with Claude Nasser and Ruben Pater30.6.2020 – hosted by Lisa Baumgarten and Judith Leijdekkers
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Lisa: Thank you so much for taking the time for our second Teaching Design Conversations continued … We – Judith and I – will give a bit of context on why we are in this space today. I’ll briefly introduce everyone, but we’d like to invite you to introduce yourselves properly before we dive into the conversation.
At the beginning of 2020, we organised a two-week temporary library in Berlin, where we hosted different kinds of conversational formats. We are still drawing from the meaningful encounters and discussions we had during those weeks, which encouraged us to continue the conversations as a way of sharing practices, perspectives and experiences – this time in an online format.
Judith: With Conversations continued..., we reflect on design education through dialogues – as a means to facilitate space for critical reflection and the production of counter-knowledge. We hope to work towards a more collective approach for transforming design practices by focusing on design education. For this project, we bring together educators, students, alumni and staff. We want to include institutionally established education as well as self-organised initiatives and independent practitioners.
Lisa: The dialogue is a format that is embraced in feminist and decolonial discourses. To us, a dialogue – in comparison to e.g. a lecture, a panel discussion or an interview – means giving each other time to speak, taking each other seriously and allowing differences to exist.
Judith: We just want to keep it very casual. It’s not an interview and we would like for it to be also energy-giving and inspiring to all of you.
[Start of Conversation]
Judith: Thank you Claude and Ruben for taking the time to talk with us. I think all of us know Ruben’s work a little bit, but Ruben, could you tell us about how you ended up teaching, how it relates to your work, and why you’re teaching the way you teach?
Lisa: And also, I think the context is very interesting. The context in which you teach.
Ruben: Yeah, I understand this is also for the purpose of the transcription. So that’s good to highlight. Hold on, let me find ... Because I’m actually not really sure when I started teaching. I have to look it up, I think in 2012. So that’s almost ten years.
Lisa: Did you start directly after you graduated?
Ruben: It was right after I graduated from my MA. But it was in Eindhoven. I also taught at the Willem de Kooning Academy and then, since 2017, at the Royal Academy of Art (KABK) in The Hague. Just like you’re also saying, in design education – I think this is changing a little bit – but basically it’s assumed that you can teach just because you can practice design. So the way I teach has been kind of like learning by doing, which is not the ideal way. But I also think it has the advantage that there’s still a lot of room among design tutors to explore and understand new ways of teaching, right? Because there’s not really a blueprint. Like you say, you usually try to copy the good things you’ve experienced yourself and not copy the bad things. And then by doing you realise you are completely working based on assumptions. I think it took me around five years to understand my own teaching a little bit better, I would say.
Judith: And why did you change academies?
Ruben: For different reasons. I taught at the Willem de Kooning Academy twice. There are challenging circumstances as a teacher there – in terms of bureaucracy overload. I also found it’s better to focus on one school and develop a strong relationship. In the Netherlands, there’s this kind of tendency of design schools now to have flexible contracts, as you know. What you see then as you teach there for six months, or one year, is that you never create a social relationship with the school or with the students. You also don’t really become part of the social ecology of the school. I think it’s one of the most important things that, at least in The Hague, what they’re trying to accomplish is to establish a team of people that is there for a longer term. You know, they say that they prefer having a team that is there for the longer term to build a system of knowledge and do not completely change everything every year or every two years.
Judith: Is this an academy-broad thing, or just within the Graphic Design department?
Ruben: I’m talking about the Graphic Design department. I cannot speak for the rest of the academy.
Lisa: The one-term contract is the construct I am working in at the moment. Towards the end of a semester, when I started to panic, I developed a course concept, and then tried to contact the person in charge to pitch my course plan. Then, hopefully they would rehire me for that course. That’s what saved me in some cases. You do a lot of work for free, up front, and then you hope that you get hired again. And then here in Germany, you just still don’t have the benefits of someone who’s employed because you have to pay your own insurance and social contributions. I don’t know how it is in the Netherlands.
