Photo above by Charlotte Livine

On the structure of the class, collaboration, exchanges, learning by doing, and suggestions on incorporating these elements into a more traditional classroom

An Interview with Marjetica Potrč and students of Design for the Living World Finn Brüggemann, Barbara Niklas, William Schwartz and a guest of the class Charlotte Livine by Kim Lyle and Kara Roschi

Kim Lyle and Kara Roschi, students of the Intermedia and Public Practice program in the School of Art, Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at the Arizona State University (ASU) in Phoenix, Arizona, conducted an interview with Design for the Living World class at the University of the Fine Arts (HFBK) in Hamburg, Germany. In October and November 2015, the Design for the Living World class spent two months at the International Artist Residency at the Combine Studios in Phoenix, where the interview took place on November 21, 2015.

Kim Lyle: Kara and I are in a class based around teaching and pedagogy. At our school we each have the opportunity to teach while taking classes. So, we’re curious about the structure of your class and how it works. I was thinking about you all in this course and essentially experiencing all these things, taking them in, and learning as you go. What do you hope for when you eventually leave the class? How do you think this class will impact what you do in the future?

Finn Brüggermann: For me I learn a lot about how we work together, about how we can produce something together because it’s something that we do all the time. There are times when we are working on very individual projects, but most of the time we are forming an idea together with people and discussing it together. And I think this is a big part of what I’ve learned. I’m not so sure how exactly I will put this into something that I do, I don’t have a concrete aim. Like you study medicine and then you become a doctor. I don’t know exactly where this will lead me to, it’s completely open.

William Schwartz: I think it has a far reach into different corners of experience. On one hand we gain practical knowledge of the different places we go to, the cultural differences. But also, we gain a network of people, and being in Detroit and Chicago (We Care a Lot: Stewardship of Land In the Neighborhood, Conservation – Coalition – Collaboration, 2015) was really reaffirming that we’re sharing a global language somehow. People are thinking about the same ideas and working in the same direction and it’s really comforting on that hand that we’re able to go so far from Hamburg, yet meet people who are working towards the same goals. This is really reassuring. We’re creating these building blocks or ideas that we revisit in other projects and not only do we take away a lot from the places that we go, but also from our own evolution and our own thoughts in different places. We’re able to utilize that in other places and kind of work off of past experience, but also taking in the present location. And then the overall reality of just being together and compromising and talking is really unique because that’s not usually how it works. It’s so rare in a class that you’re in total communication with everyone else. It’s pretty special.

Kara Roschi: I think there is something about traditional class structure where it’s the sage on the stage idea and even teaching a methodology often is like ‘these are the steps and this is how you do it and then go out and do that thing’. And this practice of learning by doing because there are so many nuances to the collaboration and learning how to be with one another and be with people, I wonder if that’s something that could be formalized or if it always has to have this structure that holds that space for that interaction versus teaching the ways to interact. Which is really interesting about this course for me, or this program. What is the language that you use to describe what you guys do as far as course or program or unit?

FB: Sometimes we call each other or work more with each other like a collective and sometimes there are times when it’s really classical like Marjetica wants us to talk about something and we listen to her experience. But then also other people talk and we listen to their experience. Coming to the methodology again, you can’t really say these are the steps of how you work together because it’s somehow always a constant negotiation and everybody’s throwing their ideas and what they feel and it’s constantly evolving.

WS: I don’t know why I’m thinking about this because we’re talking about pedagogy, but in Berlin there was an exhibit on Black Mountain College and it’s really great. I mean everybody kind of swoons when you look at it. But it’s also somewhat of an artifact and it’s no longer there. And thinking about what we’re doing in certain ways it’s like a nomadic version of that. It’s very small, a very temporary version. We don’t really have a real title. The name for the class we chose a long time ago and it’s also not important. It really isn’t about the class, it’s about where we’re going and how we’re adapting and always learning and moving beyond. The process is so holistic. We wake up together and have breakfast. The breakfast melts into a conversation about something else, then someone presents something, then someone maybe stops by and we talk with them. Where does it end and where does it start? It’s so incredible that it melts in from day after day after day. This is why I think of Black Mountain, you’re living on site with your teachers and the lines become grey of what is the educational side of it and what is the basic side of life.

