Back to school

Sam Thorne – School: A Recent History of Self-Organized Art Education (Sternberg Press 2017)

Sam Thorne’s School is not just, as its subtitle suggests, a ‘recent history of self-organized art education’, surveying the ‘sudden density’ of alternative of art schools that have emerged since the early 2000s. It’s also a timely contribution to an ongoing debate about the nature and purpose of higher education, who should bear the costs – and the expected and desired outcomes for those who participate.

Implicit is the conundrum of the role an art school might usefully be expected to fulfil, given that somebody cannot be taught to ‘be’ an artist. Josef Beuys’ famous saying ‘everyone is an artist’ recurs again and again in the book. If everyone is an artist, then, the purpose of art schools is not to create artists, but to provide an environment in which artists might develop and realise their potential, meet other artists, have time, space and resources to test and experiment, and to challenge and be challenged.

For this reason, the overall emphasis of the art schools featured in the book is less on practical and vocational training and more about creating a discursive environment which is flexible, collaborative and self-directed. The school in this sense is less a place where the student is a fee-paying customer, taking on crippling debt in order to purchase an off-the-peg education delivered in expensive buildings, and more a place to go to learn and change through process and experience. This is an education which is not separate from the real world, but takes place throughout the everyday, and concerns not just knowledge and skills but thoughts and attitudes to life. It’s interdisciplinary: art schools are not just a place where one might find painters and sculptors, but activists, writers, cooks and musicians. This education does not end at the close of the school day, once students have left the building or graduate, but is something students take with them into the future. It’s less about giving students the keys to enter elite international art networks, and the ability to participate in global art markets, than about developing artists’ abilities to criticise, critique and suggest alternatives.

In School, Thorne explores the different approaches that have been taken to providing this education. He grounds artist-led education historically in initiatives such as the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College, before presenting a series of interviews with alternative art schools around the world, from European case studies to projects in Cuba, the United States, Latin America, Russia, the Middle East and Africa.

Sometimes these schools mirror the formal education systems, whether in language – several adopt the name of ‘school’, ‘university’ or ‘academy’ – or in their expectations of the students, such as writing a formal dissertation. These alternative schools may also have symbiotic relationships to the academy, through affiliation, funding or staffing. Often, too, students have already been through post-graduate education – the alternative art school is supplementary to it rather than a replacement.

Thorne shows that what does separate these schools from established institutions is their tendency to be small-scale, rooted in community and specific in their response to local context. Among the case studies highlighted are universities that are nomadic, moving to different cities, those which take place within the domestic space of the home, and those which suggest the atelier model, with students acting in a role that is akin to assistants within a studio system.

The more interesting interviews are those in which the challenges faced by artists and art students are most apparent, due to economic, social or political constraints, or which take place in areas with little tradition of mainstream non-academic art education: it’s in cities such as Ramallah and St Petersburg that alternative, critical education feels most daring, urgent and necessary.

Thorne made the conscious decision to focus on the founders of alternative art schools. In a book expounding non-hierarchical and collaborative education it feels a little odd that key, driving individuals and personalities are highlighted at the expense of those who have participated in, taught at or graduated from alternative art schools. The ideas and motivations behind the schools therefore come across much more strongly than the feeling of actually studying there.

These alternative art schools, too, appear as a series of experiments and one-off projects rather than long-term, sustainable alternatives to the market-driven system of higher education. However, as Thorne points out, even if they don’t offer an alternative route to the established system they offer ‘modest proposals’ for the type of education that might be delivered in the art school of the future.

– Natalie Bradbury


Down the dark rabbit hole…

Julie Egdell – Alice in Winterland (Smokestack Books)

As a lover of Lewis Carrol’s ‘Alice’, I was initially hesitant to read this collection, but I came away feeling enthralled by the atmosphere of the poetry though with a slight after-chill. The book left a lasting impression upon me.

Egdell uses Lewis Carrol’s ‘Alice’ as a way to look at transitions and being an adult in the world, particularly her experience of living in Russia. She uses the original works effectively and with caution and respect, in order to frame other issues.

My favourite two poems come near the end of the book and the first one is ‘Something from Alice’ with excellent use of images and language. For example, the line: ‘I emerged from the belly of my outer skin’ is inspired and works on many levels. Egdell successfully plays with words, metaphor and meaning and also describes the harsh reality of the realisation in adulthood that life is hard.

