Making Our Space / Documenting Our Place – Building and Maintaining a Better World

In the traditional Capitalist method of producing, the finished product is the only element of importance. Making takes place, according to the Aristotelian view, between a starting point and finishing point. We have an idea already in mind, it gets green-lighted, and it is produced. The final product becomes the impetus for the way we conceptualize our human identity by developing a sense of desire (“I shop therefore I am”) for the latest, most luxurious thing. Once upon a time, humans lived in self-sustaining communities where various community members contributed a range of skills such as farming, metalwork, woodworking, paper making, weaving, and more. The influence that artisan culture in particular had across society was evident during the 19th Century in Europe and North America during the Second Industrial Revolution. Progressive educators such as Jane Adams (1860-1935) and Ellen Gates Starr (1859-1940) promoted an educational system, bolstered by the arts, which would lead to a more skilled and autonomous workforce. The idea was that learning through the arts would not only produce a more skilled workforce, but more importantly, a group of individuals who shared empathy and pride in their work. Beginning around the 1860s, companies like the one founded by William Morris in England, produced handcrafted decorative art and design. Morris’ company was a major counterpoint to the burgeoning aesthetics of mass production and remained in business until the early stages of World War II in 1940. Today, our society has become largely divorced from producing our own goods and services. Most of the old artisan trades have been superseded by giant corporations like Walmart and Monsanto.

While it is arguably easier to drive to the grocery store than to grow and cultivate your own produce, the act of consuming versus producing has put us in a state of dependency for consumer goods. We are less creative as a whole because we’ve given up specific skills and techniques in favor of a convenient readymade object. Ingold (2013) states that we ‘think through making’ rather than projecting an idea onto a readymade material. In other words, through improvisation we web together a series of experiences that lead to the progression of our mindfulness, which is facilitated by our awareness to the present moment. Then, during that moment of making, we gain insight to phenomena through an exploration of materials and techniques. 

Thinking through making is the crux of the Reggio Emilia approach to student-centered learning, where relationship driven environments afford the child a path towards self-directed and empirical learning. In this early childhood methodology, documentation (in Wein, Guyevsky & Berdoussis, 2011) is essential in that it provides a continuum of discourse around a student’s experience and provides a visual process for building upon observations in a collaborative environment. In other words, students should have an unrestricted means and opportunity to express themselves repletely, and this should be practiced in a setting where everyone is an active participant in constructing this learning. Students are given a liberal offering of materials and allowed the freedom to explore, discover, and make insightful connections that are relevant to their daily lives.  

The Reggio Emilia philosophy doesn’t have to exist solely within elementary school environments. Mitchel Resnick argues that the model of imagining, creating, playing, sharing, and reflecting, are necessary elements of living a creative, well rounded life. This echoes Ingold’s “thinking through making approach,” as well as Freire’s “Banking Model,” and Dewey’s theory of experiential learning. It is increasingly more and more essential that we as a society become producers rather than being reliant upon consuming mass produced goods and services. Being a producer, whether programing an app for the iPhone, planting a community garden, building a house, or making art; enables us to think via making. We are creating for the world we want to live in. Therefore, an enduring question we can all think about is how can we produce/make as a form of ethical maintenance?

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Several contemporary artists have made work that comments on the effects of maintenance work. Vik Muniz and Mierle Laderman Ukeles have paid tribute to the sanitation workers, while bringing to light a poignant visualization of the surplus of refuse human beings create. Allan Kaprow, Maren Hassinger, and Bryant Holsenbeck have also envisioned trash as a “readymade” and the process of maintenance as the path towards creative discovery and insights on the effects humans have on the environment. 

Ukeles, the founder of “Maintenance Art,” focuses her artistic practice on the connections between the art world, the natural world, and human labor. She alludes to how just as important works of art art are painstakingly preserved, so too must we take similar concern in preserving our natural environment. The care of fine art is given great precedence, whether it is in a museum collection, a private custodian (i.e art collectors), or in an art storage facility. Additionally, restoring a work of art (which is inevitable for any work of art that has been created) takes countless hours and is a great financial undertaking. Ukeles suggests that maintenance of our ecosystem must also be given the same priority. Her big question is whether an expression or the application of ecological maintenance (i.e. sanitation) processes can create a sense of responsibility and affirmation amongst community residents. Thinking of maintenance as an artistic process and the result (refuse) as an art object, isn’t it therefore our cultural responsibility to care for, repair, and archive our ecological system with the care, attention that priceless works of art receive? Ukeles’ work echoes Ingold’s ‘think through making’ approach to being mindful producers. In this case, the readymade already exists in the form of refuse so the creative process, which is maintenance work realizes the human potential to maintain our shared environment. Furthermore, Ukeles is celebrating the work of contemporary laborers by equating their work preserving our urban ecosystem to the work of a visual artist, curator, or art restorer.

