STEAM based learning through Contemporary Art pt. 2: Body, Mind, and the Environment

Art and science are more similar than they are different. Artists and scientists use similar methods or habits of mind such as theory testing (concept/hypothesis, trial and error), flexible purposing (ability to shift aims while working), and weighing alternatives (the ability to see things from multiple perspectives). Furthermore, artists and scientists explore various organic and synthetic materials and change their properties or qualities to create something new. In today’s volatile climate, where science and the humanities are eschewed in favor of ‘alternative facts,’ artists can fight back by presenting awe-inspiring work that unites disciplines such as science, technology, and history. There is a lot of potential for the artist and scientist to collaborate inside and outside of the studio or laboratory. Additionally, when scientific research is presented in the form of an art project (such as Love Motel for Insects), it humanizes the data and communicates an empathetic message that is accessible to everyone in the public sphere.

The common thread between the artists discussed in this post, is their use of organic and inorganic mediums as a vehicle for promoting a conversation about our relationship with the world and our fragile existence within nature. Referencing their knowledge and research of biology, ecology, medical science, climate science, and social history, their artwork is a visual metaphor for the paradoxical conflation of the human made and natural world. Juxtaposing organic materials and phenomena with synthetic art materials and processes, contemporary artists: Vanessa Albury, Nene Humphrey, Kristen Holcomb, and Jordan Eagles, explore the association between the body, mind, and the environment. At large, these works of art present aesthetic reflections of mortality, spirituality, and scientific inquiry.

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Vanessa Albury, Arctic, Future Relics (Distant Mountains), 2016, Selenium-toned Gelatin Silver Print mounted to museum board and wood, 42″ x 32″ x 8″.

Vanessa Albury’s photographs take glacial ice-caps in the Arctic Circle as subject matter. Her series Arctic, Future Relicswhich was realized during a residency in Svalbard, Norway, documents the melting of glaciers due to climate change. The ephemeral essence of these glaciers are memorialized in time through the photographic process. Ghostly in their aesthetic form, these epic photographs capture the essence of these majestic ecological forms throughout the process of decay.

Microscope_Hand Drawing Amygdala from Nene Humphrey on Vimeo.

In her series of layered drawings created by using high-powered microscopes, Nene Humphrey explores the connection between aesthetics and the deep cellular workings of the amygdala where our emotions reside. The resulting images are intimate artistic expressions of our psyche that deals with themes of loss and mourning.

Jordan Eagles ‘paints’ using animal blood mixed with multiple layers of clear resin. His unique style of work came about through rigorous theory testing and trial and error. He incorporates gradations of “aged blood” that create various deep black fields in stages of decomposition and illuminates the consistency and texture of the blood. These abstract works of art can resemble other natural and synthetic imagery such as Rorschach inkblot test patterns, magnified biological cells, and lava. The work explores how we think about our bodies and address issues of mortality.

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Kristin Holcomb, Transformations #81, pigment print, 11.5 x 17.5 inches.

Similarly to Vanessa Albury, Kristin Holcomb observes nature taking its course and captures the transformative process through the lens of her camera. Her abstract photographs are of surfaces of walls after years of being changed by weather, paint, rust, and algae. The walls themselves become complex, organic or synthetic ‘paintings’ with the passing of time. The Transformations series of photographs are about rebirth and the possibility of beauty in destruction.

The aforementioned artists are just a few inspirational examples of how art, science, and technology can have a symbiotic relationship and result in strong inter-disciplinary learning capabilities. Having students reflect and respond to their natural surroundings through art is a good way for them to develop a lifelong thirst for knowledge and become more environmentally and socially conscious.

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Performance of the Oppressed

Tania Bruguera’s politically charged performances present a challenging and worthwhile approach for the radical art educator. Her work is forceful and if it makes you uncomfortable, that is evidence of its success. She considers her artistic discipline to be”Behavior Art,” which is a movement rooted in performance and pedagogy that is more concerned with socio-politcal ramifications of art making than with aesthetic or material outcomes. It is a concept, not unlike Joseph Beuys’ ‘Social Sculpture’.

Bruguera’s performances are experiential education experiences where the artist and the viewers enter into a social and emotional dialog for the benefit of contributing positively within their community. Bruguera’s work often comments on the oppressive forces in government, which have detrimental effects on society. For example, in 2015 she completed 100-hour performance, a reading of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), in her Havana based studio. Shortly afterwards she was arrested by Cuban officers. The Burden of Guilt (1997), is a metaphor for resisting colonialism and authoritarianism. The performance was inspired by a legendary Cuban narrative where the indigenous people resisted Spanish occupation by eating dirt until the collectively died. In her performance, Bruguera consumed a mixture of dirt and salt water.

