Kyle and I just returned from our annual spring break trip to Savannah, GA.  This trip, we visited two museums and saw some really great and inspiring exhibits, some of which were fun and whimsical and an experience in and of themselves, others sparking reflective, analytical discussion, and still others applicable to the Social Studies classroom.  

Museum Visit #1: The SCAD Museum of Art 

Our first museum visit was to the new SCAD Museum of Art because artist Fred Wilson had an exhibit there entitled "Life's Link."  I first became interested in Wilson after watching his Art21 segment where he talks about having little interest in creating new things with his hands.  Instead, he wants to manipulate and curate and assemble things which already exist and fashion them in new ways to create new meaning.  I was expecting to see one of his traveling collections, something similar to what I saw in the Art21 episode, but instead I saw exactly what drew me to him in his episode.  Wilson came into the SCAD museum and looked over its permanent collection of art centered on black history, its Walter O. Evans Collection of African-American Art..  He then selected several of the artworks and reinterpreted them using Savannah bricks.  He had tons of the bricks brought in - bricks stored and left over from building projects, walking paths, ruins from around the city - and next to each piece of artwork from the original collection, he assembled a set of bricks into a sculpture that represented or reinterpreted the original work.  

Fred Wilson's reinterpretation of the Douglas work which hangs at the top of the "staircase."

We moved out of the Wilson exhibit into a hallway where two SCAD students ushered us through a door off to the side that we would have otherwise missed.  The SCAD staffer gave us an overview of artist Sigalit Landau and her exhibit entitled "One Man's Floor is Another Man's Feelings", a theme woven throughout the exhibit being the conflicts and issues revolving around her native Israel.  She explores conflict and interdependence and unity, often using textiles or resources associated with the region.  While this context certainly influenced and clarified my understanding of the work, it also confined my reading of the work to just the artist's intent...or the museum staff's interpretation of the work.  I prefer to study a work on my own first, before even looking at the title, because I want to think on it with as little influencing my reading of it as possible.  Once I've had some time to explore it on my own, then I like to learn the title and more context about the work.  That way, I walk away with a broader understanding of the work and have a few, varied readings of it, as opposed to just one limited - albeit maybe the "intended" - interpretation.  Three works in particular stood out to me:

The first work, Azkelon, was a video projected on the floor of three men on a beach, throwing knives to acquire new territory and then marking off boundaries, always trying to grow their space, invade their neighbors, and take over their land.  It was a such a repetitive process: as soon as one man would start to "win", another of the two would reclaim a chunk of the winner's land, and everything would seem to equalize again.  The process kept repeating, no one ever progressing or winning, stagnant, eventually just ridiculous.  

Sigalit Landau's "Azkelon"
The second work, which I just realized mentions the same "Azkelon" as in the previous work, is a short video of men and women sitting around a table.  A little girl underneath the table tied their shoe laces together, trying to unite them, but all of the men and women got up, leaving their shoes behind.  In the end, the little girl is left alone under the table, enclosed in a ring of shoes all tied together in a circle around her but with no people filling them.  I wonder if this represents the people's economic ties to one another: that their resources are shared or traded but that there's not unity amongst the people.
Sigalit Landau's "Erasing the Border of Azkelon"
The third work, Salted Lake, was a video of two boots made of salt sitting on the top of an iced over pond.  The video focused on the boots the entire time as they slowly melted the ice underneath them, and finally, slowly, painstakingly slowly, thawed the ice and dipped beneath the surface.  I wondered if this work was commenting on the conflict: stagnant, slow, frustrating.  But when the boots finally dipped beneath the surface, was that hope that the long, ardous conflicts would someday be resolved?  Kyle's reading of the work was that the countries in conflict are a sinking ship - or pair of boots - slowly bringing on their own demise by staying so firmly footed in their own ways, refusing to acknowledge and respect one another.
Sigalit Landau's "Salted Lake"
Classroom Applications: I see really great potential to create a unit based around these artworks, to explore the conflict, how it originated, the different countries' viewpoints and issues with one another, and to then offer more contextualized readings of the artworks based on what students learned about the history and economic and social climates of the different countries.

