Interviews with Working-class Autodidacts Practising in the Field of Media Art, and Activist Art Culture.

Introduction

This paper draws from of an autoethnographic study about Furtherfield, London’s longest running centre for art and technology. Since 1996, the organisation has formed alliances with artists, technologists and activists, who have dedicated their lives to learning and updating their skills and practices. The PhD, explores a whole range of histories, themes, artists, platforms, software, networks, critiques, and ideas, going back over twenty years, in relation to Furtherfield, as an international hub that originated on the web, and how now it also a gallery and Commons space, which has been focusing on decentralised and distributed peer-to-peer practices, and seizing and challenging debates about the role of art and technology in society.

Even though I had included a chapter titled Autoethnography As Research Methodology For Networked Artistic Practice, I learned that it was missing a more in-depth study on the subject of being working-class, across the fields of: art, technology and social change. Since the rise of the alt-right and the decision by 52% of UK to vote Brexit. There has been much discussion regarding the working-classes who voted for Brexit, that they were seeking revenge and new alternatives to get their voices heard at whatever cost. What is interesting among the many conversations on this subject is that the working-class voice for pro EU, anti-racist and anti-fascist, is not as visible as today’s thriving identity politics, who tend to sit on the left side of social activism.

I aim to present evidence with an empowering narrative that proves how our radical imaginations are flourishing, and found ways around the static systems of elitism and hegemonic domination over the working classes, and outsiders. Once gathered, these unearthed stories, will cut through, infiltrate and hack, the complacent ‘art, academia and media streams’, and their locked in zones, so we, ourselves with others, can rediscover new routes for cultural emancipation, in the 21st Century.

The interviewees for this short study, are: artists, curators, hacktivists, and academics, ranging: from Stewart Home, Shusha Niederberger, Jennifer Seaman Cook, Stefan Szczelkun, and Heath Bunting.

The Interviews

Stewart Home

Stewart Home, is an English artist, filmmaker, writer, pamphleteer, art historian, and activist. He is best known for his novels such as the non-narrative 69 Things to Do with a Dead Princess (2002), his re-imagining of the 1960s in Tainted Love (2005), and earlier parodistic pulp fictions Pure Mania, Red London, No Pity, Cunt, and Defiant Pose that pastiche the work of 1970s British skinhead pulp novel writer Richard Allen and combine it with pornography, political agit-prop, and historical references to punk rock and avant-garde art.

  1. How does it feel to be working class in your practice?

It feels like I’m constantly discriminated against for how I talk, write, think… because the gatekeepers for the institution of art want to treat the white, male, bourgeois culture as being universal. Therefore, when you do not adhere to the norms of a falsely universalised non-universal culture you are generally are not welcome.

  1. How has class and being an autodidact informed your practice and decisions?

Since I view the institution of art and the academic system as defective and only interested in an over specialised and narrow approach to specifically culture but more generally the entire world, and essentially one that is commoditised and in which everything is approached from the backwards perspective of cultural objects being more important than the communities they emerge from, it has led to me taking an oppositional stance to this. On the one hand I want to reflect and buttress the experience of growing up in and still living in a multicultural community; on the other I don’t want to reproduce the classist, racist and sexist culture that is dominant within the institution of art and academia. I also want to avoid fetishizing the making objects or furthering absurd romantic ideologies about so called ‘genius’ – I am however willing to engage with them in order to rebut them. These problems are not issues restricted to culture since they can be found in science and elsewhere too.

  1. How do you think class might be better understood in the cultural sector you work in?

The only way it will be understood is to massively increase the number of working-class participants at the same time as massively decreasing the number of bourgeois participants. Since those who were privately educated and went to ‘elite’ universities are either blind to – or pretend to be blind to – their privileges, removing those privileges is the only way to address class within the cultural and other sectors, such as politics. When someone in the culture industry with a private education and an ‘elite’ university background claims they struggled to get where they are, this should be challenged and contrasted with how much more difficult it is for someone who went to a state school and who didn’t attend an ‘elite’ university to get where they are.

