Lately I have become interested in the variety of conceptions of nature. When I think of nature, two different kinds of images come to mind. On the one hand, there are the images in the news that show us plastic filled oceans, burning forests, and severe storms. On the other hand, there are all the social media pictures of sunsets, sandy beaches, and flowers. One type of image shows something that we destroy and something we should be afraid of. The other type of image presents something soothing, pretty, decorative.
In June 2019, I was invited to speak the annual conference of ASLE, Association for the Study of Literature and Environment, at UC Davis, California. I heard an interesting talk by Ursula K. Heise on Planet of Cities: Multispecies Environments and Narrative Futures. Nature seems to adapt with the development of urban planning.
In the 17th Century, cities were seen as the opposite of nature. Nature had to feed the inhabitants the city; it was seen as the antipode of the city. Nature was contained outside the city gates.
In the 18/19th Century, Romantic conceptions of nature came on the scene. Romantics promoted nature as truthful and soothing while city inhabitants began to miss nature. Urban planners reacted and integrated parks and gardens into the urban layout. Nature became a controlled part of the city, designed for human entertainment and recreation.
But as we know, nature is difficult to control. Even in those "good old days", nature was always a part of all parts of the city, no matter how hard planners and architects tried to hinder the mingling of natural and city elements. Think of all the unwanted plans or weed growing wherever they can. Think of all the rats, doves, insects and other unwanted creatures on the streets and in the houses.
In recent years one can observe yet another shift in the ideas of nature and city relationships. The awareness of the importance and connectedness of all plants and animals is growing. We begin to understand how we depend on all sorts of animals and plants, not only on the pretty ones. At the same time, the numbers of inhabitants in the countryside are shrinking, the numbers of inhabitants in urban areas is growing. The concept of the city and nature as two separate entities seems to be replaced by a new idea: Cities are our new nature.
We are welcoming the foxes which come to the cities at night. We are beging to understand that we need to protect the bees and other insects in the city. Urban farming, flower bombs, new concepts for city parks, and plants as architectonical elements mark a shift in our understanding of city as a space we have to share with nature.
But what does nature think of all of that? I am always happy to get news about expanding wolf-packs in Europe and growing numbers of bears in the Alps. Even more fascinating for me are stories about animals looking for new places to live and choosing cities. We all know well-fed college squirrels ( I also like those), but there are also other flocks of newly arrived animal city dwellers. In 2019, apparently 11 different parrot species, like the red-lord amazon, populate Los Angeles (https://pethelpful.com/wildlife/Wild-Parrots-Multiplying-in-Southern-California). With a population of 5000 in L.A. their number has become larger than in their original habitat in Central America. The birds came to the United States as pets. Now they have chosen to stay. They re-connected with their friends from further South and started their own big city colony. No need for lush trees or a Romantic conception of nature here.
The L.A. parrots stand for a picturesque, new kind of Romantic version of the new urban habitat. But nature in the city consists mostly of cockroaches, bed bugs, and other creatures we do not want to see. In 2019 we may have to change our preferred perception of nature. Maybe there is no nature like the one depicted by William Tuner or Caspar David Friedrich anymore. Aestheticization, in terms of beautifying nature, might not work in the smoggy mega cities we share with a lot of other humans, and other animals.
Already in 1836 in his essay "Nature" Waldo Emerson critiques a retrospective and Romanticizing perception we have of nature. He argues for a different and radical new definition: "Strictly speaking (…) all that is separate from us, all which Philosophy distinguishes as the NOT ME, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body, must be ranked under this name, NATURE."
The question is, will we be able to enjoy the urban landscape as nature as the Romantics did? A nature that includes parrots and foxes, but also termites and silverfish?
How to get art students to write is a question near and dear to me. For the last 12 years I have been teaching art and design students how to write about their projects. I remember my start in 2007 at the Art University in Linz. I mostly focused on language skills. Over time I came to understand that the main challenge is not vocabulary, but how to trigger the desire to write.
