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.
(Ab)Use of Art
Abuse of art – art is commonly seen as something to be looked at, rather than touched; admired, rather than used. Especially in European culture art became an object of celebration that takes place in spaces built specifically for this purpose: museums, contemporary art centres, galleries. Art is to be admired in a specific way, usually in white exhibition halls, where it all too often overawes or overwhelms us with its (alleged) exclusivity. Ritualised forms of reception work in a similar way to a “not for everyone” notice hanging at the entrance. From this perspective, each act of removing art from the confines of the museum is considered sacrilege, and each act of defiance of conventions – an abuse.
At the same time, we realise that art is expanding beyond the narrow limits of art institutions. It always refuses to fit within them. It happens in the countryside, in the open fields, in the wilderness, on the walls of buildings, in city squares, on lagoons and deserts. It is a wealth that expands with the number of its users and ways of using, a snowball that grows with ever more things, practices and ideas added to it. Hence, art can adopt the form of a mural, a self-learning group, a protest of images, a gigantic letter carried to the parliament, a scream in front of an embassy. The Cuban artist Tania Bruguera likens this kind of art to a hammer which can be used to carve out new forms of living together and thinking about what is common. Art is not an ordinary hammer, however, it is rather a strange tool that preserves something of its exceptionality even outside the walls of institutions. It is both itself and something else, a tool and an artwork, a hammer and a stylus of the imagination. Its specificity and penchant for doing strange things allows art to offer us a new perspective on everything that surrounds us, to make use think slightly differently about ourselves and other people who come into contact with art. Art that becomes widely available is a commonly used strange tool that only waits to be taken in someone’s hands and used together with others, as if it carried the label “use it and pass it on”.
In 1971, one of the fathers of conceptualism (a tendency that definitely had more fathers than mothers), John Baldessari, took part in an exhibition at the University in Halifax, Canada. He could not go there in person, so he asked students to write the following sentence on the wall multiple times on his behalf: “I will not make any more boring art”. His work could be considered a joke about conceptual art – devoid of decoration, raw, somewhat big-headed. Conceptual art, which enjoyed its heyday at the turn of the 1970s, developed its own characteristic language. Galleries and museums presented paper sheets with typewritten texts, blackboards covered with notes in chalk, audio and video works addressing linguistics and philosophy, didactic panels. Conceptualism strongly resembles school teaching tools. Assuming that contemporary art mostly attracts people curious about the world and adventure seekers, conceptualism would be an art for nerds and swots.
In the 1990s, the Japanese conceptual artist On Kawara presented paintings from his most famous series Today on the walls of kindergartens in Asia, Africa, Europe and Australia. The series was developed without interruption from 1966 until the artist’s death in 2014. The black backdrops of the works feature dates carefully painted in white, marking the day when a given painting came into being. The month name is provided in the language of the country where the piece was created. According to the artist, paintings removed from their natural habitat, i.e. the museum, acquire a different function – they allow children in kindergartens to learn digits, month names, talk about the passage of time, about the fact that things occur one after another, and repeat themselves.
Many works of conceptual art are invisible, devoid of a material form. Rather than in the object, conceptual artists take interest in the idea, the concept itself. Whether it is executed at all is of secondary importance.
A classic conceptualist, Luis Camnitzer, who is not only an artist, but also a renowned teacher and writer on education, likened the art world to an Aladdin’s lamps storage. We collect and admire the “vessels” themselves, we view them in museums, contemplate their ornaments and forms. But what really interests us is the genie inside the lamp. We believe he is there with his superpowers. From this perspective, conceptual art would mean letting the genie out of the lamp and leaving the lamp in the storage. The genie remains invisible, but no longer contained in the vessel that restricts his movements, and which distracts attention from possibly the most important thing in art… a good idea!
Deschooling society – how to teach independent and critical thinking? How to educate free people? How can hierarchical institutions prepare them for life in a society of equal individuals? What is the role of games, fun, experimentation, unfettered discovery of the borders of yourself, others and the surrounding world?
