Notes on: Lambert , Cath (2011) 'Psycho classrooms: teaching as a work of art'.  Social and Cultural Geography 12 (1): 27 -45.

Dave Harris

Psycho Buildings was an exhibition of architectural sculpture.  This piece discusses The Reinvention Centre at Westwood, University of Warwick.  It draws on Rancière 2004, The Politics of Aesthetics.

R has argued that there are always spaces in any space, different ways to occupy it.  Different conditions can achieve difference.  The exhibition prompted some thinking about how structures can disrupt habitual ways to understand and consume.  Psycho classrooms might utilize the 'potential of space to influence pedagogy'(28).  This will assume equality of intellectual capacity together with the 'a willingness to allow uncertain outcomes '[an important qualification].  Difference spaces might particularly revalue 'embodied and emotional knowledges'.  Teaching needs to be reconsidered as an aesthetic encounter, based on R.  The Reinvention Centre provides a case study.

Feminist writers have been particularly useful in talking about situating one's self, and this is particularly important in academic practice.  Academics are 'necessarily imbricated' in neoliberal educational reform.  Her own space turns on her interest in the sociology of education in teaching and research in a Russell Group university.  New activity was sponsored by becoming  CETL [UK Government-funded--now discontinued] attempting to promote excellence, and these have produced innovation.  The Warwick Centre aimed at getting undergraduates to be research active, and to facilitate research based teaching and learning.  Both theoretical and practical intentions were involved, the latter referring to the redesign of classrooms.  The project is part of a more general concern 'to unsettle and redistribute social, cultural, political and economic power geometries' and to construct different knowledge spaces.  This familiar concern was energised by reading R.  There is a general background of discussions about pedagogical art, including discussion of '"haptic architectonics"'(30).

Critics of neoliberal hegemony often report themselves as 'feeling stuck in a position of impossibility', together with 'a reiteration of hope', reconfirming links between education and utopia and new imagined futures.  Some of these elements of critical pedagogy can be useful when discussing educational spaces, but there are limits to a politics of hope 'which tends towards idealized and humanistic versions of community, social organization and consensus'.  'Process, dissensus and ruin' can also lead to hope, however, bringing optimism to discussion normally discomforting.  Lewis has argued that anxiety can be productive, for example and '"an emotion of the future"'.  The stress on incompletion and flux encourages 'process and critique', perpetual questioning and openness, and this can be expressed in suitable architecture [links to Ngai on ugly feelings?].

Possible effects of radical architecture have been discussed before through the 'performative function' of architecture (31).  There is also been an educational turn in contemporary artistic practice [leading to the quote by Beuys that teaching is a work of art - he apparently also crossed boundaries between art activism and pedagogy, seeing people and dialogue as artistic materials, and creating social sculptures and even '"debate based installations"'.  Seems to have been as big an influence as R, and his work apparently combined with the founding of the Situationist International, and the work of Debord [hooray!] - situations and events were seen as new artistic efforts to combat the spectacle. More recent work picks up on 'relational art' attempting to produce emerge and effects from dialogue and social situations.  It includes specifically educational arts, such as a piece on Foucault, or a project based on Einstein and physics.  Again there is an attempt to revive spirits in the face of neoliberal reform, or to generate pedagogy 'as an aesthetic encounter' (32).

Critical geographers have also examined the history and effects of space and its connection with knowledge.  Aesthetics clearly play a role in the framing of knowledges.  The Copenhagen Free University was established by a group of artists 'in their own flat' to focus on the fluid subjective anti capitalist feelings and knowledge that can be produced in domestic spaces.  Naming their efforts as a university was a deliberate challenge to the normal academy.  The idea was to produce a porous space and to generate '"experiential knowledge"'.  The implications for normal lecturers in unfree universities include noting the low expectations we have for students that they will use their own experiences to create their own knowledge. 

We are obliged to deliver instead standard packages of learning and knowledge, complete with outcomes and assessment.  Students are 'routinely characterized by ignorance and lack'.  Of course there is some challenge and heterogeneity, for example when teaching geography to focus on spaces and its dimensions, and to move outside of the classroom.  However, these exceptions 'remain marginalized' and 'increasingly individualised'.  We have to constantly challenge hegemonic institutions 'to generate pedagogy and curricula which can allow the expression of diverse experiences'.  There is a clear connection with critical educators like Dewey, Freire, hooks, Giroux and Lather who all  stress active participation and of the liberty of learners experiences.  Feminists in particular have tried to bring the body into pedagogical debates and to insist on addressing 'embodiment, emotion and desire'.  These need to be combined with an interest in 'spatial practice'.

The Psycho Buildings exhibition constructed a new 'sensual space' (34) which contrasts with a traditional box classroom.  Multiple senses were stimulated together with our own bodies as structures.  This is an illustration of '"haptic architectonics"'discussed earlier.  It prompts thoughts about how to transform classrooms to produce different 'visceral and emotional affects'.  The exhibition permits the visitor to bring his own desires.

