Ch-ch-ch-changes: Artists Talk About Teaching, eds David Mollin and John Reardon, Ridinghouse, 2009, 384pp, 978 1 9054641 3 5.
David Bowie's classic track 'Ch-ch-chchanges', released on the Hunky Dory album in 1971, celebrates the power of each new generation to transform society. Having lived in London for many years, Bowie's song conjures notions of East End pubs and art parties. For Michael Landy, who destroyed a Bowie album as the last of his possessions during his Breakdown project in 2001, it is more than just an anthem; it is a way of life, much akin to being an artist.
Ch-ch-ch-changes is the particularly apt title of this new book; change is one of the abiding themes spanning the two short introductory essays by the editors and 26 interviews with artists who teach. These hail predominantly from the UK and Germany, and from London and Berlin respectively. Weighing in at almost 400 pages, it can, without hyperbole, be described as a tome. But, unlike other contemporary art books, it resists the seduction of elaborate design. In fact, it is kept so simple, with not one illustration on the cover or inside, that it resembles a textbook in its austerity; this is an appropriate metaphor for a book dedicated to the examination of the relationship between artistic practice and pedagogy. However, despite its modest presentation, this book is an important contribution to long-neglected debates, including: How does one 'teach' artists? How does an artist's practice influence their teaching style? And how has the increasing Balkanisation of the university system impacted on an art school education?
John Reardon's essay, which opens Ch-chch-changes, takes a cohesive look back at the process of compiling the book, finding overarching themes that cut across the discussions. He acknowledges the difficulty in according any objective value in teaching of art in fine art departments. Reardon writes that the interviews 'left me more sure that a lot of good work is done by people not so convinced by things'. While traditionally teachers at university level are expected to convey expertise, here the editor is honest about the anxieties of teaching a discipline as subjective as fine art and the instinctual processes that it requires. David Mollin's essay focuses on the practice of interviewing, with all its breakthroughs and cautious hesitations, and the difficulty in rendering verbal communication in text format, which in itself is a metaphor for the futility of assigning any quantifiable methodology to the teaching process.
A common theme among many interviews is the notion of building a community through collective production. Several artists, including Christian Jankowski, Jon Thompson, John Armleder, Michael Corris and John Hilliard, find it most productive to work in collaboration with their students on an actual project rather than to teach individual skills such as painting or sculpture. Vanalyne Green, who studied with Judy Chicago and Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, speaks eloquently on this topic. She attributes her feminist education to changing her 'values to ones that were more community-oriented, compared with individualistic'.
To continue on this feminist strain, one of the criticisms I will cite of Ch-ch-ch-changes is the lack of women artists as interview subjects. Only three out of 26 are female: Greene, Karin Sander and Phyllida Barlow. Perhaps this is indicative of the population of fine art departments in the UK and Germany today. …