Die Bärliner - The Bard College Berlin Student Blog

Graffitti

My first semester at Bard College Berlin just ended and I would like to write about the past few months and draw on my first insight into a liberal arts education.

At first, many people advised me not to study at a liberal arts university. In Germany you usually choose a field of study that is already very fixed in its subjects and then you can specialize after a few years of studying that one thing. As a person who would like to know everything about (nearly) everything, I felt out of place in this system. I was not able to reduce my interests to simply one area. After I graduated from a German school, my only wish was to sit in a library, stay there for hours, and just read every single book that seemed interesting. But of course life happened and it took me one year to make this dream become partly true (in my imagination it was not as exhausting and frustrating to get some reading done as it is in reality sometimes).

A lot of people said: “What do you want to do with this education? We do not need more people who only talk and talk for hours and never act. The world is full of these. Why don’t you study something useful, something with which you can make money and not live in a trash can out of necessity?” What those people do not realize is that the philosopher Diogenes lived in a large ceramic “can” because he believed it was necessary to be independent from material needs and to think beyond social and bodily constraints. But his example was not the reason why I went to Bard College Berlin, despite all the warnings. I always wanted to make the world a better place, but I soon became aware of the fact that one first needs to know about the world, about human nature, and about society before one can claim: “I am going to change the world now!” (Even though I have no idea where to start.) So this is why I am here at Bard College Berlin. I want to know more about myself and the world I live in.

I can still remember my first phone call with my German friends after my first day at the college.

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"The Family without Borders” / 2014 (Photo: Inasa Bibic)

“The Family without Borders” / 2014 (Photo: Inasa Bibic)

If you thought Pankow was the most boring, uneventful borough of Berlin – think again! Only ten minutes from the U-Bahn station lives the most fascinating, unique family you will find in Berlin – “The Family Without Borders.” The Alboths are a travelling family who together with their small daughter Hanna decided to live their life’s dream in 2010 – doing a 6-months long road trip Around the Black Sea, through the Caucasus to the Caspian Sea and back to Berlin. In 2011 and 2012, they continued their adventures when their second daughter Mila was born – the Between the Oceans Tour took them through Central America from Mexico down to Guatemala, Belize and Honduras. In the summer of 2013, they went to Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 2014, they did their next big trip – Looking for Taka-Tuka-Land, through New Zealand and the South Pacific, with two big backpacks, a tent and hitchhiking enthusiasm on sailing yachts. It might seem strange to first introduce Anna and Thomas’s daughters in describing their travelling adventures – however, the Polish mom journalist and German dad photographer give their children a lot of credit when it comes to choosing the destinations and learning from people’s stories on the trips.

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Andrei Poama

Andrei Poama

I’m meeting Andrei Poama, a Romanian PhD candidate in Political Theory at Sciences Po in Paris, where he is working on theories of punishment. This fall he co-taught a class on Foundations of Moral and Political Thought, which I attended. He is also an alumnus of Bard College Berlin’s (previously ECLA’s) International Summer University of 2004, and studied in Bucharest, at Oxford, and Yale. We talked about his experience of the ISU, his current research, and models of education.

D: You joined the ISU in 2004, right?

A: Yes, I was there just for the summer school in 2004, when I was 20 years old. I arrived one week earlier, which made it almost two months.

How did you find out about the school?

I remember I was watching about it on television. The director of the program at the time was Theodor Paleologu. He talked about it in very nice terms. During the communist times there was this ‘Romanian Heidegger’—Constantin Noica—who founded the school Școala de la Păltiniș: kind of elitist, not so phenomenological as Heidegger, but close – in places as unintelligible as Heidegger. Noica’s idea was to create a school where the professors would learn more than the students, and Theodor presented the ISU as being sort of the same as Noica’s project. He really advertised it, and so I went on the internet, looked it up, and eventually applied.

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Map of Berlin Public Transport

It took some time but then one day I finally received my first challenge:

stay for one hour in the Berlin railway line which circles the whole city and get off only after you have passed all 27 stations*.

Since it takes me more than 40 minutes every day to go to Bard College Berlin with public transport, I thought that 60 minutes in the railway wouldn’t be a difficult challenge for me. I like railways as much as I like subways, buses and airplanes. I think it is an extremely fascinating space: it is not something you go to intentionally; you go there to go somewhere else. You might not disappear from this world for a few minutes because you entered the subway, but once in, you are neither where you departed from, nor where you want to be. A lot of people think that this time in-between two places and situations is wasted. They are right to some extent, as you cannot use this time on a tram or in a train to be productive (except if you forgot to do your reading for class and were too lazy to wake up at 6 in the morning to finish it – not that this has ever happened to me, this is just a purely hypothetical thought). I think it is great that we are not forced to do something productive on the train. We can either not use this time at all, or maybe free our minds from stressful thoughts for some minutes. As John Lennon already noticed: “Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted.” So I was very glad for the challenge and decided to enjoy the “wasted time” in the subway and just observe what will happen to me.

With a delicious brownie from the student cafe and a hot coffee that turned to ice coffee the second I went out in the cold, I get on the bus to Schönhauser Allee, where my journey will begin.

