What if… people talked about art by making art?

A month ago, I was asked on about three hours’ notice to co-teach a class at the University of Portland. The topic was interpretation and education in the museum context, so not a problem there! The catch was that my boss had planned a stop motion movie making activity… which I had never done before.

Fortunately with iPads and the StopMotion app, they’re really easy to make. It was something I learned in half an hour, and taught in less than 3 minutes.

What the students produced was pretty incredible. I led a silent looking exercise on this World War I print by Félix Vallotton and then divided the class into two teams of about 5 students, asking them to respond to it in video form. They had 10 minutes to create, start to finish.

Félix Vallotton (Swiss, 1865-1925), Dans les ténèbres (In the Darkness), plate 4 from the portfolio C'est la guerre! (This is War!), 1916, woodcut on wove paper, Gift of Tom Firman, no known copyright restrictions, 2013.50.1e, http://bit.ly/1p8CCjL

Félix Vallotton (Swiss, 1865-1925), Dans les ténèbres (In the Darkness), plate 4 from the portfolio C’est la guerre! (This is War!), 1916, woodcut on wove paper, Gift of Tom Firman, no known copyright restrictions, 2013.50.1e, http://bit.ly/1p8CCjL

They produced these two videos.


These were education students, not artists. Yet, I was blown away as they described their choices of color, symbolism, movement and abstraction, and how those represented what they had found in the print: emotion, ambiguity, historical commentary.

All I’d asked the students to do was to use a stop motion video to tell me what was happening in this picture.

We’ve played a bit in our department meetings with what emerges from looking without talking. Museum education has become so discussion-based, that it’s worth asking what we lose in discussions. When the group works together to explore one avenue collaboratively, does that cut short individual trajectories of interpretation? What would we find if we reflected alone, then came together to share?

These two videos brought that home for me. They were so different, and yet both so clear in their simplicity and brevity. Looking at them together raised deeper questions about the original image.

Félix Vallotton (Swiss, 1865-1925), Dans les ténèbres (In the Darkness), plate 4 from the portfolio C'est la guerre! (This is War!), 1916, woodcut on wove paper, Gift of Tom Firman, no known copyright restrictions, 2013.50.1e, http://bit.ly/1p8CCjL

What were those white lines above the soldier in the right hand corner? Is this an image of a good guy and a bad guy, a German and a Frenchman? Or is this an image of a more universal plight, human beings caught up in the chaos of Domino-esque alliances and mechanized militaries? Separating the groups, having them create a compelling argument for what they saw, and then coming back together allowed for contradictory interpretations to emerge.

Would it be possible to take this activity out of its highly facilitated context, and put it in the galleries?

Technically speaking, absolutely! Mounted iPads, a few brief instructions. The materials provided could vary depending on institutional comfort from scissors, paper, and colored pencils (which is what these students had) to safer alternatives such as buttons, string, and pre-cut shapes.

The challenge would be to replicate the looking exercise which preceded this creation. In class, I had led a Thinking Routine from Project Zero’s Artful Thinking: 10 Times Two. In short, you look at an image. You write ten words. You look again. You write ten more. This process gave the students time to explore the image, to notice how formal elements created tension, emotion, and narrative. I believe it’s what allowed them to create so quickly!

I think this could be done in a gallery. Imagine walking into a long interpretive space, divided by three walls, each obscuring your view of the next.

On the first wall is just a projection or reproduction of the print and a table. You’re asked to consider it and write on a provided index card 10 words to describe it. In the next space, it’s exactly the same, with a prompt to write 10 more words. The next space would be the maker space with its iPads and materials. The last would be a blank wall, a bench, and a looping projection of the videos that visitors had created, next to a third projection of the original image.

I’d love to see this in action. I’d love to see how visitors used the space. How they misused the space: skipping steps, flowing backwards to remake in response. What conversations emerged between visitors, between the videos and the original image, and between the videos themselves.

The downside to this is, of course, that the need to have the same image appear in three different physical locations makes it impossible to use most original works of art. But, in some ways, that flaw is also a strength. Any image could be used, from any collection. The process is entirely content-agnostic. Additionally, the prompt could change in five minutes, without the headaches which accompany deinstallation and reinstallation, keeping the activity fresh for repeat visitors.

Flexibility is also particularly significant in light of recent events, including Ferguson, and the subsequent calls upon museums to step up as a reflective space for communities to process. Open ended, creative, making activities such as this one can be a space for catharsis, for communication, for healing. After the past month, after watching Boston-area museums respond to the Marathon bombings, and after hearing conference sessions on healing communities, I think outlets like this should be a part of museums’ disaster preparedness.

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