Ruben: I think, in the Netherlands, on the one hand we – as teachers – are in a good position in our schools in general, because it pays quite well. I mean quite well compared to other countries where I know teaching will not pay your bills, so you do it out of love. And of course, people do it also out of love for teaching in the Netherlands, but at least it gets paid in a kind of okay way. But on the other hand, because nobody gets a steady contract – like you say – there is this threat of not coming back. There is not a lack of skilled designers and skilled teachers, which increases the pressure. Some schools are making an MA degree mandatory for teachers, and some are even pushing towards making PhD degrees mandatory. This puts pressure on people who are autodidact, or who are very skilled teachers, but unskilled researchers for example. So yeah, I’m not sure what that’s going to be in like five years.
Judith: Could you tell us about the way you’re teaching now or the way you’re trying to teach? Like you said, it took you five years to really understand your own way of teaching. What is this way of teaching now?
Ruben: Well, I did the didactic course and that has helped me a little bit to understand the responsibility that you have on a social level. Of course, I understood that responsibility, but they teach you really basic things, like how you can motivate a student that is unmotivated. Whether that can be because of a lack of doubt, or actually because of an abundance of confidence. How do you motivate different personalities and different people in their work? I think that’s one of the best things I learnt from that. And from practice and trying out things, learning about how to bring in knowledge that is not in the academy yet. So not to repeat the patterns of history, you know. This is also what you refer to of course, with Teaching Design. But also trying to avoid the pitfalls of the curriculum that has been taught since the 1920s, for example, and try to challenge that. And how to do that not just from a theoretical perspective, because that’s quite easy, like: “read this book!”. Not all design students are equally gifted readers or gifted researchers. How do you do that without being pedantic towards students who are for example, less focused on theory, but more on practice? Because in Dutch art schools, you find students with a wide range of skill sets. You see both students who are ready to go to university or have a pre-academic secondary education. And you have students who have a very practical focus, who have very different difficulties. You don’t want to be in a position where you penalise students for having different backgrounds. So I also try to facilitate work that is theoretically informed. It does talk about complicated issues, without penalising students for their class backgrounds. I think it’s important that design education doesn’t become accessible only for academic students.
Judith: Yes, super important. How do you make sure you respect your students’ capabilities? Are you doing this as a team at the KABK?
Ruben: Maybe I have to clarify that I only teach the graduation year of the BA. I also teach at the Master’s Non-Linear Narrative (NLN) , where Claude has just graduated from. With distinction, by the way. Congratulations, Claude. So I also have the position where the students that I have in class are all adults. They are 24, 25. Sometimes I have students that are 30. So in comparison to first year students they are quite matured in their thinking and their practice. A lot of people I know teach in the first or second year. That’s a very different challenge. I’m at a point where I don’t have to explain the basics of typography or, you know, this basic kind of Grundlehre  to students because that’s already been taken care of. Being a tutor for graduation projects is different because I only guide students. There’s no teaching involved in terms of exchange of knowledge. I’m just helping students to graduate. Basically, they are responsible for doing the work and I help them by asking questions and offering guidance in terms of references or discussions. In the first year of NLN, I gave an assignment in order to bridge that gap. I decided to do an assignment with field trips. So we always do an assignment about a social-economic local issue. Claude was involved in an assignment that was about how law is fiction, and how those fictions are built historically to exclude certain demographics, right? And how that plays out in real life and of course in schools in The Hague. We did a field trip to the ICC (International Criminal Court) and we actually saw one of the ICC hearings. We also went to visit the Europol headquarters. Like the architecture, the spaces of architecture and law that are in The Hague. The Hague has this kind of strange legal spatial aspect where you have these buildings like the ICC, which are officially not Dutch territory, and embassies, which are not officially Dutch territory. So there’s this really interesting spatial aspect to law there, which was the assignments called Geographies of freedom, which was also exactly what it was about. To ground it in experience and field work. That’s the starting point of this.
Judith: Claude – this is a good bridge to you. Can you tell us about this? It was one of your first assignments in the Netherlands, or not? Can you explain what this course was like for you?
Claude: Hearing you speak now, my experience of NLN is a bit different from what you’re describing as design education, our projects were socially engaged by default. Also, we had the space (in one way or another) to develop our own projects. For example, this assignment was an introduction to the world of inequalities through law by going and seeing the ICC or learning that the ICC is officially not a Dutch territory, even though it is in the center of The Hague. So experiencing these things first-hand by going there: going through the scanners as if you were going to the airport, leaving the country without leaving the country. It makes these very abstract, legal texts very real in a very strange way. We were doing two projects at the same time. So my project got influenced by other things as well.
