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Teachable Moments from a Conference on Art and Education

"Performing Objects: Future Archaeologies," experiment led by artist Mary Mattingly and educator Tricia Fitzpatrick. © Lloyd Mulvey.
“Performing Objects: Future Archaeologies,” an experiment led by artist Mary Mattingly and educator Tricia Fitzpatrick at Creative Chemistries (© Lloyd Mulvey) (all images courtesy ART21)

Last month, ART21 hosted an intricately interdisciplinary affair: Creative Chemistries: Radical Practices for Art + Education, a conference designed to probe the intersections of art and education. Jessica Hamlin, ART21’s director of educational initiatives, and Joe Fusaro, the organization’s senior education advisor, outlined some of the questions the event sought to tackle in an article for ART21 Magazine:

How might the exchange between contemporary artists and educators inspire visionary educational practices, reframe the work of artists, and further the promise of both fields? How might the questions that artists and educators keep asking themselves become questions for both groups in order to open up new ideas and possibilities? How can we support these forms of cross-pollination to further strengthen the goals of both art and education?

Featuring a variety of presentations, from straightforward panel discussions to workshops led by students, the lineup of Creative Chemistries mirrored the diversity of educational practice. Contributors included artists, educators, professors, and museum professionals, among many others.

Towards Equity, Access, and Social Justice. From left: LaToya Ruby Frazier, Fadwa Abbas, Dipti Desai,  Jose Serrano-Mclain. © Lloyd Mulvey. All images courtesy of ART21.
The panel discussion “Towards Equity, Access, and Social Justice,” from left: LaToya Ruby Frazier, Fadwa Abbas, Dipti Desai, Jose Serrano-Mclain (© Lloyd Mulvey)

I attended two sessions, the first a panel discussion, “Towards Equity, Access, and Social Justice,” hosted by Marit Dewhurst, director of art education and assistant professor of art and museum education and City College of New York. Dewhurst was joined by organizer, educator, and artist Jose Serrano-Mclain; artist LaToya Ruby Frazier; independent educator Fadwa Abbas; and Dipti Desai, associate professor and director of art and education programs at New York University. The discussion evidenced the conceptual dissonance that arises when mixing a dialogue about topics as conceptual as art and education with an examination of the more measurable work of social justice. As Frazier pondered: “For me it’s trying to figure out how to make the real change that I need to see in my community and not just represent it or bring voice to it.” Audience member and artist Paul Pfeiffer chimed in to offer a counterpoint to Frazier, arguing that a photograph can have a large social impact simply by its existence and need not have a second life of measurable activism. The brief exchange showed that different ways of measuring social justice efficacy are often frustratingly incompatible — is “impact” concrete or conceptual? “Towards Equity” suggested that a panel discussion may not be ideal for instructing educators on how they might use art to incorporate a multiplicity of narratives to affect change; the exercise becomes locked between immeasurable ideas and quantifiable problems. 

Meanwhile “The Language Gap” session, designed by Nick Kozak, artist educator at Manhattan Hunter Science High School, and Pfeiffer, sought to tackle this very problem: how does one talk about a diversity of narrative when each of us is trapped in the societal implications of our own speech? After a presentation by Kozak and Pfeiffer on their work, the audience was asked to participate in a game. The room was instructed to count off, without specific number assignments, until everyone had spoken; if two people spoke at once, we reverted back to number one. For a while it seemed impossible we would break five. Pfeiffer suggested we all close our eyes, and almost immediately, we broke ten. The exercise was a reminder that listening is easily dominated by seeing, and therefore requires full concentration.

"Areas for Action," experiment led by artist Oliver Herring and educator Jethro Gillespie. © Lloyd Mulvey.
“Areas for Action,” an experiment led by artist Oliver Herring and educator Jethro Gillespie (© Lloyd Mulvey) (click to enlarge)

The next activity was led by Kozak’s students. They broke the participants into four discussion groups: social norms, social hierarchies, cultural diffusion, accents/dialects. Three or four students moderated each conversation as the audience rotated through all the topics. The discussion of social hierarchies was immediately complex (at least for my group), as in this case the traditional pecking order of student/adult had been reversed. The limitations of language emerged through conversation: everyone presented, tailoring their speech to the interaction at hand, and then, because the exercise specified doing so, commented on that self-censorship.

What I noted in these sessions was that those in attendance seemed to learn most effectively through inventive participation, rather than through lectures or panels. The interactivity of Kozak’s and Pfeiffer’s exercise enabled a problem as opaque as the “limits of language” to become surprisingly rich in specific reflection, a fabulous example of the “chemistry” that the conference’s title suggests is possible — in this case, applying the logic of art to the development of art educators, and letting the experience do the teaching.

Creative Chemistries: Radical Practices for Art + Education took place at the Park Avenue Armory (643 Park Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan) on February 20–21.

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