The second poem I really liked follows the one just mentioned and is named ‘Dreamchild’. Although the poem has an apparently cheering title the poem discusses death. It includes a line that makes reference to a ‘nothing game’. A ‘nothing game’ is very like something Carrol may have written and invented but, to my knowledge, did not. This poem however is far darker than Carrol’s Alice and left me quite unsettled.

The contrast Egdell portrays between childhood ‘fluffiness’ with references to children’s fairy stories, literature and myths, and experiences, and on being a person in the world (which can be a cold place – in many ways) gets into your bones. The feeling it resulted in for me was dread, as opposed to fear, with a bit of low energy excitement thrown in. The collection becomes darker and darker as it moves on and Egdell successfully keeps pace in the collection by interweaving styles and content, encouraging us all the time to get to the end of her journey with her.

– Sally Barrett

2017 End of Year Review No.4

Some books which have made an impression on me this year, presented unsystematically and in no particular order…

As someone who’s spent the last few year being excited about the work of Chris Kraus it was a great thrill to get the chance to attend a reading she gave, this year, at Waterstones, Deansgate. Kraus’s appearance in Manchester was in support of her new book After Kathy Acker – the first book on this Top 5 of the year list of mine – which is Kraus’s biography of the great 70s/80s punk literary experimentalist who appropriated, and made her own work from everyone from Milton and Dickens right through to Harold Robbins.

Kraus’s book is a scrupulously researched run through of Acker’s life and achievements but, as well, it’s also a portrayal of the various literary/bohemian milieus Acker existed in and moved through: artists, filmmakers, writers and musicians helping each other and supporting each other and, just as often, stabbing each other in the back . . . It’s a tremendously exciting read and very evocative of a time and place I dearly wish I’d known.

Two writers younger than Acker who yet moved in some of the same circles as her are Lynne Tillman and Mary Gaitskill; and whilst reading Kraus’s Acker book, by chance, I came across books by both Tillman and Gaitskill in charity shops . . . And though I’m not going to include on this list anything by either Tillman or Gaitskill I will heartily recommend, in particular, Tillman’s Motion Sickness and Haunted Houses and Gaitskill’s Two Girls, Fat and Thin.

Maggie Nelson is a writer seeming to be exploring some of the similar areas to Kraus, the intersections between autobiography, art-writing and critical theory, and, though she’s someone who’s been around for a while, Nelson’s a writer I only got around to reading this year. This year I read, from Nelson, first off, her Bluets followed by The Art of CrueltyBluets was the standout title for me and so takes the second position on this Top 5 list. It’s a meditation on Nelson’s relationship to the colour blue charting, as well, some of the historical uses the colour has been put to. The book is poetic, moving and profound. And, at the time I read it, I hadn’t encountered anything quite like it before. It’s only a slim book but one which contains an awful lot.

Whilst poetry has long been my primary writing activity I haven’t done that much of it, comparatively speaking, over the last couple of years, having been busy – instead – on a seemingly never-ending, ever changing book-length prose work; my reading of poetry has also slipped a bit . . . This year, poetry-wise, it’s been just Eileen Myles’s Collected I Must be Living Twice; Nicanor Parra’s Anti-Poems and Neruda’s Elemental Odes which seem to have left an impression on me. Room for none of those on this list though . . .

In the constantly threatening to topple book pile by my bed I’d say its film-related texts that have supplanted poetry; this past year I’ve got through a load of film stuff . . . theory; histories and biographies. The ones I’ve enjoyed most would probably be Robin Wood’s very precise, detailed survey of 6 of Hitchcock’s films; Jean Luc-Godard’s collected film writing, edited by Tom Milne; Robert B Ray’s The Avant-Garde finds Andy Hardy and Placing Movies by Jonathan Rosenbaum.

The Rosenbaum, in particular, impressed me a lot and takes the third spot on this list. Rosenbaum, a long-standing movie critic for the likes of Sight and Sound, the Village VoiceFilm Comment and, latterly, the Chicago Reader has an encyclopaedic knowledge of movies and his writing is never less than fascinating. The essays collected in Placing Movies include considerations of Barthes on cinema-going and extended meditations on some of my favourite directors including Jacques Rivette and Bela Tarr. Also, the list of movies I found myself noting down, movies I hadn’t seen but wanted to, grew longer almost page by page as I made my way through Rosenbaum. 2018 definitely looks like being a year of filling in some gaps in my movie-watching record as well as further investigations into Rosenbaum’s back catalogue.

