“The Body Politic”: reflections on a pilot course

Article 1 Apr 2005 jane

Chapter for New Practices/New Pedagogies, emerging contexts, practices and pedagogies in art in Europe and North America, Ed. Malcolm Miles, Swets and Zeitlinger (ND)

It’s serious – it’s art, it’s politics, it’s economics, it’s everything, and art in that instance becomes so meaningful.” Ken Saro Wiwa 1

Since 1983, artist-led London-based group PLATFORM has been working through interdisciplinary collaborations to address and advance social and ecological justice2. Education in formal and informal contexts is a key part of our work. Currently, we are involved with our long-term production “90% Crude”, exploring the ethics of transnational business in relation to environmental and human rights abuses, with particular focuses on the oil industry and corporate psychology. PLATFORM’s practice involves long-term collaborations between people from different areas of knowledge: at present, for example, a sculptor is working with a corporate analyst and a campaigner on the sub-project Unravelling the Carbon Web, an ongoing public investigation into the oil industry, specifically Shell and BP. The methods include performance, publishing, consultancy and strategic networking, all underpinned by rigorous primary research.

Up until 1999, the educational work we undertook was mostly reactive in origin – merely responding to invitations and requests for workshops, seminars, lectures, keynote presentations etc. However, November 1999 marked a watershed in PLATFORM’s conceptualisation of the role of education in our work: we began to feel complicated about the passivity of this approach, and wanted to devise a more active, long-term strategy for pedagogy within PLATFORM.  It is fitting that this change was catalysed by the needs of an art student.

In 1999, we spoke at a conference held at Teesside University, UK, entitled “Seen & Unseen” organised by Artists Agency (now Helix Arts), which brought together a range of individuals and organisations from the fields of social practice arts, environmentalism, science, and community activism to address collaborative solutions to water pollution3.  One comment in the plenary session, from a student in his final year at Glasgow School of Art, lodged itself as of immense importance for us and for the field we are working in:

“We’ve heard some inspiring examples about work in this emerging area over the last two days, but is there any place I can go to learn more about how I might work collaboratively on such (social/ environmental arts) issues?  You see most of what we get taught at art college is about how to be an individual artist, not how to work together, and certainly not interdisciplinarity beyond the arts.”4

This question echoed various other conversations we had been having over the years, especially at the two international Littoral conferences on social practice arts (1994 in Salford, and 1998 in Dublin)5 . As a result, in the years subsequent to 1999, we started actively monitoring the growing number of people, ranging from artists to community activists to doctoral students, who expressed a similar desire to study this area in a truly interdisciplinary context. We felt troubled that, apart from giving people time, further contacts and suggested publications, there was no obvious course, context, or institution to refer them to, within the UK.

Reflecting on this, we conceived a long-term plan to create an educational experiment, exploring radical approaches to fusing art and activism in Britain and around the world.

This article undertakes some initial explorations of the origin and process of this experiment, the first manifestation of which – a 36-hour course run over twelve weeks, January to March 2004, with 17 interdisciplinary students – has only just finished at the time of writing. There is much more to be digested and much to be reconceptualised before the second year of the course commences in January 2005 (with the course to be extended to 24 weeks), so this article acts as a provisional reflection of a work-in-progress. You can read and see students’ work in the education section of the PLATFORM website: Finally, it should be noted that this piece is written by only one of the Body Politic’s co-initiators – Jane Trowell – but after considerable discussion with the other – Dan Gretton.

Our original concept in 1999/2000 was to run a type of ‘summer school’ as a pilot project, a hothouse for artists, activists and other interested people. At the same time, we researched examples of courses with related interdisciplinary and social change agendas,  such as Judith Baca, Amalia Mesa-Bains and Suzanne Lacy’s BA in Visual and Public Art at California State University at Monterey Bay, which was at that time approaching its launch 6.  Within the UK, there were examples of courses run within art departments and colleges, or theatre/performance courses that addressed ‘art/performance and community’, or ‘art/performance as contextual practice’, but there didn’t seem to be a course or context that was interdisciplinary between arts, environmental, social justice and activism. It seemed that what we were considering was possibly unique, at least in the UK.

We contributed a workshop to the Conference “Out of the Bubble , Approaches to Contextual Practices within Fine Art Education” 1999, hosted by Central St Martin’s College of Art and the Contextual Practice Network, on what an art education for social and ecological justice might look like, later written up and published7.We made initial approaches to the Arts Council of England (ACE), who are very familiar with PLATFORM’s work, to gauge their interest in supporting such a pilot scheme. While there was interest from the then Combined Arts Unit, there was also uncertainty as to the “fit” with their remit.

