We are excited to feature the work of Alyssa Machida who, over the last couple years, has been weaving theory through practice to develop a workbook and toolkit entitled: “The Dreamspace Project: A Workbook and Toolkit for Critical Praxis in the American Art Museum.” In this second blogpost of a three part series, Alyssa continues to share previews of this timely workbook… so stay tuned for more! Many thanks to Alyssa for channeling so much energy into creating this important workbook and for her willingness to share it with us here on the Incluseum. You can read Part 1 of this series here. (The PDF version of the Workbook can be accessed here and the Live Google Presentation of the Workbook is here.)
Contextualizing, Deconstruction, and Decolonization
As we continue our collective journey with this second post introducing The Dreamspace Project Workbook, I first want to share with you an excerpt from Judith Baca’s “Whose Monument Where? Public Art in a Many-Cultured Society” (1996) (1). When I read this, I vividly sense a physical lineage between land and earth, our bodies, and our histories. She describes the origins of her mural on the Great Wall of Los Angeles:
One of the most catastrophic consequences of an endless real estate boom was the concreting of the entire Los Angeles River, on which the city was founded. The river, as the earth’s arteries—thus atrophied and hardened—created a giant scar across the land which served to further divide an already divided city. It is this metaphor that inspired my own half-mile-long mural on the history of ethnic peoples painted in the Los Angeles river conduit. Just as young Chicanos tattoo battle scars on their bodies, the Great Wall of Los Angeles is a tattoo on a scar where the river once ran. In it reappear the disappeared stories of ethnic populations that make up the labor force which built our city, state, and nation. (1996, p. 133).
I am enchanted by the story she weaves, threading together multiple terrains of geography and history embodied in human movement, memory, and creative expression. Baca’s narrative captures the way we trace and carve lines into the earth to create divisions, to remember who won, who belongs, and who is kept out. At times, we build to create bridges and break down barriers. Our construction of these terrains reflects our world views, and the institutions and systems we put in place to develop and maintain our sense of place.
You may wonder why we begin here, tending to this concept of landscapes. The first chapter of The Dreamspace Project Workbook, “Contextualizing: Mapping and Navigating Terrains,” introduces the practice of developing critical self-awareness, building knowledge of the many ecologies we inhabit, and expanding understandings of our roles and responsibilities. To support art museum educators in their journey towards critical consciousness, this chapter of the workbook will focus on mapping and navigating the terrains of the Dreamspace: global, institutional, and self. (2)
Contextualizing: Mapping and Navigating Terrains
Even with our work within the specific context of the American art museum, it is essential to begin our journey of critical praxis (3) with an understanding of our existence within a global community. We have constructed so many ways to distance our selves from the suffering of fellow human beings. It is much easier for us, in an act of self-preservation, to express outrage at injustice, and to convince our selves and others that we are part of the solution—or at least that we are decidedly not part of the problem. But we are living out the contemporary and ever-present legacies of historical oppression, and the choice of whether something is “related” to us or our jobs is not ours to make. In Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the foundations of a movement, Angela Y. Davis argues the necessity to emphasize the relationships and interconnectivity of global social justice movements:
One of the things I’ve been thinking about in relation to the need to diversify movements in solidarity with Palestine is that, the tendency is to approach issues about which one is passionate within a narrow framework. People do this whatever their concerns are … The question is how to create windows and doors for people who believe in justice to enter and join the Palestine solidarity movement. So that the question of how to bring movements together is also a question of the kind of language one uses and the consciousness one tries to impart. I think it’s important to insist on the intersectionality of movements. (2016, p. 21).
Another way I think about this is Audre Lorde’s assertion: “there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives” (2007, p. 138). We cannot pick and choose which issues are relevant to us, who we decide to advocate for, and what situations we opt out of. Any sense of (opt)ions are mere illusions generated from the comfortable safety of privileged distance. I often hear the question, “Whose responsibility is that?” or the claim, “I’m not here to dismantle racism” signaling an effort to deflect unpleasant and unnecessary burdens. Challenging the status quo may not be listed under our job descriptions, but rather than thinking of one’s professional career and this journey of critical praxis as two separate paths, it is a matter of centering our professional practice in purposes and values grounded in social justice. As educators in the twenty-first century, we must consider our selves accountable to our larger global community.
