The Fourth Grade Project

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Installation view of archival pigment prints from The Fourth Grade Project by Judy Gelles, in the exhibition Overlap: Life Tapestries on view at Pen + Brush, New York. Photograph by Adam Zucker

Students from around the world are the subjects and co-collaborators of an ongoing participatory artwork and educational experience titled The Fourth Grade Project. The project was initiated by Judy Gelles, a contemporary artist who works as a photographer. Gelles travels internationally to visit with students in their schools, and have a dialogue about their life experiences. The students are only a decade old but they have incredible insight about the world around them. Gelles photographs the students in rear perspective view, so that they remain anonymous. The final prints include verbatim text juxtaposed with each student’s portrait. The text tells their personal narratives, which were prompted by three questions: Who do you live with? What do you wish for? What do you worry about?

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Judy Gelles, Lived Closer: USA California Private School, archival pigment print. Photograph by Adam Zucker

The eloquent responses to these questions reflect the students’ sociocultural understandings. Each student has a unique perspective regarding how they see themselves in the scope of the human condition. While there is diversity in their responses due to the different geographical regions they represent, the stories they share signify several commonalities. They worry about themselves and their family; feel stressed about their performance in school and/or in social and athletic settings; and contemplate the future. They also express their aspirations for happiness and success. All children deserve to feel safe and valued in their schools, families and communities. The Fourth Grade Project makes it clear that this is not the case for all school aged children around the world. Too many students are worried about violence and sociocultural woes affecting them, their classmates and their families. An essential question for us to collectively address is how to bridge the social, cultural and economic gaps that create inequitable situations within society?

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Judy Gelles, Be Murdered, South Africa: Public School, archival pigment print. Photograph by Adam Zucker

The Fourth Grade Project is being utilized as a way for students across the globe to feel empowered expressing themselves and learning about one another. In doing so, they will make connections between their own stories and those of other students. Gelles is working with educators and administrators in Philadelphia to create a curriculum that can be implemented in schools throughout the world. What Gelles and the classroom teachers have noticed, is that giving students the agency to express themselves via the three aforementioned queries, benefits their participation and involvement in school. Students were struggling to make connections between their lives and the required reading, which impacted the development of their literary and writing skills. By making stories relatable to their social, emotional and cultural experiences, students were passionate about reading and writing. As a result of participating in the project, both quantitative and qualitative assessments of the students’ work supported their individual growth in English Language Arts (ELA). Furthermore, by reading the students’ stories, teachers and administrators gain significant insight into the myriad of social issues affecting their students. Due to overcrowded schools and large class sizes, it is often difficult for educators to spend enough time with each student to have dialogues about their lives outside of school. This project enables teachers to learn more about what personal concerns might be affecting a student’s performance in class. In addition to this dialogue being beneficial for educators to gain greater understandings about their students, classmates also gain insight into their peers’ innermost feelings. These compassionate responses build a more empathetic environment where everyone in the school works together and is supportive of each other’s physical and emotional space.

Understanding one another and being able to show empathy for what others are enduring is a major lesson that the arts can teach us (see: Exhibiting Empathy and Educating Through Art). Through social and emotional learning and reflections on personal and collective experiences, The Fourth Grade Project has the potential to help students grow academically and personally.

 

Still Climbing Booker T. Washington’s Ladder

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Martin Puryear. Ladder for Booker T. Washington, detail, 1996. Installation view at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas. Production still from the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” Season 2 episode, “Time,” 2003. Photo © Art21, Inc. 2003.

One of Martin Puryear’s most iconic artworks is titled Ladder for Booker T. Washington (1996), which is a reference to the influential 19th century activist and educator, Booker T. Washington.

Puryear is known for creating large scale sculptures out of wood and other materials that challenge our modes of perception. In Ladder for Booker T. Washington, Puryear represents forced perspective, which is an illusion that makes something look farther away than it actually is. The thirty-six foot sculpture ascends up to the very high ceiling in the gallery where it is displayed (at the Modern Art Museum of Forth Worth, Texas). The sculpture is a stylized ladder, which curves and gets narrower at the top. While the bottom rungs are similar in size to conventional ladders, they narrow to a surreal 1 1/4 inches at the top. The ladder is lifted several inches off the ground, which gives it the feeling of being suspended in air. Its organic form (the naturally curved side rails were created from a golden ash sapling) and ethereal installation portray a spiritual essence. 

Puryear acknowledges that the title of the artwork was realized after the sculpture was finished (Art21, 2011). The conceptual nature of Puryear’s sculpture and the title leave ample room for interpretation. Although Puryear considers the work to be abstract (meaning that there is no intended narrative element), the sculpture’s physical form and perspective might allude to Booker T. Washington’s point of view and influence on African-American culture during Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era.

