WESTON TERUYA AND MICHELE CARLSON INTERSECTION FOR THE ARTS
WRITTEN BY AMBER WHITESIDE
It’s been said that one of the critical factors differentiating humans from chimpanzees is our ability to pass information down from generation to generation, and thereby learn from our mistakes and build a cumulative body of knowledge. In the installation How I Learned To…, Weston Teruya and Michele Carlson investigate how information is packaged and passed down to younger generations, specifically within the American public school system.
In their respective solo careers, both Teruya and Carlson work primarily in two dimensions in painting, drawing, and collage. For this project, their first full-scale installation, they collaborated to transform the gallery into a prototypical urban middle school classroom, lining up 30-some desks with attached chairs in evenly spaced rows facing a wall with a chalkboard, pull-down world map, and U.S. and California flags. The teacher’s desk is positioned next to the chalkboard, opposite the students, and a bookshelf lines the back wall. Everything is normal enough, except for an area at the back of the room, which appears to have been swept up in a tornado – desks and chairs are upended and smashed together, precariously piled up to the ceiling.
Along the preimeter of the space, Teruya and Carlson painted a timeline of American history, based on the charts in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. The timeline begins cleanly, its order crisp and easily understood. the lines are rendered in bold stripes of color – pink, blue, yellow, dark green, and light green – and are evenly spaced, corresponding to various graphics and notations. However, as the lines progress around the room, they lose their shape and trajectory, growing increasingly wonky, until they reach the far wall and dissolve into an indeciperable mess of intercepting lines, spinning circles, and symbols, much like the tornado that lifted the desks in the mi8ddle of the classroom. What starts off organized and regulated explodes in a million directions. But this is not to say that the classroom has failed its students. We can see from the substantial volumes on the shelves that students have learned about geography, math, presidents, wars, and the California Missions.
Of course, many pieces of American history are not incorporated into textbooks or lesson plans, but they nonetheless passed down generation after generation – they’re just a bit less visible. In a hidden corner of the classroom, behind the bookshelves, we find a secret vault of Post-it notes. Written by past students, the notes offer peer-to-peer words of wisdom: “Ride or Die,” It’s hard having a kid,” “Stop Snitching,” “The teacher knows your handwriting,” and “To go bombing you have to be ready for anything. Take enough supplies to last you the night or whatever.”
Speaking of “bombing,” the graffiti and doodling covering the desks offer another way for peers to communicate with each other and future generations – initials etched into the surface, proclaiming everlasting love for a classmate, for instance, or not so flattering caricatures of a teacher. What would become of chimps if they knew how to use graffiti and Post-it notes?