The American art museum and its historic and contemporary practices of collecting, categorizing, defining, and marginalizing cultures and peoples from around the world under the guise of aesthetic excellence is highly political, operating from legacies of colonialism and a global system of White Supremacy. Legacies are not only historically fabricated, but persistently and currently upheld by our own (in)actions and (in)decisions. The term “White Supremacy” might bring to mind certain imagery, groups, or moments from history, but it is used here to refer to the global system of power that privileges White property, capital, values, ideals, and peoples. The construction of dominance necessitates subordination: the oppressed, colonized, enslaved, marginalized, Other-ized, racialized, dehumanized, and disenfranchised. We must always keep this duality and reification of power in mind. Thus, our roles and responsibilities as critical art museum practitioners goes beyond advocating for social justice; there is no point in trying to build equity and diversity into the framework of a fundamentally oppressive institution. It is vital that we push our selves beyond shallow discourse of merely acknowledging our “dark histories” and privilege. We must see our selves as active agents of change, developing critical consciousness and literacy to sense, locate, and dismantle racism within our practices, radically transforming our institutions from their core. Before activating this widespread institutional change, it is important to establish critical self-awareness and openness to being challenged within our selves. Some key points for mindfulness include:
In the last section of this chapter, we enter the innermost terrain of the Dreamspace, that of the self. This practice of self-study and turning our outreach inward is fundamental to one’s practice as an educator, and the transformative process of critical praxis. After learning about global and historical contexts to racism, we must build critical self-awareness, tracing those roots back to our selves to understand how we perpetuate, and can counteract, systems of oppression. To access the first chapter of the workbook, follow this link! (4)
After cultivating contextual understandings of our global community, institutions, and selves, the workbook takes us into three core chapters investigating the tenets: Deconstruction, Decolonization, and Democratization. (5) These tenets are not separate stages or steps, but organized as a progression of ideas. We begin with “Deconstruction,” guided by Gloria Ladson-Billings’ argument that:
Teachers engaged in culturally relevant pedagogy must be able to deconstruct, construct, and reconstruct (Shujaa, 1994) the curriculum. Deconstruction refers to the ability to take apart the “official knowledge” (Apple, 2000) to expose its weaknesses, myths, distortions, and omissions. Construction refers to the ability to build curriculum … Reconstruction requires the work of rebuilding the curriculum that was previously taken apart and examined. It is never enough to tear down. Teachers must be prepared to build up and fill in the holes that emerge when students begin to use critical analysis as they attempt to make sense of the curriculum. (2006, p. 32).
I see this concept of “the curriculum” as applicable to how we envision teaching with our collections, engaging with our public, how we operate our cultural institutions, and how we choose to organize our society. It is related to Paulo Freire’s notion of education as envisioning reality as a process with potential for molding and transformation (2014). We must radically reimagine and reconstruct new models for inclusive, equitable, and socially-just education within American cultural institutions and society. It is important to note here, deconstruction does not mean destruction or devolution. It does not mean devaluing or removing White people or objects from art museums, nor does it mean hiring or engaging people of color merely to fill insincere diversity quotas. That would not solve the core problems of racism and White Supremacy, but only further avoid them. What is necessary is the iterative process of criticality, envisioning, and rebuilding our practices and institutions upon fundamental values of inclusion and equity. This chapter will be structured as a template and design guide to support art museum educators wanting to develop critical tours and learning experiences in the galleries.
While the chapter “Decolonization” builds on the concept of deconstruction, it focuses specifically on counteracting and undoing the power dynamics set forth by, and perpetuated by the legacies of, colonialism. We investigate the origins of the American art museum as a colonial construct, directly tied to the global-historical emergence of West vs. Other, civilized vs. uncivilized, Whites vs. “nonWhites.” These processes are deeply connected to the fluid and protectively iterative construction of value. What I mean by this is that the entire world and its systems, laws, cultures, and societies are constantly shaped and reshaped to validate the wealth, taste, and “place” of the West. This “place” is an assumed position, supposedly deserving, of superiority, beauty, goodness, and righteousness. The peoples, cultures, and histories of non-Western origins are seen and treated as foreign, exotic curiosities. Even if we as museum professionals in the twenty-first century do not hold active or conscious racist and colonizing intentions behind our practices, we are all wrapped up in this dark, violent mechanism. Denial of this does not eliminate its realness or truth. Therefore, we must challenge our selves and our colleagues to be specific and explicit about what we mean, and who we refer to, when using broad strokes language like “diversity,” “communities,” and “audiences” or “non-traditional audiences.” We need to problematize our shallow discourse and assumption that the art museum is a safe, neutral, or public space; to see the art museum in this way denies the violence and trauma it inflicts on peoples of color. We must radically reimagine and transform our museums before expecting them to offer any value or worth to our public.
