Reflections on the project “Art as Education, Education as Art”
Art as Education, Education as Art has been a multidisciplinary project around and about the question to what extend an educational practice can be seen as an art practice, and furthermore if an art practice is in itself educational. In a period of several months, a team of university teachers and students came together to initiate artistic processes and reflect upon those in reflective discussion.
The study program Master in Fine Arts at the University was the site of the research project. The coordinators of the research project and the study program invited several participants, the co-researchers, who contributed with their various different experiences, positions, viewpoint and roles, that were expressed and heard in a rather open and inclusive reflective dialog. The participants were partly first and second year students of the MA Fine Art and other members of the faculty of Fine Arts.
Thinking about learning with and through arts
One could state, that teaching and educating is an art form. It became visible, that most of the participants had a variety of experiences, that they connected to the questions posed in the forum. It seemed like most of them had consciously thought about art practices as educating. But how can an educational practice be artistic, or even an art practice? Instead of merely focussing on the role of the student and the study outcome, the research project takes the teaching role under strong consideration. Through the discussions it became clear, that the research project invited to think University education as a non-hierarchical, inclusive, diversive and shared acting and reflecting. Taking UiA’s mission of the co-creation of knowledge into consideration, this project was a great opportunity of doing and experiencing research first hand and to get an insight in designing educational programs and readjusting their core questions and values.
The structure of the fall semester is therefore lead by various workshops from different persons with an artistic and often educational background. To get a better insight into the current program we interviewed a student of the MA Fine Arts on the various workshops and their estimated relevance for the different fields of study:
“The first semester of this masters degree has been filled with many different workshops. Seeing as the class contains students from backgrounds in music, theater and visual arts, the contents of the workshops varied a lot. We started the semester with a workshop in video and editing. This was designed to help us document our artistic works through visual media. This had a relevance for all of the respected fields, as it covered sound, picture, and to some degree acting. Second came a workshop where music was at the centre. It focused on a style by John Cage, where randomness worked along with sounds. The music was created from anything from plastic tubes to an actual car. The workshop was designed so that even those that had no background in the musical field could participate, and learn from it. From music we went into a more visually centred workshop called ‘a sensuous society’ This was a workshop that experimented with a constructed society where aesthetics and visual language was the centre, as opposed to the economically driven world of today. "Education for the future" as it says on their website. It was centred a lot around performance art. At the end each student had their own aesthetic within their own tableaux. The whole workshop is based on an actual experiment by The Sisters Academy, where they take over schools for a period of time, and turn it into a school centred around the values of a sensual society. This was followed by a workshop grounded more in the theory of theatre. The workshop’s focus was primarily on performance related way of reacting to our surroundings. Even though the workshop field was theatre, it was still possible to relate it to aesthetics.” (First year student of the MA Fine Arts 2016)
The workshop guided study was one part of a methodology to intertwine art and education. One focus of this methodology called “Inhabiting practices” was the choice of place. How does the place shape the students work, their working behaviour? But as well, how does it shape the way that students and coordinators and workshop leaders interact and relate towards each other. The beginning of the semester invited to a reflection around those questions. The space chosen was the workshop halls of the old theatre in town, that could be reshaped any way, the students wished for, as long as it was within the budget and the majority of students agreed. In some ways, the centring around a space can be experienced as a community based art study of working and being together. The already mentioned sequence of workshops gathered the students in one space to learn new methodologies and artistic approaches, and as well to experience learning together.
Alongside the workshops and seminars held during the semester, some students use the space as well in their free time, treat the site as studio space. Some leave temporary, others more permanent traces on the site in form of paint, music practice sessions and decorative design. The place is changing during the semester and gains some more personal character.
The participants in the research project discuss about possibilities and challenges of and art education places in a University with a broad spectrum of disciplines, and as well of the necessity to adjust the framework of such study. The workshop-led education in a different site off campus were two cornerstones. Another was to merge the course on theory of science and research methodology with artistic tasks, and so challenge and adjust the traditional way of approaching qualitative research. The task of doing research is understood as a tool for the development of an artistic process and project. Classical student tasks are changed into tasks that the students own, because of the connection to the own process and curiosities. More about this in a short interview. A student sharing a study experiment:
“The research methods the students worked with to reflect upon the experiences made in the workshops were observation, participated observation, memo-writing, introspection, auto ethnography. During the Sensuous Society workshop, we also had an assignment in writing auto-ethnography. Simply put, to write from your own personal experience and perspective. We each wrote a page from an experience or encounter while being inside the Sensuous Society. Some of us went for a personal approach, where feelings and thoughts were documented. Whilst others simply wrote about how they observed perceived the situation
A focus during this semester has been teaching is ways of documenting and how to properly do research. One workshop was how to do sensory ethnographic research. We had to research a subject by focusing on using our senses. For example touch, taste or hearing. Two students solved this by documenting the rituals of students getting coffee in the cantina. They filmed and recorded the way people touched the mugs, how they poured milk, added sugar etc. During the presentation, everyone had a cup of coffee to go along with the visuals being shown.” (First year student of the MA Fine Arts 2016)
In the regular meetings questions of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are discussed, and all agree, that studying art, though studied in an university education, should focus on the intrinsic motivation. That’s why the students are not graded in some of the exams and have to reach a pass only. It takes the pressure off, some of the students think.
About the MA Fine Arts
The MA Fine Arts is a research oriented program during which each student shall design and execute a personal research project. While the inquiry could potentially be entirely theoretical, most students choose a research strategy, that is based upon an artistic practice. The dissemination of the results of a one-year individual project would then be both a practical piece and theoretical investigation, a master thesis.
The first year, and specifically the first semester shall introduce the students to a variety of subjects, methods and understandings of practice-led research and its position in science theory. Since all the students operate in fields of arts (Music, Drama and Visual arts), the study aims to fit the collective values of these disciplines and encourages the students to get inspired by other disciplines through an interdisciplinary practice. To locate a common ground for all of the different viewpoints and disciplines, the studies tend to strive for a more modern and experimental approach.
The flat structure, that the Master of Fine Arts, and the Research-project Art as Education, Education as Art, invited to rethink traditional roles of teaching and learning, and invited artists and students into the position of teaching fellow students and study coordinators. In that way, students of the Master of Fine Arts at the University of Agder, could experience themselves in teaching roles and make experiences on the question of an educational practice being an art practice. Our reflections are, that some students experienced the community of teachers and students as meaningful and valuable and helped the research team to understand, that the space and the presence at the site is very important for all participants. It has been the meeting ground for learning, teaching, arts-making, discussing, addressing difficulties, solving problems, exploration and exhibition.
Both students and teachers mentioned the blending of roles as an interesting but challenging concepts. Who is after all responsible for taking initiative, if the teachers are students themselves? We reflected that the flat structure potentially invites to initiative on the students side, who are invited to shape the daily life in the studies and inspire the course of actions taken. The structure has spread the responsibility of influencing each other in positive ways, and have given space to student-led initiatives in many ways.
All the participants saw that it is a not an easy task to fit a contemporary art studies into a rather classical framework of University education. We were inspired and challenged by the complexity of designing and adjusting a rather experimental study program like this.