When I reached out to the directors of the “virtually-rooted” Dark Study, a recently-launched free experimental art school, I had envisioned writing a piece about the program’s timely response to multiple crises hitting higher education, especially at a moment when so many art schools are flailing in their response to the Black Lives Matter protests and the stress shock of COVID-19. However, my research revealed a troubling cycle within art journalism, where free MFA programs are regularly introduced in major art publications but written about uncritically – and rarely, if ever, tracked in their success. We never learn who the students are, about their work, or about the substance or form of their education; instead, such programs are handled as a romantic novelty. So, I requested a full-length interview with Dark Study co-directors Caitlin Cherry, Nora N. Khan, and Nicole Maloof, in an effort to frustrate the cultural forgetting that such coverage encourages, but also to advance our shared belief that rigorous and sustained critical attention can partner with progressive anti-establishment models in order to help confer institutional power.
Dark Study is a new educational engine that promises a radical and free MFA program. At the time of this writing, its directors have crowdfunded funding to pay for a roster of visiting artists and advisors (Sondra Perry, Jesse Darling, David Xu Borgonjon, Che Gossett, and Serubiri Moses), who will bring experience and pedagogies invested in the intersecting spaces between art and technology. Looking beyond medium-specificity, the program plans to offer an education that explores both traditional studio practices and cultural and media theory. The school challenges the pre-existing notions of education and dismisses the contract between artworld viability and debt. In essence, Dark Study is radically disruptive because of its intention to return to what education once used to mean. We discuss survival strategies, the limitations of institutions, and what the counter-institution could look like, with Cherry outlining a pedagogical theory of “beneath, between, below.”
Andrew Woolbright: It’s great getting to meet with you all virtually. How did you all meet IRL and how did the idea of Dark Study form?
Caitlin Cherry: The school came together a few months ago. I had been talking to Nora about it since March or April, but the idea developed in late May. It was really a dream that started as a social media post. I was applying for jobs and everything was falling apart before my eyes and so I vented about the process. Applying for tenure-track positions was a rainbow road that was disappearing [laughs]. Hiring freezes. One position was frozen and another one cancelled; I was a finalist. So, Nora and I posted about these issues. We collaborated on A Wild Ass Beyond back in 2018, with Sondra Perry and American Artist. We met through Sondra, who is also a classmate of Nicole [Maloof]. I remember seeing Nicole at Columbia events when I would come back for thesis exhibitions and things, a couple of years after I graduated. When Trump first got elected we met somewhere in Manhattan to vent, and we reconnected. We’ve known each other for some years.
AW: All three of you are professors at various schools – Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), Sarah Lawrence. How do you see Dark Study comparing to current MFA programs and institutions? Do you perceive it as a detournement, an intervention, or a replacement? Or is it something that runs alongside these other programs?
Nora N. Khan: Our – my, at least – relationship to institutions is complex. For a while we had cultivated the driving ideas – increasing access to art education, addressing a debt-driven model through this access – but the need for an answer came starkly in view in March. The moment that teaching went online, every choice felt clearly political. As the project of transitioning classes online started to bend us and weigh on us, I needed a better theory of change, something hopeful to make something of a crushing situation. My students and I would often discuss how RISD might transition to online learning longterm, and what that would mean. We all were seeing so many art and design schools put to the test. Seeing how institutions chose to respond to Covid, and to critique of their handling of Covid, how brutal and extractive, gaslighting and chilling the responses were, left many feeling bitter, disillusioned, and burnt through. Numb.
I spend some time incorporating critique of systematic issues into my practice of complaint [laughs]. And I was personally reconsidering what my role could be in this small corner. Was it to document? Archive? Why do ‘critical design’ schools respond so poorly to institutional critique when they are supposedly making space for institutional critique? That was a moment of “What can I accept?” as I saw students losing money, paying for studios they could no longer access. I went on a New Models podcast about remote learning and sort of blurted out, “school should be free,” half-joking. Melanie Hoff (of School for Poetic Computation) made a visit to my class. She made a comment that stayed with me: we should just be able to open this Zoom box anywhere – In the next tab over – and have a hundred people come and take our classes. It is that easy. RISD or Columbia, these kinds of spaces, they disappear when you are far from them. It felt really exciting and freeing.
