For Society’s Sake

Art should play a pivotal role in discussions about values today, says Kirsten Langkilde, the new rector at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.

Kirsten Langkilde, new rector of The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Copenhagen. Photo: Jan Søndergaard.

Only a few people on the Danish art scene were on a first-name basis with Kirsten Langkilde when it was announced, last October, that she had been appointed rector of The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, beginning in February. Her relative obscurity is hardly surprising, given that Langkilde (b. 1954) had spent more than thirty years abroad before returning to the very academy from which she herself graduated in 1986, having studied under professor Hein Heinsen. She ventured out into the world straight away, first to London and later to Berlin. From 1995–2011 she was professor of Ästhetische Praxis at the Universität der Künste in Berlin, and from 2001–2009 she also served as vice president and dean of the Fakultät Gestaltung (College of Architecture, Media and Design).

In 2011, Langkilde relocated to Basel, having been given the extensive task of creating the concept for a new art education to be built from scratch in one of Switzerland’s major cultural centres. Known as the Hochschule für Gestaltung und Kunst FNHW, this new institution came to embody Langkilde’s vision of creating a contemporary art education focusing on interdisciplinary exchanges between artists and researchers from various fields.

Based on this comprehensive experience, Langkilde has formed her fundamental beliefs that art should never be allowed to close in on itself, and artists should never grow stale within the confines of their own practises. Rather, the new rector firmly believes that art should not only be involved in general discussions on social issues, but also set the agenda for such debates. Not for the sake of art, but for the sake of society.

Louise SteiwerWhat, to your mind, are the main challenges facing the academy right now and in the years ahead?

Kirsten LangkildeEvery epoch has presented its own set of challenges for the academy, and what we face today are the particular challenges of our time. We are about to develop a new strategy in cooperation with the staff and students at the academy. We intend to conduct an open, frank discussion about the overall approach to the art academy and the knowledge we possess here – and this is a discussion we also want to share with the outside world. My own ambition is to launch and inform the conversation as it runs its course.

LS Do you find that the academy has been too closed-off in the past?

KL I’ve been away too long to comment on how things have been in recent years. I remember back when I myself was a student here, and I had a great time studying under rector Else Marie Bukdahl and professor Hein Heinsen. The foundations laid down during that time gave me the courage to travel to London and, later, to German-speaking parts of the world. I remain shaped by this today. I have never worked in Denmark before, so doing so will be a novel experience for me. I hope that this will be offset by the international outlook and perspectives I bring with me .

LS During the time since you were appointed, you have presumably taken at least a passing glance at what has happened at the academy and how it has evolved. Could you be a little more specific about what you call ‘the challenges of our times’? 

KL The biggest challenge faced by all art academies today is that of digitisation. We must learn to think about and, in terms of digital realm, strive to understand what is happening to us in this more complex and composite world. Being part of a knowledge society is a huge challenge: we must cooperate with other disciplines while also holding on to our own identity, insisting that we come from the world of art. We must consider the role that we, in our capacity as creative artists, can play in collaboration with other disciplines such as life science, which is concerned with research into biological systems in order to develop medicine. In that context, art can contribute an understanding based on the importance of aesthetics and the senses.

Having an art academy that teaches such things is not enough. We must also research such themes, and we must conduct research on art’s own conditions. As visual artists, we have a special ability to combine the sensual and the generative with reflection and thought. All this essentially hinges on the classic virtues of the artist: on awareness, observation, and selection as an artistic process, and on the fact that, as an artist, you can create a synthesis and present this visually to others. No universities specialise in this.

Kirsten Langkilde. Photo: Jan Søndergaard.

LS Do you envision such collaboration being conducted mainly within the realm of research or teaching?

KL To my mind, teaching and research are interconnected. Both are about what artists have to offer in terms of understanding the changes in society. This might, for example, find expression in the discussion of the Anthropocene, which causes a shift in the role played by humanity, but it might also involve the overall economy, globalisation, and changes in the perception of democracy and the way society is governed and controlled. Artists must relate to their own reality, but the role of art is also to relate to various aspects of society. 

Such themes also permeate other academies of art, and there is a huge difference between the Scandinavian and the Central European/German approaches to the subject. Each position is founded on a vast body of experience and on an entire culture. If we can draw on and involve these experiences, the discussion becomes richer. 

