Sean Dockray - archive / What is the relationship between institutions and counter-institutions?

What is the relationship between institutions and counter-institutions?

a talk for Post Digital Cultures, Lausanne, 2015

When I looked at the schedule for this conference, I saw that my panel was called “New Forms of Education.” As it happens, the last chapter of the one book I brought was this: “Search for New Forms” – and the first and primary example has to do with education.

The book is from 1967, is called “Black Power.” It makes a very straightforward assertion: “if political institutions do not meet the needs of the people, if the people finally believe that those institutions do not express their own values, then those institutions must be discarded.”

Here, the new is not just new for the sake of fashion, but there is a politics involved. In the US, this has to do with centuries of racism and oppression, where institutions are built up on those values. Now, the books is nearly 50 years old, but still only in the past few months black students at Yale, Harvard and Princeton have occupied offices and demanded that certain symbols of the old institutions be discarded, the names of buildings for example. The struggle still continues.

Thirty years before that Myles Horton co-founded the Highlander School in Tennesee, which provided social justice training and education for the labor movement in Appalachia and Southern United States. In a discussion with Paulo Friere, called “You Have to Bootleg Education,” Horton said something about this time that caught my eye:

"We deliberately chose to do our education outside the schooling system. At that time, there was a lot of discussion about whether you should try to reform education, which is what we were concerned about, by working inside the system, because if you worked outside the system, you couldn't influence the system. The argument was that you could change the system. We concluded that reform within the system reinforced the system, or was co-opted by the system. Reformers didn't change the system, they made it more palatable and justified it, made it more humane, more intelligent. We didn't want to make that contribution to the schooling system… We were going to experiment with ways to do social education, and we could carry on that experiment outside with more validity than we could inside the system, because we didn't have to conform to anything. Nobody could tell us what to do. We could make our own mistakes, invent our own process."

Another example of this: in 1972 the chair of Cal Poly Pomona’s architecture department was dismissed from his position. In solidarity, half of the students and most of the faculty left with him, ultimately creating a new architecture school, a college without walls, called “The New School.” At the beginning it had no accreditation, no salaries, and students couldn’t become licensed architects, but it did have Paul McCarthy teaching video classes and assignments for students to design the interior of the school. This institution, if I can call it that, eventually became the Southern California Institute of Architecture, with a campus, accreditation, and reputation as one of the most respected architecture schools in the world.

There are four examples I want to give – Black Power and the Highlander School being the first two – and they all occupy similar but slightly different positions in this question of insides and outsides, or, institutions and counter-institutions of education. New forms enable new power relations and new pedagogical processes.

These are both two moments of stepping outside, whether temporarily in order to build power, or longer, to establish freedom. They seem to say that official education, in spite of its assertion of the pursuit of knowledge and truth, are compromised by profit and ideology.

In my abstract, I wrote that I would be comparing and contrasting two institutions of education that I have been a part of: one is a part of official academia, while the other is not. One - the official one - is the Victorian College of the Arts, which absorbed the National Gallery of Victoria Art School and which has since been absorbed and restructured by the University of Melbourne. It is a product of mergers and acquisitions, rebranding and expansion. The other, The Public School, is a self-organized, autonomous school without accreditation, a budget, staff, or a curriculum. Inside and outside – institution and counter-institution – profit and truth. OK now that I’ve drawn a clear line, I will spend the rest of my time trying to both attack and defend it.

When the Victorian College of the Arts was taken over by the University of Melbourne, part of that process was to bring arts education into line with the broader university by implementing the Melbourne Model. This was the university’s policy for internationalizing itself, standardizing its degree structures in accordance with the Bologna Process. As a PhD candidate, I am often made aware of this pressure to both distinguish Art as a discipline and also to bring its methods into alignment with the other disciplines. Often this is through bureaucracy, training, forms for ethics approval, forms for research progress, systems for measuring research outputs, and so on. Systems like the Excellence in Research for Australia, like the UK’s Research Excellence Framework become processes that require submission to a culture of results and impact measurements. These evaluative systems also govern how money flows into research, and these flows have contributed to the eroding presence of the Humanities from universities.

Jacques Derrida argued that it is within the Humanities that the principle of unconditionality presents itself - and what is unconditionality? The right to put everything to question, including that right to put everything to question. I first read his essay, “The future of the profession or the university without condition,” at the time that I was setting up The Public School and I know that the text had a significant influence, for example in the ways it was supposed to rigorously question its own foundations and deinstitutionalize itself through performatively reconstructing itself. [committee, classes about TPS, position statements]

Derrida’s text culminates in a heightened focus on the limit “between the inside and the outside” (italicized) where the university is exposed to reality, the point where “the university is in the world that it is trying to think. On this border,” he continues, “one must therefore negotiate and organize its resistance… and ally with extra-academic forces, in order to organize and inventive resistance … to all attempts at reappropriation.” This is militant Derrida, trying to both break open the university while preserving the unconditional principles the university (hopefully) guarantees.