AW: As long as the debt incurred from higher education means that students will never own a home or have to delay having a family, they are consumers and we are a product. And that debt in the background of higher education really strangles innovation, and really any kind of direct teaching.
Nicole Maloof: My relationship to education is not confined to the university. I was trained by teaching 2000 middle-school students in Korea, and that was brutal. I got to grad school and TA’d, and knew I really loved art and teaching art, but I also knew I needed a job. So I got one as a high-end tutor for math and science in New York City, serving the billionaires, or millionaires many times over. I also did pro-bono work for students from working-class families. And then got my first job teaching at Williams College in 2017, as a one-year visiting artist professor position. So, while Caitlin and Nora are more experienced with teaching art school, I’ve taught mostly at liberal arts schools. And since I come from a diverse education (I have a chemistry degree as well), this allows me to reach students who aren’t really thinking about art in the way that, say, a RISD student would. But I can talk about all of the things that they are studying; I just have to fight for their attention a little bit more because art might not be the central focus of their life.
When COVID hit, everyone was worried about my class because I teach bookmaking and printmaking. I was determined to have them make some of the best work in the department. We continued the class by exploring some DIY practices, I showed them various ways of binding books, and they made really thoughtful projects – not just formally, but also a level of content that was impressive, especially considering all of this distraction and anxiety. But the institution has no commitment to me. The contract that I’m on is yearly, up to three years renewable, and when that three years is up, I will get kicked out. The work my students produced was so good it was actually brought up at a faculty meeting, but I wasn’t there for it; I was told it happened. And I would hear complaints from the students about the tenured faculty that couldn’t rise to the occasion and deal with the online aspect of teaching. I completely rewrote my course to embrace the online medium of learning, and my students returned that favor in their work. And it’s just frustrating knowing all of that effort and love and care put into the course has no connection to my job security whatsoever. And not that I do this for the job security, but it’s very in my face and clear that it literally has nothing to do with it.
AW: And that again makes it difficult for education to express itself in any radical or new way when so many contracts are on these short-term, renewable leases attached to intellectual labor. There’s a certain amount of academic ‘proving’ that needs to happen in education, what Kandice Chuh refers to as “aboutness,” or students can become suspicious that they aren’t getting what they’ve paid for. Where do you see the flaws or failures within the current higher education model? Obviously, debt is a big factor in all of this, but what are some of the inflexible points of higher education that you see or feel like you’re trying to renegotiate?
NK: I’m in a digital media department focused in part on internet-based practices, so the online changeover was really an opportunity to form a deeper community with the students. When school went fully online, my classes couldn’t not improve. We were talking and thinking critically about technology! The discussion and collaboration we were having before just became more concentrated and intense. Focused. We didn’t have distractions. The people who didn’t rise to the occasion and saw being online as a detriment faltered, and it showed. I’ve only been at RISD for two years. The serious writing and discussion that happens outside the classroom with students, in one-to-one meetings, in letters of digressive critique and exchange, has always been “the work.”
CC: I sit uncomfortably within any department I find myself teaching in. I’m probably best suited for a painting department, because art schools are always looking for someone to teach painting, but that isn’t all that I’m interested in. But for now, it is rare for me to work with students outside of my department. When we went online, I participated in meetings with friends who were teaching, like reading groups that I never had access to. Nicole is teaching me Marx’s Capital currently.
The boundaries crumbled after I realized the capabilities of teleconferencing platforms. Despite the pandemic, we were communing online to teach and learn as a free and extracurricular pursuit. That’s the space in between, the space below, that opened up when we went online. I was wrangling my classes and it felt wrong that we were constrained within the class limits that we used to have, prescribed by our art schools and universities. Now we’re on a platform that can host 300 students. After those boundaries were realized and came down, I thought about the boundaries between artistic media that we have been prevented from transcending and merging and thinking beyond, the boundaries that get resolved into a schoolwide standard based on what our academies need. That’s how we become the professors they want us to be rather than the ones that accurately reflect the true breadth of our practices.
