Amongst other initiatives arising in the -current community-obsessed zeitgeist is the commencement of Melbourne’s own FreeSchool. This alternative form of pedagogy has distinct legacies and structures in different countries, springing from education movements that defied state (or church in the case of countries such as Spain at the turn of the twentieth century) institutionalised education systems. The conventional form of the free school today, particularly in America, generally comprises ongoing programs of cost-free events (with teaching ranging from basic trade skills to arts and hobbies and well-being) run independently, usually by and for a local community. School values range between self-help and empowerment, with politics from the anti--hierarchical and non-discriminatory to anarchic, and ubiquitously emphasise the collective and non-monetary (all services are voluntary). Neo-liberal forces quickly recognised the opportunities within free schooling, so that versions of free schools (offering alternative subjects to the compulsory curriculum) are now situated within the formal education systems of Britain, the United States and other countries.
Independent curator Liv Barrett, artist Nick Mangan and Jarrod Rawlins, Director of Uplands Gallery, instigated a free school of their own in 2010, holding the first of twelve ‘classes’ in March. Jarrod and I spoke in -August about the philosophy and development of the school:
Zara Stanhope: Have you attended any other free schools? Had Liv or Nick seen one in action? How did the three of you originate this free school?
I hadn’t, I was only aware of the idea. Nick and Liv had visited The Mountain School of Arts in Los Angeles. Once we discovered we were all fond of the concept of informal learning around art, The Mountain School was really the impetus for us. In the great Australian tradition of admiring things from afar, the three of us had been sitting around saying how great it would be if we could go there for a semester. After six or twelve months of those conversations we decided to start a school instead of complaining that we couldn’t attend one somewhere else.
Was The Mountain School a model then?
It was a sort of rough model although we didn't know all the details about how it operated. It was a model in a sense that it is free, and offered a program to do with learning, if that's the definition of a model. The Mountain School has a permanent location in The Mountain bar in Los Angeles, whereas our concept was to avoid a fixed location. The Mountain School also has a rigid semester structure but we had to be more organic, as we were making it up as we went. There are differences and similarities.
There are no rules at FreeSchool…
That was the major attraction, having no rules and no precedents.
Why do many of us have this shared desire to keep learning? Is it because we lack the time to read or that we can’t access the people or information?
I think we have the time but we lack the energy. Last night I was watching The X-Factor on TV and I asked myself ‘Why am I doing this? I know I should be doing something more serious but I’m not going to force myself.’ I think the idea of making a commitment to something, even if it’s at no cost and the outcome is not as tangible as in the normal edu-cation process, is attractive to a lot of people.
However, we could do short-term study at somewhere like CAE, or take a university subject, couldn't we?
You could, but they offer limited choices, and the fees are not cheap. Plus, the outcomes are known, there is not a lot of anticipation involved. Whereas it's a mystery as to what will happen over the twelve weeks of the FreeSchool. As it’s new and without a curriculum outline, there is a level of interest and excitement about what to expect.
So anticipation is a factor, for everyone including you! Do the participants have any say in the topics or instructors?
No, or I should say it’s not that they don't have a voice but we didn't get around to incorporating other people’s ideas in the first semester. Some participants made suggestions that we attempted to put in place but we had previously developed a general plan for the content. However, although the idea was to have the semester organised in advance, it didn't quite go to plan and there were a few weeks when we had to make arrangements week by week.
What types of skills or experience did you desire in the presenters, or hosts, as some are called?
We wanted a complete variety. It went from well-known expatriate academic Michael Taussig to a dance class to finish. There wasn't any pattern but we looked for people who were interesting to us and who were comfortable taking a class. Choices were made according to the individual, not their profession.
Did the three of you bring something different to that selection?
Certainly. Nick, Liv and I have completely different perspectives generally as well as in this creative community structure. Each of us made separate wish lists of presenters, and occasionally our nominations would overlap, for example in the case of Justin Clemens. Other invitees were personal connections or people we didn’t know personally but wanted to approach. Having the three independent contributions to the development made it a broad curriculum.
