, the Winter School moved to Kuwait for a longer-term involvement and local engagement regarding the establishment of a platform for critical exchange. Here, the school has the opportunity to work with the support of the cultural council for at least three years, making it possible to go beyond a singular workshop or series of seminars to develop a year-long, intermittent program including lectures and conferences throughout the calendar year. Previously, the Winter School only took place in the winter. Combining the Winter School’s workshop methodology with local cultural and political initiatives, this intensive workshop-based program was and continues to be run as a design- and discourse-led curriculum that combines conceptual and spatial research in the process of criticism and the rigorous production of ideas. Students and staff work in teams of up to ten in which they develop individual and group projects. These projects are not only tested against the criticism of the group, but also against the knowledge and expertise of local protagonists.
When the Winter School was originally set up in Dubai, the driving force was clear: to establish a model for localized education, which would set itself clearly apart from the US model of franchised campuses. It would be a model whereby major US universities started up major satellite campuses in the Middle East. This model was based on the post-9/11 reality and rationale that many Middle Eastern families would no longer send their kids to the US, creating a serious financial deficit for many universities. As a result, some Western institutions decided to bring the campuses to the money. Most of them simply replicated source campuses, which were, and still are, often outsourced with professors from abroad only, who neither know anything about the region, nor build up any long-term local knowledge as they fill short-term, rolling contracts.
In 2010, the Winter School moved from Dubai to Kuwait, which could be described as the most socialist capitalist system in the world, with a democratically elected parliament, a benevolent ruler, free education, health care, and housing. The political and cultural environment in Kuwait is very liberal—encouraging open discussion, with a tradition in platforms such as dewaniya, a term that stems from a very rich regional history, including the word dewan, which presents a typology of lounge furniture that one might sit on to hold discussions about public matters in an intimate setting.  It has a specific history and constituency: a spatial typology for political exchange. Its combination of liberalism and open politics presents an interesting starting point, but when it comes to public discursive formats for education, the tendency in Kuwait is to rely on classical and formalized models such as centralized universities. From the point of view of spatial practices, urbanism, and discourse, there is very little attention paid to the development and growth of a local expertise beyond a classical Western notion of urbanism, one that uses the specificities of the local context in order to generate new types of spatial practice.
– Markus Miessen
The following conversation was recorded after the conclusion of the January 2011 Winter School workshops in Kuwait, which included Markus Miessen, Patricia Reed, Zahra Ali Baba, Kenny Cupers, Magnus Nilsson, and Ralf Pflugfelder.
Markus Miessen: The Winter School, which is now in its third year of programming, attempts to set up and offer a non-profit space that accommodates an opposition. An opposition not in the sense of necessarily being “against” something, but rather a space that is based on the notion of both political, institutional, and structural autonomy, which is deliberately introduced from the outside, yet embeds itself within the actors, realities, and questions of local and regional practices. The notion of dewaniya, as we have discussed it during the Winter School, could be read and interpreted both as a spatial phenomenon as well as a process. The Winter School—in the way it is set up, situated, and structured—was meant to allow for a decentred perspective on politics through a reunderstanding of everyday communal practices. In describing the school as an autonomous space, one could arguably compare it to the dewaniya: a “protected space,” a congregation site, and a lobbying device for political thought. Patricia, in one of your seminars you explored the conception and understanding of what it means to set up a problematic as opposed to an understanding of the subject or object of investigation as problem. Could you please elaborate on this concept and structure of the problematic?
Patricia Reed: Firstly, I would just like to say that I will refer to dewaniya without a definite article in my contributions to this multi-logue. The removal of the article treats dewaniya as a process rather than a thing. What became clear during our time in Kuwait was the ambiguity surrounding the definition of dewaniya, so it seems only apt to respond to this question by apprehending dewaniya not as a static entity, but as something quite malleable, in fact. So in this sense dewaniya is always becoming. What I meant by introducing this more or less philosophical term of the “problematic” was not to suggest that we identify a problem of dewaniya per se, but rather that we form a particular approach, or angle on the complex issues embroiled within the notion of dewaniya itself. The basic maxim behind this discussion of establishing our individual problematics is to say that an interesting or relevant spatial intervention is wholly dependent on setting up an equally complex and novel problematic. So, for example, when we take up this term of “protected space,” coined by Marianne Tétreault, in regards to the private/public dialectic at work within the spatial condition of dewaniya, we may possibly start to approach spatial problematics by further asking: From whom is dewaniya protected? Who is protected through dewaniya? How does dewaniya establish boundaries of inclusion/exclusion within the nomos of the everyday?
