Tim Rollins & K.O.S.

Reflections & responses to the Talbot Rice Gallery/Artworks Scotland seminar, Aug 2012

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Ten thoughts

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Tim Rollins and KOS, New York, late eighties

In August 2012, Tim Rollins and KOS arrived in Edinburgh in advance of the opening of their exhibition, The Black Spot, at the Talbot Rice Gallery. In partnership with the gallery, Artworks Scotland organised a day’s seminar for practicing artists and educators, which sought to explore   ‘what was there to learn from Tim’s long practice?’  By gathering written responses of the seminar from five practicing artists and educators, we have sought to collate multiple responses that may be of transference to other educators working in the field:

The following are some ten thoughts, responding to the artists’ reviews, of what artists’ might take from Tim Rollins’ practice.

 1. Charisma

There is no doubt that Tim has presence.  Attendees talked of being ‘intoxicated’ by Tim’s presentation, and by his style of presentation.  Holding a room, being confident, being a performer is allied to belief, and indeed self-belief.  Rollins has assurance – he knew what he was doing in the present, without having to know where he was going in the future

 2. Cultural Improvisation 

 The difference between improvisation and innovation then, is not that the one works within established convention while the other breaks with it, but that the former characterizes creativity by way of its processes, the latter by the way of its products.  To read creativity as innovation is, if you will, to read it backwards, in terms of its results, instead of forwards, in terms of the movements that gave rise to them.  This backwards reading, symptomatic of modernity, finds in creativity a power not so much of adjustment and response to the conditions of a world-in-formation as of liberation from the constraints of the world already made.[1]

There was some concern about the methodology developed and used by Rollins over the last thirty years.  Had this process exhausted itself?  As Tim Ingold notes in the introduction to his book, Creativity and Cultural Improvisation there is a trap to thinking of creativity as essentially the production of something novel.  Real creativity is the way we adapt to the world according to multiple factors.  We can approach the same task on a given day, and just two days later, same task, end up on completely different trajectory.  The educator should be open and flexible.

 3. A framework

Rollins developed a framework (reading an excerpt from a book, and drawing on the imaginative responses) that provides stability and focus for participants to understand and locate themselves, whilst allowing for the group to build towards something greater than the sum of its parts.  This creates a collective work that is just not possible from just one person, indeed it retains it’s very power due to its’ collective authorship.

 4. Collaboration versus participation

How much are the Kids of Survival determining the direction of the creative endeavour? Are they composing or are they interpreting?  Rather than aligning ourselves in a binary fashion, as to which is right and which is wrong, I’d suggest we observe the process.


Charles Haughey, the then Taoiseach of Ireland, encountering a painting by Tim Rollins and KOS in 1988.

 5. Quality versus equality

Can quality and equality co-exist?  I would suggest that one is always sacrificed at the altar of the other.  Unfortunately, given the material bias of the world of the arts where things are judged (according to certain values) by their outcomes or products, quality is often placed above equality.

If we wish to encourage more people to get involved in creating artwork, then we have to accept that it will therefore change what the artwork looks like.

And if we wish to create “a democracy of making”, then we must accept “a democracy of looking’, where we acknowledge and value less-prescribed versions of what constitutes artwork.    We must prioritize equality over quality.

 6. Commitment and patience

The story of Tim Rollins and KOS shows an incredible patience and commitment to the kids, to the process, to the project, to the vision.  There is an understanding that deep engagement will lead somewhere, and that the production of artwork is the driver to that deep engagement.

And yet this investment is neither sacrifice not selflessness – Rollins is not there as a do-gooder, as a missionary but as someone on is on a mission, who believes that this is worth something.  The roots of this mission are there in the work of Group Material, who sought to place the primary of the work, of visual culture above the institutional presentation of it.  Whilst the work with KOS was at first separate from his own artistic practice, by 1986 it had become his practice.

 7. Potential and discipline

Rollins work comes from a deep-rooted belief in potential and discipline.  In his best work, he asks his charges to achieve the impossible, (‘today you’re going to make the best drawing you’ve ever done’) thereby rendering it possible.  Ask becomes task.  He creates hunger and reward.  By not asking someone to reproduce something already existing, but instead drawing on the innate creative power of the imagination, he is insisting on what Walker Percy would have as the “sovereign right” of someone to experience something first-hand.

 8. The right context

In order for the work to take off, and match his ambitions for it,  Rollins’  had to get the group out of the classroom, which unwittingly constrained the work, and into a studio.  Walker Percy, in his 1954 essay, The Loss of the Creature, writes

A young Falkland Islander walking along a beach and spying a dead dogfish and going to work on it with his jackknife has, in a fashion wholly unprovided in modern educational theory, a great advantage over the Scarsdale high-school pupil who finds the dogfish on his laboratory desk. Similarly the citizen of Huxley’s Brave New World who stumbles across a volume of Shakespeare in some vine-grown ruins and squats on a potsherd to read it is in a fairer way of getting at a sonnet than the Harvard sophomore taking English Poetry II.

 The educator whose business it is to teach students biology or poetry is unaware of a whole ensemble of relations which exist between the student and the dogfish and between the student and the Shakespeare sonnet.

 To put it bluntly: A student who has the desire to get at a dogfish or a Shakespeare sonnet may have the greatest difficulty in salvaging the creature itself from the educational package in which it is presented. The great difficulty is that he is not aware that there is a difficulty; surely, he thinks, in such a fine classroom, with such a fine textbook, the sonnet must come across! What’s wrong with me?[2]

By escaping the classroom, the kids escaped that crushing self-doubt, that undermining of their own potential by the context of the ‘educational package’, which comes between the learner and the thing.   The group were free to follow (and set) their own course.

