Interview: Anna Craycroft
by Lauren Hamer
…might be good: Your work, Subject of Learning/Object of Study, was installed in the Blanton Museum’s WorkSpace since March. It was seen by thousands of visitors and was a site for workshops, events, happenings, meditations, etc. How have your thoughts about the project changed over the last seven months?
Anna Craycroft: In the first week of the show I participated in and lead a few workshops, and this definitely began to shift my thinking about the project. Seeing people use the tools—chalk and chalkboards, chairs and rugs, books and toys—and seeing others direct a group in the space through their own ideas all activated the exhibition in a way that surprised me. Of course it realized my intentions for the individual pieces—to be sat on, drawn with, etc.—but it also brought something more to the pieces than I could articulate, and that I am still trying to understand.
Generally speaking, though, I would say that even from the very first days of working on this project I felt I was exploring and being introduced to new ways of thinking about social and institutional engagement. I think even from our initial studio visit, curator Risa Puleo anticipated that I was going to want to get really involved with considering the museum galleries in a broader context. She was really instrumental in helping me figure out how to understand what form that could take, helping to find and involve people from different libraries and departments around UT. At every stage from conception to presentation this show has been supported by conversations with and contributions from interesting people with a diverse range of interests.
…mbg: In the critical response to Subject of Learning/Object of Study there was some apprehension about what one might call the purpose of the work, its position between theory and praxis. By this, I mean that it remained ambiguous whether the installation used pedagogy theoretically as the jumping-off point for a work of art or, on the hand, if this was more literally a space where teaching and learning had to occur. Could you speak to this distinction and whether or not it is useful for you?
AC: This ambiguity was intentional. The exhibition was supposed to do both: to blur the distinction between them.
The two reviews you are referring to—the Art Lies review by Ariel Evans and the …mbg review by Claire Ruud—both made some valid observations. However, it is difficult for me to apply their assessments to my work because I fundamentally disagree with the expectations each of them expressed regarding how an artwork should engage with and explain itself to the audience.
This is perhaps best summarized in points that both writers made about a lack of resolution in the ideas explored in the show. My intention was to provoke questions and not to draw any conclusions. Even the phrasing in the title of the show sets up this mutability through the unfixed grammatical use of the words subject and object. Whenever I put together a solo exhibition I am aiming for this unsteady place, where one effort or interpretation counters another and subject positions may be continuously uprooted.
Regarding pedagogy, I see the act of teaching and learning as a kind of role-playing—in other words, as the conscious identification of oneself and others participating in one of the two positions allotted: teacher or student. From this perspective the distinction between a theoretical proposal and a practical application depends on the consent of the participants. Likewise the very existence and character of teaching and learning—what it is, where it takes place, how it gets measured—are all subjectively and cooperatively determined.
Presenting the galleries as a potentially interactive space is a proposition for this consensual engagement. However, the presumption is not that teaching (i.e. the passage of knowledge from an expert to a novice) will take place, but rather that the proposition might draw attention to the spaces in which this type of social construct takes place (e.g. the classroom, the library, the museum gallery or the educational department of a museum.) It shouldn’t matter whether or not teaching and learning actually occur, so long as we can imagine that it might.
The schedule of programs that took place throughout the run of the show allowed for this proposition to not remain purely theoretical. In other words, speculating that some kind of educational event might happen was affirmed by the fact they actually did happen. In keeping with this speculative structure, many of these events were dreamed up and lead by people who had first been visitors to the exhibit.
…mbg: When thinking about pedagogy and art, and more specifically about a work that is both didactic and relational, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Edgar Wind’s essay, “The Fear of Knowledge” (1964). Do we still harbor a fear of didactic art, and do you feel there is mistrust (on the part of academic critics) as to what kind of learning can occur within a museum context?
AC: I think there is a very rigid expectation for what education should look and feel like, and how clear and resolved its questions and answers need to be. I think it would be really unfortunate if the making or appreciation of art were restricted to these same rules. The Romantic dream of accessing some pure and intuitive knowledge through naïve experience seems absurd, but the expectation that an artwork must engage in a comparatively logical thesis-conclusion progression when it participates in intellectual discourse seems just as absurd. Likewise, using didactic formats in art-making shouldn’t restrict the artwork’s function to a “didactic” interpretation. I’m for an art that can hold a conversation with scholarly inquiry, but that presents the opportunity to continuously reinvent how ideas or theories can be conceived, articulated, challenged and understood. I’m not arguing that art can generate radically new and previously non-existent forms, but art can reorganize, reorient and shift the way we see what we have grown used to.