Washington was highly successful in facilitating the development and success of black businesses and educational institutes in an era where African-Americans were denied equal and equitable access to many economic, social and cultural opportunities. However, Washington was also viewed in a controversial manner by some of his activist peers, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, because of his reluctance to advocate for immediate nationwide equality and equity for African-Americans. While Washington’s activism provided black individuals with black-centered institutional and business benefits (such as Tuskegee University and the National Negro Business League), he struck deals with prominent white politicians to gain support for these organizations. One particular deal, known as the Atlanta compromise, was made in exchange for the political submission to white policies, such as segregation. Although Washington’s contributions made significant headway for African-Americans, his reliance and advocacy for blacks assimilating to white policies upheld the status quo.

Puryear describes Washington as “someone who made enormous contacts with people in power and had enormous influence, but he was what you would call a gradualist” (Art21, 2011). While the sculpture is asserted to largely confront aesthetic issues, it also addresses ongoing social conditions. The idea of initiating, maintaining and eventually achieving a goal is symbolically represented via the use of forced perspective. The essential question Ladder for Booker T. Washington asks is: where are we in the progression of equality, equity and social justice? The abstracted organic form, asymmetry and scale of the artwork suggests that the path to obtaining these goals is uncertain and difficult. The floating nature of the sculpture might also allude to the spiritual motif of the ladder (i.e. Jacob’s Ladder/God’s promise of the promised land) and its symbolism during slavery as a means to resist oppression and gain freedom and salvation. We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder is a spiritual hymn slaves sang to express the hope that they will one day climb to God and defeat their slave-owners. Each rung of the ladder (Ev’ry round goes higher higher) signifies tests of spiritual strength that will get them closer to God and deliverance from slavery.

The exquisite handmade craftsmanship of Puryear’s sculpture reflects Washington’s educational philosophy regarding the importance of work to be viewed as dignified and beautiful. In his 1901 autobiography, Up From Slavery, Washington favors a form of education that teaches students to see “not only utility in labour, but beauty and dignity.”

Washington advised African-Americans to value industrial labor in an intellectual and personal manner. He supported this ideology by writing: “when the student is through with his course of training he goes out feeling that it is just as honorable to labor with the hand as with the head” (Washington, 1900). This tenet was a major component of the curriculum at Tuskegee University, because Washington believed that developing professional labor skills and industrious knowledge would lead to self-preservation. The idea of building self-worth through one’s work and the need for industrial and mechanical knowledge is fundamentally sound. The argument that schools are not preparing students for the ‘real-world,’ is still a common critique in educational discourse. It would behoove all schools to provide pragmatic skills and knowledge such as agricultural management and other forms of highly skilled technical labor.

By urging his contemporaries to temporarily accept systemic discrimination in order to concentrate on elevating themselves economically through hard work, Washington’s policies ignored the affect that trauma and oppression have on educational, social and economic development. Despite Washington’s aspirations that systemic conditions would gradually change, unequal and inequitable situations still persist. Some educational environments remain segregated (Meatto, 2019) and there are less opportunities for black and brown individuals to advance economically than their white counterparts.

Puryear contributes to the contextual analysis of his sculpture as “the kind of gradual, illusory notion of upward progress that Washington encouraged blacks to adopt in the nineteenth century against an overwhelming set of obstacles to our advancement” (Powell, 2007).

Over a century later, society is still attempting to climb Booker T. Washington’s ladder…


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Art21 and Puryear, Martin. “Abstraction and ‘Ladder for Booker T. Washington,'” Art21, Nov. 2011. https://art21.org/read/martin-puryear-abstraction-and-ladder-for-booker-t-washington/

Meatto, Keith. “Still Separate, Still Unequal:Teaching about School Segregation and Educational Inequality,” New York Times, 2 May 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/02/learning/lesson-plans/still-separate-still-unequal-teaching-about-school-segregation-and-educational-inequality.html

Powell, Richard J. “A Conversation with Martin Puryear,” in the exhibition catalogue Martin Puryear by John Elderfield, Richard J. Powell, et al, Fort Worth: The Museum of Modern Art, 2007.

Washington, Booker T. “Signs of Progress Among the Negroes,” Century Magazine, 59 (1900), pps 472-478. http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/washington/signs-of-progress.txt

Washington, Booker T. Up from Slavery: An Autobiography, Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1901.

Mondo Museum: A Sim that encourages decolonization and experiential learning

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Screenshot from Mondo Museum. Courtesy of Viewport Games and Kitfox Games.

Imagination is one of our greatest and most humanizing characteristics, and playing games is beneficial for shaping our imaginative instincts. When I was growing up, I witnessed the evolution of video games from 8-bit side-scrolling forms of gameplay to expansive environments where players could explore the gaming environment at their own pace. This transformation also changed the narrative structure of games from typically binary themes (i.e. go through levels and beat the bad guys) to more player-centered experiences. Coming from a background where free-play and imagination were valued and rewarded, I enthusiastically gravitated towards the latter type of video games. Computer games like Sim City, Dino Park Tycoon, Sim Hospital and The Sims, are some of my all-time favorites, because they gave me agency to make creative, logical or absurd choices. There was flexibility in the gameplay that made me feel like I was truly responsible for the frame to frame progression of the game. Every action had a reaction and there were so many different ways a scenario could play out. I had my share of triumphs and disasters in each game.