By challenging the physical, cognitive, and communicative limits of the body, Bruguera’s shocking and corporeal performances raise a critical conscious within the viewer who realizes the need to break free from oppressive societal structures.

STEAM based learning through Contemporary Art pt.1 – Art and Ecology

Brandon Ballengée’s Love Motel for Insects is a great example of how contemporary art has the ability to enhance a K-12 curriculum that focuses on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics) learning. Love Motel for Insects is an ongoing public art installation raising awareness about local ecosystems by connecting humans and nocturnal anthropods.

The nocturnal insects are attracted by UV lights, creating a performative scene when the sun goes down. These ‘social sculptures’ bring humans and insects together in an intimate setting and offers a unique opportunity to witness tiny and often elusive organisms in action. Ballengée accompanies these installations with talks and workshops. Love Motel for Insects is a great example of how we can use art in a non-intrusive manner to create something that gives us insight into the natural world.

Everybody is an Artist

Joseph Beuys’ concept of social sculpture is perhaps one of the most important ideas that unite the fields of art and education.  He advocated that through art, human beings can make a greater contribution to society. A social sculptor is anyone who creates a structure –literally or figuratively– within their community using actions, thoughts, social interactions, and objects.

Artistic learning might very well be the most vital piece of an individual’s understanding of the world and their place within the human experience. In art (unlike math, applied sciences, language, and grammar) there are no right or wrong ways to approach a problem. Art teachers set up circumstances that will allow students to formulate an aesthetic, social, and emotional understanding about how to shape their own ideas. Eisner (2002) said that this way of thinking artfully addresses moments in life that cannot be approached using formulas and rules.

Art Education is important because it enables certain ‘habits of mind’ such as (to name a few) listening and empathy, flexible purposing (a John Dewey term that describes how thinking enables shifting directions and finding many outcomes or new avenues of insight), making judgements in the absence of rules, and resisting closure (not to be complacent with one method or solution).

Even though there is no proof that art has a direct correlation to test scores and assessment of other core subjects, the arts develop students into well-rounded individuals. Art allows for a visual understanding of our environment. Student artists learn to think critically and creatively, which can lead to a more comprehensive observation of their surroundings as well as a more empathetic understanding of culture.

In summery, artistic learning gives students the confidence and ability to become active learners; empathetic and expressive communicators; and advanced problem solvers beyond the scope of pragmatism. Not everyone will or should become professional artists, however, they can employ art in their daily lives to succeed in many circumstances.


Notes:

Cufarro, H (1995). Experience: Variety and Continuity. In Experimenting with the World (pp. 55-67). New York, NY: TC Press.

Eisner, E. (2002, September) What the Arts Do for the Young, SchoolArts, (pp. 16-17).

Eisner, E. (2002). What the arts teach and how it shows. In The arts and the creation of mind (pp. 70-92). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Lenka Clayton’s Inquiry Based Learning

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Lenka Clayton, in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia. Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind, 2017. Photo credit: Carlos Avendaño.

Lenka Clayton’s art practice investigates the history of art and culture by making work in response to historical and iconic themes. In her current exhibition Object Temporarily Removed, at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Clayton collaboratively realized the creation of unique works of art in dialog with Brancusi’s Sculpture for the Blind (1920). Clayton’s Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind (2017) espouses the idea of social sculpture, a term created by Joseph Beuys to embody his understanding of art’s potential to transform society. Brancusi’s sculpture is a highlight of the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Art’s collection, however, it’s display makes it completely inaccessible to visually impaired individuals. The museum’s display of the piece is paradoxical in that the only way a visitor can access it is through sight. The tactile nature of Brancusi’s sculpture could easily be beneficial for blind individuals to envision its unique form and material through touch, yet the museum wouldn’t agree to let Clayton use this piece to have a critical discourse and embodied learning experience with a group of blind art enthusiasts. Therefor, Clayton decided to put similar materials in the hands of visually impaired individuals and described the piece in great details so that they’d be inspired to create a response to Brancusi’s original piece.

