The Public School is a school with no curriculum, located underneath TELIC Arts Exchange.It operates as follows: first, classes are proposed by the public (I want to learn this or I want to teach that); then, people have the opportunity to sign up for the classes (I also want to learn that); finally, when enough people have expressed interest, the school will find a teacher and offer the class to those who signed up. On May 15th I conducted an interview with Sean Dockray, founder of the Public School, the following is a transcription of that interview.
David Elliott: So I guess it would be good to just start at the beginning, how did this all get started
Sean Dockray: The Public School… basically I began with a concept, which was a school that was sort of a blank canvas. In a way it would be the idea of a school and that’s all you have in the beginning. There’s not really a sense of what would the school teach or who would be involved or how would it run or anything, but the idea being that the curriculum would develop in the course of the school’s life. So, people would be proposing the classes that they wanted to take. Things that they wanted to learn or conversely, some people who consider themselves teachers could advertise or suggest things that they wanted to teach. And then there would be this sort of nebulous process where there would be people agreeing that that’s a valid thing that they would also want to learn and then out the other end comes a class; and a curriculum develops from there. That was the initial concept and it kind of became more complicated in a, well for me, an interesting way: when we first put it out there, I think in the first week, we got close to 100 classes proposed and lots of people, I think 350 people, had either proposed classes or signed up for them. So, it immediately had a lot of…stuff in there, lots of possibilities and not all of them were particularly interesting. And so it became: well what can the school possibly do? It can’t offer, you know, these hundred classes. And this process, where all of the sudden power enters into it, I think became kind of the most interesting part about it for me. Now, from my perspective, what I see The Public School being about is working out the dynamics of how a school operates and less about the particular individual classes that are offered. It’s almost like the classes that are offered are words in a conversation, but the conversation is what it’s all about. You can’t have the conversation without the words, though; and frankly, you wouldn’t be using the words without the conversation. You know, they go hand and hand. To push this conversation, I formed a committee. It’s six people at the moment, and it’s rotating, so that every three months people leave and new people come on, and it’s more or less open to the public. This committee meets once a month to discuss what classes have been offered and what to logistically schedule and everything. So, it’s a process of figuring out ‘well, what are our priorities as a group? what should the school be spending its time and resources on?’ And so, this can be expressed either positively or negatively. Positively, meaning: ‘we really want to advance the sorts of classes’. For example, what was it that you had proposed? “Making Something Out of Something.” Classes that have such open-ended, vague, yet stimulating, potential, versus something like Spanish, which seems a little more, instrumental and widely available. Another one is yoga. You probably can’t spit without hitting a yoga class in Los Angeles. So, why should we be discussing it? Rather than just not offer it, there was a discussion and then decision. And so this is the school, sort of, unfolding. Becoming what it’s going to become. This is what I mean by expressed negatively: ‘we are not offering this, or classes like this, because of these reasons.’ I mean, that you can take this class at any number of places is one really fundamental reason. For example knitting. There’s this big craft trend, so, knitting…there are already quite a few knitting classes out there, so what are we going to do? Do we just become another place offering another knitting class? That’s a possibility. Or do we partner with a local business or crafts group or something and sort of feed them new people and build a network, which would be more interesting? Or do we actually go back to the person who proposed the class and say, ‘These are various places you can take a knitting course, maybe you should go there,’ or ‘Are you interested in a knitting class that’s unlike the ones that are already out there? If so, maybe you can expand on your proposal.’ That’s sort of been the process. But that process actually came out of the committee discussions. So that’s what I mean: It began as a blank thing and then I put the committee into place as a logistical necessity. And this has actually been the engine that has been transforming the school into what a school is, into a set of processes…
DE: Is that committee mainly guided by the criteria of what is or isn’t offered elsewhere? Or is it more of like a curatorial process where you’re trying to guide it in the direction that you see…
SD: Probably both. Every three months when people leave the committee and new people come in, this new committee needs to write a statement that will describe what their priorities are, what their goals for the school are. What’s going to be motivating their decisions. And that can be a curatorial impulse, which is to say ‘We want more…,’ for example, we’ve been trying to promote some theory and reading classes as a way of trying to figure out what the critical position for art can be. This is something that’s important for the people on the committee. So, that’s what I mean by both. Curatorially speaking, it makes sense. It might be guiding some of the decisions, but also the fact that it isn’t offered elsewhere. And that actually should be probably outlined in this initial, sort of, it’s sort of like a manifesto. But every three months, the school will have a new manifesto. Part of the thing is, it should, from my perspective, keep going back to the beginnings, it should always be hovering at an unstable point, never totally formalizing into an institution, but at the same time not dissipating into nothing, chaos, where people can’t work it out. And so I think something like this manifesto allows it to critically reassess it’s own priorities and ambitions.
