CAPE Network Forum Newsletter: Volume I Issue 6 (Archived)

Originally published: August 19th, 2020

Welcome back to our CAPE Forum Newsletter, after a hiatus. 

Andrea Slavick, our interview subject this issue, has often shown students experimental filmmaker Norman McLaren’s work. In McLaren’s 1961 film Opening Speech, we see him attempting to address an audience while being resisted and thwarted by his technological choice of communication—a microphone with a mind of its own.  Later, he tries another tactic and morphs into a projection screen, addressing the audience by text in multiple languages.  In some ways, the film could be a metaphor for all of our struggles in remote communication and the various morphing stages we undertake to connect in meaningful ways to our students and each other.

In addition to our interview with Andrea Slavick, who discusses the pedagogical potential of experimental film and video, we include in this issue updates, a CAPE Network Forum Highlight, and a tribute to a truly great colleague and art educator, Monica Skylas.

Updates

A big update for us all is the decision by CPS Central Office to begin school remotely for school year 2020-2021. 

CAPE program staff are working on a number of things in relation to being remote this coming year, including professional developments for our programs, and a series of public dialogues open to the CAPE network and educators and artists outside the network.  Upcoming public dialogues include a conversation on family-focused learning and a conversation on social-emotional support and trauma-centered teaching and learning.

Look for further announcements of CAPE public dialogues coming soon.  We will also soon be sharing our overall inquiries, big ideas, and support plans for school year 2020-2021.

Join us on Tuesday August 25th, from 3:30 PM – 5:30 PM CT:

As school districts around the country plan remote/online learning this Fall, the home is now the site of learning and family members are taking on critical roles in education. This scenario creates enormous stresses and challenges for parents, grandparents, siblings and the students themselves, but also offers opportunities for family engagement and learning.

This dialogue will explore multiple perspectives on the intersection of art making and family learning, and will include presentations from and conversation between Aram Atamian (Interdisciplinary artist), Mara Flores (Ecologist/Community Educator), Jessica Mueller (Interdisciplinary artist), Leticia Ramos (Teacher, Chicago Public Schools), Ricarose Roque (Researcher/Assistant Professor, University of Colorado, Boulder), Geralyn Yu (Researcher/Assistant Professor, University of New Mexico).

The conversation will be facilitated by Joseph Spilberg, CAPE Associate Director of Education.

Please register here: https://capefamilylearning.eventbrite.com
or by clicking the button below!

Andrea Slavik interview by Brandon Phouybanhdyt

As an interdisciplinary artist and educator, Slavik seeks to challenge popular ideological practices and forms of representation active in western culture. She completed graduate studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has exhibited in North America and Europe. Current topics of engagement for works in progress include: speculative fiction, nuclear semiotics, and queering/hacking RPG frameworks.

What aspects of experimental film or experimental video art affords teachers to open up their curriculum and what makes it a good medium to work with in class?

Much historical and contemporary experimental film and video, both representational and non-representational, embodies a formalist or structuralist approach where artists experiment with the materiality of the medium (time, light, frame, movement, sound), meaning that they creatively explore the basic elements and mechanisms of film and video.

This way of working began as a response to break free from narrative filmmaking, a genre that was and still is heavily informed and influenced by theatre and commercialism.

Painters, sculptors, writers etc., throughout the late 19th century to the mid 20th century were defining modernity by breaking down forms, experimenting with reflexivity and moving towards abstraction. Filmmakers and later video artists also began to see the moving image as a medium in its own right and were thinking of new and avant-garde ways of using it, where absent are the elements from other art forms normally present in films like acting, plots etc. 

For many classroom projects, experimental video is a great starting point for beginners because you begin with really looking at the basics of your medium and participants can take it as far as they are able to or want to. Projects like this I find are accessible by most ages and abilities.

For instance, in our geometry math class at Vaughn, the teacher and I decided to facilitate an animation project where students used an iPad, digital pencil, and an inexpensive animation app to learn about two-dimensional and three-dimensional shapes. 

The student and teacher do not have to be familiar with drawing representational objects and they can immediately begin to explore the infinite and dynamic ways one can draw and animate lines, shapes, colors and textures to convey mood and energy. Shapes don’t have to be static and boring and abstraction can be a form of expression. 

