OVERLAPPING WITH YOUNG MINDS
ANNE BRADLEY INTERVIEWS JENNIE GUY ABOUT MOBILE ART SCHOOL AND OTHER PROJECTS EXPLORING THE ROLE OF CONTEMPORARY ARTISTS AND CURATORS IN SCHOOLS.
Anne Bradley: How and why did you create the Mobile Art School?¹
Jennie Guy: I work in the art world and I’m also a parent. Another answer is that I’ve always been interested in – and critical of – education systems, since I was a teenager going through the system, up to when I was studying on my contemporary art MA and witnessing the ‘pedagogical turn’ in the contemporary art world. I think the overlap of artistic experience and younger minds is a winning combination. From the very beginning I could sense how substantial Mobile Art School might become, as education systems will always be in constant need of attention and reinvention, both from inside and outside the system.
AB: How do you approach schools and foster partnerships?
JG: Sometimes just cold calling. All it takes is one person – a principal or a teacher, for example – to provide a foothold for the project to be welcomed into a school. I’ve also been introduced to schools via arts festivals, other curators, arts practitioners and arts organisations. A project’s success can also generate momentum. Wicklow County Council have been incredibly supportive of the vision and we are now formalising plans for our partnership to move forward from one school into another later this year.
AB: You’ve described your approach as being ‘triadic’: based on relationships between curator, artist and student. How does this approach differ from the established artist-in-residence programmes within schools?
JG: My aim is to experiment with how the role of the curator can encourage a mutually beneficial conduit between students and artists. The goal is a sharing of processes that highlights vital links between artistic research and students’ potential as inventive learners. The way that I run my projects is based on my own professional interests in contemporary art practices, generally emphasising a sustained level of research and experimentation along with output. When the students engage – not only with an artist but an artist in relation to a curator (in an active working dynamic) – they begin to understand the real world of artistic production and all the relationships that make up our professional community. It dispels the notion of artists in the ivory tower.
AB: Can you cite a specific example?
JG: ‘The Artist Stays’ was a strand of the Mobile Art School that comprised a kind of artist’s residency. Working with Rhona Byrne in St. Catherines National School in Rush, Co. Dublin was the first instance of this programme. During 2013 and 2014, over 30 weeks Rhona developed a close relationship with over 60 students through conducting research, building a studio and producing work both through the studio and within a temporary outdoor sculpture garden.
Rhona was chosen because of her approach to materials, site and context, and the variety of forms of practice in her work, which can be both playful and quite formal. Rhona really challenged the students to think through concepts and processes that were rooted in the day-to-day forms of practical work that they explored together.
As Rhona expressed to me in some of her feedback, the impact of the project is still sinking in. Working with Rhona was an amazing experience – her confident approach to working with the school allowed me to devote some of my time to developing sensitive strategies for evaluating the residency via a series of short films. These are proving quite formative in moving my work on to the next stage.
AB: Watching the film of the students working with Rhona it’s evident that they are engaged not only in the art curriculum but also in cross-curricular learning. The students describe how their investigations require the use of maths for measuring, or the observation of plants and animals when engaging with land art projects …
JG: There are inherent links between artistic research and various elements of existing school curriculum. I witnessed this through almost every stage of the development of the Mobile Art School project and received confirmation from principals, teachers and students. I think it’s interesting to think of how these existing elements of the curriculum in turn prepare the students to think about art in different ways. I think it is important to emphasise not only art for art’s sake, but art as a subject matter and mode of expression through which students’ existing skill sets (and individual interests) might evolve well beyond the opportunities provided in the core curriculum that they experience as a given.
AB: ‘The Artist Visits’ project, with Stephen Brandes, moved away from emphasising technical drawing skills towards discovering creative ways of problem solving when shaping an artwork …
JG: ‘The Artist Visits’ was a workshop programme that Mobile Art School initiated initiated in two schools. The first iteration in 2012 explored various artistic media and featured workshops with Sven Anderson, Michelle Browne, Felicity Clear, Mark Garry, Emma Haugh, Vera Klute, Ruth Lyons, Isabel Nolan and Tamarin Norwood. The second instance of titled The Thinking Hand, was based on different approaches to drawing and included workshops with John Beattie, Stephen Brandes, Gabhann Dunne, Jane Fogarty, Vanesa Donoso-Lopez and Vera Klute. Stephen’s workshop focused on breaking rules and what makes things humourous. One of the activities in his workshop was using pins to poke tiny holes in the skins of bananas – turning a familiar object into a new surface through which to discover a new form of drawing.