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Maren Hassinger, “Performance of Pink Trash” (1982) (performance documentation courtesy Horace Brockington)

We typically think negatively about the garbage we see all around us. Litter in our streets and parks doesn’t leave us feeling good. Many of us might also consider the job description of sanitation workers to be undesirable.  The unsightly vision of refuse tarnishing our shared environment was elevated through the maintenance based performance by Maren Hassinger. Hassinger’s Pink Trash (1982) performance used garbage –which the artist made to stand out by painting pink– as a material and arranged it aesthetically throughout three New York City park’s (Central Park, Prospect Park, and Van Cortland Park) in order to critically question the civic and ethical role we have with regards to our shared public spaces. As Muniz and Ukeles have shown us, our sanitation workers are incredibly hard at work cleaning up our city, however, the burden of maintenance falls on every single one of us too. We can take major steps by volunteering to clean our parks and public spaces. By working alongside the city’s laborers, we can better understand what is at task and how we can offer our services to prevent our city from being over polluted. If we see something that strikes us as being in contrast with our urban ecology (cigarette butts, empty food wrappers, plastic bags, etc), we should act accordingly and dispose of it properly. 

During the 1960’s, Allan Kaprow’s installations and social sculptures (Kaprow called them “Happenings“) such as Yard (1961) and Fluids (1967) addressed the effects of consumerism and labor within a capitalist society through the use of unconventional materials (tires in Yard and ice in Fluids). The crux of Kaprow’s “Happenings” was the interrelational connection between performers and materials. For Kaprow, these events had no preconceived outcome. The process was largely improvisational and viewers often became participants in the playful arena, which established inter-disciplinary relationships between art and the natural environment. Kaprow stated: 

“happenings invite us to cast aside for a moment these proper manners and partake wholly in the real nature of the art and life. It is a rough and sudden act, where one often feels “dirty”, and dirt, we might begin to realize, is also organic and fertile, and everything including the visitors can grow a little into such circumstances.”

These happenings are a good transition to thinking about how Reggio Emilia style learning is implemented outside of the classroom and how contemporary art has profound implications for the playful, creative, collaborative, and reflective habits of mind that are necessary for achieving success and good well-being throughout life.

Another artist who makes strong connections between art and the natural world is Bryant Holsenbeck. Bryant Holsenbeck’s installations frequently use everyday objects collected from public spaces like parks, beaches, and city streets. Her sculptures allude to mass production and its effect on the environment. Her artistic practice is multifaceted, she is partaking in the act of maintenance by removing litter from the environment, engaging in play through her creative use of these upcycled materials, and reflecting on the ways that humans can increase their environmental awareness.  

In addition to environmental concerns, there are other forms of labor that contemporary artists like Cinthia Marcelle,Chloë Bass, and Santiago Sierra engage with in their artworks. Marcelle, a Brazilian artist, investigates the effects of labor on an economic system, as well as its role in the process of making a work of art. Through symbolic use of materials such as the chalk she used in her site specific installation Education by Stone (2016), Marcelle symbolically depicts the material through the lens of history. Chalk is a stone, which has become a traditional tool with a pedagogical function. Chalk and chalkboards are archetypes for education (although interactive whiteboards (SMART boards, etc have started to replace them). Chalk’s frequent use in classrooms is an expression of language, literacy, communication, and learning. Education by Stone‘s symbolic message came largely through its placement within MoMA’s Ps1, a contemporary art museum inside a former New York City public school. The museum is also a major pedagogical institution, which promotes visual literacy and expression through displaying works of art for the public. The chalk was affixed inside cracks within the museum’s brick wall by a team of laborers who worked to install the artwork to fulfill Marcelle’s specifics. The chalk crumbled, cracked, and fell to the floor, poetically expressing the fragility of the education and labor systems, which are significantly undervalued in relationship to capital gains and finance.

Overall, Marcelle’s body of work portrays the absurdity and the disconnect between labor and capital. She has experienced the widening economic gap between the financial class and the working class in her homeland of Brazil, and depicts the absurdity and the impossibility of these systems ever being equal in the current economic system.

Santiago Sierra’s frequently controversial works, examine the exploitation of laborers by the wealthy class. Through having performers, who are actual laborers, perform menial and physically exerting tasks, Sierra addresses issues of immigration, the relationship between poverty and Capitalism, and the widening economic gap in Capitalist society.

Chloë Bass’ conceptual artworks examine the intimacies of social and professional relationships and the effect they have on daily life and the environments we live in. Her  process includes interviewing others, engaging in daily activities with a diverse range people, and investigating the intricacies of specific localities. For example, The Department of Local Affairs was an investigative project maintained by Bass that developed an interactive, locally crowd sourced guidebook for a geographical location, based upon the expertise of local residents and laborers. The contributions took the shape of designing a pamphlet, making a map, writing a review, or leaving advice. The project began in Omaha, Nebraska, and then took place in the neighborhood of Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn, New York. The result was an alternative travel guide that focused on people, places, and activities that were important and relevant to the local community, rather than a commercial pamphlet for tourists. The process of residents expressing, reflecting, and presenting their personal and collective experiences within their neighborhood is efficacious in maintaining a sense of pride and belonging to a place.

