Art, Education, and Social Realms

“I think the story of who one is, is essential in understanding who one is. That is knowledge. The trick is gaining the tools and community to both express that story and to turn that knowledge into a revised world.”

– Nato Thompson

The Alternative Art School website banner. Image courtesy of Nato Thompson.

This spring rounds out a year in which many of our realities experienced peak collisions within the structural identities and systems we’ve been encouraged and enforced to rely on. The past year directed particular pathways of our lives, our movements and understandings. What emerged was an amalgamation of industrialization, white supremacy, and the patriarchal, capitalist economy. Evident and undeniable is the blatant devaluing of care, especially when that value is defined by a capitalist economy. I’m particularly interested in how we can come out of this as we are unable to ignore the behaviors that we can no longer condone or accept. How can we unlearn these oppressive systems, these problematic patterns of behavior? How can we attempt to reposition ourselves to rebuild, divert the current destructive pathway humanity is set on? I interviewed Nato Thompson of The Alternative Art School (TAAS), which started in the midst of COVID-19. I think one way to create a trend towards a new way of existing or living together, is to start with how we as people approach education and its access. Education and ways in which information is shared, taught, and consumed are perfect examples of one pathway or structure that we can approach differently. Below is an email-based dialogue that occurred between Nato Thompson and I regarding TAAS and social engagement through art.

Rebecca Copper: COVID-19 has provided a particular space for acutely questioning the systems that aren’t working for communities or individuals. In my opinion, the past year is not just symbolic, but is symptomatic. We are at a climactic point in our history. We are at a point where we have to ask ourselves, how are we going to continue to live? What can alternative ways of being look like? 

Nato Thompson: I agree with this. Certainly this epochal year should come with some realizations about how life can be different. That said, I also see a massive rush to get back to how things were. I fear the memo didn’t quite sink in. 

Quite honestly, I have never really believed social change comes just from consciousness raising. That is certainly part of it. But just because a majority of the planet wants to stop climate change, doesn’t actually change climate change. I think there are vast systems of production and consumption that are very difficult to both comprehend and make progress on. 

I suppose that gets to your second question about alternatives. I have always been a fan of the politics of tools. Like lifestyle anarchism or hippie culture or the Black Panthers or the Indignados in Spain, I like a form of activism that offers new modes of behavior– from how one eats, to how one habitats, to how one communicates. By creating different tools and different methods for constructing a world, one is able to facilitate a group of people embodying a politics more than just talking.

Rebecca: Tell us a little about yourself. What are you currently reading? What was the last meal you ate?

Nato: I read emails lately. Probably not that different than most. I have just been in high production mode this year with The Alternative Art School and a few other projects. I am not complaining but my educational or recreational reading has really taken a hit.

And as for a meal, I just ate an egg bite. I am on this keto diet which I have been on for over a year now. Do you really want to talk about it? Haha, talking about diets is really painful. 

Objects in Nato’s home that he admires. Image courtesy of Nato Thompson.

Rebecca: Can you tell us about The Alternative Art School (TAAS)? How did its formation come about? 

Nato: Honestly, it is the culmination of a lot of things, although one doesn’t have to have a PhD in higher education to see the overall need for new models. I used to organize a conference with my old job at Creative Time called The Creative Time Summit. It was a gathering of artists, activists and engaged culture makers from around the world. When Covid hit, I began to do interviews with artists on Instagram. And I realized two things right away— one, my network of insanely awesome artists was vast. Two, this internet-thing really can connect folks pretty well.

The other motivation was my own burn out from non-profits. I just got tired of the idea of grants and fundraising. It all felt like such a profound waste of energy and ideals. So, I thought having an online educational model that connected great artists from around the world, and could use affordable tuition dollars as its economic backbone, was a good idea. So far it has far exceeded my expectations.

I also have to give credit to this guy I call my Yoda. Zane Vella. He really helped me get over some of my trepidations about starting a business as well as navigating online technology. He kept it simple for me. I owe him a lot for that.

Finally, and most important, has been the conversations with artists and activists for decades. I don’t exist in a vacuum, and the instructors at the school, and many others I have had the joy of encountering, have been very helpful in shaping how an alternative world of values and capacity could function.

Rebecca: How does this school differ from other art programs? What is the goal of the school, or the collective of individuals who helped bring TAAS to life?

Nato: Well, the most obvious part is that it takes place online. I am not one to fetishize the online world in some Matrix way, but you can achieve a lot with the collapse-of-space that is the internet. We put this school out there with some insanely compelling artists like Janine Antoni, Mel Chin, Yael Bartana, Vashti DuBois, Tiago Gualberto, Mario Ybarra Jr. Trevor Paglen, and then we began to see what came back. While we don’t hold a doctrine of what can be taught, I think the aesthetic, pedagogical and ethical disposition of our instructors says much about who and what we are.

What we learned is that our school appeals to working artists around the world. It has very little crossover with traditional art schools, although I don’t like having a conversation as though we are in competition. What I realized is that what we are is a global online extension, almost a community of working artists that can be part of a dynamic embodied local life. 

We want to stay relatively affordable. We want to pay our instructors well. We want to produce an intimate safe space for our enrolled artists where we care for them and produce dynamic cross-race cross-gender cross-sexuality spaces with artists from around the world. 

Rebecca: Is TAAS accredited? 

Nato: No, TAAS is not accredited. It’s a series of intimate classes with some of the most visionary artists, curators, dreamers and do-ers from across the globe. That is what we offer. It sort of speaks for itself. 

Rebecca: Do you think all art is social?  

Nato: I think all things are understood in relation to other people. We do not produce meaning by ourselves but in fact, meaning is created collaboratively. So in that sense, all art is social. 

