Summer School at “The University of Trash”

Michael Cataldi, one of the organizers behind the current pedagogical experiment at SculptureCenter, sits down to go over the syllabus.

poster for

"The University of Trash" Exhibition

at SculptureCenter
in the Queens area
This event has ended - (2009-05-10 - 2009-08-03)

In Interviews by Alyssa Tang 2009-07-15 print

''The University of Trash'': The M49 Radio Transmitter Truck, 2009. A Collaboration with Max Goldfarb and free103point9. Courtesy of SculptureCenter.

This summer Michael Cataldi and Nils Norman have collaborated to form an experimental school full of cardboard, radio transmitters, mushrooms, activism, chalkboards, and rock bands. “The University of Trash” is currently on view at SculptureCenter in Long Island City. Along with the exhibition, “The Free Skool” explores ideas of education, creation, and communication. Huddled in a red mobile radio truck on a rainy Sunday afternoon, Cataldi was nice enough to spend some time educating NYAB on his rather unique approach to summer school.

So tell me about your program.
The university began as an exhibition where Nils Norman and myself were looking at different architectural forms that had to do with different means and methods of creating alternatives/resistance.

For instance, Nils is very interested in hippie culture and ’60s communalism, and I’m very interested in the Lower East Side and the squatting culture of New York. We were meshing our interests together there. But while we were doing that, a lot of things we were looking at, from just an architectural standpoint, were pedagogical projects that had this function. So we decided that it was going to be called “The University of Trash.” That decision came about because we were going to build the entire thing out of reused and reclaimed material. That remained important to us throughout planning the project and we’ve done our best to maintain that. It hasn’t all been all recycled material. There is some new material. However, the new material will be reused and not discarded after the show is over.

Detail of ''The University of Trash: The Skool of Refuse and Appropriation,'' 2009. A collaboration with students from City-As-School. Courtesy of SculptureCenter.

Was it difficult to find certain materials to be reused?
Yeah. A lot of people want to get rid of something that they produce in industry on a consistent basis, and we were really only able to take things [once]. So that was an obstacle. But we worked with an architect who helped us to source a lot of the material and she did a really great job. Eventually, when we called it “The University of Trash,” we decided to step up the programming and pedagogical component of the project itself. So it wasn’t always there, that [this] was going to be a functioning free school or university.

Was it early on that you stumbled onto this concept? Or did it evolve as you worked on the project?
It was evolving. Maybe a year ago it became what it is now. We both felt pretty strongly that we didn’t want it just to be a representation of this thing that was in an art institution. That is kind of what you would expect of it. We tried to activate it in a way that made it function outside of being an artwork. Although a lot of participants are artists, there are a lot of people who are not artists as well.

For those who are not artists, what backgrounds do they come from?
It’s really hard to say. Some people are activists, community organizers, horticulturalists, recycling advocates, and bicycle advocates.

Do you have a background in community artwork/architecture?
I have a degree in urban planning as well as a degree in fine arts.

And Nils?
Nils has [a degree] in fine arts, and has been teaching for a number of years. He is the director of The School of Walls and Space, which is the school of public art at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen where they engage a very expanded definition of public art. He has published a few books of his photographs and research that have been an enormous influence on me.

How did you both get connected, being so far away from each other?
When I was an undergraduate, Nils came to work with an art history professor of mine. And then I was really interested in his work and we kept up a conversation for years afterwards. We meet up whenever I’m in London or he’s in New York. The SculptureCenter solicited a proposal from Nils and he asked me to work with him. He works collaboratively a lot. As pedagogy and collaboration are an important part of both of our work it made a lot of sense to meet up over this.

How long have you been doing urban planning versus art?
I have just finished my masters. I have never had an official job in urban design/planning. I took it on as a mainly academic pursuit as a way of getting at theory and discourse that would inform my work as an artist. Through a perspective that was not an established art education/circuit. However, it’s been a part of my work since I was an undergraduate in Baltimore at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and a lot of friends that I worked and collaborated with there have a very strong interventionist and community activist orientated streak. When I moved up here, [I] felt somewhat alienated from that because of the size of this city and the power of the private market in the art world. But I have tried to maintain that research and action in my work since then.

Of the sessions that you have hosted, has any particular one really stood out?
There have been quite a few sessions that were really engaging. Yesterday there was a really interesting session called “How to Stay Free,” which was a screening and a critique of a 1980 Milton Friedman documentary, and that conversation was incredibly interesting. We’ve had presentations by some folks in Baltimore and some folks in Copenhagen that were really engaging. Early on, on the 17th of May, there was a queer/trans/feminist collective performance called “Fingers.” While on a tour of the country, they stopped here and performed in our band shell. That was really phenomenal. I had no idea how it was going to go, allowing someone to perform, rather than having an explicit pedagogical component. In the end, the event was really fantastic and I was glad that we were able to host it.

Ultimately it’s not one kind of workshop or event that was or is ideal. The mix of different events is really what is important. At times there are very skill-based workshops going on. This is how to grow mushrooms, this is how to make screen prints, and this is how to bind books with cardboard. At times there are different academic discussions going on. And at other times there are performances and things like that going on…that is more of where the strength comes from rather than one blockbuster event. Other projects that “The University of Trash” is being compared to have a tendency to become more academic and remain that way.

Installation view of ''The University of Trash,'' 2009. Courtesy of SculptureCenter.

Do you try to maintain a balance of courses offered? Do you hope to teach a certain curriculum, and narrow down the subject matter?
We don’t discriminate between what the classes are about. Within certain limits…if someone proposed something that was really offensive, I would have to think about. So far our only restrictions are that it’s free/open to the public and nothing is for sale, so that it can’t be commercial or self-promotional. It’s a first-come, first-serve basis and I schedule things in. There’s still room on the schedule. We double book and triple book things with the hope that there may be some really interesting things overlapping.

Multiple workshops going on at the same time?
For instance, there’s going to be a workshop going on about cooking up replacements for toxins in your home. At the same time there is discussion about a radical wing of the Situationist International. At the same time there’s also going to be this mushroom-growing workshop out here in the courtyard. There will be an overlap of these somewhat disparate things going on and possibly three somewhat disparate groups of the public coming to engage in those things, then crossing over and moving in between things. Maybe some fourth thing can arise from that. I don’t know what.

How would you define education in its most basic form?
Education in its most basic form is about teaching people how to learn. Teaching them also how to teach, so that there can be an exchange between people. And seeing every opportunity for a moment of both teaching and learning. In a sense it’s empowerment, for an individual within a context of society. It’s not about empowering an individual to become a master or to rise to the top, but empowering an individual to become a part of a social web.

It’s about skill sharing. We didn’t create this because we are experts in free schooling. We started this because we wanted to learn more about free schooling, because there’s no singular model of what a free school looks like, which of course would be completely antithetical to the idea to begin with. The only way to really learn is by doing it…representing, promoting, and creating a culture of mutual aid.

Alyssa Tang

Alyssa Tang. Her parents first met at a Chinese-American Halloween square dance. If you know Alyssa, this explains a lot. Born in 1979, this Boston-bred kid’s been drawing since the day she could crawl. She holds degrees in Studio Art & Psychology from Wellesley College, and Fashion Design from Parsons. Living by the "try anything once" mantra, she's worn multiple hats: muralist, community worker, event planner, graphic designer, textile designer, freelance stylist, and now fashion designer. With a penchant for discovering the unusual, she likes to wander, discover and create ways to put a smile on people’s faces. » See other writings

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