Its been over a week since we’ve been back from, er, “performing” in New York’s Carnegie Hall at ITAC4 with our presentation “A School of One’s Own” (with artist Gillian Steel). Before I have a go at describing what we did I’m going to describe some of the events I attended and some of the thoughts I came to.
First off something I didn’t attend. Unfortunately, due to some technical issues, I watched the introduction and first key note speechs online on my return to Scotland. Which was a bit of a shame (insert emoji sad face). There was lots of information about the ITAC collaborative project, the beginnings of an online timeline of participatory arts, as well as some interesting insights into the situation in the States. Perhaps due to the lack of public funding and different political context participatory arts has come to occupy a space that is nearer to activism than I think is the case in Scotland. The key note speech around Amplifier.Org is a case in point: developing out of the Dakota Access Pipeline Protests and protests against Trump, it has created a platform for disseminating protest materials. Whilst not doubting the sincerity of those involved, I had some misgivings about this as an example of Teaching Artistry or indeed as a model of activism. You can see the ITAC4 videos here. You can also see an introduction to the conference by our own Joan Parr of Creative Scotland as well as Eric Booth, the key instigator of the term “Teacher-Artist” (a term I first came across in 2011 and wrote about here).
So the first session I attended was “Story Activism: Facilitating Emphatic Creative Collaboration Through Visual Storytelling” with Chitra Chandrashekhar, which was an interesting take on graphic storytelling. What was exciting about this presentation was the creation of something open-ended yet still engaging and beautiful to look at (see below). From a basic story that began in Hindu mythology, new stories were being generated that spoke to current concerns and diverse audiences. Chitra used a variety of techniques and worked with a cross section of participants, many of whom wouldn’t normally engage with this kind of work. I sensed in this context we were quite a difficult audience and Chitra’s self effacing demeanour wasn’t entirely at ease with giving us the initial direction to get us started. As my first breakout session it was quite clear how many different takes there are on idea of the teacher artist and what the essential qualities of collaborative practice might be and where perhaps different peoples comfort zones were at odds.
My next session was “the Art of Playing” which was to take me quite a bit outside my comfort zone (this was in fact a bit of an ongoing issue for myself as many of teacher artists came from a performance background in dance and drama). So my initial particular boundary to be challenged in this instance was in dance where we were invited to form a circle and move around making eye contact with different people. The speaker Victor Martinez was from Columbia and showed us some of the techniques he had used with indigenous groups for whom eye contact is something of a taboo, particularly along gender lines. An American person in the audience, who was originally from Finland, questioned Victor on this approach to “shyness”, when often times this could be seen as something of a defining cultural characteristic of some groups. It sparked an interesting debate and I took away some ideas of how you might break the ice with a group who didn’t know each other.
The day ended with a poetry performance by Lemon Anderson which was informed by his experience as an orphan of a family overtaken by Aids and Heroin addiction. It was a great to hear the rhythms and language of New York’s streets against a backdrop of the skyline that imposes through the double height windows of the Weiss Music Room. It was the first time to hear issues of social justice explicitly and unapologeticly articulated at the conference (doh! you missed the keynote speakers) and amusing to hear people click their fingers in appreciation, in a tradition, I was informed, that had initially started with the beatniks as a way of showing appreciation without the disruption of applause.
The morning of Day 2 of the conference was taken up with a visit to the Lincoln Centre that was a hop across a road from our accomodation in the Empire Hotel. We were here for a presentation of Aesthetic Experiences and Social Imagination with Lincoln Centre Education. To begin with we were split into groups and taken into spaces to do workshops prior to the performance. The presentation looked at images from race riots and took us on a journey to where by the end of it there were a couple of songs written. From here we were led into the auditorium for a performance of “Soundtrack ’63” billed as “a live, multimedia musical performance and retrospective of the African-American experience in America”. As you might imagine it was by turns shocking and intense, shaped by live music from an 18 piece orchestra that alternated between dissonance and harmony to tell a parallel story of richness of African-American music. To be honest I was surprised of how much of the story was unfamiliar to me.
In a reflection session following the performance we returned to our groups and had an opportunity to discuss what we felt about what we had seen. The event was interesting to me, having never been in a forum where I had to think about my self as white (having been brought up and living in what is a fairly monocultural environment). It was a shame that we didn’t have much time to extend the conversation as the session only lasted for about 15 minutes. Again this experience at the Lincoln Education underlined how broad the understanding of what the role of a teacher artist might be, with this, for me, sitting more in the teacher role or the wider education remit that museums and publicly funded theatres might deliver.
For the afternoon I was back at the Carnegie Hall (not I sentence I ever imagined having to write) with the keynote speech of Marc Bamuthi Joseph, activist and spoken word artist. In a powerful yet intimate address, Marc offered a series of challenges – for instance who would we be if we spent even 1% of the pentagon’s budget on a department of inspiration? This was a fantastic and wide ranging speech which retained its power when screened in front of a sharing the learning event in the Lighthouse back in Glasgow recently (at which it was very nice to see so many of the Scottish participants from the conference at). You can see the film of the talk here at around the 4 hour 38 minute mark.
