In your work, both of you situate your actions as a kind of continuation of the education system, in that you both teach others and share resources. However, your philosophy is different from schools since instead of standardizing you are trying to promote creativity. How do you think art helps children, and why is it important to continue the arts in school?
V: Schools need a drastic change, but that is most of the way the education system works now. It’s not just art—it’s everything. Every curriculum needs to be changed in my book. To be able to educate children who learn in different ways…I cannot just speak for art in institutions and schools, it is everything.
Art needs to be looked at by parents differently. There is a huge value and there needs to be more programs or outside of the box thinking because I think there are a lot of kids having a difficult time coping with just being a human. There are a lot of constraints and rules, dos and don’ts. Art can really give them the chance to expand a bit and let that stuff fall away and find what their little unique thing is. I think that art can give them the chance to do that in a really safe and productive way. Nothing that anything on the computer could do, no program, could match the experience of physically touching things, physically being in a space. Being six years old and being given a giant pair of scissors and being trusted with that. Parents don’t even trust their kids to do very basic things. Society doesn’t trust kids to do very basic things—there is all this safety. But give a kid a job, responsibility, and a precious space, and they will take it seriously. There is just so much more than just making the thing.
H: There are these very tiny pockets of space, and with these particular learning outcomes that the teachers need to fulfill by allowing that art activity to happen in their classroom. They usually want it to line up with some social studies or maybe math. Art is used as a tool, as just yet another language that you can explore math, science, and the language arts, [but this] is not what is happening in schools as far as I can see. Instead, it is treated as a subject, and I don’t think that art should be a subject—it is just another way of being and expressing.
Then notice of precious space—that is really important because usually when you go into doing a program at a school...usually those schools have very small budgets. The schools basically covered the cost of materials and we did the thing for free because we were so anxious to get that program in there... So in other words, you go in there and you wanted to really shine but you had to buy stuff at dollar stores. That was really counter because I think the great thing about getting an art centre to come into an elementary school is that you get to show the kids what real art materials are and how it is about process and not about an object that comes out of the end. But we usually had to use the crappiest of materials. People think that kids won’t respect the nice materials, but if you give a kid a gigantic tub of glitter... it isn’t precious to them and will for the lack of a better term “just waste it.” But if you give them a space where they are told that these things are precious, they start to respect those things, then they will use them more meaningfully. That would be the sort of thing I would like to see change in arts programs… We always have this notion that in order to buy the quantity we need for these kids, we have to buy the cheaper stuff. But I would like to see it go the other way around, and let it be quality over quantity. But I would hate to think that if that got taken up, the end result might be less arts programming too…
V: The thing you said about art being a subject and everything else being a separate subject. That has always been a thing with me too, believing that. Luckily, when I was substituting in the Yukon, I got sent to Banff to an international conference It was really exciting because I was surrounded by people for one week that are really pushing that every subject should integrate these different ways to teach to different kinds of thinking minds. For instance, there was a math teacher—he was super inspiring. He needed to teach a lesson to grade fours about graphs, and he showed us in less than an hour…three different exciting ways on how to engage the kids in graph making. One of the ways was literally using your body, standing in a row shortest to tallest. So that was a physical way of acting or showing a graph…So I mean there is definitely people out there that are trying to steer education…into being more multi-disciplinary and to reach different kids.
H: Yeah, I’m not sure where the problem lies because teachers get a bad rep. They are the ones who are constrained too… in terms of learning outcomes and…how much time they need to spend administrating. So, I wonder… I’m not qualified to say where the crux of this problem lies…You know, it’s like where is this getting stuck because most people I talk to who are really interested in education, know that it needs to change, so where is it getting stuck?
V: We will take forever, honestly, like the change in institutions and not just in education… but everything, our governments, everything. So I really think in the importance in things like this [artist residency]. Again art centres and artist-run centres, I think they are changing. They don’t want really traditional, upper crust, contemporary art, and a lot of over-intellectualized talks. I think that art is changing, and it is now more about how we can involve different kinds of audiences. How can we let go a bit and see what happens instead of just trying to construct an end result so that our institution has this big name. I think that the artist-run centre is one of the kinds of places in the world that really has the opportunity to do everything that everyone is talking about, but it is having a difficult time doing it. An artist-run centre can have a higher turn-over and, with the right kind of people in them, interesting things can happen, they can include kids, people with disabilities, seniors, dogs, everything.
