Lesson: Younger Than Jesus: Is a young generation's multimedia work art?

  • Grade Level: High School (9-12 grade)
  • Subject Area: Visual Arts, English Language, New Media
  • Ruth Ewan, A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World, 2009Ruth Ewan, A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World, 2009

Introduction

Written by Stephanie Pereira, Museum Educator

Artists of the generation under the age of thirty-three represented in this exhibition are distinguished by their tendency to work across media, appropriating whatever tools and materials necessary to express an artistic idea. A natural question that will arise out of such diverse applications of materials, especially for audiences new to contemporary art, will be, “Why is it art?”

The New Museum’s mission is to promote new art and new ideas. This means that the work exhibited here is always fresh, and always expresses the ideas and impulses of the world we live in. The current exhibition at the museum, “The Generational: Younger Than Jesus,” truly fulfills the mission of the New Museum. All the work in this show is made by artists under the age of thirty-three, and almost all of the work was made in the past few years. The exhibition represents over fifty artists from twenty-five countries and takes up five floors of the Museum.

Ask students: Does anyone have ideas about what art is that they want to share?

Introduce the following responses to the question, “What is art?”

“Anything, that anyone creates, that invokes a reaction from someone else.”

“It expresses the artist’s feeling about his or her life, or feelings or emotions about a particular time or era. Something that is beautiful.”

“Art is a painting you see on the wall, or also ballet, or theater…Or also girl watching. Heh heh.”

“I see art in everything. Just walking down the street, even debris on the street. And people, they miss that point.”

“Just because you say it’s art doesn’t mean its art.”

Note: This lesson is divided into 5 sessions. Each session builds upon the previous, but there is enough flexibility to focus on just one.

Objectives

  • Discuss visual aspects of artworks.
  • Discuss implied elements (researching, collecting, organizing, editing, contextualizing).
  • Become familiar with diverse ways of art-making (in terms of both conceptual and material aspects).
  • Understand personal connections.
  • Understand global-social aspects of work, and implied meanings.

Lesson Strategy

Session 1

1. Look at Ruth Ewan’s A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World, 2009.
Ask students:

  • What are we looking at? Look at the attachment of songs on the jukebox.
  • Does anyone recognize any of these songs?
  • Do the titles or the singers give you any clue as to what these songs are about?
  • What about the title of this piece? Does this give you any hints?
  • When are these songs from?
  • How many songs would you guess are in here?

2. Tell students this is a jukebox, with political protest songs, from all different times and artists. Ask them:

  • Where do you usually see jukeboxes, or the modern day equivalent?
  • How is this jukebox similar or different from a machine you have seen before?
  • Why do you think that Ruth Ewan has compiled all these songs and put them into a jukebox in a museum?
  • How would this work be different if it was an iPod?

3. After summarizing the major points of the conversation and reviewing the formal aspects of the artwork introduce biographical information about the artist and provide the title, year, and materials of the artwork you are discussing.

Jukeboxes are machines for playing music in public places. Usually, for a small fee, any person can select a series of songs that will be played for the whole room. You get to be the DJ. In this case, since 2003, the artist Ruth Ewan has compiled over 600 songs—and she is still collecting! The big difference with this jukebox is its theme, rather than Top 40 or Country and Western, Ruth Ewan has collected songs written by and for people who want to see change for social good in their world. The title of the piece is A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World. Ask students:

  • What statement do you think Ruth Ewan is trying to make with this piece? Point out that it is interactive, and only works if people engage with it.
  • Are there any DJs in the crowd? Why do people listen to music? What does it do? Have you ever gotten a song stuck in your head? How does music influence you?
  • How do you share it with friends? Why do you share it?
  • Is music art?
  • Ruth Ewan has simply collected these songs and put them into a form that we recognize as a tool for sharing and listening to music together. Is this art? Why? How is this experience different than making something to hang on a wall that people can look at together?

4. Divide students into groups of 3 and have them list out 30 songs. Ask them to divide the songs into groups of 10 based on 3 themes of their choosing. Students should share their 3 themes with the rest of the groups. Are there any similarities between the themes? Ask students if their themes are unique to their generation? In what ways are they similar or different? As homework, have students create a playlist of songs that they feel are representative of their generation. In the upcoming weeks, play one student’s playlist during your class period.

