PRIMARY FORMSMuseum of Modern Art in Warsaw
"Primary Forms" is a new, periodic programme of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw designed for pupils from the fourth through the eighth grade of primary school, carried out in cooperation with the Roman Czernecki Educational Foundation. The project is based on instructions prepared by artists for executing works of art. The instructions are placed in a box resembling an architectural model of a school. This year, 10 boxes will be delivered to 10 schools in Warsaw and other towns, while the 11th will go to the Museum on the Vistula, where it will be presented on 8 October 2021 as part of the 13th WARSAW UNDER CONSTRUCTION festival.
The box is part of a “dormant” exhibition, which at any moment can be materialized in a form chosen by the pupils at a school, with the support of their teachers and the museum’s education team. The boxes in this year’s edition contain exercises, tools and instructions created by Paweł Althamer, Kasper Bosmans, Gabo Camnitzer, Sharon Lockhart, Goshka Macuga, Mikołaj Moskal, Ramona Nagabczyńska, Agnieszka Polska, Katarzyna Przezwańska, Slavs and Tatars, and Olga Micińska. The works executed at the schools may become teaching aids, decoration, an event, or part of the school’s infrastructure. The decision on the installation site, the method of execution, and the function will be taken by the users of the exhibition and in relation to the school’s architecture.
"Primary Forms" is an exhibition that will arise within school spaces, in classrooms and corridors, gyms and playgrounds. It can be executed numerous times and interpreted in various ways (in the selection of fragments, scale, colours etc). With "Primary Forms", we pose the questions: What can we do with art? What can an exhibition be? What can we learn from artists? What knowledge can we gain from contact with art? And finally, how to understand art, or enjoy the experience of not understanding it?
"Primary Forms" alludes to the programme School Prints, which was founded in the UK after the Second World War. An identical set of lithographs created by a group of well-known artists were presented to primary schools and exhibited in classrooms. New works were created by such artists as Barbara Jones, Henri Matisse, Henry Moore, John Nash and Pablo Picasso. The "Primary Forms" project also alludes to numerous experiments in art and education undertaken in the 20th and 21st centuries, such as "Pure Consciousness", a series of exhibitions at preschools of works by Japanese conceptual artist On Kawara, launched in 1998. His paintings could be used as instructional tools helping pupils learn numbers and the days of the week.
"Primary Forms" is also inspired by exercises and methodologies of such artists as Joseph Beuys, Cornelius Cardew, Jef Geys, Anna Halprin, Oskar Hansen, Asger Jorn, K.G. Subramanyan, and many others who worked at schools or founded their own educational centres.
The format for the exercises, tasks and tools included in the box also allude to Marcel Duchamp and his travelling exhibition-in-a-suitcase, as well as “Fluxkits’’—boxes prepared by artists affiliated with the Fluxus movement, containing music scores, audio recordings, games and puzzles, intended for activation, play, reading or use.
We don’t know each other, but we’ll meet soon. We’ve prepared a box of surprises for you. We’re sure it will bring you much joy and keep you from getting bored!
The box you’ve just opened contains an art exhibition. It’s not ready yet, and you will be the ones to put it together. This will require some patience and work, and the effects may vary a lot. Do things your own way. Each sack contains a set of objects that will help you complete one of the tasks prepared by a group of artists. You will paint on the walls, make stamps, plant trees, read books, hike, or perhaps even crawl around the nooks and crannies of your school. Art means a lot of different things! You will discover this by unpacking the parcel.
All the objects you’ll find here have been prepared especially for you. The exhibition that these objects form can be shown in the classroom, corridor, gym hall, basement, cloakroom, or perhaps even outside the school building? One thing is sure, you won’t see this exhibition in any museum in the world.
As you’ve probably noticed, the box with the exhibition looks like a school building. You might want to paint it, decorate it, or build additional classrooms, to make it look more like your own school? Or perhaps you would prefer it not to resemble anything you’ve seen before? It’s all in your hands. You’ll find instructions below that will tell you what to do with the contents of each sack.
Whatever happens, write to us, to the Museum. You might want to send a message to the artists whose works you’ve found in the box? There are postcards inside with a stamp and the Museum’s address. It’s enough to write your message and throw one into the postbox. We promise to answer every letter!
We hope it’s just the beginning of our acquaintance and many adventures await us.
Do it yourself! Or let’s do it together!
Sebastian and Helena
Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw
Paweł Althamer, Kasper Bosmans, Gabo Camnitzer, Sharon Lockhart, Goshka Macuga, Mikołaj Moskal, Ramona Nagabczyńska, Agnieszka Polska, Katarzyna Przezwańska, Slavs and Tatars, and Olga Micińska
The golden sack with a tree motif on it is almost empty. There are just a few seeds on the bottom. Find a good place for them in the vicinity of the school or on your way home. Look after the place. If a little plant sprouts there in spring, water it at least once a week. Go with your group on a trip to find seeds, fill the golden sack with them in order to plant them the following year. Paweł Althamer will be happy to join you on your walk and tell you about his relationship with trees. Write to us (you’ll find a postcard in the box) and invite the artist to your school.
Can art be grown like a plant?
How long does “long” last? How short is “short”?
Would you be able to pretend you’re a plant for fifteen minutes? Or perhaps throughout one short break between classes?
Can you make friends with a plant?
Which plants in the city are edible, and which are poisonous for us?
What are invasive species? Are plants allowed to stow away?
