We are what we imagine

From the diploma production Master Theatre, Dramaturgy: “In Search of Our Common Ground”, 2021. Photograph: Regula Bearth © ZHdK

Arts universities, as sites of knowledge transfer and learning, are facing new challenges amid ongoing social change. They need to put on the agenda existing perceptions in the arts and dissolve their boundaries. Central to this process are sharing and unlearning. Marijke Hoogenboom presents two strategies for how we can become fluid laboratory in which alternatives are practised and lived experimentally.


For many years, my work in higher arts education was informed by a quote from the indigenous American writer N. Scott Momaday: “We are what we imagine — Our very existence consists in our imagination of ourselves — The only tragedy that can befall us is to go unimagined.”
Ritsaert ten Cate, my collaborator at the time, and I had made these words the leitmotif of our mission to found the first postgraduate performing arts programme in the Netherlands (DasArts at Amsterdam University of the Arts). We were imbued with the potential of art to think about things radically “differently.” And who, if not young artists, has the imagination, the courage and the determination to point out cultural, economic or social alternatives, on and off the stage? It was the 1990s. We were convinced that there was such a thing as progress and development, that we should pass on our ideas about the future to the next generation in order to contribute to its emancipation and empowerment. Of course, we oriented ourselves towards the great utopias, towards the impossible, which we encouraged our students to embrace. But also towards the human species — the acting anthropos — at the centre of a “makeable, feasible world.” “We are what we imagine.”

Putting our role on the agenda

Today, it is almost inconceivable to speak of the future without speaking of one’s own position and responsibility. Forever gone are the times when we, as enlightened individuals, stood on a safe hill to look at the world — with a panoramic view. We are standing in the midst of things, surrounded, completely surrounded, and all we can do is to let ourselves be moved by the events, the circumstances of this world. Already 15 years ago, Peter Sloterdijk literally said: “Immersion is everywhere. We have to let this world infect us, contaminate us, poison us.” Although this sounds bitter after a frightening pandemic, “intoxication” has nevertheless become the key term of the 21st century.

From the diploma production of the collective Hotel Regina, Master Theatre, Dramaturgy: “I Was Here. Eine Bergwanderung”, 2021. Photograph: Franziska Martin

Arts universities, as places of knowledge, knowledge transfer and learning, are facing new challenges amid ongoing social change. First of all, we perhaps need to invite discussion on our role as a state educational institution. I do not mean the place per se, but our practice of maintaining the status quo in the professional field (disciplines, methods and structures) and to pass this on as tradition. In this sense, arts teaching is necessarily conservative, self-preserving. Or as the British art theorist Charles Esche says: “It is the backdrop against which society makes visible the limitations of its concept of art. And if our view of the arts is limited, then so too is our view of society.” Accordingly, our potential for innovation is inextricably linked to the willingness of education and training to vehemently and creatively put on the agenda existing views in the arts and to dissolve their boundaries.

Sharing and Unlearning

Right now, I see at least two strategies that prevent us from retreating to time-honoured habits and that actually help us promote diversity in teaching, research and the arts:

1. Sharing: Especially in research, knowledge production is being increasingly driven jointly by several disciplines. This concerns questions that can no longer be dealt with from any single perspective. It is also about complex contexts that we no longer understand with merely one kind of expertise or must inevitably — in order to still understand them — translate into other formats, languages and media.
2. Unlearning: This term actively attempts to deconstruct existing belief systems in education and to redefine content. Cultural memory should not be discarded, but critically reflected on — especially against the background of inclusion and diversification, of established institutions being opened up to much broader target groups.

What role do our degree programmes want to play as sites of knowledge production in the future? Do we want to continue producing for a theatre, dance or film market that is committed to an established tradition? Or do we want to establish vibrant places dedicated to exploring the potential of the arts to transform society? How does this change the relationship between teachers and learners? How can our university become a fluid laboratory in which experimentation and alternatives are practised and lived?
I am happy to abandon my old guiding principle. But I do not want to stop asking: What can be imagined? By whom, for whom and how?

Marijke Hoogenboom (marijke.hoogenboom@zhdk.ch) is head of the Department of Performing Arts and Film and of the Research Dossier at ZHdK.
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