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Reluctant bin chickens of neoliberalised education


Keg de Souza, 'Redfern School of Displacement' (2016), performance, tents, tarps, hessian sacks, piping, plaid laundry bags, found and recycled materials. Image courtesy of the artist. Photo credit: Document Photography.

Australian White Ibises are better known as bin chickens to most Sydney-siders. The nickname derives from the species reliance on rubbish and public bins to sustain themselves. Ibises are naturally inclined towards a diet of insects and molluscs, but with the loss of their wetland habitats to climate change and land redevelopments, they have been forced to migrate into cities and scrounge for whatever food they can find in whichever awful place it turns up.1

Speaking of scrounging in undesirable places, Slavoj Žižek made use of a large dumpster for the opening sequence of The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2012).2 Spitting and gesticulating, Žižek tells the viewer that a dominant ideology is like a trashcan that we do not realise we are eating from. He argues that the material force of that ideology—the tangible benefits of going with the dominant flow—make it impossible to see the crap that we are consuming. A trashcan is where we discard what we cannot recycle, compost or renew. It’s where we find the kinds of plastics and pollutants that we do not want to eat. I take issue with most of Žižek’s recent thinking on identity politics, but his dumpster diving take on ideology is useful for understanding neoliberalism’s nutritional deficiencies, especially for those of us working or studying in the current Australian tertiary education system.

Educators and students have something in common with ibises: we are in a situation where it is becoming difficult to avoid swallowing things that we didn’t want to digest in the first place. It is difficult to immediately describe the fetid contents of what we’re consuming. It’s not until the neoliberal grime has accumulated that we begin to see the issues created by an education system set up to drive profits first and knowledge second.

After forty or so years of neoliberalism, a few phrases have emerged to describe the particular trashcan that students, teachers, and administrators are dealing with: ‘academic capitalism,’ ‘collegiate capitalism’ and ‘the neoliberalisation of education.’3 Neoliberalised education has resulted in the attuning of institutions to values that mirror those of neoliberal capitalism:

market deregulation, strengthened private property rights, free trade, individualism and competitiveness.4

While the term neoliberalism itself may not be used in syllabi, curricula, vision statements or strategic plans, the ideological pressures and rhetoric of neoliberalism have been filtered into the practices and policies of many Australian Universities.5

The consequences of a neoliberalised education system are multiple. In Australia, we are seeing the treatment of educational facilities as businesses; the treatment of students as consumers; the growth of management strategies and administrative bodies within Universities; and the normalisation of anxiety in educational spaces. Together, these symptoms mark a turn by Universities towards prioritising measurability, usefulness and profitability. The neoliberalised education garbage heap contains many things that are particularly threatening for those of us working or studying in art schools, especially tertiary level visual arts education institutions attached to much larger Universities. These include—but are not limited to—over-management, increased reliance on precarious labour and frequent periods of crunch.

Over-management has partially derived from increases in administrative bodies that fastidiously measure and manage resources used in educational spaces. Australian University non-academic employees—who make up administrative bodies among other professional staff—have steadily outnumbered full- time academic staff since the 1980s.6 In 2018, there were 67,400 permanent general staff working in Universities alongside 55,600 full-time academics.7 Over-management greases the wheels of amalgamating (or dismantling) art schools into other institutions and departments. In 2008, the University of Western Sydney’s art school was closed permanently. For a few months in 2016, Sydney College of the Arts, the National School of Art and the University of New South Wales: Art & Design (formerly COFA) all appeared to be at risk of merging.8

There is a tendency in discussions of neoliberalisation to pit administrators against academics—administrators positioned as the minions of neoliberalism, academics as the troublesome elitists, both creating problems for the other. But this relationship is much more complex, with neither ever entirely in control of the goings-on of the University. An additional complication is that many academics also work as administrators on a casual or part-time basis. Raewyn Connell observes that ‘a great deal of teaching is collective labour’ requiring a range of workers—she names technicians, administrators, tutors and lecturers in particular—‘moving in a ballet’ of sustained coordination.9

This ballet, however, also heavily relies on the labour of another body of workers: the casual academics—94,500 of them to be exact—who perform teaching roles.10 This is a growing body of workers: casual academic employment rose by almost eleven per cent between 1990 and 2011.11 In 2008, between forty and fifty per cent of University teaching staff were casuals.12 By 2009, up to eighty per cent of undergraduate courses at some institutions were being taught by sessional staff.13 The most casualised disciplines in Australian Universities in 2013 were the creative arts, education and architecture.14

