Today I Am….A School

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Students at New Rochelle High School installing their #lightpaintings. Susan Luss’ #lightpainting is projected onto the wall. Courtesy of Susan Luss.

Recognizing the importance that artistic immersion has on learning, New Rochelle High School goes above and beyond providing traditional art education programming to its diverse student body. The school’s expansive arts program integrates visual art, music, dance and theater arts into its curricula, and gives students the option to major in the arts through its Performing and Visual Arts Education Program (PAVE). The faculty at the school is made up of exhibiting artists, professional dancers and recording musicians, who provide hands on mentoring to students in a state-of-the-art facility, which houses a dance studio, music rooms, art and sculpture classrooms and a computer graphics lab. Students utilize the aforementioned infrastructure and guidance to build a multidisciplinary aesthetic vocabulary and portfolio that prepares them for studying the arts in college and beyond. In addition to being immersed in ample art making facilities and mentored by teachers who are also working in various art fields, the school has its own museum and cultural center on its campus, called The Museum of Arts & Culture. It is the only Regents-chartered museum inside of a school in the state of New York.

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Installation view of Susan Luss’ show today, I am… at the Museum of Arts & Culture at New Rochelle High School. Courtesy of Susan Luss.

The Museum of Arts & Culture gives student artists the opportunity to experience how art is contextualized and displayed from an institutional standpoint. The museum also provides a unique chance for young emerging artists to encounter a spectrum of contemporary art practices by exhibiting the work of established professional artists who also serve as artists-in-residence at the school. New York City-based artist, Susan Luss, was recently the artist-in-residence at New Rochelle High School and became a mentor to students in the PAVE program. On January 18, 2020, Luss’ solo show today, I am . . . opened to the public, featuring a site specific light-based painting and installation of found object assemblages, works on paper (from her paper light series) and dyed canvas grid paintings. Also on view with today, I am… are three student-led collaborative exhibitions that were inspired by participatory art activities, inquiry based explorations and classroom discussions.

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New Rochelle High School art teacher Alexandra Rutsch Brock’s class working on their installation for the CAFE windows. The window on the right is by AP Art student Molly Weckesser who collaborated with Susan Luss. Courtesy of Susan Luss.

Luss’ art involves the harnessing of natural light sources, architectural grids and found materials, in order to create fluctuating installations that refract, reflect and extend spatial and environmental conditions. When I met Susan at her exhibition, we spoke a lot about the different ways her art embodies everyday life. Luss’ work isn’t a ‘one-size fits all’ blueprint. It changes, transforms and adapts to the environment that surrounds it. For example, her unstretched canvas grid paintings can be displayed as traditional paintings, ritually wrapped up as a bundle, worn as a cloak or installed outdoors where the wind’s force gives it a performative context. Luss’ relationship to her materials and the space that they are made and exhibited in represents her own experiential development as an artist.

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Susan Luss, #lightpainting, 2019-2020. Photograph by Adam Zucker.

In addition to her own works of art, Luss worked with PAVE students and their teachers, Alexi Rutsch Brock, Moira McCaul, Joanna Schomber and Scott Seaboldt, to distill and scaffold her complex and multifaceted process in a manner that became relatable and accessible to each student. While working with Luss, students developed their own personal understandings of art’s connections to science, math and the natural environment. Classes and individual students worked on site-specific installations that altered the typical layout of the school, and offered a contemplative interpretation about the potential for both natural and synthetic forms to be considered art. Collaborative artworks that the students created include #lightpaintings and #asphaltforensics. These installations were made after Luss visited students in their classrooms and showed them examples of her own #lightpaintings and #asphaltforensics. She then presented students with templates on which they drafted designs and worked with their peers to actualize their public artworks for the whole school to experience. Additionally, students were prompted to research Luss’ work and respond to specific cues provided by their teachers, so that they developed a vocabulary around installation art. This was the first time that conceptual installations and public art works were realized in the school.

#Lightpaintings are made by designing and arranging colorful translucent shapes over windows, which capture the sun’s light and project it onto adjacent architectural structures. During the day, walls and objects within New Rochelle High School are bathed in light paintings from both Luss and art students in the PAVE program. The refraction of vivid light shifts as the sun moves throughout the sky. Therefore, light can envelop the floors, walls and ceilings, depending on the time of day and season.

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Students installing their ‘asphalt forensic’ works. Courtesy of Susan Luss.

