Wide Open School

When I saw the words ‘Wide Open School’ titling the new event series at the Hayward Gallery, I was less than enthused. Yet upon further reading, I was pleased to discover that this is not an event aimed solely at children; and that most unappealing word – ‘school’ – is being used here in the loosest sense, to encapsulate a much more exciting idea than it initially conjures up.

In what the gallery describes as ‘an unusual experiment in learning’, the project is bringing together over 100 artists from around 40 countries, to devise and deliver alternative ‘classes’, which anyone – at any age – can attend. But although led by artists, it is not just about art. It is a physical, labyrinthine forum of workshops, collaborative projects, discussions, installations and performances based on any subject that the artists’ imaginations extend to.

Lucy and Jorge Orta, from the UK and Argentina respectively, led a two-day workshop on their utopian concept of Cloud Architecture; offering ‘invented living spaces for social interaction that can change according to use, built with recycled or sustainable materials.’ The session was introduced by a discussion seminar, followed by a hands-on workshop that enabled participants to construct maquettes. The Cloud Architecture workshop has now passed, giving way to the next wave of events in this liberal pedagogic extravaganza, but the idea lingers. What particularly struck me about Lucy and Jorge’s work was highlighted in UK newspaper The Guardian, which recently questioned a group of artists participating in the WOS, including Lucy and Jorge, on their visions of cities of the future.

The pair responded by presenting a project they did in 2007 called ‘Antarctic Village – No Borders’, a scattering of fifty domed tents erected on the Antarctic Peninsula and blanketed with patchwork ensembles of flags from around the world. Their chosen location of Antarctica was selected for a very particular reason that resonates with the social ideologies that the artist duo consistently works towards. “We have selected Antarctica as a symbol for this new community. The Antarctic treaty signed in 1959 by 12 countries, set aside Antarctica as a scientific preserve, established freedom of scientific investigation, environmental protection, and banned military activity. This was the first arms control agreement established during the Cold War. Drawing upon this visualisation our Antarctic Village could be considered our last fragile hope for a more equitable world, a continent that allows all nations to coexist harmoniously and a community that strives for peace and social progress.”

Their approach to this project seems to typify the mood of the WOS. It really is about artists exchanging ideas with the community, where the focus lies not on the heroic figure of the artist as ‘teacher’ but on the enriching experience these reciprocal projects might create for both the artists and the visitors. This notion mirrors the overarching concept of the Hayward’s event series – to create an equalising, all-encompassing learning experience that renders the traditional notion of the ‘teacher teaching students’ temporarily – and perhaps blissfully – obsolete.

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