On the School of Apocalypse

Editor’s note: As an introduction, we cordially invite our readers to look at the School of Apocalypse’s official website, using this link.


School of Apocalypse is an alternative education project that asks about connections between creative practice and notions of survival. Developed in collaboration between myself, Catherine Despont, Tal Beery, Eugenia Manwelyan and Adam Stennett it treats the idea of school as a collective platform for inquiry that allows people to find collaborators and experiment with different modes of learning. To date it has had around 200 participants and has produced more than a dozen different projects.


I’m curious to know how these ideas will resonate with the experience of Venezuelan readers. I would like to think the lessons from the SoA are like a set of affirmations that can help locate hidden resources, no matter how dire the situation. What I hope is to describe some of the reasons for starting it, and the way we arrived at its structure so that others can experiment for themselves. The proof will be in the experiment.


"During most of history, people have understood the connection between art and survival". | Image from The Eternal Present: The Beginnings of Art by S. Giedion | Photograph by Catherine Despont
“During most of history, people have understood the connection between art and survival” | Image from The Eternal Present: The Beginnings of Art by S. Giedion | Photograph by Catherine Despont


About Apocalypse


The apocalypse always seems to be slightly in the future. There are moments when a vision of it rears its head in the aftermath of a bombing, or an oil spill, or a natural disaster, but often the fascination with such destruction has to do with sudden, cataclysmic scenarios, rather than ongoing conditions of suffering. The endless war, environmental destruction, the abject poverty of millions for whom modern systems have nothing to offer—these scenarios are rarely invoked in the minds of privileged Americans when they delight in the sublime aesthetics of “the end.”


The name, School of Apocalypse, was something that emerged almost immediately in my first conversation with fellow collaborator, Tal Beery. Though we didn’t actually spend much time defining what it meant. Instead, what seemed important was the fact that so many people feel like we are approaching some sort of boundary, or paradigm shift, whether ecological, technological or cultural/spiritual, and we wanted to ask why. We wanted to interrogate whether this sense of impending doom—or revelation—was really such a new feeling, and if so what experiences and conditions were connected to it.


Another striking similarity among apocalyptic visions is the idea that nothing can be done to prevent them—the monster, the meteor, the wave, the virus, all act beyond human agency; unless of course we are somehow rescued by the extraordinary actions of a hero or savior. The solution never involves the collective action of society, except maybe afterwards when we are all united by common horror. The tools of survival always seem to be defined in terms of violence or defense. And yet, clearly we would hardly recognize ourselves if we hadn’t also developed systems of trust and care and nurture. So why do these more constructive resources go unrecognized? It’s as though the only way to imagine an exit from the large-scale systems/problems that define our reality is through a landscape of destruction. Of course these versions of apocalypse simultaneously feed a fantasy of escape while confirming there are no solutions at all; since the technology, armies, miracles, leaders, capable of creating such change, simply don’t exist.


As artists, makers, and communicators it felt important that our own analysis of apocalypse should ask about the tools of creative practice as a means of survival. If there is indeed some value (and I believe there is) in thinking about a cataclysmic reversal of circumstances as a way of understanding what we have now, then I wanted to think about how it might also change my view of art. What do the tools of creativity—reason, sensing, feeling—enable us to know about the world? How does creativity engage possibility? How is communication related to survival? What resources are accessed only through community? And what roles do cultural forms themselves—music, dance, storytelling, image-making—play in the transmission of knowledge, and the creation of society?


About School


The educational philosopher, John Dewey, once warned that in a society where the majority of culture was stored in symbols (i.e. written information) there was a danger that the subject matter of schools would become “isolated from the subject-matter of life-experience.” When this happens he says, “permanent social interests are likely to be lost from view.” In other words, when the subjects of education are disconnected from lived experience, we also lose our understanding of the social function of learning. Learning then becomes just a means to an end—a set of information absorbed as a way to achieve something else, rather than a primary way of interacting with the world. It’s rare, for instance, that we learn things in ways that connect us to one another, or that we think of knowledge as something that we are collectively responsible for.


