If you’re bored, try living artfully

Bananafish

Nina Katchadourian, Bananafish, 2013 (“Seat Assignment” project, 2010-
ongoing), C-Print, 15.25h x 19w in. Courtesy of the artist, Catharine Clark
Gallery, and Fridman Gallery.

I am certain that we all have experienced a fair share of dull moments throughout our lives. Whether it’s dragging our feet while going on errands, waiting on lines, routine doctor’s visits (and the accompanying time spent in waiting rooms), trips to the DMV, long periods of travel, or just sitting around with nothing to do; there are many times where banal moments leave us with much to be desired.

As a teenager, I remember pausing at a specific line within the lyrics to the song Flagpole Sitta (1997) by the band Harvey Danger: “But if you’re bored then you’re boring.” This posed one of the earliest existential crises for me. How could I combat the doldrums of my own boredom? I realized that me being ‘bored’ was largely a result of my own self imposed fears and negative attitude. I had crippling social anxiety, and low self-esteem, which led me to avoid certain situations that I would likely have enjoyed experiencing (and thrived at too).

I still have social anxiety, however, I am more or less able to get over it through creative thinking and action. The real transformative moments begin when I immerse myself in artistic explorations and playful creative endeavors.

It is my personal philosophy that everything and everyone has artistic potential. Many individuals including John Dewey and Joseph Beuys have expounded upon the idea of art as a way of life, intrinsic to our personal and collective consciousness and culture. Within art, external and internal stimuli are presented and expressed in a profound manner by combining aesthetic principles and social and emotional symbolism. Through viewing the world as a canvas or a stage on which to engage with, I am constantly thinking about translating everyday moments, objects, and images, into works of art. Even walking to work or riding on the subway becomes part of the artistic process, because I am carefully observing, paying attention to details, making connections, and gaining insights into the creative potential that consistently surrounds me. I see both everyday objects and interactions as mediums, materials, and themes for making art.

Art offers a profound and fun way of liberating ourselves from the seemingly static nature of boring tasks and situations. For all the negative associations that boredom has, it is a major source of inspiration and a vehicle for artists to convey deep sociocultural concerns. The arts teach us to welcome boredom and use it as a channel for powerful means of communication and symbolic expression. Boredom is largely connected to major facets that artists need to make work. These characteristics include being able to find value and purpose in repetition and responding to subconscious thoughts and daydreams, which come about when the mind is left to wander. Artists need to have the patience to perform many routine and precise steps in order to achieve their vision. They also need to allow their minds to be active and think big. Harnessing boredom enables artists to re-frame and re-present their reality in a novel and exciting perspective.

Nina Katchadourian is one of the most seminal contemporary artists versed in embracing and transcending issues of banality. I have previously mentioned Katchadourian’s work in a post titled Learning Through Play, Playing Through Art. She was recently the subject of a traveling museum retrospective called Curiouserand is currently showing a concise survey of her work at Fridman Gallery, in New York, in a solo show titled Ification. The well curated work within Ification is a great example of how Katchadourian finds efficacy in conventionality via a multidisciplinary art practice that is as playful as it is poignant.

Instead of accepting monotony and mundaneness as a matter of circumstance, Katchadourian utilizes artistic behaviors in order to find a myriad of ways to transform boredom into something captivating and significant. She infuses humor and irony within artwork that makes due with the materials and situations that are relatively universal.

For instance, her ongoing Seat Assignment (2010-) series is made up of imagery created while Katchadourian travels on airplanes. In this day and age, airline travel has gotten more restrictive and complex for passengers, while the airlines themselves offer fewer inflight forms of leisure. Seat Assignment is an antidote for the long and dull process of commercial air travel. Being subjected to long periods of stationary sitting, with limited supplies such as inflight magazines, travel guides, carry on (or meager complimentary in flight) snacks, and occasional trips to the lavatory (when the captain has turned off the ‘fasten seat belt’ sign), inspired Katchadourian to turn an otherwise uninspiring moment into a captivating artistic experience. Using a mobile phone and whatever she can find around her seat, she creates surreal and fantastical scenes and narratives that comment on themes such as travel, consumerism, culture, ecology, and art history.

