Unpacking Pedagogy

Roshani Thakore with Justin Langlois

The artist, educator, and organizer, Justin Langlois visited our cohort in spring of 2019 for an incredibly generative discussion about the role of socially-engaged art and pedagogy within practice. Since then, he and I have continued to have online conversations about classrooms and organizing spaces.I invited him to be a part of an unpacking of pedagogy a year later. This conversation took place online in May 2020. 

Justin

I’m really excited to be able to speak with you today. Thank you for thinking of me, it’s been such a pleasure to be able to sustain a conversation with you. 

I’ve been thinking about the term ‘pedagogy’ as a placeholder for a range of activities that get taken up across our personal, professional, and artistic practices. It means different things in different contexts, and you can approach it at a philosophical or practical level, but I was interested in hearing about your work with APANO (Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon) or at PSU (Portland State University), and whether you feel like the idea of pedagogy is useful, or if you think it needs to be recuperated, or if its utility as a placeholder is helpful?

Roshani 

Thanks so much for your time and for your interest, Justin! Yes, maybe all of the above? There are similarities of how APANO functions and our program functions. I don’t have to fight so much at APANO because there’s a lot of space that’s given for ourselves to be seen in our culture and multiple identities. That’s huge. Also, I don’t operate under capitalism very well, and the way it expects me to. Both spaces have incredibly collaborative ways of working but when you have the absence of cultural or experiences or backgrounds and voices, it just is limiting. At the core, the leadership at APANO is based on values  which you’re not going to necessarily get in academia, right? Because that’s a place where you’re supposed to unpack your values, you’re supposed to be challenged to really get to your own sense of what matters. I can understand that disconnect. But maybe it’s not necessary.

Justin

Yes, I completely agree with this. Values are embedded into places and you can feel them, you can build affinities through them. And yet, it’s not really like part of what happens, officially. They’re also not really formally supported within a kind of larger institutional setting,and yet there are many models of how values-based organizing and even learning can occur. I wonder, what’s in the way of that happening in a post-secondary institution? Pedagogy sets the limits of what is learned and what gets to count as learning. It shapes conversations, it shapes how we are in an educational setting, it shapes everything about that experience, and yet there are many other ways to do that work together. Even how you started off our conversation today, and in your emails, always asking about how I’m doing, how my family is, these kinds of soft check ins are really important. Those ways of knowing each other are really important and you center them when in other spaces, but in academia, they are kind of peripheral, right? They’re things that you’re supposed to leave out, and yet you put them back in the center of how you relate to other folks and I wonder if you consciously bring that into your pedagogy? 

Roshani

The lens of knowing each other, and how to know each other?

Justin

Yeah, and if you think about that as part of your approach to pedagogy, or if you think that actually belongs under the rubric of pedagogy, or if that’s just like, something else?

Roshani 

Oh no, that’s not something else. In the fall term this year, I co-taught a class with a really brilliant artist who graduated from our program and it felt like a collaboration. We just kept on thinking of how you create the circumstances for the folks to get to know each other in all these different ways. For me that was the intention, but it was up against the concern of, “Oh what am I supposed to make sure they leave with about social practice?” But at the end of the term, the biggest and most positive feedback was about feeling like the students were a part of a community. And I forgot to mention that this is an elective class so to be able to be engaged and interested in their fellow classmates for at least six hours a week was quite a feat. That matters to me and just as operating as an artist, relationships are prioritized over everything else.

Justin

When you’re prioritizing relationships, but also thinking about how we come to know one another is really about examining the conditions under which we know each other, and considering the materiality of pedagogy. Is that something tactical? Or is there actually a way to spread that across like all kinds of learning? Or maybe more importantly, thinking about the work that you have done and want to continue to do at APANO. How centered is it already there, in the organization? 

Roshani 

I think it’s more encouraged at APANO, and it’s also a constant. I think it’s because we’re under the same system, and being in that it’s a constant reminder of like, “No, you don’t need to work yourself to death.” Asking yourself, “What do you really want out of this graduate program? What do you really want to put your energy in?”

Last night we had a virtual event about community resilience hosted by APANO that was a BIPOC-only space. Whenever I’m in conversation with folks, I always always talk about politics. For me, there’s always political education. 

