An Artistic Experiment in Teaching
Can we learn to love?
"The Class of Love was the first time in my life where I had to deal with love… It was a totally new situation for me. The Class of Love let me think about different aspects of love I never thought about before. I never asked myself "What is not love" before. At the beginning I thought, "not love" is hate, anger, violence and things like that. But at a closer look I recognized that it is hard to find something that is not in a relationship with love. … during my work for my paper I recognized that love is also a kind of action. It is an action that starts with your self. Love is a process and not only an emotion. As Erich Fromm says love is a kind of art." Jannick[i]
As an interdisciplinary artist, I have spent over 12 years deconstructing and reconstructing the subject of love and media, and exploring the forms of connection and disconnection.
The project developed out of a personal documentation of love through various forms of media including paint, video, video installation, interactive video and web art, and multi-media dance performance collaboration, to an international project involving thousands of people from all over the world, crossing borders, religion, politics and cultures, often with surprising results. Each process of discovery started with the self and expanded into the world at large. Using the class as an art platform followed the same process with each student involved in a personal, a collective and a universal search for meaning and emotional, intellectual and creative possibility.
From its inception, the Class of Love was formulated as an artistic social experiment, a research project, and an educational learning opportunity focused on love and the ways we communicate it.
How do students today define love? How do they feel about love? Commitment? What connects and disconnects? What are the effects of media on the students’ ability to connect emotionally? Could education be a form of art creation? If so, what effect would this have on the students learning process? Can we learn more about our emotions to enable intellectual growth? As a researcher, an artist and a teacher, there was much to be learned. The challenge was to explore the possibility of using our emotions to educate and involve the students in the process of discovery from many angles including the study of art, media and science.
Today as more and more of us are connected via digital devices, understanding ‘what is’ love becomes more about an understanding of ‘how to’ connect in love. Love is about connecting and the pain of longing for connection. The flip-side of love is the loss of connection and a loss of intimacy.
Media is about communication and connection. Books, radio, television, computers, cell phones; media communicates everything from ideologies, religion and politics to entertainment, news and personal interaction. The Internet and social networks enable us to exchange and gather information and connect with family, friends, associates and strangers. As McLuhan suggests, media can be seen as an extension of the self, with the Internet expanding to include ‘everyone’ in a shared experience of self. The “Me” generation is transitioning into the “We” generation. Connections are being revealed in almost every knowledge base and culture. And, for the most part, we do it for free. Media guru Clay Shirky calls it love.
From cave drawings, to the invention of language and music; words, sound and images play a crucial part in our connections, and in expressing our ideas of love. From Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ to Hollywood’s ‘Shakespeare in Love’, from Michelangelo’s ‘Venus of Love’, to Robert Indiana’s ‘LOVE’, and Mozart’s ‘La Noce de Figaro’, to the Beatles ‘All You Need is Love’, artists throughout the ages have used various forms of media to express love and connection.
Simultaneously, media disconnects us, because there is a dissonance between the cultural narratives we are presented with, and the reality of personal communication and connections. Sherry Turkle, Cultural Analyst, warns we are losing out ability to be intimate with each other, pointing to the loss of real time conversation as a major factor. Governments are using the Internet to violate human rights. Politicians are using this new ‘free’ labour as a reason to decentralize government responsibility pointing to ‘love’ as a source of economic relief for the public. (David Cameron, 2010)
Empirical knowledge tells us that we need love to survive, we need to be touched, we need to interact with each other, therefore understanding the ‘how to’ of love in a digital world becomes important to our survival. But how do we connect in love when we spend most of our time in front of a computer? Or is the reverse true? Are deeper connections possible in the digital age when we can find people with similar ideas and interests who we otherwise would never have had the opportunity to meet?
Like TV and radio before the Internet, media changes our ways of interacting with each other. How is the Internet changing us? The students represent the first generation raised with the Internet.
The class of love was created to explore and critique concepts of love as they are projected and expressed in media, art, science and communication. What do we really know about love? What are the perceptions and realities of love? Are they the same or different? How is love communicated and understood? Love was deconstructed into separate knowledge bases including the science of love - biological and physiological knowledge, emotional anthropology, sociology, psychology, philosophy, culture and media study.
The idea was to challenge and expand the students’ ideas of love, to explore the ways media informs their ideas of love, and to try to find ways to reconnect or construct new ways of ‘seeing’ and expressing love.
The students explored and transformed their personal ideas of love and ideas of community by sharing emotionally with each other as a class and the public at large. They were exposed to information using various forms of media on the subject of love, and they used various forms of media to learn and to reflect what they learned. All work was made transparent and accessible on an interactive on-going class website. (tsotf.com)
Layers of Learning
Initially the students were asked how they understood and felt love. This involved answering the following questions: What is the definition of ‘love’ for you? What is a memory that reflects ‘love’ to you? (…a moment, an instance when you can say, ‘that was love’.) How many kinds of love can you name? Do you believe in love at first sight? What is not ‘love’? The class was also asked to submit an image that represented love.
The answers were uploaded to the website entitled The School of Thinking and Feeling – The Class of Love - and reviewed by the class.
Media plays a significant role in informing our ideas of love, to observe and to understand this on a personal level, each student was asked to track their media usage for 7 days continuously, from their personal media consumption to their personal communication. This included cell phones, television, radio, Internet, social media, and literature including books, magazines, periodicals, etc.
What does media choice say about our ideas and expression of love? How does a song, movie, book, TV show reflect our experiences and memories of love? How does globalization of media affect the results? What are the similarities and differences both in the class and in the choices of different generations? What are the similarities and differences in media messages in different generations?
The students were also let loose on the general public to explore notions of communication and social interaction, and to practice random acts of kindness to explore the questions: Can we practice love? Can love be learned? Does practicing love help us grow?
The class created a continual feedback loop of learning, observation, participation and communication using a peer driven interactive site. Was it hard or easy to open up to strangers and ask people to participate and share? What effects did the project have on the students?
One of the unique things about studying and learning about love and connection was the on-going accessibility people have to the process; everyone has experienced love and connection in some way, whether positive or negative. The class wasn’t about theory alone, but about process-based education by utilizing traditional and non-traditional teaching methods to learn and explore emotions and media.
The class asked the students to be open and honest in their own personal thoughts and feelings. It asked them to be vulnerable and they responded with their personal thoughts, memories and ideas of love that were touching, painful and heartfelt.
What is your definition of love? What is an image that represents love to you?
It was interesting to notice the difference in definitions of love. When asked to define love, over 90% of the students referred to romantic love. Images of love were romantic in nature with the largest reference point (90%) represented by a Hollywood movie still.
For me love is the strongest, most beautiful and dangerous feeling a man can feel. It can make one feels like he’s the happiest person of the entire world. But it also may make one feel like the world’s ending if not reciprocated or if one is disappointed. Love means passion, danger, beauty, fullness. It’s when one misses that special person and tries to do, get and be the best for that someone. Anon[ii]
According to me love is a state of mind rather than a short-lived emotion. Love is the deep longing for another person, the feeling that you’re not really complete without that person. It makes you grow beyond yourself, sincerely opening yourself towards someone. Then love becomes mental and physical nakedness. In the same time it is a cover that wraps you all around. Love is a gift that in the best case would not expect anything. Sometimes love can become sickness, full of silly emotions and absurd desires. Love is probably the most manifold condition, covering all kinds of emotions, from longing from fear to euphoria. Anon[iv]
For more examples of how the class defined love... more here.
What is a memory of love?
When the students were asked to recall a memory of love, they talked about ‘experiential’ love. Over 90% of the class responded with a family-oriented memory, the notion of ‘unconditional love’, an act of kindness, or a situation of duty or care.
I experienced the deep love of my parents when I once felt like I really disappointed them, because I did not act the way they had always taught me. However, instead of being angry with me they just told me how much they loved me and consequently gave me what I really needed in that moment. Anon[v]
When my parents were divorced, they decided that it is better for my brother and me to stay with my father. I think this was a very hard decision for my mother. She agreed that it is better for us to stay in my father’s house and with our known surrounding. This was real love from my mother to my brother and me. Anon[vi]
Once I have been seriously ill and I have spent a very long time in hospital. Because of that I was exhausted and depressed. In that way I thought it could be easier to die. But my mother told me that my death would be the worst thing that could possible happen to her. She as a mother wanted to die before me. In that moment I could feel her love absolutely clear. Anon[vii]
For more examples of class memories of love go here:
What came out of the process was collective learning, empathy and an emotional connection to each other in the class.
While reading the answers from other class members, I gained a clearer and far-reaching view on love and how one could define it. There was not one definition of love that I didn’t like at all. All of them represented a good view on this special emotional feeling, although being pretty different at times. Anon[viii]
I think it’s awesome that everyone answered so honestly and detailed about their own memories of love. It’s brave and moving. What my fellow class members have written and some of the statements almost brought me to tears to be honest. Anon[ix]
"All in all, love is a complex term which is not easy to be put in words and cannot apply to everybody in the same way." Anon[x]
Practicing random acts of kindness revealed the scope of the individual’s concept of love. Some acts were large, some small; as a relative-based expression of individual ideas of love, this revealed more about the depth of each student’s reference points. In the cases of family acts of kindness, it revealed the inter-relationships that form our path to connection.
