Class Struggle

Rethinking pedagogy and social practice in the pandemic era

Gabo Camnitzer, The Student Body, 2021, video, color, sound, 40 minutes.

FROM GRIM ACCOUNTS by New York high schoolers to student walkouts over Covid safety to labor disputes between unions and cities, public school education has opened up as another front in the war of mismanagement between the pandemic and the state. What does social responsibility, let alone learning, look like when avowedly left-wing parents blame teachers for closures, municipalities push for charter schools, and no one can Think of the Children? Over the last decade, Gabo Camnitzer has produced workshops and performances with students to test how education both challenges and enforces administrative power. “Glorious Wound,” the artist’s ongoing presentation for the Queens Museum’s “Year of Uncertainty” residency, feels for the ground beneath pedagogy’s often utopian history and its tattered manifestations today. Two pieces, the installation Lots of Dots and the film The Student Body (all works 2021), take as their basis a gridded carpet of colorful circles on which students are positioned, an item especially popular within charter schools. Bathed in strident light effects, Lots of Dots acts as both brutally cheerful sculpture and stage for Camnitzer’s own workshops with children. In The Student Body, the carpet is one of many documentary sources from modernist art, statistical administration, and progressive pedagogy, where the desire to abstract and simplify masks a deeper desire to control. Camnitzer has also been gathering accounts from New York City public school teachers on the front lines, some of which were recorded for Montez Radio. More continue to proliferate on the artist’s social media. The following conversation took place in Camnitzer’s temporary studio at the museum. Joseph Henry

JH: For a long time, your work has centered on children and pedagogy in public education. What about this show at the Queens Museum and the pandemic changed how you operate?

GC: I’ve long been focused on childhood as a site of ideological and material struggle. During Covid, all the contradictions that underlie childhood were intensified. My traditional methods of engagement felt inadequate to meet the moment and I had to reevaluate my approach. For a while, I just focused on tenant organizing and educational justice. I wasn’t really making work. I was building relationships with organizers and seeing how my previous artistic research and art methodologies could be useful in these struggles. It was and is a really interesting moment in education in particular. We had all these historical inequities and structural violences already, but everything just became so much more obvious in terms of what was at stake, with rampant inequality, poor protections in the workplace, a paternalistic union that doesn’t listen to what teachers need. And now we have a new mayor who is in favor of charter schools and very suspicious of any kind of leftist organizing.

Speaking with teachers, you realize one of the biggest stumbling blocks to educational change is the silo in which schools are placed. Schools are treated as these places “over there” where you stow children away from the home. I have been conducting interviews with public school educators from all over New York City, asking them to write “notes” to people outside the school system. These notes resemble the ones students pass around to each other in class behind their teacher's back. In one note, a teacher named Dianne Pannullo uses the example of the active shooter drills she has to perform with her first-graders to reveal the image teachers are asked to “produce” of the classroom as a safe place, even when conditions on the ground are anything but. As soon as a teacher states how unsafe things really are, the inclination is to turn against that teacher rather than understand them as entangled within a larger apparatus.

Dianne Pannullo, Glorious Wound (Notes from Teachers), 2022. Photo: Gabo Camnitzer.

JH: “Glorious Wound” shifts attention from student to teacher as the actor or agent of your practice.

GC: The Student Body is an analysis of the material and ideological apparatuses that surround and structure childhood and education, that shape the student from the outside. I intentionally left out the thoughts and feelings of children in order to emphasize the unidirectionality of the processes being depicted. As I was finishing the video, I found myself more and more interested in the role teachers play as part of these apparatuses. I wanted to engage them directly. And specifically, I wanted to engage them using a materialist pedagogical approach.

“Learning remotely, with all the horrible things that came with that, was incredibly eye-opening. Suddenly so many things were laid bare.”

