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The Blue Kühl Akku
Text by BBB Johannes Deimling
For the 3rd time PAS | Performance Art Studies was invited to conduct a 5 day Performance Art Studies Workshop at tjg:Theatre Academy in Dresden, Germany in March 2014. The PASyouth Studies were part of the 5th Art Symposium ‘Performance Art in Schools’ in Meissen. The Symposium was organized by the University of Dresden, University of Leipzig, BDK - the Association for Art Educators, tjg:Theatre Junge Generation, and PAS | Performance Art Studies, and designed to highlight the possibilities of integrating Performance Art practices and methodologies into the curriculum in schools throughout Germany.
In relation to the topic ‘Performance Art in Schools’, PAS worked with 15 young teenagers between the ages of 12 and 13. The students were pupils of the Gymnasium Bürgerwiese in Dresden and participated in the PASyouth Studies as part of their school curriculum. This was the first time students of the Gymnasium were introduced to the subject of Performance Art.
Performance Art is a social art form and therefore PAS’ philosophy recognizes the importance of collaborative teaching and invites a minimum of one guest teacher and one photographer to facilitate the studies. The personal and artistic processes in Performance Art are often extensive and challenging. I believe teaching Performance Art is more effective in a team, not only for the pupils and teachers, but as well for art students and young artists. Team teaching allows more opinions, thoughts, and experiences to be shared on the subject matter. Four eyes see more than two and are often needed in the complex performative processes that Performance Art entails. Polish photographer Monika Sobczak and Canadian Arts Educator Joanna Partridge from Queen’s University facilitated the studies at tjg:Theater Academy. This was a creative and thoughtful collaboration as each one of us holds a strong background in visual art and performance.
The first day is always a very important day for both the participants and the teachers. It is very organic with many opportunities for discussion, a few procedural understandings, and very basic performative tests and exercises. The first day is reminiscent of a blank sheet of paper or canvas; in that it is full of expectation and possibility. For this purpose we refrain from structure on the first day and make observations about how they are reacting to the artistic offerings. We also make predictions about their path of understanding and engagement. Flexibility is important as a more ‘strict’ structure will not suit the vivid and ever changing processes of Performance Art.
On Monday the 24th of March we met 15 pupils who came from the same school but from different classes and without any knowledge of Performance Art. Of course they had some idea about other art forms like painting, drawing, sculpture, architecture, dance, music and collage, but the concepts and methodologies of Performance Art were completely new to them. We began by sitting in a circle and talking about art and finding out which art forms they know, why they like/don’t like art, what they think art or Performance Art could be etc. “Something similar to theatre” was one of the responses a student made to try to locate Performance Art. It was interesting to listen to the comparisons and ideas being offered by this age group as there is a similar opinion among adults who are not familiar with Performance Art that it is related to the ‘Performing Arts’. Although I can see why people draw some connection to traditional theater, I believe the approach to Performance Art is more grounded in Visual Art. To capture this specific difference is an objective for the whole PASyouth project.
We offered a playground and set up a frame that the pupils would build, shape, and fill as they pleased and as they understood throughout the process. Collaboration is a helpful tool used to enhance the whole artistic process and its quality. Creating an ensemble of young artists who share the space, their ideas, and their time and effort with one another is a primary focus of the studies and was stressed very early on in the process.
We informed the pupils about the context of the studies and about the final performative presentation at the end of the process. What is fascinating to both the students and to us as teachers is that collectively we have no idea what the final performance is going to look like because it is something that develops over time and through experimentation. It is developed out of the process, a concept that is the foundation of the PAStudies.