The Reinvention Centre was their own attempt to develop a psycho classroom, not just to produce a pleasing aesthetic effect, but to explore the implications on how senses and perceptions might be affected, and how this might lead to implications for thought experience and knowledge.  Students and staff designed the space, working with architects and local estate workers.  It was once a disused bar.  It occupied a rectangular shape in a detached building.  Already it seemed different from the normal teaching space, and the flooring, material and furniture are also different.  The furniture is mobile, there are no desks or chairs, no dominant place for the teacher.  Decisions about where to go and how to use the space 'must be made and remade by students' in different situations.  More options are available, and actual configurations are open to negotiation: students might cluster together or separate out.  The intention was to disrupt the habitual way in which people occupy educational space, and the audio and video they might find within them, including the classic set up with a projector or White Board.  There were to be 'no fixed or strong lines of sight or orientation'.  Multiple activities were to be encouraged, while excessive noise was to be controlled.

These practical decisions followed 'the guiding metaphors of dissensus and ruin', based on early art like that of Tatlin ['architecture as an expression of political desire'(37)].  The intention was to permit construction, without suggesting answers or solutions to the crisis engendered by neo liberalism [as expounded by Neary].  There was a deliberate openness to the future, 'allowing for conditions of struggle, dissensus and ruin' [apparently, Readings 1996 has suggested that the university is ruined, but saw this as an opportunity for reconstruction.  Lather and others also use ruin 'in a similarly generative ways']. 

However, ruin is a poor blueprint for a classroom!  There was some notion of 'uncertainty and dissonance' behind the practical decisions about lighting and layout, however.  R returns here to advocate dissensus as a modification of the distribution of the sensible and to defend his particular notion of aesthetics as a generative force.  One implication was that lead to disrupt 'normalizing forms of visibility' by resisting fixed technologies and modifying lighting to open up the ceiling and offer a different perspective.  The gripping piece of artwork also draws 'the gaze of the curious'.  [Photographs and details 38 F]

Perhaps most of the users experienced visual pleasure, which foregrounds pleasure at least, unlike most discussions of pedagogy.  There are 'ludic possibilities'(39) as 'utopian possibilities of space'.  Generally, the whole issue of aesthetics and sensory experience, and its impact on pedagogy, was highlighted.  Even softer flooring allows 'a "more fluid relationship between figure and ground"'[talk up here] and fluidity generally is encouraged as students make themselves comfortable or uncomfortable.

There were understandably diverse reactions, however.  Discomfort sometimes involves risk and disorientation, as apparently Arnot 2007 [in 'Out of the Comfort Zone' in the Guardian 16 Oct 2007] has argued [see also Zembylas and Boler].  However,  the space soon became more familiar.  Students and teachers did a focus on deliberately creating a 'pedagogic space of encounter' (40), sometimes an immersive one.  Lambert's own experience was mixed, with an initial feeling of being overwhelmed ending in students solving the problem by occupying only one corner of the room, creating 'the effect of  domestic rather than institutional space' [in other words they renormalised it, much as people do with open plan classrooms].  It seemed more friendly and conducive to discussion. 

More extensive research was also pursued involving systematic observation of groups of students and teachers as they interacted in various traditional and innovative classrooms.  Preliminary analysis has shown complexity, although most of the intended usages have been realized.  However teachers trying to use banking methods in the space 'struggle to maintain authority' while learners' bodies 'can appear unruly and irregular' as they need to shift about to stay comfortable: apparently, the furniture is 'not really designed for sitting down for a long period of time'.  In the best example, teachers and students 'are receptive to generating and creating happenings, ideas, experiences' and knowledges rather than attempting  to achieve fixed outcomes.  A particular history teacher, for example was able to develop an approach 'based on "scenario - based learning"', involving distributing resources around the room, allowing students to select and read them, and then sharing their thoughts and ideas with others.  In another experiment, students were required to think of the classroom as an art gallery and to show people around.  These methods do draw attention to the construction of time and space [is this in the research?].  This shows how ruin can be integrated into curricula.

Instead of a machine for teaching, the Centre became 'a space for thinking and critique'.  Practices even 'enact the spatialized form of critique'.  The Centre's motif incorporated Freire on the need to invent and reinvent and promote hopeful inquiry as '"restless, impatient, continuing"'(41).  Of course, this spaces located within the normalizing academy, which produces contradictions.  There is no certainty, only hopeful struggle with the relations between HE and the 'wider social political and economic world'.

There is no claim that modifying the sensory environments will transform the production of knowledge.  The infrastructure of educational institutions is also important.  However critical awareness of aesthetics and haptics 'should be central to classroom design and usage', and integral to discussions and decisions about how to provide educational experience.  Aesthetics can disturb 'dominant regimes of the visible and audible' and reveal the invisible.  As such, they 'should be the loci for our critical theory and practice', as R suggests: they contribute 'sensory resources'. 

R seems to confirm the role of expectations in the Copenhagen Free University in redistributing roles and competences.  This is implied in his work on Jacotot..  A radical assumption of equality of intelligence should be the starting point.  Critical pedagogues must break with progressive approaches to knowledge and social change, which assume that the ignorant must acquire relevant knowledge first R provides 'rich theoretical resources'(42), and permits the idea of ruin to generate new possibilities.  Pedagogic art also provides useful resources.  Psycho classrooms take different shapes and forms, but they all challenge the normal and this has implications for 'the construction and definition of different knowledges' and different roles for teacher and student.  They can lead to antagonism with neoliberal institutions, and this again can provide potentials.  This is how we turn teaching into works of art.

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