Day 6

OMG I Look So Fucking Beautiful! or That Dream Got Me Good!

I loved screen-printing today! It was great to do something super hands-on with materials. I think everyone appreciated a break from so much thinking and performance, and relished in the kind of routine assembly-line teamwork that we set up in order to get it all done! We felt like good workers and art laborers!

 

Action Fighters

There was a bit of downtime, so we returned to the zines. We got so industrious, and really fed off of each other’s collages and drawings. Before we knew it, the pages for the zines were done, and they’re amazing! It’s so exciting to see what you can do with a dedicated group. It’s also nice to see all of their very different styles and voices in the final project and see that this analog format can still be very powerful and relevant.


 




Final Day before the Opening

(Yvonne’s list, keeping us on task)

No more time for thinking, just execution! Everyone worked together to get it all done. We had to do some re-filming of the performances, and then did all the tasks left to do: hanging receipts, putting up vinyl, putting up the posters, etc. It all got done, and we even managed to brainstorm a performance for the public opening event. WOW. I’m so amazed at how it all came together.

Views of the Installation


Opening


 

I am super anxious at first as the crowd trickles in. I’m worried that no one will come, that we’ve put so much energy into this, and the students will be disappointed. Robert is hiding behind the front desk. The girls are talking, laughing, nervous.

 


People start coming. We introduce them to the students and have the students walk them around. Is this a good idea? Maybe the students just want to relax? But the change that comes over both parties when they tell them about our process, about the stains, the performances, the umbrellas. It’s amazing. I’m beaming with pride. So many people are coming up to me in awe of the level and amount of work done. The genuine respect that they have for the students and the way that the students take themselves seriously is inspiring for me. A friend texted me the next day: “I’m still thinking about how good the show you organized is…Man, formally and conceptually…BAM you did it!”


 



I left beaming! I tried to think critically- what could be improved, what wasn’t working-but tonight I’m just happy!


A group shot of the participating students and project facilitators after performing at the opening night reception.

A group shot of the participating students and project facilitators after performing at the opening night reception.

This experience has changed me in that I try to think more about the present moment. I question myself: how well do I treat myself presently? “We always think about the future and we reflect upon the past, but what about the present?” I love that question we asked our interviewees. I was brought up to go to school so that I’ll have a career, start a family and repeat. So we always tend to think about a better future, but we don’t think about how we feel presently. What if tomorrow is not there? I think because of this project, I’m more of the ‘right now me’.

Cindy Liang, reflecting on the impact of participating in the project.

Huong’s Reflections

We set out to create a platform for actions that were poetic responses to our everyday realities of labor and value.

I know I might sound like a gushing teacher, but I did not expect that I would feel so humbled, inspired, and excited by the students. Their perspectives constantly challenged my own ideas in the most refreshing ways. I also continue to think about the questions that we asked others and ourselves- How much is enough? How do you imagine the present? Why do we try?- these questions I keep asking myself and asking others around me. Maybe at one time in my life they were crystalline, but they are now incredibly difficult! How beautiful the clarity of youth!

What’s amazing to me is how honest the students were and how much of their personalities came out during that little time we had together. It often takes whole semesters for a group to gel like that. I think everyone felt included from the beginning.

There is something lost in teaching when one becomes habituated to it: where each student is on his/her own, where competition is embedded in the structure of evaluation, where the teacher must wield power in order for a classroom to function, where the plan for the class is determined before even meeting the students. We are lucky in that we had a dedicated team that attended the workshop by choice and were motivated to do good work for its own sake.

I keep thinking of the William Morris quote “The work must be worth doing” which we immortalized on one of our screen-printed posters. How true, and how powerful the effect of simply pulling these words and setting them on paper was, at least, to me. I think about them almost daily now. Indeed how it would change the world if everyone did.

I have been thinking about the concept of “education as the practice of freedom,” an idea that cycles around in the writings and pedagogy of radical educators like John Dewey, Paolo Freire, Myles Horton, and bell hooks. The word “freedom” seems to catch and polarize people whenever I bring it up. In the workshop, we attempted to investigate freedom, not in the sense of autonomy from the trappings of the market and economic responsibility, but in a reengagement with those structures through a liberating intellectual practice that is both immanent and transformative. As a workshop with the limited timeframe of just over a week, we had to set as our goal not to have all of the answers, but to work on a process together to generate the right questions—a toolkit for curiosity and inquiry that the students could take anywhere, or in Dewey’s sense of the term, a freedom to learn whatever one wishes to learn. Yet, we also had a socially and politically activist goal closer in line to Freire and hooks in that we were interested in education not just as a way to learn about the world, but learn about ourselves in relation to the world, and thus understand the structures of power that underpin our everyday actions. Finally, I believe my own mission as an educator aligns most closely with Horton, who sees the end goal as not just knowledge about the world and our own place, but ultimate civic action in changing the injustices that we witness around us.

The title for the workshop, “Acting the Words is Enacting the World,” expands on Freire’s philosophy that he developed while teaching adult literacy in Brazil: “Reading the Words is Reading the World.” In other words, reading about the world in other people’s words is also a way of understanding their perspective of the world. Language and subjective knowledge are inextricably linked. In our version, we wanted to emphasize action as a way of enacting the philosophies that we hold true to our realities. I realized the other day that we hadn’t told students about the origin of the title. This is probably just a funny oversight on our part, but it reminds me of my favorite story from “We Make the Road By Walking,” a book that collects conversations between Paolo Freire and Myles Horton. Horton recollects one of his favorite moments when setting up Citizenship Schools—small, grassroots organizations in the 1950’s in which rural, mostly African American adults learn to read and write in order to vote, run for office, and advocate for civil rights. He talks about how he met a young woman (not just any young woman, but a young Septima Clark) and how before he could tell her what he did, she told him about this amazing school she had started in which she taught people to read and write in order to vote. He asked if anyone knew about the schools yet, and she said that no, but they will one day!