To unfold the vast field of Performance Art we offered simple performative tasks and experiments for the students to engage in regarding the body and space. When shown a painting by Leonardo da Vinci, the students said that they were familiar with the image of men standing in a circle and square. Showing this image is a good starting point to enter the topic of the personal body, its physical limits, and space. To understand the body as a tool, rather than an individual, is crucial for the development of performative processes and differs from those made in Dance, Theatre and Performing Arts. The individual body transforms during the performance into a unique readable sign, and is more of a figure, or a space, used for projection. The absence of a ‘role’ is often difficult to understand, especially for the younger generations but by continuously pointing out and identifying these artistic formulas during the process, the students receives a gradual disconnection from the ‘need’ to be something or someone else.
The pupils should scatter in the space and try to keep a similar distance to each other and the walls. I halved the space and did the same task twice until the pupils were now standing very close to each other trying to keep a similar distance. Some of them said that it feels a bit awkward as the others are standing very close within their personal space. This comment became the topic of a discussion during our reflection after the exercise came to a close. With this first simple experiment it was important to introduce position, distance, frame, space (personal and spatial), and perspective.
For our next exercise we attempted to move the motionless structure but informed the students that while moving to keep a similar distance between them. Being aware of the continuous movement within the space was a bit of a challenge to begin with because while walking one needs to have a heightened perception of what is going on in the space. The students often asked ‘Where are the others?’ To support the pupils within this task we instructed them to walk as if on a grid in horizontal and vertical lines and asked them to consider when walking that ‘you walk with purpose as if you are approaching something and, at the same time, when you turn away or begin to move again that you are leaving something behind’. With small considerations like that it was possible for the students to maintain a good distance between each other. The students appreciated the support very much as they could feel the changes within the process themselves.
Experimentation is needed to begin a process. If a task or an exercise is not working this should never be seen as a mistake, but more as a learning tool in order to change the setting and try something a little simpler or perhaps more advanced depending on the situation. I recommend resisting the urge to follow a plan, or to stick to a structure, as the flexibility of the artistic process allows for ideas to be developed further and boundaries to be tampered with slightly for greater impact.
Experiments with the body and the space were developed further in other tasks. For example, the students were asked to give an impulse or follow an impulse when meeting another person on the given grid. The space was understood as a piece of paper and the bodies were seen as the pens or tools drawing on it. These first beginning tasks, combined with short reflections and feedback discussions, led naturally to a didactic built structure designed by BBB Johannes Deimling called ‘Scriptwork’ in 1999. Scriptwork allows students to experience and understand artistic formulas within a given frame and build a more complex artistic dialogue based on movement, space and time as it is discovered. The form is very flexible and can be enriched at a later moment with materials, topics, differing spaces and many other concepts.
On the first day we only worked with the body, gesture and the space, and with the reflections of what had happened within and through the first experiments. For homework the pupils were asked to bring random, everyday objects and materials from home into the space. The objects could be everything and nothing, ranging from a Bucket, rope, cutlery, toys, tools, clothes, and so on.
English as a Second Language
A fortune was that we had to communicate from time to time in English which was fascinating to the pupils. Unexpectedly, we were given an opportunity to combine an integrated English lesson within the subject we were dealing with. We understood that the students needed a bit more time to translate words and sentences in order to understand, but overall it went really well and made for some interesting connections. If ever the students got lost in translation I was there to communicate observations and reflections directly from Joanna and Monika.
The language situation created some very funny moments. During a break Joanna saw a young boy standing in front of some pictures hanging in the staircase. While passing by Joanna informed the boy that looking at pictures for inspiration is a great idea. The young boy smiled and said 'yes, yes'. Joanna looked to me and said ‘I am pretty sure that he didn’t understand a word I just said’. A second later I could hear that the boy had said exactly that to his friend, that he did not understand a word of what Joanna had said. These moments were very sweet and comical.
The pupils were very creative if they didn’t find the right English word or sometimes even the right German word. They created mixed words like the ‘blue Kühl Akku’ which was the name they used for an unfamiliar object that was used often during the exercises. The ‘blue Kühl Akku’ eventually created a wonderful story just a few short hours before the final presentation.