Essentially, we ran up against two particular difficulties –  of constituency and logistics. While we had well-developed networks in certain zones (the more progressive courses and modules in art colleges and theatre/performance education, environmental organisations, and certain activist and campaigning groupings), we were also aware of the need to reach out beyond our known constituency and attract individuals from more diverse backgrounds in terms of life experience, race, class, political-cultural perspective.  As a small charity, we would need to fundraise to do this networking. Secondly, we would also require financial support for the conceptualisation of the course, the time for planning and organisation (involving resolving questions of student accommodation, fees, hardship funds etc). We began to think about  the benefits of seeking a partnership with an educational institution to help support this project’s development.


Beginning a dialogue:  PLATFORM & Birkbeck, University of London

In Spring 2002, theatre specialist, policy consultant and educationalist Dr Godfrey Brandt, Course Director in Arts Policy and Management in the Faculty of Continuing Education (FCE) at Birkbeck8 approached Jane Trowell of PLATFORM. Jane had been teaching Arts Policy on the MA course in an individual capacity, and Godfrey wished to discuss whether  PLATFORM be interested in developing formal links with Birkbeck? Could there be scope for collaborating on new courses?

With a growing sense of potential, PLATFORM discussed some initial ideas, and then on 24th July 2002 we held a planning meeting with Godfrey Brandt and his colleague Peter Burtt-Jones at PLATFORM.  We discussed our individual artistic and political journeys, learnt more about each other’s work and talked about what kind of collaboration might emerge.  We were surprised, but delighted, at Godfrey and Peter’s openness as to the form of the course that might develop –  it could be a term or a year, it could be a summer school or a weekend, it could be accredited or unaccredited. They absolutely appreciated that such a project had been gestating for several years and it was more important to find the right form than to rush it.  They emphasised that they were interested in working with us over the long-term.  This was very exciting:  we had found a partner we could really imagine working with, whose values we could strongly share, who was giving us considerable creative freedom, and who would take on much of the administration of the course. Additionally, this was an institution that had an inspiring history of radical pedagogy embodied in its founding principles, of opening up opportunities to people previously disenfranchised from education.

At the same time, we were aware that forging this link could also have several disadvantages: whatever Birkbeck’s roots, it is now an established part of the University of London, and despite its principle of running courses all over London in partnership with different institutions, including the Workers Educational Association, it is, some would say, remote from the immediate urgent social change radicalism of its early days; the relationship we had forged was within Arts Policy and Management, not a context immediately related to our intent, and perhaps a heading that would give the wrong impression (in terms of prospectus entry and course categorisation); it is also part of a huge bureaucracy with its own conventions and constraints, some of which would of course impact on our course. It could very well be argued that this was not the most innovative context for an experimental course on social and ecological justice, and that certain kinds of “activists” for example, would not associate Birkbeck in the first instance with radical possibility.

However, we resolved that this was part of the experiment, and that if Birkbeck could help us get the conceptualisation and realisation of the course off the ground, then it could only be a fruitful relationship at this stage. Anomalies could be learnt from. Furthermore, the impetus had come from individuals within Birkbeck who wished to extend opportunities for students, inject more of the social justice agenda into the overall programme. These were important factors to respect, representing a very unusual opportunity.


Developing the first course:  The Body Politic


In Autumn 2002, the three core directors of PLATFORM (Dan Gretton, James Marriott and Jane Trowell) began to conceptualise the shape and feel of the collaboration.  We decided on certain practical parameters, the first of which was to get away from the summer school model. This felt too intense and intensive at this stage: we wished to work on developing a long-term relationship with participants over time. We wished to build in reflection, so that together with the participants, we could evolve the course as necessary, learn to understand collectively what we were doing.

The other key parameters were as follows:

– to start in the academic year 2003/4

– to run from January-March

– to comprise twelve weekly 3-hour classes

– to have a maximum of 20 in the group

– to be an unaccredited course – formal assessment requirements seemed restrictive at this early stage

– to be organised on an interdisciplinary basis, with the possibility of developing collaborations across several departments at Birkbeck, ranging from art to economics, psychology to history

– to be based at Birkbeck’s main Malet Street or Russell Square sites (central London)

– to be team-taught by two PLATFORM co-directors, with the third co-director available on occasion.