  1. What circumstances led you realise you was an autodidact?

Initially it may have been reading the novel Nausea when I was in my early-teens and having to look up what an autodidact was because I didn’t know. It seemed to me the – and still does – that the author of Nausea Jean-Paul Sartre, like George Orwell and many other writes sometimes presented as being progressive by right-wing hacks, was a bourgeois snob. I’ve never read books alphabetically as the character in Nausea does, and no one with even a tiny modicum of intelligence would do this. The fact I read Nausea in English translation is also an indication I was an autodidact. Other things leading me to realise I was an autodidact included the fact I don’t always know how to pronounce ‘correctly’ – according to those with privileged backgrounds – various words and names within cultural and other discourse (less of an issue for digital natives but definitely one for autodidacts who went through their teens in the seventies and eighties as I did). Likewise, that I research any subject I’m interested in, whereas I find that those who’ve been to ‘elite’ universities assume they have mastered subjects they haven’t properly understood and have no idea they need to apply themselves to acquiring knowledge in an active way.

  1. What does being an autodidact mean to you?

That I’m able to think and learn for myself. I’m not a brainwashed and pre-programmed privately educated product of an ‘elite’ university uncritically reproducing bourgeois values in everything I say or do.

  1. Any other thoughts here….

I prefer thinking to thought, it’s more active! And of course, it is necessary to continually re-forge the passage between theory and practice!

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Shusha Niederberger

Shusha Niederberger, works at HEK. Is an artist, educator, researcher, self-appointed nerd. Lives near Zurich. Research associate for SNF funded research project “Creating Commons”, IFCAR Institute for Contemporary Art Research, ZHDK. Lecturer on contemporary net culture, F+F Schule für Kunst und Desing, Zürich. Curator of educational program HEK Zürcher Hochschule der Künste.

  1. How does it feel to be working class in your practice?

In my practice as art educator and researcher I know two ways of being conscious of me being working class. The first, and this applies mostly on a professional meta level (which means dealing with institutional settings, funding, politics) is feeling different. I think the term habitus is quite appropriate here to describe the difference. I feel often uncomfortable, alienated, mistrusting. Sometimes I have difficulties to read the logic behind proceedings. I often feel that people find me too direct, too loud, too clear.

The second one, in contact with visitors, the non-professionals, I feel very connected – to both them and my field of expertise. I can get things through, I know their world, I can read their faces and expressions. I feel home.

  1. How has class and being an autodidact informed your practice and decisions?

For me it is certainly true that class and autodidact come together. Working class in Switzerland is very common, and it comes with a pride of an excellent system of professional education. So, I did learn a profession. I know stuff, I know it is professional knowledge, I know the working ethics, and I know it is valued generally. This gives me security. And on that foundation, I was able to go on and autodidact myself into internet technologies, artistic research, and arts education. So, being working class is also a fallback security net for me. If that new thing doesn’t work out, I can go back to prepress, to web design. On the other side, my generally positive experiences with autodidacts made me realize I can do anything.

I am proud of being an autodidact on most aspects of my current practice. I am more and more aware how highly unusual my way is, and the qualities that come with that. My decisions are informed by a sense of independence, but at the same time I am very cautious about my limits. My limits are in not- knowing how systems outside of working-class work. Academia for example.

  1. How do you think class might be better understood in the cultural sector you work in?

It should be addressed directly and named clearly. Class is a category I started to understand and explore only recently myself. Nobody talks about class in Switzerland, officially, there is nothing like class. What we try to address in art education as “cultural participation” should be questioned in terms of class.

  1. What circumstances led you realise you was an autodidact?

The working-class term for autodidact in German is “Quereinsteiger” – the one who arrives from the side. DeepL translates it as “lateral entrants”. For me lateral entries were always the most direct and fastest way to get somewhere. But honestly, I often followed instinct and opportunities. And instinct never told me to go back and get high school graduation.

