Institutional Pathologies a panel discussion

In June 2020 the working group organized a panel discussion1 inviting Laurence Rassel,2 the Director of erg in Brussels and Troels Degn Johansson,3 the then Head of Department at HDK-Valand in Gothenburg. Each represented one partnering school in the Teaching to Transgress Toolbox programme.

We requested that they share their thoughts on the institutional body from their positions and perspectives, and we paired them with Sean Bellamy, 4 founder of a democratic secondary school, Sands School who shared his take on institutional practices from the perspective of democratic secondary education.

All three panellists seemed to embody a specific institutional philosophy of an idealistic institution and practical position via their embodied role. Between these voices, some pressure points were revealed.

The panel discussion started with the following prompt:

What are the expectations of an institutional body from each of your perspectives and institutional standpoints? We are interested in understanding both the ideals of each but also would love to listen into a conversation of some of the nitty gritty around communication processes – particularly with students and with staff, organizational structures such as wages, contracts etc. and the space each school occupies. And finally, any wounds in the situation at and within any of your institutions or institutional bodies?

Samantha · Institutional Body Panel Discussion

Zoom audio recording of panel discussion held between Laurence Rassel (ERG), Troels Degn Johansson (HDK-Valand) and Sean Bellamy (Sands School), recorded on June 12, 2020 (53:19 min)

A few highlights from the recording:

Sean 19:45 - 21:46

pointed out that one can look at the rules of an institution to identify its pathologies, explaining that rules are “identified as things that are going wrong” and thus point to pathologies that must be addressed.

Troels 18:10 - 25:09

said that in his experience the institutional pathologies are mostly current wider societal topics like #MeToo, but also relayed that excavating and exposing conflict material is important. For example, with equal treatment measures, there is a need for them to be “massaged out as a practice” into the institution and beyond the societal trends. Finally, he added that he [as top management] needs to be sensitive to both official and unofficial modes of listening, e.g. he can and should react to official reporting but also to rumours.

Laurence at 26:00

starting explained that the institutional pathologies impact her twice, first as a person and second in her position as the Director, and that often she is positioned to be the “transmitter” of the rules that create these pathologies. “I cry all day between the absurdity of the law that I am supposed to embody as the Director of an institution and what I, as a person would do and, as an institution I should do to obey.” Yet, Laurence, who is an advocate for open-source attitudes and approaches, also highlighted opportunities in this situation where interpreting is part of abiding. “We have the possibility to change something so we use that possibility so … [it] is a decision to go dig down into the shit or the poison to try to affect it in one way or another.” Further on in the discussion, she stated “my ideal is to write the software of the institution together, that means we know how to change it, to adapt it and to give it to someone else.” The inability to pass on to another is an illness in itself. And she said she was interested in finding ways for the institution to heal, acknowledging that it is sick but saying, “We work on it all the time.”

Later, the conversation became a contemplation on the dangers [and the advantages] of being visionary in their roles as heads of these three educational institutions.

Sean ca.31:58

starting postulated that these institutions need “someone to bring their heart and their soul to them.” He used the metaphor of the pendulum being held to one side and thus capable of being swung to the other as a daily act of value building.

What we learned from listening to this conversation is that there are many pressure points and many dependencies, such as between

what functions and what is the dream.
what is expected by the governing powers and what is expected by the local community.
the one human in its body and the institution in its collective body (and that when one is a director one embodies both).

All these show an institution that is in flux. It is not static, nor should it become so. When the institution exists between, it is breathing, changeable and both unhealthy and healthy at the same time. That is, there are frustrations, there are hindrances, but there are, also, opportunities. One opportunity for us as a working group was to develop methods of critically reflecting on these institutions, to identify the pathologies and to join in and relieve the top while enabling the students [or newcomers] to change the institution – and to do so from their points of view and their needs first and foremost, just as we have done while building empathy via our discussions and collaborative experiments. The collaborative experiments became three scores: pedagogical exercises, which we have written down to make them shareable with others. The focus became about helping individuals while entering an institution and becoming an institutional body.


  1. This conversation was held online during the one-week workshop Sparring Partners in June 2020 – hosted by HDK-Valand in Gothenburg, which was originally supposed to take place in person. 

  2. We introduce Laurence Rassel via her talk Rethinking the Art School (2018) in the framework of “Creating Commons”, a research project at ZHdK Zürich in which she talks about the ways in which an art school can be conceived as an environment for developing a sense of collectivity. The inspirations for her model of work processes come from open source/free software culture, but also from feminism and institutional psychotherapy. Rassel defines herself as a cultural worker who can act as curator, teacher, and organizer. From 1997 to 2008, she was member of Constant, a non-profit association and interdisciplinary, feminist arts lab based in Brussels and active in the fields of art, media and technology. From 2008 to 2015 she was Director of Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona, an institution created in 1984 by the artist Antoni Tàpies to promote the study and knowledge of modern and contemporary art. 

  3. Dr. Troels Degn Johansson is former Head of Department (Jan 2019 - Jun 2021) at HDK-Valand Academy of Art and Design, University of Gothenburg, where he organized the final steps of the merger between the Valand Art Academy and the Academy of Design and Crafts (HDK). It was his responsibility to consolidate a fruitful merger and to lead the new academy in accordance with the Faculty's Art 2025 Vision, which, among other things, implied a co-localization with the Academy of Music and Drama in a new building planned to be opened in central Gothenburg in 2026. 

  4. Sands co-founder Sean Bellamy describes himself as follows: “I have been teaching for over 30 years and still wake up each morning excited to get into the classroom. I have the privilege of teaching the Humanities and offer courses to GCSE in Mass Media and Culture, the fate of the Native American over the last 150 years, Geography and Ecology and Psychology. I also teach cooking and train students to cater for the school and for bigger events. This year, we plan to run an outdoor restaurant at Glastonbury and have previously launched a three-night pop-up restaurant and an eight-course summer Italian Banquet for 50 people. My classroom is a really important part of my teaching and is filled with exotic plants, games, paintings and films. It is a place to daydream, to think deeply about our world and be inspired to find out more. In 2016, I was nominated as one of the top 50 teachers in the world by the Varkey Foundation.” Sean Bellamy