Most importantly, we were determined that the course should be aimed equally at people from arts and activist backgrounds.

Not all of these desires were able to be fulfilled. It was explained to us that as an unaccredited course, we would have to charge fees at direct cost, that there would be no subsidy. To cover the two tutors, the cost per student would be at least £120. It would be increased for full-price students if we wished to create a reduced rate by subsidising from the full-price rate.  If it were an accredited course, ie. that students could use it as a module towards a certificate or diploma – the fees would be subsidised – £90 full price, £45 reduced rate. This would mean that money would not be a huge bar to participation. The challenge would be to come up with a creative approach to assessment that fitted the values of the course and institutional requirements. This latter is proving tricky at the time of writing. Ironically, it is so unusual for Birkbeck to run team-taught courses of this length, that it was not possible for them to pay us for two tutors for twelve weeks each. This is a big issue for interdisciplinary and collaborative practitioners in formal education in most contexts. We eventually compromised at a fee for 1.5 tutors, and successfully applied for a development grant from the socialist education foundation, the Lipman-Miliband Trust, but this is not a sustainable solution.

Cross-departmental collaboration was something that we were advised would take time, and we decided, perhaps wrongly, that it shouldn’t be a priority for the first year of the course. Given that the FCE does not pay visiting lecturers developmental monies, we felt already pushed for time and decided to prioritise conceptualising the content and delivery methods of the course over the bigger question of strategic links. This is unusual for PLATFORM, as we like to think and act systemically as the core activity of the work, but on reflection, the pressure to write the course, and the potential drain on time of locating the right Birkbeck links persuaded us of this course of action. The institution does of course work inter-departmentally, but this is usually between permanent staff and no communications mechanisms or fora existed that our course could fit into. It was resolved that we would flag up our course in relevant departments’ prospectus sections, and use the website to stress interdisciplinarity. We would hope to begin to work on forging formal links in year two of the course.

In terms of location, we were initially convinced that there were some benefits to being located in central London, within Birkbeck’s central campus. This was not only because of good transport links, but also because of the density of the group of educational institutions immediate to Birkbeck: the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), and the Institute of Education (both part of University of London). SOAS in particular is know for its radical student base, and we felt to hold the course in these environs would be useful. However, the course was unable to be accommodated in this location, and we started in a very box-like room in University College London on Gower Street. This seemed, at first, equally useful in that the neo-classical imposing temple that dominates the courtyard could only speak volumes about the nature of British imperialist confidence in the late 19th century, one of the many subjects for our course. Halfway through the course schedule, we had allocated a session to take place at PLATFORM’s premises on the south side of Tower Bridge. At the end of this session, we asked students whether they wished to return to the UCL venue and were greeted with a resounding NO. The second half of the course took place at PLATFORM, and the resultant change in atmosphere – from institution to more domestic artist-activist space – was palpable. People were more relaxed and took more control of their learning. There is more thinking to be done on the impact of that change of space on the teaching and learning.

The artist/activist balance was not as we would have wished: marketing the course through ordinary Birkbeck channels and our own mailing list and networks (which include many environmental and human rights activists and campaigners), we enrolled eleven people who described themselves as coming from the arts (artists, actors, performance, poets musicians, curating, clowning), and ten people from other backgrounds and disciplines (law, health, education, campaigning, business, retail, psychology). But, of all the students, there were only two who were to describe themselves first and foremost as “activists”.

What is noteworthy about this is that upon investigation, it transpired that most people in the group had at various times participated in campaigns and demonstrations, protests and other vigorous social activist initiatives, from Pride festivals to environmental campaigning, from squatters’ rights issues to Palestine. One woman who did not describe herself as primarily an activist was a student who had been very involved in non-violent direct action on peace issues. So on the one hand we felt disappointed with the number of self-named activists in the room, in the sense that we wished for more full-time activists/campaigners to contribute to and learn from the debate, but on the other, the very act of asking students for self-definition and naming was obscuring some more complicated, and – in terms of social justice and democracy – perhaps more useful subtleties on how people like to describe their political engagement.

