Graphic design practice has expanded so dramatically in the last two decades that graphic design education has been challenged to constantly evolve in order to stay relevant. Programs at art colleges and major universities alike have had to react quickly and sometimes hastily to keep up with changing disciplinary, cultural, and technological conditions. Some have recognized the broadening of the profession by offering specializations in different aspects of graphic design practice: typography, typeface design, design criticism, branding, packaging, UI/UX, interactive, motion, research, information design, and more. A handful have gone in the other direction, and are strongly encouraging inter- or transdisciplinary practices. And yet the stalwarts of this landscape, at least in the United States, have not changed much. The top four or five graduate programs today are the same ones that dominated the field two decades ago.
Meanwhile, tuitions across the United States continue to rise: a report by US News & World Report shows a 48% increase in tuitions and fees among private nonprofit colleges between the years 2000 and 2015. Today most private art schools cost students between $40,000 and $50,000 a year. These conditions have resulted in a noticeable shift in how students view an advanced degree and how they imagine their futures post-graduation.
In response to all of this, Joe Potts, a master’s-level graduate from California Institute of the Arts (2009) and faculty member at Otis College of Art and Design and the University of Southern California, has launched the Southland Institute, a self-described “unaccredited postgraduate graphic design workshop and evolving public repository of educational resources” located in Los Angeles. And while the Southland Institute is a deliberate counterpoint to the “bigger is better” ethos of many larger tuition- and endowment-driven institutions, with their state-of-the-art equipment and limitless resources, it does also involve a deliberate and thoughtful effort to pack “more into less,” to infuse into its curriculum a rich history of radical art/design and counter-educational movements. In this conversation, I speak with Joe about his motivation for starting a new school, and what it offers as an alternative to existing models of contemporary graphic design education.
Jon Sueda (JS)
What is the Southland Institute? And why do we need this option for graphic design in the context of today’s educational landscape?
Joe Potts (JP)
The Southland Institute is a new, unaccredited, two-year, postgraduate typography workshop, and also an evolving public online repository of educational resources. It’s built around the tools, processes, histories, and discourses of typography and certain strains of what might be most conveniently summarized as post-conceptual art, and is intended to be a forum for inquiry into some of the processes, potentials, and complications of higher education and its attendant structures and systems.
It’s also an attempt to bring an affordable, high-quality offering to the landscape of graphic design education in the United States. It distinguishes itself in that it foregrounds the uses and histories of typography and graphic design in a way that focuses on publication as a critical artistic practice, and addresses things from an angle of thinking about typography as a formal, physical, and structural manifestation of language. It also looks at how the tools of graphic design have been, and can be, activated in the service of practices that might be more conceptually aligned with certain strains of critical art making.
Among the major aims of the Southland Institute are to activate and explore points of contact between disciplines and media, and to create a space for extended development, exposure, and conversation, without the heavy debt burden that typically accompanies such study here in the United States. It arises very specifically in response to several significant gaps that we perceive in the current landscape of higher education: a gap in dialogue between departments and discourses at existing institutions of all sizes; a lack of programs that actively integrate strategies and pedagogy from both graphic design and post-conceptual art; a lack of programs that enable and encourage rigorous and sustained study and practice without incurring long-term debt; and a lack of institutions in which faculty are paid fairly and sustainably for their contributions.
One component of it is very much in person—reliant on conversation and interaction among enrolled participants and faculty; another component where these conversations, resources, and documentation get put up on the website, creating a public resource for anyone who might be interested; and another component where the participants themselves are required to teach at least one public workshop per year of their residency.
Is Southland Institute in any way a critique of the current state of design education or our larger educational issues as a country?