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Screenshot from Mondo Museum. Courtesy of Viewport Games and Kitfox Games.

I haven’t played a video game in several years, but when I heard about the upcoming release of Mondo Museum (sometime in 2020), a museum themed management sim, I became very excited. This game combines both my adolescent and current interests and passions. A museum simulator is a curator and video game aficionado’s dream come true. There are several benefits to playing management sim video games, and they relate to many of the studio habits of mind that we learn via the arts. In order to be successful in the game, players need to brace themselves for ambiguity, be flexible in their actions and reactions to change, establish cross-disciplinary connections and make assessments as to what went well and how their process of play can be improved.  The game enables us to realize how consciously arranging cultural objects, which span time and place, provides historical and contemporary context. By researching objects from the collection (or on loan from another simulated institution) and curating them into gallery spaces, the player creates compelling narratives and gives their viewers ample opportunities to make cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary discoveries.

Mondo Museum’s gameplay is also intended to build empathy (another artistic habit of mind) because you see what others are going through as they move throughout your museum. The viewer experience inspires and influences the player to make equitable decisions that enhance their engagement with the museum. Furthermore, you advance in the game by curating exhibitions that make relevant connections between the museum objects and their aesthetic, cultural and historical context. For example, a player can gain ‘combo’ points by creating a thematic exhibition that displays works of art that address the topic from multiple cultural perspectives. Organizing shows thematically and showing the heterogeneity of sociocultural concepts, is one way that real-life museums are shifting the gaze from the Western Canon to a global and intersectional representation of culture.

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Screenshot from Mondo Museum. Courtesy of Viewport Games and Kitfox Games.

Mondo Museum supports the proper contextualization of culture through ethical cross-cultural partnerships with other museums. The provenance of works of art and artifacts are represented by the region and culture they were created in. You build your exhibitions by participating in a discourse with curators and directors from museums around the world, in order to gain knowledge about the intent and function the object had/has for the people who made it.

While the game is still in development, the idea of having the gameplay reflect contemporary issues around equitable access to museums and decolonization, is something that drives the game’s designer, Michel McBride-Charpentier. He intends for the game to address and raise awareness around a major issue affecting museums and cultural institutions throughout the world: the colonialist practices of collections acquisitions. In other words, major museums have established collections of cultural objects through unethical means like looting and nefariously brokered deals. McBride-Charpentier states, “the way that [museums] have built their collections in the West is mostly based on colonial looting…Instead of representing that, this game is showing a more utopian version of what museums should be like” (Jackson, 2019).

While Mondo Museum will present a stylized version of a museum, the ethical principles behind decolonization are very realistic goals that would behoove museums around the world to make right. Elisa Shoenberger writes, “the decolonizing project will have starts and stops as each museum, cultural worker and audiences have difficult conversations and reflections about the meaning of museums and who the institutions are intended to serve” (Shoenberger, 2019). One obvious way of decolonizing a museum, is to return the objects of historical importance to the contemporary cultures where they hold significance. There are so many examples of objects in museums that were acquired during colonial and imperial eras and have since been requested by the people in the region they originated from. Returning the objects to their cultures of origin (known as repatriation) would ensure that current and future generations have access to primary resources regarding their cultural heritage.

Another objective is to create a dialogue through partnerships with cultural organizations and individuals from nations that have their objects in foreign museums. In a recent post (see: Exhibiting Empathy), I describe how the Seattle Museum of Art is collaborating with African artists whose experience and background provide relevant insight about the works in the museum’s African art collection.  By having advisors who are a part of the society where the art is from, the museum ensures that the narrative is both properly presented and connected to the contemporary life of its originating place. Too often, works from African nations are presented in Western museums as ethnographic mementos, which ignores the fact that there is a continuity of the specific culture (the same can be said about art by North American, South American and Australian indigenous peoples).

Penn Museum in Philadelphia, has a renowned collection of art and artifacts from the Middle East dating back to 4,500 years ago. Although the museum states that 95 percent of their Middle Eastern collection “was excavated by Penn archaeologists” in partnership with local governments, it still raises issues about ethical acquisitions. Art critic Olivia Jia questions the idea of an ethical excavation, “given the fact that many of these excavations occurred against a backdrop of strife-ridden fallout from British colonial rule, and were co-sponsored by the British Museum” (Jia, 2019). Furthermore, the museum has presented their Middle Eastern objects through the lens of the archeologists, which gives Western narratives precedence over the stories that are intrinsic to the region where the artifacts and art objects were collected. To shift the narrative towards a more local and decolonized perspective, the museum established an innovative program called Global Guides, where they hire refugees from the Middle East as docents who lead visitors through thematic tours of the permanent collection. The docents provide unique insights and personal connections to the work. Analyzing exit surveys for the Global Guides program, Jia was amazed to discover that many participants never had an actual interpersonal connection with an individual from the Middle East until then. The presence of docents like Moumena Saradar, a Syrian refugee and only one of two Muslim staff members at the museum, has an empathetic impact on both visitors and museum staff (Jia, 2019).

