In 2021, an exhibition titled Education Shock raises very specific expectations. After all, Covid-19 has sent education systems worldwide into a state of shock. Once upon a time, home schooling was a cherished concept of alternative pedagogy: but under the impact of the pandemic, schooling at home proves to be an enormous test of endurance for children and parents, pupils and students, societies as a whole. It becomes abundantly clear that the institutions of education are ultimately—and most likely should remain—semi-public places outside the family and the home. Suddenly, the experiential circumstance of meeting teachers, classmates, and fellow students in the physical environment of the classroom or seminar seems gone.
Not only in Germany did the pandemic painfully demonstrate the failures and inequalities of so-called digitization. Even if distance learning using cloud-based learning environments may occasionally work, uneasy questions regarding equity and accessibility, proximity, and distance to education and thus about social participation call out for answers.
How can a research and art project on the relationship between educational policies and spatial politics in the 1960s and 1970s contribute to the urgencies of the day? What is achieved by an exhibition devoted to an era fifty years ago, when investments were made in the infrastructures and architectures of education on an unprecedented scale and “revolutionary” pedagogies blossomed globally, defeating the “capitalist” model of learning and knowledge production? What can it offer those affected by the current crisis?
Education Shock approaches these questions by attending to the always experimental, often provisional character of educational policies—as an object of historical curiosity and epistemology. The decades in which the transition to a post-industrial society was initiated were still enthralled by the belief in modernization, trust in how shapeable of the future it could be, however, was waning increasingly. School and university reforms were implemented in anticipation of new forms of work, value creation, technology and concomitant forms of subjectivity and sociality. Everything was supposed to be renewed and changed in the experiment: people, curricula, cities, the economy, politics, culture. Such measures did not always meet with the success anticipated. But the historical work on the models of a future society can be reconstructed and visited in the present—as a glimpse into an erstwhile laboratory of a future that, confounded, but also unrealized, still seems worth considering today.
The opening of Education Shock was originally planned for September 2020. Immediate work on the exhibition began around summer 2018, but early research on this project dates back to 2008 to 2010, when virtually no one, at least in Europe, foresaw an pandemic that would shut down social life and much of the educational system.
At that time, I organized a lecture series on the visual culture of pedagogy together with Marion von Osten at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. We also edited the accompanying reader Das Erziehungsbild. In researching the history of education, questions about architecture came up repeatedly: what were the ideas about school performance, the psychology of learning, knowledge production or didactics? How did they inform the designs for school and university buildings, research facilities and libraries? And how are the built environments of education used by those who work within as well as with (and occasionally against) them?
Another few years on, in 2016 and 2017, I had the opportunity to present partial results of my (now advanced) research at the Basis voor actuele kunst (BAK) in Utrecht. The exhibition Learning Laboratories. Architecture, Instructional Technology, and the Social Production of Pedagogical Space around 1970 not only was focused on the 1960s and 1970s already, but it also had a similarly collaborative character in the manner of Education Shock.
Many of the researchers and artists who participated in Utrecht were to be won over for the continuation at HKW. Last, but not least, the Kooperative für Darstellungspolitik could be enlisted again to design the architecture of the exhibition. Furthermore, at HKW itself, various collaborations related to Education Shock were initiated — the educational art project Education in Concrete being just one result of these interactions. With Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art, the natural partner for a comprehensive film program was quickly found.
Exhibitions on education and its history are always tricky, as they cannot succeed in enabling the experience of a learning process that differs to the one which, in the best-case scenario, is actually occurring in the exhibition space itself. It is as if the immateriality of cognitive and emotional processes defies exhibition. What can be shown, however, are scale models, plans, teaching aids, printed matter, and other archival items from the histories of architecture and pedagogy. In what ways these materials and the experiences they retain can be looked at, analyzed and put on display is demonstrated above all by the contributions of the participating artists and researchers. Their case studies provide access to an epoch that was an educational test drive of its own. In doing so, the educational crisis of the present is put into an unexpected and, in all likelihood, constructive perspective.