It’s trying to look closely at both of these things, but it is worth noting that while an element of critique may be inherent in the Southland Institute’s very existence, it’s far from its sole purpose. The Southland Institute is, first and foremost, an attempt at a lighter-weight, nimbler institution of higher education that responds to a specific gap in the available offerings, and to what could reasonably be perceived as large-scale institutional failings at colleges, art schools, and universities all over the country. I don’t think that it’s necessarily a critique of the content or curricula of current design education so much as maybe an articulation of the embeddedness and inextricability of some of the country’s strongest programs within institutions whose costs require their attendees, at least those without access to a certain level of financial resources, to effectively undertake upside-down debt obligations on their futures.
On the surface, the most divergent ideas that the Southland Institute represents are that you don’t need to earn an accredited “degree” and/or pay steep tuition prices in order to participate in and benefit from higher education. What are the other differences between what SI offers in comparison to more traditional institutions?
It is our view that while accreditation may create a certain baseline of quality, and help ensure that predatory for-profit schools don’t have access to funds from federally backed loans, the accreditation process and requirements can also have a limiting effect. And while it’s well intentioned, and in certain cases necessary, the emphasis on quantification, metrics, rubrics, and front-loading curricula and syllabi with clearly articulated outcomes can actually preclude unconventional possibilities, unusual approaches, and unexpected outcomes.
We also hope to offer an alternative to the student debt cycle in which students are permitted to take out extremely large federally backed and private loans, irrespective of their current or future ability to repay them. While accreditation definitely serves a number of useful purposes, and ideally prevents certain institutional abuses, it also seems worth questioning its role and complicity in this problematic cycle.
The Southland Institute also asks what would happen if a study of the connections between a school’s curriculum and its institutional structure were themselves part of the educational experience. We are interested in examining what happens if part of an education that concerns itself with form, and the underlying structures of things, is about understanding and making visible the form(s) of the education and the educational institution itself.
This model (and in particular here we’re talking about higher/postgraduate art and design education)—a rigorous but curricularly nimble, lightly administrated, porously bordered, self-reflexive, and flexibly structured model that costs students less and pays teachers more—is a proposition built from pieces that are neither new nor unique, but it’s far from the norm, particularly in the United States.
All of this is relevant because, as cliché as it’s become, there is a very real crisis happening in higher education, at both the private and the public level (and all of this is before we even figure out what the current administration in Washington’s effect on all of it will be). It’s hitting the institutions themselves in enrollment and applicant numbers, and the fallout from it is happening in the financial lives of recent graduates. These problems aren’t a secret, and there are certainly discussions within the departments and institutions about how best to address them, but a lot of these departments, and the institutions they’re in, from what I’ve seen at least, aren’t in a position to solve it because they’ve got massive overhead already: property costs, administrative costs, equipment costs, salaries, et cetera, and what are they going to do, roll back tuition? I don’t think that’s even close to being on the table.
So what we’re proposing is keeping some of what we’ve learned, and what we value, from our involvement in some of these institutions—keeping the conversations, the atmosphere of permission and curiosity, the rigor, and the critique—but starting from scratch with the institutional scaffolding. We are asking: What are the most important parts of an educational experience, and what can be left out? What are interesting models from the past that could still be relevant today? What’s the value of an instructor’s time, and how can we build a budget around that? We’re interested in how we can create an institution that’s not built on ego or an ethos of perpetual expansion and exploitation, but on learning, cooperation, value, and an ability to self-sustain.
Debt is certainly a topic of conversation among students not only today but when I was a student in the early 2000s. It certainly affects the range of opportunities post-graduation. Today I see fewer graduates embarking on self-directed, autonomous practices, and more who seem interested in joining established companies with greater resources. What do you hope your students will do after their experience at SI? What types of practices will result from this experience?
We hope that by choosing to participate in an education that doesn’t require a large debt commitment, they might be less beholden to the banks, and to the kinds of careers and other sacrifices those debts can require. To say that paying off the loans inhibits certain ideal trajectories suggests, optimistically, that paying off these loans is actually possible. Part of what is making this problem so severe for a lot of people is that if you run the numbers on, for instance, paying off $100,000 in debt on a $50,000 a year salary, while also covering housing, food, health insurance, and transportation in a large U.S. city, the numbers just don’t add up.
