John Johnston’s work is focused on issues related to Social Justice, Human Rights, and Development. He has produced works in collaboration with political leaderships from a variety of contexts including the Balkans, Northern Ireland and the Middle East. His main interests lie in how art can be utilised as a tool for learning and interface with key areas of society to foster attitude change and greater understanding of the world we live in.
As an introduction to his forthcoming blogs, guest curator for the blog series Irma Grothuis, spoke with our new blogger in residence, John Johnston.
John I have the feeling that you wear many different hats depending on the context that you’re in, but briefly how would you describe your work as you currently see it?
You are very right. I would describe myself as an artist educator and would consider that my teaching is a major part of my art practice. That is to say that when I write and deliver a lecture or workshop I am engaged in making art. This is a relational art/ pedagogy – that requires interaction and critical dialogue for it to exist.
Can you give us a brief history to date on your role as an artist and explain what motivates you to do what you do.
My role is to disable social and cultural boundaries that prevent engagement with the arts through the activity of making art. I will do all I can to undermine the ‘boundary makers’- those who use curriculum, language and social orders as a cultural hegemony. This requires an exposition of the value systems that support hierarchical definitions of art, culture and education. These systems are enemies of progression – therefore we need to know them – name them and undermine them at every turn. Let’s be clear – we cannot defeat or remove them, there is too much invested in these orders for them to end. But I firmly believe we can undermine them by creating new spaces of thought and practice within the systems. It is extremely challenging but this is what gets me out of bed each morning.
Why do you think creating Art is important for young people?
Art production and processes enables human beings to surpass the plastic comforts of consumerism and to gain voice and political capital as individuals and communities. However, there is a body of thought that believes that art can only be made by people who have studied the subject to a Degree, Masters and Phd level. Of course this is a complete nonsense – but the ‘boundary makers’ are powerful advocates of this idea and their biggest trick is making society believe this to be the case. Young people and those who work with young people need to take art seriously. To do this there is a need to reposition art away from the arts for arts sake agenda and the cultural elites and embed it with the thoughts and practices of youth pedagogies. We achieve ‘deep learning’ through art – we learn about ourselves and we learn about others. So do away with words like mastery and talent and integrate words like dialogue, criticality, exploration and democracy in their place – these are words that young people will recognise and embrace – given time.
John is a native of Belfast. His work is deeply influenced by his experiences of growing up in an acutely divided community. Born in 1962, his first experience of that division was a pivotal moment in the development of his identity and commitment to social justice.
He recalls an incident when aged 8 he and his elder brother were confronted by a group of older boys who asked them to recite the alphabet. When they passed the letter ‘H’ both John and his brother were punched and kicked.
Returning home with bloody nose – John struggled to understand why he had been beaten. Years later while making an artwork in his local youth club entitled ‘H’ – he came to understand the power of language and the significance of the symbol as a means of defining difference. He also recognised the power of art as a means of learning that breaches the space between private and public, giving voice to those who would otherwise endure silence.
John is the head of art education and the co -director of the research centre for Arts and Learning at Goldsmiths University of London. He believes that ‘art can change the world, It certainly changed his….