Julia Morandeira Arrizabalaga
In Defence of Skhole
On Adelita Husni-Bey's
Postcards from the Desert Island , 2010–11

The project seems rather simple from the outset: a group of schoolchildren at the École Vitruve in Paris, aged seven to eleven, are proposed a three-week undirected workshop in which they have to imagine and organise life from scratch in a desert island. The school is a self-run elementary public institution founded in the early 1960s by Robert Gloton, a key figure of the progressive educational movement Éducation Nouvelle in France which, under the slogan Tous capables! (‘All capable!’), defended the active participation of the individual in the pedagogical process.1 Still to this day, the École Vitruve develops an experimental project-based curriculum in which the autonomy of the student and an ethos of cooperation and exploration lay at the centre; all in all, a favourable milieu in which to carry out the proposal, made by the artist Adelita Husni-Bey.

The experiment taking place in Postcards from the Desert Island (2010–11) draws from William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies (1954) and a lesser known short film from 1958 titled Holiday from Rules?, in which four children complaining about the excess of rules regulating their daily life are teleported to a fictional island where prohibitions and norms are banned.2 Towards the end of that film, the kids, having complied with the omniscient narrator’s premise of ‘no rules, no fun’, beg for the return to a world structured by rules. In a nutshell, the desert island experiment aims at unearthing the participants’ internalised social structuring – what forms of governance, what distribution of power and what institutions they deem as fundamentally necessary – as well as their ability to organise and imagine life in common accordingly. In line with this, Postcards from the Desert Island basically departs from the following research hypothesis: will these children, because of their atypical education, be able to produce an alternative model of society to the hegemonic, or will they replicate existing normative structures?

Anarchist pedagogies have historically sought to dismantle the construction and naturalisation of social forces operating through education. All of them, without exception, share a critique of the school’s capital role in the production and reproduction of social structures, ideology, and ultimately, control; and, conversely, celebrate it as a groundbreaking site for resistance, social change and radical imagination. These methodologies and ideas – Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed (1974), Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society (1970), or Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968), all of them resounding in Adelita Husni-Bey’s work – seek to build a critical consciousness of the world and develop pedagogical tactics aimed at building a just, cooperative society, worth living in. The children’s makeshift society unfolds in the school hall, transformed into a stage by the presence of a sombre, jungle-painted backdrop. Throughout the experience the children prove to be well equipped to collectively negotiate, build forms of consensus and assume responsibilities, as well as to organise a variety of complex situations they encounter: i.e. how to distribute work, how to deal with immigration or punishment, whether to introduce money or maintain bartering, whether to legislate the line between public and private space and if so, how? Every issue they face sparks different opinions and debates, leading them to form councils that attest to their great culture of negotiation, collaboration and autonomy. It is the conflict between the children’s different positions that drives the narrative of the piece, which reaches a final point of protest where kids chant ‘Pas de roi! On veut être libres!’ (‘No king! We want to be free!’) against one of their number who has proclaimed himself king. Amid the chaos of the demonstration, the film beautifully ends with a discussion between a couple about whether they should abolish the town hall too in order to be completely free, or rather, whether it is the town hall which allows them to be free. The conclusion the children reach is: to first dethrone the king, then abolish the town hall and from there resolve everything in assembly.

Adelita Husni-Bey, Postcards from the Desert Island, 2010-2011 (video stills). Courtesy of the artist, KADIST collection

Adelita Husni-Bey developed this work in 2010–2011, a time of world-wide turmoil over the forms of ‘organised abandonment and organised violence’ that resulted from the 2008 financial crisis, in which education reforms and protests became important in different parts of the world.3 2010 witnessed the rise of student protests in the UK (with echoes in Dublin and Wales) against spending cuts to further education and the dramatic rise of tuition fees, a situation that has worsened with Brexit. Throughout the long 2011 austral winter, Chilean students took over the streets to stand against the overall privatisation of the education system (established by Pinochet’s dictatorship and pretty much unchanged to this day) and the bleeding social breach it fuels. During roughly the same period, Colombia stormed against the higher education reform proposal which did not guarantee universal access to education but further benefited profit-making private initiatives. The decade also saw a great deal of education-related activism in the US: a change from the general consensus against ‘bad teachers’ in 2010 to a firm defence of public education against (again) the infiltration of private-corporate interests in public schools, historically segregated by design, as well as a great amount of opposition to the systematisation of student loan debt and the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’.4 It was during this time too that Husni-Bey gravitated towards anarchist pedagogies and the Radical Education Network – a natural pursuit of her interest in anarcho-collectivist movements, be they in the form of rave parties, singles-only cooperative housing or tree-sitting protests. Of special interest to her was Francisco Ferrer i Guàrdia, a resolute anarchist educationist and freethinker, who founded in 1901 the Escuela Moderna in Barcelona, a rationalist, secular school aimed at including the working classes within an education system based on the interrelation of social responsibility and personal freedom. Ferrer i Guardia’s work and legacy had a great impact in US anarchist circles with the foundation of the Modern Schools.

