F: Reconstituting Tolstoy College

March 9, 2022


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Collective Question, F: Reconstituting Tolstoy College, 2021, installation view, University at Buffalo Art Galleries. Photo: Nando Alvarez-Perez.

F: Reconstituting Tolstoy College examines the genesis, lifespan, and eventual dissolution of College F—an anarchist educational community known colloquially as Tolstoy College—which operated within the University at Buffalo between 1969 and 1985. Bringing together the results of archival research, oral history, and a design and construction workshop, the exhibition considers Tolstoy College’s activities and impulses and weighs the possibilities of an anarchist pedagogical experiment today.

Organized by Collective Question (Steven Chodoriwsky, Chris Lee, and Julie Niemi) and Liz Park, Curator, UB Art Galleries, the exhibition includes a short film, made in collaboration with Ben Balcom; a series of furniture sculptures built alongside participants from Assembly House 150 (Quincy Koczka, Adrienne Massey, Frances Parson, and Meaghan Rolle-Heldwein); and an installation by Kameelah Janan Rasheed. These interventions are anchored by a selection of archival materials, which together recast Tolstoy College’s project of exploring anarchism through teaching and learning.

We have written previously about the syllabus as a form of utopian document—as a contract that plots a collective footprint or measures progress, or as a spatial notation that aids the performance of something that may or may not be. If a course works out the way it was meant to according to the syllabus, the participants can claim credit—maybe even credibility—from the institution that sanctions it. But whose is this credit/credibility to give, or receive?

The tenor of College Fʼs syllabi boiled down to this: “Anarchism means to us, small groups of people trusting one another, and working towards a common goal; it means informality, honesty, and frankness; above all, it means starting with yourself and your friends and taking yourself seriously.” This statement is both a definition of anarchism and a call to action for the members of the college. Centering their beliefs as well as their debts (a term elaborated by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten in The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study) to one another in this way, we challenge the claim that what is ultimately valuable—“credit-worthy”—about the spaces or acts of study is something that can even be administered at all.

This exhibition serves as a syllabus for reflecting on the radical experiment that was Tolstoy College. It forms the basis for speculative study and a stage for contemplating the limits and possibilities of working within and against the university. A central figure of the exhibition is the archive: the documental inscriptions produced as a matter of course in its everyday administration; the memories inscribed among its members; and the bureaucratic vestiges that occlude the teaching and learning that transpired, from one nomadic classroom (or living room) to the next. Such inscriptions are the sensible counter-forms to the pedagogy of Tolstoy College, which in their performatic dimension (to use Diana Taylor’s term) fall outside of the legibility of the document.

What was it like to teach and learn at College F? What did it feel like? What was on the walls in the Winspear House on South Campus where they regularly met? Were the sofas comfortable? Did they smoke during class? What shade of pink was the Tolstoy College trailer? How did they “get away” with running an anarchist college for so long? How did they grow and change over time, with the university growing and changing so drastically around them? Can we imagine such a thing in a university today, and how might such a behemoth of a thing be reconstituted now, when the need is so urgent? The failure to really know is what continues to preoccupy us. The congeries you find in this space is our research. Inspired by the archival materials, the art and artifacts, the production tests, and the arrangement of these elements articulate a kind of desire, in one sense or another, to embody the spaces that the documents only gesture toward.

Or taken another way: does the exhibition then make these newly created documents a record of Tolstoy College? As new artifacts made from copies of copies, could they be accessioned into the University Archives to reside alongside existing documents?

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F: Reconstituting Tolstoy College, 2021, installation view, University at Buffalo Art Galleries. Photo: Nando Alvarez-Perez.

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F: Reconstituting Tolstoy College, 2021, installation view, University at Buffalo Art Galleries. Photo: Nando Alvarez-Perez.

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F: Reconstituting Tolstoy College, 2021, installation view, University at Buffalo Art Galleries. Photo: Nando Alvarez-Perez.

