12 December 2007


I spent a lot of time during the residency at Imperial Avenue Infant School questioning the role of the artist within primary education and examining the agenda of government funded organisations such as Creative Partnerships. My final report of these investigations, presented back to Creative Partnerships and The City Gallery in December 2007, can be read below. You can also use the links to the right to read matter-of-fact diary entries outlining my daily activity in the school.

Final Report

On surface level, being an ‘artist in residence’ in an infant school is a lot of fun, and I had a really great time for the five days we were there. In many ways it was like being back at school again myself - playing games, exploring and discovering things, eating school dinners and chatting to the children.

However, one key difference between being a child and being an adult is to do with your sense of purpose and level of productivity. As an adult (and this is possibly more extreme when you’re an artist), productivity equals happiness. You feel good when you create and you feel depressed when you don’t. Being an observer, a spare part in the system, makes you feel essentially useless or at least surplus to requirements.

As much as I wanted to create and to be ‘useful’, I couldn’t help but feel confused about just what my purpose was, what my role should be and where I could fit in. This text is really an extension of wrestling with these questions.

This project was the first time that I’d done anything like this in a school. I realised when I arrived, that it was also the first time I’d spent any time in an infant school for 21 years, since I was a pupil myself.

As an artist, I straight away felt quite out of my depth, or at least out of my comfort zone, in that I’m generally not that good at communicating my ‘ideas’ to anyone outside of the contemporary art field. I’m not good at interpreting or bridging the gulf between my own and the general public's perception of what art is or what ‘creativity’ is for that matter.

First of all, it actually occurred to me to use this gulf in perception as the basis of my artistic response to the project. To use the children - interviewing them in order to record sound bites about their thoughts on the function and purpose of art and their perceptions of creativity.

Had I have done this, it would have become an artwork for an art audience, in which the freshness or naivety of the children’s responses, would aim to open up discussions amongst the audience, perhaps encouraging them not to take themselves too seriously. The children would however have been 'used' to a certain extent in this process.

This idea was in some way influenced by Tino Sehgal’s work using children actors and also a project by Spanish artist Cristina Lucas, where she quizzed a priest via a confessions booth about the her dilemmas as an artist, in order to get a different perspective on things.

Whilst at school, I felt the teachers had a tendency to treat us with curiosity and an underlying faint hint of suspicion. I kept thinking whether they were wondering why the government is wasting its money on the likes of us – maybe I should have just asked them if there were?

Despite this, they treated us really generously and with a lot of respect, more respect than I thought we actually deserved. They treated everything we did as though it was important, the work of an ‘artist’, when most of the time we were just playing and experimenting, not really knowing what we were doing.

There was an incident in the playground on the first day, when Francis and I got into this game with the kids which involved them climbing onto the bench and jumping off and hitting our hands in a double high-five with us mid-air.

This was a totally spontaneous game, which had just resulted from one of the children jumping up to high-five us. Anyhow, the game soon got totally out of hand when all the other children began to want a go too. Suddenly there were children from all over the playground scrambling up onto the bench. It went on for a few minutes until one child fell over and the dinner lady was forced to bring it to a halt.

She told us that they are not normally allowed to climb on the benches, but because we wanted them up there she had allowed it. She implied two things: a) that we had a clue what we were doing and b) that we were in control of the situation and had the power to bring it to a close if we wanted to – we didn't really. So it was lucky for us that she came to our rescue. I felt slightly embarrassed afterwards as though we were a total liability.

It made me realise that I was not qualified to be dealing with large groups of children. I did not know the protocol of how to interact with them and therefore I often found myself doing quite inappropriate things.

After these first incidents, the children began to realise that we were not like the teachers and they could therefore treat us differently, probably with less respect and slightly more like they would treat other children. They also called us by our first names, which enabled them to differentiate us easily from the figures of authority.

The children were always very inquisitive, wanting to know what we were doing or what our names were etc. They wanted to show off in front of us, impress us, nearly always physically rather than mentally. I felt I’d over estimated the sorts on conversations you would be able to have with 3-7 year olds, with my initial ideas about recording sound bites and most conversations just resulted in what’s your name? Do you know what my name is? Do you know my dad? What’s that? etc.

When you asked them a question that they didn’t know the answer to, they generally ran off, ignored you, looked confused or changed the subject. They are sweet, most of them, but having not had much contact with children before, I found it weird to interact with people who don’t really grasp empathy yet and who are still learning the concept of morals. Sometimes it can be refreshing and entertaining, other times the ‘me, me, me’ attitude gets tiresome. Again though, these attributes make them potentially very interesting people for offering a totally new perspective on life.

As an artist in residence in a school, you are in a very privileged position, just sitting around, observing and thinking while the rest of the school staff, who the government would term ‘key workers’, are working and performing an essential function for the nation. A lot of my time was therefore spent feeling guilty about the fact that we were being paid as much, if not more, than the teachers to be there. This again made me question what I could possibly offer that others could not.

The other layer to add to the puzzle is that as an artist, not normally used to working in this context, you are continually thinking about how best to develop your practice, from a totally selfish point of view - how best to develop ‘your art’ in this new environment. And as a result, the thoughts I had at school were as much to do with what I do as and artist as they were about the environment we were immersed in. The trick was to try to find a balance between the two things.

As much as I didn’t want them to be, my responses to the project have been messy - they have been all over the place. Both in a literal sense - hundreds of little scraps of paper on loose sheets, in different notebooks and on the back of forms and handouts, and in a conceptual sense, in that I’ve battled with what I found to be conflicting pressures and agendas of the project.

