Naturally I was livid. What on earth was she thinking drawing on the furniture? With a marker she knows she isn’t allowed to use? But once I got a good look at what she did I could’t help but be proud. She found a mark and turned it into something entirely new. Truly A+ work.
The curator’s talk at the opening of #MobilePhotoNow at the Columbus Museum of Art was a whole lot different from similar talks I’ve been to in the past. While the tone was serious, it was also welcoming. The comments were smart, and thought-provoking, but understandable by folks who don’t spend the majority of their time in white boxes with artists and collectors. Attention was also paid to those who might not speak hashtag as well as Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake. This is all in keeping with CMA’s mission: “to create great experiences with great art for everyone.”
The night started with a greeting from museum director, Nanette Maciejunes, who was proud to let everyone know that “#MobilePhotoNow is the biggest mobile art show on the planet to date, demonstrating the power of social media as a means of creative expression and connection.” She spoke about the museum’s commitment to creativity and innovation and how this show fit with their goals of celebrating and enabling participation in the creative process.
She went on to remind us of a show a few years ago that CMA co-created with the Jewish Museum in New York called “The Radical Camera.” That was a fabulous show which featured many images from The Photo League, a group of (mostly Jewish) politically engaged photographers who focused their lenses on the lives of everyday people, doing everyday things from the end of the Great Depression to the start of the Cold War. CMA owns a lot of works from artists in this group who not only recorded the lives of others, but in doing so, reflected on their own. The League was blacklisted in 1947 and by the time it dissolved in 1951, it “had propelled documentary photography from factual images to more challenging ones—from bearing witness to questioning one’s own bearings in the world.”
It’s clear to see how The Photo League’s citizen reporting paved the way for our 21st century newsfeed of events large and small. But Maciejunes described a less obvious, but equally salient connection between The Photo League and mobile picture sharing, “the photo hunt.” In this creative exercise, league members selected a theme and made images around that theme to share with one another. Sound like anything familiar? CMA staff immediately related it to communities of interest on social media and so the first, CMA-sponsored, Instragram-supported, photo hunt was launched.
The CMA strives to be a participatory museum (Simon, 2010), in the context of a participatory culture (Blandy, 2011). “Connectors” appear in many of the galleries offering visitors opportunities to reflect on and respond to what they see through an activity; a game, a puzzle, a drawing prompt, a wall of post-in notes and a question. For The Radical Camera, CMA staff crowd-sourced images through a series of photo hunts and displayed their favorites. Maciejunes recalled that when she walked into the opening for the show and didn’t recognize anyone, she knew they were onto something big. They were connecting with a new audience.
The CMA Photo Hunt helped bring together mobile photographers in and around Columbus. Seeing the exhibition brought to light the potential of social media to inspire artistic practices that are at once personal and collective. But, at the time, I still didn’t have a smartphone so the whole thing was somewhat lost on me. Now I get it. Little did I know that for more than two years members of the jj community were pushing one another to make art, and share it everyday. What art educator wouldn’t like the sound of that?
Recently, in connection with a course I’m teaching, and in expectation of #MobilePhotoNow, I started using Instagram and following the #jj daily challenge stream. It’s intense, and beautiful. These are not a bunch of poorly-lighted selfies and half-eaten meals, they are (on average) well-designed, artfully composed, and intentional images shared with pride and purpose. See for yourself. Here’s something that showed up last night.
This is a kind of formalist invitation (similar to black & white or group shots). Others are more conceptual (where I live, tourist trap, the night) or object-oriented (cars, the beach, woods). It’s a nice balance really. So often art educators struggle with questions of focusing on form or content, agreeing in the end that a balance is ideal. I only scrolled through a few weeks of challenges to get this collection of examples but it suggests a pretty well-rounded “curriculum” to me.
Everyday, people from around the world tag between 5 and 10,000 images with the hashtag #jj. This means anyone who searches for jj in Instagram will be able to find their image. When jj founder Josh Johnson spoke at #MobilePhotoNow, he expressed his personal love for the community he helped create. In a shaky voice he described Instagram as a place where “this buttoned up preacher’s son could be himself.” He reminded the audience of the connection between dopamine and addiction, how we respond emotionally to immediate response and gratification. Try 30 second feedback. “Powerful things can have pluses and minuses. Some of us spend too much time taking pictures. But if you have to have an addiction taking pictures isn’t really a bad one to have.”
CMA partnered with jj community to organize and manage #MobilePhotoNow. They hosted 4 challenges in one month this fall: street, portrait, black & white, and community generating 45,000 submissions from 5,000 photographers in 89 countries. A jury process through the jj community yielded about 600 images with 320 finalists selected by the museum staff. The images were printed locally, for free, by a graphics company supportive of the project whose name I should credit here but can’t recall.
Jennifer Poleon, CMA Digital Communications Manager and organizer of the CMA Photo Hunts introduced contributors in the crowd from Sweden and Iran as well as an older women, who looked to be around 70 years old. Her son, a photojournalist in town, got her on Instagram and soon thereafter she showed up at a CMA “insta meet.” This is like a flash mob where strangers all show up at a designated place to share some experience. There she met other photographers who welcomed her and offered her tips. I loved this idea. Putting mobile photography in the hands of older folks and encouraging them to take pictures and participate in a community of creators. It’s an idea I want to push my students working with aging populations to seriously consider. For house- and institution-bound folks in particular, Instagram can offer a forum for rich connection, taking them across the Earth and back.