A new area of reading, for me, this year, has been art writing; some of the titles I’ve enjoyed include Eileen Myles’s The Importance of Being Iceland; Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World; Arthur C Danto’s What is Art?; and Grayson Perry’s Playing to the Gallery. The art book which blew me away though, this past year, and which I’m going to put in this list at number 4 is Hal Foster’s Bad New Days: a survey of a handful of contemporary artists plus an attempt to identify and analyse certain theoretical concerns recognisable behind the work of the artists Foster has focussed upon.

I found the book demanding but, also, endlessly exciting. Every couple of pages, it felt like, I was being introduced to some new idea; ideas not just to do with art but to do with psychoanalysis, critical theory and political resistance. As per Rosenbaum, I expect next year will see me digging deeper in Foster’s work.

Finally, the number 5 spot of this list is going to be occupied collectively, by a rather random selection of a few of the books I’ve read this past 12 months which appear, from my perspective of today, to have left some kind of imprint in my brain. Firstly, there’s Pierre Guyotat’s autobiographical Coma detailing the deterioration of his health which led, eventually, to him falling into a coma in the pursuit of his literary vision. An unsurprisingly intense read which, however, encouraged me to seek out other translations of Guyotat. Renata Adler’s Speedboat: a collage of impressions; snippets of conversations; half-finished stories; dialogue overheard on the street; and advertising slogans and things off TV which seemed to me to add up to a much fresher, newer way of creating ‘fiction’ and, as well, an example that, it could be argued, hasn’t really been followed up. Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence: Wharton being a writer I’d long been convinced might prove hard-work, and hard-work of the not particularly rewarding variety I was, to my surprise, blown away by this novel. A beautifully written, stylish account of love and manners amongst the upper class new Yorkers of the early 20th century; I loved it and currently have several more Wharton novels sat on my shelf awaiting their turn to be read.  Finally, I want to mention Julio Cortazar’s Blow-Up: a short story collection of tales of the uncanny and strange  featuring Axolotl obsession and young men who vomit bunny rabbits. Lots of sci-fi-esque effects happening in non-sci-fi settings. Weird as anything; also brilliant.

. . . and having finished this list I’m, immediately, remembering more books from the past year that I’ve enjoyed and which deserve a mention here but, you know, it’s Sunday morning and I want some breakfast, so I’ll end this here.

– Richard Barrett 

2017 End of Year Review No.3

Although the task at hand for MRB contributors was to pick the top five reads of their own year, regardless of the year of publication, I couldn’t resist the challenge of attempting to keep it current. For my end of year review I therefore set myself the task of only including books published in 2017.

Having made an initial list, narrowed it down, picked my top five, and only then checked the publication date, I am sorry to report that I have failed in my task. One book on my list came out in December 2016 (I was pretty close!) and another comes out in January (I forgot mine was an advance review copy – oops!). After a brief moment of reflection, I have decided to stick to my decisions. I’ll try harder next year.

1) Wladimir Velminski – Homo Sovieticus: Brain Waves, Mind Control and Telepathic Destiny, Erik Butler (trans.). MIT Press, 2017. pp. 128.

I have the all-knowing algorithm to thank for this first choice. I don’t know how they found out that Soviet mind control experiments are exactly my jam (telepathy?), but once they did the MIT Press were tweeting at me harder than a drunk president at midnight.

After giving way to such elementary suggestion I found this short, concise book to be packed with fascinating historical insights. It’s a flyover of the whole Soviet era: from the 1920s constructivists measuring the perfect hammering trajectory for robotic workers, to 1960s Cold War telepathic spying, to the programmes aired in 1989 attempting to hypnotise dissenting Germans as the Berlin Wall fell. In some ways weird and wacky, the core of the analysis nevertheless shows how close these experiments were to mainstream scientific thinking under Marxist conditions.

2) Mindy Johnson, Ink and Paint: The Women of Walt Disney’s Animation, Disney Editions, 2017. pp.384.

From one secret science to another. Johnson’s massive A2 full-colour book is perhaps the most important work of historical recovery I’ve read this year. It focuses on the inkers and painters of Disney’s golden age; the women responsible for turning pencil sketches on paper into fully-coloured and perfectly line-weighted cels. Previous writing on this subject has concentrated on the segregation between male animators and women inkers and painters, coming to the erroneous conclusion that ink and paint was therefore a lesser art form. Johnson instead devotes her energies to telling the inside story of this previously hidden art through interviews and a deep archive dive. I haven’t finished it yet (A2 isn’t a great size of book for reading on the tram!) but so far it’s been revelatory. I can’t guarantee the quality of the ending because I’ve not read it yet.