In his essay, Derrida explicitly mentions the destabilizing effect that virtualization has on the university (particularly communication, discussion, publication, and archivization). Where, he wonders, will we find the communitary place and social bonds of a campus in the age of the internet? Maybe we think that is nostalgic, or old-fashioned, and it might be, but how do we guarantee academic freedom then?

So, in my taxonomy of outsides: we have going outside, stepping outside, and being in the window, half in and half out. My last example is making an outside on the inside. On December 2, 1964, Mario Savio gave a very famous speech on the steps of a building at UC Berkeley. Responding to the administration’s very corporate language, he said:

“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels… upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!”

That’s the famous part of the speech. Just afterwards, he continued, “We're going, once again, to march up to the 2nd floor of Sproul Hall. And we're gonna conduct our lives for awhile in the 2nd floor of Sproul Hall. We'll show movies, for example. We tried to get Un Chant d'Amour and [they] shut them off… we'll do something which hasn't occurred at this University in a good long time! We're going to have real classes up there! They're gonna be freedom schools conducted up there! We're going to have classes on [the] 1st and 14th amendments!! We're gonna spend our time learning about the things this University is afraid that we know! We're going to learn about freedom up there, and we're going to learn by doing!!”

In a collaborative text from 2010 (by Matteo Pasquinelli, Jason Smith, Caleb Waldorf, and myself) we stated: “One of the most important "new pedagogical models" that emerged over the past year in the struggles around the implosion of the "public" university are the occupations that took place in the Fall of 2009. Unlike some other forms of action, which tend to follow the timetable and cadence of the administration, to the point of mirroring it, these actions had their own temporality, their own initiative, their own internal logic… Everything had to be improvised, from moment to moment, and in these improvisations new knowledges were developed and shared… I am sure that those students that who had the nerve and courage to take those buildings and to abandon themselves to one another learned more during those brief spells than they did in the PhD orals or the chemistry labs: they learned what their university really is, they learned how treacherous their tenured teachers, many quite progressive, can be, and they learned what it might take to seize hold of, or construct, their own conditions of existence.”

We are all familiar with the common meaning of the word school: it is a place for learning. In another sense, it also refers to organized education in general, which is made most clear by the decision to leave, to “drop out of school.” Alongside these two stable, almost architectural definitions, the word gestures to composition and movement – the school of bodies, moving independently, together; the school only exists as long as that collective movement does. Similarly, a group of people united by a similarity of principles or methods, as the art historians will know, is a school.

Rather than disambiguate the word – matching the best fitting definition to the situation – why not pull all of it along, like a glacier? In this conception, moments of place, territory, and enclosure are dispersed by forces of exploration, movement and invention, only to compose themselves again. The school takes shape in this oscillation between form and formlessness, again, not through the act of constructing a wall but by the process of realizing its boundary through practice.

You may already know the Greek etymology of school, skhole, “a holding back, a keeping clear” – usually in the form of leisure or spare time – of space for reflective distance. On the one hand, perhaps this reflective space simply allows meaning, theoretical knowledge, and experience to shape or affect performative action; but on the other hand, the production of this “clearing” is not given, certainly not now and certainly not by the institutions that claim to give it. My argument would be that reflective space is something that needs to be claimed through performative action (new forms, leaving, what Derrida calls professing, or occupying) – or, more appropriately, space and action must be coproduced.

My purpose in laying out this taxonomy of outsides is not to argue for one above all others. But I do think we need an outside, whether that is outside or inside the thing with no outside. A few years before The Public School I set up a project that would be a library and discussion platform for a wide and loose network of collaborators who were working mostly "outside the institution." Without the benefit of actual physical spaces for meeting, or storing books and articles, the website allowed for a different kind of space to emerge. As the archive grew and the network expanded in unpredictable ways, I wrote this description of the platform: "AAAARG was created with the intention of developing critical discourse outside of an institutional framework. But rather than thinking of it like a new building, imagine scaffolding that attaches onto existing buildings and creates new architectures between them."

This description owes an enormous debt to the work of Lebbeus Woods, which is shown here. I think his drawings function as a diagram of possibly a fifth:

Let me read a section from War and Architecture, called Injections: "In the spaces voided by destruction, new structures are injected. Complete in themselves, they do not make an exact fit, but exist as spaces within spaces, making no attempt to reconcile gaps between what is new and old, between two radically different systems of spatial order and of thought. These gaps can only be filled in time. The new structures … are in fact difficult to occupy, and require inventiveness in everyday living in order to become habitable. They are not predesigned, predetermined, predictable, and predictive… The freespaces are, at their inception, useless and meaningless spaces. They become useful and acquire meaning only as they are inhabited by particular people… People assume the benefits and burdens of self-organization. Existence continuously begins again, by the reinvention of itself."

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