These are not only classic questions posed by critical pedagogy, but also the keynote of various experiments conducted on the borderland of art and education. After all, the foundation of reflection about contemporary art was laid by Friedrich Schiller in Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man. In these letters, which emanate the spirit of the French Revolution, the German philosopher and playwright does away with the vision of a barracked society under authoritarian bureaucratic control, in which a narrow group tells others what to think and how to live. Such concepts are usually justified by the necessity to leash the supposed anarchic nightmare, untamed egoistic drives, insubordinate and stupid masses. Perhaps somewhat idealistically, Schiller believes that the only true human being is the one what plays, and the foundations of freedom are laid in an unfettered game of the senses with the canons of classic beauty, in which the impulse of liberty emerges out from under the yoke of necessity and the senses grow sharper in a skirmish with the aesthetic ideal.
Both in Schiller’s times and in our post-truth era the point is not to allow everyone to say whatever pops in their mind, but to say things that make sense, with a critical distance to oneself and a sense of responsibility for others. Games and plays offered by art can be used as a testing ground for exercises in liberty, where differing views incessantly collide, various artistic propositions compete for recognition, and people learn to respect difference and the belief that everything can always be something else. An ordinary urinal can be an artwork, and Mona Lisa can have a moustache drawn on her face.
Throughout the centuries, Schiller’s thoughts became invigorated by freedom-oriented artistic traditions. A popular philosophical parable in the contemporary art world is the story of the ignorant schoolmaster, evoked by the French philosopher Jacques Rancière. The protagonist teaches in a language he does not know, and his ignorance encourages students to build a community of equal people who learn from each other. This anecdotal tale is the starting point for reflection not only about pedagogical models, but above all about life in the society formed by free people and the role of art in bringing about this (so remote) state of affairs.
Contemporary art typically escapes its own schools. After all, art students in training are not supposed to copy the achievements of their professors or repeat the canon, but rather find their own path. The teacher may only show them how to walk the devious paths and gain orientation in the wilderness, whose outlines are constantly shifting and maps quickly become obsolete. Something that is art today can no longer be art tomorrow, and something currently not recognised as art may very soon become the highlight of the season. Teachers-students set forth together on expeditions into the unknown to discover new territories. Of course, the experience and knowledge of the previous generations comes in useful during such travels as the territory of art is full of looped trails and bumpy roads, on which one can easily get lost. What is more, such journeys into the unknown are never solitary, they are undertaken together, in broader groups, teams. After all, borderlands may be dangerous places and one should not only learn freedom, but also know how to defend it.
Do it yourself / Let's do it together
Do it yourself. Isn’t everyone who creates an artist? According to the conceptual artist Joseph Beuys, each of us is a creative individual, and therefore “everyone is an artist”. An artwork is not only an object on display at the museum, but also every thought, conversation, action. Art may adopt the form of a simple instruction to follow on your own, as the Fluxus international group believed, which in the 1950s began to prepare sets of artistic instructions for everyone to put into practice.
Let’s do it together. Is the artist always alone? According to the theorist Stephen Wright, there is something mutual and contagious in doing things: “Here’s a chord. Here’s another. Now let’s start a band.” Art is where people gather to create something together, while the technique and effect depend only on the imagination and available materials.
Exactly fifty years ago, in 1971, the curator Frederico Morais organised six editions of “Creative Sundays” at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio De Janeiro. Morais wanted to confront the very idea of the weekend, associated with conventional and solitary ways of spending free time, an almost bureaucratic obligation, boredom. Guided by the belief that all people were creative by nature, he wanted to let them make a creative use of their spare time. He thought that we failed to embrace the possibility to create only when prevented from doing so by political repressions or parental discipline and the rigid order of education. He believed art should be an experimental collective exercise in liberty. Each Sunday, the gathered audience – artists, parents with children, teenagers, passers-by – were given a different set of materials: paper, threads, fabric, soil and sand, musical instruments and participants’ bodies, as the only available “material” for the day. In the blink of an eye, the creative impulse and collective effort transformed the gathered objects into spontaneous exhibitions packed with sculptures, poems buried underground, choreography, hastily written songs and invented physical exercises. The creative force awakened on Sunday afternoons gave rise to something created together.
If each of us holds a creative spark, perhaps next Sunday we can take art in our own hands again and meet at the playground or schoolyard to spend the day doing things together?