 9. Creating community

When Tim Rollins first arrived in the South Bronx, he spoke of his feelings of estrangement, of alienation, of being a Southern white boy in a black ghetto.  He overcame this, not being trying to assimilate himself to a broader notion of community, but by creating a new community.

The early work of KOS uses the visual language of the South Bronx – broken bricks, graffiti and cartooning – all appropriated as the work sought to reflect the community from which it sprang.  But once he committed to this new community, once he took it outside of the school, once it became part of his artistic project, and not separate, once it became a shared endeavour, once it set its own course – the project became less about reflecting community and more about creating community.  By creating a community, the kids were allowed agency in the determination of that community.

10. Praxis

In Russia, The Tuve people describe the past as being ahead of them, and the future behind them.[3] In other words, the past is laid out before us to see, whilst we step backwards into the unknown future.

Rollins talks of the ‘paralysis of analysis’ that, for him, dogged Group Material – the frustrations of people sitting around discussing things which do not change the unknown future.  That requires action, albeit aligned to reflection.   Only by doing something will you test the theory in its real life application.  Only by doing something can you be progressive. Only by doing something can you be constructive. Only by doing something can you be creative…

The ten preceding thoughts are, of course, not intended to be a prescriptive checklist of how to be an effective educator.  Tim Rollins is unique in who he is and what he has achieved.  Perhaps the main lesson to learn from Rollins, and indeed the sole check of being an effective educator is being true to yourself and your own special capacities… As Ralph Waldo Emerson, a writer Rollins greatly admired as a young man, would have it…

 There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried…

 Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string[4]

Johnny Gailey (January 2013)

[1] ‘Creativity and Cultural Improvisation’, edited by Elizabeth Hallam and Tim Ingold, p3, (Berg, New York, 2007)

[2] ‘The Loss of the Creature’, in “The Message in the Bottle” pps. 46 – 63, Walker Percy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1977)

[3] In the Tuvan language, the word for the ‘future’ (songgaar) means to ‘go back’, whilst the word for the past ( burungaar) means ‘to go forward’. ‘Lost Languages’ by Russ Rymer pps. 60 – 93, National Geographic, Vol 222, No.1 July 2012.

[4] ‘Self-Reliance’ Ralph Waldo Emerson (Connecticut, 1841)- see http://www.emersoncentral.com/selfreliance.htm


Written by Johnny

February 8, 2013 at 12:40 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Chapter and verse

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Photograph © Rachel Thibbotumunuwe /  Courtesy of Talbot Rice Gallery

By Johnny Gailey

History is written from one end of the telescope – looking back.  But what happens if it was written from the other end looking forward?  Within this essay, I will attempt to set the context, that I believe, is necessary for understanding the full story of the development of the Tim Rollins/K.O.S. project, a story that is still partly untold. The very singular presentation of the story in monographs and writings – of the education project that took on the art world and won – belies a series of overlapping histories, which are crucial to understanding some of the intentions, motivations and decisions that shaped the project from before it’s inception in Intermediate School 52 in the South Bronx to the most recent project, The Black Spot – the inspiration for a new work featured in the exhibition at the Talbot Rice Gallery, and the instigation of a critical seminar for artists and educators, in Edinburgh in the summer of 2012.

I was delighted to be asked to chair the seminar by the Talbot Rice Gallery, as part of their opening week of the ‘Black Spot’ exhibition – work by Tim Rollins and K.O.S. from the last 30 years.  I first heard Tim Rollins speak some ten years ago at an arts education conference in Glasgow.  I was bowled over by Tim, by his intensity, but also by his integrity.

But more than that I was bowled over by the project K.O.S. (Kids of Survival):  the long-term collaboration he has fostered with a group of young people from the South Bronx.  Hearing him that day was incredibly influential on my way of thinking and my way of working as an educator in the visual arts in the decade since.

Two clear lessons I take from Tim’s practice: Firstly, that education is not something that is a short term project, but instead it’s a 10 year, a 20 year, a 30 year project…We can content ourselves to provide one small part in that long process, but education does not end.

And secondly that young people (and indeed all participants) are not mini artists waiting to happen – they are artists right now, with unique perspectives and unique experiences – who, if given the investment of time and encouragement to develop their capacities, are capable of producing artwork which communicates and resonates at levels of significant depth.

The work that Tim Rollins and K.O.S. have produced over the past three decades have consistently put into visual form, half glimpsed thoughts and ideas from the imaginations of writers, and more importantly readers, and held them in balance – between the weight of content and the lightness of execution.

Photograph © Rachel Thibbotumunuwe /  Courtesy of Talbot Rice Gallery

The Talbot Rice Gallery seminar followed on from a two day workshop at the Talbot Rice Gallery, where over 20 young people  from Edinburgh and the Lothian’s created work responding to the ‘Black Spot’ motif in Treasure Island, and brought together artists from across art forms to listen and interrogate Tim Rollins’ practice.  Artworks Scotland, the Paul Hamlyn Foundation funded project, sought to present to practicing artists a practice of considerable history – asking what might artists take from hearing Tim speak, from seeing the work?  What relevance does this practice have to the situations other artists find themselves in? I will attempt to answer from my own experience.

