Out of the Ordinary: Learning in Public at Open School East

Out of the Ordinary: Learning in Public at Open School East

Open School East

July 31, 2017
Chris Sharratt
Open School East
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Bad Vibes Club met at Open School East on a beautiful June morning to explore the power of negative emotions in politics. At the once grand, now faded F. L. Pettman Ltd. Depository building in the Cliftonville area of Margate, Bad Vibes Club leader and former OSE associate Matthew de Kersaint Giraudeau began the discussion not with opening remarks but with a yoga class. It was led, via YouTube, by a perfectly tanned Californian who seemed well-versed in self-care, someone who might chase a shot of wheatgrass with a five-mile run. (In Margate there were biscuits and coffee.) After thirty minutes of contortions, groans, laughs and—in my case, at least—an occasional collapse in a heap, this not-particularly-supple group of artist associates gathered around a table to read, on de Kersaint Giraudeau’s invitation, “Resentment/Ressentiment by Michael Ure, senior lecturer in politics from the School of Political and Social Inquiry, Monash University, Sydney. The yoga was as good preparation as any to access the themes of resentment and negativity—after all, de Kersaint Giraudeau quipped, who couldn’t feel a little bit resentful when presented with the sun-dappled setting and physical perfection embodied by our online instructor? He was only half joking.

It would be tempting at this point to say, “Welcome to a typical day at Open School East,” but at this free, self-styled “space for artistic learning” there is no “typical.” Originally based in a former library and community center in the London borough of Hackney, the non-accredited school was commissioned in 2013 by the Barbican and Create London, and at the beginning of this year relocated to a new home eighty miles southeast of London. The school was forged in the educational fallout of rising tuition fees and the city’s ballooning property prices. With an annual intake of twelve to fourteen artist associates—students per se—who contribute to the school’s public-facing activity in lieu of fees, it was conceived as an attempt to address the growing inequities of art education in England, specifically the challenges facing artists of limited means wishing to study in the nation’s capital. OSE cofounder Sam Thorne, the author of the forthcoming book School: Conversations on Art & Self-Organised Education and since 2016 director of Nottingham Contemporary, says of his motivation for getting involved in the school: “Access to education was changing very rapidly and I was thinking about the implications of student fees and student debt and what that was doing to the next generation of practitioners and to London.”

Four years on, Thorne remains a member of OSE’s board of trustees, having served as chair until spring 2014 when he moved from London to Cornwall to become artistic director of Tate St Ives. He is one of four cofounders along with Sarah McCrory—formerly director of Glasgow International and now director of the new, soon-to-open Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art—and the school’s two codirectors, Anna Colin and Laurence Taylor. Colin is a respected curator (she was cocurator of Hayward Touring’s “British Art Show 8”); Taylor has been a producer for Hauser & Wirth and Frieze Projects and currently works on London’s Fourth Plinth commission. Together, they make for a formidable, well-connected group. Yet while one could say they are all steeped in the contemporary art scene, the points of tension and dissatisfaction with aspects of art education and the making of art today are never far from the surface, though the codirectors play down any antiestablishment credentials. “We don’t claim to be a radical art school,” says Colin as we sit by a disused bandstand on Margate’s seafront, a few minutes walk from the OSE building. “The school is what the associates make it. But we do employ certain formal methods alongside methods that are deeply unconventional and totally informal. We’re not trying to shut everything that exists; we’re saying there’s a lot that is good but let’s do things a bit differently.”

The move to Margate signals a pivotal moment in the development of the school: not so much a retreat from the challenges of London as a charge into a more sustainable and steady future. (A few weeks after my visit, OSE became part of Arts Council England’s National Portfolio, securing regular funding of £90,000 a year for four years from March 31, 2018.) Its new location also highlights a key characteristic of OSE’s imperative to be rooted in its surroundings and develop relationships with the local community, whether it’s interested in art education or not. “That’s an absolute aim of the organization and it’s something we achieved without a doubt in our former location,” says Taylor. “The richness of the voices expressed in the public program day by day, week by week, was quite amazing really. There was an over-fifty-fives group on Monday; Sisters Uncut on a Wednesday; young kids on Saturdays learning coding.” These varied activities, explains Taylor, were instigated in a variety ways; some resulted from the cumulative work of the organization as it engaged with the local community, while others such as the coding club were instigated and supported by an associate. “The colliding of those different people in a kind of cultural, social space that was a former library was really successful, and if we can do that in Margate it will be fantastic.”

This year’s associates seem to exemplify the important role the local context plays in defining the character and approach of the school. Most have relocated to Margate to take part in OSE, some from London looking for an affordable environment to sustain their practice, some from further afield, while others were already based in the town and involved with its burgeoning art scene, one that was given new momentum with the opening in 2011 of the David Chipperfield-designed Turner Contemporary. Four of the thirteen associates in this year’s cohort live in a shared house on the same street as the school.