I would love to see people who attend the Southland Institute publishing books, teaching at community colleges, starting bands, editing and designing magazines, running blogs, setting up co-ops, curating shows, starting nonprofits, creating their own currencies, organizing events. Some of them may decide to go into or back to conventional academia to get PhDs, in which case a hope would be that they bring some of the spirit of Southland to those endeavors.
For those who opt for a more entrepreneurial route, we hope that they might bring a sense of looking for ways to build things in the world that chart a different course than some of the ones we’re familiar with, but that also avoid Silicon Valley’s problematic version of “disruption”—that is, the so-called “sharing economy” where the majority of people involved end up working for less than living wages in order to create value for shareholders and start-up founders. We want them to find the cracks in the system and not only make them visible, but cultivate practices in the spaces they create. We want them to be resourceful, astute, critical, socially responsible, and imaginative. We want to show them, and hopefully also discover together, some tools and strategies that might enable this, but more importantly than that I think there’s a hope that they’ll show us things we can’t imagine yet. Above all, the hope would be that they pursue a practice of making challenging, thought-provoking, conceptually and formally sophisticated work, in whatever form it needs to take.
The landscape in graduate-level graphic design education is pretty different than it was even twenty years ago. Many more applicants today are “career changers” with great knowledge or experience in another field, but limited or sometimes no design in their backgrounds. Most programs now include a third preliminary year where they spend time up front teaching typography and image making, for example, and concurrently try to impart understanding of history, theory, and critical thinking. How do you prioritize different types of skills? Do you expect students to come in with them, or are you spending time skilling them up?
We are operating on the premise that perhaps the ultimate skill is paying attention. Paying attention to what’s going on around you, to what other people are doing, to how the surface of something provides information about what’s going on behind the scenes, and to how many things that present as subtle, even ignorable, are actually affecting everything all the time. The skill of recognizing and articulating these things is a priority. Another crucial skill of attention would be recognizing and understanding different contexts.
Most specific to the Southland Institute, perhaps, and maybe more along the lines of what you’re asking, would be typo/graphic skill, which is also in many ways about paying attention: to letters, to words, to space and proportion, and the ways that these qualities can and do affect the meaning of text and language. Paying attention to history—how letterforms have been used to support and subvert language—and what the form of typography can mean and how it communicates. It’s a balance of knowledge, openness, and to some extent touch. You learn it by doing it and by looking at it and by talking about it—all things that you’ll spend a good portion of your time at the Southland Institute doing.
So with regard to skills: a certain baseline, as it were, of typography and graphic design skills are important coming in, but ultimately a capacity to look closely, process, contribute, and absorb is paramount. If someone comes to us with a less developed set of formal skills, say, but an interesting analysis of the world, an awareness and attention to detail, the other skills will come, and the Southland Institute could be a great place to develop them.
Is Southland Institute looking for a completely new audience/student, or is it aspiring to compete with the current US-based MFA graphic design programs out there like Yale, CalArts, RISD, and Cranbrook? And if yes to the latter, how do you compete with the enormous resources that tuition-driven institutions can provide?
While it is possible, and even likely, that the Southland Institute may appeal to certain students who would also be interested in some of those more traditional programs (though it’s interesting to note that the ones you mention, while traditional in a certain sense, are also built on their own traditions of experimentation, formal innovation, and breaking with tradition), it’s not meant so much to compete directly with them as to offer some of the positive things they do at a far, far lower cost. Some of these things include: a rigorous, intensive experience that unfolds over the space of a couple of years; access to ideas, minds, texts, prompts, conversations, situations, et cetera, with space to reflect on all of this; and the context of a program that is structured yet open-ended, self-directed, but also guided. So I guess you could say we’re looking, in part at least, for people who would likely thrive at any of those places, but have been priced out. Or perhaps their practices don’t fit as neatly into the departmental boxes that all those schools still have in place.