The students’ #asphaltforensic installation raises awareness around the potential of transforming everyday objects into aesthetic experiences. Luss has been making these installations using collected objects from around her home and studio. The methodology is similar to other contemporary conceptual processes like knolling, where different objects, which generally aren’t associated with art, are artfully arranged in a manner that is pleasing to the eye. Students were asked to carefully select ephemeral objects from the suburban and urban environment that encompasses their route to and from school. The items were then installed within a geometric design created by one of the PAVE students, so that each item had to be carefully considered within the confines of the manufactured space. Occasionally, light from Luss’ #lightpainting would seep into the room and interact with the #asphaltforensics installation, adding another dimension to the overall environment.

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Susan Luss, #lightpainting, 2019-2020. Photograph by Adam Zucker.

Creating site-specific art within a non-traditional art space like a school, teaches habits of mind (see: Eisner, 2002) such as flexible purposing and thinking outside of the box (in this case, outside the ‘white box’ or cube that is indicative of institutional art spaces). Installation art in particular is often rhizomatic, meaning that it can grow organically in a multitude of directions. The artist is guided by the art making process rather than a fixed result. Creating an installation requires reflective thinking, which is performed by exercising cognitive, social and emotional actions throughout the development of the piece. This is evident in the PAVE students’ collaborative efforts. Working as a group to realize their #lightpaintings, meant that they had to communicate well and collectively figure out new methods for making their artworks when initial concepts proved to be unsuccessful.

Displaying art outside of the gallery or museum, places it in a common environment meant to be shared by everyone, no matter what a person’s prior knowledge about art may be. The more accessible art is to us, the more confident we become in interacting with it. John Dewey (1938), stated that knowledge is formed by giving meaning to the sensory experiences that surround us. We learn when we take notice of sensory information (qualities) that are present in our environment and are able to attach language to these experiences. In assigning vocabulary to these qualities, we store them for later recall and sort them into categories so we can see connections between that particular experience and other experiences. Since the act of simply living automatically causes us to experience sensory information we are often oblivious to it. It is only when we act upon, assign feelings and react to the information that we form a learning experience (Zucker, 2019).

Art’s symbolic impact is dependent upon the interpersonal relationship between the artist, the materials and the viewer. Each viewer brings their own social, emotional and cognitive experiences to the work, which extends the work’s meaning and significance. Works of art are synonymous with the lived experiences of the creators and viewers, and therefore are in flux just like the events and scenes of our daily lives (Dewey, 1934).

The crux of a good art educational curriculum is a combination of creating, responding, presenting and connecting artwork to the culture at large. New Rochelle’s PAVE program ensures that students go from being proficient to advanced performers who are confident and bold visual conveyors and communicators. Having their work displayed for their peers to engage with is efficacious for the student artists. They have not only created a beautiful new set of sensory experiences in their school, but provided their classmates with ample opportunities to embrace art in their everyday lives.


today, I am… is on view at The Museum of Arts and Culture through February 14, 2020.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Eisner, Elliot W. 2002. ‘What can education learn from the arts about the practice of education?’ The Encyclopedia of Informal Education. http://www.infed.org/biblio/eisner_arts_and_the_practice_of_education.htm

Dewey, John. 1934. Art as Experience. New York : Minton, Balch & Company.

Dewey, John. 1938. Experience & Education. New York: MacMillan.

Zucker, Adam. “Seeing is Feeling – Art & Experience for Visually Impaired Individuals.” Artfully Learning, 11 Feb. 2019. https://theartsandeducation.wordpress.com/2019/02/11/seeing-is-feeling-art-experience-for-visually-impaired-individuals/

Strengthening Cultures & Literacy through Art for the 21st Century

In a previous post titled Connecting Culture Through Experience and Education, I described contemporary artist Pablo Helguera’s use of the written word and storytelling as a means to explore language, immigration and identity. Through projects like The School of Panamerican Unresta four-month long road-trip across the Panamerican Highway that documented a myriad of indigenous spoken dialects, and Librería Donceles, a non-profit used bookstore for Spanish language literature and events; Helguera devotes a large part of his artistic practice to create multidisciplinary portraits and living archives of language and culture.

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Ceramic sculptures by Stephanie H. Shih. Photo by @brandicheyenneharper for @gasworksnyc. Courtesy of the artist.

