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Beyond the institution

Tom Vandeputte, Tim Ivison / 2013

An interview by Francesco Garutti with Tom Vandeputte and Tim Ivison, addressing educational experiments, strategies of self-organisation and the changing institutional structures of art education. The text was originally published in Abitare, Issue 529, February 2013.

FG: Analysing some current experiments in education, we would be interested to hear how you understand the prevalent forms of art education to be redefined in the present moment.
TI & TV: In recent years there has certainly been a proliferation of novel and experimental approaches to education within the framework of art, and increasingly also in other fields. Practitioners from a wide variety of creative fields have begun to critically examine their agency as educators and students and are finding new forms of organization and new ways of learning.
What is particularly interesting about this tendency is that it takes place both inside and outside of traditional academic institutions. While the established institutions of art and design education have begun to offer more unconventional and flexible programmes in response to changes in discourse, there has also been a renewed interest among artists, theorists, architects, designers and many others in setting up self-organised experimental learning platforms, alternative art schools, and a prolific network of informal seminars and reading groups.
On the institutional front, a variety of entirely new programmes and institutional models have emerged. Projects like Olafur Eliasson’s Institut für Raumexperimente (Institute for Spatial Experiments) reconfigure practices of art, design and architecture around themes that exceed disciplinary boundaries – in this case, the category of space. In the field of graphic design, the Werkplaats Typografie (Typography Workshop) in Arnhem, founded by Karel Martens, has managed to become a highly regarded postgraduate programme based on a workshop model, where students often collaborate directly with teachers on commissioned projects. The Strelka Institute for Media, Art and Design in Moscow is one of the notable recent attempts at founding a private institution with a tuition free programme, outside of established academic centres. Besides such new institutions, there has been a widespread proliferation of new MAs – often existing only for a few years – catering to such fields as aesthetics and politics, art writing, critical spatial practice, and curatorial studies. Add to this the rise of research centres, labs, and clusters at major universities and one begins to get the picture of an increasingly heterogeneous and fragmented institutional landscape.
Perhaps more importantly, we have also seen the emergence of a myriad of “academies from below”, to borrow a term from art theorist Greg Sholette. Among the touchstones in the recent history of self-organised education have been projects like the Copenhagen Free University, run from the apartment of the artists Henrietta Heise and Jakob Jakobsen, or 16 Beaver, a group hosting regular reading groups and seminars in their space at 16 Beaver Street in New York’s financial district. The Public School, founded by Telic Arts Exchange in Los Angeles, is another exemplary project that has since been developed in a number of different cities. It was set up as a “school without curriculum”: classes are collectively developed and coordinated by the public via the organisation’s website, attempting to provide a distinct alternative to the ossified infrastructures of academic institutions. One of its many offshoots has been the Public School (for Architecture), established in 2009 by the New York based design practice Common Room and later taken over by the programme participants.
It is crucial to realise that these novel approaches towards education, both inside and outside conventional institutions, emerge at a moment where the traditional academic system finds itself under enormous pressure. The neoliberalisation of education has accelerated in the last few years, putting the relative autonomy of the university into question by increasingly understanding its purpose simply in terms of market demands. In analogy to the corporation, universities and academies are submitted to endless evaluation procedures and efficiency regulation. Most notably, there has been a sustained attack on education funding as a result of the austerity politics of the financial crisis, putting pressure on the space, resources, and tuitions of higher education institutions.
This pressure has also become palpable in art, architecture, and design schools. In New York, the Cooper Union has begun to charge tuition fees for the first time in its 153-year history. Increasing bureaucratization and standardized mechanisms of evaluation are also permeating schools that have traditionally operated on their own terms: the Architectural Association was, for instance, recently subjected to its first ever Quality Assurance Agency test, one of the blunt tools wielded by the current UK administration to reform independent educational institutions, which they perceive as gateways for illegal immigration. Even more dramatically, the Berlage Institute – an experimental independent institution founded by Herman Hertzberger in the early 1990s and dedicated to research and reflection on architecture and urbanism – was recently forced to close its doors as a result of harsh cutbacks on government support for cultural institutions in the Netherlands and has transformed into a more conventional, university-based postgraduate programme.
Even if the overall effect of austerity and standardization has been to constrain or undermine these establishments, possibly to the point of dissolution, this radically shifting ground within the institutional landscape has also served to rekindle the interest in critical experiments that might offer creative responses to such myopic policies and alternatives to the predicament of academic institutions. Self-organised experiments have the potential to engender new forms of organisation and learning outside the constraints of institutional mandates, and offer a place for inventing new concepts and models that may eventually be fed back into the education system.

