University of Westminster
Creative visual research on media and identities
 

Project: THE PASSPORT OF ME

This project was developed by Peter Bonnell and David Gauntlett as part of the educational programme accompanying the exhibition This Much is Certain at the Royal College of Art, London, in March-April 2004.

This Much is Certain explored the use of documents and documentaries by artists and others, in space, time and text.

The Passport of Me gave young people the opportunity to create documentation about themselves, in the form of a 'passport' which included a polaroid photo and other visual information added by the passport holder.

THIS MUCH IS CERTAIN - WORKSHOPS REPORT
by Peter Bonnell

Introduction

Each year graduating students of the MA Curating Contemporary Art (CCA) organise a major international exhibition in the Royal College of Art galleries. This final exhibition usually attracts around 4000 visitors, and has hosted many successful tours, outreach programmes, and education programmes. The 2004 exhibition was entitled This much is certain and was a four part project that consisted of a catalogue, an exhibition and a film and talks programme that took place in the Royal College of Art galleries from 13 March to 4 April.

Together the four parts that comprised This much is certain explored the significance of the document and the documentary in contemporary art and contemporary society, focusing on how documents are usually relied upon by the public to be trustworthy and factual. Recent political events like the Hutton inquiry, however, make it increasingly difficult to take these documents at face value.

This much is certain included works by established British artists such as Dexter Dalwood, Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard and Jeremy Deller. International artists included Aernout Mik, Emily Jacir, Kiersten Pieroth, Gerard Byrne, John Massey, Miriam Bäckström, Huang Yongping and Jeffrey Vallance, and the Los Angeles based organisation the Museum of Jurassic Technology. The exhibition also included works by emerging British artists Daniel Baker and Jamie Shovlin. For further information on all of the artists, and the film and talks programme please visit: www.cca.rca.ac.uk/thismuchiscertain.

The Education Programme

The education programme for This much is certain was organised by CCA students Peter Bonnell and Jennie Syson and was intended to run in conjunction with and be complementary to the exhibition. The aim of the education programme was to provide a series of free workshops for primary school children, as well as a series of guided tours designed for college and university level students.

Once funding was secured from the John Lyons Charity the education team set about inviting schools and colleges to participate in the education programme. Over 200 letters and emails were sent out to schools and colleges in the London boroughs of Barnet, Brent, Camden, the City of Westminster and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Demand was especially high for the workshops, and the decision was made to add an extra two sessions making a total of eight, with almost a dozen schools requesting to be placed on a waiting list.

Once the five participating primary schools – Preston Park (Brent), Ashburnham, Middle Row (both Kensington and Chelsea), All Saints (Barnet) and Kingsgate (Camden) – had confirmed their attendance, the education team contacted experienced workshop leaders. These were: Gayle Chong Kwan, an artist who has worked extensively with the education programme at the Serpentine Gallery; the artist Alex Schady, who has a great deal of experience as a workshop leader at the Whitechapel Art Gallery and Sally Barker, also an artist who has worked with the education programme at the Serpentine Gallery. In addition, two of the exhibiting artists were invited to participate: Jamie Shovlin presented his work to the children in the workshops, and Daniel Baker was asked to participate in the guided tours for college students, also presenting and discussing his work. In addition each member of the curating team was also asked to lead a tour, based on a basic script provided by Peter Bonnell.

The Workshops

The workshops were aimed at stimulating the creativity of participating children, and to provide an interesting opportunity for engaging them in themes relating to:

  • Storytelling
  • Identity
  • The news media
  • Truth/ Fiction
  • Evidence

The workshops consisted of an introductory tour of various works in the exhibition, creative activities (such as drawing, photography and writing) and a final discussion of the work that the children had made, and its relation to works in the exhibition. The workshops were targeted at Key Stage 1 and 2 children (particularly 7 – 11 year olds) in an attempt to emulate the aims and objectives stipulated in the National Curriculum.

The workshops began with the children being taken on a tour of the exhibition by the workshop leader, focusing on and generating discussions of the work of selected artists. The basic ideas behind particular artworks were explained to them, emphasising the themes and concepts of documentation, storytelling, identity, the news media, truth/ fiction and the concept of evidence gathering.

Activity: The Passport of Me

The education team contacted Professor David Gauntlett of Bournemouth University Media School, who had come to their attention due to his participation in workshops for young people for the exhibition Pin-up: Glamour and Celebrity Since the Sixties, which took place at Tate Liverpool in 2002. In collaboration with the education team Professor Gauntlett identified the passport as being one of the most recognisable and familiar documents in society – a document filled with personal facts which contain information about such things as the holder's birth date, place of birth and vital statistics, and are always accompanied by a photograph. With this in mind the 'Passport of Me' became an eight-page A4-sized booklet designed to mimic the style of a passport.

