Rethink, Reframe, Remodel

Joe Potts, founder of The Southland Institute, discusses his alternative model for graduate education

Interview by inform • Images courtesy of Joe Potts

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Alumnus Joe Potts, the driving force behind the creation of The Southland Institute, talks to us about his motivation for creating an alternative postgraduate education focussing on critical typography.

What is The Southland Institute? What prompted you to create it?

The Southland Institute is an unaccredited two-year postgraduate workshop and evolving public online repository of educational resources, built around a central curricular helix consisting of the tools, processes, histories, and discourses of typography and critical art-making. It is also intended to be a forum for inquiry into the processes, potentials, and complications of education and its attendant structures and systems.

In other words, it’s partly a graphic design program, in that it foregrounds uses and histories of typography and graphic design, but it aims to do so in a way that addresses things more from an angle of thinking about typography as a formal, physical, and structural manifestation of language, and publication as artistic practice, and looking at the ways that the tools of graphic design have been, and can be, activated in the service of practices that might be more discursively aligned with certain strains of critical art-making.

How did your own education at CalArts and teaching at Otis inform your ideas for TSI?

Many seeds of what would grow into the Southland Institute definitely came from my time at CalArts, though not necessarily from the places that I might have thought. I went through CalArts in a somewhat unconventional way, which, while I wasn’t necessarily thinking about it at the time, was actually in line with some of the earliest notions of the school as a truly interdisciplinary institution. I did an Interschool degree in writing, graphic design, and integrated media, so I was exposed to people and conversations throughout multiple departments. Jon Wagner’s contemporary film theory class was one that I still think about a lot today. In addition I would often sit-in on courses, the most significant probably being those of James Benning and Michael Asher.

The majority of my time though was spent in the graphic design program, and this is something that definitely infuses the Southland Institute, particularly in terms of ideas of the importance of structure, communication, and the power of typography. In recent years, I’ve been doing a lot of research into the trajectory of certain strains of post-conceptual art and institutional critique, particularly those interested in activating the medium of the publication as exhibition space. There’s a line I’m interested in following that starts with (Seth) Siegelaub and his Xerox Book and his “Artist’s Transfer and Sale Agreement”, both of which, in different ways have had long reverberations of influence, and I find that graphic design is an interesting lens to view these things through, one that adds another layer that much of the scholarship on them doesn’t spend much time on.

My teaching at Otis has informed the project mainly in the sense that it’s been a sustained inquiry into the practice of teaching as an integral part of a larger creative practice, one that also includes aspects of writing, design, and music, and a growing appreciation of the interconnectedness of all these things within my own practice, and the ways they can (and do) strengthen and reinforce each other. The way that teaching is a practice of paying close attention, of listening and responding, of drawing connections, as well as a point of articulation for some of the ideas that emerge through these other practices, has been a welcome discovery. The other thing that has been great about teaching there is that it affords the opportunity to continue, on a regular basis, conversations that started during my own time as a student—and that continue to evolve—with other teacher-practitioners in the context of team-taught classes. And of course the conversations that happen all the time with students.

It seems fair to say that TSI is a critique of the current state of Graphic Design education. Can you talk about what you saw missing from education that you wanted to address with TSI? There were pedagogical as well as economic reasons correct?

I think the thing that felt missing—maybe not so much from my own education, because I really went out of my way to get them—from art and design education more broadly, was the idea of cross-pollination that gets paid a lot of lip service in many institutions. It seems difficult to implement in practice when there are things in place like departments and semi-rigid curricula.

Spending time talking to classmates from the various programs, it would often feel like they had a different way of framing concerns. Language, text, concerns around the history and discourse of art, the making of meaning, ways of looking and seeing, the roles of modernism and post-modernism, the role or relevance of form or the formal… All of these things feel central to an education in art, writing, film, or graphic design, but they often felt (artificially) channeled into the different curricula, presented as semi-isolated phenomena, and it would be up to the students to take the initiative to navigate between them. There were definitely places where the streams crossed: Lorraine Wild’s History of Graphic Design class comes to mind right away.

I was interested in the notion of a truer trans-disciplinary approach, one coming from an informed place, where there’s a receptivity to a range of conversations, and a willingness to engage and connect the dots between the conversations.