Having students explore their communities and the many facets that make up the environment they live in can open the door to engaging projects. They could take the role of an urban planner and work with local communities to convert empty spaces into public places, or design a campaign that raises awareness regarding the litter in city parks. Students should have the autonomy to develop these projects, while the teacher can facilitate by showing them examples from the aforementioned artists (and others). The teacher might also initiate contact with advocacy groups in the community in order to form an ongoing collaboration with the students. Throughout the project, students should document their process through photographs, sketches, mapping, journals/blogs, and field notes (such as interviews of community advocates or the population they’ve chosen to work with). Students will become absorbed in a creative and collaborative process, while gaining understanding about a social, cultural, or environmental issue, and have an opportunity to creatively solve a problem. By becoming producers of valuable shared experiences, students will hopefully be motivated to continue to shape and maintain the world they want to live in. They are the future planners, leaders, and activists in a world that needs creative solutions to a myriad of issues.


References: 

Ingold, Tim. 2015.Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture. United Kingdom: Routledge.

Resnick, Mitchel. 2017. Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Wien, Carol Anne, et al. 2011. Learning to Document in Reggio Inspired Education. ECRP, 13 (2).

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Making Our Space / Documenting Our Place – Building and Maintaining a Better World

Summer Reading List

It’s that time of the year when both educators and students are dreaming of long days on the beach (or anywhere outside the classroom really!) during Summer Vacation. The two months outside of the classroom is also the perfect time to catch up on reading some very engaging books on Contemporary Art, Education, and Activism (and beaches are the perfect environments to read!). There are so many worthy titles to read and the list can go on and on, however, for the sake of constraining it to a short period, below is an abridged list of some essential publications that anyone who’s interested in arts-centered learning should pick up.

Against the Flow: Education, the arts, and postmodern culture, Peter Abbs, Routledge (October 4, 2003)

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Peter Abbs is one of the UK’s (and the world’s) leading practitioners and theorists in Arts Education (and a very celebrated poet too!). In Against the Flow, Abbs argues that the quantitative focus of modern education –the reliance on a universal proficiency standard to measure student assessment– is a disservice for students because it doesn’t acknowledge that students develop at their own pace. Furthermore, by using proficiency standards and “teaching to the test,” institutions have regarded essential subjects like the arts to be mere specialty areas of study. Abb’s brilliantly argues why this practice is short-sided and how the arts add vitality, engagement, and relevance to the overall contemporary education environment. This book will prepare educators with a wealth of topics, which they can bring back into the school environment. Especially, during the meetings where other educators may snidely say to the art teacher “well art is easy, I wish my students were as engaged in ________ class” or “how do you even asses something as specialized as art?” The answers that art educators can respond to these questions with will have profound influence across the curriculum. Every student can be engaged across the curriculum if they are thinking like an artist (studio habits of mind) and are engaged in creative, collaborative, problem solving activities. The lecture where the teacher talks for 45 minutes straight is a relevant as the arrogant “educated” owl in the Tootsie Roll Pop commercials.


Art as Social Action: An Introduction to the Principles and Practices of Teaching Social Practice Art, Gregory Sholette and Chloë Bass of Social Practice Queens with others, Allworth Press (May 22, 2018)
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What is Social Practice Art? Well, if you refer back a few posts, you’ll have your answer! Social Practice Art is a recent, much needed artistic movement that is rooted in socialization, pedagogy, and activism. Social Practice artists focus on the interconnectivity between diverse groups of people and explore ways that humans can express themselves through a collaborative, and embodied process. Art As Social Action is a refreshing publication that should be of interest to all educators and art professionals alike. The book is edited by Gregory Sholette and Chloë Bass of Social Practice Queens with contributions by a diverse group of artists, educators, and activists. The book contains a well balanced combination of theory and practice, including lesson plans that are sure to inspire educators who want to make learning more involved and relevant to their students’ experiences. John Dewey and Paolo Freire would be elated to know that their visions on progressive education have been put into action and are shaping the way we think, collaborate, and produce within the arts and education communities. There is something for everyone in this tome, which is just as engaging to read as the actual projects being described. If you want to do your part to bring some much needed change into this world, read this book, share it with others, and put these words to work in your community!
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Resnick states a problem: today’s educational system is zapping the creativity out of learning, even at the Kindergarten level, which is typically an age of exploration and discovery through artistic processes. His solution is that the Kindergarten model, started by Friedrich Wilhelm August Fröbel, centered on play and activity, is an enduring model that has benefits for individuals of all ages. Imagining, creating, playing, sharing, and reflecting, are necessary elements of living a creative, well rounded life. Kindergarten has typically been the arena for these elements to thrive, however, Resnick believes that the methodologies of Fröbel and other early childhood educational philosophies like Reggio Emilia, should be continued throughout one’s life. We are living in a time when technological advances occur on a daily basis. Resnick believes that we can learn a lot by embracing technology and harnessing its creative potential. By engaging in collaboration, exploration, and play via technology, we can live an artful life. Teachers who are looking for inspiring ways they can bring digital projects into their classrooms will be delighted by this book’s content.