Firstly, as I’ve just mentioned there is the selfish agenda of the artist. The pressure to make ‘good work’ that will fit into the wider context of your practice and which will be relevant and worthwhile in exploring the things that interest you in the wider-world. Over the last year, I been introducing some big changes to the way that I work, and developing a new practice, so whilst at school I felt an added pressure that anything I produced as part of this project could be instrumental in shaping my work future. I wanted it to be good was a capital G!

The guilt mentioned earlier comes from the fact that you are being paid, quite considerably, for your time at the school as part of the government agenda that is Creative Partnerships, which is driven by the preconception that ‘art is good for you’ - that art is socially useful. This is something that I have been thinking about repeatedly since I first began this project. Do I actually believe that art should be forced on people in this way, to change their lives?

I’ve been to a lot of conferences and seminars over the last month, which have touched on the notions of ‘art in the public realm’ and ‘socially engaged work’. One particular anecdote stuck in my mind which seems to critique perfectly the preconception that art can change lives. It was during the Art in public contexts: the contemporary approach conference in London on 27 November 2007. There was a presentation by curator Mark Beasley about a project he’d organised a few years ago called Road Show.

Road Show was a touring art tent that went to rural areas of the UK and became a platform for performances by local bands and artists. It was funded by Arts Council England and went to poorer areas of the country, which would not normally have access to art. The project included an education component. I’m not sure exactly what it was, but it took place in a special ‘education tent’ on the site.

On the last leg of the tour they went to a place in North Wales called Blaenau Ffestiniog, were they encountered a mixed response from the local teenagers, whose lives they had supposedly gone to enrich. On the last night of the project one of the local youths contributed by setting fire to, and burning down, the education tent. Whether they were aware this was the education tent, I don’t know, but the act itself just seems a direct critical response from the target community to the Arts Council’s naïve preconception that throwing art at any problem will solve it.

The other additional reference I want to mention relates to a conference I went to last week about artistic autonomy, aiming to answer the question Does Autonomy Matter? There, Munira Mirza - researcher into government arts policy and its effect on the arts, suggested that artistic autonomy was being destroyed by the agendas of government funded projects. That for financial reasons, artists were more frequently taking on projects which had the priority on making socially useful work, rather than work of the highest artistic quality.

This change was causing a lack of autonomy and independent thinking and expression in artistic practice and in the long run was having a detrimental effect on the arts. I mention this, not necessarily because I agree with her, but because it certainly felt relevant in some way to the government agenda of Creative Partnerships. And shapes the question for the artist: do I lose my integrity if I pander to someone else’s agenda?

So as well as these two conflicting agendas - the artist’s and the government's. There are the personal responsibilities that you feel on a totally human level. There is the responsibility to both Emma Harrop at Creative Partnerships and Hugo Worthy at The City Gallery, people I respect and get on with and don’t want to let down.

But there is also a sense of responsibility that you feel to the people you get to know in the school (the teachers and the children). Having been there a few days, you can’t help but feel a personal obligation to use your privileged position in the school to help out in some way, to do something to make their lives either better or easier.

I will conclude by recounting a key moment from the five days I spent in the school, the one that has had the most impact on me and which relates most to the problems I’ve outlined.

The girl in the photo above is Felicia (a Latin female version of ‘Felix’, meaning happiness). We met Felicia on the first day at lunch time, which is when this picture was taken by Francis. She is in year 2 and if what she told me is correct her birthday is on 19th October, making her now 7 years old and one of the oldest children in the whole school. Yet she is one of the smallest.

On the first day, I didn’t really talk to Felicia as Glenn was sitting next to her at the table. After lunch Glenn reported back that she had been eating tomato ketchup sandwiches for her lunch. We giggled a bit about this, assuming that she just had them as a one off or that she was a fussy child and that was all she would eat.

Then on our third day, Felicia came to sit next to us again at lunch, this time next to me. She had tomato ketchup sandwiches again, wrapped in foil and on the cheapest looking white bread you could imagine. She had one other foil package which contained two, cheap plain biscuits and that was it. No fresh produce at all.

I had a delicious meal provided by the school canteen of vegetarian chilli, rice and salad. Felicia sat to me left listlessly munching her way through her sandwiches. Then suddenly I heard this little voice coming up at me. ‘I like lettuce’ she said and pointed at my plate, to my salad. ‘I like lettuce’.

Suddenly I just felt terrible, that changed everything - these sandwiches were not something that she’d chosen, but were something that had been forced upon her either because her parents were too poor or too lazy to make anything else. Here she was at school, desperate for the taste of a fresh vegetable, for the cool, crunchy sensation of a lettuce leaf.

That is why she was so small, if she had been eating these same lunches for the last 4 years at school it was no wonder. So I told her to take my lettuce and she said that they weren’t allowed to share. This was a rule imposed by the dinner ladies to ensure that they did not steal each other’s lunches. I told her it was OK and that I wouldn’t tell any one. So we opened up her sandwich and put every single last bit of lettuce from my plate into it and she contentedly sat back and ate the lot. Smiling to herself sweetly as if it was the first time she had eaten something different for years.

OK so I have told this story to a lot of people and have become quite obsessed with it, to the point that, yesterday I spent nearly two hours researching on the internet in order to calculate the nutritional value of this meal.

It made me question even more whether art is what they really need in a school like this, shouldn’t basic nutrition for all children, be a priority instead? I thought that it was great to have people in the school, like us, who could interact with the children differently from the teachers and get insights into their home lives that may not otherwise be picked up on. But these should surely be trained social workers, who can follow up such discoveries with house visits, and not clueless artists.

You have to question what the government’s priority should be and whether art is ever the best medicine. Frances’ argument is valid too – is it fair that poor children should not be given access to artists in their school because their money is being spent on lunches and I don’t know what the answer is. This text simply aims to outline what has been going on inside my head for the last two months and to open up some interesting discussions about the function of artists in education. So we can begin to work out what is the best way forward.