And then in addition, as you mention, there are economic reasons. These are probably the least ambiguous, but also sometimes the least openly discussed. While financial aid certainly helps to offset things somewhat, many private art schools now are in the $40,000-$50,000 /year range. Add a conservative $12,000/year for food and lodging and you’re looking at $100,000 to $120,000 for two years. That’s somewhere between $1100-$1300/month if you’re looking to pay it off in 10 years. It can be less with income based repayment frameworks, but it’s enough to get in the way of saving any money, or qualifying for loans to buy a house. And so on one hand it’s a simple economic proposition: what if there was a way for quality education to cost less? And then there’s another component, which is the fact that the educators at most of these schools aren’t making enough to live off of, let alone pay down their own debts. I’m not so delusional as to think that the Southland Institute is going to solve any of this, but it is interested in asking the question, and proposing an answer, of what fair compensation for faculty looks like. To my knowledge, no institution is framing the compensation discussion in this way. It’s always ‘what are peer institutions doing?’ So in a sense we’re hoping to be an institution who’s doing the right thing on a small scale, and building that into the structural and financial business plan of the school.

Lastly, and importantly, it’s also proposing that these two aspects of a school, the curricular and the economic, aren’t actually separate. At every school I’ve been involved with, as a student or an educator, they try to pretend that they are. If part of what we’re interested in is examining systems, structures, and the way things function, part of what we want to look at is our own inner workings. In a sense it’s an open source approach, and I’m curious to see what comes of it.

That’s all a long-winded, digressive way of saying that the interest is in setting up a truly affordable, critically rigorous, self-directed, typographically focused program in the United States that treats its faculty well. It doesn’t seem like an entirely unreasonable set of goals, but by the ‘what are other institutions doing’ metric it seems off the deep end!

Detail of The Southland Institute prospectus poster, and archetypal southland image by Joe Potts.

Detail of The Southland Institute prospectus poster, and archetypal southland image by Joe Potts.

What at first seems like a theoretical academic proposal, is now being turned into an actual organization. Can you talk about that particular process? Has it been difficult to implement?

It’s still maybe too early in the process to answer. I’d been thinking and talking about starting a school for a long time. I think the goal has always been to turn it into an actual organization, and building the foundation for that—an ethos and approach—over the past year or so has been incredibly important. As I’ve taken incremental steps towards realizing it, I’ve encountered a number of other schools, through research and talking to people, that sometimes feel like they haven’t necessarily taken this step fully, that they’ve just said, ‘hey, let’s start an alternative school!’, which is great, but Southland Institute is aiming to be, hopefully, something with more substance and longevity.

As for implementation, that might be a better question for six months, or a year or two from now. There are still the big questions of how to attract the best participants, of having a fixed space or being more nomadic in the early days, and of course the ever present question of financial sustainability and resources. I don’t imagine it’s going to be easy, but if it gets even partially realized, that will be a success. It’s exciting to me that even just the web page and prospectus could probably keep a motivated person busy for at least a year if they wanted to dig into it.

How many students are currently enrolled, and when do you expect the first students to graduate from the program?

We just opened up applications recently, and are still receiving and processing them, so no-one is actually officially enrolled yet.

The plan is to start this Fall. If enrollment is good, we’ll proceed as planned, if it’s low, we go back to the drawing board of what the institute might look like in the meantime in terms of programming, public outreach, etc.

The program is two years, so May 2019 would be the first graduation, if all goes well.

Can you talk about what historical models influenced you in shaping TSI? Any contemporary models?

Obviously it’s hard to talk about educational experiments, particularly those advocating hybrid or transdisciplinary aspects without acknowledging the influence of the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College, and yet the context now is so different that neither of these seem particularly relevant as direct models. But I do think that some of the aspects of their conception and existence, particularly with regard to the idea that disciplines need not be so discreet, is still relevant.

There’s a line I really like from the Black Mountain prospectus: “[A base principle] worth emphasizing (it is still generally overlooked in those colleges where classification into fields, because of curriculum emphasis, remains the law) is that Black Mountain College carefully recognizes that… it is not things in themselves, but what happens between things, where the life of them is to be sought.”

And some of that was present in the early days of CalArts as well, and remains a talking point in the literature, but as I mentioned before, besides the physical proximity that comes from being contained in a relatively small campus, I think a lot of people go through there with blinders on.

Another place that’s interesting historically is the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, particularly in the late 60s and early 70s, when they were bringing people like Dan Graham, Lawrence Weiner, Sol LeWitt, Joseph Beuys, and others. Their press from that time, in their “Source Materials of the Contemporary Arts” series, published some really incredible books by Steve Reich, Hans Haacke, Yvonne Rainier, Dan Graham, Michael Asher, Allen Sekula, and a whole bunch of others as well. Some of them seem to be slowly getting reissued by contemporary presses, but the relationship at that time between these publications and their communication of and with the school itself is a compelling one.

