What we are, what we do and what this blog is for

It seems to me that given the current scale of the debate about alternative arts education we should be as clear as we can be about what we are, what we do, our educational objectives and broader agenda. So here’s my shot at at that:

Free School in a New Dark Age is a small scale, no-cost, non-hierarchical arts education initiative (with an associated online debating forum).

Free School in a New Dark Age has gone through three defining phases: an initial ‘Consultation’ phase during the New Dark Age show, the second ‘Open Proposal’ phase and a third ‘Protests and Occupations’ phase.

Free School in a New Dark Age began during the exhibition A New Dark Age curated by Dean Kenning in 2008. John Cussans proposed a series of guest lectures in no-cost spaces called ‘Towards a Free School in a New Dark Age’, partly as a response to the increasingly prohibitive cost of MA level art education. It was intended to demonstrate that education of a less exclusive and more horizontally organized kind can be done with little or not cost.

After the show it was decided by consensus by those who had regularly participated that events should continue according to these simple protocols: anyone can join the mailing list; anyone on the list can propose an educational event; proposers are then responsible for finding a no-cost venue, doing publicity etc.; details of the event would then be sent to the list.

There was a decision at this time that The Free School in a New Dark Age did not need a web presence. The ethos of Free School was very simple and modest and didn’t need to become a discussion about itself. We decided not to be an overly-instituted organization and to keep the format and organizational structure as simple and open as possible.

(Between the ‘Consultation’ and ‘Protests and Occupations’ phases there were several Free School events. This was also a period when other organizations started to show interest in what we were doing in the light of wider discussions about alternative educational models. This is when the ‘representation’ issues began. Calling a Free School event is one thing. Representing it to outside organizations something else. But I had no qualms doing this at the time. And nor did Dean, I assume, given that we had been at all the events and participated in all the discussions about it. Jon Trayner also took the initiative of representing Free School at this time. This was also the period that we began making independent issue-based publications as Free School projects. From my perspective nothing has really changed from the ‘Open Proposal’ phase in terms of the ethos and mechanism of  our Free School.  The main shift has been engagement with the wider movement of alternative educational initiatives and the political-ideological debates surrounding them in light of the cuts).

Participants of Free School have been involved in the occupation weekends, have proposed and spoken at most of the recent teach-ins in London art museums, some of us consulted on the website put up by Jon Trayner and produced an anti-cuts Fact Sheet in response to the Direct Weekend organized by Arts Against Cuts.

(For me we have been most compromised by our engagement with ‘art’ contexts where the intentions of Free School have been extremely diluted. I am also a little concerned that an informal  ‘executive’ emerged during the creation of the blog without any consultation with the wider group. This happened precisely as the third phase began in the wake of the student protests. I know that the mailing list was never intended as a decision making group and it doesn’t work in this way. Also there was a perceived urgency about the current situation that demanded working outside the list mechanism. So that’s fine. But I think we need to be clear between ourselves as to why it happened then and how the objectives of the blog differ from those the ‘Open Proposal’ mechanism.
What needs to be clarified internally is the role and function of the blog. It makes sense that participants in Free School in a New Dark Age can have a forum in which to discuss the political, philosophical and theoretical aspects alternative educational initiatives in light of  the current situation. But perhaps it should identify itself primarily as that and let Free School carry on working in the way it was (Open Proposals), which it is.
The blog seems to work best as a ‘Free School in a New Dark Age’ side-project to discuss education, arts and politics in a wider context. It should not be confused with the basic  operating protocols of the initiative in its ‘Open Proposal’ phase.
I think that once this is clarified the issue of representation will be simplified and we will be able to make clearer statements about our Free School initiative.

John
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5 responses to “What we are, what we do and what this blog is for

  1. 1. i would like to defend the third phase as a potential environment for a more inclusive discussion but agree with john that it could reify in an unhelpful manner
    2. i would also defend the art context as my most consistent area of praxis
    3. i agree with dean kenning’s point (below) about a clear oppositional position and the danger of acceptance

    a really important and complicated thing for me now is to clarify how ‘free schools’ operate against the big society vision of opting out of state control. This is the danger. So how do activities like ours potentially maintain political agency unless there is a clear oppositional element which would include the goal of state funded relatively autonomous art education (without assessment, grading, professional development, etc.) as part of free universal further and higher education in general

  2. John Cussans

    It does seem like we got caught somewhat on the back foot regarding this.
    Given that the Free School was conceived in part as a protest against the rising costs of education it always had the potential, and in some way the intention, to be an alternative to the established institutions. Moreover, as someone working inside the colleges, I had already experienced the ways in which we were increasingly expected to do more for less money at the same time as fees were increasing and wanted to resist this irrational exploitative tendency internal to the system.

    I also felt that many people were already excluded from art education, not only financially but culturally as well. So in that way the motive for a Free School was directly critical of the way art schools have been working but without wanting to reform them from within, which, to be honest, was a hopeless task given the general level of incompetence and lack of political consciousness on the part of the management. So in a sense I had already given up on the idea of transformation from within given the experience of cuts and increased fees that have been ongoing since I arrived at the college in 2002.

    I do think we need to construct a clear new model for state funded art education but I don’t think that’s necessarily the role of Free School per se. It’s something we are in a good position to discuss however. I think this position can be expressed best through the blog.

