PRINT October 2011

On Site

the Copenhagen Free University

Copenhagen Free University, Factory of Escape, 2002–2003. Installation view, Copenhagen Free University.

SMOKE BOMBS; trashing the Treasury building; attacking the Prince of Wales’s car: The fierce student opposition to a huge hike in student fees and commensurate cuts in British education that erupted last fall—and that was quashed by a brutal police crackdown—has not stopped, even as its furor has been taken up by the latest round of urban unrest in London. Throughout Europe, the decadelong implementation of the Bologna Process of educational reform and university restructuring continues to trigger protest and outrage. Named after the Italian city where it was proposed, the Bologna Process was set up in 1999 by members of the Council of Europe in an attempt to rationalize European degree standards and make them compatible with the US education market. The “Bolognafication” of education—in other words, its privatization—has since intensified across the continent. For example, completely private, for-profit universities have been proposed in the UK, a combustible idea in the wake of massive cuts in public funding for the arts and humanities. But at the same time, insurgent programs have arisen in opposition to privatization—one of the most significant examples being the Copenhagen Free University (CFU). Where the private, for-profit university is now regarded as the inevitable and desirable outcome of educational restructuring, supported by most governments in the EU, the CFU has been identified as a potential threat to be criminalized and stamped out.

The CFU was conceived in 2001 when Danish artists and collaborative team Henriette Heise and Jakob Jakobsen produced a manifesto and offered up their Copenhagen home as a self-described university. In the wake of the lurch to the right—ushered in that year by the electoral success of the populist Danish People’s Party—the resulting presentations, talks, walks, and lectures hosted by friends, colleagues, and others passing through town opened up the increasingly repressive situation in Denmark to closer scrutiny. These activities also served to introduce topical debates on art and the economy, as well as on educational and cultural neoliberalization. Projects included research into media activism and DIY television, culminating in the production of shows for the CFU’s own community station, tv—tv; investigation of ever-tightening economic ties between the corporate world and the art world; and work involving local women’s organizations and the Scandinavian branch of the Situationist International. Six productive years later, however, the CFU decided to close, declaring on its home page: “We have won! . . . The Copenhagen Free University has ceased its activities by the end of 2007.” The website further proclaimed, “Looking back at the six years of existence of the CFU we end our activities with a clear conviction,” making note of the institution’s self-determination and independence in the face of an increasingly draconian knowledge economy.

This “victory” might also have been regarded as an act of defiance against an internal threat—that of the CFU’s own creeping institutionalization—but in late 2010, Heise and Jakobsen unexpectedly received a formal letter from the Danish Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation announcing the passage of a law outlawing all self-organized and free universities in Denmark. In what was clearly intended as a direct threat, the letter proclaimed that the ministry was fully aware that the CFU had already closed its doors and ceased operations, but that should the CFU resume its educational activities it would be in violation of the new law—in particular, the section legislating that the term university could be used only by institutions authorized by the state, in order to protect “students from being disappointed.” And here the contradictions begin to multiply and the criminalization of the CFU takes us further into the neoliberal hall of mirrors. For if the kind of debt burden that graduates of UK universities incur is indicative of what Bologna-style standardization has in store, there will be more for Danish students to be worried or disappointed about than the scale, setting, or ideological proclivities of their educational provider.

This is the broader framework of “Trauma 1–11: Stories About the Copenhagen Free University and the Surrounding Society in the Last Ten Years,” an exhibition mounted this summer at the Museet for Samtidskunst in Roskilde, Denmark. “Trauma 1–11” reflected on the activities of the CFU, principally through the self-described “propaganda” the university generated during its half dozen years of existence, as well as by way of a narrated audio piece made for the exhibition. The script for the narration was written by several longtime CFU collaborators and friends—the British artists and writers Anthony Davies, Emma Hedditch, and Howard Slater—based on a series of group conversations. Recounting a succession of losses and defeats in the struggles that have typified the decade from the artists’ point of view, the group created an antihistory organized around traumas and obstacles rather than great conquests. From the testimonies they gathered, which dealt with phenomena as varied as the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the recent global financial crisis, and each speaker’s aspirations for the CFU, a singular, rolling narrative was compiled. As in psychoanalysis, the verbalization of trauma was viewed as a form of forward-looking treatment, opening up paths for new potential actions and perspectives. This process culminated in the provisional reformation of the CFU as the Free U Resistance Committee of June 18 2011, the announcement of the opening of a new free university in Copenhagen, and the publication of “All Power to the Free Universities of the Future!,” posted on the CFU website ( and rapidly circulated on the Internet.

Refreshingly, and in keeping with the CFU’s own “No Representation” policy, which restricts the exhibition of any documentation of its activities, the Roskilde exhibition eschewed any past photographic material, such as images of people sitting around talking or attending a seminar or a reading group, the clichéd and empty aestheticized signifiers of much socially engaged practice today. Instead, the exhibition was conceived as a piece of theater, with the audience guided from room to room by audio narration. Each gallery represented a certain period in the life of the CFU, illustrated with its agitprop archive of “propaganda.” Posters covered the walls and floor—declarations, communiqués, and manifestos were advertised. Thirty-five-millimeter slides covered in dust and dirt were projected with words scrawled on them in Magic Marker, some overlapping to create ambient light sculptures. The DIY TV program Exploration and Unlearning (2004–2005), which Heise and Jakobsen had devised in collaboration with their then-five-year-old daughter, Solvej, was screened. A variety of presentation technologies became important sculptural elements. Used to present the “propaganda,” slide projectors, monitors, large audio speakers, and an adapted bike trailer for distributing leaflets blocked doorways and occupied rooms. The “script,” which could be seen as a kind of collective intelligence, offered a glimpse into the everyday life of the university, the thoughts of its collaborators, and the possibility of creating a basis for a new artistic and political imagination, one that combines collectivity, therapy, and work.

With this historical survey, the CFU has entered a new and radical stage of its life, amplifying (alongside other self-organized initiatives already existing or being built in Denmark, London, and elsewhere) widespread outrage against the further marketization of education and knowledge production. The call for more free universities seems ever more urgent. Students and teachers can actively question the neoliberal turn in their places of learning and work—but so can artists. If they don’t, the future for education looks very bleak, and very expensive.

Nils Norman is a London-based artist and head of the School of Walls and Space at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen.