Interview with Eik Hermann

Eik Hermann, lecturer of the practice-based theory and philosophy at the Estonian Academy of Arts (EKA), Co-Editor-in-Chief of the architecture magazine "Ehituskunst". Interview by Maarin Ektermann Estonian Academy of Arts (EKA), 06.05.2021.

“Maybe it’s time to give slow education a chance”


Erik Hermann, lecturer of the practice-based theory and philosophy at the Estonian Academy of Arts discusses the importance of slow education in allowing students time to develop their own style and ideas, valuing “messiness” over “pure” results. Further, Herman identifies the lack of imagination as the biggest problem we face today, highlights the need for creative solutions to problems such as climate crises and societal polarization and emphasizes the importance of integrating theory and practice in the context of artistic research within institutes of higher arts education.


Could you please first introduce yourself, what is your profession, what do you do?

I teach philosophy, I’m a lecturer. But I also work extensively with architects, mostly with the last year students who write their master’s thesis. I help them with their research, whatever “research” might mean in this context. I also write articles on different themes in the cultural journals.

My background is in French philosophy of the 20th and 21st century. I think that through this education I have acquired a very good background to be engaged in co-operative projects, because it has helped me to understand different vocabularies – different conceptwares, so to speak – and to understand or learn very quickly the conceptwares underlying different ways of doing. This has given me good tools for cooperating with architects, sometimes also artists, but mostly I work in the field of architecture.

What do you see as the most influential developments right now for us as a human species?

That’s such a small question! (laughing) One of the keywords I could bring out is this collapse of imagination in the largest sense. Climate warming is a very good example where you can easily see that there are not too many ideas of how to deal with it. The polarisation of societies is definitely also a problem of imagination, in this case of empathic imagination – the argumentation is getting thin from both sides, and there is a lack of complex positions. Instead, the opposing views tend to be quite simplistic, and it’s quite hard to have any relevant or meaningful discussion.

What do you see as important roles of artists in society now and what they could be in future? Are the artists maybe ones with the imagination in that crisis you pointed out?

I am actually not so sure about that. I’ve heard this comparison of artists with canary birds in the mines – birds were brought to the mines as they were sensitive to any dangerous gases that could lead to an explosion. I think this comparison is still relevant. But I guess it’s up to the future to tell us whether the artists are more like canary-birds or more like parrots. Because, for me, the influence of the artists to the larger society is not so direct, and it shouldn’t be so direct. One of the things that I wouldn’t like at all would be turning art into a sort of propaganda machine, even if the ideas are worthy. So, I think it’s an open question: can art have any meaningful way of influencing things directly or are there other people who are better suited for that? We both have lived in the Soviet Union with its ideas of art as propaganda.

But what kind of skill sets do you believe an artist should have after finishing a programme at an art institution?

I think it’s a mix of hand skills (in the largest sense) and critical thinking skills, ability to generate ideas and problems, and also to take into account the context. So, maybe a mix of three skill sets: the hand skills, understanding of the context, and the ability to work with matter and environment to produce new ideas.

Do you think that certain topics, or curriculums are outdated in our higher art education and maybe shouldn’t be continued?

I’m really influenced by what Bruno Latour has written about the recent times, the relationship between the past and present: perhaps one of the reasons we are facing these problems we have right now is our tendency to break with our past too easily. For example, those traditional crafting skills that are still present in EKA, are not a problem, but an asset and resource. We shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss these. And also not too quick to embrace only future technologies. I think both of them are important.

So, to answer your question, maybe what we are teaching is not so outdated, but maybe the way we teach it is becoming outdated. Maybe it is part of the situation that we are still assuming that when you are a good practitioner, then you’re also a good teacher and this is not the case at all. And education in the Western world is still in the grips of distinction between mental and bodily. This division should be questioned also in connection to teaching. We’re still assuming that we could teach the soul while the body is just sitting there. And we are still teaching individuals, although at least in architecture there is no one who will do it alone. And even in Fine Arts, people are doing more and more collective exhibitions etc., but still we educate them as individuals, and we grade them as individuals and that’s problematic, I think.

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Could you maybe bring some examples of teaching methods that you have tested out personally? Because you teach very different courses, also general courses, where you have students from different departments, really large groups etc.

I still use the old format of lecturing: the students are listening and I talk… In my defence, I would say that as a learner myself I still prefer this format and I think it has its place. All these kinds of group work formats I detest as a learner, because it’s too slow and too trivial: it gives the responsibility of coming up with the information to the people who actually don’t have it yet. I definitely understand the idea that we learn best when we are active, but I think this works only after you have gained sufficient “backbone knowledge”. To get this kind of knowledge, the lecture is still a viable format. In the future, I will maybe combine it more with online formats, recorded formats: maybe this will give me the opportunity to “flip the classroom”, so that they will view the online lecture first and then we can come together and discuss it and have group work.