Paweł Althamer is one of the most significant and well-known Polish contemporary artists. He lives and works in the Bródno housing estate in Warsaw, to which he is greatly attached. A sculptor by education, his work also relies on other tools: film, performance, organised trips and walks, installations, art classes and actions performed with neighbours and friends, viewers and random people. Althamer’s imagination knows no bounds. His long-term career has seen him taking a walk around the city in an astronaut’s outfit; installing a rubber statue in the Warsaw district of Praga; shooting a “live film” starred by Jude Law; travelling across Poland dressed as Matołek the Billy-Goat; successfully convincing the residents of his apartment block to form the inscription “2000” on its facade by turning on the lights in their flats in the winter of 2000; showing his self-portrait as a gigantic balloon in the Milan sky; planting a paradisiacal garden in a park in Bródno; flying with his neighbours to Brussels on a golden aircraft. Althamer’s numerous and varied actions seek to draw people into the process of creative perception and co-creation of reality. He sees art as a method of activating the community, shaking off ossified thinking patterns, and opening up to unconventional ways of thinking and acting.
Flag, Postage Stamp, Kiss
The box contains two sets of stencils. These are two versions of the same image – mouth and chin. They may become a flag on a pole or a postage stamp. Find a place in your school where you will create a mural using these stencils, on a wall inside or outside the school building, in the classroom or in the corridor. Use all the stencils, one after another, to form a postage stamp or a flag. Colour the stencil with paints. Begin from the mouth, you’ll find red paint in the box. Choose other colours and paint the rest of the mural.
What is a symbol?
What is a flag for?
Do you need to know what an image means to like it?
f you could choose what will be on a postage stamp, what would you choose and why?
If you were to create the flag of your school, what symbol would it feature, what colour/colours would it have?
What happens when a postage stamp becomes so huge?
Why do the scale and size of an image matter?
Kasper Bosmans from Belgium describes himself as a “historical nerd”. His work often employs historical materials, both thoroughly researched documents, artworks and archaeological artefacts as well as legends, stories and anecdotes based on hearsay. His pieces adopt a variety of forms, such as paintings, graphic prints, sculptures and installations. They are characterised by a distinctive decorative style and the presence of simple signs and pictograms, which bring to mind old ornaments, seals and symbols while bearing similarity to online imagery and emojis at the same time. Bosmans juxtaposes stories and signs originating from different epochs in order to address the contemporary world and its problems – politics, law, wars, ecology. Still, his free and easy compositions brim with colours, imagination and humour. The decorative, seemingly light-hearted form of the works does not rob them of depth and seriousness – Bosman lends new surprising meanings to innocent ornaments. The artist states: “Art is decoration that makes you cleverer.”
The box contains a large sheet with a printed photo of a classroom seen from above. It’s an off-site classroom. You can take it on a walk around your school, to the schoolyard, wherever you want. Lay it out on the grass, wave it, play on it, arrange objects on it, you can also cover yourself with the cloth like with a quilt, or even hide under it. Pay attention to the photo printed on the sheet. Compare it to your classroom, look what’s missing in the photo.
How to tell the difference between the classroom and other rooms, and how does it differ from your own room?
What is architecture?
What is a building made of?
Can a building have no ceiling? Floor? Walls?
What does your classroom look like at night, does anything change?
What would you change in your classroom to make you want to live in it?
The American artist Gabo Camnitzer did not have a typical childhood: one the one hand, he grew up as the son of the famous Uruguayan-German conceptual artist, teacher and education theorist, Luis Camnitzer; on the other hand, he suffered from a middle ear disease, which caused serious hearing problems and language learning difficulties. These childhood experiences influenced his further creative path. Today, he is a renowned artist, academic lecturer, musician, and educator. His projects – installations, sculptures, drawings, educational programmes, and activities with children – mainly address the questions of childhood, growing up, and education. Camnitzer worked for many years as a primary school teacher, experimenting with community-based non-hierarchical and non-authoritarian teaching methods. His initiatives with children and youth put alternative pedagogical practices to test, seeking to activate the imagination, stimulate collaboration, activate the body and engage young people in social activities. In his free time Camnitzer plays in a music band set up with the Wartel family, whom he accidentally met on the street in Gothenburg.
The sack contains a number of elements. There are stencils with all letters of the alphabet, white pieces of cloth (sashes) and a stencil frame. To accomplish this task, you need a few newspapers published on the day when your group meets. Look at the newspapers the same way as you look at paintings, some of the words will draw your attention – they might be irritating or evoke warm feelings, they might be incomprehensible, come from different languages, sound old-fashioned, or quite the opposite – they might be new words, which you won’t yet find in printed dictionaries. Choose your word. Compose it on the sash using stencils. Align the letters using the frame. Apply paint or spray through stencils to write the word on the sash. When the inscription dries, put the sash on. Talk in your group about what you want to do next. Go out to the schoolyard? Take a picture and post it on Instagram? Dance? Walk around the corridor and explain the meanings of the word you’ve chosen? Come back home wearing the sash?
Why can the same story be told in different ways?
What name (one word) could your school have?
Have you or your colleagues recently invented a new word that you use?
Can a word have a colour, smell, weight?
Can one word be more beautiful than another?
What word seems strange to you?
Imagine people use names of things as their own names, what would your name be?
The American artist Sharon Lockhart is famous for her perfectly composed photographs, slow and carefully crafted films, and projects based on long-term collaboration with various communities, such as pupils, residents of mountain towns, farmers, factory workers. The artist has strong ties with Poland. In 2009, she visited Łódź, where she shot a film about children playing in tenement house yards. Lockhart was fascinated by the way their untamed imagination changed mundane architecture into a space of fun and games. During her stay in Łódź, she met a nine-year-old girl called Milena, who became her guide to the city’s streets, nooks and crannies. The two developed a long-standing friendship, which continues until today. In the following years, the artist kept coming back to Poland to meet Milena and create further exhibitions as well as artistic and social activities, including her long-term collaboration with the Youth Socio-therapy Centre in Rudzienko, and the project The Little Review, inspired by the philosophy and work of Janusz Korczak, the Polish-Jewish writer, pedagogue and champion of children’s rights. This project was presented in the Polish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2017.
