As part of this blog I’m trying to briefly write up and assess various exercises, workshops and other learning activities I’ve been involved in, either as a teacher or a student, and to think about how they might be improved and reused in future sessions.
I sometimes hear lecturers in the arts complain that one of the downsides of teaching is it getting in the way of their own creative practices. While I understand the complaint (there are only so many hours in the day) the logical response to this would seem to me to be to look for ways to teach that are mutually creatively beneficial to students and to teachers. Last year a colleague and I curated a large-scale exhibition and have since been discussing an idea for a new one. We thought it might be a great test of this idea of mutual benefit to organise a workshop around this new exhibition idea with our students. We resolved to do a one day workshop with the aim of planning and installing an exhibition on our chosen topic in that space of time.
For the students, we hoped it would be usefully practical introduction to curation and exhibition installation, for us we hoped it would be a chance to try out existing ideas and generate new ones for the exhibition concept we are working on. For everyone it would be an interesting test of the dynamics of collaboratively putting together an exhibition as a large group, something which each student group has to deal with eventually anyway when they come to their final degree show. In preparation for the day we booked a space in the college and collected a small amount of suitable work from artists we knew, some reproductions of materials from the Stanley Kubrick archive (which is based at the college), and also some props we thought would work well for staging and transforming the space.
We opened the day with an hour-long briefing on the idea, an overview of the aims and intended outcomes for the workshop and a discussion of some of the common steps one might go through when curating an exhibition, from approaching a gallery or a space through to planning how to show the work and finally installing. Next, we had a visit from Richard Daniels, senior archivist at UAL’s Special Collections archive who showed some original materials from the Kubrick archive. Following that we had planned to break into groups each of which would focus on a particular area of the exhibition, for example groups dealing with press, design, curating the printed photos, organising video. Instead we had an impromptu further discussion and viewing of some of other pre-selected art works, and then broke for lunch.
After a brief lunch, we divided into groups as planned and the students set about developing the space. One group set about planning where to display the art. Another focused-on press and advertising for the show. Another one still decided to gather data and visualisations about our topic and another group gathered and edited video to create several video pieces which we displayed on a flat screen TV and several laptops appropriated from the group. We were on hand to help out but generally weren’t really needed, the students collectively set about transforming the space and after two hours the show was complete and we ‘opened’ it to the public with a few beers. The opening was a nice way to round off the day, and the term, and we even had some curious passing visitors drop in to see what we were doing (the beer may have helped). Finally, we took the show down and cleared up the space.
My colleague and I felt the day went really well for something that was a complete experiment. It clearly helped to be working with a group of very engaged and enthusiastic students who completely got behind the rather strange idea of the workshop (and to some extent ignored our curatorial suggestions, sometimes for the best!). I think we both left feeling like the our original exhibition idea had been reinvigorated by the workshop and given new purpose, and so in terms of the initial idea of undertaking a teaching exercise that benefits student and staff alike it seemed like a great success.
Feedback from the students was generally positive but there were some comments for things to change next time. One was that it would have been good to have a clearer outline for the day at the start, something we had actually included in our initial briefing but forgot to cover because of running short on time. Another was the suggestion that if we ran the workshop again we should plan and advertise it far enough in advance that the final exhibition could actually be advertised around the college to an audience beyond the student group, a nice idea to try and make the exercise as real as possible and get more of a real life audience for the ‘private view’ at the end of the day.