There are obviously certain things offered by the programs you mention that we can’t begin to compete with: campuses, resources, endowments, a menu of course offerings, name recognition, illustrious histories, and importantly (for now at least), degrees. But we also believe that some of these assets may, paradoxically perhaps, be the very things that are holding these institutions back from being able to function as they once did, as places to take genuine risks, to reimagine what’s possible.
It isn’t that they’re not amazing places to learn, but at many of their current price tags it’s hard to defend them against the accusation that they’ve become luxury experiences. All of them are places that can change a person’s life, can expand, refine and crystallize ways of working, thinking, and making. It’s just that they’ve passed a cost-benefit tipping point for many people; they’ve priced out anyone who’s not at least upper-upper-middle class, but in doing so they’ve opened up a space for micro-institutions like Southland to come in and set up shop.
As the bigger schools have entered this strange new era of only being able to function at tuition levels that are unattainable for anyone other than the affluent, this interesting void is being created for folks who might be looking for these kinds of conversations and experiences. And in the meantime some of these accredited schools are finding, unsurprisingly, that their applicant pools are shrinking, and thus they’re not able to be as selective as they’ve been in the past. So, going back to your question, we’re not looking so much to attract the same people that these schools might be attracting so much as we’re looking to attract the people that they’re leaving behind: people whom they are no longer able to effectively serve; people who are hungry for the kind of intellectual worlds that programs like theirs can open, but who are prescient or fiscally cautious enough to see that the cracks in the current system are spreading; people who realize that the contingent faculty teaching them by and large aren’t being paid a living wage; people who have been following the articles about the questionable business practices of Sallie Mae and Navient (read more here, here, and here), and don’t want to get tangled in that web; people who have talked to graduates from the last ten years who (at best) can’t qualify for mortgages because their debt-to-income ratio is too high or (at worst) have trashed their credit on defaulted loans.
So there’s all of that. And we’re also offering something to people who might be attracted to some of the European programs but for whatever reason can’t or don’t want to spend a couple of years abroad. And, importantly, we’re very interested in students who have a harder time shoehorning themselves into a specific discipline. We’re looking for folks interested in the intersection of language, image, sound, material, and time, who would like to investigate the powerful and complex role that typography and publication can play in articulating these points of contact. I think in that way—the active and willing looking outside of the discipline of graphic design, while keeping some of its core tools and approaches—the Southland Institute is looking for an audience/participants who are comfortable on the fringe, who are interested in cultivating practices in the margins and in-between spaces that some of the existing programs have a harder time accommodating.
An advanced degree seems almost an expected requirement in many fields. Today, a lot of students go directly into a master’s program from their undergrad studies and see it as a requirement, not a decision based on some type of agenda fueled by “real” practice. What is the value of a master’s degree in 2017? Conversely, I’ve also observed very resourceful young designers using the internet as a way to create their own “micro-community” that facilitates a heightened level of discourse among like-minded individuals from different parts of the world. This no-cost discursive community seems like a valid alternative to higher education today.
Totally. That makes a lot of sense. For the hypothetical student you’re describing, a person with a certain degree of technical and formal sophistication and/or training who feels confined and wants to explore or be exposed to things, a lot of that stuff is instantly accessible if you know where to look. Or even if you didn’t know where to look but just spent enough time looking, you could figure it out and find things. And I think in addition to the increasing expectation of an advanced degree, graduate school could also come as an appealing option when the seeming alternative is indefinite unemployment, temporary employment, or endless hustling in the “gig economy” with no health insurance, no security of any kind. The prospect of graduate school, which you can pay for later by doing something that you hopefully like more than what you’re doing now, sounds pretty good.
I think your point of the well-considered decision is an important one, and one that the schools themselves are in a pinch with, because they’re not in a position to be turning good students away, even if maybe that student would be better served doing something else.
