Christopher Lee Kennedy spoke with me about School of the Future, on July 26, 2010, a collaborative experiment in unschooling that took place this summer at a park in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. They offered classes that ranged from guerrilla gardening and how to make your own biodiesel to a crash course in radical library sciences.
Chris Kennedy is the Director of the Institute for Applied Aesthetics an experimental school for research and learning in Brooklyn. Kennedy holds a degree in Environmental Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a Masters of Arts in Education from New York University. His most recent projects have included Urban Epiphyte a participatory project exploring issues of psychogeography and ecology and Groups and Spaces, a research platform exploring the working models of independent art spaces and collaboratives. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Educational Psychology at University of North Carolina, Greensboro.
Amara Antilla: How did School of the Future come about?
Chris Kennedy: For me School of the Future has its roots in my personal desire to create a platform for research on learning and applied aesthetics; social practices that have their roots in public space, people and social issues. Back in January, Cassie Thornton had been working on a project to activate vacant spaces that had emerged from the recent depression called Community Stimulus Package with an organization called TrustArt. TrustArt connected Cassie to the NYC Parks Department who let her select a park to do her project in a place called Sgt. Dougherty Park in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. All this developed as Cassie formed the Teaching Artist Union with other teaching artists from around NYC.
That fall I had just returned from a series of trips and residencies where I was exploring the inner workings of independent art spaces under the auspices of the Institute for Applied Aesthetics. I decided to take a studio next to Cassie’s that November and on a cold night we decided to draft a contract. Not just any old contract, but a merger transaction that joined both of our organizations together – the Teaching Artist Union and the Institute for Applied Aesthetics. We sealed the contract with some glitter and red lipstick and from then on – we were one entity – the School of the Future.
After the merger, we began a collaborative process that we are both still negotiating; sometimes chaotic, sometimes beautiful, scary, crazy and many things in-between. Cassie had conceived of School of the Future as being a project of the Teaching Artist Union. A response to the challenges facing teaching artists in NYC. As such, the first inception of School of the Future – was an artist-run school for teaching artists.
We explored the notion of a school district for artist-run schools under the auspices of the Demonstration District (a demonstration school and school district combined) and other models ranging from skill shares to straight up Free Skools. Our journey landed us somewhere in the middle – with a somewhat more defined system that still remained open and yet allowed for a form to take shape. We dubbed the School of the Future an experiment in unschooling – an intergenerational free school housed in Sgt. Dougherty Park.
AA: How did you engage other artists in this process of creating an artist-run school?
CK: Once our system had been defined we proceeded to shape the programmatic aspects of the school by first asking artists, community members around the park and people in general – “What do you want to learn”. From this a long list of learning deficits was generated. Our next step was to ask artists and community members to respond to these learning deficits by proposing an art project, a class, an experiment or moment. A calendar then emerged – one that is still morphing.
In the end we consider School of the Future an ongoing experiment in teaching and learning through art. The building of the school, is the school. A perpetual process – ever evolving, ever changing.
AA: Lets talk about learning deficits.
CK: The meaning of the clouds in the sky / Design science methodology / What is a 21st century education? / Basic Polish for morning greetings, hopping, restaurants, etc. / The history and methods of backpacking / Filmmaking / Anything they didn’t teach me in high school / Web science / How to make terrariums / Grant writing / Sustainable Living / How to date a woman or man? / Greco-Roman wrestling / Africa / How to produce organic tea / How to sound proof my apartment/ Wonders of Jamaica Ave. / Sculpture, photography, metalwork / Creative writing, comparative literature, sociology, history, philosophy, languages / How to DO GOOD and live a comfortable lifestyle? / Welding, nailing, sawing/ How to write a book / Woodworking / Botany / How to be less awkward in public / How to be green and just without just changing my purchasing habits / How to convert a Diesel van to run on veggie oil / DJ / Live production/ Ableton Live / Logic Pro / Physics / How to make others happy / Start a revolution / How do I balance my life? / How to regain my historical perspective / How to start my own clothing line without doing any of the sewing / What sort of curriculum and how is it presented in the school of the future / Relativity / A lot of things / How to manage all the things I want to learn / Where to affordably dock my boat in New York City / How to become a 21st Century thinker, creator and entrepreneur / How to make it socially acceptable for me to make eye contact and smile at the person across from me on the subway / How to create community art / How to fall in love with the right people / How to paint, draw and sculpt masterpieces / Construction for the utilization of small spaces, furniture building, web design, canvas stretching, book making / Time management and organizing / Ukulele / How to empower my imagination / Who are the Americans? / What it means to be a woman, what it means to be a man / What is love now? / How to sing / How School of the Future and Free @rt Sch001 can collaborate / How to teach / How to not fall in love with the wrong people / How to play the accordion / Basic construction skills for people who would probably be bad at construction / How to restore old cars and make them look and drive bad ass / How to understand my role in gentrification and the future of my neighborhood / How to cut my own friend’s hair / How to create and use electricity to remove myself from the ConEd grid! / Second Life’s aesthetics / How to build community wireless networks / To listen to myself, how I love me and built my happiness, then help to others too / Screenprinting / I would like to learn to make a kiln out of salvaged urban material / How to sail / How to draw better / What and How you are creating your School of the Future / How to Reupholster furniture! / I want to learn how to make ads / How to use free photoediting programs such as GIMP, Photo Filtre to their full potential / Black and white digital photography / How to use in-camera and free photoediting programs to replicate darkroom work / Handball / How to make a master stetic salon for women / Webquest Entrepreneurship / Networking / Design in social media / How to love again / General theory of relativity re-hash / Woodworking / Harmonizing / How to fix my bike / Play the ukulele / Creating mobile applications / Cinematography / How to get my husband’s work visa without paying a lawyer 5k / Cooking for special diets – gluten, kosher, vegan / How to building sustainable solidarity economies / How to turn a gender studies BA and a disparate set of skills into a job at a time when no one can find jobs / How to build Patrick Blanc-style vertical garden walls / Everything / How to make perfect french macaroons / How to make authentic ritual / How to be happy / Italian Realizing projects: how to get from idea stage to execution / How to be financially ethical, successful and responsible / How to build a green roof / How to be a better writer / Gardening, lectures, dance, photography / Portuguese / Culturally specific idiosyncrasies from all over the world / The meaning of life / Sustainable design history of Brooklyn / How to pickle things / The guitar / The lives of the saints / How to be who i am completely / How to farm heirloom carrots /Logic and logical arguments / How to build and make everything around me / Survival skills / Sustainability / Skills to succeed in the workforce / How to make a clock – mechanics and all / How I can start a school of the future in LA / Woodworking and metal working / How to play an instrument / How to help and contribute on a global level / How to think creatively / Crochet / Spanish / Myconology / LEED building / Welding / Organic gardening / Project management / Hair coloring / Sculpting / How to make wine / How to be a more capable gardener / How to sleep less / How to make really delicious Kombucha / How to speak better Spanish / How to be more self-disciplined / How to be more brave / As much as possible / Screenprinting / Connecting emerging ideas in Quantum Physics with everyday life / How to be happy / 21st century learning / World history of poetry / Building preservation and maintenance: from locks to boilers / Dog training / Tree knowledge / How to make a collaborative art piece / Urban gardening / Relief printing/ Surface rubbing / Recycled portable furniture / Yoga for back / Massage / Leather tanning / Arabic / The Cold War seems relevant even in today’s politics. Why? / What does it take to remedy selfishness? / How can that state be maintained and perpetuated in all branches of life? / I want to know how other teachers are encouraging students to make their own decisions as a part of the learning process, and how successful they are. / Building a wind power turbine / Starting off in electronics from day one / I want to know how to work on my brakes, clean my chain, and generally make my bike ride like a Cadillac / I would like to learn the use of basic tools or building: sawing wood, hammering etc / Mold making of various prototypes, Plastic, metal, (Plus… if possible on how a plastic bag is created) / Myco-remediation (mushrooms eat oil spills) / Cartoon drawing / Cooking / How to make model airplanes / How to knit / How to play baseball with my son / How to relieve stress / I want some kids to school me on the court / In exchange for being a mother’s helper, I’d like to work on my spanish If someone has a young kid learning to read, I’d love to work at their pace / How to fix my motorcycle / Queer history / How to mosaic / How to speak English / How to verbalize better / Quilting / Bike repair and maintenance / Building / Square dancing / Japanese / How people join into a new community / Logistics of reactivating public space / Serious economics: How to not be fucked by money / Fonts / Analysis of revisionist history / Bike trailers / Local dance moves / How to show up in a new neighborhood and make friends / How to deal with Post Partum depressions / Basketball / How to grill meat / How to make a tin can telephone that works / Monument making / Handball / Spanish / Hip-Hop dance / How the long term community feels about artists working on projects in their neighborhood / Filmmaking / Canning and picking vegetables / Native plants nutrition / DIY health / How to build things with what I already have / The art of conversation: telling jokes, stories, salutating / Writing stories / Confidence / About how other people live / Small arts and crafts / Other people’s opinions and stories / Guitar / Reading / Discussion / Group lectures on theory, art, design, architecture, politics, philosophy / How do teaching artists approach community and place? Who are you here in this neighborhood?