AW: I know the Undercommons (by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, 2013) figures into your thinking as you structure this radical curriculum. I’m interested in Moten’s concept of professionalization, and that seems to be kind of a part of what you are all feeling on the teaching side of the curriculum. On the Dark Study website, you are offering a realer alternative to professionalization – a meaningful mentorship kind of education, a fulfilling way of learning how to interact with culture and the world. Maybe it’s replacing professionalization with preparedness?
NK: Reading the Undercommons, I finally had a word for what I had already been doing. Study. [Before that] I didn’t have any name for it other than a stubbornness and deep desire to not be defined by any pigeonholing or genre, and a hunger to learn what I wasn’t finding in class. I was always jumping from thing to thing. My MFA was in fiction writing. A good deal of the teaching focused on the American novel and the American short story, [along with] a stress on craft and construction and professional writing style. Lurking there, as in many creative fields, is this pernicious idea that if you write about yourself, or culture, or ethnicity, as a woman, especially as a person of color, that would count against you. It was some kind of fault, but it was also subtly stressed by faculty that just this writing was what was expected. I began to understand the professionalization of a writer through the MFA was a subtle form of extending management over what MFA students chose to write on, subtly or overtly rejecting themes, topics, critiques, and frameworks. The program, in fact, chose what you would write about, by stressing what it and the publishing world would reject. This drove my wanting to write about whatever I wanted to, unfashionable or unserious things.
I never really imagined myself teaching at an art and design school. I had this long circuitous path to get here. A lot of the work I do is through mentoring. I love being a thesis advisor, that deep, long-scale conversation over one, two years around an idea. I help students who want to be artists see how much of their path will be about reframing failure as redirects. You have to be careful of neoliberal gospel: that you should be pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. Embracing these fallacies of professional success, which don’t acknowledge the systemic issues one will be navigating along the way, is poison to a creative. We have these conversations in study, in the DM, in slips and interludes.
Deep diving and reflecting, I find study helps articulate and frame all of the weird spaces that you really learn in outside of school. The first example of study for me, named explicitly, was when Sondra Perry introduced me to the concept while reading Moten. When we collaborated a few years ago (on A Wild Ass Beyond, with Perry, Cherry, and American Artist), that project was really just a reflection of the four of us talking critically about a subject. A way to document that study was the garden and the house and the many other things that we built and made. Study is to form an argument with and between other people, not just about systemic issues, but that you have to think with other people, you have to critique and debate with others. The professional idea of writing is the solitary person, far away, removed from everything. I wanted to enact something in my own writing practice that was about decentering the ego within the work and carry the idea in a way for other people to mess with. I was thinking about the early utopian ideas of digital collaboration. And how we can both acknowledge the need of the institution for a livelihood but also there will be other work that makes it worth it, being done alongside it, syphoning the institution.
AW: Which goes back to Moten pointing out that critique is an anti-social behavior, and we need to find other tools to renavigate the system in addition to critique. And it all ties into the first sentence of the Dark Study manifesto about impurity, because I think of purity falling along political lines.
It’s troubling to see the university, especially within art education, holding onto medium specificity when it no longer reflects the artworld – when you have people who can code and use Autodesk and have chemistry degrees teaching still-life painting. So often the threshold is about meeting department and course thresholds, rather than forming broader connections, attempting any kind of new, weird space.
CC: Those weird spaces. We tried to represent this as accurately as possible in a thousand words in our alternative bios on the website. I’ve always been a part of art academia in the traditional sense – the track to becoming a successful artist but also doing it being “who I was.” I was never allowed full participation in the system, even though I was allowed in the door. I was relegated to a corner. I had to be independent to survive it. “Oh, I got my MFA from Columbia; everything should have been fine.” Those art schools have students from millionaire families and you’re there busting your ass to get by. You’re 22 years old and overwhelmed and you’re Black and you’re getting run over by everybody. It doesn’t provide the same experiences for the same types of people. Those weird spaces happen not just outside of the institution but within it, and within yourself, you are that in your own mind, you have to develop that weird space in order to survive in that corner because these art institutions aren’t built for you.