Mondo Museum is only a simulated game, however its mission to reject colonial narratives reflects a very real issue that is at the forefront of artistic and institutional practices. Furthermore, Mondo Museum’s experience and equity driven platform is similar to the operational missions at brick and mortar institutions, where the viewer’s experience and participation are given elevated attention. Many museums no longer serve as ‘banking models’ (see: Freire, 2008) where visitors are presented with didactic displays of objects and text. Instead, they are being transformed into environments that enable viewers to curate their own experiences in dialogue with the museum’s collection and architectural space (Zucker, 2019).

Museum scholar and critic Seph Rodney explains that today’s museums are incorporating distinct factors that are in-line with visitor’s needs, such as “social interaction, spiritual sustenance, emotional connection, intellectual challenge, or consumerist indulgence” (Rodney, 2016). From the preview and demo of Mondo Museum, it appears that all of these elements will be integral to the management sim’s gameplay. These undertakings provide experiences that support experiential learning, collaboration, socialization and the democratization of cultural spaces. Museums that acknowledge their visitors’ unique personalities and treat them as participants, are likely to retain them. In Mondo Museum, that retainership leads to winning the game. It is McBride-Charpentier’s hope that players of the game will become more engaged and active participants at their local museums. He says “I would love it if people play this and then were inspired to go out to the real museums that might be nearby” (Jackson, 2019).


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Freire, Paulo. “The “Banking” Concept of Education.” Ways of Reading. 8th ed. Bartholomae, David and Anthony Petrosky. Boston: Bedford- St. Martin’s, 2008. 242-254. Print.

Jackson, Gita. “Upcoming Museum Sim Lets Players Combine Artifacts to Tell Cool Stories.” Kotaku, 11 Oct. 2019. https://kotaku.com/upcoming-museum-sim-lets-players-combine-artifacts-to-t-1838977490

Jia, Olivia. “Refugees Connect Their Personal Stories with a Museum’s Ancient Artifacts.” Hyperallergic, 19 Feb. 2019. https://hyperallergic.com/484835/global-guides-program-penn-museum/

Rodney, Seph. 2019. The Personalization of the Museum Visit, Abingdon: Routledge.

Rodney, Seph. “The Evolution of the Museum Visit, from Privilege to Personalized Experience.” Hyperallergic, 22 Jan. 2016. https://hyperallergic.com/267096/the-evolution-of-the-museum-visit-from-privilege-to-personalized-experience/

Shoenberger, Elisa. “What does it mean to decolonize a museum?” MuseumNext, 7 Feb. 2019. https://www.museumnext.com/article/what-does-it-mean-to-decolonize-a-museum/

Zucker, Adam. “Summer Reading.” Artfully Learning, 10 June 2019. https://theartsandeducation.wordpress.com/2019/06/10/summer-reading-list-2/

 

Process of Play: confronting systems of inequity through art

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Chantal Feitosa, English Lessons (2017), performance still. Courtesy of the artist.

What are some of the most poignant memories from your childhood? I am sure that if we each assessed our past social and educational experiences, we would be able to come up with several times that we felt marginalized, ignored or misrepresented. In fact, we may still carry the trauma of that exclusion with us. When was a time you felt unsafe, and conversely, when was a time when you felt like you had the support of your family, peers, teachers, guardians and/or mentors? These are some essential questions to keep in mind when thinking about how our experience and education shapes the way we view the world. Where we were born, who our ancestors are and the way we were raised becomes the fabric for how we perceive ourselves and others.

We all deserve to feel empowered to participate in social, cultural and pedagogical settings. In the perfect setting, we would learn from each other’s experiences and build new knowledge and experiences collectively. This progressive ideology has been advocated by educational philosophers such as John Dewey and Paulo Freire, and it is the aim of many contemporary curricula and social justice initiatives. Creating equitable and justice-driven learning spaces should be a priority within any educational setting. However, obtaining the aforementioned environment is difficult in reality.

Schools can be a sanctuary for us to connect and explore with our peers and teachers. . However, schools can also stifle our individuality and make us feel insignificant and embarrassed for being ‘different.’ Either way, these experiences will have great impact on how we engage with the culture at large. The rigors of testing and assessments, as well as curricula that still espouses colonial histories, negatively influences our ability to express ourselves. Furthermore, there are too few moments of incorporating play into school days when the focus is uniform benchmark standards for proficiency (I have addressed many of these topics in prior posts). These issues make it harder for the school to function as a community where students can grow and feel valued.