As for contemporary models, as part of starting the Southland Institute, I’ve been doing a lot of research into other contemporary models. I think we are definitely in a moment right now where, in this crisis of the cost/benefit equation of higher education, things have definitively tipped towards the “great, but probably not worth what it costs” side of the scale. As a response to this, there are hundreds of ‘alternative’ programs cropping up. There was an ‘alternative art school fair’ in Brooklyn last fall with at least 50 schools. The idea that education can happen outside of established institutions, while nothing new, seems to be gaining even more traction in the current climate, but still a lot of the offerings feel tentative. Particularly in the field of design, there are lots of summer programs popping up all over the place, some as extensions of established programs (Van Eyck, Werkplaats) others by people with I think similar goals to the Southland Institute, of making aspects of this kind of education more accessible, which is great, but a lot of them are very short 1, 2, or 3 week things. The shorter timeframe makes a lot of sense, and is undoubtedly easier to implement, but what I’m hoping to create / recreate, are a lot of the aspects of higher education that happen over time: discovery, space, connections, the time to let things gestate and unfold, with enough structure to allow for meaningful growth.

So in terms of contemporary or recent models, probably the most direct influences might be something like the Werkplaats Typografie in Arnhem, and then while not an actual ‘school’, the post-studio art class that Michael Asher taught at CalArts from 1973-2008. While very different from each other, something that both of these ‘institutions’ have in common is an open-endedness, a reliance on a self-directed approach to projects, and then the structural / pedagogical / educational components being a response to what is initiated by the participants rather than an assignment based approach. The longevity and legacy of each of these are also especially compelling.

Other things, that have been inspiring, though they may differ significantly in content or approach, are a project called the Parallel School, and a school in Los Angeles called At Land’s Edge. There’s also a school in New York called the School for Poetic Computation, which is super inspiring in terms of its transparency, financial self-sustainability and ideas about compensating its instructors fairly.

The one thing i do wonder about is how TSI could work without a physical space…with many of the models you cite a physical space and an intimate critical relationship with peers and faculty, seems essential. I certainly felt like that informal close community was part of how CalArts functioned at its best…

I think you’re totally right about that, and it’s something that’s very much on my mind. Ultimately it comes down to funding. One of the things that I’ve seen, and was an interesting discussion that came out of the alternative art school fair, is that for a lot of these projects, it ends up being a choice between spending money on a space, and spending money on faculty, and in many cases they opt for the former, which to me feels like an unfortunate repetition of one of the major problems with the larger system that these new schools are ostensibly responding to. I had actually proposed a class to teach at one of them last year, not expecting much, but thinking there might at least be a stipend, but basically the only way the school could function at all was if everyone (administration included) donated their time, which gets us back to the sustainability question. In line with what you’re saying, I think that having a shared space for people to work, even if it’s just desks in a room, absolutely goes a long way towards fostering that level of closeness and sustained engagement that you’re talking about, in a way that only coming together once or twice a week just can’t. I really want that to be a part of it. And in time I think that it will be, but maybe part of the coming into existence involves either foregoing that temporarily, or having it but in a more itinerant way, say for instance someone donates a space for 2 months while things aren’t happening there, we could use that as an impermanent home base, which might be a good, and even productive, compromise, or an opportunity to actively engage with a particular site.

It seems to me that many educational institutions have become bloated with expensive administration, while ignoring faculty themselves and shying from experimental pedagogy, or even individual student development—in short ignoring the education itself, instead placing emphasis on the students non-educational experience while at college. And of course that runs up the cost of school to pay for the facilities and the administration to run them.

Absolutely. The thing you mention about ignoring faculty is a real problem, and one that I would argue directly effects the students and their development. Its not hard to see where it comes from. In addition to what you mention about bloated administration, I think another part of that issue is the fact of so many of these schools, from big universities down to small art schools with histories of alternative or even radical pedagogies, are, despite being not-for-profit, being run in a very business-oriented way, often by people whose own administrative and managerial backgrounds are in business, and this particularly visible in the emphasis that gets placed on never-ending growth over sustainability or actual quality, and then also in the way that labor is treated. And this wasn’t explicitly part of your question, but I think its worth mentioning that this is one of the weird paradoxes of accreditation. To my understanding, accreditation exists for the ostensibly admirable reason of ensuring that for-profit institutions aren’t exploiting students and taking in federal funds while doing it. And yet what’s happening in a lot of places is that accreditation, while it might be keeping the for-profit Universities of the world at bay, it’s also far from a guarantee of a quality education. The accreditation processes I’ve been through and witnessed have involved a lot of extra (unpaid) work for faculty, heightened stresses all around, and generally taken people’s focus and attention off of where it should be, and onto bureaucratic paperwork that once it’s done gets discussed at a meeting and filed away. (This is not to say that it doesn’t or couldn’t have value, so much as that it’s also an institution that shouldn’t be immune to scrutiny.)

