Nature never repeats herself, and the possibilities of one human soul will never be found in another. – Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Before diving in and presenting you with a project by and conversation with the visionary artist and musician Sally Taylor, it’s important to be precise and set the tone about the current nature of art whether in schools or our culture. Basically let’s widen our idea of art. The Western world currently associates art with status, high culture, beauty and consumption. I continually call out this notion of art on this blog, and in my work and beg to differ as art can be a verb, a space, a gesture, a sign, or a dance. Art is something we do naturally every day.
Between the spaces of teaching and learning about Van Gogh, Frida Kahlo and Chopin, frottage, scat singing, chypre and pointillism, we sometimes get dizzy with the historical and canonical ideas of art, and forget the bare necessity that is art. Art, in all its forms, is what makes us specifically human. We really need it. Art is creative expression, it’s what we use for communicating, recognizing patterns, and translating the world around us. When the world is particularly unruly, we have an even stronger desire to resolve things with patterns, make sense of things, and try to connect. At it’s core art exists because it satisfies and enables our instinct to engage with other people.
Over the years I have researched curriculums and education tools that address the exploration of our differences, ones that show that while we all see the same daisy at the table, we all see it completely differently no matter our race, gender or age. How do we celebrate our differences and make space for all of these opinions in a nonjudgmental forum? Howard Gardner for years sustains the multiple intelligence theory with Project Zero – the key notion being that we all relate differently based on our inherent strengths. Visual Thinking Strategies is a method used to facilitate diverse conversations and ideas using art work as the spring board for dialogue and critical thinking. While these are both fantastic methods and ideologies meant for teachers to facilitate the best learning possible for children with unique learning styles, they are not using art making specifically to illustrate our differences, and how we connect with each other regardless of these variances.
What if there was a curriculum that required making art, where each individual’s contribution gave power to the voice of the whole? What if a playful game of art could teach listening, critical thinking and interpretation and tolerance? What if as adults we participated in the game and reoriented ourselves with what “art” means? How do we stay curious in learning? Consenses is a game, but a serious game that has terrific consequences.
“ This is a time of great division and fear, and we need tools to help us to connect and see from one another’s perspectives more than ever.” – Sally Taylor
Inspired by her own personal experiences and the ancient Blind Men and the Elephant fable–which teaches intercultural awareness and how different perspectives lead to distinct point of views–Sally Taylor created Consenses. The fable is about six blind men touching different parts of an elephant where they learn the importance of sharing their different perspectives (e.g. what the tail or legs feel like in comparison to the trunk or ears). Because they can’t experience the whole elephant, they rely on each other to come to a consensus on what comprises the “elephant”. Consenses is a game of telephone where chefs, painters, poets, musicians and perfumers are tasked with reacting to a work of art and sharing their interpretation. Artists can use any medium to respond including song, dance, food, fragrance, painting and photography. There are no rules except to use the work provided as a jumping-off point. Like the fable, there are many perspectives to be considered when perceiving the “whole”.
“Consensus means tossing out the majority of each person’s perspective in exchange for one common belief. In art, you can let everybody’s perspective be a bigger, broader lens.” – Sally Taylor
While there are no rules per se in the online game, the exercise requires the participant to listen, look, or feel generously and to be brave in creating an interpretation of the work. Essentially one must be bold and soft while navigating some potentially ambiguous waters. This is a humbling exercise too, as much of the ego needs to be stripped down in order to make meaningful connections. And this is precisely what needs to happen in our intercommunications in today’s broader world.
While the project is in full steam (see the Consenses web site, a Consenses Curriculum in 14 schools and 34 classrooms to-date, and an exhibition planned at MASS MoCA next summer), Sally is also launching a pilot program to train teachers with a Consenses Curriculum. I’m honored to have had the opportunity to interview her this week, and learn more about the philosophy and motivation behind this seminal project. I urge artists to check out the website, and for teachers to signup for updates on the curriculum and training possibilities.
Conversation with Sally Taylor, founder of Consenses
CHE: What are the main factors that influenced you in launching the Consenses Project?
ST: Initially I was looking to the Consenses project as a way to support artists and their fans. Being an artist can be isolating, and I was hoping to find a way to share audiences and jump over the lingo specific to each art medium that sequesters and fractures art as a bigger holistic thing. I had found that among myself and my friends, being an artist in one medium didn’t allow us to have an audience in other mediums. Consenses was a way to give audiences a new access point to a medium that perhaps they never considered before. For example, if an audience member had difficulty relating to dance as a form of expression, though saw a dance that was interpreting a fragrance which they did resonate with, a bridge is implicitly built between the mediums and the audience has a brand new way and access point through which to experience the art. By coming together in a chain of interpretations all genres and mediums are broken down and set on the same playing field.
Second, growing up I went to many different schools where I realized in each context I was perceived in a totally different light. Given one of these lens of perception was me as a dyslexic person, I’ve continually looked for ways to sooth my appetite for understanding my perceived differences. It turns out that my worry about not seeing things the same way because of my dyslexia gave birth to a much larger project of exploring precisely the power of our different perspectives.
Lastly, I was inspired to provide a vehicle for people to see their unique perspectives for all of their values and limitations. By seeing how vast the interpretations are, one can then see how important the whole is when trying to perceive the fullness of reality.
CHE: How many artists have participated to date?