Museum Visit #2: Telfair Museums - The Jepson Center

The Jepson Center for the Arts (A Telfair Museum)
The second museum we visited was The Jepson Center, and while we've seen several exhibits there - from psychedelia, to nature and wildlife collections, to historic photographs and paraphenelia from Paris - the two we saw this last visit have been my favorite Jepson Center shows.  The first was a collection of light sculptures from artist Leo Villareal.

The show was pure fun, wondering "How did they do that?", "It reminds me of a party or celebration!", "I could stare at this forever...", etc.  While the works weren't really thought-provoking for me - I didn't see them as political or social commentaries - I really enjoyed the experience of just looking at them, examining them from all angles, laying on the floor underneath one of them and staring up at it.  Some works had a disco/Vegas/rave/dance party vibe to them.  Others had a tranquil/sun setting on the horizon/glowing quality to them.  It was wondrous and cool and magical and sparkly and pretty and amazing and entertaining, and I loved loved loved it.  
And I'm kicking myself for not picking up Villareal's book at the museum shop, and even though it doesn't compare to seeing the works play out in person, it's a piece of the experience:
The last show - which I only went to because Kyle was really excited for it, and he's rarely psyched to go to museums...he'll go...just with minimal enthusiasm - was on video games as a form of art: "Game Change: Video Games as Art Medium and Inspiration."  I have to say...I think I liked the exhibit just as much as Kyle did.  I had never thought of video games in the ways that these artworks provoked for me.  The first couple of works were videos of the artist exploring the boundaries of the game: walking along the edge, pushing through boulders or walls until the screen warped, just wandering through the scene.  These "walk" videos explored the limits of the illusion of videos games and those moments when you slip out of the illusion when the game warps or loses its fluidity.  There was one video of a walk through parts of Lake Loch Ness and some land bordering it.  I loved the transportive quality of it, where you feel like you're walking through the space and getting some glimpse of experiencing the real thing.  It's the same reason I love literature, but I guess I hadn't really thought of video games in that way.  

Classroom Application: You could have students do a piece of writing to transport you to a particular place.  Be very descriptive, offer a sensory experience, really try to recreate the space in as much detail as possible.  But at points, remind the reader that it's an illusion.  Go over-the-top with mood, romanticize the setting too much, make it feel more like a memory or fantasy than reality.

There were also a couple of montage videos trying to define what makes a video game a video game.  The artist zeroed in on archetypal elements of video games: jumping, ascending, battling, running, etc.  The jumping video had 1-4 second long clips from video games spanning decades and genres, showcasing the function of jumping: the desire of freedom and flight, to avoid obstacles, to move and progress, to reach great heights, to score points or rewards, to mount something, to run away, etc.  It was really interesting to see all of these moments from video games compiled in sequence, and it made me think about the ideas of jumping and ascending in more figurative, connotative ways.  

Classroom Application: Have students pick an archetype and create a compilation video of film clips or a text of quotes characterizing the archetype.  You could also have students select a theme or symbol  and synthesize passages from different texts into a "found" story or essay or manifesto.  You could have students select and define a particular plot element and compile a collection of climaxes or resolutions.  You could have students select a figure from history and compile all of the different ways they're portrayed in literature, film, news stories, etc. to help define their character.
Yesterday I attended a day-long workshop, Arts 21 meets Fluxus, at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.  The workshop was geared towards art educators, but the group I went with consisted of me, an English and Social Studies teacher;  two art teachers; a math teacher; a science teacher; and a math and science teacher.  In all there were about 40 teachers attending, and I was surprised and happy to see that a few others besides those in our group were also non-art teachers.  The workshop was everything I look for in a good workshop: a mix of theoretical lecture and discussion, specific teaching strategies, an exploration of new content to bring into the classroom, and that post workshop high where your brain is filled to capacity coupled with feeling refreshed and invigorated and itching to get back into your classroom to try some new things. 