Your Own Propaganda Is Your Poetry
Remove the box with a set of stamps from the sack. Each stamp is a different word. You’ll find fifty words in total; these are frequently used pronouns, verbs, nouns. Use them to compose poems, print them on photographs, walls, notebooks, try forming sentences and images (can you draw a dinosaur with the word “climate”?), make a mini-banner, leave your trace outside the school.
Can you write a poem with only one word?
Who are “we”, who are “they”? What do you think when you hear these words?
Can you arrange these fifty words from the most to the least liked? Do you agree in the group about this order?
Where can poetry be created if not on paper and in a book?
When does a word change its meaning?
What is a banner?
What is propaganda? Can it be a good thing?
Goshka Macuga is a Polish artist who lives and works in London. She makes films, photographs, sculptures and complex installations, in which she frequently incorporates works by other artists and “ready mades”, that is found objects. Macuga’s working method is sometimes called “archaeology of culture” or else compared to the work of a detective. She describes herself as follows: “I am an artist who seeks to expand my activities by being a curator, historian, storyteller, critic, archivist, exhibition designer, architect, composer, gallerist, sociologist, biologist, filmmaker, collector, photographer, performer, magician, etc.” Her bitch Greka, rescued by Macuga in Greece in 2016, sometimes becomes her artistic alter ego. Greka’s life and adventures can be followed on Instagram (@grekaandfriends), and the artist’s Vimeo channel features a video in which Greka delivers sarcastic comments about reality. Macuga was shortlisted for the prestigious British Turner Prize. Her individual shows have been held at many of the most important museums and galleries worldwide, such as the Whitechapel Gallery and Tate Britain in London, the New Museum in New York, the Zachęta – National Gallery of Art in Warsaw, the Kunsthalle in Basel, and the Fondazione Prada in Milan.
The sack contains a pottery mask. Unpack it carefully because it’s very fragile, and put the mask on your face. Use it in special circumstances – when you’re quizzed in class, recite a poem or want to vanish from your colleagues’ sight. The mask has special powers. Try to find out what they are.
How to disappear at school? What can be used a cap of invisibility?
Am I as others see me?
What is forbidden in my school and do I agree with it?
What animal mask would I like to wear? Or perhaps it’s not an animal?
What is stage fright?
Born in Krakow, Mikołaj Moskal is active in the fields of painting, drawing, sculpture, and is mostly known for his graphic works on paper. His compositions are subdued, tranquil, and harmonious, verging on minimalism. Simple synthetic figures, objects and shapes drawn by the artist resemble both real objects and abstract creations, suspended in empty little hermetic worlds. Moskal mostly uses basic visual components: straight lines, colour patches, a limited range of colours, often reduced to black and white. He pays special attention to materials, carefully selecting paper of appropriate roughness and thickness. Although his pieces result from a lengthy process of gathering information and inspirations, the artist emphasises the crucial role played in his work by sensual and emotional experiences. Moskal defines his method as “sensorial intuition”, in which the sensual and visual urge to create comes first and the intellectual process follows.
Form pairs, you’ll find headphones in the box. Listen to the recording together. You’ll hear a voice that will tell you what to do. During the first stage try to relax and take some rest. You may stand, sit, lie down on the floor. Grab each other’s hands. At a certain point, the voice will prompt you to take a walk around the school. Keep holding each other’s hands and imagine you are guided by a third, invisible person. Explore the school building and its nooks and crannies, walk up and down the floors, you may crawl, roll, walk backwards, walk on all fours, on your knees, jump. The whole school is yours. The voice in the headphones will announce the end of your journey.
What can we learn about the world by wandering and getting lost in our own city?
Who do you think is the third person introduced by Ramona?
What is choreography?
How do you feel when you’re in a place you’ve never been before?
Can you travel without moving?
Ramona Nagabczyńska is a Polish-Canadian dancer and performer who works and dances on the stages of London and Warsaw. She has created many choreographic pieces and successful solo projects. Nagabczyńska’s choreographic identity is complex and diverse. Her works are founded on the belief that voice, writing and the whole human culture originate from the body. Her projects invariably avoid the known and the familiar, seeking untrodden paths and new means of expression. Nagabczyńska takes a special interest in the plasticity and expression of the face, which for her is on a par with other parts of the body in choreography, although it has usually been ignored by artists in the history of dance. Her latest project Silenzio!, shown at the Nowy Teatr in Warsaw, is a story of women’s voices that features operatic and Baroque courtly dance elements.
There is a poster in the box. Look at it carefully and decide in the group where it should be displayed in your school and why. Think about the choice of the room, the wall (ceiling, floor?), the height. Talk about your choice. Compare this poster to other educational props and posters in your school. Can you guess what creatures it shows?
Why are some species threatened with extinction? How to help them?
Should you believe everything you see?
What does classification (of species, genera, objects, phenomena) mean? Do you think it’s useful?
How do you react when you see something you don’t understand?
Are humans an endangered species?
What is artificial intelligence?
Agnieszka Polska creates films, animations, and photographs, some of which are styled to resemble old paintings from several decades ago, while others feature a modern ultra HD aesthetics. The artist explains: “My point of departure is always a certain feeling, an emotion. A poetic text follows. The visual part comes in at the very end.” Polska frequently employs anthropomorphism and evokes mythical and hybrid creatures: her film Ask the Siren is a poetic manifesto of a double-headed siren who shows the viewer two sides of her nature, and the piece The New Sun is a half-sung poetic monologue of the sun addressing a beloved person. Her latest film The Thousand-Year Plan, exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, was inspired by a dream that kept recurring to the artist in her childhood when she had a fever. She dreamt about being a bird sitting on a telegraph line which transmitted important coded information. One of the most significant functions of art for Polska is organising the future, and the most obvious future in her works is often death. The artist was awarded the prestigious prize of the National Gallery in Berlin.
