Between Bridges, Berlin. January 16, 2016.
Wolfgang Tilmans: Hey, good evening everybody. This is the most short notice Between Bridges event ever. [Laughter.] But Calla and Max on Monday met some friends and told us that they had five friends from New York of Free Cooper Union-ness. They briefly told the story and I thought it was so incredibly interesting and asked if they’d speak. And of course the New Theater is closed right now so I invited New Theater to Between Bridges, and New Theater invited them! [Laughter.]
Calla Henkel: So, very quickly, thank you guys for coming. The conversation today will be led by the five of them, and mainly by Victoria and Casey who held down a very intense, long, and strange fight for the institution which is Cooper Union. Which I think through their fight they realized represented a lot of ideas of what was happening to education and the lineage of mismanagement and financial disaster that we all saw explode in 2008, and then again through the lens of the school. So they can take it over, and I think we’re going to start with a brief introduction on Cooper and kind of what this struggle was and what their fight with the administration which led down the road to many different victories and pseudo-victories and vacuums which we’ve been discussing over the past week while they’ve been here. So I’ll turn it over to you guys. [Applause.]
Casey Gollan: Thank you!
Victoria Sobel: Thank you everyone for coming. And also thank you for having us. If anyone didn’t get one of these we have a couple of little books that accompany the presentation. The text is separate from the pictures, and you’ll see that we’re going to give a little bit more of a straightforward presentation to give an idea of what Calla has described correctly as a very long and strange journey that started way before we started attending the school. But we’d like to open it up for discussion afterwards about concepts that I think extend beyond the institution and beyond the art world and past many of the things that we’re led to believe social justice movements represent. So if there are any questions about logistics of what happened we’re happy to talk about it, and I hope this works out well!
Casey: Alright, so starting at the beginning in 1859 in New York City, East Village, Lower East Side, Cooper Union is founded. It’s an American college, and it’s founded to educate the working classes of New York City by Peter Cooper. He is an industrialist, a philanthropist, and an inventor. He’s credited with inventing things like Jello, the rolled steel beam which made the skyscraper possible. So actually at the time that Cooper was built, this Foundation Building was the tallest building in New York City. And it was a school for working class people in New York — located on the Bowery, which then was not a great neighborhood, it was a working class kind of neighborhood — to attend night classes. Victoria: To give context, all the rest of the universities that existed in this time, whether it was in New York or around the country, were quite expensive and only accessible to white men who were there to become academics. So Peter Cooper who himself had inherited a lot of debt from his father, had no formal education until he began to invent a lot of things, and think that actually he missed out as a young person on the benefit of an education, and the young people shouldn’t have to go into debt or take on any debt in order to learn a trade or do what he called practical art at the time. So he created a building that was more than just a school, it was a library, a public reading room, a place for debate.
Casey: This is the historic Great Hall, where every U.S. president, except for George W. Bush I think, has spoken. You can see back in the 18- early-1900’s it was a spot for people to come to a free public lecture. Abraham Lincoln gave a talk that supposedly catapulted him to presidency, and a lot of different groups were founded in the building and had offices, the NAACP and Susan B. Anthony had an office. Victoria: So significantly, this drawing is called “A Heckler at Cooper Union.” You can see it’s some guy yelling at whoever is on stage. And basically Peter Cooper was a strong advocate for political discourse and he didn’t think that it should just be one type of group of people that should have space for debates. He wanted there to be a mix of media, artists, people learning, people working, young people, old people to come and have these conversations that he felt were critical to society. So he really encouraged these large conversations, and they were very well populated because it was one of the only public spaces to do this. Everything else was reserved for people that were part of the government or different private bureaucracies.
Casey: This is the Great Hall today, in the past couple of years. This is from a summit that was organized in the midst of the turmoil, and a Peter Cooper quote was projected. It’s interesting that Peter Cooper was open to what would become of the building and of the institution.
Victoria: I think what’s interesting about Cooper Union is that unlike many schools it has a very open curriculum. Peter Cooper felt very strongly that the educators and the students were the ones who would inherit the institution and so even before his time when he had left the school with a lot of money to offer a free education in perpetuity, he still had many speeches that included statements like this one, where he said, “I trust that the youth of our city and our country for all coming time, will realize that this institution has been organized for their special use and improvement. And I trust that they will rally around and protect it, and make it like a city set on a hill that cannot be hid.” You’ll see that part of the architecture of the school was that it was, like Casey said, one of the first large building in the Lower East Side. Now that it’s surrounded by skyscrapers it still has a very prominent face in the architecture of the city because it’s so drastically different, but also has a real sense of permanence that some of these newer buildings just don’t have.
Casey: One of the cool things that Peter Cooper was involved in is laying the transatlantic cable. So that created the possibility of telegraphy between continents. This is an amazing illustration.
Casey: And this is a map of submarine cables. I don’t have a modern version but this is still the internet. Victoria: It was an early form of innovation for somebody who had not had any formal education. Thomas Edison attended the school, he wasn’t formally a student. He had a different belief that was separate from some of his peers. He believed that anyone could be a great thinker and learner and it didn’t matter about your class or stature, to have these types of thoughts. So he started with small inventions like glue and jello, but went on to create steel beams that created the railway system that everyone uses, and this transatlantic cable for communication, and really was going on in collaboration with many other great thinks. But his philanthropic view was pretty different than the rest.
Casey: He was also kind of a speculative thinker. So when he designed the building it included a circular elevator shaft, but elevators didn’t even exist yet. [Laughter.] And they weren’t circular.
Casey: This is a view from the 70’s when the building was completely gutted by the former Dean of Architecture John Hejduk, who has some buildings around here as well. It’s interesting that the elevator shaft sat empty for a number of years and when the technology was ready they put it in. But Peter Cooper had the thought to leave a space for it. Victoria: I think similarly he had a thought not just about the elevator, but it’s a good analogy for how he felt the students and the community should fill the building. He didn’t prescribe that it should be used any one way. At different points it’s been used by different groups for different organized. It used to have a retail aspect to it where people bought and sold things, the free reading room became the library which is now part of the school but used to be a place to read during the day and at night and do different types of working. As the school changed from practical arts like melodeon making to fine arts and engineering and architecture, which didn’t exist as we know them today in the 1850’s. Casey: And now we’re going to jump about 100 years. [Laughter.]
Casey: These are the bylaws of the institution. Which is basically a legal document that states how the Board of Trustees who runs the institution does their job.
Victoria: I hope you brought your magnifying glass! [Laughter.]
