Audre Lorde, Paulo Freire, W.E.B Du Bois, Joseph Beuys and Malcolm X walk into a classroom…This is not the start to a joke, but rather a revolutionary concept for reimagining education through socially engaged art and activism. It describes a multimedia artwork by Agata Craftlove/THEMM! and Gregory Sholette titled The Future of Pedagogy: Survival Is Not Enough. The work of art projects a fantastical situation that transposes the aforementioned civil rights activists, progressive educators, visionary artists and insightful philosophers into a classroom environment, in order to symbolically address the systemic problems that run rampant across our educational institutions.
The title is derived from the line “Because survival is insufficient,” which was first recited in the Star Trek Voyager episode “Survival Instinct” (1999), and more recently used as a recurrent motto within the novel and television series, Station Eleven. In both instances, the phrase refers to battling adversity in light of dystopian narratives. The apocalyptic climate of Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014), takes place after a deadly pandemic has wiped out most of the world’s population, leaving groups of refugees to pick up the social, cultural and intellectual pieces from a world that no longer exists and carry on into uncertainty. As you could imagine, the book has had a boost in readership as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Jennifer Ho, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado writes: “Mandel’s novel has had a resurgence of interest in our own global pandemic moment, as have sales of other dystopian and apocalyptic narratives. There has been speculation about why we look to stories of pandemics amidst our own struggle to adapt to this reality, but what I take away from the desire for narratives is simply this: when we are stressed and need distraction or a way we can make sense of our present reality, we are not turning to scientific journals or scholarly articles: we are looking for arts and humanities.”
Professor Ho is not implying that the arts and humanities are devoid of real meaning or tangible solutions, but that they are a popular vehicle to which humankind has turned to time and time again for catharsis, insight and motivational recourse. This is precisely why art is essential for our continued existence and is necessary beyond our basic needs. As Ho explains, “History has shown this to be true: people did not stop making art and writing plays, and composing music during times of war or tragedy. Poet friends have commented on Twitter that requests for their poetry or suggestions for poems are on the rise. Arts and humanities give meaning—to our current pandemic situation and to our lives. We need clean water, fresh air, nutritious food, stable shelter AND we need YoYo Ma providing songs of comfort, film festivals that have moved their content on-line, for free, poets sharing their musings with the world, artists reflecting on our present reality……we need love.”
Going beyond the performative rituals of basic survival is a key component of a purposeful education and an enlightened society at large. Educators, artists and moral citizens alike have to adapt and be flexible at all times, connect desperate and diverse understandings and teach ourselves (and others) to transgress the counterproductive norms which keep us operating in a vicious circle that stifles our ability to express ourselves creatively and compassionately.
The Future of Pedagogy: Survival Is Not Enough encapsulates the ethos of social, emotional and intellectual liberation through its visual narrative. Each of the prominent figures depicted in the digital collage has offered profound insights into making classrooms and communities more just, equitable and egalitarian. Throughout the artwork the hegemonic barrier is dismantled. Although each of the notable historical individuals are powerful and formidable symbols of revolutionary social justice, they represent a non-hierarchical and collaborative means for teaching to empower. The students are some of the most engaged participants, which reflects the pedagogical philosophies of their educators. Standing in front of the chalkboard, a student writes “la survie né suffit pas” (“survival is not enough”). With the facilitation of their teachers they are actively learning to transcend what Malcolm X described as “a society that will crush people, and then penalize them for not being able to stand up under the weight.”
Malcolm X looms large in the front of the classroom, but despite his stature and historical clout, his presence is not overtly didactic. He appears contemplative and nurturing in this imagined scenario, reflective of his statement, “I believe in human rights for everyone, and none of us is qualified to judge each other and that none of us should therefore have that authority.”
Paulo Freire and W.E.B. Du Bois are both seated on the same level as the young students, exemplifying their status as observers, interlocutors and collaborators in the learning process. They each understood and expressed that they and their students were co-creators of knowledge and that they should learn from one another rather than through the traditional passage of knowledge from teacher to student.
Audre Lordre stands poised in front of a small moveable chalkboard where she has written one of her affirming statements, “Women are powerful and dangerous.”
Then there is Joseph Beuys, the artist and art educator who advocated for human beings to make beneficial contributions to society through art. He considered his students to be social sculptors and his art to be social sculpture. These identities apply to anyone who creates an artistic structure within a community that shows an awareness of social issues and supports a democratization of the artist-viewer relationship through collaboration and active discourse. This theory is intrinsically connected to the educational sphere because educators facilitate these kinds of experiences in their classrooms. In this artful composition, Beuys is writing one of his quintessential chalk diagrams on the board, but instead of “social sculpture,” he writes “social distancing,” a remark to the last two years of remote learning and disruptions to classroom communities as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The artwork’s co-creator, Gregory Sholette is also an influential arts educator whose artistic and pedagogical philosophy is in line with the social practice movement (a pragmatic art form that combines activism, education and creative collaboration).
In an editorial reflecting on how public schools and universities should respond to the glaring inequities and other issues related to the COVID pandemic and social injustice, Sholette espouses the need for an expansion “of low-cost, high-quality liberal studies in which culture, self-reflection, and interdisciplinary learning enrich democratic values within a framework of social justice” (Sholette, 2020). He asserts that art is an exemplary discipline that can both supplement and transcend our basic survival tactics, as well as bolster humane behavior. Sholette’s (2020) explanation for why art can achieve this is a great point to conclude on. “Artists are frequently compelled to manage economic precariousness using skills and strategies that lead to imaginative life-preserving solutions which can ultimately play a central role in rebuilding the post-pandemic educational system.”
You can view The Future of Pedagogy: Survival Is Not Enough and other educational themed art in the exhibition “Summer School: Art, Education & Radical Resistance” at ABC No Rio in Exile at PS122 Gallery (150 First Avenue, New York, NY).
References, Notes, Suggested Reading:
Ho, Jennifer. “Because Survival is Insufficient,” University of Colorado Boulder Center for Humanities & the Arts, https://www.colorado.edu/cha/coping-covid-19/pandemic-posts/because-survival-insufficient
Sholette, Gregory. “Reimagining Higher Education Through Socially Engaged Art,” Hyperallergic, 3 August 2020. https://hyperallergic.com/579853/reimagining-higher-education-through-socially-engaged-art/