This spirit of total ownership that Clark had over her school, and the humble manner of Horton’s leadership has always inspired me. I hope that in the same way, this workshop can be owned by anyone—students, educators, facilitators to use. Not professing it to be a replicable model, we merely offer suggestions for dialogue and action. It is up to the needs of the group for them to take and make as their own.

I never took into account “value” and how value is measured and who creates the value of let’s say a phone or a shirt. I still don’t have the answers, but it opened my eyes to the thought.

Giovanni Martinez’s response when asked if his understanding of ‘value’ had changed after completing the project.

Hong-An’s Reflections

About a month before we embarked on Acting the Words is Enacting the World, I re-read the debate that played out on the pages of Artforum in 2006 between Claire Bishop and Grant Kester about socially engaged art practice. I have always been partial to Bishop’s critique of the turn to ethical criticism over aesthetic judgments when evaluating socially engaged work, which is why I think we made it our priority to consider our aesthetic choices carefully throughout the project. I’m also interested in an art practice that moves beyond liberal humanist criticism – and again I think this is why I am so interested in the possibilities of an organic intellectual in destabilizing positions of power. I’m not interested in the debate that seeks to police the borders of what is defined and canonized as art – but I have been challenged by my own internal question: What is at stake in doing this kind of project?

I am interested in both political content and political form. I have struggled with the division between my work as an activist and an artist. As an activist, it is difficult for me to do collaborative work that assumes a position of absolute power and authority, and to relegate “collaborators” to nameless and authorless participation. Because I am interested in radical pedagogies, I think it is especially important for me in my work with others to not ignore power relations or feign equality in the classroom or within the project. Further, I think it’s also important for me to be up front about what I hope participants will get out of it or what I hope they will learn. In my work of socially engaged projects, I don’t want to instrumentalize my participants or collaborators, make them symbols or somehow players in a game I am trying to orchestrate.

In reflecting about why our collective creative process seemed so organic, I am thinking about our approach to putting together the group and our approach to working with everyone. Last spring I worked on a collaborative project with a group of community college students, which explored the theories of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. Since then, I had been thinking about Gramsci’s notion of the organic intellectual – the belief in the creation of a socialist consciousness that would arise from the lives of working people. It was this idea that expanded his notion of the intellectual, and the role of the intellectual in revolution. So I had continued to think about this idea in formulating this project, asking, what are the possibilities for the organic and traditional intellectual? I think part of why this project seems to be so organic is precisely because it is taking as its starting point the organic intellectual.

The students who are participating in this project came to us from other teaching experiences we had had with them – but their economic and cultural backgrounds, and their educational experiences and their educational goals are completely varied. This not only makes for a completely invigorating conversation, it also means that it shifts or at least makes unstable our own positions of power as co-facilitators / teachers.  Each person’s experiences and skills were valued – and more importantly taken up as a recognized point of difference that helped further shape the project.  I am thinking of a few particular examples: when we realized the gem of a phrase that Evalise exclaimed during a discussion on the role of desire and narcissism in consumer Capitalism (OMG I Look so Fucking Beautiful!), we decided it must be used in some written form in the installation; we continued to work on the zine even though we were running out of time and steam for it because we really wanted to highlight Robert’s amazing drawing skills.

Finally, to create a project like this has made clear a few things about what makes socially engaged art legible to critics or art historians. First, the artist must always be the author. But for our project, we insisted on an authorship that named everyone and all. While certainly we were the architects of the project, and we didn’t want to diminish that aspect, we also wanted to be clear that the decisions we were going to make about what would be in the gallery was going to be a collective decision. The amazing thing is that everyone ardently agreed! No one wanted text on the wall stating one person’s handiwork or another. It was in this spirit of collaboration that it felt like this funny little utopic art community – albeit short-lived but fantastic as a small, contained experiment.

Another aspect of the project that distinguishes what we did with socially engaged work that often gets critical attention is that our pedagogical goals were first and foremost. All the students who participated got a crash course in Capitalism and Marx’s critique of Capitalism – a dialogue that perhaps some of them might not ever have.  Typically, when it comes to “real” effects of socially engaged work, the effect must be gestural or symbolic. In the rare case, it is literal, having a “real” effect on existing social structures or relationships. The role or value of pedagogy, or the process of learning and community-building, is not not often given much critical consideration.

When the effectivity of “real” activist work happens, as in the case of Tania Bruguera’s latest project, Immigrant Movement International, it is only in claiming its status as an art project, and her role performing and orchestrating the events around it, that gives it value and intrigue. And for this, I really appreciate her project because it is using art (and its funds) as a platform to not only mobilize and build community, but also to bring attention to the political actions of a community already mobilized. But it also reminds me about the role of the artist, and why one should lay claim to such practices as art.

In our project, we used art practice as a process for learning and also as its outcome. In some ways, it was a meta-art project, using its own means to examine itself and ourselves. What is at stake? Why was it important to meet everyday at EFA Project Space? For me, what’s at stake is transformation, both on individual and institutional levels. I believe in transformative experiences. I am also probably one of the few people who still believes in the liberatory possibilities of public (free!) education. There’s something simple and fantastic and transformative about learning something, creating something that speaks to that learning, and sharing it with others. This, in a nutshell, is what happened. I’m interested in generative social possibilities that such a project can create – even if it is only for our small group of eleven people. It is an experiment in community building, not based on a nostalgic notion of a utopic time, space or activity, but grounded in a real conversation about the politics that are relevant, and using the best tools available to us: our ideas.