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4.1 Action and reaction

The aim of this unit is to understand contemporary art and its potential in terms of communication and inclusion. It allows participants to experience a creative process that leads to independent decision-making with regard to others, and to freedom in the sense of emancipation. In this part of the course, we will try a creative method called Artistic Open Form, which integrates both artistic and educational elements.

Artistic open form has its rules. One of the rules is that action and reaction are a key principle. There is no set topic, but open form gets triggered by the first idea. It is possible to do this anywhere and with anyone: reactions are spontaneous. No step is wrong, the only wrong step is zero action. The end of the action always results from the actual situation. Open form is a living organism that reflects itself: it allows one to get to know the boundaries of one’s space, time, structure. Participants get to know themselves and their needs, they learn to respond to others. Open form helps discover new artistic possibilities and enables a group of participants to gel.

The internationally active artist Zbygniew Libera, born in Poland, applied open form technique in the Czech environment. In 2008, he was a guest lecturer at the Academy of Fine Arts, where he led an open studio. In his interviews with open form participants, he spoke of creating “freeland”, a specific space for freedom, trust and relaxation. In a pedagogical context, it is possible to understand this moment in relation to wellbeing, which currently resonates in theory, as well as in educational policies in many countries.

We will conclude this section with something from the history of Open form. This creative concept was devised and practiced by the Finnish-Polish architect and theorist Oskar Hansen in the period following the Second World War. He was convinced that artistic expression could not be complete unless it was “appropriated” by the viewers or users of the work. That is why he focused on participation, process and the change of hierarchy between the artist and the viewer, developing the principles of flexibility, indeterminacy and ambiguity. He applied Open form to his architectonic work and described the principles in the book Towards Open Form (Hansen, 2005). In the 1980s, this approach was adopted by a younger group of Polish artists headed by Zbygniew Libera, Zofia Kulik and Przemysław Kwiek, who introduced the method into their teaching practice at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. The documented, unrestrained sessions represented an oasis of freedom in the oppressive communist regime. While watching the video recordings, the viewer may get a sense of improvisation and spontaneity, but the opposite is true. Artist and curator at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw Łukasz Ronduda adds the following: “Paradoxically, Libera’s engagement in didactics was motivated by a desire to return to the pre-education phase, to the level of the easiest gestures, creating a situation of fun, cheerful and spontaneous creativity.”

Activity 4.1


Hands and the body talk. Action.

Jan has prepared several activities for you. You should try them. Together with the children from the school for the Deaf, Jan developed different versions of these activities. You can view them on this link.

Jan Pfeiffer, Zbigniew Libera’s student from the 2008 Open Form Studio, develops the open form artistically and didactically at the Department of Art Education, Charles University. You know Jan from the introduction to Lesson 1. Now, what we have prepared for you is his mysterious and ambiguous video-piece and a series of follow-up tasks. They are playful: you cannot go wrong. You certainly do not have to worry about that since the concepts of mistake or wrong result do not exist in the open form. Now, watch Jan’s video.

Watch the entire video very carefully. Try to think why the video is called Tailor The Guide. What is the man on the screen possibly doing? What do his hands say? What does his body say? What do all the things that the man is handling possibly mean? Why is black the dominant element? What role does the light object play? The video appears to have no sound. However, that is not true. Close your eyes and listen carefully! Do you hear anything? They are the sounds of the activities of the man in black. What else can you think of? All your ideas are correct!

You will need a plain sheet of paper, a pencil or a pen, a crayon – or simply anything you can draw with. Your task is to write an ethnographic report. How do you do that? Describe in detail or draw on the sheet of paper all the activities that the man in black is doing. Draw all the object he is handling. Describe or name them. Answer the questions related to the man-performer’s activities, write down all your ideas. Record your thoughts in the notebook.