LS What is the greatest difference between the institution you just left and the one in which we sit right now?

KL In Basel, I had the chance to create the entire concept and build an art school from scratch, and I did so on the basis of my own professorship in Berlin, which focused on the field of aesthetic practise and research. The result was a school that works with art and design, but also with the digital developments in a brand-new digital campus.

At that time, I had already made a switch in my own work, which meant that aesthetic practise was no longer my only field of work. I was no longer just a sculptor, and so I could allow myself to work with philosophers, biologists, and other professionals – always on the basis of aesthetic practises, of course. This later become a key aspect of artistic research. A huge field suddenly opened up in this regard, partly because the artists wanted it, but also because the universities were interested in cooperating with us. I take the lessons learnt from this development with me to Copenhagen, and I can see that here, things are already moving in the same direction.

Work by student Mikkeline Daa Natorp, Rundgang 2018, The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. Photo: Lea Kyndrup.

LS At this academy, there is a long-standing tradition of separating the various disciplines among the so-called ‘professor schools’. Is this something that should be changed?

KL There is nothing bad per seabout being anchored in a specific discipline, but I also find the ability to work across disciplines very important. I have seen in the Danish press how some question the relevance of the professor schools. It is quite understandable that this discussion should surface now, but we educate students to the highest level, and the professors have proven, in their own artistic work, that they possess the high artistic quality and skills required to provide such education. 

Having smaller groups of students attached to a professor is a classic aspect of fine art education. Any art academy educates the individual. This is to say that students are trained to nurture and care for the artistic energy they already possess. One might describe it as shoring up the creative forces found in each individual student, nourishing the ability to express oneself through art. This is not the kind of learning where knowledge is dumped onto students. It is a process that educates and shapes the individual. 

LS Don’t such individuals face a potentially vulnerable situation when the professor schools run according to a system where quite a lot of power is held by each professor?

KL We should consider this question from the students’ perspective. Students need input from different disciplines and different outlooks on art. They should be brought into contact with several different people, ensuring a broad scope of influence and input. We will look into fine-tuning this aspect in the future.

Of course, we must also consider the issue of power in general in the art world and in the art market. We must discuss how we prepare our students for the life of an artist and what it means to be an artist. If you choose to go into practise-based research, what does this entail, and where does it take you? And what opportunities can be found in art markets today? From my point of view, these are two of the most important options available to artists.

I see it as our duty to strengthen the students’ abilities to make their own choices, nourishing their decisions. There are many people out there who would like to be educated as artists, so those who make it through the academy’s enrolment procedures are all highly gifted, artistically. Our task is to support them so that they grow strong and can lead lives in which they produce art. We must continually consider how to ensure that we give them the right skills and tools that allow them to express themselves as strongly as possible.

LS What skills and tools might those be?

KL Becoming an artist is a process you initiate when you show interest in expressing yourself visually as a young person. You are admitted to the academy, you take your MFA, but the really interesting and exciting thing is what happens next. When leaving the art academy, you should enter a life of art. We don’t want a situation where only a few survive on the art market while the rest have to find other jobs. It would be much better to assign the proper respect due to everyone who is admitted here, because there is a reason why they were admitted. They have already proven that they have a lot to offer.

It takes a biochemist at least eleven years before anyone expects them to be able to complete the development of a new medicine, so why do we expect artists to be ready sooner than that? Society must be aware of and respect the fact that becoming fully qualified takes time and financial resources. Here at the academy, we will work towards developing a practise-based PhD programme and establishing fellowships and residencies to assist and nurture graduate artists.

LS What specific measures could be taken to prevent so many graduates from eventually abandoning the idea of being working artists?

KL All art academies have a duty to remain diligent in ensuring that what they teach is right for the moment and has the relevance it needs to have. For centuries, universities have known that research and teaching are linked. The fact that research is conducted strengthens the qualifications in all areas, and so it follows that we must strengthen the field of artistic research, too. Through artistic research, artists can produce work of high complexity – works that are also relevant to other parts of society. I am thinking here of a particular Swiss artist who, through her work with documentary films, developed a method for compiling information so that it represents new knowledge and insight into a specific area. She was approached by a community of Indigenous people in Colombia who wanted a university, so she is currently developing her concept to help create a university that respects their knowledge.

LS Would you like to see more alumni from this academy engaging with society in other ways than simply by entering into the familiar art world with its galleries and institutions?