And the professionalization thing is big. MFA programs do a decent job at producing an artist able to make decent art. But MFA programs try to protect their students from the evil mechanisms of the art market and they don’t really prepare you for it. I had success immediately after I graduated but I was ill-equipped to deal with the business of being an artist. I needed guidance and protection then. In discussing and developing Dark Study, we have strong progressive political views and our own ideas of professionalization have developed as a matter of survival. We hope to pass down to our students an acknowledgement of how capitalism affects the life of an artist, how failure is real and is something students should prepare for. That failure can be healthy and produce successful artists as well.
AW: Maybe that brings things back to how you talk about games on the Dark Study website, and frame institutional learning as being just as much about the education of the game of the institution and its rules as the education as you are receiving from it. That registered with me, specifically this idea that the concepts of “play” and “failure” are really arbitrated, and have very specific natures to them when they are used as words within MFA programs. I remember at RISD I was encouraged to play and embrace failure as a part of my studio practice, and I also learned very quickly that there was acceptable failure and I wasn’t making work that fell within that. That you are still expected to productively fail and productively play and there still really isn’t room for a failed experiment within an MFA program. You can fail and experiment at a level that can’t produce feedback because it literally doesn’t produce. What are the new rules of the game you are inventing at Dark Study?
NM: They’re going to read the whole book! We were talking about rigor earlier today. Part of having full freedom is being able to dive deeply into a thing. But if everyone is more concerned about the rules of the game, no one is actually learning. So not having to play by the rules means constantly reinventing them as we go. Are the students given the time to sit with an idea and given the chance to grasp it, the time to actually master it and be able to play with it, rather than just point at it in this haphazard, performative way? When the pandemic hit, I started running economic and political studies, and my students said that my studies were harder than their regular academic classes. But they said that this type of learning that comes out of a rigorous study meant so much more to them than the loose surveys of knowledge that they work through for grades and evaluations. My students actually learn stuff.
AW: It’s unhealthy what it does to the mind. Taking the best chapter, or the most concise chapter of each book and then moving onto the next one. I think it’s detrimental to attention spans the way that news feeds and top-stories apps are.
Will they be getting quizzes in your Dark Study class?
NM: Oh yes! But in my class it’s a guiding quiz, not an external assessment. When there is no traditional institution to rely on, students realize that they didn’t develop the tools for comprehension and rigorous study; they’re used to taking in information, getting a paper out, and moving on. This has made it difficult for them to take on large amounts of detail and develop rich meaning from it.
I was lucky that in the science part of my education I was taught how to take in large amounts of data and see a sort of shape or form in it. And with my arts education, I can inject that with more color, in a way that maybe relates more to the everyday world. So in these intensive studies of economics and politics, I inundate the students with large amounts of data, and then demand that they engage with it – know all of the bits and then come to a larger narrative that has some implication that relates to their own lives. The phenomena that we see today, they call attention to the very failures of this complex world that we live in. I tell them that the devil is in the details, that they can’t ignore them; that the story is really built from all of these things that seem insignificant and tedious, that that’s actually where the truth lies. By making them more adept at becoming meaning-making machines, I think that’s a better way to approach these overwhelming problems that we see today.
CC: We are debating all of the rules. We are debating about classes not conforming to a 15-week semester timeline. Are our classes going to meet every week? Will they be very different from each other, even though they are all classified as seminars? Rather than reading one or two great chapters in many books, resulting in a flustered student and disjointed education, a 15-week semester may be just long enough to read one book. I want it all on the table for debate. We’re not even conducting this interview on Zoom right now; we’re on a more private platform.
