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NØ SCHOOL NEVERS, Covid edition: “meeting and exchanging in real space”

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Initiated two years ago by artists Benjamin Gaulon and Dasha Ilina, Nø School is a conceptually alternative anti-school spanning two weeks of talks, workshops and practical activities in Nevers, France.

Located in France’s Burgundy region, which has been suffering from depopulation over the past years, this international summer school is also a symbol of decentralization, bringing the issues of technological applications, reappropriation, recycling and responsibility to other territories.

Makery reported on the first edition of Nø School Nevers in 2019, a hybrid initiative between residency and summer camp, makerspace and hacklab. The annual event was finally canceled due to the pandemic situation in 2020, but the organizers are set on holding the second edition this summer. Registration is now open!

Benjamin Gaulon and Dasha Ilina, main organizers of Nø School Nevers. © Nø School

Makery: Where did the idea for Nø School come from? And why is it set in Nevers, was this a symbolic choice?

Benjamin Gaulon: I was a professor teaching in public schools in Ireland for almost ten years, then in the private school Parsons Paris for five years. I had already initiated a sort of proto-school in Dublin: Recyclism Hacklab, which focused on “critical making” issues of recycling and the environment. Dasha Ilina was a student in the program that I was directing at the time. As we shared common interests in research, methodology and philosophy, we began to collaborate. Dasha and I agreed that Nø School should be quite advanced, without taking itself too seriously—where there are a lot of things going on, but where each participant can follow the workshops and other activities at their own pace.

We chose Nevers, because I studied at ESAAB (Ecole Supérieure d’Arts Appliqués de Bourgogne), and I have a family house in Nevers. I also have friends here who are professors, such as Thierry Chancogne—exhibition curator, historian, theorist of graphic arts, co-founder of Tombolo Presses publishing house and the educational art project Ravisius Textor in Nevers—with whom we organized the first edition of Nø School in 2019.

We set it in Nevers mainly for economic reasons. We wanted to do something ambitious that we couldn’t easily do in Paris. In terms of population, Nevers has become a particularly deserted city in the past 15 years. When I was in high school, the population was over 55,000; now it’s only around 32,000. So it’s an unusual place, almost anachronistic—ideal for hosting an “anti-school” where we ask people to disconnect from their individual daily lives in order to pool their knowledge and experience here. For me it was important to reinvest in this place to do something original and different.

Dasha Ilina: At Parsons, I was Benjamin’s assistant for a few years. While I continued working on my projects after graduation, I still had a lot of free time to co-organize events with Benjamin. We had already organized several events together before launching our Nø School adventure!

Nø School Nevers 2019
Nø School Nevers 2019

How will this second edition be different from the previous event?

B.G.: In general we try to tackle a number of topics, without being too rigid. We’re interested in the impact of new technologies on society and the environment, in terms of recycling, responsibility, reappropriation and autonomy. We invite people who have distinctive points of view on these various aspects, as well as returning guests. We also propose specific themes. For the first edition, we focused on issues related to recycling and waste. This year (even before the pandemic) we decided to work on a research concept that I had developed (and that also relates to other participants’ research): “retail poisoning”.

The idea is to perform an action in commercial space: shops, online, megastores. We started with garbage in 2019, so now we’re working our way back up the supply chain. We’re still dealing with practical applications (through Dasha’s work, among others), decolonial ecology, environmental impact, etc., in association with the workshops and the final exhibition. For example, the artist Louise Ashcroft will perform in shopping malls, as her interests are completely in line with current problems linked to the pandemic and how we are consuming during this period.

D.I.: We invited so many people for the first edition, and there were so many workshops, that it was a bit disorienting for people who felt they had to participate in everything. It was very intense! We received lots of feedback from students after that first session, which clued us in to what was more or less popular and what worked best. This year, we decided to offer fewer workshops and more studio time, so that the students could develop a finished project during the two weeks.

What kind of activties will be offered this year?

D.I.: This new session will be quite different from the first one. In 2019, we had workshops in the mornings, and the afternoons were dedicated to studio time and practical applications. Some workshops took longer than expected, as some of the participants had no previous experience with technologies such as Arduino or coding. For 2021, we plan to have all-day workshops where students can take the time to familiarize themselves with the technologies used, then the next day will be spent in the studio.

B.G.: In the evenings, we opened up talks to the public as a time for reflection and exchange. The talks were generally given by the same individuals who were hosting a workshop the following day. They provided a chance to get to know each other and get a preview of the themes that would be explored later. Most of the time, everyone participated in the exchanges. As the days went by the talks overlapped, and boundaries blurred between participants and invited guests. We also allotted time for performances, where participants sometimes ended up performing alongside invited “professors”. This year, we’re thinking about various options in case of restrictions (streaming, etc). We already know that we won’t be able to open the talks to the public this time, they will only be available for the participants.

This year you will be acquiring the space that hosted the first edition. That’s quite a development, isn’t it?