What about the “summer school” model that has emerged recently in graphic design? Typography Summer School, Ventriloquist Summer School, et cetera. Are these now the venues for experienced designers who want this temporary escape from practice without the high price tag? Where do you situate SI in this shifting landscape?
I think these can definitely serve that purpose, to an extent. And I think there’s certainly an overlap in our interests, particularly with regard to approaches to typography and publication as artistic practice, and a keen interest in questions of pedagogy—design and otherwise—and the space of the school as a fertile one for inquiry and formal exploration. Something I admire a lot about Ventriloquist is the importance they place on keeping it free for students, and in paying their instructors. The unfortunate downside of this is that when funding doesn’t come through, cancelling the program becomes necessary, as happened this summer, which is so unfortunate because what they’re offering is really great.
I’m less familiar with the details of Typography Summer School beyond what’s on their website and what I know of the faculty and guests, but it seems like it has similar concerns, and a lot of amazing people coming through. It also operates more self-sufficiently, with a monetary exchange/tuition fee to support the costs of the operation.
I don’t think it would be presumptuous or a stretch to say that all of us come from a place of being genuinely invested in typography and publication design as a creative practice, and also that teaching is an important part of what we do. And I obviously can’t speak for them, but for me part of this investment comes from an ongoing interest in the history and discipline of typography and graphic design, and a feeling that a lot of the richest, deepest, most exciting work comes from the margins of the discipline, the points of contact with other fields, ideas, processes, and ways of working.
And now I’m only speaking for myself, but part of what I think is so interesting about teaching is that it can be a relational space with varying degrees of structure and openness, fixed elements and variables. In certain ways I think of it as one of the most “alive” forms of design. So there’s a similarity maybe in terms of approach and rigor, and the fact that all three are alternative schools that deal with the formal, visual manifestation of language—in other words, typography. And then another similarity is that all of us are unaccredited, existing outside the sanctioned systems of higher education, and yet clearly are all born from an intimate familiarity with these systems.
Where Southland differs perhaps the most from the summer schools is in the durational aspect. Part of the intended function of the Southland Institute is to provide the temporal space for ideas and practices to unfold, whereas by their very nature the summer schools are meant to be brief, condensed, and action-packed. Southland Institute operates more on the premise that education is a slower burn, that ideas take time to develop, that you just can’t pack as much space for risk and space for failure and space and time for practice into a compressed timeframe.
Another difference with Southland is the very intentional involvement of people who bring things from outside of graphic design, and the idea that bringing other conversations, points of view, and approaches can be an amazing way of enlarging the practice, field of view, and both formal and conceptual toolboxes beyond those conventionally found within even the outer margins of the discipline.
It’s certainly a complex challenge to create the ideal context for interesting conversations and great work to be produced by students. Developing a great faculty, good working environment, excellent culture, and solid reputation takes time. How are you addressing people, place, facilities, and legitimacy as an institution? How does a new program compete with many other established programs, like RISD for example, with more than a century of proven excellence?
Well, one thing I think that’s happening is that these schools with the decades of proven excellence are opening themselves up to be challenged. How much is decades of proven excellence worth? Is it worth $80,000? $100,000? $150,000? Maybe. But it also, if a person is willing to take that gamble of investing their time and resources into something, might be worth considering a place like Southland that draws from those traditions but isn’t beholden to them, and doesn’t ask them to commit to a foreseeable future of $1,200-per-month loan payments.
And state-of-the-art equipment is great, but on the other hand, we also live in a time when Hollywood movies and platinum records have been shot/recorded on iPhones. You can publish and distribute a book with Lulu. An $800 refurbished laptop will do anything and everything you could ever dream of and more.
So that still leaves us with place, community, thought leaders, access to less tangible resources. In most of these regards (with the unfortunate, but all too real, exception of the current cost of living here) I can’t think of many better places to have access to all of that than Los Angeles.
