‘…the art work is not a repository of meaning but a site for meaning-making’ (Addison, 1999, p.36)
The following text investigates the pedagogical potential of walking art to foster new understandings and conceptualizations of space, (dis)embodiment, as well as self-awareness within the purview of an equally reimagined, hybrid art education. In my own arts-led research as educationalist/artist I examine the ways the teaching artist may be able to cross the borders between art and education to produce a hybrid field in which hierarchical distinctions are questioned and the voices of students legitimised. To this effect I have created a series of multimodal installations, which question the dichotomy of visual arts and pedagogy.
I present here an instance of an arts-led research project which took place in the Institute of Education (IoE), in London, in cooperation with students following an art related route. In this context a sixth form student, Anthony (aged 17) created an artwork based on footage documenting a simple walk, in an endeavor which falls into the purview of walking art. Anthony decided to project a video of his walk on a street which is outside the university studio, where the project was taking place, insidethe studio space. Television and, even more acutely, video footage seem to fold space as they are ‘at once inside and outside, here and there’ (Kaye, 2007, p.24). He investigated the relation between the embodied action of walking on a street and the projection of a visual representation of such a walk, within an art installation. As he was aware of the work of Richard Long and familiar with walking art as a valid form of artistic practice he consciously chose to project a repetitive loop of an otherwise unremarkable walk, as a fragment of lived experience, within an ambiguous, polysemic installation. The artwork invited thinking on the everyday, mundane experience of traversing the stratified and structured urban space of a metropolis, such as London. There is no sense of direction, no narrative, no story: as the projected image of a (fragment of a) walk, it embodies some key aspects of postmodern art: repetitiveness/the element of loop, fragmentation, lack of discernible clues for a specific interpretation or for making meaning of the video in terms of narration. In a way, Anthony hints on the repetitive, everyday act of walking through metropolitan city centers, as transitory, as non-places.In a sense he comments on transiting urban space, as an activity which loses meaning under the sheer burden of its own repetitiveness, orderliness, predictability.
The installation in question provided Anthony with a space to iterate and explore his multimodal idiom. I use here the words ‘place’ and ‘space’ in the same way de Certeau (1984) is using them. Namely, ‘place’ stands for a given, often rigid framework, physical or conceptual (e.g. stratified urban environment or language as a structure made of grammatical rules, ‘Langue’). ‘Space’ is equivalent to ‘Parole’ i.e. how language is actually used. ‘Space’ is ‘place’ used, lived, appropriated and affected by individuals. Michel de Certeau explains that space is a practiced place, and as Nick Kaye (2000, p.5) puts it, as such it incorporates the element of unpredictability. He goes on to posit that practiced places, which are subject to human activity do not merely reflect orderliness but all the more, can afford transformation, and even engender ambiguity. The importance of ambiguity for art education, as well as for visual arts, resides in its ability to keep off balance prescriptive approaches, opening up possible, emergent meanings and alternative methods. In this installation/project Anthony negotiated and investigated issues that matter for him, experimenting and improvising with new media outside his comfort zone.
In an analogous way, walking art sits squarely outside the comfort zone of methodologically prescriptive paradigms in art education. As a form of art, it doesn’t lend itself as a handy method of artistic practice for most of schooling settings/environments, because it won’t sit comfortably within a well-established, target-orientated educational culture premised on the measurable and on the quantifiable.
As Hall (2010) notes: ‘Work by artist teachers can display a more open and evocative texture than written texts, suggesting meaning is alluded to rather than spelt out (Eisner, 2005), a philosophy that sits somewhat uneasily in an educational culture that favours the explicit and easily measurable’ (p.107). Nevertheless, the ambiguous and ethereal element of art which transcends (and yet enriches) symbolic systems, seems to lure educationalists globally into envisaging a model in which art and education meet halfway in a hybrid field, where artistic methods are not the subject, but the vehicle of research and pedagogical practice within a new paradigm of art/education.
