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Shoreditch’s Antiuniversity legacy lives on half a century after its closure

PUBLISHED: 17:13 09 November 2016 | UPDATED: 19:58 09 November 2016

The venue, 49 Rivington Street, Shoreditch. Archive images courtesy of Joseph Berke and PP/JB/IPS, Planned Environment Therapy Trust Archive and Study Centre.

The venue, 49 Rivington Street, Shoreditch. Archive images courtesy of Joseph Berke and PP/JB/IPS, Planned Environment Therapy Trust Archive and Study Centre.

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It may have lasted just nine months, but the 1968 Antiuniversity’s legacy has endured. Sam Gelder got educated on the radical project – and its revival

Antiuniversity poster. Archive images courtesy of Joseph Berke and PP/JB/IPS, Planned Environment Therapy Trust Archive and Study Centre.Antiuniversity poster. Archive images courtesy of Joseph Berke and PP/JB/IPS, Planned Environment Therapy Trust Archive and Study Centre.

February 12, 1968: the war in Vietnam was dominating the news, The Beatles were packing their bags for India, three college students had just been killed in a South Carolina civil rights protest – and the Antiuniversity of London opened its doors in a Shoreditch side-street.

Set up by a group of radical left-wing thinkers – obviously – the idea was to change the pattern of education by offering 40 courses not available in established universities.

Membership was £8 and subjects included “black power”, “revolution” and “dragons”, while one lecturer claimed he would simply talk to anyone who spoke to him.

It was led by American academic Joseph Berke who was inspired by the Dialectics of Liberation conference held the previous year at the Roundhouse in Camden. He went about rounding up a group of academics, writers and artists to establish a new way of learning, and the group’s first publication explained: “The Antiuniversity of London has been founded in response to the intellectual bankruptcy and spiritual emptiness of the educational establishment in both Britain and rest of the world.”

The location map from 1968. Archive images courtesy of Joseph Berke and PP/JB/IPS, Planned Environment Therapy Trust Archive and Study Centre.The location map from 1968. Archive images courtesy of Joseph Berke and PP/JB/IPS, Planned Environment Therapy Trust Archive and Study Centre.

It was based at 49, Rivington Street, now a designer shoe shop. BBC reporter Richard Watmore visited to film a largely dismissive news piece shortly after it opened and spoke to founder Dr Allen Krebs and psychologist David Cooper.

The unimpressed journalist described the Antiuniversity as “a movement which, rather ambitiously, hopes to change the pattern of university education”.

Inside, he said, it was “all a bit chaotic”. “They’ve had over 500 enquiries but nobody’s sure what happens if they all turn up,” he reported. “Apart from the small lounge there’s only a basement and four cramped lecture rooms.”

Like the hippie movement itself, it was short-lived. It lasted nine months before the group fell out with each other, and fell behind on rent, and they were evicted from the building.

A group reading of Aristophanes' Lysistrata, which was followed by a discussion on how sex and the body is used in political protestA group reading of Aristophanes' Lysistrata, which was followed by a discussion on how sex and the body is used in political protest

Sadly, today, none of the surviving members are willing to speak about the Antiuniversity, but its legacy lives on thanks to exhibitions, writings and Antiuniversity Now, which launched last year.

The collaborative experiment aims to “revisit and reimagine” the original concept through a range of free events inspired by the original ideas.

Its launch festival drew 1,200 people and this year’s programme featured a Black History Month talk, an impromptu punk band, a mobile sauna and a songwriting workshop.

The project is co-organised by Emma Winch and Alex Brown from Hackney Museum as well as Kerri Jefferis and Shiri Shalmy.

CLR James. Picture: Margaret BusbyCLR James. Picture: Margaret Busby

Shiri said: “Through the realisation of self-organised spaces for sharing knowledge, we hope to encourage an alternative to the £9,000-a-year degree, enable spontaneous sites for resistance and mobilisation and challenge the wider system of marketisation, marginalisation, austerity and state violence. Unlike the original Antiuniversity, we have no permanent base, no regular staff or a list of students, and no desire to start a new institution. In fact, the project aims to de-institutionalise education and give anyone the opportunity to share the kinds of skills and types of conversations that ‘proper’ universities no longer offer.”

Next year’s programme of events for Antiuniveristy Now is set to be announced in the coming weeks here.

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