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Emily Floyd: An alternative education

Jul 01, 2015

Emily Floyd works in sculpture, printmaking and public installation. She explores the history of pedagogical play, employing it as a frame for investigations into literature, information display, typography, protest, and the legacy of Modernism. Drawing parallels between educational models and contemporary art, Floyd’s works generate spaces for social engagement and interaction whilst provoking discussions about contemporary social, cultural and political potentiality.

Megan Monte, an emerging curator in Australia Council’s professional development program, spoke to Emily Floyd about her work that will be part of the 2015 Venice Biennale.

It is very exciting to hear you have been selected as one of seven Australian artists to be curated into the central exhibition of the 56th Venice Biennale, All the World’s Futures by acclaimed curator and art critic Okwui Enwezor. Can you talk briefly about your practice and modes of investigations?

Yes, it is very exciting to be included and especially given Enwezor’s provocation that All the World’s Futures will be a project devoted to a fresh appraisal of the relationship between art and artists to the current state of things. My work investigates historical legacies of activism, cultural studies and models of experimental education. I use sculpture, toy making, printing and hands on learning as a way of embodying this research.

Your work will be presented with over 136 artists from 53 countries. A number of these artists will be showing their work within the context of the Venice Biennale for the first time. Can you share something about the work that will be included?

The project will be presented within a walled garden in the Giardino Delle Vergini. It is an outdoor sculpture housing a library dedicated to critical perspectives on work, functioning as a place to sit while also acting as a Field Library of thinking. Generated through the context of the Biennale, it will be a container for ideas, historical perspectives and newly commissioned writings on the subject of labour.

Within your work you also consider the parallels of education and contemporary art; where and how they intersect to create socially engaged environments. What is your agenda with building a socially engaged environment?

By building these environments I propose that contemporary art itself is the most current form of alternative education. I’m also interested in the question of whether progressive politics has become an artefact relegated to the space of the museum…

When I look at your work, I initially find it difficult to interact with it, based purely on observation and conceptual pondering. Yet on closer inspection, through the tactile and sensory associations, I see the work. I experience it on a participatory level and with a sense of play. I understand I have a greater role within its existence as your pedagogical approach to art suggests social change. It draws me to consider the current, identifiable ‘conservatism’ in our own education system.

Yes, it is paradoxical that the ‘education turn‘ in contemporary art, along with art museum’s embracement of pedagogy, coincides with a broader defunding of public education. There is now a dismantling by stealth of the legacies of universal education established during the ‘60s and ‘70s. One way to think through this might be to consider the history of self-organised counter education in Australia, for example Eddie and Bonita Mabo’s Black Community School, Gary Foley’s pedagogical performances or Ruth Crow’s Eureka Youth League activities; and how these projects may be adapted and extended for contemporary struggles.

I am interested in the term social engagement, and what this means in the context of your practice. What is interesting about your work is that there is an implied notion of play, not a direct form or explicit terms of engagement. What does the role of ‘play’ serve in your work?

Play is an excellent form of problem solving. We live in an age of unsolvable problems; permanent warfare, capitalist junk space and environmental catastrophe, any new perspective seems urgent and perhaps play offers this in some small way. Throughout the history of organised childcare women and children have invented and documented radical methodologies for hands on play. One example is experimental speech therapy, which aims to solve the problem of stuttering. A child is invited to lay out objects on the floor to create a non-verbal spatial narrative that unfolds over time and place; communication is embodied in the flow of materials and spaces before speech.  I think exhibitions function like this, as a series of forms that might temporarily free us from the act of explaining.

Many curators and artists are working around ideas of Utopic or future visions at the moment, which also is a recurrent theme of your work. What does a Utopia look like to you and what does this term mean to you?

Yes I suppose that as long as we continue to exist within a Dystopia there will always be a will to consider counterparts. One thing I’ve learnt from histories of activism, in particular feminist and labour struggles is that Utopia isn’t a matter of comfortably sitting around dreaming of a better world, it involves real plans, risk and the necessity for change.

Megan Monte is based in Sydney and is currently the Curator Contemporary Art at Campbelltown Arts Centre, you can follow Megan on Instagram @meganlmonte

Emily Floyd
This Place will Always be Open, 2013
steel, paint, books and reprinted ephemera
courtesy of The Monash Labour Club.
300 x 150 x 150 cm
Sculpture Commission Monash University
Museum of Art, MUMA Melbourne
Library of books and ephemera produced by The Monash Labour Club.
Image courtesy of the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery, Sydney and Melbourne