Showing images of violence to teenagers

We live in a world full of violent imagery. Some of this is factual some of it fictional. Our teenage children are as much submerged in this world as any of us. Some fifteen year olds are immensely sensitive to this aspect of our visual world, others seem immune to it, whilst others seem almost to crave it.

As someone who teaches art and visual culture I see at least part of my task as helping the young people I teach to engage and understand the nature of the images that they are constantly bombarded with, be that through the news media, social media, art or advertising. It is a form of visual literacy, developing an appreciation and understanding for the visual world around us.

Particularly when referring to images of violence in war this brings me and my pupils into a sensitive areas and raises questions about what I can show them in a lesson situation and what is appropriate. I was confronted this week by exactly this dilemma. It came within the context of a cross-curricular project week on the theme of war and peace. Most timetable subjects participate and twist their lesson material in such a way that it touches on this shared theme in one way or another.

In my art course I had planned a couple of lessons. The first one of which was simply to take a look at how the presentation of conflict has changed through the centuries and how we the viewer are affected by what we see and what the creator of the artwork or photographer wanted us to think.  We talked about battlefield images ranging from those on Ancient Greek ceramics, the Bayeux Tapestry, the Medieval conflicts depicted during the Renaissance. I gradually brought the developments through the centuries and reached the hugely significant moment around the beginning of the nineteenth century where we go from the heroic images of Napoleon on the battlefield to the victim of war being pushed to centre stage in Goya’s 3rd May. From then on the nature of the imagery becomes a whole lot more confrontational as we move through the First and Second World War.

Most of what I show my groups of fourteen and fifteen year olds are paintings. But by the second half of the twentieth century it is difficult to ignore the place of photography and to help me cover this I have an interesting film about World Press Photography award winning images.  The film discusses a number of photographs, but two in particular are dealt with at length. Firstly, the iconic image made by Eddie Adams of a street execution in Vietnam. It’s a shockingly confrontational image, and one that I remember thinking long and hard about in the past as to whether to show it to my pupils or not. It is also an image that is embedded in our visual culture and I know now that many in the class will have come across the photograph in other contexts. Seen alongside Goya’s image of execution it presents an excellent opportunity to consider how the tools of the painter and photographer allow to experience moments of extreme destruction, what are the advantages and disadvantages of the different media? Why do we feel what we do when viewing the images?

Perhaps more importantly though, it is a particular land mark in the sort of journalistic photography that we (my pupils included) are confronted with all too often in a news reporting context. Offering the pupils, a greater understanding of how we respond to these sorts of images is certainly worth doing. It raises a plethora of questions that can be discussed and the pupils themselves have plenty to opinions and ideas to bring to the discussion, the place in our lives of imagery of real and fictional violence being a particularly interesting one to have.

But does this mean that I can show my pupils anything and everything? The second photograph in the film, David Turnley’s helicopter interior form the first Gulf War back at the beginning of the 1990s. It’s a powerful image that doesn’t show the violence as much as the results and consequences of the violence as a fully kitted out American soldier sits crying next to the body of his friend that is concealed in a body bag. I wouldn’t hesitate to show and discuss this image with my fourteen and fifteen olds. Yet in the same film there is a twenty second sequence where I turn the screen off. It shows the results of the bombing of the Iraqi column of vehicles that were bombed when they were fleeing Kuwait. I draw the line at showing the graphic images of this monumental destruction with its burnt bodies and unimaginable suffering.

My action of turning the screen off (and explaining why) always prompts discussion. Like I said at the start some teenagers seem almost to crave this sort of imagery. I feel no inclination to feed this craving in my lessons, but I do want to lead my pupils to seriously consider the journalistic photographs that report the world around us. It is a fine line to tread on occasions, a point that was brought home to me this week by a pupil who expressed nervousness when searching for her own images to be used in a related project didn’t want to be confronted by shocking photographs from the battlefield. A reason to tread cautiously, but not one to step away from the subject.

Other war and art related projects:

There they stood project

Guernica project

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Studio day

Since Christmas I’ve been working on a series of drawings that merge elements of geometry with the more chaotic side of nature. Nature, you could say is being checked and controlled by hard edges being imposed on it.

The drawings have been progressing well, and at speed, so the point has been reached of scaling the up a little to see how they work in a larger form.fullsizerender5

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Music buying habits of teenagers, copyright and my quietest lessons of the year

For the last few years, during the art and cultural awareness course that I teach to my fourth years (15-16 years old), I have included a series of lessons that focus on the theme of the remix in all areas of culture and how the copyright laws affect both creators and users of culture.

It is an area that is close to the pupils and leads to interesting discussions. I asked them this week about their music buying habits. When I was at school as a teenager, everyone spent money on actually buying the vinyl or CDs of their favourite bands. This week in one of my classes of twenty-four pupils, just four had ever paid directly for a music track (either in the form of a physical object or legal download). A number of others pay indirectly by using Spotify but the majority either download from ‘other’ sources or simply make do with YouTube or (and I still find this slightly surprising) listen to the radio.

