Perla Montelongo, Teaching Online and in Real Life
Creating An Opportunity Out of Necessity
Perla Montelongo is the founder of Node Center for Curatorial Studies, an online platform that proposes courses for curators. She studied fine arts in Mexico, and a Masters in Interactive Media in Barcelona, before randomly moving to Berlin in 2008. Back then, she thought that finding a job would be easy, but after struggling for a while she realised that she would have to create one for herself. Teaching came to mind, as Montelongo had been teaching since she was 25, both in Mexico and Barcelona, and while both her former employers had reached out to have her back, none would agree for her to teach online. So how, and what, could she teach? “If you want to be a curator, usually you study art history or fine art, and then you get all the theory in university. But when you want to start working and developing your projects, you are missing a lot of practical information that is useful in your daily work life…” she explains. Since she wanted to stay in Berlin, she thought that perhaps she could offer classes online on those practical subjects missing in the curriculums of the universities in Latin America. When she started thinking further about subjects, such as video art, names of friends who could teach it better started popping in her mind. That’s how she invited artist and architect Mario Asef to join her as the first teacher on the platform. And that’s how the Node Center for Curatorial Studies was born in 2009, initially in Spanish, designed for an audience in Latin America. “I often wondered if it would have happened, if I had been able to wait to find a job” she smiles, recalling a time where she spent 15 hours a day working on creating the platform, stretching her budget to a 3-euro allowance per day.
When You Are Ready to Teach, the Students Appear
“I made a list of all the universities in Latin America” she recalls, and “I contacted their administration or the directors”. That was her first act of publicity. Besides the universities forwarding her announcement to their students, a Spanish newsletter offered her a first mailing for free. “We started getting enrolments straight away”, she remembers, showing that she had indeed identified a great need for art students and future curators. “I had to take some business and administration courses myself” says Montelongo, as she was doing everything herself at the beginning, from accounting to marketing. In 2011, she created a residency programme in collaboration with Ignacio Garcia who runs Call for Curators. They found a space where they were able to host about 10 curators and worked about 6 months on developing a crash course programme of sorts, where curators learned to design and build exhibitions, including building walls or completing a publication—all wrapped over a 3-month period. “People came from Spain, Italy, the Philippines, Russia, Belgium, the US, England, China…” she remembers. It helped that they were in Berlin, because “everyone wanted to come to Berlin at that time” she notes. And many of their students used the residency as a stepping stone to connect to Berlin’s art scene. Node organised several networking events in order to help them. “People are still contacting us today to ask if we will make another residency” she says, but after several years, it just wasn’t sustainable anymore. “There is a limit to how many people you can host, while online you can have more people and don’t need to pay rent” says Montelongo. Since, some of the former residents have joined the ranks of Node’s teachers, and many friendships remained. “When we had nice groups, because everything depends on the constellation of people you are getting, it was a very, very nice experience” remembers Montelongo. She learned a lot about group dynamics, “every time when you think you got it, bang! It changes again” she laughs, explaining that she had to learn mediation and conflict resolution on top of those business classes she took to start Node.
Online / Offline
Most of Node’s online courses last for a month or so, but some programmes are longer, 9-10 months, where people get to create relationships and stronger networks. “Often people who met through an online programme meet in real life afterwards. They visit each other, start working together” says Montelongo, who ironically emphasises the importance of cultivating in person relationships despite being the founder of an online educational platform. “It’s a great tool, but I just think that we should never forget about face to face relationships, especially following recent events”.
This year because of covid, they had to close the Spanish courses, as even though Node features very affordable prices (around 150 euros), people in some countries could not afford them anymore.
To design Node’s offerings, Montelongo responds to the demands and feedbacks of curators, but she also takes into account the general political, social, and economical situation of the world. “For me a topic is relevant when it has a practical aspect and when people can put in practice what they learn, and then it also has to be relevant to our times” she explains. They recently opened new programmes such as, “Art, Activism & Environment; Queer Art and Queer Curating; Accessibility in Curating; and socially-engaged art projects. All of these are really relevant today” she says. Interestingly, they offered a “Feminist Art and Exhibitions” course 9 years ago, that no-one bought. They tried again 3 years later without success. But when they put it on the market again 2 years ago, it was quickly sold out. “I can see how interests change over time” concludes Montelongo.
Groups Who Cook Together, Work Well Together
It is very revealing to note that the moments groups cooked together were the highlights of running face to face classes with curators from all around the world. Then it was not only about “working and learning together”, but also about “setting a nice table with candles, and sharing food”. “We had a lot of these socialising moments” remembers Montelongo who mentions dishes such as al nero di seppia pasta, cooked by an Italian curator, a Philippine asado, and paellas. “Once we even organised a barbecue indoors, it wasn’t safe but it was so much fun” she laughs. French curator Laura O’Hare cooked the “most amazing scrambled eggs I ever tasted” she says fondly, “she was cooking constantly and doing magic in the kitchen”. Cooking together improves group dynamics within the work space, “it creates this family atmosphere and makes work easier” she concludes.