AA: Where do you draw the line between education and entertainment?
CK: Sometimes I think its fun not to draw a line at all – but rather to play with the line. We are very much interested in the “performance of education” at School of the Future. I am the Head Librarian and Cassie is the Student Body Coordinator of School of the Future. We love playing with the roles and tropes of school with a make your own costume rack always available for anyone who wants to play along. By playing with these roles we can tap into memories of teachers, principals, bullies, sporting heroes and share our experiences and stories of what school was like and how it affected you as a person. Through this process we can create a collective narrative of what our school experience has been – what it means and where it should go.
I do object in many ways to the hyper commercialization of education – Microsoft sponsored classrooms, HP Cafeterias, Nestle vending machines etc. And the rampant reliance on technology to solve our educational problems. More computers, more networking and increased reliance on the internet is not going to provide any long-term solutions – but instead it will extend learning needs into new forms and realms. What we need is to invigorate a visceral connection to place – to our bodies – to people around us.
AA: Is the location of your project important? How did your ‘school house as park’ shape the nature of your program?
CK: School of the Future is in Sgt. Dougherty Park — a forgotten park on the ecological hell mouth situated next to a superfund site – and near the Brooklyn Queens Expressway.
One of the primary focuses for School of the Future is experimenting with a theory of situated learning – a concept pioneered by Jean Lave and Etienne Wegner in the 80s and early 90s. They posit a theory of learning through social processes governed by the immediate environment, the local history and shared repertoire of people in and around the area. School of the Future embraces situated learning as a vehicle for integrating the site into the project. Each artist and community member has been invited to respond to the site in some way.
This has taken the form of guerilla gardening tactics, a biking tour of Newtown Creek, an ongoing project called Re-Building the City and a Poetry in the Dark class in which the façade of the BQE (a massive highway on-ramp) has been transformed into a canvas for text and poetry via chalk. In this sense the location and site specificity of the park has defined the project in many ways.
Its isolation itself requires a kind of commitment from students and faculty that allows for more intimate exchanges and opportunities for play that extend well past the hour – hour and half limit given to most classes or projects of this nature. Sgt. Dougherty is seen also as a demonstration site for how to activate underutilized public spaces using the resources and collective knowledge of people in the local neighborhood.
AA: Can you talk about your experience working or learning within the higher education system?
CK: I have $91,670 dollars of student loan debt owed to Citibank Corporation. I receive a student loan statement in the mail, via email and as a text message each month to remind me. Often – I speak to a loan officer named Peggy who lives outside of Dallas-Ft. Worth. She has 2 kids and doesn’t like her job. Sometimes we talk about the weather, sometimes popular culture.
Every third week of the month a kid from NYU calls me up and asks for an alumni donation. They also want to make sure they have my address even though they asked me one month ago and I told them I had no intention of moving. Rensselaer Polytechnic hasn’t called me in a while but I receive offers for credit cards each month with the logo on the card – and maybe some kind of discount.
There is much value to the world of higher education and much to be desired. My own personal experience has not been a great one – but one I appreciate nonetheless. My hope is that in the future, Universities take time to work more on facilitating experiences with people outside of the campus world – to experiment with models of participation and engagement. Jon Rubin’s Waffle Shop comes to mind; the Rural Studio at Auburn University; the Urban Landscape Lab at Columbia; City Lab at UCLA and others still are progressing this model to new realms.
AA: Does the current education system prepare people to be active, informed members of a global society?
CK: The University world seems to be embracing a design-thinking approach to community engagement. What I hope comes from this is a sense of autonomous and ever expanding ideation about how to think through problems – how to use creative methods to engage in these problems – and how to let students and teachers make mistakes and fail. Not to look for press or more funding, or research monies from NSF and foundations – but to authentically allow students to live and work with the mission of the school itself.
More than this – we need to use higher education as a vehicle for risks – for authentic experiences with groups of people, with other institutions. We need to build confidence in students – to take them away from computer screens and in put them in front of the people they live next to in their own neighborhood.
We should be teaching students how to live in the world – how to grow food, how to build houses, how to find water, how to care for our bodies. But instead we tend toward hyper specialization in the hopes that we can find an industry niche – a safe job so that maybe we can buy luxury goods at some point – have kids and feel secure.
I wish someone had left me with a simple task: Find the people you respect in your community. Be with them. Play with them. Find a way to be accountable to each other; to be a tribe. Together – be healthy and do what you love. And through this – find trust and security. Pursue this and you’ll be just fine.