Barter For Brainpower At Trade School
On an icy February night in Nolita the second installment of Trade School opened to the public. Housed in a warm Catholic-school building on Prince Street, Trade School looks just like any other place to go to for an education — except that the classes are rarely repeated, the students are never the same and the main form of currency is an exchange of goods for knowledge.Trade School is, according to its website, a place where students can bring items instead of payment for their lessons. Classes are listed with a detailed description and a short biography of the teacher, who is usually specialized in the field of their subject or at the very least an avid fan. If a student decides to take a course, a list pops up with a number of items to trade — from actual objects such as “a pound of coffee,” “gemstones” or “Korean chili powder” to “the list of ingredients for your favorite sandwich.” In exchange for a class about community organizing a boy named August gave the teacher several jars of homemade pickles. I signed up for a class called “I’m Not Your Chinese Mother,” agreeing to bring with me “a good laugh.”
Originally launched last year by freelance artists and Cooper Union graduates Rich Watts, Louise Ma and Caroline Woolard (graduating years 2008, 2007 and 2006, respectively) the team now has the addition of the artist Saul Melman, whose works have been shown at the Whitney Biennial and MoMa’s PS1.
“We have separate interests in the project, so our focuses are different,” Melman said, as the rest of the team assembled desks for Trade School’s first class. “Rich and Louise are web designers, Caroline likes economics, and I am more interested in the conceptual aspects of Trade School.”
Melman, a friendly artist-by-night, doctor-by-day, was first a participant in Trade School, and then became involved as he became more interested. When asked about the classes being offered, Melman said that prospective teachers fill out a form on the Trade School’s website detailing class descriptions. Teachers then suggest at least five barter items that they would like to receive as payment.
“If there are any red flags or if it doesn’t make any sense we might ask them to look it over again,” Melman said. “But [the classes] don’t have to make sense, they’re not really a how-to. One of my friends, Dena Shottenkirk, is teaching a class called ‘Kant to Kierkegaard: The Philosophy of Plumbing 101,’ because she’s a philosophy professor and she’s a plumber. In another class a 10-year-old boy teaches adults how to cartoon.
Trade School started off at an extant sister site, an online network called OurGoods with the same concept as Trade School — people offering goods and services in exchange for whatever they want.
“It’s a place for creative people to get online and barter with each other,” Louise Ma said during Trade School’s opening night. “With Trade School, we wanted to try out a project in real space, not just online.”
Initially intended to be a “bartering storefront” Ma, Watts and Woolard set up shop on the Lower East Side last February and opened the first Trade School, which lasted for about a month. This time, with savings gathered from Kickstarter — the largest web-based funding platform for creative projects — they plan to be open until April 17.
The first class that was offered in 2011 focused on the organization of grassroots communities. I signed up and brought my favorite recipe to share with the class. My teacher, Matthew Smith, was lively and tall with dark cropped curls. He paced around the room, encouraging students to speak up and participate.
Smith is an assistant professor in moral and political philosophy at Yale University and had previous experience working overseas as a community organizer.
Under every desk was a small, bright orange Rhodia notebook for students to take notes in, and in the center was a table laden with organic snacks and tea. During the hour and a half long lesson Smith went around the room asking each person for their input. In between the discourse he scribbled notes on the chalkboard while the class passed around vegan treats. He ended the class by asking each person what they had learned from the class. Every answer was different, from “applying these skills at work” to “organizing my board of tenants.”
“It is a democratic, grassroots form of knowledge sharing. It challenges the view that everything is a commodity, including knowledge production and exchange,” Smith said in an e-mail. “These things are valuable. The more trade school-type activities that exist, the better. The bartering aspect is not as important to me as the fact that the Trade School recognizes that people have forms of knowledge that can be shared in a free environment.”