3) M.D. Penman – The Shattered, Eimurian Tales, 2017.

Having spent a truly irrational amount of money on indie comics this year I just had to include one in my end of year review. Penman’s book-length The Shattered is as close to a masterpiece as I have encountered in the medium this year. Its fantasy world has depth and believability to it, its narrative raises complex ideas while being perfectly paced, and there are some genuinely heartbreaking moments in it. On the third reading I also realised that it’s a comment on the refugee crisis, which should recommend it both for being politically astute and for its thematic understatement. This is a book to be reread, and a great introduction to indie comics for those who have yet to discover this wage-consuming world of wonders.

4) Ann Quin – The Unmapped Country: Stories and Fragments, Jennifer Hodgson, ed. And Other Stories, 2018. pp.192.

Okay, so this one isn’t out yet, but I’ve already read it and reviewed it (hyperlink? – Ed) and, most importantly, that review racked up a lot of likes. As a long-time fan of Ann Quin there is something satisfyingly comprehensive in this collection. Where her oeuvre previously consisted of four books and a disparate collection of stories and fragments scattered across rare collections and lost magazines, it is now very definitively five books. It also serves as an excellent overview of her career for new readers, which is my excuse for including it in here.

5) Trebor Scholz – Uberworked and Underpaid: How Workers are Disrupting the Digital Economy, Polity Press, 2016. pp.242.

The final book in my top 5 of 2017 is actually from 2016, but I didn’t receive my copy until 2017 so we’ll count it. Scholz’ study of the modern landscape of labour covers casualisation, data harvesting, the exploitation hidden behind “automation”, gamification and a series of radical alternatives which have arisen in response. There is a vast amount of hogwash that has been published in recent years about changes in our work and the digital landscape, most of which take a small, singular facet of the complex whole and use it to foresee utopias or dystopias. By moving rapidly between different areas of change Scholz has produced what I consider to be the first real panoramic view of post-2008 digitised work. It is thoroughly researched and combines a mass of interviews with the hard economic and technological facts in a way which, as someone who has worked in these areas, makes me feel like he actually knows what he’s talking about (a refreshing experience). This book might be a year old now but I still think it has the most to say about today of any other I’ve read.

– Joe Darlington

2017 End of Year Review No.2

All the books and other publications I enjoyed enough in 2017 to tweet about them:


Miranda Doyle, A Book of Untruths: A Memoir, 2017:

“Just finished @Miranda_J_Doyle’s new memoir. Really enjoyed its approach to storytelling & truth telling.”

Tom Jeffreys, Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on Foot, 2017:

“Really enjoyable holiday reading (review copy for @MancReviewBooks) – strong on landscape & its links to culture, authority, identity, etc.”
Richard and Sally Barrett, 67, 100, Sometimes 10, 2017:
“The publication I’ve enjoyed most recently: @Bazzabarrett76 & @disappearingmac’s comic/tragic poems inspired by buses, people and life.”

Richard Brook, Manchester Modern, 2017:

“The book’s a real thing of beauty – and a great resource & guide to Greater Manchester’s twentieth century buildings!”

Corridor8, Ripe, 2017:

“Belatedly (bought months ago & only just read): really enjoyed this publication bringing together writing on art, erotica & food production.”

Chapel Street Community Arts, Mind the Gap, 2017:
“Picked up this free publication yesterday: interesting photography project on contrasts & inequalities in inner-city & suburban Salford.”

Non-2017 publications

Jason Orton and Ken Worpole, the New English Landscape, 2013:

“Currently exploring the marshy coastlines and muddy creeks of north Essex. Really enjoying this holiday reading!”

Living Art Museum, Archive on the Run, 2013:

“A very nice book reflecting on the Living Museum, a really interesting project & collection founded by Icelandic artists in 1978.”

Josh Cohen, The Private Life: Why We Remain in the Dark, 2013:

“Current train journey reading. Really like his way of writing blending personal experience/memory with psychoanalytical history & theory.”
“Also an interesting read in relation to a piece I’ve been working on around ‘personal troubles, public issues’.”

