Working with Children as Pedagogies of Refusal

Stephanie Springgay

 

The following text was commissioned for, Multiple Elementary, a forthcoming publication edited by Helen Reed and Hannah Jickling and co-published by YYZbooks (Toronto) and Black Dog Publishing (London). Part exhibition catalogue, part artists’ book and part candy store advertisement, Multiple Elementary reflects on the making of an artwork, Ask Me Chocolates, in collaboration with a class of grade six students in Toronto.

This work was part of The Pedagogical Impulse, a SSHRC-funded research-creation project at the intersections of social practice, knowledge production and “school.” Initiated by Stephanie Springgay, The Pedagogical Impulse, supported a series of artist residencies that took place across a number of educational sites in Toronto (2012-13), in order to examine how artists are engaging with pedagogy as spaces for the development of new practices, and the potential critical and imaginative engagements that occur when such practices are located in collaboration with schools, teachers and learners.

Multiple Elementary will be hot off the press in early 2016 and would not have been possible without support from the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts.

Ask Me Chocolates (2012), milk chocolate, food safe silicone mold, dimensions variable, a selection of student-designed chocolates as ‘story-fragments’ from co-generated research depict: a bolani (based on the Conflict Kitchen), a house (based on Rachel Whiteread) and a bottle of Guarana Power (based on Superflex), image courtesy of The Pedagogical Impulse.

Ask Me Chocolates (2012), milk chocolate, food safe silicone mold, dimensions variable, a selection of student-designed chocolates as ‘story-fragments’ from co-generated research depict: a bolani (based on the Conflict Kitchen), a house (based on Rachel Whiteread) and a bottle of Guarana Power (based on Superflex), image courtesy of The Pedagogical Impulse.

 

Anytime you work with mounds of melted chocolate and elementary school students, you are bound to go down the rabbit hole of poo humor. Crushed cocoa beans being squeezed and pressed out of a Molino ooze with direct and indirect connotations, sending everyone into peels of laughter. In Hannah Jickling and Helen Reed’s Ask Me Chocolates, part of a larger project, The Pedagogical Impulse [1], the leakiness and unruliness of poo announced itself as a pedagogy of refusal; as a willful failure. Institutions, particularly elementary public schools, pride themselves on containment, sanitation, order, and regulation, dispositions that support the rhetoric of success, mastery, and progress. Poo simply won’t do. In this short essay, I argue that Jickling and Reed engender a practice of failure as affective, and as pedagogies of refusal, and in so doing, re-imagine ways in which we might think, write, represent, and do work with children. Failure is typically understood as the opposite of success. However, I want to argue for failure as form of performative disengagement. By disengagement I don’t mean the typical use of the term in education, whereby students become disinterested or lack attention. Rather, through pedagogies of refusal—or a kind of willfulness— failure becomes a means for artists and children to resist normativity.

Failure, like poo, gets a bad rap. It is commonly understood as the opposite of growth, improvement, development, advancement, and accomplishment. In this regard, failure is threatening. Failure is lack, a breakdown, deficient, ineffective, and does not fit anywhere, especially in schools. When failure is attached to bodies, failure is about not fitting it, not conforming to heteronormative standards, or not cohering to the status quo. Attached to learning, failure is the stage of development one moves through towards success—testing, trial, and practice. In education, failure, we are told, needs to be overcome.

Ask Me Chocolates (2012) process/research image, a student pours tempered chocolate in to his hand-made mold, image courtesy of The Pedagogical Impulse

Ask Me Chocolates (2012) process/research image, a student pours tempered chocolate in to his hand-made mold, image courtesy of The Pedagogical Impulse

Paradoxically, failure can be also be commodified and easily romanticized for being experimental, risky, and innovative. For example, in art school failure is not simply a stage one moves through towards success, but becomes a process of innovation and newness. In this sense, social practice art, like other forms of live art, could be described as an inherently failing practice because it embraces improvisation, experimentation, and engenders accidents, surprises, dead-ends, interruptions, collapses, and breaks. In their writing about performance, Roisin O’Gorman and Margaret Werry note that failure is live art’s “innate ontological condition: its defining liveness and ephemerality marks its ultimate failure to perpetuate itself [2].” However, this conceptualization of failure is still tethered to success. One must, through trial and error, creative experimentation, and innovation, fail in order to succeed. This is similarly reflected in schools. Schools cater to the paradoxical nature of failing. In order to succeed one must first fail through practice and hard work. Failure leads to success, where success is something that can be measured, has direct outputs, and advances student learning.