Lavatory Self Portraits Flemish8

Nina Katchadourian, Lavatory Self-Portrait in Flemish Style #8, 2011 (“Seat Assignment” project, 2010-ongoing), C-Print, 13.33h x 10w in. Courtesy of the artist, Catharine Clark Gallery, and Fridman Gallery.

Katchadourian’s Seat Assignment series includes a whimsical group of bathroom selfies called Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style, in which the artist uses bathroom materials such as toilet paper, toilet seat protection covers, shower caps, and sanitary napkins to dress up like subjects in Dutch and Flemish portraiture. These portraits are humble modern day re-presentations of the high art portraiture, painted in the Low Countries, especially The Netherlands during the 15th – 17th Centuries. In a witty fashion, Katchadourian demystifies the work of Old Master painters by showing us how good art can be made from simple materials and repetitive processes combined with a big imagination.

Talking Popcorn_2

Nina Katchadourian, Talking Popcorn, 2001, Popcorn machine, black pedestal,
red vinyl base, microphone, laptop with custom-written Morse code program,
printed paper bags, popcorn, dimensions variable. Installation view at the
Tang Museum, Saratoga Springs, NY. Courtesy of the artist, Catharine Clark  Gallery and Fridman Gallery.

Two other bodies of work that exemplify Katchadourian’s astute skills for noticing deeply, recognizing patterns, and incorporating everyday objects into awe-inspiring artworks, are Talking Popcorn (2001) and Songs of the Islands (1996). Talking Popcorn features a working movie theater popcorn machine, and the sound of the kernels popping gets translated into Morse Code, which, a computer-generated voice reads aloud. Katchadourian has coined the resulting popcorn messages as “popcornese.” In an effort to further investigate and legitimize “popcornese,” she has solicited the expertise of a diverse group of professionals including: linguists, poets, translators, an astronomer, a Zen Buddhist, and an anthropologist. For the making of Songs of the Islands, Katchadourian collected discarded audio tape that she noticed throughout New York City during the 1990s and painstakingly rearranged the loose audio tape to reveal a cacophony of sounds. The resulting compositions included music from a wide variety of genres, spanning across the globe (from heavy metal to Vietnamese pop), and even a taped episode of “All in the Family.” Combined as a soundtrack, the audio depicts a sociocultural portrait of New York City, one of the most diverse metropolises in the world.

IMG_1315

Nina Katchadourian, Songs of the Islands: Concrete Music of New York (detail), 1996/1998, found audiotape between Plexiglas, paper board, ink, audio player with headphones, 40h x 30w in. Courtesy of the artist, Catharine Clark Gallery, and Fridman Gallery.

In the educational realm, boredom can be harnessed through methods that influence students’ thirst for knowledge and inquiry. Some of these methods might include dropping ‘learning objectives’ in favor of ‘learning questions’ (see: Warner, 2014) and promoting playful learning. Both of these pedagogical methodologies give students agency in their own learning by supporting the co-creation of knowledge (between teachers and students).

Like artists, students should develop skills that will allow them to synthesize big ideas (hopes, aspirations, dreams) into realistic goals and tangible actions. Routines and consistency are important in developing a student’s cognitive, social, and emotional development, however, the art of education is finding ways to make this repetitious practice relevant and appealing. If a student is feeling unfulfilled and uninspired, one solution might be shifting the pedagogical approach towards asking more student-centered prompts rather than predetermined learning objectives. By starting off learning segments with student driven questions, educators can be sure that they are setting up proper modes of instructional scaffolding, activities, and assessments that are meaningful and influential to the experience and education of each student.