Art World VS Real Life, but Art Always
With the profits she made with Node, Montelongo founded non-profit House of Inventions (Casa de Inventos), an educational programme located in the outskirts of Ciudad Juárez in Mexico where Montelongo is from. Usually she spreads her time between Berlin and Ciudad Juárez, 2 or 3 months at a time, except this year when she spent 6 months in Mexico during covid. With House of Inventions she works with 16-18 years old kids who come from very vulnerable backgrounds and lack fair opportunities in finding jobs. Over the years she feels more and more passionate about a work that is more grounding than when evolving online in the art world. “It is very rewarding to do things with the kids and learn with them” she says, adding that both her and the kids benefit from the relationship. But having said that, Montelongo is still a firm believer in the power of art. “Not art as an object or as part of the art world, but art as a way of thinking, as a way of finding creative solutions” she explains. “We try to apply this constantly with the kids, even if we teach something like carpentry or if we are designing a new solar lamp” she says. One of the tricks is inviting kids to think as if they were a particular artist.
Projects start by identifying a problem that needs fixing, either at school or in their environment. For example, there are a lot of people having accidents on one of the crossroads near the school, because there are no traffic lights. The next step is a brainstorming session on how to solve it. “If we were to take a traditional approach we would suggest traffic lights and a marked crosswalk, but instead, we tell the kids about crazy crosswalk projects made by artists such as disco floors with lights” explains Montelongo. A good example is thinking like artist Dominic Wilcox “who makes absurd inventions” she notes, so she often ask the kids, “what would you do if you were Dominic Wilcox? Let’s find a solution as if we were him”. Not only the kids have fun problem solving, but they learn to think differently and it takes away the fear of saying something stupid. “Depending on what we are trying to solve we are finding examples from different artists, and then they build prototypes so they can think physically through the manipulation of materials” says Montelongo. “I personally always relate to art, thinking about what strategies artists would employ for particular projects”.
Reading, Riding a Bike, and Going to Exhibitions for Inspiration
As far as readings go, Montelongo reads a lot about education, conflict resolution, group dynamics, and treating trauma; also she reads a lot of books on creativity and artists exercises. Most of her readings seem to fuel the work she does in Ciudad Juárez. But she is also a cyclist. “I ride my bike a lot, both in Berlin and Mexico, it’s quite a different experience” she notes, “in Berlin I ride it to the forest or to the lake, in Ciudad Juárez, I ride it to the city centre, I love doing that!” she exclaims. There her bike rides are like flâneries she uses to talk to passers-by in the streets. “I just go and talk randomly to people, I say hello to everyone, and when someone replies—we start chatting about the weather and the food, we make jokes, and go wherever the conversation takes us” she laughs.
But art is still central to her explorations. “I love going to exhibitions, I get a lot of inspiration from them, but I changed my filter of how I look at art” she says, explaining that now she considers art for its problem-solving potential, especially since she works with the kids in Ciudad Juárez. It can be inspiring for example, for when one works with solar energy or develops a botanical garden, in order to find outside the box solutions. Since the pandemic, she hasn’t been to an exhibition, but recalls the last time she visited one of her favourite places in Japan last year: the Naoshima and Teshima art islands. Highlights include a work by James Turrell on Naoshima Island, “Backside of the Moon” (1999), where you enter a dark space that slowly reveals a rectangle source of light as your eyes get used to the obscurity. “It is always there, but you only notice it after a while” she says, “I love this work, I have been there three times! It shows how little we see, not only about reality or space but also about knowledge. We have so little knowledge, but it doesn’t mean that it isn’t there” she adds, “just that we need to put our attention on it to be able to perceive more”. A wise thought that I cannot help but agreeing with. “I never question art in itself, as it remains my main source of inspiration, but what I am questioning since many years is the dynamics of the art world, especially the power dynamics”, she concludes. And again, I cannot help but agreeing with her, and from previous interviews on Curtain, she’s not the only one to think that we must think outside of the confines of the art world, leave our privileged bubbles, and question the health of our priorities.
For more on available classes on Node, such as the upcoming Managing an Art Gallery, or Decolonizing Curatorial and Artistic Practices go to https://nodecenter.net/
Director of Node Center for Curatorial Studies
Perla Montelongo is Director of Node Center for Curatorial Studies in Berlin and her main focus is on designing alternative learning strategies from and for contemporary art. In 2010, she co-founded Node Center, establishing it as a place for teaching, researching, and experimenting with subjects related to curatorial studies and contemporary art practices. Perla develops and defines Node Center’s structure which has included the Collaborative Curatorial Residencies, the Online Educational Platform and the Innovators Grant for Research in Art and Education. In 2019 she founded the House of Inventions, an educational program in Ciudad Juárez, México, that empowers students to solve local issues and to use creative solutions to change their environment and communities.