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Notes on Back to School:
A Conversation About Making an Open Classroom Happen

Posted on November 21, 2013

The Interview

I interviewed Ame Henderson about “Making an Open Classroom Happen,” the workshop she co-facilitated with Vesna Krstich. Unfortunately I couldn’t attend. The workshop was presented as part of Krstich’s Back to School curatorial residency at TPW.

Last spring, Vesna went to a talk Ame gave about a project she was in the midst of. Ame spoke about “rearranging furniture out of conventional relationships of audience-performer” and “collective authoring of material and a kind of horizontal spectatorship that enfolds both participants and performers.” Ame told me,

I think she connected it to her research about the classroom and the distribution of participants along the line of teacher and student… She asked me if I would like to be part of what she was doing. She was interested in my perspective because I’m a performance-maker and she was, from what I understood, really aware of the performativity of the classroom dynamic and how it would be interesting to bring that to the fore. And especially because these scores—the Kaprow scores—that were so important for her project seemed to be as much about performance as about any kind of pedagogical project.

While planning, they discovered another connection, which was collective reading and reading aloud. Ame described their “Making an Open Classroom Happen” workshop as focusing on “triangulation of furniture, some sort of collective authoring of experience, and shared readership.”

The Classroom

Having not attended the workshop, I was curious to find out what it looked like and how it felt. I asked Ame if the workshop had a classroom feel to it, with her and Vesna as teachers and the people in attendance as students.

I’m so used to being in a rehearsal hall, and the role that I’ve tried to interrogate—the position of power and knowledge that I’ve been working so hard to understand how to rethink, or to not dissolve but rather to understand in a different kind of dynamic—is a director or a choreographer. And I approach workshops the same way I approach a rehearsal hall.

For me it didn’t need to be a classroom at all. I tried to understand what Vesna meant by classroom, because I think that was a bit of a foreign concept for me. Is a classroom more than just an architectural space? What goes on in a classroom that doesn’t go on in a different kind of learning environment? When we’re throwing around the word classroom, what does it mean? I guess it means, in a conventional sense, that there’s somebody who’s a teacher and other people that are students. But it seems like that’s the case in many different spaces and places that we don’t call classrooms.

That was a point of confusion that was interesting given that maybe Vesna, in that experience, was trying to… Well, for her it was probably more of a classroom than it was for me.

Ame and I noted that, to add to the complexity, TPW Gallery is neither a classroom nor a rehearsal hall. She told me that in the past she’s used classrooms as “available spaces” in which to work. In those contexts, they might or might not be read as classrooms. She described that experience as very different from how a classroom felt when she was a student in any one of her educational experiences. Ame elaborated on the strangeness of framing TPW as a classroom space for the workshop.

I kept trying to understand what we meant by classroom, and I kept thinking… We have to imagine all of these different things to be able to even think of this in the way that the whole Back to School project was suggesting. First we have to say that TPW is for this moment a classroom. What does that mean? If it’s a classroom, what does it mean, the people coming are not necessarily students. Or at least not students with a particular framework in common. One of the things about the group of people that came was that most of them were teachers themselves of some kind. There were lots of different kinds of pedagogical experiences that were accessible through the people that were there. I found it quite complex to think “classroom” and what “classroom” was in that space.

I asked Ame how the room was set up for the workshop.

We decided to have the room fairly free of furniture. We started sitting on the floor, which is, again, something that’s extremely familiar to me, from my work, as a place where people might gather and talk or work. But it felt strange to be doing that in the gallery. My impression was that sitting on the floor was quite different for Vesna and so therefore suggested something strange was afoot in terms of how the space was going to be organized. I remember saying that for me sitting on the floor is so normal and I think it’s really important that this group has really different understandings of what might happen in a workshop. Dancers are in spaces with no furniture all the time, whereas the Kaprow scores talk about getting rid of all the furniture as a really radical gesture. So whether or not there’s furniture there in the first place is super important.

TPW is a space we all know as having a quite flexible relationship to the objects are in it. I’ve been there a bunch of times and it’s always quite different. That was a complicated thing to do too. We didn’t know if we should fake a classroom set-up and then mess it up or if we should start with nothing. We ended up starting with nothing and then made the suggestion that people could find furniture and bring it into the space. There was a big stack of chairs in the closet. But no one ended up doing that.

I asked Ame to describe the workshop. What did it consist of? They made a score that combined an archival pamphlet that suggested different ways of imagining a classroom and re-arranging furniture and an “If…then…” exercise from Kaprow’s Project Other Ways.

