A Conversation on Art, Activism, and Education

The following email exchange is a conversation between Meredith Warner, Jeremy Beaudry, and Heath Schultz from November 2007. The subject matter covered art, activism, and education, and many of the ideas that informed the genesis of the Think Tank were presented. The exchange also served as important preliminary thinking for both Volume III of the Think Tank's reader series as well as the Radical Orations project.

November 2, 2007

Jeremy + Meredith,

I just finished reading this book on Anachist motivated education called “The Modern School Movement: Anarchism and Education in the US” by Paul Avrich. I was talking to Aaron about it and how it was pretty rad and he mentioned that you guys were also really interested in some of the same ideas (alternative education, “freedom schools”, etc). I often think about how art + education + activism can be merged together, but haven’t really found others having that conversation. It seems there are many talking about art and activism, and often times using methods that might be similar to those of educators, but previous to the pedagogical factory i’ve never heard them talked about in the same breath. It certainly seems to be becoming more hip, more and more I hear of artists citing freire, but I’m yet to really find someone who is attempting to articulate how we can use all three effectively as one.

I suspect by your practice and work with the Think Tank you think about art/activisms relationship to education (and I don’t necessarily mean “art education”). More and more I’ve been thinking about these types of practices that attempt to implement some kind of educational tactics as a way of communicating. I don’t know if I have specific questions about these types of practices (I guess I’m referring to work that was included in the pedagogical factory and other similar practices), but I wonder what your thoughts our about attempting to cram together art/activism/eduation all into one? Is the collective/think tank model a way of educating ourselves so that we might move forward, or shake the foundation of three fields? and how is that related to more traditional forms of education? I’m probably revealing my ignorance on the subject, but I guess that’s why I’m writing. I feel that this is an important discourse and I’d like to know what you guys think, or if you have any suggestions about where the a more complicated conversation may be happening. So far I’ve been reading stuff from all three angles, and they often seem to overlap, but never quite merge completely. Hopefully this isn’t too far out of left field.

Hope all is well with both of you! Look forward to hearing from you soon!
best
Heath

http://www.educationrevolution.org/modernschool.html

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Hey Heath,
Good to hear from you. Yes, Jeremy and I have been considering the conflux of art, activism and education for some time — though we are far from coming to any kind of a conclusion. I have attached a link for a writing that [DIM] and I produced a few weeks ago for a listserv called Empyre — http://www.wearethethinktank.org/wp/2007/10/critical-spatial-practice-view. The list tends to be dominated by those who are densely theoretical, and few who practice — which seems common in these spheres. Regardless, after a month long web discussion about “critical spatial practice” KH asked DIM and I to contribute. We set out to talk about our experiences in Philly as artists and activists and the occasional convergence of the two. I think for a long time we had been also thinking about how to meld these two disparate practices. What came clear to us through the writing was a suggestion that perhaps this fusion was not necessary, but that our practices as artists and activists were two parallel practices that served to inform one another — as a way of grounding them, invigorating them and looking critically at them. And I think that is how we envision our Directorships within the think tank.

As far as the educational aspect, we are both very committed to teaching. I think we have both really thought of our educational practice as complimentary, and necessary to our work as artists. So again, everything intertwines and informs. Academia is the prize — the coveted tenure track job — right? But is there an educational model that lives outside of the institution? What we have not talked specifically about is what an alternative model would look like — internet based, free, socially engaged– or rather is it the creation of a model of self-education? With the readers, with pedagogical factory — I think we were thinking about how to make pointed, condensed, specific information available to people — perhaps even in a way that is instructional. Not to say that the reader is a “How to,” but that they provide a broad base of theory about the subject so that one might find themselves informed as they enter into their own artist/activist practices. They are kind of like free, hyper-specific text books. In fact, I was hoping to get started on volume three soon — perhaps it should be about alternative educational systems, art and activism? And perhaps you would like to help compile the texts, especially since it seems you are already doing that? Of course, you would have to declare your Directorship!

This week at Artivistic, I think I certainly saw more people whose work fell somewhere in between art and activism — but one of those distinct practices always seemed to dominate in the work. So I guess at this point I wonder if they can or should meld. When I think about the convergence of the three, adding activism, I think about how we could use an educational model to distribute the idea of the parallel practice. That a creative practice informs and activist practice, and an activist practice informs a creative practice. For me, this has been the more successful model so far. But I still have a hard time envisioning a form, a container for this whole thing… what ever it is?

This is all very much on the surface for me right now– and I thank you for giving me a reason to write some of it down. I have a suggestion: Perhaps we begin to gather and share text on delicious under the tag “reader3″ pertaining to alternative models of education (actually, I started this a few weeks ago under the tag Ed_Model, if you want to have a look). Non-internet texts can be scanned and distributed in PDF form. Interested?

How about you Jeremy?

Meredith

* * *

November 4, 2007

Meredith,

thanks for responding. I found many of the things you said to be helpful, and if nothing else I’m always interested in how others view these problems. You’re e-mail made me think of a few things, many of which I was probably already sort of thinking about.

