On December 17, 2018 Handshake 302 started the “Visible Growth” public art workshop at Guangxi Normal University. The purpose of the workshop is simple: to help students figure out how to use what is at hand to create artwork that is accessible to the public. And yet. The purpose itself must be rethought. What, for example, is a “student”? What constitutes “help”? Who are the “public”? And lord knows, we still don’t know have a common definition of “art”?
Rather than a set of answers, Handshake 302 brought these questions to campus. The first day, teachers and students explored the campus itself, looking for a site for their work. As they walked through this most familiar space, many realized that it was as if they were seeing it for the first time. Who knew there were so many nooks and crannies? So many expansive spaces that could be used otherwise? In fact, during the discussion of this exploration, students actually wrote couplets about a space—a first experience of the ways in which artistic expression is always with us.
The morning ended with a lottery. Each working group chose one of four possible modalities for their public artwork—sound, smell, touch, and time. We chose not to address “sight” because art students can’t help but be aware of visual aesthetics. Instead, we asked them to create a work that activated a different sense or provoked an extended engagement. Suddenly, the artwork became by definition interactive.
After lunch, students worked on the first draft of their plan. They chose a site and discussed options for artwork that might work in those places. Or so we thought. However, it is an ongoing fact of education that what a student learns is not always what we teach. Instead, the groups focused on modality as the core of their artwork and had to be sent “back into the field” in order to situate their artwork. In other words, although the one of the key elements of a public artwork is a specific space, nevertheless, the students’ art education still privileged a particular object that could be moved into a space.
Making the object more important than the space is a common mistake, not only among students. But also architects and curators, urban planners and fashion designers. We are often so concerned with what we are making that we forget what we are making it for. Public art is different from other kinds of practice because it emphasizes a purpose for the object. But all too often, like other spatial practices, public art becomes about what we can make rather than a practice of understanding where we are and how we might make this particular here and now more interesting, more open, and more accessible.
At this moment of philosophical impasse, Guangxi Normal University students got a taste of how Handshake 302 mentors students. We nodded and made suggestions on how the students could move forward. We didn’t tell them what to do or how to do it. Instead, we reminded students that the way forward was quite literally all around them and in their hands.
Now you’re curious to know where these expiration leads. Stay tuned. Pictures from the December 20, 2018 opening forthcoming!