Can you Teach Art? Reflecting on No Working Title a collaborative project between 4 UK art schools, a gallery and a curator.
Authors: Jo Addison and Natasha Kidd (2013)
When Phyllida Barlow was asked in an interview for Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes: Artists talking about teaching (Mollin & Reardon 2009) “Can you teach art?” she replied:
“No… but you can provide an endless process of enquiry and debate and discussion and conversation around it” (2009, p45)
The urgency of this question and the certainty of Barlow’s answer provide the perfect back drop for No Working Title, a project which aims to provide a platform for cross institutional enquiry about art. This short text, first presented at the European League of Institutes of Art (ELIA) Teaching Academy conference in Porto in 2012, attempts to give an insight into No Working Title, how it came about, its context and the pedagogical questions it raises.
Each year No Working Title sets out to provoke a dialogue between students and staff across four BA Fine Art courses and an international gallery. Forty students take part in the project each year. With their own practice at the centre of the process, students exchange instructions for making artworks with a partner who they have never met. The end of the process is marked by an event at a London gallery/museum, where the partners meet for the first time, reveal the work and engage in critical debate, alongside academic staff and a curator.
Originally launched in 2009, No Working Title was initiated by three artists, Jo Addison, Natasha Kidd and Alex Schady. At the time of its conception all three artists worked together in the context of learning in galleries and taught separately at HE institutions. Through the project they sought to collide gallery education and HE teaching by exploring their interests in authorship, instructional practices and communication. Connecting staff and students from three BA Fine Art courses, the 2009 project culminated in an event at Tate Modern, hosted by the Learning Team and Assistant Curator. The project has since expanded to include a forth guest college invited each year and new galleries/museums, including Camden Arts Centre.
Critical to the project has been the consistency of delivery across all of the Higher Education institutions involved. At each art school the entire 2nd year Fine Art cohort is introduced to the project brief through a presentation. Interested students submit a short proposal that outlines the relevance of the project to their practice and what impact it might have on the development of their work. From these proposals, ten students are carefully selected. As far as possible, the project is managed in an equivalent way in each college, employing a deliberately concise and formal method and ensuring simultaneity in timing. This extra-curricular project is offered, not taught.
Each of the selected students is paired with someone from another college. With their own practice at the centre of the process, each person devises a set of instructions to enable their partner to make an artwork. On receiving their instructions, each student follows the specifics of their partner’s request to make the work.
There is a strict deadline for the issuing of instructions. They take many forms and are sent by a variety of means, including email, text, post and social network. Communication is limited to the issuing of instructions only, with the exception of an exchange in the week running up to the event, when they are asked to issue directions in order to recognize one another at the gallery.
The event in London is highly performative and rigorously structured. The introductions between students and unwrapping of works are highly choreographed. Students are asked to discuss in depth, the implications of making work in this way. It is at the moment of unveiling that the slippage between intention, translation and interpretation are made tangible. There are excitements and disappointments.
From the perspective of the students, the invited curator plays a critical role. Not only do they contribute to the critical discussions that go on around the work made here but they are able to ground the project contextually through a short talk. No Working Title draws on a history of instructional practice. John Baldessari, Vito Acconci, Alighiero Boetti, Fluxes, Sol le Witt are amongst the practices students are invited to research. It is also important to understand the position of this project in relation to more contemporary projects such as Do It, a manual of instructional works, curated by Hans Ulrich Olbrist (www.eflux.com).
“Failure is a whole process towards finding out about something……. if something doesn’t work it carries an enormous amount of information with it” Barlow, P (2009, p43)
“The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always in the end the voice of a single person the author ‘confiding’ in us”.
Barthes, R sited in Molesworth, H (2003, p30)
Alongside unfulfilled promises and checked egos there are near romances and tense battles over the ownership of and responsibility for the work. These battles occur because of fundamental questions around authorship that are raised through the project. There is no clear explanation of where the work lies or who owns and authors what. No Working Title clearly separates the idea from its material expression and through this process raises a fascinating question about whether the artist is de-skilled through the negation of the act of production or re-skilled with more astute conceptual rigor and an evolved visual and verbal language?
The anthology Draw It With Your Eyes Closed (2012) examines the state of art education by assembling a collection of art assignments. In it Sofía Olascoaga asks “Can you follow someone else’s instructions and still do something that is still very personal and significant and valuable and real? Can we somehow get rid of the value that’s placed on originality?” (2012, p72) It is clear that in taking part in No Working Title some students relish relinquishing control and others struggle to hold on to creative authenticity.
“If an assignment is to go beyond the mundane of crowd control, or the forgivable agenda of shoring up a teachers power and influence, it has to hold its authority loosely even disdainfully, without totally relinquishing it. In order to helpfully engage the pressures and ambiguities of contemporary art making, assignments must structure questions in such a way that students and teachers can experience them together” (2012, p122).
It is impossible to ignore current critical debates that surround the Fine Art curriculum on many courses, pitching projects and assignments against unstructured, autonomous enquiry. It might be argued that No Working Title has a foot in both territories. Does the project turn the language of the project brief in on itself? In an age of reflective journals and learning outcomes, does No Working Title provide a necessary distance from accountability for the work?
“Generosity and sharing provide an alternative to contemporary individualism and the traditional role of the romantic artist as a solitary genius” Lind, M (2005, p66)
In The Collaborative Turn, (2005) Maria Lind talks of the effects of working alongside others. At the centre of the broader concerns and debates surrounding No Working Title, is a project that brings together forty-four students and staff each year, providing an alternative to the individual institution or practice. It encourages dialogue about art in which ideas are primary. It questions authority, autonomy and authorship but most importantly provokes risk and scrutiny both aesthetically and conceptually. No Working Title doesn’t teach art but it provides a process of enquiry and debate and discussion and conversation around it.
Barlow, P and Reardon, J. Phylidda Barlow – at home in North London. In Mollin, D and Reardon J (2009) Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes: Artists talking about teaching. Ridinghouse
Barthes, R sited Molesworth, H (Ed) (2003) Work Ethic. The Pennsylvanian State University Press.
Lind, M. Complications; On Collaboration, Agency and Contemporary Art. This text expands on the author’s “The Collaborative Turn” in Taking the Matter into Common Hands, Black Dog Publishing, 2005, pp. 15-31 and “The future is here.” Framework: The Finnish Art Review, no. 6, January 2007, pp. 56-59.
Paper Monument (2012) Draw it with your eyes closed.
Ulrich Olbrist, H (). Do It, a manual of instructional works. http://www.e-flux.com/projects/do_it/homepage/do_it_home.html.