We are all on the Earth, which is part of the system of planets revolving around the Sun, hence its name: the Solar System. How about re-creating it in your school? Remove the poster from the box. It shows the size of each planet and the distances between them and the Sun. Follow these hints and find objects that will serve as models of planets. These may be different things from your surroundings: pips, cones, stones, or seeds. You may find many of them on a walk around your school. When you come across the Earth, put it in the showcase you’ll find in the box, sign it and hang it in an appropriate place in your school. Now it’s time for the Sun; did you know it’s a star and it’s so huge that it could contain more than a million planets the size of the Earth? The Sun is in the centre and all the planets revolve around it. Treat it special; build a metre-high sphere using any materials and install it at an appropriate distance from the Earth (according to the poster with distances shown). You can do the same with the other planets; find them and arrange at a correct distance from each other. Take a long walk with your group to arrange all the planets.
Where are we and what do we look like when the Earth is seen from very, very far away?
What is distance? What does it mean that something is “close” or “far away”?
What is size? How small is “something small”, and how big is “something big”?
If the Earth was a cherry pit, how big would your school be on the same scale?
Do things look different when seen from above?
If you could be part of the Solar System, which planet would you like to be and why? What superpowers would you have?
Katarzyna Przezwańska is an artist who lives and works in Warsaw. Her inspirations include both organic forms and classic artists of the 20th century, as well as geological phenomena and the vegetative processes of plants. She creates architectural interventions, installations, and paintings, in which she often uses rocks, minerals and plants. Przezwańska’s sculptures feature the same forms and materials as those that occur in nature: leaves, sticks, stones, nuts, dried fruits. These are often barely processed, only slightly trimmed, bundled with wire, sometimes painted and placed directly on the ground. Przezwańska repeats raw natural forms, which, in turn, are reflected in the human body: the human circulatory system is analogous to leaf venation, and a painting resembles the structure of wood. Both organic and processed, the compositions pose a question about the definition of nature and artificial form. The artist’s works blur the border between nature and culture: leaves, nuts, and fruits are transformed into art objects, while remaining natural forms at the same time. Her pieces manifest the questionability of the division of the world into the artificial and the real, the invented and the authentic, the civilised and the wild.
Slavs and Tatars i Olga Micińska
The sack contains a large stamp. It’s an ex libris, used to mark books in library collections. Create a collection of books that will form your new canon of (absolutely non-compulsory) school reading. Do you only want to read about frogs or trolls? No problem! You can find books in the school library. Choose those that will become your school reading and mark them with the stamp. If you cannot find the books you need, write to us (use the postcard in the box), and we will help deliver them to your school. Talk to your colleagues about the books with the ex libris on them. Read them aloud. Record radio plays.
What is a canon?
Does a story need to have a beginning and an end?
What do I choose myself and what is chosen for me by someone else? Do I know when this happens?
Can reading end up with a brawl?
What is a collection, a set, an archive? How to build them and how to mark them?
What would I like to save from a huge tornado?
Slavs and Tatars is the moniker of the international art collective that concentrates on “an area east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China known as Eurasia”. Their work began in 2006 as a reading club. Slavs and Tatars are inspired by the wealth of languages, satire and literature of the region, employing such diverse forms as sculpture, carpet, mirror, didactic prop, sound installation, calligraphy, and poster. The group also runs a pickle bar as part of their artistic work. Slavs and Tatars are no strangers to absurd humour combined with refined language games and academic verve for research. Their recent releases include an adaptation of a 19th century Uighur poem in the form of an animated film about the “battle of fruits”, which involves rapping, bragging and dissing. Slavs and Tatars have published more than a dozen books, they organise performative lectures devoted to the joys and traps that lurk for researchers of Eurasian languages and alphabets. Their works have been presented at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Venice Biennale of Art, among other venues and events. The collective works in Berlin.
Olga Micińska is a visual artist who lives and works in Amsterdam. Her sculptural and handicraft practice relies on a variety of techniques and materials: stone, wood, ceramics, print, fabric. She mainly concentrates on woodwork, in which she has been trained aside from her artistic experience. Her interest in handicraft was initially guided by curiosity and willingness to consolidate her practical knowledge, but also to discover technologies and ways of using tools. Those interests developed into a more holistic approach in which consolidated work and care for matter became an inspiration for self-expression. Micińska’s art is no different from or smaller than reality, her pieces are created on a 1:1 scale – they are what they are and they tell about what they are: a ladder, a hammer or a shaving horse are both art pieces and utilitarian objects.
The alphabet is one of the most amazing inventions of humankind: several dozen simple signs are enough for us to share virtually every thought and emotion, and what we write may survive for thousands of years. But we know all too well that sometimes the alphabet alone does not suffice – not everything can be expressed with it as intended. Artists frequently seek to extend the available repertoire of signs, search for new uses of the alphabet and construct new languages to express what matters to them.
tu tu tu
tu tu tu tu hu ha hu
– recited the Serbian poet Katalin Ladik. She considered paper, the traditional medium of poetry, as too static and replaced it with her own body. The artist deprived words of their meanings, returning to the mechanical function of letters as a record of sounds. Her poetic performances transformed the alphabet and the language of written poetry into music and choreography. She prolonged vowels, repeated consonants, called new words into being, which seemed to come directly out of the bowels, throat, mouth.
