'Thinking is a dangerous activity' | An Paenhuysen

An Paenhuysen, a Berlin-based writer, curator and arts educator will be coming to Malta to deliver a masterclass on art criticism. She speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about what participants can expect, and how contrary to popular belief, love and lightness can be very much part of the critiquing process

An Paenhuysen
An Paenhuysen

How has your background (educational, professional and otherwise) influenced your approach towards criticism, and what were some of the most important lessons you’ve learned along the way?

School and academia definitely sharpened my research and opinion-making skills, but they didn’t contribute much to my joy and confidence in writing. I consider myself to be a ‘light’ writer, which doesn’t really fit with the ‘seriousness’ that academic writing seems to imply. Over the years, I turned this ‘weakness’ of mine into my main interest.

The potential of the short and the light-humored is what my critical writing and thinking-practice focus on. And it’s also what most exercises in my workshops are about: they can be written in a short time span and are intended to try out some half, rather than fully accomplished, thoughts. To have fun became my main advice in writing. I’m a huge Andy Warhol fan so I agree with his philosophy of taking it easy.

What would you say are some of the main principles that an art critic should cleave to at all times, and how many of these are actually ‘teachable’?

Writing is a great way to think things through. But thinking is also a dangerous activity and it involves vulnerability. It’s a lot easier to accept the status quo than to think for oneself. So to gain confidence and strengthen one’s voice, it is necessary to have a safe space to experiment.

The classroom can be this safe space. Creativity is social: without any communication and feedback one won’t be able to grow. But this sharing doesn’t necessarily always need to be a show and tell. It can take the form of ‘write-in’s’ as the poet and art critic Eileen Myles practises them: to write “in the vicinity of other thinking writing bodies and this strictly for dreamy and real private writing production”.

“I don’t really see social media as something negative for art criticism”
“I don’t really see social media as something negative for art criticism”

How has the social media landscape changed the nature of art criticism, and what are some of the best ways to combat its worst tendencies and side-effects?

I don’t really see social media as something negative for art criticism. It actually helps me to do my own thing independently of art magazines or newspapers. I love blogging! Social media also allows me to explore different ways of writing, for instance with picture haikus that fit the display of Instagram.  

What are you most looking forward to exploring with your upcoming workshop in Malta, and how do you hope to influence and help budding art critics locally?

Although the workshop is about art writing, I like to think that it is for anyone who wants to write about the world we live in. Writing helps to create an awareness of the surroundings, to notice things, and to enjoy them more. And art invites you to look at and sense the world in a slightly different way. The critical part of art criticism is often considered to be a downer; a negative activity that comes from angry, frustrated, and nagging people. But I find that it’s out of love for art that critical writing and thinking comes about. So I hope the workshop on art criticism can inspire people to love more and more!

The workshop

An Panenhuysen’s workshop will appeal to all kinds of writers, who are either interested or already engaged in writing for the arts, from critics, journalists, curators, artists, students, academics, bloggers and commentators, to professionals responsible for creating content and communications for cultural organisations and institutions.

The workshop begins and ends with an online session, with the main component taking place in Malta over two days on November 31 and December 1 at Valletta Vintage, St Paul’s Street, Valletta. Participants are expected to attend all online and offline sessions. The workshop will be presented in English, however for those who prefer to write in Maltese, support will be available from linguist and arts manager, Francesca Mangion. Through varied teaching and learning techniques, the workshop will provide much-needed skills and knowledge, paving the way for a new generation of professional arts writers and critics in Malta. It’s also an opportunity to simply improve your writing skills and meet others with a shared passion. A fee of €50 will apply.

An Paenhuysen is a freelance writer, curator, and arts educator. She is a lecturer with Node Curatorial Studies Online, where she delivers courses on critical and creative writing, and curatorial studies. An has curated exhibitions at the Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum of Contemporary Art, Berlin, as well as the exhibition Gesture Sign Art, Deaf Culture / Hearing Culture, in Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien, Berlin. She has published a book about the Belgian avant-garde, and has written for exhibition catalogues and art magazines such as Spex, Artslant, and WhiteHotMagazine.

The workshop will be produced by Nicole Bearman (We Live Here) and Margerita Pulè (Unfinished Art Space), two arts professionals who are also both highly accomplished in their fields and passionate about raising levels of knowledge and professionalism in the Maltese arts sector. This project is supported by the Project Support Grant, Malta Arts Fund – Arts Council Malta, and by Valletta Vintage and Artpaper.

Those interested are invited to download an info pack on www.creativecriticalwriting.space, or request more information by emailing [email protected].