Postcards from the Desert Island was first shown in Adelita Husni-Bey’s 2012–13 solo exhibition at Gasworks, London, titled ‘Playing Truant’. The film was presented together with the painted background that appears in it, together forming an installation, alongside two other pieces: The Living House (2012), which delved into the legacies of the Modern School and Ferrer Commune in Stelton, New Jersey; and Policy. Benchmark. Criteria (2012), a timeline surveying the history of educational policy in England from the 1970s, then governed by a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.5 Highlighting the funding cuts of successive Education Acts, circulars and papers, the timeline (printed on a wall drawing of an elongated arm with a hand holding a stopwatch, a direct metaphor of the measurable efficiency-driven neoliberalisation of the education system) culminated in the establishment of ‘a network of city academies, effectively private schools paid for by the state’. Exposing these case studies, the show opposed the appropriation of the ‘free school’ from two different traditions, the anarchist and the neoliberal: an understanding of freedom stemming from the radical potentialities of the learner’s capacities in society, versus a measurable, controllable and manageable freedom understood as individualised choice by the student-as-entrepreneur. It is the latter that, since 2012, has unfortunately thrived in the form of a regime of ‘catering’ education, imposing a well-calculated mediocrity by means of a crippling bureaucratisation and standardisation.6

Adelita Husni-Bey, Postcards from the Desert Island, 2010-2011 (video stills). Courtesy of the artist, KADIST collection
Adelita Husni-Bey, Postcards from the Desert Island, 2010-2011, SD video transferred on DVD, 22'23''. Courtesy the artist and Laveronica arte contemporanea.

With regard to education, the concept of freedom can variously be instrumentalised by different political positions. But it is, first and foremost, one of education’s fundamental principles. The school is, according to its Greek origin, a place of skhole: of ‘free time’ – a time of study and exercise ‘disconnected both from the oikos and the polis, and hence freed from daily, economic and political occupations’.7 According to Simons and Masschelein, it is an ‘invention, including a particular form…that creates a particular time, space and matter’ defined by three principles. The first is suspension, as an ‘act of de-privatisation or de-appropriation’:8 an invitation to both students and teachers to be free from any assigned role (be it private, social, cultural, political) to just become students and teachers like all others, effacing the tailored individualism of the catering regime. The second trait, borrowed from Giorgio Agamben, is profanation: ‘a condition where time, space and things are disconnected from their regular use…, where something of the world is open for common use’ and we experience its potentiality.9 It is in this worldly and worlding set up that the third feature appears: the school as a medium where attention and interest are cultivated, ‘a time of regard for the world, of being present to it (or being in its presence), attending it, a time surrendering to the experience of the world, of exposure and effacing social subjectivities and orientations, a time filled with encounters and opportunities to study and exercise’.10 Teaching is accordingly decoupled from the logics of expertise and professionalisation and, rather, defined by ‘school-mastery’: a caring, genuine relation with the subject/matter, and with the world.

Moments of crisis such as the current pandemic have laid bare the schooling infrastructure mostly everywhere, exposing the profound inequalities on which it stands.11 Crisis, too, reveals the great amount of reproductive work that goes routinely unacknowledged, hopefully, heightening our valuing of it. To the contrary, online learning has exacerbated the class and technological divide while furthering the lockdown fiction of a world severed of libidinal, communal relations. As Nishant Shah puts it, online learning is based on ‘a Disneyfied idea of the user, defined only by the engagement with technology in a closed cybernetic loop’ which ‘flattens all the historical inequalities of class, gender, religion and culture’ as well as the ‘feminised, invisible and racially-charged material practices of teaching’: a learner-as-user perspective which fits (because it requires it) a controlled and disciplined idea of learning, aligned with the interests of tech corporations and the principles of neoliberal education.12

 Le roi est nu: Covid-19 has exposed the invisible new clothes of the emperor, as Bruno Latour pointed out in a recent interview.13 The system’s fallacious omnipotence has been stripped down and with it opened up the possibility for bold changes.14 Schools are life-affirming projects that need to be defended. Fighting for good schools, good learning and good education implies fighting against social injustice, against mass incarceration, against racism and classism, etc. In short, fighting for a liveable world. Paraphrasing Ruth Wilson Gilmore, we need to transform the current anti-school school into a pro-school school: a free, public, wild skhole, like the children’ society of Postcards from the Desert Island. Learning begins when we reject the orderly, mediocre learner-as-user and the student entrepreneur and we accept ‘the flawed, libidinal, transgressive and emotional aspects of learning’.15 In the near future we are to work with (even) less funding and on a mandatory scale of closeness. But proximity, as this pandemic has shown us, is extremely contagious and transformative. Pas de roi!