The young people’s workshop followed the same tested format of Tim Rollins/K.O.S. work – workshop members produce individual elements based on a visualization of a literary motif – in this case the Black Spot, a card presented to the pirates in the Robert Louis Stevenson novel Treasure Island, signaling their impending death. The young people produced work on paper – in this case pages from the King James Bible.  For all the blasphemous associations of this activity, K.O.S. member Angel reported that it is the provision of any book that heightens that moment of creation, of concentration, of doing what you are not allowed to do in every book in every school in the land – deface.  The individual pieces are then brought together in an orchestrated whole.

I pictured, rather romantically, the teenager trembling, a loaded brush poised above the page – aware that this painting, this image was already was something, was part finished despite being untouched by their hand.  Immediately that technique provides meaning, depth and the individual action becomes more that the sum of its parts. It’s an act of imagination, of transgression, with resonance beyond the form itself.  It’s a conceptual framework that allows the young people to go beyond defacing, to be agents in the creative endeavour, and feel ownership whilst being tightly orchestrated as part of a broader collective effort.

As Tim Rollins said on the day, when considering content for the workshop, it was obvious to him and the group members that Robert Louis Stevenson should provide the source material, given that himself and the attending members of K.O.S. “ could feel the ghosts of Darwin and Stevenson walking the halls of the University of Edinburgh”.

The seminar started with Tim Rollins presenting his process – how he has worked with the young people and an introduction to the history of the Tim Rollins/K.O.S. project.  As he spoke of coming from small town Maine, a “white protestant culture, where if you wanna create visual art, you a suspect”; of artworks which “we treat these objects better than we treat each other”; of how “you must do this, because you can do this”; of the integrity of “if you can make your calling a career”; and of “art [being] a joy in one’s labour”.

He spoke in front of a key Tim Rollins and K.O.S. piece, one of the first productions of “Amerika” from 1984/85:  The painting derived from the Franz Kafka novella, featuring beautiful imagined instruments, golden horns. Inspired by Kafka’s description of an Amerika, ‘where everyone is welcome and everyone is an artist’ Tim thought that “that sounds like my workshop – and if it’s a fraud, it’s a beautiful fraud.”

The rhythm of Tim’s words, punched out with the syncopation of his fist hitting his chest, the pauses, the melody of his Baptist phraseology – as he spoke in the morning in front of us, I relaxed into the moment – the horns in the painting behind bulged and parped – the paint started to swell on the canvas as the imagined breath traveled its contorted journey through the horns, becoming something else, amplified, transformed as the impossible took form, and found voice.  It was intoxicating.

Of course for a man so steeped in books from an early age as he retreated from his stultifying home culture, who worked in the library at the School of Visual Arts, taping up the spines of books creased and damaged from readers poring over the words and pictures, who worked in Joseph Kosuth’s library whilst assisting the artist in the late seventies – it is obvious that he would construct such a great story.  And like all stories it gets honed in the telling, finessed, heightened, paced –  “Today, we are going to make art but we are also going to make history” Tim said as he first walked into the classroom at Intermediate School 52 in the South Bronx in 1981.

Photograph © Rachel Thibbotumunuwe /  Courtesy of Talbot Rice Gallery


History is not the past, but the past being reviewed and recast by the present – history is the continuation of a story to its contemporary context. It’s always being retold – so when Tim walked into that classroom in the Bronx and announced, “today, we are going to make history”, I don’t believe that he was Napoleonically laying out his grand plan.  He was too steeped in Marxist history for that. I believe he was galvanizing his charges – making them feel worthwhile right now – raising a challenge for them; that if he showed belief in them, they could and would return that manifold.

And he was right. They did.  The work throughout the gallery is testimony to the incredible work produced by Tim and the various members of K.O.S. over the last three decades.

And yet, any history that doesn’t recognize the possibility of another, raises questions.  It was incredibly important and touching to meet the three members of K.O.S. in attendance that day – Angel, Rick and Eric.  Both Angel and Rick have been involved since the mid eighties.  They testified to the received version of the story – with humility, grace and good humour.  Rick responding bashfully to Tim’s pointing out of his teenage flat-top hairstyle in an image from circa 1985.  This was self-evidently a gang – a group of guys Tim referred to throughout the day as his family.  I wondered for starters how it felt as grown men of nearly forty to still be ‘kids of survival’?  And I wondered how come, in all the written presentations of the project, there is not an attempt to hint at the multiple narratives that exist in any collective endeavour, the ‘kids” words conspicuous by their absence.

In considering what is of relevance to artists working in Scotland today, it seems necessary to rescue, re-unite and recast two elements to the story of Tim Rollins’ practice, two histories that are puzzlingly separated in the writing of the history – that of the radical art collective Tim was instrumental in setting up in 1979, Group Material, and that of the project he concurrently organized, and in the end stuck with, K.O.S.

Group Material makes a brief one-paragraph appearance in the 272-page monograph on Tim Rollins and K.O.S. published in 2009.  Whilst, in Julie Ault’s fantastic history of the Group Material, Show and Tell only published in 2010, Tim writes a three-page contextualization to the beginnings of the collective.  His essay begins with the conundrum ‘What was to be done?’ and offers no definitive and no revisionist answers.  Instead the text is written in the past present tense, looking forwards rather than backwards.  Instead of answering his own question in the title, Rollins concludes by offering up  Martin Luther King’s definition of transformative love: the “kind of love that would go to any non-violent means necessary to create “The beloved Community” Could we do this?” That question hangs pregnant, unanswered over the book.