As I was collaborating with my coworker in creating this event I didn’t realize how much I needed this space too and needed to hear from the community. Folks were actually just needing to connect with each other in this type of space and the whole thing was a beautiful surprise. When facilitating that kind of space, I try to be extra conscientious of who is taking up space, how to encourage true dialogue, and how to keep on creating circumstances in real-time for folks to be all of themselves and consider the various worldviews. 

I’ve been unpacking that and thinking about how everything that we know has been designed. And we do not have to fully accept that design. I’ve been thinking of pushing back, that we know it’s terrible, we know its origins, we can create our own.  We can create our own design and what would that look like?

Justin

Earlier, you mentioned that in your final paper, you were shifting away from a discussion about power, and I’m also now hearing you talk about a kind of exertion or cultivation of either a counter-power response to power, a notion that the design could always be otherwise. That is, creating these things on the terms that makes sense for the folks that are together. I’m wondering about intentional decisions responding to existing circumstances, actively imagining that they could be otherwise. I think this is the heart of social practice: being able to take the lens of asking, well, how could this be otherwise and applying it to social circumstances? So, I’m curious about the fluidity of your own practice between the role of an organizer, artist, teacher, learner, human, partner, and whether you see a difference between them? What do you see across your work as an opportunity to build something otherwise?

Roshani 

What you just mentioned, the intention of it,  that’s what I’ve been trying to hold on to. I’m a Cultural Work Coordinator at APANO. That means certain things to my employer, right? But I see it as like this is the first time where I am in an organization that’s secure compared to other institutions typically sought out by artists, I’m making art, and I’m seen not through a white supremacist lens. I’m claiming it as my practice and am having conversations with my boss about what that means. 

The event that I co facilitated made me really understand how much it fed and nourished sme and my practice, but I wouldn’t call it an artwork. I was able to strengthen my facilitation skills, but it’s also like, when I do a sketch for a drawing or a final print or something, it’s the same thing. I see Orchards of 82nd as my studio and I’m not doing drawings every day, but I am working through the relational and political things that are in so many parts of my life.

Justin

That’s so tremendously exciting, to be able to kind of like stop having to set up or respond to barriers or divisions that are set and moving across and through all those spaces and that you can claim, well not claim in a capitalist kind of way, but claim or build what’s yours on terms that make sense to you.That’s about agency, that’s about you practicing self-determination in the world.

Roshani 

Yes! I’m glad you made that distinction of like claiming not in a capitalist form but just as for self determination and agency because I don’t think if I had that clarity before but then make that that’s the thing that makes sense. 

Justin

You mentioned a few times today about your own interest and practice of bringing in the ‘political’ into all of the spaces you’re working within, all of the time. There’s of course one level and awareness that these are just the terms of engagement in the world, and so on one hand it’s actually not about politicizing anything. It’s already politicized. White supremacy and patriarchy and heteronormativity and ableism are already baked in. So, how do you bring those values into the work that you do in ways that, you know, kind of provide space for people to enter that on their own terms? 

Roshani 

Oh man, I’ve been really thinking hard about this recently. A big part of my practice is the actual participation and engagement and daily life of the tools of democracy, which is agency and autonomy. Through my work, I can create situations where there is more of that so that people can feel more empowered and  want to feel more engaged and participate in their daily life of their place, their neighborhood, their community, their state, their nation. That’s the way that I think about it which is through an organizing mentality, but that’s how I think about the political nature of bringing it into people’s lives. I also read an excerpt by Jimmy Boggs recently. He talked about his experience, he was, from a small town in Alabama, very connected to the land and slavery and history. He then moved to Detroit to be a part of the industrial part of America. He talks about how he loved his country so much that he wanted to engage and participate in a way to change it. He knows that it was built by his people in very tragic conditions. But that spirit to be able to envision another, that’s love, right? That doesn’t come from resentment or these other feelings, that comes from a place of maybe love and hope. It’s from that space to want to engage and I totally understand that so many people cannot be in that space and don’t have the capacity to do that. I feel like I’ve been wanting that so much in my life from other people, and now I finally have the tools to, like, at least create works or situations that can at least try to allow that for other people.