Revisiting Tolstoy College: An Anarchist Experiment in Education and Exhibition-Making

Essay by Liz Park

I first heard about Tolstoy College in Fall 2019 through a colleague who learned that I was moving to Buffalo as the newly appointed curator of the University at Buffalo Art Galleries. I was immediately drawn to this exceptional anarchist educational community that had rooted itself within the complex bureaucracy of a state university. Since arriving at UB, I found myself asking long-time faculty and activists in the city about Tolstoy College. My informal poll initially yielded little result, which only cemented my desire to dig deeper. Among those with whom I spoke about the college was Chris Lee, designer and then professor in UB Department of Art. Lee is part of a three-person working group—along with Steven Chodoriwsky, artist and designer, and Julie Niemi, independent curator—of Tolstoy College enthusiasts and researchers called Collective Question. In short order, I began a regular exchange with Collective Question about how we might revisit the history of Tolstoy College and reflect on its contemporary relevance through an exhibition. Then, in Spring 2020, as schools closed and educators scrambled to deliver online instruction in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the need to re-examine places of learning and the fundamental role of education in the structure of society became urgent and apparent. Amid shifting exhibition schedules, I invited Collective Question to organize a virtual program in Summer 2020 and an exhibition that will follow in Fall 2021.

In response to my invitation, Collective Question conceived and delivered CQTC100: ANARCHISM IS NOT A DIRTY WORD—a self-directed summer course that was presented in the form of a syllabus. Comprised of a four-week schedule of readings, walks, screenings, and an online symposium, the syllabus continues to live as a Google document that is subject to change and open to interpretation. There was no required attendance, no formal instruction, and no grading. In reading list of Week 1, Jennifer Wilson’s The New Yorker feature “The Unlikely History of Tolstoy College” introduces a compelling story of how a group of educators committed to an anarchist principle of non-coercive, self-motivated learning founded a community within a state university. In Week 3, a virtual symposium convened Collective Question, Wilson, artists Kameelah Janan Rasheed and Nicolas Vas, and Michael Basinski, former Tolstoy College faculty and Curator Emeritus of the Poetry Collection of the University Libraries at UB. The conversations not only revisited but speculated on the continuing possibilities of an anarchist education, and explored Tolstoy College as a potential model for learning that is neither punitive nor reward-based and is, instead, driven by interest.

Imagine a group of people gathered because of a collective desire to share knowledge and grapple with challenging ideas. While schools comprise formal sites of such gatherings, as Rasheed and other symposium participants pointed out, these kinds of meetings can take place anywhere—homes, parks, churches, and any space of congregation. Imagine, then, an exhibition space that is organized through ideas and desires to undo the formalities of a classroom in favor of exploring what else is possible. Collective Question aims to deliver just that—an ad hoc and impromptu assembly of readily available materials that reveal how else we can seek function, purpose, and meaning in familiar objects and structures.

In this spirit, Collective Question organized and delivered a three-day workshop in July 2021 at Assembly House 150, an art, design, and construction incubator and experiential learning center in Buffalo founded and directed by architect and artist Dennis Maher. Participants included Lead Fabricator Quincy Koczka and Adrienne Massey, Frances Parson, and Meaghan Rolle-Heldwein, alums of the organization’s twelve-week paid training program called SACRA that prepares individuals for careers in construction-related fields through various creative projects. One of the objectives of the workshop was to deconstruct and reconstruct classroom furniture to reimagine rules of comportment that regulate our bodies as well as pre-established spatial and social relationships in schools. By the end of the workshop, Collective Question had a motley group of ten furniture-sculpture hybrids made by the participants: a pair of chairs turned upside down and linked together by floor boards to serve as a table; a drawer rotated ninety degrees to hold books like a shelf; a three-legged table that balances with the aid of a custom-made cinder block and refutes the need for utility or even stability. These pieces fly in the face of functionality, productivity, and even conventions and expectations of a space of learning. Yet, they reveal possibilities of how else we can engage with and find meaning in what we already have.

In recognition of the polyphonic nature of the college, Collective Question invited additional collaborators—Ben Balcon, Kameelah Janan Rasheed, and Michael Basinski—to think through various aspects of the project in an exhibition titled F: Reconstituting Tolstoy College. The exhibition space thus encompasses multiple threads of working thought, loosely woven to ask a series of generative questions. What do we remember of the college? Balcom’s film gestures to a response. What does an anarchist school look and feel like? The arrangement of the furniture-sculptures in the gallery suggests this alternative. What possibilities exist to reconstitute this educational community almost four decades later? Rasheed’s installation and the archival materials invite such speculations. Why are we invested in this history? Basinski’s teach-ins will guide our discussions on why.