Judith: So basically, the whole course is designed around addressing structures of injustice, right?
Judith: I’m curious to hear how you experienced your education in Lebanon and The Hague, Claude.
Claude: There was a huge difference for me. My education in Lebanon was at a university that has a graphic design department. So design courses were mixed with other university courses like languages, history, economics, even religion. The educational system in Lebanon, especially graphic design education, is geared towards producing designers that can fill low-level design jobs in studios. I learnt later that the whole market in Lebanon is geared towards these kinds of jobs. Through NLN, I did my research about Lebanon, and the development of the political and economic systems in colonised nations and that included the educational system in Lebanon. It’s the complementary opposite of the educational system here if you want. Here there is encouragement towards creativity and criticality, which I appreciated, while in Lebanon, even though these principles are also highlighted, the market in general is geared towards operating within the limits that the Euro/American market defines. The experience of NLN in specific made me understand these differences. For example: Why the educational system here offers spaces of creative freedom, and why does the educational system in Lebanon operate within the limits of freedom defined by the global North.
Judith: So you had to leave Lebanon in order to analyse the country from a distance?
Claude: Yes, I think this was essential. I lived in Lebanon since I was born and then I left to study in the Netherlands. I needed a shift in my perspective to understand what I was living. I think this was a necessary step for me to understand the situation I was in.
Lisa: When you were talking about your design education in Lebanon, I remember Ruben’s first email response. Ruben, you wrote that you were thinking a lot about design education or design’s connections to capitalist structures. And how the educational system prioritises marketable knowledge over other kinds of knowledge. I would say that design programmes in general are very market-oriented. And then looking at what Ruben just said, it sounds like thinking critically and freely is more part of the Dutch design education. It seems perhaps less market-oriented. But then I have a book in my hallway which is called Dutch Design. I was thinking that this criticality or this thinking freely can also be turned into a kind of brand. And it is, in my mind at least, affiliated with Dutch design. There’s this stereotypical creative Dutch way of thinking – being very pragmatic in comparison to Germans, who are married to their bureaucracy and rules. So I think it’s very interesting to reflect on the many ways that capitalism affects design. Sometimes it’s just hiding a bit better. Does that make sense?
Ruben: I wrote it in my email because I spent two years on a book about graphic design and capitalism. Which, yeah, is a challenge. But that doesn’t mean I should not do it. So I’m currently writing a chapter about capitalism and graphic design and education. So how they’re historically related.
Judith: Are you doing this about specific context, or from a specific perspective?
Ruben: I’m doing this from a European perspective. I also highlight that in my book, because I cannot speak for the design education in the south of Brazil. I do highlight the eurocentrism in design education. Because capitalism started in agricultural England, and is really related to Northern European Protestant religion, I tried to tie it with this. You see this also within the first design education in the UK, where you had the first art schools in the 1800s. And then, of course, Bauhaus is the kind of blueprint, basically. So this is a bit of the context of what I am currently interested in.
Judith: And how does that relate to what you see in design education now?
Ruben: That’s maybe too long of an answer, but maybe to respond to this idea of Dutch design. To be honest, I think Dutch design is one of the most commercial and capitalist design cultures. The reason why it is renowned for creativity, directness, humour – all these kinds of qualities – is just because of the wealth. I think wealth combined with entrepreneurship is deeply ingrained in Dutch society, which basically means you can do anything. There’s no morality, or there’s no real ethics involved, as long as it can be commodified. So we have a long history in the Netherlands of people being involved in corruption, and being involved in very dubious kinds of activities. I think in Germany, there’s a much stronger sense of ethics in that sense in business. But that can also have conservative workings. So I think this Dutch design as a narrative is first and foremost a brand, because it is something a lot of people can still make money from. I think the relative freedom in design education that we can see in the Netherlands is mostly due to the luxurious position that designers are in, and not really a kind of anti-capitalist or independent platform. It’s more so because of the amount of money that is circulating within the field. Subsidies by the state still make it possible to make design that is not commercially viable. Commercial design is seen as less interesting and applied designers are seen as a lower standard than designers working for cultural institutions. But that is only possible due to the massive governmental infrastructure and the privileged position that designers are in. I’ve worked in countries like Turkey where you have almost no designers, and designers who work there all work in advertising. In Turkey, there’s no distinction between advertising and design, because of the nature of the business infrastructure.