Casey: There are a million more version and I had done a project where I tried to pull every possible version because it’s really hard to understand. When I went to college I wasn’t thinking about who was making the decisions, who even ran it, and how their structures changed. But I realized that their legal code is actually kind of interesting. And at different points in the 150 years of the institution they’ve ammended it signficantly. So you can actually see on this left side where there’s a ton of lines, there’s a lot changing there. In the last 50 years, the trustees amended the charter significantly so, like Vic was saying, Peter Cooper didn’t believe in debt. He had a provision in the charter that said the trustees can’t take out more than $500 in debt. Which is funny. And the way that Cooper used to function is that it was people like Peter Cooper and Andrew Carnegie as trustees. And so every year the school would maybe lose money, and they would write a check because they were these kind of robber baron-type figures. But in the last 50 years, if you look at it, they amended it so that they can take out any amount of debt, and also they’re not responsible. So the school will pay the legal fees for the trustees running it, and they can’t be held liable for bad management.
Victoria: When we were students, before the tuition crisis happened, we weren’t really doing research like this into the historical nature of the deed and the charter and the mission. Because for all we knew we were receiving a full scholarship and things were fine. But as Casey mentioned, the school being founded in the 1850’s on this radical idea in America of a free education, was really different from what the rest of American higher education institutions went on to do. Basically, between 1850 and the early 2000s, most of the American institutions came to be rather corporatized and took on business models that were very separate from the initial educations to educate people. So small or modest tuitions or fees for education turned into massive tuitions that spiraled out into student debt which paralleled different financial hardships that were felt around the world. Obviously 2008 is a big one which hit students as well as the financial sector.
Casey: So probably on the left side it represents the 80’s or 90’s. And by the time we were already in school things had already been settled but the groundwork was laid for a really different style of management. I also think it’s an international questions too. I have relatives in Finland, and my cousin asked me, “How much do you get paid to go to college?” or something. And I was like, “Well, I go to the only U.S. college that doesn’t charge you basically $40,000.” And she was like, “Oh, I get paid, $400 a month.” So in the scope of American education, Cooper remained really, really different for a really long time.
Victoria: This is something Calla and Max might recognize, and it happened while I was in school in 2008, which is that beginning a little bit before 2006 the school had made many years, probably a decade’s worth, of plans to demolish and rebuild the buildings around the school. It’s significant because we only have two buildings. So basically the area around the school which surrounded this historic building looked a bit like a dirt heap for basically the last ten years. And I just wanted to mention before that something very interesting for us is that we’re all art students. We didn’t come into the school thinking we would be receiving a double political education. That we would have to be looking at documents and making maps and doing financial forensic accounting or talking to lawyers or getting arrested, but it all kind of spiraled out. And we’ve begun to trace some of what happened to this moment of breaking ground. In the back is the old engineering school building which was actually quite fine, but they decided that the look of it wasn’t modern enough and instead of repairing the building to be up to code, which would’ve been much cheaper, they wanted to demolish this site, and build a new building which wouldn’t be for the school. It would be a separate private building.
Victoria: So fast forward three years, and this is the building that’s in its place. It belongs to a lot of differnt companies. One of them is IBM which does a lot of computing technology, and on the ground is a large retail space. It was vacant for a long time, and that was part of what happened during the story which we found so interesting, that the school agreed to be demolishing about building these buildings without having someone to fill the building. So the building sat empty for a long time. And you can see in comparison that some of the other buildings in the area are more modest, the look a little bit more like cement, but you’ll see soon that we have two of these buildings made of glass.
Casey: This is another building that was taken down. This is the last corner of it that was left. It was kind of old style.
Casey: And here was the next building that they were going to build, which is the new Cooper Union building, and they had put a model of it inside the old building, so all the could, I guess, get excited for the future. Victoria: The new innovations that the future promised! You could open this model up and see all of the new things that actually the students who were there were not going to be able to experience at all, because it took years to build this building. We have a very small student body, so for all three schools it’s only 1000 students. And essentially this building that was demolished displaced I think 150 or 200 art students, who lost their studios with no notice. So for a lot of people that was very serious. And for a lot of people they were relocated off of Manhattan. That might not seem so big, but for a school that has only two buildings, to relocate it off of Manhattan was actually a major indication that things might not be going so well. Casey: You’d have to take your sculpture on the train. Victoria: Or take a taxi with a big painting strapped to the top. [Laughter.] But I think it created a moment where a lot of people began asking questions about what was going on. And for those of us who were attending the school at the time, we were basically told not to ask why because we were receiving a scholarship, and we weren’t smart enough to understand how complicated the finances were, and to just be happy we were here and that we get a studio. So even years before the financial crisis and the tuition happened, there were inklings that something was not right.
Casey: This is the site of building that got knocked down.
Casey: And this is what took its place. [Laughter.] So Cooper has an architecture school too. They graduate 15 to 30 architects a year, but the school chose to hire an L.A.-based architect — a starchitect! — to design something that would communicate, this is the future of education! And if you walk three blocks over, you’ll find that The New School just opened a building that looks exactly the same. So it’s kind of funny that if you look at every school around America and around the world, they’re all building this kind of building. Vaguely ominous. Futuristic. We’re the future of education!
Casey: And they were really, really happy about it too. [Laughter.] So they talked to the Wall Street Journal. On the left is the former, two presidents ago, George Campbell. And on the right is the head of the investment committee. And this is in 2009. This is when hedge funds were tanking. Victoria: The stock market had crashed. It’s right after 2008. Most schools and other institutions are keep pretty quiet about their finances because nobody’s doing well and nobody’s building a brand new building. Nobody wants to be so extravagant. But actually Cooper who had this mission of being more modest and working class, had taken this very different road. And it happened to be on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the school that it did a complete rebranding. We went from kind of a classic look to something that reflected the building, it was sharp and looked like a box and there was nothing anyone could do about it at the time. Casey: Vic had mentioned that there were votes of no confidence in building the new building. There were a lot of questions about why it would be happening. And then once it was up that was my first year in school in 2009.
Casey: And people immediately hated it. [Laughter.] So these are some classmates smashing the box. Victoria: Just taking out a bit of aggression! [Laughter.] Basically this building cost more than a luxury hotel to build. The cost was $1,000 per square foot. So, that’s just not a reasonable cost for a non-profit institution, which means they have to be responsible to the city and they’re not supposed to be building something so luxury. Especially if it’s belonging to the public. But immediately the facilities didn’t work. And so despite the fancy look and the windows and the new floors, all of the facilities didn’t work for the students. They didn’t build enough labs for the engineers. And the art studios had no windows for painters. [Laughter.] So given that they had so much time and money to create it, many people were very dissatified. Casey: It’s really annoying, too, to have a studio in a brand new building. To be the first person to destroy it. You’re kind of not allowed to. Somebody was like, it’s going to take a hundred years for this building to be okay for an art studio. A lot of the younger people get put into the new building because everyone wants to be in the old building. Victoria: So we’re going to skip back 6 months before that demolition picture.
