The Alternative Art School Fair Debuts at Pioneer Works

by Juliet Helmke for BLOUIN ArtInfo

Pioneer Works, the Red Hook, Brooklyn-based art space that opened in 2012, has, since its inception, put its educational functions front and center—perhaps even more so than the regular exhibitions and performances it hosts. Alternative means of creating, displaying, and discussing art have also often been a focus, and so it is apt that next weekend, November 19-20, it will debut the first Alternative Art School Fair, dedicated to providing resources for those eager to learn more about untraditional learning programs, and sharing resources between schools and fair-goers alike. Catherine Despont, co-director of education at Pioneer Works and one of the minds behind the Alternative Art School Fair, spoke to Artinfo about the form this inaugural event will take.


How did the idea of the Alternative Art School Fair come about?

The event is a collaboration between myself and two other people, Alexandre Gurita, who runs a program in France called the Institut des hautes études en arts plastiques (IHEAP), and Dylan Gauthier who runs Sunview Luncheonette and also a boat building collective called Mare Liberum. They initially approached me with the idea of a gathering of alternative art schools and in fact they had been doing research for two years prior and collecting names of schools. I’d initially thought that I wanted to build some kind of online directory, so we convened a meeting of a number of New York schools to discuss what a project would look like, where I sort-of made the mistake of using the word “association.” I realized there are a lot of issues for people who run alternative art schools around the idea of an association and so I had kind of let that drop. But I had all the research and I had been adding to it even though I wasn’t actively thinking of doing anything, and then we came up with the idea of doing a fair and it just clicked as the perfect way to bring all of these people together and to look at the landscape that has been developing over the last decade of alternative schools.


It was actually quite amazing to realize the number of alternative educational programs, when I looked at the list of schools attending—more than 40, almost 50 including the presses and libraries who will also be attending.

And those are only the schools that could come; the list we invited was about three times that long. And some of these are very small, some of them are more established and have been around for upwards of 10 years, and others are attached to bigger institutions. We wanted to keep our criteria of who could attend as open as possible, and focus on the questions we wanted to raise. For me, it’s about asking A) what does it mean to start a school, what are the reasons to start a school? And B) what are the reasons to create some infrastructure that would allow a greater number of people to find these schools, mapping them together as a set of resources?

I think a lot of the time the discussion around alternative schools gets stuck in the polemics of “are they really better than the conventional institutions that we have?” And “what are they offering?” I actually don’t think it’s so much about replacing conventional institutions, rather it’s about redefining the idea of what an education looks like—one that might go through conventional institutions, or might make use of this whole other set of resources, or that might include a mix of these in concert with each other. It’s important to note that for the schools that couldn’t come, we’re going to have a resource area where they have sent information to share. It’s like a reading area for people to hang out, talk with each other, and learn more. We’re creating spaces for the audience to meet and engage with each other as well. It’s not just a one-way thing where people come and absorb information; we’re trying to make it so that they contribute to sharing their ideas as well.


As you say, it’s important to keep the criteria broad, but talk so me about how, when you were forming your list, you defined the idea of an alternative art school.

For starters it had to call itself a school. That’s actually an important point because there are a lot of residencies, there are a lot of art institutions and different spaces that offer education programs, but I think the motivation to call oneself a school signifies a different experience and a different community around education. It also has to propose something unique—either in the form of its curricular structure, its institutional structure, or in the goals that it is looking to achieve. And we didn’t need it to be strictly focused on arts education, but it had to use the arts or connecting different subjects to the arts in its pedagogical model. Really the motivation often, of creating an alternative art school, is not necessarily because people want to create a specific kind of art or a better kind of art, but because they are looking to create better conditions for freedom of expression, or a place to combine subjects and ideas together that traditional institutional structures inhibit. So many of these schools have an activist proposition to them.

There’s something about art making and art practice—the way that it serves the world, the way that it questions our place, our time—that inherently makes it open to alternative cultural systems. That’s something I’m going to be exploring as moderator of our keynote panel, and it’s something that will be explored through a lot of the workshops as well, the question of, what is it about arts education that is valuable for education at large in a society? And not just in the way that we make art but in the way that art practice allows us to think about the world differently.


Will this become an annual event?

We would like to run it every year, we’ve also been offered to run it in a couple different countries and we really like the idea of having it move around the world. It was so important for us from the start to have this be a really international format and we now have I think 11 countries represented in the schools that are coming. It’s amazing to see the way in which these values around education, around arts, around alternative institution building, are really widespread. They are quite similar wherever they appear around the world.


What are some of the topics that the workshops, interviews, and presentations will cover?

Mary Walling Blackburn is an artist who has been running this radically feminist school, the Anhoek School, where she presents an alternative to the GRE, the Graduate Record Examination, called the AOE, the Anhoek Record Examination, and she’ll be administering one of those tests during the weekend.

We have Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, who is the director of the Yale graduate program in Graphic Design, but who has also been running programs, many of them feminist inspired programs, since about the late 70s. She’ll be talking about longevity and how to create and maintain alternatives both inside and outside of institutions.

We have another program called the Art and Law program which specifically looks at contract law and legal language and thinks about the way in which artists can infiltrate or expand that language to reflect different values in the legal world.

And we have a really wonderful panel that will be moderated by Regine Basha, a curator who just joined Pioneer Works as our residency coordinator, and she’ll be speaking with Daniel Bozhkov and a couple other people about the way that arts education can effect other education.

We’re also doing some really hands-on workshops that include things like physical explorations of text, pasta making, or knitting. The new Black Mountain school will be presenting their community information board. So definitely some of these schools will be bringing their alternative pedagogies and we’ll be encouraging people to engage with them in different ways. There might be a slightly carnivalesque feeling to some of the booths, and the overall event! We’ve encouraged people to define their tables pretty broadly in terms of what they should display and how they want to activate it, so we’re counting on a pretty broad range of things.


Speaking of the potential for the carnivalesque, I want to touch on the decision to call this a fair. That’s a word that is such a known entity within the art world—institutionalized at this point. And within the realm of education it has its own meaning as well. So I wanted to hear a little about the decision to call this a fair, and how this fits within the idea of it being a presentation of programs that are breaking out of institutionalized structures.

I think it’s about appropriating a word from a couple different places. Obviously there’s the art fair, which is really a commercial setting, and then there’s the college fair, which is this very staid, awkward kind of event. I like the idea of there being something collegiate but not so sleek in this gathering. We could have called it a conference—and in a lot of ways it is operating as a conference, with the programs and the workshops. But more than anything this was about bringing people to celebrate their work, and bringing them together to meet each other and to collaborate. These are artists. The art world understands the word “fair” as a format. So in some ways there was not a lot of explanation that had to go into that. Fair is also a word that has the potential to attract people who are not deeply embedded in the art world, too. I think these conversations and programs need to speak beyond just the art world, for them to survive and for them to really have an impact on education. And that’s really what our programming is about. It’s about thinking beyond just making great art, but thinking about what art is offering in terms of innovation, in education, and in social evolution.