Adelita Husni-Bey, Postcards from the Desert Island, 2010-2011, SD video transferred on DVD, 22'23''. Courtesy the artist and Laveronica arte contemporanea.
  • 1. Founded in 1962, the same year that saw the end of the Algerian war, it is important to note that the school was permitted to open with an alternative experimental curriculum as part of the immigration integration policies the French state was putting into place. Éducation Nouvelle was part of the larger progressive education movements that emerged in the late nineteenth century as a reaction to the traditional Euro-American curriculum, and was shaped by the theory and practice of educators such as Friedrich Fröbel, John Dewey, Maria Montessori or Rudolf Steiner, to name a few.
  • 2. Postcards from the Desert Island can be viewed online, upon registration, at https://kadist.org/work/postcards-from-the-desert-island/. Holiday from Rules?, dir. William H. Murray, USA, Portafilms, 1958, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vjMp2ax4Mik (last accessed on 25 May 2020).
  • 3. The term ‘organised abandonment' refers to, for instance, austerity and ‘organised violence’ refers to criminality, deportation, etc. See ‘Ruth Wilson Gilmore on Covid-19, Decarceration, and Abolition’ [online video], Haymarket Books, 17 May 2020, available at https://www.haymarketbooks.org/blogs/128-ruth-wilson-gilmore-on-covid-19-decarceration-and-abolition (last accessed on 25 May 2020).
  • 4. Jennifer Medina, ‘Progress Slow in City Goal to Fire Bad Teachers’, The New York Times, 23 February 2010, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/24/education/24teachers.html (last accessed on 27 May 2020). For a historical survey of the design of American public schools and the segregation-driven economy at its base, see Noliwe Rooks, Cutting School: The Segrenomics of American Education, New York: The New Press, 2017.
  • 5. Adelita Husni-Bey, Policy. Benchmark. Criteria, 2012, wall drawing and vinyl lettering. On this work, one could read for instance ‘Education (or “Milk”) Act (1971). Abolishes schools’ obligation to provide free milk and meals to school children, leading to the popular chant: “Thatcher, Thatcher Milk Snatcher”’.
  • 6. Pascal Gielen and Paul De Bruyne, ‘Introduction. The Catering Regime’, in Pascal Gielen and Paul De Bruyne (ed.), Teaching Art in the Neoliberal Realm. Realism versus Cynicism, Amsterdam: Valiz, 2012; Anne Hjort Guttu, ‘The End of Art Education as we Know it’, Kunstkritikk Nordic Art Review [online journal], 22 May 2020, available at https://kunstkritikk.com/the-end-of-art-education-as-we-know-it/ (last accessed on 25 May 2020).
  • 7. Maarten Simons and Jan Masschelein, 'School – A Matter of Form', in P. Gielen and P. De Bruyne (ed.), op. cit., p.72.
  • 8. Ibid.
  • 9. Ibid., p.73.
  • 10. Ibid., p.74.
  • 11. Nicholas Casey, ‘College Made them Feel Equal. The Virus Exposed How Unequal their Lives Are’, The New York Times, 4 April 2020, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/04/us/politics/coronavirus-zoom-college-classes.html (last accessed on 26 May 2020).
  • 12. ‘No School, Yes Learning’, No School Station, Pt. 4 [podcast], 21 April 2020, available at https://studiumgenerale.artez.nl/nl/studies/podcast/no+school+station+pt+4+no+school+yes+learning/ (last accessed on 25 May 2020).
  • 13. ‘Bruno Latour: imaginar el mundo después del Covid-19’, Alfonso Reyes Chair, Tecnológico Monterrey [online video], 14 May 2020, available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TOP7HRPl5gM&feature=youtu.be (last accessed on 4 June 2020).
  • 14. In what seemed an impossibility before, the virus has put a halt to the intense global trade and industrial activity; on the education level, many places have suspended grades and unfair admissions exams have been dropped. See Shawn Hubler, ‘University of California Will End Use of SAC and ACT in Admissions’, The New York Times, 21 May 2020, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/21/us/university-california-sat-act.html (last accessed on 25 May 2020).
  • 15. ‘No School, Yes Learning’, op. cit.