To Be Potential is an error.
As in, the title—To Be Potential—was initially a typo in an email, sent when this exhibition was in its early development. Through affinity, and something like a deep faith in imagination, the phrase was seized and brought to reverence in thick purple type on posters and various other promotional materials. The meaning is muddling, ambiguous, like most accidents. Softer in the adjective sense—to be budding, promising, embryonic—harsher as a noun—to be possibility, to be promise, to be power.
She is potential. He was potential. They are potential. We will be potential.
Only the singular first-person present tense I am potential gets away without a blue squiggly line in my Google docs draft, as if the grammatical slippage were only tolerable when one is caught in a moment of profound self-belief. I don’t have it, I am it.
Mutations such as these are both the nature of language and the reason I will not use Grammarly. To be potential is to be unfixed, deviant, to be capable of change.
To be mutation, then. A surprise, a wide new pool leaking from the bath of expected possibilities.
I worked on much of this exhibition. It would be strange to write about it as if I had not. I am budding, as it were, in my professional capacity. I was entrusted with handling the show’s many archival loans and materials, monitoring their condition, their adherence to stasis—a vague amusement for someone who often feels intent on doing damage to that which came before.
I wore white gloves. I opened boxes and envelopes attentively, documenting each step of the procedure and each thing that spilled from its package to a crisp, clean, acid-free bed.
One envelope, the last in a series containing pieces of a drawing/collage/installation from 1970 reads, ‘two lengths of cotton string’. It revealed its contents to be curled, yellowed and stiff with age. The rounded scissors I used to open their packaging could easily have shortened each length a touch; with no accompanying record of their exact dimensions, no one would be any the wiser.
Anne Bean, the artist behind this work, came to the gallery to oversee its re-installation. As part of a reconstruction of its original context, The White Room—including a grid of freshly bought string, more straw-like than cotton—she directed me in the unfaithful recreation, a choreography of demonstration and instruction, looping string from wall to wall, between soft pastel bellies and bound, photographed necks. She spoke of her teacher—her collaborator—and connections across time.
As a finishing touch, Anne took a piece of white chalk and drew a single straight white line across one of her drawings. The work is on loan, no longer her drawing, exactly. I tell her that I will be the one who has to report the damage.
As elsewhere, the process of reproduction invites mutation.
‘To improvise and control a flexible structure requires more wit and enterprise than devising an administrative and artistic trap.’
So says Tom Hudson, artist and arts educator, in the pages of another reproduction, a booklet, lightly secured to a shelf in the main gallery space. Through an oversight in printing, the following page is missing, one even number skipping almost inconspicuously to the next. The flat spine of what had been a perfect bound paperback is transmuted—pressed into an acute fold, and stapled. The layers of taped-on call numbers cannot be picked off.
Hudson was a proponent of holistic art education, of open ended creative learning, of the revolutionary and constantly evolving Basic Course that ultimately lost its potency through success, when its model was cemented as the foundation course at art schools around the country. Fluidity frozen into a fixed, ubiquitous curriculum.
In the lower foyer space of the gallery, another mutant lingers in the air. It took me many listens, or rather, much of the activity adjacent to listening that exhibition invigilators do, to realise that the northern european accents in this sound work do not align with its fragmented stories of Cuban poets, the Stonewall riots and early Black poetry. That the words swirling through the air were themselves uncanny reproductions, delocated and deformed.
The Free University of New York was a self-declared University. It was because it said it was. There were classes, screenings, discussions, debates, all running from a ramshackle, comfy apartment, no different to those of its students and staff.
At some point, it underwent a fatal mutation of name. A floating voice tells me, tells me, tells me that The Free University became The Free School, and with the depletion of status came the depletion of appeal. ‘The New York State Board of Regions requires that, to be a university, you have to have $500,000 dollars in assets.’
A story closer to home: market values squandering educational potential.
I am lucky to be participant-of and witness-to many groups that declare themselves to be what they are. Unprofessional learning programmes, peer support groups, willfully ignorant initiatives intent on supplementing, supplanting and succeeding the structures that came before them. These can seem anomalous, fleeting: short sparks of collectivity, confidence, coherence, hard to pin down, hard to maintain. I am not sure what will go in our envelopes.
In To Be Potential, each could find solid precedents for their being, could trace lineages of utopic thinking and action. But in its intention to exhibit the successes of revolutionary experiments of the past, To Be Potential equally points to their ends, their traps, the disappointments that ground the current crises of arts education.
To be potential now is one thing, but to stay potential, then?
In both its material form and pedagogical content, this exhibition holds that mutation is a survival strategy; that for the value in any practice, system, or knowledge to sustain, its carrier mustbe in constant embroilment with change. Must be embroilment with change. Must be a champion of the blue squiggly line.
He will be potential. She will be potential. They will be potential. We will be potential.
Jamie Donald is an artist, writer and budding exhibitions assistant, deeply embroiled with Cooper Gallery, DJCAD. She is Head of a Few Different Things at Wooosh Gallery—the best gallery in the whole world—and recently separated from GENERATORprojects.
To Be Potential is the second ‘Sit-In’ of the ongoing ‘Ignorant Art School’ at Cooper Gallery, DJCAD, Dundee running from 3 December 2021 to 19 February 2022.
Anne Bean, Drawing Life (1970/2021)
Tom Hudson, Address to World Congress of Art Education, as cited by David Thistlewood in A Continuing Process: the New Creativity in Art Education 1955-65, Institute of Contemporary Art (1981/2021)
Jakob Jakobsen, The Free University of New York is Changing as You Listen to This: An Audio Play for Six Voices and Three Speakers (2018/2021)