The alphabet was also deconstructed by the Polish artist Ewa Partum. In her video Active Poetry. Poem by Ewa, agency over language is given to wind and water. Partum scatters letters in the wind and thrusts them onto waves, which form new words. She chose to liberate the alphabet from rigid rules and allow chance to take control over language. When invited to London’s Tate Modern in 2006 for a re-enactment of the piece, she scattered letters from James Joyce’s Ulysses in the gallery’s most famous space, the Turbine Hall. Children who came to the exhibition with their parents immediately began to collect the letters and arrange them as they pleased. When asked not to touch them by the museum staff, they rebelled and cried. Their parents eventually complained to the director of Tate Modern that the artist was disturbing the children. They approached the alphabet as a common good. After all, everyone has the right to use language and form words. Chitty-chat you old chap, you better GTB. Buh-bye!
Pause, break, slit in time, digestion, fermentation, imagination, listening, immersion, contamination. Interval as room for that which is possible, as the creation of the conditions for something new to happen.
Break – a welcome moment of catching your breath, carefreeness and fun. It is usually understood as a moment of freedom from the rigour of lessons, activities and duties. But perhaps it is exactly the other way round: schools exist only for the sake of breaks and genuine learning doesn’t take place in the classroom, but in the corridor, sports field and schoolyard?
In 2015, two Brazilian artists, Tainá Azeredo and Cláudio Bueno, founded Intervalo-Escola, which means “school break”. It does not have a permanent location, but rather appears unexpectedly in various places and institutions. Nor does it have a fixed curriculum – this school is all about never-ending breaks, during which every person can suggest the next fun activity. Knowledge produced at Intervalo Escola is generated by all of its participants, who decide themselves what they want to do together and how. The artists emphasise that according to their educational model opportunities for learning together do not arise during lessons, but during relaxation, cooking and eating, naps, casual conversations, walks, games and fun.
Perhaps we also need to take a break from museums and art?
For many artists a break turned out to be the most important lesson. The American artist and poet Peter Nadin decided to take a break from art in 1992. He stopped exhibiting his works and moved out of the city. He bought a farm from the early 19th century located on the outskirts of New York City and began breeding pigs, chickens, ducks, goats and bees. Although during that time he stayed away from museums, galleries, critics and curators, he soon realised that farmer’s work was also a precious and edifying form of art. Inspired by this discovery, he transformed his farm into the quasi-institution Old Field Farm/Art & Agriculture, which engaged in agricultural and artistic production. Inspired by his farming experience, Nadin’s current works are often made using materials from the farmstead, such as cashmere wool and beeswax. In 2006, he published the book The First Mark: Unlearning How to Make Art.
If we were to leave school familiar with just one topic, it should be climate. Human-induced planetary changes: global warming, rising sea and ocean levels, extinction of species, destruction of ecosystems, disturbed circulation of chemical elements in nature, will determine how life is lived on Planet Earth for hundreds, if not thousands of years to come. The response of our and the next generations of Homo sapiens to the question of climate, natural environment and ecology will decide whether we can adapt to these changes in any measure and reduce their negative consequences or else experience them as a series of disasters beyond control.
The problematics of climate change abounds in contradictions and paradoxes – global warming is a process too vast and massively distributed in time for us to see and grasp it in its entirety. At the same time, however, we experience it directly with every drop of acid rain and PM 2.5 dust particles suspended in the air. On the one hand, it demonstrates the incredible agency of humans, who, after all, affect the functioning of the entire planet. On the other hand, we all feel helpless in its face and efforts towards reducing it appear pitiful. The complexity of climate crisis compels us to change everything at the same time: politics and lifestyle, economy and values, individual and social behaviour, language and imagination.
We can learn what to do in the face of climate change from the Indian engineer and educator Sonam Wangchuk, who gained renown for his work in the Ladakh region. Inhabitants of this high-altitude and desert region are stricken with ever more severe droughts caused by global warming. In order to tackle the water crisis, Wangchuk and his team began raising ice stupas in Ladakh to store frozen water in the form of conical shaped ice heaps. It does not take complex technology to build them, just a skilful use of the force of gravity and local differences in temperature. Melting slowly, the stupas provide the people of Ladakh with water during long rainless months. What’s more, as more than a dozen metres high ice sculptures set in the middle of the desert, they make beautiful and Surreal artworks.
Wangchuk realises that his efforts are not enough to cope with climate change across the planet. That’s why he has engaged in educational activities for years. He creates new curricula for schools and universities and sets up his own institutions that place emphasis on sustainable, ecological and environmental education. Who knows, perhaps the construction of ice stupas will soon be embraced in the core curriculum of Polish schools?
Some people take great satisfaction from collective action. It allows for sharing resources, learning from each other and developing competence in group work and self-organisation. Does modern-day school offer opportunities for collective action other than team sports played in PE classes? Could the gym hall host lessons resembling group investigations into movement pursued at the beginning of the 1970s by Steve Paxton, one of the founders of the dance technique called contact improvisation? How would Game on Morel’s Hill unfold on the school pitch – the “visual manoeuvres” initiated by the artist duo KwieKulik between the participants of the Young Creative Workshop in Elbląg in 1971?
In Anna and Lawrence Halprin’s work, community-forming artistic activities happened in a specific place, which for many artists became something of a school. That place was the Halprin residence designed by the architect, urban planner and ecologist Lawrence Halprin in Kentfield, California. A dance terrace built on a woody slope for the choreographer Anna Halprin became a site of improvisations based on assigned tasks as well as movement rituals. It hosted workshops devoted to art, healing and social change conducted with a multiracial community.
Modern-day school seeks to keep up with trends in education. Teachers ever more often organise classes outside the school building, combining the acquisition of knowledge about the surrounding world with experiments and the use of technology. But there is more to collaboration and collective creative work than simply gaining more knowledge as they foster empathy, develop emotional intelligence, creativity and the sense of agency, which are indispensable at every stage of child’s development.