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Alumnus Florian Hoffmann giving a talk at Bard College Berlin (photo by the author)

Alumnus Florian Hoffmann giving a talk at Bard College Berlin (photo by the author)

On December 4, in the frame of the core course “Bildung: Education and Formation” led by Prof. Dr. Matthias Hurst, Bard College Berlin welcomed alumnus Florian Hoffmann, the Founder and President of the DO School, for a talk on “21st Century Skills and the Future of Higher Education.” Florian is one of the old “veterans”– an Academy Year (and later Project Year) student in one of the first generations of graduates. He is one of the people who witnessed how the college was taking shape, and still remembers the days when students, with great enthusiasm and joy, helped set up the classrooms by moving furniture, patiently eating tons of pizza before the Cafeteria was established – whilst enjoying a number of enlightening and educational early guest lectures that took place on campus. Florian says he would describe our college as “a small liberal arts education institution in the beautiful city of Berlin, offering courses in humanities.” As a social entrepreneur and innovator in the field of higher education, he is greatly engaged in helping liberal arts students actualize their greatest potential that the liberal arts education helps increase.

On our campus, Florian Hoffmann talked about the dynamics of the modern Western university system and how the DO School – a globally engaged social enterprise that educates, trains and mentors talented post-graduate individuals to transform their ideas into action – fits within the transitional period between college and professional occupation/post-graduate studies. He is a man of action, with a strong emphasis on doing, regularly engaging himself by contributing to the public debate on higher education and innovation. He has taught the DO School method at a variety of universities including Columbia University, Oxford University, and the Hasso Plattner Institute at Potsdam University.

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Bard College Berlin's "Factory" (photo by Anisa Shaikh)

Bard College Berlin’s “Factory” (photo by Anisa Shaikh)

In the spring of my first year at Bard, I took my first studio art course since the beginning of high school. I was never skilled at drawing, nor did I ever devote the time to develop skills in painting, so I figured that taking a sculpture course wouldn’t be the most difficult medium to practice in a studio setting. I have always been interested in construction and installation, and with several summers of experience working with my hands, I knew I had at least the basic tools to be successful in the course. Through the semester, students in the studio course were given tutorials in how to use the equipment in the wood and metal shops and practicing techniques such as casting and carving. The course emphasized collaboration, and for several projects I was paired up with other students in the course to challenge my own creative process, and work in tandem with other innovative visions to make meaningful, substantial works of art. I came away from the course having fabricated some of my most proud creations to date — I even surprised myself quite a bit with what I was able to make.

But this brief introduction into sculpture was a turning point for me, where the concept of each piece became the focal point of the work, not always its aesthetic value. I was amazed at my ability to work with found and recycled objects, transforming them into new forms and unconventional scenes. But all of this was only possible because I had the opportunity to manipulate these materials in the shop. Take for example my piece “Videodrome 2”

Photo and sculpture by the author.

Photo and sculpture by the author.

Using a salvaged tube television and a wax cast of my own hand, I had to construct an internal structure for the television to support the rearranged components and provide a new physical skeleton for the TV. I had to carefully measure and cut pieces of wood, then cut and weld a hollow aluminum tube to support the hand and the aluminum vortex component behind the shattered screen.

What began with a simple concept – to replicate and make physically present one of the most jarring and shocking images from the 1983 Sci-Fi/horror film “Videodrome” of the hand reaching through the TV – became a new static exploration of the relationship between humans and technology. However, my concept in this form could only be realized using the tools available to me through the sculpture course and the resources available at my school.

But what happens to an artist, or even a course focused on art-making and art-creation when these conventional tools are no longer available? This is the focus of the course “Sculpture in Expanded Fields” offered at Bard College Berlin this semester, led by David Levine.

Bard College Berlin does not have any sort of workshop for students to work on physical constructions for their sculptures, nor any physical media for students to work with. Instead, the students have full access to the audio-visual equipment belonging to the school, with a number of projectors, mixers, microphones, recorders and speakers available. Quite a few of the assignments in the course have prompted students to explore installation using sound, light, video, and the completely malleable and transformable space of the Bard Berlin Factory.

As I am not a member of the class myself, I asked for some insight into the projects and processes employed in the class by students who are working in the studio. First, I heard from Nadia, a third year at Bard College Berlin, about the arc of her work in the class this semester:

“Weirdly, my studio became a project on it’s own; after covering the walls with drawings of imaginary creatures and maps of non-existing cities, I started inviting people over to talk and to work together. Once I had few people over, and they ended up coloring the creatures and adding to the landscape on the walls, which for me was an exciting and somewhat scary experience: the initial drawings were very personal to me, but seeing how what used to be only in my head was being reinterpreted by my friends was priceless. I like thinking that this room now is a place of inspiration for more than one person; and it looks like the process of making an artwork is turning into a collaborative artwork itself.”

Nadia’s studio in the Factory.

Nadia’s studio in the Factory.