For a frame of reference, we as a class looked at the relationship between avant-garde or modernist painting and avant-garde or experimental film. We discussed basic color theory and hard-edged geometric abstraction in color field painting and film/video. We learned about abstract modernist painting in general, which also broke down the basic elements of the medium (canvas, paint, color, texture, shape) to explore the possibilities of non-representational images on a two-dimensional surface. Most of the works we looked at and discussed were from the early 20th century up to the 1970’s with some contemporary pieces in the mix. 

We also looked at how abstract painters and filmmakers were influenced by and used lyric-less music that can also be considered abstract like jazz and electronically produced sound. I felt like I was taking a chance and participants would find this kind of old school stuff unengaging but they were really into it and in the end, the project was well received by the school community and gallery audiences! 

What’s also great about using short-form experimental moving image formats in the classroom is all the options of subgenres it affords the student: poetic lyricism, diaristic filmmaking, found footage filmmaking, experimental documentary, city symphony, stop motion, animation, etc. You can incorporate just about any academic subject like math, science, social studies, creative writing, and history in a moving image work, perhaps even more so than other mediums. Creating a conventional narrative film with plots, acting, etc. requires a pretty rigid process and equipment that most schools do not have. 

Throughout the years, my students made all kinds of videos that engaged with various subjects and topics like migration, anger and anti-black racism, bullying, student-teacher relations, social justice, memory, identity, history, social studies, geometry, states of matter, arithmetic.

How does experimental video or movie image expand students’, teachers’, non-artists’, conception of technology?

One of my goals is to encourage students, and even teachers to use personal devices like tablets and smartphones to produce meaningful cultural products rather than just consume cultural products. Accessible and versatile consumer technology like the iPad is particularly conducive for making time-based and experimental moving image work in the context of a classroom project. In the past, you would need several specialized and expensive pieces of “prosumer” equipment to do all the things you can do on one device now. Also, one of the hallmarks of experimental or avant-garde moving image work is the use of new technologies to create new forms. For example, in 1965, video art pioneer, Nam June Paik purchased the first consumer video camera called the Sony Portapak in the US.

Here are some things that students can do on one device:

  • take photos, videos and sound recordings 
  • edit and render photos, videos and sound recordings
  • generate sounds and create a music track 
  • video map architecture
  • produce stop motion animations
  • produce hand drawn digital animations
  • produce special effects with green screen and data bending apps
  • produce an animated text-based video for an installation a la Jenny Holtzer
  • share and promote work
  • research related information online and make notes 
  • use as a playback device for performances, presentations and installations

Animation in general is produced by creating each individual frame. It’s kind of a bonus that students learn about the underlying mechanics of the medium they are working with while creating their projects. Students begin to understand the notion that moving images are constructed illusions created through a series of frames and activated by a theoretical phenomenon known as the persistence of vision. This is where we segue into a class discussion about critical issues like representation in the media.

That being said, what I would like to see is access to professional level equipment and expertise at public schools, especially for high school level students who want to compete with privileged private school students to earn scholarships and study media in post-secondary. Having students use iPads to film and edit is not ergonomically ideal, limits their potential for learning and applying professional media production and post-production skills, and for the most part, doesn’t adequately prepare students for rigorous post-secondary media studies programs. High school students could really benefit from accessing gear like microphones and boom poles, HD cameras with manual settings, external video monitors for filming and editing, fluid head tripods, dollies, light kits with diffusing material and colored gels, and desktop computers with professional editing programs like Final Cut Pro. As useful as iPads or tablets are for some school projects, age groups, and beginning level students, supplying schools with just tablets for media projects and other educational purposes is a cheap, roundabout, neoliberal alternative to providing schools with the tools and resources many students actually need to get a leg up and thrive.

What is digital media and its relation to experimental video/filmmaking?  How does experimental video/digital media transform perceptions of time and space?

Those are big questions! I would recommend reading the following: 

Roundtable on Experimental Digital Cinema, MIT Press Journals, 2011.

The Emergence of Cinematic Time, Mary Anne Doane, Harvard University Press, 2002.