 


Nina Katchadourian’s Ification will be on view through March 31, 2019 at Fridman Gallery.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Straaten, Laura van. “The Artist Behind the Famous Bathroom Selfies.” The Cut. 22 Feb. 2019. https://www.thecut.com/2019/02/interview-with-ification-artist-nina-katchadourian.html

Warner, Andrew. “The Big Question: raising challenge by dropping objectives.” andywarner78. 24 Oct. 2014. https://andywarner78.wordpress.com/2014/10/24/the-big-question-raising-challenge-by-dropping-objectives/

 

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We all scream for STEAM! Lifelong Learning Through Creative Activities and Mindful Technological Pursuits

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Froebel Gift #3

In the book, Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity Through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play (2017), Mitchel Resnick asserts that the playful and choice based curriculum typically employed in early educational settings should be the foundation for life-long learning. He says that educational models should focus on a materials based exploration and student-driven projects that employ creative problem solving skills. He argues that a great way to do this is by strategically incorporating digital manipulatives and computer programming into the curriculum. Resnick is a distinguished educator, computer scientist, and researcher who is currently the LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research, Director of the Okawa Center, co-founder of the Computer Clubhouse, and Director of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab, the latter of which contributes insights into ways that technological progression can benefit pedagogy.

Resnick is optimistic regarding the embrace of technology as the catalyst for teaching to the whole child. He has first hand insight of the benefits gained from creative play within collaborative technological environments because of the positive results he’s experienced creating and implementing the Computer Clubhouse and the programming language Scratch. In 1993, Resnick and Natalie Rusk co-founded the Computer Clubhouse in order to provide a safe and collaborative space for youth living in underserved communities to learn programming and explore original ideas for tech based projects. The Computer Clubhouse empowers 25,000 youth each year to build their computer skills, become creative innovators, and develop self esteem and efficacy through their work.

Scratch is a child-centered visual programming language, which makes it easier for kids to develop their own animated stories, video games, and interactive artworks. Scratch programming has inspired ambitious child-centered initiatives (many good examples are mentioned in Lifelong Kindergarten) and the creation of a global community where new ideas for projects are posed, creative templates and technical strategies are shared, and peer-to-peer critiques offer constructive support. Through a playful and interpersonal embrace of technology, Scratch and the Computer Clubhouse are educating and emboldening the future innovators of the world.

The arts, science, engineering, mathematics, and education are just some of the many domains that have been affected by technological progression. In the visual arts, the advent of different types of paint significantly influenced the way individuals communicated and even profited. During the Northern Renaissance (15th century Europe, north of the Alps), the embrace of oil paint on a wooden substrate (oil on wood panels), signified a technological revolution (see: paint technology) because it enabled artists to explore techniques like glazing and layering paint. In the later half of the 15th century, canvas was introduced as an alternative to the portable but still expensive and cumbersome wooden panels. The advent of canvas as a surface for oil paint was a strong boost to the artist/patron relationship and by around the 16th century, oil painting was established as a commodity (see: Berger, 1972).

Traditional oil painting was a stable form of aesthetic technology that artists used to depict the world around them until the introduction and embrace of photographic medium and processes in the mid-19th century. As a result of photography, some artists who remained devoted to painting, developed new techniques and explored subject matter that was indicative of contemporary technological interests such as industry, scientific theory, the machine, and the sequence of movement (i.e. Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism, and Viennese Kineticism). American painters such as Charles Sheeler, Joseph Stella, and Elsie Driggs, were incredibly enthusiastic about the technological advances during the early 20th century, and subsequently invented an aesthetic mode called Precisionism, which championed modern technology such as factories, bridges, and skyscrapers. Art in the 21st century includes digital video, interactive games, sound sculptures, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality.