KL All I am saying is that different models exist. I have absolutely nothing against galleries, but I would like to help investigate other opportunities too. We need to look at exactly what kind of competencies artists have, and explore where artists might have an impact. It is perfectly possible to work with complex knowledge generation or research on the basis of one’s artistic identity; it simply means that that identity finds new meaning in a new context. The postcolonial discussion seeks new ways of allowing others to live and express their culture, which makes the example of the Swiss artist highly relevant in that context.

LS It feels as if the idea of interdisciplinarity has become very widespread in recent years. But doesn’t interdisciplinarity also involve an inherent risk of not being allowed the space and time required to properly delve into (and master) one discipline first?

KL I take your point, but there are many different positions on this subject, and I do not necessarily share yours. I myself have been greatly influenced and inspired by Mode 2, Helga Nowotny, Michael Gibbon, Camille Limoge, Simon Schwartzman, Peter Scott and Martin Trow’s theory of knowledge production, first put forward in 1994 in the book The New Production of Knowledge: The Dynamics of Science and Research in Contemporary Societies. This was the first time I understood the difference between something that is bound to a discipline and something that is bound to a theme. When working, you can be guided by your involvement in a given subject just as you can be guided by your discipline. These are two different educational principles.

I hail from the school of sculpture, and while building the Campus der Künste in Basel, I felt that it could also be seen as a form of installation. Hence, I drew extensively on my professional background as a sculptor, which had made me accustomed to working with different elements, proportions, materials, and functions. Working with a wealth of different elements makes for great complexity, and I could use my background as a sculptor directly in this regard.

Student Kamil Dossar Franco’s work for Rundgang, The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, 2018. Photo: Lea Kyndrup.

LS One of the concerns associated with artistic PhD projects is that they tend to favour particular types of practises, such as those that are extroverted and interdisciplinary in scope, or that address areas of topical relevance to commerce or society as such. What if you’re the kind of person who wants to work in an introverted manner, focusing on material? What if what you really want to do is to handle some clay? 

KL The academy decides what kind of PhD projects it wants to see. I look forward to discussing matters with the professors, staff, and students at the academy to arrive at a shared understanding of the themes and areas that are most important to the art academy today. That might very well be about painting, too, but painting as seen from the point of view of the painter. That is, about what happens inside of you – in your brain – the moment that images arise, and about manifesting results of the aesthetic process. Of course, there are many aspects of this issue, but the moments in which the image is first formed for the artist and when it first engages with the material world are particularly interesting.

LS If we turn our attention to the teaching provided on the MFA programme, how might this process be strengthened? 

KL It is about a fundamental respect for art. We work with the potential and possibilities of art, with the spaces that art occupies, and the starting point is a fundamental respect and awareness of the importance of art. I think this is a good starting point for an art academy; you shouldn’t labour under the mistaken impression that you need to be anything else. Bearing this in mind, I am very open to exploring the various conditions that affect our work – social, financial, and research-related – because they are all part of our reality too.

At an art academy, there are some things that the rector must do, other things that the teaching staff can do, and yet other things that students can do. That is part and parcel of being this kind of organism. It is about fostering open discussions and good exchanges with each other, drawing on each other’s abilities and wills. And just because there are bad habits and bad manners elsewhere, you don’t have to bring them into the art academy.

LS What do you mean by that?

KL I mean that a general respect for diversity and gender is part of our fundamental make-up. As a woman, I am aware of the poor conditions for women found in the art market today, and this is a basic precondition that we must address in a constructive and highly critical manner. From my point of view, this issue is very much about being aware of matters involving power and respect. It is also important to be very open about any situations involving the abuse of power, and everyone should know that such things are not tolerated. This all sounds very simple, but the fact is that we see huge problems in terms of respecting gender and diversity – in the art market and in society as such. 

LS To what extent is it possible for the academy to affect matters outside its own walls? For example, might something be done to ensure that graduates are better prepared for such issues and conditions when they leave the academy?

KL The Danish constitution safeguards the freedom to express oneself and the democratic protection of each individual’s rights. We all have different ideas and different ways of creating a work. But things are different when you move in a field where human qualities are expressed, too.

The issue is basically about respect for the qualified individual – for professionals. There is a reason why you are a professor, a reason why you have worked your way to achieving that; you have something to offer. I have great respect for professionalism and skill, and I would like to help such proficiencies to find expression, just as I want the students’ abilities to be expressed.