I’ve also really been blown away with the work that teachers are already doing, and I don’t mean this in a romanticizing, liberal way. There was a moment when I was teaching in a public elementary school where I asked myself how I could avoid a big pitfall of a lot of social practice work in general, where the artist enters a site and introduces an alien way of thinking deemed appropriate without a deep analysis of the context. I realized that there are so many opportunities for solidarity that already exist. What are existing strengths and weaknesses and how can those be creatively addressed in solidarity with people on the ground? Due to the disciplinary way education is structured, we are conditioned to feel solidarity and camaraderie with people with whom we already share academic interests or a profession, rather than a politics. But I realized that I had a lot more in common with a third-grade homeroom teacher with a materialist view of the world and approach to teaching than many other art teachers. I have been exposed to so many brilliant teachers already working with these questions. People like my former colleague Grace Chang, people at NYCoRE (New York Collective of Radical Educators) like Rosie Frascella, Natalia Ortiz, Jenna Queenan, Pam Segura, Ashia Troiano, and Elizabeth Velasquez, and MORE (the Movement of Rank and File Educators) Caucus in the UFT (United Federation of Teachers) union, such as Ali Haridopolos, Jake Jacobs, Jia Lee, Jenn Leyva, Marilena Marchetti, and Dianne Pannullo. This spring, Video School, a collective I am a part of with the curators and writers Joseph Lubitz and Candice Strongwater, is organizing a series of closed-door working sessions at Queens Museum with many of these teachers, as well as parents and students, all activists, to collaboratively develop a strategic plan for reimagining public education.

Gabo Camnitzer, Glorious Wound, 2021, video, poster, chairs, workshop series, dimensions variable. Installation view, Queens Museum. Photo: Hai Zhang.

JH: How would you conceptualize “collaboration” in this case? You seem to be after a paradigm shift from “collaboration” to “solidarity,” where the better collaborator is now the public-school teacher rather than another artist or art worker.

GC: This is a huge question that a lot of colleagues working with more socially oriented practices are asking right now. Covid has thrown into further relief how problematic the model of the parachuter artist is—treating people’s experiences as the raw material for their art. I’m thinking much more in a productivist sort of way: How can I be of use? I’m thinking about projects that I did over the last ten years with children—more open-ended, exploratory work—but now through a more materialist filter. My older work was undergirded by this approach, but I didn’t necessarily speak in those terms. I’ve always had an uncomfortable relationship with the mode of extraction imposed by art institutions, in which you can do something that’s process-oriented but at the end of the day there needs to be an object that arises from that process and occupies space in an art gallery. I’ve more or less paid lip service to that, but now with Covid, I’m less worried about that sense of “proof.”

JH: In what has become a canonical set of arguments, Claire Bishop critiqued one model of social practice, where even if artists imagine themselves to be doing beneficial work for the sake of a community’s welfare, they’re merely accounting for gaps that should’ve already been filled in by the state: Artists enable the state to not do its job. So what does your work do for public education? Are you trying to be ameliorative, improving existing conditions that are damaged, or supplementary, bringing in an aesthetic education that’s otherwise been missing?

GC: I feel like there is a binary that often gets set up on the left, where the only way to be against the state is to withdraw from it, thus ceding all its resources. This fails to account for people’s daily struggles to survive. There is hopefully more nuance there. I hope we can work strategically within the existing structures, to unravel them in the way we want. It’s like a controlled demolition: We need to put dynamite in all the right places.

I’m especially interested in the ideas that public school educators have that are yet to be realized. One of the most interesting questions for me in working with education and childhood is, what does political education look like? From the moment we enter compulsory education we’re being subjectivized, we’re being turned into a very specific kind of person, and that kind of person is very much set up not to question certain kinds of authority. Knowing what the system looks like and the effective ways of intervening in it—this is not to “better” public education but to produce future radicals. 

I did a lot of tenant organizing at the beginning of Covid, and one thing you come up against, in all forms of organizing, is the fact that people haven’t thought about the hypothetical situation that has now arrived, even though it’s been painfully obvious that it’s been coming their entire life. What would the world look like if, from a very young age, children were encouraged to construct the future, rather than just fit into it?

Gabo Camnitzer, Lots of Dots, 2018/2021, classroom rug and LED tape lighting. Installation view, Queens Museum. Photo: Hai Zhang.