During the workshops the children were asked to take a Polaroid photograph of themselves. They then stuck the resulting photograph in the back of the passport, accompanied by a series of questions which they were encouraged to answer, devised by workshop leader Alex Schady and Peter Bonnell (for a list of these questions, see below). The remaining pages were used for drawings and collages that the children created during the workshops, relating to themes of truth and fiction, narrative, etc. Some pages remained blank, so that the children could take the 'passports' away and fill them in with other artworks about themselves either at school or at home.

Workshop Content

Prior to each workshop taking place a planning session was arranged between the workshop leaders and the education team. This was to assure that the themes that appeared integral to the exhibition – such as the exploration of the document and its relation to truth and fiction, storytelling and evidence, etc, were present at all times in the workshops. The education team stressed that each workshop leader should focus on these themes, as well as augmenting them with ideas prevalent in their own work.

The following section, entitled 'The Workshop Participants', consists of individual accounts by each workshop leader or assistant (in the case of Jamie Shovlin) of the content of the workshops or tours they participated in. The members of the education team acted as assistants to the workshop leaders, taking the opportunity to explain why they as part of the curating team had selected the works to appear in the exhibition.

The Workshop Participants

Gayle Chong Kwan led three workshops – one each with Middle Row and Kingsgate and one with All Saints. Alex Shady led two workshops – with Kingsgate and Preston Park, and Sally Barker led three workshops – one with Middle Row and two with Ashburnham. Jamie Shovlin assisted in three workshops – one each with Kingsgate, Ashburnham and Middle Row, where he was able to discuss at first-hand his work directly with the children. Peter Bonnell assisted the workshop leaders in all eight workshops – ensuring that themes relevant to the exhibition were adhered to, and Jennie Syson assisted in one workshop. The following accounts are written by the workshop leaders and the participating artist:

Gayle Chong Kwan

A series of workshops for primary school children were developed around This Much is Certain, which responded to ideas of documentation, news media, truth and fiction, evidence, identity and storytelling.

The workshops began with a tour of selected works, in which the themes, ideas and personal responses of the children were discussed. The participants were initially asked to take photographs that challenged the 'documentary' nature of conventional passport photographs, by disguising themselves and altering their identities. These images were stuck into an A4 passport-style workbook, 'The Passport of Me', in which all their practical activities were based.

Other activities responded closely and referred back to the works discussed during the tour of the exhibition. Using collage, drawing and text-based work, the participants played with the 'truth' of news media and documentation, and explored different authorial voices in storytelling and personal memories of shared events and experiences. Pages of the passport-style booklets were left blank for the participants to continue to respond to the work explored in This much is certain outside of the workshop.

Alex Schady

Discussion in Gallery: The workshop began by focussing on the work of Jamie Shovlin Dexter Dalwood, Jamie Shovlin, Jeffrey Valance and Emily Jacir. Using the idea of storytelling as a starting point the children and I tried as a group to make sense of the work. Our first line of enquiry was always the same: what story is being told here? Using the work as evidence we tried to piece together the stories being told and then considered whether or not we thought them to be fact or fiction.

Passport of me: We used an A4 sized booklet in the style of a passport as the basis for the practical workshop. Each child was asked to work in pairs and photograph each other using the Polaroid cameras provided. Once everyone had a Polaroid of themselves they were asked to stick it into the last page of the passport and to answer the 5 simple questions written on the same page.

1. What is your name?
2. What is your favourite colour?
3. What do you want to be when you grow up?
4. What is your favourite pop group/star?
5. If you could meet anyone who would it be?

Once all the passports had been filled in they were placed in blank envelopes and handed back to the gallery educator. The children were then asked to randomly take an envelope from the pile. Using the information in the passport as evidence they were asked to imagine what the passport owner's bedroom might look like and to make a drawing/ collage on the first page of the passport. Using the answers to the questions and their imagination they mixed fact and fiction to produce a version of the passport holder's bedroom. They then produced a second drawing in response to question 5 (If you could meet anyone who would it be?) The children were asked to draw a gift they might bring if they had an audience with the person in question 5.

Once both drawings had been completed the passports were laid out on the floor. We then discussed the drawings as a group. Were there any stories we could make form the drawings? Did they give us any information about the passport's owner? Were the passports fact or fiction?

Sally Barker

The work that made the biggest impact on me was Daniel Baker's installation and I began to get ideas from this that linked back to other work. His work has a physical presence, not in an obvious sense to do with scale but in his use of detail and touch.

Everything was done by hand: drawn, written, shaved, coloured, sanded, painted. It was all left to the audience; nothing was obvious, as with a lot of work, you take out what you put in. The power of suggestion & the use of threads of stories rather than a complete narrative seemed a good starting point for these mainstream, primary groups. Thinking about the work of Jamie Shovlin and Jeffrey Vallance (and throughout much of the rest of the show), the theme coming through was one of blurring fact & fiction, constructing a big picture out of smaller elements.

