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In the grand scheme of provocative exhibition titles, The Ignorant Art School surely has to rank in the top tier. Particularly, you might note, given that this particular programme takes place in the Cooper Gallery, the exhibition space at Dundee’s Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design – or at least it would if we weren’t currently all locked up in our own personal coops.
And whilst some might think that the curator in question may have to batten down the hatches in the face of angry art school tutors – well, art schools really aren’t like that. This is the kind of apparent dissent that art schools secretly revel in, or at least, I strongly suspect they do.
“The students were a bit shocked at first,” laughs Sophia Hao, curator, somewhat frazzled after a long day’s Zoom video meetings. “But that’s my intention! Only if you start with the question – how can we call it the Ignorant Art School – can you embrace it.
“You have to read the whole title!” she says, referring to the fact that the second part of the title – very academic this, for these must always have their sub-titles – is: 5 Sit-Ins Towards Creative Emancipation.
“People are genuinely very excited, apart from the first shock. The students understand it’s out of the norm, and it’s quite exciting for them.”
The phrase “sit-ins” probably gives the game away. This is about activism, and reimagining the fundamental parameters of the pedagogical framework – the theory and practice of learning, and how this process influences, and is influenced by, the social, political and psychological development of learners. Let’s face it, what parent hasn’t desperately tried to reimagine a few pedagogical frameworks over the past year? It was the French philosopher, Jacques Ranciere’s book The Ignorant Schoolmaster, about an exiled early 19th century school teacher who “formulated a teaching method that dissolved hierarchies in conventional pedagogical practice,” that sparked Hao’s interest.
The Ignorant Art School is about making equality a natural practice rather than just an ideal of education, and about investigating the future possibilities of art education, and rethinking the relationship between art and society.
Potential topics on what seems like must amount to a sizeable “curriculum” ranged from issues arising out of the tuition fees debate, to equality, inclusion, decolonisation of the curriculum, access and the commercialisation of eduction. “There are a lot of projects going on around the world, of artists involved in experiments, in thinking about how they can provide more accessible pedagogical situations.”
The first of the five Sit-Ins will be run by artist Ruth Ewan, whose interest in society and politics most recently saw her rework her 2018 Edinburgh Art Festival project Sympathetik Magick for the ephemeral 2020 skein of the festival that wasn’t.
Ewan’s work is always engaging, and here promises much, launching the project with her online History Class: An A-Z of Dundonian Dissent, a playful look at the history of activism and feminism in Dundee, which is filled with what promise to be really quite fascinating stories on characters involved in dissent in the history of the city. The French Revolution is writ large, and not least, Hao tells me, in the plaque, just outside the Cooper Gallery door, marking the Liberty Tree – the only tree in history to be put in prison (which sounds very much like something out of ancient folklore) – put up by revolutionary-minded Dundonians after the French Revolution.
The rest of the “term”, under Ewan’s “occupation”, before her solo exhibition in the gallery space in September, is titled: We Could Have Been Anything That We Wanted to Be and It’s Not Too Late to Change.
It’s taken up by other rather wonderful sounding classes available to all, from the Strike Class, an in-conversation event with former Timex workers and activists from the 1993 strike, to the Play Class – a playwriting workshop on dissent with John McCann, and the Slogan Class where participants work on three word slogans for a protest banner or placard.
There is a Beauty Class on beautifying crises in society with author and social critic Minna Salami. There’s even a Radical Pub Crawl (virtual, of course) which takes in Frida Kahlo and Sylvia Pankhurst, ending in a pub quiz with artist Yara El-Sherbini.
It is, I say, as if you will be turning out activists on to the streets of Dundee – and elsewhere – in search of a cause. “Yes!” beams Hao. “Exactly.”
Future Sit-Ins will include three solo exhibitions from Scottish artists and internationally-renowend artists, plus two “archive” exhibitions on international pedagogical experimentation, from Bauhaus to Nigerian experimentation and the Environmental Art Course at Glasgow School of Art, and historical experiments in art education.
And if the process is to discover how we can uncage the pedagogical imagination from the strictures that we have historically put upon it, then it is also to use that imagination to engage the wider public – the rest of us – in a more productive engagement between art school and city and society.
“Rather than us talking at people, the ethos is about experimenting with flattening hierarchies. Is it possible to rethink?” At this current time of political and other crises, says Hao, this could not be more pertinent.
The Ignorant Art School: Five Sit-Ins Towards Creative Emancipation, Cooper Gallery, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, Dundee. www.dundee.ac.uk/cooper-gallery Event bookings (free) via website
EVERY art gallery and museum needs to reimagine how it engages with its audiences to some extent in these trying times, and the McManus in Dundee is doing just that, with an eye to the diverse communities that benefit from it in easier times. The “Reconnect” project sees the museum attempt to help alleviate social isolation caused by Covid 19 in the city over the next six months by providing a cultural platform for those currently shielding, or finding themselves isolated perhaps because of long term health conditions, facing poverty and hardship, or simply struggling with their children’s learning whilst trying to work, or find work.
The project will work in partnership with groups such as Tayside Healthcare Arts Trust, who have also part funded the project, Home-Start Dundee and Alzheimer Scotland, to bring cultural activities and events to those who may benefit, rooted in the McManus’ current temporary exhibitions, Time and Tide: The Transformation of the Tay and A Love Letter to Dundee: Joseph McKenzie Photographs 1964-1987.
These are more than worthwhile projects, with activities ranging from photography classes over zoom to free art kits and online dance sessions themed around the museum. It is, say the McManus, about helping support their wider audiences’ wellbeing in difficult times, when some families cannot afford art materials for their children, when people are losing their jobs, when they are finding the level of isolation too much to bear.
Whether it is a weekly creative challenge, or a way to connect with the wider community through storytelling and art-making, this project from The People’s Museum shows that culture can bring benefits for all, and that community really matters.