Becoming inclusive, social justice-minded educators means we must take personal responsibility and accountability for legacies of colonialism, fundamentally committing to decolonizing our institutions, our disciplines, our practices, our minds, and our selves. In other words, we must not only have inclusive intentions, but actively remember and fight to build space and opportunities for those we exclude and forget. To engage in authentic critical praxis, the twenty-first century art museum educator must always:
- Acknowledge the legacies of racism, colonialism, and global White hegemony in the historical construction of the art museum
- Apply a critical lens to every aspect of the museum space, artworks, scholarly discourse, and professional practices
- Challenge oneself and colleagues at every level within the institution to pursue rigorous self-reflection, and authentic critical praxis
- Be open and willing to relinquish power, authority, and impulse to censor and sit with discomfort and ambiguity in times of transformation
- Actively pursue anti-racist and anti-colonialist policies, practices, and pedagogies to honor the right of all people to claim voice and presence in the space
These cannot be just theoretical aspirations, they require our unrelenting attention and action. That might lead you to the burning question, “Yes, fine, but HOW???” bringing us back to the core purpose of The Dreamspace Project . This workbook is meant to provide ideas, frameworks for understanding, practical exercises, and resources to start and support your personal growth, but carefully distances itself from any notion of supplying “best practices.” As we sustain our selves on this journey, we must remember there is no one way and no right way to pursue critical praxis. The intention goes beyond “getting everybody on the same page,” which would only generate conformity or uniformity of practice. Even with the intention of united purposes and values, we have infinitely varied approaches, perspectives, languages, emotions and behaviors tied to them. This variety and complexity is essential to authentic praxis and it is our individual and collective responsibility to investigate how this theory guides our daily lives.
This work also requires that we remove any preconceived notions about success or failure from our expectations for outcomes or “results.” We must be wary of our desires for a distinct sense of control, progress or closure; rather we must be prepared to fail often and fail courageously in a field moving at a glacial pace towards justice. I want to end with a passage from James Baldwin’s “A Talk to Teachers,” as his words resonate deeply today:
Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time … The society in which we live is desperately menaced … from within. So any citizen of this country who figures himself as responsible—and particularly those of you who deal with the minds and hearts of young people—must be prepared to “go for broke.” Or to put it another way, you must understand that in attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty, when it is operating not only in the classroom but in society, you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, and the most determined resistance. There is no point in pretending that this won’t happen. (1998, p. 678).
I find myself returning to his words with greater frequency in recent weeks, often reciting and meditating over them like a keepsake in my mind. What I find in his message is not comfort, but a sense of continuity and connectivity to an eternal call and response of the noble struggle for social justice. I am reminded that critical praxis goes beyond a practical framework, and that theory and scholarship have greater significance beyond academia. These words are imbued with the thoughts and hopes of those who came before us and who challenge us to become better human beings and press beyond what we think is possible. In moments when the magnanimity of the task at hand or the seemingly endless road ahead threatens to deter or paralyze us, let us remember that our actions are essential.
There will be one final blog post coming soon to introduce the last three chapters: Democratization and Co-constructing Publicness, Radical Imagination and Critical Action, and Future Beginnings. We will also simultaneously release the next chapter of the workbook, “Deconstruction.” You can access the PDF version of the workbook here. In the meantime, please feel free to reach out with questions and feedback to email@example.com.
(1) To better understand the context and argument of this blog post, check out Part I here.
(2) While the workbook encourages rigorous examination of the interior self, we specifically use the concept of “self” rather than “individual” to reflect the emotional, political, and subjective self that exists fluidly in response and interaction with the surrounding environment.
(3) Refers to the concept of praxis described by Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed as an iterative process of critical reflection and action to fuel social transformation. This is tied to the notion of conscientização, or critical consciousness, and is used here specifically in relation to liberatory educational practices.
(4) This project will always be a work-in-process. Please feel free to reach out with feedback and suggestions for improvement at firstname.lastname@example.org
(5) The chapter “Democratization and Co-constructing Publicness” will be discussed further in the next blog post; stay tuned!
Baca, Judith F. (1996). Whose monument where? public art in a many cultured society. In S. Lacy (Ed.), Mapping the terrain: New genre public art (p. 131-138). Seattle, Wash.: Bay Press. Link
Baldwin, J. (1998). A Talk to teachers. In Collected essays (Library of America 98) (p. 678-686). New York: Library of America.
Davis, A., & Barat, Frank. (2016). Ferguson reminds us of the importance of a global context In Freedom is a constant struggle : Ferguson, Palestine, and the foundations of a movement (p. 13-30). Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books.
Freire, P. (2014). Chapter 2 In Pedagogy of the Oppressed (30th Anniversary Edition) (p. 71-86). London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Ladson-Billings, G. (2006). “Yes, but how do we do it?” practicing culturally relevant pedagogy. In Landsman, Landsman, Julie, & Lewis, Chance W. (Eds.), White teachers, diverse classrooms : A guide to building inclusive schools, promoting high expectations, and eliminating racism (p. 29-42). Sterling, Va: Stylus Pub.
Lorde, A. (2007). Learning from the 60s. In Sister outsider : Essays and speeches (p. 134-144). Berkeley, Calif.: Crossing Press.
Chelsea Brendle is an elementary visual arts educator in Boston, MA. As the head of a choice-based program, her work focuses on fostering agency and expression in young artists. She holds a B.S. in Art Education and Art History from Appalachian State University (2012) and is working towards an Ed.M. in Arts in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Alyssa Machida is an artist and lifelong learner focused on critical pedagogy and social justice in art museums. Currently, she is working as an Interpretive Specialist at the Detroit Institute of Arts working primarily on the reinstallation of the DIA’s Asian art galleries.