Somehow for art students - mostly working with non-verbal artistic materials – sitting down to write is either seen as an unnecessary burden, or is turned into an artistic endeavor itself (an opportunity to twist every little piece of information into artistic prose). Academic writing seems to be foreign and challenging. As a teacher I felt I had to convince my students in one way or other to start writing.
It took me a while myself to understand that writing can be a very helpful tool to clarify, specify, back-up and publish one’s ideas: to contextualize your thoughts by researching other projects, to compare and to reason, and to get in touch with art and academic communities.
It is important to stress that, in writing about art, we are not taming the art. Writing about art does the contrary. We awake our senses to complex perceptive processes and invite others to share our experiences (Cp. Sontag, Susan (1961): Against Interpretation and Other Essays. Picador: New York). With writings about art we offer a platform to start discussions and research processes. I see writing as a way to make artistic processes visible, to learn and understand more about your own work and the work of others, and to push art students’ self-confidence through becoming part of bigger networks and discussions.
I invite my students to imagine: What if we would write and discuss art as much as we verbalize, discuss and describe soccer or the weather? How far would that propel the arts?
In Training writing skills: A cognitive developmental perspective,Kellogg shows us the different stages of knowledge processing that may be achieved through writing. We may start with “knowledge telling”, proceed to “knowledge transformation”, and finally master the skill of “knowledge crafting”. (Cp. Kellog, Ronald T. (2008): Training writing skills: A cognitive developmental perspective. In: Journal of writing research 1/1. p.4, figure 1).
The first step for me as an art teacher is to convince students that writing about art can be more than a description of what we see. In class we start with best ofwriting examples. We discuss how new knowledge is crafted through writing about art. A second element are in-class writing challenges. There we focus on observation and group discussion to collaboratively make the step from “knowledge telling”, to “knowledge transformation”. Learning about the insights from the other students can be the next step to “knowledge crafting”.
The next challenge is to contextualize one’s own work with other sources to come to a new understanding. The second step is to make the transition from material-based writing (e.g. writing on one’s art project) to discursive synthesis writing (to contextualize and compare your source with other sources.) (Boscolo, Pietro; Arfé, Barbara; Quarisa, Maria (2007): Improving the quality of students’ academic writing an intervention study. In: Studies of Higher Education 3274. P.419-438, 422.). I learned that I have to set up a “bildungsnahe” family situation at school. Students, no matter what background, who are not used to research on their own, have to practice in a welcoming and supportive community. It is my task as a teacher to provide sources, take the students to art shows, or send them engaging links. Further I have to make sure that we all stay on track: I set up writing teams, plan coaching sessions, and add do-able short writing homeworks that build up to longer texts.
The third task I identified is to personalize the writing process. Academic writing is commonly taught as something impersonal and abstract. Research is seen as something general and remote. For art students it is important to lose their distance towards academic writing by making personal connections.
During the MA or PhD studying and writing phase, research should benefit more than one person. Yet I have had the experience that for BA art students, establishing an artistic identity is a very personal and individual growth process. This process cannot be skipped. Understanding that writing is also part of one own’s personal development makes the students more engaged (Williams Mlynarczyk, Rebecca (2006): Personal and Academic Writing: Revisiting the Debate, p.1. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ773395.pdf, last visited on July 29, 2019). Asking art students to write about things they are not interested in may turn writing into a life-long hate relationship.
David Elbow, one of the pioneers of freewriting, states that: “If academics were more like writers - wrote more, turned to writing more, enjoyed writing more - I think the academic world would be better.”(Elbow, Peter (1995): Being a Writer vs. Being an Academic: A Conflict in Goals. In: College Composition and Communication 46.1, p. 72-83. 82. ) For art school students, I want to expand his statement: If artists were more like writers – their art would be better and the academic art world would be better.
