Human and non-human bodies are constantly interacting. Our daily encounters with objects have the potential of teaching us about our reality, as their materiality is charged with social and political significance. The embodiment of experiences through the production of art is a way of projecting our ideas into objects, thus communicating concepts in the form of matter. In this Lab, I investigate the learning possibilities involved in the contemplation and production of (art) objects in a series of classes designed for High-schoolers.
‘All entities and processes are composed of – or reducible to – matter, material forces or physical processes’ (Stack, 1998)
According to political theorist Jane Bennett (2010), there is a ‘strange ability for ordinary, man-made items to exceed their status as items and manifest traces of independence or aliveness’ (pg. 68), a phenomenon she describes as thing-power. Human and non-human bodies are constantly interacting with each other, immersed in social relationships of power (Dolphijn and Tuin, 2012). Such interactions inform our experience regarding nature and society and therefore hold a pedagogical potential: ‘Matter can teach us through resisting dominant discourses, and we can learn new ways of being.’ (Page, 2018). Two different ways of learning from objects are possible in this context: By exploring the social and political circumstances in which they were produced, or by embodying our thoughts and experiences through the creation of objects of art.
To explore the pedagogical potential of the relationship between everyday objects and objects of art, I designed a series of three classes addressing socio-political themes. In each 60 minutes session, the possible connection between the topic and the objects relating to it were explored, and works of art dialoguing with the subject were introduced and discussed. As an artist, I followed a similar approach to structuring my lectures as I do in my artistic practice. The methodology was not strictly predetermined but responded to the needs that emerged from the interactions with the students instead (Sullivan, 2009). However, inspired by Ana Mae Barbosa’s (2014) triangular approach, I tried to promote three distinct moments in each class: a contextualization moment when participants shared their ideas of objects that related to the theme based on their personal experience, the appreciation and analysis of existing works of art pertaining to the discussion, and an optional creative activity.
The Lab took place at the Swiss school of São Paulo, where I was working as an Art teacher at the time. In High-school, students have to choose between music or art classes, which they attend once a week for 45 minutes. Those who opt for art have photography, art history, and painting lessons during the final four school years. The sessions of this project, however, did not take place during regular classes nor in the school’s physical environment. They were held on the online platform “Teams” once a week after school hours. The participation of the students was entirely voluntary and did not result in any type of compensation. All students aged 15 – 18 were invited to participate in the series of three classes. Six students from different school years signed up for the sessions. To my surprise, two students from the music group (who didn’t have any art classes during High-school) also asked to participate in the Lab.
The themes explored during the sessions were: “power”, “home” and “loss”. All meetings began with brainstorming around the subjects, where students were asked questions such as “In what situation do you think someone can feel powerful?”, “What makes you feel at home?” or “What things can be lost?”. The answers were written simultaneously in a collective document, and students didn’t have to identify themselves. They then were invited to think about objects which could relate to the topic of discussion. In this process of exchange of experiences, hierarchy in the classroom disappeared, and learning assumed a rhizomatic form (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987) in which ideas are multiple and interconnected.
After contextualizing the themes with the students’ reality, I planned on introducing artistic references from various historical periods that would relate to our previous exercise. I encountered difficulties in my task, as it soon became apparent that I could not always accurately predict what the students would bring to the discussion. In the first session, my assumption was that students would correlate objects such as money or fast cars to the idea of power, but I was surprised by a student’s remark that she considered peeing an empowering act. I suddenly realised how much my own personal experience tainted my views and directed my choice of references. Nevertheless, the personal nature of the ideas discussed allowed a deepening of the bond between the participants of the Lab, including myself. An environment of honesty and trust was created, as the myth of teacher’s neutrality towards knowledge was unveiled.
Focusing on the participant’s reality also allowed some freedom to approach art not usually presented in the school’s traditional art history curriculum. The second session, in particular, when we discussed the idea of “home” was the perfect opportunity for introducing the works of young Brazilian contemporary artists. As connections started to emerge, the course of the conversations became more flexible. In the third session, which addressed the theme of loss, individual experiences emerged as particularly relevant. As I also shared some personal thoughts, students asked about my own artistic practice . I am generally self-aware about sharing my work in the classroom, as I wouldn’t like it to influence students’ productions. However, the informal environment and genuine interest of the participants opened up space for me to disclose my personal art practice. This event also culminated in students showing me references that I was unfamiliar with. A sense of commoning emerged from this session.
As the participation in the workshops was elective, I didn’t want to propose tasks that would require a big time commitment. Therefore, the practical part of the sessions did not generate much engagement. However, this issue could be resolved in regular school classes by expanding the number of lessons dedicated to each subject and allowing students more time to complete their projects during class.
It was possible to conclude from this experience that a safe and understanding environment is created when horizontal practices of pedagogy are applied. The affective classroom invites the development of meaningful knowledge and a generally positive attitude towards learning. At the end of the Lab, three students asked me to give them private lessons about art history. Two of them were the music students, who felt that they needed a more profound understanding of the art history events to comprehend the works of art introduced in the Lab fully. Students were able to trace parallels between the objects that inhabit their everyday world, and the communication of ideas, through using art as a medium. Understanding the communicative power of visual language based on real-life issues motivated students to want to learn more.
Barbosa, Ana Mae, eds. 2014. A imagem no ensino da arte: anos 1980 e novos tempos. São Paulo: Perspectiva.
Bennett, Jane. 2010. Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Deleuze, Giles, and Felix Guattari. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press. First published 1980
Dolphijn, Rick, and Iris van der Tuin. 2012. New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies. Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press.
Page, Tara. 2018. Teaching and Learning with Matter. Arts (Basel) 7, no. 4: 82.
Stack, George. 1998. Materialism. London: Routledge
Sullivan, Graeme. 2009. Making space: the purpose and place of practice-led research, in H. Smith & R. T. Dean [Eds] Practice-led Research, Research-led Practice in the Creative Arts: Research Methods for the Arts and Humanities. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 41–65
by Isabella Bianchi
Isabella Bianchi is an artist and a teacher from São Paulo, Brazil. She studied visual arts, pedagogy and art education, and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Arts and Learning at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Tell us an alternative perspective you discovered during your lab?
An alternative perspective that I discovered during my lab, is that teachers do not always have to suppress their personal opinions in class or adopt a seemingly neutral position about the subjects they are teaching.