ST: 175 professional artists have engaged in interpretive chains, and over 17,000 people have participated in concerts, workshops, exhibitions and in schools programs.
CHE: Can you talk a little more about the MOCA presentation next year?
ST: The museums I originally approached were not interested due to either their exclusive focus on visual arts, or their discomfort with the variety of mediums involved (e.g. scent). Mass MOCA was totally open to the idea. The project started by my working with a bunch of 5th grade students in Northern Massachusetts from adverse and diverse backgrounds. I created a space where they felt safe to feel fear, and joy. This was an exploration of vulnerability. Each child was given the word “joy” and “fear” and made paintings about these emotions. I then took three of each of the joy and the fear paintings and had professional musicians interpret the paintings as songs. Musicians included my Mom, Carly Simon, Susanna Hoffs, Natasha Bedingfield and many other talented singer/songwriters. The songs were then interpreted by dancers, and they will move into the other senses for interpretation as well. In June when the exhibition opens at Mass MOCA, the students will see how their work inspired all of the reactions. Simply put it will show them how their vulnerability can inspire these visions.
CHE: How has the Consenses Curriculum come about?
ST: The first exhibition I had done of the Consenses chains in 2013 inspired many teachers. The teachers saw the Consenses Process as a way to not only share the idea of unique perspectives and our inherent connectedness, but also as a way to unify departments within a school. My husband runs a non-profit called NoticeAbility which develops strength based curriculum for dyslexic kids, and, when demand began to outweigh my capabilities, he suggested I create a specific Consenses Curriculum. Over the course of a year I created a blended curriculum where part of it was me on a screen teaching, and the other was teacher taught in person. It’s a 10-week engagement where the kids will move through interpretive chains translating major themes and ideas using photography, movement, sculpture, poetry, painting, and set design. Once they complete their chains they will be able to compare their interpretations with other schools working off the same themes. The goal of the curriculum is to recognize we have a limited ability to perceive things but that each individual’s perspective is beautifully unique, equal and valid. The curriculum emphasizes that our collective perspective is better, and that our differences, far from dividing us, can actually bring us together.
To date I’ve personally worked with over 900 kids in the 5th – 12th grade range! This fall we are piloting the curriculum in five new schools in Martha’s Vineyard. After that we will open the curriculum for national and international consumption.
CHE: What is your earliest memory of art?
ST: As a kid I was in the midst of it all the time, whether it was music, poetry or visual art, there were always artists and art around all the time. It was nothing exceptional. It seemed so normal where the act of art was a necessary release. It seemed to me always an expression of one’s truest self. It always seemed a little bit self congratulating to call oneself an “artist” – because every body does this. Art is something we all do. We are masters of creativity every second, where we are physical beasts with five inputs (the five senses) and we translate the world. This translation of the world is an amazing act of creation, ergo it’s art. Some are more talented simply because they’ve trained their body parts to recreate something in another form that previously existed in the mind. The more talented you are is really your ability to make the invisible visible, regardless of the medium you are working in. Talented or not we are all artists, we perpetually create the world in which we live and narrate our experience.
I also found that being an artist and sitting in one medium always perplexed me. “What’s missing?” was the question I’ve always asked when it comes ultimately to interpreting things as “art”. We all have these five and six senses and we only use one to express ourselves if we’re lucky?
I ran into a wise man when I was living in Boulder, Colorado. He’d given up all worldly possessions other than what could fit on his bicycle. He’d just come from a ride in the foothills and told me “isn’t it amazing, all this beauty: the mountains, the sky, the grasslands? And I have created all of it.” At the time I thought be might be completely mad. Who says something like that? But I looked up to him enough to know that he might be speaking some truth I didn’t yet understand. It took me years of thinking about what he’d said and suddenly one day it hit me. What he’d meant was that he’d constructed those mountains, that sky, those grasslands from a bunch of disparate photons (light waves) that had hit his eyes. He’d taken that light and painted his version of the world in his mind. This was a life changing revelation for that lead me to realize that we are all artists. We are all taking in the world as abstract light and sound waves and chemicals and pressure and we are creating our unique versions for the world. Painting for ourselves, a glorious worldview masterpiece. But without being given the tools (education in the arts) to communicate our perspectives we paint these masterpieces in a dark room where no one has access to them. No wonder we feel so isolated and fearful and insecure.
CHE: What book are you reading now?
ST: I’m continually reading a physics book of some sort, general knowledge book and a novel. Right now I’m reading “How Emotions are Made”, Lisa Feldman Barrett , “Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really, by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz , and “News from the Nail Bar”, a novel by my friend Christy Powell. I’m also polishing off “Einstein: His Life and Universe”, by Walter Isaacson.
I’m also a podcast vacuum – I LOVE them! Some of my favorites are Radio Lab, I recommend the Black Box story, the Decoding the Void story on anesthesia, and the episode on the Chrysalis. Also, Invisibilia podcasts, especially the Emotions episode. My other faves are Freakanomics, On Being and The Hidden Brain.
Thank you Sally for the amazing work you are doing, and your time in answering these questions. Looking forward to learning more as the project grows!!
When we fall and see there is no ground we are flying. – Sally Taylor
Tagged: art education, Communication, Consenses, Consensus, curiosity in education, Elephant and the Blind Men, interview, Noticability, Project Zero, QA, Sally Taylor