Interview with Christopher Kennedy

February 8th 2010


Interview with Christopher Kennedy

New Jersey born and bred, and now currently residing in Bushwick, Christopher is a project-based artist whose work takes a keen interest in situated learning, collaborative reciprocity and research-based practices. He is also the founder of The Institute for Applied Aesthetics and co-founder of the School of the Future.

Christopher Kennedy

IS: Much of your work seems to investigate methods of communication, often inviting the viewer to participate in the experience.  What is it about this interactive element to the work that interests you?

CK: I truly think art is about problem solving, it provides the entry point for creative exploration, a way to experience the world in meaningful ways and respond to both processes.

I tend to work primarily in the public realm – in schools and institutions, in public spaces and parks. Audience participation is often key and I try and setup projects that explore ways to explore and play with engagement. In each situation I try to communicate with my body through performance, with objects and installation but most importantly through learning, through education and the many manifestations that takes.

I believe strongly that education is an art practice; that is as legitimate and meaningful as sculpture, painting or any other artistic medium. In the exchange that learning facilitates – the role of the artist can shift toward citizen, and the citizen toward artist and activator, toward educator, historian and researcher among others. And so for me learning is inherently about authentic and meaningful exchange. A kind of exchange that I think is about more than just depositing knowledge but rather experience; experience with people, with the world and the objects, situations and relationships that make up that world.

Pedagogical practices that focus on aesthetics and creative problem solving provide for us a way to structure this exchange; and through this communities form. Ultimately, this is what I am interested in– the facilitation, the creation, the development and continuity of “community”. How can art authentically motivate a community of practice, a community of interest – a group of people who develop through shared experiences and sustain coherence beyond engagement with the artist or project? A community can mean many things; for me community is about trust and accountability, commitment and longevity, its about access and shared repertoires, shared historical and cultural experiences and the motivation of collaborative presence.

In my practice I am trying to build a community of practice, The Institute for Applied Aesthetics a school where novices exchange with experts, experts exchange with novices – a school about schools. Currently, the IAA encompasses a community of interest – the gathering of like-minded, curious and impassioned artists/educators who find learning, research and pedagogical practice interesting and impactful. At some point I hope it will morph into an autonomous and functioning community of practice, which is more about action and motivating some kind of new experience in the world.

What’s incredibly interesting is experimenting with ways of cultivating this kind of community – the most effective way I have found is through what Jean Lave has termed “legitimate peripheral participation” – the idea that learning is situated; that learning happens best when it comes from the ambient community, our surroundings, our rubbing ourselves up against life! From this, real and legitimate communities of practice form.

Cloud Parade, Christopher Kennedy

IS: With a practice mainly focused on experiences and exchanges, how do you address the role of documentation within your practice?

CK: Documentation has been a problematic thing in the past, and continues to be a challenge. I don’t make many objects, or at least I rarely set out to do so. I of course take pictures and video and try to save any artifacts of a project, but I think for me the conventional notion of “documentation” has not been sufficient in recording the transactions or evidence of creative practices and exchanges in a way that a gallerist or institution can process easily. For instance, how do you document “learning”, how can you document “education”, the transaction of knowledge?

The true mark of “success” I think, is something that is autonomous and long-term, something that can’t be measured by surveys or images, a kind of hidden infrastructure that in its very composition requires a bit of mystery, requires an unknown element in order it to thrive and be authentic. My documentation in this sense tends to be about a group of people – their stories, their faces, their histories.

This question of documentation reminds me immensely of the standards-based movement here in the United States, a No Child Left Behind pedagogy that demands results, report-cards for schools, for principals, assessments of literacy, proficiency, attitudes, skills and behaviors. It’s so curious to me that the best forms of learning – experiential and project-based – can’t be measured with an assessment rubric, yet we try to hold ourselves up to that criterion in every way! The fact remains, we will never be able to assess a child’s sense of wonder as she discovers a worm for the first time or understands that we are on a planet of many culture, many peoples. These things can’t be measured empirically and it is precisely that which brings those processes and exchanges value.

I think collaborative and dialogic art, and applied aesthetics in general harbor the same quality – for there is no way to effectively measure the formation of a community, the affects of an intervention, because to quantify such a thing inherently negates its value. Of course – I think there are many creative ways to compliment the process – to invite an audience into the progress and the outcomes of a project.

I like to use research, archiving and open source databases to provoke a sense of “documentation”. I like to think of myself as a researcher of life; research being a creative practice I engage in regularly. I’m constantly researching my terrain, because its always changing, its always different, people come and go and places evolve from these exchanges.

I started the Institute for Applied Aesthetics as a way of grouping many projects and the artifacts, documents and processes of these projects into one framework. I think secretly this was an attempt at making my endeavors more clear – while critiquing the idea of an institution in itself.

When I complete a series of interesting research explorations I group them into a research publication that is released to the public. Right now I’m working on a publication called The Artist-Run Space of the Future, which will reflect on a 6-month research project I led this past year called Artiscycle. It will cull together information from 11 different major cities and dozens of independent art spaces about how they work, their organizational models and their strategies for engaging publics.