An instance of a Walking Art project as arts-led educational research
In this case, an art project related to both video installation and walking art has functioned as means to conduct educational research. Video as a medium is far from neutral in terms of (dis)embodiment with respect to the sense of vision: ‘[Television] transports vision as such and sets it immediately before the viewer. It entails not merely a heightening of the naturally limited powers of sight with respect to certain distant objects: it involves a transmission or transposition of vision itself’ (Weber 1996, p.116, ‘original emphasis’).
Fig. 1. ‘Walking (in the loop)’ part of the co-authored installation ‘tunnel vision’, London, 2009.
Through the use of video, which in turn entails a conditional transposition of visual faculty, Anthony emphasizes the diffusion of movement in urban space as a meaningful act: the repetitiveness of his footage, the haunting quality of the mannequin (doubling as a projection screen and a projected dark outline which appears to ‘walk’ in the projected cityscape), all testify to a rather dystopian approach on walking through a place by design resistant to becoming an actualized space. This investigation on walking down a central London street through the medium of video installation falls within the purview of walking art both in terms of conceptual framework and of subject matter. A separate small piece (fig 2) testifies to Anthony's will to address what he sees as a strict geometry of the urban space in a humorous and faintly subversive gesture, which is telling of his perception of the metropolitan, man-made environment, as one which perpetuates stratifications and orderliness.
Fig. 2. Anthony addresses the rigidity of the strict geometry which characterises the urban environment.
In order to ensure that I do not project superfluous or my own meanings unto Anthony’s work or intentions I see fit to let him unfold his own account:
Walking (in the loop), 2009: Anthony’s account
This text is the outcome of a dialogue via emails between me and Anthony as I responded to his early draft with written comments and recommendations, which consequently informed his text. I perceive this as a dialogical, co-authored text as through its editing many issues around this installation have been dealt with, in more depth, by both of us. I saw fit to include parts of it in order to give an opportunity for the voice of student to be presented.
I feel that the installation as a whole works rather well, the conflict between other installations/artwork and the space creates an interesting dialogue. Furthermore, the space ‘feeds’ this installation; for example, the mannequin is tucked away in a small, dark room awaiting the inquisitive audience to lay eyes on her (but I do not see the mannequin as a representation of women). Paradoxically, its awkwardness feeds in turn with the space; ‘walking’ manages to distort the usual sense of actual space by combining ‘real’ space and projected space, by interweaving projection with an actual object. In Walking, I am reminded of the ‘Ready-mades’, the mannequin perhaps acts as sort of a ready-made itself because it has lost its original purpose and gained an entirely different meaning. Moreover, as it is merged with the projection, the two do not serve any direct purpose, we can almost call this piece surreal. The cast shadow of the mannequin interferes with the projection, while the shifting street view merges with the actual mannequin allowing the static mannequin to almost ‘walk’, hence creating a sense of artificial movement confusing ‘real’ and ‘created’ space. The footage filmed in actual space/reality is what really allows ‘walking’ to address issues of perception in a more engaging way. Since the footage is ‘attached’ to reality, then it is harder to perceive what may be the ‘real’ space or the ‘created space’. This is what makes it ‘walk’ while most of the rest seems static. Therefore, ‘walking’ stands out as it creates an enigmatic distortion of spatial awareness/perception.
Fig. 3. Photographer: Peter Thomas
Moreover, the small closet environment that the work is housed in adds strangeness to the work, and therefore adds to its interest.
In ‘walking’, I tried to experiment with sublime, conceptual and installation art, exploring various aspects of life and humanity. In Walking I focused on my idea and realizing it in order for the audience to engage with the work, to think about the work, to connect or challenge the work, that is what interests me most about creating artwork. This concept was quite interesting to me but I could not fit it in with my School art project, so I took this opportunity to refine the ideas I had conceived after the exhibition. I kept in mind the audience whilst creating this work, I have tried to make this work as disorientating but enjoyable as possible. The camera loop (filmed by myself outside the IoE) and the recording of work in the studio provided a palpable hint of confusion for the audience. Also, there is a sense of work still taking place on the very installations. Perhaps this is key, as it illustrates the primacy of process over the outcome. What is shown can be perceived as a snapshot of an on-going process, rather than a closure.