The big question is: How to get art students to write, and stick to it? In the world self-help literature, one tool to learn a new habit is to piggyback the new habit onto an already existing habit (Sincero, Jen (2013): You are a badass. Philadelphia.). E.g. If you are brushing your teeth every morning, why not getting into the habit of reading a French poem right after you brush your teeth to practice French every day?
One of the pedagogical tools that is often used in art and design school education is the sketch book. Sketch books are a helpful tool to remember insights and useful information, connect to other sources, and pin down ideas. Usually the students love their sketch book.
Let’s connect sketch books to the tooth-brush-French-poem example: In my art writing classes, I realized how helpful it can be to ask the students to write down ideas, sources, references in their sketch books daily, or whenever they read or see something useful and inspiring. Piggybacking the writing habit onto the sketching habit has proven to be a serviceable tool to get into the habit of writing, to accumulate material, to contextualize the artistic project and start the process of academic synthesis. Linguist David Bartholomae argues that “there is no writing done in the academy that is not academic writing” (Bartholomae, David (1995): Writing with Teachers: A Conversation with Peter Elbow. In College Composition and Communication 46.1, p. 62-71, 63).Extending that phrase to writing in sketch books would turn artistic writing into academic writing.
Writing can be a scary task when first introduced to art school students. There is probably not one single solution to engage art students. The following steps I identified might be useful to set up a writing-friendly atmosphere:
One of my favourite art works is Olafur Eliasson's Green River Project (1998-2001). Olafur Eliasson and his assistants dyed waterways in Bremen, Stockholm, Los Angeles and Tokyo and rivers in other cities green with uranine, a non-toxic water-soluble dye.
Olafur Eliasson's projects are known for drawing attention to individuals' perceptions of environments. With the unannounced "Green Rivers" his artistic strategy was to draw attention to surroundings that have become so familiar that we do not notice them anymore. (cp. Stella Paul: Chromaphilia, Phaidon, 2017)
My reading of the "Green Rivers" is a bit different: Rivers are flowing entities. Rivers, no matter how strictly we try to urbanise or restrict their riverbeds, want to flow. A river has a mission. A river has a goal. She wants to get to the ocean.The rivers in the River Project greet the surrounding buildings or the bridge they pass beneath. With concentration and focus, the river is flowing towards her goal.
Turning the river green makes us aware of the flow of its water. The green water directs our attention to the need and beauty of flowing. We see the beauty of not turning around to check what else there might be around the corner. (Oh well I think I'll go back, Oh well I think I'll want to go another way...) The green water makes perceptible the unquestioned and unstoppable flow. The moving water shows us how beautiful it is to follow the decisions we make and not letting ourselves get distracted.
Being an artist or a writer, or a creator of whatever else, these moments of uninterrupted flow of reading, writing, or whatever production you favour, are very important. The performance itself is not so important (e.g. the color of the water). The outcome is also not that important (getting to the ocean on time). What matters is to be in the moment of flow, to do your thing, to concentrate on what is happening in the now, looking ahead towards your goals.
Do you live in the cloud or in the dust?
Apparently there are people out there (probably me included) who spend their days working on their laptops, checking their phones, scratching their tablets, working online, basically connecting data wherever they are. If you check your emails while waiting for the bus, go to bed with your laptop, listen to podcast on your bike, and look on your smart watch while with your friends - you are totally living in the cloud. Your reality is the big data bubble connecting us all with everything else.
And than there are other people (one of my sisters is one of this rare species) who life a live in the dust. These people wake up when the sun wakes them up, they collect the eggs from their hens, they know what season it is, they talk to their neighbors, they cook their dinner and read books.
The first category of people romanticizes the life of the others. But there is indeed something intriguing about sleeping without electronics.
What is your lifestyle? How do you want to live? When is the cloud supporting your personal growth, when is it sucking your time? Can we use the cloud to be politically active instead of reactive like consumers?