KR: What’s interesting is how it kind of goes back to Kim’s starter question about how it becomes or morphs back into real life or other life or moving forward life. And what communities form once this community goes its separate ways or doesn’t.

KL: Something that you mentioned a lot was collaboration and I think when I look at your class it’s something that I feel I’m missing in our program. Maybe you could talk about how you view collaboration. It seems the way you describe it, it happens organically. But, for example when you came to Arizona you had split up into different groups and you each are working on projects. How does that happen? How does this collaboration take shape? Are there ever disagreements or is there a complete consensus around what you do in every step?

Marjetica Potrč: It’s really simple. People do what they’re best at and the idea is to be connected to your own interests in the best way.

FB: It happens really naturally and it’s never a closed group where one group is working on this and the other group on that. We started out working on the tour for maybe 2 weeks without William and he was interested in something else. Eventually, he did join the tour group. It’s not really that fixed, it’s just personal interests and also human relations – who gets along with each other.

WS: I think there’s kind of a natural filter, those who enter the class I would hope are interested in collaborating. It’s not that we don’t have to come to an agreement on how we do it, it’s that by nature the class is collaborative. It’s just a learning process, always. And it changes too because there’s a new student or someone who’s not participating. So, there’s always a different chemistry and dynamic. Even when we were in Phoenix splitting up into different groups, we were intensely self-organizing and everyday we had two meetings. It became absurd because they’re really philosophical. We just sit back and talk about what could be and what isn’t and why this doesn’t work. People were getting a little sick of it, but it was really incredible too. Who are we, this international group that’s sitting in a circle outside talking and talking and talking about things that could happen in Phoenix, Arizona and things that couldn’t? For who and what are we doing? All these questions kept repeating themselves. It was really nice. And then by the time we got back, it all kind of crystalized. Everyone had some sort of a direction.

KR: I’m a little curious about beyond the self-selection process of enrolling in the course. Now that you’re in it, what are foundations that people should have in entering the course besides maybe the natural inclination to want to collaborate or learn to collaborate?

MP: That’s the most important thing.

KR: Well you mentioned the other night at dinner about self-awareness. Knowing who you are and what your interests are.

KL: Something else that I was interested in about this project-based learning is when you approach a place, you do your research before being in that place – but you come ready to change that idea as well. I’m curious how these projects begin to form and that process of bringing your lived experience to the place you visit.

MP: This is a kind of mantra that we are always explaining. We prefer to be in one spot for a longer period of time; otherwise it’s just a short workshop. Workshops are all right, but they are limited. Basically, you don’t really change your position in a short workshop, you think ahead in a linear way and do whatever you’re doing accordingly. But, if you stay for a longer period of time, you understand that you have to drop your preconceptions to develop something together with other people. You get feedback from people and the environment. So this is the value of long-term residencies, and we have been lucky enough to be able to do them. In 2014, the class spent two and a half months in Soweto in South Africa (The Soweto Project, 2014). And this journey now is actually also for two and a half months because we went to Detroit and Chicago before we came here, and we were also helping the group Postcommodity, in Douglas (Repellent Fence). So we are in Phoenix for one and a half months.

FB: Normally in the beginning of a residency, for the first 2 weeks we just try to take in the environment where we are and try to talk to as many people as we can. Usually nothing practical really happens, we’re not starting to do anything. So, it’s this moment after a week or 10 days or so when some people get nervous about why nothing is happening. But it’s always this way, it’s a natural process that we just have to take. We have to remember in the beginning to be patient and not to do anything.

WS: If you force it then you’re forcing the project to happen, you’re not letting the surroundings or the people guide it, which is our intention. We’re not coming here as artists presenting our sculptures, we’re actually kind of letting them happen organically through the community or as just a natural response.

MP: And it’s not what people usually understand as a design-and-build strategy for on-site projects. We don’t do this. We want the project to develop and not already be decided on before we arrive at the location.

