Social Practice on Fogo Island

By Nicole Lattuca


Fogo Island is a remote settlement off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. The island hosts a population of 2,500 people and approximately 300 free roaming caribou. Indigenous Beothuk settlers first inhabited the island in the late 1700’s, fishing in the summer while migrating each fall to spend winter hunting on the mainland. English settlers eradicated the Beothuk tribes by the late 1820’s.[1] The weather and terrain makes Fogo Island an extreme environment; the wind is violent and can change in an instant. In the winter months, ice covers the ground. Snowdrifts can form in the middle of the road and produce complete whiteout conditions. Driving, walking, and hauling wood all require significant effort. In the summer, tourists flock to the rocky and uneven landscape. Temperatures reach highs of thirty-five degrees Celsius. Small seasonal museums and cafés open, and the stirring seas call back fisherman, icebergs, and the intermittent polar bear.

Cod, seal, salmon, crab, and shrimp all are products of the small fishing community. Islanders are often resourceful with their catches: cod liver is repurposed for household and medicinal uses, seals are hunted for both the meat and the pelt, and cod tongues are a unique deep fried snack. For hundreds of years – before offshore fisheries diminished the supply creating severe effects on the economy and the livelihood of the islanders – the main industry was cod. Specifically salt cod, which is prepared through a process of preservation where the fish are filleted, salted, and dried in the sun. Between the 1950s and the 1970s, many remote Newfoundland communities were forced to resettle to the mainland. Fogo Islanders were given an ultimatum: resettle, form a Co-op, or drift and perish. Islanders chose to initiate a centralized fishing Co-op sharing work, materials, and income. Around the same time the Co-op was established, the schools from each seaside community were amalgamated into one solitary school in the center of the island.

The Fogo Island Co-op was a direct result of an experimental film project created by the National Film Board of Canada. Filmmaker Colin Low documented islanders in twenty-seven films from 1967 to 1969, when the fishery was in despair and many islanders were forced to leave the island to find work. Through documentary films, the NFB became a platform for discussion between not only the communities of Fogo Island, but also neighboring outport fishing communities struggling to survive. Through the film project, which became known as the “Fogo Process,” the island was able to create a sustainability that has lasted beyond the cod moratorium initiated in 1992. However, this base level sustainability continues to decline, along with the population of Fogo Island; the livelihood of the fishery continues to be threatened by large government and foreign offshore fishing. Because of this turn in the economy Fogo Island again has become an experimental community through a revitalization project being termed a “diversification of the economy.” This new initiative is put forth by the Shorefast Foundation, whose mission is based on rediscovering the inherent, irreplaceable value in rural places. Its founder, Zita Cobb, was born and raised on Fogo Island and left the community to pursue a higher education and a lucrative career in fiber optics. Cobb returned to the island in 2003 to develop a new model for economic and cultural resilience. Through diversifying the economy with geotourism, a luxury inn, and an artist residency program known as Fogo Island Arts, Cobb hopes that an experiment on Fogo Island can yet again become a model of sustainability for other rural communities.


fig 1. Nicole Lattuca, Fogo Island Decentralized Academy (2014). Photo: Tag Team Studio. Courtesy of the artist.

Prior to the Fogo Process each community was self-sufficient, each with individual fishing production, local convenience stores to buy food and other goods, and parochial schools designated by various Christian denominations. In 1972, the ten separate island communities amalgamated their schools to establish the Fogo Island Central Academy (FICA). The inland school claimed no one community or religion and intended on offering youth of the island a secular education pooling the island’s best resources. Today FICA is still functions as the only school on the island. Attendance rapidly declined after the fishery closed and many families left the island for stable work. For families who remained, few opportunities for work exist on the island leaving many to collect employment insurance. The work conditions on the island after 1992 led to an increased cultural condition of depression and apathy. Once an isolated hard working fishing community solely focused on maintaining a living wage, is now rapidly thrust into an international spotlight. Today the school has approximately 250 students in kindergarten through grade twelve. Because of a lack of teachers and funding, all art, music, and industrial arts courses are taught by instructors without specialization in these fields. In my research I discovered that there is currently no program offering additional learning opportunities utilizing the local or international artists and architects that frequent the island – nor is there evidence of integrating surrounding nature or landscape into the curriculum, with the exception of a school garden that is maintained by volunteers.