Judith: Like in Lebanon.
Claude: There are some small studios in Lebanon doing great work, even more so now after the current economic crisis, but mostly, yes.
Judith: It relates to a realisation I recently had. I live in a neighbourhood where relatively many people live in precarious circumstances. Since I moved here, I’ve received so many letters from lottery companies. They’ve even been knocking on my door a few times. It’s more frequent than in other neighbourhoods. I’ve been asking people around me: how many letters are you getting from all these companies? It’s really, I think, four or five times more than in other areas. So I started looking into this and I figured out that there are a lot of funds in the Netherlands who are funding the design industry, like stichting DOEN, or like the VriendenLoterij, who are funding the Dutch Design Week. And lots of the funds come from these big lottery companies. I think it relates very much to what you’re saying, Ruben. Basically what the lottery companies are doing is capitalising on hope. And then they invest so much money in things like the Dutch Design Week, which is a very exclusive event.
Ruben: It is basically a way of taxing lower classes for the privileges of the upper middle classes.
Judith: Yes, designers are extremely privileged in the Netherlands to have access to these fundings. I mean, speaking about myself, I wouldn’t be able to work without it. But it’s such a problematic structure. I never had any type of ethics in my education. I only did my bachelor’s degree in the Netherlands, but I am quite surprised that this never came up. Ruben, you are educating designers who might enter the Dutch design world. How are you dealing with that?
Ruben: I’m not sure if educating designers is necessarily the same as educating for the Dutch design market. I felt that more in the Design Academy, I think they really feel connected to the Bauhaus ideology, which was actually socialist: we have to produce as much as possible in order for the lower classes to enjoy the privilege of nice design, right? So there’s also the aspect of socialism and an emphasis on production in relation to design. There were actually a few of these anarchist art schools in the 1970s, in the US for example, that actually wanted to produce as much as possible in order to make sure that their designs would not just be meant for the 1%. So there are two ways in which a relation to industry can actually be the argument. On one hand, working for the industry and using industry standards for design, which is how design education started, is facilitating capitalism. And only seeing graphic design as a form of creating desire and creating products for the industry. But on the other hand, the socialists – Bauhaus but also these anarchist socialist colleges in the US – also argued: what if nobody will see our design? We will still not be able to educate people, but also not transform society this way.
Lisa: But I think especially the Bauhaus – I don’t know about the anarchist schools in the US but I do know a little about the Bauhaus – was an idea that never really lived up to its utopian ideas. Also, the socialist tendencies shifted depending on the director they had. So there were different periods with different focuses. Do you know the article from Jacob Lindgren at the Walker Art Center website? He’s writing about the opportunistic tendencies of the Bauhaus directors trying to maintain their status, as well as the school connected to their status during that time, because it was endangered by virtue of its socialist tendencies. On another note: I’m very curious about your graduation project, Claude! Tell us about it, and how it came to be.
Claude: For me, it was a two-year project. It started in the second semester of last year. I was interested in the political situation in Lebanon, but I distanced myself from it in the period before I left. But then, when I came here, I started to get more politically engaged again. I wanted to resolve the personal issues that came with me from Lebanon, and doing a project about Lebanon was my way of dealing with these unresolved issues. I started looking into social debt, which was the first interest that I wanted to investigate, but it quickly led me into an interest in philosophy and anti-colonial theory. I worked for about six to eight months only with philosophy and theory, I then wrote my thesis on how the nation state appropriates the desire of its people in order to actualise the desire of the rulers or the leader. But then came the time for practical work, I had all these theoretical considerations, and I wanted to translate them into a visual medium. I started to do visual and auditory experiments in order to further my theoretical work. At that point, the revolution or the uprising started in Lebanon, so I started producing some Instagram posts about history or theoretical reflections on the situation. Then I started collecting materials from there. I was planning to go film in Lebanon, but then the COVID-19 pandemic happened. I did go to Lebanon for a week, but I had to come back before the lockdown. When I came back, I decided to get in contact with people who were willing to share personal footage taken in Lebanon during the protests, or footage that made them think about Lebanon. I started compiling an archive of social media footage from the uprising, my personal archives from years back, and the footage that people have shared with me. The project ended up as an investigation into how the nation of Lebanon came into being, or how the nation of Lebanon was constructed in my world.