Casual academics are symptomatic of and victimised by the neoliberalisation of education. In art schools, the rise in precarious labour has meant an increase in stressed out creative workers with less time to maintain a creative practice, burdened by unpredictable working schedules, inconsistent income and little leverage within their workplace to advocate for better labour conditions. Casuals belong to a class of workers referred to by Guy Standing as ‘the precariat,’ a group distinguished by: flexible intermittent employment; lack of fixed occupational identity; the expectation of unpaid preparation; the expectation of educational accreditations that exceed the scope of their labour; reliance on networks; lack of non-waged benefits; and ‘chronic economic uncertainty.’15 Casuals working for art schools are often carrying the weight of convening, planning, writing, teaching and marking multiple course loads while also trying to sustain a creative practice and perform a range of affective labours that help maintain networks for finding art-specific sessional work, such as unpaid ‘opportunities,’ event attendance, favours and emails. These responsibilities exist in addition to regular academic pressure to ‘publish or perish’ and unavoidable emotional and physiological needs.16 The precariat has few means to resist the neoliberal pressures that come with casual work when it is offered.

One such pressure is the neoliberalised University’s push for efficiency, the prioritisation of speed and productivity over slowness and fulfillment. The speed of neoliberalised education creates an environment where students and teachers are in a constant state of crunch, pressurised labour defined by increased workloads and prolonged periods of concentration. The misery of the current situation is reflected in the titles of texts I was reading as I was writing this essay: Staying Alive: A Survival Manual for the Liberal Arts (2013); Undoing the Demos (2015); ‘Casual academia: Flexibility, agility and despair’ (2017).17

An interesting creative response to neoliberalisation has been the renewal of artists practicing transpedagogy, or transdisciplinary pedagogy. In previous decades, transpedagogues practiced as radical pedagogues, activist artists, conceptualists or social practitioners interested in challenging modernist transmission-style education. Contemporary transpedagogues turn their attention to critiquing neoliberalised education. Yet, these projects should not be understood as the antidote to ideological garbage but, rather, as a sign of a growing desire to scrounge elsewhere for educational experiences. Keg de Souza’s art practice is a compelling case study in recent transpedagogical work in Australia. I turn to de Souza’s work here not as a direct reply to the elements of neoliberalised education outlined above, but rather as an example of an alternative educating practice.

Keg de Souza, 'We Built This City' (2016), tents, tarps, hessian sacks, piping, plaid laundry bags, found and recycled materials, 16 Vine St, Redfern. Image courtesy of the artist. Photo credit: Ben Symons.

The Redfern School of Displacement (RSD) was a transpedagogical project developed by de Souza in 2016. The school was predicated on the importance of listeners with degrees of social and economic privilege sharing an hour with speakers who possess lived experience of dispossession and displacement. The RSD aimed to bring advocacy and overlooked histories to the fore of its lessons, creating space for people to speak and be heard, especially people involved in ongoing efforts to acknowledge and rectify Australia’s strained race relations and coloniality.

In a flyer distributed among attendees of the RSD, the pedagogical practices of the temporary school were outlined as follows:

Redfern School of Displacement aims to cultivate local knowledge about globally relevant issues of displacement through a series of discussions and tours. (...) The School focuses on collective learning and knowledge production. RSD emphasises that learning should not be confined to institutions and instead become more inclusive, accessible and connected to community. (...) Marginalised voices that are often displaced from mainstream dialogue are at the centre of the RSD. Participants attending the school are requested to acknowledge their personal privileges and actively make space for ‘other’ voices. (...) It is more meaningful to learn about a place, whilst in the place. Redfern School of Displacement extends the idea that situated learning occurs through actively lived experience.18

The RSD intended to create and share knowledge that operates outside the neoliberal limitations placed on, and reproduced by, traditional educational institutions. The project explored displacement through dialogue that validated the experiences and knowledge of marginalised groups of people and, in doing so, practised learning about a place in situ. I will briefly explore each of these pedagogical choices.

In preparation for the RSD, de Souza built a structure called We Built This City (2016), a colourful ‘supertent’ installed inside a warehouse space in Redfern. The supertent was constructed using pieces of deconstructed tents that had been sewn or taped together, ranging from fluorescent pinks to camouflage greens, with various styles of windows, pockets and zippers. The result was a rainbow geodesic dome of camping gear. Inside, tartan storage bags filled with hessian blankets were scattered to act as seats for participants. The supertent brings to mind a group of referents: hastily built refugee camps, tent cities inhabited by people left homeless and activist tent embassies.