Victoria: This is a piece of cardboard that has a schedule for one of the first days of Occupy Wall Street in New York. If any of you have heard of it, it was down in the Financial District, which was just below Cooper by a mile. Very close, it only took about 25 or 30 minutes to walk there and it was a straight line down. What had happened was that during the summer, in response to different global uprisings in Tunisia and Tahrir Square in Egypt, New York organizers and people around the country gathered to say, actually what has happened with the stock market crash isn’t right, the inequality in the labor sector isn’t right, what’s happening to students with student debt isn’t right, evicting people from homes that they can’t afford doesn’t work, and we can’t go to the bureaucratic measures, we can’t demand that things change, we have to take it into our own hands. So, you can see it’s pretty modest, this is the first schedule for the first day.
Victoria: This was a few days later. It was a very viral movement and people came from all across the country to live in a park that was somewhat like Cooper in that it was a small park surrounded by skyscrapers. It had kind of a similar shape, and architecture around it. It was a space that people could fill. And technically this park was a privately-owned public park. So that means it’s the property of the city and the people, but it’s also affiliated with the neighboring buildings to the side, which house a lot of lawyers for private companies which were very unhappy to be having this disturbance in their area. It was inconvenient for them. I took off a year from school to live just a little bit further back in this picture. Every day this group would do just massive marches against austerity, against what was going on with the banks, and the actions escalated and took on across the country and took on different social media and livestreaming aspects. All sorts of new media and art were used to get a message across, and people, for the first time in my lifetime at least, were doing creative actions and interventions against what seemed like and impossible situation. It makes sense that that type of movement moved through into the student groups throughout the city.
Victoria: This is actually a picture of my tent! I’m right in there. [Laughter.] I was part of a media group that was doing livestreaming technology, so if any of you have used Livestream, the app on your phone, it began as an application that was used to film concerts or private weddings for your friends, but there was a global group of media activists that had done lots of very extreme work in different countries to help do independent autonomous media. They came here after being part of the M15 movement in Spain, where they had just been evicted from their plaza, and they taught a lot of us, especially people like me who were kind of young, students who knew how to do a little bit with computers and stuff, how to begin independent media for Occupy Wall Street. From there we began to develop the different technologies that are used for streaming today. It was a very interesting situation because we were carrying laptops with a webcam, with a battery, with a cord, with a generator. And now you can just do it all on your phone. We were working with and against the different companies, our streams would crash the sites regularly because so many people around the world were watching to see what was happening, and to try and send support, and it kind of created a new culture. Casey: Or mysteriously go missing! Victoria: Yes.
Casey: So then Occupy got huge. [Laughter.] And spread all around the world.
Casey: And also there were huge student mobilizastions in Quebec. They rallied a hundred thousand people doing really massive but also really creative actions that shut down the university system and prevented a tuition hike there. They had a really strong visual element. You can see everyone is wearing these red squares, and that would become one of the elements that we adopted. We were paying attention to all these groups and trying to link together where it was possible. Victoria: And so, like Casey said, there was a lot going on in Quebec, but during Occupy Wall Street there weren’t that many people my age, student age, around in the park, and I had to ask myself why that was. I was shocked that not a lot of people from Cooper were there, from NYU and all these other schools that have the same types of problems with debt and finance and corruption. I realized it’s because nobody can afford to take off from school. The colleges know that if you take a leave of absence they can fill your spot instantly with someone who’s not willing to take that risk. And you indentify yourself to the institution as someone who doesn’t prioritize being a part of a system that doesn’t want to do some sort of demonstration like this. So it wasn’t until the Quebecois movement that really became massive because they had unions across many different institutions taking the streets in the hundreds of thousands with their parents and kids and everyone, that American students began to take action and organize similar movements. Even though in the United States – I’m not sure how it is here — it’s actually very hard to have a student union. So we didn’t have the same types of numbers and it still seemed like quite a risk to leave class because you could get kicked out or face different actions for missing class or taking off. I happened to be lucky, at Cooper I didn’t really tell them where I was going, and I was just missing for months before they sent someone to see if I was okay. [Laughter.] I didn’t have the same problems but that wasn’t the case for most of my peers.
Casey: This is on the west coast, student activism.
Casey: And this is on the east coast. This is 1T Day, which is the day that student debt surpassed one billion— Victoria: One trillion! Casey: One trillion! Sorry. One trillion dollars. So people were in Washington Square Park and also Union Square burning their debt and just doing big demonstrations. So this type of thing had been going on at Cooper but was also in the air around the world and around the city. Victoria: Meanwhile back at Cooper people were continuing to feel that something wasn’t right, but there weren’t very many answers to the questions that people had about the finances of the school, or having transparency, or having a better understanding or system in place for different students or alumni or community members to be active in understanding what’s happening. We were being met with no answers and no way of getting answers. And people really tried to go through the proper measures to find out what was going on. They tried going through the faculty unions, they tried going through student governments, they tried sending letters or polite emails, and eventually because of the different energy from Occupy and the other movements around the world, the Cooper community decided it was time to start ramping up and making sure that other people were paying attention to what was happen.
Casey: So at first you saw these actions of one, where this brave student would climb on a statue and wave a sign for a couple of hours, and then everyone was cheering, and he got arrested.
Casey: At the same time Occupy was basically raided and shut down.
Victoria: This is the park. You saw how many people there were before. Originally there were just a few hundred people and we could all sleep at night on the floor, but it became so massive during the day that those of us who were living there with tents and stuff didn’t even have space to walk because so many supporters from around the area were coming. People from all over, from different countries sending delegations to support and give solidarity for what was being represented in the New York City Occupy that was so close to Wall Street, because we were closest to the financial epicenter of what was going on and what was wrong with everything, and the different ways decisions are made in our country via the financial sector instead of policy or government. What had happened was that across the country within about a week or two weeks many of the different mayors of major cities like Boston and Oakland in California had made an agreement to empty the parks of the major occupations at the same time. So there were very violent removals and evictions of the park and they had to do a lot in order to keep press out of the situation. You can see the police barricade. We were there for 63 days in the park, which is a long time because it was snowing and raining and there was no electricity. We had resisted eviction a few times before, and this final time that they actually did evict the park they set up these major lights like in a football stadium, and hundreds of police officers put this fence around the park, and many people weren’t given the opportunity to leave or to take their things, and essentially the police acted in unison with the fire department and the sanitation department to create a block, because there aren’t a lot of people living in the Financial District it’s all just offices, so in the middle of the night they put all these barricades and all these big trucks to block the view and they didn’t let any media come in, so the media trucks that were on very high sticks were blocked down and couldn’t see what was going on as they power washed the park, kicked people out, arrested hundreds of people, and destroyed the entire park. But that’s not just New York, that happened in tens of occupations around the country and it was kind of a way of breaking the spirit because all of a sudden it was closed off and you couldn’t reenter. People had been seriously injured, and many people had very serious political charges against them. And since there wasn’t any press or media there, there wasn’t a way to counter, and many people had a lot of trauma.