This issue relates to a key question for PLATFORM: we know that many people involved with the arts wish to learn more about how to work interdisciplinarily on these issues, to better express their political and ethical selves in the world, but we are not aware of a similar need among activists and campaigners, except the ones we have collaborated with in PLATFORM.  We would argue that activists and campaigners in general don’t (yet) sense that working with artists can be a crucial element in the effectiveness of the work. The situation is related to the urgent speed which can characterise environmental and social justice activism, pusehd by the need for a “critical path”, an achieveable set of goals and outcomes that the “campaign” or actions can be measured against. This culture can militate against values that are common in others fields, processes that Wallace Heim has called “slow activism”9. Furthermore, we are still a long way from the public at large readily associating the word “artist” with a person who is concerned with ethics and who might contribute to social and environmental change, a perception that can act as a deterrent. A new provocation for the second year of the course is to create a context where artists wake up and activists slow down, together.

As mentioned above, the group had a degree of interdisciplinary spread, but, while we had some international students – from Australia, Brazil, Italy, and Chile –  all the students were white and most were women. This situation is perhaps not surprising: people who publicly demonstrate concern over environmentalism in the UK, for example, are mostly white and middle class. Research has shown that this is related to notions of cultural exclusivity around access to nature in the UK, and also to the fact that most people of colour who are politically active are working on issues of direct racism and representation.10 Also it is a commonplace that more women than men undertake adult education – a fact that would bear more discussion than is appropriate here. Regarding race, PLATFORM needs to question the cultural message of the context (Birkbeck), the message of PLATFORM itself (white, largely middle-class small organisation), the methods of and language used for advertising  the course (in year 1, through Birkbeck and PLATFORM mailing list), and restrategise for year two.

Conceptualisation & Content

In December 2002 Dan Gretton and Jane Trowell, both of whom are experienced educationalists in the field of language, literature and art & design as well as through PLATFORM’s considerable work in education, met to focus on the specific form the twelve sessions of the course could take. At this stage we identified the biggest questions we wanted the course to raise, which were as follows:

–  What are the aims of such a course?  For the students, for PLATFORM, for ourselves as individual educationalists?

–  What does it mean to be politically or artistically “effective”?

–  What is the relationship between an artist’s or activist’s public life and their private life? Is any kind of holism either necessary or desirable?

–  Is there an issue of creative ‘burnout’ which affects individuals in both fields? Is it possible, or even desirable, to aim for a ‘sustainable’ life as an artist or activist?

–  What are the archetypes in our culture? Why are activists expected to either ‘give up’ or ‘grow up’ at a certain stage of life?  Is there a relationship here to art?

–  What does it mean to look back on past work? Is there a tension here between the tangibility of art and the intangibility of activism?

–  What is the relationship between individual creativity and collective organisation?

–  When have we, as artists or activists, felt moments of ‘epiphany’? What is the relationship between such moments of intense politicisation or creative revelation and the cycles of our lives?  When are the greatest risks taken?

–  What is the role of listening in creativity and activism?  What impact does our personal history of being listened to or not,  have on our ability to really open ourselves to others?

Out of the above discussion we resolved that the first two sessions of the course would focus explicitly on foregrounding the political and artistic journeys and experiences of the students and ourselves. We saw this as a vital way of building the trust necessary for such an innovative course to work. After much discussion,we decided that the remaining ten sessions would use the framing metaphor of ‘The Body Politic’– which would serve a double function: confronting a danger for discussion to become ‘academic’ in a negative sense (in the sense of a drying out, an over-rationalisation and an over-theorisation that divorces the mind from the body);  also providing an effective and poetic frame, a creative way to examine work we wished to discuss, whether PLATFORM’s own projects, or the work of other practitioners, writers, critics and filmmakers. The following course outline was developed and subsequently agreed with our colleagues at Birkbeck, but note the flexibility clause in the preamble – we were determined that students (and we) should have the right and opportunity to comment on and change the direction of the course, should it feel necessary:


The Body Politic

Social and Ecological Justice, Art, Education

PLATFORM & Birkbeck, University of London 

 Commencing Wed 14th January 2004, 6 – 9pm

Tutors: PLATFORM – Jane Trowell, Dan Gretton

Location: University College London, Gower Street, Rm G23, Pearson Building

The Body Politic web-pages:

Birkbeck Course Code: FFAP002NACA

Course Outline

Please note that this outline highlights the key subjects and practitioners that will be discussed – there are more that we haven’t mentioned here.  The outline may change according to how the course develops, which is why we have kept it in outline form only.