One senses that so much is not said – that there are reasons why such a silent uncoupling of histories has happened.  And yet in terms of practice, one frames the other – the other give resonance to decisions made throughout Tim’s life’s work.  Not as he worked through his plan of “making history”.  In hindsight, the story of K.O.S. seems and is presented as a clear rise and fall (and survival) narrative, when in fact, it seems he, as we all are, was making it up as he went along – responding, as all artists do to situations and opportunities, albeit with incredible astuteness and integrity.  He wasn’t chasing his dream from that first day in the classroom, he was constructing that dream. And still is.

I have attempted to fuse the two project timelines – It seems like the narrative goes something like this:

1975 – 77             Tim attends School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York

1979 – 82             Tim works as Joseph Kosuth’s assistant

1979                      Tim and fellow students from SVA set up Group Material

1980 – 81            Group Material’s first season, as they present shows collectively put together in their rented storefront in NYC.

1980 – 82            Tim becomes, through his studies, an instructor in a programme called Learning to Read through the Arts

1981                      Following a meeting at a conference,  Tim Rollins accepts an invitation from Arthur Albert, Learning Support at                Intermediate School 52 to go into class to design a programme to be delivered by other teachers.  At end of first day the Principal invites him to stay on to deliver

1982                       In response to an assignment, one of the pupils, Roberto Ramirez chooses a brick and paints a burning building on it

1983                       The school group sell fifty bricks at exhibition organized by Tim

During a workshop, one of the pupils doodles on a book page, initiating the painting on pages

The school group start to produce ‘graffiti’ based work on pages – The Inferno (produced over the course of a year 83 – 84) Frankenstein, Dracula ((1983)

1983                       Revolutionary Fine Arts, the first Group Material exhibition features Dracula

1983                       Rejecting the limitations of being bound to a space, Group Material continue to work in the public realm, becoming nomadic

1984                      The school group go beyond ‘abject’ to start to create their own vision rather than re-representing others – Inspired by the eponymous Franz Kafka story of the golden horns, which collectively produce the most beautiful sound and drawing on images of, and music by, Dizzy Gillespie and Dr Seuss, the group start producing studies resulting in first version of Amerika (1984 – 1985)

1984                     Through the sale of Amerika (to the Chase Manhattan Bank for $5000) which was the result of being featured in the Social Studies show at Barbara Gladstone Gallery in 1985, and matched with $8000 grant from National Endowment for the Arts, Tim and the school group rent a studio in a former gymnasium in South Bronx.

Group formally adopt name K.O.S. (Kids of Survival)

Tim and K.O.S. start to meet after school – as the project moves from education establishment with set hierarchies to open learning environment the work starts to take hold and develop artistically, drawing on writings by Malcolm X, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Stephen Crane.

Tim and K.O.S. start work on Animal Farm, responding to request to research caricature and political leaders.

1985                     Tim and K.O.S. start to exhibit in art spaces, with their work being included in the Whitney Museum of Art Biennale, after Group Material are invited to present.  Group Material devise a project – Americana

1986                     Tim Rollins and K.O.S. picked up and represented by Jay Gorney Modern Art

1987                     Tim Rollins leaves IS 52 School

1987                     Tim leaves Group Material

1988                    Tim Rollins and K.O.S. create large scale mural “Amerika – for the people of Bathgate (after Franz Kafka)” on side of elementary school in 1988 – destroyed in 1992

1989                    Group moves to studio in South Bronx, staying until 1993

1992                     The group produces ‘Animal Farm’, a 2 .7m high and 13m long composition featuring over a hundred caricatures of world leaders as animals

1993                     15 year old Christopher Hernandez shot, and killed as innocent bystander

1993                    Drawing on a drawing found in Chris’ folder, the group develop and create The Frogs (after Aristophanes)

1994                    Group re-establishes and moves to Chelsea

The original Group Material project was initiated in part and driven by Tim, as is evident in some of the archive material in Show and Tell.  The drive and ambition is captured in an incredibly passionate four-page letter by Tim to other members, demanding that the group needs to practice discipline or implode.   The collective was painstakingly democratic, and it is plain that Tim encountered the frustrations of working with people:

Our working method might best be described as painfully democratic, because so much of our process depends on the review, selection, and critical juxtaposition of innumerable cultural objects, adhering to a collective process is extremely time-consuming and difficult. However, the shared learning and ideas produce results that are often inaccessible to those who work alone. (quote from original Group Material exhibition guide)

The original job to teach at IS 52 was a short-term engagement, and is presented historically as one that was there to pay the bills.  And yet once engaged, Tim showed incredible commitment to the K.O.S. project – funding it for the first six years, because he knew he was onto something.  The group, and the work, took off once they got a studio space – suddenly from being a school project the project became voluntary – requiring of the kids commitment and discipline – turning up after school from 3 – 9pm.  From producing cartoon-based work, the group starts to distill their working method with the canvas becoming more strongly structured.  As Tim notes in an interview, “Marx says its one thing to describe reality, but another to try and change it. ‘Soon we got out of that cathartic descriptive phase, but it was a trip.’

This can be seen in their work from this period, in Amerika, and Animal Farm ’92 (after George Orwell), and eventually, The Frogs (after Aristophanes)

And for me, it is these three works that most represent the realization of the K.O.S. project: when they not only claimed their place in the gallery but they exceeded the boundaries of what the gallery could contain – expanding what was seen in galleries, but going beyond the gallery into the public realm, challenging institutions in their practice, and in the end crystallising a response to a tragic death and offering artworks as a transcension of that brute reality, as an icon to life.