Western education systems maintain what Jack Halberstam, in The Queer Art of Failure, calls “the toxic positivity of contemporary life [3],” where success and progress continue to marginalize students labeled as at risk, urban, and outside of mainstream culture. Moreover, schools reify knowledge, memory, and skill over stupidity, failure, and forgetfulness. If the successful outcome of learning is knowledge, then failure is the manifestation of not-knowing yet, but where one anticipates a knowledgeable future. But what if failure was not a stop-gap between experimentation and success? How might we think of not-knowing, not as a lack, but as affective potential; as a refusal? What might it mean to consider an art practice with children as a pedagogy of refusal? What might be failure’s political potential? How might failure and refusal help us rethink the place of social-practice art in schools? What does this mean for artists working with children?

Rather than argue about whether social practice art is socially-engaged enough, aesthetic enough, useful enough, fosters equality in its participatory endeavor, or is merely ameliorative, we need to think about working with children from the point of refusal; as a political project articulated in a practice of failure. Enough is evaluative, bound to capitalist conditions of success, of acquisition and measurement.

Ask Me Chocolates was a host of various engagements that were enacted with a grade six class over three months. It would be impossible to distill the different events into one artwork, but conceptually Jickling and Reed were working on the broad idea of “trade.” Through snowball sales, subway studios, chocolates, and artists’ multiples, Jickling and Reed worked with the students and the teacher to think about trade beyond neoliberal, western, and colonial narratives of conquest. Through a series of projects enacted with the students, they rejected a falsely optimistic rhetoric about the chocolate trade and resisted hetero-patriarchal social justice narratives of success that position the Other as disenfranchised and deprived. Failure materialized in various ways throughout the project, including some of the chocolates produced by the students—a dead bunny, a hand grenade, and a poo intestine. These (in)edible artworks expose the contradictory logic of neoliberalism, fair-trade, and global capitalism.

Ask Me Chocolates (2012), process/research image, artists and students witness the molino in action at Chocosol, a Toronto-based social enterprise producing small batch, horizontally-traded chocolate, image courtesy of The Pedagogical Impulse

Ask Me Chocolates (2012), process/research image, artists and students witness the molino in action at Chocosol, a Toronto-based social enterprise producing small batch, horizontally-traded chocolate, image courtesy of The Pedagogical Impulse

Jickling and Reed never demanded students become better or more knowledgeable (chocolate) consumers. Rather, their practice of failure enabled the students to imagine economies of refusal, a disengagement from the norm. This refusal emerged in the student’s chocolates. Resisting hopeful narratives about global fair trade and urban schooling, they created chocolate multiples of toilet paper rolls, potato chips, and a work dress. While chocolates might infer habitual and recognizable practices and are thus knowable, when we encounter them differently, when they refuse to confer expectations, they become more than what we assume their functionality to be. As reflected in the words of philosopher Erin Manning, “they extend beyond their objectness to become ecologies for complex environments [4].” The chocolate multiples engender a “refusal of legibility and an art of unbecoming [5].” Despite the tacit institutional desire for the students to craft tidy narratives empathizing with the child victims of the slave trade, the chocolates’ affective forces shake our relationship to totalizing narratives. This is not to suggest that the horrors of the chocolate industry be forgiven or ignored, but that in place of a curricular approach that assumes we can digest the pain of the other, the multiples “keep us from taking the stance of the dispassionate observer, that keep us from falling into our selves […] and so we become responsible before the event, in the face of it, in its incessant coming-to-act [6].” The toilet paper roll, dead bunny, potato chip, intestine, house, snap hat, and others do not attempt to represent trade and its politics, as if the events of trade could be bounded and delimited; rather, through their refusal to confer they shape counterintuitive modes of knowing.

As a practice of refusal, disengagement is an act of unwillingness or, in fact, a willfulness according to theorist Sara Ahmed. Refusal, or willfulness, exceeds the limits of success and ruptures the status quo. Ahmed describes the willful subject as one who fails to fit in, refuses to “comply with those whose authority is given [7].” To be willful is to be disobedient. Like failure, willfulness compromises success, survival, and good choice. To claim willfulness is an act of refusal. It is to be audacious, creative, and resistant. Ahmed notes that flow and fluidity are used to describe normativity, “an effect of bodies that are going the same way [8].” In pedagogy, going with the flow, or describing the class as fluid, are qualifiers of success, where students and teachers are willing together. Willfulness, Ahmed argues, is the consequence of blocking or refusing the flow. It marks a differentiation. If you flow against or rupture the flow you become a feminist killjoy, or the willful subject who is “reluctant to yield [9].” Moreover, willfulness pedagogy inhabits negative affects of anger, fear, disgust, and contempt. But Ahmed reminds us that a refusal or willfulness is not simply about “reclaiming negative terms” [10] but about “insisting on retaining that negativity [11].” In this sense, a pedagogy of refusal is replete with affective potential, where affect as force or intensity engenders the capacity for the not-yet-of-neverquite-knowing. This is failure’s political potential. Counter to success models where the subject overcomes negativity, the negative affect of refusal becomes the site of rupture, resistance, and transformation.