Associates are formally required to attend OSE on Thursdays and Fridays during the program’s three terms. The time is taken up by a combination of tutorials and group critiques, one-on-ones with mentors, practical workshops, and occasional excursions. While the first term is programmed by OSE, terms two and three are directed by the associates themselves. For 2017, they have organized themselves into four groups based around shared interests and types of practice. Time is spent planning talks and workshops with visiting artists, which are open to other practitioners and the wider public. It’s all part of an approach that eschews a formal teacher-student relationship, with the associates instead encouraged to think and act like arts organizers and practicing artists, blurring the lines between their time at OSE and their wider practice. There is a real sense of the associates living and breathing OSE while, at the same time, holding down a variety of jobs, from lecturing on foundation courses at more traditional art schools to working as gallery technicians and doing other work unrelated to art.

“We always try to put together a group where people will exchange skills and support each other and have different kinds of experiences, because so much of what they do, although we guide them, is self-directed,” says Taylor. “For want of a better term, it’s cross-disciplinary, but broadly speaking it’s for people who are interested in the visual arts, although we’ve had people who are interested in dance, activism … We’re interested in the group being as diverse as it can be, in all senses of the term. We like to have people who are older with more life experience, we like people who are young but can’t afford to go onto an MA, maybe not even a BA.” This year’s associates reflect this interest. Ranging in age from early twenties to early fifties, some having completed MAs, others not, with practices encompassing painting, sculpture, sound, performance, film, theater, live art, and more.

Josephine Sweeney grew up in London and completed a BA in Sculpture and Environmental Art at Glasgow School of Art in 2015. She thought to move to Margate even before she was accepted into OSE’s associates program, regarding the town “as a place where there’s potential for things to happen.” She explains: “I don’t think I’d be here if Open School East was still in London, due to the cost. I felt like I wanted to be part of a community. I wanted to be in an educational context where I was able to learn new things but I didn’t have specific-enough interests or the money to do a master’s. So, Open School East met me where I’m at; I want to learn and make new art, but I want it to be open facing and I don’t want to go back to a closed-off, institutional bubble.”

Even more so than when it was in London, the physical setting for OSE’s new Margate home makes retreating into an academic bubble difficult and unlikely. The building—which includes local studio collective Resort on the top floor—is on a slightly run-down residential street in an area of town with a large immigrant population. There’s a busy hand car wash at the top of the street and the noise of passing people and traffic drifts into the two ground-floor meeting and work spaces and the associates’ recently constructed mezzanine desk area. (Due to limited space there are no individual studios, but there are facilities for making on the ground floor; the remnants of silicone casting and working with clay attest to the importance OSE places on physical art making.) I chat with some of the associates as they sit on the pavement at the front of the building eating lunch, making the most of the sun as the sound of nearby construction interrupts conversations. While OSE clearly provides an environment for rigorous thinking around artistic practice and associates develop a specific project or “line of enquiry” during their time at the school, the outside world is never far away.

Kris Lock graduated in 2016 with a BA in Painting from Camberwell College of Arts and is one of two associates based in London. “When I came out of university it was like this abyss of nothing, from lots of support, crits all the time, good conversations, to nothing,” he says. “So, for me OSE bridges that gap between being in an institutionalized education system and being a practicing artist. I see it as an equivalent to an apprenticeship in a way, in that we’ve got money to program events that you couldn’t do at university, we’re talking to artists, there’s a level of discourse that you wouldn’t necessarily be getting at university. It’s that autonomy that is interesting and the way that we’re shaping [the program].”

When I visit at the beginning of June, the associates are a couple of weeks into their second term and, with the support and light-touch guidance of Colin and Taylor, in the process of developing the sessions for the coming weeks. There are discussions around artists they’d like to invite for the public events they are planning, such as a workshop by multidisciplinary artist/dancer Andrew Kerton, a talk by London-based French artist Marguerite Humeau, and a series of workshops around making a float for the Margate Carnival in August. Amid this planning is a talk by Sarah McCrory about her experience as a director and curator, before being asked for her input on the associates’ plans for a day-long workshop they are running at the William Morris Gallery in London. The atmosphere is lively and endearingly chaotic as tables are rearranged for tutorials and, prior to that morning yoga session, boxes and the messy remnants of the first term’s making sessions are cleared away.

Taking place from the beginning of February to early May, term one was an intense combination of theory and practice delivered through a curriculum devised and presented by the artist Matthew Darbyshire, who is based in nearby Rochester. He has been an artist mentor for OSE since its early days and is also involved in the selection of potential associates. The term culminated in a performative “total artwork” that saw the associates parade through the town in specially made costumes before returning to Open School East for an open studios day that included an exhibition of a sculptural installation created over the previous weeks.

Darbyshire’s term was titled “Le Chant du Rossignol” and used Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale “The Nightingale” as a starting point from which to construct the collaboratively produced artwork. During the twelve-week term, Darbyshire brought in a wide range of practitioners to work with the associates, including former OSE associates Lucy Beech and Sophie Mallett and artists such as Pablo Bronstein, Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, and Nicolas Deshayes. Darbyshire, who regularly works as a visiting lecturer at numerous art schools including the Royal Academy and Goldsmiths and was previously a research fellow at the Slade, all in London, saw “The Nightingale” as “a simple parameter in which we could all work.” With the input of the invited artists, “all the elements you would traditionally associate with a theater production—script, score, props, costume, choreography, etc.—were pushed through a kind of fine art filter,” he explains. Crucially, each week was anchored by intense making in a different creative discipline. “I really got into it,” says Darbyshire. “In particular because everywhere I teach, no one’s ever allowed to do anything other than very pseudo-conceptual work whereas this was very illustrative. I believe in making and letting the work follow its own nose; I believe that’s the way we should make.”