KR: I was reading in the link you sent Kim, about this idea of exchange and skill exchange more than this kind of object presentation. I’m curious about the skills that often come up as give and any skills that generally come back as part of the exchange.

WS: Which direction?

KR: Well both ways. Do you find yourselves as a learning skill set that you’re acquiring in that space that you find yourselves bringing forth and what you’re learning from the communities. Because it was less about helping people, coming in a bringing that thing.

MP: It’s very important that we don’t help.

KR: I was interested in maybe some descriptors of the things that are exchanged.

FB: For me it’s really difficult to say because it really changes from place to place and from project to project. In South Africa, we were building a lot physically and we were 3 to 7 people everyday that were there building. Then it becomes I know something about brick laying and they know something about brick laying or about how to make a straight right angle. So, it’s just this kind of really practical exchange. In South Africa, the people that we were working with had a really different idea about how to self-organize and what the structure looks like when you self-organize. So that’s something that becomes co-learning. I have some ideas about how I think self-organization could work and how a structure for that could work. And then it’s always some sort of a compromise where both things can come together. But, it’s super different from project to project. It always really changes.

MP: Finn mentioned the Soweto Project. At the end of our stay in South Africa the project evaluators asked both the community and us what we had learned. Actually what we learned wasn’t really about skills like how to build a platform; it was that we learned to accept the fact that the community’s method of working is just as valuable as ours. We usually don’t think of ourselves as linear thinkers, but in fact we are if we compare ourselves to someone like Themba, a Soweto construction worker who worked on the project. In a way, I was trying to force Themba to think like I did. For example, when we were constructing the platform and running out of time, Themba kept rerouting the process. It was really difficult because we already had an opening date for the festival. Later I understood that what I learned personally from the project was that Themba’s process of subjective thinking is just as valuable as linear thinking. And actually, acknowledging different processes of knowledge is extremely important for anyone who tries to think in a different way today. You must be able to drop the efficient way of learning, the efficient way of doing things. If you want to think in a new way – which is what we try to do today – you have to accept the fact that other people think in a different way. In case of the Soweto project, knowledge production was organized in two ways: objective thinking and subjective thinking.

KL: From what you just said it sounds like you’re learning as well while the class is going on. So, your role is not really as a teacher so much would you say? Or are you someone that is just helping facilitate these things that are happening within the class?

MP: No, I don’t facilitate. I don’t see myself as a facilitator. I’m actually a co-worker and I learn a lot. If I didn’t learn a lot myself and also have fun, I wouldn’t do it. It’s interesting for me, and I guess it is for the others as well; otherwise they wouldn’t do it.

KR: I’m still trying to understand the institutional system of it. So, you guys don’t have other courses right now, you study together as a class and that’s it and then what is the reporting back or grading look like?

FB: We don’t have grades. None of the things that we do are graded, only our thesis is graded in the end. But usually everybody gets an A.

WS: It’s like a pass or fail.

FB: And we report back. Once a year there’s an exhibition where everybody is exhibiting something.

Charlotte Livine: And it’s not an official reporting back, you’re not forced to do it. Or just on occasion if you want to show what you did, you’re always welcome to try and find your place in it.

Barbara Niklas: And I still think it is, but I don’t actually know if you still have to take one seminar per semester.

CL: You have to, but it is loose enough. If during one semester you don’t want or can’t take part to a seminar, you can choose to participate to more seminars in the next semester.

WS: There are also block seminars. There are a lot of teachers who don’t live in the city so there are people who come in for a weekend. Friday through Sunday and you can kind of pack those up too.

KL: I’m curious if any of you would have any ideas on how to incorporate some of the elements of your class into…. So Kara and I both teach a class while we’re taking classes, but it’s in a traditional classroom setting. Kara teaches digital media and I’ll be teaching 2D design. So in this world where we will have to evaluate students and will have to have a curriculum, do you have any suggestions or ideas for how to incorporate the type of learning style you have in your class here into a more structured situation?