In Amerika (mural for the people of Bathgate), the horns and beautiful instruments took the form of public art on a gable end in the South Bronx, directly engaging the public and the local constituency in the project.  In the full length version of Animal Farm ’92 (after George Orwell), a piece some 13m long, the artwork challenges the institution in its’ scale and scope,  both in the showing and storing of the work.

This seems to me a continuation of the Group Material project – its aims and its modus operandi – attempting to challenge the institutions about the status and the role of art, about who produces it and it’s relation to lived culture.   In fact Tim recognizes the position of Group Material in the history of K.O.S. – “Thank God we had Group Material because I was getting a lot of responses like “Tim, I’m sorry, we just don’t do children’s art”

In 1987 Tim made the decision to leave Group Material, at around the same time he left IS 52 – to go into the studio.  It seems that a professional streamlining decision about commitments had to be made, no doubt with an eye to where the interest, enjoyment and most satisfying work was.  But also it seems that the K.O.S. project was answering some of the critical questions raised by the Group Material project.  The collaboration continued to develop new work, and plaudits.
The third piece, I refer to The Frogs (after Aristophanes), seems to be a watershed moment, produced in 1993, following the death of Christopher Hernandez, one of the KOS members.  Taken from drawings by Chris, found by members after his death, The Frogs in Aristophanes’ eponymous comedy represent life, lightness, rebirth and joy – and the requirement to keep living, to keep travelling.  The canvas represents just that – an act of creation countering the pain of a senseless death, a memorial, a testimony and a tribute to survival.

Photograph © Rachel Thibbotumunuwe / Courtesy of Talbot Rice Gallery

What’s happened since 1994? – the project has traveled the world – providing inspiration but not the same opportunity to kids around the world through workshops.  The work has taken its method from that forged in the Bronx with the children at IS 52, and replicated it with thousands of teenagers across the world – a small catalytic experience that hints at what is possible rather than fully recreating a participative, creative endeavour.  Have the group exhausted the possibilities offered by that methodology? Not whilst there are books to be read, worlds to be opened.

Nevertheless, it was heartening to hear that Tim and K.O.S. are now returning,  once more, to IS 52.  A chance to return to one last generation – a chance to reframe the answers, but more importantly to reframe the questions.  How might the re-engagement in the setting provide new stimulus, new methodologies and new solutions?

As for Group Material – they were absolutely key to the success of K.O.S. – on both its internal terms, giving validation and reason to the artistic endeavour as they were included in the Group Material project of democratising culture, and as an external platform – getting the project access to the artworld..  The awareness that the Group Material shows created around the K.O.S. project, in turn, developed the work.

There is, no doubt about what Tim has achieved over the years with both Group Material and K.O.S.  But to over-estimate what Tim has done with the young people is to take away from the core premise – Tim has not saved these youths – he has fostered and encouraged, supported and inspired them to achieve things that they latently held.  As he says in a rather more informal setting of a dialogue “I’m not a missionary, but I’m on a mission. If you can do it, you should do it.  It’s service.”

But also – if art is the means to survival – What about the ones that got away? None of that core first group is still involved.  Must we only conceive of survival in terms of the long term – looking back from the angle of one who has survived?  Isn’t short-term survival (surviving) enough of an achievement?



Some thoughts on what I take from Tim Rollins practice, of relevance to my own:

 “A big problem with the traditional school is that it places the student in a constant state of preparation… I begin with a different premise. Instead of constantly training kids to “become” artists, why not take on the job of encouraging them to be artists now?”

“We’re attempting to prove that the ghetto of the art world must begin to recognize the value and importance of things that an excluded yet vast segment of the American people have to say, even if they are just kids or non-artists”  Guide to The inferno (1984)

Be ambitious for those that you are working with.  You can only turn people on, if you are turned on.

Consider the long-term development of a short-term project.

Consider the key skill of the artist as flexibility – to the situation.

Don’t be determined by the rubric of planning as restricting the outcome

Work the system – that is, don’t play the system, but work the system, using contacts and opportunities to further the work

A free space to create creates totally different condition for production that a multi-use space, which in turn hugely affects the artwork.

“We’re less interested in reflecting than in projecting out into the community,” said Tim Rollins in 1980 after the opening of their jointly operated storefront at 244 East 13th St. (quoted in Village Voice, Nov. 11, 1980)

 “I’m not a boss, a jefe or a chief: I am the conductor of our choir.”

Work with who is there, rather than worrying about who is not there: “ It is voluntary – self selecting – rewarding commitment and discipline – “You have to show me you have the technical skill on the table before you get on the canvas. You have to perform in the dress rehearsal before you get on the stage. Most everyone wants to be on the stage, which means you want to get it together. And you’re not doing this for a grade, you’re doing this because you want to get into the real action.”

Work with all your heart

Johnny Gailey is a photographer, educator, organiser and researcher/writer who lives and works in Leith, Edinburgh.

  • I like narrative in shows – I like narrative being told in the artwork
  • I’m a guy who reads the print before looking at the work
  • I like a story well told
  • I like the great Amerikan novel
  • I like the possibility of a next chapter

Written by Johnny

August 31, 2012 at 4:06 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Art and Community

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Photograph © Rachel Thibbotumunuwe /  Courtesy of Talbot Rice Gallery

By Dee Isaacs

Long after leaving the Tim Rollins/K.O.S. workshop I was still marvelling at Tim’s commitment to ‘community’ – to understanding a community, living within a community, and making a real difference to young people’s lives. 30 years of work is dedication we rarely witness.