The big idea that I took away from the workshop was "play."  We talked about giving art students time to play, to pass out tons of materials and have them experiment with new techniques.  I thought about applying the idea to my English classroom and having play days for students to experiment with punctuation and syntax and different elements of craft like metaphor and imagery.  Typically, when I ask students to write, there's a specific prompt I want them to answer or there are specific devices I want them to practice using.  Very structured.  But valuable because I need to assess their progress on a particular objective.  But also probably terribly boring when I don't also give them the opportunity to just play with language and write about what they want to write about.  I love playing with syntax.  Creating a rhythm.  Breaks.  I love experimenting with different punctuation to achieve just the type of flow I want.  And I'm a bit disappointed in myself for not giving my students to opportunity to play with language enough to maybe come to love the musicality of it.  And they might hate it.  And not see it as play at all, but as torture.  But maybe if I roll it out after some playful videos and quotes to get them into the mindset of experimentation, there's a chance they might have fun with it.

Play also seems to be a theme in artist Oliver Herring's work, and we watched a good chunk from the Art21 episode on Herring yesterday at the workshop.  The process for a few of his works involved people spitting different colored food dye up into the air and letting it spray onto their faces and shirts.  It sounds kind of gross, but Herring was taking people out of their comfort zones and asking them to do something kind of crazy and wild...and fun.  And the photo portraits of the men drenched in dye that resulted are so cool and colorful.  It looks like the portrait subjects spent the day in a paint fight, running and splashing around, and the portrait captures a quiet moment after all of the excitement died down.  And the portraits, these men covered in color, make you wonder about the story behind the picture.   

Here's a small clip for the Art21 episode on Herring.  You can see the whole thing here: 
The final portraits (Source:
Herring is also the creator of TASK: part game, part icebreaker, part team-building, part art-making, and all fun and creativity.  You need only a group of people, a box, pencils, some slips of paper, and basic building materials to do it: string, cardboard, paper, markers, crayons, recyclables, etc.  Each person in the group writes a task for others to complete and places it in the box.  Then, each person grabs a "task" out of the box and completes it.  Once you complete a task, draw a new one from the box and write a new one to place into the box.  

I've participated in two TASK events.  The first was on my first day of the 2010 Art21 Educators Summer Program; Art21 and Herring hosted it at a gallery in NYC.  At first, it was really uncomfortable being thrown into this controlled chaos with so few rules.  But once I started in on a task - creating a luxurious spread of treats and devouring them like Cookie Monster - it was silly and fun and playful and comfortable.  And the tasks were so varied: "transport me to Paris" became a huge Eiffel Tower constructed on the wall, made out of black tape; you can imagine what "write 100 different words on 100 different post-it notes and collage them on the window" would look like; and "make a jungle canopy" had strings and paper draped across the ceiling.  The TASK event introduced complete strangers - these 15 educators from across the country - to one another in such a playful, fresh way.  Starting the series of workshops with TASK set the tone for the summer program: open-minded, creative, innovative, adventurous, collaborative, and fun.  We know we'd be out of our comfort zone, that our experience would be an overwhelming, chaotic, intensive 10 days, but that it would be controlled and productive, just like TASK.

That fall, I participated in my second TASK event.  The art teacher from my school, who is also my Art21 Educators partner, and I hosted a TASK event on the first day of teacher workshops before the start of the new schoolyear.  We used it as an ice breaker to get the staff united for the start of the school year and also to get our creative juices flowing and a dialogue started.  As summer winds down, the first day of back-to-school workshops aren't typically approached with excitement and fervor, and so we wanted to do something fun to get our staff excited for the upcoming schoolyear, to wake them (and ourselves) up out of their summer stupor and get ready to take on the year.  Just as much fun as the TASK event in NYC and probably even more uncomfortable for some of the left-brained teachers, but everyone bought into it eventually, showing that TASK isn't just for creative types; it brings out the creativity in everyone. 

"People are more unusual, complicated, eccentric, playful, and creative than they have time to express."  - Oliver Herring

And Herring provides his collaborators with the time and space to be all of these things.  I think all of us need to make a bit more time to be these things more often as well.

    About Me

    A lover of literature and the arts and an advocate for global awareness and active citizenship, I spend my days with high school English and Social Studies students exploring why it all matters and how they can have a voice in the world.  This is my space to document and reflect on my practice, note happenings in education, and share my appreciation for the arts.


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