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Class Is in Session at New York’s First Alternative Art School Fair

Organizers behind five alternative pedagogical projects participating in the inaugural Alternative Art School Fair discuss the problems with conventional art education and their unique approaches to fixing them.

A session at the Ventriloquist Summerschool (photo by Marius Viken, courtesy Ventriloquist Summerschool)
A session at the Ventriloquist Summerschool (photo by Marius Viken, courtesy Ventriloquist Summerschool)

This weekend’s inaugural Alternative Art School Fair (AASF) could not come at a better time. Many traditional art colleges are in a state of crisis and art education in public schools appears to be under constant threat of further budget slashing — to say nothing of how President-Elect Donald Trump’s policies might impact federal funding for creative studies.

With over 50 participating spaces and programs from all over the world gathering at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, the AASF is sure to be eclectic and stimulating. Participants range from Black Mountain School in North Carolina and Ox-Bow School of Art in Michigan to Los Angeles’s Free School of Architecture, London’s Antiuniversity Now, and the ASCII Project in Giza. In addition to unorthodox art schools, the fair features a slew of DIY art libraries, presses, bookstores, and galleries, from the Provisions Library in Fairfax, Virginia, to Brooklyn’s own Zone Books. A fulsome schedule of lectures, panels, and workshops will include a conversation about the costs of art education (Saturday at 2pm), a panel in which three recently launched programs discuss the challenges of their first year (Saturday at 5:30pm), and a panel on the role of publications in art education (Sunday at 5:30pm, moderated by Hyperallergic’s Hrag Vartanian).

The fair, which is a Pioneer Works education initiative, is a great opportunity to get familiar with the artists and educators behind alternative art school initiatives of every sort and scale. I spoke to members of five particularly unorthodox and intriguing participating groups to find out why they felt the need to pursue an alternative to conventional art schools and what they’re most looking forward to at the fair.

Beta-Local

An open studio event for Beta-Local fellows (photo by Tony Cruz, courtesy Beta-Local)
An open studio event for Beta-Local fellows (photo by Tony Cruz, courtesy Beta-Local)

Based in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Beta-Local incorporates residency, research, and production programs; an open pedagogical platform whereby anyone can propose to teach a class, lead a workshop, hold a conference, or organize an event. It is also a reference library of art books.

“Beta-Local is fundamentally concerned with thinking about and responding to the local context of Puerto Rico, which of course is in constant flux,” said co-directors Tony Cruz,  Sofía Gallisá Muriente,and  Pablo Guardiola. “When the organization was founded, one of the initial concerns was that most artists here move abroad to do their masters. They become indebted and, if they return, paying back that debt determines a lot of their choices. Plus, they come back with all sorts of ideas and methodologies that are often incongruent with our social, economic and political reality. For Beta-Local, it was essential that our programming consider the full extent of artists’ production process, and the knowledge that is generated through the relationships, experiences and observations that are made throughout. We’re interested in art making and pedagogy as simultaneous developments; learning through collective work, mutual aid and the inherent defiance of structural and institutional conditions that art making in Puerto Rico represents.”

The Black School

A workshop by the Black School (photo courtesy the Black School)
A workshop by the Black School (photo courtesy the Black School)

Based in Brooklyn, the Black School is a project led by Shani Peters, Mitchell Johnson, and Joseph Cuillier to teach Black and POC students, as well as their allies, how to be agents of social change using political art, Black history, and political theory. Their main endeavor at the moment is an after-school program at Bedford-Stuy’s Nelson Mandela School for Social Justice in Boys and Girls High School.

“This project intends to use art not to critique the current conditions of the school but to propose radical alternatives to the current systems of injustice,” said Cuillier. “The mission The Black School centers the needs of Black students due to the historical failure of the traditional education system to properly educate our children through insufficient resource allocation and curriculum that does not address the social reality of Black youth. Nevertheless, as evidenced by the advances of the Civil Rights Movement such as voting rights protections, laws ending discrimination and immigration bans, and calling attention to the plight of impoverished people in this country, it’s clear that addressing injustices suffered by Black people strengthens the rights of all citizens.”

