Evening Class, a self-organized learning environment established in London in 2015, is a space for continuous learning and critical practice, born out of a shared frustration among designers in the cultural field who lack scope in their workplaces to discuss practice and theory in a more expansive way. The group’s membership and structure is never fixed: currently, it consists of 12 members who meet two evenings a week in their space in Poplar, East London, to conduct research, have discussions, and host events. Evening Class’s network of collaborators sets it apart from other “socially engaged” design practices. It looks beyond the narrow field of arts and culture and instead directly seeks out NGOs and grassroots movements to work with. In this way, the group has created an environment where its political standpoints can be explored as defining and central aspects of its practice.
The non-static nature of the project—maintained by constant self-reflection and reconfiguration—makes Evening Class hard to pin down and label, but it enables a constant criticality and steers the project away from both traditional art school formats and studio practice.
In a recent conversation with all 12 group members, Evening Class discusses the current state of the program and the research projects the group is currently engaged in. We also touch upon the freedom and struggles of self-organizing, collaborative design processes, and how the group functions as a support structure for its members and a counterpoint to the often highly competitive design environment. In this interview, all members remain anonymous because, as they state, speaking in a collective anonymous voice has enabled an honesty and directness in their use of language that wouldn’t often be found if they spoke as individuals.
MH (Marie Hoejlund)
Could you briefly introduce the starting point for Evening Class, and the current state of the program?
EC (Evening Class)
Evening Class started as a conversation at the end of 2015 in response to the current state of higher education and creative working situations in the UK. This led to an open call, the intention being to select 12 applicants for an alternative Masters-style structure. However, the two initiators realized that, in order to challenge the selection processes of conventional education, everyone who responded should be allowed to join. Joining Evening Class remains open to all and everyone is welcome.
Our current program takes the form of meetings, workshops, projects, talks, reading groups, radio broadcasting, performances, walks, and, occasionally, designing things. We have also worked in collaboration with other groups and activist organizations in order to contribute to wider discourses.
As time has gone on, the aims of EC have shifted from “replacing an MA” to ongoing learning. Why should “education” be confined to three years prior to entering the “workforce”? Some might argue that learning continues “on the job,” but a counter-argument might be the lack of criticality within most design studios, highlighting the tension between design as a craft or critical practice versus a paid service.
How do you see Evening Class in comparison to other forms of design education, such as university MAs or the wave of graphic design summer schools?
It might be worth contrasting the format of Evening Class as an experiment in self-organized education within what seems to be a contemporary resurgence of these sorts of explorations around artistic pedagogy. We, and others, are borrowing and building from the anti-hegemonic tendencies popularized through the alternative models of the past, whether consciously or not. The frequency with which we meet, not having a fixed academic duration, and an ever-changing body of participants feels different to the setup of other schools we have met or researched. Financially, the school is mostly self-funded, and spending is democratically decided by the members. Politically, I think our network of collaborators is also a little different to others. Our skepticism towards some “socially engaged” practices motivates us towards grassroots movements that are already engaging in progressive political organizing, rather than entrenching ideas of solutionism within design practice.
From a pedagogical perspective, we don’t use the traditional art school crit to organize classes, opting instead for discussions and other (often immaterial) activities catalyzed around research topics—a caveat being that graphic design is frequently used as an entry point. Mobilizing our collective voice in order to publicly examine structural inequalities in the industry and academy (see our open letter, researching unionizing, and events like Mind the Gap that question the role of degree shows at university) perhaps feel unique—or maybe it’s the fluidity of it all?
I do also like to think of EC as continuing a tradition of adult (self-organized) education, which was of special historical importance to working-class communities, providing access to transformative lifelong learning, though admittedly a diminishing prospect in our current society (do check out the British Labour party’s proposal for a National Education Service for some hope!). To what extent we achieve this (transformative element) is of course highly debatable. But being a school with no formal accreditation still requires conceptualizing achievement in other ways, right?
In general, a lot of outside interest in EC comes from within educational institutions, which can be problematic, especially when it is an attempt to insert self-organization into an existing teacher-led curriculum as a way to cut costs.
Evening Class consist of multiple “working groups” researching different topics. What are the various working groups currently focused on?
