Members of THE PUBLIC SCHOOL NEW YORK committee (D.A.N): Kamomi Solidum, Stephen Squibb, Sarah Resnick, and Anne Callahan at Bark in Brooklyn, NY. There are 14 active members of the committee at the time this blog is being posted.
I sat down with four committee members from THE PUBLIC SCHOOL NEW YORK to have a conversation about their organization and its structure. THE PUBLIC SCHOOL was founded in Los Angeles by Telic Arts Exchange. Today, it has chapters throughout the United States and around the world. Here is a description pulled from their website:
THE PUBLIC SCHOOL is a school with no curriculum. At the moment, it operates as follows: first, classes are proposed by the public (I want to learn this or I want to teach this); then, people have the opportunity to sign up for the classes (I also want to learn that); finally, when enough people have expressed interest, the school finds a teacher and offers the class to those who signed up.
THE PUBLIC SCHOOL is not accredited, it does not give out degrees, and it has no affiliation with the public school system. It is a framework that supports autodidactic activities, operating under the assumption that everything is in everything.
DH: Did any of you get any of the “free” chocolate I brought to French Theory (An Introduction to Possible Futures)? From when I was uptown and stumbled upon a chocolate shop whose air-conditioner had just broken, and I walked out with about a thousand dollars worth of fancy chocolate….
AC: I heard about it! I didn’t get to eat any. I saw the layer of chocolate bar boxes in the trash bin at 177 Livingston the day we started deconstructing. Apparently you brought a shipment to the class the night before. I was jealous, for sure.
KS: No, didn’t get any. You came to my work place to drop off licorice from the Turkish market in Berlin then stumbled into the free chocolate. But, I’m happy that the UES provided for our class.
DH: How did the French Theory class come about? Can you talk about that process for those who may be unfamiliar with TPS?
KS: Well, in the summer of 2010, we organized a week-long seminar called, There is nothing less passive than the act of fleeing… which was modeled after a class that the founders of the original Public School in LA put together for Berlin. The seminar was built around a selection of texts including “Introduction to Civil War” by Tiqqun. We were fortunate enough to get Alexander R. Galloway, one of the translators of the book, to facilitate our first session…
SR: After that session, Alex mentioned that he’d been scheming an idea for a five-day seminar on new French theory, with each session devoted to a different a philosopher. Though he’d originally conceived the seminar as a roaming one with a daily change in venue, he asked whether the Public School might be interested in hosting all five. We encouraged him to propose the seminar through our website, and a few weeks later the class was born. But perhaps this isn’t a typical genesis story.
AC: Well I don’t know, is there a typical genesis story for a class? The framework—that is, the Public School website—determines a certain order of events: a class is ‘proposed’, ‘organized’, and ‘scheduled’ with clicks of buttons, it’s true. But there’s no accounting for what happens outside the website. I’d like to assume that many classes are born of conversations, and experiences at other classes, and conversations at other classes, and other social-type interactions. None of this would work without, you know, people talking to each other.
How a class comes to fruition.
SR: Of course! To clarify, I was referring to the way that French Theory Today arrived on the site “fully-formed,” with the topic and readings for each session determined in advance. More commonly, class ideas—whatever the circumstances of their origin—are proposed on the site and developed collaboratively. Oftentimes, those who express interest in the class help shape and refine class objectives through comments and suggestions on the website. The committee too, generally weighs in on class formation during our bi-weekly meetings.
AC: Right, classes usually take shape over time. Someone makes a proposal on the website, people click ‘interested’, and then a conversation starts.
DH: It’s interesting, the website here becomes an efficient tool for organizing events that happen in real life. What’s important is that the website facilitates things that happen off-line. 177 is the second space you’ve had. You shared with Light Industry and Triple Canopy. How did that sharing of the space come about? And what is going on right now?
SR: Actually, 177 is the school’s first dedicated home. Prior to moving to downtown Brooklyn, the school was nomadic, inhabiting different spaces throughout the city. This was during its original iteration, as the Public School (for Architecture).
KS: The school’s architectural focus was initiated by common room and Telic Arts Exchange. They were awarded the New York Prize fellowship by the Van Alen Institute for their proposal to set up the New York chapter of the Public School. The original intent of the Public School (for Architecture) was “to reactivate dismantled professional networks of the New York Architectural community into a productive force that can collectively begin to make sense of current cultural, economic and technological conditions through open-ended discourse and alternative approaches to education.”
It was at the final fellowship-sponsored class called, The Future of the Public School (for Architecture), that Triple Canopy offered 177 Livingston—which they had recently received through the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership —as a temporary home. The space would also be shared with Light Industry. Within two months, common room designed, planned, and built-out the interior to include a circular stage, a curtained-off area for viewing films, a large custom-made light fixture, a storage room, shelving, tables and benches. All three organizations assisted with the build-out of the space.
SR: Right. And the doors opened at the end of February in 2010.
AC: But now we’re homeless for a while. Our ‘lease’ ended last month, Halloween, October 31, midnight. We took down all the walls and locked the door and now we’re wandering around. Looking for a new space.