Tim is of course totally charismatic, inspirational, a mentor. He has a vision not just for social change but for creating ‘art’ and this art is not compromised by his collaborators, it is art that transcends. In this sense it appears the creation of art is indivisible from the creation of community.

But the question of ‘collaboration’ versus ‘participation’ was never really answered for me. This process he has developed seems so entirely driven by him. I wonder whether K.O.S. feel any ownership over the ‘narrative’ behind the artworks, the back story that compels us to create in the first place.

Maybe wrongly my assumption is that collaboration implies more of vested role in the creation of art, whereas participation can be joining in under the instruction of another – not necessarily a shared artistic vision. In music this is very clear -the composer writes, the group learns the music, interprets it, puts their emotional stamp on it and performs but without elements of ‘improvisation’ or windows to create their own music  – they are participating but not collaborating.

I do think there is a place for both in our work. Sometimes I provide a musical framework, the tools to develop a piece of music but in other instances I have a vision and like Tim I shape and direct that vision. In general people are carried on the wave of a strong vision, enthusiasm and belief that there is something of value to be made.

I want to understand how Tim has developed his own practice over the 30 years, whether he always works with ‘participation’. All through our day with Tim and K.O.S. I wanted to be a recipient of one of his workshops; to fully understand his process – talking about it didn’t really reveal what is at its core.

In the work I am involved with through Music in the Community there are similar resonances. I have developed creative processes, which engage specific communities of individuals where the key aspects of learning and participation (developing confidence, building skills, creating new opportunities) can be sympathetically and intrinsically linked to the creation of a new work. The assessment of the social and artistic outcomes is an intrinsic part of the process, linked to the placing of community/outreach work on a professional platform with all the implications of value and significance which that entails.

As Eric Booth , another inspiring educationalist writes, ‘Art is not apart. It is a continuum within which all participate, we all function in art, use the skills of art and engage in the action of artists every day’. Certainly Tim and K.O.S. prove this.

This idea of a continuum, something pushing us to move forward with our ideas, striving often against all odds seems so apt and the belief that Art is and should be part of life – it is essential.

Dee Isaacs is a musician. She performs, writes music, and lecturers in  ‘Music in the Community’ at the University of Edinburgh.

Written by Johnny

August 31, 2012 at 3:49 pm

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Intoxicating Charismatic Narrator : Terms and quotes repeatedly written, consciously and unconsciously, in pencil on reams of foolscap on the artist Tim Rollins, some are written and some are drawn

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Photograph © Rachel Thibbotumunuwe / Courtesy of Talbot Rice Gallery

by Alex Hetherington

Lens, storyteller, shift, charisma, pioneer, now, promote, Dr Seuss, Jazz, ghosts, hillbilly, cowboy, Willy Wonka, Thanksgiving, Three Dimensions of a Complete Life, Alice in Wonderland, Kafka, Darwin, HG Wells. Amerika.

Nature Theater of Oklahoma: “within this “almost limitless” theatre his young hero was going to find again a profession, a stand-by, his freedom, even his old home and his parents, as if by some celestial witchery”, and “My intention was, as I now see, to write a Dickens novel, enriched by the sharper lights which I took from our modern times, and by the pallid ones I would have found in my own interior”, and “I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living”.

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It’s not” and “Being crazy isn’t enough.”

Forms of transportation, the Greyhound bus from Maine to New York, the MTA NY subway, sick notes, “We’ve gotta get of this place”. The Art and Knowledge Workshop. 1982.

“Oh, the Places You’ll Go”, I know. 1984.

Then there’s these stories, like the one about getting on a greyhound bus from Maine to New York city on a bus with $500 and heading straight to the Chelsea Hotel and hanging out with the New York Dolls; or travelling on the No. 2 train to Prospect Avenue in the South Bronx to take a post for there for two weeks, as part of a Ghetto-a-day arts program, and arriving and walking and staying through the streets with burned out buildings like harmonica’s on their sides sounding a massive drone as the sharp September winds blow through their vacated apartments, and smelling as bad as 9/11, and the words flow like a performance poem, or like a Dr Seuss. And suggestions of speaking-in-tongues, a TV evangelist, a charismatic, Pentecostal Hillbilly Cowboy telling us about the ghosts in the academy, that don’t pass, stamps his foot, punches his chest with a mighty, knowing fist, whispers Darwin, makes a mark that everyone, no matter who they are, how they love, what they look like, how old they are, will make.

About learning the value of patience, that some things take 15 years, and some thing’s happen now, even though you think “You’re done.” And about the story of Group Material (http://www.leftmatrix.com/grouptlist.html) with Felix Gonzales Torres, Doug Ashford, Julie Ault, Anti-Baudrillard, and a paralysis of analysis.

And there to the story of the kids, with all the school special definitions, and educational subclasses and measures, and diagnosis and conditions, and being a teacher trainer with the “dead face” in rooms with no air conditioning, reams of 11” x 8.5” paper and pencils carried in plastic bags and being, quite unexpectedly, asked to “Do the Best Drawing You Have Ever Done.” Then Rollins reiterates this theory about these beautiful objects, the exhibition and the works, that bring everyone together, about this being evidence of being an enemy of death, the (in)visible man, the d-i-s-e-a-s-e of being an artist. 1981.