Judith: So you actually worked on this for two years. It’s great you got the chance to work on something for a longer period of time. So often, design projects are chopped up into projects of one semester.
Claude: I dragged it with me, because it was not separate from my experience of the world to begin with. I presented different works around this theme for three semesters. It was a continuous project that I chopped up to fit the structure of the programme, and the thesis was pulling everything together.
Judith: And how have you experienced being in such a different educational context?
Claude: I think NLN was a wide enough space to work on developing my own interests, no matter what my interests were. I was comfortable in the programme’s atmosphere, which I felt was an anticapitalist sentiment in general (at some levels). I enjoyed that. At first I was interested in these big topics, but I didn’t have the knowledge to engage with them. The classes of people like Ruben, Mijke van der Drift, and Linda Van Deursen for example, really changed me as a person, but also changed my worldview. And with that the work that I’m producing. I think this was a very valuable experience for me.
Judith: The programme actually exists to break with the status quo and existing power structures, maybe.
Claude: I think that the people in the programme, the tutors and my peers had a shared interest in questioning the status quo. I don’t necessarily think that the programme itself is geared towards dismantling power structures, but the people involved created a safe space to think about power relations in different contexts. I have a question for Ruben.
Claude: It’s more about the institutional aspect of education here. It felt like – in the context of design education or art schools – the student is the product of the school in very direct ways. For example, as I understand, there are specific quotas, numbers of registered students and graduates according to which a programme is judged, which of course leaves out a lot: the value that the student is gaining, their personal experience with the programme (how comfortable they are, how interested they are in the topics discussed in the programme). Of course institutions are mostly interested in numbers but I imagine this has very direct effects on the way programmes are developed.
Lisa: Here we have a term for it. It’s called “unternehmerische Universität” , which means basically that universities are companies. They are producing students, as you said correctly. And there are a lot of things that are attached to it. How is it in the Netherlands?
Ruben: It’s a European wide system.
Lisa: Yes, the Bologna Process was European, right? It was actually meant for comparison reasons. So that you could translate your ECTS points to any country in Europe and also have it acknowledged. Your credit points and your degrees.
Ruben: Yes, I mean, also to answer Claude’s question. Of course, by dictate of the Ministry of Education in the Netherlands, education is literally commodified. Not as much as in the UK, but you know, points are given to specific courses. These courses are made equivalent to a certain amount of money which are made equivalent to a certain number of students which are made equivalent to non-EU or EU students bringing in a certain amount of money. Master’s students pay more. So it’s like the whole top-down structure from neoliberalism, since the 1980s, and the privatisation and all these kinds of things. What’s very important for me is the cost of education. I get students and their parents at open days and they say: “I would love to give my child this education, but I cannot afford it.” These are Dutch people. They would pay the lower domestic tuition fees. There is this kind of myth that education was always free in the Netherlands, but it was only for a very short time that education was affordable. The reason why it was affordable is that after World War Two, there was a shortage of educated people in all fields. So they made education free, and they introduced the system of giving students money when their parents came from lower classes to be able to study. But that was only for a small window of 20 to 30 years. Then the gap of professionals was filled. I think it’s already been eight years since they changed it. Now it’s not unaffordable, but it’s less likely now for people of lower classes to go into higher education. I would actually argue that higher education was never intended to be for everyone. The ruling party has said that they think art education should be cut in half, because they do not contribute anything to society. I know in Germany, it’s a bit of a different situation, but I don’t think secondary education was supposed to ever become accessible to everyone in that sense.
Lisa: I didn’t know you had to pay so much in the Netherlands to go to university. How much is it for a Dutch person?
Judith: 2000 Euros a year. A bit more.
