Anna Craycroft talks to Tori Abernathy about C’mon
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The opening lines of the press release for Anna Craycroft’s C’mon Language reads “C’mon Language is an exhibition in pursuit of an artistic vocabulary.” In conversation, Craycroft indicates that she had never intended to create a community. Instead, the exhibit operates as an immersive inquiry into epistemology, pedagogy, and delivery. Drawing corollaries between alternative educational approaches and the artists’ creative practice, she built a space for participants to explore how they/we/I might ‘make ourselves understood’. Brooklyn-based artist Anna Craycroft’s work plays with the symbols and methods employed within different didactic spaces. Craycroft received her MFA from Columbia University School of Arts in 2004 and her BFA from the Slade school in 1998. I had the pleasure of speaking with Craycroft one Friday morning in September as the exhibition was preparing for its culminating presentation.
TA: It seems like the guiding question here is ‘How do we make ourselves understood’ so maybe that’s a good place to start. Who do you see as the ‘we’ in that question and to whom are we making ourselves understood?
AC: In this case the word ‘we’ actually means ‘I’. The structure of the sentence sets up a reflexivity – the ‘we’ applying to the process of ‘making ourselves’ – that replaces collectivity with plurality. The question frames the question ‘how do I make myself?’ as a like effort to be performed independently by multiple individuals side by side.
TA: As a provocation, the question presumes some barriers to understanding-
AC: -limitations, I would say-
TA: -yeah, limitations. I’m wondering what some of those might be and how you or some of the others involved have tried to negotiate that here.
AC: Any vocabulary or lexicon has a set of components. It’s limited for practical purposes, but there’s always the potential to expand. The question of ‘how’ is more of a process of accumulating options or alternatives or existing forms rather than pointing out their limitations. The how is kind of equivalent to saying what are all of the different ways in which-
TA: -we might make ourselves-
AC: -we attempt to make ourselves understood. Offering multiple possibilities suggests that there’s always more. For me personally the exhibition is a search for an artistic language or an aesthetic form. I invited all of these people working in different fields or different artistic mediums as a way of accumulating potential vocabularies. The selection was not random or arbitrary or a fixed set. It was just the beginning of a list. When you’re looking at the vernacular that includes this range of disciplines, you think ‘well, why not include medical vocabulary or street signs or the vocabulary of cosmology or sign language?’ etc.. Everything has a lexicon so the list is kind of endless. I didn’t want to say that this was the set, but just that – through accumulation and recombination – there could be limitless potential.
TA: I’m wondering how the aesthetics of the exhibition unfold over time for you and how some of the issues that you’ve had to grapple with in the space have informed those decisions. I see this relationship between the elementary school and the art studio, but then also there are some aesthetic choices that remind me of contemporary Dutch graphic design or something…
How do all of these elements come together for you? What’s the relationship between how the space is designed and how it is activated?
AC: The exhibition is supposed to look like a hybrid of an elementary classroom, an art gallery, and an arts school studio classroom. It also includes elements that can make it feel at times like a library, or a chapel. But that frame hasn’t altered much since its initial build out. It hasn’t been disrupted by the activities taking place in it. So I’m not sure that it’s activation has made me think differently about the aesthetics. In the first days of the exhibition the space was fairly blank with lots of wood, white and off-white tones, empty surfaces; even the colored window panes didn’t arrive until later. In this initial starkness, I was unsure as to whether or not it could develop into a warm space or a human space. I feared that it might always be fixed to this cold grid. Though the grid never got disrupted, I do think that the space has become much warmer, perhaps just as a result of being inhabited by so many bodies on a regular bases. That transformation remains kind of mysterious, because not much of the actual installation has been altered, and most of the time the installation is not in use.
TA: Yeah, the space feels so alive; so in use. I used to work with Art4life, an arts program for elementary school students. There’s this area over here that sort of looks like what our storage closets might have looked like, but in a much more structured fashion.
AC: In leading up to this show, I visited and worked in many progressive schools – Waldorf, Montessori, Reggio – that all had really specific aesthetics and I took lots of photos and mental notes of how things were organized – not how their pedagogical sources would tell you how to organize a space, but how they were actually organized and activated by the human beings using them. I was so taken with those spaces and how they felt really charged. I loved how much you could see about the ideas being explored in how carefully they were designed to manipulate the way that students and teachers move through them. I wanted to see if I could recreate a similar effect with as little overdesign as possible. In some ways my exhibition is a heavy-handed install. But I also used a great deal of restraint. I didn’t go crazy Montessori sensorial on it and I definitely held back from a lot of the Reggio display aesthetics that I wanted to do, too.