There are some things in what Rollins talks about that talk to me very specifically: the ‘drawing’ on standards and classic texts (appropriating, remixing, Postproduction), of Kafka’s Amerika, Alice in Wonderland, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (“the raft is a metaphor for America”), A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Dracula and Frankenstein and to how some of this drawing on and colliding texts finding root in visual art, and to The Wooster Group in Manhattan, finding root in performance, The Crucible with Timothy Leary (“the mass hysteria is a metaphor for America”), La Didone, with Planet of the Vampires, Gertrude Stein’s Dr Faustus Lights the Lights with Olga’s House of Shame, Chekhov’s Three Sisters with Japanese monster movies, in the Performing Garage, off Broadway, which is like Rollins’ gymnasium, a media, a creative, a collective, laboratory, and scores and scores of references, and numbered drawings. What they do, it has to be said, is very political. 2012.

These creative spaces are vista points in Rollins’ “making” vocabulary, the talk of the work in the studio, in the workshops across the world, and to virtual spaces, where distant K.O.S. can fax in, scan in, collage in images back to the mothership in the Bronx, no matter where they now live. He talks about work, as not work, in forms of dignity, and equality, which he accompanies with a mime about a street sweeper and mouthing the word, slowly, “flow”. These descriptions, physical and conceptual, form another stream of philosophy in this high-to-low cascade of art. He talks a lot about jazz, and people like Dizzy Gillespie, but to me Rollins and K.O.S. are more like disco, it’s a thumping beat, and much more about “drama and love and elevation than syncopation.”

Educator. And the ways he says it sometimes it sounds like “Educate. Or.” That’s probably deliberate, a part of the script, this performance, which like the Number 2 Subway line with stops at stations: “the popular and the arcane, the minor to the canonical, legal documents and comic books, from political allegories, and testimonies and confessions, and erased newspaper headlines to musical scores”. “All aboard!”

“The Black Spot is a literary device invented by Robert Louis Stevenson for the novel Treasure Island. In the book, pirates are presented with a “black spot” to officially pronounce a verdict of guilt or judgment. It consists of a circular piece of paper or card, with one side blackened while the other side bears a message and placed in the hand of the accused.” It’s also a stimulus for and a metaphor of survival, which is at the foundation of the exhibition and the trigger for a new story, about a Black Spot being deposited into Rollins’ pocket by one of the participants at the gallery workshops: a letter written by a teenage girl about an observation of how creativity works in the labyrinth of survival, and as he reads it out, it reveals a potent truth, about generosity and art: it is as much a troubling gesture as it is a graceful gesture. It sits really uneasily, and it is extremely beautiful, and it is relentless, and it is a sermon, a gospel. It is about how young eyes see, and describe, like their work Pinocchio(after Carlo Collodi), which “sees”, glass eye replicas of the children’s eyes, set into wood.

Finally it is this device, seeing through a child’s eye, a child’s lens, that makes the loudest declaration in this wide, alluring practice.

And as he would say, with a stomp of his foot, and a heavy fist to his chest: “Can I get a witness to that?”

Alex Hetherington is a visual artist working in combined media.

Alexander Violette. Twitter.com/alex_neon_john

Written by alexanderhetherington

August 31, 2012 at 3:44 pm

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By Sheila MacDougall

On Monday morning, 6th August, just a few days after the seminar, I got up at some ungodly hour to watch what The Guardian referred to as “an unprecedented act of theatre.” Nasa’s latest rover craft, Curiosity, was attempting a daring landing on Mars and I wanted to witness this extraordinary event in real time. You may ask, What this has to do with the Tim Rollins and K.O.S. seminar held in the Talbot Rice Gallery on Wednesday 1st August? As I watched the landing and the press conference that followed I kept realising that there were many connections. Here are a few to ponder (Well, more than just a few!):
• curiosity
• enlightenment
• passion
• commitment
• team work, with individuals doing their part to create something bigger than themselves
• making history
• building on the past
• looking to the future
• confidence
• exploration – into the unknown
• education
• developing deep knowledge
• research
• disseminating knowledge
• inspiration, both taking it from others and providing it for younger generations
• goals
• aiming high
• striving to do and be better
• investment on many levels including extended periods of time to allow for process and working to getting it right
• intrepidness
• joy
• tears
• pride and sense of accomplishment
• sense of style and occasion
• patience
I have a long standing relationship with the Talbot Rice Gallery. I have spent a great deal of time there as an educator, a performing artist, and a gallery visitor. The gallery has provided me with an arts education, especially because I am not trained as a visual artist; my background is in theatre, movement, dance and education. I always come to the Talbot Rice Gallery with a sense of anticipation and curiosity about how the familiar space has been transformed by its occupants, both human and artistic, and how this transformation will inform my thinking, my creativity, my view of life. It is always an exploration into the unknown.
On this occasion I was met on the human side by a mixture of old friends and colleagues and new faces, and on the artistic side by several large and intriguing canvases on the walls of the White Gallery. I knew a very little bit about Tim Rollins and K.O.S., but I wanted to learn more.
Before actually meeting Tim and the three members of K.O.S., I had time to sit and look at one of the large canvases in front of me. It was full of golden trumpets that morphed magically into body parts: pelvic bones, an organ shaped like a bagpipe, a pair of wing-like lungs, arteries flowing down from the corner. The whole canvas was extremely lively and complex with the golden images floating on top of pages of text from a book. I looked across to a different wall and saw another large canvas with vibrant pointed shafts of colour cutting across it, intersecting and piercing one another. They seemed to leap off the canvas in almost 3-D like fashion.
I had no information about these paintings beyond what I saw in front of me. I had not even read the names or the accompanying texts. But they impressed me as high quality works of art. It was enlightening to learn during the seminar that they had been made democratically by a team of young artists, using classical literature as their inspiration. The artists worked together over time and with patience to explore and experiment until they got the painting just right, giving them a sense of pride and accomplishment.
Learning about the process that produced the pieces of art reinforced my own belief that long-term investment is crucially important in any artistic endeavour. Tim Rollins made a major investment in time and energy – and no doubt some of his own money – to educate the young people with whom he worked on many levels. Like Nasa’s investment in utilising science, technology, and experience from the past to develop a revolutionary new vehicle for exploration of the unknown, Tim built on the past through literature, art and artists to thrust these young people into a future they could not imagine and had probably never dreamed of. Both ventures required vision, commitment, high standards, passion, drive, and a confidence that there would be success. In both cases long-term research – and building on the research to reach a goal – was at the heart of the projects. Without that the other aspects would not have been possible.
Another connection that struck me while watching the Curiosity rover landing on Mars is the importance of inspiration. During the press conference several Nasa scientists and engineers mentioned the inspiration of watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon in 1969, and Curiosity itself will undoubtedly inspire a new generation. The workshops given by Tim and the three K.O.S. artists in Talbot Rice prior to the seminar inspired the young participants in their artistic endeavours. One wrote to Tim that even this short workshop experience had made her believe that she really could be an artist! Several of the young participants attended the Preview and a talk on Saturday following the opening. They were clearly inspired and hungry for more. How can we feed the hunger of young people for quality art experiences in Scotland?
Just as I have made connections between Curiosity and the seminar, Tim made connections between the Olympics and future K.O.S. workshops. In the talk he gave on Saturday, he addressed the issue of the gender composition of K.O.S. that had arisen during the seminar. In observing the make-up of Olympic teams he got thinking about the make-up of the workshops. Because the majority of participants in the Edinburgh workshops were girls, he has decided to create all-girls and all-boys workshops when K.O.S. returns to Intermediate School 52 in South Bronx. He has also decided to utilise the Olympic idea of team competition as a way to motivate the young people to strive to do better.
I have a final comment about connections. I was struck by the difficulty some participants in the afternoon group discussion had in comprehending how a canvas could be made democratically by many different artists, and questioned who had ownership of the piece of art. But the creation of a K.O.S. canvas is quite analogous to the Curiosity mission or an Olympic team in which each member plays an individual role, providing the team with their own strengths, ideas, attributes, and expertise to produce something that is greater than the sum of its parts. In the artistic world strong parallels can be drawn from theatre, dance and music in which individuals often work as an ensemble to produce art that belongs to all its participants. Perhaps the lesson here is that we, as artists in a wide range of forms, can always learn from each other.

