Trade School and TPSNY: Two Models of Non-Hierarchical Learning

Education is going to the dogs, we’ve been told. We’re overeducated, we’re underperforming, we can no longer afford to learn. Coupling these concerns with the idea that learning doesn’t need to stop at adulthood, grassroots organizers have responded by implementing non-hierarchical models of learning. These organizations all share a wish to dismantle the hierarchies of traditional teacher-and-student models, positing that everyone has something to learn from someone else, regardless of background or economic means. Many groups—Copenhagen Free University, Anhoek School, the Public School, Trade School, and the Bruce High Quality Foundation University, to name a few—developed from within art communities. More recently, some groups have formed outside of the art world, such as the more commercially-inclined Skillshare and the Brooklyn Brainery.

I’d like to delve into the world of non-hierarchical learning via two case studies, Trade School and The Public School New York (TPSNY). I’ve chosen these examples for a number of reasons. Both are currently undergoing exciting new developments: Trade School reopened on September 28 at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center in conjunction with the New School’s exhibition, Art, Environment, Action!, and The Public School just launched a new website that will allow easier access and communication between its various sites around the world. I’ve also had the opportunity to participate in classes through both organizations. While I may discuss their goals, structures, and strategies in tandem, I certainly don’t aim to label one as better than the other. These D.I.Y. models of learning bring up many issues that would be impossible to cover in the space of this blog post, but I’d like to use these examples to start a conversation on the organizations’ relationships to the art, the art world and the public.

TPSNY’s Dark Nights of the Universe at Recess Activities. Night I: Eugene Thacker – Remote: The Forgetting of the World. Clodagh Emoe, Mystical Anarchism. Screening and discussion with Simon Critchley.

The Public School, founded in Los Angeles in 2008, dubs itself a “school with no curriculum,” but it is more appropriate to say that its participants generate the curriculum. Any website member can propose a topic he or she would like to learn about or teach; classes are discussed on the website, and if enough interest is generated, the school finds a teacher and holds the class. The New York chapter, which opened in 2009, is free, although other chapters might charge. TPSNY committee members contend that, without monetization, their model of education “thwarts the expectation that a learner will passively receive information like a purchased good handed over the counter.”

While Trade School involves no exchange of currency, its organizers adamantly state that their classes are not free. Trade School grew out of, an online community that encourages the exchange of ideas, skills, and goods via barter. Instead of accepting monetary payment for their time and knowledge, teachers ask students to bring something for them, ranging anywhere from a rolling pin to “help fixing the hubs on my bike.”

Trade School’s Drawing for Pleasure and Relaxation class. Photo by Alex Mallis and

While Trade School and the Public School classes are open to the public, both organizations developed out of the art world and have maintained such connections. As mentioned earlier, TPS Los Angeles was founded (and still takes place) at a contemporary art venue. The New York chapter is currently housed at 155 Freeman Street in Greenpoint, sharing the space with estimable company—the online arts magazine Triple Canopy and film and electronic art space Light Industry. In a similar vein, Trade School’s three founders, Louise Ma, Rich Watts, and Caroline Woolard, are artists, and the organization has held classes at art spaces and museums such as GrandOpening, the Whitney Museum, and the Museum of Art and Design.

With Trade School’s involvement in exhibitions such as Creative Time’s Living as Form and now Parsons The New School of Design’s Art, Environment, Action!, the question of whether these models of learning are considered art projects becomes paramount. Just a few weeks ago, ranked the Bruce High Quality Foundation University, which was established in 2009 as a response to the failings of art school, as the 23rd most iconic artwork of the last five years. Debate over the relationship of these new models of learning to visual art is certainly not new. Theorist Irit Rogoff has spent pages discussing what she calls the “educational turn” in art and curatorial practices; non-hierarchical learning has been connected to relational aesthetics, a term coined by Nicholas Bourriaud to describe art that takes all human experiences as its point of departure. So where do Trade School and TPSNY land—art project, school, or both?