Casey: I was not living there, I had only made it down one time before the park was cleaned out., lke three days after I visited. I saw how crowded it was, and then how empty it was. And I remember that, as a student, it definitely created a sense that something was possible, to do something out of the grid. To do something crazy at Cooper. But things started kind of gently.
Casey: This was a meeting every day to visit a part of the building that says why the building is landmarked. It’s a landmarked building in New York because of its free education. So people would meet there and make rubbings and just talk.
Casey: You can see this was a daily demonstration. Victoria: The argument that people had, especially the architects, is that since America is actually kind of a young country and it hasn’t been around for as long as many European countries, a building that is 150 years old is actually quite significant. Especially one that wanted to offer a free education forever. So basically the outside of the building is made out of brownstone which New York is famous for — this kind of chocolate colored stone — was landmarked to say this building can’t be touched. It’s a monument for the city, it’s part of why the city has a good reputation. But the inside of the building which actually offered the education has no landmark. And there isn’t anyone who’s going to do anything if something terrible happens to it. So as students we began to quesiton why it is that the outside of the building is more important than what’s happening inside, if what’s happening inside is what made the building important to begin with. So all of the different logics we had been told begun to fall apart, and nobody had any answers for us.
Casey: These are some early posters. People started to meet up and have these big messy meetings to say, what’s going on and how can we be a part of it? There were a lot of committees launched by the administration of the school asking how can we make money? That rubbed people the wrong way. The real question is how we live within our means? So eventually they launched a committee to try to save money in addition to making new money. There was kind of a year of cooperation with the administration and the board, to say maybe this is something we can work through together. But basically a lot of committees were launched and they all failed. There were more walkouts and whatever. People got frustrated.
Victoria: So we did what art students do next. We decided none of this is working out for us, it’s disrupting what’s going on, we need to think of a creative way to be heard in this situation. We were being encouraged by our faculty to take the next step and to do what we could do, to take the type of risk that only students in this situation could take because we didn’t have jobs at the school and we were here on a scholarship. So we could test the boundaries of what could happen. It was really important that the school stay free while so many other schools were focused on expanding and building and becoming corporate, and there was really no justification for why that should happen.
Casey: So we basically met in secret and made some plans. This is actually a later plan. We have ten gigabytes of plans, just text files. [Laughter.]
Casey: But we met for a couple of months and the result of that was that eleven students locked ourselves in the top floor of the building.
Casey: And we built this really aggro barricade. [Laughter.] So that nobody could get us out. And we jammed the elevator.
Victoria: The historic elevator! And the only door. People weren’t happy because we’d clearly been using the wood shop, but we had said we were artists and architects building for a project and obviously nobody thought that this…I don’t know what they thought it looked like. [Laughter.]
Casey: That’s Jakob, who had been at Cooper for two months and somehow found his way into this crazy situation.
Victoria: The guards would start, at first, to kind of rap on it. Hitting the windows.
Casey: Seeing if they could saw through.
Victoria: They had a saw. You can see Jakob has his elbow on the door, we would touch the door and say, “Our bodies are on the door! My body’s on the door! You can’t use a chainsaw on the door!” Eventually we would all be pressed against the door and they would be outside with the saw or the drill going at it until our screams made them stop. And that’s when we had time to coordinate with the people on the ground, who were doing more actions.
Casey: And we dropped a gigantic banner, FREE EDUCATION TO ALL.
Casey: This maybe gives you a sense of the scale. So we were in this top room where the banner’s hanging from, behind the clock. This is just another interesting thing about Cooper. You can see that wavy building, it’s another starchitect, and it’s a piece of land that the college used to own and make money from, but they sold. Another one of those bad management decisions. You can also see that Cooper kind of exists on an island, and it’s a trapezoid, so we were lucky to have a lot of visibility. Basically for a mile away you can see with a perfect vantage point this banner. And there’s a square for people to gather.
Casey: The administration was really unhappy and really unprepared. I’ve heard that an occupation is more common here. Professors we’ve had who went to school in the UK are like, “We used to occupy like 400 times a year!” [Laughter.] But this was the first time that Cooper had to deal with something like this in… Victoria: Ever. Casey: Maybe ever! At least for this current administration. And so they were basically standing on the ground outside handing out a flyer saying, we don’t condone what’s going on, these eleven students, these art students, do not reflect the population of a thousand.
Victoria: We we were missing class and were pretty worried about it so we started to figure out, well, we want to make our own work. [Laughter.] Part of doing this is to preseve not only our scholarship, but the broader scholarship. We thought that tuition was years down the road, so we wanted to leave work for other people to see what were doing. We’re on our computers, we’re writing these political statements, we’re streaming with people, but we’re also really still trying to have fun and do the same things we would be doing on the ground. We were really isolated. It’s a room about the size of this gallery and we were there for a long time, and it was covered in charcoal because it was a drawing room, so eventually we were kind of all covered in charcoal. [Laughter.]
Casey: These were people who came out to offer support. There were a lot of balloons. It’s an engineering school too, so people figured out how to attach a pizza to balloons and it floated up eight stories and we ate this pizza and it was amazing. [Laughter.] It’s kind of weird how the danger or pseudo-danger of it really mobilized a lot of people, and also got them thinking creatively. So there were people turning out to the front of the building but also intervening in other areas.
Casey: After a board meeting a bunch of students took plastic wrap and surrounded the new building. So this is the Board Chairman at the time, who was pretty instrumental in instituting tuition.
Victoria: Also very rich.
Casey: It was a transparency parade. [Laughter.] That kind of trapped him on his way out of the building.
Casey: Also, students broke into a board meeting. These were historically private. You weren’t allowed to know what happened. You weren’t allowed to know where they took place. We figured it out and somebody just broke in and the only thing they could do was just cry all over the president. [Laughter.]
Casey: Another person took the president’s portrait off the wall, and the Chairman is trying to stop her. [Laughter.] A lot of people were just activated.
Victoria: There was massive support from the get go. It gave people who weren’t in the room an opportunity to be doing different types of actions or support on the ground, to be writing statements, people wrote amazing poetry and made pieces, installation art, smaller actions using the symbolism of the red and different imagery that we took on at the time. It was just an amazing very positive moment. But it was exhausting for those of us who were upstairs because it was a small space and they turned off the heat and began to thraten us with arrest. At one point there was a fake 911 emergency call and we had to stick our hands on the window to make sure we were alive because someone had called to say there was someone unconscious. Any way to try and get us out! And to discredit what was happening, because what we were trying to do was call attention to the fact that there was so much secrecy, no transparency, no accountability going on in this very important moment, and we didn’t have the answers but we wanted to be part of the solution. Eventually, I think it was after about one week, we were forced out of the occupation. We had been threatened to have our degrees removed and different punishments. Unfortunately that timing was right before a break, right before Christmas, and so the school was emptied right after we left, and we didn’t come back until the spring.