Cullier, who will also be participating in AASF’s “Art and Democracy” panel (Saturday at 3:45pm), adds: “I am looking most forward to sharing knowledge and resources with educators who not only believe the traditional factory system of education is broken, but broken beyond repair and the answer is not equipping students with the skills they need to integrate and repair the system, but instead total dissolution and the creation of a new system of equity and innovation in its place.”

School of Apocalypse

(photo courtesy School of Apocalypse)
(photo courtesy School of Apocalypse)

Devoted to exploring the connections between creative activity and survival, the School of Apocalypse offers classes covering everything from rethinking public food commons in urban centers to designing new iconographies and symbols for the United States. Founded by faculty members Tal Beery, Catherine Despont (who is also one of the organizers of AASF), Eugenia Manwelyan, and Adam Stennett, the school’s courses range from the very theoretical to extremely hands-on workshops.

“America is in the midst of a ballooning student debt crisis, schools tend to be inflexible and quarantined from urgent cultural issues, and competition between students inhibits productive collaboration,” said Beery and Manwelyan. “But the four of us didn’t start School of Apocalypse as a critique. We wanted a radical learning community that stuck with us for the long haul, one that offered a different pace of production that was in sync with the rhythms of our lives. We wanted to produce work with other artists we admired, and to see our school as part of a movement that wrestled with issues of vital importance. SoA is as much a school of thought, or a school of fish, as it is a schoolhouse.”

The Ventriloquist Summerschool

Taking the form of an annual summer session of intensive workshops in Oslo, the Ventriloquist Summerschool focuses on a different theme each year (most recently, illusion), with tutors from a range of backgrounds and disciplines. The co-founders, Kristina Ketola Bore and João Doria, use graphic design as a framework to bring together and engage a range of disciplines, from visual art and architecture to performance, writing, and music.

“What prompted us to initiate the Ventriloquist Summerschool as it is now was the lack of school-type spaces beyond the established art and design schools in Oslo,” Bore and Doria said. “One of our concerns was about rethinking how to stay in school after you leave school. But the idea at first wasn’t to make a school — it was to foster a discussion about the historical attempts of understanding a designer’s role using the ‘designer as x, y, z’ format (Producer, Editor, Publisher, you name it.) We were interested in understanding the urgency of the flexibility of the role and how it aspires to be an active extension of the way you see and navigate the world around you.”

Bore and Doria, along with the public artist Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, will be participating in the panel “Responsive Programming” (Sunday at 3:45pm).

“It is very important for us to foster a palpable sense of community with the work we do and the AASF amplifies that in ways we can’t predict and that’s something to look forward to,” Bore and Doria said. “We want to hear everyone’s motivations, be together, get a better informed perspective on the relevance of this kind of initiative regarding the way people self-organize towards learning how to be together and how to do things together.”

The Zz School of Print Media

Kendell Harbin's class at the Zz School, "World Shortest Letterpress Class for Booming Businesses: crafting curious calling cards and other entrepreneurial anomalies," November 2015 (photo by Libby Zanders, courtesy the Zz School)
Kendell Harbin’s class at the Zz School, “World Shortest Letterpress Class for Booming Businesses: crafting curious calling cards and other entrepreneurial anomalies,” November 2015 (photo by Libby Zanders, courtesy the Zz School)

With its focus on printmaking and print-based public art projects, the Kansas City-based Zz School of Print Media offers classes not only rooted in technical know-how and honing craft, but also the larger context of print media and print culture. Founded in 2014 by Erin Zona, the Zz School has expanded to two spaces, teaching classes in either letterpress or screenprinting.

“In the conventional art school students assume the role of the consumer and this has become increasingly detrimental to the classroom dynamic,” explained three members of Zz School (Zona, librarian Asa Wilder, and instructor Kendell Harbin) to Hyperallergic.  “When students are treated as consumers rather than contributors, they act accordingly. The administrative focus on student body numbers, discount rates, and retention trickles down and damages the quality of education. In the current economy, art schools are flailing. An alternative is necessary. We are most looking forward to meeting other people who have found a way out/in! ”

The Alternative Art School Fair, of which Hyperallergic is the media sponsor, takes place at Pioneer Works (159 Pioneer Street, Red Hook, Brooklyn) on November 19 and 20.

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