As evident from prior history, the idea that education, the arts, and technology should compliment each other is not solely a novel objective that reflects our digital age. It is true that we are experiencing an increased interactivity (far more than ever before) with digital technology throughout the world, which makes exploring, learning, and enjoying the possibilities of technology all the more beneficial. However, technology has a longstanding relationship with learning and the two disciplines have largely been symbiotic partners, enabling many important breakthroughs in each field. Throughout the decades before and after the industrial revolution, art was an important subject for students to learn in primary, secondary, and university settings. In previous posts, I have described the way the arts were seen as a counterbalance to the dehumanization of the worker in light of industrialization (see: Making Our Space / Documenting Our Place – Building and Maintaining a Better World). As John Ruskin aptly put it: “Life without industry is guilt; industry without art is brutality.” Even before machinery dominated the American landscape, Benjamin Franklin was one of the earliest proponents for art education, specifically drawing, to be included in the Colonial school curriculum. Drawing programs in schools were often centered on technical rendering skills that could be useful in designing modern architecture and industrial mechanisms. Specialized trade schools were established for industrial laborers and the curriculum incorporated artistic techniques and artisan principals that celebrated craftsmanship and good design. In fact, vocational training prior to World War II was known as “industrial arts,” and developed a mutual (albeit on and off again) relationship up until the end of World War II (Sterling & Burke, 1997).

Unfortunately, as Sterling and Burke (1997) described, the relationship between the arts and technology faltered in the period following World War II. The school curriculum gradually shifted towards a heavy focus on common core subjects (in preparation for colleges and universities and corporate jobs), standardized tests, and quantitative assessments, which resulted in art and vocational programs being cut and underfunded in schools. While this is still a major issue today (see: The State of the Art…In Schools), the arts have been making a steady comeback as a key educational component in tandem with other academic areas of study.

The utilization of technology via the artistic process has led to educational curricula that focuses on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) learning. STEAM signifies the importance of fluidly combining creative and collaborative endeavors, which stem from our desire to understand and interact with the world in a more meaningful and productive manner. Contemporary artists have been at the at the forefront of collaborative projects with scientists and engineers (see: E.A.T – STEAM & Experiential Explorations, Discoveries, and Insights), therefore it makes sense that STEAM learning is employed in educational settings because it combines rational thinking and scientific processes with inventive and mindful uses of technology. This combination can be beneficial in designing and implementing expressive, empathetic, and sustainable approaches to address major aesthetic, sociocultural, environmental, and economic issues (see:Activating Art and Education for Activism). Some educators have even suggested the addition of R (reading and research) so that STEAM becomes STREAM. This addition is appropriate because literacy and research methods are essential in the arts as well as in science and technology.

Perhaps the most important breakthrough in education was the advent of Kindergarten, a sociocultural revelation, which foresaw the importance that play and materials based exploration has on innovation. The contemporary version of Kindergarten (and Pre-Kindergarten) was the design of German educator Friedrich Fröbel. Fröbel was a mentee of the Swiss educational reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, whose approach to “Learning by head, hand and heart,” led to a sweeping modernization of the educational system in Switzerland. Like his mentor, Fröbel believed in a strong social, emotional, and embodied approach to teaching. His methodology incorporated Pestalozzi’s idea of teaching to the whole child, which means that every facet of a child’s life has a vital impact on the development of their personality, identity, and cognition. Fröbel realized that the best way to educate the whole child is through activities and play. He stated:

“The active and creative, living and life producing being of each person, reveals itself in the creative instinct of the child. All human education is bound up in the quiet and conscientious nurture of this instinct of activity; and in the ability of the child, true to this instinct, to be active.” (Published in an issue of his magazine Ein Sonntagsblatt für Gleichgesinnte (A Sunday Paper for the Like-Minded) (See: http://www.froebeldecade.com/sonntagsblatt/)

Fröbel was especially devoted to early childhood education and opened a school for young children in Bad Blankenburg, Germany in 1837. He recognized that children from infancy to age three experience dramatic cognitive development, although prior systems of education had been lacking for this age group. In 1840 he invented the word ‘Kindergarten’ to describe his school’s curriculum. The methods of embodied learning taught at Fröbel’s inaugural Kindergarten included singing, dancing, gardening, and playing with a new technological breakthrough he created called Froebel Gifts. Froebel Gifts are educational tools that inspire active learning through play and choice-based projects. Each of the Froebel Gifts was given a numerical value by Fröbel, which signified the order in which they should be introduced to the child. The gifts build upon the child’s prior knowledge and experience and enable the child to create and understand spatial relationships through artful activities.