KS: Speaking of space, but beyond the physical… I just want to go back to your comment, David, about the website being “an efficient tool for organizing events that happen in real life.” It actually goes further than that. Via its website, the Public School has become an interesting new model for learning primarily because it thrives as a social space that shifts, multiplies, and extends from the screen to the physical site to the printed page and beyond. As Anne mentioned earlier, the key ingredient is the art of conversation. In our case, it is a 21st century version of conversation. It begins with the class proposal and comments section of our website then flows through blogs, emails, and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. These online conversations eventually find their way into real life as class discussions and are re-examined through our print publications such as The Page + The Screen Annotated Bibliography and the upcoming pamphlet series for French Theory Today (An Introduction to Possible Futures). In this way, the framework has a multiple function—both online and offline—as class generator, social networker, and publishing platform.
It is through this sharing of knowledge that relationships are fostered. They extend beyond the Public School and into other social spaces within the city and around the world. Because of this, our original mission as the Public School (for Architecture)—which was to reactivate dismantled networks—has come to fruition.
DH: And, now you are the Public School New York, not the Public School (for Architecture) because…?
KS: Because the successive committee, which includes all of us, voted to change the name to the Public School New York. This happened after much debate about whether or not “(for Architecture)” could be perceived as limiting in terms of audience and content. Despite divorcing ourselves from that name, we continue to develop and are very interested in classes that explore architectural and urban issues. Examples include Architecture in Film and Literature, Texts + Textures: A Writing Workshop, and Democracy and Public Space in the 21st Century: New York City.
DH: We just got out of the Motto pop-up shop at 200 Schermerhorn. It was the class on AAAARG.ORG that Sarah proposed. I think we all felt the class went well. In your opinion what are the qualities of a successful class?
SS: Well there is a tension between the sort of assessment required to determine if something is a success and whatever it is we are pursuing at the Public School. I’m reminded, for some reason, of Tino Sehgal’s This Success/ This Failure. That said, I certainly feel better about life, the universe and everything when I leave a class where a number of people contributed, where there were faces I didn’t recognize, and certain ones I did, where people disagreed with each other, where there were some good ideas, but more that were unformed, in-progress, or otherwise en route, where we got drinks afterwards, and where, in all these ways and for all these reasons, I learned something.
AC: That’s interesting because you offered good ideas about assessment during the class tonight. Particularly about teaching. Which, in its typical forms, like giving a presentation or leading a seminar, is not really a requisite part of the Public School. I always feel that the Public School is at its best when different kinds of classes are on the calendar. Workshops next to reading groups next to walking tours next to presentations. I guess the only requisite for Public School classes is discussion, which is a natural consequence of people getting together in this way…so it is too formal, really, to call it a requisite.
SR: I will echo Stephen’s sentiments about what makes a successful class; and tonight’s discussion around AAAARG.ORG certainly falls within this characterization. But I’m also inclined to think that, so long as a few participants come out, the class is successful in some way. It’s far easier to just stay home and hang out in front of the Internet or a book or a movie than it is to join a conversation with strangers on topics you may know little about. That people feel motivated to come out and meet face-to-face around a common interest, around a shared desire to learn, makes me feel better about life—even if the class is a little dull…
AC: It’s true that some classes are less fun. But yeah I wouldn’t trade any of them. What do you think of the classes you’ve come to?
DH: I think I’ve been to four classes. The Page and the Screen: Siting Text in the Early 21st Century and Beyond, There is nothing less passive than the act of fleeing…, French Theory Today (An Introduction to Possible Futures), and AAAARG.ORG… All of them have been great, a familiar core group of people show up and facilitate a discussion that brings to life texts. By core, I mean a group of people who continuously show up and participate—and generate a dynamic that stays through the length of classes, and over into other classes. But I don’t want to say there are only the same people—there are always new faces. And, that the classes are typically free is another major plus.
AC: I think in some cases that the ‘familiar core group’ comes into existence over the course of the class. Like in the case of the classes you mentioned, the participants became familiar over the course of multiple sessions. In the case of There is nothing less passive than the act of fleeing…, the reading group Sarah mentioned earlier, two of the participants ended up joining the Public School committee. I met you there, I didn’t know you before that. I didn’t know anyone at this table before I showed up at Public School committee meetings in January. And here we all are, a familiar core group sitting in a hot dog restaurant in Brooklyn that’s about to close.
DH: So, it goes into friendship.
AC: Yes, it goes into friendship and collaboration and making something more than the sum of its parts. As part of the committee, we work on understanding class proposals and bringing in people who will help make the classes really interesting and useful. Then, once a class is happening, everyone present is involved in making it what it is. As soon as someone speaks out loud—or even, as soon as they walk in the door—they’ve established a relation to other people at the class. And, if you walk in the door more than once, you know, that relation can change. So there is this social aspect, as Kamomi mentioned, that is bound up with teaching and learning. Friendship always plays a part, I think—in the original idea, or in the organizing, or in a class as it actually plays out. But that’s not to say that strangers and newcomers aren’t an important part of the dynamic too or that there is always consensus among friends. There’s a lot of room in the Public School for dissent and debate. And there’s room for silence, for letting something rest and then picking it up again.