Many metaphorical ideas can be read into this piece, but I’d much rather let the audience draw their own conclusions on this. Also, I feel this ambiguity at the beginning is more a benefit rather than a hindrance because this piece does not belong to Panagiotis or I. The audience take ownership of it through their understanding and belief. For example, an interesting suggestion presented to the both of us was this idea of ‘walking to nowhere’. This suggestion has been offered up by a viewer. She has likened the relationship between the figurine and the projection as a possible allusion to the futility of moving towards an unreachable state of fulfilment. This subjective reading of ‘walking’ underscores the importance of ambiguity as it creates a ‘space’ where viewers can construct and contemplate on their own meanings.
Now I am reminded of Richard Long’s ‘walking as art’. However, it was from this point on that I felt this installation did not really express a clear meaning but this work has a dormant profound effect on an audience waiting to be discovered.
Fig. 4. Walking (in the loop), 2009
Trajectories in a smooth space: (walking) art meets education
On a theoretical level I draw on Deleuze and Guattari, and particularly on their notions of the ‘rhizome’ and ‘smooth space’. Deleuze (1988) coins the term smooth space as opposed to striated, that is, compartmentalised, determined space. Smooth space is where movements and flows intersect, where borders collapse, where rigid geometrical stratifications are exposed as invalid. Walking art is premised on foregrounding conceptions of space which chime with Deleuzean notion of ‘smooth space’ producing smooth mappings, smooth records and (re)conceptualizations of lived places. My hypothesis is that striated, rigid, compartmentalised spaces either physical (i.e. urban places) or conceptual, such as dichotomies between e.g. arts and the social sciences are arbitrary and perpetuate distortions on several levels.
There is an ongoing discussion in conferences, university departments, and art institutions about reimagining art education as a hybrid space where visual arts and pedagogical discourses/social sciences merge. This article presents a discussion on the possibilities, which open up for walking art as point of reference for artistic and pedagogical practice envisaged as a continuum, within a hybrid art/education.
Indeed, the discussion about practice-led Ph.D. projects in the Visual Arts (see Macleod and Holdridge, 2006; Holly and Smith, 2008) is mirrored in the field of art education, in which new possibilities for doing research are tentatively explored (Cole and Knowles, 2008; Eisner 1974, 1998; Sullivan, 2005, 2008). For most of the last decade arts-led research and the relation of art and pedagogy became increasingly investigated in conferences. For instance, in London, the ‘Deschooling Society Conference’ at Hayward Gallery, (29-30/4/2010), overlapped with the symposium ‘Art and the Social: Exhibitions of Contemporary Art in the 1990s’ at Tate Britain (again on 30/4/2010). Another symposium, ‘The Benefits of Risk: Shifts in Institutional Learning Practice’, only weeks earlier, elaborated on arts-led educational projects; namely, ‘Visual Dialogues’, managed by Tate Britain, and ‘documenta 12 education’ (3/3/2010). This exponential increase in such public forums reflects the accelerating pace of the convergence between art as valid form of qualitative research and education. To use a metaphor, art education walks steadily into the remit of visual arts proper, incorporating methods, aims, sensibilities.
Walking art as presentation of experience through embodied, non-linguistic means
Creating multimodal artworks or environments as vehicles for analysis - rather than objects for analysis - is nevertheless, one thing, and how post-16 students might relate to, or benefit from them is another. Rather than addressing students as consumers of multimodal configurations, their role is envisaged as that of active appropriators extending, re-assembling and re-mapping these configurations.
The quest here is to empower students to negotiate reflexively, through artistic means, their experience of navigating places so that they become more conscious and aware of their own existential space. The idiosyncratic mappings or visual traces of such navigations in lived spaces presuppose a subject who is able to reformulate the experience of movement in a (often stratified) place in a way akin to that in which a poet reformulates langue (language as a set of stratified rules and givens) into something that moves beyond it and becomes a personal idiom.