Get up and do it. Don’t talk about it. Do something artsy first thing in the morning. Do something for ten minutes and then stop. I promise you’ll long for doing ten more minutes every day and stay motivated.
In 1976 psychoanalyst Erich Fromm wrote the fantastic book “To Have or to Be?”. He suggests to free yourself from materialistic possessions and instead focus on the activities in your life. Possessions in the arts may also include grades from well known universities, renting the right studio , gathering more knowledge . Wanting to have something before being someone turns every art project into a vague future plan. Sentences such as... As soon as I graduate then I allow myself to be an artist, ....as soon as I have all the equipment ready then I’ll have the perfect conditions to finally start,.... I might have to add another course before I might be adequate to join the club - do not lead you anywhere. Dump your personal “if/thens” and get started. Focus on being not on having.
Ignore all the other good and bad artists. Do not compare yourself. There will always be someone younger, more brilliant, more political, more edgy, more perfect, more visible. Do your thing. Copying other people is not sustainable on the long run. It will exhaust you not to let yourself be yourself. Get inspired but not overwhelmed.
Currently I am researching learning methods and theories to understand learning in arts and design practices. I am wondering what different methods are out there and if one could exchange different learning practices to learn even more in different disciplines. Learning about varying techniques and methods from architecture to zoology is very inspiring, but recently I asked myself: Maybe we shouldn’t focus on techniques or methods, it might be more fitful to spend time on the time we spend with learning.
Apparently the Beatles had to practice for 10.000 hours to become really good at what they are doing, which was playing pop music. Their catchy tunes prove that repeating the same thing over and over again does make a difference in depth, accuracy, and intention. In the last decades after conceptual arts was invented, repetition got a bad reputation in the art world. I see a lot of artists and art students who try to deliver a convincing piece with one single attempt. Me too, I am so impatient that I always only want to give my writings or drawings just one try. Sometimes brilliancy does happen by chance. Most of the time it doesn’t. While teaching art in the US I met a lot of International students from Asia, most of them had practiced drawing and/or software skills for 10.000 hours at least. They had experience through repeating. These students had practiced drawing in the same way as someone would play the piano for hours to be a successful pianist. I have to admit those students' brains and hands were trained in a complete different way than the American students' (who rather hung out partying - excuse this cliche).
I want to look at learning and repetition from a different angle: One of my loves in life is Asthanga Yoga. In Ashtanga yoga our teachers say: Practice, practice and all is coming. Students repeat the same sequence of postures every single day. The same posture every day for years. This practice taught me not to be thrilled, when I finally manage to brezel myself into a certain pose. I am more excited about the state of mind I have through the repetitive time I spent on my mat.
Maybe it is learning as an activity we should focus on and not the technique, media, methods or results connected to learning. Maybe we have to allow art students more time to repeat. Maybe we should give credits for hours not outcomes?
I had to learn to leave my stories behind. The kind of stories about your life you tell yourself over and over again until you believe them. And still they are only stories and as such exchangeable. Of course there are also stories around art schools. What is your art school story? Why are you here? Today I wanted to tell you mine: My grandfather wasn't allowed to study art because he was partly Jewish. He had to leave high school early, in 1930s in Wroclaw, former Prussia, now Poland. He couldn't live his dream, but had to become a factory worker. This story left me with a mission: Because I was the artistically talented one in my family, I had to study art to get it off the family check list. A likely story, isn’t it?