Do you think the space for learning/education has changed in relation to the experiments you are examining here?
The question of the spaces of learning is interesting, because it brings out exactly what is at stake in many of the current experiments. It can be addressed on a number of different levels.
In one sense, these projects may be understood as attempts to rethink the relation between the practice of education and the space of the school as its typical institutional setting. What are the boundaries of this space, and how can these be renegotiated? We have already mentioned projects that deliberately situate themselves outside of the boundaries of the traditional institution (as anti-institutions, or as attempts to forge entirely new spheres of institutional legitimacy), as well as programmes that rethink the form and content of education while remaining attached to a fairly traditional institutional space. But another model that may be especially interesting to mention in relation to the question of the space of learning is that of the “school within the school” – the effort to forge new micro-spaces within larger structures. The School of Walls and Space, which is a relatively autonomous department within the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, is a good example of such a micro-space. Directed – or, rather, facilitated – by the British artist Nils Norman, this department functions as a self-organised and highly self-reflexive space in which students have strong agency in shaping the programme as well as the pedagogical approach and institutional structure itself – an attempt to change the academy from within.
Projects like this seem to have a special relevance for design and architecture education, where the studio/unit model has had a long tradition. The success of the unit system introduced by Alvin Boyarsky at the Architectural Association in the 1970s, or the professor-run design studios at the ETH Zürich that are housed in independent pavilions, seem to be based on the relative autonomy of these studios – in devising a curriculum and defining a pedagogical approach, but also in allocating budgets, however small. It seems to us that the most interesting and renowned studios have always been less like courses and more like small schools in and of themselves.
But it is possible to address the question of the space of learning in another, quite different sense. Many of the experiments do not only create new spaces of learning outside or within the institution, but also tend to engage specifically with the concrete site or urban environment in which they are situated. Where self-organised schools literally locate themselves outside of university buildings, campuses, and even cultural institutions, they are often directly confronted with questions of urban space and politics. The former Public School (for Architecture) for instance worked with temporary classrooms installed in the spaces of collaborating cultural institutions in New York, and the Mountain School of Arts in Los Angeles met above a bar in Chinatown. 16 Beaver’s rather stray location near Wall Street in Manhattan proved to be a key part of their engagement in the Occupy protests. The School of Walls and Space engaged directly with its site and the concrete spatial issues encountered by students, engaging in research on local processes of gentrification. The Really Free School in London also makes a point of operating out of empty spaces in the city, as did the Temporary School of Thought, which famously squatted a mansion in Mayfair in 2009. In challenging the space where learning takes place, self-organised schools often involve an applied use of the city, where the space and the community in which the project is situated becomes a central resource and question.

How do you see the relation between new or ongoing education formats and art/architecture practices? Are the first ones influencing the second ones or the opposite?
There is a distinct problem in art and design education, in which the labour market demands a certain kind of artist, designer, or architect to the exclusion of other kinds of practice. Education can either directly aim to produce this kind of practitioner or it can attempt to create new forms that do not yet exist – that do not yet have a market, so to speak. Many discussions about art and design education are based on the first point of view. From this perspective, schools tend to be criticized for their inertia or a lack of attention to market demands, whereas the ideal school is supposed to be perfectly integrated with the market, responding to its demands immediately.
For us, the other perspective on education, where the school becomes genuinely productive, seems much more interesting. But to understand the school as a space where new forms of practice are engendered is not the same as the ambition to create “practitioners of the future”, which is found in the brochures of many design schools. All too often, such catchphrases merely indicate that a school tries to be slightly ahead of the market, constantly speculating on the next big thing.
In our view, the school could instead provide a space for developing new forms of practice in the interest of a political or social conviction, or simply in the name of open-ended experimentation without the guarantee of immediately commodifiable results. It is this attitude that typifies many of the new initiatives that we have mentioned as well as some of the groundbreaking art and design schools of the past.
Even if this approach implies that the school maintains a certain distance from market demands, it is by no means indifferent to the realities of production. In fact, many of the recent self-organized schools are preoccupied with thinking about economies, often stemming from the direct need to rethink or “design” the economies that sustain them. The Trade School, an -organisation that runs on barter that was recently hosted by the art space W139 in Amsterdam, is only one example of a project that specifically addresses such questions.
In a more general sense, the question seems to be how schools can generate adequate knowledge in the face of new problems – and articulate or invent these new problems independently. Also within more traditional institutional frameworks, the importance of courses may well be measured by their ability to ask new questions about (and through) architecture, art, or design. The Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, which has been run by Eyal Weizman for some years now, owes its interest not only to the exceptional structure of its program – which was based on nomadic roundtable meetings – but on its distinct attempt to rethink the relation between architecture, -research, and politics.
In the contemporary context, art and design education appear as manifestly interdisciplinary practices and occupy a privileged position at the intersection of the liberal, applied, and fine arts. The current crisis in higher education has highlighted the urgent need to explore the possibilities for rethinking these fields and the structures of power and economy that shape them. Self-organised experiments in education have the radical potential to show how architecture and design -education can become more open, engaged with its -environment, and attuned to its cultural and political moment.

Dieser Text ist ein Wiederabdruck von Tom Vandeputtes Blogpost vom 30.6.2013: www.tomvandeputte.com/post/54268900017/beyond-the-institution.

[Dieser Text findet sich im Reader Nr. 2 auf S. 351.]

[Es sind keine weiteren Materialien zu diesem Beitrag hinterlegt.]

Tom Vandeputte

(*1983) is a writer and theorist based in London and Amsterdam. He is course director of the new Critical Studies programme at the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam and he is currently completing his doctoral research at the Centre for Culture Studies, Goldsmiths College. Vandeputte is co-founder of The New Reader, a journal for theory at the intersection of art, philosophy and politics. Together with Tim Ivison, he edited Contestations (Bedford Press, 2013), a book publication on critical experiments in education.


Tim Ivison

(*1982) lives and works. He is currently a Mellon Researcher at the CCA in Montreal and a PhD candidate at the London Consortium. He is also the organiser of AAActions Group at the Architectural Association School of Architecture and a founding member of Art/Work Association, a self-organised education initiative in London. Ivison is represented by Hilary Crisp gallery in Whitechapel and works collaboratively with artist Julia Tcharfas. He is also the co-editor, with Tom Vandeputte, of Contestations: Learning From Critical Experiments in Education, published by Bedford Press, London in 2013. http://timothyivison.tumblr.com


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Boyarsky, Alvin  ·  Eliasson, Olafur  ·  Heise, Henrietta  ·  Hertzberger, Herman  ·  Ivison, Tim  ·  Jakobsen, Jakob  ·  Martens, Karel  ·  Norman, Nils  ·  Sholette, Gregory  ·  Vandeputte, Tom  ·  Weizman , Eyal