We have devised the programme according to our particular experience and knowledge over 20 years’ work, but we are not attempting to be comprehensive, covering all practices and methods. Of course there are absences and holes: we can try to address these, according to students’ needs and desires, and expertise within the group.

“Art lets us think in uncommon ways.”*

1. 14th Jan Introductions and political “epiphanies” (JT/DG)

2. 21st Jan Inner Ear: listening as a prerequisite for any act of creation; learning to listen to ourselves, trust ourselves; under what circumstances do we stop listening? (DG/JT)

3. 28th Jan Outer Ear: listening to places and communities, and what happens next?; “others”, “othering” and ourselves – through writings of bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Paulo Freire; the Forum Theatre practice of Augusto Boal (JT)

4. 4th Feb Tongue: the use of silence and the use of speech; articulation of language as political danger – including the films of Claude Lanzmann and Patricio Guzman; writings of Osip and Natasha Mandelstam, and Susan Griffin (DG)

5. 11th Feb Frontal Cortex and Solar Plexus: the limitations of using facts alone to effect change; connecting information to experience, and going beyond the rational – through PLATFORM projects Carbon Generations, Some Common Concerns, and killing us softly. (JT/DG)

6. 18th Feb Lungs: endurance and stamina; how can you keep focused, evolving and working over time without burning out/becoming cynical; reflective practice; networks – through the writings of Suzi Gablik, Malcolm Miles, John Berger; the Littoral social practice arts conference 2005 (JT/DG)

7. 25th Feb Benevolent Viruses: NB to be held at PLATFORM’ s space; An exploration of other contemporary collective/collaborative practitioners, including the work of Ala Plastica, Apsolutno, Ground Zero, Helix Arts, Littoral, Social Sculpture Research Unit (Oxford Brookes Univ), Wochenklausur…   Plus mid-course review (DG/JT)

8. 3rd Mar Legs: experiencing breakthrough through walking/exploring real space; land/cityscape and dialogue – through PLATFORM projects, and writings of Rebecca Solnit (JT/DG)

9. 10th Mar FREE SPACE – for development of new subjects or deepening of ones covered already – content to be decided in weeks 7/ 8.

OR Feet: “The path is made by walking”, a critical walk through the City.

10. 17th Mar Knee and Heel: Facing the other direction, the path less travelled, courage in difference; invisible histories and untold stories; the acupuncturist’s needle and the rhinoceros’s hoof – through the work of artist Joseph Beuys and writer WG Sebald (James Marriott, PLATFORM/DG)

11. 24th Mar Hand and Fingertips: co-operation and solidarity; how do we find each other – seeking collaborators; the huge challenges of working collectively and/or through consensus; overcoming conflicts/acknowledging differences; when to stop and when to push through (DG/JT)

12. 31st Mar Review: summing up and feeding back; what have we learnt ?

* quote from artist Wolfgang Zinggl of Austrian group Wochenklausur


What happened?

NB. In this section, I use “tutor” as short-hand. This is not the right word, just as “student” and “participant” also is inaccurate, but we have yet to resolve what roles were being played. All students’ comments are from their written feedback.

The single most important task we set ourselves in beginning the course was to establish a “community of learning” 11. In our experience across all areas of work in PLATFORM, to achieve a cohesive, productive and active ongoing group process, where everyone feels able to contribute and everyone feels they have a stake in the outcome, one must begin with developing individual and collective listening skills. This is always important, but particularly so where people are coming together from different backgrounds, cultural expectations and disciplines, and particularly when entering territory which can be controvertial.   On the back of this process, trust is developed and almost anything can happen.

To develop this we used from the very beginning of the course a range of methods that build listening skills and trust. These methods also forge alliances and establish useful critical differences.

“I learnt how to hush, and I listened. I had practical evidence that being open to the outside (outsiders?) is a stepping stone to awareness, which is an “intelligent” place to be.”

Pairwork, small group work and whole class discussion was combined carefully with formal presentations of ideas by the tutors and students, drawing exercises, silent and group brainstorming, and audio-visual stimuli such as video, slides etc. We were also very careful to problematise any tendencies to easy categorisations among the group in terms of politics or background. This was in order to allow for multiple identifications, change and fluidity of people’s thinking during the course, for the content of the exchanges to be able to work on all of us.

We also gave a lot of status and time to personal experience as it connects to art, politics and ethics, with the tutors revealing their own anomalies and revelations, as much as the students. This strategy, closely allied to the feminist principle “the personal is political”, is another core tenet of PLATFORM’s method, and one we wanted to share and debate with the group.