Casey: This is an image of Peter Cooper, but you can see that there’s a surveillance camera there. The administration started to get paranoid. It’s kind of funny.
Casey: After the lock-in ended an email was sent around saying to meet in the Great Hall.
Victoria: At 9am when everyone has a lot of class. People got an email saying everyone please come to the Great Hall, there’s a very important announcement to be made. This had never happened before. This was in the middle of the week with no notice, no anything.
Casey: Tuition was announced. On the way to school the next day I picked up this copy of the New York Times and it says, “Cooper Union Won’t Be Free, Ending An Era.”
Victoria: The school had done the work to go to the New York Times and tell them ahead of time before they told the community that actually not only were they going to be charging tuition, but it wasn’t something far off like we thought, maybe ten years, it was actually next year, it was happening immediately. All of the information that we had been asking for for a year and a half was here in this article about how the school had no alumni that were giving back, it didn’t have a good financial model, it made so many mistakes. And it was the front page of the New York Times. So this was similar to Occupy in that it was meant to break the spirit of the community and be a signal to other institutions, other schools, and other political activists coming after Occupy that this isn’t the way to go, school can’t be free, that “free” is an old idea that only worked here for a little while and it will never work again. In spite of that we all knew the truth, and that the news story was all part of a fabrication.
Victoria: We came back one morning to see that the picture had been smashed. We knew the story wasn’t over yet. Casey: People were at a loss for what to do.
Casey: This is the door of the office of one of our faculty members, Walid Raad, had printed the names of all the trustees to start a count of how many days it had been since the mission was hijacked. Really quickly he stopped updating the number and just put, “Too many.” It’s still there and it’s said too many for years now.
Victoria: Like Casey said, a lot of us didn’t know quite what to do because the decision both seemed final and official but it also seemed inconcievable, it seemed impossible, it literally seemed illegal for the Board to have done what they did and also to be lying about it so publicly in the face of what was going on in the school. So people began to think about what are the new ways to not get bogged down by feeling bad about what’s happening, but to think in terms of, What’s funny? What makes sense? What’s going to communicate to other people that it’s not over and we haven’t given up? So we had to think about, What do we know? What do we not know? What are our options?
Casey: And then it was time, again, to do some secret planning.
Casey: There was also a good swell of support in the city. This was a May Day protest coming down from Union Square and across from Washington Square Park. It felt like the city was in a place where people would mobilize if there was a call to. Victoria: Coming after the Cooper occupation and Occupy Wall Street which both kind of ended in winter when it was dark, it was the holidays, it was raining and snowing, May Day is in the middle of the Spring and the city has a lot of people out. People take off for lunch and for work, and obviously coming after Occupy there was massive turnout from the labor movements and from the different schools to come support what was going on, so this was not just Cooper Union students, this was students from about 5 or 6 different schools, and we planned a march that started here at Cooper, went around to the other schools, and then came back here to demand that the decision be turned over.
Casey: And then on May 7th, so later that week, about 50 to 100 students marched up to the president’s office to deliver a vote of no confidence in the leadership of the President and Board Chairman. The President wasn’t there, so basically everyone stayed.
Casey: This is what the occupation looked like. It was another situation where no one knew what to do. We all just kind of sat there.
Victoria: We anticipated going into the office and being kicked out immediately. Or not being able to get in because the door has a lock. But for some reason the door was open, so we walked in. And like Casey said, no one was in the office, and the big group that was here to deliver a petition decided on the spot, okay we actually have to stay. This opportunity won’t happen again. So many people stayed inside the office while others went to go plan, and basically call off classes, talk to faculty, and call the media to say we’re actually staying and occupying, this is our office, the school is basically shut down.
Casey: And the administration was really not happy again. They screwed a board over the water fountain, bolted the bathrooms shut, and put armed guards in all of the elevators and staircases so that you could only go down. That was really great on social media. It kind of blew up because everyone was asking, why are they doing this? Really quickly it switched from a situation in which they were threatening the students, to one in which they had to relent. That was the point in which we had to figure out what to do next, because we were staying.
Victoria: People went home in rotations to get things to stay, and most of the faculty knew within a few hours what was going on and came to show support. Other people called alumni and just everyone from the local area came. This is a demonstration that happened outside. The first action happened in the clocktower, which is the 8th floor, and this President’s office is right below the clocktower on the 7th floor, so we still had a perfect view to the street where there’s a park for people to meet, and an open space. Everyone from the Lower East Side came out. They have a very good history of doing protests about squats, housing rights, and gentrification, so many different groups came out to demand that the President step down. To demand that the school go back to being free, that there be some accountability, and that the students that are occupying not get in trouble, because all of a sudden we were in a situation where we’re indefinitely not going to class, not leaving, and don’t want to be arrested.
Casey: A lot of stuff happened because we ended up staying for three months. So while we were in the occupation we graduated. We can kind of quickly flip through a bunch of actions.
Casey: This is a play that we did because one of the secret Board meetings was leaked to a local newspaper, so that night we took the transcript and we put it on like a play.
Victoria: A five hour re-enactment of a Board meeting where they’re talking about getting rid of all the students and firing the teachers and how wonderful it would be if they didn’t have to deal with art students anymore. [Laughter.] So we got to take on those positions, re-enacting it in the occupied space.
Casey: We also ended up putting on a kind of big art show, where we invited alumni, faculty, and students to contribute something. So we expanded from the President’s office to the whole floor that we were on, painting it black, and covering it in anything that people wanted to send us.
Victoria: It was simultaneous with the End Of Year Show for the school, but the administration wanted to deny that anything was out of the ordinary, even thought there was clearly 100 people living in the office of the President. The End Of Year Show in the rest of the building was happening, so they tried to say to people when they came to the show, “Don’t go up there! It’s not open!” But everyone went up. So lots of famous art critics came because the work of the faculty was being shown, and different people from other countries sent digital works to be printed and projected.
Casey: An engineering student hacked a Kindle to count student debt, which was really funny. [Laughter.]
Casey: And it was just another media blitz. Democracy Now came to talk to us.
Casey: And Russia Today. [Laughter.] It was cool. It wasn’t like the Lock-In where we were locked in the room.
Casey: We were able to negotiate a situation in which we could pass in and out. So people would come downstairs and we would have a dance party at night. Someone brought a mobile speaker. Usually there were police hovering and the administration was really upset, but it was kind of a stalemate where they didn’t know how to shut us down.