AB: Your most recent project involves two artists working with transition year students at Blessington Community College, Co. Wicklow…
JG: I invited Sven Anderson and John Beattie to take part in two parallel six-week residencies in Blessington Community College as part of the Thinking Visual programme initiated by Wicklow Co. Council and supported by the Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray – that commenced in September 2014. At the outset the residencies were designed to encourage participating students to re-imagine the potential of their school as a site for artistic research and production.
John worked with the students to explore the apparatus of the camera, developing a film where the students took roles as the producers, directors, cast and crew. The output was a really beautiful two-minute film made collaboratively with the students and shot all over the school. Sven worked with the students through a series of projects and interventions based on sound art. This led to a collaboration where an outdoor sound installation was created and mounted overhead in the passageway connecting two school buildings. The sound installation will be active for several months, providing the students with a chance to collaborate with Sven to compose different soundscapes outside of their school every few weeks. I don’t know of any other schools with something like this integrated into their surroundings. It challenges the students to consider the act of listening so attentively. The feedback from students, the art teacher and the principal was so positive that I feel this type of process could be a real game-changer for an artistic discipline that is somehow seen as a fringe thing here in Ireland. The level of knowledge that the students gleaned from working with Sven was very sophisticated.
AB: How are your projects funded?
JG: I’ve been fortunate enough to develop funding in collaboration with participating schools, county councils, arts festivals (such as TULCA) and through various Arts Council awards. My definition of support extends beyond financial backing to include establishing meaningful opportunities for exchange. How these projects are evaluated and what they represent in relation to shared art-in-education goals is important. To this end, I’ve been working towards developing more formal links to teacher training education, (sometimes collaboratively, for example with independent educational curator Katy Fitzpatrick and Dr. Aislinn O’Donnell, Lecturer in Philosophy of Education, Mary Immaculate College (University of Limerick) as well as securing a research residency through RUA RED, which will begin in the near future. I’m also looking to develop more substantial long-term partnerships, from initiatives such as the Creative European Cooperation Projects.
AB: The Arts Rich School initiative, launched in 2013 by the Department of Arts Heritage and the Gaeltacht, plans to incentivise and recognise primary and secondary schools which make the arts a key part of school life. Kids’ Own’s Arts in Education Portal will aid the sharing of quality resources and information. Do you see initiatives like these providing more opportunities for your projects?
JG: Yes, any initiative – be that governmental or grass-roots – that is looking to reflect the voices of schools, teachers, artists or cultural practitioners should be listened to. I’m really looking forward to seeing how the Portal develops. I would love to get more involved in these discussions as they emerge.
AB: Are there any international projects that have contributed to the evolution of Mobile Art School?
JG: I’d certainly cite elements of the Room 13 residential programme developed in Scotland or the Reggio Emilia approach developed in Italy. I’ve also been influenced by various artists’ practices. Recently I found resonances in projects by Stine Marie Jacobsen, Adelita Husney-Bey, Priscilla Fernandes, Simon Starling’s ‘Mobile Academy’, and Olafur Eliasson’s ‘Institut für Raumexperimente’. There’s always something going on, for example I should be in Berlin right now at the ‘Artists’ Organisations International’ conference as it has such a strong educational focus. Later this year, Node Centre, also in Berlin, is running a curatorial programme focused on developing strategies that put art thinking to practical and beneficial uses in the educational field.
At the same time, I feel that what I’m working towards here in Ireland is quite unique. The strength of Mobile Art School and my other projects is that it’s free – there is no other example for something that works this way. It seeks to remain mobile and fluid within a group of active, practicing artists. I believe in ensuring that this platform is used to enable artists who might not have any interest in art-in-education or teaching on a more formal level, to discover a forum for interfacing with this younger audience. And the curatorial framework provides the school with a secure format, leaving the participating artists free to work naturally. The artist is not placed as a teacher – they are placed as an artist, as themselves.
Jennie Guy is a curator and an artist whose practice has recently focused on developing new modes of arts in education.
Anne Bradley is a primary school teacher with a background in art practice. She is interested in how artists as self-directed learners can influence teaching and learning and in how the diversity of current art practice can enrich cross-curricular learning.
1. Together with curator Cleo Fagan, Jennie Guy founded and curated Mobile Art School between 2011 and early 2015, a framework that explored different forms of residency and workshop-based programmes, placing contemporary artists within primary and secondary schools. Jennie is now developing a new project structure that extends from and beyond Mobile Art School, by complementing these existing methods with an increased focus on research and publication, emerging through a series of partnerships in 2015.