The format—a 12 hour marathon of art, music, dance and discussion—has tested logistical capacities and audience stamina intermittently since 2014. Now, leaving Cooper Gallery DJCAD for University of Dundee’s Botanic Gardens, we leave behind the stricture of the art school’s corridors, though not quite all of its politics and institutional contexts. Outdoors we gather on grass instead of hard wooden floors and in place of the dance of overhead spot-lights and projectors, a beaming sun and threatening clouds move across the skies, shifting the mood through the day and posing their own challenges. We begin anyway with sun and wind. A big billowing white marquee offers our main shelter, seats set facing towards each other. A gap in the middle makes a central clearing, a stage, though we don’t start there.
Released from its position above the Cooper Gallery entrance at DJCAD, where it had ticked along since the start of The Ignorant Art School project well over a year ago, Ruth Ewan’s decimal clock sits at our level, off to one side, keeping its own version of standardised time. 4.48 = 10:45am. I’m not sure we start quite there, but thereabouts. At some point the timings in the schedule become meaningless, the rationality of the decimal time system not pervasive enough to hold down the ambitions of this Revel.
We, Alison and Jamie, the I and I of this text, though working behind the scenes on the production of the Revel, are brought in as external ‘commentators’, to provide live, reflective engagement on the events of the day via social media. What appears here—an after-the-fact collaborative document—has grown from navigating this experience and reflecting on our position.
I—we—try and fail to detach the idea from the threads that follow football matches live on The Guardian. We are on home-turf soil, dropped into muddy waters slightly of our own making: a desire to escape the institutional voice leaves us adrift, not quite you, not quite me. From early on in the day it is apparent we have been set an impossible task. Unable to break the surface, we share an experience. We are at the same place at the same time—but are we hearing the same thing? Internal and external interjections push and pull our focus apart: who does our writing belong to?
A choreographed beginning: amid a flurry of gestures and half sentences (come) (this way) (in here) (yes, it’s starting) I hold a door and coax sun-seekers orientating themselves with sheaves of biographies and schedules into a hot damp greenhouse. We follow Hamshya Rajkumar through meandering paths and dripping leaves as she dances her part of the collaborative work SOUND-SEED with Ranjana Thapalyal. Grasping crisp leaves, crumbling soil, she encounters sculptural organic material dispersed through the route. Her costume sways with pine cones, her touch lingers on the leaves of tropical plants, her performing body is obscured among lush foliage. Engrossed gazes follow, until cajoled outside: attention causing a delay in clock time. Hamshya’s poised movements react intuitively to meet Ranjana’s spoken words in dialogue:
Made so suddenly large
and only surrender
the weight it forms
in my itinerant mind.
When speech collapses,
Felt, not seen
Of the first sound.
Ranjana’s poetic text strikes new to me now of the struggle of sharing—of communication—as we ‘merge’ our experiences and re-articulate the meaning of her words:
are strung and suspended,
meeting with yours
I dash away, as Ranjana takes on the task of introducing the proceedings of the event, to catch Hamshya. I play back video clips on my phone to see what she’s happy for me to share on social media, re-running the movements she’s just made, while still catching her breath and shedding her costume.
A running concern through the Ignorant Art School programme has been one of voice: efforts have been taken to distract from, to side line the voice of the institution, to make room for a critical lens, multiple voices, to reduce the possibility of didactic presentation. The results vary. It can be an uncomfortable task, to be untethered from the usual structures of hosting, to be—if only fleetingly or performatively—the face of it all.
The wind is whipping through the marquee. Barby Asante and Jemma Desai are conversing in questions, acting as dialogic containers for one another. Their words bear the knowing intimacy of friendship, but are made taut as they pull into a formal, performative presentation. The wind is acting as dialogic interference, disrupting the exchange, rumbling against and through their microphones, so I only catch pieces of it as they are knocked past and tussle through the air. Jemma describes admiring, not ‘institutional critique’, but practices that consider how structures are lived; Barby, responding, asks, who does our writing belong to, and, how do we do criticality, but remain whole in an unjust space? I make note of these questions, but don’t have time to think about answers. Barby mentions the Yoruba Goddess Ọya, and sensing the winds of change.
They begin speaking about Tarot, intuition and other disregarded knowledges, just as I am swept away to deal with some technical issue elsewhere.
