I had originally hoped to do this blog with my friend, mentor, and sometime collaborator Bert Stabler. Alas, he doesn’t have the time at the moment. Nonetheless, he’s agreed to let me post some of his reviews if I don’t trouble him about it too much. So here’s an article which ran last week (in somewhat altered form) in the Chicago Reader. If you’re in Chicago, the exhibit is still up, so you should be able to check it out for a brief while at least.


By Bert Stabler

Schools, like prisons and hospitals, are mysterious social institutions, dedicated to lofty but ill-defined goals regarding the benighted populations that sluice through their corridors. And, as with prisons and hospitals, the result is often messy. I should know, I’ve been working with Chicago Public Schools students for ten years. “Pedagogical Factory,” a new project at the Hyde Park Art Center spearheaded by Jim Duignan of the Chicago-based Stockyard Institute, attempts to provide concrete examples for improving education. The series of events and workshops Duignan has put together with Daniel Tucker of AREA magazine has nothing to do with technocratic arguments over assessments and accountability, and looks past the notion of school as a defined, programmed place. Their events bring together a variety of people who approach socially progressive.learning through collaboration, participation, research, and lived experience.

Given my dewy-eyed expectations, I must admit to being slightly taken aback when I saw how much the space resembled a school. A giant chalkboard 15 or 20 feet tall listed all the upcoming events. It felt a bit like the authoritarian instructions of a giant absent teacher, evoking the power dynamics that make school so unpleasant for so many. A number of publications, DIY in form and content, are on racks in a spacious but spartan area of reading tables constructed by Material Exchange from salvaged materials. An little trailer in the corner houses a low-power radio station, SPOKE, used primarily to play recordings of teenagers from the Austin neighborhood participating in the Stockyard Institute’s educational radio project. But initially its drab appearance evoked FEMA refugees, or a claustrophobic “time-out” space. The haphazard postings include some sloppy coloring-book-style contributions to AREA magazine’s People’s Atlas project, in which participants invent their own maps, and informative posters from the Celebrate People’s History project. In the audiovisual area is a project of the Experimental Sound Studio, the Found Chicago Sounds listening station, which features an annotated listing of ambient sounds recorded around Chicago (WBEZ has also been broadcasting these everyday soundscapes). In the end, the space didn’t remind me of an art show. It seemed, well, educational.

As I found out, the central aspect of the show is dialogue, not visuals. Besides, the look of the gallery continues to evolve. For example, some color was added by graffiti artists involved in the first event I attended. Led by instructor Jonathan St. Claire, this event, “How We Move,” was a class that broke down breakdancing into simple movement patterns, and offered useful techniques for breathing and improvising. “How We Grow,” the event I went to August 15, featured Baltimore artists Scott Berzofsky, Dane Nester, and Nicholas Wisniewski, who presented a slide show about their successful new vacant-lot farming project. It isn’t a top-down “improvement” initiative. They never asked for official permission or help with cultivating their chosen plot. Rather, they invited participation from neighborhood residents, and learned informally, from advice, research, and trial and error. Their presentation initiated a conversation on many issues, both practical and philosophical. An urban farmer from Brooklyn, Austin Schull, spiced up the gallery by gracing it with his pickup truck, which features a verdant portable greenhouse in the back.

St. Claire’s organization, the University of Hip-Hop, was founded by gifted Chicago artist and schoolteacher Lavie Raven, also in attendance on August 4. Raven was interviewed in William “Upski” Wimsatt’s 1994 book of essays, Bomb the Suburbs. In the tradition of progressive education exemplified by John Dewey and Paulo Freire, Raven stated that his goal was to be “a student, a learner, rather than an overrated teacher.” One way to blur the line between the education world and the outside world is to make a gallery look like a classroom. But it’s far better to transform traditional educational spaces with the energy and freedom of people working in the outside world, doing things like dancing and farming.

AREA is organizing a number of impressive events on Wednesdays and Sundays, featuring artists, writers, artisans, and teachers from Chicago and beyond. These lectures, discussions, and workshops are being done in conjunction with the magazine’s upcoming “How We Learn” issue. The opening panel discussion, which can be heard on wbez.org, featured local activist educational groups such as Mess Hall, Platypus, Free Geek, Chicagoland/Calumet Underground Railroad Efforts, Bronzeville Historical Society, Chicago Women’s Health Center, and the Odyssey Project. Upcoming topics include grassroots fund-raising (“How We Fund”), do-it-yourself food production (“How We Brew/Bake/Mead/Etc.”), architecture and the built environment (“How We Build”), and reconstructing the art textbook (“How We Make a Pedagogical Sketchbook”). Though the patronizing “How We X” titles remind me of an unreconstructed textbook, the programs will be exciting and relevant for those doing community cultural work. People are also invited to propose their own events or discussions. A detailed schedule is posted on stockyardinstitute.org and hydeparkart.org, and raw audio of the events is available on blip.tv.

The community focus of much Chicago art gives the city a distinctive profile in the global contemporary art context. Examples include the installations and redistribution efforts of Dan Peterman, the booklets and projects of Temporary Services, and the scrappy information sharing and flashy interventions of the Version festival. Other efforts are described in the free publication Trashing the Neoliberal City: Autonomous Cultural Practices in Chicago From 2000-2006, available at “Pedagogical Factory.” The many free performances and services, DIY workshops, and self-publishing initiatives going on in the city, though they operate at a small scale, are viable and powerful models. The real pedagogical factory–Chicago public education, with its bloated administration and constant restructuring–needs to be rethought from the inside out by considering other possibilities (like the art world), not extended further into other areas (like the art world). In the end, this show offers inspiring alternatives for improving the city with education.

WHEN Through 9/22: Mon-Thu 9am-8pm, Fri-Sat 9am-5pm, Sun noon-5pm
WHERE Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 S. Cornell
INFO 773-324-5520

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