Can education be art? Artistic practice and pedagogy have always gone hand in hand. Joseph Beuys used to say: “To be a teacher is my greatest work of art”. There are countless examples of artists-pedagogues, who created their own work while teaching the future generations of artists and not only. The Belgian conceptual artist Jef Geys taught at the junior high school in the town of Balen for more than twenty years since 1960. During the “Positive Aesthetics” course, which he designed himself, he created and learnt together with his students, blurring the border between art, education, and everyday life. Geys’ classes were based on reading newspapers and picking out key concepts and issues. Research and discussion preceded creative and educational processes, and the role of educational props was played by works of artist friends, such as Lucio Fontana, Gilbert and George, Jan Vercruysse, on loan for the lessons. Geys also collaborated with teachers of other subjects, such as geography and foreign languages.
Divisions between activities in the fields of art and education were increasingly abandoned in the 1990s. The tendency for education, pedagogical systems and alternative ways of learning to occur in artistic circulation in the form of curatorial or artistic practice was publicised by the art scholar and theorist Irit Rogoff in her text Turning, published in e-flux in 2008. Known as the educational turn, this phenomenon manifests itself through attempts to answer the question: what can be learnt in the museum aside from objects on display and educational programmes around them. Education is seen here as something with the potential for acting together on the basis of experience and process, and as a platform of interdisciplinary exchange. A good example of such approach is the Aneducation programme, accompanying documenta 14 in 2017, which aimed to question the understanding of the process of cognition as an institutional practice entangled in the relations of power. Activities within Aneducation included group listening, walking, gesticulating, performing, doing, reading and holding a dialogue with others as forms of learning.
Art may become an educational model. The experimental pedagogue and conceptual artist Luis Camnitzer proposed to draw an analogy between the development of literacy skills and artistic education. Working around the widespread conviction that learning to read must precede learning to write, the artist sought liberation from this hierarchy. He followed the model of art, in which since the beginning of the last century artists abandoned the format of learning by copying existing works – “reading” – in favour of “writing”, that is developing one’s own language independently from widespread models. Camnitzer argues that art has an emancipatory educational potential, and asks a different question: is it possible to teach art at all?
Many activities in our lives and things that we possess involve instructions. Flat-pack furniture, white goods manuals, table and workplace etiquette, team sport rules, religious commandments, even cooking recipes. All of them are based on texts that tell us how to do something or how to behave.
The art world model stands in stark contrast, for example, to the circulation of recipes, which can be accessed at any moment, multiple times, and modified as you see fit. Meanwhile, museums show almost nothing but ready objects that are unique, material, ascribed to a specific author. But it turns out that art is also no stranger to instructions, and they even gained popularity in this field in the mid-20th century. The first artwork known in art history based on an instruction was the wedding present given in 1919 by Marcel Duchamp to his sister Suzanne, who was two years younger than him. The artist was afraid that his parcel from the USA might not arrive in France on time, so he sent a telegram describing how his work should be executed. It was a geometry book hanging on the porch, whose pages were meant to be turned by wind and rain.
In the 1960s, the art of instructions was popularised by conceptual artists. Paintings were sometimes made by gallery technical staff members following instructions sent by artists, as with Sol LeWitt’s abstract canvasses. Instructions, scores and guides were commonly used during that period. They served to organise happenings, send conceptual works to exhibitions (this format was popularised by the curator Lucy Lippard) and distribute musical pieces (La Monte Young wrote them in the form of short poetic descriptions to be executed, for example, by releasing a swarm of butterflies in a concert hall or making a fruit salad by the orchestra members). An advantage of an artwork based on an instruction over a single unique object is its universal accessibility, as it is usually free of charge, unburdened by conservation duties, the art market, and other constraints.
This tradition was addressed by the artist and filmmaker Miranda July, who collaborated with Harrell Fletcher from 2002 to 2009 on the Learning to Love You More project. July regularly published simple instructions online: “Grow a garden in an unexpected spot”, “Take a picture of your parents kissing”, “Make a field guide to your yard”, etc. More than eight thousand people participated in her action by sending in photos and texts documenting the execution of the tasks. The effects of those art exercises were later widely exhibited in American museums and galleries.