JH: You’ve tracked various historical theories of pedagogy throughout your career. The title “Glorious Wound” comes from the French education reformers Célestin and Élise Freinet, who developed an experimental, left-wing pedagogy in the interwar period. Due to Célestin’s pulmonary disability, which made it difficult for him to talk for long periods, they installed printing presses in classrooms and had students speak with workers and other citizens outside of the classroom. Thinking with what you’ve been saying, they do seem to be invested in making students the producers, rather than just subjects, of education.

GC: I’ve always been interested in the Freinets, but I feel like their practices became even more relevant in the wake of Covid. When we were thrown online in March 2020, there was suddenly a void where the classroom had been. Teachers who were dependent on the physical confines of the classroom were suddenly adrift. Because of this, so much energy was invested in trying to reproduce the physical classroom in remote form, but many people forgot that the physical classroom wasn’t something we necessarily needed to recreate.

The physical classroom has always had this decontextualizing function, alienating students and teachers from their lived experiences and material conditions. Learning from home, with all the horrible things that came with that, was incredibly eye-opening. Suddenly so many things were laid bare.

JH: The classroom couldn’t bracket things out anymore.

GC: There’s this tradition in Uruguay, where I have family, where students in grade school wear a smock over their clothes. It’s a kind of uniform to conceal class distinctions. But the shoes are always exposed, and that becomes the territory of class signification. So while the smock has the intention of equalizing conditions, it actually provides a pretext for the school to avoid grappling with its contradictions. The classroom operates in a similar way.

“What would the world look like if, from a very young age, children were encouraged to construct the future, rather than just fit into it?”

I was teaching a theory seminar when Covid hit. I saw a student who was in a cramped room with five other people in a grid square next to another student who was set up in front of the bay window of their parents’ country house. I didn’t necessarily feel equipped to handle that, but I saw how it was packed with potential. The liberal idea of equality only obscures difference and any possibility to have a tangible understanding of our conditions.

JH: I’m thinking of recent debates among educators about having students keep their screens off during virtual classes. With screens on, one sympathetic argument went, people would betray their class status or material background in ways they might not want. But you’re seeing in this pedagogical dilemma a moment for critical disclosure, in all of its awkwardness or discomfort. 

GC: This presents an incredible learning opportunity, involving students in a discussion of how to navigate that tension. And that’s what makes the Freinets so relevant in this moment. Their model of leaving the physical classroom behind and walking around the neighborhood, using the actual world as the learning material, provides a model of a materialist pedagogy that actually prepares students to live in the world.

Gabo Camnitzer, The Student Body, 2021, video, color, sound, 40 minutes. Photo: Hai Zhang.

JH: Speaking of screens, this exhibition is the first time you’re working in video. That medium seems to allow you to collate all these different theories of pedagogy.

GC: Video was something I could work with while isolating. During Covid, it wasn’t possible to engage in the same kind of participatory work I had been doing prior. So I spent hours going through digital archives, doing research, and filming things in my basement. But more importantly, video allowed me to make connections at the level of form that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. I started thinking about how so much of education is based on modernist abstraction in the reduction and categorization of data.

My knee-jerk reaction on first seeing one of the “Lots of Dots” carpets was to consider it an abuse of Froebelian aesthetics. Friedrich Froebel, the inventor of kindergarten, revolutionized western education in the mid-nineteenth century. He is a figure that together with Maria Montessori, Rudolf Steiner, and to an extent John Dewey, is seen as offering an alternative to the stultification of mass compulsory education. A rug using his colorful geometric aesthetics as a means to discipline children’s bodies seemed like a corruption of their initial intention. But on digging deeper, reading Froebel and his contemporaries, as well as the artist and designers he influenced, it became apparent that this use of formal abstraction was not an abuse, but rather an extension of their logic. Froebel’s pedagogy, though ostensibly child-centered, rigidly imposes a strict set of decontextualized protocols, regarding as universal a quite narrow image of what a child is. And yet these forms of idealist pedagogies still represent our horizon. I’ve heard many liberal and progressive parents say, “If only all kids had access to a Montessori school!” This made me realize just how far we have to go. While, yes, a Montessori school would represent a significant improvement for the majority of children in the US, we cannot use a century-old model with modernism at its core as our final destination. We deserve so much more.

“Glorious Wound” is on view at the Queens Museum in New York through February 13.