Tell us a little about yourself—your teaching areas and interests and/or your background and how you became connected to the London Venice field school?
Cheerio and Ciao! My name is Dorothy Barenscott, and I have had the pleasure of co-leading this field school to London and the Venice Biennale with Elizabeth Barnes. I am an art historian and researcher with a Ph.D. and specialization in the field of modern and contemporary art, and this is my fourth field school adventure in just under seven years that I have helped organize and run through Kwantlen Polytechnic University for the Fine Arts Department (past field schools include two separate trips to Paris and Documenta in 2012 and 2017, and a trip to New York and the Venice Biennale in 2015).
Although my interests and research are primarily focused on the historical avant-garde, urban studies, film/photography, and theories of modernism, I have in recent years been exploring the art market, new media studies, and looking more closely at street art and graffiti and more non-traditional and emerging modes of artistic expression. I am also a lifelong traveller, both as an adult and graduate student studying in the world’s archives and museums-- but also as a child traveling between Canada and Eastern Europe to visit family and navigate the complexities of very different cultures. As such, I have long believed that world travel fosters a kind of active and pragmatic critical thinking, compassion, and tolerance that is unique and distinctive from other kinds of social engagement. My blog (and the field school blogs assembled here) serve as extensions of this broader interest in “travel” to reach beyond the classroom and enter into dialogue across wider distances and dimensions.
How did you approach the task of teaching and working with students inside and outside the classroom for the field school?
Working on the field schools is among the most rewarding aspects of my job, and I approach each opportunity to travel as entirely unique and context specific. We had chosen London as a new locale for a multitude of reasons—including the rich and accessible art collections in the local art museums and galleries (many of which are free!); the dynamic and growing street and graffiti art scene; the fluidity between the worlds of commerce, art, design, and fashion in the city; and the importance London has played via the Tate Modern in the establishment of a global contemporary art culture. Moreover, London presented us with the tensions surrounding both Brexit and the growing crisis, Europe-wide, around the Syrian refugee crisis and growing ethnic nationalism and illiberalism at the political level. This potent mix provided a rare opportunity to probe how artists are both impacted, and challenged, by shifting social, political, and cultural forces. We then connected what was happening on the ground in London to the wider conversation taking place at the Venice Biennale, a global art exhibition that includes over 90 participating countries and takes place in the Italian cultural hub every two years.
This year’s theme for the core art history course “London Calling: Post-War Art and Consumer Culture” was centered around the transformation of modern and contemporary London through the lens of art and consumer culture. We began with the era of “Swinging London” fashion and pop art of the 1950-60s, then moved to the punk, new wave, and experimental art movements of the 1970-90s, together with the “Young British Artists”, and ended with the street art movements of the 1990-2000s connected to mega-celebrity artist “brands” such as Damien Hirst and Banksy. In each era explored, we sought to unpack how consumer culture intersected with movements grounded in avant-garde art, yielding new business models and approaches that sought to mainstream art to the masses. Students were assigned one British contemporary artist and one “global” artist (understood to be part of the modern and contemporary art canon worldwide and found in the collection of the Tate Modern) and were challenged to assess how their assigned artists worked to inform new kinds of critical conversations at the level of form, content, and context in their artworks.
What was unique or memorable about experiencing London and Venice with a group of students already interested in and/or practicing art making?
This was our first field school to London, but it is a city I have traveled to a great deal. To me, London is a very accessible and friendly city, with a local population that is very interested and open to contemporary art. And unlike the stereotypes many people have of the “stiff upper lip” and conservatism of the U.K., what I absolutely love about London is its incredibly diverse and multi-ethnic population, not unlike New York, and the historical legacy of the punk, labour, and anarchist movements, that manifest in all kinds of spatial, cultural, and political ways throughout the city’s many distinct neighbourhoods. And then there is that ever-present British humour and wit, qualities that seep into all areas of everyday life. All of these incredible qualities are mirrored directly in the art, both past and present, in London. And for our students, London provided a virtual artistic smorgasbord—from the refined antiquities of the British Museum, to the latest in contemporary art at Tate Modern, the fashion exhibitions at Victoria and Albert Museum, and ever-changing street and political art in the streets. Everything and anything one would want to discover art-wise can be found in London.
Moving from London to Venice did feel a bit more like whiplash than in other field school pairings (the temperature difference alone had us scrambling for entirely different wardrobes!), but the connective tissue was this year’s curator, Ralph Rugoff, an American curator working in London, with his theme “May You Live In Interesting Times.” His chosen theme was directly informed by the recent turmoil both in the UK and Europe, and as Rugoff describes in his introduction to the Biennale, the world must pay attention to the role art can play in raising awareness of the stakes involved in recent world events:
May You Live in Interesting Times will take seriously art’s potential as a method for looking into things that we do not already know - things that may be off-limits, under-the-radar, or otherwise inaccessible for various reasons. It will highlight artworks that explore the interconnectedness of diverse phenomena, and that convey an affinity with the idea, asserted by both Leonardo da Vinci and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, that everything connects with everything else.”
We likewise challenged our students to pay attention and look for the major stakes that were being taken up by this year’s chosen artists, along with the messages that were channeled through the many national pavilions that sought to communicate what they deemed worthy and critical to the Biennale audiences. Of all the years I have attended this event, this year’s Venice Biennale was among the most powerful, urgent, and targeted, with a strong message to both audiences and artists to pay critical attention and take action in the world around them. All this through the power of art.
Which of the activities during the trip stand out to you? Any special highlights or memorable moments for you?
There were so many memorable moments of the trip, but as always, the most exciting thrill for me personally and professionally is seeing our students encounter works of art that they have intently studied but only experienced via reproductions, and always at a distance. For this reason alone, the trips to Tate Modern and Tate Britain were very special. I was also very happy to see many of our students find the confidence to plan short adventures and excursions out of London on their own—something that will trigger a lifelong love of travel adventure. Other London moments, such as taking long walks with students and on my own through London’s many neighbourhoods, traveling with a small group to Bristol to see Banksy’s first street art works, being invited into Patrick Hughes’ studio for a private tour with the group, our sunset bike ride, finally getting to White Cube gallery, meeting up with KPU colleagues Sharon Greeno and Heather Clark for special dinners, and finding the perfect moment of calm at a tea service in Harrod’s or on a solo visit to see a Lee Krasner exhibition—all of these moments stand out for me. As always, I wanted to share as many moments as possible through photography, an area of interest I only claim as an enthusiast, and enjoyed the process of selecting, editing, and filtering images for the field school Instagram hashtag #kpulondonvenice.
In Venice, the entire atmosphere of the Biennale, especially at the Arsenale, was incredibly charged, and this was so exciting to witness, and deeply inspiring for all of us. Our tranquil nightly dinners seaside near our quiet (and air-conditioned!) hostel were heavenly, and the final day of marathon art-going with Elizabeth is one of those special days in one’s life that will never be forgotten. All in all, this field school was as distinct and special as the many individuals who were chosen to be part of this unique adventure, and I have memories shared with each and every member of this group that brings a big smile to my face! We will all be bonded by what we shared in London and Venice, and the special gift of travel, infused with a love of art, will be a residual souvenir of this journey for a lifetime.