In 2013, the Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist published an anthology of more than three hundred instructions formulated by contemporary artists, gathered under the simple title Do It. One of the iterations of this project, created under the auspices of the UNICEF, featured contemporary art instructions for children.
“Is fun an exhibition?
The exhibition is a work of children.
There is no exhibition.
It’s an exhibition just because children are playing art museum.
It’s an exhibition just for those who are not playing”.
Play and art have a lot in common. Both playgrounds and art projects are something of models of reality. Playing seems an incredibly universal activity, which brings to mind pleasure, freedom, happiness, and childhood days. Not only children have fun, but also adults, and even animals. It is a tool that can be used to animate space, integrate the society and even deal with your problems.
Artists have observed the proximity of art and play for decades. In 1968, the Danish artist and activist Palle Nielsen created the exhibition titled The Model at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet in the form of a gigantic playground for children. It was supposed to become a model of a quality society, devised as a zone of carefree fun, where children could jump from bridges, swing on tyres, engage in DIY, bathe in a pool filled with foam rubber pieces, paint, and play music from gramophones. In a similar spirit, Playscapes, the playground created by the designer and sculptor Isamu Noguchi, resulted from his reflection on how to develop the best possible environment for children to discover the world.
Playscapes consists of a set of colourful metal and concrete architectural elements installed in a clearing in Atlanta, USA, in 1976. Instead of telling children what to do (here you swing, here you climb), Noguchi created a space of endless exploration. At the 16th Istanbul Biennial in 2019, the artist Monster Chetwynd decided to allow children into a disturbing, or even terrifying, environment: in one of the local parks she built an interactive sculpture / playground (Gorgon’s Head Playground), inspired by the head of Medusa discovered in the city’s Basilica Cistern from the 6th century.
Works such as those by Nielsen, Noguchi, and Chetwynd are situated halfway between an educational project, an art installation and a protest. They develop a space in which play becomes a means to enjoy the freedom of creation and speech, a place where creativity and imagination come back to life. Artistic playgrounds are experimental educational facilities, new schools, in which the existing order is questioned and reversed: fun plays a key role, made possible by resources available for unrestrained creative use. If schools and museums were permanently transformed into playgrounds, we could perhaps fulfil artists’ dreams of spaces where economic rules, the order of labour as well as parental and state power are no longer in force.
School / Building
The most typical image of the school building largely depends on the local history of education. The representation of the school in toy sets and simplified icons that serve visual information depends on the cultural circle from which they originate; it may feature a facade with a clock or a bell tower. In Poland, the school building is a relatively new architectural invention, since universal education is also a quite recent social achievement here.
The idea of a school building recognisable to every person familiar with European culture originated during the most intensive period of developing educational infrastructure, when the architectural milieu learned the lesson of modernity given by Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Mies van der Rohe, and began to use prefab components as the result of newly-gained knowledge.
The school building is detached and horizontal, which means that its width is greater than its height. It is characterised by sparse architectural detail, which turns the shapes and rhythms of windows into the most prominent and recognisable element of its architecture.
Even in the era before Modernism, when school buildings were raised in the form of Gothic castles or Baroque palaces, architects invested efforts in designing possibly the largest windows in order to allow plenty of sunlight into the classrooms. Modernity removed the historical guise from such buildings, shifting emphasis to its functional characteristics.
The greatest number of schools were built in Poland from the second half of the 1950s to the first half of the 1970s. During that era, the development of the construction industry was mainly based on seeking typicality, motivated by a double search: for ideal models on the one hand, and savings on the other hand. The most recognisable school building prototypes were designed in Zofia Fafiusowa and Tadeusz Węglarski’s studio as part of the initiative “One Thousand Schools for the Millenary of the Polish State”.
The landscape of the country and the imagination of its people became filled to the greatest extent with buildings designed during the final phase of that project, those which entered serial production, with seven-partite windows as their characteristic feature
Does a school need a collection of artworks? Educational institutions do collect many interesting objects that can easily be mistaken for art, such as wooden compasses and rulers, portraits of national bards, and stuffed badgers. However, they do not store art objects that have a title, an author and a year date. After all, what could they be used for at school?