And obviously you’re right that a reputation takes time, but what we’re hoping to do is to start with a foundation that a reputation can be built on, of people who look at and respond to the world in an attuned way, who make challenging, engaging work, and who are also committed to and curious about investigating the role that teaching plays in the development of a practice. And I think we’re open to the idea of excellence potentially meaning a lot of different things, and a culture that doesn’t necessarily strive for it, but hopefully comes by it naturally as a by-product of rigorous analysis and investigation.
It’s interesting that you bring up RISD as a point of comparison, as I happened to be in Providence earlier this summer, at the same time as their end-of-year grad show of all the departments. I was struck by how so many of the works were pressing hard against the walls of their departmental containers. This has been the case there for a long time, but all these departments persist. So along with the decades of proven excellence, which is undeniable, there also comes some structural baggage, particularly for those who might be looking for a more inclusive, connective, unconventional approach.
I guess ultimately the things we have on our side, in addition to affordability, are the energy and flexibility of institutional youth, a location of infinite possibility in the heavy sunspace of Los Angeles, and an understated but exceptional faculty who more than make up in substance for whatever they may lack in name recognition.
Who are the Southland Institute’s faculty, and how did you decide on a core group to launch the program? Are you also utilizing visitors, and local experts outside the graphic design community?
For the first year, we have a core faculty of four people, including myself. Of the four, my educational and professional background is maybe the most conventionally aligned with graphic design and graphic design education, though my interests range well outside of those worlds. The other faculty are Fiona Connor, whose practice moves between curating, facilitating, and object making, and who uses strategies of repetition to produce objects that interrogate their own form by engaging different histories embedded within our built environment; Lucas Quigley, who organizes programs concerned with images of the production and distribution of objects and goods, unusual threads within the history of technical image making, and the social parameters that make these descriptions possible; and Aurora Tang, a researcher and curator with a focus on place-based practices, who is also a program manager at the Center for Land Use Interpretation, and from 2011 to 2015 was managing director of High Desert Test Sites. I’m obviously biased, but I think it’s a powerfully generative combination of people, whose concerns, interests, and approaches are complementary, but varied enough to provide a real range of perspectives. Each stands easily on their own, but combined we become even greater than the sum of the parts.
We also have some amazing people coming in from other schools to do shorter workshops and lectures, including, at the moment, Paul Soulellis (RISD), Shannon Ebner (USC), and Yasmin Khan (CalArts, Otis), as well as other folks as the program grows.
Hopefully all of this will be attractive to students who are intellectually curious, critical, engaged, and excited about building something new.
What is your curriculum based on, and how are you managing the “residency” model? Is the program highly structured, or based on each participant’s engagement with their independent work?
The program is very much based on its participants’ individual investment in their own projects. What these projects can be is very open-ended. They might be self-initiated, or collaborative, or commissioned. In terms of the curriculum, it’s intended to be very fluid. This definitely raises the question of curricular specifics and structure, that is: How do you create something that’s open and fluid without it being completely amorphous or unmoored?
And I think that this is where the prospectus comes in. In addition to outlining some of the aims of the program, the prospectus includes a list of fifty-two books. This list is by no means finite, but it gives a structure of sorts. It pencils in some lines, suggests some conceptual and strategic approaches. It’s concerned with form, and the relationship between form and ideas, but it isn’t formally prescriptive. It’s not exactly a reading list (though it could be if someone was feeling motivated to engage with it in that way) so much as a collection of sources intended to provide a versatile series of something like modules, to create a base for a vast but interwoven combination of compelling curricula that look at language, typography, pedagogy, theory, documentation, institutional critique, architecture, reproduction, publication as critical practice, and alternative narrative strategies, among other things, but not in a way that’s scripted. With all of this as a jumping-off point, much is left to the discretion and inclinations of the faculty—guided by their own work, explorations, interests, and ideas about teaching—in active response to what the participants themselves bring to the table.
