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Reimagining Higher Education Through Socially Engaged Art

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“Public School” with Paul Ramírez Jonas, Claire Bishop and the 2017 class at the Vietnam Memorial, Lower Manhattan, debriefing after their meeting with a NYCLU lawyer who explained their First Amendments rights as artists, and what they can (and can’t) do legally on the streets of New York. (Photo by Paul Ramírez Jonas)

How can higher education be reimagined in the aftermath of Covid-19? Can teachers, students, policy makers, and the public collectively envision a new concept of formalized learning that is even better than what existed before the pandemic and its ruinous economic state of emergency? Or will we henceforth be forced to Zoom our classes online as the already fragile infrastructure of higher education is sold off, brick by brick, for privatized, corporate profit? What will it take to repair the disastrous social disorder wrought by years and years of neoliberal, winner-takes-all policies that have suddenly become visible in all their grotesque opportunism?

As a City University of New York professor at Queens College, I and my colleagues have struggled since 2016 not only with worsening financial austerity, but with falling foreign enrollment as we scrambled to prevent currently enrolled students from Iran and other so-called Muslim countries from being deported. Now, with our ongoing crisis triple header of viral contagion, financial contraction, and top-down political subversion even thinking about a better educational future seems impossible. Still, as a character in John Mandel’s prophetic, post-plague-apocalypse novel Station Eleven insists, “survival is not enough.”

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Environmental artist Bethany Fancher demonstrates water absorption between loose and structured soil and taste tests organic and non-organic apples with participants at SPQ GreenLab, Governors Island, 2019 (photo courtesy SPQ).

Indeed, the answer to what happens next for CUNY is not going to be found in the transformation of higher education into an edu-factory turning out narrowly trained professional laborers for an unstable economic system demanding continuous re-education and offering precarious employment. Instead, this is the moment that we should reinforce and expand the CUNY ideals of low-cost, high-quality liberal studies in which culture, self-reflection, and interdisciplinary learning enrich democratic values within a framework of social justice.

Such an expansion won’t come easily and will require a retooling of leadership at every level of the CUNY institution. Even before the Covid-19 mass quarantine CUNY faculty and students felt rising pressure to sideline arts and humanities learning in favor of curricula focused on Science, Technology, Education and Math (STEM). While these are indeed important disciplines, it is too easy under current circumstances to imagine an overly narrow educational agenda taking on an even more preeminent stature as universities seek a return to the normality of pragmatism uber alles.

However, the system is not going to return to “normal,” and that may turn out to be the best news of all. Yes, certainly, CUNY and many other universities will no doubt initially operate as if a return to the floundering familiar formula is possible and preferred. The reality is that even if one-third of what is now being predicted turns out to be true, having to move classes online for the foreseeable future is the least of the challenges facing faculty and students. More to the point: The impact of the Covid-19 crisis on the poor, working class, and people of color is tearing away any pretense of social equality, including within the CUNY community. This consequence threatens the bold ideals upon which the university was founded. Re-energizing rather than further gutting CUNY’s egalitarian mission is essential now more than ever.

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Urban studies professor Rafael de Balanzo workshops theories of sustainability and resilience thinking design with participants at SPQ GreenLab, Governors Island, 2019. (photo courtesy SPQ)

One existing alternative pedagogical pathway towards realizing this objective has already been blazed by an informal and growing network of interdisciplinary arts and humanities instructors who use an approach typically identified as socially engaged art. This procedure consists of a set of theories and practices that borrow from a range of cultural forms — public art, performance, installation, eco-feminist, queer and disabled design and so forth — as vehicles for environmental recovery, critical urbanism, social justice and community resiliency. It’s also an approach to learning that is deftly paired with other fields: from urban studies to hard science.

Why art? Because artists are frequently compelled to manage economic precariousness using skills and strategies that  lead to imaginative life-preserving solutions which can ultimately play a central role in rebuilding the post-pandemic educational system.

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Nandini Bagchee. “Chino Garcia with The Carts Project / El Proyecto de Carritos” Loisaida Festival (2019) (image courtesy of the artist)

Take for example  the experimental spaces that CCNY Associate Professor of Architecture Nandini Bagchee describes as “counter-institutions”: artists and activists collaborated in establishing “insurgent, grassroots efforts that provided direct deliverables and generated alternative forums of empowerment to communities under pressure.” Bagchee’s research and teaching focus on such pre-neoliberal entities as ABC No Rio and CHARAS/El Bohio, both founded on the Lower East Side in response to New York’s staggering fiscal crisis of the 1970s. There is a great deal to glean from such interdisciplinary efforts, including how to approach resiliency by grafting concrete solutions onto an aesthetic of inspiration in order to repurpose urban spaces for local needs, as Bagchee’s research and teaching reveal.

Or consider the specifically sited social practice of Alicia Grullon, faculty at both Queens College and the School of Visual Arts. Her Bronx-oriented Percent For Green and Campaign Headquarters projects bring together printmaking, pedagogy, dialogue, and brainstorming in order to find “how arts and culture engage with ideas of balancing ecological, social and economic success.” Each element in this cultural research work amplifies the next, generating not so much a smoothly integrated unity, as a productive amalgam of partially overlapping ideas, materials, locations and methods of learning.