Victoria: It’s clear that the school didn’t know what to do because they continued to send someone to say, “You have to go now!” And we would continue to write different documents saying, these are the demands that we have before we’ll leave, and we’re not even considering leaving. Even if you fulfill the demands we’re not sure we’ll leave, based on what’s happened and how much the community’s been disrespected and disregarded, and how little accessibility there is, and how the school had moved on to try and create this narrative that free education isn’t a possibility in the U.S. They went on to really damage not only the school, but this idea of free education. So we were doing a lot of writing about what that meant and what it would look like to fix that situation. Clearly they didn’t want to be a part of it, so we kept…dancing. [Laughter.]
Casey: A lot of us came down from the office to graduate. You can see the red squares that came from Quebec.
Casey: When the President got up to speak, everyone turned their backs. [Laughter.] And then went back up to the office.
Casey: Stuff just continued to happen for three months. This document leaked. Literally for years they denied that they were considering charging tuition. They said that they really didn’t want to.
Casey: This was a document dated much earlier in which they’re literally talking about shutting down the art program. [Laughter.]
Casey: So we just stayed and stayed and stayed.
Victoria: It was unprecedented at the time, even after Occupy, that such a thing would happen. A total takeover of a space. It had begun to pick up traction. We thought, okay, same opportunity as the occupation, we can do something more with this, we can continue our studies, we can continue making art, we did the show, we had different people coming from all over the world to speak with us about the different movements that they were part of and what solidarity could look like across them, what a more just system of higher education could look like that doesn’t resemble what we have now. So we were doing all these teach-ins and dance parties.
Casey: It was also really banal! We were cleaning every day. We would post these Vines to show that we were clean and eating and being productive, or something. And I think it really messed with the administration’s sense of chaos, to see that we were Swiffering up our crumbs. [Laughter.]
Casey: People also started making sculptures out of whatever crap they could find like a Smartwater bottle and a stapler.
Casey: We also started to get solidarity from around the world. These are our friends in Berlin! [Laughter.]
Victoria: Max and Calla were very nice to send us this video message and petition. We made it clear to the administration that this isn’t just the art school, it’s not just the current students, isn’t not just eleven students, it’s literally thousands of people, not just from Cooper but from arts institutions, art critics, famous writers, thinkers, politicans are getting in on this and they are not going to let it go.
Casey: And also people that we didn’t know, which was kind of crazy! People at other universities would send us a picture with our clock logo. That was exciting.
Casey: We also tried to send solidarity back out. So we would drop a banner in support of what was happening at the time. There was a big occupation of Gezi Park.
Victoria: That resembled what was going on at Cooper as well, but we felt like this doesn’t just have to be about education. The people occupying Gezi Park were similar to what had happened at Occupy Wall Street, it represented a financialization of the area, a park that was going to be turned into a mall, when there were already lots of stores around there. People just felt like, enough is enough, we have to do something, and it turned into major political demonstrations that ousted a lot of the politicians at the time. We thought, wow, people are getting tear gassed and arrested and violently beaten, and the Occupy moment is over but we’re still somehow related to all of these different things and have to take the opportunity to try and give something back.
Casey: Then the occupation ended. With an official press release. We actually brokered this with the Board, to have them post something about it, because they had never before really acknowledged publicly any kind of student action. Their strategy was to completely ignore any media coverage. So we specifically requested that they publish something on the website. We also created a deal in which there would be another committee to study the possibility of keeping Cooper free, with unprecedented access to the finances and a multi-stakeholder group with faculty, alumni, trustees, and administrators. Obviously, that didn’t work.
Victoria: So this was 65 days of living in an office. Even though we had a lot more numbers than in the Lock-In, at any given point between 50 to 150 students, they semester had ended, the graduation had happened, people had jobs, and lives, and friends, and apartments, and none of that stopped. For me, when I graduated, my debt immediately started to kick in because I had taken time off to do Occupy Wall Street. So any period I had to not pay the debt was over, and I had to start paying my loans immediately. Even though I went to this free school. So there was this contradiction happening where now instead of having the heat turned off, it’s the dead of summer and they had turned the air conditioning off, and they were making it very clear to this group of students that was still there that it’s always been trespassing, but at this point they’re going to call the police. They know when we’re not there in full numbers and they’re going to call the police and arrest us. They know that for those of us who graduated we’re not going to get expelled, but for the younger students they were going to be in a lot of trouble. So, like Casey said, we decided to go for a different negotiation because the media had not been paying as much attention because it was the middle of July. People understood why it was important to be there, but having been so many days, life around the school continued as normal, and people had to go back to their lives. So we tried to think, okay, if we’re going to make a negotiation, let’s try and make the smartest one and know that it doesn’t end here.
Casey: But it was a kind of ending. Because it got a lot less easy to talk about what was going on. People started to feel a kind of burnout, having tried for three months to uphold something and not seeing any results. Or maybe it had been years, or maybe it had been a week, people kept coming in and dipping out. Facebook was nagging us.
Victoria: “Please post updates!” We were like, we don’t have updates.
Casey: Literally nothing.
Victoria: The middle of the summer.
Casey: “You haven’t posted in 5 days?” Things kind of slid down. There was a period of quiet.
Casey: Victoria and I had graduated and with another friend we got a teaching residency.
Victoria: One block from the school.
Casey: Exactly. So we kind of taught a fake class about education that was open to the public. These are actually our people, but we taught a really small obscure, fake class.
Casey: And then at night the Cooper people would come and fill out this space. We would do trainings and talk about actions. Continuing all of this stuff.
Casey: We ended up basically squatting this space. Spraypainting it. Living there. [Laughter.]
Victoria: Even though tuition had been announced, all of the students that were still there kept their scholarships, so no one that was at the school was getting charged, but it was the next incoming class which would be the first to pay tuition. There was a feeling amongst the community that something could still be done because this was an injustice, and the decision was made without the consent of the community, and it violated the mission. We knew for sure that there was something illegal, we just needed to get to the right people who could help us intervene. People still had an idea that we could do even more than had already happened.
Casey: The President was so spooked out by the Occupation that he didn’t come back to his office for almost a full year.
Victoria: This is day 211.
Casey: We had this sandwich board just counting the number of days that his office was empty. He was scared that it would be occupied again. So he worked out of his house, which is a brownstone that the college pays for.
Victoria: We had a group that would have walkie talkies. [Laughter.] And if anyone saw the President on the campus we would call everyone together and go to the house or bring the massive wood out. We’d update the day just to make sure that there was always a public record that this is happening, it isn’t over, he can’t hide. We’re such a small group and everything is right here, but it’s still possible.
Casey: We were basically just intervening with everything. This was an admitted students day. They’re trying to show balloons and be all cute, and we have our books and are looking a little angry. [Laughter.]
Casey: We were having fun getting in their way and putting a different kind of image out there. It was a battle between a hyper-positivity and non-acknowledgement, and at every possible chance we were trying to get in there and maintain the awareness that things weren’t right.
