The Power of a Community: Ahmet Öğüt’s The Silent University (2012 – ongoing)


Fig 1. Logo of The Silent University.

The Silent University (2012 – ongoing)

The Silent University was initiated by Ahmet Öğüt in 2012, in partnership with the Learning and Community Partnerships teams at Tate while the artist was carrying out a residency programme at the Delfina Foundation in London. This project operates as an autonomous knowledge exchange platform led by the members who are refugees, migrants and asylum seekers, who cannot use their capabilities in the countries they have moved into due to diverse restrictions such as residency permits and language despite having professional or academic qualifications. The Silent University offers a wide range of programmes in temporary form, including lectures, discussions, events, resource archives and publications that are developed together with participants. After the completion of a short-term presentation in the host institutions, the archived resources are accessible on The Silent University website by online users after registering and completing a Time and Skills Loan Form.

According to the artist, the aim of The Silent University is “to challenge the idea of silence as a passive state, and explore its powerful potential through performance, writing, and group reflection”. In the dictionary, the meaning of “silence” is described as “complete absence of sound; avoiding discussing something; the state of standing still and not speaking as a sign of respect for someone and to prohibit or prevent from speaking”. In contemporary art, the word is often regarded as an intriguing element and adopted for artworks. Perhaps the most striking artworks that used the concept of “silence” are John Cage’s 4’ 33” (1952) and more recently Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present (2012). In the case of The Silent University, it uses the word “silent” but tries to adopt it in an active form to empower the voice and the knowledge of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers. By providing a platform for the participants with an opportunity of performing the roles of lecturers, consultants, fellows and contributors, the artist attempts to tackle the system that the participants face in society, particularly asylum seekers. According to the Human Rights Act in the UK, it is clearly stated that everyone has the right of “equal value and equal worth, regardless of our race, religion, sexuality or beliefs”. In addition to this, the UK Refugee Convention also indicates that asylum seekers “must be given access to fair and efficient asylum procedures and measures to ensure they live in dignity and safety while their claims are processed”. However, Loveness Sibanda states in an essay based on her personal experience of the asylum process in the UK, “immigration laws criminalise asylum seekers…The asylum process leaves claimants in limbo, with no place to live, no money to eat, and all because of not wanting people to claim public funds”. For this situation she suggests that “the immigration laws should be adapted to allow people to work, earn a living and support themselves, as well as be allowed to study and gain skills to be able to contribute to society.” Responding to this demand and taking the situation as reference, Öğüt’s practice critiques the systematic issue as well as the waste of knowledge and skill professionally experienced, which are denied to society.

Fig 2. The Silent University, London, 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

The asylum process usually takes up to ten years. During this period of time, these displaced academics and professionals are restricted for work and not able to study because of the economic burden since there is no other way to get financial support. Referring to this reality, the artist draws a utopian picture by using the tool of education and provides them with access to education through The Silent University. Öğüt’s notion of education appears clearly in his practice, which not only “reverses the characters of the monolingual, compulsory, authoritarian, oppressive education system” we generally have, but also most importantly “acknowledges the other’s knowledge”. By supporting and enabling them to access education, the artist anticipates a positive outcome which would be used either “once they were granted refugee status” or “if they were refused and sent home”. This is because he believes that “they would be in a better position to contribute to a change in their home country.” Moreover, through the practice Öğüt considers the basic human right to pursue education but emphasises more his ultimate hope that “the provision of facilities for integration” operates as “apparatuses of regulation in a larger control mechanism” in order to create the transformation of society. In his anticipation and belief, the university becomes autonomously developed by participants who are “responsible actors” rather than “facilitators” and spreads to other places where this education platform is needed without any territorial boundary based on its self-organising and self-supporting characters. Also this is the perfect reflection on their  motto “Towards a Transversal Pedagogy”.


The Project History of The Silent University 

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Fig 3. The Silent University, Stockholm, Ruhr and Amman, 2013-2015. Courtesy of the artist.

1) London and Oxford in the UK, 2012–2013

The Silent University was initiated and presented for the first time at Tate Modern, London. Tate Modern and the Delfina Foundation provided financial support to produce a publication and website, as well as the presentation of a temporary resource area and public events in both institutions. After the completion of the initial event, the Silent University Resource Room was exhibited at The Showroom, London, in 2013. After winning the Visible Award in 2013, and the London branch organised a two-day event in collaboration with the Oxford Migration Studies Society and the Refugee Studies Centre as celebration of the award.

2) Stockholm in Sweden, 2013

The second branch of The Silent University was launched in Sweden hosted by Tensta Konsthall, Stockholm, in collaboration with ABF Stockholm, Workers’ Educational Association.

3) Hamburg in Germany, 2014

The third branch was established in Stadtkuratorin – Ein Initiativprojekt der Freien und Hansestadt Hamburg, in partnership with with W3 – Werkstatt für internationale Kultur ind Politik.

4) Ruhr in Germany, from June 2015 until the end of 2017

Silent University Ruhr was initiated by Urbane Kunste Ruhr in cooperation with Ringlokschuppen Ruhr and Impulse Theater Festival.

5) Amman in Jordan, 2015

The most recent branch was established in Amman, Jordan, initiated by Spring Sessions.




Chakrabarti, Shami. “Basic Rights on Our Doorstep: The Experience of Refugees and Asylum Seekers in the UK.” In The Silent University Reader (November 2012): 8–9. Accessed March 20, 2017.

Doherty, Claire, ed. Public Art (Now): Out of Time, Out of Place. London: Art/Books, 2015.

Emily Okito. “Access to Education for All.” In The Silent University Reader (November 2012): 33. Accessed March 20, 2017.

Jones, Owen. “Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers: what’s the difference?.” The Guardian, August 28, 2015. Accessed April 6, 2017.

Lind, Maria. “European Cultural Policies 2015: A Report with Scenarios on the Future of Public Funding for Contemporary Art in Europe.” eipcp (October 2005). Accessed March 29, 2017.

Öğüt, Ahmet. “The Curious Case of Silence.” In The Silent University Reader (November 2012): 4-7. Accessed March 20, 2017.

Sibanda, Loveness. “Experiences of Immigration.” In The Silent University Reader (November 2012): 31–32. Accessed March 20, 2017.

“The Silent University: Home.” Accessed February 16, 2017.


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