The residency question is one that may end up needing to play itself out. There’s a tension at work between what’s ideal and what’s realistic, and a paradox, perhaps, in trying to create a program that at once acknowledges the precarious fiscal realities of a majority of people, while at the same time distances itself from the notion that higher education equals increased employability or earning potential. Thinking about the type of education that the Southland Institute aims to provide, and the conditions under which this might best occur, a more “high-residency” model seems in many ways to be ideal.
But even with a very modest tuition, there’s still the issue of cost of living. So what we’re looking to achieve is something more, you could say, of a “medium-residency” model. Something where there’s enough time together, enough time for projects and relationships to develop, and also time for the other aspects of life to not only occur, but hopefully feed into the work as well.
In the beginning we’ll be itinerant, setting up shop where we can, in unused, borrowed, and in-between spaces, in roughly six-week blocks of time, one block in each season. As time goes on and situations change, this configuration may also change.
A really successful “alternative” school that you reference a lot in your materials is the Werkplaats Typografie. The WT is a great example of a program that had very modest resources initially, yet was able to vault into the conversation with the best schools in the world in quite a short period. I think part of it was perfect timing—a counterpoint to the end-of-the-1990s postmodern wave, an iconic faculty member in Karel Martens who instantly sparked interest from many students, and pretty great location in Arnhem, a city far enough away from Amsterdam to separate itself from the status quo and form its own identity. How is the WT—or other schools, for that matter—influencing you?
I agree with your observations about the elements that coalesced in the case of the WT, and obviously all of those are circumstances that don’t exist here. Context is obviously a huge factor in everything, schools being no exception, and I have a lot of thoughts about the specific context of Los Angeles in 2017. But I’ll talk a little bit first about some of the things, in the case of the WT, that I think might be translated or transposed from one context to another in a compelling way.
One of the most literal and direct ways that WT has been an influence is Paul Elliman’s essay in their early “In Alphabetical Order” book, which begins: “Using even the barest design or programming tricks, it shouldn’t be too difficult to set up a fledgling ‘academy’ for the internet. A basic school channeling available resources: dictionaries, search engines, mailing lists, chat-rooms; along with a collection of scholarly (or not) web-links; a loose assembly of contributing texts, workshops, lectures, ‘slideshows’, notes and correspondences. A content begins to take shape, presents itself as a space; people go there, a discussion begins.” It’s easy to see the connection between the approach outlined there and the Southland Institute website.
Some of the other things about the WT (or my interpretation of it at least) that have been most inspiring, as someone who’s been watching from afar—and that I think are relevant to some of the aims of Southland—are the self-directed and open-ended qualities, the use of graphic design and typography as jumping off points for broader language, image, sound, and situational explorations that may diverge from conventional practice, and also the cultivation of practices that incorporate elements of the extremely pragmatic (the commissioned, “real projects” aspect) along with things that might be more speculative and/or oblique.
Other schools that have also been influential in various ways include the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, particularly the era of the late 60s and early 70s, when they were bringing in, and publishing books by, people like Steve Reich, Hans Haacke, Yvonne Rainier, Dan Graham, Michael Asher, Allen Sekula, and others. The relationships between the work, teaching practices, and publications of these artists are definitely of interest.
And Black Mountain College, though clearly from a very different time, place, and set of circumstances, has this line in its prospectus that I think is always worth revisiting: “[A base principle] worth emphasizing (it is still generally overlooked in those colleges where classification into fields, because of curriculum emphasis, remains the law) is that Black Mountain College carefully recognizes that… it is not things in themselves, but what happens between things, where the life of them is to be sought.”
Though rooted in graphic design and typography, there’s also an element of the Southland Institute that is about this idea of a holistic educational experience that’s not broken down into departmental categories, and where interdisciplinarity isn’t just talked about or constructed after the fact, but built into the project from its conception.
How does place—meaning the Los Angeles area—play into the plans for SI? Is the agenda of the school in any way site specific? Are you drawing from the area’s rich history of art and design?