LS What does it take to be a good professor at an art academy today?

KL The academy’s strategy for the direction we want to take will determine who we appoint as professor. You must have proven yourself capable of creating a strong artistic career, whether as an artist, a scholar, or something else entirely. It’s about credible commitment, serious work on one’s own art, and having an artistic mode of expression that shows reflection and thought. A genuine wish to work with students is part of the package, too, for as a professor you are also involved in the overall responsibilities of the academy as an institution.

Kirsten Langkilde. Photo: Jan Søndergaard.

LS If you had to outline a dream scenario, could you say something about the direction you would like this institution to take? Where should it go, compared to its present position?

I am very interested in the role of art in our contemporary era, and I would like to see the things we know and can do as professors and researchers being shared with others. It is important to get things on the overall public agenda, things we think are relevant and ought to be more widely discussed.

Personally, I also think it would be fantastic to develop a digital infrastructure in collaboration with some of the other institutions of creative education. For example, this would enable students to get a lecture on composition directly from the music academy.

LS Does this interest in digitising things spring entirely from its potential to establish contact with knowledge that is not physically present at the academy? Or is it also about making the most of the relatively limited financial resources available?

KL I dislike thinking in terms of financial restrictions, as this is not conducive to  qualitative development. Of course, I am a realist and know that such restrictions are there, but I prefer to concentrate on being clear on where we want to go. Then we can look at what would be a realistic timeframe for achieving those objectives – and the means required to do so.

No one here is interested in creating a digital infrastructure based solely on a fascination with technology. In our digital world, it is very easy to float in a vacuum with no awareness of history, overwhelmed by the vast amount of information we receive from all sorts of sources. When you move to a different area with a different language, as I have, you really notice how much of the knowledge you’ve accumulated over the years is actually tied to a cultural perspective. My cultural-historical perspective is Danish, and when I arrived in Germany and lived there for a number of years I began to acquire a cultural-historical perspective that was German in scope. The two perspectives are very different.

LS How?

KL The values of society in general, the historical background, the perception of oneself as an individual – all of these things are different. Britain, for example, is weighed down by a heavy colonial history, which means that the British see the world very differently than the Germans or the Danes. Of course, this also applies when you think about your own personal canon of visual art, music and literature. We all have an inner canon that we take with us from childhood and early adolescence.

LS I would say that an institution has that too: a canon and a certain perception of itself. Seen from your perspective, what is the DNA of the Copenhagen art academy?

KL Art.

LS Okay, that was almost too easy.

KL Ha ha, yes. I think I’ll need to spend some more time here in order to properly sense how the institution has evolved. Back when I was a student here, there was a tremendous sense of openness towards knowledge, philosophy, and art. I don’t know if Else Marie Bukdahl would put in in the terms I use here, but there was this deeply anchored awareness of and respect for art as a way of sensing, perceiving, and understanding the world. I think that this great respect for our metier is one part of the DNA that hasn’t changed. 

LS But doesn’t that apply to all art academies?

KL Yes, but in different ways. In Denmark, art is a clearly visible, high-profile factor in society, whereas it plays a much less prominent role in Switzerland. There, I would say that design, architecture, and product development are more prominent than art.

LS I think it’s really interesting that you’ve observed that art plays a bigger part in Danish society. 

KL The simple fact that Denmark has a Ministry of Culture at all is a deliberate choice on the part of society. We have chosen to consider culture one of the core areas of our society. Culture is given priority because we know it is important for society – and for our overall sense of community – that the cultural sphere is developed, seen, and heard.

LS These days, there is quite a lot of talk about how this kind of attitude is falling into disrepair. The Ministry of Culture is generally regarded as a dumping ground for those politicians who cannot be trusted with any other ministries, and it seems as if voters can be attracted by promises to cut back on all kinds of culture – including the institution in which we sit right now.

KL Yes, but at the same time I also sense a shift and change that concerns a general discussion of values in our society. What values do we regard as important? What kind of society do we want? How do we want to interact with each other, and how do we see ourselves as a society and as human beings? That discussion is also being conducted these days, and this is precisely where art belongs. The new art represents the values that apply to and are relevant for the young generation. This makes it so tremendously important to really listen to them, see them, and give them tools that enable them to express themselves as well as possible. For the sake of society.