DE: Does the fact that the manifesto is rewritten with every new committee mean that in five or 10 years the school can be at a place that doesn’t resemble anything like was when it started?
SD: Yeah, exactly. Which I think is fine.
DE: So, it’s totally nomadic? Ideologically, at least, right?
SD: Yeah, yeah, and that’s actually a bit problematic. Because the new economy is all about ‘everything goes’. It’s this total flattening and anything is viable subject matter, any activity is as ethical or unethical as anything else, and I am a little suspicious of this, and feel like these projects are very corporate. Multinational corporations don’t really have any backbone to them. It’s more like ‘if it makes money, we’ll go there’. You know? So GE right now is selling off it’s appliances division – a big part of what it IS. It’s selling away its backbone because its not profitable enough. So they’re just totally liquid, just flowing in the path of least resistance. And that’s actually why I think this point of non-resolution is important. So, the committee is called DAN, which is a joke, because it’s supposed to suggest this familiar figure (‘oh it’s Dan!’) but on the other hand, it’s a failed reference to DNA. If you get into science, you might know the genotype and the phenotype. The genotype is the code or structure or something, like the script or the score. And the phenotype would be the manifestation of it, the performance of it. So the school, in a sense, is this on-going performance and the score is sort of always rewriting itself. And if I’m to put it in those terms, I think there is a backbone to it, which probably comes out of the school’s initial conditions. My interests, and arranging the first committee, and describing the school in the way it is, set it in a certain direction. And then after that point, maybe 10 years from now it will change, of course, and hopefully there’s something that is fundamentally still there, that travels through the whole thing. So, I guess the point is I agree with you about it being ideologically nomadic. Both yes and no. It’s totally flexible and at the same time, hopefully, there’s a direction.
DE: So the structure of DAN, or the functionality of DAN, can be described sort of like an artistic work, or a sculptural form. Like in process art, how there’s like the description which is supposed to be the actual work and then it’s by-products which would be the print or the painting which is not actually the artwork in itself, but just a by-product.
SD: Right. The other thing about DAN is that in the same way that the committee decides what classes will be offered, the committee also decides who will join next. So there is this constant danger of nepotism because it’s not democratic. It’s not like everyone votes for who will be on the next school committee. The committee itself decides, so I think there’s a self- replication, but with some difference, because two new people still aren’t going to be the two old people. And I think what will hopefully save it from nepotism and the really bad form of power relations, is the transparency of the discussions. That is another really crucial part of the school, the negotiations that the committee has. Everything should be happening in public, in view, including who the next committee will be, in an attempt to encourage the problems people have with the process to be articulated and integrated into the school in some way. To either reject that problem publicly or to integrate it as a potential new direction. To not do every thing behind close doors so these discussions never happen. In a way, what you say is right.The school becomes a performance of an initial script or score in the way that process art will send some directions or something and then someone will execute it; but at the same time, there is something else that’s going on, and that’s that the score is rewriting itself.
DE: Is the life cycle of the DAN committee similar to a viral life cycle? How it’s always trying to maintain optimal fitness, even at the cost of mutation.