Through both social interaction and studio time, visually impaired individuals can relate haptic information to their experiences and connect essential qualities to these experiences that are necessary for learning. Asking engaging questions; passionately describing aesthetic qualities by incorporating a wide variety of sensory images; and encouraging individuals to express themselves by forming habits of artistic learning will give a wide range of individuals the confidence and joy that art should contribute to their lives.

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Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind workshop participants and FWM staff. Photo credit: Michelle Cade

Mitchell (2005) asserts that there are no uniquely visual media even in the most obviously arguable instance of a painting. This might come as a shock to an art theorist, especially one devoted to modernist ideologies. He argues that painting is associated with language and the act of painting isn’t purely visual at all, in fact he states, “seeing painting is seeing touching, seeing the hand gestures of the artist, which is why we are so rigorously prohibited from actually touching the canvas” (Mitchell, 2005, p. 258). Sculpture is the most tactile of all artistic mediums therefore it isn’t as shocking to think that a sculpture can be experienced in ways other than sight. Because sculpture is three-dimensional, it has the affordances of occupying the same physical space as we do so by its nature, it seemingly welcomes haptic interaction. While many galleries and museums would be aghast to letting visitors touch priceless works of art, it is also a disservice to deny someone the experience of great art.

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Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind workshop participants and FWM staff. Photo credit: Michelle Cade

Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind dispels the myth that the artistic experience for the sighted is far more extensive than it is for a visually impaired individual. Renowned art educator and theorist Viktor Lowenfeld published a seminal book in 1939 called The Nature of Creative Activity, which was based upon his fifteen years teaching art to blind and visually impaired students in Vienna. Lowenfeld (1939) proposed that creativeness and symbolic expression goes beyond sight using other sensory perceptions like touch. He stated that there are two types of creative activity “visual” and “haptic.” Visual is a result of what is seen, while haptic is formed through physical interaction as well as through making value judgments. His work with the blind became the basis for the totality of his breakthroughs in art education. Castellano (1996) says that there is a certain bias that sighted individuals have about the blind. She says that as educators we should set high expectations for visually impaired students to succeed at the same level as sighted students. This statement is also pertinent to Bird (1991), who says that given the proper tools and situations we can all understand art. She quotes psychologist John Kennedy who said, “Blind people are intuitively capable of understanding the visual world, even without training or education.” Kennedy’s research and work with blind students has shown that visual impairment isn’t a hindrance to the appreciation, understanding, and creation of symbolic imagery.

Clayton’s Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind is a great example of collaborative learning and inquiry based learning and supports Kennedy’s statement that sight isn’t a precursor to understanding or creating works of visual art. By utilizing instructional scaffolding, Clayton made the implicit and sacred knowledge of art an explicit learning experience for blind and visually impaired individuals.

Lenka Clayton’s Object Temporarily Removed will be on view at the Fabric Workshop and Museum through July 9, 2017.


Notes:

Bird, K. (1991). The Possibilities of Art Education for the Blind. Future Reflections, 10 (3). Retrieved from https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/fr/fr10/issue3/f100325.html

Castellano, C. (1996). The Blind Child in the Regular Elementary Classroom. Future Reflections, 15 (3). Retrieved from https://nfb.org/Images/nfb/Publications/fr/fr15/Issue3/f150302.html

Mitchell, W.J. (2005). There Are No Visual Media. Journal of Visual Culture, 4 (2).

Lowenfeld, V. (1939). The Nature of Creative Activity. New York, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.

BHQFU – A Pedagogy for Artists by Artists

According to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, there is nothing in life that is truly free. I won’t get into the irony and implications of DeVos’ loaded statement (a response to Bernie Sanders’ proposal of free college tuition), however, it is explicit knowledge that our higher education system is broken, in part because of the predatory nature of for-profit companies that handle student loans. The conflation of the commercial sector with education is problematic because it disenfranchises scholars from lower income homes, and puts private interests above learning. It models the educational system as a free-market enterprise, where private investors have greater pull than educators. The same privatization has been happening in arts institutions, which dictates many factors including determining what is ‘important’ and ‘stylish’ (a la the art market and auction houses or through exhibitions based upon interests of private donors/collectors).

The artist collective, Bruce High Quality Foundation (BHQF), founded the Bruce High Quality Foundation University (BHQFU) in order to create an alternative to the traditional higher education model and inspire a framework for equitable learning through the arts. Their curriculum model aims to offer a wide variety of subjects centered around art for free and open to whomever wants to attend. There are several classes in art (both criticism and making), philosophy, science, math, cooking, engineering, writing, etc. Many of the classes offer a cross-disciplinary approach, which is driven by what the public wants to learn as opposed to what the institutions tell them is important/necessary to learn. When a collaborative and liberal approach to education such as this can take place, the institution’s role is reversed and it becomes a powerful medium for both art and education.