Chantal Feitosa makes art that communicates cognitive, emotional and social aspects of nature and nurture. Pedagogy is a major medium in her artistic practice, and she employs modes and archetypes of early childhood education and communal learning to address systemic social structures that affect equitable educational and societal experiences. Feitosa’s experience growing up between two cultures (Brazil and the United States) has had an impact on her development as both an artist and a citizen.  She utilizes her multidisciplinary-based art to gain insight into how multiculturalism and immigration affects the way we communicate themes of racial bias, body image and belonging.

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Chantal Feitosa, detail of two dolls from Happy Mulattos: Collectors Edition, 2018, human hair, polymer clay, hand-stitched assorted fabrics, polyester fiberfill. Courtesy of the artist.

In Happy Mulattos: Collector’s Edition (2018), Feitosa handcrafted a group of dolls with features representative of mixed-race individuals (a Mulatto is a derogatory term that has been used to describe a person of mixed white and black ancestry), which were then introduced to ‘focus groups’ of nursery school-aged children through a series of organized ‘playdates’ (see: Happy Multattos: Playdates, 2018). The children’s responses to each doll’s physical features expressed playful ingenuity, but also showed that at their early stages of social and cognitive development, they had already established specific notions about race, gender and beauty standards.

Growing up in a multicultural household has many benefits on one’s development. For example, being bilingual gives a person more opportunities to communicate in this globalized world, and they are exposed to a wealth of culture that extends beyond the oft-binary narrative of race and ethnicity. However, mixed-race and multi-ethnic individuals are generally viewed through a stereotypical lens and both their physical appearance and ancestral background(s) become points of contention. This is evident in both communal and educational settings, and reflected consistently within Feitosa’s art.

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Chantal Feitosa, Ela vai dar trabalho, 2018, Collage, fabric, polyester fiberfill, beads, yarn, bathing suit, human hair, acrylic, and Cantu Edge Control Gel on watercolor paper. Courtesy of the artist.

Ela vai dar trabalho (2018), was inspired by a memory of a social interaction Feitosa had when she was a child. In her own words, the mixed-media collage refers to a time:

When I was younger, my mother often brought me to social gatherings with other adult Brazilians. People would always remark on my appearance, followed-up by the same statement:

“Ela vai dar trabalho” | “She’s gonna be trouble”

I laughed, not fully getting the joke or not realizing that there was no joke to be made in the first place. 

Her vibrant collage makes allusions to plushy ornaments that might adorn a child’s room, but the message is far from playful. It represents a moment when Feitosa was objectified. The statement ‘she’s going to be trouble’ relates to negative visualizations and narratives of the femme fatale and fetishization of ‘the other.’ It reinforces the hierarchy of the male gaze within many cultural settings, which is visualized in the exaggerated and explicit image of a woman in a seductive pose with ‘exotic’ physical features. This work of art speaks to the idea that nature and nurture can have a defining impact on self-perception.

English Lessons (2017) is a performative artwork exploring the physical and psychological implications of language acquisition in educational environments. The performance stems from Feitosa’s experiences attending school in Brazil and the United States. As a bilingual student, she was already fluent in English when her 2nd grade teacher made her class repeat the same English words and phrases. There was no differentiation between the students who were bilingual and second-language acquirers.

The lack of student-centered learning reinforces the didactic instructional atmosphere that Feitosa recreates in her performance. She created large pink cue-cards, akin to the smaller versions many of us are familiar with seeing as flashcards. Holding up the flashcards she recreates a classroom scene where a teacher has students follow very specific and rigid instructions to repeat the phrase ‘that girl is thick.’ In the second part of the performance, Feitosa revisits her experience in 9th grade (in a public New York City school) where her English teacher made the students  say ‘thank you’ when they were called on to speak. Students who forgot to give thanks for being asked to contribute were censored. This led to an anxious environment, where Feitosa felt that any agency to express herself was stifled by the hierarchical leverage her teacher had over the students. She recalls, “It became a privilege to express my voice and ideas. I slowly stopped speaking out of fear.”

English Lessons resembles the format of a Fluxus piece, which can be recreated by individuals other than Feitosa, simply by following the artist’s written instructions.

The effectiveness of Chantal Feitosa’s art is in her ability to combine many methodologies, materials and subjects into her creative practice. She uses humor coupled with archetypal cultural narratives and educational modules to symbolically communicate  complex issues. Through a playful re-imagining of her experiences in social and educational settings, she confronts a long-standing tradition of marginalization and the trauma that various forms of bias have on development. Assessing the messages in her work, we can also reflect on our own experiences with bias and how we can be more understanding about the way we might use language and actions to empower others.