The original gifts are still produced and used in classrooms and are the link to digital manipulatives such as LEGO Mindstorms, as well as other digitally programmed building toys that inspire self-directed play, which Fröbel coined as ‘Freiarbeit’ (free work). While the original Froebel Gifts are seemingly simple in their design (see: Intro to Froebel Gifts), they are highly advanced in the way they promote social, emotional, and cognitive development. Froebel Gifts were one of the most revolutionary innovations for early childhood learning, because they provided young children with a means to playfully explore, manipulate, and make insightful connections to the world around them. The influence of Froebel Gifts is highly noted by the visionary architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, who was given a set of Froebel blocks as a child and has stated the influence that playing with these blocks had on his work as one of the most innovative architects of the modern era. Wright stated: “For several years I sat at the little Kindergarten table-top . . . and played . . . with the cube, the sphere and the triangle—these smooth wooden maple blocks . . . All are in my fingers to this day . . .” (George, 2000).

Individual artists and art collectives such as Antonio Ballester Moreno, Meow Wolf, and Get Your Life!, take art and play very seriously in their multidisciplinary work. Many of their ongoing projects and creative endeavors embrace the idea of playful explorations leading to insightful lifelong learning and other benefits.

Antonio Ballester Moreno is a Spanish born contemporary artist and curator whose current artistic philosophy and practice is similar to Fröbel’s 18th century pedagogical philosophy and methodology. Both individuals explore(d) the interconnection between creativity and activities, as informed via an understanding and engagement with the natural world. Moreno’s Vivam os campos livres (Long Live the Free Fields) (2018) is a literal ‘garden for the children,’ which is the actual German translation of Kindergarten. The sculptural installation consists of ceramic mushrooms and fungi sculpted by school children in São Paulo, Brazil, which Moreno arranged on the floor in the form of a mandala. It references Moreno’s ongoing aesthetic, social, and pedagogical interest, which manifests itself in his oeuvre of abstract geometric artwork.

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Antonio Ballester Moreno, Mountains #2, 2016, acrylic on jute, 36 1/4 x 28 3/4 inches. Courtesy of Christopher Grimes Projects, Santa Monica, California.

Within Moreno’s body of work, the concept of building on prior knowledge and experience is established through explorations that lead to insights within the framework of abstraction. For example, his large paintings such as Sol (2018), and Mountains #2 (2016) utilize an essential visual vocabulary from the elements of art (shape, line, color, balance, and form) to create archetypal imagery out of rudimentary geometric relationships. These paintings employ the aesthetics of geometry and abstraction to create new meaning and make connections to recognizable forms that already exist in nature. They illuminate how both natural and synthetic forms are all interrelated in our collective lexicon. This is akin to the way the Froebel Gifts build upon each other and enable young children to expand their vocabulary, cognition,  and creativity through activities involving play with building blocks and manipulatives.  The link between pedagogy, nature, and abstract artistic discourse was even more evident in ‘common/sense,’ a group show that Moreno curated for the 33rd Bienal de São Paulo. The exhibition featured his own work – such as the aforementioned Vivam os campos livres (Long Live the Free Fields) – alongside a display of objects from Froebel’s Gifts and mathematical games conceived by Fröbel.

Meow Wolf is a large multidisciplinary collective based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The group consists of members who have a wide range of unique personal experiences, academic knowledge, and professional backgrounds. Some of the members include artists, architects, computer scientists, designers, film producers, performers, and writers. With such an expansive creative team, Meow Wolf is able to create immersive projects where visitors can interact and fully experience the work of art in a personal and memorable manner. A work of art is meant to be experienced repletely and not just passed over with a quick fleeting glance. The summation of the artistic experience consists of the artist(s) conceiving the work and the viewer’s sensory responses to viewing and interfacing with the work. Because we each perceive things uniquely, Meow Wolf’s work enables an open-ended set of responses from the viewer. In the video above, each of the visitors describes their experience within Meow Wolf’s site-specific installation differently. It is like ‘being inside a Salvador Dali painting’ for one individual, while another person described it as ‘a big mystery’ where you have to put together clues, and yet another person interpreted it as ‘different levels of experience depending on your degree of consciousness.’ Several people aptly said that ‘it’s so cool,’ and mentioned that mere words wouldn’t do the total experience justice.

