Spring 2016,Degree Critical

Monday 06/20/2016

Production photo from the recording of podcast "Lines in Real Time" episode 2 on 11 March 2016 at Argot Studios, New York. Pictured: Leah Hartman conducting a phone interview with David Levi-Strauss. Photo: Sarah Diver.

Lines in Real Time

The world is shifting, becoming more technologically advanced, more communicative, more violent each day. Artists are continually responding to these changes, illuminating current events by creating works of art through new and often controversial means, yet the pedagogical models in the cultural institutions that teach these works tend to fall behind. “Lines in Real Time,” the series of educational programming for the exhibition Lines of Flight at the Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University, takes the form of a podcast that addresses this need for alternative educational practices, and is an alternative model itself. We asked Katherine Cohn, one of the co-producers of “Lines in Real Time,” and Jessica Holmes, who wrote and hosted episode 5, to speak with us about the podcast as an educational tool, how young audiences can better engage with art through critical thinking, and how their own thoughts on arts education have changed from this experience.

The Editors—

Kaitlyn A. Kramer: Katherine, can you speak more about your decision to produce a podcast in conjunction with the exhibition Lines of Flight? Where did the idea for this model originate, and how does the podcast form stand out as an alternative to traditional pedagogical models?

Katherine Cohn: The “Lines in Real Time” podcast is a way to get to know pedagogical models, and to explore alternatives that might exist. Students in schools and in other unique spaces for learning don’t always go into their education knowing much about the teaching models to which they’ll be subject. In the M.A. programs in Art History at Columbia University where I’m currently enrolled, emphasis is put on contributing to scholarship rather than teaching. My program titled Modern Critical and Curatorial Studies is more interdisciplinary and encourages curatorial work and art criticism, but I have not encountered many approaches to teaching here. However, students of the program regularly go on to work in a range of venues which are commonly thought of as alternative spaces for learning. I envisioned a project that would allow my classmates and I to become more comfortable working with pedagogical models while also learning to question them, so that we might later apply our experiences in our real world efforts. This podcast programming invited fellow students, both of the M.A. program and in the world at large, to join me in exploring how we experience our education both inside and outside classrooms, how we as educators would like to be taught, and how we might teach others. We should question both the information that we are receiving and the people organizing it, and we should investigate how the scholarship we are producing contributes to the education of others. Critical thinking is at the core of meaningful scholarship and teaching. This podcast seeks to understand ways that spaces for learning have taught material in the past, and to think about how those pedagogical templates foster critical thinking.

Artists were also key players in the podcast. Art, whether artists like it or not, is often used as an educational tool in the academy, or seen as a window into understanding a concept or a perspective. It was therefore important to include artists in the programming—not just because the podcast served as educational programming for an exhibition, but also because artists are faced with the same questions the podcast is trying to answer. Artists are well poised to respond to these questions, even beyond the framework of pedagogical theory.

Rather than compare the podcast to other forms of production, maybe it’s easiest to talk about how one of the many episodes functioned. Episode 3 is a nice example of how the podcast participants designed each episode’s content, structure, and audience in consideration of pedagogical models and their alternatives. The host of the episode is David Crane, who is one of the two curators of Lines of Flight (his portion is called “Life Serial”), and he focused on one of the most basic forms of teaching and learning: the conversation. In the first half of his episode a brilliant artist named Pablo Helguera, who has experience with museum education and the history of conversations as an educational tool, discusses how we can think about conversations in terms of learning. He talks about the difference between heavily directed and undirected, and open and closed format conversations, and how these might play out with an audience as lectures, scripted interviews, casual conversations, or something else entirely. There is an argument that “inquiry-based learning” is a way of teaching that encourages critical thinking. This type of teaching takes the form of a conversation that balances open and closed, directed and undirected formats. So, in the second half of the episode, David and one of the artists of Life Serial named Emily Kloppenburg have a conversation that they try to set up in a way that would produce an inquiry-based learning experience both for themselves as participants in the conversation, and for the listening audience.

I love that episode because it has changed the way I perceive my own learning, be it in the audience of a classroom or at a panel discussion between artists or while listening to talk radio. I also felt that the conversation with Emily about her work was far more enriching than a more common audio guide you might find in another gallery.

Jessica Holmes: I’d add that since this podcast launched, I’ve had a number of enlightening discussions about it as format for learning, which have cropped up naturally in the course of speaking about my installment with others. Listening is a pure and sensory form of receiving information. It’s akin to looking at a piece of art, when you can let go of prior knowledge or preconceived notions and just become absorbed in an artwork. Now having gone through the exercise of making a podcast episode myself, I’m excited by what its potential could be for art criticism, too.