…mbg: I felt that in some ways critical resistance to a pedagogical work of art was a matter of context. In Europe (particularly Germany and Austria, the home of Pestalozzi and Froebel) pedagogy is considered a discrete, complex and highly important area of study. Do you think there is room in art for more explorations into the pedagogical—into its history, its forms and its phenomenology?
AC: Art as a practice (for the culture and the individual) is analogous to a pedagogical practice. It is a method of and structure for communication and social relations devised by visionary individuals to assist in the cultivation of citizens and the reinforcement of institutional power. So in some ways even talking about pedagogy in art is redundant. But yes, I think that because of these close parallels, there is much that art can shed light on in the field of pedagogy and vice versa.
The main reason that Subject of Learning / Object of Study focuses on early educational methodologies is because it is in these ideas that the artistry of pedagogical practice is most transparent. Montessori, Froebel and Pestalozzi all worked very much like artists. They developed a philosophy, an aesthetic, a production method (Pestalozzi’s drawing techniques, Froebel’s gifts, Montessori’s furniture and teaching tools), and with it an audience of attentions to capture and minds to mold. They observed the world, measured human capacity and translated these things into systems of quantification and communication.
Just as the artist and pedagogue share characteristics, so do the artist and the student. The moniker of artist enrolls us all into the clichéd “school of life”: always studying the world around or inside us and compulsively (or strategically) sharing our observations with others.
In the past six or so years there has been a growing trend in contemporary art that takes education as its subject. But I think a lot of these artworks and exhibitions are more about history and the structure of schools as institutions than they are about the field and practice of pedagogy. In this way, they do not address the overlap between art and education. In other words, they don’t touch on the invention of systems as a pedagogue/artist, or the development of the self as a student/artist). In my opinion this is because many of the artists, collectives and curators interested in education are primarily focused on higher education and art schools in particular.
It is more difficult to consider pedagogy as a form when talking about higher education because the practice (teaching and learning) is more removed from the subject (student and teacher/pedagogue). On the other hand, in early education there is no separation between the practice and the subject. Every tool is a direct representation of the philosophy of its maker, its time and the developmental stage of its user.
…mbg: Normatively, teaching in the museum falls within the realm of art education and public programs departments. Do you see Subject of Learning / Object of Study as radically different or in any way contiguous to these existing initiatives?
AC: I was trying to speak directly to the separation of the different departments in museums. Even though they are housed under the same roof and ostensibly have similar goals, these departments have distinct aesthetic systems and languages. I was musing on their differences, searching for overlaps and wondering if there was a way to bring them together. My solution was to literally create the platform for programming that was integral to the exhibition.
There is an incredible book by Norman Brosterman called Inventing Kindergarten that credits nineteenth-century early educational methodologies as an aesthetic influence on early modernism. I wanted to figure out how to articulate this overlap, because it already exists; we just don’t notice it because we see an Ellsworth Kelly on the walls a museum rather than in the hands of a five-year-old. It’s really funny to me that similar aesthetic systems can hold such radically different meanings, and can be marketed to such different audiences. I wondered what would happen if all three departments—curatorial, education, public programming—had equal access to the same space.
…mbg: Where has your work turned since the WorkSpace installation? Do you think that any of these mediums or concepts turned out to be particularly influential on your current work?
AC: Most of the forms (shapes, color, furniture, teaching tools) of Subject of Learning / Object of Study were borrowed directly from the visual systems of pedagogues such as Froebel, Montessori and Pestalozzi, and the aesthetics of modernists such as Klee, Kandinsky etc. Now I’m really curious about how their logic and aesthetics came to be formed, specifically the more esoteric ideas beneath their practices. I’m wondering if I were in their shoes—looking to determine a visual system that somehow measured, conformed to and manipulated human development in the interest of cultivating individuality—what systems I might construct.
Lauren Hamer is a graduate student at the University of Texas in Austin.