Art-Centered Learning Across The Curriculum: Integrating Contemporary Art in the Secondary School Classroom,  Julia Marshall and David M. Donahue, Teachers College Press (August 29, 2014)

Screen Shot 2018-05-16 at 6.39.57 PMThis publication was highly influential on my own writing and thinking about creating an inter-disciplinary curriculum that is relevant to contemporary life. In this book, Marshall and Donahue present the framework for inquiry based art-centered learning across the entire Secondary School curriculum (social studies, math, science, and ELA). Many of the ideas are inspired by Harvard’s Project Zero and are further supported through a wide range of examples from the Contemporary Art field. The book breaks down how art projects can relate to students’ lives and support a lifelong thirst for knowledge through visual learning and enduring understandings.

 


These are just four examples of the amazing array of literature that will quench your thirst for learning how to live, work, and educate artfully! If you have a particular book, publication, or blog that you’d like to share, please add it in the comments!

Summer Reading List

Embodied Learning Makes ‘The Classics’ Relevant

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Saint Orlan’s Reincarnation (1990). Courtesy of Chromatic Spiral

Embodied Learning is a Constructivist educational theory and practice that integrates sensory and cognitive responses in order to solve a problem. Embodied Learning encompasses students intellectual, physical, and social engagement through a collaborative process where students aren’t solely thinking about solutions, but rather, living the solutions. This isn’t dissimilar to many practices in contemporary art, where the artist combines themselves and the viewer into an active partnership. This is seen in previous posts, which discussed Pablo Helguera’s Social Practice Art  and experiential art works by Tino Sehgal and James Turrell.

Having students engage in a physical or social activity in response to works of art will enhance their personal understanding and appreciation of the work.  According to a study in museum education by Hubbard (2007), embodied experiences make the knowledge that students would ordinarily receive from a lecture more meaningful. By integrating their unique personal experiences into art appreciation, students will make meaningful connections and realize the timelessness of works of art. The way educators can introduce students to “classic” artworks created across time and place, might be best served through an embodied learning approach.  For example, after having an analytical dialog around a specific painting by J.M.W. Turner, students could be prompted to approach the work through poetry. In fact, Turner himself devoted time and energy to thinking about and writing poetry, a fact that could be shared with the students after they’ve created their own unique responses to Turner’s work of art. Students would be asked to reflect upon the painting by writing the first several words that come to fruition while standing before the artwork. Having compiled a list of reactions, the students could form small groups and collaborate on a combinatory poem that is a social and emotional response to the visual artwork. The combined poems can then be read out loud in a staged poetry reading. 

Another example of an embodied learning experience that analyzes, interprets and re-presents Turner’s work could include either the construction of a performance or a soundtrack that responds to the painting. Looking at Turner’s Fishing Boats Entering Calais Harbor (1803), students could be prompted to describe the scene using sounds. They can each select a particular element of the painting to act or sound out. For example, one student might look at the painting, notice the intensity of the waves, and make the sound of a turbulent sea. Another might add the voices of the fishermen shouting to each other as they steer their vessel into the harbor. Each visitor can add their ‘instrument’ on top of the other until a fully enlivened soundtrack has been created. Through this exercise, they’ve metaphorically stepped into the artist’s world and have understood that painting is not solely a visual experience. 

Analyzing work by contemporary artists who have remixed and referenced historical works of art is another way that educators can incorporate embodied learning into engaging lessons. In a previous post, we looked at how Kehinde Wiley’s remixing of Baroque and Neo-Classical paintings from the Western Canon, reflected the contemporary urban experience. There are also great examples of how contemporary artists such as Cindy Sherman and ORLAN use embodied practices to transform historical imagery into a contemporary form of expression in order to address the intersectionality of identity and make historical works more relevant to contemporary issues.

ORLAN’s landmark work The Reincarnation of Saint ORLAN, featured her undergoing nine plastic surgeries, which adapted characteristics of women featured in famous historical artworks. Her transformation included the forehead of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, the chin of Venus from Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, the nose from Jean-Léon Gérôme’s portrayal of Psyche, the lips of François Boucher’s depiction of Europa, and the eyes of Roman Goddess Diana, from a 16th Century French painting. By synthesizing all of these elements from women portrayed in famous works of art, ORLAN commented on the perception of beauty in Western Culture. Her monumental work of embodied art critically analyzed and presented ways in which the canon of Western Art has been designed and implemented for the enjoyment and gaze of the male viewer.

Cindy Sherman also comments on the historical depiction of women through the lens of the male gaze. Through acting as the model, stylist, art director, and photographer, Sherman re-presents iconic imagery of women in order to challenge traditional perceptions that men typical express when viewing women in film and magazines. For example, her series titled Centerfolds (1981) exposes the stereotypes that are frequently used to portray women in the entertainment and advertising industries. In an interview about this series, Sherman stated that she “wanted a man opening up the magazine suddenly look at it with an expectation of something lascivious and then feel like the violator that they would be looking at this woman who is perhaps a victim. I didn’t think of them as victims at the time…Obviously I’m trying to make someone feel bad for having a certain expectation.” By using an embodied process, where Sherman physically transforms herself into canonical depictions of women throughout Western History, she is making a powerful contemporary statement about how our collective culture still embraces traditional chauvinistic models.