Compare your explanation (interpretation of the situation) with the artist’s own commentary:

“The reason why the whole work is done the way I did it is the fact that it was preceded by work with children, which was based on their direct experience with the Covid quarantine. That is how we and our children reacted to social isolation and the search for commonality. What the tailor-guide has are things related to tailoring: in this line of work, a string, scissors, or a piece of elastic are a symbol of certain possibilities. Stretching, connecting, stringing, cutting, severing, adjusting: that is precisely tailoring as a profession. Hence the tailor. And why the guide? The individual actions that the man-tailor, that is me, is performing are such archetypes or basic possibilities in terms of what we can do. So, what can we do? Take, adjust, shape, cut, put away. The scissors represent an important moment here. Scissors as a symbol of decision-making, a radical cut, adjustment, cutting off. The moment of light is equally important. Illuminating, lighting up. I also work with physical experience a lot. If we want to change something, we must start with ourselves. If we want a new cut, we put the fabric directly on our body and cut it. But if we reach the point where the whole process is leading us to some kind of transformation, what may happen is that our own identity is no longer sufficient for us. We become someone else. When we do something, we try something out, we experience something. And that transforms us. That is why at the end of the video, an object composed of several school set squares appears and is subsequently used as a mask. The tailor-guide puts this object, which he is holding with closed scissors, over his face, thus effectively obtaining a new point of view. He looks at the world differently. Simultaneously, in turn, the world sees him differently. So, it is a game: when we try something intensively, experience it, try to come to terms with our surroundings, in the ideal case, we “perform” and transform ourselves. And why the black background? The black background is like the space of our imagination, the universe, an opportunity for change. A sort of consuming black neutrality, the Magion satellite, Magion-imagion, and naturally a certain level of aestheticization. When we have a white string against a black background, even miniscule changes to something so delicate or so thin are actually observable. The reason why I have kept the original sound of contact is that what is occurring is a certain sensitisation, internalisation of what goes on when we handle something. When we hear the movement of a hand brushing against a piece of fabric, when we hear the sound of cutting, these are in fact all figurative sounds of transformation, a decision or the process of transformation.” (Jan Pfeiffer, statement)

You can find another commentary on the video below.

Additional commentary

Jan acted, and you responded. Combined with the video and the artist’s commentary, your answers and ideas give rise to a common space of imagination. The work does not have an unequivocal explanation but requires mental activity. Contemporary artists often accompany their work with verbal statements. Jan’s statement regarding the creation of the work is just one of an endless series of commentaries that the viewer creates in their mind.

Activity 4.2

My message for others. Action. Reaction.

Now, look around you and find an object that you would like to do something with. Take it to a neutral environment, an empty table, for example. The object can be a completely ordinary thing that you “uproot” from its original context, or a mysterious, unrecognisable object. What matters is what you will do with it. It will be a message for others. Ask someone near you to take photos of interesting moments in your gestures and your handling of the object. The person can join in and respond to your gestures that mean something to them. Other Things also become your partner in action. Come up with commentaries of your own choice, in any number of actions and reactions. Number the photos and your statements and add to the Open form gallery. What do you think you have just done?

Example answer

You have just tried open form and found out that contemporary art has a communicative nature. The children from the school for the Deaf experienced exactly the same when they came back from the museum and Jan was helping them process their memories for an exhibition in the form of new performance. They did not have to worry at all about not being able to draw or paint. They simply engaged in action and reaction with objects, strings, shapes, with each other: they engaged in artistic communication. Open form tends to have a strong social impact on the participants and may touch upon very current events experienced by them in that moment. The participants can thus express their opinions without fear, use their voice and experience the situation of an emancipated person.

The philosopher of emancipation Jacques Rancière, whom you know from the introduction to Lesson 1, said:

“…painting, like sculpture, engraving, or any other art, is a language that can be understood and spoken by whoever knows the language. As far as art goes, ´I can´t ´, translates easily, we know, into ´that say nothing to me´. (…) Undoubtedly, there´s a great distance from this to making masterpieces. But it´s not a matter of making great painters; it´s a matter of making the emancipated: people capable of saying, ´me too, I´m a painter´, a statement that contains nothing in the way of pride, only the reasonable feeling of power that belongs to any reasonable being”. (Rancière 1991, p. 67)

Thank you for your participation in Unit 4. As a bonus, you can send your “actions and reactions” on by sharing them on social media. It is going to be a bit like “a message in a bottle”. Someone will surely find it and respond to you.

Here, sending you a downloadable worksheet accompanying Jan´s work. If you open it you can creatively explore ideas “transformation, norm, social isolation and artistic avantgarde ”

To conclude the course, we believe that you have got to know, created, and learnt something new. As we have stated before, we can use everything around us to create something; we can learn from everyone, just like we can talk to anyone, irrespective of whether they are our neighbour or a person we do not know. Art is best suited for this.

Greetings from art educators Marie, Magdalena, Jan and Iva