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Live Collaboration and the Visual Arts Curriculum: Jochen Gerz at Coventry School of Art & Design


live collaboration, curriculum, visual arts,

Author information: Jill Journeaux is Head of Design and Visual Arts and John Devane is Programme Manager Visual Arts at Coventry School of Art & Design.

Date: January 2005

Download PDF: live collaboration and the visual arts curriculum

In the mid nineties, Coventry City Council instigated an urban regeneration project, co-funded by the Millennium Commission, aimed at revitalising a central section of the city from the cathedral out to the Ring Road. The scheme, called the Phoenix Project involved the demolition of a series of buildings from the sixties, and the building of an integrated art and architecture sector for the city. Sir Richard MacCormack was appointed as the Master Planner/Architect for the project and he worked with a team of twelve artists. PACA the Public Arts Commissioning Agency, led by Vivien Lovell, had identified and shortlisted prospective artists at international, national and regional level. One of the two internationally recognised artists appointed to the scheme was the German artist Jochen Gerz whose work on anti monuments and the notion of national reconciliation fitted well with the aims of the project and the particular history of Coventry City.

It is a characteristic of Gerz’s work that he enlists the help of art students in the various projects that he has undertaken around the world. Gerz is essentially the artist/catalyst and the initiator of public art projects which come to fruition through teamwork and collaboration. Because of this particular approach Coventry School of Art & Design, which had acted as an advisor to Coventry City Council on the development of an Arts Strategy, and had been represented on the interview panels for the artists chosen to make work as part of the Phoenix project, appointed Gerz as a Senior Research Fellow in 1998.

The two works which Gerz undertook, The Public Bench and The Future Monument, were realised through a process of public authorship. Numerous communities in and around Coventry were consulted in the genesis of these two works. Visual Arts students at Coventry School of Art & Design were instrumental in seeing the two works through from idea to realisation, and were central to the public authorship process and the extensive consultation and collaboration between artist, viewers, planners, architects, councillors and

An important part of Gerz’s work with the students was his insistence that any student could be included by virtue of their wish to contribute to the project. He did not specify any pre-requisite for inclusion in the group working with him. This was a crucial factor in establishing a completely open and democratic platform for the notion of collaborative authorship. Gerz was emphatic that students could work with him regardless of their status on the course and that no selection process by staff or course structure should be allowed. As the work was undertaken from 1999 to 2003, some students who were part of the initial team graduated before the two artworks were completed. Gerz subsequently enlisted the help of more students entering the Visual Arts awards, and this added an interesting but quite natural dynamic to the project.

In order for the staff to acknowledge and reward student involvement in the project their contribution was quantified in relation to the learning outcomes of certain modules at each level, most notably 226ART External Project and 334ART Professional Practice 2, thus enabling students to be clear about the nature of their contribution to the Gerz project in relation to the demands of the curriculum.

The following project brief was prepared by Gerz for students and provided the basis for the project from year to year.
Jochen Gerz
Phoenix Initiative Art Works: The Public Bench and the Future Monument.
You will be involved with the planning, organising and staging of two upcoming artworks outside CSAD. It will take the form of a tutorial programme with the weekly presence (every Thursday morning at 10am) of the artist Jochen Gerz and /or Olivia Morel (Project Manager) in the room GS 704 and your participation in these ‘live’ projects the rest of the time.

By working on these upcoming works in Coventry (late 2002) you will have to engage with

  • The completion of a Millennium Commission for a site-specific public art in Coventry,
  • The organisation of some public exhibitions (Courtauld Institute/Somerset House in London and the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry).
  • And a community based project

You will be expected to:

  • Establish contacts with groups and associations in Coventry with the help of the Artist and/or the Project Manager,
  • Produce contributions and content to be used later as part of the works.
  • Take photographs of the work in progress (published eventually in a catalogue and for ongoing exhibitions in Coventry and London)
  • Assist in Public relations, graphics and editing process for press documentation,
  • Participate in the progress of the two art-works until their completion,
  • Maintain a diary of your contribution

At the end of the project you should be able to demonstrate:

  • An understanding of the demands and complexities of working in a public area
  • An appreciation of the role of dialogue with the communities involved
  • An experience of a real live project in progress

