This text is part of my MA studies at the University of Openness, if you wish please consider your self a tutor, and send any comments to my email address, firstname.lastname@example.org.
I was asked to speak at a conference in on 'art mediation' in Germany it was called “Where are you running to?” I expereinced it mediated through a translator, a young woman called Caroline Mannweiler who whispered in my ear for three days. The addition of Caroline’s subjective understandings were part of a fluid process with meaning constantly changing, being embellished and eroded within us and in the spaces between us.
I am writing in English, Caroline will translate these words into German, we have an agreement that she will add anything she wants and change it as she sees fit. The responsibility for the text as a whole is my own.
Since 2000 I’ve been working as an artist and as an educator and experimenting with synthesising aspects of both. I’m part of the University of Openness, described as a self-institution for emerging and experimental approaches to individual and collaborative meaning making, and a context for socialising research. I’m using the UO to develop my M.A, a methodology for living and relating to people in an urban, late capitalist context which includes the work I do and the things I do and make. I use the UO to enable interactions with institutions and to provide me with some protection from unstable terms of engagement
The Methodology I’m developing, and perhaps a useful way to think of art mediation, is a process of inter subjective meaning making based on the ability to engage with information, make one’s own sense of it and the facility to communicate that sense. This text is part of such a process, I’m working it out as I go along, linking ideas I’ve encountered with experiences I’ve had or devised for myself.
Since 2000 I have made work in a variety of forms and contexts, I will describe the work I’ve made, while employed by art galleries, the terms of my engagement and their implications as I see them.
My interactions with art galleries are always on a casual, part time, freelance basis. They can be divided into three formats, workshops, residencies and what I’ll call repurposing, that is, using the workshop context to develop ‘my own’ work. Workshops are usually with groups of people identified as ‘excluded’ (a term I see as problematic but discussion of which is beyond the scope of this text). Most galleries I’ve worked for request the same simple format consisting of: Welcoming a group of visitors to the gallery, talking with them, about the art work on display in order to encourage them to think and respond. Then proposing a series of making and/or drawing activities, which engage with the artwork on show and enable the participants to develop their understandings of it.
Residencies have involved the gallery linking me with a school, require that I deliver some educational activities and include a commission to make artwork, in some way, responding to the context. Sometimes I repurpose a workshop as active research, turning it into an opportunity to work experimentally with a group of people, to feed my ideas and make artwork rather than reproducing the standard workshop format.
The Serpentine Gallery, London has links with many primary school groups and services for adults. Some of these groups are; adults with aphasia, with learning difficulties, users of mental health services and an Albanian refugee group. The Serpentine employs artist’s whose work they feel relates to the work on show to provide their workshops. Employment is part time and occasional. Two artists are selected by the gallery and work together to plan and deliver the workshops. I learn as much as I can about the work on show and consider carefully how to nurture the group, make them feel welcome and minimize the impact of what I perceive as potentially alienating, exclusive aspects of the gallery’s culture. I communicate my fascination for each of their personal ways of seeing and together we build an understanding of the work and perhaps insights about ourselves and society. I learn a lot in these sessions. Meaning is constructed consensually and individually through interaction between the artwork, the group and the artists enabling the process.
At the Serpentine Gallery, with a group of teenage Albanian refugees, we looked at an artwork by David Shrigley. It consists of two table tennis bats, one large and one small, two balls one large and one small. On the small bat is written ‘your family’ on the large one it says ‘the social services’ on one ball it says ‘you’ and on the smaller one says ‘your wee sister’. As we discussed the piece one of the teenagers who had been silent untill this moment, said very passionately ‘this is my life’ and another said ‘this is wrong, the family is stronger’. Thus the visiting teenage boys connected their own life experience with a piece of art work, I can only speculate on the effect this had on them, what I take from it is the potential to bring people who would not usually meet together to think philosophically, poltically and socially, an opportunity for participants to say how they see their own lives and society. Through this process of relating my ideas with theirs we make sense of the world and artwork as well as ourselves. The discussion with the Albanian boys developed, their responses adding as much to a reading of David Shrigley’s work as a catalogue essay by an art critic or a gallery talk by an academic.
The Whitechapel Gallery and Camden Arts Centre education departments have residency schemes, placing artists in local schools. The artist works closely with the school’s art teacher and gives a series of workshops. The artist is then commissioned to make a piece of work that in some way relates to the school. My presence and approach in schools as part of these schemes presented new ways of thinking about art to school children and made me, possibly, a dubious role model.