I wanted them to construct stories and I wanted them to work together to keep a strong element of verbal communication running through the whole of their visit. They would create their stories, in small groups, from a selection of words I would give them. These words were a mixture of real and fictional: characters, places, thoughts and objects. They were only to be used to get their ideas going and if they wanted to disregard any or introduce new ones, they should. Then they would make simple props from brown paper, masking tape, small bits of wood etc: basic materials that still needed the imagination to both make and read them. They would read the story to the whole class.

The whole workshop would last about half an hour; I wanted it simple, imaginative and potentially funny. I also decided to use the passport idea, so at the beginning they were given a passport and asked to take Polaroid's of each other to stick in. I then asked them to change their appearance, invent a character, and draw on their self-portrait. This got them into the idea of mixing fact & fiction and invention. I was very pleased with the way the workshops went. All groups were very interested in talking about the work, the show, and art. I think their visit to the RCA was enjoyable, stretching and positive: experiencing art they had never seen before in a different kind of environment and making something together in response to this.

Jamie Shovlin

Initially the pupils were told to focus on looking – the idea being for them to form their own opinions without any prior information regarding the specifics of the work. I then introduced certain elements of the work predominately in the form of questions. For example, the pupils were asked to construct a possible narrative or character (gender, age, likes/ dislikes, etc) evident in the work from the prevalence of specific imagery.

My intention in using this method was to create the basis for a dialogue between myself and the pupils rather than have them as purely a captive audience. Many of the pupils relished this opportunity and gave surprisingly insightful perceptions regarding the nature of the work. My main concerns in creating the open dialogue between artist and pupils was to establish a lack of definitive or 'truthful' answers, hopefully mirroring the intentions of the exhibition at large and providing the pupils with a method with which to approach other works in the exhibition.

The Guided Tours

The guided tours were intended to provide college level students – HND, Foundation, BA and MA level in art and design and art history – the opportunity to engage directly the themes discussed within the exhibition and film programme. The tours also provided an opportunity for the curating team to discuss these ideas with interested groups. There were ten tours in total, eight of which were led by two members of the curating team. Peter Bonnell led three of these tours, and participated in one more. In addition to the curating team, artist Daniel Baker was asked to participate in two tours – one of which, for the West London College situated in Hammersmith, was funded by grant money provided by the John Lyons Charity. Baker has contributed the following to this report:

Daniel Baker

As an artist showing in This Much is Certain I was asked to participate in the educational tours organised by the curators. I was very willing to become involved in this side of the project because I felt it was important that a group coming to look at the show could get to speak to an artist about their work first hand, and I was interested in the opportunity to hear some responses to my work and the exhibition in general. The tours were very relaxed and informal, and I felt that the curators involved each time did an excellent job of elucidating the background to the exhibition and their course, alongside introducing the works, in what was often quite a tight schedule.

For my part, I added comments during the tour, when I wanted to say something about a particular work, from an artist's perspective. I also gave a talk about my own work, in the installation itself: about my practice in general, and the installation in particular and also trying to draw parallels with the other artists' work. After this I was happy to answer questions. I found that some of the students were very interested, and I spoke to them individually after the group discussion. The whole experience was a very positive one, and I felt that something was gained on both sides.

Conclusion

Without the generous financial assistance of the John Lyons Charity the education programme for This much is certain would not have been a success – and quite possibly may not have existed at all. In total the £1,800 provided by John Lyons allowed more than 200 primary school children in London – some from deprived boroughs – to enjoy and engage with contemporary art works.

As can be seen with the evaluation questionnaires completed by participating teachers, the workshops were a great success – with many of the teachers acknowledging that the content of the workshops was reflected in the themes and ideas they were exploring in the classroom. Doreen Morgan, arts co-ordinator of Ashburnham primary informed the education team that the pupils who participated in the workshops had continued to work in the 'Passport of Me' booklets after they left the Royal College of Art galleries, and that they had produced some "interesting work."

The guided tours, although much more informal, were also considered a success. Max Ellis, Foundation tutor on the art and design course at West London College commented that he and his students had "…found it a most stimulating visit", and that the tour they participated in was "most informative."

Perhaps the most rewarding element of the education programme was the opportunity for the education team, and by extension the rest of the curating team, to see the excited reactions and intellectual engagement of the children with the contemporary works on display. This also extended to the participating college students, many of whom are studying to become artists, or to work in the arts in some other capacity. Although the education programme was small in comparison to the exhibition and films programme, it nonetheless succeeded in facilitating a relationship with young people, and hopefully fostering an increased appreciation and understanding of contemporary art.

 

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