Book Review | Curriculum: Contemporary Art Goes to School

Detail of double-page spread from Curriculum: Contemporary Art Goes to School ; courtesy of Jennie Guy and the publisher

The school-going world of the average teenager in Ireland is one of Prometheanism1 – of precarity and lack. You might study diligently and yet feel as though there will never be a time in your life that is not plagued by austerity – by debt. Underlying anxieties about climate catastrophe cloud dreams of your future. You wonder about the relevance of the school curriculum because what you are learning in the hidden curriculum and online seem to be more significant to your life.2

It is against such a backdrop that we should evaluate Curriculum: Contemporary Art Goes to School, edited by Jennie Guy. This is a compendium of 13 essays, written by different writers in varying forms. They rejoin with and act as a channel to advance the very worthy ‘Art School’ project, conceived by Guy in 2014.3 She considers this collection of writing as a component of the project that extends beyond formal education and into the realm where contemporary art can instigate change. The title, Curriculum, as it is construed in this context, is a transitory thing in constant flux. It is the catalyst for new ways of thinking about teaching and learning, whereby the instincts and interests of the students and artists give rise to new wisdoms – to democratic ways of learning for all of the participants. Such an approach is the antithesis of the diachronic model of current pedagogic systems.

This is a handsome book. The middle section is populated by comprehensive visual documentation. The images are stills from video footage, captured by Guy during each of the projects. The action conveyed enlivens and activates the essays. This is not a passive read; there is constant moving back and forth between text and imagery. The diversity of form that the essays take is stimulating too, as the tempo and mood of the writing is constantly changing and presenting new questions. All of the essays are worthy of mention but Nathan O’Donnell’s opening essay, ‘The Outline as a Weapon’, particularly encapsulates the spirit of ‘Art School’, considering notions of flourishing through consideration of the outline. An artefact of teaching method, this tool can be used to structure, to negotiate, to validate and to chronicle the operations of an artist. However, O’Donnell also contends that the anti-systemic creation of ‘sympathetic ambience’ – the activation of the environment as an instrument of learning – and relief from the strictures of the productive frameworks of formal education, produce unexpected creative outcomes and shared experiences.

Other perspectives worth mentioning are the impediments faced by independent curators in negotiating the antagonism that arises in the two arenas of knowledge production – the field and the academy. This is the subject of Helen Carey’s essay, entitled ‘In the Field’. In a similar vein, Matt Packer outlines the historical educational programming that has long been a feature of EVA International. He can see possibilities and opportunities to develop curatorial and artistic practice in collaboration with institutions, with inspirational outcomes for all protagonists. 

Cover of Curriculum: Contemporary Art Goes to School, Jennie Guy (Ed.), published by Intellect Books; courtesy of Jennie Guy and the publisher

Considering a critique of formal education’s outcomes – where students leave school incapable of independent thinking – Juan Canela advocates for methods of empowerment through collaboration and the challenging of the spatial environment, thus, he suggests, clarifying our understanding of reality and developing political awareness. Tackling anxieties around success, failure and fears of being ‘other’, and the heavy burden placed upon the individual in today’s world, is the subject of Alissa Kleist’s essay, ‘Play Like a Coyote’. This view advocates a role for contemporary art practice in fostering soft skills and social cooperation as a panacea for the ills of modern culture.

Failure and its negative consequences in an educational context are echoed in Sjoerd Westbroek’s essay. He makes the point that students who want to study are perceived as timewasters, while those who are in the habit of learning gain credits. Our educational system is constructed to endorse this view. The problem with the latter approach is that it dulls the ability to think creatively. Learning is framed by normative and sometimes coercive elements; to study means to intermingle with the dynamic happenings of a social space.

In Daniela Cascella’s experimental essay, ‘How Many Elsewheres?’, she states: “…sound can pierce walls. And minds and ways of being.” It focuses on creating worlds with soundscapes, generating residual sound memories to hold in your head, forming nonconclusive group spheres. The argument is for recognition of the potential of sensorial and sensuous engagement as a strategy for scholarship and understanding.

In the essay, ‘Art, The Body and Time Perspective(s) in the Classroom’. Annemarie Ní Churreáin considers ideas of haunting and how unlearning and temporal qualities effect understanding. Time wasting can be so valuable. Ní Churreáin’s writing is interlaced with her own poetic fragments, which act like cracks in the text where the poetry seeps out.

“Father with two red seeds in your palms,

If I show you my bones spilling out

Will you show me a stone in this yard that can speak?”

Detail of double-page spread from Curriculum: Contemporary Art Goes to School ; courtesy of Jennie Guy and the publisher

The final word goes to Clare Butcher, with her essay, ‘Preparatory Gestures for a Future Curriculum’. This text looks at hidden forms of knowledge values and beliefs that are undetectable on the surface context of secondary school education. Through the methodology of experimental theatre and scriptwriting, Butcher describes the process of embedding a performative pedagogy. She supports the unlearning of power hierarchies and development of protocols for the maintenance of solidarity within structures of social control, and embodied personal self-care and dignity.

This final project and the book itself is a manifesto proclaiming the ethos of ‘Art School’ – quietly and in continual states of rehearsal and action. Some insurrections are strident, loud but often ineffectual. This book represents a subtle, effective and embedded stealth revolution.

Jennifer Redmond is an artist, writer and editor at, an online moving magazine and artist collaborative organisation.

1 As stated by John Dryzek in The Politics of the Earth: Environmental Discourses (1997), Prometheanism prioritises human interests and needs over those of ecosystems or the individual needs of other creatures.
2 Hidden curriculum – lessons which are learned but not openly intended, such as the transmission of norms, values and beliefs conveyed in the classroom and the social environment.
3 ‘Art School’ is an initiative developed by Jennie Guy to explore the interfaces between schools and contemporary art by inviting artists and students to work collaboratively. To date it has involved the participation of 33 artists, over 800 students between the ages of 6 and 18 years, 72 school teachers, 20 primary and secondary schools, 3 third level institutions, 3 regional art centres, 4 county council arts offices, and 1 national biennale.