5. Summarize
Art takes many forms, and uses many materials. What is the purpose of art? In this case, the artistic work is the series of actions and reactions that happen when someone thumbs through, chooses, and/or plays a song from this jukebox. The work can also be viewed as the sum of all the voices represented here—what they mean together and what they imply.

Session 2

1. Have students write down everything that they brought to school today. This should include what they are wearing, what was in their backpack etc. Have one student write on the board their list. Have a second student add to the list, but not repeat any of the previous. Continue to do this until no one can contribute anything new.

2. Look at Liu Chuang’s Buying Everything On You, 2006/08.
*Take a moment to examine these three plinths. While your students are looking at each one, have them identify similarities and differences across them. Ask them:

  • So what is all this?
  • What do you see that tells you this?
  • What kinds of objects do we see?
  • Do you think they belonged to real people? Why or why not?

3. Tell students that they are looking at a bunch of objects that look like they came from three different people: one outfit, a set of personal belongings, the kind we carry with us every day. The name of this piece is Buying Everything on You. It is an installation by the artist Liu Chuang. The objects here were collected by the artist in a public action where he asked people on the street if he could by everything on them. Ask them:

  • So what does it look like he did with the objects once he bought them?
  • How is it laid out?
  • Why not folded, or piled or scattered? What is the effect?
  • Does it remind you of anything? (CSI? Clothing store? Funeral?)

4. Tell your students that Liu Chuang has taken the clothes and everyday items someone carries with them, and laid them out on plinths. The items are separated so that one person’s identity is represented on each. Items are arranged by category (clothes, make-up, credit cards, etc.), and their placement is approximately the same on each one. Liu Chuang is very interested in the way objects can convey meaning about a person, or people. He is also interested in the way that creating small changes in the way we expect to see something can radically change what we think about it, like the way these everyday objects have become strange in their current setting. Referring back to the list on the board, ask students:

  • Do you think that what you wear or carry represents who you are?
  • What can we tell about the people here? What can we never know?
  • Would you let Liu Chuang buy everything on you? What would you hold back? What is so important about that thing?
  • How do your personal possessions represent who you are? Is it the collection or what we do with it?
  • Are there connections between this artwork and Ruth Ewan’s jukebox?
  • In this day and age, we are historically the biggest consumers ever. Do we tend to very much define ourselves by our things?
  • Is this an artwork? What ideas are expressed? What message is conveyed? Again, compare to a painting on a wall. How is information shared? Is there a visual component? Connect to other ideas raised about what is traditionally considered art. What is the artwork? The public action, or this installation? Both? Neither?

Session 3

1. Look at Guthrie Lonergan’s Myspace Intro Playlist, 2006. Ask your students:

  • Who knows what we are looking at?
  • What are the people in the video doing?
  • Why?
  • Let’s look closer. Who are these people? Any clues?
  • And what about the setup? We aren’t looking at MySpace pages. How is this different? * Describe what you see, what you usually would be seeing. What is conspicuously missing? The page, filled with profile information and comments; the opportunity to leave a message?

2. Tell students this is a series of videos taken from MySpace Web pages. The title of the piece is Myspace Intro Playlist. He downloaded twelve videos that and has edited them to play on two different monitors concurrently. You will notice that sometimes they play together, and sometimes one is black, or quiet, while the other plays. Ask them:

  • How has the way that Guthrie Lonergan reframed these videos changed them?
  • Are the people in them talking to you?
  • If these videos are no longer about welcoming you to a MySpace page, what are they about? Who are they for? Friends? Anybody? Are they talking to the camera like they are talking to a friend?
  • Why do you think has Guthrie Lonergan framed the videos in this way?

3. Inform students that these videos are no longer “real” insofar as the people in them are talking to people who visit their pages, not an audience in a museum. Do they even know that they have been re-presented here? Guthrie Lonergan finds the online DIY culture that has emerged inspiring. He is interested in the ways that people are trying to express themselves through corporate structures like MySpace or YouTube, which were created by companies looking to make money. He is fascinated by the way personalities shine through these boring structures. Here, you might say that he has done all he can to strip away the frame these people usually speak through, leaving only their own references to it behind. Ask students:

  • In this piece, we are confronted with teens telling us about themselves. What are they telling us? Think about the piece by Liu Chuang from session 2. What can we learn from these videos? What do we not know?
  • Do any of you have MySpace intro videos? Is it you or a persona? How do you know what to say? Think of radio DJs, reality TV confessionals. To whom are you speaking?
  • Guthrie Lonergan calls this form of expression folk art, that is art that comes from everyday people. Folk art is a craft, considered decorative, and sometimes has a utilitarian purpose. Some people excel at it and become known for it. Do you agree that these videos could be folk art? Why or why not?

