Artfully healing our glorious wounds

I am one of the approximately 2.3 million people who call the borough of Queens home. The “World’s Borough” has had a significant impact on my cultural, social and professional experiences, and I am honestly just scratching the surface in terms of exploring all it has to offer. While there are numerous places that make this large slice of New York City unique, the Queens Museum is a truly significant establishment that fosters cultural connections in one of the most ethnically diverse counties in the United States.

There are very few major museums of its kind that have such a hyperlocal focus on their surrounding environment. The Queens Museum nurtures and amplifies the voices and visions of diverse local communities through a combination of educational curricula, activist outreach and exhibitions.

In January of 2021, while the world was in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic’s winter surge, the museum launched a hybrid program called A Year of Uncertainty (YoU). The program aims to provide structure, support, dialogue and action around themes of care, repair, play, justice and the future. Each of these themes respond to both local and international uncertainty that has been intensified by the pandemic, public health policy (or lack thereof), climate change, xenophobia, racial injustice and income disparity.

To do this, the museum has transformed into a hub with dedicated and expanding resources for both individual and collaborative learning, research and creative production. Contributing to YoU‘s framework and vision, the museum has brought on six artists-in-residence, nine Community Partners (i.e. nonprofit organizations) and twelve Co-Thinkers (a coterie of artists, designers, scientists, writers, architects and activists). Each of these individuals and teams provide organizational scaffolding, expertise and visitor engagement that is in line with the program’s various themes.

Because this program is intended to reach a diverse community, art-centered education and its benefits on our health and well-being is at the forefront of many of the initiatives. One example is Student Body, Video School, and Glorious Wound, a multifaceted project by contemporary artist Gabo Camnitzer. In three interlocking parts, Camnitzer’s artwork analyzes pedagogical methodologies and systematic structures within contemporary classrooms and schools. It provides a formative and qualitative assessment of ongoing ideological issues in education and culture that affect childhood social, emotional and cognitive development.

In light of last year’s nearly universal shift to virtual learning, there has been a quandary within classrooms and educational frameworks at large, regarding ways to successfully implement online and hybrid curricula. While remote learning options have been considered a necessity due to the risks from the ongoing public health crisis, they have had mixed results thus far. This is largely due to either the wherewithal or disparity of a school and individual student’s access to technology. The schools and students who have access to reliable technology and high-speed internet had better outcomes than the schools and students who lacked these resources (see: Morgan, 2020). Another important factor is the quality of the home environment where a student spends their time both living and learning. Some students have ample space, including their own rooms, while others live in tight quarters or share a room with others. Additionally, there are a significant number of students who live in congregate housing. The latter two scenarios have an increasingly difficult impact on the student’s ability to focus and find a safe and productive space to attend online classes. There is also the toll that remote learning might have on a student’s mental health (see: National Association of School Psychologists, 2020).

Student Body, Video School, and Glorious Wound examines the use of technology and traditional materials in the classroom and their past and present ramifications on teaching and learning. In doing so, the work prompts critical thinking around the future of the classroom as an architectural, political and social space. While the artwork scrutinizes materials created for educational purposes in K-12 settings, it also highlights the flexibility of educators in light of myriad challenges within the classroom.

Gabo Camnitzer, The Student Body, installation view, Artists Space, New York.
Photo: Gustavo Murillo Fernández-Valdés. Courtesy of the artist.

In a prior installation of Student Body, Camnitzer created an imaginary classroom. In the center of the room, he incorporated a commercially designed area rug (by Joy Carpets & Co.) made up of colorful circles in a grid formation. These types of rugs are frequently used in early childhood education settings for modeling desired student behavior in the classroom. To accompany and contextualize the rug, Camnitzer designed a booklet with an amalgamation of sources from art history and educational design fields. The publication begins with a screenshot of an online catalogue that sells the grid area rug. The contemporary school rug is juxtaposed with reproductions of Anni Albers’ modernist art grids. Also included are uniform codes from Success Academy, one of the largest nonprofit charter schools in New York City. All of these sources are annotated in a manner that explores the area rug’s use as a disciplinary method in low-income communities, as well as the influence and appropriation of modernism within primary education (see: Art Education: The Gift that Keeps on Giving). The booklet also contains themes that utilize the rug as a site for embodied learning workshops with children.

Gabo Camnitzer, The Student Body, installation view, Artists Space, New York.
Photo: Gustavo Murillo Fernández-Valdés. Courtesy of the artist.

Glorious Wound takes its name from the twentieth century French educator Célestin Freinet’s description of a lung injury during World War I, which left him unable to project his voice. As anyone who has taught K-12 knows, losing your voice makes it exceedingly difficult to do your job. However, educators are trained to be flexible and resist closure. In response, Freinet had to reinvent his pedagogical approach, and implemented a combination of technology and progressive teaching methods. Camnitzer describes what Freinet did and how it had a positive impact: “Removing the rows of chairs and desks, he installed a printing press in the center of his classroom, which became the focal point of his new teaching method. He facilitated his elementary school age students in exploring their communities – researching and documenting the lived experiences and materials conditions of community members, and committing the results to print. Through his simple spatial reconfiguration, Freinet reshaped the relationship between student and classroom, and between classroom and world.”

Image: Installation view, Gabo Camnitzer: Glorious Wound, Queens Museum. Photo credit: Hai Zhang.
Courtesy of the Queens Museum

A combination of open-ended pedagogy and technology forms the visual and conceptual foundation of Camnitzer’s installation at the Queens Museum. He has arranged a number of chairs that one might find in a typical classroom, in front of a video projection. The video and installation, supplemented with printed materials and workshops, is rooted in Camnitzer’s research-based practice that seeks a re-envisioning of our current educational systems. At first, his work exposes the contradictions in instruction and disparities in learning, which have been further frayed because of COVID-19. However, Camnitzer is a rational optimist and provides examples that are indicative of how current and future educational models can seize upon uncertainty in order to develop more just and equitable environments for all learners.

As part of an audio documentary, also titled Glorious Wound, Camnitzer interviewed public school teachers in New York City. The conversations communicate a spectrum of ways that educators are shifting focus and flexibly altering their teaching practices to adjust to the unique circumstances arising from the pandemic.

Through various ongoing programs such as YoU, the Queens Museum has positioned itself as a community center that can provide valuable pedagogical outcomes. The display of artwork and the formation of laboratory learning settings provide the public with opportunities to interact and collaborate on projects with contemporary artists like Gabo Camnitzer. These forms of cultural and pedagogical exchanges are significant in fostering adaptable solutions to significant themes and issues that impact our personal lives and the everyday experiences within our various communities.

It is a welcome coincidence that Gabo’s father, conceptual artist Luis Camnitzer, created an artwork called A Museum is a School. The text-based artwork adorns the facade of museums where it has been installed and states that “The museum is a school, where artists learn to communicate and the public learns to make connections.” This statement is aptly visualized in endeavors like YoU. Artists are teachers who develop ways to visually communicate abstract ideas and emotions. Museums are classrooms where artwork is given a relevant and experiential platform. And lastly, as viewers, we learn to make connections between the art we observe and the world around us.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Morgan, Hani. Best Practices for Implementing Remote Learning during a Pandemic, The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, vol. 93, no.3, 28 April, 2020, pp. 135-141, DOI: 10.1080/00098655.2020.1751480. Accessed 3 December 2021

National Association of School Psychologists. “Helping children cope with changes resulting from COVID-19,” 2020.

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