Kenny Cupers: I think these are very good questions to begin unpacking the spatial agency of the dewaniya. For me, the notion of the “problematic” is less philosophical than simply analytical—i.e., it is about asking the right questions. The right questions here are the ones that open up the “black box” of the dewaniya. I think our position of outsider—which, as Markus has mentioned, shapes the politics of the Winter School—is crucial in this respect. The fact that the Winter School’s participants are either women or non-Kuwaiti, or both, undoubtedly shapes much of our questions—and the debates to which they have given rise. As a gathering of Kuwaiti men, the dewaniya is certainly a highly gendered practice. Its mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion are ambiguous, to say the least, in that the regime of hospitality in the dewaniya generates both an explicit openness and an implicit closure. As outsiders, our approach to the dewaniya is shaped to a large extent by an imaginary rather than everyday experience. This situation I think reflects the nature of the dewaniya as a phenomenon in Kuwaiti society at large. As Mohammed Al-Ghanim, one of the invited public speakers and an officer in the national parliament, has suggested, the dewaniya structures Kuwaiti society not just as a concrete social practice, but perhaps even more importantly, as an imaginary. The dewaniya has given rise to political contestation at key moments in Kuwaiti history and as such has entered collective memory as a place of national success—regardless of whether many of these instances constituted actual political successes or rather failures.
Markus Miessen: Might the dewaniya in this sense be comparable to the agora in Ancient Greek culture?
Kenny Cupers: The agora constitutes a myth of an open public space of participatory decision making, a myth that continues to entice the collective imagination and has led to the baptizing of “Agoras” across Europe … in spite of the fact that historians continue to inform us of the outright exclusion of women, slaves, and non-citizens that was at its basis. The dewaniya seems to serve similarly as a locus of tradition in collective consciousness, yet at the same time it might be a crucial agent of Kuwaiti modernization. Some of the current uses of the dewaniya —a Playstation room for youth, or a space to collectively discuss weight loss goals—attest to this hypothesis. For me, the most fascinating aspect of the dewaniya lies in such seeming contradictions. My main question is therefore: If the dewaniya is a “protected space”—a specifically designated space for politics—might it protect the political from entering the realm of the street and the spaces of everyday life? Or is it the opposite rather: the dewaniya makes urban life debatable and therefore becomes the agent through which political and other tensions can be channelled into more organized, rational discussion? Certainly Jürgen Habermas would be happy with the latter possibility. But to me, the dewaniya’s regime of inclusion/exclusion suggests otherwise.
Markus Miessen: In many ways, the Winter School itself acts as an uninvited outsider. Through its temporal structure and nomadic appearance, it questions both the normativity of the space of the “school” as well as, in the case of the 2011 Winter School in Kuwait, the normativity of those communal spaces and practices defined as dewaniya, a historically protected space originating from tribal society in which the leader of a tribe would offer a gathering space within his private quarters. Let’s talk about dewaniya as a means to formally register a thought in an informal setting, a means of maintaining private and public social networks. How can one think through the written and unwritten rules as to the use and protocols of space? How does it become a site outside of itself?
Magnus Nilsson / Ralf Pflugfelder: Our studio took on the notion of the dewaniya in a deliberately literal and direct manner. The students were asked to design a full-scale subjective enabler/disabler of communication that was placed in an imagined dewaniya in one of the courtyards of the school. We wanted to create our own dewaniya. The studio consisted of Kuwaiti women and Europeans. All involved in the studio were outsiders of the dewaniya tradition and process. Although everyone was very generous and welcoming, it was very evident that we all were aliens in this environment and that there really is no way to become part of it. This sense of being or feeling excluded was strongly felt by all participants and this was a theme that in different ways occurred in all the projects. One can say that a sense of seclusion was the lowest common denominator among all the projects. Many of the projects tried to establish individual spaces within the dewaniya in order to be able to withdraw from a perceived male-dominated spatial and social pressure. Other proposals tried to destabilize the formality of the dewaniya from the outside by imposing gestures that intended to shake up the perceived rigidity of the dewaniya.
Markus Miessen: In some of the seminars we discussed the notion of politics versus the political, both read through the goggles of Chantal Mouffe and Jacques Rancière. Would you agree if I called dewaniya the Mouffian space in which one agrees to disagree, a space of potentially oppositional, non-violent encounter, a network or scaffold of sense making, a common ground, conceptual framework, and shared space of meeting in which a political community forms?