First Artistic Steps
The first interesting steps occurred on the Tuesday when the pupils became more familiar with the exercises and the overall direction. We also discovered that it made sense to give the students more free time in between exercises to burn off some ‘teenage energy’ and allow for re-focusing and dedication to the tasks to occur. Lucky for us, there was a playground at the tjg where the students could release their spare energy and regain focus.
Motivation not Animation
Often when working with young people, I observe that teachers or workshop facilitators act more like animators rather than teachers. Animation for me is the strangest tool you can use while working with young people on the subject of art. I can see how this might work with small children, but I also have doubts about this method. Presenting the pupils with pure artistic exercises and tasks, and as well taking the subject very seriously, is the reason why the process went so well. We also refrained from using exercises from theatre pedagogics or engaging in generic games as we believe that while those tools are good for the production of more traditional theatre pieces, are not as good for the more artistic processes needed in order to develop a performative piece. Sincerity is very much appreciated by young people and they are able to give this back within the work they are doing. And of course to be sincere does not mean that one has to be boring.
‘Abstraction is When it Looks Strange’
One of the biggest challenges during the week was to build a neutral figure and structure that did not involve talking, laughing, and doing any action without any additional comments or reactions. This was a challenge as the students needed to see a meaning in everything we did and have an explanation, rather than just exploring movement, connection and space without animatedly reacting. In art there is often no direct meaning and often does not have a direct narrative. Mime and theatrical movements are often used to make clear what the act is about. In performative works these kind of additional explanations are more of a hindrance as the gestures are tautological comments. They underline what is already there and take away an important space for various interpretations the others might see.
The Tree Example
We try to approach this problem with the artistic formulas abstraction and reduction as the students know now that “abstraction is when something looks strange” as one boy stated. It is helpful to integrate this particular kind of strangeness into their understanding. The example of the tree is very helpful as it offers logic in understanding. The tree outside of the building, the photo of that tree, the painted image of that tree, a drawing of that tree, and at the end a graphic of that tree, is a gateway to enter this topic.
If abstraction or reduction is difficult to grasp, we often integrate materials to bring the attention away from the body and use the material as a vehicle for exploration. To begin the students individually present their objects to the group. The pupils are then asked to sort the material into categories according to their characteristics, for example; plastics, wood, metal, glass etc. Often it appears that objects are created out of a variety of different materials, this also leads to interesting collaborative arrangements. The discussions that surface when researching the materials can be used to push the exercise further and talk about characteristics such as shape, size, color and even temperature of materials.
Everybody is standing in a circle and one object lies in the middle. Without talking, one student at a time walks into the middle of the circle, takes the object and creates a simple image with the object and the body (for example, one student went into the circle, picked up a frying pan and used the pan as a mirror). The only restriction is that the object should not be used as it is in everyday life. As everybody can see what the other person is doing, a collection of different uses of the same objects begin to appear. This is a good stepping stone to transform the meaning of something we know into something new; a bucket can be a mobile phone and a pan can become a guitar.
After the Material research, we combine the objects with the Scriptwork. We included the use of the objects in the structure. The body work is extended with objects and we could observe the progress that was beginning to appear. Each gesture was combined with a certain object and face-to-face meetings became a moment of exchange. Repetition, Dynamic, and Impulse now have a possibility to develop and create additional intersections. Essentially, the object is now seen as another body. Out of this exercise it is very easy to develop short and simple actions with an astonishing outcome that everybody can witness. A student responded “Wow this looks beautiful” as a green ball was used in an action to a boy who was wearing a similar green T-shirt. The boy was perhaps not aware about this connection while finding a solution but as a witness to the combination, it made total sense. It didn’t matter what the action meant to the boy and if the others understood what he was doing, the aesthetics of his action combined with the concentration suddenly disintegrated the sense to understand and make sense of what he was doing. The aesthetic was enough of a reason to do this action and opened up the fantastic and inspiring field of an artistic language.