Taking inspiration from ORLAN and Sherman, students can think about how they can express themselves in response to visual culture, in a way that is reflective of how they envision themselves in contemporary society.  In education, the term ‘enduring understandings’ is used to signify the “big ideas” that are crucial to a discipline and have lasting value beyond the classroom. In other words, what are the core tenets and framework that students need to understand so that they will have the skill set to revisit them over the course of their life? Art provides a conceptual and emotional foundation wherein artists utilize the power of intellectual, physical, and social engagement to address contemporary issues and themes that matter to them.

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An embodied learning activity around Matisse’s The Dance. Courtesy of artist/educator Lionel Cruet.

Whether referencing works of historical or contemporary art, an embodied learning exercise in the art classroom should include a critical discussion around what elements students can relate to within a work of art and how they might incorporate those elements into their own realm. Students could then discuss how they’d re-stage historical works of art in order to create an original artwork that expresses their personal and cultural relevance. Some examples include adapting characters within historical paintings into a contemporary environment by re-staging the original scene as a collaborative performance, a photo shoot, or a soundtrack that represents certain elements from the original work in a new context. We looked at a hypothetical model for embodied learning featuring the work of the 18th Century British painter J.M.W. Turner, as well as how contemporary artists like Cindy Sherman and ORLAN use embodied practices to transform historical representations into a contemporary feminist statement. A great example of how embodied learning can be practically implemented in a diverse educational setting is contemporary artist Lionel Cruet’s lesson for High School students around The Dance (I) (1909) by Henri Matisse. Cruet’s unit on The Dance transforms the classic painting into an embodied art project, where students examined The Dance (I) (1909) on view at The Museum of Modern Art New York and created their own contemporary interpretations of the painting by working collaboratively in groups to pose as the figures in the famous painting. The painting has been associated with the “Dance of the Young Girls” from Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s ballet and orchestral composition The Rites of Spring (1913). What would these jovial figures be dancing along to if they were transported into the current era?

For many of us, the arts are a way to express personal and symbolic representation.  The individual’s knowledge of art comes through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences in a manner that has relevance within their own lives. Embodied learning unites traditional information and context with engaging activities that enable students to interact with artworks in a myriad of highly personalized ways.


Reference:

Hubard, Olga (2007). Complete Engagement: Embodied Response in Art Museum Education. Art Education, 60(6), 46-56. 

 

Embodied Learning Makes ‘The Classics’ Relevant

Learning to Visualize A Bright Future For Our Environment

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Stephanie Lerner, SineSaloum, 2018, fishrope, plastic litter & epitonium shells. Courtesy of the artist.

The confluence of science, technology, and art offers an array of pragmatic and creative opportunities for future generations to make general improvements within the world we all share. One of the major issues that will affect generations in the not too distant future is the transformation of our waterways from being sources of life to being bodies of conflict. Our oceans, seas, rivers, etc. have been experiencing vast amounts of human-induced trauma for decades on end. Eventually, time will run out for these vibrant eco-systems, which sustain all life on this planet. For example, many waterways are overfilled with pollution from consumer goods such as plastic. If the current rate of plastic pollution, which ends up in the water is not ceased, there will actually be MORE plastic than fish in our oceans by the year 2050. This is obviously a devastating premonition for life as we know it on Earth. The reason we know the extent of this ominous information is due to advances in technology, which allows scientists to safely and effectively study the oceans and waterways.

Art is like science and engineering in that it is informed by inquiry based research, theory testing, and transformation of ideas or materials into something new. Artists, like scientists and engineers seek to develop profound responses to big questions. Artists have aligned their creative output with many major scientific issues since before the dawn of civilization. Our knowledge of human history and the natural environment were initially discovered through visual records evident from cave paintings depicting the inquisitiveness and experiential learning within pre-historic communities. Over time artists have helped us increasingly relate to our surroundings and develop innovative new ideas and products. For example, we see artistic innovation that informed scientific research inside the notebooks of Leonardo DaVinci, through John James Audubon‘s colorful and accurate depictions of American birds, and in the development of urban agricultural environments like Mary Mattingly’s SwaleAlternatively, the father of neuroscience, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, was just as innovative as a draughtsman visualizing the brain on paper as he was in studying the physical elements of the brain in his laboratory. In the case of all the above examples, visual art played an essential role in the synthesis of scientific discovery and innovation.

