text-Essay
Theresia Stipp: Educational Sidekick? Or: what ‘Art in the Classroom’ means for education. KVL Bulletin. 2020.

Kunst in der Klasse is a cooperative project by the IGS-Langenhagen (integrated comprehensive school) and the art institution Kunstverein Langenhagen. For as long as nine months, the classroom of a 10th grade class is transformed into an exhibition space and thus - a satellite of the Kunstverein. Three artists are invited to each create an artwork for this space and context. The artists meet with the students several times before and after the work is installed. This continuous exchange is accompanied by Noor Mertens, the curator of the Kunstverein, Antje Kaps, the art teacher of the class, and Theresia Stipp, an art educator.

Kunst in der Klasse [Art in the Classroom] turns art education upside-down. Typically, a school class visits the Kunstverein, where the artwork is present and awaits its spectators. It is my familiar surrounding as an art educator and an unknown place for the visiting students. I already know the work. It is my task to build a bridge between the class and the artwork and to start a dialogue between the two.

This basic requirement of art education is disrupted by Kunst in der Klasse. Now, I am the guest, alongside the curator and the invited artist. The students and the art teacher are in their familiar surroundings - awaiting us. And most importantly: the artwork is not there, yet. I do not know the piece and am therefore on the same level as the students. So, what is there to talk about?

Kunst in der Klasse offers the rare possibility to get in touch with the prior of the piece. In contrast to common art education, this is a situation that makes accessible what exists before the artwork becomes physical. Together with the students, the art teacher, and the curator, I get an insight into the creative process, the questions and ideas of the different artists. My job as the art educator, therefore, is to pave the way for the artwork and to accompany its presence. The artwork is not just a guest, but also an intruder and disturbance in the classroom. It is all about enabling an open and curious attitude. In this case the education is not a bridge between the class and the artwork, but mediation between each and everyone involved in the project. It is about creating a network between students, artists, curator, and teachers and encouraging a conversation.

Three meetings took place for the prior of Paula Loeffler's work ‘criminal sidekick’ that led to the opening and arrival of the artwork. The students should (and wanted to) be involved in the development of the artwork. Not in the physical creation of the work - that’s up to the artist her- or himself. The students would rather enter the thought-space of the work as well as consider the questions of the artist.

The supervision of these lessons was taken over by the artist Paula Löffler who introduced herself at our first meeting and presented some drafts of her work ‘criminal sidekick’. Her introduction was followed by a game of ‘Quizoola’ to help all participants to get to know each other in a new way. During her second meeting, Paula Löffler set a creative assignment for the students: “You’ve found something - a newspaper article, a diary entry, a video…-from the year 2085.” This paradoxical idea of a future past that strikes the present can be practically experienced from Löffler’s own work. The students created (mainly dystopian) videos, texts, drawings, a radio-broadcast and a written advertisement that promoted an invention. The majority of the students imagined the future as destroyed by war and environmental pollution.

The third meeting was the day of the opening. Following the suggestion of their art teacher, the students split in groups, and dedicated themselves to tasks like “interviews” or “documentation”, thus partially taking responsibility for the opening event. While the artist was preparing for her performance, the students were busy taking photos, preparing drinks and snacks, distributing posters, etc. The performance starts. The students are present. They swap their potted plants for T-shirts and small ceramic objects made by the artist. They observe. At 11:35 sharp - they disappear. Their lunch break is finished - the performance is not. Again it becomes clear that the artwork is a visitor at the school.

The prior of the artwork is followed by its presence. When we meet again to contemplate the opening, the students have already been living with the work for a week. First experiences with the artwork and recollections of the performance are shared. The students feel involved with the artwork. They were allowed to help during the opening. The plant-swapping is mentioned positively. It is reported with pride, how passersby admired the strangely illuminated classroom. Somebody had even taken a photo and shared it on WhatsApp. Some questions are asked (“is this some sort of winter garden?”), negative critique (“it’s pretty cramped”) and positive remarks (“I like how the piece is not too obvious. One can have all sorts of thoughts about it”) are made.

This is exactly where the second part of the education job begins. This phase is all about delving into the experiences of the students - to strengthen and deepen them - and eventually preparing for the farewell of the artwork. As a team, we plan two additional meetings with the students. The first is supervised by Paula Löffler, the second by myself. These meetings focus on two aspects of the work: first, the meaning of text and language, and second, the materiality of the object. For the first meeting, the artist prepared five questions relating to her performance. These are printed and the copies are distributed throughout the room. The students pick one or more questions and address them in a practical approach.

If Europe was an animal, what would it look like? What kind of care would it need? How would its habitat look like? Does the animal speak a language that you can understand? Does it have a special skill? What is its skillset? How old can it become?

If you were an animal, what would it look like? Additionally, Paula Löffler offers to polish the students’ nails with some nail polish she brought with her. Alongside the confrontation of gender-stereotypes, which are an ubiquitous topic in her work, this exercise challenges the barrier between the teachers, people connected to the Kunstverein, and the group of students. Polishing nails creates a sense of closeness. And indeed: whilst many practical works emerge, quite a few personal conversations evolve between artist and students. The meeting ends with the presentation of the works of the students and the farewell of the artist. In our last encounter, we want to take a final closer look at the work. We stack the chairs and tables up at the other side of the room to have enough space to get a fresh perspective. After all, the work has resided here for as long as two months and has almost become part of the inventory of the classroom. I set two tasks for the students, which were developed together with the art teacher: Draw a section of the artwork that you haven't seen before.

Imagine you are the creature that lives in the diorama. What do you see? Amongst other pieces, an entirely black page (“that’s what the creature sees because it has its eyes closed”), a drawing of the classroom ceiling, and a peak through the plant leaves into the classroom are drawn.

Now - have we succeeded in mediating Paula Löffler's work ‘criminal sidekick’? What will stay with the students from the experience of this project? The experimental, procedural character of the project does not allow for an ultimate conclusion. Experiences are what have been created. A process: the prior, the presence and the aftermath have been experienced collectively. And actually - we are still right in the middle of it.

Theresia Stipp is art educator and co-supervisor of the project „Kunst in der Klasse“.