An Interview with Alexander Roberts, Programme Director of the MFA in Performing Arts at the Iceland Academy of the Arts

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Iceland Academy of the Arts has been catching up with the Programme Director of the MFA in Performing Arts and discussing the programme’s attitude towards listening, collaboration, consent, and why they only work with wonderful people.

So Alexander – let’s jump straight in - the MFA is in its second year, your first group have already graduated, what are people mastering on this Master?

Erm… This is a nice first question. The answer is that we hope that they master nothing. We don’t believe in mastery.

My advice would be don’t come to this programme looking for that, or with aspirations to make a masterpiece. I think this MFA in Performing Arts is doing everything it can to collapse the idea of the master, with all of the connotations of domination, superiority and control that mastery implies.

What we are working on here is something more like wondery.

We are asking ourselves how can we be a platform for wonder; for wonderful artists and wonderpieces.

 

That’s sound fun, so it’s a wonderful Master’s - or a Wonderer’s?

Yes… I think it is. Exactly. We want it to be at least.

But the word wonder is more specific than people give it credit for may be, because describing something as wonderful doesn’t have to mean it’s fun. Although fun can also be important.

To wonder is to dwell in doubt and curiosity, isn’t it? So a wonderer, a wonderpiece, a wonderful practice, or a wonderful Master’s programme, a wonderful teacher or student, or a wonderful artist carries that title because of the ways in which they commit to inviting people to dwell in wonder, I guess. So wonderful isn’t the same as ‘really good’, ‘brilliant’ or ‘magnificent’. It is more specific than that.

If this MFA is wonderful it’s because it’s always looking to act as a sensorium of doubt and curiosity – where not knowing, but being brave to ask, is primary.

A sensorium?

Yeh… sorry a pretentious word… I just mean an environment we engineer… a place where our senses and means of making sense are shaped. This MFA wants to be a sensorium of wonder and curiosity.

And bravery to wonder?

Mhm… yeh... bravery to wonder. It can demand enormous bravery to wonder. To practice wonder can, and often needs to, involve the bravery and the boldness to ask very difficult questions. Sometimes very simple questions, but still tremendously difficult. For example, wondering if kneeling when others are standing can change the world. Or whether telling stories of sexual harassment, violence and abuse to each other and everyone else – can bring down the patriarchy we are living in. Both start and sustain themselves on a bravery to wonder. Nothing to do with mastery.

How does this commitment to wonder shape who you bring in as teachers and students?

We only work with wonderful people! Haha.

I am joking kind of, but also not.

The studying artists, the visiting mentors and facilitators, as well as myself in the role of Programme Director, we all need to work the whole time on this culture of wonderdwelling – that is a culture of embracing of doubt, curiosity, but also criticality, trouble and questioning.

So we bring in artist for studying and facilitating that are willing to take questions and doubt as their starting point. Wonderdwellers.

And from what I have heard the programme sounds very collaborative? It relies on a willingness for people to work together and listen to each other?

Yes. Exactly. It does. Listening and collaboration are a huge part of all of this. And this can be very demanding – but it is an important thing to commit to. We are exploring what it means for individual artists to open up their work to the thinking and questions of others.

At the same time, we really take seriously the idea of consent. Consent-based learning and exchange. That means we never force people to work together. We make space for it to happen, and we often explicitly suggest it, but there is a very clear ethics on the programme that people always have a choice. We do everything we can to support a culture of consent.

And in reality it is a very individualised programme. Concretely, we want to work with artists in ways that support them to develop according to the specificity of their own needs. So the programme relies on the studying artists to self-initiate and keep a continued check on their needs and how they can be met. Out of that, the programme is organised around a range of learning and experimentation formats that support studying artists to sharpen their own artistic objectives and questions, expand their artistic toolbox according to those objectives and questions, and develop richer means of producing discourse around what they do. And the route towards all of this, is through us working together to identify their needs and working together to find ways of meeting those needs.

 

The application for the programme is open again. The deadline for the first call is January 22nd 2018 and the second is April 30th 2018, anything you would like to say to those thinking of applying?

Yes. Apply. Haha.

Don’t delay. We need your wonder with us.

But also may be. . . Be in touch.

People can email me at alexanderroberts@lhi.is with any questions they have.

 

Maybe one last question, why do you have two deadlines?

We want to give people the opportunity to get an early answer so they can plan their arrival here better. If you apply by January 22nd 2018 you get an answer in March. At the same time, we don’t want to miss out on those that find those who might be great, but only found out about the programme in April. So we want to allow for both of these scenarios.

 

For more information on the Master’s programme, please check www.masterinperformingarts.com.

 

 

Photocredit: Carlo Cupaiolo
                    Laufey Elísdóttir (photo in banner)
                    Saga Sigurðardóttir