I recently learned about Stephanie H. Shih‘s ceramic sculptures, which embody culinary items in Asian-American homes. Shih’s sculptures are social, emotional and cognitive reflections of Asian-American diasporic culture. They are representative of what it is like to immigrate to far away places and incorporate both new and traditional concepts that signify a unique cultural and communal identity. Shih makes connections with other members of the 20 million (and counting) diaspora through many overlapping culinary memories, which represent personal significance and collective experiences. The ceramic food replicas are vessels, enshrining heartfelt bonds between diverse individuals who share similar cultural heritage. In her artist’s statement Shih says:

“Through the lens of the Asian-American pantry, my ceramic sculptures explore how shared nostalgia can connect a diaspora. For first-generation Asian Americans, the finite collection of imported grocery brands from our youth has become shorthand for parallel childhoods raised by immigrant parents. To meet strangers who have memories of eating the same can of fried dace –a small fish preserved with salted black beans– is to discover a sense of belonging. Replicating these kitchen staples in clay immortalizes both the shared memories and the feeling of finding the nonexistent homeland of Asian America” (Shih, n.d.).

These are just two of the many examples of how contemporary art is created, presented and contextualized in a manner that reflects globalization and migration. Ideas, images and works of art travel far and wide, due to artistic discourse being spread more fluidly throughout the world. Advances in technology and the proliferation of museums, galleries, biennials and residency programs is making art more accessible to heterogeneous audiences. As a result of these aforementioned factors, artists (and other cultural producers) who are separated by borders are more easily able to collaborate and partake in collective art making (see: Representing Pittsburgh and Tehran and Transcending Boundaries).

Art has its own forms of language that facilitate the exchange of visual information and act as a liaison between individuals and groups from different cultural backgrounds. Visual art can also be a catalyst for developing speech and literacy skills that support multilingual learning in the educational system. This is especially beneficial for communities with large immigrant populations who can harness the expressive and dialectic values of visual art, in order to strengthen their social and cognitive skills in their native and emergent languages.

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CALTA21 Classroom. Courtesy of the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey.

Some art institutions are embracing their role in teaching language and literacy skills to immigrant students through contemporary art. The Visual Arts Center of New Jersey is expanding its programming for English language learners, conducted in partnership with the Elizabeth Public School District. Their program, which has been implemented for 8th and 9th grade students, was created with help from Cultures & Literacies through Art for the 21st Century (CALTA21), a national initiative focused on creating a dynamic environment where museums provide authentic, meaningful and engaging learning experiences to immigrant communities. CALTA21 is rooted in professional development for English language teachers. Educators partnering with the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey are given training that helps them create literacy curricula in support of their diverse students who are learning English as their second (or third, fourth etc.) language. Through a dialogic method of participatory art-based discourse, students are empowered to share their narratives of immigration. Essential questions that are needed to effectuate and sustain this kind of pedagogy are: “how can art museums create space for the exploration of linguistic and cultural diversity and what role can they play in strengthening the immigrant voice?”

CALTA21 uses Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) as a methodology to encourage the development of  observation and speaking skills. There are many ways to scaffold learning by taking the time to carefully look at artworks in galleries. Embodied learning is one learning approach (see: Embodied Learning Makes ‘The Classics’ Relevant) where students physically engage with works of art in order to build personal and collective understandings about the work’s form, function and content. This type of participatory learning strengthens observational and communicative skills because it includes 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 (Zucker, 2018). Developing an art vocabulary is important, not only in the discussion around works of art, but also for applying that language to other subjects and aspects of life experience. Talking about art is beneficial to building language skills, because observing art requires a command of descriptive words that support critical thinking and noticing deeply. As students develop their own evidence-based interpretations about art, they learn to trust their eyes and the value of their own opinions while building collective knowledge via gallery visits and artmaking exercises.

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CALTA21 participants discussing a mural by Kevin Blythe Sampson at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey. Courtesy of the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey.

Communicating thoughts and observations with others through CALTA21, has been proven to strengthen the literacy and critical thinking skills of participants. Anamaria Llanos, one of the lead Elizabeth School District teachers in the program, has seen firsthand how incorporating CALTA21 into her curriculum and lesson plans has increased student engagement and efficacy of language and literacy:

“CALT21 cultivates language and free thinking. It nurtures a dynamic environment where students are guided through thought provoking questions to engage prior knowledge and their imagination; develop and strengthen their voice; and promote language thought process. There is nothing more intimidating than talking about art, yet with CALTA21, a relaxed and non-judgmental atmosphere is created by the students themselves. Their eagerness and enthusiasm to participate and facilitate their own CALTA21 session at the museum is a teacher’s dream. The program encourages students to think outside of the box, be creative; and become more assertive in the way they look at the world” (Llanos, 2019, quoted in a press release from the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey).