We made a proposal to collide those together where the “If…” was a spatial or movement based suggestion that could use the pamphlet as inspiration and the “then…” was a reading prompt, so a way of thinking about reading as a kind of task-based activity that one could do with a group and being imaginative about different ways of reading. So each person constructed one of each. And then we shuffled them and created this score that we pinned on the wall. Then, as a group, we tried to work through the score, which took us about an hour.

Ame spoke about the various layers of activity and meaning in the workshop.

One (layer) is the base of information that has been proposed and randomized and has become the score for the group, it really reveals a lot of things about people—what kinds of things people suggest. Then the pairing of an “If…” with a “then…” becomes sometimes almost an impossibility; in most cases just something to figure out how to do. How do you do these two things together that don’t seem like they could go together? So then there was a layer of discussion around that. My reading of it was that we were still working on the score even when we were discussing how to do the score. And then we would have to figure out when to stop the pairing and move to the next one. That was also a negotiation about the duration of each of these events in the score. If each “If…then…” was an event, then how do you move to the next?

The Discussion

I was interested to learn about the strange overlaps and contrast between Ame’s perspective as a performance-maker and Vesna’s as an art teacher and historian. I wondered if Ame felt that she was engaging in thinking about education, and whether questions about education even felt relevant to her.

Not to sidestep the question at all, but it seemed like because we were charged with thinking about education, it was about education. And that created tension in interesting ways. I would never have a conversation about the pedagogical merit of something at the end of a score-based exercise in many of the contexts I am in, including teaching. There’s not a meta-conversation about the nature of education, even when I’m in educational contexts. But this residency was about thinking about education. So the discussion that we had at the end was all about the pedagogical merits of what we had done. I find that really interesting, how that’s always true: if the framework is dedicated to a particular set of questions, then there’s an imperative to make sure that we’re somehow dealing with that set of questions.

There were some great things that got said in the conversation at the end. There was one guy there who is a university professor of art history and he was talking about how he never had time to think about any experimental or experiential methodologies because he was just chasing his syllabus and trying to cover material that he was supposed to cover. Those sorts of things were really interesting to hear and those kinds of things would have never come up if Vesna’s framework for her research hadn’t been so front and centre. So that’s the positive side of doing something in such a specific framework.

I asked Ame about the degree of control she and Vesna exerted over the workshop. I referred to a feeling I’d had throughout the Back to School residency—that its events were so tightly tied to Kaprow’s historical project that there was no possibility of going far from a particular set of Project Other Ways activities and documents.

I guess it probably could have felt very controlled in the sense that there was a proposal for something to do. The doing of that was substantial enough that it was going to take some time to get through it. And the ingredients of it were clear. For me, tight constraints are the way to make art. So I felt like we were making something. We had no idea what it was, and so if we tried it and talked about it, we might know something more about it. I also trusted that we could find our way through it and that there’s immense creativity in trying to find your way through something that has constraints.

Ame also commented that she wasn’t sure whether or not participants read the events of the workshop as “things happening” rather than just “following something that was a bit opaque in the first place”. At the conclusion of the interview, I asked Ame if she had any final comments she wanted to add. She reflected on the discussion portion of the workshop and its relationship to knowledge production.

There’s something very important and I don’t know where it sits with the questions of pedagogy. It certainly is something that resonated for me when I was thinking about artistic process. A close friend had come and we went out afterwards and chatted about the workshop. She said it was so good that we had the discussion at the end. We had a really long discussion at the end—almost as long as the score exercise. And she said, “I didn’t really know what I’d experienced until we started to talk about it.” It wasn’t just an exercise and then a discussion about it. The discussion is actually part of the working. That felt important. It’s two registers of working on something. One is diving in where you don’t quite know what’s going to happen and the other is trying to contextualize that and articulate it and name it and try to understand your experience—share what your experience was with the other people that were in the room. That reminds me of rehearsal processes. But I also wonder about it as a pedagogical model, where there can be these things that one experiences and then how one can be invited to find their own articulations of that experience which can then be shared and can become knowledge production for the group.

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In her blog series Notes on Back to School art educator and writer Amber Yared responds to Vesna Krstich’s curatorial residency, Back to School, a series of workshops, screenings, lectures, events and conversations focused on alternative pedagogy.

Accompanying Event

Back to School

September 12 – 28, 2013
A curatorial residency with Vesna Krstich.

Amber Yared

Amber Yared is an art educator currently living in Toronto. She has participated in and led numerous collaborative research projects. Most recently she worked on an interview-based study with high school students about the Regent Park Revitalization, and a series of presentations and workshops about forms of dialogue and alternative modes of pedagogy with Heather Davis. She is a former member of the Radical Education Research Collective and a current member of Bookworm. Yared obtained a BFA from Concordia University, a BEd from OISE/UT, and an MA in Art Education from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Header image credit:
Michaela Murphy, Applause (2011).