re-un-learning, Yolande Zola Zoli van der Heide

narrator Yolande Zola Zoli van der Heide
term re-un-learning
affiliated institution Van Abbemuseum


L’internationale Glossary of Common Language

Yolande Zola Zoli van der Heide

June 2020


In recent conversations with artist Laure Prouvost, I have come to an expanded notion of the practice of unlearning – a term that for her requires going back in time to get closer to a first discovery of a thing, as a child might experience it, relying on instinct, senses, smell, taste.[1] Prouvost works from a place of abundance as far as language is concerned and yields to no limitation. In this spirit, unlearning can be practised in various ways when envisioned as a re-dit-en-un-re-(a)learning.



Re-learning suggests a return to something once forgotten, and, according to a common dictionary definition is “a method of measuring the retention of learned material by measuring how much faster a person can relearn material that had been previously learned and then forgotten.”



I had to look up “en” in French, which is used to replace a noun, what then of the this in relation to the verb of unlearning? This is an incomplete thought



(A)learning is another take on learning that perplexes me due to its French origins: “a” [no accent] is a conjugated form of the verb “avoir”, e.g., Elle a un bateau (She has a boat). “À” [with accent grave! (I gleefully recall the French I learned as a child)] is commonly used as a preposition. Its meaning varies depending on the sentence (at, in, or to) – Prouvost uses all of them when it comes to learning: to be at, in, or to learning.



Dit is the past participle of the French verb “dire”, which means "to say", and in the case of dit is translated loosely as "that is to say", or "called", so so-called learning?


In Dutch, “dit” means “this” – translating to this learning.


Dit-learning is also the title of the artist’s 2017 film, with a lexicon (or legsicon) at its centre, consisting of terms stitched together in rapid succession and matched with images to break apart old meanings and create new ones. Dit-learning, perhaps synonymous with un-learning (a return to a first discovery where the structure under which we learn is visible or how knowledge is produced and stabilized), concerns itself with the liberation of oneself from oppressive systems once we’ve identified them. 



Unlearning, to my understanding, takes its cue from Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s concept of “unlearning one’s privilege”. It denotes an active critical investigation of normative structures and practices so that one might become aware and get rid of taken-for-granted theoretical and practical “truths” in order to tackle inequalities in everyday life. So, unlearning is not so much the divestment of specific skills, but of a habitus. And when applied to institutions, unlearning can entail a process of de-instituting directed towards embodied forms of knowledge and the (un)conscious operation of ways of thinking and doing.


Commoning language, language as a commons

Prouvost’s approach to taxonomy, her seemingly endless rubrics and matrixes for language, opens us up to the variety in understanding, and to a multiplicitous nature of being.[2] This is useful to us in how it evokes the very practice of commoning (as a verb) in that language itself reclaimed from its enclosures. Prouvost migrates across French, English, and at times other languages, to muddle syntax; she disassociates and re-associates; she suggests a new condition in which misunderstanding –experienced even in groups with sharing practices and who are invested in new and just ways of being, living, or working together—reveals a limitation in communication as well as possibilities for reconciliation and affective resources with new vocabularies, syntax, and narratives. These resources can break tensions around ideas to make way for knowing and meaning making. Prouvost reveals what can be learned on the verge of failed communication. At their best, then Prouvost’s taxonomies speak to how the commons are resources for uptake and practice by a community that is dedicated to difference.[3]


Re-un-learning for the commons

Prouvost’s upcoming film, with the working title re-dit-en-un-re-(a)learning,

will be presented in the context of Positions #6. Work. Life. Death. Drugs, an upcoming group exhibition at the Van Abbemuseum that addresses the different ways in which our bodies are used for and by contemporary society, as informed, for example, by technology – the relationship between humanity’s engagement with the earth and the future of our existence in technological society. Ivan Illich’s prophetic 1983 essay “Silence is a Commons: Computers are doing to communication what fences did to pastures and cars did to streets”, captures this fraught relation between people and their machines. In it a history of pastures and roads are converted from commons-owned and used to controlled by a few as a result of electronic devices. He relays this lesson through a story about the first loudspeaker arriving on the Island of Brac, off the coast of Croatia, in 1926, thereby disrupting the democracy of communication on the island.[4] While Illich could not have foreseen how the internet would evolve, his critique of “computer-managed society” falls short of envisioning the internet as both a commons and a resource, exemplified by the very nature of how this conference is organized: each at different localities brought together over time and space on the web or by the Glossary of Common Language itself created similarly over time and space. Provost’s practice seems to address both Illich’s concerns and the positive possibility of technology. For her, language making is a technology mechanized through play and the installation environments that she creates to introduce fundamental new options in human communication. The viewer is invited to engage in language recipes that are experienced through the body and in the imagination of art.


Motion & re-un-learning

As the COVID-19 quarantine lifts across the globe, haunting questions come to the surface around which lessons we want to keep and maintain in order not to return, full circle, to a “business as usual” that is invested in rhetoric over sustained practice towards systemic change. The task is to address inequities at their systemic core, following, for instance, Kerstin Stakemeier and Marina Vishmidt’s “unlearning to unlearn”.[5] So how might museums ward off this return to business as usual and why re-un-learn?[6] Institutionalization muddies the divide between reproduction and production, devaluing reproductive labour for economic gain. A gruelling imaginative process of re-un-learning “truths” must take place so that institutions instead foster commoning spaces in which embodied experiences are the subject of each other’s learning and re-un-learning. We tread on unequal ground, bound by neoliberal working conditions. Adopting aspects of past discourse, we must activate the visible front (productive) and invisible back (reproductive) of institutions to “institute” as  we (re)present, situating and beginning to practice solidarity.

[1] My experience with this term is summed up in Unlearning Exercises: Art Organizations as Sites for Unlearning (Utrecht & Amsterdam: Casco Art Institute and Valiz, 2018).

[2] In her text Hometactics: Self Mapping, Belonging and the Home Question, philosopher Mariana Ortega “identifies a horizon of identification, in the project of coalition building, that acknowledges selves that are multiplicitous, ambiguous and contradictory.”

[3] This framework and connection between language and commons is explored in a 2019 exhibition I worked on: Het is of de Stenen Spreken: Silence is a Commons at Casco Art Institute: Working for the Commons.

[4] “Few people there had ever heard of such a thing. Up to that day, all men and women had spoken with more or less equally powerful voices. Henceforth this would change. Henceforth the access to the microphone would determine whose voice shall be magnified. Silence now ceased to be in the commons; it became a resource for which loudspeakers compete. Language itself was transformed thereby from a local commons into a national resource for communication… The encroachment of the loudspeaker has destroyed that silence which so far had given each man and woman his or her proper and equal voice. Unless you have access to a loudspeaker, you are now silenced.

I hope that the parallel now becomes clear. Just as the commons of space are vulnerable, and can be destroyed by the motorization of traffic, so the commons of speech are vulnerable, and can easily be destroyed by the encroachment of modern means of communication. Commons can exist without police, but resources cannot. Just as traffic does, computers call for police, and for ever more of them, and in ever more subtle forms.”

[5] In their forward to Unlearning Exercises: Art Organizations as Sites for Unlearning (Utrecht & Amsterdam: Casco Art Institute and Valiz, 2018)

[6] See, for example, the set of questions and exercises in Where to land after the pandemic by Bruno Latour with the Science Po médialab, the ZKM | Center for art and Media Karlsruhe, and the Consortium Où atterrir ?: