11 August 2013

Re: Readings on Failure . . .

One of the last short essays I had to write for my seminar class this past summer was a response to several readings we were asked to complete. The readings were on failure. Here is my response . . .

When I was 12, the vice principal at my middle school gave an assembly lecture about failure. He said that fail stood for: first attempt in learning. I found this ironic at the time because I was being educated in the public school system of Plano, Texas. Plano is north of Dallas and not known for failure of any kind (except--perhaps--the heroin use in the early 90's due to wealthy and bored youth with large allowances). For most of the time that I was in middle and high school, our football team was number one in the state. Our swimming team was a top team in the nation, spawning biker Lance Armstrong. And more times than not, my orchestra and dance team ranked in the top five in various yearly competitions throughout the state. So failure was not something that most people talked about. However the statement from my vice principal that morning in 7th grade stuck with me forever and I can now be heard chanting this phrase to the young people in my art classes.

"When failure is released from being a judgmental term, and success deemed overrated, the embrace of failure can become an act of bravery, of daring to go beyond normal practices and enter a realm of not-knowing."

Until moving to Singapore, I had never mentioned failure ever in my classroom. My way of talking about failure was to express to students the joy of exploration, experimentation, and "happy accidents". However, moving to Singapore, I had to come face-to-face with the term. Schooling in Asia is quite different than schooling in the United States. Young people take school very seriously. Failure--as the negative connotation of the word exists--is not acceptable at any level, regardless of age. This includes extra curricular activities, i.e. art.

It is a constant battle to get students to try things out, even though they are still in elementary school. "Just experiment", I say. "But what if it doesn't work out", they say. "That's okay, just play with it." [Blank stares.] Over and over and over again.

My students want a template for art: something that is tangible, something that has a definitive answer or can be memorized. So, a large part of how I design my curriculum deals with the idea of failure head-on.

Currently--in my work as an artist and not an educator--I am dealing with the idea of an unfinished work being the finished work. In essence a failed piece being on display. (Failed only because I have deemed it unfinished.) Again and again I come back to presentation: is it okay to look undone? Can this still read as a polished, finished work? How unfinished is too unfinished? Does it look like a failed piece?

Even in my own personal work, I am still confronted with the idea of failure. Although, I don't think I ever actually name it as failure. Like with my students, I disguise failure as: in flux, experimental, process-oriented, chaotic. These terms help me allow space for play and possible future changes, decision-making.

In the end I find that I am more interested in processes like ceramics, fabric dying, costume construction, and performance where the output is always questionable or unable to be perfectly pinned down. I am also extremely laid back in my art making practice. Knowing exactly what the finished product will look like will always add to the possibility of failure. However, if I only have a slight idea of what the end result will be and I don't know what the finished piece will look like perfectly, I can respond to what does take place. This space of not knowing coupled with intuitive response is exactly why I am so drawn to art making in the first place and 
allows me to highlight process, which is my most favorite part.

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