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22. october 2005
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Interview: Jakob Jakobsen, Copenhagen Free University

The Copenhagen Free University might be something else that its name implies. Henriette Heise and Jakob Jakobsen established the university in their apartment in a northern quarter of Copenhagen as an artist run initiative engaged in developing critical consciousness and a poetic language. During an exhibition in 2004 Judith Schwarzbart conducted this interview with Jakob Jakobsen.

Text: Judith Schwarzbart
Photo: Copenhagen Free University

The Copenhagen Free University's website lists more information about the university's activities: www.copenhagenfreeuniversity.dk

 



Interview with Jakob Jakobsen, Copenhagen Free University

This interview took place in Munich during the exhibition Teasing Minds at Kunstverein Muenchen 9 October - 14 November 2004. The exhibition was curated collaboratively by Bik Van der Pol, Maria Lind, Judith Schwarzbart, and Stealth. The contribution to the exhibition by Copenhagen Free University comprised an audio version of the university manifesto playing from a large Boombox and a series of phosphorescing posters. Teasing Minds, which included exhibition, workshop, events, and a publication, addressed generation of knowledge and took as point of departure a thesis by Ernst Pöppel (a famous cognition scientist in Munich) claiming that the brain is essentially lazy and only works creatively when standard solutions no longer suffice. A day during the opening events I met with Jakob Jakobsen in Munich’s House of Literature in order to talk about not the exhibition but Copenhagen Free University as idea, speech act, and activity.

Judith: Copenhagen Free University differs from other universities in the lack of professors, degrees, and lecture theatres among other things. Do you see the free university rather as a metaphor?

Jakob: The free university in Copenhagen is not a metaphor. It is not a joke and it has no irony attached to it. We see it as a genuine university and we aim for it to function as such - both internally and externally. Originally in the 13th Century when universities were founded, a university was a 'union' of students and teachers who wanted to exchange knowledge. This is the tradition we have entered into by setting up a self-organized university of people who have an interest in the sharing of knowledge. That university came to mean a whole lot of other things later in history, is a fact we are playing with by opening our university.

Judith: How do you see yourself in relation to a general knowledge production and knowledge economy?

Jakob: When we started the free university, there was a widespread discussion about a general shift in the character of production within the Western world: a change into a knowledge economy where knowledge was the major product. At the time just after the turn of the millennium, there was a university reform in Denmark, which did away with the self-government of the universities. Instead, they now have a board, which consists of a majority of members from outside of the university (i.e. from industry and commerce). This meant that knowledge today is increasingly understood within a utilitarian framework, it must be applied directly to the general production in society and have some kind of economic relevance.

 
Propaganda effort Munchen 2004: All Power to the Copenhagen Free University   Propaganda effort Hamburg 2002: Alle Macht der Freien Universität Kopenhagen

We wanted to interfere in that discussion by opening the free university. With a university you can valorise and authorise knowledge. A university works like a bank, it guaranties a value. Within the knowledge economy it has become a given that some knowledge is more valuable than other, and we wanted to intervene in this social debate about value and knowledge. There is a struggle going on, and our project is more subjective and aesthetically orientated than the universities around us. We try to think of knowledge within a human perspective and not in relation to capital. While knowledge economy is about how knowledge is turned into money, we consider how knowledge is turned into life. And this is a slightly different discussion!

Judith: Artists tend to create things and play with the imaginative. Does the world around you really comprehend you as a university?

Jakob: Yes. When we started out, it was very important for us that this was not an art school or something like that, but a university working with knowledge production across the social spectrum. Therefore, we are not directly connected to art even if that is our point of departure. A university has its connotations and people take it quite seriously. So we have, for instance, people applying for a job at the university. We have also offered the opportunity that people can use the free university if they need a reference. Furthermore, we have been contacted by clearing bureaus from England asking about a person we didn't know at all, who had declared he had worked at the free university. Of course we confirmed, that's alright!

