Please Bring Your Cell Phone to Art Class

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #9 in November 2009]

Students at Little Village Lawndale High School (LVLHS) at 31st and Kostner navigate and transgress borders and boundaries daily. The school intentionally draws from the distinctly different communities Little Village and North Lawndale, with the purpose of actively working to unite these working-class neighborhoods based on the struggles they share. The divide between them is long-standing, and individuals are racially marked: one side Mexican and one side African-American. Borderlands exist not only between the neighborhoods, but also within them. Boundaries imposed by gangs create considerable risk, and getting from here to there requires extensive local knowledge. Conversely, students have many things that are important to them in their neighborhood: places where they have eaten meals, areas they have tagged with graffiti, paths they take to get to school, and things that make the neighborhood familiar to them. Insider information. How might LVLHS students present this abundant expertise and skill in visual form in the context of an art class? What would they think of critical spatial practice, interventions, and nontraditional media? To explore the possibilities, in January of 2009, I led a series of six workshops over two months in an Art I class of ten students at the Multicultural Art School (MAS) at LVLHS.

Three themes guided the workshops: media could be generated using cell phones or traditional art materials; the results would be displayed publicly on Google Earth or on the street; student knowledge was central to the work. Youth as Public Intellectuals (YPI) is a term coined by A.A. Akom, who trains youth in the Bay Area to conduct participatory action research and to analyze and interpret results. Research does not have to result in text: for this, I turned to Dwight Conquergood’s radical ethnographic work and Critical Race Theory. For whom would the knowledge be gathered, and to whom would it be presented? Students chose to create and present work in the street and in public, on the body and in virtual public space.

We began looking at maps—geographic, temporal, and conceptual. We looked at artists including Mark Bradford, Jeremy Wood, Nina Katchedourian, and Julie Merehtu to begin to provide a context within art for geographic thinking. Pre- and post-Conquest maps from Mexico, mazes that served to map the movement of celestial bodies, and the Surveillance Camera Players all generated discussions about purposes and power of maps. Google Earth was very exciting to students, and they began tagging and interacting with it the day it was introduced.

At the same time, I gave students a survey with questions about their cell phones to determine who had texting plans and could remotely upload photos, text, audio or video. In Mexico City an artist named Charcko had explained to me how he taught video animation using photos taken with cameras from discarded cell phones and put them into rotating GIFs hosted for free, online. We could make video and students could be in complete control. Coordinating the technology was difficult, but when we charted skills, technology, and interests, what emerged was the possibility of working less like a class and more like a collective.

In the process, I located weaknesses in my presentation and facilitation, and I found out some questions were more successful than others in fueling curiosity and generating student work. I asked them: what information can you find online or in the news about your community? What is not shown that is important to you? In response, one student built his house in 3D on Google Earth. It was an intervention because the rest of the neighborhood is flat. Some students recorded areas of danger and safety through cell phone photos. I asked them to take cell phone photos of their eyeballs and send them to me in order for me to collect and log their phone numbers. I used the photos to teach them GIF animations, and I also made the photos into stickers. They put their eyeball stickers around the community, and then located and marked the sites on Google Earth. Students made field recordings, drawings, collages, and drawings on the body. The way that danger was portrayed differed between males and females in the class, and this emerged as another potential theme for investigation.

Students were just beginning to see how their everyday lives were worthy as material for research and/or art, and time ran out. I plan to continue facilitating these investigations with students next year. ◊



Related Resources

Janet Abrams and Peter Hall, Else/Where: Mapping New Cartographies of Networks and Territories (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Design Institute, 2006).

A. A. Akom, J. Cammarota, S. Ginwright, “Youthtopias: Towards a New Paradigm of Critical Youth Studies,” Youth Media Reporter 2:4 (2008), 1-30.

Dwight Conquergood, “Performance Studies: Interventions and Radical Research,” The Drama Review 46, 2 (Summer 2002), 145-156.

Mark Monmonier, How To Lie With Maps (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1996).

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