The British painter and educator Nan Youngman believed that every school should have an art collection. Born in 1906, the artist devoted almost her entire adult life to promoting education through art. She believed that propagating knowledge about artists and their work as well as direct contact with artworks offered the best method to develop creative imagination, sensitivity, and learn to live together in the society. Her views were hugely influenced by the traumatic experience of World War II – she often emphasised that artistic work was the best tool to build a new pacifistic world without violence and hatred.
In 1947, Youngman initiated the pioneering programme Pictures for Schools, whose goal was to supply British schools with contemporary art collections. During the action that lasted until 1969, every year a prestigious London museum or gallery hosted a special exhibition of artworks created with the intention of being presented and used in schools. Such exhibitions were visited by school groups from across the country. Teachers and pupils viewed the shows, voted for their favourite pieces and selected those to be purchased by their schools. The artworks were sent to schools along with instructions on how to use them as educational props, lesson scenarios and texts written by artists.
Few people remember today about Nan Youngman, her pioneering programme and noble pacifistic ideas. The Pictures for Schools project ultimately came to an end at the beginning of the 1970s, and a vast majority of the school collections were sold. Dusty cardboard boxes in the basements of some British educational institutions still hide forgotten prints of Picasso’s graphic works and sketches by Henry Moore, awaiting someone who will once again put them to educational use.
Can we imagine a school nowadays where the periodic table and images of kings neighbour abstract paintings and conceptual scores? Could today’s students reminisce in the future about meetings with artists and their pride in a sculpture they chose for their school’s collection?
Something in the box
In January 2021, The New York Times published the article Got a Box? Make a Museum, highlighting the tendency for mini-museums created at home during the pandemic lockdown. This phenomenon testifies to art lovers’ interest not only in the very act of creation, but also in curating exhibitions, the selection process, their willingness to set up their own collections. Mini-museums mostly take the form of shoeboxes and other types of cardboard packaging filled with postcards, newspaper clippings, or miniature plasticine sculptures. The box becomes an architectural model, an archetypal white cube exhibition space. This analogy works both ways; Lawrence Weiner placed the following inscription on the facade of the Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw: “Far too many things to fit into so small a box”.
One of the most famous predecessors of today’s DIY museums is Marcel Duchamp’s series of portable exhibitions in boxes, Box in a Suitcase, initiated in 1935. The artist sought a solution to gather all his previously created works in one place and have them at hand, but not in the form of a book or an album. Questioning the meaning of the “original” in art, each box contained several dozen reproductions of Duchamp’s famous pieces in the form of photographs, lithographs, and miniature plastic versions of his ready-mades. Duchamp’s boxes were available on the market for years at affordable prices on a subscription basis. A total of several hundred such boxes came into being.
The mobility and reach of art in a box also appealed to the Fluxus group in the 1960s. Fluxkits or Fluxboxes created by George Maciunas were widely available editions in boxes, which reflected the group’s principles: chance, fun, humour and absurdity. Similarly to boxed board games played at home, Fluxboxes comprised instructions and broadly understood tools to carry them out in the domestic space: audio recordings, jigsaw puzzles, documentation of the group’s actions and performances, toy blocks, films, toys, and many more. As opposed to Box in a Suitcase, a miniature museum of a single artist, Fluxkits were designed to use and have fun together.
Art in a box gained a new dimension with the rush of the 21st century globalised civilisation. It brings to mind shipping crates in which artworks travel the world or online shopping delivery, as in the case of the conceptual artist Walead Beshty. He ships his works using FedEx courier services, and the company’s boxes are shown in exhibitions alongside the laminated glass sculptures delivered in them. Beshty’s pastiche approach reflects the state of the art world with its insatiable hunger for novelty and uninterrupted circulation of works.
Schools are full of tools. Educational tools! Accessories, handbooks, educational props, graphic prints, maps, timelines, portraits, illustrations and blackboards fill the walls of classrooms and corridors, pile up on the shelves and spill from numerous cabinets. The Japanese conceptual artist On Kawara believed that artworks could also be treated as educational tools. In 1998, he initiated the project of a touring exhibition shown in kindergartens. It comprises seven paintings from his famous series Date Paintings – inconspicuous rectangular canvasses in various shades of black and grey, with dates from 1 to 7 January 1997 written on them in white paint. Set in a kindergarten hall, these pieces blend perfectly into the surroundings – among drawings, maps, cut-outs and illustrations they look like yet another standard educational prop. Children can learn a lot from On Kawara’s paintings: digits, counting to seven, days of the week, the calendar, names of the months, colour shades, date representations.