TA: I’m really moved by this way that you speak of childhood as this important stage of development. Maybe there’s not so much difference between the way that children and adults orient themselves to new experiences (they both might be uninformed or confused). Maybe it’s easier to see in the case of children how they’re reacting to those conditions. To what degree have folks of different age groups been a part of this space and what the relationship looked like between those age groups. Is there a lot of cross-dialogue or have people been falling into certain roles?
AC: It’s really hard to set up a transgenerational art space. The first thing that I did was to try to bring a group of students in with their teachers as collaborators so that they developed a familiarity with the space and had a sense of agency with it. They were here consistently, visiting for one activity every week. I wanted their active presence to become a given rather than a novelty.
It was great to work with the teachers because they really integrated the visits into their curriculum so (for the kids) it felt like an extension of their classroom, and gradually they became familiar with the environment and its procedures. But this familiarity wasn’t enough in and of itself to collapse the age gap among participants. It was a continual learning process. I met with the Reggio teachers on a regular basis to help them prepare the kids in anticipation of each activity. There was also a core group of regular older participants who were part of C’mon- between the ages of 16 and 30, about 9 of them artists and art students – with whom we talked and planned about how work with the kids as collaborators and equal learners. But we still had to constantly check ourselves to not start pandering to the kids, or role playing with each other.
I also met with almost every visiting contributor/workshop leader beforehand about trying not to speak down to the kids and about how to cater their ideas to be challenging and expansive for both the kids and the adults.
It’s an oversimplification to say that adults should be treated more like children or children more like adults. But personally, I think we can all feel like we’re 5 years old or 6 years old at any given point in the day… and children can feel like they are wiser than their parents and frequently may be.. Its unfortunate that room isn’t made in our age specific systems to accommodate these shifting self-perceptions and developmental grey areas.
In a social situation, we take definitive roles and we’re only really able to play those roles. my hope is to create artwork that collapses that distinction. One thing I really learned from this show is that you can’t just put people in the room together and tell them that’s what we’re going to do. It’s a consistent effort, a consistent awareness. observing how its working and how its not working and trying to change subtly the way that you’re talking to each other, and inhabiting your own body.
TA: Maybe it also involves time and trust building…
AC: Yeah. I keep saying that this is the kind of show that could take place over a number of years.
TA: I was thinking a lot about the influence of the Reggio Emilia approach in your work, and trying to think about how that might to relate to what you’re doing here. It’s my understanding that in that platform there’s an emphasis on trust and community building such that the children or students feel like collaborators, feel like they have an equal say. There also seems to be an emphasis on ensuring that this is happening on the level of the classroom but also at home and that there’s a lot of support from the community to ensure that the children or (or everyone, really) feels comfortable. This is something that’s really important for me in the Public Schools project that we just did. The process of trying to figure out how you can make something like that occur in a space that’s temporary, or if you can’t necessarily do it there how you can make those connections or the trust that has been created there extend through time.
AC: To me, community wasn’t necessarily my focus although the name Reggio Emilia is actually the name of the town in which it began There’s a lot of discussion among Reggio-inspired schools, outside of Reggio Emilia, Italy – a debate- about whether or not to call themselves Reggio Emilia schools because if they’re really a community based program that deals on a local government level, on a family level, on a child to adult level, then they would be named after the town or city in which they are based. Anyway, I wasn’t aspiring to create a community because I don’t know if I believe that you can artificially construct one. I was more curious about what would happen if I emphasized the individual (ie ‘make ourselves’) as inherently pluralistic through a commonality of activity. If we’re a group of people who come together to think about ourselves, not to think about each other, but to think about ourselves in a recognition of being in tandem with others, is it possible that maybe a community grows out of that, or perhaps a shared experience and some form of communication. On the other hand it wasn’t that I didn’t want to build a community, I just knew that if I set out to do that I would be disappointed because the word is so loaded and it stands for a lot of things that stand in contradiction to its implied intent – the infighting, the nepotism, the domination of some voices over others- all the things that come inherently with a group of people trying to work together. I didn’t want to negotiate all of that. I started this project for pretty selfish reasons and I didn’t want to force anyone to get on my ride if they didn’t want to. I tried to be very clear about my own agenda so that it didn’t feel like an infringement to anyone who was participating. I was also very careful not to introduce a single lecture with my agenda. I could have introduced every lecture with ‘this show is about language building’ and ‘today we’re going to have ___ talk about how one communicates within the field of ___’. That is to say: ‘audience members, pay attention to this idea of language so that we can think as a group…’ No, I definitely did not want that. I wanted people to feel free to come here with their own agenda and find something completely different.
TA: That’s interesting. It makes me think of the ‘how do we make ourselves understood’ provocation in a new way, I think. Rather than focusing on the problem it becomes how can we make our individual selves transform through a different lens so that we can adequately share and understand. It’s more about becoming-understanding, if you will..
