From Forms to Formations: A Conversation with Luis Jacob

by Michael DiRisio

 

Toronto-based artist Luis Jacob makes work that often connects disparate points, with social, political or material themes. While he may be best known for his Album series, where he assembles and laminates found images that share formal or conceptual concerns, he has also demonstrated a sustained interest in collaborative projects that foster intimate, informal communities. This is evident in his past work with the February Group—a collaboration with Adrian Blackwell, Cecelia Chen, Christie Pearson and Kika Thorne—where they gathered 66 abandoned mattresses from around Toronto and laid them out in Nathan Philips Square to protest the homelessness and dispossession caused by the Conservative government’s municipal amalgamation. An expansive, participatory installation, the act of laying out the mattresses in the square transformed the function and use of the public space.

Jacob’s later installation Anarchist Free School Minutes (1999)—the focus of this interview—explores a similar approach to community-building. It was motivated by his role in the founding of a free school in Toronto, which followed democratic and anti-hierarchical principles. In the anthology Anarchist Pedagogies, Allan Antlif, who was also a co-founder of Toronto’s Anarchist Free School, writes that anarchists approach education as a “site of critical reflection” that prefigures the horizontal organization of communities that those critical of a stratified society strive for.¹ Jacob’s installation includes the documents—or ‘minutes’—that record the discussion that took place in meetings where the free school was developed, as well as a reading area that features contemporary zines and other print material from local anarchist groups. The Agnes Etherington Art Centre subsequently acquired the installation, and Jacob has stated that each time the work is exhibited the gallery must source new anarchist print material for the reading area. This has the added effect of supporting anarchist info shops and other alternative organizations in the future, with the installation’s growing collection of material offering an informal archive of the evolution of anarchist communities.

Luis Jacob, Anarchist Free School Minutes (1999)

Luis Jacob, Anarchist Free School Minutes (1999)

 

Modern Fuel: I wanted to start with the Anarchist Free School itself; if you can speak to how it developed, how it was structured, even what the experience was like. 

Luis Jacob: I see it as a collective coming into formation: at first it was simply a group of people agreeing to get together; then it morphed into a collective with a shared project, a set of shared ideas. The idea developed that once the Anarchist Free School was launched—at the first meeting—the organizing group would dissolve. The people who showed up at the first free school meeting would be the Anarchist Free School.

[It continued] for a long time completely run on a volunteer basis. It was very active. Often there’d be 5 or 6 classes a week, and each class could go for 4 months. We had, I think, two or three semesters of a class almost every day, for three years. It was kind of amazing.

For me, this idea of the free school connects with my understanding of artist-run centres. Obviously artist-run centres are not necessarily anarchist organizations, but the idea of self-organizing something that you feel you need in your community is definitely part of it.

MF: I think it’s frankly telling the Foucault dedicates a fair bit of his book Discipline and Punish to the origins of our education system; can you speak to this relation between academic institutions, the disciplines they entail and how this relates to broader disciplinary regimes?

LJ: Education in general is intended to inculcate you in the forms of organization of society. Of course you learn about a specific subject matter; if you study pharmacy, you are educated about the practice of pharmacy. But more generally, you are inculcated in hierarchic forms of organization—such as the relationship between student and teacher—that apply in the workplace, such as the relationship between employee and employer. Such things are taught not as explicit subjects or themes; hierarchies simply are how things run and you learn to adopt these forms unconsciously. These are as much a part of what is learned as the subject-matter is.

I was thinking about that notion of education, which happens almost at two levels; as the subject matter of the topic that you are attending the class to learn; and the unconscious subject matter, which has to do with organizational principles that are most frequently hierarchical. These are the unconscious things that we end up learning: identity, our role in society, what we can expect in terms of freedom of movement, or lack of freedom of movement.

Within the meeting-minutes, you really see people asking: What do we mean by ‘anarchist’? What’s anarchist about what we are trying to do? Is it a matter of black and red badges, or does it have to do with other things? What does it mean to have a ‘school’? And what’s a ‘free’ school? Given that most of us, who have gone through a normal education system, expect education to be hierarchical, and if anarchism is about questioning hierarchies, then how do you do a school according to anarchist principles? How do you enact a nonhierarchic education? Obviously there’s no simple answer to that.

As I see it, the project is as much about organizing courses as it is a group of people trying to figure out how to relate non-hierarchically with one another. If you’re working with a group of people, it’s very easy to go on the ‘default setting’ of hierarchic relationships. How would you avoid that? That’s as much a part of the Free School as the classes were: the process of figuring out how you would do that.

Luis Jacob, Anarchist Free School Minutes (1999), detail

Luis Jacob, Anarchist Free School Minutes (1999), detail

 

MF: You’ve mentioned that you would like the installation to act as a guide for initiating similar projects; I was wondering what kind of response the work has generated and what your sense of its reception is.

LJ: That work has been exhibited three or four times, and every time it has been exhibited in university galleries. It was produced for an exhibition at the Art Lab at Western University. Then it was exhibited at the Agnes Etherington [Art Centre] at Queen’s [University]. It was also exhibited at OCAD University. I love that its exhibition history takes place in the context of educational institutions. In that sense I think of the work as a kind of countermodel. Not that I think in such clear black-and-white ways about the difference between anarchist free schools and, say, Western University—but I do think it’s interesting to present a model of a different way of doing something inside of a place that has its own ways of doing something.

For me it’s important for students and young people to be able to see pieces like that, to sustain the idea that if you need something and you don’t see it around you, then you can start it. Just that basic do-it-yourself idea is something that has to be constantly reiterated, otherwise it gets forgotten. There’s always a risk of people seeing their role in terms of the question, “how do I plug into what already exists, how do I get my foot in the door and plug in?” It’s understandable, we all have to get our feet in the door to participate in whatever we are trying to do—I’m not knocking it—but to me if that’s the only possibility we see then it’s very disempowering. Once again, it’s that hierarchy: you see something, and then you see yourself as outside it, trying to get in; you are constantly asking the people inside, “how do I get in? Please let me in?” It’s a subservient position.

If you saw yourself as someone who is able to initiate something—as well as plug into something—then I think it’s simply a more empowered position. It’s important to have those conversations, especially around young people.

MF: I appreciate your installation fostering these networks, and showing zines brings attention to that.

LJ: I’m just speculating, but it’ll be interesting to see—thirty years from now, if the piece is exhibited a few times—if you can actually look at the archive of zines that the work has accrued, and almost ‘read’ how the priorities of activism or anarchist discourse has evolved over time. There might not even be zines thirty years from now, for all we know, and that’ll be an interesting part of how the piece will have to evolve as well.

 

Endnote

1 . Allan Antliff, “Afterword,” in Anarchist Pedagogies: Collective Actions, Theories, and Critical Reflections on Education, Ed. Robert H. Haworth (Oakland: PM Press, 2012) 326.

 

Citation: "From Forms to Formations: A Conversation with Luis Jacob," Syphon Issue 3.2 (Spring 2016), Modern Fuel Artist-Run Centre.

Return to Syphon 3.2