One of the things I’ve done and of which I’m quite proud is that instead of demanding just a final essay to grade, I divide the essay writing process into different phases. I don’t even call them essays anymore, more like drafts. In Estonian, there are good words for it – “mustand” and “puhtand”. In English, one talks of the first draft, the second draft, the final draft and so on: the draft is a common denominator here. But in the Estonian language, there is also a connotation of “messy” and “clean” in these words. So, “messy draft” and “clean draft” are maybe the closest we could get in English in conveying these ideas. So, at first they write the messy draft: here, they don’t need to present their thoughts in any logical order yet, just in the order they occur. Based on such drafts, they give feedback to each other, answering some questions I have prepared for them: what was intriguing, what was too ordinary, what was not working, what was working? Each of them reads the drafts of two of their classmates and then gives them feedback. By giving feedback to others, they also start thinking about the same things in their own drafts, which offers them a different perspective on their writing. After that, they write the so-called clean draft. The main difference between the messy and clean draft, as I explained, was that the idea of the messy draft was to generate ideas and develop them further. And the purpose of the clean one is then to present these ideas to others. This year, I actually suggested to them that the clean draft shouldn’t be so clean. This is because I’ve been kind of fed up by all these courses in the school that always demand final drafts from the students. So, what I offered them was a chance to just develop the messy draft in its different stages and leave it at that. It was up to them, whether they were brave enough to not present a final draft. But it turned out that the works that I received this year were much bolder in their approaches to how to present their ideas. Overall, I think this setup has given quite surprising and good and beautiful results.

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You mentioned that you plan to incorporate more online elements to your courses – I wanted to ask how the pandemic changed your overall view on teaching and learning?

It forced me to use these things that are good anyway. My recorded lectures got quite good feedback from the students. This opportunity to choose whether they’ll come to the classroom or do they listen on their own tempo is something that I think I want to keep forever. But today was the last lecture of the masters’ student’s philosophy course and I am actually a bit sad that I never managed to see them in person. Doing seminars by Zoom is a bit problematic or I just don’t know how to conduct them so that people would be taking part in the discussion, I managed to do better seminars in an actual classroom.

Is there something else that would be good to take away from this pandemic/forced distant learning experience?

I think one of the things that it has shown us is that actually, the online teaching format is much more viable than we first suspected, it just should be combined with in the classroom activities, but it has its upsides. Through Zoom we can also see people in their normal environments. Otherwise, they come to your lecture or seminar and you see the students with their masks on. But now you see them in their home environments: I think there is a degree of intimacy that is missing in the usual places of teaching. But definitely the downside is that we’re not seeing their hand-work: their engagement with materials. So it’s probably also widening the gap between mental and physical I talked about earlier.

And maybe it’s off topic, but I think the office meetings have been much more productive in Zoom. There are some meetings where you actually just have to be “half”-there and, you know, Zoom is a very good way to be “half”-there.

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But how do you imagine the future of education?

I’ve proposed a distinction about fast education and slow one, based on the analogy of slow food and fast food. If you think about fast education, then the idea is to get these students through the processes as efficiently as possible, to give them the necessary skills to become whatever society wants them to be, one tiny bit in the overall system. And then it’s really important that people go through their education in “proper time” – BA in three years, MA in two years etc. Fast type of education is not asking what the student is needing, what is their peculiarity and how they find this tempo. It just says what we want them to do. This approach may not be problematic in these contexts where we know what the future will be like: we know what skills to give them, force feeding them because we know what they need, sort of force-feeding them like geese to produce good foie gras.

But in these times when we actually don’t know what ten years from now will be like, I don’t think we’re in a position to force feed anything. So maybe it’s time to give the slow education a chance, which would be all about helping students to develop at their own pace, do it through their own peculiarities, and give them much more freedom and time.

Of course, my fear is that the future of education will be more and more like the fast one, but I hope it will become more and more like the slow one.

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Do you think institutes of higher arts education are powerful enough to set their own agenda, like to choose this slow education path?

That’s a good question. All in all, I think art academies etc. are in the best place to test out this kind of vision. It’s a good fit with the students that these institutions attract. I don’t know if they have enough power, in the face of outside pressure of imposing fast education. Maybe they’re not able to resist this, but I think it should be tried. And when I’m critical of things I see in my home institution, it is because I sense this institution is not trying enough.

What do you think is the position of art academies etc. in society now? Do they have enough impact?