In a less formal way, Darbyshire will continue to have an input into the program in terms two and three (associates this year will also be mentored by Sophie Mallett, Paul Maheke, Tom Morton, Sally O’Reilly, Trish Scott, and Maki Suzuki). He’s clearly energized and excited by Open School East and talks of inviting the associates to use his workshop and, more intriguingly, of a group trip to dig clay and build a kiln in some woodland he owns. At the same time, he expresses frustration with much mainstream art education in England, believing there’s too much focus on a particular kind of contemporary art resulting in an aspiration “to mimic what’s hot right now”—something he ultimately blames the teaching staff for. “A lot of the tutors at these art schools are not persuasive enough to sway the students, and so they are just subjected to this particular art scene,” he says. Darbyshire also sees OSE’s relocation to Margate as an important move that has already had an impact on the school. “I think Open School East used to be a bit more like other art schools in its first few years. This feels like the first year when it’s really radical—it’s wildly fun and romantic.”

Darbyshire’s passion for Open School East is about more than his frustration with art schools. There is, after all, increasing dissatisfaction among artists with the wider contemporary art scene, the vagaries of the art market, the pressures to produce saleable work. Essentially, like the associates, like Open School East itself, he is questioning what being an artist can and should mean in the second decade of the twenty-first century. It’s a thread of thinking that runs through Thorne’s School: Conversations on Art & Self-Organised Art Education. Divided into six sections with headings such as “From Pedagogy to Politics,” “Student Debt and the MFA Complex,” and “Collaboration and Collectivity,” the book includes interviews with a wide range of artists. There’s Tania Bruguera discussing her Havana-based Cátedra Arte de Conducta (Behaviour Art Department), which she hosted in her own home from 2002 to 2009; Olafur Eliasson talking about his Institute for Spatial Experiments, a satellite project for Berlin’s University of the Arts; Bik Van der Pol sharing their educational adventures both outside and inside an institutional setting at Sandberg Instituut Amsterdam. There are also conversations with artists engaged with pedagogy including Wael Shawky on MASS Alexandria, Ryan Gander on Fairfield International, and Tina Sherwell, who provides a fascinating insight into running the International Academy of Art Palestine in Ramallah.

School also includes a lengthy conversation between OSE’s cofounders and first-year associate Jonathan Hoskins. The book is in part informed by Thorne’s experience setting up OSE, though the initial steps for both Open School East and School began around the same time rather than one offering a clean trajectory for the other. “I was thinking a lot about artists’ roles historically in education and in a more recent wave of self-organized education platforms,” explains Thorne as he talks about the genesis of both the book and the school. In late 2012, while working for Frieze, he wrote an article for the magazine titled “New Schools” that considered recently founded artist-run academies and education programs, the result of around a year’s worth of conversations. In researching these often-precarious attempts to create new educational models, he perceived a clear need for a publication that would document recent developments, whether ongoing or discontinued. “I started working on this book because I was looking for a book like it,” he says. “I wanted to find something that was pulling together these divergent activities. And because of the nature of these projects—that they’re often short lived or aren’t documented very well—it actually became more of a challenging project. What I hope the book has done is round up but not delimit a certain kind of field of activities and to provide a very recent history of these different kinds of practices, from which any reader could derive very different readings or responses.”

While clearly recognizing and espousing the need for new models of art education, School does not proselytize for a particular pedagogical approach. Instead, its conversational, Q&A format creates a sense of discussion and enquiry which feels entirely appropriate for the subject. Ultimately, Thorne is keen for the book to act as prompt for further exploration around the subject of art education and the issues that many inside and outside the sector are grappling with: “Is this about tuition fees, or the state of higher education more broadly? Is it about society more broadly? I hope these are some of the questions that the book prompts,” he says.

These are questions that also chime with the concerns of Open School East, as well as with many others who are troubled by the increasingly dominant model of higher education run as a business and fueled by massive student debt. OSE does not present itself as some kind of grand alternative to this and Colin and Taylor say they have no intention to scale the operation to involve more associates.

OSE’s vision is of a different kind of art education that is not only free but more open to those largely excluded from the established art school system. It’s this espousal of openness, expressed through its public program and commitment to its locality, that perhaps most defines the school. Says Colin: “In the long-term we want people to apply to the associates program at Open School East not because they’ve heard about it through the art world or the art school they’ve been to but because it’s in their town or maybe they’ve done a program with us when they were younger. And this is working towards making art education, in the large sense of the term, into something that is much more socially mixed than it has become—on a tiny scale, that’s our little contribution.”

—Chris Sharratt

Education, Contemporary Art
Socially Engaged Art

Chris Sharratt is a writer and editor based in Glasgow.


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