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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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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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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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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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Suggested aural accompaniment: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e11h73WhqK4

Neon sign, Budapest. Photo by the author.

Neon sign, Budapest. Photo by the author.

I’m driving down an empty road and it’s all black. We didn’t get maps for the Czech Republic installed in the navigation system, so the little screen below me buzzed with empty light and an arrow pointed southwest. A fog had settled ahead of us looking like a huge wave rolling in through the valley, a robust wall of grey against the black night. My high beams don’t break through this cloud and I switch to my regular lights, barely reaching 10 meters before me. Signs fly by that I can’t read. I see lights up ahead, maybe break lights, or a car switching lanes. Before I know it, a wall of blinking traffic cones block the road, signaling for a change into the lane of oncoming traffic. I cross the median and the occasional car rockets by me, only a meter to my left. I wonder how many accidents happened on this road at night, how many people who don’t react quickly enough to the change in traffic pattern dangerously switch lanes or barrel through the traffic cones. If I were back home, driving on the interstate at night, there would probably be streetlights above me, and at least three warnings before I would hit the roadwork. But not here.

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Alain Badiou speaks in 2010 at Fnac Montparnasse (Paris) (photo from Wikipedia)

Alain Badiou speaks in 2010 at Fnac Montparnasse, Paris (photo from Wikipedia)

Legend has it that when Jacques Derrida spoke, one had to arrive two hours early to get a seat. On Youtube we see recordings of Lacan and Deleuze speaking for huge audiences in packed lecture halls. When Jacques Rancière and Alain Badiou spoke in Berlin last year they filled a huge theatre to the last spot. It comes thus as quite a surprise, perhaps even as a mild disappointment, when one arrives to Badiou’s seminar a mere 30 minutes early, breathless after a final sprint through the hallways of the École Normal Supérieure, to find a lecture hall not much bigger than Bard College Berlin’s—only half filled.

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September 2014 — Sunset over Rosenthaler Platz, Berlin.

Sunset over Rosenthaler Platz. Photo by the author.

How can one convey a complete upheaval of comfort and routine, a loss of language and comprehension and direction? Is it possible to put into words the magic of discovering a new place for the first time? So have we, the Bard in Berlin cohort, experienced a complete cycle of disorientation and reorientation in moving to Berlin for this fall semester. The sixteen of us hail from Bard College, Al-Quds, Simon’s Rock and the Kansas City Art Institute. We are proud to join our fellow Bardians in a place that feels like home, but is really nothing like it.

As each in our group goes on their own adventures, works their internship, discovers a cool hole in the wall café or can decidedly say they have eaten the best Turkish food in the city — we expand our reach, taking in all that we can and are constantly searching for more. This city is monumental and massive, old and new, kinky, concrete and just plain crazy. One could only dream of seeing it all.

To get a grasp on our first few weeks in Berlin, I have composed a collaborative poem using language gathered from several members of the Bard in Berlin cohort. Our journey through the semester is both an individual and collective experience. This poem is an attempt to coalesce some of our best moments thus far, and to look towards our next three months studying, living and working in Berlin.

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When the walls speak it is because we are all crazy. (photo by Jelena Barac)

“When the walls speak it is because we are all crazy.” (photo by Jelena Barac)

Surely none would completely disagree with me if I were to say that a language can mirror a culture. Perhaps you would be skeptical if I were to say that language is culture. I guess that would indeed be pushing it too far. If nothing, you could not deny that language and culture are tightly interconnected and influence each other in, even if subtle, significant way. Learning a language without getting to know the culture to which this language belongs would definitely leave one with a half-baked experience, just as it is almost impossible to integrate with people, regardless of how well one knows their culture, if one does not speak their language.

Because of this, among other things, my experience of Brazil, and for that matter of Rio de Janeiro, was largely influenced by my progress—or lack thereof—in learning Portuguese. My understanding of the people and the surroundings in which I found myself varied together with this process: it grew as I started to understand and use the language more and more (often wrong too, which, surprisingly, led to nothing short of a series of discoveries). So I am about to tell you some of my linguistic, if you can call them that way, experiences in the waters of Portuguese language.

One of the first words I learned, even before I went to Rio, was saudades.

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