KAK: As noted in the exhibition description, the phrase “lines of flight” refers to Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari’s consideration for the “potential for new linkages across existing boundaries,” which can be applied when thinking of education as a rhizome. It’s clear to me that “Lines in Real Time” attempts to function as one of these linkages. How do you think the podcast contributed to the exhibition visitors’ experiences of the works, and how does it challenge the “existing boundaries” imbedded in both institutions and the exhibitions that come out of them?

JH: Speaking specifically about the episode I wrote and hosted, I’d say that trying to conceptualize what an exhibition—especially one that covers difficult topics like war and terrorism, like the Lines of Flight section “Contemporary Ruins” does—might look like through the eyes of a younger person was instructive. I’m grateful to Daniela Fifi, the Samuel H. Crest interpretive fellow at the Wallach Gallery, who is one of the women I interviewed for this project and who had the initial idea to record the class of sixth graders touring the show. In the end, including the kids’ voices, rather than only having adults discussing the pedagogical processes that affect them, became really important to me. Hearing the children talk about the art they were seeing in real time was a lesson in how the brain makes linkages, connecting personal experience to larger political and social issues. I hope that viewers had the chance for reflection, by slowing down and listening to the episode, and then walking through the exhibition or seeing it again a second time after hearing the podcast, with this alternative perspective in mind.

KC: Jess put that very well. Just as Jess experienced with her episode, I think each episode poses a question for viewers and listeners to reflect on before walking through this exhibition again, or another exhibition where the question continues to apply. Episode 2 especially confronts the boundaries of what the institution and exhibition could do.  Leah Hartman, the curator of Lines of Flight portion “Contemporary Ruins” and host of episode 2, provides insight into the curatorial questions that can be encountered when organizing an exhibition. In the episode, we follow Leah as she decides whether or not to display videos that feature ISIS propagandistic violence, specifically of the destruction of cultural heritage sites. Her exhibition explores artist responses to this propagandistic violence, and central to the theme is a search for perspectives that shed a critical light on the viewing, dissemination, and circulation of such videos. But should she include them? Her interview with David Levi Strauss helps her clarify the pros and cons of displaying them in the exhibition. In the second half of her episode, she tries to find and apply an alternate solution beyond omitting or including the videos, and she chooses to let “Lines in Real Time” record her describing what she sees as she watches one of the videos. A record of the video is therefore available for a listener or visitor to experience, but only if the user explicitly chooses to listen, and only with Leah’s verbal mediation.

Her episode reflects on an ethical quandary that both she and the gallery had to negotiate when thinking about their audience, which is a problem that newspapers and social media platforms must face as well. Do I choose to listen to the second half of her episode? What do I think she should have done? Just answering these questions already sets me up to think critically about these videos. She even points out that as individuals we face this conflict everyday on social media. As Leah proposes in the episode, “How do you encourage others to be more critical and really think about what they’re sharing, what they’re posting? This was one of the reasons I wanted to put this show together in the first place—to bring awareness to the fact that these are not unmediated images that we’re seeing.”

As for myself, I will add that I can’t look at my Facebook feed the same way after listening to her episode; my whole experience of “Contemporary Ruins” has changed.

KAK: Can you both speak about an instance in which you encountered the type of educational practices that encourage critical thinking and creativity in or through the arts that Jessica and her guests are encouraging in their discussion?

JH: Well, I embarked on this topic precisely because I was concerned about the scarcity of educational practices in public schooling that encourage critical thinking. My daughter will enter public school in another year, and I read all these articles about kindergartners being given two hours of homework a night for instance, or teachers who feel compelled to refocus their lesson plans so that their students are trained to properly answer standardized test questions. Every school district is different, and she isn’t quite there yet, but I wanted to investigate for myself, so I can better understand and be prepared for the system she’ll soon be entering.

As for myself, obviously, I went to graduate school at SVA—art school—so that in and of itself is an education that is steeped in critical thinking, about art and about the world, and the people who make it. But my suspicion is that this kind of deliberate contemplation is not necessarily encouraged in many other realms of education, and especially not in pedagogic practices that are largely in place in American public school classrooms. Most of my own memories of the art I was taught at school as a child are mostly run-of-the-mill (i.e. art class once or twice a week in a separate classroom, the projects not especially aligned with what was going on in our main classroom), but I do have rich memories of my high school French and art teachers banding together to teach across the boundaries of their respective classrooms. So in French class with Madame Schrader we’d talk in French about the Impressionists, for example, and then in art class we’d look at slides of their work with Mr. Glassberg. The two of them took us on field trips to the museums in New York. We went to the Metropolitan Opera to see Carmen and La Boheme. We saw Les Miserables after reading it in class. This might all sound guileless now, but when I was a kid it was my gateway to the interests that have sustained me. I believe those two teachers really strove to introduce to their students modes of thinking that we weren’t likely to otherwise encounter in our high school. Several of the educators I spoke with in the course of making this episode discuss similar methods of teaching, and provide examples of how this kind of interactive, democratic learning is beneficial to students.

