Art Practice, Learning and Love: Collaboration in Challenging Times

From July to October 2012, the newly opened Tanks at Tate Modern hosted a season of cross-disciplinary and live interventions. Converted from their former function as huge oil containers for the power station, the Tanks are the only designated museum space for ‘live’ art in the world. The opening programme, Art in Action, which involved major international and emerging artists and included film, installation, participation and performance, pioneered a newly integrated approach with the gallery. In tune with developments in contemporary art and participatory practice this programme sought to present fresh ways of linking the most recent tendencies in art-making with a particular strand of art history, whilst facilitating new kinds of engagement, interpretation and learning. In its opening fifteen week season, the Art in Action programme attracted 565,000 visitors, suggesting a curiosity about and appetite for this form of art practice and exhibition.  

Art in Action was innovatory in many ways, not least because events were programmed by a cross-departmental team drawn from Curatorial and Learning. Art in Action was also deliberately discursive; practices were brought together, revisited and reinterpreted. Questions including:

  • Can art act as a catalyst for social and political activism?
  • What is the role of the viewer of and/or participant in a live art performance?

These were identified by the programming team early on in the planning process and ran throughout, informing curatorial and learning events and interpretation. This process of enquiry provided a shared platform; a productive route into a multi-stranded enterprise for the programmers as well as the visitor. By starting with these issues, Art in Action sought to blur boundaries and raise questions of how performances, films, debates, talks, artist-led participatory workshops and in-gallery and digital interpretation can function as dynamic elements of an holistic ‘live’ programme in the museum. 

However, the challenging process of putting together and presenting a co-ordinated programme raised a number of further questions which the cross-departmental programming team had not always anticipated. In particular the team found it needed to interrogate the nature of participation in live art and performance practice commissioned through a curatorial programme in relation to that experienced in a learning event whilst examining the role of the artist in relation to both these scenarios. 

Furthermore, for the Learning team an additional concern surfaced; namely how could the principles of a Learning department (which explicitly identifies ‘love’ as a core value) in a modern and contemporary gallery be manifest in a high profile public programme? We were aware that the scale and ambition of the Tanks programme was a valuable opportunity to raise the visibility of Learning within and beyond Tate, yet with this opportunity came additional responsibilities and a potential loss of autonomy.

This paper takes the Tanks as a starting point to discuss these questions, explore different models of ‘collaborative’ art practice and consider how to understand these in relation to a specific understanding of ‘love’.

Art in Action

In the ‘Programme Notes’ that accompanied Art in Action, Chris Dercon, the Director of Tate Modern described the programme as:

A 15 week festival programme of international performance, film, talks and live events, alongside works from the collection by true pioneers of social performance (Suzanne Lacy: The Crystal Quilt 1985–1987) and expanded cinema (Lis Rhodes Light Music 1975), and a major new commission from South Korean artist Sung Hwan Kim, who represents a young generation of artists working across media and disciplines. Finally the Tanks focus on presenting oeuvres of a range of very different artists – from dancers such as Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Boris Charmatz to intermedia practitioners such as Aldo Tambellini, Tania Bruguera and Dubmorphology – which force us to redefine the museum.1

There is neither space nor time here to run through details of every element of what was an ambitiously busy programme. Instead I want to draw attention to key words in Chris Dercon’s statement. I want to return to ‘performance’, to ‘live event’ and in particular to what Chris describes as the ‘intermedia’ practice of Tania Bruguera in relation to one other artist that worked within the ‘Learning’ strand of Art in Action.

However, prior to embarking on that analysis it is useful to provide some context for the range of events that were programmed. In the first instance it is important to recognise that the Learning element of the overall programme included a mix of activities designed to enable all of Tate’s visitors (from the under-fives to art world experts) to engage with the art works and key ideas being explored in the Sung Hwan Kim installation and the series of live performances and films programmed by curatorial colleagues, by actively taking part; looking, asking questions, sharing, debating and making. Learning events ranged from a ten day festival designed with and for young people to cross-disciplinary symposia, a major international conference, artist-led workshops and mass participation days for families. Taking place mainly (but not entirely) in the South Tank, Learning live events aimed, as Anna Cutler, Tate’s Director of Learning, identified: ‘To take people closer to art….(by helping them) to find their own relationships, create their own meaning and set their own terms in a dialogue with art and ideas.’2

Through this focus on supporting visitors to create their own meanings, Learning colleagues were trying, as the curator Anthony Huberman has suggested, to move away from ‘preparing explanations in advance’ to ‘following the life of an idea, in public, with others’.3 To make this shift Huberman suggests that the art museum should step outside of the binary relationship with visitors of ‘I Know’ (that is, becoming the ‘expert’ museum whose role is to tell the visitor) and ‘I Don’t Know’ (assuming that we are dealing with the ‘ignorant’ visitor who will receive knowledge gratefully from the museum) to embrace both within a notion of ‘I Care,’ which involves museum and visitors recognising and sharing different ideas and knowledge. As he says:

If an institution goes from knowing to caring, it could point to the affective relationship that ties people to ideas and become a place for attachment rather than consumption. After all, the ideas that make us curious are not the ones we fully understand, but the ones we care about – I Love It is always more compelling than I Get It.3

I find this notion of ‘I Care’ appealing on a number of levels, not least because for Huberman ‘I Care’ involves wearing your heart on your sleeve, and incorporates not only collaborative celebration, but also critique, in the sense of a ‘willingness to stand for irreverent or critical values from the perspective of a less powerful member of the community.’4  In this way the ideas he champions chime with the values that Tate London Learning has articulated and which underpin everything it does. So before returning to the Tanks, I’d like to spend a short time on what it means to hold to a set of values. In other words it’s time to talk about ‘Love’.

Tate Learning and love

In 2010, Tate Learning embarked on a process of asking key questions; ‘what are we doing’ and more importantly, ‘why are we doing it?’ In order to reach some conclusions we began to unpick our motivations and what we saw as the rationale for our practice. Initial conversations unearthed some key concepts; collaboration, working with artists, empowering youth voice, seeing young children as active agents, all of which are vital and important and central to programme. But certainly for particular members of the Learning Senior Management team, a breakthrough moment came when we acknowledged that for us, the fundamental value underpinning what we do is ‘love’. 5

Now ‘love’ is a loaded and complex term and almost as soon as we identified it we began to question it. Isn’t it a bit vague? Will people see it as inappropriate, not least because a large part of our work involves young people? Surely there are more rigorous and objective terms that are more relevant? This moment of doubt and reflection in turn sparked a quest for me to identify what ‘love’ could mean in the context we were applying it. It was during this time that I was directed to a quote from the renowned critical pedagogue, Paulo Freire, which I found helpful:

We must dare, in the full sense of the word, to speak of love without the fear of being called ridiculous, mawkish, or unscientific, if not antiscientific. We must dare in order to say scientifically, and not as mere blah-blah-blah, that we study, we learn, we teach, we know with our entire body. We do all of these things with feeling, with emotion, with wishes, with fear, with doubts, with passion, and also with critical reasoning. However, we never study, learn, teach, or know with the last only. We must dare so as never to dichotomize cognition and emotion.6

Amongst other things, what I understood Freire to be saying here was that we need to bring an emotional and intellectual commitment to all that we do; that ‘love’ represents the degree of engagement that we must make to our work to ensure it is of the highest quality.

Having recognised that ‘love’ could embrace a deep emotional and cognitive conviction about our work, further conversations with Learning colleagues teased out that concepts such as ‘trust’, ‘passion’, ‘risk’, ‘desire’ and ‘thoughtfulness’ are central values that for us are bound up in ‘love’. And if we hold true to these, then we need to see them manifest in our practice. For our team that work with schools and teachers this translated in a clear statement of intent:

Schools and teachers London: articulation of core values and how they are manifested in practice:

  • Trust: A programme which is responsive to the thinking and ideas of artists, teachers, students and the team and trusts in the agency of the learner (artist, teacher and student) through recognising and validating the multiple emotional and intellectual reactions to encountering art.
  • Thoughtfulness: The team reflecting on and thinking about what we are doing and why, to ask questions of ourselves, the programme, the institution and our audience.
  • Generosity: A democracy of learning through exchange and collaboration with our audience, artists and the institution.
  • Desire: A focus on process rather than outcome.
  • Risk: A programme which trias new ways of working and encourages artists, teachers, students and the team to test out new ideas.7

In addition to providing insights into the emotional and intellectual aspects of our work, Paulo Freire guided us further, since he also stated:

The task of the teacher, who is also a learner, is both joyful and rigorous. It demands seriousness and scientific, physical, emotional, and affective preparation. It is a task that requires that those who commit themselves to teaching develop a certain love not only of others but also of the very process implied in teaching.8

It is Freire’s recognition, articulated here, that we have a responsibility not only to those we work with, but also to the ‘very process’ of teaching that is particularly interesting. For, without this love of the process itself, what do we have? If all we are interested in is the output or outcome – or the ‘impact’ on the learner, what does that suggest? Does a love of others alone bring about a different set of practices, or do we need to commit as much, if not more love to our processes? In thinking about these questions we recognise how, as learning professionals, we need to engage ethically with processes of production, bringing to them the values we have identified. ‘Love’ has to be driver informing not only what we do, but also how we set about doing it.