Group activity can result from a spontaneous and ephemeral initiative, as in some street actions in urban space by the Polish experimental theatre and artistic collective Akademia Ruchu [Academy of Movement]. It can be done without a leader, as in the case of the New York collective of choreographers and dancers that functioned from 1962 to 1964 in a space of interdisciplinary exchange at Judson Memorial Church, from which the collective took its name: Judson Dance Theater.
Artists from the circles of Akademia Ruchu and Judson postulated communality and egalitarian interpersonal relations. They created collaborative improvisations that addressed everyday life and relied on the corporeality of performers’ bodies, and their methods grew directly out of counterculture and participatory forms of social protest: marching, taking over urban space, sit-ins. Nowadays, a similar political sensibility informs the actions of the School Strike for Climate, which began as a group of high school students and developed into a dynamic social movement that taps into the performativity of protest and social media to manifest emotions, express opposition and formulate scenarios for the future.
Colour / Theory of colour
It is not what the eye catches mechanically that matters in the process of seeing, but the consciousness man has of his seeing – claimed the Polish avant-garde artist Władysław Strzemiński in his Theory of Vision.
Not only people see colours. Dogs and cats can best see yellow and blue. Birds see ultraviolet. Reptiles see infrared, and many mammals are colour blind, unable to make out the difference between green and red. However, as theory of colour posits, colour is just a subjective mental impression generated in the brain of the observer, such as a human being or an animal.
Investigating various ways, possibilities and limitations related to colour perception, the Vietnamese collective Art Labor combined art and science in their project The Adventure of Color Wheel at the Pediatrics Department of the Eye Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City. Art Labor fused their discoveries with artistic imagination in their design of colour solutions for the hospital and a series of murals. On the ceiling of the main entrance hall they installed revolving letters E, which look like abstract paintings while testing the vision of illiterate individuals. In turn, in the halls of the Pediatrics Department, patients’ eyes can follow wall graphic pieces with thousands of colourful wheels and painterly depictions of imagined landscapes. The hospital’s new interiors not only relax and fascinate young patients, but also offer a useful tool for a range of diagnostic tests.
Artists can also find concentration on colours soothing. In the 1970s, the Polish artist Andrzej Szewczyk sought to escape painting and tiresome challenges of creative work in every possible way. In this he resorted to the most radical means: he denied himself the possibility of using artistic imagination and the very idea of creation. Instead, he embarked on covering the pages of children’s colouring books with primary colours, strictly following attached models and instructions. Szewczyk stated: “For the first time I rejected all artistic, aesthetic and non-aesthetic dilemmas, and questions about all these values became groundless for me.”
1. A scientific procedure undertaken to make a discovery, test a hypothesis, or demonstrate a known fact.
2. A course of action tentatively adopted without being sure of the outcome.
– Oxford English Dictionary
Experimenting is one of the most enjoyable and attractive methods of learning. When we experiment, something finally happens, and dull exercises from school textbooks materialise in front of our very eyes: cress does really grow on cotton wool, reagents in phials and beakers change their colour, and a beam of life passing through a slit behaves like a wave. It is such experiments that allow for investigating the phenomena around us.
Experimenting is also one of the most pleasurable and interesting ways of making art. Artists who experiment do not focus on the pursuit of a specific premeditated effect, but on the very process of putting their idea into practice. They specify initial conditions, set creative machinery in motion and observe what happens. What will happen if they hang canvasses in the forest, exposing them to rain, mudslides and encounters with animals? What will happen if they write a score of a musical piece by throwing a dice? What will a film look like that consists of nothing but sunset scenes?
We could try to fuse biology, physics and chemistry lessons with art and art history classes into a single experimental subject. This is how many artists work, for example the Cooking Sections duo, who experimented with using artworks as innovative tools to tackle drought in Sicily. In collaboration with agronomists from the local university, they built three scientific-artistic installations resembling minimalist sculptures to water citrus trees in Palermo, a city engulfed by water crisis. Built of clay water pipes and bricks and colourful mesh made of a material designed specifically for this purpose, the structures generated a unique microclimate that enabled plants to absorb water directly from cool humid air. The installations and trees were connected to sensors measuring the parameters of the microclimate and its influence on plants. The gathered data was published both on site and online, which allowed the audience to monitor the course of the experiment in real time. The experiment conducted by Cooking Sections ultimately turned out successful both as a watering device and as an artwork devoted to water crisis.
(Bogna Stefańska & Kuba Depczyński)
Laughter is contagious. When caused by positive feelings, it can release superfluous tension from our bodies, offer a sense of relief and uplifting joy (endorphins!). As in Antonia Baehr’s performance Laugh, in which the artist performs laughter outside its usual context in an aural form, like a musical score, and the audience cannot help but spontaneously burst out laughing.
Joke has a special place at school, it may be glued to a colleague’s backs, noted down in notebook margins, drawn on benches and the blackboard, posted on TikTok and shared as a meme. It is accompanied by choreographies of furtive gestures, winks and data flows.
Laughter can also carry subversive content – it may become a commentary that ridicules and denounces undesired attitudes, phenomena and actions, as well as a tool of critique of the value system and authorities. This happened in dance and cabaret performances by the avant-garde dancer, pantomimist and actress Valeska Gert, which relied on the mimical expression of emotions and expressiveness of the body to challenge bourgeois morality and mores of the era.
Discerning comic qualities in people and situations may foster community formation. Fooling around at school integrates the group and may offer a moment of liberation from disciplining the bodies of pupils, who sit in rows of benches from an early age and silently carry out tasks assigned by their teachers. Loud untamed laughter engages the whole body and oxygenates the organism.