H: Exactly, they are well situated. We are talking about how art is not black and white. It allows for not black and white thinking because when a kid gets some sort of substance, like a piece of clay, they get to learn just how plastic the world is. It looks like this one second, and it looks like that the next. That internal [thinking] makes them able to think creatively out of many, many problems that a paper and pencil cannot necessarily do. Artist-run centres are much more plastic than let’s say a museum or gallery—they are far more constrained than a place like Open Space is for a number of reasons. I mean all the things that make spaces like this have a hard time surviving sometimes, and [are] in turn what makes them possible to be really experimental with their audience.
The major overlap between your projects is that you both want your participants to have delight in creating. You both want to enable those that participate to Open Space. But you manifest this so differently. I wonder if you could talk about the way you're hoping to inspire your participants.
H: I’m surprised by how many people in the city haven’t heard of Open Space—it is quite shocking. It astounded me because I have not lived here that long but before I came here, I knew about it. So my goal in this space was thinking, “So if I’m going to be trying to get people in here that don’t necessarily know about this space, I want to make it very comfortable.” I know that I have set it up so that it looks like it is for babies, and it is, and that is because I want babies to be comfortable there. But also if I make it comfortable for babies, then it is comfortable for anyone, in a sense because anything can be messed with there. It is completely accessible, you can bring someone in who doesn’t know anything about [contemporary art]…and they can sit there and they are not worried because it is not precious…It just brings everything down a notch and there stops being so much pressure. So that’s how I generally try to inspire people…
V: [I’m] definitely not interested in educating about art. We just need to dive in and do it, and then education will come out of that… With certain kids, I can see that there is something that they are really interested in. They have this specialized interest that can seem quite bizarre and unique, but then if we have a conversation, I [understand]. I actually showed [a child] today two videos, Fever Ray and the Knife videos, with contemporary dancers in them, who wear a lot of crazy outfits and swarm around. That is what she [the child] was doing. I mean like sometimes I will be like, “Hey, do you want to check this out?” and that be just a subtle way of, “Hey, this is out there.”
I have been surprised that a couple of the kids knew certain things about art. One of them was just splattering fabric on the ground, and said “You know, this is like that guy, but his name isn’t Michael Jackson, but that is kind of like part of his name.’ That was an eight year old saying that, so she had an awareness of Jackson Pollack and [the fact that] he splattered things. So then we can ensue a conversation about Jackson Pollock, which is interesting—so the education part comes up.
The part about delight, the fact that I’m trying to set up a delightful situation, that can happen with kids. [It has] been happening only for the reason when they really realize that they can do anything they want. They come in with a lot of tension and a lot of apprehension because they really feel like I’m going to say “No, you can’t touch that, you can’t do that, don’t use those scissors.” So the first hour can be a lot them going, “Can I do this? Can I do that?” So the delight isn’t there. It is quite intimidating for them to come to a big space, to be alone in the space with me, and these are even some kids I know. They are waiting for the rules or for the hammer to come down. The delight only happens at some point when they realize, and I just basically don’t say anything much, and just go “I told you, you don’t have to ask me.” Then delight does ensue.
I also find, even with the delight part of this, it is like anything in life: there is an undercurrent of disappointment. Feeling they are not being perfect enough, not being able to make that thing stay where they want it—that the thing doesn’t look like what they thought it would look like. I mean it is exactly what artists go through everyday. So in art-making, we have this conception that there is a delight, that artists are in their joy, in their bliss, delighting in every moment—and it’s the opposite. There is doubt, there is frustration, there is insecurity, there is feeling like “Should I be doing this? Will I be seen as crazy?” I have been noticing that the kids have the exact same fears and joys in art-making, and that is almost exactly what I want them to experience. I’m just there to go “So what? It doesn’t look like what you thought, but look at it, what do you think? I think it is pretty cool” or “You’re frustrated that that isn’t working. Well, why don’t you try it a different way.” So it isn’t always about delight. That is another misconception about art.
There was an art symposium a few years back—it was for social art practices and engagement…One person in the audience termed this phrase that has always stuck out for me. I know that people can see what I’m doing with kids as a social art practice, and [there is] a little bit of the danger of doing this, and she called it Robin Hoodism. So she said, “You artists come into a community and enlighten people, you just swoop in like Robin Hood to show people the way—then you leave, and what happens then?” There can be a bit of a danger in Robin Hoodism, so it is interesting.
