A Quality Education: The Bruce High Quality Foundation University Is in Session

A class at the BHQFU. (Courtesy the BHQFU)

A class at the BHQFU. (Courtesy the BHQFU)

A few weeks ago on Avenue A, Dmitry Samochine perched on a desk next to a blackboard at the Bruce High Quality Foundation University and offered a unique take on the publication of Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica. The origin story was part of his class, “Math Wipe,” and was told as a dialogue between Sir Isaac Newton and his backer Edmond Halley.

Halley: [Looking at Newton’s math] Whoa! You totally gotta publish this stuff!

Newton: Nooooooo, I don’t wanna.

Halley: Dude, I’ll pay for it. C’mon, this is some really important work.

So Newton, Mr. Samochine told his students, “was basically an awesome dude. He died a virgin, unfortunately.”

Not that the session wasn’t rigorous. In just two hours, Mr. Samochine, a web designer, went over the third law of motion (demonstrated with an experiment that used a scale and a phone book), explained prisms and tied the binomial theorem to the origins of calculus. Even though the BHQFU sits above a karate school, it’s quiet and encourages discussions rather than lectures.

“I just think that’s super-beautiful,” a girl with complicated glasses said of the theorem, “that the graph we just drew could, at the same time, either represent a real change in a thing, or a potential change.”

The Bruce High Quality Foundation, the anonymous Brooklyn-based artist collective, opened the school’s new space at 34 Avenue A in September. The new location is the first step in what promises to be a major revamp of the BHQFU, which was founded in 2009 but has only recently taken steps to become a proper 501(c)(3) nonprofit. They’re planning a spring fund-raising dinner with their high-end collectors at Carbone, the new restaurant in the West Village whose walls were curated by the BHQF’s dealer Vito Schnabel, and this fall they hope to add a series of prominent academics to their teaching roster.

The school, where classes are free of charge, began as a collaboration with the public art nonprofit Creative Time, which paid for the first classroom in Tribeca, and it soon attracted lawyers, artists and tech people looking for new ideas in post-graduate education. The school is really a theory, in keeping with the BHQF slogan, “Professional Challenges. Amateur Solutions.” The challenge in this case is student debt, which tripled between 2004 and 2012 and now approaches $1 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. It’s also “social sculpture,” a term coined by Bruce hero Joseph Beuys, and was inspired by radical schools like Summerhill boarding school in Britain and the artist-led Black Mountain College.

Anne Pasternak, president and artistic director of Creative Time, said the nonprofit funded the project in part because she’d seen the MFA complex consume too many young artists.

“Unless they come from very wealthy families, all these kids are coming out of art school with $60,000 in debt,” Ms. Pasternak said, “and then they try to fit into this market that they don’t understand. It affects all of us, because that determines work they’re making.”

The Foundation was started in 2001 by a group of young artists, most of whom had some affiliation with Cooper Union. Their ascent to collecting’s upper echelons has been surprising to some, given their puckish nature. The Bruces make paintings, sculptures and videos, and they stage performances that would border on Jackass-style pranks, were they not firmly grounded in art history.

One of their better-known pieces, The Gate, Not the Idea of the Thing But the Thing Itself on New York’s Waterways (2005), had the Bruces chase Robert Smithson’s posthumously realized Floating Island to Travel Around Manhattan Island (1970) in a tiny boat with one of Christo and Jean-Claude’s Gates mounted across the beam. We Like America and America Likes Us, their video treatise in the 2010 Whitney Biennial, cuts a clip of Beuys entering a combination hearse-ambulance for his similarly named performance with clips of the car from the Ghostbusters movies. A more recent work, a giant bronze union rat called The New Colossus (2012), presently hunches inside Aby Rosen’s Lever House.

The winter term has seen a scaled-back return for the school, which took a hiatus after the Creative Time funds dried up. The school’s recently appointed dean, the artist Haley Mellin, is fond of saying that the winter term has been about “putting four legs under a tabletop.” The courses emerged after a class in the fall, “Curriculum,” where attendees could pitch ideas and become teachers. No ideas were rejected outright, and in the end, the roster included Mr. Samochine’s class, “Generative Design—Model Assembly,” a discussion group “Chat Room” and a class about Japanese art taught entirely in Japanese (the instructor was insistent on that point).

“What I’ve learned is how central the individual is,” Ms. Mellin said of her teachers. “Each class that we’ve had is so extremely different, and it’s sort of coded or codified by these personalities that come through the door.”

Studio critique, of the kind pioneered by CalArts and Cooper Union in the 1970s, has always been a draw at BHQFU. Alexander Seth Cameron, an adjunct drawing instructor at Cooper, leads that class, and on one recent night, three artists brought their works for critique. The first, a recent Cooper grad named Emma, offered a series of abstract paintings.

“I like the size of them,” someone said.