At least in Estonia the position has quite radically changed. In Soviet times the culture was one of the main vehicles of a resistance, cultural workers and intellectuals were in accord with each other, sent each other hidden messages and engaged in this kind of games; everybody knew who the enemy was, because the power was outside of ourselves. But now we are independent and this has divided us, the same logic doesn’t apply anymore. And quite fast, the cultural institutions and the general public have grown apart. Probably it’s inevitable, but it’s also a bit sad to see the general anti-intellectualism that dominates Estonia right now. It’s not very fashionable to be an intellectual or any sort of an expert, because experts are seen as imposing their “opinions” on others. So, yes, I’m worried about or at least sad about the impact of art on the general society: it’s quite weak. Probably it’s not only the general public’s fault: it’s a tangled tale.

What could be done about it? Like, from the EKA’s side – what can educational institutes do in order to be more impactful?

That’s the million dollar question! But I don’t have an answer to this: I see myself as an educator of a minority.

To talk more about possible futures – how do you see artists’, designers’ and architects’ roles in future? You mentioned earlier that you don’t want this impact on society becoming too direct, but where could they position themselves, outside their professional field?

First I have to say that the artists, designers and architects themselves have grown apart. I don’t want to present the Soviet times as some green grass I would like to go back to, but at least all of these professions were working and cooperating together then. I don’t see any reason why this could not happen again. I think they have a much bigger chance to have an impact by working together, instead of being closed off in separate departments. But these tendencies are even more clear between different institutions, because we don’t have enough ties between the professions. Just the other week I took part in a workshop for scriptwriters, and there was so much in common, but I sensed that we’ve been living in totally different worlds. And one task may be to search for ties even beyond that, even beyond the fields that were usually called creative.

Another thing is that the skills that artists and architects have been developing just by practising in their own field actually has much wider applications. If we begin to think more systematically about this, then there’s some interesting possibilities. I would say that professional skills of artists and architects are in some sense underused.

Estonia is so small. In bigger countries one can have impact only through institutions, but here we have a chance to just phone a minister, get into contact. It’s happening so quickly, the barriers are so small. So it is possible to have an impact by communicating, by stepping out of everyday roles. Artists sometimes think that being an artist kind of precludes you from talking to someone in power, but ministers are just like any other human being, they could be talked to and discuss things with them. So I think as Estonia is so small, we have some chances that maybe bigger countries don’t have in this aspect.

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What you said made me think that we need translators, people who are able to move between different branches of society. Estonia has quite special advantages, it’s really closely connected and it’s easy to get those contacts, but maybe we still need those mediators in a broader sense?

Actually, that’s one of the things I propose in my doctoral thesis. Don Norman has talked about it in the context of design: we need some translators between practice and theory. I completely agree, but this need for translators extends far beyond that. We’ve been talking about interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary work, but I think this will never become fruitful without an extra field of translators in the extended sense. Perhaps we even need a special curriculum for exactly such translators. The in-betweener is a really good word in this respect. Basically, that’s how I see myself also, although I never intended to be one.

I wonder if it can be intended to be in-between, or this is just what happens and you diagnose yourself after a while and then decide to continue to be this in-betweener there?

Eik Hermann:
I still have a feeling it can be intended and even taught.

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I have two more questions, one is about shorter and one about longer perspective. How do you see your work and your role to change and evolve within the next few years? What do you think will be drivers of that change?

I have no idea, actually. What I’m interested in is to push myself more into this in-betweener direction, because I’m not really interested in doing pure theory anymore and pure practice is not my strength. I feel like this being in between a theory and practice fields is really my thing. I certainly want to go more into this direction.

But if I asked you to imagine and describe your work in 25 years, what would be the utopian and dystopian version of it?

The dystopian version is that EKA will become a university like any other, not in a good way. It is a small institution in a small country and becoming a higher art institution just like the bigger ones in the bigger countries just doesn’t make sense. It’s a waste of students, a waste of our time and a waste of the environment also.

The utopian version would be that EKA would evolve more into this slow education direction – I really think this is what the students deserve. And maybe we will also have this curriculum for in-betweeners and this has really impacted society. I think it is time to overthrow the usual disciplinary divides!

One last question – what are you really excited about, in terms of future developments? What are you really looking forward to?

I’m not really a technological optimist in the sense that technology would get me too excited. But I’m an avid reader of neuroscience and I think this is really inspiring. It puts into question many of the views that were held just 50 years ago, just about anything. It has a big subversive power in this respect: it offers many things to think through and to “translate” to creative fields. The developments in this field have made many older distinctions irrelevant, for example the one between the mental and the bodily. So yeah, developments in this field are quite exciting, also developments in the technology of ideas, these mental tools that are becoming available.

Another source of excitement is the students and the way they are changing. I’m already twice as old as many students I teach at the bachelor level. It is a constant source of excitement to know what they are thinking and to imagine how they are, how their life is right now and what makes them tick.

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