Ruben: It’s of course not a lot, especially compared to most countries. But yes, there is the argument that a lot of design students are being trained and there’s no jobs for them, or that design schools become like factories. I mean, I’m actually all for more people studying design.
Lisa: Really? I’m always hoping for less people doing design.
Ruben: I think the whole point of the marketability of education is that education is met with industry. And for me, I don’t think that education is about learning marketable skills. I think education is about Bildung . You know, it’s about becoming a human. Becoming a person.
Lisa: For me, it feels like the more I know about the structures design is involved in, the more I know what it reproduces. And also how design universities are part of it. As an educator, or facilitator, I am part of it. Even though I’m trying to teach differently, to give impulses that are different than just giving students the tools to become profitable for the market. Don’t you sometimes think that it’s not really easy to go on with this or still be part of institutionalised design education? Do you never question yourself and ask yourself why you are still in this design world? Because for me, the more I know, the less it makes sense.
Ruben: I understand what you mean. But I would rather have students, young people, study arts and design then study an MBA.
Lisa: An MBA is a business course, right?
Ruben: Yes. So I would rather have students studying humanities. At least they get into contact with some kind of social structures, and some kind of critical social thinking.
Lisa: But do you really think an MBA is different than studying design? It seems to me design studies are a lot about self-marketing as well and reproducing yourself and building a portfolio. Going to the right studios … I don’t know, I mean, Claude, you are laughing. This is at least the spirit that I got in my design education.
Claude: Definitely. This is the education that I’m trying to get away from. During NLN, I decided that I can’t be a designer. That’s why I’m trying to go towards academic work. But yes, I think this is the problem. I think what Ruben was trying to say, or my interpretation of what Ruben said, is that design education has the potential to expose you to certain situations that might allow you to understand these things. To understand, for example, why are you trying to build a portfolio and build an identity that is not you, in order to sell yourself? Well, if you do an MBA or business education, you’re learning the techniques of the market, but you’re not learning what the market is to a certain extent. While design education, or the design education that I had at least, was more like: this is what the market is, and this is how you fit in it.
Judith: I think in NLN, and probably also in graphic design at KABK, you’re able to question these things and to have a conversation or discussion about this. During my Bachelor’s, this was not the case. I think it depends on where you get in touch with or study design.
Claude: I think that in design, there is a possibility that you would end up in spaces like this conversation, more than in other fields. I think design in itself has some kind of sensibility to it that even if you’re doing commercial work, at the end of the day, you should have some kind of sensibility to understand what’s going on around you in order to produce a relevant design that fulfills an intended function.
Judith: I can imagine that design students are more likely to end up in circles where discussions, dialogues and reflections take place. But, yes, I do feel that there’s still so much to address and that, especially in the spaces of the university, there’s too little space for students to question structures and find alternatives.
Lisa: If we study design in this classical way that is so connected to capitalist structures, we actually learn how to sell a product, right? We as graphic designers, we design campaigns for instance, we know how to influence people with visual work. I feel like that’s really a shame. That’s also why I started Teaching Design. It still feels like a privilege to be critical and to also work in this realm because I do this project in my own personal time, unpaid. I don’t know how it is for Ruben for example, as an educator. You are probably employed at the university, right? Is it a fixed position?
Ruben: No, freelance.
Lisa: Okay, so it’s the same as me and many others. I always feel like this critical thinking gets pushed outside of the university space. It’s made your own responsibility in a way. And then it becomes this sort of care work that you do to be sensible and sensitive towards specific ways of doing design, but it’s not remunerated appropriately. “Critical designer” is not a job title. Do you know what I mean?
Ruben: Yes, yes. I mean, this discussion goes over many axes, right? But this is also interesting to unravel. I mean, of course, there’s a lot wrong with graphic design in relation to the market, just like everything in the society is related to the market, right? But I would like to try to avoid to discard current design altogether or to discard design education altogether. First of all, because now, the urgency of criticality in societies is so much needed with right-wing governments in power basically in most OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries. Like I said, even in the Netherlands, they are planning to cut design education now. With the crisis of COVID-19, which will definitely hit in the coming months, we will most likely see further breakdown of humanities in universities and all kinds of art education. So, first of all, it’s about saving the few spaces that we have left because, you know, we are educators and Claude will be soon with his PhD as well. We are able to facilitate this discussion. At OCAD, Dori Tunstall is trying to organise a decolonising design education. Anja Neidhardt and Maya Ober initiated depatriarchise design in Basel. I do actually think a lot of things are being organised right now from an educational perspective, much more than from the perspective of what’s happening in studios. I think the market is where nothing is happening right now. They’re just struggling to survive. And I see the graphic design market or what’s happening in the fields to be less and less inspiring but also less and less critical. So I actually think that educational spaces in design – as problematic as they are – are actually our last hope.