And presumably you made the most of inviting suitable speakers from elsewhere who serendipitously happened to be coming to town?
Yes, for instance I had invited Michael Taussig to participate after reading that he was to lecture at Monash. Liv, Nick and I saw it as important that we approach the range of talented people who come to Melbourne yet few get to see. We don't want to sabotage or exploit these other enabling events, and I don't believe we are if we expose visitors to school classes of twenty-five people. So part of the work is keeping abreast of potential visiting presenters.
How did you recruit the members of the School, the ‘students’?
From this point onward there will be an email application process that comprises addressing a set of criteria. At the beginning we decided participation should be by invitation, as we had nothing with which to attract interest. A lot of work went into planning who to invite.
Invitations went to people who presumably would respond to what you were doing?
Yes and who would be flexible during an inaugural semester when things could go wrong. It was also necessary for participants to be contributors. We wanted the sort of interactive atmosphere you find in a reading group.
Was the selection a way to ensure people came week after week? I imagine free schools risk a high drop-out rate.
That was a risk we took but we attempted to vet people in the selection process. If you agreed to take a place then you understood there was a compulsion to attend.
As I understand it, your curriculum was to a large degree unknown in advance and much broader and less pastoral than other free schools, and your selection process controlled rather than open or limited to first come first served. Your FreeSchool also doesn’t subscribe to the more radical pedagogic discourses developed by people like Ivan Illich in the 1970s that argued for replacing curricula with self-selected tutors in an individual’s vocational area of interest. Is ‘FreeSchool’ the right name for evoking what you are trying to do?
We discussed names at length until we ended up with our first suggestion, which was ‘FreeSchool’. Naming is awkward. I am not sure if ‘FreeSchool’ describes what we are doing or even if it's a school but it's a pragmatic title. It certainly is free, and maybe it will develop into a school of thought. FreeSchool also gives the endeavour a level of seriousness that signals to participants the need to make a commitment. We are asking presenters to do this for free and wanted to be able to guarantee a level of significance.
It does convey a sensibility of respect, and consciousness-raising. What have you learnt from FreeSchool?
Heaps! I have learnt more than in the ten years since I left university! Including that it’s difficult to maintain something when there is no money involved; people are very wary of the legitimacy of non-monetary based activities or perhaps don't always see the value in them.
I learnt a lot of details about intellectual property in the class we had from copyright lawyers Paul Noonan and James Kondaris. Also the fragility and politics of the international legal realm from Kevnin Heller, and the ethics of defending the guilty in the case of Radovan Karadži. It was also helpful to have Kant’s dense philosophy interpreted so eloquently by Justin Clemens.
ZS: What about in terms of running the School?
We were working by the seat-of-our-pants for the first semester so we certainly want to plan further ahead in future. Otherwise things ran well. We obtained some feedback and some students wanted to return in future semesters but we don't want that to occur for a while. In addition, it was wonderful how amazingly generous people were in contributing their time and expertise in running classes, and also offering venues.
Will this be a long-term project?
We will run the School for a few years, as long as the energy is there. A lot of the personal impetus for the FreeSchool comes from my critique of the institutionalisation of artist run initiatives (ARIs) in Melbourne, and the fact that many never seem to close these days. The ARI scene seems devoid of energy at present and ARIs don't seem very different from Uplands. Maybe they need to turn over as a means of refreshing. Once we stop the School perhaps someone else will do another, without the idea becoming institutionalised.
On one hand, the arts-related public lectures and forums in Melbourne are often not well attended but on the other, there is still the desire for increased forums in which to hear relevant speakers and discuss or debate new ideas. Which does suggest there is room for one or more free schools…
Absolutely. Part of the design of FreeSchool’s structure for Semester II is the inclusion of some previous students as tutors, that is if any are interested to formulate a class. We hope there will be opportunities for the development of ideas over time.
Zara Stanhope is a curator, PhD candidate at Australian National University and Chair of un Projects.