Paulo Freire (1970) stated that schools were a major factor in  perpetuating a “culture of silence.” In other words, schools were in the service of the larger Capitalist economy and contributed to the domination of the dispossessed. Through a social and democratic structure that is devoid of the larger Capitalist economy, BHFQU is the antithesis of the “culture of silence.”

In an article titled The Learning Public, published in 2010, BHQF stated that the framework of ‘Learning Public’ means that: “1) we learn things from works of art, 2) those lessons can be implemented in the world without duplicating the private sector’s instrumentalization of art for profit, and 3) the result will be art institutions that are themselves works of art.”

Howard Schwartzberg and Reality Art

Brooklyn based artist and educator Howard Schwartzberg realizes the potential that art can have in everyday life. Schwartzberg’s curriculum is called Reality Art, an embodiment of social and emotional learning, where the students’ learning experience is centered on gaining skills necessary to achieve positive goals, feel empathy for others, and build positive relationships. This is structured through experiential learning and art making that is inspired by everyday life.

Schwartzberg believes that incorporating art –and thinking artistically– within other disciplines facilitates student’s learning more fluidly. Schwartzberg encourages students to enter what he coined the “freespace for expression and observation.” This conceptual space centers around a collaborative learning experience involving interpreting, analyzing, and making art about the world outside of the classroom. It is akin to the idea of “Social sculpture,” Joseph Beuys’ concept of individuals utilizing artistic practices in the community for socially engaged purposes. Schwartzberg also developed a curriculum for non-art teachers to bring the benefits of artistic learning into their classrooms. The concept maps for his curriculum can be viewed here.

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Howard Schwartzberg’s Scaffolding (2017) is a painting that rises from the floor to high up onto the wall. It is comprised of sewn together student paintings (left behind by former students), which have been flipped around so that they’re viewed from the verso. The piece reflects on Schwartzberg’s own artistic process working with materials that investigate the objectivity of painting, combined with his experience teaching in Public Schools. Scaffolding refers to instructional techniques teachers use to guide them toward both mastery and independence in the learning process. The role that the teacher plays should be more along the lines of ‘coaching’ rather than directing. Art is the perfect discipline for this type of learning, because art making involves a combination of personal experience and depiction strategies that are best achieved through experiential learning.

This painting is part of his “Left Behind (Student Work)” series, which was created in response to the detrimental shift from public education to for-profit schools. Other works in the series have titles that also refer to experiential educational strategies such as Collaborative Learning, and Think Pair Share.

Tim Rollins and Visual Literacy

Tim Rollins is an artist and arts educator based in New York City. While Rollins was teaching middle school art in the Bronx, he became an after school mentor to students, providing a safe space for them to discuss, analyze, and create collaborative works of art. In 1982, he formed the Art and Knowledge Workshop with a group of students called Kids of Survival (K.O.S). Rollins and K.O.S have exhibited in galleries and museums worldwide.

Understanding art as being an interdisciplinary practice, Rollins and his students interpreted well-known works of literature. Through sharing their ideas about the text, the students identified key themes that they felt related to their personal experiences, their community, and socio-cultural spectrum at large (as they experienced it). In doing so, they have appropriated “the classics” to make powerful comments on events from everyday life. I find the students’ responses to be incredibly enlightening:

Educating Through Art

Artfully Learning is an experiential and critical cross-examination of the fine art world and the educational sphere. Through the lens of both art historian and educator, I explore examples of artwork that have symbolic learning capabilities inside and outside the classroom. So why is this important? Why are two seemingly divergent worlds actually more similar and vital to each other than it would seem? First, the discipline(s) of art, as well as education are at a crucial time in our society. Politicians are threatening the foundation of both art by proposing to defund the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities; and education by suggesting the elimination of the Department of Education and deemphasizing public schools in favor of “school choice.” Secondly, the arts within an educational environment are vital because both areas of interest have numerous benefits across our cultural landscape. These benefits called “habits of mind” were nicely described by Lincoln Center’s Capacities for Imaginative Learning program as:

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These criteria are essential for developing an art education curriculum, but they are also evident in many works of contemporary art being made by professional artists. The following series of posts will look at how we might think of responding to contemporary art using the tenets of educational theory and practice.