Claude: Something that I want to add: I’m not sure if you have read The Undercommons by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney . While you were talking, I was reminded of the part where they talk about the university. “The undercommons”, I imagine, are these spaces that we’re talking about: the spaces between the people who don’t fit within the practice or its critique and who want to change both. I think it fundamentally cannot be part of the institutional apparatus because when it becomes part of the institution, it had already been appropriated as part of the system, as part of the market, and it loses its radicality and its difference. So, while this is not a valid career choice, I think keeping it like that has the potential to change the very idea of career choice. The spaces that I enjoyed the most during NLN were these pockets under the system that allows you to do work that is not ‘useful’, or at least not directly appropriated by the system.
Lisa: The idea of the “undercommons” reminded me of a conversation I had with another educator about feedback and criticism between students, which I always found very difficult to facilitate in my courses. The spirit is oftentimes: if you criticise someone, you put the person down, whereas I always find it very valuable for the students to learn from each other. And I really try to create a space in which they can also criticise me and negotiate how we use the space together. We were speaking about informal spaces. Actually, a lot of the stuff that I was trying to facilitate in my classroom was happening in between teaching hours and in their free time when they were in the studio spaces, or meeting each other. That’s when they were discussing their projects. I think the university or the art schools create a space like this for people to come together. I just wanted to say that I’m not so negative about art education, I just find it very interesting to tickle a bit and find out what you think about the structures and how you see their potential.
Ruben: Can I ask where you are teaching, Judith and Lisa?
Judith: I’m teaching at a vocational school called Maas College, here in Rotterdam. I see myself as a design educator, but I am officially teaching electives within the Social Work programme. Many of my students have been oppressed by the school system in all kinds of ways. I am trying to show my students that teaching can also be a collaboration between students and teachers. I have learnt a lot about structures within this type of education. Students are mostly told what to do, and that’s it. As if their ideas and experiences are not valuable. And the bureaucracy is overwhelming. I really enjoy exploring how to transform this with my students, but it’s not easy.
Ruben: But this is actually the majority of Dutch population that is educated in these institutions. So I think it’s important to understand that when we talk about design education, we usually talk about higher education within the Netherlands. It is less than around 32.5% of the population. So we talk about that kind of elite status. We sometimes forget that we are talking about a minority, right?
Judith: Definitely. And not only within design education. I am currently studying to get a teaching certificate, and I’ve noticed that higher education is the norm, both in our class and in the programme.
Lisa: I’m teaching in design schools. In BA and MA programmes. I’m always teaching in different ones, but at the moment I’m teaching at the HTW Berlin, which is the University for Applied Science for Economy and Technology. The other one is the University of the Arts in Bremen. The art universities are very different from the applied science schools here. The applied sciences schools have a very strict curriculum and they are very market-oriented, the art schools leave a little bit more space, even though they have the BA/MA system. I’m teaching a very homogenous group of people. The group as well as the teaching body is not very diverse. I started with teaching typography actually, and I started teaching first and second year students. I hope I don’t have to teach typography ever again, because I could never find a way not to reproduce a lot of shit while doing it. Also, teaching first and second year students was very tricky because they first had to unlearn a lot and they brought so much disbelief of being taken seriously from being in school. They did not dare to speak up. Sometimes they were overwhelmed with the tasks I gave them, but never dared to tell me about their struggles and then freaked out. Many of them did not have a computer and came from very different backgrounds and had different access to technical equipment.
Judith: What about you, Claude? I could see you teaching.
Claude: Yes, I think if I’m going to do something alongside research, it’s going to be teaching. But for now, I’m looking into PhDs.