The tasks undertaken by our students in response to the brief were wide ranging and involved a breadth and depth of skills, knowledge, analysis and reflection. They were supported in these tasks by Gerz and his assistant Morel, and by staff in CSAD including academic, technical and administrative staff. CSAD students undertook the following:

  • assembling information for Gerz and his assistant Morel on hierarchies of the press in the UK.
  • gathering contact information for groups in Coventry and making contact with those groups.
  • undertaking research into the nature and values of the groups and then arranging a schedule of meetings/workshops with them and recording those events.
  • writing descriptions of the two art works and making presentations about the two artworks at community meetings.
  • undertaking and documenting interviews with the artist and with community groups.
  • organising the production of a leaflet including all wording of the texts, and the production and design of a poster including the artwork, costings and negotiations with the prints.
  • organising publicity for the plaques for the Public Bench artwork and processing the requests for names to be included on the bench - 2000 requests came in, from around the world, not just Coventry.
  • organising public mailboxes including one in the Herbert Art Gallery.
  • designing and producing the plaques for the Public Bench - including getting quotes from various supplies, developing the specification and production of a proof plaque.
  • organising production, design and practicalities of glass plaques for the Future Monument artwork.

Students developed a range of generic skills; communication, interpersonal, organisational, administrative.

Specialist skills that were developed included; interpreting the artists ideas, discussing the artworks being made, and learning about how to talk to a range of people from various backgrounds, groups, race, cultures about art.

Overall these developed key skills in advocacy for art and this in turn greatly enhanced those students confidence as proto art practitioners. This was an important element of the process, and because students were not advocating or presenting their own ideas, and because Gerz has a reputation and standing, they were able to practice these skills without the emotional demands involved in advocating their own practice. Students extended their fluency in terms of discussing art in a real way that could not be emulated within an academic community.
In November 2002 a group of Warwick University and students and staff from Coventry School of Art & Design spent a day looking at public art in Birmingham and meet with Debbie Kermode from the IKON Gallery. Then in spring 2003 the undergraduate students at Warwick University working with Jonathan Vickery (Lecturer in Art History at that institution) and students from Coventry School of Art & Design met and attended talks by the Projects Director and Manager Chris Beck and Colin Dale. In May 2003 a colloquium, for all staff and students involved was hosted by CSAD, and copies of papers by students compiled into a booklet. The Warwick University students concentrated on analysing, contextualising and theorising Gerz’s work as an example of public authorship. The CSAD students were involved in the practicalities of the realisation of the two pieces of work and the mechanics of the dialogue with the public, and analysing and reflecting upon those activities.

The work undertaken by students as presented at the colloquium was wide ranging and whilst some students tended towards the descriptive approach others attempted to use the experience of working with Gerz to reflect on their own practice and values as an artist. All contextualised, and to varying extents, theorised the processes and project. Of particular interest was a paper written by a student who graduated in 2003 entitled ‘Public Authorship through the eyes of a Painter’ in which he considered the following questions;

How can an artist work in a team? Do they loose something without (hands-on experience of) the material process or do they gain something and if so, what? And what similarities and differences can be found between painting and public authorship?

In discussing these questions he investigated the notion of public authorship as self-portraiture, identifying that process as an act of self-evaluation and expression, asking amongst other things; who am I? What do I stand for? Where do I come from? Where do I fit? He argued that in public authorship the artist acts like a guide or conductor in order to shape or form the public contribution whereas the painter would evoke that from within his or her self.
Other students considered the issues of authority raised by public art and looked at the differences between more traditional forms of art for public spaces and the work undertaken by Gerz, and discussed those things that might give rise to the public need for art. Several attempted to make sense of ideas of meaningfulness through concepts of ownership, and internationalism, and one focussed on a comparison between Gerzís project and previous community arts project that had been undertaken in Coventry.

The students working on the project contributed to the drafting of press releases and were closely involved in developing strategies around how best to involve/use media coverage, and the artists use of and relationship with the Media was a key area of interest for several of them.

A group of the students undertook extensive research into and wrote about the development, design, sourcing, production and fixing of the plaques. This was an area of particular use to sculpture students as model project on how to move from idea to realisation.

