Kerry Downey and Douglas Paulson, two artists who use collaboration as the basis of much of their own work, are the creative forces behind this season’s In the Making course for teens titled Clubs, Gangs, and Secret Societies: The Art of Working Collaboratively. For the past six weeks, they’ve been leading their collective of NYC youths through a variety of projects and activities exploring the history and philosophy surrounding artists working together in order to create collaborative art. For this blog, the two shared an experience that they created in tandem with Reactor, a UK-based art collective. Using Skype and the classroom phones, Reactor “took over” the studio one afternoon, leading the students (and instructors) on an incredible artistic event. Still recovering from what seems to be a long-distance hypnotism, Kerry and Doug share their recollections below.—Calder Zwicky, Associate Educator of Teen and Community Programs
When we came to our senses the room had been totally rearranged. The desks were hidden under piles of cardboard, aluminum foil, and tape. The students were hidden behind protective gear—helmets with horns, antlers, stacked radar-shaped foil trays, eyes protected by dense networks of metal. What had happened here?
Security Footage Log
4:00 p.m.: Students enter class room. Make small talk. Doug and Kerry prepare students for a slideshow about collaborative strategies. Students rearrange desks. Class begins.
4:10 p.m.: Slideshow interrupted by phone ringing. Doug retrieves it. Voice on the other end: “Hello Doog. MoMA’s gonna knock you out. Now tell Kelly.”
Doog turns to Kelly and says: “MoMA’s gonna knock you out.”
4:12 p.m.: Doog and Kelly are acting weird. Lifeless…brainwashed. Faces appear—Big Head is on the big screen. Pixelated, voice distorted: “Hello Students.” Little Head appears on an iPad in Kerry’s hands. Little head is meeting all the students, face to face. Little Head has a very high pitched voice, and fangs.
4:15 p.m.: Reactor controls the class. They’ve been controlling it all along. There are agents everywhere. Kelly and Doog, and now the students are agents too. These agents are receiving their instructions: “There are people who want to get into your head. You will need to protect yourselves. You will need to make protective armor so you can resist their brain control.” Brain control? Who’s running this class?
4:30 p.m.: Reactor’s agents are working. Building. Taping. Foil is everywhere.
4:45 p.m.: Agents consult with Big Head, showing their armor. “Good.” “You’ll need more metal.” “Excellent horns.”
5:00 p.m.: The Ice Cream song blares. Fruit is distributed to the hardest working agents.
5:17 p.m.: Little Head is telling students the trigger phrase: “MoMA’s gonna knock you out.” Big Head tells the students: “During your show, when you hear the trigger phrase, you’ll need your armor. You’ll know what to do.”
5:44 p.m.: Several students attempt to self organize to resist Big Head. Their plans for rebellion are quickly squashed.
6:03 p.m.: Big Head and Little Head commune. Big Head says: “Students, the most important thing to remember is… ” and the screen goes dead.
What happened here? Who were Big Head and Little Head? Who’s an agent? Who’s in control?
Reactor had hijacked our class via webcam, and constructed a wild narrative about how the students needed to protect themselves against brainwashing. While we were “hypnotized,” the students went along with the new plot and made amazing headgear. This was a play in which we all had a role—this theatrical danger became our inspiration, and new models of power and collaboration emerged. Some students attempted to form an anti-collective while others savored the opportunity to get messy and make art.
After the danger had passed, we sat and talked. “Who had the most power? Who had the least?”
The students talked about surveillance, brainwashing, and why they chose to “follow” Big Head despite not fully trusting these outsiders (who students also called aliens). After explaining a little bit about who Reactor is and what kind of art they make, we all wondered if we were one big art project that belonged to Reactor? Who authored this work and who owns it? The class decided that it was collectively owned, even by us—the hypnotized teachers! Despite having been part of a temporary dictatorial experiment, students still expressed utopian principles!
Our conversation about power also included concerns with the boundaries of trust. We asked the students if they trusted Big Head, if they trusted us after having allowed the class to be taken over by outsiders without warning. Most interestingly, we wondered if they trusted each other. The general vibe was that everyone fell trust among the group, but several students clarified that it was too early in any of our relationships to have real trust, which takes time and commitment to develop.
In all of our classes we’re looking to disrupt the traditional power structure of the teacher/student relationship. For this project, we were physically there, but silent until we led a discussion at the end. We devised this project with Reactor to highlight some hidden and overt forms of top-down power. Other recent classes focused on horizontal consensus and individual creative agency. We had hoped to remind the students that no one is an island—even when not explicitly collaborating, we are always relating to each other through family, friends, church, school, jobs, and more. There are many kinds of collaboration and each structure relates to power and creativity differently. By bringing awareness to how we relate to one other and how we can make art together, we are arming the students with new tools to engage with the world.
The spring 2013 In the Making teen art show will have its opening reception in the Lewis and Dorothy Cullman Education and Research Building at 5:00 p.m. on Friday, April 19. Applications and information for In the Making’s summer 2013 season of free classes will be available in May at MoMA.org/MoMAteens. For more information please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Special thanks to Reactor for their participation, and MoMA In the Making teaching apprentice Nathalie Shepherd for her assistance and involvement. Extra special thanks to the teens featured in the video (in order of appearance): Noah, Rebecca, Giancarlos, Karamako, Katelin, and Carmen.