 
Propagana effort in Oslo 2005: The Factory of Escape   Propagana effort in Southampton 2005: Taking Power, Refusing to Become Government (Theses on Knowledge Production)

What surprised us the most by taking on the authority of a university, is the global perspective. Almost weekly we are contacted by people from the third world who would like to study at the university. They hope that they can get access to the first world through the affiliation to a university. This is of course precarious. We don't want to play with people's lives, so we take this quite seriously. We have examined the possibilities with the authorities, but we can't do anything as it is very hard to get a residence permit in Denmark, and it takes full proof of funding for living costs etc. When we write back, we therefore always suggest that they should contact one of the other universities in town, even though these people's chances are small. But the situation tells something about the global significance of the universities, a perspective we had not thought of before we started.

Judith: How is your relationship to the public?

Jakob: We work with the thesis that one can seize power by setting up an institution. We don't have big hopes when it comes to the so-called bourgeois public sphere, which we are told that we are part of. This public sphere is also connected to the bourgeois state and a bourgeois creation of public opinion. Instead, we believe that we are producing our own public sphere consisting of a network of people, friends, and colleagues, who engage in the discussions about and around our institution. When we started out, we were obviously interested in these questions about a public sphere and the frameworks within which you could discuss and produce subjectivity. We wrote a manifesto and wanted to print it in one of the daily broadsheet newspapers. You see, the Futurists had their manifesto printed on the front page of Le Figaro in the beginning of the last Century, so we thought that we could have ours on the front page of a Danish newspaper. We did our best, but when we spoke to a lot of editors there was no interest in that kind of utterance. So that was our first collision with the bourgeois public. Later on we had some articles describing our work, and debating our considerations on knowledge production in relation to the general production in the Western world. But this never provoked any further debate within the media. The debate we consider important takes place within a more intimate network, which is the public sphere we produce. So it is really not about taking part in a public sphere, but rather about producing one.

 
Propagande effort Malmö 2002: the ABZ of the Copenhagen Free University   Anti-PR

Judith: How is this produced public sphere related to the art life of Copenhagen? Do you see a lot of the same people?

Jakob: In principal the university is open for everybody who fancies taking part. It is a broad crowd of people and artists are a minority. From the outset it was the aim to create a university that plays a role in the general production of knowledge and is not only connected to art - although art is also a social production. And we never had to make any effort to get other people in. It ended up being an interesting group of diverse people who take part in our activities by themselves. Recently, a priest took part in one of our events. I am personally not a big fan of the church, so it was an antagonism that created quite some debate.

Judith: You always avoid using the word alternative when you describe your activities. Is Copenhagen Free University not an alternative university?

Jakob: It is a strategy we are working with. Instead of being anti-institutional we think it is possible to create an institution yourself; a self-institution. If you alone position yourself in relation to the institutions given in a society by criticising them (which is of course not wrong to do), then you tend to take part in the structure, which offers these institutions. By contrast: to create our own institution that takes on the authority such an institution has - and then play with that, making it transparent. It is our intention to turn up right at the centre rather than as an anti-thesis to something we, deep down, are not even interested in. Instead, we pose our own thesis, which can interact with the other projects around us. It is the same by constructing our own public sphere - in that way we don't recognise the dialectic between mainstream and margin, between a power monopoly and the opponents. It is about seizing power - the other universities are alternative to us!

We don't live in a parallel world but in the same one. We seek to develop a practice, which proves that the institutions presented to us are based on political decisions. They are social constructions, which can be restructured and done in another way. We avoid the parallel strategy and the "everything is fine"-attitude that we should exist side by side. Rather we seek to establish a struggle about these concepts in order to create antagonistic situations. In that sense, we are not so tolerant; we aim for antagonistic debates; we aim for contestation.

 
The stairwell of the Copenhagen Free University   'Situationist Documents', exhibition and archive at the CFU 2003

 
'Art and Economy', project on art and money in collaboration with Anthony Davies   'Raising af Resister', project on Women-only Organisations at the CFU 2001 in collaboration with Emma Hedditch

Judith: There is a strong proximity of everyday life and the university - not only because of the location of the university in your own flat in Copenhagen. Does it ever come to conflicts between your private lives and the institutional life?