MP: That’s a good question. We have a philosophy – learning by doing. I believe that life is the best teacher, and it’s not necessarily me or another person. When I started teaching, I didn’t assign homework, and some students found that disorienting. But the thing is, for instance, just like we’ve discussed today, that next Monday and Tuesday, after we finish the project here, we’ll discuss the curriculum that will come up after our residency. We’ve been super busy with the project here, so we didn’t really have time to discuss certain topics; they emerged on their own. So we’ll research them after we leave here. We look at the topics that really matter to us after the project is finished.

KR: Does it vary by site? The Soweto book was a really great book as a document of that project. Is that kind of a common way for you guys to each then have these individual spaces capped together?

MP: Every project has a different outcome. We like to make publications, but each one is different – we don’t have a common design. The Soweto Project book was designed by Amalia, who is currently in Madrid. It was important for me to make this book because we were trying to put our methods into writing. We didn’t write about the design of the physical space, but rather about public space as a social agreement. Public space is not about dimensions and street furniture – it’s a social agreement; it’s people. I think this point is very well explained and I’m really proud of it. The book is also an effort from the whole class. We did it after we came back to Hamburg, and I should say that when we were there in Soweto, we didn’t have a clue about what the analysis would be. Because there are so many impressions you have and you are working so hard. After we came back, we reflected on the process and put it into writing.

KR: I can see the learning by doing being such a packed thing while your doing it that it does take…

MP: Gregory Sale’s practice at the School of Art is a good example, because he takes you outside the classroom and then you do something on site. I think it’s really important to bump into the reality. Studying from books and then becoming a professional afterwards is just one way of doing things. It also depends on your personality.

KR: And who you identify your audience or community as, depending on what your work is. Because I think that’s a little bit of what is going on in academia. Academics in the institutions just want to talk to other academics in the institutions, but there’s a lot more makers and creatives that are interested in not just having those conversations but in having the larger conversations. I think that’s an equity issue here in the States.

MP: We’ve been really lucky that the university supports long-term residencies. But in fact we’re not sure if we’ll be able to continue in the same format. After four years, they discovered that we are doing these super-long residencies and there are maybe some legal issues involved. But it’s always possible to find new ways of doing things. Ours is an experimental university, so it’s much easier to do the kind of things we do than it would be in the US, from what I understand.

WS: We are now reported missing in Hamburg (laughing)… this is how we get away with it.

KR: Well it makes me think of John’s residency program in Grand Central. John Spiak was involved in the social practice work here at the ASU art museum before he went to LA, and he’s really made an effort to create a space where he’s at now for longer term residencies because a lot of the great work doesn’t happen in these plunk down workshops. We engage things where you can flesh out all those nuances of community in a space.

MP: Well, it also hasn’t been easy because people know what a certain practice is supposed to look like traditionally. So, if you bring in a different practice, it’s confusing – both for professors and for students.

FB: Sorry, the guy you were talking about, what’s his name?

KR: John Spiak.

KL: Also something John said about his residency is that they don’t have expectations for the artists, it’s all right for them to fail which I think is hugely important. And I’m wondering in your experiences of these places if you come in and do they expect you to come up with something successful? And is that a pressure you feel?

MP: No, it’s typical. For instance, in Belgrade (Savamala – A Place for Making, 2013), I remember one of the community leaders was always asking, “Next time when you come, can you do something?” And we were really working hard with locals to organize community-based spaces! It’s just that it was not about an object. We constantly have to deal with this old way of thinking. But it’s important to extend the field, whatever it is.

WS: Maybe I’m remembering wrong, but I feel like we’ve always been kind of greeted with a little bit of confusion by the people who invite us. They invite us with this idea, maybe you feel like they want you to reproduce something that you’ve done before in another city. And we usually divert from that and do something totally different. And then there’s always a huge chaos up until we present. In New York (The Invisible Lunch Discussions, 2015), it was sort of total uncertainty, but we were basically invited to do the same project we’d done somewhere else and we did not want to do that. So, we put our own spin on it and it worked out. And then in St. Lambrecht, a small town in Austria (Gerichte auf Tischen, 2012), we had a lot of stress with the curator, which is the last thing you want to deal with since there are so many other logistical issues and you don’t want to have to confront them with what you’re doing. So, there’s always trust issues, but each project for the most part has always ended well.