Today’s students will inherit a world that is in need of innovations that will ensure its salvation. Art centered education can impress upon students the need for environmental empathy by showing examples of how artists such as Sto Len, Steven HirschWilliam Miller, the Newtown Creek Armada, and Stephanie Lerner symbolize the effects of pollution as material or subject matter in their work. All at once, these works are aesthetically pleasing, romantic, tragic, and dire. They remind us that in life, death is always present and our struggle to create a beautiful world is interconnected to our mortality. However, there is also a great sense of hope to be gained by understanding that visual art has the power to incite change and impress upon people’s positive relationships with the world around them. These artists implore us to become better custodians of our natural resources so that we can sustain nature’s marvelous qualities for many generations to come.

Steven Hirsch and William Miller’s abstract photography, transcends the often negative description of the murky, dark, and slow moving water of the Gowanus Canal. Hirsch’s camera captures a brilliant spectrum of colors that reflect off the water’s surface, which immediately brings to mind the Impressionist works of Monet as well as Post-WWII color field painters. Hirsch’s photographs create an epic visual narrative, which is indicative of Greek mythology. Here, we see that beauty transcends the devastation that has overtaken the canal, and it is calling loudly to us for help. Similarly, the canal’s aesthetic properties becomes the inspiration for William Miller’s series of photographs. Miller photographs the Gowanus Canal in a manner where abstract forms are juxtaposed with recognizable imagery. Reflections of the clouds and sky are visible in some of the photographs, which transforms the viewer to an otherworldly state. It is hard to imagine the toxins below the surface, however, Miller subtly captures glimpses of refuse and sludgy textures to pull us back to reality.

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Works on paper by Sto Len on view at Volta NY, 2018. Photograph by Adam Zucker

Sto Len’s unique printmaking process, transports his practice from the studio environment into the heavily polluted waters of the Newtown Creek. He improvises on the traditional style of Suminagashi (floating ink) printmaking to develop an experiential collaboration and discourse with nature by dipping prepared paper into the creek’s heavily polluted waters, and using its detritus as material.

Through watching video installations and looking at documentation by the Brooklyn based art collective Newtown Creek Armada, students can analyze how artists realized a problem (extreme pollution in the Newtown Creek), developed their research, and sought to address this problem to the public.

Stephanie Lerner is an excellent artist that students can look to for inspiration on working with recycled materials in order to repurpose problematic pollution into an awe-inspiring solution that is both poignant in its message and visually stunning. Lerner combs the beaches and waterways for discarded plastic products and makes intricate works of art such as tapestries and mandalas, which she creates by weaving together plastic refuse and fishing line, a harmful pollutant that takes 600 years to decompose underwater. By cleaning the shorelines, Lerner is ensuring that the plastic washed onto the beach doesn’t return to the ocean, while also acquiring materials for her poignant yet beautiful works of art.

Valuable materials in the art room can be sourced by having the school community (teachers, parents, students) contribute plastic, paper/cardboard, and other refuse, which can be used for weaving, sculpture, collage, and printmaking projects. Traditional materials should ideally be substituted for earth friendly, recycled, and repurposed materials whenever possible.

Artistic learning has many benefits for inter-disciplinary innovation. When artists use their artistic knowledge and skills –put those elements of art and principles of design to practical use and transcend relying on traditional art materials (which can add to surplus waste and pollution as well– to seek to address big issues that affect our civilization, the results are transformative throughout our collective culture. Art influences society by raising our awareness, affecting our emotions, translating experiences across time and place, and giving us a sense of self within the world. When artists explore ideas and problems within other disciplines like science and technology, they can truly make essential contributions to the present and future stewardship of our environment.

Learning to Visualize A Bright Future For Our Environment

Participatory Learning: Artworks as Experiences

According to recent opinions and research, experiences and not objects are the preferred type of consumerism among young adults, who are more interested in spending their money on (to name a few) cooking classes, cultural festivals, quilting workshops, indoor rock climbing, yoga at sunrise followed by an early morning dance party, and so on; than physical objects (gadgets, gizmos, etc.).

Contemporary art has also experienced a shift towards art that is more experientially focused. Instead of an interest in making traditional art objects that would exist on gallery walls (or in the market place), artists like Tino Sehgal and James Turrell produce artworks that offer a unique interactive visual, physical, and cognitive experience for the viewer. Their art makes the viewer a part of the work by engaging them through a range of social and emotional stimuli, whether it is changing a physical environment like Turrell does, or constructing social situations like Sehgal does.

If you’ve visited a work of art by Turrell such as Meeting at PS1, and were wondering where he derived his inspiration from, I highly recommended hopping on the 7 train and going up to the Flushing Quaker Meeting House one Sunday morning. Meeting is a site specific installation, where Turrell altered the museum’s ceiling to provide an unobstructed view of the sky. Viewers sit on wooden benches that face one another and can share in conversation or a silent reflection, while natural light and the elements are filtered in from above.

Having experienced Quaker church at different points in my life, I can say that James Turrell is one of the most profound artists for me personally. I don’t think I would have been able to engage in his work as repletely, had it not been for my reflective moments in these meeting houses. That said, Turrell makes work that everyone can make significant based on their own unique experiences and engagement, so whatever you choose to bring to it will be truly unique.