The members of Collective Question and I are acutely aware of the challenges of presenting a visually compelling story of Tolstoy College. While a significant volume of the college’s records remains in the university archive, thanks to the insight of Marchand “Shonnie” Finnigan who held the post of University Archivist from 1967 to 1997, scant visual documents of the college exist. Thus, Collective Question has had to creatively deploy what they could glean from posters, booklets, and other paper ephemera in the archive. For instance, from a black and white photograph of a blackboard spray-painted with the statement “RE-CONSTITUTE THE UNIVERSITY SO IT MEANS SOMETHING & BENEFITS THE PEOPLE,” Collective Question created an anagram that serves as an exhibition graphic. An old university logo from the late 1960s through the early 1980s inspired Collective Question to create a series of custom cinder blocks that are strewn throughout the gallery. Rather than a presentation of archival documents, the exhibition stems from an engagement with the archive itself. For Collective Question, the task was to read the records for what they cannot possibly capture and can only point to. No document can fully reflect the love, care, joy, as well as frustrations and apprehensions one might experience in being part of a community of self-determined learners.

I initiated this project at UB Art Galleries with no presumption that an exhibition is inherently a pedagogical space. Even at a university museum, it should not be taken for granted that an exhibition serves an educational role. The expectation that an exhibition teaches us something is not unlike subscribing to the banking model of education that Paolo Freire contested in his groundbreaking Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968) where the teacher deposits knowledge to the empty vessels that are students. When visiting a museum with displays of objects and accompanying didactic materials, we participate in a ritualized performance of observation and reading toward the goal of attaining new knowledge. What if we disagree with the interpretation of the objects? What if we know otherwise? As advocated by Freire, how do we reject this model of knowledge transmission and, instead, acknowledge the viewer-learner as a co-creator of knowledge? This exhibition about an anarchist college is a prompt for us to think through precisely this question. What conversations do we want to have with our visitors and to what end? How can we think differently about the exhibition itself as more than a display of art and artifacts and a demonstration of ideas? A fluid space of ideas and experiments, this exhibition asks everyone who enters to imagine the possibilities of learning that is uninhibited by the constraints of a classroom. There are no guarantees with experiments. Tolstoy College was a sixteen-year experiment in education and self-organizing. This exhibition, in turn, tests out what it means to make space for our visitors—primarily the student audience at the University at Buffalo—to co-create knowledge about what came before them and what may yet be possible again.

In his autobiography, Charles Haynie, a lifetime organizer and a long-time faculty of the college, shared a letter he wrote to his students in 1997 toward the end of his time at UB. In it, he frankly states that he has no illusion that the students he is addressing will become socialists (let alone anarchists and communists). As a teacher, he could only provide a critical view of political thought and history, leaving each student to draw their own conclusion. He reflected on his own failures, setback, and experiences of contradictions during Civil Rights, anti-war, and back-to-the-land movements. “What we didn’t know was that we couldn’t become new people at the drop of a hat: it would have to be the result of a succession of difficult stages, and at each step, we would have to decide to continue,” wrote Haynie. “We will have to choose to become different people, to try out new experiments.” Referring to George Orwell, Haynie concluded that a just world with equal opportunity for all will come, only when we want it to, and not a day sooner. The exhibition is a space of desire, where we can model what we want. With this insight, we can re-commit to exhibition-making as tending to a fertile ground for creativity, innovation, and emerging thought as we envision the kind of place we want for learning, working, and playing. F: Reconstituting Tolstoy College is just one step in a succession of many more to come.

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F: Reconstituting Tolstoy College, 2021, installation view of Ben Balcom & Collective Question, Growing Up Absurd, 2021, University at Buffalo Art Galleries. Photo: Nando Alvarez-Perez.

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F: Reconstituting Tolstoy College, 2021, installation view, University at Buffalo Art Galleries. Photo: Nando Alvarez-Perez.

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F: Reconstituting Tolstoy College, 2021, installation view, University at Buffalo Art Galleries. Photo: Nando Alvarez-Perez.

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F: Reconstituting Tolstoy College, 2021, installation view of Kameelah Janan Rasheed, Draft for the Perpetually Unfinished Essay, 2021, University at Buffalo Art Galleries. Photo: Nando Alvarez-Perez.

Exhibition credits

Organized by: Collective Question and Liz Park
Contributions from: Assembly House 150 (Quincy Koczka, Adrienne Massey, Frances Parson, and Meaghan Rolle-Heldwein), Ben Balcom, and Kameelah Janan Rasheed
Dates: September 16, 2021–March 12, 2022
Location: UB Art Galleries
Special thanks: Michael Basinski, Dennis Maher, Peter Murphy, Peter Ngo, Chip Planck, Paul Richmond, Danielle St-Amour, Jennifer Wilson, Rachel Valinsky, Alex van Oss, and Nicolas Vass.
Support: provided in part by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.