Since the mid-2000s, I have taught in universities, art museums, and non-profit organizations. The Occupy movement of the early 2010s—specifically the organizing and protests against the Student Debt Crisis and the neoliberal privatization of higher education—moved me profoundly, and in 2013 I co-founded the School for Poetic Computation (SFPC), an artist-run school in New York that teaches art and technology.
From the very beginning SFPC sought to operate transparently, publishing the details of our finances and curriculum. We considered ourselves a small, for-profit organization run on a not-for-profit model. We tried to offer an affordable education and compensate our teachers fairly. The school soon became home to a community of artists, engineers and activists.
In spite of increasing visibility and recognition, the school suffered from mismanagement and lack of care. Last year, during the state of emergency ignited by COVID-19 and a resurgence of Black liberation protests, SFPC’s lead administrators—including myself—were called to account by the school’s teachers in a series of internal statements and in our slack channels for “racism and especially anti-Blackness within the school,” as well as “a pattern of exploitation of the care and trust of its workers.” As the only person of color in the original leadership and the initiator of our efforts toward diversity and inclusion, I was particularly disappointed by those failures that had resulted in Black students feeling tokenized.
Receiving these criticisms was painful, but also vital. It was deeply humbling to realize that so many lived experiences had been so at odds with the values we aspired to practice. In August of 2020, a group of teachers and alums became ‘stewards’ of the school. After a six months-long process of working with these stewards toward internal transformation, I stepped down from the leadership, taking accountability for my mistakes and making space for the next generation of leaders. In March 2021, I published an open letter to the community on behalf of the former administrators.
The past year has been rough. Still, this necessary reckoning does not erase the significant positive outcomes that predated and even coexisted with the missteps. Our alums often said that their lives have been changed for the better by their time at SFPC, and many have gone on to create beautiful projects and communities of their own. I’m grateful to have met so many wonderful people during my time there, and I’m excited for the future to come under the leadership of the stewards.
The past decade of my educational practice traces a parabolic arch: protesting against academic institutions, creating an alternative institution, administering that institution, and eventually becoming a subject of protest myself. Having been on both ends of such protests now, I find myself considering the distinction between intentional and unintentional harm within the structures of a capitalist and racist society. Intentional harm is inflicted when I intend to cause damage, whereas unintentional harm is inflicted without the desire to harm, however the impact is felt nonetheless. My experience has changed how I think about right and wrong, making me question the confidence of my past self, so certain that I knew what was right. I find that I no longer think about conflicts in stark binaries; having once dismissed such considerations out of hand, I now wonder about the place of context, even nuance, and whether they might ever have a place in true accountability.
I have been coming to terms with my complicity in capitalism and white supremacy. I felt defensive and misunderstood at first, then hopeless and dejected as the efforts of repair failed. In what felt like the darkest night, a former colleague mentioned a quote by Krista Tippett:
“I can disagree with your opinion, it turns out, but I can’t disagree with your experience. And once I have a sense of your experience, you and I are in relationship, acknowledging the complexity in each other’s position, listening less guardedly. The difference in our opinions will probably remain intact, but it no longer defines what is possible between us.” ― Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise Deluxe: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living
I am interested in the phrase “what is possible between us.” It provokes a sense of hope. I define unlearning as questioning “how we learn and what we learn”, a process that centers internal growth and the creation of our own community of self-taught (un)learners. Unlearning is an exploration of “what is possible between us.” On a practical level, within my classroom and studio, I have also focused on beginning to make what repairs are within my capacity. I’ve realized that it is important to be humble within my own practice, and that I may not achieve everything I set my heart to. I no longer want to set unrealistic expectations for myself and my collaborators. As long as systems of anti-Blackness, racism, sexism, ableism and classism exist, no work will never be ‘enough.’ Nonetheless, we must interrogate this very notion of ‘enoughness.’ We must keep trying.
I was invited by the beuys on/off project to interpret artist Joseph Beuys through the lens of ‘Education.’ Initiated by the Goethe Institut Tokyo, the project seeks to build connections with Eurasian communities. While I was aware of Beuys’ significance and aesthetics, I am only now discovering the complexity of his ethics. I have questions about how we might handle his legacy, moving past mere celebration to active and productive unlearning of his practice in our contemporary context.
My proposal for ‘Summer School of Unlearning’ was to engage educators and practitioners in Japan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and various neighboring regions in conversations about learning and unlearning. Jung-Yeon Ma is my main collaborator on the beuys on/off project, along with Jaemin Shin, a program associate. We invited Gulnara Kasmalieva, Muratbek Djumaliev, Sultan Mussakhan and Aigerim Kapar as our collaborators. They will be inviting a few more local collaborators to join us over the course of the program. Much remains uncertain, but I hope that a genuine connection between practitioners will be possible despite distance and cultural difference.
I approach the beuys on/off project with caution. I hope to avoid repeating the mistake of tokenization. When entering a new community, we must examine the optics of multiple intersecting power differentials. Here, I am an American artist with European institutional privilege inserting myself into a community and space to which I have not been expressly invited, all in the name of a project that celebrates a highly influential Western artist of the 20th century. As such, any conversation involving me runs the risk of cultural appropriation in the name of ‘cultural exchange,’ and must therefore be handled very carefully.