And yet at the same time, it is obviously necessary to have some sort of oversight when the thing that’s being sold costs $50,000, $100,000, $200,000. Maybe its the time I’ve spent in Los Angeles, but I find myself often going back to an automotive metaphor. It’s like accreditation exists to make sure that the car works, that it isn’t a lemon, that the engine isn’t going to fall out, that it’s not made of plastic, that it will get you from point A to point B. What it doesn’t do is look at the nature of the vehicle itself and ask, is this really necessary? Is it ethical for us to finance these Bentleys? To bring the metaphor back to Southland, what we hope to offer might be something between a bicycle or motorcycle and, say, a Mazda.

That seems like a perfect metaphor for the current situation…

As for your comment about shying away from experimental pedagogy, I think that’s clearly a direct result of the cost / accreditation equation… the idea that if this much money is on the line, there’s not room for experiments, we want something that we know works! We want guarantees on our investment. We don’t want to be sold a bill of goods, which makes sense, but of course runs completely opposite to the nature of experimentation, where the whole point is that there is no guarantee. There’s a quote from Baldessari, which seems fitting in view of the role of CalArts in all of this, where in response to the question of “Well, can art be taught at all?” he says: “I prefer to say, ‘No, it can’t. It can’t be taught.’ You can set up a situation where art might happen, but I think that’s the closest you get.”

How does a sentiment like that go over with accreditation bodies like NASAD or WASC?

Yeah, definitely not going to fly. There’s just not a place for that sort of sentiment or approach in the M.O. of rubrics and quantifiability.

Your proposal seems counter to these more mainstream institutions. Do you think TSI is the alternative or the new model?

The Southland Institute definitely runs counter to what I fear has become the new reality of institutionalized education. So in that sense it’s clearly an alternative. But what I think we are going to see happen, what is already happening, but still in the nascent stages, is that smaller, nimbler schools / workshops / programs / micro-institutions / etc. are going to start filling the growing space that the larger institutions are pricing themselves out of.

There are a lot of people out there who think and care a great deal about education, and the value of education at all levels, for whom maybe there isn’t room at existing schools, or the pay and conditions of working at these other schools just isn’t worth it. Or others who are working within these high-cost institutions but feel confused and compromised by the ethical conundrum of providing an excellent education, while also knowing firsthand, having gone through it themselves, that it’s a deeply flawed system they’re participating in. That that while it definitely opens a lot of doors, it is also—if a person has gone deeply into debt while there—closing others that no-one is telling them about.

So anyway, I do genuinely believe that this state of things is creating a condition in which more and more of these schools are going to open, and a lot of them are going to be run by really great people. And it’s going to be relatively easy for them to get other people involved, because creating conditions that are superior to conditions at existing institutions isn’t going to be hard. And so in this way I think that in being an alternative to the old model, it also is going to become / is in the process of becoming, a new model. What will be very interesting to see is how the existing institutions respond to it. Will they try to absorb it? Compete with it? Delegitimize it? Litigate it? Ignore it completely and continue with business as usual?

What would your ideal outcome for TSI be? How would you like to see it develop in the future?

There are a lot of potentially ideal outcomes. Generally, I’d just like to set it in motion and see what happens. If something doesn’t work, that will be useful information. That it existed at all will be one ideal outcome.

An even more appealing outcome would be that TSI finds a way to sustain itself over a long period of time, that it can be an affordable and valuable resource for those who enroll, with reverberations that carry well past the time they spend there. I would love for it, by its own ability to function, to model a workable alternative to the increasingly fraught current system.

Another ideal outcome would be that its existence and viability as an alternative (and/or the aggregate effect of numerous things like it), shifts the conversation, even slightly, on an administrative level. If something about it makes students, faculty, and administration, within itself and elsewhere, see and think more clearly about their own roles in the educational system, and its larger connections to the economic system it contributes to, it will be a success.

In terms of the future, while it is starting with its focus on graduate education, at some point down the line I would be interested in adding an undergraduate, or introductory component, and perhaps to have aspects of it somehow embedded in or connected to a community college or other accessible external framework.

Joe Potts is a graphic designer, educator, artist, and writer working with found and synthesized images, sound, typography, and language. He teaches typography and graphic design at Otis College of Art and Design and the University of Southern California, and is the founding director of the Southland Institute (for critical, durational, and typographic post-studio practices).