Alternative art schools have been out there for a while now. Since the opening of the Black Mountain College experiment in 1933, these structures have perpetually evolved in order to be both at the forefront of pedagogic innovation and in sync with their time. Morphing to fit the needs of their potential applicants as well as the cultural, social and political circumstances in which they operate, they have been constantly rethinking themselves.
The sixties and the seventies - as the political context offered a fertile ground for experimental structures and radical pedagogies - were particularly prolific in this sense. Fundamental texts and ideas - such as Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) - and a wide range of free schools and universities - as the Antiuniversity in London (1968) which unfortunately collapsed on itself in less than a year - unfolded internationally. Filled with irrepressible young artists whose nature seemed to be continuously challenging the established system, art schools were usually the spearhead of the movement.
As of today, the art education world is living a moment of great turbulence again. The costs of higher education and MFAs are at an all time high and students can’t seem to find the supportive environment they are looking for within the academy anymore.
An alternative art school can be a form of protest against the actual system but it doesn’t have to. Some of them simply offer a space for critique and discussion, nothing more than “a room with a conversation in the middle” - as Lebanese artist and professor Walid Sadek so nicely put it in 2006. One might say there are two types of people interested in alternative art schools: the ones that cannot afford a higher art education and who are looking for alternative ways of learning without the expenses of an academy curriculum; and the ones who could afford it but want to challenge the actual state of institutional knowledge through experimental structures.
On a larger scale, there is also a group of people who are looking for more than academic knowledge: something that has to do with a form of community where people care for each others. A place - maybe out of time or space - where there are no restrictions whatsoever, that is constantly moving and where ideas can freely flow from one to another, enabling the people who are part of it to evolve in an open critical space.
Even though the spectrum is much wider, here is an overview of four contemporary alternative art schools that share various similarities and differences, which can inspire our vision of what art education could be about: infinite alternatives.
Founded in december 2015, Evening Class is a London-based educational experiment formed of approximately 20 participants who meet two times a week in a shared open space - they also share fees - for lectures and talks. Favouring a process of learning through shared common interests and knowledge, the participants - who have diverse backgrounds and nationalities - also run an online platform where they continuously share the class progress with anyone who is interested. Lectures are open to the public on Thursdays.
Foundation date: 2010-2011
Thought as a parallel structure evolving within the existing institution rather than a mere demonstration, Department 21 was a short-term (it lasted less than an academic year) educational experiment that took place at the Royal College of Art (London) in early 2010. Taking advantage of an unexploited floor in the school building, a group of students engaged to parasite the academy territory to question it. They created a social space for students from different sections who wanted to discuss, share and learn in a convivial and supportive environment. Compiling texts, essays and visuals, a publication was produced as a result of the experiment and is available for download.
As an itinerant event-driven open environment for art education - running since 2009 - Parallel School aims at bringing together people with mutual interests in art and design through summer sessions held in various places around the globe - such as Brno (Czech Republic), Leipzig (Germany), Lausanne (Switzerland) or Cali (Colombia). Thought as an experiment in itself, each session usually comes with a framework theme that inspires participants and guests to discuss, share their knowledge and initiate various projects. Workshops and lectures are planned as well, but are not open to the public. The website of the school serves as an archive to document past events.
ASTERISK SUMMER SCHOOL
Foundation date: 2013
Taking place in Tallinn, Estonia, Asterisk Summer School is a 10-day graphic design summer school founded in 2013, where participants are encouraged to question the status of designers and to explore the diversity of what design education can actually be. Guests are invited to give lectures and workshops at the main venue during the day and in various places around the city in the evening. Past lecturers include Stuart Bailey, James Langdon, Paul Elliman and Will Holder. A strong sense of community is held through the fact that participants share their living space during the event, allowing friendships to arise genuinely over time and experience. Fees are implied for the commodities and applications are cut to 30 participants.
Alan Speller, Le Black Mountain College: enseignement artistique et avant-garde, La Lettre Volée, Bruxelles, 2014; Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Herder and Herder, New York, 1970; Jakob Jacobsen, Antiuniversity Tabloid, Flat Time House, London, 2014; Walid Sadek, A room with a conversation in the middle, in Notes for an Art School, Manifesta 6 School Books, 2006;
Cover_Department 21, Open Source Publishing Workshop, London - image courtesy Department 21; 1_Diego Agullo, The Chair Game, Berlin 2013, Parallel School - image courtesy Parallel School; 2_Evening Class, Open-door meeting at local auditorium on Aberfeldy Street (June 2017) - image courtesy Evening Class; 3_Department 21, Open Source Publishing Workshop, London - image courtesy Department 21; 4_Parallel School, bike workshop: fixing someone else's bike, Glasgow, 2014 - image courtesy Parallel School; 5_Asterisk Summer School;
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About the author
A graduate of ECAL (Switzerland), Loana Gatti is a Swiss graphic designer and young researcher based in London. Her work mostly revolves around art and design education. Her critical point of view on the relation between theory and practice in the field of visual communication encouraged her to undertake research on the matter. She’s currently taking a break from the institutions, exploring the subject by her own means in order to engage in further studies with a sharper mindset. Learn more about her researches on her Tumblr.