The content of the lessons certainly doesn’t just stop at our music buying and listening habits though. I focus more on the creative people whose work in their field could be described as a form of remix and the collisions this may or may not bring with the laws of copyright. This may be in music, film, visual arts or design.

The core of the whole series of lessons is try and get the pupils to evaluate their own position and opinions in just how creative any form of remix is and how this may compare to comparable but ‘non-remix’ work forms.

When I present them at the start of the module with the question of who is being the most creative; someone who takes a box of watercolour paints and makes a picture, someone who plays a Mozart piano sonata or someone using a computer to make a remix? Almost without exception they all choose for the painter. Not that surprising maybe, but it’s just an initial thought in opening up their minds to the world of the remix in all its forms and what it actually means to be creative. In doing this we touch on the laws of copyright, intellectual ownership, the lengths that some cultural practitioners go to in order protect their work and the impact the digital world has had on this complex and changing field.

I make use of some excellent online material such as the films below:

Having presented them with a range of examples and situations to consider I also ask them to have a go at creating their own remix.  I have two main assignments that I make use of.

The first is a digital graphic design assignment. It sounds straight forward enough. They have to design a poster for a music festival. I provide them with a limited collection of image material, a set of about twelve varied pictures that they may use. They are allowed to rework work them, crop, filter and add colour to them. They are also required to add the necessary text to advertise the festival, but the twelve images are the limit, they are not allowed to source any of their own images.

Of course at the end of the design process there are recognizable elements and overlaps in all of the posters. But what is interesting to see, and the pupils see this also clearly for themselves, is that some have been a whole lot more imaginative and varied in their use of the basic material.

The second practical assignment is to use one of the online remix studios and sound libraries to create their very own remix. I use www.soundation.com or www.looplabs.com. They both offer similar possibilities, extensive libraries of sounds and rhythms. Each fragment is just that, a fragment, mostly very short. These have to be combined and built up into a composition.

Let me be clear, I am not a music teacher, this is a little outside of my field. However, in a sense, it is not about producing a beautiful, complex and immaculately combined track. It is about giving the pupils a chance to work with preexisting sound fragments, to order and manipulate them, to challenge them to see just what they can achieve in this very new area of creative practice for them.

soundation

They respond well, once the headphones go on I get my quietest lessons of year. Eyes are glued to the screen, tongues often nipped between lips of concentrated faces. We subsequently spend a lesson listening to the results. Some can really be quite impressive, combining varied sounds and subtle transitions, others, if I’m honest, sometimes sound like a kind of brown, musical soup!

Whichever assignment is chosen, the most important question of all comes at the end. Whilst working on your remix or poster design, making use of ‘other people’s stuff’ as your raw material, ‘did you actually feel like you were being creative?’

Scorch marks and Sol Lewitt in Maastricht

I’ve always been  a bit of a Sol Lewitt fan. He was an important artist to me in the sense that he was one of the first artists who challenged me to think about the role of the hand of the artist in making an art work.  I was aware that many artists in the past had worked with assistants to help them execute their work, but Lewitt’s conceptual pieces where he offered just a list of instructions were the first that I came across that took the physical presence of the artists right out of the equation.  An example of this approach is the Wall Drawing #118 made in Boston.

Since coming across his concepual, instruction based pieces I have regularly encountered his wall drawings and sculptures in numerous museums and galleries.

Here in The Netherlands we are lucky enough to have a number of venues than have from time to time featured his work.  One of these is the BonnefantenMuseum in Maastricht.  A few years ago they staged a fantastic four-man show featuring Lewitt, Mangold, Serra and Nauman.  Part of this collection was a returning  installation work in the dome of the museum that had been installed now for the third time, and for the first time since the artist’s death in 2007.

I visited the museum a couple of days ago and returned sttaight away to view the Lewitt Spiral. Its one of the monochrome works that the artist produced alongside the many colour based works he made. But somber it is certainly not. It has a truely geometric fizz, a sharpness of line that draws you in a integrates itself with the architecture of the building.

Alongside the Lewitt painted dome interior there is an exhibition of the work of Cai Guo-Qiang. It, like the Lewitt installation has something of a monochrome, even charred feeling to it. It includes many of the Chinese artist’s trade mark explosive paintings that were executed by igniting explosive charges on the surfaces of the works and displaying the scorched results.  The works undeniably have an abstract beauty to them and also have at times intense colour due to the chemicals added to the firework explosives that are used.

Alongside these more well known pieces there is an extensive documentation of Cai Guo-Qiang’s earlier work from before he turned his practice in the direction of explosive work.  These parts of the exhibition document sensitive paintings and drawings, portraits and self-portraits, family photographs and even drawings produced by the artist’s daughter as she has gradually become older. Seen altogether a surprisingly biographical insight into an artist’s existence, both inside and outside the art-world spotlight.