MP: William mentioned the curators in St. Lambrecht. They demanded that we give them a built object and we said no. We did in fact construct tables but they went back to the community – people took them home. In the Soweto Project too, we were under pressure to define the project before we went there, and we said we don’t do this. That was interesting. It was a battle to tell them ten thousand times that we don’t define a project beforehand.

KR: Is that easier as you go along now that there’s something of a track record of ways that you engage and the multiplicities of those ways.
FB: I think so. I mean it was different some years ago, but now the class gets invited so it’s gained a sort of reputation.

WS: Being here is a really cool example. We came here and I’m sure we were invited with a set expectation of doing a community project or however and we responded to our take on the community. In a certain way its like the earth outside, it’s really rock hard and when it rains the water just dissipates all over. In a certain way we felt that we weren’t able to ground something and so we did something totally different. A performance. I mean, to some people it could be seen as insulting or offensive, but we also then come full circle with a conversation, which takes place after the tour, about it too. So in a certain way we are reinventing how we would normally approach a community project. I don’t know what the residency thinks of the project yet, we haven’t had a conversation, but I’m sure they were surprised by it.

KR: I can see how in some regard who invites you might lend a little bit of a flavor to how it feels to be here under those auspices of the invite. I’m curious where the invitations come from. Is it usually art museums or community centers or professors and what the range of those things are and if you’re seeking things outside of those institutional invites?

MP: We actually don’t seek out invitations because they usually come to us. In fact, we have too much to do, and I love it. What’s also important to understand is that institutions are not some abstract thing in the air – they are people. So when we are invited by an institution, it means we are being invited by a person in the institution who trusts our practice.

WS: People definitely do welcome us into the city and give us an initial perspective. On this trip for example, we’re 10 people with 20 eyes and 20 ears and 10 minds, and so we can grow and expand from that. I also feel that our experience has changed a lot from the first day we were here and we’ve matured a lot for only being here a month and a half. In Soweto it sounds like you were invited and you were brought to certain people in the beginning. So if you think about when you visit a city, the first thing you do is try to call up a friend who lives there or a friend of a friend or you want to be practical about how you use your time and get acquainted. So, it kind of starts like that and then we branch out.

KR: That’s always fun to visit a city and then report back to the friend about the things you found or ran into that they had no idea about.

KL: It’s kind of interesting when you guys disperse and are no longer in this class, you carry it with you and it ripples out into wherever you go next. And so I wonder about the future forms of this class as it changes. Do you see it continuing on in the same direction? I know you mentioned the university wanting you to have shorter residencies.

MP: I really believe in long-term residencies, and I will push for this. I think two and a half months is good. One and a half months, which is what we have here, is the minimum length of time.

FB: And about the future, in Hamburg there are a few people that have now graduated from the class and they still somewhat work together. One is planning on making a large maker’s space and there’s this idea that it could still be the same people that worked in this class and they could collaborate there. And there’s the project that I was doing with other classmates (Das Archipel).

MP: Residencies can take different formats. From here we go to Israel, where we have been invited by the Israeli Center for Digital Art for a workshop and a symposium (The Neighborhood as Global Arena, 2015). Traditionally, museums focus on the exhibition space, and now some art institutions, like the Center for Digital Art, are trying to think of their space not as an exhibition space but as a space for community projects. They want to push the boundaries of what an art institution is, and what art is. And the class is being invited there because of its own practice. That’s beautiful, I think.

KL: And in forming the curriculum I read that the class will decide on how a good chunk of it is formed. So, do the students also reach out and find these connections or are they always approaching you?

MP: We decide together. We meet every Wednesday and we discuss things together. Everyone has different interests and different ideas.