Jackie Kay, Trumpet, 1998:
“Just finished reading Jackie Kay’s Trumpet for @Coop_CollegeUK and @CooperativesUK’s new #HolyoakeHouse reading group & absolutely loved it!”

Jane Jacobs, The Life and Death of Great American Cities, 1961 (despite only being a quarter of the way through, this merited three tweets): 

“Finally reading this, after many years of meaning to. Lots of it already feels so familiar, because of hearing her ideas talked about so much!”

“Her writing about the ‘daily ballet’ of New York is some of the best writing I’ve read about NY (speaking as someone who spent their teens reading writing about NY!) and maybe cities in general.”

“(My other favourite bit so far has been the comments about ‘special-interest communities’ in cities, and the way in which people with special interests find each other and exchange ideas across the whole city, rather than just small neighbourhoods!).”

– Natalie Bradbury

More trouble with lichen

Drew Milne – In Darkest Capital (Carcanet)

Drew Milne has published with Salt and other revered poetry presses. His work is solidly structural, but it is also fluid. It is a combination of a quite hard formalism and looser riffing. I can only reach for jazz metaphors, but this work hits me like the moment of post-modal hard bop, when bands were tight and free at the same time, the Coltrane of Giant Steps and Favourite Things, for instance.

But Milne’s credentials are Marxist and academic, ecological and political, declaring himself ‘in solidarity with lichens against capital.’ I am immediately taken to the sequence in Patrick Keiller’s third Robinson film, The Robinson Institute (BFI) where we get a series of views of lichen on a road sign. They grow over the illustrations of human routeways, ‘our’ supposed mastery of geography. They indicate their own ecology and cosmology and this collection seems to hint at a similar ambition. Cover it all over in beautiful green sleep for decades until something emerges.

Keiller’s Robinson Institute also contains a monologue about the Speenhamland agreement of 1795 and accounts of rural uprising, over shots of a neatly clipped industrialised rural without a riot in sight. The descriptions explain how sections of this bucolic view are owned by overseas corporations and companies.

For very good reasons, all of these things ghost my reading of In Darkest Capital. Milne is the essential antidote to the accelerationism of the Nick Land that ended up producing ‘Dark Enlightenment’.

In Darkest Capital has the sense of ‘In Darkest Africa’, and here is Marx’s concept of primitive accumulation, that capitalism begins with a defibrillator jolt of genocide and an injection of the raw materials that would have been available to the dead. It is its shift from chemistry to biology. Schumpeter didn’t agree, but after protesting oil wars for much of the first half of my life, I don’t agree with Schumpeter. Capitalism is, then, as ‘primitive’ as it gets.

But what makes this a collection that should be with us for a thousand years is its use of language. There are tens of thousands of chumpy leftwing writers and hundreds of cringemakingly worthy leftist poets, with their middle class fuzzyheaded notions of the loss of pits and factory work, without ever having gone in one that wasn’t already a museum.

Milne’s work avoids all these deadly, suffocating traps. It manages to somehow align itself with a europhile notion of avant garde formalism without being totally indulgent. It manages to simultaneously be bleakly, blearily of the deracinating landscapes of late capitalism, while retaining a skewering micro critique linked to a macro overview.

It is academic poetry though. We get references to Aristotle’s notion of ‘entelechy’, a sort-of self-organising motive force, and words familiar to Marxists such as ‘verstehen’ and German Idealist philosophy and its critics emerging in Marx and onwards. The nods and references are there, but unlike some leftwing poets it isn’t too self-aware, particularly in the poems that appear later in the collection. Sometimes the huge signs of, say, ‘Habermas’ seem overbearing, included in titles, but what comes after always gives the scratchy, scrambled lie to the monumental signifier.

Suddenly, Milne writes of the Halifax spreadsheet and having worked there as a designer on their report and accounts, watching 9/11 happen on the vast marketing digital screen, it gives me a chill. It feels like the long-dead tradition of prophecy has been revived. But I must be very clear, these are surfaces, but lichen surfaces, growing, moving, not staying still. I introject into them, finding fertile ground there. These poems scramble meaning in order to take the slow organic journey towards new forms.

This is a writer who understands that meaning is made and re-made across facades, in clusters of complexity, not in ‘depth’. But these surfaces crawl over and cover the neatly ordered default cultural landscape, giving a sense of thin hope in a world with little left in it.

This is useful. This is solid work. There is no pompous introduction by A Big Somebody. This is a book to live in and grow in, and through. One for the big list, until the end of our time.