SD: I think that’s probably true. Yeah, because the fact is, a group of people will stagnate at a certain point. So, to get rid of people (that’s not the best way to put it!) and replace them, it’s a rejuvenation, but it causes a necessary mutation, as well, because of the new energy that’s brought in, and new ideas and new priorities and ambitions and stuff like that. In that sense it’s certainly fitness because it’s unhealthy for the school if the committee stagnates and people get bored and move on to other things because they’ve been doing it for six months or nine months. That’s kind of a long time. They might have played out their ideas in the school and then the school itself becomes a little institutionalized. Because of the way bureaucracies work, new ideas can’t move the school as quickly as might be really important.
DE: Do you imagine at some point the potential for losing control of DAN? Like it moves on without you?
SD: Yeah, I hope that happens actually. In the case of an artwork, if you write a book or something and then publish it, it’s up to everyone else to interpret it. That’s what we say. In a similar way, I really want to have this project grow and then at a certain point be able to leave it and have it run its course. The way I’ve been thinking about lately is the role of the facilitator. In the garden, you’ll have some seeds and you plant some things and then your relationship to it for a while is watering and pruning, but it generally is doing it’s own thing. It’s growing according to the sun the wind, it’s own genetic structures, various things in the environment that you know nothing about. And then after a certain amount of time if you leave it alone it’s either going or wither and die, or someone else is going to come in and mow it and trim it, or it’s just going to become like a little jungle or something. I guess I see my relationship to the school in this way. I fully intend at a certain point to stop and hopefully it doesn’t just shrivel up and die in the hot California sun, but instead it becomes something else. I don’t think every project is like that. I think some projects you actually want to land, or bring to a close. Some projects it’s really worth thinking ofthe end point. Many institutions become their own reason for existing and then they become really boring. Many museums and non-profits have a really good reason for existing at the beginning and then after a while, they’ve got a board of directors, and then they get habits, and then all of the sudden they become dull and you kind of wish they would go away, but they can’t quit. It’s inertia. They continue to exist because of inertia. And so I think those projects might have been more interesting if they had a defined life span from the beginning, so you knew that this is a three year project, or something. With the Public School, I would like to see it die it’s own death.
DE: When the Public School offers a course what is the average span of a course and what do you think the limit that the course could last.
SD: It’s 50/50. Half are one-time meetings and half have been something like four time meetings. And the rest of that question gets into economics. Right now were trying to make the school a sustainable thing, which means it can pay for itself. And so in terms of sustainability, we want to be able to do things like pay teachers for their labor because right now we’re a committee that agrees that volunteerism in the arts is usually something that benefits rich people, so instead we want to compensate people for their labor – that’s a goal. And that means we need to charge money for the classes, or at least find money somehow. Then there’s overhead and administration. Also we have an intern who will be opening the doors, cleaning up after people, and we would like to pay that person as well. Just sort of the basic costs, when you do the math, end up meaning that a class that meets four times comes out to be around 65 dollars. It’s reasonable, but for some people it is a good amount of money. If you just multiply that, then the limit tends to be that people lose interest in paying that money when the class lasts too long. In theory, the class could be ongoing, but in practice because we have economic goals, like a sustainable project where the teachers are being compensated and we can pay for the place in which it’s happening, then that becomes a limitation.
DE: So it seems like, essentially, to sustain a semester course would require like an endowment or something?
SD: Yeah, I’m applying for a grant right now that would pay like 50% of the cost which would then hopefully drop all the rests of the costs. Some people have actually made associations with book stores and things or tried to find a sponsor to sponsor their course. I think that’s really interesting and thats usually been self-organized on the part of the teacher.
DE: Is that something that the public school is open to, like to offer a semester long course?
SD: Basically the Public School is open to anything. So we go back to that corporate discussion, but the idea is subject to discussion by the committee and that’s the important part. Working through all these issues. So it’s not so much about defining all these laws in advance and then we just live by them all — it’s more like rules of a game. So you have the rules and you agree on them and then you just play the game. I think what’s neat about art is that you can change the rules at anytime. So we can change the rules of the school to allow or even require these kinds of sponsorships. But then the next committee that comes in might undo all those changes. The school has been influenced by Chantal Mouffe’s idea of democracy, of cultivating agonism in public space. If consensus-based democracy is a problem because it necessarily evicts alternative hegemonic views, the idea instead is to encourage people to propose their alternative hegemonies so they have a chance to replace the old one. The Public School is an attempt to try to perform some of these things that Mouffe is talking about. The public school as a public space; it’s trying to maintain a situation where there can be competing agendas and new ideas for what the school can be and what it should be. I’m setting it out from the beginning that it should be an art school and it’s entirely possible that it could work itself out to be like a business school at the end if that’s what the public that is participating in it drives it to. If that’s how it realizes itself then that’s where it goes.
