From November 18–19, Brooklyn-based non-profit Pioneer Works hosted the first Alternative Art School Fair. Catherine Despont, the fair's lead organizer and co-director of education, invited me to come down and represent two of my pedagogic projects.
With fifty schools in attendance, many of which arrived from out of town, the event featured information booths, lectures, and workshops peppered by stimulating conversations, provocations, and community-building moments.
The School for Poetic Computation, a New York-based, artist-run school I co-founded in 2013, showcased faculty and student zines. The Uncertainty School, an independent project that I ran at the MediaCity Seoul Biennale last fall, presented a workshop on "unlearning."
The concept of "unlearning" leads us to question the way we've been educated to dismantle the subsequent biases we've inherited. As the participants and organizers ponder the next edition of the fair, here are some observations worth considering using this approach.
What Exactly Is 'Alternative' In An Alternative Art School?
Some would argue that the ‘alternative’ art school is a reaction to its ‘standard’ or ‘mainstream’ counter-parts. While this may be true for some, I wouldn't consider all models as alternative per se.
Take the Uncertainty School, which focuses on creating inclusive learning environments for artists with various impairments and disabilities. Here, the project is a proposition for museums and biennales (and schools) to prioritize artists and communities whose needs may not necessarily be supported elsewhere. In this way, the Uncertainty School isn't providing an alternative since standardized models don't exist yet.
Of course, this isn't true across the board. Students participating in the School for Poetic Computation, for example, which specializes in exploring the poetic nature of code, enter a comparable educational experience albeit replete with different objectives and expectations. Some students, however, who have already completed MFAs and advanced degrees elsewhere prior to studying at SFPC, have compared the intensity to graduate school. Others, meanwhile, go on to graduate schools of their own after completing the program. In this way, I see the SFPC as something that exists outside of the accredited education system altogether.
Perhaps instead, we can re-think "alternative" art schools as "independent" art schools. This semantic shift might help us imagine new possibilities. And we can start by asking simple questions:
What constitutes a school? When does an educational project (workshop, lecture series, participatory performance) become a school? How can an art school become truly free (self-sufficient without external funding or student tuition)? How can an art school become truly independent from academic and administrative influences?
Who Represents Alternative Educational Spaces?
The keynote speakers were engaging, but I wondered whether the selection, at least in relation to Alternative Art Schools, adequately represented the diversity of the fair's constituent participants.
Many of the speakers belonged to universities, as well as activist initiatives embedded within them, including organizers from Free Cooper Union; Carol Becker, the dean of Columbia University's School of the Arts; and architect and educator Craig L. Wilkins.
Their calls to shifting the paradigm in education-at-large was inspiring, but it would also have been interesting to hear from practitioners who worked beyond the accredited academic realm. I couldn't help but recall the great teachers I had outside of the classrooms, as well as the many gatherings and protests that I had attended over the years (not the least of which was Creative Time's summit on curriculums in 2015) where specialized knowledge was a common resource. To hear from outsiders might enrich future conversations.
Where's the Research?
During a panel on Hybrid Practice, which was chaired by Archeworks, Zz School of Print Technology, Southland Institute, and the SFPC, a member of the audience, who identified himself as an NYU professor (and who, I might mention, walked in late after our presentations were over), asked the panelists a question: "Where's the research?"
Had he seen our presentations, he might have gleaned our holistic and participatory approaches to research. However, he further defined the practice as something that takes many years and a lot of money.
I responded, quoting SFPC co-founder Zach Lieberman, that we think that capital "a" Art is a form of R&D for humanity. So, the research described by this professor doesn't apply to us. Later that day, I thought about how we can measure (or acknowledge) the success and shortcomings of our own research. If our research is not suitable, or even desirable to traditional forms of evaluation like peer-reviewed journals and professional conferences, what are some of the channels we can use to share our work?
So: How Do We Learn In Common?
The political climate of the fair, charged by the results of this year's presidential election, poses a simple question, one that leads to a host of others: How do we learn in common?
Furthermore, how do we share resources among the alternative school network? Or curriculums? How can we learn from each other, and how do we mutually support each other in a time of austerity? How do we create a sanctuary from fascist, racist, and sexist tendencies? How do we reach out to the community that is not aware of our work? How do we continue to do this work? And how do we stay connected?