NK: I’d love to say a bit about the game-like side of Dark Study. I think about institutional language a lot. Language is this system, and a game, just like art school is, like academia is. My start in publishing anything with regularity was writing longform essays about games, games culture, game design, the craft, the scale. I looked at such world-building critically, and with seriousness. I went to game studios to learn, watch how 100 or 200 people build a world. Any space that I end up in is a level; art and design schools are just another level to get through, to eventually destroy the final boss of, well, capitalism, I guess, or capitalist oppression. Games allow you to go through what is otherwise unbearable. You can gamify intolerable situations and see the possibility of working a way out. I think back on the class games, the game of being an immigrant, the games my family had to play and navigate, so I didn’t have to deal with their pain in the same way. Doom was my first game when I was 8. There were massive communities I’ve had through gaming. Gameplay shapes how your brain moves through space and how it functions. The pandemic helps train us all in analyzing systems – deconstructing and recoding, reprogramming. Sharing all technology makes me feel more of an affinity with the students than someone tenured in their late 60s, sharing platitudes. I don’t feel any desire for the world they are suggesting and have been suggesting that we should aspire to, because it doesn’t exist. We aren’t going to have houses and security. We are forever online. There’s something else here that is entirely ours. I’m being too utopian and optimistic without being a techno- positivist, I hope.
CC: Universities invest a lot of money to be a destination. Dark Study diverges from that by being virtual. We have an advisor who lives and works in Europe; I want us to be a global school. Institutions try to set up to play by setting up campuses abroad as a colonial pursuit, but it’s weighed down by layers of regulation. All of the IRL “wining and dining” required to work with someone and to move someone from this place to that place comfortably, to court them as faculty or as students … being a virtual school flattens or eliminates these logistical concerns.
AW: I really appreciate this centering of games and the centering of stories on the Dark Study website, and I enjoyed reading through the longform stories of each of you on the site. I think stories will be so important in how to provide praxis to redistributing institutional aura.
NK: Do you mean the need for the cover of elite institutions to give us the ability to speak? Needing to go to certain spaces to receive legitimacy?
AW: Yes. I’m interested in knowing your thoughts on this relationship between institutional reliance and counter strategies. I still feel the need at times to mention where I graduated from, to go and see the MFA shows of top-tier programs, and I’ve been wondering if that’s good practice. Do we stop caring what Yale and RISD and Columbia are doing? Do we redistribute the legitimacy they confer to as many people as possible? And this isn’t just on you, developing this radical pedagogy to fill these spaces. I feel it as a critic; in researching for this interview, I was shocked at how radical, free MFA programs are covered in art journals in this very cyclical fashion. There are these soil horizons, to adopt a term from geology, of articles written about alternatives to expensive MFA programs. But there’s never any follow-up. There’s interest in the spectacle of it, but there’s no critical work or attention to help cultivate the energy. There isn’t the beat writer following up with the radical programs’ idea of an MFA show or the results these utopic models develop. And it’s difficult to convince students to go to programs that don’t offer any kind of critical evaluation of what they’re doing. From an art-ecological standpoint, I think critics need to be focusing their writing more towards alternative education, not just as a quick feature, but bringing the lens of criticism to what they are doing; what results look like through them so as to come alongside them and help redistribute focus to models like yours. How are you all thinking about that reliance of some type of conferred power from institutions, and how it could be utilized going forward?
CC: That’s a good question. I desperately wanted to get into the best MFA programs, to prove that I can do what needed to be done. I wanted to be a successful artist. I remember having a moment in the first success wave of my career, where I should have been happy. I was getting shows and making money primarily through my art, but I was depressed and fucking up. It was at that moment I knew that I couldn’t be that artist. If the artworld kept giving me these accolades, I wouldn’t be happy to receive them. I began self-sabotaging my success. I was and am different because I was never accepted in those institutions. As I kept achieving something new, I would reflect, “What am I doing this for?” If it’s just for the money, it won’t be enough. I graduated in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis. It looked like the artworld would never recover, and then it did as I came out of grad school.
