Hannah Jickling and Helen Reed: Multiple Elementary
by Justin A. Langlois
Hannah Jickling and Helen Reed’s collaborative practice winds through socially engaged art, unruly educational experiences and long-term institutional interruptions. Multiple Elementary, published and distributed at the moment of Black Dog Publishing’s harrowing implosion, is one of only a few publications dedicated to exploring a single socially engaged project, and a Canadian one at that. Whereas seminal texts by Claire Bishop, Grant Kester or Shannon Jackson tend to explore socially engaged art through encounters with artist projects (either witnessed or by way of archives) alongside larger framing arguments that aim to consolidate a field of practice, Jickling and Reed’s book refuses this model, both in terms of its disregard for any officious canonization of the project and in its ambition to present a constellation of discussions around the foundational concerns of this work.
You may have heard of some of their recent projects carried out as part of Big Rock Candy Mountain, which they explain as a “flavour incubator and taste-making think-tank” operating out of classrooms at Queen Alexandra Elementary School in East Vancouver. Last Halloween, they launched a chewing gum-based multiple, QA Chew’s Bubble Trouble (2018), developed through a series of workshops at the school with students, teachers and food scientists. The gum was made available at select retail locations throughout East Vancouver and distributed on Halloween night by homes across the city. Before that, and in collaboration with a Grade 3/4 class and local social enterprise East Van Roasters, they created the SOUR VS SOUR (2017) chocolate bar as an unlimited edition. Created from a series of classroom taste tests, along with field trips to East Van Roasters, the bar clashes both natural and synthetic sour tastes, and kid and adult desires. Laying the foundation for Big Rock Candy Mountain, in 2012, Jickling and Reed were artists-in-residence of The Pedagogical Impulse, a tri-council-funded research project initiated by Stephanie Springgay at the University of Toronto that explored educational settings and pedagogical approaches as sites for artistic research. While in Ontario, in collaboration with a group of sixth-grade students, Jickling and Reed created Ask Me Chocolates (2012), a limited-edition collection of milk and dark chocolates cast in custom moulds designed by the students. It was this project that served as the catalyst for Multiple Elementary.
The collected essays in the book provide meaningful investigations into the ideas that surround the project and contextualize the histories, challenges and ambitions embedded therein. Here, we get a glimpse at a model of disseminating and writing about socially engaged art that activates the social in its very creation. Conversations stop and start, sometimes linking across multiple essays and other times finding their own bit of space to explore. This is less a project report or archive than a document that feels alive, self-aware and unruly. It aligns with the ethic of the work as well as with Jickling and Reed’s larger practice, trusting a polyvocality to bring out the complexity embedded in it.
The book’s sleeve, itself a multiple of sorts, displays all 26 chocolates in the Ask Me Chocolates collection, providing a first peek into the project and foregrounding the role of students as collaborators. On the reverse is each student’s unedited summary of their experience with the project. In a companion text, “Hershey Squirts,” at the end of the book, Jickling and Reed unpack moments with the students through annotations of these brief descriptions. The artists’ careful attention to situating the students’ voices both as a wrapper for the book itself and as a removable poster that has the capacity to wander away from the other texts in the book is indicative of their commitment to seeing that their elementary collaborators can indeed, as the artists write, “secure the first word, and the last.”
In the diverse collection, Sydney Hermant unpacks the notion of “contact high,” a regular ingredient in the duo’s practice, discussed here in relation to children, whose “world is in a constant state of becoming.” Jack Halberstam’s contribution on the wildness of childhood—“the non-verbal, anti-normative, unruly bodily choreographies that constitute experiences of child bodies”—builds on this. Further along, Sita Bhaumik draws linkages to other food-based projects, detailing the stakes of working with food as both a medium and as a site of engagement in and of itself. Bhaumik notes: “While food fluctuates in a precarious state of consumption and disappearance, it creates spaces to tell stories and ask questions.” In passages like this, we are offered a gentle invitation to map the social practices that make Jickling and Reed’s work possible and find bridges towards its relationship with a larger field of artistic concerns. In this vein, Mark Clintberg’s essay looks at the fugitiveness of multiples and links Ask Me Chocolates to a lineage of interrogations of authorship and value through the production of artist multiples, from David Hammons to Felix Gonzalez-Torres to Jon Rubin and Dawn Weleski’s Conflict Kitchen (2010– present). The book concludes with Maiko Tanaka’s incredibly clear “Lexicon for Thinking-with-and-Extending the Knowledge of Ask Me Chocolates.” Built with terms like “burr as pedagogue” and “fermentive methods,” it generates the potential for new understandings of and meaningful connections with the work itself—as durational, messy, unruly and unwitnessable as it may be—and provides the language we need to understand its position at the vibrant intersection of pedagogy, participatory research and art.
A study in the formal possibilities of translating a single project through a constellation of activities, ideas and tastes, Multiple Elementary provides an instructive reference point for presenting socially engaged work to new audiences.