KR: So what does it look like for the people that can’t go on all the trips, how is it for them coming back in? Or what are they doing in the meantime while you folks are here, how does that play out over the whole trajectory of the course?

WS: You guys know. They work and they go to school and do normal things like we’re not doing right now. I think they’re probably enjoying being able to go to other classes, too.

KR: Do they bring other things that they’re working on to the class, does that conversation come back in on Wednesdays when you meet?

MP: Yeah, of course we try. We will need to talk and present. Every half a year we have a presentation and exhibition in the Department of Design, which is the department we belong to.

KL: I feel like there’s not that freedom to go out and explore and we’re not really given that time to do that and reflect on it, especially within a group. I feel like we’re very individualized. So I’m listening and I’m thinking about how to incorporate this into the classes that we end up teaching. How do you bring the outside world in and the inside world out in this construct that we’re given? I don’t know if you guys might have any ideas or suggestions on how to do that.

KR: Yeah I think my challenge with that is digital media because it often happens in these boxes and then how to form a community around still learning digital skills and then practical applications for bringing that into the community. You guys talking about this format and what you’re learning as far as negotiations and communications has got gears turning for me and figuring out methods for bringing that into a class.

FB: For me it’s really hard to give you advice, I don’t know either.

WS: It sounds like a challenge, but maybe changing your location and going against the normalities of school. And there are these kinds of contracts with the classroom that it is individual – you’re getting your grade and you’re doing your homework. Maybe if you take people outside of that comfort zone they identify more as a group.

KR: I’m teaching a foundations class so it is a little less of my own free form curriculum and so I’m supposed to teach them about sound and visuals and raster vector images and video editing.

MP: Sometimes it’s also super nice to have discussions outside and not in the classroom if you don’t need to. Just thinking back to some of our failures, I’m looking at Konouz, who was part of the Open Shelter project we recently did in Neuenkirchen, in rural Germany. That was a great example of a failure we admitted to halfway through the process. We were commissioned to construct a roof structure for schoolchildren who were caring for a school forest in a village, and while we were working with them we realized the roof wouldn’t work. So we dropped the roof and made the project into an open system that shows the transfer of energies in nature. The person who invited us was really an angel not to get upset. After half a year of working towards one concept, we said we won’t do this and we will do something different. So we admitted our failure and changed the project for the better. It was a lot of work.

BN: I don’t really know how the university works here, but do you have any way to get around giving grades? Is there anyway that you can somehow be a little more loose around that.

KR: I feel like I haven’t pushed that, it’s my first semester teaching anything so I kind of just jumped in and have been doing it how it’s always been done. Now I would love to have to not worry about that and not have my students worry about that.

KL: Something I think our class has noticed about your class is that you all are so focused and motivated. Students tend to be more motivated in our classes because they’re getting a grade and that’s their reason for wanting to do well. And they always want to know what they are being graded on and so something I really appreciate about the way this class is run is that you are motivated by your own interests and your own concerns when you come to a place.

KR: And how to create that environment in a classroom when they’re surrounded by the other classes and having to take the other classes where the culture in those classes is different, but similar to one another.

KL: And I think part of it is what you guys are doing is relevant to each of you. You’re driven by your individual interests. And I think maybe finding that relevance for students in some way for each of them, individually, could be key.

MP: Maybe at the end of the course, you do something outside. Going outside the classroom is important, I think. But first remember, you have to have your own practice to rely on and to challenge you.

WS: I was just thinking when I was this age [freshman] I did post secondary enrollment option where you can go to a community college instead of high school and this was when I was at my wits end with high school. I had like the typical anti-social thoughts going on like “Why am I here? Why am I in this stupid institution? What are they trying to teach me?” And I was ready to quit and then I ended up going to college instead and it was so refreshing to be treated like an adult, but then once you’re in college you realize you’re not totally being treated like an adult. Especially if you’re a freshman at a university getting the standardized education that you guys are kind of forced to fit into. Maybe you guys need to break rules too and kind of take risks. You don’t always have to follow rules. At the end of the day you’re not going to loose your job.

KR: And if you do that’s probably not a job you wanted anyway.