4. Borrowing from other sources, students will organize an “interest” of their choosing. They will need to compile many sources that represent their interest and present it to the class in a format of their choosing. When talking about his work, Guthrie Lonergan says that there is already so much out there, it feels silly to make something new. Instead, he has taken on this role of artist as organizer, instead of a creator of visual material. In some ways this is similar with Ruth Ewan’s jukebox discussed in session 1. Both have collected products “of the people” and organized them to communicate a bigger idea. Guthrie Lonergan’s is different because he is commenting on his collection, where Ruth Ewan has framed hers as a tool for social action. Students should consider this when organizing their “interest.”

Session 4

1. Look at Matt Keegan’s 1986/2008 New Museum Edit,2009. Tell students this installation includes paintings, with the hands on it, and each of the drywall sections propped up against the wall. Let’s take a moment and describe each element.

  • What do you see? Describe the hands. What can you tell me about them? Age, gender, ethnicity?
  • Look at the newspapers. What are the stories? Is there a theme? Where and when are they from?
  • And what about this one. Do any of you know who Barbara Kruger is? Why might someone’s name be printed over and over again like that? Where have you seen something like that?
  • What about this one with the photos? What do you see? Who are these people? How many are there? How old do they look? Can you tell anything else about them?

2. Tell students this is an installation by the artist Matt Keegan. In 2008, Matt Keegan, who was born and raised in Long Island and now lives in NYC, was invited to do an art show in LA. He took the opportunity to trace a connection between LA and NYC. While thinking about this idea of physical and metaphorical connections, he learned about the Hands Across America fundraising effort that took place in 1986. Does anyone know what Hands Across America is?

In Hands Across America, people formed a human chain that spanned from coast to coast by holding hands. Seven million people participated for fifteen minutes to raise money for and symbolically bring the country together in a stand against homelessness. Matt Keegan, who was just ten years old at the time, was captivated by this huge message of solidarity. During his trip to LA, he made casts of hands from the fourteen mayors that he interviewed (out of nineteen states he drove through. Their hands are here arranged according to where they are from. He also started researching the time period Hands Across America happened during, asking questions about the political and social climate. The newspapers here represent some of that research. The board with the students on it is titled 23 portraits of 22 year-olds. They were all born in 1986, the same year as Hands Across America. Ask students:

  • Can you imagine the chain of Hands Across America? What about that is powerful to you? Have you ever participated in something similar?
  • Let’s look at these mayors’ hands (there are a few other people’s mixed in too). Why would Matt Kegan cast the hands of mayors he talked to along his route to LA as part of his documentation of the trip? What do mayors represent?
  • Why do you think he took such care in painting them?
  • What does Matt Keegan’s arrangement of the hands evoke for you?
  • As we looked at the newspaper articles we talked about some of their content. What could be a big picture message or idea we can take away from these papers?
  • Why do you think Matt Keegan included portraits of students in the show? Do you think they have anything in common with Hands Across America? Do they in a sense come from the same place?
  • How do all these elements add up?

3. Tell students this installation is largely the documentation of Matt Keegan’s research into the Hands Across America project. Some of the questions he asked were about the cultural and political climate of the time. In 1986, Ronald Regan was president. A lot of people have drawn parallels between the American that had Ronald Regan as a president and the America that had George W. Bush as a president. In both times, the federal government pulled money out of social services, and encouraged more privatization (people being responsible for their own welfare, with for-profit corporations providing services market-driven prices.) Matt Keegan thought a lot about the way that the policies and beliefs of one time can influence the future. With his portraits of twenty-two-year-olds, he is wondering how we have inherited the legacy of the time that we were born. Ask them:

  • How old are you? What historical events have you lived through?
  • Hands Across America is such an amazing project to me because I have experienced nothing like it. Twenty-two years later we have the Internet to connect us. Matt Keegan’s project is decidedly analog. Why do you think he excluded the Internet from his story? How is the Internet a powerful connector? Facebook has more than 60 million users, MySpace has 110 million!
  • What does this installation communicate to you. Let’s look at the hands. What story do they tell?
  • What about the twenty-two-year-olds? After what we have discussed about 1986, the year of their birth, and the way that a time period shapes us, what do these portraits say to us?
  • This work is documentation of a journey. This is not documentation as we would usually think of it, photographs or writing. What element of this piece do you think is the artwork?