Overall, there is a unifying element to the installation, which reminds us that art, technology, and life are intrinsically connected. While we each have our own individual experiences, we also share in the collective experience that is possible through art and a cognizant embrace of technology. Meow Wolf’s installations are fun to view solo, but arguably even better to enjoy with a large group.

In his book Art as Experience (1934), Dewey stated that there is a continuity between works of art and everyday life. Engaging a work of art from an experiential and socially relevant  point of view is more fulfilling than bestowing it as an idealized object of “high art” (art for arts sake) placed behind a glass frame or high upon a pedestal. In other words, Dewey is arguing that art should serve a utilitarian purpose through its relative usefulness in reflecting and supporting our daily lives and activities. This philosophy makes even more sense when viewing Meow Wolf’s work, which can be summarized as a type of ‘art for the masses.’ Meow Wolf’s work is complex, however, it is open, inviting, and stimulating to viewers from all walks of life.

Dewey’s idea of democracy and socialization through the arts is elevated in the fun, playful, and socioculturally conscious work of Get Your Life! (GYL!) This youth-led collective/production company is made up of middle school students who harness art’s ability to empower individuals and communities. GYL! utilizes both traditional and digital materials to make a variety of art work that speaks to the current experience of the student artists. They reflect upon topics that have significance in their lives, as well as overarching themes (like consumerism, technology, education, politics, sports, etc.) that are experienced throughout the society they are a part of. The students collaborate with a wide range of professional studio artists and art organizations to realize multidisciplinary and multimedia driven projects. The consistent adult in the collective is Lee Heinemann, an artist and educator who helped develop the concept along with youth participants at 901 Arts in Baltimore, Maryland’s Better Waverly neighborhood.

One of the central projects that GYL! focuses on is video production, which is an in demand skill for today’s professional environment. The videos that GYL! creates address issues that are both highly personal as well as significant of a collective conscious among the middle school age collective. The themes in the videos are topics that are largely of interest to young adolescents, such as fashion, games, phones and electronics, and television programs like Empire (see: KARISMA: The Karisma Daniels Show). They also delve into some deeper concerns such as equality, equity, and social justice, which is playfully expressed in the video NIA: Queen Chastity Chrystal Enchantment II.

While viewing the recent Get Your Life! exhibition, titled Commons Collaboration: Get Your Life! at the Baltimore Museum of Art, I happened to have my copy of Dewey’s Art as Experience in my shoulder bag. The enchanting student art work was aptly reflective of the statement on page 132 (page number might vary depending upon the edition):

“Whatever path the work of art pursues, it, just because it is a full and intense experience, keeps alive the power to experience the common world in its fullness.”

The exhibition was a refreshing way of validating that artwork within institutions remains connected and committed to the human experience.

Overall, the use of technology by artists, educators, and students (of all ages) in mindful ways can be extremely beneficial to their social, emotional, and cognitive well-being. The keyword in the previous sentence is ‘mindful.’ Technology for technology’s sake and art for art’s sake isn’t the answer. We all need to focus on incorporating these disciplines into our daily lives in a productive and egalitarian manner. As evident in the theories and work of Resnick, Fröbel, Dewey, Moreno, Meow Wolf, and GYL! experiential learning through engaging social and meaningful processes empowers artists, techies, and laypeople to maximize their creative pursuits and enjoy a fulfilling life. As our collective society becomes more dependent on technology, we need artists and educators to reveal the enormous learning potential that technology can have when it is utilized in a both a utilitarian and highly expressive manner.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Berger, John. (1972). Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books.

Brosterman, Norman. (1997). Inventing Kindergarten. New York: Harry N. Adams Inc.

