BY Tom Morton in Reviews | 05 MAY 09
Featured in
Issue 123

Darcy Lange

Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, UK

BY Tom Morton in Reviews | 05 MAY 09

Darcy Lange, Mr Brenton teaching geometry, Ladywood Comprehensive SchoolBirmingham, 1976, from 'Work Studies in Schools', 1976-7, video still

Shot in seven educational facilities in Birmingham and Oxford in 1976–7, the New Zealand artist Darcy Lange’s ‘Work Studies in Schools’ consists of black and white video recordings of various classroom sessions (history, science, art, English literature), and interviews with pupils and teaching staff about those sessions. Transferred to DVD, and shown on a series of deftly installed flat-screens in the Ikon’s gallery spaces, this scarred and flickering footage describes a lost world in which school masters in flares and longish, collar-licking hair resemble the hip polytechnic lecturer Howard Kirk, protagonist of Malcolm Bradbury’s popular campus novel The History Man (1975). The socially divisive Eleven Plus test (which determined whether pupils attended more academically-focused state grammar schools or secondary modern schools, in which simple practical subjects were taught) was in wide use, and the now commonplace experience of appearing on camera still had a whiff of the exotic.

Lange’s purpose, as the artist explained in a text written in 1977, was: ‘1) To investigate teaching as work. 2) To illustrate the skills of the teacher through vocal and gestural communication with the class and also the class’s response to this. 3) To illustrate the process of teaching and learning in the classroom. 4) To illustrate the social breakdown within each class.’ This fourth point, with its ambiguous suggestion of both demographics and a decline in community cohesion, leads onto a fifth, for which Lange adopts the first person: ‘5) I am particularly concerned to prevent what I make, whether it be photograph or video, from becoming an end in itself – not dissimilar to the loved art object.’ Accordingly, these films turn down every possible opportunity for obvious visual pleasure. Focusing on the unlovely environs of British schools (and they really were unlovely; all decaying desks, kids with jerry-built dental work and home-cut hair), the camera remains fixed, or else pans from staff to students as the rhythm of the class dictates, resisting even the minimal mannerisms of documentary making of the time. And yet for all this, they are utterly beguiling. The slightest modulation of a teacher’s voice or a near-invisible hand movement, designed to calm or encourage, fascinates, charged as they are with dense information about the educational contract – that uneasy set of negotiations between adolescence and adulthood, and between the developing individual and the state, or rather those whose vocation demands that they must wear its face. ‘Work Studies in Schools’ is a historical document of sorts, but its greatest value as a deposit of the past might not be what it tells us about, say, the demographic make up of a particular class, but rather the evidence it presents of the way in which teachers – using body language, occasionally clumsy witticisms and pop-cultural references that always threaten to fall flat – encouraged that class to learn. Here among the chalk-dust, a future society is being formed, and as Lange’s films acknowledge, this is not just a matter of education policy, but of a complex blend of forces, from the nascent punk subculture suggested by some of the student’s fitted leather jackets, to an afro-sporting art teacher’s stumbling pronunciation of ‘Eduardo Paolozzi’.

Teenagers when Lange shot them, the pupils in ‘Work Studies in Schools’ would, following the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, spend their young adulthood in a Britain that was very different from the one depicted in the artist’s films. Some hint of the coming changes is given in a recording of a session on George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) at a working-class Birmingham comprehensive. Here, the lively English master Mr. Perks initiates – without ever mentioning the word ‘communism’ – a discussion of social inequality, asking his pupils whether it’s right that the dustman and the doctor are so differently rewarded when both contribute to public health. The pupils are dismissive of his call for ‘a bit of evening-out’, and, in the post-class interview, tell Lange that Orwell’s novel is ‘a bit stupid, more like a fairy tale than anything else’. Even more prophetically, when the artist asks them how it felt to be filmed, they respond that ‘once we settled in, we felt quite normal’. Ahead of them was a decade in which traditional working-class communities were shattered on the anvil of a political cult of consumerist individualism. Lange may have brought his camera into the schoolyard, but what he found there were the future stars of shopping centre CCTV.

Tom Morton is a writer, curator and contributing editor of frieze, based in Rochester, UK.