Interviews with Working Class Autodidacts Practicing in the Field of Media Art, and Activist Art Culture

For my PhD, I wrote a chapter dedicated to an autoethnographic methodology, called From Autodidact to Autoethnographer.

My research explores a whole range of histories, subjects, artists, platforms, software, networks, critiques, and ideas, going back over twenty years, in relation to Furtherfield. However, two important themes have demanded attention throughout the study, and they both need to be part of a larger debate, requiring attention and deeper research. They are both about being working class and an autodidact. Not only is there a lack of knowledge of this about the working classes in the art world, but also across the (New) Media Art sectors.

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 think we need fresh thinking on this issue, and by connecting up with others, and seeing where they are coming from, it will add crucial evidence and new knowledge, with new narratives, to what has been for over 20 years or so, at best: murky, confusing, and ambiguous territory, usually hidden from public discourse (unless as entertainment) on the sidelines of culture, whether this be in the arts, media or in politics.

I’m aim to construct an empowering narrative that proves how our radical imaginations are flourishing, and have found ways around the static systems of elitism and hegemonic domination over the working classes, and outsiders. Once gathered, this is a story worth sharing so we can cut through, infiltrate, and hack, these complacent media streams, and locked in zones, so we, ourselves with others, can rediscover and new routes for emancipation.

The interviews include Stewart Home, Shusha Niederberger, Jennifer Seaman Cook, Stefan Szczelkun, and Heath Bunting.

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.

2. 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 fetishising 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. Any other thoughts here….

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

_______________________________END_________________________________________________

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 concious 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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 😉

5. What does being an autodidact mean to you?

freedom. a way of existence.
being transdisciplinary avant la lettre.
being myself while evolving.
being inventive.

6. Any other thoughts here….

Being an autodidact is a way of refusing the system.

_______________________________END_________________________________________________

Jennifer Seaman Cook

Jennifer Seaman Cook is a transnational American Studies scholar, writer, and documentary mediamaker. 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, PopMatters, 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.

2. 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 Humanties 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.

3. 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).

4. 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 no where to be found. In fact, you were paying the balance to teach yourself with your student loan and one or two part time jobs.

5. What does being an autodidact mean to you?

Survival. Spydom.

6. Any other thoughts here…

Learn it. Turn it inside out.

_______________________________END_________________________________________________

The next two are directly copied and pasted from email.

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

_______________________________END_________________________________________________

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

2. What does being an autodidact mean to you?

repeatedly failing to find a mentor

3. 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

4. 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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