Alternative Monday 9 – Stewardship

Over the course of an academic year, students from The CE Academy take part in over 70 artist led workshops through our Alternative Provision programme. In addition to these workshops we also take the students to visit galleries and exhibitions, such as our own programme at The Arches and interventions in the landscape, as well as visiting friends at institutions like Leicester Print Workshop.

In 2015 students visited NN Contemporary Art’s New Life exhibition, showing work from recent graduates within a 50 mile radius of Northampton. One intention of the visit was to help the students reflect on the exhibition and express their thoughts about a variety of artwork.

This was no simple task. Many in the art world can forget how intimidating entering a white walled space with different social cues can be for those typically excluded from it. Marianne Hirsch coined the term “Postmemory” to describe the experience of collective cultural trauma transmitted through stories, images, and behaviours to later generations, affecting them so deeply that they seem to constitute memories in their own right. Even a cursory knowledge of art history for these students meant crossing a threshold of otherness – or in their own words experiencing “posh shit”.

Entrance to NN Contemporary Art, photo by student from The CE Academy, 2015

Rather than a solo exhibition the appeal of this show was that there were a spread of artists to compare, who were at least geographically if not culturally close to the students. One tactic to engage students was to ask them to each find their “least worst” artist or artwork, rather than pressurise students to find a positive in a situation they were already uncomfortable with. The destination was the same, but this method also reminded students that they didn’t have to like everything.

Students were also primed by playing Artist Top Trumps over several lunchtimes beforehand. For these competitive young people the genre was secondary as they quickly familiarised themselves with winning hands, absorbing knowledge about Modernist and Contemporary artists without realising it. “Damien Hirst is shocking but not beautiful” … “Yeah, but Marina Abramovic is better than Banksy in everything”.

Even armed with some vocabulary to compare artworks these visits can seem like the inspiration for Martin Creed’s Work No. 850 (a person running as fast as they can every thirty seconds through a gallery). Yet these students take everything in, often recounting artworks weeks later with seemingly photographic memories.

By contrast Melanie Cutler’s Stewardship provided a more immediate response. The artwork was a series of memorials created for people who had taken their lives as a result of cuts to their welfare payments. Identifying with her own parent’s financial struggles and objecting to the thought of the children in these circumstances being left behind, one student responded loudly and angrily to this particular work.

Stewardship, Melanie Cutler, 2015

Unknown to the student, Melanie was also in the gallery at the time and overheard the objections. Introducing herself, Melanie calmly explained that it was OK to feel this way and that art can often provoke a response – the student’s opinion being as valid as anyone else’s. The student learned that behind each artwork was a story about a person who had been placed in an impossible situation due to changes to the benefits system and left feeling that suicide was their only option. Melanie openly described her own difficult circumstances and ill health and how art was a positive in her life.

In the course of an afternoon the student journeyed from art being another world away to it being too close for comfort. From objecting to the subject to identifying with it and seeing art as a way to openly talk about and reflect on her own life. From “posh shit” to leaving the artist with the words “I salute you”.

More optimistic than just looking for the “least worst”, we had also tasked students with finding any exhibiting artists who they would like to work with in future workshops. Unsurprisingly Melanie was nominated and joined us the following year for a workshop exploring art as activism, with students Occupying Fermynwoods for the afternoon to protest about causes important to them. By which time our originally protesting student had interviewed Melanie as an Arts Hero, achieved a Bronze Arts Award qualification and returned to mainstream education.

James Steventon

Look out for more Alternative Monday posts every fortnight, looking back on some of our favourite alternative provision activities.