31 May, 2018
10 : 00
This term at Yew Chung International School of Beijing has been dedicated to the topic of Sustainability and the Environment. Across subjects, in assemblies and in co-curricular activities, our students have been immersed in lessons, discussions and workshops relating to the environment and how we can make a difference.
As part of this, Year 8 have been working on a Wearable Arts project which finished last week with a bold performance of their art pieces. The auditorium was transformed into an eerie dystopian world, where our students were entangled in plastic waste, dripping with oil from oil spills, or enacting the destruction of deforestation. We speak to Ms Annette Atkins, Performing Arts Teacher, and Ms Allison Cusato, Art Teacher, about the project.
A Cross-Department Collaboration
The wearable arts project was a piece of project based learning between the Visual Art and Performing Art departments. Ms Atkins’s inspiration for a wearable arts project came from the annual international design competition World of Wearable Art, or “WOW”, hosted every year in New Zealand – where Ms Atkins has spent most of her life. The very nature of wearable arts incorporates both art and performance, so it was a perfect opportunity to collaborate between departments.
The uniqueness of the project at YCIS Beijing came from its connection to the Sustainability and the Environment concept. Students were asked to create their wearable art and base their performance on an area of the topic that particularly interested them. The art pieces were made out of waste materials – plastic bottles, old pieces of card, plastic bags – and the performances were evocative of different environmental issues facing our planet.
Acquiring New Skills
There are many benefits to cross-department collaboration such as this. Ms Atkins explains how, in school drama productions, performance is usually character-based. So choreographing a wearable art performance exercised very different, more visual skills.
In addition, Ms Atkins gave students the responsibility of putting on the whole performance. This entailed not just costume design and choreography, but stage management, lighting, sound, set design – and even publicity. “Being able to stage an entire event requires dedication and collaboration. There were many skills and lessons to be learned in the process”, explains Ms Atkins.
Ms Cusato felt that the project was a good opportunity to introduce the idea of making meaning in art. To perform a piece of art, students had to be able to justify the meaning of their work and use it to convey a singular message. Following the performance, Ms Cusato and Ms Atkins arranged a review of the pieces where students were asked to rank their peers’ work according to clarity of message and meaning.
A Performance to Remember
It’s the first time we have done a wearable arts performance at YCIS Beijing and our students took fantastically well to the task. Both Ms Atkins and Ms Cusato were struck by how the art pieces transformed our students onstage – helping them find the confidence to get into character and enact very bold pieces of physical performance.
“It’s worth saying that performing wearable art is certainly not an easy type of performance”, says Ms Atkins. “I was impressed by the bravery of our students onstage, and their ability to convey messages about the environment without resorting to speech.”
There are several lessons that Ms Atkins and Ms Cusato hope students will take away from the project. Of course, one of these is in caring for our environment and feeling passionately enough to effect a change. Art and performance, by their very nature, are powerful ways to muster conviction. Ms Cusato commented that just because the topic had come to a close, it didn’t mean that we could leave its lessons behind too:
“I ensured that our students dismantled and re-organised every costume so that the materials could be used for future projects. Nothing was thrown away.”
Ms Cusato and Ms Atkins outlined other valuable lessons from this topic. In particular, how breaking with conventions in art can have powerful results. It doesn’t have to look attractive, use traditional materials or be static to be art. Art can be worn, it can be ugly, it can be performed.
Additionally, art and performance can be vehicles to drive social change. Sometimes art surpasses any article, textbook or documentary in its power to make people feel and make a difference.