School Of The Damned,
Merz Barn residency, Cumbria – Part Two

Space, Image, Exile action shot, courtesy School Of The Damned.

School Of The Damned (SOTD) is a year-long alternative art course directed by its students. It was founded as a reaction to the increasing financialisation of higher education. The school is constantly redefined by the motives of its students.

The following discussion was conducted via email by James Schofield, Corridor8, and the Class of 2018 as a follow up to the recent SOTD residency at the Merz Barn, Cumbria. Part 1 of the discussion can be found here. The format was chosen to allow any of the peer group to contribute if they wished. Participants include Natasha Cox [NC], Sean Roy Parker [SRP], Laurence Price [LP], Lewis Prosser [LPR], Helena Kate Whittingham [HKW] and Emily Woolley [EW].

[EW] As a year group we are trying to be public-facing: platforming our experience as SOTD and also broader experiences of alternative art education. One example of this is the two-day symposium that we recently ran as part of this year’s Art Licks Weekend. Day one intended to bring together all existing five years of School Of The Damned for the first time, to collectively learn from one another and to collate, through a series of round table discussions, the experiences, resources and knowledge accumulated so far. Day two ran as an informal open day exploring the plural experiences of alternative art schools and wider conversations of alternative education all together. It was a very textured two-days, in which schools and peers questioned, engaged with and reciprocally learnt from one another.

[LPR] I think the fact that we were drawn to creating meals together rather than ‘working’ in a more traditional, material sense demonstrates the importance of a pause in the process. Without the food and a chance to sit around together we wouldn’t have delved into some of the conversations that we had. It might be silly to say: cooking as curation, but why not?

The dinner table at Merz became this regenerative site for bringing the focus back to SOTD as a group of people engaging in a process of education. The smallest interactions paved the way for bigger projects, passing the salt and dishing out cutlery reinforced the bonds we have and the need to get along to get things done. Because this was the first residency we have experienced as a group I think we were all struggling with where the school ends and where we, as individual artists, began. Mealtime was an extremely practical way of balancing out these seemingly disparate elements. I don’t think any of us want to be considered an arts collective, but equally we are all joined by SOTD. We are a school, and that requires a fine balance of cooperation and individual study. It takes a while to get that process working smoothly and I am glad we were able to fine-tune the organisation of SOTD through mealtimes. Personally, I think we should scrap our regular business meetings and sort out our issues over a meal. Admittedly minute taking and paperwork becomes harder, but what’s life without a challenge?

[SRP] Thinking about all the meals we’ve had together is a fantastic way of mapping our movement, and they have totally been high points of our friendship. To look at creating a cookbook is an example of how we think about the multiplicitous voices within SOTD without focussing on the idea of producing work as a collective. Through crits, online promotion and more informal conversations we are constantly approaching our personal practices in tandem with our more formal duties, creating a balance between ‘work/play’ and expanding the conversation around the purpose of the school.

Also, having the SOTD brand endorsing each participant’s individual practices ensures that a constant base level of support is available for all projects. The opportunities we are afforded as a result of SOTD’s histories have been extremely handsome and we are very lucky to be part of that. It sometimes means a shit load of admin, mostly questions or sharing requests, but we have been invited to speak at the V&A and offered international exchanges!

SOTD Manifesto, courtesy School Of The Damned.

[JS] I’d seen the crumble recipe pop up on Instagram and thought that it looked good…would be interesting to see what it ended up looking like (will have to go back and check).

You’ve all so far either directly mentioned or intimated at (like the title of the Merz book, or HW saying it outright) that you’re a collective in transit that’s constantly coalescing in different places for group meetings/teaching sessions/residencies. Do you think the mobility of SOTD is one of the main reasons (obviously outside of the educational content) why people seem drawn to it compared to other free school/educational models in operation? Has not being based in one geographic area proven more useful as the course has developed over subsequent years, and have previous years been able to pass on practical and logistical tips to the new intake?

[LPR] The mobility of SOTD is something that has developed quite organically based on the group. I can’t speak for previous years but the impression I got was that the course had been very London-centric, with the odd trip here or there. The previous years were very cautious to not give us too many ‘tips’ as they didn’t want to steer our experience, either that or they were just really lazy!

I know I wasn’t the only one with a vested interest in changing the format, having to travel from Glasgow to London every month wasn’t the most appealing prospect. What attracted me most was the timetabling of the course. SOTD is extremely sympathetic to the dreary realities of work. Meeting up once a month is manageable alongside a full-time job and the school is very supportive if you are unable to engage because of other commitments. It’s a very understanding model.