Significant to Shorefast’s revitalization project is a contemporary architecture project by architect Todd Saunders, who designed the luxury inn and four artist studios. These structures have been described as critical regionalism, taking influence from local Newfoundland design, and have served as brand makers for the island. This infusion of new architecture on the island has had dramatic impact on the imaginations of local students. Fogo Island Central Academy graduates choose from a roster of professions that include (but are not limited to): teacher, healthcare worker, oil rig worker, and pilot. Since the construction of the Inn and art studios, when asked what they want to be when they grew up, some youth have started adding, “architect” to the inventory. In my research I sought after how this interest in architecture is being nurtured. I questioned, “how could the community as a whole benefit from learning about contemporary topics in architecture in relation to their own changing environ?” At the outset of my research on Fogo Island, I observed that heritage, vernacular architecture, and oral history are important to the citizens of Fogo Island. Through this process I additionally questioned: “how are these subjects preserved in the school? How are they discussed and taught? And are they taught alongside the new initiatives on the island such as the revitalization or diversification efforts? How are these current island topics formalized in an educational setting? Is there space for dialogue? For critique? For reinvention?”

From January 25th to April 25th of 2014, I participated in an experience-based research phase of a total six-month residency that ultimately manifests as a socially engaged and education-based project. This research portion of the residency was an immersion into the livelihood of Fogo Island and the practice of everyday life in remote Newfoundland. In the book The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau observes how people utilize objects and relate to the domestic and urban spaces they encounter as part of their daily routine. He determines that although the city is a designed space, generally all people do not flow through space in the same manner.[2] It is through this theoretical lens that I approached researching the rituals, food, daily life, and traditions of Fogo Islanders. Through immersion, I practiced life as an islander; I cooked and ate seal and caribou, I went ice fishing, and I built a fire nightly among various other first time experiences. To create a site-specific work for a community, research of that community is essential. An external perspective is only useful to a community if the person offering the perspective has a sense of how the community lives and what the community aspires towards. In researching Fogo Island and the people that live there, echoing de Certeau’s ideas, I learned that there are no absolute truths or practices: each individual has a method of building, sewing a quilt, forecasting the weather, and cooking partridgeberry jam. This history that largely exists in the collective memory of born and raised islanders extends to the methods and surrounding culture of house launching and history of the schools, which are both significant to my project. Between 1954 and 1975 the Canadian government instituted a resettlement program to relocate remote communities to centralize in more populated areas.[3] With the purpose of alleviating what was viewed as extraneous systems of support, the government persuaded nearly 30,000 people inland away from their livelihood of fishing and life by the sea. This program chronicles a particularly tumultuous time in Newfoundland history; a displacement that Fogo Island largely resisted due to the formation of the Co-op. Although many Fogo Islanders chose to remain, house launching continued amongst communities as families grew and changed through marriages and deaths. Homes were launched over frozen harbors, floated through open water, and moved by land using a pulley system called a “block and tackle” or by towing the structure aided by rolling logs. A block and tackle is a typical nautical tool using one or more anchors as levers and rope to move large objects such as boats or sails. In considering the design of a mobile school, I found the reference of moving the schoolhouse by traditional means of house launching to speak to the reappropriation of history, the resilience of a community, and the intergenerational exchange of lost knowledge. Additionally, I found the aesthetic of something as foundational as a house to be in movement, a metaphor for progressive education in and of itself. If houses can move, then so too can the bedrock of established educational tropes. As a culminating event for this research I hosted a community conversation where the public was invited to contribute insight and influence to my project proposal. Through a participant-observer role on the island, I had numerous conversations and experiences that contributed to the perspective from which I developed and refined this project. The project, titled Fogo Island Decentralized Academy explores how the various typologies of architecture coexist on the island and aims to engage local youth in the creation of a platform for discussion on the vernacular architecture in dialog with the contemporary architecture that currently plays a key role in social change and revitalization on the island.

The Fogo Island De-Centralized Academy (FIDA) is a contemporary art and architecture project that utilizes heritage structures and vocabulary to initiate a youth driven conversation about recent shifts in economy and culture on Fogo Island, and the role of art and architecture in those shifts. Through this project youth will learn of similar global initiatives and strategize their own designs for growing (or slowing) the economy of the island. With support from Fogo Island Arts, I led the development of a school program, in the form of a mobile school laboratory, where the influences of architecture and landscape on the changing economies of Fogo Island are discussed as an ongoing case study. By referencing Cedric Price’s Potteries Thinkbelt (1966), The MacKay-Lyons’ Ghost Architecture Laboratory (1994-2011), and Pablo Helguera’s The School of Panamerican Unrest (2006), this project is grounded in a theoretical foundation engaging remoteness, mobility, and knowledge exchange. This is the driving force in a proposed new model of pedagogical engagement. Although conceptually decentralized, the school will be a socially/physically/geographically central place for conversation, critical thinking and invention. FIDA will physically reconnect the communities and the school, by utilizing the specific methods of Newfoundland house launching. It is my aim to engage with this regional tradition of house moving, or launching, in order that the mobile schoolhouse will bring the community together, while acknowledging a new use and new discussions that can be sparked from this community wide event. In creating a think tank platform where youth can engage with the changes taking place on the island, they necessitate an integral voice in those changes and grow to have a full understanding of how their community is situated in a global context. This project is vital to the island and its inhabitants of all ages and is built with a flexible structure that will grow and change alongside the changes to Fogo Island.