Making art accessible to multilingual viewers should be at the top of every museum and cultural center’s mission. By incorporating CALTA21 in their programming, the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey –the state’s largest largest institution dedicated exclusively to  contemporary art– is providing a valuable opportunity for the 22.1 percent of the state’s immigrant population (as of 2015) to engage in viewing, making and learning through art. Other cultural institutions such as The Hudson River Museum have programs that support young docents who represent a spectrum of international backgrounds. Their junior docent program consists of students from each of the City of Yonkers’ public high schools, representing the city’s culturally, economically and socially diverse communities. Many of the docents are first generation Americans or recent immigrants to the United States. Participants in the program speak many different languages and have a variety of interests including art, science, dance, history and fashion. Having informational guides who speak multiple languages and have experiential knowledge about specific cultures, makes museums and their collections more accessible and relevant to more communities. Global Guides, Penn Museum’s docent program, employs refugees from the Middle East as gallery guides who lead visitors through thematic tours of the museum’s Middle Eastern collection of art and artifacts. Because these docents have lived in many of the regions where the art originated, they offer visitors unique insights and personal connections to the objects on display.

As people move from place to place to seek better opportunities or asylum, the incorporation of immigrant and refugee narratives into art and art education is necessary to reflect the diversity of our multicultural communities. Programs like CALTA21 and the aforementioned museum docent initiatives, give immigrants much needed authority to communicate and present their experiential knowledge in their own voices. What they have to say is also beneficial for developing empathetic understandings of the world at large.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

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/

Shih, Stephanie H. (n.d). “Artist’s Statement.” https://theartsandeducation.files.wordpress.com/2020/01/32dc1-cv_public.pdf

Visual Arts Center of New Jersey. “Visual Arts Center of NJ Receives IMLS Grant to Partner with Elizabeth Public Schools.” Visual Arts Center of N.J. Press Release, 20 Nov. 2019.

Zucker, Adam. “Embodied Learning Makes ‘The Classics’ Relevant.” Artfully Learning, 27 Apr. 2018. https://theartsandeducation.wordpress.com/2018/04/27/embodied-learning-makes-the-classics-relevant/

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 SimCity, 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/

 

Exhibiting Empathy

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Installation view of Lessons from the Institute of Empathy at the Seattle Art Museum. © Seattle Art Museum, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

On any given day, we see horrible images of violence, famine, floods, habitat and environmental loss on the news or social media, and moments later, we switch the channel to South Park and “like” a photo of a poodle wearing a tuxedo on Instagram. With a myriad of responsibilities and distractions, it is hard for some of us to take a moment to see things through the lens of another person.

Empathy is the ability to foster an understanding of each other’s lived experiences by going outside our perceived reality and into the reality of another person. Empathy is being able to consciously feel what others are going through and expressing. As psychologist Douglas LaBier describes:

“Empathy is what you feel only when you can step outside of yourself and enter the internal world of the other person. There, without abandoning or losing your own perspective, you can experience the other’s emotions, conflicts, or aspirations from within the vantage point of that person’s world. That’s not telepathy; it’s a hard-wired capacity in all of us…”

It has been theorized that in today’s climate, we are afflicted by what is known as Empathy Deficit Disorder (EDD) (LaBier, 2010). Lack of empathy can affect equity, because if we are unable to grasp the experiences and realities of others then we don’t truly develop a respect for their social, emotional and cognitive perspective. As discussed in the two previous posts about making art more equitable, realizing differences and adapting to include variability in our sociocultural conversations is important in shifting canonical systems of social stratification to a balanced and multifaceted social climate.

One of the ways that we can become more empathetic and equitable is by utilizing creativity to envision environments that are inclusive and receptive to social and cultural diversity. Art can function as a resource that inspires and challenges us to think about local and global perspectives and the importance of experiencing other cultures from a vantage point within their world. The essential question within our current global framework is how can we coexist in such fragmented and perilous times? One way is by learning to make space within ourselves for other people’s self expression. Doing so means going beyond just listening to their words or seeing their imagery. It means being able to identify and comprehend what they feel.