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Workers Art Coalition, “Muscle Memory”(2019), solar elements were later added with the aid of the IBEW
Local Union #3 pointing to the role of renewable energy in Labor’s Future. The piece is on
permanent display at the IBEW headquarters in Flushing New York (photo courtesy of Workers Art Coalition).

Likewise, SUNY’s Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies art faculty Barrie Cline has been involved in a multi-year engagement with artist collaborator Setare Arashloo and a group of electrical, wood, and sheet metal union workers including Jaime Lopez, Paul Vance, Stephanie Lawal, Bobby Andrew amongst others. Their collective, known as Workers Art Coalition (WAC), is a seriously sly spin on the Art Workers’ Coalition of the late 1960s, only this time involving actual workers who make art rather than artists seeking to be regarded as workers. WAC’s collectively produced projects combine oral histories, street pageants, sound collage, and elaborately fabricated sculptures of metal and light for the People’s Climate March that focus on such issues as the creation of quality green jobs and the Fight for 15 (as in dollars per  hour for a just minimum wage). Education for a post-Covid world will have to draw together ecological enlightenment and cultural research in a context of fair labor compensation, and WAC offers one model by which cooperative affiliation produces practical, artistic, and pedagogical effectiveness.

Forced to make do, to repurpose, recycle, to be activists and reinvent their tools, techniques, technologies and ideas, while simultaneously crossing disciplinary borders and upending known paradigms in the midst of crisis, socially engaged cultural practitioners and educators are among the best equipped instructors for preparing students to enter that unknown country lying right up ahead. Socially aware artists of color are especially attuned to this dual role of being marginalized while actively reinventing methods of personal and community survival and enhancement under precarious circumstances. When collaboratively linked with underfunded communities this learning model could also become a pedagogical wellspring for a new  generation of innovative leaders, not only within the fine arts, which is a field desperately in need of diversification, but also beyond, as we face the practical challenges of reimagining life in post-Covid societies.

Such interventionist interdisciplinarity is certainly perceptible in Shani Peters’ “The People’s Laundromat Theater,” (2013) a work commissioned by the Laundromat Project, which is itself an example of how innovative culture can transform every-day urban spaces into community assets. Peters, who teaches at City College, set her theater project inside a laundromat where Harlemites were invited to interact with an independent-media screening program as they went about washing and folding their clothes. The culminating moment came when Peters requested that locals take part in a ritzy red carpet finale, an event where everyone present was treated as a VIP celebrity.

Similarly, multi-talented CUNY Medgar Evers College Assistant Professor Darrel Holnes not only teaches, he also  takes part in criminal reentry programs, and has founded The Greater Good Commission supporting Black and Afro-Latinx theater writers (and he plays sax). Above all else, Holnes is an eminent Panamanian-American poet and playwright who speaks of his pedagogically oriented theater as an act of “compassion; everyone wants to be heard, everyone wants to have their say.”

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“Public School” with Paul Ramírez Jonas, Claire Bishop and the 2019 class in the park near Stuy Cove, during a “Parcon Resilience” workshop with Andrew Suseno (photo by Public School)

Currently dozens of courses already exist across CUNY (as well as other New York regional colleges and universities) that actively explore art and social justice education. John Krinsky and Hillary Caldwell’s Minor in Community Change Studies at City College of New York introduces students to methods of organizing, research, and modeling community alternatives using tools for social change, and Public School is a hybrid studio and seminar class co-formulated by artist Paul Ramírez Jonas of Hunter College and Art Historian Claire Bishop from the CUNY Graduate Center. Prior to the pandemic Ramírez Jonas, Bishop and students never met in a classroom, instead using the city’s five boroughs as a campus in order to explore both public and civic spaces including cemeteries, ferries, courtrooms, polluted waterways and monuments. At one point the class took to crawling over park furniture in order to test their own comfort levels regarding touching one another’s bodies. Can we imagine a better way to test urban design while simultaneously rethinking and catalyzing our very notion of the public sphere? (Though obviously this is an assignment in need of rethinking going forwards pandemically speaking.) Currently, Bishop and Ramírez Jonas are retooling Public School to accommodate appropriate social distancing with a roster of post-Covid endurance projects. And there is also the now decade-old initiative Social Practice Queens (SPQ), which partners Queens College students with the Queens Museum to support initiatives combining art linked to  environmentalism, community histories, urban studies and urban design, and even hematology.

In addition, dozens of interdisciplinary art and social justice courses are taught regionally by professors such as Dipti Desai, Avram Finkelstein, Ami Husain at NYU; Todd Ayoung, Aliza Shvarts, Caitlin Cahill and Ann Holder at Pratt Institute; Lydia Matthews at the New School; Caroline Woolard at The Cooper Union; Declan Van Welie at SVA; Daniel Tucker at Moore College; and I could also invoke similar courses and programs in Portland, Tacoma, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Chicago, Baltimore, Boston, Maine, as well as Canada, Ireland, and the UK. There is a wide-range of faculty who teach discipline-crossing, community-focused education via fields such as new media, legal studies, performance, information technology, ecological urbanism, agriculture as well as the hard sciences generating a potentially rich matrix for reimagining education after Covid.

This is the moment to put new resources behind such imaginative, interdisciplinary arts, and humanities education in order to reinvent and re-envision real world fixes for a society suddenly confronting decades of faltering educational, cultural, economic, and political policies. Survival alone will never be enough.


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