Definitely. While it clearly derives a degree of institutional influence from places farther afield geographically, it’s also very much a response to its own surroundings. And in addition to the region’s history of art and design, there’s also a history of pedagogical innovation. And then on top of all of that, there’s an interesting confluence of recent events that make it all very much a product of its own place and time.
These recent events that I’m talking about all take place around 2015–16, and are localized, but also representative of a much broader set of concerns. One was the arrival of the Leap Before You Look Black Mountain College retrospective at the Hammer Museum. The resurgence of interest in one of the most influential educational experiments of the twentieth century I think speaks to a spreading sense that it might be worthwhile to step outside the institutional frameworks we’ve become familiar with and look at this historical model, not out of nostalgia, but more out of a sense of mining the past for information that we may have overlooked, that might be useful as inspiration for a version of the near future that’s markedly different from the path we’re heading down.
A second significant Los Angeles event was the USC Roski MFA class all dropping out at once in response to what they perceived and articulated as unacceptable and irresponsible institutional behavior. There are conflicting accounts of what precisely transpired, but the fact remains that this was, to my knowledge, an unprecedented student response to the corporatization of higher education.
The third Los Angeles event was the near-simultaneous efforts to organize faculty (contingent and otherwise) at CalArts, Otis College of Art and Design, Art Center, and the University of Southern California, all of which were suppressed in various ways by their respective administrations, even in the cases of Otis and USC, both of which voted for faculty representation. That these kinds of behind-the-scenes institutional machinations would be a part of a curricular conversation about typography and the meaning of structural forms and images is, I think, a different way of thinking about an art and design education.
CalArts also factors into its lineage, but in a more fragmented, collaged way. We’re thinking about the history of design there, not only the critical and post-structurally derived form-making of the 1990s and beyond, but also the early Victor Papanek days and Sheila de Bretteville’s women’s design program. But we’re also interested in CalArts beyond just its design history. We’re thinking about Maurice Stein and Larry Miller’s vision for the Critical Studies program, outlined in Blueprint for Counter Education (1970) (another document that is enjoying a recent resurgence in popularity), and importantly, the history of the “post-studio art” class that was started by John Baldessari, and taught for thirty-five years by Michael Asher. Then a couple of other CalArts influences that are part of the Southland DNA are the art and pedagogical practices of filmmaker James Benning, photo-essayist Allan Sekula, and composer Morton Subotnick.
And then another influential contemporary practice is that of the architecture collective Assemble, who describe their work and studio as “founded on the belief that an understanding of how things are made, of how materials are assembled, brings an intimate engagement with the problems and possibilities of the real world” (that quote comes from the catalogue for the How We Build show at Architekturzentrum Wien). Their strategic, conscientious, and socially engaged architectural practice delves into questions of structure, form, and material that go beyond the physical and into areas of history, economics, land trusts, housing, play, the public, conversations about contemporary art practice, and where and how these things connect. All of this is done with simple construction methods and inexpensive and easily accessible materials.
So there’s a lot there, but the hope is that it all weaves together in a powerful and ultimately cohesive way, and that while we may not have name recognition, a long-standing reputation, or the financial resources that both enable and derive from those things, we have enough of the other pieces to begin to attract the kinds of folks who will help the project gain momentum and evolve into whatever it is going to become.
Joe Potts is a graphic designer, educator, artist, and writer working with found and synthesized images, sound, typography, and language. He teaches typography and graphic design at Otis College of Art and Design and the University of Southern California, and is the founding director of the Southland Institute (for critical, durational, and typographic post-studio practices).
Jon Sueda is a graphic designer and currently the chair of the MFA Design program at California College of the Arts. He is the founder of the design studio Stripe, which specializes in print and exhibition design for art and culture. Sueda curated the exhibitions Work from California for the 25th International Graphic Design Biennial in Brno, Czech Republic (2012) and All Possible Futures for SOMArts Cultural Center in San Francisco (2014).
Edited by Lindsey Westbrook