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

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 Most of the old artisan trades have been superseded by giant corporations like Walmart and Monsanto.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


References: 

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

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

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

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

Being in the Material: Living & Learning Artfully

There are many theories and practices that focus on living ‘artfully,’ which means that the very act of living is a constant yearning for means of expression, and as Oscar Wilde stated, “art offers it (life) certain beautiful forms through which it may realise that energy.” We simply have to take the time to look around us, because there is already an abundance of materials and experiences for us to work with.

Vik Muniz is a Brazilian contemporary artist who is renowned for his large scale photographic works that often comment on the plight of poor communities throughout Brazil. He appropriates iconic imagery, such as Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat, which he re-conceptualizes using unconventional materials such garbage. His Marat (Sebastião) (2008), depicts Tião Santos, a garbage picker from Jardim Gramacho, one of the largest landfills in Latin America. Muniz started by photographing Santos, in the exact pose as Marat in David’s composition. Next, the photograph was ‘painted’ with garbage so that the image of Santos was developed by arranging layers of debris from Jardim Gramacho. The resulting ‘painting’ was then photographed again.

Exploration of materials is a major component of artistic learning and development. Through exploring a material’s properties, an artist discovers ways to change the material in order to make visual matches that convey symbolic meaning. Muniz’s work is a good example of how an artist thinks within the material (even better that the materials he uses are unconventional) and creates something entirely new and unexpected. Because of the lack of funding for the arts across the nation, it is even more essential for art educators to get creative with the materials they introduce to their students. Everyday objects are especially useful because they can be sourced for free or little cost, and provide a wealth of affordances for the maker to create expressive works of art. Using materials that we’re familiar with in our everyday lives, adds a level of personal and/or collective cultural significance to a work of art. In the case of Muniz’s art, his materials embody the essence of the work’s subject matter and add a uniquely poignant humanist outlook on the value and agency of human beings.

Furthering his response to issues regarding the human condition, Muniz has been a proponent of art education in areas where children have very little exposure to the arts. He is opening a school in Brazil where young children from diverse backgrounds can develop studio habits of mind that will help them become critical and visionary members of society.

Being in the Material: Living & Learning Artfully