We asked the pupils to think about a topic or subject that triggers a negative reaction or dislike. Within 15 minutes they should formulate a statement telling us what they don’t like, why they don’t like it and how they could solve this problem. Sitting in a circle everybody was asked to make a statement, but no one should respond to the statement made, they would simply listen without making any comments. It was amazing to hear the statements one after the other and we could feel that the statements were well thought through and not just made up. From the Russian and Crimea conflict, to Racism, to socioeconomic issues, and different political and social topics were brought up in this fascinating circle. Afterwards we asked them to find an action that could replace what they have articulated in words and to use an object or material.
Florian placed a paper on which was written in German the word ‘Krim’ (Crimea) in front of the others who were watching the action. He went to the end of the room and showed another paper with the word Russia in his hands. On the floor was a pan. He placed one foot into the pan and started marching with the other foot towards the audience while dragging the pan behind. The march ended when the pan was covering the word ‘Krim’. This was such a mature and honest performance for a 12 year old boy! It was very poignant.
Some of the other presentations relied on mime and we could see that the students still had a need to explain gestures in order to ‘solve’ the task. The frying pan was a great transformation and an abstraction towards a performative action and was recognized by the others in the group. These small tasks and presentations are excellent because everybody observes the actions and everybody sees what is good and what could be done better or differently. The teacher in the feedback round needs only to be the moderator while the pupils exchange their points of view and somehow educate themselves.
We divided the groups after the solo presentations. The first group stayed with Joanna and Monika. Joanna provided a task that would deepen the exchange of objects and strengthen the value of the meeting of two people within the performative space. The second group went with me in another room where I showed them examples of artists including the works of; Jaan Toomik (Estonia), Dominique Thorpe (Ireland), Kirsten Heshusius (Netherlands), Ida Grimsgaard (Norway), Emily Promise Allison (Canada), Ingolf Keiner (Germany), Alexandra Zierle and Paul Carter (UK). At first I showed them only pictures and some video documentation. After I requested that they share with eachother what they saw and how they individually perceived and understood the visuals. Listening to their conversations I provided them with some information and explanations regarding the background of the Performance Art I presented to them. It was not surprising to me that the pupils interpreted the different works in a wonderfully reflective and intelligent way.
“Can I go to the toilet?”
Logically it happens that during the working process someone needs to go to the toilet. A pupil raised his hand and asked “Can I go to the toilet?” I always laugh at this question as I think that going to the toilet is a human need and what if I actually said “No!” The attention would be less with the subject and more with the need to go to the toilet. I always give the responsibility back to the students, so that they decide when to go to the toilet and when is a good moment to do so. This type of relationship not only builds trust between the pupil and the teacher but strengthens the responsibility of the continuous process.
The ‘PAS photo task #1’ is a tool to learn and experience in a playful way about the idea of an image. It’s not the action that makes the performance, but more the combination of space, time, objects, action and the appearing images that mesh together in a performative language. After working with the body and objects the task provides an experimental field where images can be found and in addition an understanding of the quality of images can be learned.
The group is divided into groups with a maximum of 3 people. The task is to explore the environment inside and out to find locations, places and sites where the body or parts of the body can be positioned within the found setting to create an image. The groups should think about the frame of the image which means they should decide where the photographer (Monika) should snap the picture. This also allows them to experiment with differing perspectives.
The pupils produced 47 images that we presented to them the following day. Looking at the pictures, it was very interesting to see the reactions of the pupils. While looking and talking about them we collaboratively selected 5 pictures that the whole group found interesting or compelling. It was fantastic to see that the pupils chose mainly pictures that they were not included in and appeared to be drawn to absurd and very abstract images. This for me is proof that there is a collective understanding about the quality of an image. This task was a real eye opener in terms of the performative images that were created and led so nicely into the following exercises.