When you spend most of your art education in an economic depression, you build a different value system. There’s always been this overcurrent or undercurrent in the ways I think and make art that is critical of the institution. When I started teaching, the same cycle started over. I was a faculty member, but I was being treated like a freshman in undergrad because I was an adjunct. So, strangely enough, you can have all of the accolades and fight your way to a meager level of respectability eventually within these schools, but as soon as you step off the campus, you’re just a Black woman. It’s jarring. There’s no bridge or ways to reconcile all these sides of yourself professionally or personally. I had to figure out how to be fulfilled, because it’s never going to be as a rich artist where once a year you have a show, once a year you have an opening, once a year you give a lecture. I like to do more things than that [laughs]. I have more hours in my day. Despite all the issues with academia, when I started teaching, I felt something I had never felt in my life. Our generation is relatively childless – a lot of us don’t have kids. We never recovered from the 2008 depression. We can’t afford homes. So when I started teaching, that was me giving back and building community and it was vital for my well-being.
NK: For a First-Generation student, being academically high-achieving is a huge part of a family’s status and stability. Coming here is a big part of keeping a barrier, a wall, a form of protection for your child, their generation, from being hurt; here in the US, as our parents learned so painfully, people will be underestimating you always, even when you are wildly capable. The better you did in school, the better the opportunity and places that you went, then making every conceivable financial sacrifice, every social and mental sacrifice for your child, was worth it. That’s just what you did. It makes for a culture that is extremely motivated, but then slots too neatly into Asian-American complicity through acceptance of of the “model minority myth.” The myth is that you’ll earn proximity to power and protection from harm, through exceptionalism, exclusivity, through hard work, striving. The holes in this myth start to collapse as you get older, or, actually, just start to live, move, and work in a world where you are elevated even as you are despised. I refer to all of these gifted children turned depressed, anxious train-wreck memes. Doing that high-achieving grind for a really long time, and then you get this piece of paper, a key to help you get into other spaces. Well, what do you do in those spaces, once in them? Writing opened up another avenue for understanding the purpose of all this learning and knowledge gleaned in college is for, when placed in context; it was to do something else given the extreme circumstances that your ancestors and community came from. The two cannot be in opposition: where you came from, and what you are learning. That disconnect was what I was trying to reconcile in my 20s, and it turns out to be impossible to separate yourself from your experiences, past, and genetic and cultural legacy. Who I actually am, and what I am learning in these hallowed rooms: how to fuse the two? How do I refuse an ownership of knowledge to crush people with? How do I never say or fall into the trap of thinking, “I came from this place, so that we don’t have to have this conversation,” which is what I saw a lot of my peers from lower-middle class aspirant families, doing. Knowing where my family came from, what we’ve been through in the last fifty, sixty years – that is not the kind of knowledge I wanted. I didn’t want to train to be a class-based oppressor [laughs].
AW: What kid wants to grow up to be a class-based oppressor? And yet, at some point, that became either normalized or even confused with some kind of achievement or success. Adopting the affectation of being better than everyone to try to circuit-jump success. It carries into the artworld, too. I was reading a piece a while back talking about how gallery docents at commercial galleries all conform to this collective dominatrix persona: “You can’t have that!” “Don’t look at that!” “Don’t ask me any questions!” “You don’t belong here.” But that adoption originated from incredibly successful blue-chip galleries that realized there was something thrilling to the clientele when they were told “no.” Now you can get treated like that in any gallery, because it’s this placeholder affectation of success that people feel they need to puppet.
I really appreciate how much of this comes from your care and concern for your students. That really comes across in your writing. I know how much of my teaching life is oriented around remembering my 20s and how hard it is to announce that you want to be an artist. Even without sometimes very literal and real rejection, there’s just the humiliation, showing up to family functions and your life being unintelligible to the people closest to you. When everyone else has a family and a house, you have a coloring going in your studio that you’re really excited about. I look at all of my students and I see them about ready to run this gauntlet with a dunce cap for the next ten years, where their siblings are getting promotions and they have to keep showing up to barbecues not really knowing how to communicate what they’re excited about because it doesn’t look like success to the people around them.
I think that’s what progress looks like, though, just trying to fix the things that really fucked you up for other people.