The staff at CSAD responsible for overseeing of the project kept in close contact with the student group both on a one to one basis and via the Student Group Leader (a key role developed by Gerz, who was a part time mature student and contributed to the project for its whole lifespan). Students who were involved in the project were regularly debriefed by staff and at the end of the project were interviewed by the Head of Design and Visual Arts
in order to ascertain the success of the project and its merits in terms of the students experience, as opposed to the artists, or the public’s reception of the artworks.

Some of the tensions identified by students undertaking the project included managing the demands on their time and their schedule being made by the project, particularly given the nature of the Fine Art curriculum in the UK and also the fact that at CSAD we recruit nationally to Fine Art. Students are not therefore necessarily local and do not have the levels of knowledge about the community in which they study that French or German students at a provincial university might have, and which Gerz had assumed they possessed. This resulted in students needing to do a lot of research and groundwork before being able to identify groups in the community, and when approaching them.
Balancing expectations of the creative process; the students own and Gerz’s, was another area that students grappled with, as was the loss of key individuals at key times on the part of staff, students and Gerz’s team (the changing team).

There were ’spin offs’ for student participants including one student who is now in Dublin working with Gerz on his latest project there and another student who spent a period of time in Paris in 2003, working with Gerz on publicity for a range of his artworks. In discussion with students the strengths of the project were identified as:

Offering a rare experience for students to work on a large-scale live local project with a renowned artist, allowing students to see the ups and downs of such work at first hand and the fostering of that group of students by a practicing artist, over a long period of time.

Students experienced the essential nature of teamwork involved, in producing large-scale public works, which is difficult to replicate within the academy. They also experienced having a real place in a community of practitioners working on various elements towards one goal, with non-practitioners (architects, town planners etc). Which offered an insight into an urban regeneration project and enabled them to see art in action, economically
and culturally within a community.

Students learnt at ‘first hand’ a different way of making art to the prevailing ones they encounter in art schools and in the art press, as the project offered an alternative to individual practice through the idea of public authorship - challenging the dominance of the prevalent individual undergraduate curriculum in the UK. It showed them the potential of working in that genre on graduation and gave them some skills to do so.
They had the chance to view an internationally recognised European artists practice and compare it to the models prevalent within this country.

Students learnt about arts funding structures and other mechanisms for funding and sponsoring art practice and they contributed to something actual and longstanding. In meeting with and speaking to the Project Director and Manager they learnt about how artists are selected, contracted and negotiated with as well as how artists are seen by those employing them. They learnt at first hand that creativity is planned, can take years to realise, can involve others, requires communication, research, hard work, patience and being open to events. This challenged the spontaneous genius myth, proving a very useful experience to bring back into the student community at CSAD.

Advocacy and the extent to which students learnt through this process, developing skills in articulating ideas about art to diverse audiences and enhancing their confidence at graduation was the key learning outcome from the project and one that had not originally been foreseen by the staff team. This has led to an acknowledgment of this process as a student learning activity, and has resulted in an increased emphasis on it in other sections
of the curriculum, for instance in studio critiques, where students present/talk about each others work rather than their own, and in the new Reflective Practice Module 316 DVA,where individual students offer a piece of work for analysis and discussion by a group (approximately twenty students) and take notes on the discussion. In the various live projects currently underway the potential of advocacy has been recognised in the choice of learning outcomes, for projects, and also within Student Learning Agreements.
The other key factor that produced unexpected benefits, which the staff team had not foreseen, was the insistence by Gerz that all students could work with him regardless of past achievement or status on their award. Over the period of time that the project ran several students who were struggling to meet the challenges of their course, opted to engage with the Gerz project. Rather than being detrimental to their studio practice, working with Gerz appeared to empower these students and equipped them with a confidence which fed back into their own work resulting in a markedly higher level of achievement overall.

Finally, the time span of the project, running beyond cohorts, although at times difficult to manage, created a student mentoring community. The identification by Gerz of a Student Group Leader who took responsibility for managing the co-ordination of several Student teams working on the range of tasks necessary, showed the potential of such a role beyond the live project. It is a model that is working well in the CSAD level 1, 2 and 3 Professional Practice Modules.

Contact information:
Coventry School of Art & Design
Coventry University
Priory St
Coventry CV1 5FB
Tel: 02476 888248

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