Early History of the School for Designing a Society

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The School for Designing a Society is a grassroots, non-accredited, school for social change, started in 1991 following a decade of experimentation with formats of art and teaching in the 1980s. The proposal of the School grew out of an experimental University course where the idea was to invite participants to articulate desire statements, to research their interests in the current society, and to design, construct, formulate, propose projects, or simply speak in such a way that would not happen otherwise. Almost all of the organizing activity of the school has been in Urbana, Illinois. The originators of the School were motivated by the political necessity for a forum where groups could engage in creative tampering with communication formats in order to trigger social change (Parenti, Enslin & Brün 1995). The idea was to take art/composition beyond the traditional boundary of the arts and applied to social structures.

I recently researched the “pre-history” of the school, during the 1960s, 70s and 80s. During this time, a group of students around music composer Herbert Brün worked together to make experiments in art and activism around the reception of art in society. In a certain way, one such idea was to have a school that would bounce the ideas of art/design back upon the society. In this sense, from the first the six-week pilot school offered in 1993, and even up to the present day, the project has been a proposal to foment social revolution by grounding struggle in a discourse of the arts. The school now lives at the IMC, and this article proposes to share some of its long history.

Early History of the School for Designing a Society

Herbert Brün described part of the pre-history of the School for Designing a Society in a video made at the 1993 Summer School. He described a time in “the late sixties” when students at the University of Illinois approached Heinz von Foerster, then Professor of Neurophysiology in the College of Engineering, and requested a course on “heuristics”. According to Brün, the students described heuristics as “doing research stepwise, and having the goal change while we do research. Therefore the result will clearly be a case of a process and not of achievement.” Brün was invited to assist in teaching the course, and for the first meeting of the class they had 156 students! Brün’s contribution to the class was an assignment that converted the patriotic loyalty slogan “right or wrong, my country!” into a provocation to write statements under the title “right or wrong: my desires.” The assignment was to write declarations of what one wants that doesn’t exist, to call that a “desire statement”, to write as many as one can, and to make them short, so that one can later be asked about them. Brün added: “the concept of feasibility is excluded, you are not supposed to judge whether what you want can be met or cannot be met – you want it, period.” The students from the heuristics class initially thought they wouldn’t need a full week to produce a list of desire statements. Instead they discovered that the assignment was difficult enough to be worthy of an entire semester.

The milieu in Urbana used Brün’s assignment for two decades: not only critiquing the clichés of the current society, but also formulating desires for a different society. In the relationship between Brün and his graduate students, the school was born. Marianne Brün described the origins of the school in a video made in 2001 (by Eric Hiltner – an early member of the UCIMC), just after Herbert’s death.

In 1981, I gave a class at Unit One, at the University of Illinois, called “Designing a Society”. That class was repeated a couple of times. The idea of it, for me, was to make an analysis of the society we live in, and then look at what aspects of the present-day society, the status quo, we don’t want, and what kind of a society we do want. The image of that society [had] two functions: one, a critique of the society we live in, and [two] the beginning of a path to a new society. That was quite successful with the students, and it was then a few students who had been in that class, or close to the class, who started the School for Designing a Society. (emphasis original)

This “class at Unit One” is well documented (Brün 1985), but the lesser known story is that of the milieu as a whole. Susan Parenti spoke about the origins of the school in the same 2001 video.

We started the school so that (not because), so that our friends could work together. That’s probably the best way to talk about it. For years, in the 1980s, we had been meeting at Cybernetics Conferences. Meeting, in the sense that our friends were across the country. And so, when we would all come together, one of the main topics would be education, social change, and were we doing some project together? We each had our projects here [Urbana], and Virginia Beach, Lansing, and Chicago. In 1984 – 1986, a group of students of Herbert and Marianne Brün’s met with Marianne for about three years and we talked about starting a school in Chicago.

For two years, Marianne Brün tried to get foundation grants for that project, then called the Institute for Global Education in the Systems Age.

School for Designing a Society during the Summer of 1993

Group photo from the 1993 Summer School for Designing Society at the Gesundheit Institute. Photo by Maria Isabel Silva.

The grants were rejected, Marianne moved back to Germany, and the group scattered. Susan declares in the same video: “Do not wait for the funding!” According to Parenti, the group that stayed in Urbana became a performance ensemble, and the cross-country group continued to look for some project to work on together. It was Herbert Brün’s idea to have a “nursery of projects” — rather than substitute one project for another, to have multiple projects that are protected by the gesture of a “school” — so began the idea of a School for Designing a Society.

In December 1987 there was a conference at the University of Illinois organized by the Performers’ Workshop Ensemble entitled “Creative Cybernetics: Our Utopianists’ Audacious Constructions”. This was Urbana’s first encounter with Patch Adams, a medical doctor who focused on happiness and social change, who was invited to the conference as a guest speaker. This was also the first time the Performers’ Workshop Ensemble hosted a “Cybernetics Fair” (or “problem jostle”), where conversations on topics/questions of interest were placed on cards and hung from helium-filled balloons above tables, interspersed with short performances. The aim was to have multiple conversations, in a short period of time, on topics that were chosen by the group. The PWE group achieved this by creating “stations” where one would sit and discuss, briefly. The announcement that it was time to switch stations was signaled by a brief performance of music or a skit. This format would be used to generate agendas at the first School for Designing a Society in 1993, which was hosted at Patch Adams’ project site for the Gesundheit Institute in West Virginia. That project still exists, and Patch Adams now resides in Urbana, Illinois where he continues to support the work of the School for Designing a Society at the Independent Media Center.

Brün, Marianne. (1985). Designing Society. London: Princelet Editions.

Parenti, S., Enslin, M. & Brün, H. (1995). Recontextualizing the production of “new music”. In R. Sakolsky & F. W. Ho (Eds.), Sounding off! Music as subversion/resistance/revolution. (pp 226-233). New York: Autonomedia.

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