This series of home-based, creative exercises reexamines the role of art during moments of crisis in the contemporary world.
The spread of coronavirus COVID-19 has developed into a global crisis. As the pandemic causes school suspensions and city lockdowns all over the world, Asia Art Archive expands the Learning at Home series to collaborate with international artists. These exercises bring in different perspectives and approaches to encourage teachers and students to reflect upon their experience of the virus outbreak, relevant social issues, and the purpose of art in times of emergency.
In this exercise, Hồng-Ân Trương proposes a series of activities around storytelling that emphasises empathy and collectivity.
Teachers are invited to share the process and result of students practising these exercises on Learning & Participation's Facebook group: Contemporary Art in Asia: Teachers’ Community.
Introduction to Teachers & Students
The coronavirus pandemic is altering the contours of everyone’s lives across the globe, revealing to us more starkly and broadly the fragility and inequalities that exist within economic and cultural systems. In the context of such a crisis, we have the possibility of recognising those among us who are most vulnerable, whose lives and work are valued and considered “essential,” and whose are not. Depending on our own levels of privilege or marginality, these inequalities may or may not be experienced, visible, understood, or emotionally felt by each of us. The losses we are experiencing are also differently felt depending on the specificities of our socioeconomic and cultural conditions. In the midst of such a cataclysmic crisis, what does it mean to be at risk? What does it mean to care for one another and for ourselves? How do we understand ourselves and our own safety in relationship to others?
These exercises are intended to help us bring into relief different lived experiences, and to create a sense of collectivity and relationality—to understand the me in proximity to you—through the transformative power of storytelling. At a time when we are physically distanced and the need for mutual aid and collective action is more urgent than ever before, these activities will help us share emotional space by using strategies of storytelling that provoke us to consider the ethics and values that elucidate and define our lives.
- To define what care and safety mean in the political, cultural, and personal context
- To improve listening skills and visual observation skills
- To use sound, the oral history interviewing process, and storytelling as creative tools and processes to encourage empathy and collectivity
Teachers begin by asking students to reflect on the past week and how they are feeling, focusing the conversation on whether students feel disconnected or connected to their friends and family, and what activities help them feel connected to others. As a class, read the following three first-person journal accounts from workers during the coronavirus pandemic in New York City:
- “Dead on Arrival: A NY Fire Chief’s Covid Journal,” by Simon Ressner, in ProPublica, April 5, 2020.
- “Fear, Fevers, and Reminders of Love: 30 days as a Medical Resident in New York City,” by Shaoli Chaudhuri, in The Lily (Washington Post), May 1, 2020.
- “The Diary of a Grocery Store Worker During the Epidemic,” on NPR, March 25, 2020.
- After reading all three accounts, how do you feel?
- The firefighter, the doctor, and the grocery store worker are engaged in work that takes care of others. How would you describe the different types of caretaking they are doing?
- How do they talk about the risks they are taking? Are they each taking the same kinds of risks? Why or why not? Do the different risks they are taking in order to help others impact the way that you value their work? Why or why not? And if so, how does it influence your opinion or feelings about it?
- Does a first-person description of the events affect the way you understand the pandemic? Why or why not?
- What does a first-person account provide to the reader that a news article does not?
- What are the ways that society and culture show us how they value certain risks and labour over others?
- Are there risks that you are taking or that others in your life are taking?
- Who are the caretakers in your family or in your household?
- Are these roles typical?
- Describe the different types of labour that are done in your household (physical, emotional, etc.). How is labour divided in your household?
- Is there someone in your family who is a storyteller?
- When do you tell or hear stories in your everyday life?
During the course of the discussion, teachers can focus on:
- The content of the stories as it relates to labour, risk, caretaking, loss, and trauma. Ask the students to define these terms in their own ways, and relate them to the stories.
- The form of the diary and first-person writing. Ask the students to identify the differences between reading the news this way versus news on television or in newspapers. Focus on the ways reading the stories made them feel, and questions that were raised by reading the first-person accounts.
Exercise One: Oral History Interview Preparation
Discuss the Definition of Oral History
Oral history can refer to both a cultural practice of informal storytelling, which preserves and passes on traditions to family members and neighbours, and a field of study where historians gather, preserve, and interpret people’s memories, voices, and past events. It is also an important way of collecting the stories of the everyday and people who may be left out of larger dominant histories.
Each student chooses two people they plan to interview: one person should be someone they know well, like a family member or a friend, and the other someone they do not know well, such as a neighbour they have never spoken to. This activity can also be done in collaboration with another classroom teacher, where students are paired with each other to conduct interviews.
Students brainstorm questions to ask their interviewees, with a focus on how their lives have changed since the start of the pandemic and their experience of risk, loss, and caretaking. Students should think of questions that help guide the interviewees to talk about experiences that they have had or events they went through. Avoid asking questions that elicit an opinion; instead focus on asking them specific questions about events, activities, or experiences that would elucidate how they feel about a certain topic through the description of the experience itself. The goal of the questions is to encourage them to describe events that become stories. The set of questions for each person should be different, as student’s knowledge of the person should inform the questions.
- Always write down the list of questions you intend to ask, but do not limit yourself to those questions or those topics. Always be open to where the interviewee might want to take the conversation.
- Always ask open-ended questions that do not end with yes or no answers.
- Remember that the interview is about the other person, so make sure not to interrupt them in the middle of what they are saying. Wait until they are finished to ask the next question or a follow-up question.
- Listen carefully and build on what they say by asking good follow-up questions, so that your interviewee has the opportunity to go deeper and give more details.
