The Mental Furniture Industry
Flat Time House, London
29 June - 4 August 2013
Review by George Vasey
Stefan Collini’s recent book asks, ‘what are universities for’’ It is a question that each generation has inherited and responded to in different ways. Much has been written on the commercialization of higher education and the role that universities play is being questioned with urgency at a moment when tuition fees have become increasingly prohibitive coupled with deep recession and dire employment opportunities. Having studied at three different art colleges I can attest to the duplicitous position that art schools often occupy. Students are at once taught to be deeply critical yet inculcated with the notion of savvy entrepreneurialism; at once cynical yet attuned to the demands of the market.
The excellent and densely researched exhibition at Flat Time House, ‘The Mental Furniture Industry’, brings together archival material from the activities of three radical pedagogic activities of the late Sixties that in different ways articulate this double bind of cynicism and commercialism. The Anti-University, The Hornsey Sit-in and Alexander Trocchi’s sigma project are displayed alongside newly commissioned performance, video and audio works. Although divergent in terms of aims, personnel and context each attempts to orientate education towards non-hierarchical and more humanistic models (as opposed to an economic one). The context of Latham’s old house and studio (as well as his famous lust for pedagogic mischief) feels entirely fitting for a group of activities that sought a DIY and more intimate network of learning. The divergent activities can be connected through an attempt at ‘unlearning’ or ‘obstruction to instruction’ and ask important questions as to how knowledge is generated and distributed.
The flawed but utopian aims of the short-lived Anti-University, for instance, were a response to the ‘intellectual bankruptcy and spiritual emptiness of the educational establishment’. Where the Anti-University had clearly defined aims, Alexander Trocchi’s sigma project was a more obliquely situationist attempt at a kind of dissident contagion that would infect leading intellectuals. All too often, these radical gestures were hampered by rampant egos and lack of funds (or drug problems in Trocchi’s case).
You can see in the heated correspondence and documents something of a broader cultural shift, not just in education but in the distrust of ‘top-down’ institutions. The squatters’ movement, artist-run initiatives and unionized activity of the Seventies was part of an attempt at bypassing this ‘bankruptcy’. Both the Anti-University and Hornsey occupations attempted a trans-disciplinary approach seeking connections and new networks of learning - Nina Power raises the question in one commissioned text of whether we can situate current student protests within a continuum from the Sixties or whether the content of protest has radically altered. One could see the recent interest in alternate forms of education as an attempt to professionalize models of dissent into small scale and functioning institutions (see the newly established Open School East for instance). The activities brought together in ‘The Mental Furniture Industry’, although flawed (there is often scant representation of woman) resonates a sense of purpose. The question remains, how do we turn these ambitions into sustainable, and effective models without losing their radicalism’