Art + Activism Reflection Activity

Concurrent with their experiential learning activities, students in “Artists in Society” work through themed units, one of which focuses on art and activism. In this unit, students view Dutch artist Renzo Martens’ film Episode III: Enjoy Poverty (2008), in which the artist travels through the Congolese interior—an area where poverty is the highest export product. His emancipation program controversially encourages local communities to monetize their poverty, but the film ends with a focus on the power of the exploitative measures that keep the people poor. Alongside this film, the students read Alfredo Jaar It is Difficult, and Claire Bishop’s seminal Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics. We then have a two-part seminar discussion: the first half on antagonism, ethics, and activism’s role in artistic practice; the second half, on the relationship between Martens, Jaar, Bishop, and the students’ experiential learning informing their personal role, I ask students to observe and negotiate not only activism in artworks but also in exhibition spaces and in administrative processes and procedures. Informed by the DEAL model (Ash et al.) my students:

  1. in groups, describe the neighbourhood their institution or studio is in, and the integration (or lack thereof) of the institution or studio within the community around it, as well as dynamics of within.
  2. examine the meaning that may be behind the signifiers in their institution or studio workspace: who is the gallery or space is for? Who is left out? Who can move through the space and why? What happens when art gets into the space? How does this space differ from other spaces? What kind of politics does it take up? Whose voices are heard? Are there barriers or is it inclusive? How do power and privilege play out?
  3. analyze and discuss where power lies in artistic workspaces, and how the systems relate, perpetuate, or deny the circulation of that power. Students then describe their own values, and ask themselves if they are living those values or if they need to adjust somehow.
  4. think of their own activities or behaviours in their workspace, and brainstorm how they might conduct themselves differently, in light of their learning and reflection. What will they do with this new knowledge and how will it influence them in future endeavors.

Many students enter “Artists in Society” for practical, hands-on experiences in the community in which they will, one day, work. I also ensure that my students can see their contributions in the professional world, and are able to understand what they have or would like to offer. My structured reflection activities are used to redirect student’s natural powers of curiosity into investigations that are more intellectually responsible and critically engaged. Reflection brings into being something that did not exist before: a moment of understanding of what it is that an artist does and how, and a method to process that potential into an intellectual endeavor for my students, so that we together can start to find a way to describe the most intangible of topics—what art can be for them.

A selection of in-class reflection activities is available for viewing in the following sample weekly lesson plans: