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C’mon Language _
Kristan Kennedy: Classroom, exhibition, participant, teacher, intern, author, expert, event, workshop, documentation, inspired (as in Reggio-inspired), budget, artist, student, kid, child, collective, research, project, correspondence, engagement, drawing, bench, floor, wall, library, residency… all of these words and more were at times problematic or lacking in their ability to describe the various components of, or the total artwork that is C’mon Language. How is it that we can make people understand this living lab sculpture/experiment? Now that we are near the end of the project’s three-month engagement do you have a sentence strung together that makes sense to you to describe it?
Anna Craycroft: I began C’mon Language _with the aim to understand how to best frame my work¬ing process. Normally I spend a long time working out an idea privately until it is dynamic enough to build objects and exhibitions worthy of sharing. It takes years to get clear with my thinking so that I can summarize or consolidate the various parts into a single thing, or series of gestures, or comprehensive exhibition.
C’mon Language _was about opening up that messy working process to the public. There was a risk of being inconclusive in that, but it was sort of the point. I began with a question—a series of questions really—and I admittedly had a secret desire to find answers. But at the same time finding any single answer could have undone the process of opening it all up.
According to Reggio philosophy there are “a hundred languages…a hundred and a hundred more” that their students use to explore and explain the world as that they are growing into. These languages include all the different processes, mediums, and techniques through which we can communicate with or understand one another, so no one understanding is privileged. If I strung a sentence together for you now I would inherently isolate one “language” from the rest and force a singularity of vision, which this project does not have. As confounding as it might be to have an artwork we cannot summarily describe, I do love the defiance of it. We really shouldn’t be able to do so with any work of art. All descriptions should be prefaced by, and celebrated for, their limitations.
I’m into your string of words. I like that you say the words are problematic and lacking. Let’s add to that list, throw an ellipsis or two in there, maybe some emoticons, and I think we got it.
KK: In Judith Rugg and Michele Sedwick’s book Issues in Curating Contemporary Art and Performance contributor Jane Rendell writes, “In demanding that we exchange what we know for what we don’t know, and give up the safety of competence for the dances of potential incompetence, the transforma¬tional experience of interdisciplinary work produces a potentially destabilizing engagement with dominant power structures allowing the emergence of new and often uncertain forms of knowledge.” Somehow this seems to explain the most generative and generous moments of C’mon workshops. There was often a certain destabilization (or power dynamic collapse/compression of space, time, experience, age, understanding) between the visiting artists/experts and workshop participants. Can you talk about this particular dynamic and about the chaotic flexing of the C’mon group in action?
AC: I’m not sure that there was a full “exchange of what we know for what we don’t know.” Certainly most of the visiting contributors maintained a level of expertise and competence in their knowledge when they were presenting. And although myself and all other participants in the events may have been both experts and fools in a.) our familiarity with the space and b.) our ignorance of the material presented, each event was, for the most part, a fairly standard classroom set up of a leader who holds the knowl¬edge and an audience who may (or may not) absorb it.
Originally I had wanted to break this mold by creating a space that was active and forced a physicality through hands-on activity and the self awareness of documentation. By supplying art horse drawing benches in lieu of chairs, by hanging notes taken during events on the walls and by using Jon Kessler’s The Web app to immediately display documentation on a running slide loop, I wanted participants to witness our actions as we made them. But the privacy and familiarity of passive learning, and of lecturing is also important and many people advocated for or defaulted to that. I was still open to this though, as it was interesting to see how it worked or failed within the installation.
There were times that the power dynamic was upended—most frequently when the class of six year olds was present—and that began even in the planning stages. Almost all of the contributors were really challenged by the prospect of taking a complex idea and translating it to a form that would hold the attention of young children. Some refused to find a way for kids to understand. Seems fair enough. It’s a lot of work and can easily digress into a parody that misses the real intellectual substance of the lesson. And sometimes when contributors did figure out how to make their workshops accessible to children, it still digressed. But whether they failed or succeeded, translating complicated ideas is a big part of what I think art is, so I loved the efforts and their inherent chaos.
In addition, because the group of kids were Reggio students, they were used to being very self-directed in their school, and this was a pretty fascinating energy to work with. And in this way they brought more than just the predictable playfulness of childhood. It was a challenging social dynamism with the agency of individuals within a group exploring the ideas and activities at hand.