The Seattle Art Museum makes empathy and equity an active learning experience by offering cultural and experiential education alongside the objects in their galleries. The museum has a substantial collection of art from many African nations, and its presentation shifts our gaze from colonialism to community. One way of doing this is by activating the objects in the space so that they reference and illuminate cultural traditions in an authentic manner. Masks are presented over the faces of mannequins rather than on the wall or in display cases, so we get a sense of how these objects would actually function within the cultural context of the region. The museum is also very conscious in getting advice and feedback from contemporary artists and citizens of African nations. These individuals and groups are given precedence over the anthropological and patrimonial discourse that is often too common in regards to the presentation and interpretation of artworks created throughout the continent.

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Okumpka Masquerade Players (1950-2007). Installation view of Chukwu Okoro Masks at the Seattle Art Museum, 2016, © Seattle Art Museum, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

The museum’s display of Okumpka Masquerade Players (1950-2007), incorporates the contextual knowledge and experience of individuals who are the primary participants with the objects on view. The installation features Afikpo Igbo masks created by Chukwu Okoro, a renowned Nigerian carver from Mgbom Villege, Afikpo. Okoro’s masks characterize spirits, and are utilized in Afikpo masquerades called Okumpka plays, which enable performers to purge themselves of embarrassment and embrace their playful and vulnerable nature. The installation on view presents mannequins donning masks and costumes that are part of the oft-humorous Okumpka plays, popular among Igbo Afikpo tribes in Nigeria. In front of them is a pot, which is a vessel for the masked players to announce their injudicious actions and compete for the honor of being the most foolish. Additionally, performers have the agency to challenge authority and through humor and satire, expose problematic elements of society. Those who stand accused of misdeeds are “obliged to listen without retaliating.” The idea is that airing grievances and listening to the feelings of those who have been wronged will encourage those who have done the wrongdoing to understand how their actions affect the feelings of others.

The costume elements were assembled by Sam Irem, a former president of the Afikpo Association of America, while Eze Anamelechi, an Igbo artist and native, was invited to the museum in order to supervise the fabrication. The insight gained through having these individuals partake in the work’s display allows us to view and interpret it in a culturally relevant context.

Regarding the museum’s display of the Afikpo Masquerade Players, contemporary Igbo sound artist Emeka Ogboh, exclaimed: “This is one of the best places I’ve seen masks installed because normally they would hang it on the wall. But doing it this way, with the costumes and everything, also gives it character because these masks were not really meant to be hanging on the wall like that” (Ogboh, 2018). The masquerade players became the foundation and inspiration for him to create artwork for the 2015 group exhibition Disguise. About the work he made for Disguise, Ogboh says “I try to make that connection with what was existing here already, which was trying to work with sounds that could go with this whole situation of masquerading and find a way to give it a contemporary feel for the installation for the exhibition” (ibid).

In Disguise, works by contemporary artists are juxtaposed with traditional objects, themes and practices, illustrating how tradition is both maintained and transformed through generations. This methodology is central to the Seattle Art Museum’s pedagogical approach of presenting their collection and organizing exhibitions in ways that express empathy and equity.

The Afikpo Masquerade Players are currently part of a conceptual exhibition titled Lessons from the Institute of Empathy. The premise of the exhibition is that:

“Three Empathics have moved into the Seattle Art Museum and established a virtual space where you can step outside your normal, routine self and improve your ability to understand others…..Here, the Empathics display their trademarked process for transformation—absorbing vapors that spread digitally on the walls and floor. Surrounding this showroom is art the Empathics selected because they felt it could awaken empathy in the viewer.” – Wall text courtesy of the Seattle Art Museum.

A conceptual commonality in the presentation of these artworks, is the envisioning of a near-future civilization, where we are unified by the web of identities that each of us employ; and our ability to express empathy for each other’s unique experiences.