Crowther (1993) discusses one of the basic premises of postmodern thought: Namely, the idea that people are embodiments of language, that subjectivities are premised on the discrepancies in the use of language. Crowther objects strongly to the idea of people being constituted as vectors of language, as ‘linguistic entities’. He posits that the very mutations which appear to support such a case, in closer examination, tell a very different story: Eventually, these re-formulations of language by different people bear witness to subjectivity as being premised outside language, within the existential space of the subjects’ embodied being-in-the world. Crowther argues that ‘The very existence of Language - or any symbolic formation - presupposes a substantive human subject, founded on real physical difference rather than difference at the level of language use’ (p.200). Crowther continues arguing against the Derridean notion of subjects as instances of Différance -the term Derrida has coined which conveys difference-as-subtle mutation. The consequence of adopting Derrida’s tenet in fine arts, according to Crowther, is the entrenchment of the pervasive feeling that art has exhausted itself. This dispiriting idea is for Crowther inextricably related to the alignment of art to language, in the sense that they are both perceived as accumulations: as an almost inert sum of possibilities of différance in which every further addition makes little difference. As Crowther’s argument unfolds, he favours artists who are sceptical with this deconstructive, Derridean scepticism, who are sceptical towards this scepticism.
Walking art in particular is squarely premised on the existential and experiential space of the subject’s embodied being-in-the world. It perceives places as opportunities for reformulation through their use, and through subjective interpretations; opportunities which reside beyond language, beyond the limited and delimiting perception of subjects as linguistic entities. Walking artists can be seen as bearers of embodied knowledge who enhance and communicate their affective relation to places through somatic, non-symbolic, artistic means. Pedagogy reformulated as a continuum with art, can play a role in fostering such affective re-mappings of the lived experience, which invariably reside in the respective continuums of language and body, symbolic-non symbolic, theoretical-artistic.
It has to be noted that nowadays though, both subjectivity and the ability to represent are questioned. Postmodernism according to Fredric Jameson (in Foster, 1983, p.114), has indeed ushered us the death of the subject. The modernist tenet of the intrinsic uniqueness of each and every subject laid the foundations for the glorification of personal expression. Then, in a post-subject era, even the very activity of making art becomes problematic: ‘it is no longer clear what the artists and writers are supposed to be doing’ (ibid, p.115). This inextricably relates to what is widely described as the crisis of representation by postmodern theorists (Baudrilliard, 1981; Deleuze and Guattari, 1988; Rosenau, 1992, pp.94-96). This further problematizes walking art as means to communicate subjective conceptualisations of trajectories, itineraries or mappings. However, the demise of representation as seamless transference of meaning, simply testifies to the importance of polysemic, ambiguous presentations of subjective experience. Moreover, the expressivist paradigm gives way to a perception of the artists as subjects in constant flux who revisit, reformulate, reimagine (spatial) reality, a prime example of such subjectivities-in-movement being that of practitioners active within the remit of walking art.
The ability of walking art to heighten sensibilities vis-à-vis subjective perceptions of space/environment by persons as active agents who use, live, and appropriate them, offers intriguing opportunities within an open-ended art education, based on artistic research methodologies. Cityscapes are further complicated by the advent of enhanced reality, as well as that of the contemporary flâneur who add another level of complexity to the issue of how space is navigated, mapped out, experienced. Urban places, which nowadays are semantically dense, offer up a rich context for walking art projects to foster the spatial, semantic and cognitive sensitivities/sensibilities of a generation that will inevitably inhabit, reimagine and finally reshape them.
Fig. 5. Photographer: Peter Thomas
Panagiotis Dafiotis is a visual artist and educationalist. His main interest is in hybrid art forms and he works in-between drawing, animation and installation art. He has done an MA and a PhD in art education at the Institute of Education (IoE), University of London, following a practice-led route. He worked there as a visiting research associate and now teaches art education at the School of Fine Arts, at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece.
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