The results were not always surprising, certainly helping someone with heavy luggage is a common occurrence, and acts like making someone breakfast in bed is a very simple act that everyone could relate to. While this wasn’t news, it was important to note that doing good deeds feels good. The practice of the exercise came from a mindfulness, awareness and structure that highlighted the experience. The students had to consider what a kind act was and how to be kind, and their experiences were added to the data collection on love.
"…when I stay in my hometown a little longer, I earn some bucks as a construction worker. This time we renovated a 300 year-old building, formerly used as a hotel. Before we could start the renovation, the interior had to be removed and disposed. To save the time of carrying the relatively new and cheap furniture downstairs, we started by throwing 20 wardrobes out of the window of the second floor, smaller tables, beds and other equipment followed.
At dinner break we were sitting together at the open window, having a coffee and a cigarette, when we heard some noise and voices from the dumpster of broken furniture 4 meters below us. It turned out, that the men of an immigrant family were searching the heap of broken furniture for intact parts.
The first spontaneous response of my co-worker was to lock the doors downstairs for his toolbox not to be stolen. This day could have ended as one of the countless negative encounters of native Germans with members of the immigrant population. The Germans’ last thought would have been: “Damn Turks, searching the trash for whatever. They are going to turn into thieves next time, I am sure.” And the Turkish father and his two sons, humiliated by the suspicious glances of the German “nazi” construction workers would have said: “Damn Germans rich enough to destroy brand new furniture, which I could have used for my family, but too arrogant to even come out for a chat, or offer something.”
I started to collect the furniture left in the former hotel, carried it downstairs and offered it to the family. It was even better to see how these guys opened up, when I started some small talk in broken German. They told me about what they needed and it was easy to motivate my co-workers to look for some of these things, because the family received every single item with cheerful gratitude. After less than one hour I even saw the suspicious worker running around in the hotel to check even the most remote rooms for something of value for “our” family. Even the owners’ wife joined us in our efforts and in the end of the day our family had enough stuff to re-equip their living room and my guys had a great feeling of having done the right thing."
What started as 26 students with individual ideas of love, became one idea of love with 26 ways of feeling it. The empathetic and educational process of studying love connected the students, and we shared this with others. Within the first month the website was online, the site received over 30,000 hits.
The class now became “The Class of Love” both in an emotional and intellectual sense; we were connected through the sharing of intimate emotional expression and the study of love as an interdisciplinary subject.
“During the course, I learned many new things, and I think I understand this complex emotion better. The most important thing I learned, is that love is unconditional, and to accomplish it, we have to give ourselves fully... I also learned that context and the surroundings play an important role in expressing love. Furthermore, I was impressed by the effect this emotion has on everyone. While shooting the videos, I really noticed a change in the people's face when saying: "I love you". However, my definition of love is still basically the same. Nevertheless, before, I was a little unsure about its power and importance, and I even thought that perhaps, love was just an illusion. But I now believe that love is something innate in us, and we need to love and be loved to survive.” Erika[xii]
The real success is in the fact that the students discovered new ideas about love and communication. They grew personally, as a class and further connecting with both local and virtual communities using media tools to expand their ideas and to understand how media was using them.
"I learned that giving love and getting it in return is a lot easier and simpler than most people think. The most basic gestures of love will make you feel good and satisfied. Love can be felt in so many different ways and I personally experienced that thinking about love from its deepest meaning and significance helps letting your feelings go. Even if you will always fail to understand your heart and the ways it goes without following rationality completely, reflecting and thinking about why human beings are able to love and are supposed to love helps being able to feel it. It is like theoretically knowing how to read music and then all of a sudden playing by heart and just letting go. Concluding I must say that I have really enjoyed attending to The Class of Love, making that movie and ending the seminar by writing this paper, thinking about the paradox of the diversity of human individuals, who could not be more similar with their ability to love.” Franziska, The Class of Love, 2012
Based on the cross-disciplinary intent of the Class of Love, I learned that education could be used as a research base and also a form of art adding to the social sculpture of the “I Love You” project; most importantly, I can see the possibility of emotions as a basis for a profound way of teaching.
In a way the Class of Love began as a seemingly selfish idea to pursue my area of interest. I used the class to further the study of love and communication. But there are tangible effects from this class that are being felt on a personal level, as a group, and rippling out into the broader community. “What is love?” even asking the question connects us.
Can love be taught? Maybe. Can love teach us? Absolutely.
i] Jannick. Personal email. April 2011
[xii] Erika. Personal Email April 2011.