Your Lupines or Your Life (2012), discarded funeral arrangements, ribbon, foil, Surplus flowers from funeral homes rearranged as wreaths and bouquets to become “Abject Awards,” that were then bestowed to a public place or thing in recognition of its under-appreciated abject qualities, the project takes its name from Monty Python’s 1974 sketch about Dennis Moore, an inept highway robber who, with his catchphrase “your lupines or your life,” steals lupine flowers from the nobility to redistribute to the poor of his village, image courtesy of The Pedagogical Impulse

Your Lupines or Your Life (2012), discarded funeral arrangements, ribbon, foil, Surplus flowers from funeral homes rearranged as wreaths and bouquets to become “Abject Awards,” that were then bestowed to a public place or thing in recognition of its under-appreciated abject qualities, the project takes its name from Monty Python’s 1974 sketch about Dennis Moore, an inept highway robber who, with his catchphrase “your lupines or your life,” steals lupine flowers from the nobility to redistribute to the poor of his village, image courtesy of The Pedagogical Impulse

Jickling and Reed, as feminist killjoys, refused to go with the planned curriculum, the neoliberal models of social justice, and the typical normalized rhythms and structures of institutional schooling. Moreover, negative affect played a central role in many of the projects and in their practice of working with students. From the disgust of poo to the repulsion of neighbourhood garbage, Jickling and Reed’s practice produced negative affects. In another project, Your Lupines or Your Life [12], Jickling and Reed organized a series of events around negative affects—anger, fear, anxiety, contempt, and disgust—not with the aim of modifying the negative affects into something good, but as a kind of obstruction. They had students create lost and found posters [13] for garbage collected in the neighbourhood, create intricate packaging for garbage, and used discarded funeral flowers to create bouquets. These micro-projects appeared at times frivolous, silly, stupid, and unworthy to the teachers and students or produced feelings of anger and distrust, but their failure enacted an obstacle, a limit, or a detour to the otherwise normative desires of the institutional space of school. As Ahmed notes, “to experience an object as being affective or sensational is to be directed not only toward an object, but to ‘whatever’ is around that object, which includes what is behind the object, the conditions of its arrival [14].” The negative affect didn’t just arrive with the dead flowers, but was already sticking to particular ways of being and knowing predicated in education. What Jickling and Reed offer pedagogy, as a practice of failure, is a refusal to make things tidy, knowable, and sterile. Feminist killjoys working with children through social practice obstruct the reproductive model of schooling where one moves from ignorance to knowledge. Instead, negative affect, refusal, and willfulness demand what Halberstam calls “‘sideways’ relations, relations that grow along parallel lines rather than upward and onward [15].” These sideways relations tangle, snare, block, and thwart the flow of progress not as stalemate, but in processes where counter-knowledges, unknowing, and new ontologies unravel. In the negative realm of refusal and disavowal, failure enhances, intensifies, varies, and differentiates the pedagogical relation.



[1] The Pedagogical Impulse (www.thepedagogicalimpulse.com) was a research-creation project at the intersections between social practice, knowledge production, pedagogy, and “school.”

[2] Roisin O’Gorman and Margaret Werry, “On Failure (On pedagogy),” in Performance Research, vol.17, no.1, (2012), 2.

[3] Judith Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 3.

[4] Manning, Erin, Always more than one: Individuation’s dance (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 92.

[5] Halberstam, 88.

[6] Manning, 68.

[7] Sara Ahmed, Willful Subjects (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 1.

[8] Ibid., 150.

[9] Ibid., 153.

[10] Ibid., 157.

[11] Ibid., 158.

[12] Your Lupines or Your Life was also commissioned by The Pedagogical Impulse, and was co-produced with a different class of grade six students in Toronto, (2012).

[13] Based on artist Kerri Reid’s The Missing Piece of the Puzzle, (2008-2009).

[14] Sara Ahmed, “Happy Objects,” in The Affect Theory Reader, Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, eds., (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 33.

[15] Halberstam, 74.


Stephanie Springgay is an Associate Professor in the Department of Curriculum, Teaching, and Learning at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. Her research focuses on the intersections between contemporary art and pedagogy, with a particular interest in theories of matter, movement and affect. Her most recent research-creation projects are documented at www.thepedagogicalimpulse. com, www.walkinglab.org and www.artistsoupkitchen. com. She has published widely in academic journals and is the co-editor of the book M/othering a Bodied Curriculum: Emplacement, Desire, Affect University of Toronto Press, with Debra Freedman; co-editor of Curriculum and the Cultural Body, Peter Lang with Debra Freedman; and author of Body Knowledge and Curriculum: Pedagogies of Touch in Youth and Visual Culture, Peter Lang.