Quaker meetings for worship are fixated on a silent, meditative self-reflection and the sharing of revelations or messages with other ‘friends’ in the congregation. The experience sharing personal or spiritual thoughts with others is a very intimate occasion. When you take part in a meeting for worship, you are experiencing what Quaker’s call “The Light Within,” which is no doubt, where Turrell, a Quaker, draws inspiration for his light-based installations. The light within is symbolic of a ‘divine’ presence within ourselves. Whether that presence is associated with an organized religion is entirely subjective. People may choose to share scripture, poetry, comment on current events, or suggest ways they wish to better themselves, help others, or work within the community.

Tino Sehgal goes even further outside the traditional role that we typically attribute to an artist. Sehgal’s art is focused on the creation of ephemeral social and emotional situations. For many of his museum scale exhibitions, the artist works with a population of non-artists to produce multi-disciplinary situations that are aimed at bringing the viewer directly into the piece. The basis for these interactive pieces is rooted in a social choreography, where Sehgal’s non-artist performers are trained to move about the physical space and engage the viewers in movement, song, or inquiry based communication. Experiencing a piece by Sehgal is an exemplar of embodied learning, where issues and investigations are explored through both cognitive and kinesthetic means. The pieces themselves are fleeting moments in time (besides being documented through film or photography, no physical trace is left at the end), however, the viewer’s memory of their experience remains long after the exhibition ends.

The phenomenon of experiential art does not replace the effect that viewing more traditional art has, it simply adds another dimension to what we can perceive as art and engage in as artists, educators, and appreciators. Analyzing, interpreting, and presenting all varieties of art (cf.: Ways of Seeing and Art as Therapy) has an enormous value on our everyday experiences. For example, Georgia O’Keefe’s bold and enlarged paintings of flowers might prompt the viewer to be more in tune to their natural surroundings. The next time they’re out for a walk in the park, they might see and respond to the flora with a heightened sense of awareness and respect. O’Keefe realized that art has a profound way of reminding us to slow down and appreciate life’s experiences more greatly, when she stated:

“When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not.”

There are many reasons why contemporary art, which is divorced from the traditional studio based art discipline, is beneficial in an educational environment. The first and foremost is that it enables students think outside of the realm of using traditional materials in order to solve aesthetic problems and express themselves and their collective identity. Producing artistic experiences allows students to engage in a social and emotional experience without relying on formulaic rules that often (when used solely as a means to develop artistic skill or technique) stagnate personal style and communication. When coupled with more traditional modes of creating, experiential based art provides a greater vocabulary and expanded set of tools to communicate one’s ideas and vision effectively. It also allows for many opportunities to introduce collaborative projects that can lead to multi-disciplinary partnerships with other students, faculty, and the local community. You don’t need to be a skilled draughtsman to create art in the contemporary era, which means that art education needs to embrace this facet (and develop curriculum for a multi-disciplinary visual arts program) with as much certainty as it has embraced the traditional canon of instruction.

Participatory Learning: Artworks as Experiences

Intrinsic Value in Contemporary Art Collaborations…and Learning Through Them

I am thankful that I was recently introduced to the work of the Slow Art Collective through Louisa Penfold, who writes Art.Play.Children.Pedagogy. The Slow Art Collective creates interactive installations, which are based upon “the slow absorption of culture through community links by creating something together and blurring the boundary between the artists and viewer.” They go on to state that their work “is a sustainable arts practice, not an extreme solution; a reasonable alternative to deal with real problems in contemporary art practice.” Slow Art Collective’s collaborative art work is very much inline with several major theories in education such as social and emotional learning, embodied learning, cross-disciplinary STEAM, and the Reggio Emilia approach. I want to focus on the latter approach in relation to the Slow Art Collective’s work.

The Reggio Emilia Approach was founded in Italy after World War II. It focuses on nurturing pre-school and early childhood student-centered learning environments, and is based on Constructivist educational methodology.  philosophy is based around these principle beliefs:

  • Children must have some control over the direction of their learning
  • Children must be able to learn through experiences of touching, moving, listening, and observing
  • Children have a relationship with other children and with material items in the world that they must be allowed to explore.
  • Children must have endless ways and opportunities to express themselves.

Within the Slow Art Collective’s installations, there are a multitude of tactile environments that engage children (and adult visitors) in a collaborative materials based exploration, where the viewers actively contribute to the aesthetic and conceptual design of the art work.

While the visitor moves throughout the various components of the installation, they are partaking in an exchange of value, not in the monetary sense (which is often unfairly/unfortunately tied to art), but in the sense of appreciating the way creative experiences connect us and help us to become better members of our community. Art that is collaborative goes beyond the traditional artist/viewer relationship and forms open-ended art works, where viewers become participants and experience the work of art through a combination of physical and intellectual engagement. By having collaborative components, the artists are sharing some control over the direction of the work with the viewer/participant. Additionally, the work is made replete through the viewer’s touching, moving, listening and observing. Furthermore, these installations create a safe space where visitors form relationships with each other by sharing in a cooperative creation of an art work, as well as a profound individual and shared experience.