NM: I do think older professors entered academia at a very different time. I feel like we are maybe the last generation where you can find a job with a college education. College enrollment has only gone up, costs have also risen, and there’s this myth of the guaranteed job you’ll get, to pay back all of this crazy debt you accrued … to get this job. So I think there’s a material reason for this readiness to rebel against this myth of what college is and what education can grant you, because it’s starting to fall apart. And because there’s a material stake for the younger generation, they can more clearly see this. They know that they’ve been lied to and that there isn’t some six-figure job that will cover the $100,000 worth of debt. And it’s something I directly deal with in my tutoring job, preparing students to apply for the ivy-league schools; they do this to maintain their class position. This idea spreads to everyone, the belief that there is a job behind this degree, but this opportunity doesn’t actually extend to everyone. If you aren’t in a position where you can put yourself into massive debt comfortably, then you’re just putting yourself into a precarious situation. And how do you even work around this? So, it makes sense that learning itself doesn’t take front and center stage, when that might not even be the point of going to school.
AW: Which then leaves the legacy of maintaining culture on student debt. They have to go into debt so that this history of art and music and literature and the studies of things that don’t lead to jobs can continue. They are foregoing property ownership to pay for the cultivation and maintenance of culture and knowledge, never knowing what it feels like to make more than you need to pay bills just to stop the fires from burning up the library of Alexandria for a few more hours.
CC: I’m still teaching at VCU, so Dark Study is meant to be its own school. And this school can run parallel and be competitive to degree-accrediting art schools right now because everybody is online for this next year. I have mentors, colleagues, and friends who are teaching artists and administrators who are having informal meetings to discuss the ways we can remedy issues brought upon by the pandemic budget squeeze. One suggested to me that we merge our visiting artist programs for this year. I’m like shit. Wait. Yeah, of course this should be happening, but shouldn’t that be happening on a much larger scale? Shouldn’t we be seeking mutual aid across our broken universities and broken art schools? They are trying to shrink and isolate and protect their assets hardcore, right now, when they should be reaching out to each other, making new alliances and new partnerships. I want to see 500 Dark Study-like actions, if not schools, develop. But I feel like this online platform can be much more important than just being an emergency default for this next semester or this next year because of Covid. Beyond Dark Study I’m thinking of the multi-layered “beneath, between, and below,” because it’s not like we’ve left the university. We’re still there. I still want to see these art schools and universities live on. But really seeking solutions requires allowing folks who haven’t had power to have it. We’ve had the summer months and started a free program. They’ve had months and billions of dollars in resources and haven’t done a damn thing.
AW: The Visiting Artist model seems like a very telling metaphor in all of this, I think. Because the hang-ups all seem to come from proprietary concerns. But that is not a student’s concern at all. They want a network, the ability to hear from professors at RISD and VCU and Williams and Columbia, all at the same time. And maybe, most importantly, artists from different countries who can tell them what it’s like in countries that art is better funded, healthcare is funded, college is free, and you’re given a stipend for attending. I don’t think these institutions can expect political activism or progressive mobilization if they aren’t offering these resources back.
NK: I’ve noticed it, too. People have the energy for action but are of course a part of big, grinding systems that aren’t agile enough. My excitement in being a part of this project, investing 110% in it, has been thinking about what a student might do, if they don’t come back in the fall. Do they have the skills and learning, the information they need, to continue making and working without the shelter of school? Can they just start in? I know a lot of students, great and hardworking artists, who are not enrolling this autumn. They may have really different, challenging circumstances and they just can’t work at home. Are they going to just stop making work because their creative practice, and making, was so tied to the school and its facilities? That prospect just felt unacceptable to me. Whether I teach at RISD or wherever it may be, the real work will go on regardless, with the university or without it. Even in our precariousness as adjuncts, we have some ability to make keep holding that space.