fig 2. Nicole Lattuca, Fogo Island Decentralized Academy (2014). Photo: Tag Team Studio. Courtesy of the artist.


These activities will occur alongside pedagogical moments that will be youth directed and structured through

(a) a curated selection of books in the school house
(b) quality building materials provided for the youth to design and build with
(c) informal presentations on canonical experimental communities, rural and remote art projects, and contemporary and critical regionalist architecture. The FIDA will be mobile and make stops throughout the island traveling by land, sea, and ice.

1. Mapping Launches
On the interior walls of the school house there is a map of each community. Because there is a strong collective knowledge of the physical history of the island, participants are invited to sketch the various locations where they believe each house was launched from (sometimes houses are launched more than once). Interactive mapping expectedly causes debate and is a catalyst for spontaneous critical conversation. This introductory activity first occurred at the Partridgeberry Harvest Festival and enables the entire Fogo Island community to engage in some manner with the schoolhouse. This activity is intergenerational. Students have the opportunity to be at the center of the conversations and stories about where the houses have been launched by taking on leadership roles within the project.

2. 101 ways to reinvent fishing architecture
In this event, youth will be given the design challenge of rethinking ways to repurpose flakes, punts, and stages and other objects that may have been deemed obsolete by some. The introduction of the project allows participants to feel comfortable with the familiarity of built structures from the island, while at the same time introducing the contemporary aspect to the project: a dialogue and a reinvention of the traditional.

3. Island by Design
Youth will be asked to design built structures for the island, utilizing their existing and collective knowledge of the geography, topography and weather restrictions.
Some potential question guiding this activity:
“If you were tasked with designing a new architecture for Fogo Island, what would it look like?”
“If you were Zita Cobb, would you design an Inn and Artist Residencies? What would your version look like? Or if not an Inn and Residency, what other way could you use architecture to stimulate an economy?”
“If you were Todd Saunders, how would you design the Inn?”
“Imagine Fogo Island in the year 2044, how many people live here? How has the island culture changed? Design a building for the new identity of the island.”

In 1972, the same year the seaside schools of Fogo Island moved inland in an effort towards progressive education, Michael S. Kaye published the book, The Teacher Was The Sea, about leading progressive learning at Pacific High School in Palo Alto, California. The Pacific High School was based on a democratic system of non-hierarchal learning. The goal was for students to be responsible for the direction of their own education based on the idea that students learn best when seeking out knowledge through experience, rather than passively digesting a set curriculum of imposed information. In the book, Kaye recalls a phone conversation where a police officer calls the school to question why students were found at a local beach during the daytime.

“You say they’re on a regular field trip?”
“What kinda field trip?
“Marine biology and oceanography.”
“How come there was no teacher?”
“The teacher was the sea.”[4]

These are the pedagogical moments of the unseen. As John Dewey established in his book, Democracy and Education, (and was later theorized by Maria Montessori, Paolo Freire, and Ivan Illich) learning should be the byproduct of experience, not the experience alone. Dewey explains the concept of the hidden curriculum,

“But it must not be forgotten that an educational result is a by-product of play and work in most out-of-school conditions. It is incidental, not primary. Consequently the educative growth secured is more or less accidental. Much work shares in the defects of existing industrial society—defects next to fatal to right development. Play tends to reproduce and affirm the crudities, as well as the excellencies, of surrounding adult life. It is the business of the school to set up an environment in which play and work shall be conducted with reference to facilitating desirable mental and moral growth. It is not enough just to introduce plays and games, handwork and manual exercises. Everything depends upon the way in which they are employed.”[5]

Although student directed learning might appears wasteful and futile in the absence of consistency and structure, there is genuine value in the experience of the school facilitating learning outside of the classroom and allowing the everyday landscapes, stories, and culture to be the teacher. It is the role of the school to frame these situations, reflecting life, while also allowing the space for experimentation and failure. Learning situations are created in a delicate balance. The educator must be attentive to the individual, be patient during the unglamorous, time consuming process, and offer continual guidance as the student seeks their own truths.

“It is quite true that children tend to exaggerate their powers of execution and to select projects that are beyond them. But limitation of capacity is one of the things which has to be learned; like other things, it is learned through the experience of consequences. The danger that children undertaking too complex projects will simply muddle and mess, and produce not merely crude results (which is a minor matter) but acquire crude standards (which is an important matter) is great. But it is the fault of the teacher if the pupil does not perceive in due season the inadequacy of his performances, and thereby receive a stimulus to attempt exercises which will perfect his powers.”[6]

Today, Fogo Island remains rich with innate information and vernacular learning opportunities. However, forty-two years after establishing FICA, the island educational system does not seem to take advantage of the potential “classroom” it has on their shore. A traditional school model continues to structure learning; there have been no significant modifications in the approach to education after the closing of the cod fishery. The effects of globalization are tangible; Fogo Island is no longer an isolated community functioning within a system of survival. When cod fishing dominated island industry, higher education was superfluous to supporting a household, but now the majority of youth leave the island for university and careers. Few young adults return to the island to live. While I worked at the school, I did not discover any evidence of FICA teaching towards the new opportunities for work on the island or making effort towards contributing to the sustainability of the island. Regularly scholars, artists, top professionals in their field come to the island through the residency programs or on their own and hope to conduct research or create work about the changing island. Usually this work benefits the community, introducing new approaches or information previously not compiled. While there are a handful of locals who welcome outsiders and work tirelessly to conduct tours, share histories, and provide their time to the research of Fogo Island as a changing landscape, there is no academic program connecting FICA curriculum to the knowledge being produced in tandem on the island.


fig 3. Nicole Lattuca, Fogo Island Decentralized Academy (2014). Photo: Tag Team Studio. Courtesy of the artist.

I returned to the island August 18th, 2014 to begin building with the students and starting conversations on their impressions of the changing island. A group of eleven students participated in measuring, cutting, building, and painting the structure. The schoolhouse launch took place on October 11th, 2014. An orange bicycle flag sat atop the house. Traditionally, this was used to indicate to neighbors of a house launching and requesting their assistance. The schoolhouse is a little larger than a backyard tool shed. It is painted an off-white color with grey trim. Architectural elements such as rows of windows and the use of clapboard are considered traditional, while the color palette references nature on Fogo Island. Like the studios and inn, whites and greys fade in and out of the often foggy landscape; sometimes allowing the built structures to disappear completely into the landscape. Over one hundred community members participated in hauling the small wooden structure by land from FICA to the local Partridgeberry Festival using logs and a block and tackle system. For the youth that were present, it was the first time seeing a traditional house launch. It was also the first time they learned of a block and tackle and how it functioned. There was intergenerational collaboration, mapping memories of launches, and numerous moments of learning through the hidden curriculum of the event. The launch took approximately forty-five minutes as the structure was pulled by participants ages two to seventy-two. During the launching the older crowd led with old-time shouts of instruction, “haul” and “whoa.” At the second leg of the launch, as methods were switched from a dead pull over logs to an anchored pulley system, older community members began to sing the traditional house launching song, “The Old Jolly Poker,” used to get the team in time so when the lyric called to “haul,” the group pulled at the same moment.

Reception, interest, and support from a community are significant to Social Practice work. In the case study of Fogo Island, even with a non-existent art program, at this time the school has chosen not to develop relationships with the many artists or scholars that land on their shore. FICA is potentially limiting the numerous learning experiences that would lead to careers for young adults that could have significant impact on the long-term sustainability of the island. The project I developed and led, facilitated information outside of traditional didactic means and engaged students in a dynamic, physical, and hands-on learning experience. The purpose of Fogo Island Decentralized Academy was to emphasize the necessity of reevaluating local knowledge as a way to understand and discuss the current changes to Fogo Island, to stress the profound educational capabilities in what has become commonplace or obsolete. It also speaks directly to the preservation of history, while creating space for new ways of thinking. If the value of projects such as these goes unseen by the only learning institution on the island, so goes the immaterial knowledge and collective memory of building, fishing, and the inner workings of the vast and complex ocean.



[1] Ingeborg Marshall, A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk (Montreal&Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press 1996).
[2] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press 1984).
[3] George A. Rose, Cod: The Ecological History of the North Atlantic Fisheries (St. John’s: Breakwater Books 2007).
[4] Michael S. Kaye, The Teacher was the Sea: The Story of Pacific High School (New York: Links Books 1972).
[5] John Dewey, Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (Norwood: The MacMillan Company 1916).
[6] Ibid.


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