Jakob: All our activities are filtered through our daily life. We have an almost fetishist relationship to daily life; it is very important both on a practical and a theoretical level. When people approach us and want to be part of the Copenhagen Free University, we say they are of course welcome, and so on and so forth, but the most radical conclusion that people could draw is to try opening their own university. In that way, we don't try to generalise our everyday life as any kind of ideal - and it isn't! It is just a way of stating that these are the materials and economical conditions and that we, in spite of these, are able to form a voice. Of course there are a lot of conflicts, but we stress that it is a synthetic and subjective university, which arises from the material conditions we experience. This is in opposition to the claim on objectivity and neutrality, which other universities present us with. We try to use the conflict in a debating way. Also, internally it is an antagonistic project, we disagree on what it is we are doing and we hold on to that. These are conflicts, which bring the whole project forwards. It is not an integral whole.

To get back to our strategy in relation to the public sphere, we have divided our work into what we call the primary and secondary practice. The primary practice is what takes place within the framework of the university, in the local area of Nørrebro. Here we have different projects that are more or less public. The public part is meetings, screenings of different kinds, and exhibitions. In addition, we have closed activities of various kinds. These are mainly various kinds of research activities, but the borders between what is public and what is private is being negotiated all the time. We normally don't document or record any of the activities at the university, as we think it works for the people who are there, and it is up to them to bring it out into the world the way they understand it; just like we do it ourselves.

The secondary practice is about representation of the problem complex we are working with. This is e.g. here in Munich. We call that our propaganda activities. Here, there is no interaction, it is one-way communication. This distinction we partly use in order to get out into the world with our ideas, to exchange, and to se, what other people are up to, and partly in order to protect what we do at home, not to turn the activities into a spectacle. We don't want to represent the concrete activities taking place at the Copenhagen Free University. You have to be present, you have to take part.

 
Propaganda effort Coventry 2003: The ABZ of The Copenhagen Free University   Propaganda effort Bratislava 2003: Ruin the Palace (All Power to The Copenhagen Free Unversity)

Judith: Poetry is a concept that turns up now and again in your texts and speaking. Which role does poetry play for you?

Jakob: We have a slogan that says that the Copenhagen Free University is an "institution dedicated to the production of critical consciousness and a poetic language". That is a statement and we leave it up to people to understand it in several ways. But of course it has to do with a drift away from the informative and utilitarian language. We think it is important to invent concepts and create images from the thoughts that unfold within our university. The speech-act of doing a university gives rise to a lot of interpretations and imaginations about things we don't do at all. But this is also important. This looseness in the language is perhaps the poetic in what we do. But then again, this looseness, this plasticity of language has to go hand in hand with a critical consciousness and critique of language as it is used by power.

Judith: Do you see the act and the speech-act of making your university as a model for other people to use?

Jakob: We don't see ourselves as a model, in the sense that other people should repeat what we do. This is the ethos in our idea of self-organisation. We have sister universities in different places in Europe, but we don't assert us to be a model for these. There have been lots of free universities before us in history. It is a general discussion about the spectrum of voices within the knowledge economy. It has grown into an informal network of these institutions where we discuss aims and means. Institutions are not a given but social constructions, and it is interesting to see how other people work with the concept of a university. It is tremendously diverse. We are used to thinking that the university is a universal thing, just like most other institutions. But basically it is a construction, which, when self-created, takes on many different forms.

We see art as a social praxis, and believe art is an important part of societal practice, but that it can play another role than it does today. In this way, we stick to our point of departure, but are interested in the full spectrum of the social production of knowledge. We have some aesthetical conceptions about life, which is not to invest the aesthetic in the artwork but in the social sphere. We see the university as a social figure, which also creates images, and in that way working with the figure of the university fits well into our notion of what art can do. It is not just an image, but a social mechanism that is also producing images.

 
 
Related links:

Copenhagen Free University: www.copenhagenfreeuniversity.dk
Kunstverein München: www.kunstverein-muenchen.de