The Mobile Urban Garden, Christopher Kennedy

IS: To what extent do you see collaboration and discussion as important factors in the production and development your art practice?

CK: Everything I do is collaborative. Although it can be cumbersome and delicate, I can’t think of any other way of working. In the collaborative process I’m able to enter into dialogues, worlds, adventures that would otherwise lie dormant. I think as humans we are collaborative, we are a part of some many collective elements that its in our DNA. Unseen energies, geologic cycles, the nutrients breaking down below our feet – the earth is one large system and we are all a part of it.

In terms of art practice I think it’s a challenge especially in a western culture to “work together” because we have developed an ethos of competition, of individuality and singular credit. But I think those barriers are beginning to break down and we are returning to the tribal once again. I think of artists as the troubadours for this movement, they are leading the way and demonstrating how we can work together through a creative practice.  Corporations and non-profits, Latinos and Asian Americans, neighborhood moms and Wall Street businessmen, we have so much collective knowledge. But sometimes it takes someone else to access it, to tap in and make it readily available. I think of collaboration as the catalyst for this.

IS: How did your collaboration with Cassandra Thornton and the formation of The School of the Future come about?

CK: Cassie picked me up at a bar in Brooklyn one cold evening after a performance I did at a place called Lumenhouse in Bushwick. She had got her hands on some literature I had made from the performance and was convinced she needed to meet me. Adorned with tribal war paint, a colorful poncho and glitter in her hair, we immediately started to talk about art in a language that made sense to us both. Since that fortuitous night we continued to talk, provided each other “project therapy” and began most recently to collaborate on her project, the Teaching Artist Union. The TAU is about 250 teaching artists in NYC who consider education apart of their creative practice.

They get together each month, skill-share and discuss the needs of the community in NYC, which has very little support or funding. The first project of the TAU is the School of the Future. Early on we decided that a merger between the Institute for Applied Aesthetics and the Teaching Artist Union needed to happen in order to make School of the Future successful. One night we drafted a large contract and signed our names in India ink and kissed the dotted line with red lipstick. With the contract signed, our conglomeration was now complete and we began to forge ahead with plans for the school.

We are also developing a further manifestation of this project called Demonstration District, which will organize an idealistic school district made of artist run schools. The District’s goal is to organize an autonomous response to a recent boom of artist run schools that demand structure and legitimization as an art form. In forming the District, we are offering a researched critique of the American public school system and a plausible alternative.


School of the Future

IS: What do you hope to achieve with The School of the Future?

CK: The School of the Future is an artist-run school for teaching artists. Opening this July in Bushwick’s Sgt. Dougherty Park for a month of 24 hour programming, this school serves as the first center devoted to the resourcefulness and adaptability of teaching artists. Each curriculum developed for the school is an art project, making the school a group show for 50 artists. The projects will be designed to use art as a learning process that activates and considers the site of the school. School of the Future celebrates and exhibits the work of teaching artists as experts in learning through performing and visual arts. The School’s building is the launching pad for the art movement of education.

The school is really about exhibiting the creative process of a teaching artist. The teaching artists here in the states are a supplement to most schools that have little or no funding for arts. They ride the subways carrying the art department in their backpacks hailing from non-profits, museums and institutions. They have no home and little support. The School of the Future provides a home for the teaching artist. But in a larger sense, it’s also an opportunity to comment on public education; the School of the Future will provide a contrast to conventional learning processes that are creative, transparent and eliminate the hierarchical roles of the student and the teacher.

The site we have chosen or the School is situated between a major highway, a brownfield site, several scrap yards and a strip mall. We hope to use the School to re-connect community-members to the site and to leave the park more healthy than when we arrived.

We will be constructing a schoolhouse in collaboration with Columbia’s School of Architecture and Planning that will provide modular classroom spaces in the park. The idea is for the schoolhouse to be able to travel to different cities, different parks and provide a home for alternative pedagogical practices. Everyone at the school will be a student and teacher, our audience is everyone, the whole community, local workforce, neighborhood moms, youth, people and artists. Our curriculum will range from finding solutions to ecological problems in the park to re-imagining fine arts curriculum. The School will also provide an opportunity for academic research on the process of arts-education in a creative way. We hope to provide data on how the School of the Future can be a learning model for communities, for schools and for artists now and in the future.

The School of the Future is a commentary on the art movement of education, a recent way of pedagogical projects and practices. We want to raise awareness of their importance and legitimate education as an art form. School of the Future embodies this idea and provides for communities a means through which to access and participate with this movement.

The Institute for Applied Aesthetics

IS: Which New York based artists or spaces do you find particularly exciting at the moment?

CK: Center for Urban Pedagogy, ABC NO Rio, Common Room. Proteus Gowanus, Eyebeam, FEAST, The Public School, Fixers Collective, Caroline Woolard, Huong Ngo, Colin McMullan, Eve Mosher, Athena Kokoronis, Simon Draper, Sharon Hayes, Mary Mattingly, Sophie Calle, Marissa Jahn, Sal Randolph