In her session of In the Making, teaching artist Kerry Downey has been tackling the difficult world of abstract art and the way in which non-representational art can express emotions. For her first field trip of the season, she took the group on a strange, confusing, and ultimately beautiful journey through the amazing environs of Long Island City’s Flux Factory.—Calder Zwicky, Associate Educator, Teen and Community Programs
The Vincent van Gogh model for the brooding artist, however outdated, still haunts us, unconsciously forming our expectations of what it means to be an artist. Using The Starry Night as a jumping-off point, our class has investigated questions of what it means to express through abstraction. We have also confronted the legacy of the Abstract Expressionists, viewed works in the contemporary galleries, and explored a variety of materials and processes through our own art making. Much of our experimentation has worked to establish a relationship between the body and an artwork—how our bodies house feelings, and how feelings can become embodied in an artwork.
At the midway point in our class, we took the group on a special field trip to Flux Factory, a nonprofit arts collective in Long Island City. There we extended our conversations through a physical, social experiment with artist Douglas Paulson. We wanted to find a more visceral approach to the themes we’d been discussing: the expectation that artists “perform” their own emotions, the delicate manipulation in art of chaos versus control, and the various ways in which we can arrive at abstraction. Here’s what we did:
1. We transported the class to an undisclosed location.
2. We separated them into two groups and blindfolded everybody.
3. We brought the groups, hand-in-hand, into Flux Factory through two separate entrances.
4. We reminded them of the rules of the museum (to create layers of behavioral expectation) and then… abandoned them to experience their surroundings. They could hear the sounds of cameras clicking—our assistant educators Maren and Daniel were with them the whole time, snapping away—while current Flux Factory residents walked around them, occasionally poking and prodding them with household items, speaking in German and Hebrew, offering them candies, and generally adding to the confusion.
5. Doug and I were upstairs making nachos for the class and waiting patiently to see what would happen next.
The “what happens next” portion of the experiment was entirely up to the students. We wanted to see what would happen when their senses were manipulated and they were left to feel disoriented (rather like the way it can feel to stand in front of an unknown artwork at MoMA). How would it feel to be left there, uncertain of what they were supposed to do? What would the group energy be? At which point would someone remove his or her blindfold or peek? And, once this occurred, what would it take for the students to find their own agency and discover the unknown terrain of their own volition?
In this experiment, the students became active participants in the artwork, and the architecture of Flux Factory became the framework. What ended up happening was more interesting and exciting than any of us could have anticipated. One group remained fully blindfolded and created a collective bonding experience, passing a broom around as a talking stick, answering questions like “What’s your biggest fear?” In the other group, one student removed the blindfold and defiantly led her group around the building, stumbling upon the rest of the class, and finally leading everybody to the food upstairs.
After we had spent some time orienting ourselves, figuring out what Flux Factory is, and processing the blindfold experience, Doug led an interactive slideshow on Flux Factory’s projects. Each student had to come up with a caption for a slide on the spot, round-robin style. The slideshow allowed the group to participate in the energy of collaboration and social practice. We were also able to observe how collective living and teamwork can provide necessary emotional and creative support for artists.
In class the following week, we linked our experiences at Flux Factory to questions of creative agency in art making. How can we construct boundaries, rules, or systems for expressing our inner emotional worlds? We’re spending the last few weeks honing our personal styles and approaches and completing our final projects. It’s been exciting to witness the class’s level of curiosity, willingness to explore abstract languages, and dedication to thoughtful art making.