KC: Part of what both Jess and her guests are discussing in terms of art education is a creative approach to interpreting the world. The creative act is the process of articulating what we see, and is a crucial interpretive method to many. But the most important element of arts education, as these women describe it, is that it encourages each student to wonder about alternative viewpoints. Thinking critically is a crucial step to learning.

Jess and I have been talking about ideal forms of education for years, and where we might be able to (or might fail to) find them. I can think of a few personal examples of learning critical thinking through the arts while growing up. The first I can remember that might fit this bill was not a classroom experience; it was something that I used to do with my cousins. I have older twin cousins who used to play doodling games with me not unlike “the exquisite corpse,” and they would get excited the more unexpected the pieces would turn out. So for me, at about 8 years old, I thought that the “uglier” or “weirder” I could make it, the better it was. In other words, “ugly” became desirable. What I understand now is that it pushed me away from the classically attractive and countered cultural norms in ways that made sense to me, and that later set the foundation for my concepts of beauty and normalcy when interacting with pop-culture whether I was a teenager and I’m sure even now. While that’s the first example I can think of from my life, it’s hard to say that’s comparable to what the women in Jess’s episode are doing with their students.

I was driven to produce this podcast because I am drawn to scenarios where critical thinking bleeds through aesthetic thinking to inform all areas of life, and I think this perspective informs every episode in the podcast, and is exemplified by the work each of the women do who were interviewed in Jess’s episode. In addition to examples that arise in the podcast, I have found many others in my research which I find compelling as well. In terms of texts, both Gordon Parks’s memoir A Choice of Weapons (1966) and Aimee Meredith Cox’s book Shapeshifters: Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship (2015) are rich with examples of creative work serving as tools for expressing a critical reshaping of oneself or one’s environment. Project Row Houses in Houston, TX is a fantastic example of a functioning arts organization that is enacting similar principles. PRH has a range of programming including a Public Art program and Artist Round program that encourages critically engaged artists to respond to issues of, and present projects to, the community of Houston’s Third Ward. There is also a Social Safety Net section of their programming that includes a young mother’s program and affordable housing, and there’s a Sustainability section of their programming that includes an incubation program which fosters artists in early stages of project development. The incubation program has resulted in a local artist-run food co-op called NuWaters Co-op, and a full-fledged radio station called All Real Radio. They also have a variety of educational programs for kids—one that I really like is a program that teaches kids how to build and maintain an aquaponic garden. Malcolm Smith and Keba Konte designed an aquaponic garden for PRH, and Smith maintains it and teaches the kids. It’s incredible, all that they do, and I’m just scratching the surface with this list.

KAK: I’ve just finished an article from e-flux journal #72 by Orit Gat titled “Could Reading be Looking?” which deals with the primacy of wall labels in exhibitions, and how wall texts inform our viewing. There seems to be no right or wrong answer when it comes to the inclusion and exclusion of text in an art viewing experience. Jessica, can you talk about how arts education plays a role in your work as an art critic? Also, if you can comment on the role of art criticism in education at large, how it can be a useful tool for students to engage with, or even participate in, visual art?

JH: So much writing about art is opaque and often seems willfully esoteric. When I read a text heavy with “artspeak” I wonder whether the writer is either using it in order to mask muddy thinking, or just does not have much to say in the first place. If I need to take five minutes to parse every sentence of a piece of writing in order to understand the meaning, I lose interest. Now, for a reader who has less of a stake in the subject than I do, what incentive is there to continue reading? This is not to say I have any desire to dumb down my own language, but I believe that a piece of criticism can be both cleanly expressed and also intelligent. When I write, I feel a deep, personal responsibility to convey meaning clearly and unpretentiously so that my reader can easily engage no matter what their prior knowledge on the given topic.

When written art criticism is deft it can be such a resource. Off the top of my head, I think of two iconic pieces of criticism: Donald Judd’s “Specific Objects” (1965) and Linda Nochlin’s “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (1971). These pieces of writing serve different functions but what they share is a lucidity in the language that can really draw anyone in. “Specific Objects”—and so much of Donald Judd’s writing, really—is a master class on how to look at art. He doesn’t offer any directives but instead with his words he shows the reader the way he sees, as an artist. The way I look at art now has been greatly informed by Donald Judd. Linda Nochlin’s piece is one of the first I remember reading years ago as an undergrad, which really galvanized me. It helped me to see how art does not exist in a bubble but how it operates as part of the larger fabric of humanity. And neither of these pieces of writing is difficult to read! They are texts you could give a high school class for example, and I think they would provoke a lively discussion. Someone who otherwise spends little time thinking about art could read them and take something away, or find application to their personal experience. I’m talking about the invocation of critical thinking here, which should be the baseline of education, and which I argue in my podcast episode that an arts education can uniquely fulfill, if students are provided access to it.