AC: Well, it’s more about becoming. This idea of making yourself relates to childhood. If we’re constantly making ourselves, we’re constantly in the state that is usually only attributed to childhood. Children, in their continual negotiation of the world are always trying to “make-understanding”: always making themselves understood and making the world understandable. The sense of the transformation or evolution is allowed to be totally there for children. But sadly not as much for adults. At the same time, children aren’t often given credit for their agency in their own making. So the adult is afforded an authorship that the child is denied. It’s somewhat paradoxical.
TA: There’s obviously a range of people who are participating or presenting as part of this project. It goes all the way from people who have research interests from invisibility to fingerpainting. What factors did you consider as you were inviting presenters? Did people approach you and how did you contend with that?
AC: I knew that since it was extending from my own practice, I wanted to start with ideas that I was already in engaged with and people that I was already in dialogue with. I thought of friends. Some really close friends, some people that I knew less intimately through the art world but with whom had begun some great conversations. This seemed like a perfect opportunity to talk more with all of them. And then, in terms of the ideas I had been playing with in the studio: I was thinking about science. I was specifically thinking about fractals. I was thinking about authorship so the idea of copyright became really interesting to me. I was thinking about craft traditions in contemporary culture and so I was looking into different local traditions like basket weaving. It all grew out of my own practice.
I wanted to do the show with about half people that I was bringing in from other cities and half people that more locally based. There’s also the emergent curriculum series in the exhibition that includes all of the people who have been core participants and involved in the show on a weekly basis. These artists and students joined the exhibition after it had already begun. They each led independent workshops that grew out of a combination of their own interests and their experiences here. In addition, after the exhibition was underway I was approached on occasion by people who I didn’t already have a dialogue with who were not core participants but wanted to lead a workshop, or install some of their own projects within the space. I was open to considering these contributions, but the most important thing was that the work presented here grew out of what was already happening in the space – what went into making the show before it was installed, and what grew out of it once it was open to the public. Once I explained that to them it became clear that I’m not making a platform for just anything. This exhibition isn’t a stage built in order to spotlight unrelated dialogue. The connections existing between the components of the show predated their presentation. After I explained this, they usually changed their minds.
TA: [laughs] That’s convenient.
AC: Not that I was trying to shut them down, but it was essential to me that the exhibition grow from a web of initial connections. I didn’t mind where the exhibition went from there, but its foundation needed to be grounded in something holding it together. Even though the question ‘How can we make ourselves understood’ seems like it can apply to anything, I think it is actually a very pointed self-reflection that can be somewhat disruptive. And when I would pose it to the people who approached me to contribute, for some reason it seemed to turn them off.
TA: Or maybe they didn’t want to insert themselves into those connections that are already existing.
AC: right, exactly.
TA: Speaking of the stage: You talked about how you’ve been coaching people, or if not coaching then having these [preliminary] conversations with them
AC: That’s part of it growing out of what happens here.
TA: I’m wondering if there is a score, or any stage directions, or some kind of guide for how people can enact themselves here as presenters. Are you interested in ensuring that there’s consistency between your pedagogical philosophy and theirs and how they present themselves?
AC: Well, in part their methodologies were already vetted due to the fact that I was choosing people that I already had a dialogue with. So through our conversations I could determine whether or not we were on the same page. There were a lot of people that I pursued that didn’t work out; maybe they knew right away that they couldn’t adapt their specialization to a more general audience or maybe they were so turned off by the idea of altering the way they presented so that it could be comprehensible to children or maybe they didn’t understand what their work had to do with a contemporary art context.
Which is all fine because the major stipulation that I gave everyone was ‘if you’re not getting something out of it, don’t do it.’ it’s not that I’m not grateful, but you’re not doing me a favor. This should about everyone wanting to be there and wanting to pull from and towards their own ends. That was the strongest point that I would make. I did advocate for a hands-on learning approach, but I didn’t require it. There were a lot of lectures that were just straight up lectures where there wasn’t any hands on activity or any physical activity. I was interested in a hands-on approach because of its connection to the sensorial experiences of art. But in cases where the presenter felt strongly that they couldn’t work that way I didn’t force them. When they were interested in it however, I would sit down with them and we would devise a way that they could present their work in a hands-on way.
TA: That’s sounds like a lot of fun.
AC: yeah, and it was really fun.
Perhaps the most important key into understanding the framework of the show, is that its essentially a public presentation of how I work in-and out of my studio: I do research both socially and solitarily. I meet with friends to talk about ideas or play with materials. I visit professionals in different fields to troubleshoot some of the ideas that I’m floating. I play around with how to visualize this information as drawings, objects etc. So when I was working with some of the contributors to devise a hands-on presentation, that was really familiar ground for me in terms of negotiating my ideas with others.
C’mon Language is basically that whole process as a public performance. I’m not literally sitting and talking though. The exhibition itself is me in dialogue with them.
