WHEN Through 9/22: Mon-Thu 9 AM-8 PM, Fri-Sat 9 AM-5 PM, Sun noon-5 PM

WHERE Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 S. Cornell


INFO 773-324-5520

Schools, like prisons and hospitals, are mysterious social institutions, dedicated to lofty but ill-defined goals regarding the populations that sluice through their corridors. And, as with prisons and hospi-tals, the results of their efforts are often messy. I should know, I’ve been working with Chicago Public Schools students for ten years. But “Pedagogical Factory,” a new project at the Hyde Park Art Center spearheaded by Jim Duignan of the Chicago-based Stockyard Institute, attempts to provide concrete models for improving education. The series of events and workshops Duignan has put together with Daniel Tucker of Area magazine has nothing to do with technocratic arguments over assessments and accountability and looks past the notion of school as a defined, programmed place. Instead these events bring together a variety of people who approach socially progressive learning through collaboration, participation, research, and lived experience.

I must admit I had high expectations when I first visited “Pedagogical Factory” in early August, and was somewhat taken aback when I saw how much the space resembled a surreal exaggeration of a typical school. A giant chalkboard 15 or 20 feet tall listed upcoming events–a bit like the authoritarian instructions of a giant absent teacher, it evoked the power dynamics that make school unpleasant for many students. A number of publications, DIY in form and content, occupied racks in a spacious but spartan area of reading tables constructed by Material Exchange from salvaged materials. A little trailer in the corner housed a low-power radio station, SPOKE, used primarily to play recordings of teenagers from the Austin neighborhood participating in the Stockyard Institute’s educational radio project. The drab appearance suggested FEMA refugees or a claustrophobic time-out space. Haphazard postings on the wall included some sloppy coloring-book-style contributions to Area magazine’s People’s Atlas project, in which participants invent their own maps, and informative posters from the Celebrate People’s History project. In the audiovisual area was a project of the Experimental Sound Studio: the Found Chicago Sounds listening station, which featured an annotated listing of ambient sounds recorded around Chicago. (WBEZ has also been broadcasting these pedestrian soundscapes.) The space didn’t look much like a gallery. It seemed, well, educational.

But as I discovered, the show’s point is dialogue, not visuals. And its look evolves as different groups come in; for example, some color was added by graffiti artists for “How We Move.” Led by Jonathan Saint Claire, the class articulated break dancing as simple movement patterns and offered techniques for breathing and improvising. “How We Grow,” on August 15, featured Baltimore artists Scott Berzofsky, Dane Nester, and Nicholas Wisniewski, who presented a slide show about their successful new vacant-lot farming project. This isn’t a top-down “improvement” initiative. They never asked for official permission or help with cultivating their plot. They invited neighborhood residents to participate and learned informally, through advice, research, and trial and error. Their presentation initiated a conversation on issues both practical and philosophical. An urban farmer from Brooklyn, Austin Schull, spiced up the proceedings by parking his pickup truck, with a verdant portable greenhouse in the back, in the gallery.

Saint Claire’s organization, the University of Hip-Hop, was founded by gifted Chicago artist and schoolteacher Lavie Raven, who was also in attendance. Raven was interviewed in William Upski Wimsatt’s 1994 book of essays, Bomb the Suburbs. In the tradition of progressive education exemplified by John Dewey and Paulo Freire, Raven argued that an educator should be “a student, a learner, rather than an overrated teacher.” One way to blur the line between traditional education and the outside world is to make a gallery look like a classroom. But you can also transform traditional educational spaces with the energy and freedom of people working in the outside world–dancing, farming.

Area is organizing a number of impressive events on Wednesdays and Sundays, featuring artists, writers, artisans, and teachers from Chicago and beyond. These lectures, discussions, and workshops are being done in conjunction with the magazine’s upcoming “How We Learn” issue. The opening panel discussion, which can be heard at, featured local groups such as Mess Hall, Platypus, Free Geek, Chicagoland/Calumet Underground Railroad Efforts, Bronzeville Historical Society, Chicago Women’s Health Center, and the Odyssey Project. Upcoming topics include grassroots fund-raising (“How We Fund”), architecture and the built environment (“How We Build”), and universities’ political agendas (“How We Make a Disorientation Guide to Our University”). Though the “How We X” titles remind me of a textbook, the programs should be exciting and relevant for those doing community cultural work. People are also invited to propose their own events or discussions. A detailed schedule is posted on and, and raw audio of the events is available on

The community focus of much contemporary Chicago art gives the city a distinctive profile in the global art world. Examples include the installations and redistribution efforts of Dan Peterman, the booklets and projects of Temporary Services, and the scrappy information sharing and flashy interventions of the Version festival. Other artists’ efforts are described in the free publication Trashing the Neoliberal City: Autonomous Cultural Practices in Chicago From 2000-2005, available at “Pedagogical Factory.” The free performances and services, DIY workshops, and self-publishing initiatives going on in the city, though small in scale, offer viable, powerful models. Perhaps the art world can provide some insights into how the real pedagogical factory–Chicago public education, with its bloated administration and constant restructuring–can be retooled.