De Souza has an ongoing interest in creating novel architectural spaces within preexisting structures. On this element of her practice, she argues that her ‘temporary architectures [are intended] to create platforms for questioning structures both societal and built.’19 The RSD could be read as not only a physical space within another structure — a tent inside a warehouse—but also as a radical pedagogical experiment within a neoliberal settler colonial state.

De Souza also comments that her spaces are built with ‘the intention that they facilitate dialogue and interactions about certain subjects.’20 During the tenure of the RSD, de Souza invited speakers (or ‘co-ranters’ as de Souza described them) to talk from lived experience with a group of volunteer participants on a series of chosen themes.21 For example, at the final class of the RSD, de Souza engaged in a conversation with Quandamooka woman and artist, Megan Cope, and Scottish Gaelic academic from the Isle of Skye, James Oliver, to explore how language can be used to colonise, exclude and eradicate Indigenous peoples. During each talk, de Souza, the co-ranters and the attendees would sit together in a circle on the blanket- stuffed tartan bags. After introducing herself and the invited co- ranters to the attendees, de Souza would hand the conversation to the co-ranters, allowing voices with lived experience of dispossession to guide the dialogue.

These choices were framed by an in situ methodology that positioned the RSD as an experiment in transpedagogical fieldwork. Redfern is a place that has witnessed the ways in which racism explodes or slowly leaks into society, from violent outbreaks to more insidious changes managed through gentrification, as well as struggles for recognition and reconciliation. As a result of structural racism, classism and ongoing settler colonialism, Redfern has been repeatedly represented as a site of what Kay Anderson calls ‘racialised poverty.’22 For instance, in a photographic essay published by Vice in 2013 titled ‘Photos of the Bad Part of Town,’ Redfern was the only Australian place included.23

Often missing from scare-mongering narratives about Redfern is any recognition of the histories, institutional bodies and attitudes that maintain many of the problems afflicted upon First Nations peoples both in Redfern and around Australia. What is perhaps even less often discussed about Redfern is its rich history of anti-racist activism. It is this narrative that the RSD references with its tent-like structure, and continues through its conversations.

In 1937 one of the first sites of organised Aboriginal resistance, the Aboriginal Progressive Association (APA), was set up in Redfern. By the 1940s, anti-racist demonstrations and rallies were common at Redfern Town Hall.24 During this period, Redfern’s football club also founded its first First Nations’ rugby team (the ‘All Blacks’). After the Freedom Rides in 1965—headed by then- Redfern residents Charles Perkins and Ted Noffs —a coalition of activists from Redfern (New South Wales), Fitzroy (Victoria) and South Brisbane (Queensland) began to develop. Gary Foley observes that these activists energised the development of the Black Caucus group and Australia Black Power Movement.25 Foley also recalls that African American troops on ‘rest and recuperation’ leave during the late 1960s viewed Redfern as a safe congregating space.26 By the early 1970s, Redfern had become home to a number of significant Aboriginal figures, including activists Billy Craigie, Tony Coorie, Michael Anderson and Bertie Williams, who were dispatched in 1972 to set up the first Aboriginal Embassy in Canberra. Foley credits activists based in Redfern with creating a network of anti-racist activists along the eastern coast of Australia during the early 1970s.27 Also during this period, a number of initiatives were set up in Redfern that attended to various forms of community care, including the Redfern Aboriginal Legal Service, National Black Theatre Company and the Aboriginal Housing Company (AHC).

The AHC is perhaps best known for its connection to an ongoing chapter of Redfern history: the fights to preserve the residential area of Redfern known as ‘The Block.’ The AHC purchased The Block to create affordable housing for First Nations peoples between 1971-1973. In the decades since, relations between First Nations Redfern residents and the AHC have become strained; the area has seen clashes between residents and councils, waves of gentrification and multiple acrimonious encounters with the police, including the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of Thomas ‘TJ’ Hickey in 2004. In 2014, the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy was launched by Aunty Jenny Munro on the site of The Block to advocate for affordable housing and the maintenance of a strong First Nations presence in Redfern. In March of this year, The Block was approved for redevelopment by the AHC into apartments and student accommodation, while the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy was slated for eviction. This plan has been derided by Munro as unlikely to benefit First Nations residents.28 Indeed, it is much more likely to provide the nearby Universities with a batch of student-consumers and casual workers, most of who will not have First Nations background.29

Set among these narratives and ongoing struggles, the RSD operated in solidarity with its referenced tent embassies, calling attention to the lives and histories that education can participate in supporting. However, projects like de Souza’s RSD — where knowledge is shared and produced to support communities, not profiteer from them—cremain exceptions to the general neoliberalised norm. For now, we remain the kin of the ibis, forced into a state of rubbish eating resilience, searching for alternative places to graze.