Experimental pedagogy and alternative education pay considerable attention to pupils’ individual interests, talent, needs, and to developing their social competences without excessive supervision, grading and textbooks. Learning is accompanied by physical activities, games, trips, conversations, rest and fun, which help absorb knowledge. Sitting on the floor, murmuring, walking around the classroom, fidgeting on a chair – this is exactly what some of us need to learn better and enjoy it.
Do we really learn foreign languages at school? It would seem so at first glance; after all, school timetables are full of Spanish, French, German and even Latin classes. In reality, we learn a certain “language” on every lesson: body language in PE classes, language of literature in English classes, language of art in art classes, language of science in biology and chemistry classes. Although we don’t always understand them, these languages can hardly be recognised as genuinely “foreign”. After all, each was created and is used by representatives of the Homo sapiens species.
The Korean artist Kim Beom has been thinking for many years about ways to include the non-human world into the education process. In his works, the roles of students are played by various objects: the artist lectures a stone on the beauty of poetry, explains to a ship in a bottle what the sea is, and clarifies the difference between a human being and an object to a plastic watering can. Despite the efforts, the disciples remain completely indifferent and insensitive to the languages of literature, biology, physics and history. Beom shows that although we learn a lot at school about humans and the reality they have created, we unlearn contact with the non-human world at the same time. Paradoxically, the more human we become, the more difficult we find it to communicate with what surrounds us.
The world abounds in non-human languages. Water and air, flowers and rocks, cats and dogs, mushrooms and trees hold an ongoing conversation, and we don’t understand a thing! Nobody taught us at school how to communicate with a boulder or an amphibian, or even how to derive joy from mutual incomprehension. Can we imagine what learning a “foreign language” could look like? Beom dropped us some hints in his book The Art of Transforming, published in 1997:
How to Become a Rock
Choose an appropriate spot.
A spot with more stones around is recommended. Assume a low position – sitting or lying, but in harmony with the surroundings.
Freeze still and stop breathing.
Don’t think about anything, care neither about the season nor the weather. Don’t allow anything to grab your attention, not even a storm or another cataclysm. Don’t pay attention even if you’re about to fall down from your spot. Don’t worry and keep your position.
Even if moss has grown on a patch of soil near you or worms are building their nests, don’t destroy them, leave them alone.
We learn a lot at school about facts from the past: what happened, where and when, who conquered whom, where borders ran, which year a given poem or book was penned. We find out a bit about how it is: what an animal cell consists of, how modern-day English grammar works, where copper deposits are located in our country, the difference between the European Parliament and the Council of Europe. However, we are told less about how it will be: about what is approaching, about the world we will inhabit in ten or twenty years. But does school teach us at all about how it could be?
According to many contemporary thinkers, the greatest crisis we’re facing today is the crisis of imagination. Philosophers, scientists and artists warn us that we’ve lost the crucial ability to imagine reality anew. To create new worlds. To formulate previously unknown narratives and visions. Today, even the boldest and most radical proposals for change seem rather down-to-earth and not far-removed from what we already know. The only solution we’re able to come up with when faced with such problems as climate change, rampant social inequalities or the crisis of democracy is “business as usual”. In order to really tackle them head-on, we need to go beyond how it used to be, how it is and how it will be. We need to imagine how it could be.
Using your imagination is something that can be learnt and developed through art. Active in the 1960s, artists, activists and theorists affiliated with the Situationist International believed that we could begin training our imagination simply by walking around the city. They developed their own method of casual urban strolling, which they called drift (la dérive). It’s simple: when drifting one should avoid familiar paths, beaten tracks and conventional routes, allowing oneself instead to be attracted by the ambiances of individual districts and places, to follow surprising hints and embrace unexpected encounters and plot twists.
Situationists perceived drifting, which set imagination free, as the first step towards changing the world. What would a city look like if it wasn’t organised around efficient thoroughfares, shopping malls and tourist landmarks? A city that would act as a source of joy of aimless strolls, enable the experience of a variety of ambiances and constantly surprise and stimulate the imagination of its dwellers? What would their daily life look like? And their culture? How would their society be organised?
The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the school library is a nostalgic atmosphere and volumes giving out a dusty smell, arranged in orderly rows, in alphabetical order. Is this the only use of library resources? What else can be done with books?
When asked if he read books, the British artist John Latham might have replied: I devour them. In 1966, Latham and a group of his students subjected to a literal and metaphorical “test of taste” their much-loathed book by the renowned American art critic Clement Greenberg. The group tore it into tiny pieces, which they later chewed and spat out. The chewed remnants were carefully collected and left to ferment. When Latham received his overdue notice from the library at Saint Martin’s School of Art, he returned a phial with the chewed content. That gesture cost him his teaching post. That was how the piece Still and Chew. Art and Culture 1966–1967 came into being, which currently belongs to the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Latham frequently used books in his work – he cut out their fragments, glued them together, covered them with plaster and paint or burnt them. He created cycles of “skoob” works, that is “books” written backwards. In 1991, he worked with the most significant books in the history of humankind in God is Great, a conceptual piece comprising copies of the Bible, the Quran and a volume of the Talmud, each cut in half and bonded to a glass panel. But Latham was not a butcher of the printed word. A recurring motif in his art is the power of books, which takes the viewer away from the physical world and into the spiritual sphere or imagined universes.
A similar use for books was found by Marcel Broodthaers. After twenty years of attempts to become a successful poet, in 1963 he chose to become an artist and began creating objects. He commemorated that moment of symbolical passage by squeezing fifty unsold copies of his volume of poetry into plaster. Thus, he created his first art object. Broodthaers described the difference between poetry and art with irony: “Finally the idea of inventing something insincere crossed my mind and I set to work straightaway. At the end of three months I showed what I had produced to Philippe Edouard Toussaint, the owner of the Galerie St Laurent. ‘But it is art’, he said, ‘and I will willingly exhibit all of it.’ What is it? In fact, objects.”