Butler, Richard. & Oldham, Elizabeth. (2007). Digital Manipulatives as Froebel’s Gifts in the 21st Century? Pre-Service Teachers Report on their Experience of Using Lego Mindstorms with Children in Irish Schools. In R. Carlsen, K. McFerrin, J. Price, R. Weber & D. Willis (Eds.), Proceedings of SITE 2007–Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference (pp. 1417-1424). San Antonio, Texas, USA: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE). Retrieved November 21, 2018 from https://www.learntechlib.org/primary/p/24762/.

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

Efland, Arthur D. (1990). A History of Art Education: Intellectual and Social Currents in Teaching the Visual Arts. New York: Teachers College Press.

Hersey, George. (2000). Architecture and Geometry in the Age of the Baroque. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 205.

Pietrowski, Amy. “The Differences of STEM vs. STEAM Education (and the Rise of STREAM).” EdTech. https://edtechmagazine.com/k12/article/2017/08/history-stem-vs-steam-education-and-rise-stream.

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

Sterling, Carol. & Burke, Fred G. “Vocational Education and the Arts Education: An Important Synergy.” Counterfocus, n17 Apr 1997.

Learning Through Play, Playing Through Art

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Nicolas Henry, Kazuko Shiriashi in her forest of poems, Tokyo, Japan, from the series The Playhouses of Our Grandparents. Courtesy of Nicolas Henry

The best known secret to learning is _____________.

You might have filled this blank in with a number of responses such as (and not limited to) experience, persistence, building proficiency, being a good student, or having a great teacher(s). All are true, however, this post will focus on something that is often forgotten or neglected in certain contemporary school environments: learning through play.

Learning through play essentially means that learning should be fun, engaging, and challenging, realized through the games and activities we all enjoy. Play enables us to think, create, and interact in a very natural and cognitive manner. One of the many benefits of play is that students eagerly develop social and emotional bonds as a result of collaboratively playing with their peers. Play enables us to communicate with each other more repletely and understand each other with greater empathy because teamwork is a large part of many games. Other essential habits of mind developed through playing include: persisting (the greater the challenge the sweeter the reward), managing impulsivity (developing metacognitive strategies to effectively solve a problem), and taking responsible risks (play embraces uncertainty and allows for calculated judgements in the absence of rules). Play is so developmentally important because it allows children to design a world uniquely for them and carve out a place where they can feel independent and in charge of their outcomes. In the classroom or school environment, play makes learning uniquely relevant to students, while strengthening their metacognitive, social and emotional, and practical (play is embodied/kinesthetic learning after all) skills. After playing or engaging in playful learning, students can reflect on what went well, what was most challenging, and what they would improve upon or change for the next time. Learning without didactic imposition is the crux of playful learning. Students learn far more by actively doing than they do by sitting and listening to a lecture.

Contemporary art embraces the element of play very efficiently. Artists seek out creative strategies to address aesthetic and conceptual issues in order to create engaging and entertaining works of art. While making art is serious undertaking, any artist will tell you that if it becomes too serious they’re not having fun anymore. Unless you’re painting by numbers, all art making combines a playful engagement with materials and subject matter. Some artists like Slow Art Collective (mentioned in an earlier post) fully utilize play in order to construct meaning in collaboration with the viewer. In fact, their work is largely conceived with the expectation that visitors will interact with it and construct new knowledge through explorations with a wide variety of materials.

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Nicolas Henry, Woo Kwong Hou doing his Tai-Chi on the rooftops of Hong King from the series The Playhouses of Our Grandparents. Courtesy of Nicolas Henry