Patricia Reed: I would agree. I think dewaniya is a potential space for debate, so very much in line (again possibly so, not always) with Mouffian agonism. Important to mention, however, is the very normative codes of conduct or common ground/ethos instantiated within dewaniya. For me this means dewaniya is still caught up within the established symbolic orders of “the police” using the language of Rancière (and in that regard is not a political eruption).  Again, it depends on your understanding of “the political” in Mouffe’s language. For me, it doesn’t go far enough since her toned down antagonism as “agonism” requires that we agree on a common grammar of disagreement, whereas for Rancière real disagreement lies in the contestation of the very grammar used that is understood as making sense. Again, referring back to the initial dialectic of “protected space” we deployed as a potential problematic of dewaniya setting up relations of inclusion/exclusion, I think Rancière’s conception of politics is useful here, seeing as a moment of dissensus (a doing of politics) is always initiated by a part that has no part in the sphere of perceptibility. Let me briefly elaborate—within a Mouffian paradigm, as I understand it, it is true that dewaniya can gather together a particular group of people to debate and create a presence of an oppositional position to a particular hegemonic condition. They can gather and discuss because they already have consensus on a normative grammar of presenting, contesting, and debating issues. So, in short, this potentially productive force of contestation is based on a fundamental consensus, a profound paradox. That said, we cannot have politics all the time, so dewaniya, as a space of consensual disagreement, can still be figured as a fruitful space for the proliferation of opinions and ideas, albeit from a part of the population fully accounted for.
Markus Miessen: Is dewaniya a horizontally accessible space?
Patricia Reed: When we use dewaniya as an example, it is often presented as a space open to all, yet this very notion of “open to all” is of course determined by the normative grammar of who constitutes “all” in the first place. We know that dewaniya is a particularly male-dominated institution, and, furthermore, one “open to all” who are passport holders, and often those who are friends of friends. So challenging the very normative grammar of “open to all” is, for me, a potential site of politics, rather than debating ideas, people, and functions within the pre-existing grammar of common sense. The larger question of politics, as such, would entail a renegotiation of the normative grammar “open to all” in terms of who counts in making an appearance, to who and what could be understood as being a part of the order of hospitality.
Magnus Nilsson / Ralf Pflugfelder: We think it is probably fair to say that we are somewhat suspicious of the notion that the dewaniya is a place where one agrees to disagree. The issue here is that the allowed or admitted participants of the dewaniya, at least the dewaniyas with some social and political gravitas, are a relatively exclusive and homogenous group; in other words, male Kuwaitis who are economically well off. As this group’s members share cultural background and vested interests, the discursive openness is already from the beginning rather limited. In other words, there is a very strong underlying sense of consensus in place and the disagreements are, we suspect, more or less variations on the same theme. As pure, nearly cartoon-like speculation, our impression is that when we Westerners talk about politics we more or less tend to refer to various strands of ideology whereas the Kuwaitis tend to think of politics as a form of wheeling-and-dealing. Western attitudes are tied up with a sense of rigidity and longevity whereas Kuwaiti politics are much more flexible and perhaps even opportunistic. Thus, we should be very cautious that we don’t romanticize the dewaniya by projecting our frameworks onto something that is quite different in its operation.
Kenny Cupers: I think it is important not to impose a theory that reduces the spatial and political complexity of the dewaniya. I don’t think it is at all possible to identify the dewaniya —as a space, a phenomenon, or an event—with either of the categories established by Mouffe (politics/the political) or Rancière (the police/politics). From the many invited speakers during the Winter School, we have been able to learn about an amazing diversity of potential instances in which the dewaniya became a political agent. I think the dewaniya can historically be both an institution of politics as “business as usual” (for a privileged group of Kuwaiti men), and an agent of political contention and social change, in which women and youth can begin to play a key role. Rancière’s redistribution of the sensible—the emergence of a new common sense—might already be taking place, yet whether the recent establishment of certain exclusively female dewaniya can be seen as such a positive change is not entirely clear. The question about social change is perhaps a question of which regimes of hospitality are imaginable in Kuwaiti society.
Markus Miessen: Patricia, in one of your talks you unpacked the notion of deskilling—or what I would call unlearning—as an unsettlement of normativity, an unsettling of the given coordinates and datums of convention. Could you please explain this further in the literal context of the 2011 Winter School?