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Installation view of Lessons from the Institute of Empathy at the Seattle Art Museum. © Seattle Art Museum, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

At the crux of Lessons from the Institute of Empathy, is Saya Woolfalk’s ChimaTEK: Virtual Chimeric Space (2015), an immersive multi-disciplinary installation that explores a futuristic society where we have transcended our traditional form of humanity for a hybrid type of post-human existence. In this scenario, we have transformed out of our human bodies to form interpersonal connections with other races, ethnicity, genders and biological forms such as plants and animals. The work incorporates physical objects such as Sowei-inspired helmet masks –traditional versions of these masks, made by the Mende Culture in Sierra Leone, are on view nearby with explanations from a Sowei student who describes their importance in regards to female initiation rituals– and digital animation as a means to tell stories that reflect both the physical and metaphysical space. Through the amalgamation of media and narratives, we can enter the environment and feel a sense of transformation within ourselves. The idea is that we should remove ourselves from the hustle and bustle of our consumer based lifestyle and enter a reflective space where we are absorbed by the sights, sounds and feelings of nature and spiritual transcendence.

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Installation view of Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness at the Seattle Art Museum, 2019, © Seattle Art Museum, Photo: Natali Wiseman.

In addition to the re-presentation of the Seattle Art Museum’s African art collection, a current exhibition by Zanele Muholi titled Somnyama Ngonyama (Zulu for Hail the Dark Lioness) questions prior cultural narratives around African identity. Muholi’s politically charged black and white self-portrait photographs express intersectional facets of black identity, through an exploration of how black bodies are stereotyped into ethnographic archetypes. In these self-portraits, Muholi portrays the identity of other black bodies, like the Afro-Japanese, who have been marginalized and tokenized for exploitative purposes. Muholi utilizes props made from found materials like rubber gloves and plastic to critique the message of colonialism’s influence on the way black bodies are misrepresented and compartmentalized in Western narratives. The series is a powerful rebuttal of black beauty ideals and standards, which typically have violent and oppressive origins.

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Zanele Muholi, South African, b. 1972, Ntozakhe II, Parktown, 2016. ©️ Zanele Muholi, Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town / Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York.

Viewing these portraits, may enable us to feel a connection to the subject as Muholi states, “with this work people would see that it is possible, that the gallery is meant to be for everybody.” Even if we don’t personally identify with the figures in the photographs, we can learn a lot about other people’s social, emotional and cognitive experiences through viewing them. We come to the realization that we are part of a system that oppresses and ignores others for political and economic gain. Western culture has a tradition of fetishisizing and making a commodity out of the human body in a manner that ignores and/or negates intersectional identities.

Muholi’s art behooves us to re-frame our thinking about beauty and body image in a manner that promotes unity and interconnection between seemingly diverse groups of people. Upon the aforementioned works at the Seattle Art Museum, we enter other people’s social, emotional and cognitive space from the vantage point of their world.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Joy, Charlotte, “African art in Western museums: it’s patrimony not heritage,” Aeon, 20 Feb. 2019. https://aeon.co/ideas/african-art-in-western-museums-its-patrimony-not-heritage

LaBier, Douglas. “Are You Suffering From Empathy Deficit Disorder?” Psychology Today. 12 Apr. 2010. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-new-resilience/201004/are-you-suffering-empathy-deficit-disorder

Muholi, Zanele and Seattle Art Museum. “Zanele Muholi on “Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness” at Seattle Art Museum,” YouTube, 20 Sept. 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=180&v=fppJn5N2-Ks

Ogboh, Emeka and Seattle Art Museum. “My Favorite Things: Artist Emeka Ogboh on Chukwu Okoro masks,” YouTube, 11 Aug. 2015. https://youtu.be/OtGJCTRilVE

 

 

Summer Reading List

Congratulations teachers, you are at the finish line for the year! While it is time to trade the classroom for wherever your heart desires, the truth is that art and education never take vacations. Therefore, while you are just relaxing or traveling from adventure to adventure, the following very concise selection of books will keep you feeling inspired to vacation artfully.

I don’t know about you, but museums are an essential part of any travel itinerary I make. This post features two influential books that address engaging experiences at art museums. Museums have evolved into so much more than a repository for fine objects. They have focused on fostering participatory-based relationships with their diverse visitors. The two books that I am recommending below are important resources for understanding contemporary museum models and ensuring that you are making the most out of the museum experience.

Exploring museums in this manner is a vital a learning tool, and should be part of any art (or science, history etc.) curriculum. Museum exploration is a key tenet for social, emotional and cognitive learning, because it enables viewers to perceive and respond to things in a unique way. The museum experience acknowledges that viewers will fulfill their own desired paths while interacting with the physical space, the collection and one another. Museums are great examples of spaces where differentiation of learning styles and dialogical methods (see: Shor & Freire, 1987) for creating knowledge are implemented.