My other art school story goes like this: When I was 16 years old my grandmother asked me what I wanted to be later in life. She was a great role model. She managed to be one of the first female medicine students in Germany. I proudly proclaimed that I would do something completely different from the paths of my family of professors and doctors - and told my over 90 year old grandmother that I wanted to be an interior architect. She replied that that was a good idea, that I would be a great wife who could decorate the house of her husband nicely. Of course I rebelled and I gave up the idea of being an interior architect immediately. At the same time I somehow still believed in my creative talent (and the other story), and managed to get into an art school. In my first art school experience, I was trained as a designer to be a creative owner of the design process, and a whole new world of art and design as political tools opened up for me. Yet in my mid twenties, I told my dad that I decided to be a professional full time artist. My dad told me that one could not make a living being an artist. That small sentence chilled my idea immediately. I spent the next years tiptoeing around making art. I was trying to qualify myself in every single possible way to get the allowance of finally being allowed to be an artist. I went abroad. I interned. I published on making art. I did PR for art. I taught art. I wrote my PhD dissertation on art. I worked as an educator in art museums. I became a professional art enabler. That was all fun and taught me a lot of things, but did not count as making art exactly. I finally realized when I was appointed full professor and department head for art and design education at a well known European art school, that I must have become quite good in working around the arts, but it also showed me that I still wasn’t quite doing what I set out to do.
Two things happened with me just because I allowed myself to stick to those two stories:
I believed in the bottom of my heart that I had to have a real job, not an arts job (which is rather funny when I consider that I have a meditation teacher and a pastor as parents). But simultaniously I didn’t really know what else to do with my life than the arts. So I ended up circling the arts and doing one course, one study after the other to somehow get the blessing of someone, telling me: Now it is okay. Now you are allowed to make some art too!
Sometimes there is no one there to tell you that it is fine to go ahead. Sometimes your family or your friends or your partner or your children or your dog do not quite know what is right for you.
Circling around teaching, publishing, organizing, curating, mediating, critiquing art showed me that I truly believed that everybody is an artist except me. But not leaving the art world showed me that even deeper down in my heart I still believed in the idea of being an artist myself. Finally checking everything off my to-do-list (all the studies I could do, all the jobs you could get, the right salary, blablabla). Then and only then I finally realized that I was a victim of my stories. The stories I believed for years. The stories I thought my family had told me. (Probably they told me to be an artist a million times and I somehow filtered that out). One day I realized that and started to write, not in an academic way, but in a way I wanted.
After all is said and done, I guess I am pretty old fashioned. I want art to be moving, to be spiritual, to be well made by someone with talents. I even want art to look good in my living room. I just said that. Totally politically incorrect.
But then there is this other me who thinks that art should be political, provocative, life-changing. There is this other me who spends half her life engaged in something called artistic research. I have nothing against artists with phds (I’ll write on that another time), but I have to admit that I am bored with artistic research. (Second confession.) I want to feel something through art. What extra value is there? What do I get from perceiving an art work? Does art have to be entertaining, life changing, interesting, spiritually challenging, mind blowing? I guess everything and none of it. At the end of the day the artist does whatever she wants to do, no judgement, no blaming. I came to learn that art is not about the product (which might look nice with my new throw pillows), but always about the personal process of the artist - and maybe about the individual process of the recipient.
Most of all: I want art to be transforming for my students. Making and perceiving art should show them that they have the right to be whoever they are. I want them to love themselves and scream out into the world their weird, fun, whatever authentic selves. I want art students to use art to free themselves from conventions, trauma, family stories. I hope they use art to show their worldview and their opinions. But does that count as research? I personally doubt that, but there are many definitions of research out there. I strongly believe that this form of expressive art making counts as being human as best as we can and as consciously as we can: Maybe the process of art making supported to my students to be who they are. Then I guess it counts as research.
My American self tells me that everything is possible I just have to go for it. Sometimes I forget to go for the little things that bring me joy and happiness. What are the activities that make me feel like I could bench press a gorilla and clear my mind at the same time?
John Dewey said learning is all about connecting. I think that education should involve educating yourself by connecting all the fields you want to learn about. There is not one study program, but your individual way to make sense of things in the world, but mostly to make sense about yourself in the world. The beauty, absurdity, urgency of art might support making those connections. Colin just tells me that there is someone working on Kafka and vegetarianism. Here you go. Cultural studies inspirational mixing de luxe. Where are your links?
Art and Education