‘Swords are to be inspected by staff.’ This statement, along with a number of other seemingly non sequitur orders (‘Playing with water indoors is forbidden’ or ‘No sticks with nails in them’), form Corin Sworn’s silkscreen bill ‘The Rules’, 2006. The black and white print is rendered in high-waisted art nouveau typography and is encased in a deep border of whiplash curlicues—a design that gives an unlikely aesthetic sophistication to the otherwise authoritative dictates.
These are the rules of Summerhill, an alternative school founded in Dresden by Scottish progressive AS Neill in 1921, which was originally set up in opposition to corporal punishment. The rules listed in Sworn’s work, strangely specific in some instances and entirely sensible in others, are a pooling of ‘common sense’ (rather than pedagogy) in its most basic collective form: Summerhill sought to hand over autonomy to its pupils and level the authority of teachers to that of their students. But Sworn’s list is by no means exhaustive; these dictates have in fact been reappropriated from a published list that was recorded by a Scandinavian visitor in 1971. The desire to record and reprint these transient rules seems purposefully wayward to the school’s fluid and anarchic structure.
‘The Rules’, like much of Sworn’s work, has a slippery relationship with time, history, ‘the facts’. It oscillates through a series of non-linear moments: the work presents the ideals of a 1921 school, recorded by an external party in the 1970s, and articulates these selective aspects through turn-of-the-century design. Such temporal hiccups recur throughout the artist’s practice, which spans sculpture, drawing, video and installation. Her navigation through historical events often results in speculative scenarios that are fractured or reanimated through her wilfully subjective and abstracted renderings. For instance, in drawings such as ‘It Is Not The Belief That Is In Question But Its Efficacy’, 2006, and ‘USA 1972’, 2005, Sworn adopts a photorealist technique—a style contemporaneous to the period she seeks to evoke but that also seems to shortcircuit the historicity of the image. Neither entirely document nor hallucination, the drawings are caught between both.
Sworn, who works in both Vancouver and Glasgow, has developed a primarily research-based practice that has, in recent years, increasingly centred on alternative methods of learning and associated depictions of childhood. In many ways this interest is paradoxical. The progressive nature of the early methodologies in modern learning possesses naïve hopefulness free of institutionalised responsibility. It presents an avant garde that, in retrospect, also enjoys an impossibly optimistic (if not equally antiquated) radicalism. Meanwhile, the subject of such methodologies— childhood—emerges in Sworn’s practice as a symbolic state of mind that seems strangely unaged and perpetual.
In Sworn’s ‘Faktura’, 2007, a handheld video camera records a contemporary ‘adventure playground’, an environment where children construct their own play spaces. The camera assiduously documents the remnants of the site, follows the footsteps of an adult guide with an absorbing anthropological gaze similar to that of ethnographic films by Jean Rouch. The guide notes the ever-changing nature of the playground, which is torn down annually, only to be built again by another group of children the following year. Yet it is important to note that Sworn’s research in ‘Faktura’, as well as her Summerhill project, has less to do with a nostalgic interest in radical youth than it is a complex engagement with agency and subjectivity, and how the compromise of each might be explored or negotiated.
In an earlier work, ‘Adventure Playground’, 2006, for example, Sworn sought a direct relationship with the playground phenomenon. She reconstructed Danish artist Palle Nielsen’s 1968 ‘The Model—A Model for Qualitative Society’, an adventure playground originally constructed on the site of the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, as part of a three-week exhibition visited by 33,000 visitors, two-thirds of whom were children. But unlike the actionism of Nielsen, Sworn explicitly withdrew her agency from ‘Adventure Playground’. Her authority was removed from both the creation (which was Nielsen’s) and the participatory element of the work. The loose pedagogical framework was left to unfold in experimental, risky, or indeed historically repeating scenarios. Next to ‘Adventure Playground’, then, ‘Faktura’ appears as an epilogue of sorts. Shot by an adult and narrated by an adult, it shows the regenerative cycle of these environments created by something akin to another species, ultimately unknowable and always out of shot.
Sworn’s knowing anthropological eye is not without its own sense of surreality, however. Her practice is heavily accented by a hallucinatory approach towards images that is evident, not only in her aforementioned drawings, but also in the recent work, ‘After School Special’, 2009. This 20-minute video, Sworn’s longest film to date, consists of reappropriated footage from Jonathan Kaplan’s teen movie Over the Edge, 1979, as well as shorter establishing landscape shots from the television series Wings Over Canada, 1999. For ‘After School Special’, the cast of Kaplan’s feature have been overdubbed with adult voices, minimal music scores, and Sworn has created her own sequence of abstract scenes within Over the Edge by making her own pans and zooms within the original shots. Dreamlike and droll, this dense work shows Sworn moving into highly emotive, and explicitly non-neutral territory. The subjectivity of characters (one of whom is recognisable as the broken-voiced Matt Dillon in his first feature role) is moulded from the originally blank and bored faces of etiolated youth, into a melancholic and esoteric voice that speaks lyrically of suburban displacement and social marginalisation.
The dramatic irony that mounts both throughout ‘After School Special’, and Sworn’s practice more generally, is that her portraits of youthful consciousness are always presented in retrograde. This implies, then, that the audience—that of the adult gallery viewer—is never wholly neutral within Sworn’s scenarios, but instead emerges as an unwitting inheritor of such social visions.
Isla Leaver-Yap is MAP’s editor-at-large