 

 

Back to Nature: Learning about ecosystems of the past and building future ecological awareness

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Thomas Cole, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow, 1836, oil on canvas. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Some people call New York City a ‘concrete jungle.’ This metaphor refers in part to the city’s lack of greenery and the plethora of large concrete and glass structures in its stead. However, New York City was once a lush natural environment and our urbanization of the land has displaced generations of natural growth. The large swaths of commuters, tourists and residents that hustle and bustle across the metropolis probably don’t often think of a pre-colonial Manhattan and the diverse island ecosystem that existed.

We can learn a lot from artworks that re-present the lost ecosystem of the city. Michael Wang and Alan Sonfist both incorporate scientific processes into their artistic practice. Their work aims to raise our awareness about how post-industrial human beings have transformed, molded and largely stripped the land of its natural essence. Through bringing the results of their scientific research into cultural spaces, their work invites us to view an ecosystem that once did not have to be nurtured by an artist. Our consumer-driven interactions with the world around us have made these artworks necessary in order to experience the landscapes of the past.

Artists throughout history have become awestruck by nature and portray it in all its glory and lushness. The paintings of the Hudson River School artists depict nearly pristine views of America’s landscape right as the industrial revolution transformed forests and valleys into sprawling towns and large cities. These artists were rebelling against what they saw as a grave danger to humanity: our sociocultural and economic influence on the environment. Wang’s Extinct in New York (2019-ongoing) and Sonfist’s Time Landscape (1965-present) attempt to revive the actual ecological features of New York City that have been erased by urbanization and consumerism.

Wang and Sonfist use natural resources as their art materials. Their work begins with analysis of quantitative data, historical accounts and archival imagery.  Thanks to the careful documentation by both artists and scientists, Sonfist and Wang were able to fulfill their objectives to re-present New York City’s lost and disappearing fauna.

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Michael Wang, Extinct in New York. Installation photograph at LMCC’s Arts Center at Governors Island. Courtesy of LMCC and Sacks & Co.

Extinct in New York, which was just recently on display at Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s (LMCC) Arts Center on Governors Island, creates a space where viewers can observe live specimens of specific native plants, algae and lichen that have vanished from New York City’s ecosystem. Wang’s extensive research accompanies the live specimens in a publication detailing the name of each plant, algae or lichen, and the last time it was found in its natural setting. The installation of these specimens resembles a greenhouse laboratory and, sure enough, it requires nurturing care from gallery staff, local students and volunteers. When the project is de-installed, the goal is to re-introduce the plants, algae and lichen to the land where they once grew unrestrained. The irony is that now they will require the care of human beings in managed spaces like urban community gardens and public parks. Alongside the live materials, Wang displays photographs and botanical drawings that document and express the traces of nature and its ephemerality.

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Alan Sonfist, Time Landscape, 1965-present, site-specific land art. Courtesy of the artist.

Time Landscape recreates a pre-colonial natural forest, which would have provided sustenance, shelter and community to the indigenous peoples of what is now the five boroughs. Sonfist designed a plot of land, which is located at the northeast corner of La Guardia Place and West Houston Street in downtown Manhattan, to resemble the likeness of a natural forest that would have been observed prior to European interference. The initial planting process depicted the three phases of natural forest growth: seeds to saplings to grown trees and mature plants. Now, the land artwork is ripe with old growth and is even susceptible to post-colonial species of fauna (which are periodically weeded out by Parks Department workers). Time Landscape is a living sculpture, which could also be considered as a memorial to a past ecological epoch. It raises our social, emotional and cognitive awareness to the prowess and fragility of our natural world.

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Alan Sonfist, Time Landscape, 1965-present. Courtesy of the artist.

In the Anthropocene era, it is important that our educational settings provide real-world and hands-on learning scenarios for students to explore, discover and make insightful responses to the environment. In order to do this, teachers will likely require support from their administration and professional development to learn ways that they can incorporate environmental issues into their curriculum.

Brooklyn College’s Graduate Art Education program has implemented a Summer course called Human Tracks in the Urban Landscape, which focuses on inquiry-based pedagogical frameworks that current and future art and science educators can use in their classrooms. Using Prospect Park as both a case study and experiential site, the course combines classroom discussions where educators learn the natural history of New York’s ecology, with on-site and studio based explorations, such as projects, installations and performances. At the end of the course, educators produce multi-disciplinary projects that combine artistic and scientific processes and address a specific ecological topic of interest.

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Shauna Woods Gonzalez, Bill Vaughn, Adam Zucker, Pick-up Picnic, 2017, London Plane bark, litter, edible native and invasive plants gathered and foraged from Prospect Park.

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Shauna Woods Gonzalez, Bill Vaughn, Adam Zucker, detail of Pick-up Picnic, 2017, London Plane bark, litter, edible native and invasive plants gathered and foraged from Prospect Park.