In a break I check in on Rabindranath X Bhose’s contribution ‘Manifesto for a Dream Art School’: hidden in a double hedge, the peaceful nook is strewn with pieces of A5 card featuring fluidly drawn figures and hopeful thinking. The wind has caused havoc—I pick up the cards to pin back on the lines of string that display them, reading privately scribbled wishes and demands as I go. The artist has invited today’s audience to respond to a series of prompts, building a fragmented, multi-vocal, contradictory ‘manifesto’. Though not here in person, Rabindranath previously led the workshop at Cooper Gallery ‘A Consensus Class: Adventures in Collaborative Decision Making’. In the cards I read, the prompts draw out a common dream for art school to hold more space for nature, experimentation, warmth and joy.
A panel discussion on ‘A Future Art School’: a big topic given to early-career artists, those with little power but situated as holders of hope. Chair and lecturer Undine Sellbach describes the panel as having an inside-outside relation to the Academy, cutting between registers of critique, feeling and imagination. Each of the panel presents a provocation. Frances Lingard shares ‘internet scraps’ pulled from other artists and writers—diagrams and screenshots appear bleached on the screens—thinking about open-source learning and self-teaching online. Saoirse Amira Anis reads short Haiku poems reflecting critically on her experience of art school at DJCAD in a plea for a person centred pedagogy:
white institution will not
nurture its students
You simply stroke your ego
And then close the doors
Would be a vital part of
My future art school
I mainly learned things
When the studio turned to pub
Turned to warm embrace
Making connections that outway the sense of dread, that is the dream, right? Advocating for the sensorial—she says, following Susan Sontag’s call for an erotics of art—Laura McSorley eats her words and invites the others to join her. Initially I’m aghast—then realise it’s scrawled-on rice paper. She asks, how do we find intimacy in our learning environments, what acts does it require, what risks can it pose? Undine pulls our attention to find intimacy on a different scale: the turning, spinning, backwards, forwards, obstacled life of a single cell organism. She asks, how do we use the mind’s eye to take up its script in our work? Desperately over clock-time and with communication straining, I have to cut her off mid-flow but remain curious about how her description and performance of the movements of a micro-organism relate to the future of arts education.
It’s lunchtime. Inda Johnston, chef at the Botanic Garden, has made a ceremonial Indonesian dish. More than a dish, it is a spilling tower of colour. A radiant cake of saffron yellow rice, four tiers high, stands at the centre of noodles, meats and salads, adorned with vegetables and fruits carved into delicate, blooming flowers. Tradition dictates that the meal be presented to the guest of greatest importance: it is offered to Anita Taylor, the Dean at DJCAD.
After the previous discussion, I’m thinking about how direct a critical discussion can be when we sit still in the institution. Is the discussion weakened or strengthened by playing host to deans, professors, teaching staff? It brings us away from an imaginative future into the practical present, recognising the current model as a compromised situation ‘for everyone’—it’s pitched as solidarity, but feels like passing the buck.
Full-bellied we set off across the gardens to find the location of Ashanti Harris and Mele Broomes’ performance, ambling along the path in pure hope until a better informed person takes the lead, scampering across into the long grassy meadow, and shooting off to the right. A landscape in miniature: past the glade and clusters of woodland we enter a clearing within a clump of pine, where Ashanti’s recorded voice meets and stills us in dappled light. Her script is instructional but gentle, paying attention to breath and then easing us into controlled movement. We trample pine cones and crisp leaves in the undergrowth. Continue walking, one foot forward, another foot forward, one step back. Moments of observation, group participation and focus on the self are all bridged with the direction of the soundtrack. I know where I am meant to be, am grateful for being told, and gladly follow along with the motion of the group, as we gain confidence from—and make space for—one another.
Throughout the Ignorant Art School programme, the roles of performer and audience, student and teacher are, if not collapsed, pulled into question, suspended in conscious acts. Ashanti and Mele are frequent collaborators, moving in relation to each other easily in a choreography marked by repeated motions. Pointing above, swaying, intricate gestures made side by side, face to face, touching trees, both hands reaching up and out.
Strewn cushions and schedules as people bask in the sun: digesting a glut of activity and letting protest musician Kapil Seshasayee’s voice and guitar wash over them as it soars into the gardens. The student front-of-house team picking mint and aromatics for bottles of water keep everyone well-watered and caffeinated. I ask a few folk attending if it feels as hectic to them as it does to me—absorbing and condensing what’s happening—and they say actually, they’re just riding the waves, the open walled setting makes it easy to come and go, clock in and out. That’s good then. I make a conscious effort to relax from the anxiety to listen well, attentively, zealously honour the work that is being presented, and let what sticks stick, let fall away what doesn’t.