The current active working groups that we conduct research around are; unionizing graphic design, post-capitalist desire, and open-source practices.
PCD (post-capitalist desire) is a sort of think-tank collective assembled in collaboration with other individuals and organizations outside Evening Class. It ultimately aims to rechannel the skills, affects, and desires produced by graphic design, advertising, and PR toward radical ends through visual making and applied theorizing. For example, we are currently looking at how techniques and the attraction of fashion and luxury advertising can be extracted and put towards areas like ecological and political activism, which usually suffer with aesthetic and image problems. This is a project where predictable and expected critical concerns about design value, glitz, fetishization, propaganda, etc., can be questioned and these things instead weaponized in new, unusual ways. It is an immensely fulfilling and important task, and we are in discussion with thinkers from the fields of politics, technology and culture to realize these projects.
The union working group is collecting research on trade unionism within the arts. This formed the basis for a public Antiuniversity event that we hosted at EC in June 2018 called What Could a Union Do for Graphic Design? We are compiling a research document of designers’ conditions in the UK and beyond and aim to invite written contributions and collect examples of work done by others in the field already, many of whom were influential to our research. This event was building off conversations with Worker’s Inquiry: Architecture and the union United Voices of the World, and we wanted to investigate contemporary misuses of the term “union” (normally used without its prefix “trade”). We’ve hosted events as part of Antiuniversity’s program for three years now, and they build up a kind of progression, from focusing on design education in 2016 to issues at work in 2017 and then (perhaps) logically to trade unions and workplace organizing in 2018.
In 2017, our Antiuniversity event informed the previously mentioned open letter we wrote to creative jobs boards calling for them to publicly list their salaries. The Creative Industries have little to no regulation with many informal arrangements, and different levels of power-related information gatekeeping. Vague terms like “dependent on experience” and “competitive” become linguistic loopholes that allow prospective employers to undercut, devalue, and exploit the labor of its (potential) workforce. The letter was signed by the Precarious Workers Brigade, 4Day Week Campaign, W.A.G.E in the US, and many other groups or campaigns. To date no jobs boards have agreed. I think It’s Nice That was genuinely perplexed by our request to sign the letter, unaware of how what it does has a detrimental knock-on effect and isn’t just automatically “nice.”
The open-source group is interested in collaboration and decentralization, both on- and offline. We’ve held a couple of workshops exploring this idea, and we’re also working on putting this into practice through a longer-term project to make our own website more useful and accessible. We’d like to make it into more of a resource for free education, where we properly document our activities and allow people outside the group and outside of London to access and contribute to what we’re working on. Making these processes more transparent can both be a resource to other self-organized groups, and will help recognize this organizational work as labor and an equal output to any other ways we work. This is most likely going to take the form of a wiki (a website that enables collaborative editing and doesn’t have a single defined owner), which is a bit more forgiving and suits the ad hoc way that we work.
Although in the past we’ve always tried to make EC transparent and accessible—through publishing slides from talks online, making events free, etc.—the reality is that our activity is still quite opaque in practice, and we’re always working on improving this.
We are also thinking of ways we can use open-source theory to improve Evening Class as a workspace by offering to share it with other groups and individuals whose projects we feel we can support. The open-source programming policy used by the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow is a good example, though we would obviously operate in a different way and at a much smaller scale.
You mention that you occasionally take on commissions or design together. I am curious how this works in practice?
We try to avoid competition when working on Evening Class projects. In the past, we’ve often designed something by passing working files between one another, with each person editing or adding one element, and then giving it to the next person.
At the moment we’re developing the identity for La Foresta, a community space within a train station, co-organized by a network of local groups and individuals in Rovereto, Italy. The project “explores what it means to create solidarity and an open community in times of intersecting environmental, social and economic crises.”
There are many similarities between La Foresta and our own aims and organizational structure. It’s unusual for us to take on a commissioned project like this, but we were very interested in the project and also in exploring how a collective can design an identity for another collective and what the idea of collective identity even means. We’re currently working on an identity that communicates the ambiguity and multiple realities of the project and allows for multiplicity, openness, permeability, and change.
We visited Rovereto over the summer to meet the community involved and understand the project. Back in London, we started with individual sketches that cross-pollinated into several common threads over several rounds of presentations within the group. We have presented several conceptual directions to the community in Rovereto, and are now in the process of distributing the work into group that will work on the different facets of the project.