Patricia Reed: The notion of deskilling was brought up in the context of mapping the sorts of characteristics of an “uninvited outsider” as a kind of aesthetical-political agent. In the field of visual arts, deskilling—as identified by Boris Groys in Art Power_—was mentioned as a residue of the gesture from Marcel Duchamp with his infamous _Fountain (1917), the purchased and signed urinal he submitted to the world as an art object, by authorizing it as art, by contextualizing it as art. So deskilling has more to do with a downplaying of a particular ability with materials and techniques, craftsmanship and virtuoso capacities, in order to be a “professional” artist. In the specific context of the Winter School I thought this was important to impart to students in terms of heightening the agency of non-expert abilities, that interventions and important contributions are also thinkable outside the realm of master techniques, and can also be forged through recontextualizations. In regards to unlearning—I’m not sure if I would create a parallel between these two modes. I think unlearning is perhaps a result of deskilling (we unlearn the definition of an artist, for example, through the pervasiveness of “deskilling” in art—so that the artist cannot be defined as a master craftsman/artisan any longer). For me, unlearning is always a kind of conceptual violence, a necessary violence and a struggle with one’s own cognitive schema of the world. For Kant, the schema is the result of experience and intellect, transformed into imagination—so we can figure something without having it directly represented. I use this example quite often, but when I describe to you “red pen” we have a common schema in mind as to “penness” and “redness,” so we can communicate about something without having it present, simple enough. The more complicated issues arise when we start to communicate about inclusion/exclusion, the human, and even dewaniya! What is the schema of being human? I situate unlearning as a deforming of our schemas, what I like to call contaminating imagination.
Kenny Cupers: I would like to connect this notion of unlearning back to Markus’s comment about how the Winter School’s temporal structure and nomadic appearance promises to unsettle and redefine the “school” as institution. I am wary of celebrating “unlearning” because I think it might result from a misconception about learning. If learning is understood as the flexible adjustment to change rather than the encyclopedic collection of data, it comes much closer to a continual becoming rather than the attainment of expertise. Similarly, I think the current infatuation with the figure of the amateur is a dubious trend. Becoming someone else (whether amateur or expert) is of more interest to me, since it denotes an active process of engagement. Unlearning then threatens to equate a purely negative or expulsive approach. This relates back to the notion of an alternative school. The Winter School I think is unique not because of its temporal structure and nomadic appearance (study abroad programs of similar structure abound in US and European university institutions), but because of the more reciprocal linkages it has forged between the local and the non-local. In this sense, the Winter School works through a different regime of hospitality. And this is also where its ethics lie. Markus’s notion of the “uninvited outsider” is useful to bring up here. I agree with him that the notion of the uninvited outsider has great potential. But it also brings with it a great responsibility. The questioning of certain states of affairs, accepted knowledges, or sets of norms often happens from a realm outside of or relatively removed from this relatively coherent yet closed condition. This is, I think, the positive challenge an outside perspective can offer. That said, the outsider, in its worst incarnation, is a ruthless colonizer. Whether the outsider is a respectful instigator of debate or its opposite depends of course on the concrete ways of engagement. But it also depends on the circulation of capital—whether it be economic or cultural. And it depends on the modes of reciprocity. Patricia in her seminar mentioned the words of art critic Jan Verwoert and his suggestion that the artist’s ethics lie in inhabiting the consequences of her or his making. I think this is very relevant to the Winter School. To what extent can it live the afterlife of its own instigations?
Markus Miessen: Unlearning here is meant in a flexible and at the same time specific sense, moving towards the education of architects and other disciplines dealing with the conventional tools regarding the production of space—i.e., building buildings, infrastructure, devising master plans, thinking about and directly acting upon the city. When we look at the way in which this/these disciplines are taught in many schools and universities, it seems to me that indeed one of the most important things to teach is how to not fall back into the default modes of practice, which is how it is being transferred in many international courses. We need experts, yes, and there are many experts already. What I am personally interested in is the person who is not so keen to be the expert, but manages to smartly manoeuvre between “things”—not necessarily disciplines, but within the whole apparatus of a diverse set of practices, relations, and social networks in order to proactively raise questions that are usually not being raised, at least not in the environment in which they are now posed.