“I like that they take up all the space within the painting,” said another, “like there’s something that can’t get out from behind it.”

After a moment of silence, Mr. Cameron asked, “Are there rules?”

“Yeah,” Emma said, not surprised that he’d noticed but seemingly glad he did. She explained that the size of the works was governed by nooks in her apartment, that the colors were “essentially Roy G. Biv.” There had to be a frame within a frame.

Mr. Cameron nodded. “It’s like the British measurement system,” he said. “You start with the foot of the king, sure, but then everything else is logical after that.” Other people went from there. Should she break the rules?

In the back room of the school, another class, “Artists,” went over a recent session they had with the artist Keltie Ferris. The idea of that class was to introduce up-and-coming artists and fans to working artists they admire, getting to know them through group activities. They’d been jogging with Ms. Ferris, and there was even a brief three-legged race. One woman said she was surprised by how easy it was to talk to Ms. Ferris, who was from Kentucky like her and encouraged her to sell work out of her studio until she found a gallery.

“Also, the physicality really bonded us,” she said.

Another woman looked at her. “We were literally tied together.”

Up next, “Artists” was going to do grave rubbings with Sue de Beer, then go to Katz’s Delicatessen with Jeremy Blake. Many of the classes seem to have a performative element, but that aspect is especially strong for “Artists.”

“If the school itself was considered an artwork,” Ms. Mellin said to me later, “I think it would be interesting.”

“It’s not an artwork, though,” I said. “Right?”

She shrugged.

ONE BRUCE I SPOKE WITH SAID he never knows how to respond to that idea.

“We always tell her that we don’t care,” Bruce said. “If it helps people, if they find it useful to think of it as art, then sure. We worry sometimes that the danger with thinking of it as art is that it might let it off the hook too much.”

When the idea for the school emerged in 2008, the Bruces would have regular barbecues outside their studio in Bushwick. Art school came up a lot, and the Bruces were always emphatic that their friends not go. The debt was unreasonable, and it’s not even like teaching jobs are plentiful.

“That you would have a professional degree to do something that’s not professional seems like a scam,” Bruce said. The only real thing to get out of graduate school, they thought, was a community that sees your work and supports you, business- and idea-wise. That didn’t sound so hard to build, even if it may have seemed premature to some.

“We also became a foundation before we did anything else,” Bruce said. “We didn’t want to be emerging artists, we were going to start at the end of an artist’s career, when they become a foundation, and we’re still not technically a real foundation, but we figured we could at least have the attitude and try to think what that would mean.” It also wouldn’t have been exciting, Bruce pointed out, had they started a school when they were already successful.

Few classes were rejected after Creative Time gave them money, though they didn’t want ones that were too technical. They skewed more Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance than actual motorcycle maintenance. Early courses included “Occult Shenanigans in 20th-/21st-Century Art.” There was also a detective agency, which was more about research than cheating spouses. The school paid for a phone and clients could call up the class to research, say, how many toilets there are in New York City.

The school factored into their project at MoMA PS1’s Greater New York show in 2010, Perpetual Monument to Students of Art. For that piece, they filled a room of PS1, which happens to be housed in a former school, with Minimalist white plinths that art schools around the city could then swap for their old ones.

After the Creative Time funding ran out in 2010, the Bruces took their show on the road. The tour, Teach 4 Amerika, had them visit art schools in 12 cities across the country in an old limousine that had been painted in the ersatz Bruce style to look like a school bus. They lectured at the schools, though it tended to be more of a pep rally, complete with marching bands from local high schools. (They channeled this vibe again in 2012 with a play based on Animal Farm in which the target was Cooper Union rather than Soviet Russia.) Sometimes a guy in a Nixon mask would shoot T-shirts into the audience from a cannon. Teachers didn’t always like the message, which was that art school is useless.

But it wasn’t just theater. They were researching new models of art education. When they came back to New York, they took a year to look for the new space before settling on Avenue A and had meetings about the school’s ongoing philosophy with Ms. Mellin, the future dean, who at the time was pursuing her doctorate.

Though the school doesn’t define itself in opposition to anything, the BHQFU’s close ties to Cooper have made it a political statement, if only by proxy. In December, the Bruces rigged an intricate pulley system that delivered pizzas to protesters who locked themselves in the school over the announcement that it may soon start charging tuition.

Beyond the pizza, they’ve been in touch with the students opposed to tuition. The ideas are still inchoate, but perhaps not surprisingly, a lot of them want to work with the BHQFU moving forward.

“We do wish we had a few more years to prepare, but honestly we think we would do anything we possibly could to keep the spirit of the admissions policy and the instruction that happens there alive,” Bruce said. “Saving the institution itself, though, would not be our priority. This project isn’t so much about fixing a sinking ship than it is about building a new one.”

dduray@observer.com

A Quality Education: The Bruce High Quality Foundation University Is in Session