Melinda Reid is an art theory writer and educator who currently teaches at UNSW: Art & Design and UTS. Melinda’s essays and exhibition texts have appeared in Australia and overseas, in Framework, Mülk and Parallel, among others.

1. I thank my friend Aneshka Mora for her intel on the history of these birds. She acquired this body of knowledge serendipitously through a bird enthusiast she met at a Halloween party. We have since cross-checked our ibis trivia with George Adams’ The Complete Guide to Australian Birds, Penguin, 2018.
2. The shot was green-screened from John Carpenter’s 1988 flick They Live. Sophie Fiennes (dir.), The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Zeitgeist Films, USA, 2012, [film].
3. These terms can be found in many recent texts on art, education, and politics, including Claire Bishop’s Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, 2012; Thomas Frank’s ‘Academy Fight Song,’ 2013; and Pascal Gielen and Paul De Bruyne’s Teaching Art in the Neoliberal Realm: Realism versus Cynicism, 2013.
4. David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2005, p. 2.
5. The same can be said of many Universities across the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and the Euro zone.
6. Andrew Norton and Ittima Cherastidtham, Grattan Institute Report No. 2018-11, September 2018, Mapping Australian higher education 2018, September 2018, p. 35.
7. Ibid, pp. 35-36.
8. Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, ‘Trouble at Sydney’s art schools,’ Apollo, 2 September 2016, n.p.
9. Raewyn Connell, The Good University: What universities actually do and why it’s time for radical change, Zed Books, London, 2019, pp. 48-49.
10. This number comes from the most recent (2018) Grattan Institute Report on Australian higher education, Norton and Cherastidtham, op. cit.
11. Unicasual.org and National Tertiary Education Union, ‘The Precarious State of Academic Employment,’ Connect, vol. 6, no. 2, June 2013, n.p.
12. Alisa Percy et al. The RED Report, Recognition- Enhancement – Development: The contribution of sessional teachers to higher education, 2008, n.p.
13. Christopher J Klopper and Bianca M Power, ‘The Casual Approach to Teacher Education: What Effect Does Casualisation Have for Australian University Teaching?’ Australian Journal of Teacher Education, vol. 39, no. 4, 2014, p. 102.
14. Unicasual.org and National Tertiary Education Union, op. cit.
15. Guy Standing, ‘The Precariat,’ Contexts, vol. 13, no. 4, 2014, pp. 10-11.
16. The phrase ‘publish or perish’ may be at least seventy-seven years old. Eugene Garfield traced the phrase’s lineage to Logan Wilson’s The Academic Man (1942) but was unable to verify if this was the original source of the now ubiquitous turn of phrase. (Eugene Garfield, ‘What Is The Primordial Reference For The Phrase ‘Publish Or Perish’?’ The Scientist, vol. 10, no. 12, June 1996, p. 11.)
17. L O Aranye Fradenburg (ed), Staying Alive: A Survival Manual for the Liberal Arts, Punctum Books, Brooklyn, 2013; Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, Zone Books, Brooklyn, 2015; Samuel Douglas, ‘Casual academia: Flexibility, agility and despair,’ Independent Australia, vol. 12.
19. Keg de Souza, Redfern School of Displacement, All Thumbs Press, Redfern, 2016, n.p.
20. Keg de Souza and Remy Low, ‘A conversation between Keg de Souza and Remy Low,’ Common Knowledge and Learning Curves, Griffith University Art Museum, South Brisbane, 2019, p. 6.
21. De Souza and Low, op. cit.
22. De Souza, op. cit.
23. Kay Anderson, ‘Sites of Difference: Beyond a Cultural Politics of Race Polarity’ in Ruth Fincher and Jane M Jacobs (eds.), Cities of Difference, The Guildford Press, 1998, New York, p. 211.
24. Glen Coco, ‘Photos of the Bad Part of Town,’ Vice, vol. 14 September 2013, n.p. 2019).
25. Notable protests include a demonstration over the chaining of Aboriginal workers to an Oodnadatta station and Bill Ferguson’s rally for endorsement of the Aboriginal Welfare Board.
26. Gary Foley, ‘Black Power in Redfern, 1968-1972’ in Zanny Begg and Keg de Souza (eds.), There Goes the Neighbourhood: Redfern and the Politics of Urban Space,* Breakout Design Web Print, Sydney, 2009, p. 11.
27. Ibid, p. 15.
28. Ibid, p. 17.
29. Carrie Fellner, ‘“None of
this is right”: Development plans spark fury at The Block,’ The Sydney Morning Herald, vol. 14 November 2018, n.p.

Filed under Article Melinda Reid