I am taking a break. Maybe it is a bad time to take a break—Regina Bittner has come from Berlin, she is Head of the Academy and Deputy Director of the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation and is presenting a talk designed to thrive in our botanical setting. I know from her blurb that it has to do with Modernism, technology and our perception of nature, tracing a time when ‘knowledge of the body and the senses was demanded in a new way.’ But instead of listening intently in the marquee, making notes for our commentary, I am lying among soft, shaded grass, alone and out of sight of the event, watching gentle ripples graze the leafy canopy above. My body is drained, is asking my permission to move into sleep. Soft snatches of her voice are woven through the rustle of the trees.
In the marquee, GUDSKUL’s Angga Wijaya is facilitating a workshop in which pairs of participants are asked to take on, in turn, the roles of teacher and student. Through conversation they are to offer each other any form of knowledge they hold—a recipe, a dance, a story, a song. I linger at the edge of the babbling group, neither participant nor facilitator, student nor teacher, outsider or insider. It seems like it is going well: people are chatting with strangers readily and freely, no one needs my help.
I have taken part in this workshop before, over Zoom—a different ambience altogether. In the seclusion of our breakout room, my partner and I didn’t follow the instructions, instead having a wandering conversation about what we were reading at the time, never quite inhabiting either of the prescribed roles. I look around and wonder if any of the current pairings are doing it wrong, or veering off course, but feel quite certain that right and wrong are beside the point.
The original schedule has lost all meaning. We are close to an hour, 0.42 decimal hours, behind, but nevertheless the group of GSA Environmental Art alumni who are up next take their time easing into position, getting comfortable in a semicircle at the centre of the marquee. With little other preamble, they take turns lending their voices to the empty air, with unperturbed, imperfect inflections reciting songs of the past. Occasionally they prompt the audience to sing along, but not many know the words: they hum along to a familiar tune; echo a phrase or two. At odds with the morning’s first panel, the other most directly addressing the subject of the Art School, this group appear to ride a wave of nostalgic contentment, not concerned with the difficult present or possible futures.
Anne-Marie Copestake is to the side of the group, mixing cocktails—meticulously moving along rows of glasses with whisky, lemon syrup, sprigs of rosemary. Half way through, Laura McSorley jumps up from the audience and begins to assist her to speed up the process. I know Laura well, but in this moment I do not know who she is: over the course of the day she has shifted forms, taking on a number of roles—panellist, backstage production crew, timekeeper, bar staff. She has moved compliantly in and out of focus. Now she is centre stage, both assertive and entirely subservient.
As if aware of the ambiguous entanglement I feel growing denser by the minute, Peter McCaughey ends the set with a song—the worst song in the world, we’re cheerfully told—Tell Laura I Love Her. He dedicates it to our Laura, hapless in the centre, mixing everyone’s drinks.
Tell Laura I love her, tell Laura I need her
Tell Laura not to cry
My love for her will never die
This one rouses the crowd: we sing along with a giddy electricity, getting louder and louder, howling the chorus with uproarious devotion. Laura continues with her work, in demand in so many ways.
We go from Anne-Marie Copestake’s cocktails and jovial singing, into an academic-style talk, losing Revel-ers in the transition. I feel for our speaker Grant Watson—it’s a tough slot—and perform intent listening to his extensive research on pedagogue Rabindranath Tajore’s trip to Indonesia, where he studied batik textiles, gathering resources for his university and art school at Santiniketan, West Bengal. Grant elaborates on how this period of Tajore’s explorations played a transcultural role as well as political one, through utopian ideas about arts and crafts, education reform and cultural renewal as part of a wider project of decolonisation. Grant is joined by Ranjana in discussion—sharing what Tajore means to their own projects individually, and providing insights into Indian philosophy and a complex character.