Concerning your point about responsibility, Kenny, yes, of course. The notion of this role, this “uninvited outsider” of course brings with it not only a great deal of responsibility, but also consequence. If this was not the case, I would also not be interested in it. I think that any practice that denies either responsibility or consequence—or even worse, both—should not be considered critical. I agree, as I argued in my book, that one of course has to be careful as to how this role can be achieved. And it can also easily be misused. Since I am an optimist I tend to usually think about possibilities rather than problems. The future of the Winter School, in terms of its ongoing afterlife, mostly during the calendar year when no major workshops are taking place, is based on a relationship of trust towards those practitioners and actors in Kuwait, such as Zahra, who could potentially develop this further and elevate it to the next level. This was always the idea right from the start—that is, that it would precisely occur not just in January every year, but that it would start to build an ongoing platform for critical exchange. After the final presentation this year, local architect and educator Ali Al-Khaled told me that he could not believe that this was the first time he actually saw all these locals together in one place. This is the point: to develop a shared space for criticality in a place in which such a model does not otherwise exist. Call me a colonizer, but I think the moment that people were realizing this, it was already Winter School 2.0 and had nothing to do with me anymore. The process had started, and this is what counts. With the little financial means we have, I hope that this also helped to have the National Council for Culture rethinking its protocols in the future. This way, we can hopefully also have an active role in the reshaping and influencing of what I would call the institutional everyday. We should not forget that this is all happening in a context where a female student getting a bank account at NBK (the National Bank of Kuwait) can receive up to KWD 5,000 (approximately €13,000) when opening a bank account, which can be accessed only for plastic surgery. At the same time, there is not a single program that the bank offers for educational loans.
The Winter School is a project of proactive instigation, a localized, self-authorized trigger of sorts. If one was to assume such a role of the “uninvited outsider,” one could describe the potentiality of such self-authorized project as one, which is based on an underlying principle of questions rather than answers, a destabilizing momentum that attempts to contaminate the imagination of others. It attempts to perform itself as an autonomous agent, enacting and producing in relation to the given context and its specific audience producing affect. As an agent for the instigation of dissensus, the “uninvited outsider” arguably opens up alternative avenues for the staging of new formats or frameworks of production by proactively generating and directing a set of unprovoked questions. Such practice of “opening up” is being enabled by, as Patricia called it, the “partial unpredictability” of a foreigner re-setting the rules of engagement. Patricia, could you please elaborate on your reading of Giorgio Agamben in the context of a playful character that allows for what you named the practice of “inappropriating”?
Kenny Cupers: I will insert myself as the “uninvited outsider” here and interrupt. First of all, I think we need to question the notion of the autonomous, “self-authorized” actor here. The success of the Winter School lies not in the way it acts autonomously, but in the way it engages contingency. I think what needs theorization here is not the actor or organizer, but the situation or the encounter that is created. How can we invite contingency and incidence instead of celebrating individual agency? That brings us back to Rancière’s notion of dissensus, which I think is less about intentionality then about the afterlife of an event. How can we make sure that what we think is dissensus is not just temporary transgression—which, just like the medieval carnival or the contemporary art festival, basically threatens to reinforce rather than challenge the status quo and the reigning normativity?
Markus Miessen: Exactly. This is why the issue of permanence and consequence in this context is so important.
Patricia Reed: I don’t want to be a stickler, but I think we have to be careful when using terms like “the foreigner” in our discussion since they enter our imagination in a fairly specific way. I prefer the Greek term xenos since it has a multiplicity of meanings. It, of course, signifies a foreigner (someone from outside a given community), but also an enemy/stranger and a guest friendship. So xenos possesses all of these qualities simultaneously: a menacing, friendly outsider—rather than just being from the outside. In regards to playfulness, another quality we attributed to the potential agency of xenos, Agamben discusses this in several texts from his prolific output, but in particular he sees it as a manner of determining other uses for things that have been locked down in a reified capacity for functioning within a given symbolic order. In the discussion of play in “In Praise of Profanation” he cites the example of the child who takes an official legal contract and transforms it into a paper airplane. So the legal contract, something most of us would regard as precious or untouchable to some degree, becomes something wholly other by transforming its symbolic functioning. In our case of dewaniya I am not suggesting that we are thinking within the coordinates of “profanation” per se, for dewaniya is not sacred or removed from the sphere of use. Nonetheless, if we think about play in general and as a political tactic, it is something that renders a reified use inoperative, the gesture of play is always about imagining other uses, not to mention introducing a certain lightness into the discussion of spatial politics. In play, one neglects a certain use, but a kind of neglect that opens up other possibilities of use. Play is always in a sense inappropriate—if we consider appropriateness of use to set up a relation of memesis to a given order. Henri Lefebvre describes the body in space as that which appropriates codes and materials in space to produce (and reproduce) the spatial; interfacing this description of the Lefebvrian body and his project to revolutionize the everyday with the agency of play, we could further infer that to revolutionize our experience of the everyday requires an ethos of play through inappropriating the codes and materials of the spatial. Through inappropriation, I think we open more possibilities of use (symbolic and actual) and thus experience, rather than a purely mimetic experience through the reproductive force of appropriation. Speaking of the body, it’s time we take a break and have some lunch!