I feel responsible when I do this. I’m having these kids come in to totally be blown away, and then I don’t talk to them for a week for two. There is a danger in that. You are giving a kid this experience they haven’t had, you have stirred something in them…You need to keep contact. I think especially with children. This [residency] cannot just end like this. I can’t just go, “Well, now I have some art material and some footage, and I’m going to go out to the adult art world and show them.” I need to continue to engage these kids. It’s just a challenge I have to figure out.
Heather, you co-founded the Wayward School here in Victoria, which is concerned with education, re-education, and learning opportunities for anyone who is interested. How is your residency at Open Space augmenting your other work?
H: This actual keeps in thread with what you were talking about, Valerie. This notion of keeping contact is the problem that I’ve had before… [When] developing curriculum for galleries or for field trip environments, you would swoop in, give students all this great stuff to do and then leave, and not necessarily get to see how that played out later. So you never got any feedback from it. With this residency, I get to try stuff out in time and I get to change stuff as I go. I get to sit down and write a lesson plan, someone comes in and I try it out with them, and they say things that make me think. Then I get to try that out the very next time.
Teaching is not often allowed to be thought of as a creative practice with changes in time. So I have been really excited [that it has been] shaping up to be exactly that opportunity that I have been looking for in a lot of different ways, like with the Wayward School. The notion was to take learning into non-institutional environments… but to have the people doing the teaching, we would be teaching each other… So here, I get to expand on that in another way, a much more personal way, where… I get to look at the role of teacher and think of that as a creative process as well—and not just as, “I’ve got this set of curriculum and here I’m going to teach you this thing.” But rather, as a conversation between the person who comes in and myself. It is more about the enabling or being there to inspire or spark or stir.
Permission was another word I wanted to go back to…The very first time I had an actual paid teaching job, I was so stunned, because… anytime anyone phrased a statement, they turned their head and looked at me. I was like, “Oh my god, they are looking at me for permission.” Every time I was looking at them thinking, “your opinion is your opinion, you can say whatever you want to.” But it is very difficult to get rid of that notion that if there is someone called teacher or tutor, that people will look to you and expect that there is a right answer. So ever since then I have just been trying to figure out a way to be a resource to people. To say yes, I have a bit more experience than you, but I am learning from you too. I don’t have the answers, [but] we are going to figure them out together…
Valerie, your residency has you doing a lot of facilitating. You're letting kids re-invent your past work, such as Fourth Nature and In the shadow of our own dust. So your work here is really affecting your art production. Do you have any surprises or thoughts about what's happened in your space so far?
V: I get over some of the surprises pretty fast…I knew it would be chaotic. I had a lot of materials and I had a lot of thoughts—should I have less materials, or just ten kinds of material? I thought, no [in] my art practice, I do collect a lot of things a mash them together. So I thought I would just bring it all. So I knew that chaos would ensue, that wasn’t surprising. What surprised me was how considerate each participant was at putting the chaos together. I was surprised that they were so attentive. I was really surprised and pleased by how they dealt with all the overwhelm of all the material. I thought that I might have to home things down or find that one object to start with… [They would] quickly be able to choose one object that was kind of their starting object…I didn’t need to talk for about an hour after.
How it is affecting my own practices, well, it has brought me back to video and photography, which has come in and out of my practice because I really don’t like working with technology. The children are becoming the object, when I turn the camera on, they are now the object. I’m surprised at how well they are responding—how okay they are with that. How parents are signing releases without any question. I thought there would be more discussion from the parents about that, but they seem okay. The camera thing seems at ease for parents and kids. So that has been a surprise to me.
I have not had the biggest confidence in what I have made in the past… I usually change disciplines… and subjects often, and I have been really hard and critical on myself. I don’t have a theme to stick with. Somehow I still seem to be functioning out in the art world. What has surprised me is watching kids be chaotic and let go— it gives me permission to even go crazier with my materials when this is finished. To quit wondering about what I am doing, what should I focus on. I should get it together and be more professional. I actually feel like… it [the residency has] kind of given me permission to go further avant-garde, further off the wall, further chaotic. This is really relevant and needed in the world today…
I am just trying to find the value in something that is considered really non-valuable. Like letting kids just staple things to the walls and use glue guns. It doesn’t need to mean anything or be related to anything, any art history. I don’t need to have that discussion and I am starting to enjoy that. I do want to eventually make some sculptures with the stuff on my own, but I want to pair it up in an exhibition with the works of these kids. So either recreated some of the stuff they made or show a video alongside. The dream thing is that I would be invited to an exhibition and I can bring two or three of the kids, so I can further their experience. The dream-dream is that I can grow with two or three of these kids, and as they grow into teenagers, that we continue to work together.