Victoria: We decided we all needed to be in better shape to fight tuition, so we started doing whatever we could to make sure morale was high and students knew that even though this decision had been made, there was support to do things. So whether it was doing this training bootcamp group, or making new work about it, or figuring out if there was research that could be done. People were still very active.
Casey: There was a lot more stuff that continued to happen during that time. A lot of small leadups. On Halloween there was a historically inspired action, like levitating the Pentagon which is the U.S. government building, we were going to levitate the Foundation building.
Victoria: We were trying to do an exorcism of the tuition so we decided, okay, people know about levitating the Pentagon, we want to levitate the Foundation building. And we’re going to do this excorcism of tuition. There was a massive turnout. It was also one of the better opportunities to release all of the anger and the frustration. People were just yelling and screaming and running. Even though it was over a year later it had still that feeling of Occupy and grassroots movements and having an artistic response to what was going on. Even though we were being told, still, you’re just students, you’re just people, you don’t know what’s going on.
Casey: All of this was supposed to lead up to the biggest most grand occupation of Cooper, which would take over a side of the building that had never been occupied before. We would bus in people from every movement that we had connected with. We would get celebrities! We would lock our necks to the chairs in the Great Hall! There would be a banner on balloons that would float into the air! We would have this glow in the dark spraypaint!
Victoria: Sounds good, right?
Casey: It was really crazy. But at the same time the college was kind of tightening its rules, like a lot of institutions were. This was a Times piece about it.
Victoria: CUNY is the famous public college in the city and they were historically free also. Cooper Union served lots of minorities, women, people of color, and the working class. That’s what CUNY’s mission is also, but instead of Cooper which was funded privately by Peter Cooper, CUNY was part of the city. So when they stopped having free education in the 60’s there were massive riots, but the schools did continue to charge tuition. This is a massive protest that took months. You can see how many people there are, CUNY is very large. Basically the school overnight took the students’ only organizing space that they had had for over 30 years, which was dedicated to Asssata Shakur, who had to flee the country because she was being hunted by the government. So overnight they took this student space and turned it into a development office. There was just massive turnout for that.
Casey: In response to restricting the student activism, there was an action to drop 5,000 ping pong balls down the grand staircase of the New Building.
Victoria: We were thinking a lot about how to fill the space. [Laughter.] In the past we had been doing lots of balloons. Lots of things that float in the space. This was this massive waste of space that cost so much money. We had been looking at different political forms that were happening around the world and in Syria there was a movement that would write political messages on ping pong balls because they’re cheap and you can just get them, and they would send them down the streets, because the streets are winding, and you could never collect them all so you would always find them scattered around. Ironically, the school was just investing thousands of dollars in luxury ping pong tables. [Laughter.] So we thought, okay, we can tie this in and raise the awareness to what’s going on there and what’s going on here. So we dropped the ping pong balls.
Casey: So, a lot of things had happened but that big action never came to fruition. And that was really hard to grapple with. There was this kind of malaise. Like, okay, whatever. What else can we do? After having multiple occupations that didn’t stop tuition. And little actions that only served to tighten the restrictions. Our residency had ended. We were broke. Everyone was tired.
Casey: A different group of alumni, faculty, and incoming students launched a supreme court lawsuit, basically alleging that if you were to go back and look at those historical documents, that it’s a violation of the school’s charter to charge tuition. The reason that it receives public money is that it’s providing a public good to citizens of New York.
Victoria: And at this point, this is now like three years. We had graduated out. Other students were freshmen or incoming students when this started and now they’re almost graduating out. Nobody thought it was going to take this long. Nobody thought it was going to be this final. People really had this feeling like even though we think it’s still possible to prevent the tuition from happening, even though they’ve already made the decision, it took a very large toll on the art practices of people, the faculty who were having not only to do their full-time jobs that they’re underpaid for but to do even more and put their jobs on the line, and it scared people from applying to the school even though the school has this history of being this space for this discourse to happen. We were still confident that something could happen but it started to look very different than the movements that we had been a part of.
Casey: The types of things that we were doing and the ways that we were participating was also kind of different. We were licking envelopes.
Victoria: Bike messengers. [Laughter.]
Casey: Sending out t-shirts. Trying to crowdfund hundreds of thousands of dollars just to pay these lawyers, because the real estate situation was so fucked up that no lawyer would touch it without getting paid a lot of money. So we were still around but it was more in an instrumentalized way. Thanking the donors.
Casey: In New York, a lot was continuing to happen. There were a lot of marches ongoing related to Black Lives Matter. You can see that this is a march that we were just participating in, just as ourselves. But it’s passing right by Cooper.
Victoria: Historically, when there were actions going on in the city, Cooper Union is just right there in the center for this type of Manhattan protest. People would always show up. We felt like, things are really bad now, but the best thing we can do is not be absent from these really important actions going on around race. Specifically because people are dying. It’s this different, extreme measure, but it’s not different from education, because there is a lack of education about what’s going on, what causes racist policies to be put in place, that it’s okay that this keeps happening over and over. So a lot of students were part of these.
Casey: Also on the west coast, USC Roski, which is a renowned MFA program was getting corporatized and shut down by their overlords. So there was a lot of interchange there.
Casey: And then, in short order, Jamshed, the President of Cooper, who we’d been campaigning against since the first Lock-In, stepped down.
Victoria: Campaigning for three years.
Casey: And also the lawsuit came to a conclusion. And the conclusion found, with an independent investigation by the the State of New York, that there was mismanagement. There was an 80 page report released, citing all of the instances in which Cooper could’ve done better. So it wasn’t necessarily a criminal charge. Nobody went to jail. There was no smoking gun. But the verdict was that they didn’t do a great job. Essentially, a compromise was agreed to, where over the next ten years, if a plan to return to free can be created, and if the state, not the board, agrees that it’s feasible, the college is obligated to implement it. So there’s a compromise that creates a window of possibility to really put a plan into action.
Victoria: But the damage was basically done — and we’re about the lead into our most recent project — but you can see that this is an inside cover of the Times. It’s not nearly the same as the front page cover where they said it’s over! This 80 page document is not something that everyone was going to go pickup and read and say, wow they were right this whole time, it was all lies, everything was true that they were saying, the school should be free. Basically the school had wasted years and years and millions of dollars investing in tuition, and had run the school into the ground, and had exhausted the community, and had locally and nationally caused doubt not only in the free tuition model but the possibility that schools could be free, and the possibility that someone could fix the school. It came to be thought that someone needs to fix this school, and really what we had been saying the whole time is not that it’s any one person that can fix the school but that it’s the entire community. That’s really what Peter Cooper believed in. It’s the group of artists, the media, the architects, the engineers, the polticians that have to maintain an institution such as this, and create more institutions that are also free. So we had to work a lot around media that was not accurately representing what was going on.