Rebecca: What about social practice? Do you think social practice has a particular connection to education and learning? Does that connection differ from other forms of art? 

Nato: Well, I do think there are many different kinds of art and different kinds of social practice. It’s almost too complex to make sweeping generalizations. With that said, I can speak about tendencies in the genre that could answer the question. Certainly some of the concerns that some social practice artists tackle deal with people or groups of people in the world. This reliance on communication and navigating different backgrounds and ways of knowing can often lead one toward concerns around race, class, gender, sexuality among others. There is also some knowledge around radical pedagogy and different methodologies by which communication and learning occurs. 

Rebecca: Do you consider The Alternative Art School a kind of socially engaged art project? 

Nato: The school itself isn’t. I think there are many kinds of art taught at the school and they fit different genre categories. Certainly we do emphasize artists who approach their work with a sensitivity and knowledge that the art meets the public and in that, we must navigate the forces that shape what the public is and can be. This basic approach can apply to painting, sculpture, video, performance. 

Rebecca: How much autonomy do students have as participants at TAAS? 

Nato: It is a platform by which intimate encounters occur online between artists. They are pedagogical experiences where art is produced and relationships are formed. Artists are able to participate in any manner that doesn’t infringe in a problematic way with the experience of other attending artists and instructors. This is called, basic needs of being with people.

Nato’s view when answering these questions. Image courtesy of Nato Thompson.

Rebecca: How does the school approach different ways of knowing? 

Nato: I think art can be seen through the lens of ways of knowing. Our various instructors and students come at this from a variety of approaches. Some prefer non-hierarchical collective working. Some prefer embodied experiments. Some prefer learning de-colonial art history from a teacher. I think that there are a myriad of ways one can learn and we are interested in deeply exploring that as a community.

Rebecca: Can you share an experience where you relied on what you learned through life experience rather than through a class or something you read in a book?

Nato: I grew up poor. I grew up with different communities of race. You can’t teach that. It’s in me. 

Rebecca: Historically, experiential knowledge has been not respected within Western academic spaces and institutional educational settings. What are your thoughts on experiential knowledge?

Nato: I am not convinced that this kind of knowledge hasn’t been respected. The realm of higher education is quite vast and certainly there have been thousands of incredible professors who understand this and appreciate this very important piece of knowledge. Paolo Freire, who teaches this, had massive effects in so many different fields. So too Pierre Bourdieu, the sociologist, who speaks to this very point. 

I think the story of who one is, is essential in understanding who one is. That is knowledge. The trick is gaining the tools and community to both express that story and to turn that knowledge into a revised world. 

Rebecca: What about care? How does care labor fold into TAAS?

Nato: Caring is an important ethos, technique and historical lens. We approach our community with care and we build our environments with a sensitivity to those in the room. We build art feedback sessions with an understanding of care. And we also understand seeing world history from the lens of care has both a sustainability bent to it as well as a female one. For these reasons, we truly appreciate care.

Rebecca: How much does art contribute to the act of creating new ways in which we can choose to live? 

Nato: Good question. I am never a fan of generalizing about art. It’s like being a fan of electricity. It’s a medium with potential. The question is what do you do with it. In general, I think in its better moments, the arts offer a way to think about the world in a non-transactional manner. It can offer different sets of values or even emotions that broaden our sense of what is possible, and how things are possible. 

Rebecca: What does your ideal future look like? What is utopia to you? 

Nato: Oscar Wilde famously stated that no map can be perfect if it doesn’t contain utopia. I do feel similarly in that you need a north star. But I do caution that often the downfall of many artistic projects is the obsession with perfection over the pragmatics of collective action. That constant battle to live up to dreams, but to also be pragmatic enough to make dreams, is a healthy tension so long as it doesn’t stop the dreamers from doing. 

In that sense, even with a healthy pragmatism, I think the future is mixed race, mixed class, focused on sustainability and care, and able to circulate economies and capacity in such a manner that we elevate each other enough globally to shape a more compelling and strange future collectively. I think it is even achievable. 

Rebecca Copper​ (b. 1989) reflects on her lived experiences through art projects that range from socially engaged art to modes of individual creation such as film photography and video. Rebecca is interested in experiential knowledge and how people are influenced in mediated ways. She works through themes such as: phenomenology, intersectional feminist politics, American education, and institutions of care. She is currently an MFA candidate in Portland State University’s Contemporary Art Practice: Art and Social Practice Program. Recently, she worked as a research assistant for the Art and Social Practice Archive which is housed within PSU’s special collections and finished a fellowship with the Columbus Printed Arts Center in Columbus,

Nato Thompson is an author, curator, and what he describes as “cultural infrastructure builder”. He has worked as Artistic Director at Philadelphia Contemporary, and Creative Time as Artistic Director and as Curator at MASS MoCA.

Thompson organized major Creative Time projects including The Creative Time Summit (2009–2015), Pedro Reyes’ Doomocracy (2016), Kara Walker’s A Subtlety (2014), Living as Form (2011), Trevor Paglen’s The Last Pictures (2012), Paul Ramírez Jonas’s Key to the City (2010), Jeremy Deller’s It is What it is (2009, with New Museum curators Laura Hoptman and Amy Mackie), Democracy in America: The National Campaign (2008), and Paul Chan’s Waiting for Godot in New Orleans (2007), among others.

He has written two books of cultural criticism, Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the 21st Century (2015) and Culture as Weapon: The Art of Influence in Everyday Life (2017).

The Alternative Art School is an online art school that features live courses with internationally recognized faculty from around the world. In addition to instructors, the enrolled artists also come from different corners of the globe. This produces a dynamic and energetic community.

The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.

Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.

SoFA Journal
c/o PSU Art & Social Practice
PO Box 751
Portland, OR 97207