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Projects: Cooper Union

by Juan José García (Art ’20)

The class met with Acting President Bill Mea in his office. Photo provided by Victoria Sobel (Art '13).
The class met with Acting President Bill Mea in his office. Photo provided by Victoria Sobel (Art ’13).

 

In 2016, it can become easy for some students to distance themselves from Cooper’s financial crisis, administrative mismanagement, and lack of communication that resulted in votes of no confidence, and the resignations of former President Jamshed Bharucha and former Dean of Engineering Teresa Dahlberg. This year, with the arrival of President-elect Laura Sparks, comes a new format for a class called “Projects: Cooper Union.”

Co-taught by artist and Professor Walid Raad, Cooper alumna Victoria Sobel (Art ’13) and former student Casey Gollan, the course provides a space in which a wide variety of conversations can be held, with guest speakers often participating in the class. The topics and material in the course range from the history of The Cooper Union, documents regarding student governance in the schools of art and architecture, all the way to lectures and talks about the metaphysics of the spaces of the Foundation Building, and visits to the architectural archive of the school.

“We engage in chronologies that may not settle;
numbers that may not add up;
bodies that come and go.”

The course description reads:

“Unfolding events in The Cooper Union are generating expected and unexpected sounds, images, forms, volumes, gestures, feelings, and concepts. In this class, we will attend (as in wait for and stretch toward) some of these. 

As such we misunderstand The Cooper Union as a proposition constituted by and constituting missions, properties, bodies, languages, figures, among others. We engage chronologies that may not settle; numbers that may not add up; bodies that come and go.”

In her guest lecture, Professor of architecture Diane Lewis (Arch ‘76) took the class on a tour of areas of the Foundation Building that may sound commonplace and nondescript to a lot of us. Professor Lewis spoke about the attentive care with which each space was thought, and how people experience these nuances in the physical and metaphorical architecture of The Cooper Union.

After the lecture, Sobel spoke to The Pioneer about the change in student-faculty-administration dynamics at Cooper in recent years, and the need to acknowledge these changes as part of the meta-conversations about the interactions that happen within the school. Sobel sees “Projects: Cooper Union” as an important continuation of the think tanks that formed around that time, while still trying to keep the class open and interdisciplinary. Part of the course was motivated not only by the issues that were happening here at Cooper, but also by the “possibility that the history of this institution may spark the imagination of other communities and student-related struggles.”

Projects: Cooper Union is motivated by the
“possibility that the history of the institution may
spark the imagination of other
communities and student-related struggles.”

To her, many of the conflicts borne out of the frustrations of the crisis and the eventual move to tuition were rooted in a lack of dialogue and communication, since “you can be told that you are being consulted, but you are really being informed.”  Although Sobel wishes that this kind of feedback existed around her time at Cooper, she recognizes how such as a course  could become really important since the time of the protests. “This type of work, investigations, projects, integration into personal and collective practice [should] be legitimized and integrated into curriculum via credit granting classes because we are ultimately a degree granting accredited institution.”

Despite all the legal negotiations and working groups, she feels that there is still work to be done. “This interstitial moment is actually what was being proposed,” she says, perhaps referring to the previous interactions as cyclical arguments at Cooper that yielded little productive dialogue. In terms of the conversations that are significant to these issues and how they relate to the school, she says, “you want there to be a support system in place that we weren’t able to sustain in the past, because again there was so much duress.”

According to Jacob Jackmauh (Art ‘18), a student in the course, one of the most interesting things of Projects: Cooper Union is that it is not based on requirements, as much as it is on options, “the possibility to do or not to do. Yes, we’re studying different aspects of the school but we’re also beginning to discuss what each of us wants to do and what that might look like.” He says, “it started with this whole idea of truth, and the discrepancies and biases behind a story. So it opens a lot of uncomfortable doors, because we look at the history of Cooper, the rise of New York and art institutions, but in the course you see where those things can go wrong.” For him, “it’s like having all the history without all the glorification.” ◊