Ruben: Would you teach in Lebanon, or outside?
Claude: No, I would prefer to stay here.
Judith: I’m sure having you as a teacher in Lebanon would be so valuable for students. But I totally understand.
Claude: I have a lot of conflicting ideas about that myself, however it’s not really a choice right now. I left because I couldn’t take it anymore, and right now there’s barely enough room for life, let alone design education.
Lisa: Are you planning on doing a design PhD, or would you go into ethnography, or something else?
Claude: For now, cultural analysis.
Lisa: I’m looking at the time a bit because we have spoken for one and a half hours now. We usually say that we wrap it up after one and a half hours. How do you feel? Maybe some last thoughts?
Claude: As one last thought I would like to recommend a book that I’ve read recently: Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich. What interested me was the idea that students are trained to go to school every day, they are trained to fit within hierarchical structures, every day from the moment they start going to school. You barely have any freedom of time, even as a kid. The you graduate and you trade your time for money. I think this cycle should first be broken at the level of the educational system. For example, during my time at KABK, the only times or spaces that felt comfortable were where relations of power, but also the pressure of time was neutral, which rarely happened. But when it happens, it is these spaces that provide a chance to grow.
Ruben: Can I share like one last thought? What I realised when researching the history of education is that in pre-agricultural societies and hunter-gatherer societies, there was no distinction between play and school, and also not work. There’s a lot of research about how people in hunter gatherer societies learnt. And that’s basically that children and adults were not seen as different. They were like exploring and playing together, because that was the best way to learn about the environment and nature and these processes. It was actually the agricultural societies that had to produce labourers for land that started this kind of difference between play and schools. Now, when you are a child and you are at school, first you have to work and then you can play. And work, like Claude was highlighting, is always a hierarchical situation where you have to obey, you know, and obedience is the most important thing to learn. I think that has been the history of education since agricultural societies until now. So I think that the larger question of course, but also what happened with Paolo Freire  and these kinds of ideas, is to break this split between teacher and students. Also to break the split between society and school, but also work, society, school and being out of school. Which is what you were also highlighting, Lisa. These in-between spaces that Claude was also referring to.
Judith: My students say they learn most from me when I’m not teaching.
Lisa: [laughs] Nice. Don’t try so hard, Judith.
Judith: I think it’s the best comment I can get.
Non Linear Narratives (NLN) is a two-year master’s programme that merges investigative methods of journalism and forensics with processing technologies of computer science and visual arts.
Grundlehre is a Bauhausian idea. Find more infos for instance here: www.bauhaus-imaginista.org/articles/5176/three-preliminary-courses-itten-moholy-nagy-albers?0bbf55ceffc3073699d40c945ada9faf=b188d41349cfe485a9837e658ca6aa7d
Engl.: Entrepreneurial university. See for example Raewyn Connell: The Neoliberal Cascade and Education. An Essay on the Market Agenda and its Consequences. In: Critical Studies in Education 54 (2013).
The literal translation of the German word Bildung to english would be education. However, the term Bildung has its own historical genealogy and discourse which differs from the english term education.
Paolo Freire is a brazilian educator and philosopher who is known for his ideas on critical pedagogy.
Ivan Illich: Deschooling Society. London: Marion Boyars, 1971.
Paolo Freire (1970): Pedagogy of the Oppressed. UK: Penguin Classics, 2017.
Raewyn Connell: The Neoliberal Cascade and Education. An Essay on the Market Agenda and its Consequences. In: Critical Studies in Education 54 (2013), p. 99–112.
Tony Fry: Design Education in a Broken World. [online] The Studio at the Edge of the World. http://www.thestudioattheedgeoftheworld.com/uploads/4/7/4/0/47403357/fry-designeducation.pdf
Stefano Harney and Fred Moten: The Undercommons. Wivenhoe / New York / Port Watson: Minor Compositions, 2013. [online]https://www.minorcompositions.info/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/undercommons-web.pdf
Get in touch with the participants
Claude Nasser, Ruben Pater, Judith Leijdekkers
and Lisa Baumgarten
Many thanks for proof-reading support
to Sander Holsgens.
Conversations continued… is made possible with the kind support of Stimuleringsfonds