The starting point of the program as a reaction to for instance the current prices of education in the UK is quite a political point of departure. I am sensing that political engagement/activism is at the core of your program. Could you share your thoughts on the role it plays? (There are, of course, many different spheres to approach “political”: education, gentrification, the state of the creative industries, etc.)
I think that the inherently political starting point set us on an inherently political trajectory. Each member brings their own personal politics, and I think for many people this felt like a productive way for these interests to be explored as a defining element of our practice(s).
I would say that, although much of our interests and activities may seem “political,” this is more a factor of looking for alternatives to commercial design work and culture, and being self-reflexive about our own positions and experiences in a wider context. But, personally, it just feels the natural and necessary thing to do. To use your examples: we have a critical relation to existing (non)education, the gentrification of the area we practice in, and the Creative Industries™ anyway, so what we do is already politicized. We live and work in a context where alternatives to commercial design work are extremely difficult to find, often elite, or purely academic/art world–based. Our own activities has led us to work with many interesting people from outside art and design—and not just as commissioners (from Bernard Keenan’s fascinating legal-architectural research to The 4-Day Week campaign and union group), plus a whole plethora of practitioners with similar interests we have discovered and worked alongside.
You use the word “support structure.” Could you share more about the support structure aspect of EC and how you use each other, share frustrations, and facilitate an ongoing and uncompetitive conversation about working life?
We’re trying to create an environment where we can cooperate rather than alienate each other. It is difficult at times, as we know sometimes different EC members are applying for the same jobs. On the other hand, sometimes we’ve given each other work. But having an open environment where we can share our experiences helps everyone to get to a better place collectively rather than undermine each other by competing. This regular contact with others who shares your frustrations and experiences feels very useful, and we can give each other advice on very specific dilemmas in our jobs. A number of us work freelance, some by necessity rather than choice. We have a shared skepticism of the word “flexible” as being a completely positive thing for the self-employed. Could it also generate new conditions of competitiveness, overwork, and job insecurity?
Over the years we have built and shared an extensive practical knowledge that can be very helpful to navigate the hyper-competitive working environment, i.e. how much should I charge to design a book for an established art gallery, what is it like to work for a specific design studio or institution, what are the good printers in London, etc. This is an extraordinary resource. It’s relevant to mention that this “support structure” goes beyond just work; some of us have set up a separate research group, which is slowly shaping into a more formalized co-living project in response to the housing crisis and unaffordable homes in London.
I think this question comes back to the voluntary nature of the group. On paper it’s perhaps more a paid members association than a collective or organization. Where does the responsibility lie to sustain it? On one level, we all individually have a duty of care to one another and ourselves. And on another level, there are issues of collective care (facilitation, distributing work fairly, cleaning the space). I’m particularly interested in this reproductive labor in relation to group organization and maintenance, as it’s something I think we still struggle to resolve. There’s also the question of support beyond the membership of the group. Who is our public? Aberfeldy Street residents? Tower Hamlets/London? The graphic design community? I suppose, since we often don’t seem to be presenting ourselves as a formalized organization (at least not legally), it begs the question: to what extent does that support become a responsibility rather than a desire? For instance, when looking back at our list of invited speakers, there is a larger proportion of white males invited—in spite of a constant desire, at least in rhetoric, to confront the normative canon of design education.
What kind of conversations do you have about the current state of the program, and about the future of EC?
The program is in a state of “perpetual beta” (this term is borrowed from Brave New Alps, our main collaborator on the La Foresta project). Occupying space in, between, with, around, and against the academy and industry makes the organizing, outcomes, and directions (and who’s involved in those) hard to define. Instead of worrying about presenting clarity, it’s that complexity that can be used strategically in defense of being coopted into the narrative of entrepreneurial self-improvement that is often attached to extracurricular activities in the creative universe.
Underpinning all of this, I think, is a commitment to continually reflect, refine, and negotiate the trajectory of the group—and to record, transcribe, and make our process transparent. The result of which can be a slow pace, frustrating at times and potentially confusing, but ultimately it’s what maybe helps push Evening Class away from a more traditional studio or (alternative) art school format, keeping things both critical and flexible.*