As three students put it:

“The course was very inspiring for me in the honest practical way the tutors brought their own experiences of collaborations to be available for dissection, so to speak. These discussions along with the tutors’ and group’s individual experiences of other collaborations helped me build my confidence in going forward to work in a collaborative methodology…”

We were asked to experience new, often shocking and challenging stimuli together. It is that togetherness that interests me – in terms of group solidarity and in terms of who these individuals are. You were aware of making sure we worked with those we had not spoken to, and you are to be congratulated on encouraging us to bring in photographs, newspaper articles, songs. This shift from the conventional shook the room…”

“I was happily surprised by the “talking” element of the course. The starting-off point was always our personal views on things. Then putting together everyone else’s perception of the same subject we came to unravel issues that beforehand scared me because of their complexity, the peeling off, the trying new uncomfortable routes, the questioning, re-questioning and counter-questioning…and the almost scary sensation that there is no final answer because it would always be the basis for a new question”

We spent time at the beginning on what students wanted or hoped for from the course, a task which was fascinating as it was daunting. Why had people signed up? What did they think was going to happen?  Each student wrote fully about and discussed their anticipations of the course (see summary on website). This summary was returned to at the end of the course – we read through the hopes and asked “is this what happened? Do you/we recognise this?” Testing against students’ and tutors’ original hopes and expectations is a humbling and honest part of this kind of education – an education where tutors are seen to learn as much as anyone. We were relieved to find that all agreed that the hopes had been largely born out, and that the main frustration was time: 12 weeks was far too short.

“The course should be extended to 24 or 36 weeks. This would allow things to deepen. I would suggest more input by the students. maybe leading to a collaborative action of some sort.”

I would have liked more of everything and less of nothing on this course” 

In terms of content, we structured a sequence of issue-driven elements, tackling subjects such as listening to a community, personal responsibility, violence and bureaucracies, silence and protest, and interwove them with more practical discussions on collaborative working such as stamina and longevity, conflict resolution, finding collaborators, building networks etc. We were continually concerned about the balance of formal input from tutors to students’ formal input, an issue which came up for some students more strongly than for others. Some students very much liked formal tutor presentations, but it is the explanation in the extract below that is most revealing in terms of how different people process change:

I did enjoy the course as a concept and I must say that the best that I had of it was the formal lectures (I am more the sort of person who absorbs information to transform and put into practice later rather than immediately)”

We made extensive use of the bibliography, of pre-sessional reading in preparation for discussion, as well as inviting students to respond to or develop ideas in writing, drawing, sound, performance, or speech. However, the performance and formal students’ presentations only began to be volunteered towards the end of the course, a fact we feel is at the centre of redesigning the course.

Our conclusion is that we achieved an imbalance between on the one hand group work/community building and tutors’ formal input, and on the other, providing a structure for individual students’ contributions. We had dedicated a session to the tensions between individual and collective, yet we did not manage to resolve them in the pilot course itself! One student came up with a very interesting solution to this:

Each area could have been extended into two sessions [24-week model]- maybe the first one as it was, and the second looking at work produced and discussing ideas that came up as a result of the previous session and homework. Maybe looking at planning actual projects, or ideas for projects, that could be picked up by whoever wanted to continue them after the course?”

Because of other factors such as trust and honesty about time constraints, this tantalising situation happily seemed to lead to greater and greater desire for students to know each other more intimately, such that four weeks before the end, one student took the initiative and proposed that the course should continue, that it was too soon to stop and that she felt they had only just begun.  This was greeted with universal agreement, and immediately she volunteered to compile a list of wants and needs of the group. Subsequent discussion resulted in PLATFORM offering the group our premises to meet in, for sessions that would take place every other week after the end of the course. The tutors would not attend, but would come to sessions where invited. The first meeting in this format took place on 12th May 2004. Of course, it is uncertain how long or how committed the group of about ten people that is continuing will be, but it is a good sign and a measure of the course’s success nonetheless.

One issue that we did not feel was resolved was how to share students’ writing. Students did a great deal of writing, but this was mainly read and discussed by the tutors (each tutor giving individual feedback) to the student alone. This was patently not at all satisfactory for anyone, a fact we discussed as a group, but time felt so short and no-one could come up with a solution without chopping half the course off (see above). The use of the website as a place to share writing was promising, but this is not the same as time allocated in the sessions themselves. Partly this dissatisfaction was born of the fact that we (the tutors) were in no way anticipating such fullsome and powerful written responses: students were invited to write as much as they wished, with few formal constraints.