No matter how old we are, the most wonderful thing about play is that it helps us all express our inner child. This is apparent in Nicolas Henry’s series of photographs The Playhouses of Our Grandparents, which enables participants (and viewers) to reflect on the joy of playful and dramatic storytelling. Henry traveled the world in order to meet older individuals (elders of the community) from a variety of cultures, and collaborated with them on building elaborate ‘playhouses’ that symbolize the spirit of imagination, innovation, independence, and cultural identity. In his description of the project, Henry declared: “Inside every one of us, lies the youthful spirit of a child who revels in creating with everyday items around him, a world invented entirely by his imagination.” Henry achieves this by encouraging his subjects, elders of the community, to envision their ideal playhouses, which are then collaboratively built to reflect the objects, memories, and experiences from their past and present. These playhouses are reminiscent of the forts that children imaginatively create with a variety of found materials. Looking at these playhouses, it becomes clear that, to paraphrase Walt Disney, if you can dream it, you can do it. Similar to childhood forts, these playhouses gave the elder participants a sense of sanctuary, protection, and social and emotional expression. It is so important for all of us to have a special place where we can feel safe to take creative risks, and express our autonomy from the confines of the physical and emotionally demanding world we live in.

Artists Miranda July and Nina Katchadourian also create playful works of art that break away from the mundane and stressful routines of daily life. Katchadourian’s work, realized through unique and surreal pairings of materials and subject matter might seem absurd at first glance. After all, her most famous work includes an ongoing series of in flight projects (Seat Assignment, 2010-ongoing), including bathroom selfies called Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style, in which the artist uses bathroom materials such as toilet paper, toilet seat protection covers, shower caps, and sanitary napkins to dress up like subjects in Dutch and Flemish portraiture. However, for each series of art she makes, Katchadorian carefully conceives a complex set of rules and balanced relationships for quotidian conditions. The results are playful and imaginative encounters with the banal and uninspired facets of life. Katchadorian utilizes play to reveal the creative possibilities of finding inspiration, excitement, and awe in everyday life.

In the online series Learning To Love You More (2002-2009), artists Miranda July and Harrell Fletcher posted playful prompts to engage participants (anyone who visited the website) in an artful game where they had the creative freedom to create unique visual, audio, or written responses. Learning To Love You More was structured enough to make art-centered projects accessible for a wide range of individuals who may or may not have any prior artistic experience. In other words, it was important for no one to feel left out. Each question addressed a specific and simple activity such as feeling the news,  re-enacting a scene from a movie that made someone else cry, drawing a constellation from someone’s freckles, giving advice to your past self, or making a poster of shadows. Participants were also prompted to do assignments that built off of other participant’s responses. The artists even gave participants the option to create their own prompts and give a demonstration of the prompt (via text, video, sound, drawing, photography, etc) so that others can follow along and participate. The success of these assignments was the fact that they were very specific, yet left open ended enough in order to encourage a multitude of choice, which liberated each participant’s creative endeavors. July and Fletcher’s participatory based art project unleashed individuals’ potential to create symbolic and empathetic responses to the human condition. The participants in Learning To Love You More frequently took calculated risks that made them open to vulnerability, made creative judgements in the interpretation of the rules, and expressed their unique personalities in a metacognitive, social and emotional way. This project feels quite similar to the games many of us played as children where we assigned ourselves roles and situations that reflected the way we perceived ourselves in the world and guided us to our desired personal experiences. Learning to Love You More exemplifies the benefits of play as described by psychologist Peter Gray (Gray 2011):

“(1) develop intrinsic interests and competencies; (2) learn how to make decisions, solve problems, exert self-control, and follow rules; (3) learn to regulate their emotions; (4) make friends and learn to get along with others as equals; and (5) experience joy. Through all of these effects, play promotes mental health.”

When play is supported in an art-centered learning environment, students make invaluable explorations, discoveries, and insights about themselves and the world around them. Play gives us the necessary freedom to construct our ideal social, emotional, and constructive experiences. When imagination is given free reign, we start to realize that materials are everywhere and compelling subject matter is simply dependent upon our playful and artful interaction with each other and the environment.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Elkind, David. 2017. The Power of Play: Learning What Comes Naturally. Boston: Da Capo Lifelong Books. 

Gray, Peter. “The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and Adolescents.”  American Journal of Play, v3 n4 p443-463 Spr 2011.

Sobel, David. 1993. Children’s Special Places: Exploring the Role of Forts, Dens, and Bush Houses in Middle Childhood. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.