Trade School’s How to Make Butter class. Photo by Alex Mallis and

As Woolard put it, the organizers of Trade School “vacillate between whether we consider Trade School socially-engaged art and not at all, depending on the day.” As she explains, “Trade School can register and be understood in the framework of art history”; just as many contemporary art projects focus on making social structures visible, Trade School aims to do so with both systems of education and exchange. But functioning primarily within the art world is undoubtedly problematic, and Trade School is the first to admit it. The trappings of the art world are often alienating to outsiders: even exhibition openings, with the signature gastronomical tradition of wine and cheese, reeks of elitism. By labeling Trade School an art project, Woolard explains, they would have to align themselves with such hierarchical structures—so for the time being, they choose not to.

In fact, inclusivity—or at least a thoughtful expansion to include groups beyond the art world—seems to be Trade School’s M.O. “We want to be visible in as many realms as possible,” organizer Caroline Woolard explains, reaching out not just to artists but to other creative groups, such as the Maker community, as well as social activists. Their offerings are therefore diverse in field and structure, ranging from practical (“How to build a website from scratch,” “How to Do an I-Ching Reading”) to the reflective (“From Crash to Crash: Art Activism and Gentrification in NYC since 1974,” “Surveying Waste and Capital”). Course titles and descriptions tend to be free of jargon and inclusive of a wide range of backgrounds and experiences.

Conversely, TPSNY doesn’t seem too concerned with accessibility and inclusivity; their classes might not appeal to a general public, but they allow a specific, art-world-inclined set of individuals to come together and delve into fantastically esoteric topics. With its roots in architecture, the New York chapter of the Public School has never explicitly considered itself an art project. They have, in the past, participated in exhibitions, generally in the form of a class. Performa 11 invited TPSNY to contribute last November, in which the organization hosted the Experiments in Notation, a workshop on time-based art. As representatives explain, “when TPSNY appears as an entity, it is most often to take part on a panel, rather than contribute to an exhibition.”

TPSNY’s Signs as Sounds with Christine Sun Kim.

TPSNY might not be an art project as such, but its class sessions have yielded art projects in very curious ways. In one class, sound artist Christine Sun Kim asked her class to borrow modes of communication from Occupy Wall Street for their own vocal exercises, with an ultimate goal of investigating the sonic materiality of language. For the multi-part course “Dark Nights of the Universe” exploring mysticism through the lens of a short text by François Laruelle, artists created an installation in which the class took place:

Clodagh Emoe installed a mystical anarchist mat, Aaron Mette created a video responding to the source text, Eugene Thacker and Taku Unami created a series of sound pieces in parallel to the text.

As TPSNY members explain, the classes are not about art, and yet they “use art as a manner of participating in a discussion…that’s not purely within the borders of ‘art’. It’s presented as neither a separate sphere nor a subordinate one, but rather as something that enables a greater richness and nuance to a conversation.” Instead of having an educational system serve as art, art now becomes a tool for teaching.

What I find intriguing is that, in the end, both Trade School and TPSNY shy away from labeling their organizations art projects. For Trade School, the expectations of the art world hinder their ultimate goals of creating an open dialogue among a broad, inclusive community. TPSNY uses education as a catalyst and platform for creating art, but they aren’t art itself. The organizations established themselves as educational platforms because they wanted to be free of hierarchies and create a space for open-ended discussion…on any subject. When we affix an “art” label onto them, we’re forced to look at them from a very specific viewpoint. Education provides a certain freedom that the art world does not, because centers of learning (at least the good ones) are about breadth, allowing scholars to explore anything they want from any perspective. “Art” has its own history, its own conventions, and its own limitations. Just the fact that art is meant to be exhibited (and, since the rise of performance in the 1960s, performed) is an issue. Sure, TPSNY might put on a performance as a part of a class, but that’s not the class’ purpose; instead, the end goal is to prompt the formation of new ideas. Learning is about the process of engagement rather than a finished production. As a friend recently told me, “Education isn’t something that needs to be concluded.” It’s not that Trade School and TPSNY are not art, or that they can’t be discussed in relation to the art world; but the minute we consider them as primarily art projects, we’ve lost sight of the educational ideals central to their missions.

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