It remained unresolved, and people perhaps remained more abstract to each other for longer than perhaps they might have done had we addressed it differently. As one student said “I would have liked more opportunity to look at the work of other participants immediately (on the day of submission) as I think it would have made for lively discussion and also brought new elements into the work we were doing together and alone.”

There is much more that could be said about the process and outcomes of this course, and indeed in structuring the course for next year (2005/6) we will be intrinsically addressing them.

Some provisional comments on the pilot of The Body Politic is that:

i) there is a demand for this kind of course – definitely among people in the arts, and increasingly from other sectors, although this needs work.

ii) with good facilitation, a common language and agreed working process can be arrived at consensually.

iii) interdisciplinary education requires depth of process over breadth of subject content

iv) reflective time is everything

v) the more students are involved with designing the process, the more they commit

vi) the key to trust is when tutors/facilitators share as much as they expect their students/participants to

vii) the context is the message – the course will attract different people according to its location  (physical and linguistic)

viii) it works – we retained 17 of the original 21 students who enrolled. (of the four who left, two were offered jobs abroad, one returned to Chile and one had personal reasons)

One thing we have not mentioned is the emotion behind the course. Talking about and witnessing environmental and social justices and injustices, the role of art, the uses of education; looking at the practices of artists and others in relation to this; revealing your own personal political journey; all of this involves inhabiting and embodying the material. It is a big commitment for all concerned – tutors and students. A big expense of the self, but an expense which is mutually transformative. Finally, three students’ conclusions, and an extract from an e-mail sent by Yin Shao Loong, a social justice campaigner based in Malaysia who we have worked with:

“This has been one of the most pivotal things I have ever done. It has reached far wider and far deeper than I could have imagined. I am not quite the same person I was when I started. My confidence as an artist is growing and my keenness to use that artistic urge is sharper.”

I needed stamina – sometimes the sessions would leave me reeling. I had to quieten my mind enough to sleep, yet awoke refreshed every time. Sometimes I would feel almost in some kind of pain at the enormity of it all, of the impossibility, of the range of paths open…

It is almost impossible for me to express how I feel about it, particularly in words on paper.  It would be like pulling up a seedling before it took proper root, but I will try to give a picture of how it is today. I say today because it is growing all the time. When I think about what to write it's like trying to write an enormous smile on paper. It is like trying to find adjectives to describe all the best things in life – conversation, movement, description, inspiration and sustainability. Like commitment and perseverance.”

Looking back on what I expected from the course, I can full-heartedly say it has been what I was looking for. I was after… a place to think and explore and get lost, but not least, an experience that would help me ‘leave a mark on this tormented little planet’.”

I’ve just had a look over the results of your Birkbeck course [on the website]…I only wish I could have attended. The themes selected are ones I have struggled with intensely the last few years, and quite honestly, it has been art or an artistic approach which has really “saved” me from being a complete beast. (The “cause” can really do that to you).”

As Paulo Freire said “Educating involves ethics and aesthetics hand in hand; it is beautiful because it is ethical”12. We believe “The Body Politic” pilot has been a very useful experiment in this direction, and one upon which we can now build.


1. from interview with Nigerian writer and environmental campaigner Ken Saro Wiwa in Channel 4 documentary “The Drilling Fields”, Catma Films, 1996



4. Student’s comments taken down from notes.


6. CSUMB Visual and Public Art BA

7. ‘Words which can hear’: Educating for Social and Ecological Art Practice in Out of the Bubble, Approaches to Contexual Practice within Fine Art Education, Eds John Carson and Susannah Silver, London Institute/Central St Martins College of Arts and London Arts


9. Slow Activism. Homelands, love and the lightbulb, Wallace Heim in Nature Performed: Environment, Culture and Performance, eds. B Szerszynski, W Heim and C Waterton, Sociological Review/Blackwell, 2004

10. See Black Environment Network’s studies of this.

11. hooks, bell (1995) Teaching to Transgress, Education as the Practice of Freedom, Routledge, 1995

12. Freire, Paulo, in Figueiredo-Cowan, M and Gastaldo, D (1995) Paulo Freire at the Institute, Institute of Education, University of London, p 20.


Focus Areas