Clearly there are forms of art and education that seem impractical—if not completely irrelevant—in scenarios where you are contending for your life. And yet historically art-making has always been present, even when the conditions for physical survival haven’t been so assured. In a sense, the central question of the School of Apocalypse is also a question of connecting learning to life experience. It’s a way of asking about our own orientation to society/reality/creativity as a process of ongoing inquiry, rather than a fixed set of information or skills.


The cultural emphasis on the products (i.e. art works) of creative practice hides the primary activity of the arts—which is essentially a process of investigation through different modes of attention. What is revealed about the world through listening or through close attention to the body? Or, more broadly, how do we reach beyond the bare minimum of existence to engage with aspects of the world that are beautiful and harmonious? More simply, why do we have such tools—i.e. senses—in the first place and how are they connected to differences of experience? In a sense creativity is a mode of testing the limits of these tools.


Formulated this way creative investigation becomes a way of looking for and testing possibility. When learning is seen as a primary activity of experience rather than an institutional practice, it can take many different forms. Education doesn’t need to be restricted to a specific space, but the desire for such spaces emerge as a way to refine practice and share insight. When other people’s experience is recognized as a valuable resource for understanding the learning space also becomes a tool of community as well. “School” becomes a way to create time for ideas and practice that might not otherwise find a place in daily activity. It enables risk by creating support, and by transforming failure into a tool for reflection. The learning space is a context for heightened awareness that can can bring attention not only to subject matter, but to the effects of different attitudes, interactions and environments that might go unnoticed. School is a tool for slowing down, for simplifying, but also for thinking more broadly.




Initially my collaborators and I started by defining a curriculum that focused on subjects that felt relevant to the questions were asking about apocalypse/survival/creativity; but fairly quickly we realized the structure of the school needed to evolve to reflect the approach to learning that we were interested in. As a school for adults that isn’t awarding a degree of any sort, and isn’t offering any particular expertise we were free to consider some of the broader reasons that people seek out school. For many people the idea of art education is not just about learning a set of techniques, but about finding a community of collaborators who will help to think critically about their work. People also seek out school when they are at a juncture in their lives—when they are interested in changing professions, or have reached an impasse in the way that they work. We wanted to create a space that was open to inquiries that didn’t fit neatly into distinct categories.


We knew that the majority of the people participating would likely have full time jobs and that the program would have to accommodate busy schedules. We wanted a meeting structure that would allow new people to join easily, while also creating opportunities for participants to develop more intensive work. We didn’t want be responsible for a big administrative structure in part because we all had other work, but also because those structures have a tendency to create hierarchies that are counterintuitive to the culture of shared effort we wanted to establish. We wanted the intensity of people’s commitment to be dependent on their own interest, not according to our definition. We wanted structure and order, but didn’t want to establish ourselves as experts with answers, nor did we want to judge and control other people’s investigations. And we wanted it to be free of cost.


The expectation of receiving knowledge from a “school” setting is so ingrained for many people that one of the more challenging aspects of creating a collaborative learning space is to find ways of getting everyone to take responsibility for the experience. Part of this is a question of facilitation techniques (something we haven’t really formalized) but even more fundamentally it needs to be incorporated into the structure of the “program” itself. After a first round of classes that we (the organizers) taught ourselves, we quickly realized that the people who were interested in SoA had already been asking similar questions in their own work, and wanted to incorporate that knowledge. It was clear that if we limited ourselves to a single curriculum, no matter how great, we would never cover as much territory than if we created a framework that would allow people to suggest ideas they were already working with.


The core structure of School of Apocalypse is roughly based on the meeting structures of the Quaker Church, which has evolved an incredible set of tools for collective decision making in everything from business questions to interpersonal disputes. (The decision to use it came from my experiences attending a Quaker meeting in Brooklyn. The history of this meeting structure is too long to go into here, but I highly encourage people looking for alternative institutional models to read about it more deeply.)


