The Postcon Project - Manuel Vilhena on Critical Thinking & Education on a Higher Logical Level

Interview  /  BehindTheScenes   Making
Published: 10.04.2015
The Postcon Project - Manuel Vilhena on Critical Thinking & Education on a Higher Logical Level.
Sanna Svedestedt
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This is about education at a higher logical level. Jewellery is the subject but what we are actually teaching is individual critical thinking, attention to detail and congruence. We use jewellery because that is the field that we are coherent with, but in the end, let’s be honest - we reach for something else. For a quality that can go with you, regardless if you are a jeweller, a chef, a dancer or a teacher…
During Munich Jewellery Week 2015 Manuel Vilhena, assisted by Flóra Vági, invited the public to a  presentation about the Postcon Project.

Postcon, short for Post-Contemporary, is a new educational project that offers an unconventional model for arts teaching, with the first courses starting in September 2015. Postcon offers both short courses, a teacher training program and as thirteen week jewellery intensive course, which all can be seen as an alternative - or complement - to traditional learning.

Postcon has been active through art projects since 1998, now ready to materialize ideas and values in the concept of a new school.
Manuel Vilhena, why is this the right time to launch the Postcon Project?
What happened was this - when a position was opened for the school in Munich, I started writing my CV for the application, but something didn’t feel right. That vacant position as the professor of the Akademie der Bildenden Künst is definitely what we would consider as one of the very good jobs in the jewellery field at present, and if I don’t feel to apply for that, well, then there is definitely something going on. I always wanted to launch the Postcon Project, so this was the right time for me to propose an alternative to what is out there.
At Postcon I teach in a certain way. We want to keep that way clear from the politics of being in an institution. Of course, my own ideas are what are being put forward, but stated like this, it is also very transparent of what our quality values and standards are. One can disagree with the concept, of course. But straight away we tell it as it is and it is very transparent.
You have been teaching in different institutions all over the world. What do you take with you from that experience?
Yes, for the last twenty years I have been teaching in both private and in public schools. So I think I know what can be avoided. In public schools you have the politics. If you remove the politics the course goes fine. In private schools you have the problem of greed - wanting more students, more tools, and the need to show the school to the outside, which sometimes goes against the students’ own needs.  
I said ok, if we remove these two things, first - the politics are not there. For example when people keep jobs for life so no new people can come in. That is not good for the students. So we remove that. And then the greed. We already know that we want twelve students. We don’t want fifty - we want twelve. We already know that the course has a limited time frame. That way we can give a certain quality and keep that quality consistent. This school is not meant to be forever, this is a project, as stated in the name. For the beginning we start with five years and then something else, something new will develop.
Education needs dynamics. I go and do some courses every year so I can be in the place of the student. Every year there are new things coming up. If you keep to an old tradition and always bring in the same stuff, it doesn’t work. We have a program and we say we do this and inside that program we need to be elastic to what happens. So if we find that for example ‘The Body’ course is not working, we just change it. In that sense it gives a very fast response time to what is happening out there, also in the field of education.

This is about education at a higher logical level. Jewellery is the subject but what we are actually teaching is individual critical thinking, attention to detail and congruence. We use jewellery because that is the field that we are coherent with, but in the end, let’s be honest - we reach for something else. For a quality that can go with you, regardless if you are a jeweller, a chef, a dancer or a teacher…

How has your own educational path been?
I started in medical school, but I dropped out. I was lazy and I wanted to have fun. I was in England and I saw this hippie guy making jewellery on the street, and I approached him and said “I would like to learn, will you teach me?” and he said yes. I started to make that type of hippie handmade jewellery, selling it in markets and festivals. The guy I met was Brazilian and later on I went with him to Brazil and lived with his family for a year.
This was a craftsmen family from a village of artisans. In the village there were craftsmen working with all kinds of materials and I liked not only the work but I also loved the atmosphere. As craft people, we were respected by the work that we did. If you could create something with your hands the public in general respected you. I travelled for a year around Brazil by making and selling my work. At a certain point I felt that I would like to know some more techniques and went to Lisbon for a technical jewellery school and that was where I first encountered the contemporary jewellery movement.