In 2001 Camden Arts Centre gave me a residency at Emmanuel primary school in north London. Engaging with the possibility that Schools have always been the place where future workers are made, I wanted to actively research what I’d read about the behavioural conditioning and power dynamics played out in physical and social infrastructures. I wanted to see if it were possible to work in a collaborative way with a class of children and sidestep the role of authority figure. I regularly visited a class of 30 children aged 7. I asked them to make subjective maps of their school containing information that would be useful to children who were new. I showed them how to colour code the maps and to make a key. I asked that the maps contain information that children needed to know to get about, not get in trouble and make friends. As part of our research process I asked the children to take me on a tour of the school, tell me what happened in each place and how they felt in these places. One child said ‘you feel warm in the playground because people are with you” and another said he felt happy in the computer room and scared in the classroom. As a tool to help the children to make the maps I rigged a mini wireless video camera to a helium balloon and filmed the school from the sky. The resulting footage was rather bad quality, I thought it looked ok but the children said it wasn’t good enough so I shot it again with much better results. The work was produced through lots of different kinds of negotiation, in the end I wouldn’t call it collaboration, I was seen as another kind of teacher but one result of the project, I feel, was that each of the children developed their own, sharper awareness of how places effect the way we think, behave and feel. I emphasised the value of taking seriously their own thoughts and feelings about their environment.
For a residency with the Whitechapel Gallery I was placed at Central Foundation School for girls in East London. I was interested in self-educating initiatives and the territorialisation of space. I produced an online interactive map, showing that the areas where students felt most stressed within the school buildings and where they felt at ease in the less regulated peripheries of the school grounds. The map has clickable hotspots, which reveal photographs of the student’s activities in the spaces, which are less subject to control. I gathered information by approaching groups of girls, sitting on the ground and talking with them. After they had checked out what I was wearing they were mostly prepared to talk to me. Girls showed me areas where they are not supposed to go, places where they talked to boys through the perimeter fence and where they slid down banisters, I documented, among other things, a water fight and a game of indoor football with an empty plastic bottle. One girl was eager to show me the door to the supposedly disused, haunted swimming pool. All this became part of the map.
During both these schools residencies I involved local children in fluid processes. I built on what was already familiar to them, encouraged critical thinking and explored with them how our behaviours are shaped as politics is played out in institutional space. These projects expanded the student’s ideas about what contemporary art can be while allowing me to make work, gain some momentum and develop my own thinking. Some of the results of this process for me were: a better understanding of the play of micro politics in institutional space, a development of my urban climbing group, and a broader understanding of self-education, feeding into work with the University of Openness. The Whitechapel Gallery schools residency also required that artists deliver standard format workshops on the exhibitions in the gallery, I feel that emphasising the artist’s commission and facilitating student engagement with it has more scope for experimental educational methodologies and broadening the students ideas about art.
There is government funding for artists in schools in the UK. This results in many valuable learning and creative experiences for teachers, children and artists. Within this context I see potential intrumentalisiation and manipulation of the word creativity, which seems to be used to mean flexible or adaptive behaviour and can be linked to preparation for survival in an increasingly deregulated job market.
This quote comes from Creative Partnerships, a UK wide initiative linking the arts with schools.
“Creative learning doesn't just improve the quality of everyday life. In the workplace, employees who can think and act creatively are more agile and flexible. Creative employees adapt proactively to challenge, ensuring business is ready for anything.”
The Creative Partnerships website
I also wonder if self-reliant artists with self-motivated practices might make excellent role models for children and young people in a political climate where the profits of big business are prioritised over self-actualisation and where secure working conditions are no longer a reality.
On some occasions I have been able to repurpose a workshop for the making of ‘my own’ research and/or artwork.
This strategy is necessary because although delivering workshops is fascinating; participants engage, I grow, we all have positive experiences and learn. Its short-term work and I regularly start from scratch ringing round galleries offering the same service, loosing momentum. I began to develop a different way of working after Leanne Turvey at the Chisenhale gallery offered me time and space to work with 15 primary school children aged seven to eight and their teacher. The exhibition in the gallery was Gary Web sculpture, Leanne didn’t stipulate that I respond to the work and allowed me freedom in devising whatever activities I wished. I used the workshop format and repurposed it as a research lab for my thinking about learning schemas and how children describe play. Anna Lucas, a filmmaker was invited to document the week, as part of the activities. We made a video for adults presented by children giving tips about how to play.