B.G.: Yes! It’s a former ceramics factory, one of the first in France, a historical building in the city of Nevers. It’s located right next to the train station, which is directly accessible from Paris in about two hours. There are four of us working on the project. For now it’s still in the planning stage, but we’re optimistic. It’s mainly Dasha and I who will be managing it. We want to make it a common space focused on technology and its applications, how it impacts society and the environment, as well as a space for education, communication and research. We want it to be a lively, productive space. It won’t be a gallery, but more of an art center.

Both of you are artists, well-versed in new technologies with a critical view of their applications, but what is the general profile of Nø School students?

B.G.: It corresponds pretty much to your description of us! (laughs) There are also people who have a more literary and academic background, PhDs from around the world, USA, Canada, UK, also art school professors…

D.I.: There isn’t much difference between the “professors” and the “students”. They’re generally around the same age, with the same experiences.

B.G.: It’s true! We also have designers, graphic artists, software developers, sometimes much more skilled than we are. But they don’t come so much to acquire these kinds of skills as to gain a more critical view of the technologies we use and how we use them, and to renew the stories we imagine around them.

D.I.: We also had exhibition curators, writers, journalists, anthropologists. There were people who had been working in fablabs for years and who knew exactly how to use a soldering iron. Then there were others who had never touched this type of tool before. It’s an interesting mix, especially as in this configuration, the participants are equally invested in their roles as both students and teachers. Through these many exchanges, the professors often learn as much as those who are supposed to be learning.

Last year, you preferred to cancel because of Covid-19. As the pandemic is ongoing, what is your plan B for this summer?

D.I.: The reason we canceled last year was precisely that we knew this kind of experience wouldn’t work remotely. We’re already saturated with online meetings and remote workshops all year round. We don’t want to reproduce this for Nø School.

B.G.: Nø School came out of a desire to meet and exchange in person. We really wanted to preserve this physical event in real space. So we’re taking every precaution in order to make it happen. We’ll ask people to get a PCR test before coming. We also have accommodations available for people to prepare as necessary before participating. Currently, most of the people who are registered or who contact us are already vaccinated. We have lots of participants coming from the UK, where vaccinations are being rolled out much faster than in France. Eventually we hope that everyone will be either vaccinated or well prepared, so that we can all mingle together without any problem.

So streaming is not an option for you?

B.G.: We thought about doing an online edition, but many people contacted us to say that they would not attend if this was the option chosen. We really wanted to do this together with people in real space. That can’t be replaced. This year showed us just how much we’re saturated by Zoom sessions and all kinds of webinars. So much of our professional lives already takes place online, people are understandably fed up.

On the other hand, there are also some people who registered who might not be able to come. So we’re still considering streaming options, or filming sessions that students can access with a code. We’ll see. If disaster strikes between now and this summer, or the restrictions get even tighter, it’s possible that we simply cancel and refund.

Having a critical view of technological tools, or the idea of reappropriating one’s tools, is slowly taking hold in society… What are your thoughts on this?

B.G.: Well, this isn’t really the view of public authorities and the economic world in general. For now, we don’t get much support from local institutions, for example. Of course, our discourse is rather contrary to a kind of entrepreneurial start-up approach, but we still deal with fundamental issues such as programmed obsolescence, technological sovereignty, etc., which are important to address. We also have ambitions for education, sharing and responsibility that should raise awareness among all audiences, beginning with institutions. Both Dasha and I have worked for a long time outside of France, which is perhaps why we believe in and develop autonomous projects, almost with no support and no funding. Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a vicious cycle: the more independent we are, the more people who ought to support us think that we’re doing “just fine” without them…

D.I.: Personally, I don’t find that things are much better today. People consume more than ever online and continue to give their money to chains and franchises that don’t need it. This pandemic held many opportunities for degrowth, but it doesn’t seem to be the path taken.

Concerts at the Church of Sainte Bernadette of Banlay built in 1966.

This type of initiative is certainly beneficial, but aren’t you afraid of cultivating a kind of closed circle? Would you like to (or do you already) mix with other types of audiences at Nø School?

B.G.: When I launched Recyclism Hacklab in Dublin, I noticed that it was almost always the same people who responded to my invitations, even if I systematically made the effort to open them up to other audiences. So I finally decided to focus on these extremely motivated individuals and create a space where we could offer various activities to this particular audience (rather than spend precious time trying to attract those who visibly weren’t interested). Hence Nø School.

So yes, we are a bit of a closed circle. We’re part of the same ecosystem. But this doesn’t mean that we refuse to open up to others. The talks that we give outside, often right in front of Nø School, attracted a lot of different people, both local residents and people who might not originally have been involved in this culture. The performances also attract a diverse audience (such as the concert at the Church of Sainte Bernadette of Banlay). It’s a chance for us to get to know one another. Nø School is relatively young, we’re only just preparing our second edition. We’re optimistic about the participants and their curiosity.

Register for Nø School Nevers 2021 (June 28 – July 10)

Read our article on Nø School Nevers 2019 and our interviews with Ted Davis and Dasha Ilina

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