Kevin Kuster, who helps run jj described it as a modern day pen pal project; one which yields responses everyday. “The virtual world is not virtual,” he suggested. “It is deep and personal and when you do meet, you already know one another.” Kuster came to mobile photography after burning out in the world of professional photography. He described this as “the best time in the world for photographers. And the worst time to be a professional photographer.”
The enthusiasm throughout this session was palpable. It ended with a declaration from the museum’s contemporary curator, Tyler Cann: “I want to say. Yes, this is photography, and you are photographers. And I hope this exhibition creates more photographers and more radical eyes.”
An online gallery for the exhibition should be available tomorrow. Google it.
A father friend of mine posted this photo recently. His caption had me laughing out loud.
“I have no idea what the fuck these are but I’m supposed to be proud of them.”
In our house, we often reference a line from the animated film The Incredibles, “If everyone’s special, then no one is.” The point, in this context, is that not every thing our children make or do is fabulous and sometimes it feels like we ought to let them know, lest they go out into the world expecting accolades at every turn, even in response to sub-par effort.
I’m not saying my friend’s kid’s creations are sub-par; just that I find the candor of his comment refreshing. We should be able to question (with supportive intentions) the creative work our children set before us, without feeling like we are stifling their creativity. Most contemporary art requires some sort of explanation to foster our appreciation. Possessing information about what we’re looking at helps us understand what we see. It helps us grasp the meaning of the work. And for young children like my friend’s, experimenting with media, this is important work.
Such explanation is the goal of documentation, writing down what children say about their work as they are going about it, as defined by the Reggio Emilia philosophy for early childhood education. With this commentary, we are equipped to make informed judgments about what we are looking at. We understand what there is to be proud of.
Crafty Cora is starting to get interested in activity books. You know, the ones you buy at the grocery store that are full of coloring pages, mazes, and connect the dots. As a professional art educator part of me cringes at the thought of them. They were an integral part of my own childhood, however, and as such my artistic development.
This morning we are coloring by number, per her request. Just as Duncum (1988) wrote of copying, there is some merit to this activity, even if the result is not an original work of art. Here are a few thoughts on that.
• Cora is focused and concentrating on completing a task. The smile on her face at the end was evidence that she enjoyed this as much as the process.
• She is learning to see numbers in use as symbols representing actions.
• She is participating, if unwittingly at this point, in an art making tradition with a history we can explore at some later date.
Here’s to breaking our own rules, sometimes.
I thrive in liminal spaces. Professionally, I am operating on the edges of my field. Personally, I often find myself straddling borders. I named this blog to honor these aspects of my experience.
The name was also intended to make reference to the artwork of children, my children in particular. As a teacher and a parent, I respect and appreciate young children’s spontaneous creative activities. Cora was just scribbling when I started this blog. Now she’s discovering the lines. I just hope that she never lets them imprison her.
As an art educator, I spend a lot of time thinking about and planning for acts of creation. And, in my personal life, my family and I spend a lot of time making stuff. But every once in awhile, it’s nice to break things too. It gives us a sense of power over the material world around us that is not so different from bringing things into being. Watch any small child around a stack of blocks and you’ll understand.
Sometimes, when we tear something down, we make way for something new. Such was the message of Ai Weiwei’s Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995) and Robert Raushenberg’s Erased deKooning (1953). These were conceptual works, making way for new ways of thinking and creating. Sometimes it’s not that heady.
I spent an hour and a half this morning tearing up an old bathroom floor. It felt wonderful. I only planned to take out the threshold today, just enough to make room for work to be done outside the doorway, but once I got started, I had to keep going. When I was a teenager I loved the band Guns and Roses. I guess part of me still has an Appetite for Destruction. I was feeling the Flow.
As I worked, I thought about the history of the space I was in; the layers of linoleum, wood, and glue stacked on top of one another. I thought about who put those down and how excited they must have been to have something new. I imagined what the bathroom would look like once we remodeled it. But most of all, I thought about how powerful I felt wielding a crow bar and cat’s paw and how much different the world might be if more women learned to use them; if we had the opportunity to tear things apart once in awhile, rather than always being in charge of nurturing and raising them up. What new possibilities might we imagine?
Dan and I are in the process of renovating a rental house. It’s pretty much down to studs at this point. We brought Cora to work with us yesterday, with paints and brushes in tow. At first it just seemed like a good way for her to keep herself busy (and out of trouble) while we did what we had to do. But when we reversed our regular edict to “only draw on paper” and invited her to paint the walls of the kitchen, I wound up distracted in unexpected ways, getting meta about what she was doing.
Cora didn’t just paint in one small area, she relished the chance to tag every surface she could reach. This first had me thinking of her process in relation to graffiti artists “bombing” a site, like the Australian artists whose work went viral last month. But then a friend compared it to Jackson Pollock. Indeed, like the late great Jack the Dripper Cora was following her natural inclinations, approaching the canvas in an all-over style, moving her arm in big circles and dancing her lines around the room. Like Pollock, she seemed to be tapping into something primitive.
Cora took breaks from her painting from time to time, as if stepping away to gain new perspective, then returned with renewed energy and new colors on her palette. Most remarkably, she didn’t paint a single stroke on her body and begged to wash her hands when she was finished. Anyone who has followed her painting practice knows this is highly unusual. She was immersed in the process; experiencing flow.
While at first I was just happy she was keeping busy and out of the way, in the end, I was proud of her work and of me and Dan for providing her this opportunity for authentic creative play. We’re heading back this morning with more materials in hand. I can’t see what she does next.