Following this talk I was booked onto a session with indigenous Australian artist and Tony Albert and Educator Charlotte Calleguillos on their project Solid Ground. In some ways this was a much more conventional presentation of Power Point and Q and A. The model that they had used was one of artists in residence in schools and was interesting for the lack of demands made on the artists in terms of how they engaged. The key point was to have practicing indigenous artists visible within schools and encourage more young people from the same heritage to consider working in the arts as a viable career option. Their approach was long range and spoke of the tenacity and commitment needed to make this kind of work. Albert described how his particular residency developed culminating in the production of a beautiful hard backed book which celebrated Gadigal Country. I am ashamed to say, despite having studied Australian cinema, that I didn’t realise that Indigenous peoples aren’t one nation in Australia but over 240. I also ashamed to say that though I got the book I failed to be one the few that got the matching tote bag.
Into the next session and a whole other continent. Christiana Deliewan Afrikaner, was from Namibia and described a project with radically different aims any I come across in Scotland. Effectively it was looking to utilise existing dance movements to create cultural experiences for tourists in return for cash. The central theme was to empower young people from a marginal community in Namibia. Again I was struck by the diversity of approaches of Teacher Artists from around the globe, and how their emphasis changed in reference to Art, Teaching and how they engage with communities as well as the needs on the ground.
After a performance by Urban Bush Women, we made our way across town to Brooklyn and a “live podcast party and dine around”. The concerns here, though touching on those of Namibia, seemed a million miles away and very keyed into the identity politics of which pronouns to address individuals by (in a number of sessions people had added these to their name badges, as in he/him, he/she, them/they). What was striking in amongst this was that though there were many references to ethnicity and gender, there was very little discussion of the ideas around class, which seemed a bit incongruous for a conference based around the idea of social justice. I would say that in the uk all of these discussions would be a hedged around an idea of not appearing to be too worthy, or perhaps might be suffused with a self consciousness around this. But that might just be me.
The mornings key note on the last day of the conference was by Liz Lerman, a choreographer, writer and speaker (amongst other things). Inspiring, she garnered lots of finger clicking and left us with numerous tantalising ideas..7 kinds of wealth…changing the hierarchy of arts practices….
With lots to mull over I went along to do some stitching at the collaborative flag making project.
My next breakout, Creative Environments at the Heart of New Learning, again focussed on work being done in the Southern Hemisphere. Ines Sanguinetti’s session was mainly focussed on some of the techniques they used in the challenging settings of Argentinian slums as part of the organisation Crear vale la pena. Again my comfort zone was invaded by the request to join in the dance, hold hands and other practices alien and bizarre to the inhabitants of the west coast of scotland. We were also asked to think through pictures of how we might breakdown the borders of science and art. It occurred to me during this session that I wasn’t so much participating, as thinking about it as a model of participation which kind of got in the way of participating….
I was much more comfortable in the next session that I went to: “Activating Artisty in Schools: A Global Conversation”. There was a presentation from two academics from Australia alongside one from Think Arts of Mumbai. There were lots of interesting questions raised about risk and what young people stand to gain from this kind of work. There were also a lot of healthy links to stuff that was already happening in Scotland such as Room 13. For me there were lots of questions around how you stop things becoming institutional and how an element of jeopardy can enliven arts practice in schools.
With that it was the closing plenary of the Conference. There was lots to take in, lots to reflect on about Teaching Artistry in Scotland. Being exposed to people with a very different view on what their work was, was refreshing and challenging. It was kind of heartening that in some ways, and this will sound conceited, but Scotland is ahead of the game in terms on artists working in schools for instance, and was often cited as a model of good practice.
Anyway back to the beginning and our own workshop. Having applied for the spot at ITAC4, not really thinking we would get it, it was possible to think big and then when we got it how to rescale it as it became apparent that we couldn’t fit what we had originally planned into the allotted time or space. So we developed the initial ideas as new information came in from ITAC4 and tried not to get too nervous. As it was we needn’t have bothered with the nerves: the participants were all wonderful and enthusiastic, sometimes a bit too enthusiastic for my liking in the moment – really must you wheel the thousands of dollars worth of piano out from the wall? Must you tie it in string? The answer was yes and it was an illustration of one of Michael Booths central tenants of “creative restraints”. It all made sense. Our breakout session was called “A School of One’s Own” and the idea was to think with our hands to reimagine what an effective learning space might look like. The session was broken into three segments interrupted by the school bell, a sneak preview of relevant films from our forthcoming series with Education Scotland and some new questions for participants to build into their designs. What resulted from this was fascinating and spoke volumes about where participants came from and where they hoped to be going. Lots of the designs featured swimming areas, one even had a fire. Working with recycled cardboard and string alongside more traditional materials freed participants from performance anxiety around drawing and craft skills. Hopefully from the images you will see what an amazingly creative space erupted into being. Here’s a short video of the session too. Apologies for the sound – I did it all on a trusty dslr and didn’t think to pack a mic.