I work in fields that existed until recently only by ways of autodidacts. Only recently the system has started absorbing it and wrapping all kind of educational curricula and ETCS points around it. Probably it’s time to move on 😉

  1. What does being an autodidact mean to you?

freedom. a way of existence.

being transdisciplinary avant la lettre.

being myself while evolving.

being inventive.

  1. Any other thoughts here….

Being an autodidact is a way of refusing the system.

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Jennifer Seaman Cook

Jennifer Seaman Cook is a transnational American Studies scholar, writer, and documentary media maker. Working at the intersections of politics and poetics, she specializes in visual and public cultures, cultural and social movements, and media and technology studies. Her most recent essays can be found in 3:am Magazine, Pop Matters, Salon, and Heide Hatry’s photography book Not a Rose. Jennifer’s poetry and hybrid cultural history has been published in Berfrois, Cedilla Literary Journal (archived at University of Montana), Queen Mob’s Tea House and more.

  1. How does it feel to be working class in your practice?
    In both academia and museum work this has been executed through contingent labor contracts and is alienating. I find my outlet through freelance, which gives my precarious cognitive labor some sense of futurity. It also allows me to seek funded work by the project where, little support is available in my contracted positions.

  1. How has class and being an autodidact informed your practice and decisions?

I understand that I need to come into this being given very little epistemological mentorship or training. I have to come bringing the value expected of me from middle class structures I have not had access to, which I had to draw from my autodidact self-extractions and networking. I have been to academic conferences in the Digital Humanities where this is openly discussed as normal, where it is expected that interns need to have the skills to be brought onto the projects at the undergraduate level! As a graduate student this has been disheartening, and my outspoken nature against this has both outcast me and sharpened my network, my community, precisely.

  1. How do you think class might be better understood in the cultural sector you work in?

Class in synonymous with access, expectation, epistemology, discourse, and skill level in the arts cultural sectors of academia and museums. This strange ‘pay-to-play’ factor expects you to show up as an already-ready-already extractable product and is biased towards embodiment. I’d argue that it’s not enough to make up for it by being an autodidact of the cunning cognitariat. There is a profound misunderstanding, or rather, classed bias in the notion of putting time in or ‘boots on the ground’-ism equated with putting in the cognitariat work but also being able-bodied, healthy and wealthy enough to also show up to extra hours and events to get noticed and advance. A lot of less visible, creative, networked cognitariat work gets absorbed by salaried employees who absorb, exploit, or are otherwise unconscious of the work of the autodidact working class within these institutions (museums, academia especially).

  1. What circumstances led you to realise you was an autodidact?

That it was the only way to get ahead in public school, and then university on my earned partial scholarship. There weren’t mentors. When I got sick, or one tear when I was in a car accident, professors wouldn’t schedule hours to catch me up. Graphic design classes assumed you should know the software. Everything seemed to run on resources that were nowhere to be found. In fact, you were paying the balance to teach yourself with your student loan and one or two part time jobs.

  1. What does being an autodidact mean to you?

Survival. Spydom.

  1. Any other thoughts here…

Learn it. Turn it inside out.

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The next two are directly copied from emails.

Stefan Szczelkun

Born in London post WW2 of displaced working-class parents Stefan grew up in the suburb of Shepperton. He studied architecture at Portsmouth before joining the Scratch Orchestra. Had some success as an author in the UK and USA with three books on our basic life supports: Survival Scrapbooks: Shelter, Food and Energy. Whilst at college he ran the Portsmouth Arts Workshop after being inspired by the Drury Lane Arts Lab and came in contact with leading experimental artists of the day, including Cornelius Cardew and The Scratch Orchestra. Then researched the elements of human ability whilst working with New Dance Collective and wrote for their magazine. Much later this work was published as Sense – Think – Act.

Subject: Stefan Re: PhD questions…

To: Marc Garrett <marc.garrett@furtherfield.org>

Hi Marc,

I’m not strictly an autodidact as I went to a lower-class Architecture School at Portsmouth in 1966 with two E passes at A level. (Later I did an MA at Maidstone and a PhD at RCA!)