I wonder about the sort of default “alternative education” practice which is the free school or freedom school, or simple group of people meeting outside of the institution. While I’m totally supportive (I’m certainly not making a case that many of these programs don’t teach essential critical thought, that I imagine is difficult with NCLB, and state mandated textbooks, etc. etc.) and find these type of projects really exciting — I wonder if their effectiveness is all that it could be if a more creative approach was implemented. I guess in some ways I’m making the same critique of alternative education that I am of art or activism, which is that I think we could use a totally new, progressive, and creative form to push the field in a new direction and shake it up — this is sort of the case that Duncombe made in DREAM, though it was more entangled with “spectacle” and politics, but I suppose that isn’t too far off here… I’m also interested in broadening how we think about education. I think the pedagogical factory did this, and I think the way you talk about the TT is more in line with what I sort of imagine a possible alternative art/education/activism looking like.

Obviously I’ve also been thinking about whether or not these practices can or should be merged — you mentioned they were parallel and informative to one another. This I certainly agree with, and I don’t think it is a counter-productive model by any means. Perhaps I’m hesitant to let go of the idea that it is one of the goals to successfully merge the 2 or 3 disciplines because we, or at least I, simply like them so maybe I think just desire to see them collapse into one, and this obviously doesn’t mean its necessarily a good idea — maybe it is naive, problematic, or just not that helpful. But one big question does come up for me — if we could imagine a container or forum for this practice, that we have yet to really define, but one that successfully merges 3 disciplines while simultaneously creating something new, are we also destabilizing and invigorating all three practices in a helpful way? Are we providing a new, more beneficial model for art / activism / and education to be implemented in ways that are right now unimagined but ultimately would free up all three practices and perhaps liberate them (at least a little bit) from the institution? — And this is not meant as an attack on academia, but (obviously) if we could loosen the stranglehold that institutions have on all three disciplines it would be helpful for those who do not have access to them, although maybe that is a bigger problem that isn’t the point here. Hopefully that thought / question makes sense.

I’d love to help compile some text for a reader one alternative ed. models! You’re right, I’m sort of already compiling some of these texts, but it’ll be good to take it a little bit more seriously now. I’ll start to pay a little more attention to some of these texts I come across and share them with you guys, and I’ll try and scan in a few things I’ve read recently that sort of energized these questions for me. I also noticed you tagged a bunch of freire books on goodreads, and I wanted to make sure you knew about this other book. It’s a book compiled of conversations between paulo freire and miles horton (the guy who started freedom school in Appalachia during the civil rights movement) appropriately titled “We make the road by walking”. I probably should take another look at it, I read it a few months ago and remember that they attempted to answer some of these questions also. Thanks again for responding, I’m excited by this conversation and look forward to continuing it with you guys!

best,
Heath

http://www.highlandercenter.org/a-history2.asp (miles horton’s school)
http://www.temple.edu/tempress/titles/804_reg.html (we make the road by walking)

* * *

Heath,
I think your observation of the need to look critically at forms of “alternative” education is key. What kept repeating in my head at Artivistic was– these projects are excellent, but who has access to them? If academics are the only audience, what exactly are the projects doing in the world? My response to many of the projects at Artivistic, which I often thought were really thoughtful, critically significant and politically relevant was — if they only ever live here then they are impotent. They are selfishly created for an audience who already has privileged access to this information (everyone nodes their head in unison.) Ultimately, I think these artists are interested in a broader form of distribution — but perhaps there is no forum for that. Artivistic tried to be that forum, but failed by leaning too far toward academia. (and it is ok — attack academia… it really needs to be attacked!) For me, the problem is always — who has access to this education? I am reminded of Jeremy’s proposal for the “Office of Everyday Resistance”…

“if we could imagine a container or forum for this practice, that we have yet to really define, but one that successfully merges 3 disciplines while simultaneously creating something new, are we also destabilizing and invigorating all three practices in a helpful way?”

What happens in the think tank is that we try to ascribe form to a particular practice — which is what I think you seem to be interested in doing. An Example: having a dialogue about a site of contention, at the very site of contention, is a form that the Directors call a publicly held private meeting (PHPM.) What you are talking about in the quote above, nearly precisely, is what we Directors recently determined was the “space in between” (this was central to my presentation at artivistic.) Like the name, “the think tank that has yet to be named,” we have assigned the intersection of parallel practices with a name that is maliable for the user, or Director. The space in between, in our experience, has provided a location where these practices meet, but do not congeal into anything solid. And the reason for why we have chosen to create maliable, almost liquid forms, is to avoid co-optation, branding or consumption. It is to borrow from Bey, from the temporary autonomous zone. The Directors attempt to create distributable, usable forms that negate co-optation by the institution. The danger for instance: Collaborative practices, now all the rage, have only recently found their way into larger, economically driven institutions. What will happen to the practice of collaboration, a practice that was born out of the want to negate consumption, when it is made a commodity? (I am making some sweeping generalizations here, as you will learn I often do, but i think you know what I mean.) Directors attempt to create forms that make space in the world, forms that others can understand and borrow, forms that are there, then gone.

