February 24, 2012  |  Events & Programs
Take Comfort: An Interactive Student Exhibition

“It is not what you see that is important but what takes place between people.”—Rirkrit Tiravanija.

Quest to Learn students at MoMA

Last December, MoMA’s School Visits Program partnered with Quest to Learn School to design a weeklong Museum engagement for 16 of Q2L’s eighth-grade students. I collaborated with math teacher Kate Selkirk to plan an exciting week at MoMA as the students’ end-of-term project. Quest to Learn students are familiar with analyzing structures and systems, as their school’s pedagogy is built upon game theory and systems design. In my own social practice work, I explore ideas of generosity, empathy, and exchange. Connecting these ideas, the students spent a week at MoMA analyzing and creating art projects focused on performance and audience interaction, rather than traditional works that hang on walls.

At the beginning of the week, students lined up for green curry as part of Rirkrit Tiravanija’s piece, Untitled (Free/Still), in the Contemporary Galleries and asked, “How is this food art? Why does it look like a soup kitchen? Is this shelter supposed to be temporary and unfinished?” As they viewed more works, some expressed outright frustration at Duchamp’s alteration of everyday objects and Lawrence Weiner’s exposed wall lathing, which seemed like a practical joke to them. Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (Placebo), however, seemed to placate one student’s query as she made a connection between her role in the meaning of the artist’s work, and how related it to the way a feedback loop informs successful game design. Their creative responses to the works varied widely from intrigue (as they explored the idea of “collaborative authorship” through exquisite corpse drawing exercises) to delight (as they interpreted Benjamin Patterson’s Paper Piece in the recent Fluxus exhibition Thing/Thought).

Fluxus Paper Piece from Grace Hwang on Vimeo.

Students interact with visitors on Fifth Avenue

We asked the students to ponder these questions, then apply their ideas to creating experiential works of art to share with MoMA staff in an interactive exhibition. They decided to explore the notion of “comfort,” and asked: “How can we give and take comfort to/from each other? And how can this be applied through interactions with visitors?” Students were given a short time to create their works and organize them in a self-curated exhibition in MoMA’s Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Education & Research Building. Giving Tree, created by an introverted student, involved offering help—such as giving directions or offering restaurant suggestions—to passersby on Fifth Avenue. One group chose to give away hot chocolate, hugs, and compliments, while another placed participants in a vulnerable position by asking them to profess their moods or insecurities. They documented their process and presented their projects to their school at the end of the week. I, along with their peers and principal, was surprised at how students approached their work in a way that was playful, risky, cheeky, vulnerable, and critical. It was clear that over the week, students really expanded their ideas around what makes something art, and the unexpected ways artworks can be created.

Q2L- Gifts from School Programs on Vimeo.

Last month, I met Kate at a Thai restaurant in Jackson Heights to talk about the experience. Over dinner, she mentioned a noticeable change in her relationship with the students who had participated in the project. She said, “it seemed as if an invisible social glue has brought about a shared understanding between them as they pass the halls.” As a teacher, she saw how art can initiate excitement and involvement for students, while expanding their awareness of the world around them and each other. She confessed that this experience inspired her to apply for a teaching grant to visit Thailand this summer where she hopes to visit Tiravanija’s The Land Project.

Perhaps it’s not what specifically happens at the Museum that is remembered, but the memory of having experienced something meaningful and how we live in the days following.

This partnership was conducted and documented by Grace Hwang, School Visits Educator.