TA: What advice do you have for fellow artists engaging with pedagogical structures in their own work?
AC: Probably the same advice that I would have on any thematic content for an artwork: advocating for the artist to consider what about their take on the given subject is particular to them both personally and politically. Why should their take on the subject exist as an artwork?
Even though I have been working with pedagogy for the past 5 or 6 years, I work with it as a medium rather than as a theme. It is platform upon which I can play out a more core inquiry that weaves through all my work – the exploration of how we become who we are: what the impact of institutions, communities and culture have on how we define and enact our individualities.
If I were to encourage another artist to consider one of the things that I personally find most interesting about pedagogy, I would ask them to make comparisons between art and education as equivalent forms. Of course there is an incredible lineage of artists who have created works that are a kind of pedagogy-as-art – Allan Kaprow, Judy Chicago, Joseph Beuys, Luis Camnitzer etc – but I’m talking more specifically about framing what we consider to be pure pedagogy – the innovations of Dewey, Friere, Steiner etc – as art practices in and of themselves. In multiple talks and writings or interviews I have suggested that the pedagogical innovations in early education be written into the art historical canon as a model for artistic practice. Because of the necessity of a visual aesthetic in the hands-on learning for early education, I have focused specifically on people like Montessori, Froebel, Steiner or Malaguzzi and the original Reggio team.
Pedagogy is a language of communication – visual, social, spatial etc – that has historically been developed by an individual creator, within which participants learn to translate experiences in the world through a set of unique signs and processes. Generally speaking you could describe the scope of art with similar language. However what is unique about education and potentially inspirational for art history is that – as a multidisciplinary practice – education has a broader cultural engagement than the institutions of art.
There are numerous contemporary artists who aspire to straddle the same breadth of aesthetic, institutional, and political accomplishments that are characteristic of pedagogy. So really that historic influence is already in place. I just don’t think it’s been fully acknowledged – particularly in regards to early education- because I think contemporary art is still working out how to expand its cultural engagement.
TA- As a researcher and an active artist, what have you learned from developing your own space for learning? How has what you’ve learned in practice been different from the theoretical mandate of how these practices should operate? Also, how has what you’ve been doing here specifically differ from those more traditional approaches?
AC: This core question of my art practice – of how we define and enact our own individuality – is manifested first and foremost in my own life. The process of being a learner, of seeking and acquiring new knowledge and changing how I feel about myself among it, is central to how I navigate the world. I believe this is the role of the artist – to continually challenge and reflect on their knowledge, position and experiences. So for me “making a space for learning” is synonymous with “making art”.
However, I don’t think of my work as archiving and the research I do is a bit more like calisthenics. It’s a warming up of my mind and imagination with information and histories in preparation for upcoming experiments with making things, exhibitions etc. So much of my research process – the books I read or the collections that I visit or the time I spend slithering through search engines and link hopping – is prone to be skewed according to my own very subjective logic.
In this way my practice with Reggio or Montessori or Froebel or Waldorf is a kind of dress-up or imaginary play and not really comparative to their original forms. In addition I am performing them within the make-believe space of the art institution. That said, what I have been experimenting with in the C’mon Language exhibition that cannot happen in the classroom is an inter-generational engagement. I believe that there is a way to hold the attention and challenge the thinking of adults and children simultaneously without pandering to either.
TA: With the slow professionalization of the arts comes a wealth of underemployed teaching artists. It seems that there’s a desire to incorporate some of these skills in contemporary art practice in the wake of this surplus. What might these forays into alternative education do to our existing schools? Do you think there’s room for works that engage with pedagogy to substitute, or maybe just fortify, our crumbling academic institutions?
AC: This is a really tough question to answer because there are numerous factors at play here. The art school was already a problematic and shaky model before the wildfire of professionalization took hold. But this has been going on for at least half a century at this point. The value of an art education has a direct relationship to the culture industry so many things would have to shift if we are to anticipate a different future for art schools and their graduates and teachers.
I think that if there could be any productive influence made by the alternative schools that have been popping up, their impact would have to be fairly direct in order to stick. If enough recent grads are finding real opportunities to experiment with teaching methods and intuitional forms outside the established models then perhaps they can also bring this into the traditional spaces and effect change from the inside.
TA: What are you currently reading or what works are inspirational for you right now?
AC: I’m obsessed with books on color. I’m skimming through everything from Thought Forms and the Lüscher color test to Albers and Wittgenstein.
TA: What’s next for you?
AC: As I mentioned earlier, my original initiative behind C’mon Language was to experiment with how an artistic language is developed – and to specifically pose this among a group. Now I am simplifying my practice so that I can re-approach that question alone in the solitary space of my studio. I’m starting with color because even though it is essential to the vocabulary of art, it remains elusive and open to endless interpretation.