The space in between the directors is the think tank. The space in between our parallel practices (art, activism, education) is the un-named, unbranded site of convergence — another space in between. As a Director (which you have yet to self-appoint), you have the autonomy to name that form if you choose — or to use the form by creating space for the form with out naming it.

Jim Duignan from Ped Factory gave us a copy of “We make the road by walking” but I have yet to read it. I am dumping a ton of text onto goodreads as a way to begin research…
Meredith

* * *

So, what is education? And, what is education for?

I recently brought out a graduate thesis written by my grad school colleague, Hillary Procknow, who was trying to plot an alternative ethics for education (at the time, it was applied to architectural education, but really only superficially). She and I shared a mentor (Steve Ross) who brought us along the critical theory / Hakim Bey route towards an understanding of critical consciousness. Her writing starts out with an account and critique of the scientific revolution, then moves through critical theory / dialectical thought (Marx and Hegel), and on into “critical pedagogy”; finally, ending with something called the “ethics of the self” as new tactic in education. I need to revisit the writing more closely, but her work lives in the same area where we are thinking about this stuff. I’m going to contact her and see what she’s up to, ask her for any updated texts and references, maybe engage her in some of this dialogue.

Here’s an excerpt: “We then moved to this category we call ‘education,’ in which we realized that there are always politics involved; those things that we take for granted as being the constitution of education do in fact convey, perpetuate and reinforce certain ideals that are valued for whatever reason by the dominant culture. This, of course, would be true even in a ‘transformed’ or critical classroom; but the critical classroom might admit this to itself. [...] To give up the pretense of knowing in the classroom is to recognize that there is a responsibility in helping students develop their individual critical consciousness which cannot be ascertained before hand and which also requires the educator to be willing to acknowledge the different sorts of knowledge that will come to the surface in the classroom.”

I think Hillary’s research probably was primarily focused on traditional educational structures (ie. the “classroom”), but at the time she was probably invested in working within institutions (not sure what she’s up to these days, though). Where art/activism/education intersect suggests to me a productive, critical, exciting way around of this — much like many of the alternative schools are trying.

“I suspect by your practice and work with the Think Tank you think about art/activisms relationship to education (and I don’t necessarily mean “art education”). More and more I’ve been thinking about these types of practices that attempt to implement some kind of educational tactics as a way of communicating.”

Maybe I hadn’t considered before your e-mail. But the TT might be entirely about educational tactics. I think we want to affect change, we want to empower people, we want to reveal their latent powers of agency, their individual critical consciousness. And not by telling them in some sort of patriarchal approach, but rather through a dialogical project in which we are all changed together.

Yes, let’s get a reader going! Yes, let’s start planning an art/activism/education summit in Philadelphia for this summer!

Jeremy

ps. What do you guys think about publishing this great conversation in the TT web site?

* * *

Jeremy + Meredith,

You’re absolutely right, what I’m describing is the “space between” I feel like somewhere in this space there is room for us to really create exciting, important work. Perhaps my struggle with these ideas so far is that I’ve been desperately trying to grab hold of something solid, or some language and hasn’t quite been established yet. This seems contradictory to what you’re saying, which is that there isn’t (and shouldn’t be) a language to these practices so that they can avoid co-option. I totally agree with this idea, and I love the way you talk about the TT as providing opportunities for the spaces to be dived into, while constantly moving in different directions simultaneously. Maybe my problem is that in trying to articulate what this form might look like, I’m too caught up in searching for a pre-established discourse or rhetoric that doesn’t exist, and maybe we don’t want it to. Perhaps we should focus on articulating not what this container might look like (though I can’t help but be excited by it) but instead what practices and activities can we partake in to find ourselves more frequently arriving in those (in-between) spaces.

I’ve also been thinking of a few other instances where an ‘alternative’ approach was taken to education. Red76′s project the “laundry lecture series” comes to mind (http://www.red76.com/salem.html ). These seems like a good example of what a “guerrilla” or “tactical” educator might do. I’m not really sure quite how to talk about it yet… though it gets me excited about concrete moments when these things converge. I suppose it’s possible that the idea cold be pushed further — the laundry lecture series still follow a certain protocol of educational structure — a lecture, a Q&A, etc… What would happen if this type of informal exchange became commonplace — what if every morning on the train a group of commuters recited poetry? or what if we made zines with excerpts of society of the spectacle and passed them out in times square? I wonder what you guys think of this type of project(s)…??

The more I think about it, it seems the moments when these things converge are these moments of educational tactics — so perhaps an appropriate directorship would be of tactical education. What do you think? does Dept. for the Investigation of Tactical Education (DITE) have a nice ring to it?

I’m excited to dive into some of these readings, and a summit on these topics would be very exciting! and I agree Jeremy that this is a great conversation, I think others would get something out of reading it on the TT site. look forward to hearing more!

best,
Heath