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Hugh Hayden: Brier Patch

Essay in educational context
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Madison Square Park, NYC 2022

In the early spring, while the resident Madison Square Park trees began to grow leaves, I visited Hugh Hayden’s desolate Brier Patch. The soon to bloom trees surrounding the sculpture served as a taunting reminder that Hayden’s branches, drilled into standardized school desks, would never transform with the seasons. They were stagnant, frozen in time and development. While the trees in the park were planted to grow, Hayden’s branches were planted as graves.  

 

Set up in gridded rows, Brier Patch displays one hundred elementary school desks that erupt with branches all tangled together above the seats. The intertwining branches may be understood as students forming connections with one another; a look at how human interaction can overcome the physical separation of uniformed desks, or a pandemic. Yet, there is something even more disturbing going on, something unsettling, evident by the barren branches and mounds of dirt under each chair. Speaking of the school as a site of potential burst or stunt in development, the brier patch, described by Hayden, is a “protective place as well as a site of danger.” It serves as a “metaphoric refuge or prison,” a dualistic place of respite or entrapment. As the neighboring NYC midtown buildings created striking shadows on the gridded chairs, only allowing some rows to be in the sun at a given time, Hayden’s work reckons with the promised, yet inaccessible American Dream for Black youth and its exasperation during the pandemic.

The public installation was guarded by a two-foot tall fence, maintaining about twenty feet of distance from the art and the public walkway. I stood behind the fence, watching birds and squirrels play with the work while I had to engage from a far. Using my eyes and my ears, I considered the work from a distance, reading the first part of the placard, and taking an initial photograph. But this still observation didn’t last very long. I was too tempted, the fence was too small, and I soon stepped over to shoot some pictures from closer up. After a few moments a park security officer saw me taking images and called me to return. As I stepped back over the fence, a young girl in a pink hat about the age of two was facing the installation, her hands gripped on the fence. With her back to me and the Brier Patch in front of her, I quickly asked her mother if I could capture the moment. I attempted to click my camera, but to my dismay, it died. The child moved, taking the image with her, but I can still see it in my head. The physical separation between her and the work, the coming years where she’d likely find herself trapped inside a similarly designed right-handed only desk that secures able bodies into rigid wooden seats for hours on end. I thought about her lifespan mirroring the pandemic’s, and with it the uncertainty of in-person education. Maybe she’d never have the opportunity to be subjected to these desks. Is that worse? At least these desks allow for some physical interaction, some sensorial contact with peers and learning outside of a screen.

Education in America is often a bodily-passive endeavor, emphasizing that the proper way to learn is through sight and sound only. Hayden’s drilled down desks, which are set up for some mental wandering, but total physical obedience, highlight the practice of learning through sitting and listening, a practice we’ve seen become unfortunately more necessary as teachers try to maintain control in over-enrolled classrooms. And yet, it cannot go without mention that this control is especially enforced for students of color, whose conduct is particularly policed and surveyed. However, outside of the still classroom, outside of the fenced in sculpture, is a park for play and more embodied, sensory expression: the smells of P.E. locker rooms, the taste of cardboard milk cartons, the feeling of grazing your knee against your crush’s under the lunch table. 

How does learning and socialization regress without the smells, touches, and tastes of school that are naturally inaccessible through screens? What is lost when sight and sound are exacerbated as the primary senses used for learning? And alternatively, what is gained in an educational experience when all five senses are included? While I am curious about these questions in direct relation to the pandemic and wide-spread facilitated virtual schooling, I believe this type of stripped sensory relationship with education occurs for students on a regular basis when they interact with social media, which I see as presenting an ethical challenge for the consumption of online violence schools may have an obligation to address.  

In light of our hyper-increased access to geographically widespread violent content caused by social media and the role of phone cameras in documentation, I am interested in exploring how students make sense of visual images and videos of violence. Given that we are taking in so much information at such a wide range and fast fluctuation of genre –– war, climate crisis, and police brutality rotating on our feeds and trending in between self-empowerment posts and brunch pictures –– I am curious if there is an ethical implication to only experiencing the sights and sounds of violence. Focusing on American students’ consumption of violence against Black bodies, for this project, I look to Black artists who intend for participatory engagement with their pieces as models for developing approaches to engaging with violence online in a more ethical way. 

Influenced by the effects of the pandemic on schooling, I was compelled to think about how social media almost always privileges visual and auditory experiences, and how a more multi-sensory, embodied engagement with it could positively alter students' meaning-making of their consumption, developing more sympathetic responses. Specifically, I was encouraged by considering the reciprocal, aesthetic power of touch and how increasing it could positively affect students’ learning experiences. The artists and thinkers whose work I consider ask the viewer to position themselves in relation to their work, calling for an embodied, physical engagement that goes beyond the visual and auditory. 

Making an argument that a more embodied experience leads to a more ethical interaction, this calls for approaches to education that incorporate and attempt a multi-sensorial method, postulating how this practice may positively influence students’ responses to violence encountered on social media. Aiming to slow down the process of viewership to increase awareness of affect and discomfort, an argument for embodiment hopes to enact movement that opens up the aesthetic and educative experience visualizations can offer through an added interaction with other senses. With the intention of supporting students’ media consumption, image literacy, and anti-racist education practices, this claim aims to explore if the inclusion of more senses could increase students’ willingness to participate in fighting against the violence they see and hear online. 

 

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As I began to make my way out of the park, I was frustrated that this piece, which spoke to the reality of virtual education, was publicly installed, yet was private to physical touch. I wanted the little girl to be able to play and engage like the squirrels and birds. I wanted to do that myself. To my surprise and joy, as I walked further, exiting the park from a different entrance I entered from, I noticed that I jumped to conclusions before crediting Hayden’s holistic and thoughtful approach. There were some of his chairs, albeit sans branches, displayed in a separate section open for sitting and engagement. Hayden’s effort and consciousness to enhance the sensorial experience of his sculpture was a testament to his message, the value of touch and learning through bodily action. I was disappointed in my own doubt. 

Later that afternoon, when I looked back over the picture of the placard I took, I realized that Hayden did mention the non-fenced chairs in his description, calling for, “individuals and groups to interact with the piece for contemplation or convening.” There was more to be understood and offered than what I was patient enough for in my first reading, more outside of the words on the placard I didn’t see at first, and more outside of the frame I created in my camera lens that only looked at what was directly in front of me. Hayden asked me to use my body, to walk through the park and through his sculpture, and I almost missed it. Almost. 

Madison Square Park, NYC 2022
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Madison Square Park, NYC 2022
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Madison Square Park, NYC 2022
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