Justin

Yes, it’s like a pedagogy of extension. You know, just the way that you sort of traced how things impact people’s lives and then you scaled up to this example of Jimmy Boggs thinking about the impact they want to make on something as large as their country. That’s what good work can do is provide folks with an exercise that they can translate into these other parts of their lives, that, that they learn those kinds of practices and engagement and ways to think about the role that they have in democracy as sort of an active agent and not just the receiver of all of those exertions of power and exploitation. This is the idea of love and hope. We can mobilize around disengagement and disempowerment, or we can organize around love and a kind of hope that there’s still some road ahead of us. I think the exciting part becomes when you can look at a given set of circumstances and recognize the terms you encounter are the outcome of a lot structural and systemic forces that are mostly set up against folks, but then also see there is a whole bunch of time and space and community yet to be made and loved and I think this is forward looking. This is the thing built on a sense of hope. To think about like a pedagogy of hope, not as a way to necessarily solve all of those structural violences and systemic oppressions, because we won’t, but to actually to use them to think about what we owe to the people that are coming after us and to one another to actually like rework that. Admittedly, I want to believe that and yet I am also bumping into my own cynicism and I’m not sure how to reconcile that. I feel like I can get my head wrapped around it, but you know, it’s like, all of a sudden, it’s seven o’clock at night and I’m burned out and exhausted.  How do you navigate that? How do you bring this to the folks you’re working with all the time who are probably even more tired and facing a whole lot of different challenges?

Roshani

I can understand that and at the same time, I’m probably not as busy as you are (laughs)… Okay, have you read Emergent Strategy? By adrienne maree brown? 

Justin

Actually, I’ve just been reading her book, Pleasure Activism, but Emerging Strategies is next on my list.

Roshani

Oh nice! Emergent Strategy spells out the stuff that we’re talking about. 

Brown talks about being a black woman in America and that being able to embody joy is a radical act. So that is a baseline. 

The other thing she talks about is how we’re not engaged because really we’re trained to be consumers. We’re given so much information and told so much information, whether it’s through marketing or through traditional school curriculum, and naming that yes, we have a democracy but we really don’t know how to participate in it other than we’re supposed to go to the voting booth every 4 years. That’s not all we need to do. Really just calling that out and valuing how to operate in the world with intention and prioritizing relationships within the community. 

Also, I remember a friend Mack McFarland reminded me that we’re just finite beings. As artists and organizers, we have this thing that we want to get to the horizon, whether that’s success or a better world and really there’s only so much you can do. In realizing the finite energy that you have, it’s being very intentional about what you can and can’t do. In this book, she speaks about in the lens of being in social justice organizations and in the social justice movements and how those spaces can be very debilitating and how boundaries are really set up for individuals. It’s always thinking about the bigger vision, but not the individual. It’s also not a self-indulgent existence, it’s thinking of what you can put into yourself in your immediate community, and just allowing that to scale up.

Justin

It’s comforting and inspiring to hear that because I think that where we operate, at the levels we can operate, we read about systems and scales of things that are just so enormous and it’s hard to scale things. Then you can look at your immediate community, your family, your friends and see a scale that you can understand. There’s this much larger thing that you don’t really have control over. You’re just sort of a part of them,and to think about the inability to actually scale up infinitely. Maybe it’s not a bug, maybe that’s a feature of being human. Maybe we actually can’t ever or shouldn’t try to tackle that stuff on our own. 

Earlier this morning, I was on a call about this Float School project that Holly Schmidt and I have been doing, and we’ve been working on a little publication and we were just doing like a group chat with some of the people that have participated and you know, the one thing that about that project that has always stuck with me is that you can kind of feel like you’re really ‘in it’ with a small group of people and you kind of feel like what you’re doing matters to them. When I think about how deeply I feel that it’s like, it reminds me of this Pleasure Activism book, getting back in tune with what your body actually wants and seeing that as a check-point. And maybe that is an emergent strategy? I have to read that book now. 

Roshani

Yes, you do! (laughs) That’s so great that your project can make you feel like you’re in it. Listen to that. Hold onto that. 

In thinking about scale, I’m curious in your life, what are the different scales that you’re working with and living in?