    What we could propose is a model that is much more cost effective, one which adopted a less specialized and less management heavy structure, one based on an ideology of art which was much more social and generalized.

    But how would this not play into acceptance of the ‘inevitability’ of the cuts?

    One the one hand there is the political and ideological struggle against the cuts in general, which Free School seems pretty clear on. And on the other there’s the contingency-based arguments that accept them as a foregone conclusion. Personally I still hold out hope for the collapse of the coalition and a Labour party commitment to over-turing the educational bill if they get elected next time round, but I wouldn’t bet the cost of an education on it. So pragmatically speaking we need to be thinking about best alternatives as well.

    That’s why I’m sympathetic to The Free University of Liverpool’s approach. It’s a contingency plan at the same time it is a protest. Perhaps we could propose something similar for the duration of the current government’s term in office.

    Dean has suggested that ‘Articles in AN etc about alternative models could easily become part of an acceptance of the privatisation of higher education and seeking alternatives outside the system unless this issue is raised’.

    I think we have to unpack some of our anxieties around things like this. In particular this ‘could become part of an acceptance the privatization’. I wonder what makes some contexts prone to this danger. Is it the context itself, which may have inherently conservative or reactionary tendencies? Perhaps we need to be explicit relative to context. There has been a great deal of uneasiness amongst us about who is asking us to do things and why? I think there is ground for a certain degree of paranoia on this as we have learned to distrust people’s motives in the art world (careerism, credit, branding and credential opportunism, CVism, ‘Research’ points, radical chic, cynical realist duplicity, half-baked political-aesthetic idiocy, cultural elitism, etc, etc). We know this stuff well and get upset when people fail to address it.

    But is there a coherent strategy for avoiding ‘becoming part of the acceptance of privatization’? It seems that many of us have managed this in terms of our own artistic outputs, deliberately so (not like it’s so difficult). But how different is this from the argument for free publicly funded art education, where we are dealing with a different kind of ‘product’ and at a much larger scale?

    Moreover, many of us who now teach in art education do so to subsidize art practices which are explicitly critical, social and anti-art-market on orientation. That’s a core irony and ideological battle for us. What’s the social value of the product? How do we argue for a different way of assessing this value? Does this require that we find some kind of compromise middle ground between those sectors of the art system in which art objects function as high-end luxury products for the moneyed elites and/or cultural capital for the middles classes with that which sees art as something more social, broadly applicable on both a personal-individual level and in terms of social design and critical social engagement (i.e. a social model of art as critical and creative culture in general).

    This is a much bigger discussion but it needs to be had. Hans Abbing’s book ‘Why are Artist’s Poor?’ may be an interesting place to start.

  3. more good points john, there is an issue that we have touched on before about how our concerns can be so easily co-opted into radical-chic and a surface representation of politics as spectacle or lifestylism, and that the unquestioning acceptance of the norms of culture (to borrow andrew’s phrase) can end up with us being co-opted into someone else’s pseudo-progressive narrative or with us being used as radical-cultural-capital. i guess we just have to be on our (avant)-guard, eh.

    on being caught on the back foot i agree, we have – it is always ‘interesting’ when this happens; we proceed carefully, judiciously, then suddenly a whole new lot of actors, uninterested in our theories, step up to the ‘slaughter-bench of history’.

    either way the consistent argument (we present) should be that of of an expansive and inclusive (art) education open to all. and the capitalisation and destruction of universities is a regressive step.

    i agree with andrew cooper’s offline comment: We see the position of the [free] school as a valuable alternative space, but we in no way see this as a substitute for publicly funded education. In fact we see education accessible to all and at any time of life as a vital part of society, the resources for this should be controlled by all for the benefit of all.

  4. O.k.
    We see the position of the free school as a valuable alternative space, but we in no way see this as a substitute for publicly funded education. In fact we see education accessible to all and at any time of life as a vital part of society, the resources for this should be controlled by all for the benefit of all.

    “careerism, credit, branding and credential opportunism, CVism, ‘Research’ points, radical chic, cynical realist duplicity, half-baked political-aesthetic idiocy, cultural elitism, etc, etc). We know this stuff well and get upset when people fail to address it.”
    -knowing that others are upset by these things is important, not merely upset but prepared to do something to act in different ways to work out strategies to move towards creating a different culture.
    “But is there a coherent strategy for avoiding ‘becoming part of the acceptance of privatization’? “
    I think overtime I’ve come to really value working in the school which although I originally entered thinking about politics it had become a grind. From the conversations I’ve had with all of you some different vision has started to emerge. To me this is exactly what I hope for with my students, that they start to gain enough confidence to explore things they tentatively feel about the world I think this is priceless, it is the only hope; that people question the “common taken for granted” sense in a common learning space. We teach each other and art is part of that. I suppose what I’m saying is it’s all learning and this is the attitude that I have to art practice. This will involve a bloody ideological battle and struggle to reassert necessary antagonisms. The language of resistance must be ripped out of the hands of people who believe or act as though they believe in abusive careerist hierarchy and returned to the people that need it. This is difficult and it involves creating a space of real discourse which is what we’re trying to do, we mustn’t worry about making mistakes but just spit things out; this space has to be clawed out.

  5. i have added andrew’s first paragraph to the ‘Free School?’ page as everyone seems to agree with the sentiment…

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