I previously wrote about some pedagogical functions museums have within society in the post The Classroom in the White Box


Screen Shot 2019-06-06 at 12.59.34 PMThe Museum Experience by John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking (Whalesback Books 1992), is an experiential research-based book about why people go to museums. In a very clear and concise manner, the authors explain what visitors often expect prior to visiting a museum; what they do when they get there; and what they take away from the experience. The quantitative and qualitative data collected for this book is explicitly explained in a manner that is helpful for anyone who is interested in museology, sociology, curatorial practice and museum education.

Essentially, The Museum Experience is contextualized from the perspective of the viewer. Therefore, it should be especially helpful for museum administrators, curators and educators who are looking to increase engagement and recurring visits.

For example, the book discusses the different ways that visitors move throughout the museum and how they behave while creating their pathways throughout the building. The interactive experience is described in three overlapping categories: Personal Context, Social Context and Physical Context.

There is a strong pedagogical focus around making the museum experience central to individuals and groups. This vision is bolstered by the philosophy that viewers are meaningful co-constructors of knowledge and experiences within cultural institutions. This philosophy and methodology is applicable to all areas of the museum or institution from accessibility (i.e. museum layout and exhibition design) to special programming that focuses on equity and equality. Museums must be places where everyone in the community is welcome and have the agency to engage with the overarching museum environment. Taking astute account of visitor-centered experiences in conjunction with the demography of visitors is necessary for museum staff to create welcoming participatory spaces that enable visitors to feel comfortable and inspired.

The next book recommendation below takes a very precise and critical look into the individualization of museums and cultural institutions.


Screen Shot 2019-06-07 at 1.26.35 PMThe Personalization of the Museum Visit, by Seph Rodney, Routledge (2019)

Seph Rodney specializes in museology and the ways that we engage with our cultural institutions. His first book, titled The Personalization of the Museum Visit scrutinizes the history of Western museums in order to explore the current framework many institutions have put in place to develop a viewer-centered participatory environment.

Rodney’s research reveals that contemporary museums no longer serve as ‘banking models’ (see: Freire, 2008) where visitors are presented with didactic displays of objects and text, but rather environments that enable viewers to curate their own experiences in dialogue with the museum’s collection and architectural space. Just as pedagogy has progressed to fulfill diverse learning styles and student-centered interests, museology  has taken account of unique interests and diverse identities.

Rodney explains that today’s museums are driven to incorporate distinct factors that are in-line with visitor’s needs. Akin to our collective culture, these needs are influenced by factors such as “social interaction (meeting friends for drinks, for example), spiritual sustenance, emotional connection, intellectual challenge, or consumerist indulgence” (Rodney, 2016). Contemporary museums have addressed these needs by creating inviting spaces for visitors to congregate or contemplate; interdisciplinary events that bring large and diverse groups together; adult and family workshops; artist talks, panel discussions, screenings and other informative programming; and novel culinary and commercial spaces.

Another key area for museum operation is crowdsourcing methods for developing a communal dialectic and collaborative aesthetic in tandem with the public. For example, museums have increased their mission to co-create meaning by giving viewers agency as co-curators, collaborators and exhibitors.

Rodney cites examples of crowdsourcing: In 2014, The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, exhibited collaborative drawings created by visitors while they were at the museum. In the same year, the Frye Museum in Seattle initiated an exhibition called #SocialMedium, which featured a selection of works made by visitors utilizing social media. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston gave curatorial agency to the public during their exhibition Boston Loves Impressionism, by asking them to vote on the selection of works to be displayed in the show. The popular vote resulted in the final collection of paintings within the exhibition.

These undertakings provide experiences that support experiential learning, collaboration, socialization and the democratization of public spaces. Museums that take heed of the visitors’ unique personalities and treat them as participants, are likely to retain them.


This concludes another edition of suggested books that would be apt for readers of this blog. These titles and the previously suggested publications, fuel my own artful learning and enduring understandings about education, visual art and placemaking. I hope that you will also find meaning in what you read here and make significant connections to your own practice. Happy summer and happy reading! Please feel free to contact me if you have any particular book recommendations in relationship to the integration of contemporary art, museums and educational practices. 


Additional References and Notes:

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.

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/

Shor, Ira, and Paulo Freire. “What Is the ‘Dialogical Method’ of Teaching?” Journal of Education, vol. 169, no. 3, Oct. 1987, pp. 11–31, doi:10.1177/002205748716900303.