The most unwieldy destabilization I experienced came from the lack of continuity in the week-to-week content. Making connections between the vocabularies of copyright law, basket weaving, stop-frame animation, and wordless song requires surrendering to an idiosyncratic logic. There is just no right answer. Because of this it was disquieting to be back in the same space week to week with an entirely new set of information. You would have hardly processed one complex set of ideas before being hit with another. But I also liked this, it did allow “uncertain forms of knowledge” to emerge. Lots of run-on unfinished sentences that I’m only just starting to see take shape.
KK: Did a community form around C’mon Language? If so what kind of community? If not, why not?
AC: If by community you mean a single organism with multiple hearts and minds and lungs working together in pursuit of a shared interest, I would say not. There were regulars of course, people engaged in the exhibition to different degrees who became more familiar over time. There was a core group of participants who came to the events every week, helped maintain and expand the show through a variety of logistical responsibilities and creative input, and also lead their own workshops. There were a number of repeating audience members. And there was the class of six year olds and their teachers from the Helen Gordon Center for Early Childhood Development who also came weekly. As I said we all became better acquainted over the course of the summer, but I would not describe that as a commu¬nity. However, building a community was not my goal.
As beautiful of a concept that community can be, it can also be a little overblown and give false pre¬tense, much like the word “collaboration.” It can create a deafness to the individual voice for the sake of a greater harmony, when in fact what actually results is either a cacophony with no clear tonality or the dominant bellowing of the loudest nearest voice.
During the first weeks of the show, I made clear to the participants that C’mon Language _was not a collaboration; it was a collective experience to which we all would contribute. The distinction for me was about giving equal weight to each subjective perspective. To do so you can’t hear every voice at once. This was part of my inquiry into language, in that how communicating is a negotiation between private experience and public sharing. I think it would have been hypocritical for me to claim interest in commu¬nity. My design of the show was about my own questions and agendas. Building a “community” around that would have felt tyrannical. Of course I hoped to talk to others about shared interests, which is why I was exploring these personal questions publicly. But the show is structured so that people could take what they wanted from it, and to a certain degree contribute what they want.
I don’t know whether true community can be pre-meditated. Seems like real community evolves as a byproduct of something else. I think an exhibition like this would have to exist over a much longer period—allowing the time and space for each member’s voice to be heard by all other members, and their collective agency with the project to morph as time passed—in order for there to be a real sense of community within it. It would be a very different show, but I would love to see that happen.
KK: It was important to you and me both that C’mon be a directed experience, for you to construct a space that was linked to your own aesthetic concerns and to retain artistic control over the project. In what ways did you exercise that control? In what ways did you hand it over to others? Were you sur¬prised by your own engagement in the socially engaged construct/construction you designed?
AC: Ha! Yeah. I can hear you repeating a sentence over and over again when we were making deci¬sions during the planning of the show: “Anna, You are the architect of this project!” It was an insistent reminder that I use the visual design to articulate how the show is first and foremost my personal inquiry.
There is a kind of built in order and control to the installation because it is composed of clean and rigid geometry. Plus it looks like a classroom as seen through rose-colored glasses…what did you call it? “The Church of School”…the kind of nostalgic haze that purifies and preserves a memory, makes it holy and untouchable. And in being a reminder of the organization of school there is an inherent sense of control to that too. When consulting with each contributor on their event, I suggested that they utilize the furniture and tools available, working with the space as it is. So there is an orchestration of the people and activities in the space that comes out of that. In addition there was no continuity from one event to another. Each workshop happened independently. So there was never more than a couple hours at a time for anything to be made or any real alteration of the space to happen. In turn, what was made in each event was shortly thereafter whisked neatly to the display area and represented on a shelf or vitrine. Plus I was constantly present, tweaking the installation week to week and documenting like a maniac to help build out the archive, so my hand and eye were really dominant.
It is somewhat of a disappointment for me that things never got chaotic enough to make even the re-ordering that challenging. I suppose I was surprised by how much I was simultaneously present and removed. But I think it would have required a much larger rupture in order for my behavior to have been otherwise: stronger agency on the part of the participants, more continuity from week to week, and be¬ing more consistently absent from the project to let it take shape without my hand. However, I realized at a certain point that I was in residency at PICA to learn from the show, and if this meant I kept my finger in the pot the whole time, then that’s what I would do.
KK: Will C’mon Language end on September 29, 2013, or do you think your question “How do we make ourselves understood?” has been answered by the exhibition?
AC: The question “How do we make ourselves understood” is both open-ended and rhetorical. My focus in that question is on the words “we make ourselves”. It’s a continual process, as is understand¬ing. The exhibition will close on September 29, but the question remains open, as it should.