December 30, 2012 § 1 Comment

Forty-nine Rivington Street in London’s Shoreditch is now home to a designer shoe shop but in the late 1960s it was briefly a centre of media attention. Here, opposite the Bricklayers Arms, behind a temporary wooden door beneath a broken window, was the location of the Anti-University of London.

A brief clip from the video above* is featured in Luke Fowler‘s film on R.D. Laing, All Divided Selves. Laing, who once described all institutions as ‘collective phantasy systems’, was himself involved in the anti-institution movement.

Formed in response to the desire for free-thinking and a perceived need to rid education from the shackles of bureaucratic restraint and formal structure, the philosophy of the AU was summed up by one of its founders, Joseph Berke: “Schools and universities are dead. They must be destroyed and rebuilt on our own terms.”

Within ten days of opening, it had enrolled 200 students. All fees were scrapped after the first term and the tutors – who included key 1960s counter-culture figures such as Yoko Ono, Cornelius Cardew, C.L.R. James, Juliet Mitchell, Alex Trocchi and Bob Copping – donated their time on a voluntary basis.

Courses covered subjects ranging from political theory, the arts, psychology and media, usually with a radical stance. One term’s prospectus was decided at a ‘course creation rally’ at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park.

Lectures assumed an unstructured fashion. In one reported exchange, Berke asked a class: “How can we discuss how we can discuss what we want to discuss?” Someone eventually answered: ‘”Maybe we don’t need to discuss it.” Berke then left the room, leaving his students to continue discussing whether they needed to discuss whether….

After the first year, the AU moved out of Rivington Street to the Arts Lab in Drury Lane before eventually making the full shift to de-institutionalisation by dispensing with premises completely. Meetings were held in pubs or tutors’ living rooms.

The AU itself appears to have been originally inspired by another anti-institution – the London Anti-Hospital. Although it might sound like somewhere you would go if you were feeling well and wanted to get ill, this was actually the site of an experiment in psychiatric treatment.

Based in a separate wing in the grounds of Shenley mental hospital in the northern suburbs, the anti-hospital advocated destructuring the ward environment and dispensing of the distinction between staff and patients. The experiment failed when the staff had to resume control to restore order.

As for the AU, it appears to have died a natural death but recent years have seen the re-emergence of ‘free universities’ which would seem to carry on the theme.

A couple of weeks ago I was nursing a hangover in the cafe of Brighton’s new library. Opposite me a man of mixed race with a foot-long beard was enthusiastically discussing religious ethics with a woman in a tie-dye top. Their companions displayed differing levels of engagement (one man – wearing huge boots with missing laces and clutching a cold cup of coffee – spent most of the time staring at a point in the distance somewhere out of the window, only interacting occasionally by nodding when a salient point was made). I had stumbled across a tutorial of the newly-formed Free University of Brighton, which uses the public cafe as its neutral, de-institutionalised campus. Long live the anti-university…

* The film itself, which was broadcast on a regional news programme, was apparently the subject of much heated debate within the AU’s ‘Ad-Hoc Co-ordination Committee’ over whether the BBC, as a state-owned media organisation and symbol of the establishment, should be granted access.

Antihistory – online archive resource for the London Anti-University

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