When I took this course in its inaugural year (2017), my team (consisting of three art educators including myself) researched the history of foraging in New York City parks and came up with a list of edible plants that thrived in Prospect Park. We focused on native and invasive species that could be foraged and utilized by local communities as nutritional sources of food, as well as ways to sustainably interact with the park’s natural resources. We created a temporary site-specific installation and performance, where we juxtaposed the park’s useful natural elements with the abundance of consumer-based refuse (fast food wrappers, plastic bottles and junk food scraps) that were littered throughout the landscape. The result was a ‘picnic’ of foraged plants and trash. The idea for this installation started with an adverse reaction to being in the park. I could not enjoy myself because I was preoccupied with the amount of litter strewn across the natural space. The trash was distracting me from the abundant paths that surrounded us. I tried to move forward, but I kept thinking ‘how could we let our natural oasis get this way?’ As an artist, my concerns are visualizing and documenting experiences that focus on our accountability to our surroundings.

 

My strong reaction to the amount of garbage in Prospect Park led me to wonder why there isn’t a campaign to promote the clean and sustainable use of the park as a natural resource within the urban ecology. There are lots of plants for anyone in the city to enjoy for medicinal, culinary or other purposes (like creating fabrics and dyes). Ultimately, we need to take in knowledge about the natural scenery and take out the litter that threatens our local resources. We can promote a healthy relationship by thinking about what we consume and how it affects the environment. Learning to forage is one of the best things that I have learned, especially because mushrooms in particular are quite pricey in city markets! I hope more people will trust what is available around them in nature versus what is pre-packaged and mass-consumed. Perhaps through the incorporation of art and ecology curricula within our city’s schools, generations of students will gain expertise regarding the use of natural resources and become stewards to the ecosystems that exist within the urban landscape.

Representing Pittsburgh and Tehran

Sohrab Kashani & Jon Rubin - Blueroom

Sohrab Kashani (left) and Jon Rubin (right), Blueroom (diptych) from the project The Other Apartment, 2019. Photos by Siavash Naghshbandi (Tehran)/Tom Little (Pittsburgh). Courtesy of Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh is a great city, but not one that you might automatically think of when discussing global issues. However, the Steel City has been getting a lot of attention regarding global affairs lately. President Trump declared on June 1, 2017, when withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement that: “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” As a counter to Trump’s unabashed and callous attitude on the climate crisis, Pittsburgh’s mayor Bill Peduto responded: “as the Mayor of Pittsburgh, I can assure you that we will follow the guidelines of the Paris Agreement for our people, our economy and future.”

Pittsburgh is once again in the cultural spotlight of an international dialogue with another global city via an artist initiated installation called The Other Apartment on view at the Mattress Factory. The Other Apartment, a collaboration between artists Jon Rubin, based in Pittsburgh, and Sohrab Kashani, based in Tehran, Iran, explores the beneficial impact that creative collaboration has on shifting the oft-negative narrative between the United States and Iran. It largely speaks to artists’ abilities to think outside of the box, embrace ambiguity and make social, emotional and cognitive connections with others (all studio habits of mind that the arts teach us).

This is such an important project that is taking place at a time when the United States is increasingly engaging in volatile diplomacy, and isolating itself from the global community. While it may seem insurmountable to bridge the gap between two very contentious nations, artworks such as The Other Apartment make connections when it may otherwise seem impossible to do so. Art communicates beyond social constructs like geographical boundaries and demarcated borders, and gives us access to intimate spaces and unique cultural insights that are typically marginalized and overshadowed by conflict and propaganda. Within Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory, Rubin and Kashani have created an exact replica of Kashani’s apartment in Tehran. They worked with fabricators to make duplicates of all the objects within Kashani’s flat. The fact that a likeness of Kashani’s space is on display within a public museum is fitting, because for the past eleven years he has opened up his Tehran home to the public as an exhibition space and artist residency.

Sohrab Kashani & Jon Rubin - Event Room Screening2

Sohrab Kashani (left) and Jon Rubin (right), Event Room Watching II (diptych) from the project The Other Apartment, 2019. Photos by Siavash Naghshbandi (Tehran)/Tom Little (Pittsburgh). Courtesy of Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh.

It is remarkable that Rubin and Kashani are fulfilling this collaboration without being in the same physical place due to Iranians being affected by Trump’s travel ban. Therefore, the artists had to work from detailed photographs and utilize telecommunication technology to transform the Mattress Factory’s gallery into Kashani’s apartment. Throughout the course of the exhibition, which runs through July 2020, the two artists will work in tandem to develop events, exhibitions, art objects and programming. Every happening that transpires in one space will be identically reproduced in the other space.

The Other Apartment could inspire classroom projects (The Other Classroom perhaps…) where students from two distant regions of the world connect and collaborate with each other, creating a communal classroom full of students who may never have the opportunity to meet in person. It is a great way to learn about other’s experiences and build empathy for one another. Students and educators could come up with a learning segment where each classroom has an opportunity to address a topic that they want to share with their cooperating class, and conduct a series of activities to be performed collectively that seek to realize common aims and objectives. The exchange of empirical cultural and social knowledge would be beneficial for a diverse body of students to foster both personal and professional relationships with one another.