CC: We started Dark Study assuming it may have to run on the donated, voluntary labor of the three of us, and we were in a pact to make that happen. That’s how badly we wanted it. With COVID, you see how much the students are suffering, not just from the virus and what it’s doing to their studio access; you become more connected to them, or connected in new ways. They start to open up to you with what’s going on in their lives. There’s vulnerability in the air. We are all at a weakened state. We did what we could in the spring semester to protect the students because we knew it would be hard after graduation. And having our unique stories and backgrounds, as professors and artists and writers within academia, the gears clicked into place. This was a spark. This is the time to do the work that we want to do, that we’ve fought the institutions so long to make it happen.
AW: I haven’t asked a lot of questions about the specifics of the program, because I want to be sensitive to preserving the Call part to the Call and Demand. I think that there’s a beauty to the hyperstasis of the moment before demands are issued, the mystery and energy before it starts finding form. But do you want to talk about what the program will look like? Do cohorts graduate? Or do they morph together into bigger cohorts? Can they become so big that they become political and can be taught how to salt for unions and redistribute resources? [laughs] I’m personally interested in what your individual pedagogies look like: the inspirations that were behind the development of your individual classes and what you’re personally and uniquely excited about bringing to your teaching. I’m also asking about the utopic vision of Dark Study, of what happens when everything goes right from constructing this educational kit during this crisis.
CC: My first class within Dark Study will focus on the ways artists have been “divergent” from their institutions, their museums, and culture at large, and sometimes against their governments incidentally or purposefully in the Modern era. It will explore moments artists have protested and critiqued, and removed themselves from shows or spaces, or been arrested in the pursuit of justice or radical art. It’s wide-ranging. I love inspiring artists to make radical moves in their work, particular painters who tend more than most to think they just move paint around as the world passes by. It will be a great class for the maker types who need an overview on the ways their artistic practices can reflect or go against their political views and how far they can push against the mainstream before they find themselves frozen out of it. And how getting frozen out or kicked out could be the beginning of something much better and much more significant in the lineage of art and history.
NM: We have different ideas about it. As with the development of anything, it has to be taken in stride as it comes into being. I’m staying open-minded as to how things proceed. I’m presently leading small study groups focused on economics and politics, where the students choose to study for the sake of studying, and not for a grade or credit. This type of learning structure has introduced challenges I wasn’t expecting, and so I’m fascinated with what happens to education when it’s not defined by or confined to an institution. New problems definitely arise. I have had to adjust. It’s a constant updating process. I just know that I can teach this way; I’m doing it presently, and it’s amazing. It requires staying in the present and being sensitive to the students’ needs.
NK: One thing I’m looking forward to is that it will surely be a process of unlearning, continually unlearning institutional values that have crept into the foundation of my thinking. And when you’re in survival mode for a long time, the potential for unlearning is there, but there might not be enough time and space to tap into it.
When we started writing the site, our edits started to leave out “how we really felt,” meaning, the unspeakable things you say with your friends. As this “how we really feel” page grew longer, we conceived of multiple layers or modes to the side. The Dark Mode edit, then, is a whole second layer. You’ll see a line about us “identifying as thinkers,” and then you watch the line be deleted, a critical point on how the identity of a thinker is exclusionary, colonial, and then a move to redefine our own roles as facilitators. I don’t want to replicate, in Dark Study, what I’ve learned in the institution. I want to be conscious of what my penchant for hierarchical thinking, or possession of knowledge, or mastery, is. Here, I want to be able to say, “I don’t know. Let’s figure it out together.”
Long term, it would be great if Dark Study could become a prototype or model that could be replicated. Yes, may a thousand schools bloom. Lift, copy, reprogram, repeat.
CC: Right now, we are just trying to pay our instructors and advisors. But I’m dreaming of a well-funded distributive system that could provide students with studio and living spaces in the cities that they want to live in rather than bringing all of the students together under this one building and in one city. That is what makes us different, we will host a discussion with a student in London who has no intention or reason to move to Richmond, Virginia where I live. If life ever goes back to “normal” I would like Dark Study to still be relevant, rigorous as a virtual art program, flexible in all of the ways Nora described. Institutions have a lot of baggage. This might be the year of shaking that baggage.