For a few months now, I’ve been working with a wonderful team in Seoul. It’s important to credit their labor, care, and creative input in all the projects I am doing these days. Suhyun Choi helped conceptualize the projects, produced a great deal of the writing, and facilitated various workshops. Jaemin Shin administered a myriad of details and communications. Ireti Akinrinade, Yena Yoo, and Ye Seom Ahn all contributed their creative and technical expertise. Without their support and generosity, none of this work would have been possible. Here are a few of our attempts to unlearn.
Praxis for Structural Transformation
Paulo Freire defines praxis in Pedagogy of the Oppressed as “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it” (Freire, 52). We organized the Creative Anti-Racism workshop to better understand the different types of racism and racial discrimination in South Korea. The workshop spanned three sessions between October and November 2020. We spoke about overcoming prejudice, avoiding and addressing discriminatory practices in our institutions. We read Ijeoma Oluo’s book So You Want to Talk About Race. Some of the thoughts that came up in these discussions are organized in an essay I wrote about why the Black Lives Matter movement is, in fact, relevant to East Asian people on HOMEWORK. Workshop producer Suhyun Choi spoke about Community Agreements as a way to introduce values and principles and establish how to facilitate a space. Such agreements can become tools to lessen harm, creating a shared understanding of how to communicate and practice consent. Together, we articulated our fundamental commitment to a politics that centers marginalized bodies. We also utilized the workshop space to engage in conversations identifying how white supremacy manifests in our psyche and our institutions, ultimately to produce protocols of inclusivity and care. To be ethical educators and artists, we must commit to unlearning the racism in ourselves and work to recognize its various forms around us. We have been particularly gratified to learn that participants are taking the experience of the workshop into their own teaching and practice. One participant, YeaJean Choi—a professor of dance currently working in the United States and Mexico—wrote What are Your Community Agreements in Dance Spaces? We believe efforts like YeaJean’s constitute the beginning of educational praxis for real structural transformation in academia.
Inclusive by Design
Since the fall of 2018 we have been working with CHAT (Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile) in Hong Kong on an exhibition and programs titled Interweaving Poetic Code. I am working as artistic director alongside CHAT’s chief curator Takahashi Mizuki, the CHAT team and my own studio team members. We organized a Poetic Coding workshop for students at the Ebenezer School and Home for the Visually Impaired, focusing on basic HTML and creating designs with ASCII symbols. The ASCII designs are output as knit products, enabling students to experience their learning in a tactile way. We sought to engage with low-vision students because we believe in supporting the self-determination of disabled communities through creative practice. The onset of COVID-19 has aggravated many challenges already faced by disabled communities, including but not limited to issues of access, isolation, and vulnerability. At the same time, children, too, have had their education compromised. Under these conditions, prioritizing and implementing pedagogical work for students such as those of the Ebenezer school felt ever more crucial. As part of this project, Suhyun Choi created a research document on Disability Justice in the U.S. and the disability movement in Korea. Carmen Cheung, who is a part of the CHAT team, gave us resources on better practices for accessibility. As non-disabled facilitators, it was our responsibility to do the necessary internal work that would allow us to approach the students with care and respect. This practice of unlearning ableism was foundational to meeting our disabled students where they were at and helped us to establish a learning environment of mutual regard.
Modelling Self-Directed Learning
Within the exhibition Interweaving Poetic Code is a space called “The Unlearning Space.” Inspired by mushrooms, which have decentralized, reciprocal, and interdependent relationships, we invite participants to use this space—and the workshops and programs that take place in it—to create something of their own using various crafts, textiles, and technologies. Like the mycelial networks of mushrooms, we wish to provide an environment rich with nutrient streams that supplement the ways in which a creative space of unlearning might also serve as an experimental space of making anew. To this end, we also invite people to co-create their own models of making even as we model our own praxis through the overall curation of the exhibition and programs.
Our pedagogy grounds us and questions our values. The praxis here is pedagogy in action, pedagogy as experiment. Eventually, this becomes pedagogy as invitation: a model in which others are welcome to play, to remix and remodel what has come before. How can these offerings, these seeds, be nurtured into a garden of knowledge and wisdom? We hope that these offerings are of use to you, and to all with whom they have been shared. I will keep trying to continue practicing, shaping, learning and unlearning with you as well.
Special thanks to Suhyun Choi who helped with writing, Jung-Yeon Ma and Jaemin Shin of the Summer School of Unlearning and Maya West who edited the essay.
- Tippett, Krista. “Becoming Wise Quotes by Krista Tippett.” Goodreads. Goodreads. Accessed April 14, 2021.
- Choi, YeaJean. What are Your Community Agreements in Dance Spaces? 춤이 공존하는 공간에서 공동체 협약이란?, February 24, 2021. https://www.knowboxdance.com/post/what-are-your-community-agreements-in-dance-spaces.
- Paulo Freiere, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Penguin Education, 1972), p. 52.