I think at the first meeting we said: “everyone should be able to walk to school at least once,” and from that we agreed that a big part of the educational content for SOTD would involve getting to know the regional art scenes and encountering contemporary art outside of London. Not having a fixed location is fantastic for experiencing new places. We get to see a city through the eyes of someone really engaged in the local scene. It’s far more immersive than you could experience on your own.

I would say though that aside from our commitment to travelling around, London is certainly very important to the group. A significant proportion of students are based in London and, as a self-declared ‘provincial student’, it can be very hard to engage in spontaneous group activity when you are so far away. All schools have their cliques, joke!

[NC] As one of the SOTD members based in London, it has been really great going to other people’s cities and being given tours of all the best galleries/artists-led spaces/hilltops/pubs/etc. For me also, SOTD seems to be unlike any other support structure I have experienced. We use Slack to not only plan and talk about creative endeavours, but also all the things that go with trying to make work/be in the art world but not just commercially. I.e.  shit jobs, sharing residency opportunities and voicing quite personal stuff to do with practices etc. It’s quite unique in that sense.

[JS] So SOTD has continually developed and strengthened a pretty unique geographical/theoretical learning model and support network. With there being an upcoming milestone for SOTD (its fifth anniversary), was the strengthening of this way of learning a conscious choice looking to the future?

Also thinking of other independent learning models, are you surprised SOTD is still somewhat unique in that regard compared to other established existing groups/organisations/models, as the majority seem grounded solely in a particular place?

[HKW] I think the outward facing, public facing, strengthening of this way of learning just happened naturally really. The fact SOTD is completely malleable is why it happened. It’s one of our main concerns I guess. You get handed this thing and think; what do I do with it? Now we’re going to get back into that real deep criting. It’s needed!

It’s definitely exciting (the ability to travel), but it’s very costly. We’re trying to figure out ways and means to support this. You’re right about the uniqueness in that regard though.

[SRP] The geographical dislocation between participants is something that has grown organically out of the project’s success, and has been a fountain for dialogue.  As the fifth incarnation of SOTD, we each have very different ideas of what has happened in previous years. Some know former participants, some researched its history online, but essentially we have very little understanding of the original intentions for the project’s progress.

The lack of institutional memory is one of the reasons SOTD has succeeded in repeatedly respawning. Building a ‘school’ from scratch without the weight of history or structure has enabled each cohort to approach with new energy and fresh eyes. It allows for the ‘school’ to adapt to the shape of its members, financial pressures and the acceleration of alternative learning. This ‘forgetting’ does have its pitfalls, and this is something we wanted to probe with our recent project, ‘Building an Active Archive’. We met with historic SOTD’ers to discuss aspects including accessibility, funding, future planning, institutionalisation and community. We learnt from the meeting that the city-nucleus model we are now embodying was envisaged (but not planned) from the beginning, and that SOTD is still growing and changing.

I can see why it works for other models to remain local. A fixed location provides consistency for participants in an extracurricular setting, being able to fit around busy lifestyles, it all helps to glue the programme together. Conversely, the peripatetic nature of SOTD, I would argue, is one of its biggest achievements. Precarity is exciting, as is travelling to new cities and meeting new people. It does throw up issues around accessibility, especially travel expenses and work commitments, which means we’re rarely all able to make it to the meetings. But as it’s free anyway, and we are empaths, absence is not penalised!

To help the continuing pattern of decentralised learning, we are currently doing our utmost to share the Do It Together (DIT) model and to proliferate the means of self-education. We recently hosted the inaugural Alternative Education Open Day at SET Space in Bermondsey for the Art Licks Weekender. Programmes including Syllabus, AltMFA, Pacto and [ART&CRITIQUE] were invited to lead workshops based around their (non)organisation and members of the public were encouraged to meet organisers, pose questions and engage in institutional critique.

Space, Image, Exile, Merz Barn, Cumbria.

14 – 19 September 2017.

School Of The Damned can next be next found in Birmingham on a school trip this November. The open access School Of The Damned library can also be found here.

All information about upcoming SOTD projects and opportunities can be found here.

James Schofield is an artist, curator and current PhD candidate at Liverpool School of Art & Design researching artist-led practice.

Published 23.10.2017 by Sara Jaspan in Interviews

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