The playful (yet serious) approach to art making promotes both self and collaborative expression, and teaches us that it is the process –the work we put into relationships and working together creatively– that matters the most.

Intrinsic Value in Contemporary Art Collaborations…and Learning Through Them

Transforming Tradition: Understanding Our Complex Identities through Art

It might seem hard to imagine that less than 65 years ago, there were separate schools for children based upon the color of their skin. When the contemporary artist Clarissa Sligh was growing up in Virginia county, she wasn’t allowed to attend schools with white children. In fact, when she was fifteen (in 1956), she was a part of a school desegregation case (Clarissa Thompson et. al. vs. Arlington County School Board). However, Sligh’s work as an artist focuses on transcending the traditional binary structures of race, gender, sexual orientation, and class. She has long been interested in exploring these themes through an intersectional lens, which means that the aforementioned aspects of humanity are not isolated from each other, and exist through a complex, but relational network.

Major themes in Sligh’s work include transformation and change. She is interested in the constructs of gender and sexual orientation, which is evident in works such as the Masculinity Project (1996-1999) and Jake (1996-2000). Many times, she’ll combine images with text to create a narrative, which is often related directly through the subject she’s depicting. Through her artistic explorations and experiences conversing with black men, women, and transgender people, Sligh poignantly portrays how a person’s identity goes beyond their race and gender, and that discrimination is also not limited to race, gender, sexual orientation, or social status. Her ongoing collaborative project Transforming Hateis a multi-disciplinary artwork, which seeks to create an open ended framework for constructing our collective identities.

Another contemporary artist whose work focuses on the plurality of identity is Glenn Ligon. Ligon’s text based work is inspired by his personal experiences as a gay African-American male living in contemporary America. He appropriates text from well known fiction and non-fiction writers in a way that causes us to question preconceived notions of historical identity and human aspects like gender and race. Through his work, we are confronted with the harsh reality that Civil Rights era hate and discrimination still exists in a more complex way than our history books might have portrayed it. As a society we need to recognize this dire flaw within the human condition.

In Runaways (1993), Ligon recreated historical runaway slave broadsides by asking friends to describe him. Ligon constructed those descriptions into witty but poignant ‘self-portraits’ that made pertinent statements on identity politics. Berwick (2011) gives examples of these works: “Ran away, a man named Glenn. He has almost no hair. He has cat-eye glasses, medium-dark skin, cute eyebrows. . . . He talks out of the side of his mouth and looks at you sideways. Sometimes he has a loud laugh, and lately I’ve noticed he refers to himself as ‘mother;’” and “Ran away, Glenn, a black male, 5’8”, very short hair cut, nearly completely shaved, stocky build, 155-165 lbs., medium complexion (not “light skinned,” not “dark skinned,” slightly orange). Wearing faded blue jeans, short sleeve button-down 50’s style shirt, nice glasses (small, oval shaped), no socks. Very articulate, seemingly well-educated, does not look at you straight in the eye when talking to you. He is socially very adept, yet paradoxically, he’s somewhat of a loner.”

Screen Shot 2018-01-03 at 1.38.09 PM
Runaways (detail), 1993, 10 lithographs, 16 by 12 inches each. Whitney Museum of American Art. Image from Berwick, Carly, “Stranger in America.” Art in America, 23 Apr. 2011.

Through art we can really get a strong picture, which tells us that an individuals’ identity is more complex than simple dualities (black and white, rich or poor, trans or cis, etc). Our identities are made up of many facets, which include (but are not limited to) the color of our skin; the religion of our ancestors; the faith we practice; the gender or sexual orientation we identify as; our political affiliation; our hobbies; our physical and mental health; education; and social class.

Creating an “identity web/map” is a great exercise in the classroom that can support students’ understanding of each other. In an identity web/map, a student will fill out a personal chart filled with both the things that they feel identifies them and the labels they believe that society places upon them. Next, they will share these aspects with the rest of the class by posting their map around the classroom. Students will walk around with post-it notes in hand, and place their name next to aspects they see on their classmates maps that also resonate with their own personal identity. Finally, they will discuss what they’ve discovered as a whole class.

This would be a great time to introduce the work of contemporary artists like Sligh and  Ligon, and have a discussion where students can analyze work by these artists and point out which identity related issues these artists are commenting on and why. Lastly, a visual art project can be introduced where students will transform how they identify themselves (using their identity maps as reference) into a self-portrait. These self-portraits will make use of found and sourced material along with traditional art techniques to depict an image of themselves that includes but also goes beyond their physical description.

First, they’ll arrange the descriptions they jotted down on their web/maps about themselves into a short narrative sentence (could be in the form of a poem, an advertisement, a meme, or short biography). Then they’ll be prompted to use magazines, old history books, and the internet, to mine for reference imagery and text (or images and text that they can appropriate) that they feel is representative of their personal and collective identities, and construct a visual image that signifies these aspects of their humanity.

Transforming Tradition: Understanding Our Complex Identities through Art