Open Enrollment

The Radical Workshop: For Students, By Students

by Lily Rossebo and Carrie McGath

Lily and Carrie add their two cents about the significance of radical workshops in art school programs.

Winold Reiss’s drawing classes at 4 Christopher Street, NYC, c. 1920

Lily Rossebo: Without student protests, what would art school be like today? Would we still be drawing from casts or maybe, with some luck, from a live model? A number of student uprisings and independent schools have helped to dismantle old methods of teaching and reshape art education in the twenty-first century. Present-day programs continue to refer to the Bauhaus (1919-1933) or Black Mountain College (1933-1957) as models for effective and innovative learning. But since the conception of these two prototypical schools, has there been any progress? Are art school programs in touch with contemporary social issues and innovative pedagogical practices?

In recent years, as the DIY spirit has spread across disciplines and subcultures, the current generation of students may be more accustomed to the idea of self-organization. Outside of traditional, degree-granting programs, many art collectives such as Just Seeds and the Radical Art Caucus, offer a wide range of alternative opportunities for artists, emphasizing activism and social change.

In the essay, “There Is No Alternative: The Future Is Self-Organized,” writers Stephan Dillemuth, Anthony Davies, and Jakob Jakobsen propose that artists must take more control and not rely on pre-existing institutional structures. “In our view, self-organization is a by-word for the productive energy of those who have nothing left to lose. It offers up a space for a radical re-politicization of social relations — the first tentative steps towards realizable freedoms … Self-organization is: something, which predates representational institutions. To be more precise: institutions are built on (and often paralyze) the predicates and social forms generated by self-organization” (excerpt from Art and Social Change, 2005).

Interflügs (Interflight)

A few weeks ago, I attended a five-day workshop at Interflügs, an autonomous student-run project at the University of the Arts Berlin (Universität der Künste Berlin, UdK). I applied to the workshop unaware of Interflügs’s amazing history and ongoing mission.

The Interflügs (a German word meaning Interflight) project was founded in 1989/90 in an atmosphere of political change and student protest. Students, unhappy with the hierarchical and ineffective structure of their school, decided to take matters into their own hands. Various groups began to form, crossing traditional department lines to create an independent study alternative to the regular course listings. The initiative proved to be both popular and effective, and it began receiving university funding. Twenty years later, Interflügs is a multi-operational project, offering an extensive and changing list of workshops and lectures. These range from the practical (photo and video editing) to the exploratory, such as creating discussions around current issues and topics.

The particular workshop I attended was called, “Mass – Public Space – Response.” Its aim was to explore the movement of people in public places in order to gain a better understanding of how these areas can be changed, modified, frequented, or avoided. The workshop involved collaborating with participants in groups of four or five; fieldwork in designated public places; a final presentation using photography, video, or projection; and a publication including text and images from each group. Students of all disciplines were invited to attend, including architects, urban planners, artists, and designers.

While my exposure to Interflügs was short-lived, its idealistic mission continues to resurface in my mind. As a student, it is easy to complain and I often fall prey to the whining graduate student stereotype. I wonder, “Why do I need a program? Am I actually learning anything that I wouldn’t discover on my own?” The model of Interflügs suggests that student bodies don’t have to be molded by an institution, but the institution can at its best provide the means for students to mold themselves.

So, to all of the frustrated, critical and cynical students out there: drop the course book, stop your whining, and take some initiative! You have the means to teach yourself and your peers collectively.

Bauhaus metal workshop artists: Marianne Brandt, Christian Dell, László Moholy-Nagy, Hans Przyrembel, Wilhelm Wagenfeld, and others.

Carrie McGath: I do not have any personal experience with Interflügs as Lily does, but I have lots of workshop experience as a poet, and now as a journalist in a program with workshop-like classroom settings. With my past and present experiences in student-run, faculty, and university-mediated settings, I can confidently say that the workshop model offers an enriching experience in education and beyond.

I am attending art school in Chicago, where the DIY spirit in the city is still strong. Much of this began with the Chicago School, which created the multi-use skyscrapers that give Chicago a status at once metropolitan and utilitarian. This also gave rise to the Prairie School of architecture, with notable members such as Frank Lloyd Wright, who applied notions from craft movements like the Bauhaus to American design. The focus of the Bauhaus was to facilitate artists in discovering their own innate abilities — a universal and radical notion then and now. Artist and educator László Moholy-Nagy brought the Bauhaus to Chicago (renaming it the “New Bauhaus”) in the late 1930s, founding the Institute of Design; today it is housed within the Illinois Institute of Technology.

As Frank Whitford writes in his book, Bauhaus (London: Thames and Hudson, 1984), “Most of the [Bauhaus] reformers agreed that an essential part of the syllabus would be a general preliminary course, during which the innate artistic talent of the student would be brought out” (p. 27). Another essential aspect of the movement was its preference of workshops over studios. In these workshop environments, students would be assisted and have ongoing dialogue with the “masters” of a form, but they would also work with fine artists cooperatively, doing away with a solitary education in order to allow creativity and ideas to flow through an open space.

For me, these are the roots of any radical workshop. Cooperative education is still a radical notion in many schools, yet creating one’s art is still a predominantly solitary process. But radical workshops like the Bauhaus then, and workshops like Interflügs now, add a priceless texture to the experience of a vast array of artists.

In my journalism classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), there are the beginnings of little upheavals regarding our pricey graduate experience and how it will benefit us in the professional realm of arts journalism and criticism; something lovely is bubbling below the surface. So now as students, we stand here in art school teetering in bad economies, in our ears being whispered both reassurances and warnings about our (un)certain post-grad futures.

Of course, the benefit of a proper and enriching graduate art school experience is a radicalism, a flux of change where the students are the ones controlling the proverbial puppet strings. Since our President at SAIC stepped down last Monday, I feel I am now in the middle of a radical workshop of sorts; the increasingly fluid dialogue between the students and the faculty is now more open and more radical than it has been since I started school last September. We all feel a part of something — both the inner workings of the school and our own educational destinies.

The ideas behind Interflügs entices me profoundly and, as Lily attests, it is replacing the oft-heard musings of graduate students in the arts. To reiterate Lily’s questions so that I may add my two cents: “Why do I need a program? Am I actually learning anything that I wouldn’t discover on my own?” For me, and I believe for Lily, radical workshops like Interflügs are one way to immediately taper such neurotic concerns.

Art school is, at its very essence, a privilege for all of us and one I do not take lightly even when I, too, fall prey to these neuroses. Art school gives us the priceless — however pricey — opportunity to spend two or three years among peers and faculty in a shared experience, operating with the commonality of passion within our individual pursuits.

The community of art school should not be staid, but pulsing, and the best way for this is radical dialogue and exchange of all of our exultations and tribulations. A workshop setting like Interflügs is one; conferences are another, as are school-funded shows and student-penned publications, to name some more traditional examples (but no less radical if they are executed well). But as the story behind Interflügs teaches us, the best way to get radical is by urging upheaval and expressions for change and, as a result, exchange. And eventually, of course, radical change.

Carrie McGath holds an MFA in Poetry from Western Michigan University. Carrie’s first collection of poems, Small Murders, was released in 2006. She self-published two chapbooks of poems in 2007-8. Carrie attends The School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s New Arts Journalism Masters program. She is a contributor to Chicago Art Magazine and SAIC’s F News Magazine.


Lily Rossebo is a visual artist and art researcher. She holds a B.F.A. in Printmaking from the Rhode Island School of Design. After graduating, she worked on public art projects in New York and Mexico City. She is now a postgraduate student in the Art, Space + Nature course at the Edinburgh College of Art in Scotland.

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