What year was that?
In 1988, I think. One time Peter Skubic came to Lisbon to make an exhibition and I then I did the same thing again, saying: “I like your work, can I learn with you?” And Peter said OK so I went with him to Cologne in Germany. I was an invited student at the school but mostly we were at his house with books and catalogues. He knew everybody and brought us with him everywhere he went, we were like little ducks behind mama duck…

After that I contacted Michael Rowe from the Royal College of art in England, and asked him the same. But he said no, I needed to go through the school and I enrolled. Only when I got there I realized that it was an important school. I then, in a way, had to perform for the outside as well, not only learning and working for myself. There was a difference between us students and the establishment and that started to be a bit strange for me because I was always in this one to one communal craftsmanship and suddenly there was this other world. I didn’t like it and I stopped making jewellery for three years. But I realized that I really liked what I was doing and I had to get rid of this feeling and do my own thing.

How did you make your comeback to jewellery?
A friend asked me to make his wedding rings. I made them and I realized I really loved this media. So, I just started making again. Actually, I had stopped the course halfway and I asked David Watkins, who was the then head of department, if I could come back. He said yes, if I made two years in one. So I came back and I really worked a lot!  I wrote a book called Do you speak Jewellery which showed my ideas about contemporary jewellery at that time.
I always liked the teachers that I had, they were influential to me and I admired them. It gave me a taste that I would like to be a teacher as well. So I started slowly from there and did some teacher courses. One day I got a call from Silpakorn University in Bangkok asking if I wanted to come and teach for some weeks. That was one of my first crazy and lovely teaching experiences. I confirmed to myself that I liked what I was doing and that I had the capability to do it. From there I continued. And now we are here.
 The expression “Do you speak Jewellery” - Where does it come from?
 I made it up.

It is a very good expression... what was your intention with that phrase?
 Thank you. In school, I was asked so many Why? Why? Why? about my work all the time and I didn’t want to explain. I felt that the work was made in a way that it didn’t require logical evaluation. If you consciously evaluate the work too early, then you are destroying it. But because I was in school I had to give some kind of theoretical background to my thinking. So the Do you speak Jewellery book was two things, first because being a foreigner in England they always ask you “Do you speak English?” and I thought, jewellery is a language, like paintings, sculpture, poetry, jewellery – it is all language. Do you speak the language... so do you speak jewellery? I did Do you speak Jewellery as a children’s book, A for apple B for book, C for chair...

Secondly, I wanted a Polaroid of a thinking period. So I wrote something for every letter that was my “philosophy”, if you wish, of the theory for how I guide my work. I only did 40 books back then, but later they became well known and now I have re-mastered it into Do you speak Jewellery 2, 20 years later. Because things change and thinking changes, fortunately.
The Postcon Project offers both shorter courses, a teacher training course and a thirteen week jewellery intensive course. In the jewellery intensive program you offer “The Body” course, can you tell us a little about that?

 If the body is the canvas for our work, then as you go out on the street, wearing a piece, you as a person become the artwork. If you are working with that concept in mind, that it is the person and the object together that are the actual artwork, and not just the jewel, then you need to know about the body. To know about the body it is not just enough to say, as we have been saying for the last forty years that “jewellery is about the body” - but nobody addresses the body fully. At Postcon we are going to investigate the body in a way that hasn’t been investigated in jewellery courses. We have the anthropological side of it - the body in time, in society, in arts, the body as an image. We take so much money and time in the morning to take care of our image when we go out there and we leave it like that? We are jewellers and we don’t address that? We have to address that!
The other thing is our own body. Sometimes our work is ruining our bodies. If we take more care of our bodies then we also become more aware of it. That is where physiotherapy and self body awareness comes in. The physiotherapist is going to teach us how to look at our own body and the body of other people - not just about reading them but making sure that you have your canvas, that you know where your work is going to be. Better, that you know how your work is going to be. And live drawing, naturally, as a third component of this block of work.
In the jewellery intensive there is also a course about the history of contemporary jewellery. How the history of contemporary jewellery is explained depends on what history is being reproduced. How do you see the history of contemporary jewellery?
I think that there are some pieces that made history in the field. A type of work that wasn’t there before that addresses certain thinking in contemporary jewellery. If you see a piece by Hermann Jünger you know that his work broke new ground. And then you see, let’s say, the black bangle by Otto Künzli or a ring by Onno Boekhoudt. That is how I would teach the history of contemporary jewellery - by taking a few pieces that were and are important. A piece made in a certain way, in a specific time - what did that mean for the movement of contemporary jewellery?