Although the Japanese artist’s paintings perfectly imitate a teaching prop, they certainly represent a rather strange educational tool. The American philosopher Alva Noë argues that artworks are precisely such “strange tools” – utilitarian objects that allow us to learn and understand a lot, but in a slightly different way than a handbook or an abacus. According to Noë, the essence of the utilitarian aspect of art is that it makes us see the usually obvious and normal as something extraordinary. In this context, On Kawara’s inconspicuous paintings may serve not only as props that help learn digits and date representations, but also as a strange tool that serves to broaden our imagination and explain such complex concepts as time and its constant counting, which determines our lives.
What would a school look like full of artworks used both as props in learning a language, colours, numbers or history, and as strange tools that stimulate the imagination and broaden the perception of reality? Or perhaps such a school already exists – good old compasses and rulers, cell schemes, geological maps and frogs in formalin can also teach us something more than geometry, biology, geography, and anatomy. It is enough to notice their strangeness.
The commons are jointly used urban spaces, agricultural communes, independent community centres, neighbourhood gardens, immaterial cultural goods (classic artworks, customs, language) as well as all universally accessible natural resources, such as air, water, forests, landscape. All of them presuppose forms of ownership and management methods that go beyond the archaic opposition between the state-owned and the private.
The commons are founded on the belief in human capability of self-organisation and self-governance, which flourishes outside immediate state control. On the other hand, the commons are not a different form of private property, they are based on cooperativeness and broadening access instead of limiting it. They emerge in opposition to the capitalist pursuit of profit at any price.
The origins of the commons date back to the pre-capitalist era. In England the term referred to common land available to all members of a given community, such as pastures where sheep belonging to individual farmers could graze. The enclosure of common land at the dawn of the modern era unleashed processes leading to the emergence of capitalism. Independent farmers slipped into poverty or became poorly paid agricultural workers, or else moved to cities, where they had to find employment (mostly for peanuts) in burgeoning manufactories. The appropriation of the commons allowed landowners to accumulate surplus profits, which they later invested in factories and overseas conquests, unleashing the tide of privatisation (takeover of common property by private individuals), which continues until today.
The modern-day commons are often created as forms of self-defence against wild privatisation. Seeking protection from soaring rents, people occupy vacant buildings and establish community centres there. Reacting to the privatisation of education, students set up self-learning groups. Social coalitions are formed to defend urban green areas and forests against wild development activity, and these also make common use of the areas they defend. This happens not only on a small, local scale. Commonly known and used portals emerge in protest against patents for cultural assets, among them Wikipedia, which was founded and runs on a volunteering basis, being recognised as one of the key examples of the commons in action.
In fact, the commons are not so much a property form, but rather a certain philosophy of using and sustaining what belongs to everybody. A common good may therefore be a school, a square, or a contemporary art centre, even if they are formally private or state property, as long as they are managed according to the rules of shared responsibility, shared use and joint participation in decision-making processes.
The commons do not appear out of nowhere, they result from social collaboration, which makes it possible to sustain them. They do not exist without a community of their users. This is why, instead of the commons, commoning is brought to the fore as a process that keeps the commons from withering, disintegrating, or being seized.
Autonomy (or Independent Art)
Art likes to follow its own set of rules. It’s like an independent republic in which the laws of physics and economy have been suspended, and reason may happen to be relegated to the margins. Throughout the centuries, the art world was becoming ever more similar to a well-guarded fortress (museum), in which a circle of the initiated (geniuses), endowed with superpowers (talent), constructed mysterious objects (artworks) that emanated an other-worldly energy (aura). In the 19th century, the view was finally consolidated that the most natural environment for art was the museum, where one could contemplate things that acquired the special status of artworks. Accordingly, what’s inside was art, what’s outside could not be art in any measure. Artworks were therefore liberated from any obligations imposed on other man-made artefacts, be it a hammer, a kick scooter or an egg whisk. Artworks were not meant to be used for fun or labour, they did not make life easier, but they also weren’t supposed to make it much harder. Their function was, well... to have no function at all. Simultaneously, the idea was still holding strong that art was meant to elevate and ennoble humans and enrich them spiritually. One way or another, art became a special area of human activity, unregulated by earthly rules, a magic land where ordinary mortals could only contemplate those magic objects created by the chosen ones in whose ears graceful muses whispered. This is autonomy, the independent kingdom of art!