Apart from that:

It feels like the mainstream cultural institutions are not for the likes of me and wouldn’t welcome me into their operation as a consciously working-class artist. I see them as the class enemy and I find it Very annoying they continue their cultural psych-ops with little or no critical challenge with regards to class and culture.

I do not relate well to academia which I see as the enemy (J)

Look at the history of Humanism and the university; it is integral to state functioning.

So, I try to think (including making art) for myself outside of those contexts and outside of mainstream publishing (which I see as the enemy of working-class artists and intellectuals, as is education in general – yes that is the enemy too!)

Class should be understood… ~RAGE~

Working-class people should get their share of the taxes that go to pay for culture made and shown on our own terms. Our own artists, commissions, curators, places etc. The bourgeois class has plenty of money to pay for their own shit.

I was an ‘autodidact’ (or autonomous thinker?). When I realized what I did was always different from the ‘Norm’.
As I said I’m not an autodidact. To me It means someone who has educated themselves and is not sullied by school, college, high art etc.

It’s hard to think about this because it evokes such strong feelings of exclusion and injustice. Our knowledge is not built with the means to process such strong emotions that the throwing off of oppressions entail. We need an oral process to do that.

(Please take care quoting out of context! unless anon.)

Best

Stefan

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Heath Bunting

Heath Bunting’s main work, The Status Project, involves using artificial intelligence to search for artificial life in societal systems. Politically he can be described as an imperial dissident. Aside from this, he is currently training artists in security and both in-door and out-door survival techniques so they can out-live organised crime networks in the coastal forest during the final crisis. He is also the immoderator of implausible denial lobbying list.

  1. What circumstances led you realize you was an autodidact?

when i started teaching computer science to my teachers when i was 13

  1. What does being an autodidact mean to you?

repeatedly failing to find a mentor

  1. Where in society do think being an autodidact is and can be useful?

best positioned on the edge of society as a critic and reformer

  1. Any other thoughts here…

how about employing me?

i have a new project called implausible denial i have a mailing list of 12,000 uk politicians that i subject to anti-imperial propaganda

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Conclusion

All participants above are well versed in surviving the social constructs built around them, but not necessarily built for them. My own personal artistic and activist journey has usually involved being outside of institutional frameworks. The irony is, many of those whom I have been intellectually stimulated by have tended to be academics themselves. This includes: Judith Butler, Richard Barbrook, Gabrielle Coleman, Mark Fisher, N. Katherine Hayles, Guy Debord, McKenzie Wark, Donna J. Haraway, Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, Stewart Home, Mary Shelley, Murray Bookchin, Sadie Plant, Michel Foucault, Arthur Kroker and Marilouise Kroker, Kathy Acker, as well as new critical thinkers, techies and artists.    Throughout the whole PhD, is the spirit of autodidactism and that self-education is a drive that has pushed Furtherfield, as having agency in the world.

In fact, I have a history of self learning,

“for nearly a year I managed to pretend I was going to school, whilst hiding concerned letters from the headmaster sent to my parents about my regular absence. I would enter the library seeing all the different kinds of people, of all ages researching, reading the abundance of books, accessible to anyone. It also had a small cafe then which was not much of a deal, but going there for breaks in between reading about art, technology, science, religion, sociology and politics etc, helped to create a certain sense of self-assuredness. Sitting in the cafe I would overhear adults discuss what they were reading. I learned a lot about the inquiring minds of other human beings and felt that I was a part of something that until then, was a hidden secret.”[1] (Garrett 2011)

            The British theorist, Mark Fisher, brought to his writings, personal reflections, illuminating past experiences on punk and post-punk culture, with a critical depth; whilst bringing it forward to make sense in today’s society. Like myself, Fisher was deeply influenced by the politics and music of the late 70s and early 80s, and similar expressions afterwards, such as Jungle and Rave. Fisher managed to write about the personal, philosophical, cultural and political, combined. He regularly discussed and reflected on the experience of growing up while living under the pressures of capitalism in the UK. He describes a generation of young, creative thinkers in the early 80s, where “its leading writers were autodidacts who had not gone to university but who nevertheless were steeped in post-structuralist thought and used to flaunt this in the pages of a music newspaper that was then selling hundreds of thousands of copies.”[2] (Fisher 2016) This history that Fisher discusses is close to my own. For years, until this PhD I have been an autodidact.