DE:Even as a business school, it’s still an art school in a way.
DE: Do you think it’s still called system art or is there a term for this kind of process?
SD:I have a couple terms, which are quasi-architecture and the facilitator. So looking at the facilitator. I think there’s a recognition that the artist can play the role somewhere in between, on one hand, setting up the initial conditions and then just disappearing, “oh I’ll just let it play out” and then on the other hand guiding it through from beginning to end. I think the idea of the facilitator is an interesting model that I haven’t heard worked through a lot in relation to the arts. Maybe it’s because the facilitator is another corporate concept. The facilitator is usually someone who gets something done, the lubricant in a process to achieve a goal. But, I think it can be more like a dirty lubricant. It can fuck up a process a little bit, make it self-reflective, inefficient, awkward, etc. The quasi-architecture term is related. It’s strongly associated with Michel Serres and this chapter called “Theory of the Quasi-Object” in his bookThe Parasite. The chapter begins with the question of how the I becomes a We. It’s through this quasi-object, which can be thought of like the thing in a game. He describes it in terms of a couple of obscure French games, but Brian Massumi writes about it and uses the soccer game to illustrate the concept. The soccer ball is the quasi-object. It isn’t just that the subject kicks the ball. Subject, verb, object. But, because the ball is a ball, it kind of has this pull on us. And so we want to follow it. So in that sense it’s not quite just an object, it also has this sort of subjectivity, it has this agency. And in a game where the ball moves, and everyone on the field re-orientates themselves with respect to the ball, then it becomes even more obvious. So basically the way to think about it is there’s the quasi-object in relationship to the field and then the players are agents making active decisions, but at that same time they’re driven by the context of the game. If the ball goes one way they have to change accordingly, in that sense they lose some of their active agency. The players become objects controlled by the ball. And so there’s this back and forth between the object and subject nature of both the ball and players. I like thinking of it in architectural terms so it’s not just a ball, but what if we think of a building or space or an institution like the one we’re in right now. If you look at a church, they weren’t talking about quasi-architecture when they were building churches or anything, but you can look at a church and think about how there’s a set of ritual inscribed in this place; and the way that it’s laid out also pulls me in a certain direction. At the same time, I have a choice but it’s an interactive experience. Basically, I would like to introduce this term as a way of moving the discussion of interactivity to somewhere else. Through the lens of the quasi-object, which I think is a really compelling concept, and I think it’s strongly related to the facilitator
DE: In The Public School, where is the quasi-object located?
SD:I say it’s the School. The School itself is the quasi-object, but that’s why I say quasi-architecture — because when I say the school is a quasi-architecture, I think it fits a little better. The sound of it even fits a little better. Because as in architecture we can understand that it’s a space. The school is a kind of space. So it can encapsulate ideas, people, events. And so in that sense I say it’s quasi-architecture. But I think, if all you knew about is the quasi-object and you’re really intent on that you could also argue that I’m sort of deploying the project of the school as a quasi-object. As a discursive entity around which social relations are forming, transforming, merging. Basically what Serres is saying is that when you have the quasi-object you become the one and everyone else dissipates and when you give up the object to someone else then they become the one. So it’s always this passing off of identity. So that’s what happens in speech and politics. There’s a sort of group formation but also a passing off of who’s the one at any point, who’s speaking. It’s never that everyone is speaking all at once, that’s like you’re just a cog in a fascist crowd. It’s always this handing off of the right to speak. The right to put forward your ideas. So I’m definitely just co-opting a term and changing a word but I think it has real effect.