On the lawn a group forms a circle, a gaggle of audience members and contributors. Throughout the day they’ve been snatching pockets of time to gather and rehearse, now they present a script read round the circle—one or two lines each before the next person takes up the mic. This is Adam Benmakhlouf’s ‘Amdram’ script taken into their own voices, and the lines seem to resonate with the crowd’s own experiences of the kind of conversations that are brought about in ‘trying to educate unconventionally and unlearn habits of hierarchy’. (Everyone is laughing). It’s entertaining, critical, maybe a bit of an in-joke, but relatable to: it reminds me of being part of artist-led committees, peer-learning groups, workplaces… The statements speak of the effort of collaboration, the conflicts that occur and roles we take on when we try to work together on an even keel, pressures at play throughout today. I lose some of what people are saying as the wireless mic crackles and I fiddle with the antenna on the PA:
But if everyone’s sat in perfect rows facing us, won’t that look like a class? Can we not do something like a circle, semi-circles?
No, I get how this is really important to talk about, but it’s already past lunchtime.
Why did I bother making an agenda if we’re just gonna talk about other stuff all day?
Why do you get to check out? Then all of us have to pick up the slack.
Hardeep Pandhal (performing as MIDIevil) covers his whole head with a sinister metal cage, under which he wears a mask that muffles his expressions; his voice comes from this prison. Joe Howe (Spider Knife), taking to a desk strewn with tech, has fashioned himself a bubble gum pink, cardboard and gaffa tape (?) mortarboard hat, a flourish that seems to nod to the figure of the Ignorant Schoolmaster. Their emblematic garb turns them almost into characters like those I’ve seen before in Hardeep’s darkly comic animated films, sound designed by Joe. Bobbing his clumsy helmet behind the mic Hardeep breaks from monotone rap, (rightly) laughing at his own jokes on the art world’s cynical manoeuvres and instrumentalisation of POC artists. Barely keeping it together, the audience gets behind him with small sniggers and full blown hoots.
We walk to a warehouse at the other end of the sprawling gardens. It takes a while and I appreciate the breather. I am walking with the other I of this text and we use the time to debrief—I’m knackered, are you knackered, I don’t know if I am absorbing anything anymore—but then talk about other things, the plants, different places and times.
When the warehouse doors close, sealing the space and audience in darkness, I am reminded of the scene at the end of Carrie, the doors of the high school gym slamming shut, preventing escape, locking the students into their fate.
The Otolith Group’s film is framed by bushy reeds and bamboo plants; the back wall is covered in rakes and brushes of all sizes. It’s slightly damp in there, earthy smelling. It’s a return to the figure of Rabindranath Tagore: the film’s title, O Horizon, refers to the surface layer of soil, changed in the area around Santiniketan as the result of Tagore’s introduction of new flora, during the development of the campus of Visva-Bharati, the modern school of arts he founded in 1921.
I stand at the back for the screening, opening and closing a small side door for attendees who are late or are looking for the bathroom. I can’t see subtitles over shadowy shoulders and heads. Loosened from semantic content, I watch the film as sound, colour, movement. I follow a singer’s voice through peppery undulations into a soft-edged thought about wavering as a form of searching, testing the stable, locating the solid. It is cold in the room and repeatedly I move onto my tiptoes and back, pressing into the balls of my feet to feel a warm stretch in my calves and ankles. A swarm of dancers in a circle heave and sink as one.
On our return, the marquee has been transformed. The chairs are gone and Harun Morrison is DJing beside a disco ball and some colourful, sprangley party lights. Final few social media efforts: a friend’s hand trickling through streamers, another’s spinning the disco ball, that’s enough. People dance, as the celebratory sense of revel moves into the limelight. The night is blurry, scattered, like the end of a wedding, or of a gala day disco. Odd groups of familiar and strange people talk and drink and spin and laugh. I feel a little delirious. I am not sure if I am still at work, if I am supposed to be doing something—am I allowed a drink? I have one anyway and take two in my bag for the road.
Jamie Donald is an artist and writer. She is Head of a Few Different Things at Wooosh Gallery—the best gallery in the whole world—and recently separated from GENERATORprojects.
Alison Scott is an artist, writer and art-worker newly based in Angus who often works with other people on projects and in collaborations. Recent work has drawn on daily encounters with weather, land and the idea of the commons, with organisations like Hospitalfield, Collective and Cove Park.
Jamie and Alison are both deeply embroiled with Cooper Gallery, DJCAD in various ways.
The 12 Hour Sit-in Revel forms part of Cooper Gallery’s ‘Ignorant Art School’ programme and took place at University of Dundee’s Botanical Gardens from 11am to 11pm on Saturday 25 June 2022