The Passage and Measurement of time
Time at public schools is measured in precise units marked by a sound signal – the school bell. Each lesson lasts 45 minutes, each break – 15 minutes. One must not be late and confuse time for learning with time for rest, eating, fun. Meticulous measurement of time spent in the school bench is accompanied by reflection that learning takes considerable time, including free time, which needs to be devoted to doing your homework and preparing for tests. What attitude to being in time, its passing and transience does school shape in us? How do we think about spending time together and how about our individual sense of time? Do we talk about the fact that some people need more time for certain tasks and activities than others? Are we able to accept it and do we find a language to describe it? Instead of “competing”, “outdoing each other in progress at school”, “winning” and replicating the CPF cycle (“cram, pass, forget”), can we, as the school community, create time and space for slowing down, learning from our own mistakes, getting bored, losing ourselves in something and building interpersonal relations?
Contemporary art offers inspiration and tools for experiencing and making use of time in more creative and emancipatory ways. Even at the museum, where discipline is maintained, where we behave according to mastered rules and remain under supervision, an encounter with a work of art can become an opening intellectual and sensual experience.
In the 1970s, Tehching Hsieh, an artist of Taiwanese origin, began a series of performances in New York that lasted for a year. During one of them, Time Clock Piece (One Year Performance 1980–1981), he punched a time clock every hour on the hour, engaging himself physically and mentally in this demanding and exhausting performative action, which left a trace in the form of video documentation.
In 1977, the artist duo Marina Abramović and Ulay spent sixteen hours in the gallery. They sat with their backs against each other, their hair tied together, surrounded only by gallery employees, who documented the process. After a dozen or so hours, when the duo was very close to exhaustion, the audience was allowed into the gallery, which compelled Abramović and Ulay to treat the viewers’ presence as an energy boost and extend the performance by one hour.
A totally different approach, focussed less on expressing intensity and liminal experience and more on details and the impression of time becoming denser, is used in her performances by the choreographer Maria Hassabi. Staging from 2017 is a piece presented at museums and galleries which combines choreography for a group of performers, light and sound installation, and an enormous pink carpet. Movement composed in a loop develops extremely slowly and lasts as long as the opening times of the institutions that hosts it. We may therefore leave the museum in the morning and come back in the evening to find out that the performers, akin to snails, have only moved to the other end of the room, renouncing the spectacular for the sake of change, mindfulness and continuity. Never pressed for time.
The acquiring of knowledge and skills – the education system as a whole – is based on constant practice. We practise by repeating, copying texts, drawing, completing tasks and doing homework. Children at school practise in order to absorb the core curriculum. Artists at the academy practise to master a given medium.
Classes held at the experimental Black Mountain College in the 1930s under the supervision of Josef Albers consisted in famous exercises in interaction of colour. Students used paint to combine colours in different configurations and thereby to understand their specificity and the way they influenced each other. Exercises adopted a much more spontaneous and polyphonic form in Creativity Exercises created in 1975 by Miklós Erdély and Dóra Maurer, an amateur art course held at Budapest’s Ganz-MAVAG factory. Combining various disciplines and introducing movement, music, acting, film and photography in their exercises, Erdély and Maurer founded them on participation, group action and the practice of imitation. An exemplary exercise: one person covers themselves with a piece of fabric and assumes a most complicated pose. The other participants try to guess and assume the same pose. The concealed person may be additionally represented in a visual form. The idea behind the exercise was to develop creativity and a collective creative process.
However, practice does not always necessarily mean progress. What if an exercise led to unlearning instead of learning? Unlearning Exercises is a research project run by the artist Annette Krauss in collaboration with the Casco Art Institute. It is based on exercises devised for art institutions with the goal of unlearning conventional ways of thinking. A fixation with immediacy and growth is replaced by a process of gradual change oriented to the culture of equality and community. One of the exercises consists in achieving balance together in a group by holding each other’s arms while sitting in a circle on chairs and balancing on two legs; another is based on cooking and tidying together. Krauss’ exercises challenge the normative mode of learning and the institutionalisation of knowledge. Regardless of the goal it serves, practice is said to make perfect.
We spend hundreds of hours at them. We know their every detail. Just as we stare at traces left by those before us, we also like to leave something behind. A cut? A drawing? A signature? The school desk is a collective amassment of signs and traces left by pupils. It is a testimony to time spent on learning, but also on dreaming and fantasising. Boredom and moments of oblivion, to which scribbles on the desk testify, appear to be part and parcel of knowledge acquisition.
The sociological potential of the analysis of drawings made on school desktops by absent-minded children during classes became an inspiration for the artist Petrit Halilaj. In his series Abetare he made use of drawings on desktops in his own primary school in the town of Runik in Kosovo, which he preserved on an enlarged scale by means of steel rods. Having chosen those spontaneous drawings, featuring such motifs as hearts, houses, birds, flowers, cars, airplanes, rockets and weapons, Halilaj examined the relation between the personal and the universal, documenting the desires, hopes and anxieties of several generations of children and teenagers.
The escapist power of a drawing made on the school desktop, which allows a child’s imagination to liberate itself from the rigid frames of school classes and the institutional surroundings, also inspired the project Frequencies by the Colombian artist Oscar Murillo. Since 2013, he archived more than 40,000 thousand canvasses that had previously been installed on desktops at schools worldwide. Scribbles and drawings, signatures, football team logos, images of famous people, hearts, skulls and dozens of other motifs bear testimony to the widespread need to oppose the school’s normative surroundings; they speak to the desire for freedom and liberty in making youthful fantasies come true.