For the second part of the question, I’ll give an example of a video one of my students made where she skillfully experimented with spatiotemporality. The work is an experimental diaristic piece with elements of lyricism and was exhibited at the annual Chicago Art Fair at the Merchandise Mart.

Beautifully weaving together archival footage and sound, newly filmed footage, typography, and lyric-less music, the artist takes us on an autobiographical journey to another time and space in her life, where she poetically processes, articulates and expresses her feelings and thoughts on personal loss, nostalgia, and memory.

There are powerful moments where the viewer is simultaneously immersed in the artists past and present. In one instance, she layers archival footage of her little brother playing in the backyard of her family’s old house over top of new footage of the same empty backyard where her family no longer lives. The artist had the gumption to ask the new homeowners to film in their backyard and they obliged. Here, space is occupied by feelings and is not just a physical location; it’s an emotional space.

Another great example of how the artist experimented with time and space/place is when she filmed a slow tracking shot of a row of houses in her family’s old neighborhood which was then superimposed with text that narrated her memories of the area such as “My brother and I used to ride our bikes here.”

CAPE Network Forum Highlight

At Vaughn Occupational High School, partners Dara Bayliss and Andrea Slavik used animation and stop-motion to illustrate math and technology concepts. Students used geometric shapes to create short animations on iPads and geometric paper cutouts and blocks to create stop-motion videos. Bayliss and Slavik note that the project allowed students to show-case a different set of skills then they usually display in math class. See full CAPE Network Forum post here.

Monica Skylas: A Personal Remembrance

It is with much sadness that we note the passing of Monica Skylas, long-time art teacher at Pirie Elementary School, and a member of CAPE’s advisory council. 

I knew Monica for three decades.  We first met when I oversaw teacher professional development and school and community programs at the Terra Museum of American Art, which had an ongoing collaboration with Pirie.  Monica’s passion for and connection to her students was memorable and striking back then, as was her lively sense of humor. Years later after I came on staff at CAPE, Monica was an enthusiastic participant in our multi-year professional development grant for lead arts teachers at CPS Fine and Performing Arts Magnet Cluster Program schools.  In another multi-year program called the Portfolio Development Project, she co-taught extensive arts integrated curriculum with CAPE teaching artist Ellen Trischler, collaborating as well with 4th through 6th grade teachers.

It was wonderful to work with Monica on these programs, especially the Portfolio Development Project (or PDP).  Monica exemplified for all of us that we can always learn and try new things, and be willing to engage uncertainty and risk-taking in teaching and making art (qualities we particularly need now in our present situation in schools).   

Her honesty, integrity, lack of ego, wit, and sheer enjoyment of being in the PDP professional development meetings elevated the overall spirit of what we were trying to accomplish together.  By coincidence, Monica’s last year of teaching was also the last year of the PDP program.  At the final exhibition event for the program, I had the privilege of publicly honoring Monica by presenting her with a gift (an artist-made necklace), in recognition of her retirement from teaching.  She was very surprised by this, and, in her total modesty, moved and touched that we would think of her.

In subsequent years, Monica was an active advisor to CAPE and an enthusiastic attender and supporter of CAPE events.  I was also fortunate to periodically get together with her for lunch, accompanied by a nice glass of wine and lots of laughter.  I am myself now deeply moved when I think about how often she would proudly wear the necklace we gave her.

Monica had physical health struggles, but in all the years I knew her I never heard her complain once.  Courage takes many forms; Monica modeled her courage for all who knew her every day in her zest for teaching, for learning, for art, and for life.  No one who knew her could ever forget her, or that zest she brought to every single thing she did.  I express here condolences to her family, to whom she was devoted and I know provided her with much love and support always; to those connected to CAPE who worked closely with her, in particular Ellen Tritschler and Jessica Mueller; and to parents, students, administrators, and teachers at Pirie, including her good friend and comrade in arts teaching and learning, Robin DaSilva. 

Monica’s family has greatly honored CAPE by suggesting donations to us in her memory.  You can also express your own condolences for the family and thoughts and memories of Monica here (http://www.thornridgefuneralhome.com/obituary/monica-skylas).  Robin wrote, “I miss my friend,” and at CAPE we echo those words—we miss our friend.

— Scott Sikkema