Shotgun Review Archive

How I Learned To… Weston Teruya & Michele Carlson

By May 15, 2008 Everyone remembers sitting in a classroom, staring out the window, bored, distracted, or daydreaming. If you're lucky you also remember moments of getting swept away by a poem or an equation. Classrooms go with us, carried around in our heads long after we've left them--an imprint, the effects of which follow us silently the rest of our lives. Weston Teruya and Michele Carlson take a closer look at the personal and political implications of our educational spaces, transforming the gallery at Intersection for the Arts into a staged classroom that will induce a rush of personal memories for each spectator. All of us as former students have a shared vocabulary of the requisite layout and props--a phalanx of desks facing forward, the teacher's desk, walls lined with bookshelves, charts and an American flag. The framework for Teruya and Carlson's piece is Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, a work that explores the lives of under-represented peoples in the U.S. Zinn designed a wall chart for the classroom, a timeline laid out in five pastel-colored rows punctuated by photos, stories and symbols of important events. Teruya and Carlson have recreated the chart, which runs in a mural around the gallery wall. The one difference with Teruya and Carlson's version is that it slowly devolves from orderly rows into an unruly tangle--a suggestion that perhaps histories can't be drawn in straight lines, but are more complex, messier. desks.jpg The artists also comment on classroom design, which for the most part draws inspiration from an institutional aesthetic with straight lines and bland generic shapes that try to impose order on creative movement and individuality. Teruya and Carlson's installation follows the grid for the most part but also shows signs of breaches, chinks in the antiseptic decor, impulses to break out of the linear confines. A jumbled mass of desks piled on top of each other at the back of the room climbs toward the ceiling--a twisting column of energy. A bookshelf is pushed slightly askew, behind it a secret wall lined with little notes handwritten on pieces of paper. Students in LA and San Francisco were asked to give one piece of advice to their peers on getting through the school year. The messages are whispers, as if the wisdom they're dispensing is knowledge that isn't meant for the classroom, that's earned through real-life experience and not books: "Don't lie." "Everyone has a clique." "The teacher knows your handwriting." "Take 5th Street--it's safer." "Be yourself." "Sometimes your family argues all the time, but if you can try not to get involved." books.jpg On the back wall of the gallery, standard issue metal library shelves run the length of the room, lined with musty old volumes whose spines have been erased. The only titles that remain are books about national identity and history--The World's Great Thinkers, Gentle Jungle, Divided They Stand, Making of a Nation, American Country--a litany of topics that underlines the idea of the classroom as a space where our political identities are forged and perhaps misrepresented. The writing trays of every desk is filled with doodles, notes and illustrations, expressions of minds distracted, most likely longing to be somewhere else. Some of the graffiti is authentic. Some was added for the project. All of it seems convincing: "C.M. wasn't here," "Shut your fu**ing face, uncle fu**er!" (from South Park), "I'm so bored, bored, bored," a drawing of Lincoln, a tic-tac-toe game. A classroom needs a certain amount of order, but what if some of the rules could be broken, rewritten so that students could integrate the lessons of their lives--what they learn outside of school and outside the canon--into the educational process? Teruya and Carlson suggest our classrooms should be recognized for what they are: a collection of personal histories that can't be forced to follow one mandated script. How I Learned To... is on view at Intersection for the Arts though May 24th.

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