- Ask broad questions, so that it gives the interviewee the chance to describe their experiences at length. Good ways to start a question are: “Tell me about…” and “Can you describe…” These kinds of open-ended questions help stimulate memory and ideas so the interviewee can generate their own story.
Teacher Feedback on Exercise One
Teachers review the students’ questions and give them feedback, with suggestions for additional questions.
Exercise Two: Interviews
Each student conducts the two interviews. The interviews can be conducted over cellphone and recorded using a free voice recording app. It can also be conducted through writing and email.
Discussion on Exercise Two
Students listen to the interviews they conducted. Listen to them twice if there is time.
Students share sections of their interviews. Teachers then lead a discussion on what the students learned from conducting their interviews.
- What surprised you? What didn’t surprise you?
Which parts of the interviews were the most interesting and why?
- How did this part of the interview make you feel?
- What were you inspired to think about, listening to another person’s experience?
- Did the process of interviewing them change your feelings about them in any way? How so?
- Listening to the interviews again, are there new things that you learned about the person?
- Did you feel different during the two interviews? Did one of the interviews surprise you more? Did one of the interviews evoke more emotions in you? Describe the differences between the experience of conducting the two interviews.
During the discussion, teachers can encourage them to think about how stories are a way to see the world through a different lens, and an opening into different experiences. Oral history interview is a kind of storytelling that exist between the past and the present, between fact and meaning, between remembering and forgetting. Encourage them to think about the dynamic between themselves and the interviewees, and whether that produced a certain kind of response or storytelling.
Exercise Three: Artmaking: Thinking with Materials
Watch: Art in the 21st Century: Stories, Art21.
Discuss the various ways artists Kara Walker, Kiki Smith, Do Ho Suh, Charles Atlas, and Trenton Doyle Hancock use stories to inspire or inform their art practices. Discuss the various material and conceptual strategies that these artists use to tell stories, and thus provoke us to re-examine our own lives and the stories that define us.
Following the discussion, choose from the following list of ideas that use the interviews and discussions as a springboard to create artwork:
- Choose one interview and focus on one section of the interview that is the most compelling to you. Use that story and create a drawing or painting that responds, illustrates, and/or expands on that story in a fictional way.
- Choose one interview and transcribe one section of the interview that is the most compelling to you. Take a phrase or a sentence or words from the interview transcript, and utilise that text in a digital poster, drawing, or painting.
- Choose one interview and edit it in a sound editing programme to create a three-to-six-minute condensed sound piece. Record other sounds to incorporate into the audio piece that help enrich the sonic environment of the story.
- Choose one interview and one small object detail from that interview, and recreate that object as a small sculpture using found materials at home (such as paper, masking or duct tape, cardboard, or fabric).
- Interview all your family or household members with the same set of questions and create a digital archive of their interviews and stories. Use a video camera or your phone camera to create videos if you would like to record visuals as well.
- Take one hour to visually observe the person in your household who is a “caretaker.” Use your phone or a digital camera to take photographs of the person. You can photograph them while they are doing the work you define as caretaking or in any way you choose to portray them so as to communicate a concept of “caretaking” and “labour.” After photographing them, edit the photographs down to a group of six to ten.
Presentations of Student Artwork and Follow-up Discussion
Students take turns to briefly present the works they created. To prepare for presenting their artworks, ask them to respond to these prompts:
- What story or part of the interview inspired your artwork? Describe the story.
- Share what you learned about the person that you interviewed.
As a class, after each student’s presentation of their work, discuss how learning about their interviewees might allow them to reflect on inequalities in our homes and in our society, and how we might or might not practice collectivity. In conducting a discussion, students should begin by describing the work in physical and material terms, i.e., What is the sculpture made of? What colours are in it? What is represented or what action is happening in the photograph/drawing/painting?
Other Discussion Questions
- Describe how looking at the object/drawing/painting/photograph makes you feel.
- Do you think this kind of caretaking is work? Why or why not?
- Is this type of caretaking and/or work important to you? Why or why not?
- Is this type of caretaking and/or work important to your culture and society? Why or why not?
- Does this caretaking carry with it any risks? If so, what kinds? Does the level of risk make you think or feel differently about the kind of work?
- Is caretaking work that is typically done by certain people and for certain people in society? If so, who typically does this work and who is it typically for?
- Who is considered the most vulnerable in your household? Why?
- Who is considered most vulnerable in society? Why?
- How would you define risk? Is it the same as sacrifice?
- Is being taken care of a privilege or a human right? How so?
- What other kinds of caretaking do you think our society fails to value?
- Does it make you think differently about how we depend on each other—both in our families but also in society?
About the Artist
Hồng-Ân Trương is an artist who uses photography, video, and sound to explore immigrant, refugee, and decolonial narratives and subjectivities. Recent exhibitions include group shows at the Phillips Collection (Washington D.C.), the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Minnesota), and the Maryland Institute College of Art (Maryland), among others. She was included in the New Orleans triennial Prospect.4: The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp in 2017–18. Her collaborative work with Hương Ngô was exhibited in Being: New Photography 2018 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Her work has been reviewed in Artforum, The New Yorker, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Hyperallergic, among others. She was awarded an Art Matters Foundation Grant in 2011, and was a Guggenheim Foundation Fellow in Fine Art in 2019–20. She is the 2020 Capp Street Artist in Resident at the Wattis Institute at the California College of Arts in San Francisco. She received her MFA from the University of California, Irvine and was a fellow in the Whitney Independent Study Program. Hồng-Ân is based in Durham, North Carolina, where she is an activist and a teacher. She is an Associate Professor of Art at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Publishing date: 16 June 2020
The AAA Learning and Participation Programme is supported by the S. H. Ho Foundation Limited and C. K. and Kay Ho Foundation.