Art, which is an autodidact process defined by research and experimentation, actually shouldn’t be taught. Teaching art means transferring existing technical, aesthetic, or conceptual recipes. Teaching art therefore closes options instead of opening them, and defeats the whole idea of forming artists.” (Camnitzer 2015)

People choose to be artists, or be engaged in aspects of arts practice and arts culture, for many different reasons, from many different social contexts, and not necessarily because they went to college or university to study it. This complex assortment of entry points is rarely considered in the mainstream art world, unless when discussing a famous artist. One obvious example is Francis Bacon, who never studied at an art school and had his first professional exhibitions were in his 20s. He was popular with the arts establishment and had work displayed in the Museum of Modern Art. The BBC made two documentaries about his work and life while he was alive, Francis Bacon: Fragments of A Portrait (1966) and Francis Bacon (1988). 20 years after his death, Francis Bacon: A Brush With Violence (2017), also produced by the BBC.[3] There are strong links between autodidacts, race, class, grass roots culture, and music.

John Lydon, once lead singer of the Sex Pistols, and since 1978 P.I.L, in an interview on a BBC4, documentary, when talking about education, he said

I took every exam that was ever available and I really, really enjoyed it, too. I found education to be not a thing you turn your nose up at and sneer at, but to be an absolute release. But then I always loved books, when I was very, very young I could read and write before I went to school.[4] (Lydon 2008)

In the late 70s, 80s, and early 90s I played in bands, and regularly watched bands play. For me, music was not separate from art, it was art. It was not only myself who felt this. You only need to look at Cabaret Voltaire’s early releases, out of Sheffield. Claiming artistic agency is not only about asking questions about art, as a medium, or as a culture, but also how one’s ideas link up with others in society. It can extend through one’s own creative practice. Gavin Butt in, Post Punk: Then and Now, says ‘Playing in a band, being part of a broader collective was then – at least as Lycett understands it – a strategic move to escape the entropic pull 70s culture and society.’[5] (Butt 2016)

I have met many practicing in the field of new media art, defining themselves as autodidacts. We need fresh perspectives on this societal issue and by connecting up with other working-class practitioners, whom are also engaged in Postdigital contexts, it will add crucial knowledge, with new narratives that have been typically hidden from public art and media discourse. However, this is not necessarily about who is an autodidact, it concerns a recognition that working-class creative production exists and that it currently does not have a voice.

[1] Garrett, Marc. How a Library Saved My Life. Furtherfield. 07/02/2011

http://archive.furtherfield.org/blog/marc-garrett/how-library-saved-my-life

[2] Fisher, Mark. 2016. Post-Punk Then and Now Paperback. Eds. Clayton, Eshun, Gartside, Butt, and Fisher, P. 14. Repeater.

[3] McNeil, T.K. (2017) ON BEING AN AUTODIDACTIC. The artist unleashed. http://www.theartistunleashed.com/blog/on-being-an-autodidactic-by-tk-mcneil

[4] Reynolds, Simon. (2008) Rip It Up and Start Again. FOOTNOTES FOR RIP IT UP AND START AGAIN: POSTPUNK 1978-1984. http://ripitupfootnotes.blogspot.co.uk/2008/11/footnotes-2-chapter-1-public-image.html

[5] Butt, Gavin. (2016) Being In a Band. Post-Punk Then and Now Paperback. Eds. Clayton, Eshun, Gartside, Butt, and Fisher, P. 61-62. Repeater.