Admittedly, many artists found this concept of art unbearably archaic. The 20th century was marked by a rebellion against the ivory tower of art. Dadaists, the Fluxus movement and creators of happenings from the 1960s sought to bring art closer to daily life, to strip it of its mythical costume and finally put it to work. In consequence, the art of our times has gained presence in such areas of human life as school education, scientific experiments, gardening and climate protection movements. So long the autonomous land, hail the compost heap!
Yet, the dream of an independent republic of art has not faded completely. Art history knows examples of states called into being by artists. The Kingdoms of Elgaland-Vargaland, the Republic of Zaqistan, or the NSK State are entities that issue their own passports, postage stamps, IDs, and some of them even have a constitution, an anthem, a flag, mint their own coins, and one even produces perfume with a “national” fragrance. But these artistic states are hard to locate on the map. For example, the Elgaland-Vargaland territory, graciously ruled by the Swedish artists Carl Michael von Hausswolff and Leif Elggren, can only be visited in dreams or when running a high fever.
Escape (from the Museum)
The art museum is a rather hermetic box. Special laws apply inside and things acquire an exceptional status (see: AUTONOMY). Although escape from the museum is not particularly difficult, it may bring quite painful consequences for artists. After all, what happens to an artwork deprived of the conservator’s caring hand, a wall text, a guided tour, a catalogue? What fate lies in store for it without all these sustaining procedures and protheses (frame, plinth, guard rail, etc.)? Will the artwork continue to narrate its captivating tale (not with its own lips, of course, which brings the museum curator’s work close to ventriloquy)? There is a risk that art devoid of institutional care will simply disappear, or else won’t be recognised as art at all. Legends circulate among art lovers about contemporary artworks removed by all-too-eager museum cleaners (such as Gustav Metzger’s installation made of cardboard and a rubbish bag). But what would happen to artworks left in the street or in an urban park, without a title, a plinth, the artist’s name on it?
However, not everyone feels good in the sterile, disciplined temple of high-brow art. The American artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles spent more than a dozen years of her life with the staff of the municipal sanitation department, getting to know their duties better and thanking them for their hard work. Films and photographs from her actions can be seen at museums, but Ukeles’ art surely happens somewhere else.
So do we escape or do we hide in the museum’s safe cocoon? And if we choose to escape, where to?
The history of art of the last half a century, especially that related to conceptual art (which focussed on the dematerialisation of the artwork, and therefore on disappearing) abounds in stories about fugitives. Raivo Puusemp, an artist of Estonian origin, was elected mayor of Rosendale, a small town in the US, and soon afterwards organised a referendum in which it was decided that the town would become a district of a neighbouring city. Since the town and the mayor’s seat “disappeared”, the artist went on to launch a ski business. Lee Lozano, the artist known for her paintings and conceptual pieces, practised her “art of boycott” (for example by avoiding any contact with the art world and making public statements) for so long that she ultimately went completely off the radar. Only recently has it been possible to reconstruct the rather tragic final years of her life. The king of 20th century “art of disappearing” is the Dutch artist Bas Jan Ader, whose art project involved a solitary crossing of the Atlantic. He never reached his native Netherlands from the US, and his disappearance became part of artistic mythology, a story told with fascination by conceptual art nerds.
But most of the escapes from galleries and museums do not take such a dramatic course. We more often encounter artists searching for an appropriate place for art by finding employment at a primary school, tending to a communal garden or working in a national park, seeking to establish relations with mushrooms, mosses and lichens.
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.
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.”
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 Beom Kim 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. Kim 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? Kim 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.
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?
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.”
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!
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?
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<
Curatorial teamSebastian Cichocki, Helena Czernecka
OrganizersRoman Czernecki Educational Foundation (EFC Foundation) , Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw
Box designMichał Sikorski TŁO
Graphic designsZofia Kofta