Art Education

Learning in/as marginalia

Increasingly, education is a key subject for contemporary art and curatorial practice. Recent exhibitions like Documenta 12 and united-nationsplaza, and events such as Trans-pedagogy: Contemporary Art and the Vehicles of Education at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; De-schooling Society convened by the Serpentine and Hayward galleries in London; and Extracurricular hosted by the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery at Hart House in Toronto, might all be defined as “art turning educational.” In addition, there have been numerous artist residencies such as Reverse Pedagogy (2008/2009), Vehicle (2008-2009) and dorm (2010), and academics like Irit Rogoff and Carmen Morsch have written extensively on the “educational turn” as a model for institutional critique and knowledge production. However, little research has been done into how pedagogy is inhabited, materialized and understood by artists and audience participants within such contexts, and how such a pedagogical shift might inform teachers’ and students’ understandings of learning.


With this in mind, Portland-based artists Hannah Jickling and Helen Reed were invited to do a residency with the teacher education program at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver in the fall of 2010. Both are graduates of the MFA in Social Practice program at Portland State University and their individual and collaborative practices are embedded in questions of pedagogy. During the three-week artist-in-residency, Jickling and Reed worked with teacher education students enrolled in the secondary art education program and also with art education researchers as part of a larger Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council-funded study. The experiment in pedagogy was intended to provide students with an immersive experience in contemporary art–as opposed to a top-down model of learning whereby students learn about contemporary art, theories and practices in art education, and models of teaching through isolated units. Rather, by asking the question “What types of pedagogical understandings could be produced in art education if it was conceived of as a form of social collaboration?,” the residency engaged the teacher candidates in a series of interventions and collaborations that enabled them to move slowly across “fields of learning.”

Re-positioning art education as a field moves it away from the production of an object as the basis for learning and towards what Guattari calls transversality–“a dimension that strives to overcome two impasses … [and] tends to be realized when maximum communication is brought about between different levels and above all in terms of different directions.” In transversality particular knowledge may not be at the forefront of the actions and events taking place at this moment even though they are occurring, emerging from a middle or in-between.

One such field of learning, Summerhill, Revised, included the use of A.S. Neill’s text Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing (1960), which documents Scottish educator Alexander Sutherland Neill’s approach to education. Copies of the book were handed out to each of the teacher education students and it subsequently served as a catalyst for various fields of learning, including in-class discussions, field trips to the Rasmussen book bindery and the Summerhill Retirement Residence, and for the conversations and relations that developed between participants as they moved together through the various and divergent experiences. The original copies of the Summerhill text contained existing marginalia, which became one of the many fields that Jickling and Reed, in collaboration with the students, expanded upon over the course of the three weeks.


The history of marginalia, or writing in the documentary space surrounding a text, yields rich and complex paths. Early scholarly texts, for instance, were directly revised, edited, amended and expanded upon by scholars and students writing in the space of the margins so that there was no real expository distinction between text and margin, only the accident of space. Previous students’ notes thus became a way for a student to physically engage with a text, and students were even instructed in the “scholarly etiquette” of writing in the margins. Today, it has become common practice for teachers to provide “clean” texts to students, and students usually respond by writing in separate books.

Annotation is often viewed as supplemental to an original text; something that detracts from the text, as opposed to a continuation or a transversal. In fact, many libraries remove damaged books from circulation in order to remove the marginalia, releasing them back into circulation only once the texts have been “cleaned.” Vancouver-based artist Kyla Mallett photographs such marginalia found in decommissioned books at the Vancouver Public Library prior to their correction and re-circulation. Her work explores forms of literacy that Marnina Gonick argues are part of “subject formation”–the ways that individuals construct identity and knowledge. This subject formation, she writes, is a co-created encounter between reading and writing, self and other.

Students develop stylized techniques and preferred technologies: repeated motifs, signature doodles, favorite pencils, highlighters, pens, sticky notes, whose use, misuse or absence may be read as expressions of the everyday practices of shaping and producing oneself as “student.” These sometimes obtuse markings are the transitional contact points between one context and another, one person and another.

When learners recompose texts, the relations between registers engender a speculativeness that underlines experimentation. For instance, in Anna Gray and Ryan Wilson Paulsen’s A Limited Anthology of Edits (2010), which Jickling and Reed identify as inspiration for their own work, a variety of texts on the subject of editing are brought together in order to set the stage for further encounters and engagements. In the Summerhill, Revised residency, Jickling and Reed encouraged students to investigate each book’s existing marginalia alongside the original text and to respond to it through their own annotations and interventions. In addition, Jickling and Reed edited and re-arranged the texts, composing alternative fields in the process.


The play of reading, re-reading, reflecting and editing enables the potential for different readings to emerge and for each person to take these divergent readings in a number of different directions. As a result, marginalia becomes an illogical or haphazard form of relating to others–a process of indirect communication and knowledge production. It also shifts from something damaged, supplemental and tangential to a process of knowledge production–“learning in/as marginalia.” Summerhill, Revised presents in material form the different points of entry that are brought into resonance with each other and opens up new registers that incite a creative movement shaping our everyday experiences. Finally, if we regard marginalia as transversality–tangible and intangible–there emerges the potential of relations that, at least temporarily, intervene in surprising and inventive ways.

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