To explore this idea further I now return to the Tanks and in particular to two particular live events. As Chris Dercon identified one of the artists presented during Art in Action was Tania Bruguera. Her piece in The Tanks was a continuation of her ongoing art project, Immigrant Movement International, which was described in the publicity material on the Tate website as an artist-initiated socio-political movement that aims to explore who is defined as an immigrant and the values they share, focusing on the question of what it means to be a citizen of the world’.9 The Tanks piece, Surplus Value, required visitors to line up and pass a polygraph (lie detector) test concerning visa applications before they could gain access to the South Tank. Once inside the Tank, visitors saw a migrant worker burnishing a sign that read ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (‘work liberates’) that was an exact replica of a sign that was stolen from the Second World War concentration camp Auschwitz.

The work, as Bruguera acknowledges in an accompanying film was deliberately provocative.10 The visitor/participant was expected to be frustrated, shocked and unnerved, since the artist’s purpose was to draw attention to uncomfortable issues. In this respect this work of art conformed to an avant-garde tradition that, according to the theorist Grant Kester, provokes dissensus over consensus, rupture over continuity, and distance over intimacy.11 In Bruguera’s work the visitor performs according to specific rules determined by the artist in order to complete the work; they are invited in to confront the art, but kept at a distance from the process of production. And although being vital to its realisation, participants are ‘acted’ on by the work, rather than having an opportunity to actively shape its form or content. 

In comparison, ‘Misguided’ a project by the artist Alex Schady that came through the Learning programme strand of Art in Action considered what might happen if we handed over to children the duty of forming and disseminating information about an exhibition. In doing so, Misguided attempted to make explicit the development of the work as part of the work itself and to invite participants to engage fully in an ongoing and shared process of meaning construction. The work included a number of elements – a set was created within the Learning studios adjacent to the Tanks in which a series of workshops took place with students from a Primary school. Through an open dialogue Schady and the participants developed a series of guided exhibition tours of the Tanks, as well as making the props and costumes they needed. Taking inspiration from 1970s children’s TV shows, the workshops were filmed with instructions delivered to camera on how to make your own gallery tour. 

In addition, three times a day the groups of students left the studio and made their tour of the Tanks, accompanied by a temporary screen that projected the film they had made in the studio. The tours guided the audience (which consisted of the general visitors to the Tanks) around the show, forming ‘an absurdist parade’ around the exhibition whilst providing alternative explanations or contexts for the work.12 During these tours visitors were invited to observe, question and to join in conversation with the tour ‘guides’.

My reason for focusing on these two particular performance events is not to identify a series of binary oppositions. It would be wrong and naïve for me to declare that Misguided had love at its core and Surplus Value did not, not least because by any standards Bruguera’s work manifested risk, passion and profound thought and engaged the audience on emotional and intellectual levels. Equally Misguided can be seen to involve a performative element wherein visitors to the Tanks were confronted by a strange and unexpected spectacle which to some might have proved unnerving and over which they had little say in terms of how it came about. These participants much like those who took part in Surplus Value were acted upon by a work that was, at that point in its realisation, displayed in public for the audience.

Yet there are differences, one of which returns us to Freire’s admonition regarding process. In conversation with Alex Schady when planning Misguided, the Learning Curator commissioning him commented that ‘I think the difference between an artist being invited into a Learning department and an artist invited by Curatorial is that the [former] artist expects their idea to unravel to a certain degree’.13 In response to this Schady responded:

Unlike some artists who go in and make a situation that allows them to make a piece of work, I will go in deliberately trying to examine and explore a pedagogical model that may have as a bi-product a piece of work – but the focus while I am doing it is the educational remit. It just so happens that I like those educational remits when they start to produce work at the other end14

This statement suggests that for Schady, the dialogue and creative production that occurred during the Misguided workshops, as much as the more visible live tour events in the gallery were what mattered to him. And what I see in this statement is the artist’s acknowledgment of a like, if not love, of the educational process – of the messy, collaborative, uncertain and emergent practice that is teaching and learning. It would seem that the output of this process – the performance – is important as a bi-product, but it does not represent the raison d’etre for this work. More important are the meanings generated through the shared process of production. Through extended interaction with young people, Schady experienced his ideas and the ideas of others being developed and reworked. He shared his expertise and recognised the knowledge of those he was working with; as Huberman would say, he worked in the key of ‘I Care’.

In my view it is in these complex interactions that we can identify ‘love’ in terms of how Learning sees it and ironically perhaps this can be the least visible element of an artist’s work in the museum. But it is here in the dialogic and collaborative process that generosity, trust, risk, passion and thought must be present; here that emotional and intellectual investment has to be prioritised. And whilst there were artists coming through the curatorial strand of the Tanks programme who would no doubt subscribe to these values, I would argue that their focus was on the presentation of their practice and their ideas exclusively; their love found form in the presentation of their final work, even if that presentation directly involved participation by the audience as Bruguera’s did. Love, in the sense that Freire describes, requires an emotional and intellectual investment in a shared process of teaching and learning, which is what Learning aspired within the Tanks programme and continues to work towards today.