Sohrab Kashani 7 Jon Rubin - Studio Opening

Sohrab Kashani (left) and Jon Rubin (right), Studio Opening (diptych) from the project The Other Apartment, 2019. Photos by Shirin Rezaee (Tehran)/Jon Rubin (Pittsburgh). Courtesy of Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh.

The Other Apartment is an example of how art can foster diplomacy and deep sociocultural understandings. Reflecting on creative endeavors like this, it is clear that migration has a profound effect on society at large; and it is imperative that we open our minds, borders and communities to others who are eager to share their culture, knowledge, creativity and passion with the world.

 

No Room to Play

“There was a time when we wore flowers on our heads…wishing it would never get dark so we could continue to play. We chased freedom and joy every day. We learnt about fear, delight and laughter……but ended up running the race.

But there was a day when we weren’t told the truth.We didn’t know enough to understand the bad news.Others took our decisions, others took our strength. Welcome to earth. There was a time when we wore flowers on our heads……but then it became cold in the summer and hot in the winter. We were promised Neverland.That imaginary faraway place……but true happiness never came.We wander now in darkness and despair.” – Narration from No Room to Play by Minerva Cuevas (2019).

Minerva Cuevas’ video No Room to Play (2019) portrays a cautionary dystopian narrative, in which urban public playgrounds are left to decay. The inspiration for the video comes from Post-WWII Western civilization, where urbanization and increased competition, in such forms as organized sports, economic and social status often overrule the importance of free play.

No Room to Play is symbolic of the decline of play, public space and autonomy, which psychologist Peter Gray recognizes as a major contemporary issue that is harmful for children’s development. A primary reason for this, Gray asserts, is that there is an incredible amount of herding of young minds and bodies within today’s society. Whether at home or in school, adults are directing the activities that children partake in, and children are learning that their free-will comes at a price, such as rigid judgement and assessment from adults. With children spending longer hours at school (or organized sports/clubs) under the tutelage of adults, and less time engaging in self-directed actions with their peers, they are being stifled socially and emotionally. This also takes a toll on their ability to think creatively, because they are often not given enough agency to think outside of the box or make judgements in the absence of rules (see: Eisner, 2002).

Cuevas’ poignant video blurs the lines between science fiction, fantasy and the realistic outlook of Gray’s assertion that children are more anxious and depressed than ever (Gray, 2010), because their inclination to play is not being supported within our modern society.

Screen Shot 2019-10-21 at 11.21.33 PM

Still from Minerva Cuevas’ No Room to Play, 2019, video retro-projection on hanging screen, 6’29.” On view at Mishkin Gallery, Baruch College in the exhibition Minerva Cuevas: Disidencia.

As dark and moody scenes of an abandoned playground are featured on screen, the voice of a German girl narrates how the loss of playgrounds affect children’s sense of place and self. Some of the playgrounds have naturalistic elements that resemble plants and animals, which alludes to the idea of Kindergarten (literally meaning a ‘children-garden’), a pedagogical model that supports growth through playful learning and activities that build upon children’s experience, emotions and intellect (see: We all scream for STEAM! Lifelong Learning Through Creative Activities and Mindful Technological Pursuits). Friedrich Fröbel, who coined the name Kindergarten, believed that children should be nurtured like plants in a garden. In a depressing turn of events, the public spaces for play in No Room to Play have fallen into a total state of despair, suggesting a metaphor for the loss of environmental resources and the ability to provide a nourishing setting for children’s social, emotional and cognitive development. Our current trajectory of creating massive urbanized and commercial environments stresses competitiveness and production (mass produced labor) over natural processes of human development.

Having agency to partake in unadulterated child-centered moments of play has significant benefits on children’s creative and cognitive development (see: Learning Through Play, Playing Through Art). Children learn dynamic lessons and skills such as cooperation, procedural knowledge, patience and empathy by developing and implementing their own frameworks of play. Furthermore, play has been recognized by generations as a vital element of the human condition, as evident in constructivist  pedagogical models such as the Reggio Emilia Approach. To strip current and future generations of ample playtime, is an affront on nature.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Eisner, Elliot. The Arts and the Creation of Mind, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2002.

Feldman, Claire Alaina, Bogossian, Gabriel, Farkas, Solange and Press Clayton. “Minerva Cuevas: Disidencia, exhibition catalogue, Mishkin Gallery, Baruch College, New York, 2019. https://www.baruch.cuny.edu/wsas/artsculture/mishkingallery/documents/MC_Disidencia_FINAL_LR.pdf

Gray, Peter. “The Decline of Play and Rise in Children’s Mental Disorders.” Psychology Today, 26 Jan 2010. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/freedom-learn/201001/the-decline-play-and-rise-in-childrens-mental-disorders