Written by sheilamacdougall

August 31, 2012 at 3:38 pm

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Visionary or Missionary?

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Photograph © Rachel Thibbotumunuwe /  Courtesy of Talbot Rice Gallery

By Lala Thorpe

The evangelical approach of Tim Rollins was the flavour of the day’s workshop – his preacher style delivery and the creation of a family of now grown boys to men with jobs..and still flourishing – what will happen to the next generation of K.O.S  – economic, political and social climates and attitudes have changed since the 80’s as well as the onset of technological advancement as we know it today…

I felt both privileged and as excited as a child to be part of a recent workshop for artists and educators, participating and talking to a long sung ‘hero’ of mine, Tim Rollins, the evangelical artist educator and arts pioneer from rural Maine.

Harking back to my heady days working in the commercial art world in New York in the early 90’s I was both inspired and driven by the ethos and risk taking ideology behind Tim’s work as an arts educator. It seemed to me that he was doing so much more than ‘teaching’, he was opening doors and influencing both the children and the art market with the work produced from the school group, K.O.S.

In a ‘tricky’ school in the South Bronx back in 1984 Tim accepted an invitation to stay on long term as art teacher. Working with selected children he put his energy into focusing on their talents as burgeoning artists and drew out and developed their confidence, using what is an insurmountable talent and passion in believing and valuing the children’s work and creating what he refers to as his ‘family’ or gang, the Kids of Survival (K.O.S). He fundamentally believed in the need to create an alternative school system one which was had a more dynamic, positive and educational outlook on the world by making art together with the K.O.S. What he coined as ‘the can do’ approach, this and he are clearly the driving force behind K.O.S.

Listening to Tim, the ‘boys’ Angel, Ric and Eric of K.O.S who were also presenting at the workshop, the process was the fundamental key in establishing a close working ethos within the group and they soon developed a framework and structure to work within, albeit flexible in terms of the final outcome.

Many questions arose during the day as Tim revealed his approach and deeply felt passion for what he phrased ‘making a difference and being part of something’– Tim extolled the many virtues of experimentation, flexible outcomes and allowing for a freedom of expression within the making and development of each art work.  Generating or encouraging ‘emotional success’ through developing relationships with teachers, parents, children and beyond is the mutual rewarding experience that Tim and his gang strive to achieve.

Perhaps most provocatively stating that they are providing a structure where ‘there is no room for failure’ – this arguably highlights the positive attitude that Tim carries through this extraordinary practice into the realm of an ordinary school day.  Tim is the visionary who saw the future in sharing practice and interpretation of literature, politics etc through making art. Tim, the Missionary, the messenger and teacher sharing the ideologies of many educational theorists who believed in the ‘conditions of play’ – a essential aspect of how best to make a career into a fun, explorative and improvisational exercise in making work…and selling it!

Lala Thorpe is an artist educator and Project Manager, working with schools, museums, galleries and arts organisations across London.

Written by Lala Thorpe

August 31, 2012 at 2:49 pm

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