The primary format is the “monthly meeting.” It meets the same time every month and has presentations and discussions on themes that are decided by the administration group. Anyone can join at any time. Once a quarter (i.e. every three months) we have a “quarterly meeting” and these are platforms for suggesting subjects of research, as well as presenting work that has been done. Anyone can suggest a research topic or project at these meetings—there is no requirement for prior attendance. This proposal process is the only way that subjects are determined, which means that something proposed by myself, or my collaborators moves forward in the exact same way as something proposed by a person who is new to the group. A subject of research moves forward and becomes a “working group” as long as the person who presented the idea can find two other people to become collaborators. “Working group” topics are posted online on the SoA webpage and Facebook group and are completely open to the public. People suggesting topics make a 5-10 minute presentation at the “quarterly meeting” and then have one month to convene a meeting with potential collaborators to confirm the project they will work on. The groups have three months to develop a project, and each group defines their own way of working. They present the results of their work at the following “quarterly meeting” and also online on the SoA website (still a work in progress.) All working groups can continue working for as long as they like and there is no limit to the number of working groups that can form.


The first round of working groups presented their projects in December and included a project led by artist Mary Miss in conjunction with representatives of the New York City Department of Design and Construction to define a series of guidelines for including artists in city building projects. Artists Sarah Cameron Sunde and Eve Mosher created an online platform that made a global map of artists working with bodies of water to consider the larger themes related to that element. Co-founder Eugenia Manwelyan and Nelesi Rodriguez created a series of teaching prompts in the form of a deck of cards that offered ways to connect information transmitted through the body within intellectual inquiry. Another group met in public spaces and used movement to investigate the social structures created by architecture, while another did research into the use of flags as tools for control and communication.


This session we have 12 working groups in progress that include everything from the creation of a survival library, to an investigation of mushrooms, the development of new peace symbols, as well as an inquiry into the language of law as a medium that artists might interact/intervene with.




I’m incredibly inspired by the work of these groups, not only because of the range of ideas they’ve investigated, but also because of the community that has emerged in the process. In a sense there is always the possibility that it could go very differently—we might receive proposals that don’t seem compelling, or find participants who are not invested in the program—but having seen things go well I feel compelled affirm certain ideas about the conditions that enable learning.

      First, it’s important to define clear parameters for inquiry that allow like-minded thinkers to connect. Often such perspectives are missing from institutional learning where programs are defined according to resources or the reputations of past students, but not according to any particular outlook or orientation towards the goals of learning.


      Second, there is no need to create a high point of entry when the subjects of study are defined by the learners themselves. There is no need for applications, pre-requisites or tests to create a rigorous environment for learning. People who are invested in learning will work hard to learn and only need opportunities to do so. In scenarios where people have set their own course of research, people are quick to correct their course when the work doesn’t produce new insights.


      Third, community motivates learning. The feeling of shared discovery, the sense that you receive something from others and that others rely on your contribution to move forward often creates a sense of personal investment that can actually be much more difficult to maintain by oneself.


      Fourth, excellence is a product of trust. There are times in a “working group” or discussion when a really exciting idea emerges, but just as often the excitement of learning comes from a sense that someone has just taken a risk, and perhaps even failed. There is a shared feeling of both generosity and gratitude in these moments, as though a gift has been offered that gives others permission to say more. This trust enables more risk, as well as more honest critique.


There are probably many more things I could affirm here about the links between creativity, learning, community, and our collective survival. But I think it’s enough to say that I believe a lot of people have had these insights, and sometimes all that is needed is a framework that connects them in order for new systems to become possible.

About the author:
Catherine Despont is a writer/artist, editor and educator. She has an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University, and her writing and teaching focus on the role of observation in the way we teach, learn and create. As Director of Education at Pioneer Works she organized the annual Summit on Pedagogy, and the Alternative Art School Fair. She also oversaw PW’s publishing projects including the bookstore, Pioneer Books, and the Groundworks book series. She is a founding faculty member of the School of Apocalypse.