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The Class of 2015

Bard College Berlin’s Class of 2015

As I write these lines, the urban landscape of Berlin slowly gives way to a haze of green as the ICE train passes along a seemingly endless stream of fields, meadows, and forests on its way to Austria. It’s been a short homecoming for me this time. Returning from Paris, where I lived during my third year, I stayed only a few days to witness the graduation ceremony at Bard College Berlin. In a few hours there will be another homecoming for me, when I arrive in Innsbruck, where a part of my family now lives, and two weeks on there will be yet another one in Vienna, where another part of my family lives and where I grew up. Another two weeks and I will be back in Berlin again.

My international peers, my teachers, and the staff at Bard College Berlin hail from some forty different corners of the world. School breaks give time to travel, to go home, or to explore the country and continent. If, as a student, you spend your third year abroad, you will see every other student generation for one year only. After four years we all say farewell, perhaps for good, even though many of us return to the place at some point, or stay in Berlin for a while. Hellos and farewells, departures and arrivals are really built into the very core of BCB life. And if you do something a lot, chances are you will get good at it. Farewells are no exception. Perhaps the most beautiful demonstration was Paris Helene Furst’s student graduation speech.

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Poster for the 2015 conference of the Institute for New Economic Thinking, Paris

Poster for the 2015 conference of the Institute for New Economic Thinking, Paris

A spectre is haunting economics – or maybe several even. Which ones exactly––the field is not quite agreed on, but it seems to have reached the conclusion that, really, it can’t go on like this. New approaches are called for, new ideas are sought after. To this end, the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET), founded and funded primarily by star investor, philanthropist, and Karl Popper student George Soros, gathered an impressive array of leading economists for a four-day conference with the title “Liberté, Egalité, Fragilité” to debate the future of the field in Paris in early April. Present were, among others, the two Nobel Prize laureates Joseph Stiglitz and James Heckman, rising star Thomas Piketty, neo-classicists (roughly, “right-wing economists”) like Hans-Werner Sinn, erratic Marxists like the Greek Minister of Finance Yanis Varoufakis, and, last but not least, Bard College Berlin’s own Dirk Ehnts, all joined by a range of scholars from outside the field, like neuroscientist Antonio Damasio or Goethe biographer Nicholas Boyle.

Curious to see where the discipline that defines so much of public life is heading today, I went to catch some of the talks. The concerns raised were sometimes timeless–how should economists think about human beings?–and sometimes very timely, for example in discussions of inequality or the current crisis in Greece. Below is a selection of panels to give you a glimpse of some of the problems that economists think about these days when they turn to the very edge – or core, depending on how you see it – of their discipline.

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John von Bergen with students at a Sculpture class workshop. Photo: Inasa Bibic

John von Bergen with students at a Sculpture class workshop. Photo: Inasa Bibic

Upon walking into John Von Bergen’s sculpture class for the first time, an immediate, and almost palpable vibration can be felt. Students are busy  working, organizing, building, molding, even their research carries an air of urgent excitement.

I was looking forward to my visit to the sculpture class. One visit turned to three, as I became increasingly enamored with the sculpture class, and the busy, productive air of the Factory.

This class is special for many reasons, for one, it is one of the few practicing art classes offered at BCB, where students are encouraged to break the mold of traditional intellectualism and begin to construct and illustrate their ideas through physical means. It is also a free space for students to learn, try risky methods, and expand their definitions of art and creation, all with John’s encouragement and guidance.

Yet, perhaps what is most interesting about this class is its relationship to the Factory. The idea of site-specific sculpture is a common one. An artist designs her sculpture to fit the environment it will be displayed in, specifically playing with the setting to create the desired effect. After spending some time observing this class, I would propose that, much in the same reign as site-specific sculpture, this is a site-specific class.

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This piece was originally published by Al-Fanar Media on March 18, 2015. Republished with their kind permission.

Asma'

Asma’ discusses in a class on “Ideology” at Bard College Berlin (photo by Inasa Bibic)

I am a Palestinian student, 20 years old. I was born in Jerusalem, but I have been there only twice. I grew up in the Al-Arroub refugee camp, north of Hebron. Originally, I am from Gaza, but I have never been there.

The Al-Arroub camp is a very crowded place of about 10,000 people. I live there with my family—three brothers and two sisters. I studied until the ninth grade at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees school. It was a good education. Afterwards, I went to high school in the camp.

The only thing that I could think about during school was how much I wanted to go to the United States to study. Why the U.S.? Probably because I was watching Hollywood movies too much. I was obsessed with the easy life I saw depicted on the screen, the modern, developed lifestyle with technology, easy transportation and freedom, especially freedom of movement.

In 2012, I graduated from high school, and it was time to decide on a university. Should I stay in Palestine or study abroad? I was torn. Then I received information about an American college in the West Bank,  Al-Quds Bard Honor College. I decided to attend because it has a strong, American-based education program where I could study journalism, a lifelong dream.

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Kafranbel is a liberated town in Syria, i.e not under the influence of the regime. The town became famous for making banners and sharing them on Facebook in support of the revolution.

In our liberal age, the notion of freedom is sacred. Arguing the opposite amounts to liberal heresy. The so-called ‘Arab Spring’ as depicted by the media affirms the universal sanctity of freedom. Didn’t “Arabs” sacrifice their lives for freedom’s sake after all? Maybe. The media did not depict the illiberal version of the story. In Syria––as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter remind me everyday – part of the population hates freedom.

Is it possible for ‘rational’ human beings to hate freedom?

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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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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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Indy Bisram (drawing by Lisa Vogel)

Indy Bisram (drawing by Lisa Vogel)

A first-year student at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, Indira “Indy” Bisram decided to spend her first semester with us in Berlin. By the time we sit down for the interview, I have already gotten to know her through the beginner Spanish class that consists only of the two of us. After class on a Monday afternoon, we find ourselves in the common room of Dorm W15, and I can’t help but notice her sparkling enthusiasm when she tells me about her family, school, and, first and foremost, her experiences in Berlin…

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