 Most pieces that are made nowadays, they don’t impact anything. They are just pieces being made more and more and more. Sometimes someone comes up with something that is new. If you think, for example, about Iris Bodemer in 1995, she came up with something that was new. Then many people were influenced by an aesthetic that was established. Occasionally an artist comes up with something revolutionary and other people are influenced by the new aesthetic or the new idea that is being introduced.

This opens doors, for me that is an important process. And for me, that is how I look at contemporary jewellery history. Pieces, firstly, and then, the people that made the pieces.

Do you think that it is the lack of those groundbreaking pieces that is creating problems for the field today?
Today… well a problem for the field… I don’t know in what sense you ask me that. I think that today many people are making contemporary jewellery. It is contemporary jewellery in the sense that they are expressing something with that work. For me, contemporary jewellery is not about the object itself, it is about the connection of object and person. That is where the meaning of the work comes up.
You are not making objects anymore, you are making works of art that are walking around in the street. That is where the interest lies for me. If people are still focusing on objects and getting inspiration from the sea or from the mountains, which is valid of course, I don’t know if that is strong enough to make a mark in the system. You can learn quality, aesthetics, how to position things to give them more dynamics, that is all a design process. But to actually create something that was not here before, that is the hard thing.  

Nowadays, because there are so many makers the jumps in our evolution are so small that you don’t even see that a change has happened. When Robert Smith painted gold with led that was new, it made a step in our history. Nowadays we can do what we want because of what these artists did before us, step by step.

Looking at the curriculum of Postcon, I see that for example that marketing is not included, why is that?
We don’t teach that, because that stuff is fictitious. That stuff is invented, the money that is paid in the art world is invented, fabricated by people who are putting it in their pockets. Can you teach students that? No, because it is invented. But you can inform them that it is an invented world and that they should be careful. You are putting a prize in money of work, energy and the thinking that you put into an object. But that stuff it is not real. We can only say “listen, be aware, because you are going on to a world that is not real”.
But it is also a matter of being able to sustain yourself as a maker. Perhaps having a side job to sustain yourself is not the best thing if you are aiming at making work that break boundaries and makes a real mark in the system?
 We are teaching people how to make quality work, to have critical thinking to have the tools that they need to sustain a body of work that is important to them and to the outside. We are not teaching them how to live from it. We are not teaching “now, when you have these pieces, this is how you do it...” The fact is that nobody does that part - they can only tell you how they think it is done. If you go to medical school and you learn how to be a physician, still you don’t know how to get out there in the hospital world and get the best job. Either you have it as a person and you know how to move, or you can become a very good surgeon and still not have a job.

Making and marketing are things of two different logical types. We teach the former, leaving the latter to the professionals in that field. By separating these two things and stating it right up front, what we are doing is trying to get out of the political side of making jewellery. We are leaving that independently to each person. I can tell you how I did it. But I consider myself a jeweller and I still make repairs. That is not two jobs, it is the same job. It is still the same language, it is just that they are used in different ways.

Recently I repaired an old engagement ring with an old aquamarine and it was fantastic. You have to think about what has already been done with the ring - did someone repair it before? Do I need to remove the stone? You are thinking jewellery and you are applying jewellery live. That is also part of making a beautiful wooden ring or something out of leather, it is the same thing. I don’t consider that a “side job”, I consider that the same job. If you are a jeweller, a classical trained jeweller with knowledge of classical techniques, you can do a lot of stuff. There is always someone with a broken necklace, and there is also the emotional part of that necklace. They give you their trust. If someone says: “My husband gave me this necklace, he is dead now, and it broke, can you fix it?” “My dear, I will help you”. You are being a psychologist, a therapist, a doctor, all rolled into one, when you solder that necklace. It is a fantastic job. But, you know, thinking about contemporary jewellers, I think a lot of people today don’t know how to do jewellery in the classical sense. They can make stuff, carve a little and glue, but if you ask them to set a diamond, they don’t know how to do it. So there is a part of being a jeweller that they are lacking, which I think is a pity. They don’t have to use it, but having access to the tools of a classical training is something we all should have. It is like reading Shakespeare, you don’t refer to it all the time but when you need it… it’s there.
The Postcon Project is based in Klagenfurt, Austria. The first Postcon courses start in September 2015 and applications are open. Deadline for applications for the jewellery intensive course is 15th June 2015.

For more information about dates and prices please visit

 Klimt02 is Media Patron of Postcon Project