Preventive Education: New Imaginations

The New Imaginations series instigates an ongoing conversation between various actors and international institutions to investigate the role of education in the arts, focussing on plurality, collective practices and multi-disciplinarity. The conversation series prepares for and supplements the Lab For New Imaginations which will take place from 6 September to 19 September 2021 within MACRO museum’s spaces and around Rome.


Andy Abbott is an artist, musician, writer, curator and arts organiser who lives in Bradford, West Yorkshire, UK. His research interests are in Do-It-Yourself culture, artist-led initiatives, alternative economies and postwork futures. Recent and forthcoming writing includes articles and book contributions on the creative case for Universal Basic Income. He has exhibited and performed internationally as an individual artist and in various collaborations including the art collective Black Dogs. He has undertaken exhibitions, commissions and residencies for Tate Modern, London; MK Gallery, Milton Keynes; SWG3, Glasgow; Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead; Museum of Oxford; and Yorkshire Forward; and has completed residencies for Gasworks, London; in PiST, Istanbul; and Convivio, Oaxaca.


Currently, Abbott is the Program Curator at UNIDEE – University of Ideas at Cittadellarte which is part of Fondazione Michelangelo Pistoletto in Biella. 


UNIDEE – University of Ideas initially started as an international programme of four-month residencies (1999–2013), and then evolved to its current model focusing on annual themes and four types of residencies with different durations and objectives.

Hi Andy! What has brought you to Biella and why were you interested in accepting the offer?

I first came into contact with Cittadellarte and Biella as a resident of the UNIDEE programme in 2006 which I undertook collaboratively with my partner Yvonne Carmichael. The project we developed was based on the parallel histories of Biella and West Yorkshire as textile towns and took the form of research and dialogue with residents of these towns about the role of work and leisure in their identity. I continued to explore these interests following the residency through my artistic practice, postgraduate study and then my postdoctoral action research in Bradford, West Yorkshire where I piloted a Centre for Socially Applied arts at the University there. The timing for the call for ‘visiting research curator’ came as I was reflecting on this last decade or so of activity and I thought that bringing my interests back to Cittadellarte and Biella could be a good way to do this with others through the residency programme. So I sent them a proposal and that’s how we reconnected!

How do you choose the tutors and topics of each workshop?

The overall theme for the 2020 programme was ‘Embedded Arts Practice in a Post-Pandemic Future’, and the other iterations I will programme in my time as Visiting Research Curator will continue to explore the different facets of embedded practice. So the guests I approach are practitioners and the occasional theorist or academic who I think can help to frame this and provide useful tools, and share experiences that will help the residents reflect on their own practice. The focus is on learning through doing (both in practice-based research and research-led practice) and a peer-to-peer methodology. So the guest mentors are people that we hope will bring interesting perspectives and act as useful mirrors for the resident’s practice. I try to get a mix of people who are ‘visible’ in the field (from an Institutional Art World perspective) and organisations or individuals with whom I have worked and might normally be overlooked.

Which are projects or institutions that you take inspiration from and why?

With regards to the content of the programme I’m very keen to bring in organisations that are experimenting with alternative ways of doing and organising; for example those that have collective, co-operative and non-hierarchical structure. I am inspired by a lot of practitioners who make a long-term commitment to a place, and often work without a great deal of reward, as I think the learning that can be shared from this process is extremely valuable. So that can range from a workers co-operative running a music venue, to an embedded arts organisation in a postindustrial town, to a renowned artist or academic working transnationally. In general I am inspired by the people who are ‘doing the work’ and the nice thing is that these people are always excited to hear about other practices too, so they are excited to connect with the residents as peers rather than masters or experts. 

How to conceive of a program during a pandemic, and how much has the program you originally had in mind had to change?

My original proposal to Cittadellarte was to create a series of short residencies with small groups that would act as moments of testing and reflection for their ongoing and embedded practice or action research. So when Juan asked me to curate the residency as a longer programme that combined the individual residents ‘work from home’ with short one-week intensives in Biella, this was a nice fit. We also had to come up with some platforms for keeping the whole group in dialogue over the entire period, and for creating space and time for all the informal and self-organised or spontaneous interactions that occur through a residency. Whilst this was a challenge and cannot be entirely ‘simulated’ remotely or with digital tools, I think we found some innovative and successful methods that helped forge a mutual support network of practitioners. I think there is a lot I and we will continue to use in future programmes even if/when there are less restrictions on travel and close proximity working.

What do you foresee for the future of art education? How can self-organised cultural activity coexist within an institution?

It’s a great question and of course one that I do not have a defined or complete answer to! I do hope that these issues are what we are unpicking and experimenting with through the UNIDEE programme together. From my perspective, I believe self-organised culture (which is often where innovation and change comes from, i.e ‘from below’) flourishes in times of crisis and change, because it is born out of a lack or need. Right now we are experiencing seismic shifts in the way we live, work, understand and interact with the world and each other and this is creating a lot of cracks from where radical ‘dark matter’ breeds and emerges. So I think institutions can help foster this by recognizing, identifying or shining a light on such activity and then nurturing and supporting it by creating spaces where it can develop and take new forms. The tricky part is in not killing this fragile stuff through over-exposure, and to learn from it rather than integrate it.