The schemas I used in the workshops were: circularity and containment. I created a structured atmosphere of relaxed, playful experimentation and asked the children to show how ‘round and round’ could be explored. Spontaneously children did summersaults, invented a spinning drawing machine, sang a circular song, pointed out all the things in the room that were round, drew circles and one child explained the difference between a circle and a sphere. I discovered that when asked to work with a single schema the children demonstrated their learning styles. This research reinforces for me the need to respect and support the many varied ways we have of thinking and understanding the world.
When exploring the concept of containment many of the children made dens out of cardboard. This was the beginning of ‘Building an Alternate Reality out of Cardboard’. A workshop/research process looking at what kinds of societies children make when they play and how they live in them when engaged in ‘free flow play , deep involvement in make believe. I’ve since developed ‘Building an Alternate Reality out of Cardboard’ in a number of contexts including a workshop at Camden Arts Centre and as a research activity at W..Wir Wissen exhibition and convergence of free universities at the Exnergasse Gallery in Vienna. Outcomes of my collaboration with Anna Lucas in some of these contexts were two posters entitled How To…., with instructions for how to play and how to collaborate based on statements made by participants.
A number of artists continue to attempt to use gallery education contexts to make artwork that has a life beyond the workshop. For example Anna Lucas’ roots and herbs project for the South London Gallery, and Barby Asante’s wig therapy for the Hayward Gallery. This however, adds another aim beyond meeting the needs of the gallery and the user groups, that of creating a coherent outcome which can transmit ideas in contexts other than those of education and community. It’s an extremely demanding approach, and requires support. The processes and outcomes of this form of artist’s engagement are extremely valuable, they benefit the few galleries, which are able to, fund and give scope to artists who use this approach by commissioning them.
This model of repurposing workshops, developed out of necessity isn’t a solution in a climate of increasingly precarious employment and devolved responsibility on the part of employers. Perhaps It’s not sustainable, the strain is often absorbed by the self employed, part time freelancer rather than being shared by the galleries who have a responsibility to support the artist/educators they employ by guaranteeing them regular employment, insurance, sick pay, maternity leave and pensions.
During a workshop on Tomoko Takahashi’s work, I asked a man how this art-work related to his own life, he was using a wheel chair and said that recently he had been able to take a few steps while holding onto something sturdy, he grabbing a part of the installation and hauled himself up. I smiled weakly and congratulated him while telling him to sit down, the gallery staff chimed in with me. I see this as a reminder that contemporary art can inspire us to do many things only some of which are acceptable within the culture of most galleries. A group of elegant, wealthy women where in the gallery at the same time as this group of ‘adults with learning disabilities’. The convergence of ‘user groups’ with gallery going public contributes to making the gallery a shared resource which I hope can be an active space reflecting the complexity of our society and culture, a space where we can step out of the boxes we are barricaded into or choose hide within.
At the moment gallery space is unfairly apportioned, I see more space and visibility given to work, which is not of the dominant culture, as enriching galleries making them more interesting, socially relevant places. The insights gained during workshops contextualise the work in the gallery, add to it’s value and meaning when given a public output to augment the exhibitions. This can helpfully problemetise the current system, which maintains social polarisation by seeing difference between the value of the art of the exhibiting artist and the value of the responses created by mostly invisible ‘user groups’, (including marginalised and economically deprived people). There is no reason why the outcomes of projects made by participants with artists cannot be qualitatively worthy of being displayed in a gallery. The question of the creation and showing of quality creative outcomes is a much easier hurdle to leap than the barriers created and maintained by the culturally and economically privileged few at the heads of major arts institutions.
Most galleries currently reflect and maintain societal divisions and hierarchies. Through innovative access, learning and exhibitions policies this is changing. Artist working towards opening up access to cultures and knowledges in galleries need to be well supported.
Galleries that invite and value a variety of voices are more useful, alive and multi-dimensional they becomes places where each of us can enrich our worldviews in the knowledge of each other’s.
1 Tina Bruce, Childcare and Education
2 Thank you to Liz Ellis for this term.