This PAS task is a funny but very effective exercise to train the students concentration skills. It is built on a competition between one person and the rest of the group. The playfulness of the task generates a will to manage the following tasks and is not only useful for young people, but as well with all ages and ranges of performance experience. The object of the task is to find the key to one’s own concentration. A chair is placed in the room on which one of the group members should sit down and get focused, meaning to maintain neutrality, relax the face, and concentrate with open eyes. The other students stand on opposite sides of the room and turn their backs to the person on the chair. After a short time, which is needed to find an inner peace, the group is asked to break the concentration of the person sitting on the chair. Students are allowed to make silly faces, grimace or tell jokes, but they are not allowed to touch the person on the chair. This exercise was really interesting because the students who we felt lacked concentration in some of the previous exercises, excelled in this task and held their concentration for a great length of time.
The Final Presentation
The ‘final presentation’ of a PAStudies or a PASyouth studies is only a single point within the process. Even though the final presentation marks the ending of the studies, it is often just the beginning. Performative processes are not only working for one final presentation, but are building up experiences with contemporary art and should in most cases continue. Even though a five day studies in Performance Art is a great achievement, what is fleshed out in 5 days does not touch the surface of the universe of performative practices as a whole.
The final presentation took part on the big stage of the tjg and was part of the 5th Art Symposium that took place in Meissen for the following three days. The final presentation was embedded in a program where other students from the University of Leipzig and Dresden presented a variety of performance art to a large audience. More than 150 people came to this fantastic, useful and very engaging event.
On the day of the final presentation we had approximately 2 hours to be on the stage to run through our final structure. We decided to shape the starting point and ending, but left it open to what the pupils could spontaneously do within the given frame. Back in our workshop space I told the pupils that they are on their own now and that we have given them everything that is required to do a solid presentation and that they should trust the process and their own development and gained knowledge. It was of course not easy to handle the excitement and there were hundreds of anxious questions ‘what if’, ‘how about’, and ‘who should’. The questions were derived from their nerves and anticipation about performing in front of so many people. After patiently answering their questions we also told them that from now on they needed to think and answer the questions they have with each other and to trust in the work that they have put in all week. Before the final presentation the pupils stayed very close together, comforted, and supported one another. It was really lovely to see the camaraderie between each and every one of the students and I feel this strengthened the final piece as you could see and feel the connection they had with each other.
The moment came where the students would collect themselves and decide what materials and objects they wanted to work with in the presentation. Some of the pupils were searching for the ‘blue Kühl Akku’ which they never found because we hid it from them. The reason for this was during the previous exercises the blue Kuhl Akku was used mainly as a mobile phone. It became static and lost its appeal. But with persistence, the students insisted that they really wanted to use this object and found it under the sofa. They directly understood that we were hiding this object from them. It was great to hear their arguments and finally the object ended up on stage and was used by the pupils in a ways that we had never seen before.
What is tomorrow?
When the pupils came on stage and stood in line to receive their well-deserved applause, you could see in their faces, that they did not expect such a reaction. The applause made them proud and certain about that what they had learned. It was a full and honest applause from an audience that perhaps didn’t think that teaching performance art to 12 and 13 year old pupils was possible. Even though we could see that they were nervous and full of questions, they managed to perform with astonishing concentration a condensed version of what they had experienced in the five days prior. It was an amazing success for them, for us, and for the conference in which these studies were embedded. And it showed us that yes; it is possible to work with young people on a serious artistic level.
The pupils were fascinated by what had happened and got a lot of great feedback from people they didn’t know. They answered questions about the piece and were able to formulate explanations about their performance choices in an artistic sort of dialogue with audience members. A mother told us that during the week at the dinner table they had philosophical discussions. Another parent told us that he could observe the daily transformation in his child when he went home each day.
Upon completion of the performance, we were approached by a parent who left us with a comment that her son had made about the week long process that has resonated with us and that underlines the overall success of the PASyouth Studies. The young boy dishearteningly said “This was an incredible experience…but what is tomorrow?”
What is tomorrow? will be the next PASyouth Studies topic and has become a solid foundation from where to begin the next PAS chapter.