4. Activity
Step 1: Give each student 5 Post-its. Have each student write an important event on each one.
Step 2: Have student put the events on the board in chronological order.
Step 3: Once all are up, find the event that has the most Post-its and have students become the experts on this event through research.
Step 4: Students will write a proposal for this event to be remembered for future generations. Students should consider how they are going to make this event remembered? (i.e. national holiday, an artwork, a mandatory text for school) Be sure to have students refer back to their research as support.
Step 5: Students will present their proposal to their school’s principal/advisory for approval.

Session 5

1. Look at KateÅ™ina Šedá‘s works in the digital archives. Have students describe the drawings. What are the materials? What is the style? Is this person a skilled draftsperson? Are there details? What is the content? What are the drawings of?
What’s going on in the TV set?

2. Tell students there are 160 drawings on the wall in this installation. They are simple line drawings, made with black marker on white paper. The line is clear, yet not totally controlled. The images are detailed. They are images from a general store that sold many household items.

KateÅ™ina Šedá’s grandmother was very depressed. She wouldn’t do anything but lie in bed and watch TV. She wouldn’t even change the channel. She would only say, “It doesn’t matter,” which is actually a common phrase in the Czech Republic. One day KateÅ™ina Šedá noticed that when speaking of an item from the store she worked at for over thirty years, her grandmother was much more animated, and in fact said something she had never heard her say—she said it mattered. Taking this simple glimmer of caring as a starting point, KateÅ™ina Šedá encouraged her grandmother to make drawings of everything in the store where she had worked. These are her drawings. They are not all here, but in total there are over 600. Ask students:

  • Let’s look at the video. What is going on between KateÅ™ina Šedá and her grandmother?
  • What is the grandmother’s role? What is KateÅ™ina Šedá’s?
  • Are these drawings the grandmother’s or KateÅ™ina Šedá’s? Are they art? Is this video art?

3. Tell students by having her recreate the inventory of the store, KateÅ™ina Šedá felt she was putting her grandmother back to work, with the goal of figuratively reconstructing the store, giving her an ongoing task to be invested in. We cans see from the video that KateÅ™ina Šedá influenced her grandmother’s drawings by asking her questions and prodding her. The style of this work is “social action,” where the art lies not in the object, but in the actions that generate them. Ask students:

  • These drawings and the video are only recordings of what happened between KateÅ™ina Šedá and her grandmother. What is the real artwork here?
  • To whom does it belong?
  • To whom does it matter?

4. Summarize
KateÅ™ina Šedá has said that her work is about showing people to each other, and bringing them together, finding commonalities, where it appears there is only distance or difference. This work could be seen as similar to Matt Keegan’s work in that it has bridged time—in this case by recreating a store—and connected people. KateÅ™ina Šedá and her grandmother are linked as co-creators of this work. We can think about some of the other pieces we looked at as well. Guthrie Lonergan’s videos demonstrate a common practice of teens making public video profiles, or Liu Chuang’s work, for which he both connects and distinguishes people by displaying the items they own. Ruth Ewan collects songs of political protest, and then connects them further by sharing them with the people who play them, and the people who listen to them together. Ask students:

  • Has your conception of what art is or can be changed?

5. Activity
Step 1: Ask, “What is art?”
Step 2: Write individual responses in the center of a sheet of paper.
Step 3: Create maps in which responses turn into questions. For example, if a response is: “Art is personal expression,” the next layer could be: “How do people express themselves?” which could lead to “Through clothes, music, books, activities, etc.”

From here, students brainstorm a potential art project that could collect and frame these responses.

  • They can focus on just one of the responses, and think about how it represents a larger truth, or they can look at all the responses to see if they can identify a common thread.
  • Students should consider any materials necessary to complete these projects, as well as elements of performance or social action, or collaboration.

Lesson Plan: Younger Than Jesus: Is a young generation's multimedia work art?