Casey: Over the summer we proposed to the Interim President, who had just been appointed as a stopgap but is actually so much smarter and more workable and actually a great person, to do a project that would seed the first steps of what a community-run institution might look like. We were given this vacant storefront that the school owns, which they’re currently in the process of trying to rent out.
Calla: And that was Saint Marks Bookstore?
Victoria: The school had a famous community bookshop, which was at the bottom of the dorm. It’s kind of a space that was like this but a little bit bigger, and there was one of the only non-corporate bookshops. Everything else is Barnes & Noble, big chains, and this was a small family bookshop. It had been there since the dorm had opened. During all of the tuition struggles, the school decided to continue to injure the entire Lower East Side community by kicking out the bookshop, saying that they weren’t paying and they wanted to charge someone else more. Everyone thought, wow, this is so terrible. But maybe they’ll have someone immediately to fill the space? But the space sat empty for a year. So they displaced another group and at this point they just didn’t care. The space sat empty, it had water damage, it was unclear what was going on. And like I mentioned, we’re just two small buildings in a big island of Manhattan. I don’t know if it’s something that schools here have, but we don’t have a community space or a union space, or even a lobby to meet and organize. So we proposed a community residency in this empty space. We said, we’ll bring everything, we’ll fund everything, we’re going to bring the community back together and make sure everyone’s back on the same page about what’s going on here. So we were granted access to this empty space.
Victoria: This was the first meeting.
Casey: The challenge was to figure out what it looks like to be in this transitional space between the “bad guys” being gone, and situation being “resolved” as far as the courts are concerned. A lot of that red and black aggro all caps activist language that was so viral back when we were doing those big actions no longer resonated with anyone. So we went to the paint store and picked up something different.
Victoria: Tangerine dream. Refreshing teal. We thought, okay, we have to do something different that’s more true to the way that we feel. We’re not always wearing red and black.
Casey: It was a whole new visual language. You can’t talk about things in the same way, you can’t show the same kinds of images, and you can’t meet in the same spaces, or even in the same way, because it gives people this trauma of the past couple years. They just don’t want to be involved. It’s too disappointing. Or it’s too resolved.
Victoria: Yeah. So these were massive murals that we did in the space. They were really big and each took up a different part. That’s the same clock that used to be red, and these are two other parts of the building, a window and a pillar. We had this thought that all of what’s happened, even in spite of the lawsuit, has been like having a terrible dream or a really bad acid trip or something. [Laughter.] We’re all coming out of it together and we have to figure out, what does it look like? The numbers on the clock are fallen. The window doesn’t retain its shape. How can we get out from underneath what people want us to look like? Like this activist group. When we want to just be ourselves a bit. And we still want the school to be free.
Casey: We built a stage and hosted a lot of music events and dance parties.
Victoria: Bringing people back into it, because people had been so pushed off by how aggressive it had been, how many people were threatened, how many faculty were made to feel terrible about what had happened. I should mention we called the space Nonstop Cooper because we thought, wow, everyone was so tired of what had happened and thought it was going to be over in six months, in eight months, one year, two years, three years, and now it’s going on four years. [Laughter.] We said, if we’re more honest with people, people can gauge their participation. We said, it’s actually nonstop. And if you consider it to be nonstop, how will you participate? People came out to do these different things. They said we’ll participate by making music, by building a stage together and doing performances. We’ll participate by learning new financial updates and having meetings in between classes.
Casey: So we would intersperse a meeting with a provocation like, what would it look like for a school to have no president? With a lot of karaoke. [Laughter.]
Victoria: Yeah. So basically school during the day, meetings during the evening, karaoke at night over and over and over.
Casey: Teachers would bring their art classes. This is a sculpture critique.
Casey: And also the trustees came to talk about the presidential search. I think they were under the impression that they had organized the meeting themselves, or something. They were not happy to be there, and to be asked questions.
Victoria: So instead of doing an action where we locked ourselves into a space, we created a public call for the conversation that they couldn’t turn down. They had to send a number of representatives to this meeting, even though they didn’t want to be caught dead in a space that had this type of vibe to it. [Laughter.] It was allowed by this Interim President. They showed up anyway and we had a conversation about what we think are the qualities for a new president, and how actually they’re doing a really bad job representing the honest opinion of the community. It’s not anything they wanted to hear, but at least we have it on video.
Casey: Then we ended with a party.
Casey: These were the windows of the storefront.
Calla: So, to interject, this is the beginning of you guys figuring out how to move forward with the language that you all developed when the school won’t actually take it on, and they also can’t get rid of you. You talked about the language of the para-institution, which I think segues, in terms of time, into what you’re working on now, is that right?
Victoria: Absolutely. We left the space thinking, surely they’re going to put someone new in this space if they’re not going to let the community continue to have it, but actually it’s been months since we left the space and it’s still empty. So that just continues to prove over and over again to people that actually the institution doesn’t have the community in mind. It doesn’t have returning to free in mind. And what we have to do is gather ourselves to figure out what that language will continue to look like in different forms in and outside of the institution, to create the pressure via the different ways of moving, that aren’t just limited to activism, aren’t just limited to art, but create a whole new system.
Casey: So that’s meant going back even to the materiality of the building as well, to think about the quarry where the brownstone to build Cooper came from. A couple of years ago it shut down because they were out of stone.
Victoria: So many people from the city were demanding this stone because they loved the way it looked, it has such a New York vibe. Something that took hundreds of thousands of years to develop, a mine, was finished in less than 30 years. So we thought, wow, that has a real parallel to what happened at our school, which was meant to last forever but was finished at 150 years falsely. So we’ve begun to look back at the material, the space, the building, the unbuilding.
Victoria: What does it look like to work forever instead of for one year or two years? To begin to write again. To pick up our practices in a way that’s not outside the school but, like Calla is saying, para-institutional. We’re not leaving, and we’re creating more people that aren’t leaving, and we’re coming here to talk to a bunch of you in Berlin about no one leaving! If any of you want to come to the school and stay forever, we can talk about that also. [Laughter.]
Casey: That quarry is a waterpark now. [Laughter.] It’s kind funny. It reminded us of that idea that Cooper wasn’t originally even a school. It’s just a rock. And there’s no more of the rock left. And what was supposed to happen inside of it no longer happens. At this quarry they’re doing watersports, but it could be anything. I think that’s what we’re tying to figure out. It’s really easy to get stuck into activist or art and politics discussion about how to stop a fee hike, and I think what we’re trying to figure out is a way to not be nostalgic, and not be preventative, but to say, if something has no fixed identity what could it be in the future?
Max Pitegoff: Thank you!
Wolfgang: Instead of having the discussion here, I think we all want a beer, so let’s go to the bar.