Students in the course were each allotted their own room in the Factory to transform, beautify or ‘destroy’ as they saw fit. For Nadia, the central aspect of her work through the semester became the transformation of her space to turn it into a room for creation, collaboration and socialization. What at first didn’t seem possible to Nadia, for the room itself to transform into an artwork created by her and the rest of her class, became a reality, and an expanded project that lasted through the semester.

I also heard from Sam, a third year student visiting from the Kansas City Art Institute. He says:

“It’s kind of hard to talk about this class specifically without giving some context to my studio practice, so I guess to be brief: I am interested in the stories of spaces. This semester I have been borrowing the idea of a mental space, and exploring the role of different materials and narrative forms. Which is to say, I am interested in how space is represented. I am interested in narratives, and how representation and physical construction converge in a technical narrative – a narrative driven by empathy with the construction of the thing. I want to make work with formal content, whether the subject is formal or conceptual.”

Like Nadia, Sam was also interested in space, but in a slightly different way. He shared with me one of the video projects he made for the class, exploring light and darkness, space, sound and silence. His video project “My Fears and My Hopes” traces a light in two dark rooms, slowly illuminating each detail, moving across the floor. He controls the viewer’s access to his space, only letting us see small fractions of the room in any given second, if we are to see anything at all. You can watch it here (turn the volume up!).

With such limitations for the artist taking part in the course, analyzing and discussing the success of each piece is essential for the artists and other classmates to critically assess each decision they have made and look at the successes and shortcomings of each work. I asked another member of the class, Bard third-year Kellan Rohde, about the critique experience in the course:

Ive been in several studio arts classes with crits before, and David Levines is one of the first that consistently gives agency to the artist. We, as the artists, are allowed to talk about our intention, our material, our goals. You often hearDid (x) work? Whatd you think of (y)?. Some instructors like to organize crits based on a gagged artistrule, where the artist is the only person not allowed to speak.
The crits are interesting because of how easily it flows into a conversation from comments. The chemistry of the class is such that we can find ourselves sometimes on a totally different subject that is rooted in something the artist conveyed in their work. Sometimes we all agree, silently, that the piece invites no more contemplation than given already. Crits are about teasing out the kinks and errors of your visual language. It is a grammar lesson and speech therapy for the visual.

While “Sculpture in Expanded Fields” does not have the same resources, nor provides for instruction in typical sculpture techniques — such as casting, carving, or tutorials in the shop — the course is actually working towards a goal somewhat bigger than a typical sculpture course. Through the emphasis on concept development and execution, and the critiquing process, students have the freedom to make more with less, and to challenge themselves to make solid ideas for their art rather than solid fabrications. Additionally, the methods and equipment available to students in the course will certainly benefit their future artistic endeavors, helping students to develop more skills, and more familiarity with light and sound technology.

It’s not uncommon to stop by the Factory at night to see students in the course labor over each minute decision they are making for their pieces, or hear talk about concepts for the installations over lunch in the cafeteria. With the freedom to make whatever they want (and possibly can), the students in this course are engaging with their own creative processes, and challenging themselves to make the most substantial work possible.

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The door is closed, but are you sure no one is watching?

The door is closed, but are you sure no one is watching?

I live off campus with some friends in a flat not far from the Berliner Zoo. Because of some technical difficulties we do not have access to the Internet: a situation that makes life in the modern world extremely complicated. I cannot do any research for my classes at home; I cannot check my mails and whenever there is an essay deadline I have to ring my neighbors and ask them for permission to use their computer for a couple of minutes. I never thought that the need to submit an essay could turn out to be such a nice basis for social interaction.

One day I was in the college’s library, surfing the Internet for a dentist via Google. Google was so nice to direct my research from “dentists” to “dentists in Pankow, Berlin.” “Thank you Google for making my life so much easier,” I thought. But then a message popped up saying something like: To make your research easier, please confirm that Google can have continuous access to your location. Information given to improve efficiency sounded like a good deal. Unfortunately at that point I had already started my research on mass surveillance and was increasingly becoming really upset about the NSA watching me. I simply ignored Google’s request for my exact location and decided to never search for a dentist on Google again.

Over a year ago, the young American IT specialist Edward Snowden leaked top-secret documents of the National Security Agency to reporters that were subsequently published in global newspapers. These documents were an important piece of evidence for the US government’s massive collection of digital information like phone-calls, e-mails, and Internet searches without the explicit permission of those involved. The NSA denied these reproaches at first, but after Snowden’s disclosures the world got to know the truth and intelligence services all over the world had to take a stand.

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Photo by the author

Photo by the author

I have a truly curious story to tell about this painting.

I was at a house party that was also a vernissage, organised by a student-run Parisian philosophy society. The flat had two big rooms and there were about 40 people. The artworks shown were all very pretty–most of them were little black and white paper drawings, or patterns sewn into paper with fine coloured threads. But this picture somehow stood out. It hung in the small entrance room of the flat above a little cupboard. On the cupboard were a few small African sculptures and three unlit candles. The painting above used neither the colourful threads, nor did it seem like one of the other drawings. There weren’t any other artworks in the room, which made me wonder whether it was a part of the exhibition at all. Perhaps it just belonged to the flat owner?

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