Justin

I think that what I have kind of inadvertently done over the last number of years is accidentally set some harder boundaries between like different scales of things, and I don’t know that I’ll ever know why I’ve done that. Part of what’s come from that, though, is a certain clarity. I remember the 2017 Creative Time Summit in Toronto, and Carlos Marentes, from Border Agricultural Workers Project, provided this amazing insight in his talk. He was saying, it’s like a political thing to make time to cook for your family and to care for them. We have to demand time from our jobs and from all of these other spaces and circumstances that control parts of our lives. We have to make demands that these are not just personal things that we need to take care of, but that they’re actually something much larger. I heard that and I felt like it gave me permission to step back from some things intentionally. You know, my partner is working later than I am, and so when I get home first, I need to cook and take care of our dogs. I see that as something important, something scaled to the size of my family, and realizing that I have to take care of that before I can do anything else worthwhile.

So this question of scale in relation to my practice has also been impacted. I think that the projects that I have taken on over the last number of years have often been in other places, and I think that’s allowed something else to happen that didn’t happen in my earlier projects. You can go somewhere and get very deeply involved for a short period of time, or periods of time, and the process is fairly directional, rather than something more organic. Early on, my work was scaled to my friends, to people I saw everyday, to something that felt like the scale of family. Things could just happen by virtue of being together.

I think my life exists more urgently, and sort of deeply in my home, and I’ve been wondering how my practice and my job can sit alongside that. It’s also a question of time and the scale of time. Doing projects with folks that are part of your life changes the scale of time of that relationship and in turn the work itself. Maybe I just want to be a really good like, partner and, and do right by, you know, the small team of people I’m working with at school and like and maybe like that’s enough like to just do that really well and to really care about it. I think one of the most radical things you could do is to just really stand up for a few people and say to them, you know, whatever you need, I’ll back you up. That feels like sort of the best kind of project, whether it’s a social practice project or a more meaningful way to live, I think, increasingly the lens through which I want to look at what it means to teach or what it means to be engaged in projects or community or life is wondering how you can be there for other people.

Roshani

Completely! What you’re talking about backing your people up and how important and radical and effective that is, I want to let you know that our cohort has had some strain in figuring out the spring term during the pandemic with all the confusion and uncertainty. What you had mentioned in our intensive last year, asking what the fourth year of school will look like, it made a lot of sense for our situation. There is a fourth year that will be with each other.  We can keep on supporting each other in different avenues and different ways. 

Justin

Wow, I have to say, on top of just being super grateful that we’ve been able to sustain a conversation over the whole last year, and to be able to do this today, I want to say that it was really recharging for me to just be able to meet with you all last year. It means a lot to know that some things are still kind of reverberating that we talked about last year.

Roshani

Yes! That’s pedagogy! 


PHOTOS

82nd+Beyond: A Living Archive, Roshani leading a public walk with collaborator Sachi Arakawa.

Float School, Justin Langlois and Holly Schmidt. 

BIOS:

Roshani Thakore uses art to broaden an understanding of place, uncover histories, elevate voices, and expand a sense of belonging, all with the hope of shifting power. Since 2019 she is the Artist-in-Residence at the Asian Pacific Network of Oregon, a statewide, grassroots organization, uniting Asians and Pacific Islanders to achieve social justice. Prior to this residency, she received funding from the Division Midway Alliance Creative Placemaking Projects Grant with her project 82nd + Beyond: A Living Archive. More information about her work is at www.roshanithakore.com

Justin Langlois is currently the Associate Dean of the Master of Fine Arts program at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. His practice explores collaborative structures, critical pedagogy, and infrastructural frameworks as tools for gathering, learning, and making. He lives and works as an uninvited guest on unceded Coast Salish Territory in Vancouver, Canada.

The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a bi-annual publication dedicated to supporting, documenting, and contextualizing socially engaged art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal focuses on a different theme in order to take a deep look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions, and the public. The Journal seeks to support writing and web based projects that offer documentation, critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

The SoFA Journal is published in print and PDF form twice a year, in June and December by the PSU Art & Social Practice Program. In addition to the print publication, the Journal hosts an online platform for ongoing projects.

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PO Box 751
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