Specters of a school's closing
Pepón Osorio's art installation looks at the effects of school reform.
By Beth Uzwiak on Nov 9, 2015 04:04 PM
For his installation reForm, artist Pepón Osorio relocated a classroom from the closed Fairhill Elementary School to another classroom – at Temple University's Tyler School of Art in North Philadelphia, a mile from Fairhill.
To find reForm, you have to wander through Tyler’s occupied basement studios until, pushing through some double doors, you come across a row of cubbies from Fairhill. Jackets and backpacks hang from coat hooks. A stuffed bobcat, the school’s mascot, peers at you from atop a stack of books. Turn the corner, and a life-sized cutout of Fairhill’s former principal, Darlene Lomax-Garrett, welcomes you to the installation.
When the School District closes a school, as it did Fairhill and 23 other schools in 2013, it also closes conversation with affected communities. A web of ties, memories, and meanings attach to schools that go beyond the education once provided there. A line of community investment is severed when the building is no longer public.
By physically moving artifacts from Fairhill to a Tyler classroom – by hand and with the guidance of former students, teachers, community members, and families – Osorio demands that the conversation about school closings center on those most affected. Far from a eulogy, a celebration of the passing of a school into memory, reForm reinserts what was lost, and continues to be lost, into ongoing questions about equity and access to public education. As the District continues plans to close some public schools and convert others into charters, parents, students, and community members remain vocal about these concerns.
Last winter, I took a tour of the privately purchased former Bok Vocational High School in South Philadelphia, another one of the schools closed in 2013. It was haunting. The School District had used the building to store furniture from other shuttered schools. Instead of one abandoned piano, half a dozen were corralled into a corner. Gutted air conditioners lined an entire corridor. But other rooms stood as if the students and teachers had just stepped out for a moment: test tubes ready in the chemistry lab, math lessons written on the board, stacks of books and folders, mailboxes with letters in them. It felt as though a nearby disaster had called people away.
While tiptoeing through this fallout of privatization, I found that I was holding my breath as if waiting for the return of voices and for bodies to suddenly reappear and pick up what they had temporarily put down. Where did everyone go? I thought about the former students, who were in the homes and streets just on the other side Bok’s doors, and administrators and teachers, who were who-knows-where.
When Scout Ltd., the buyers of Bok, opened Le Bok Fin, a “pop-up” restaurant, on the roof late last summer, simmering unease about the new use of the building erupted. Pushback varied. Some folks pointed out that without a new owner, Bok’s resources would remain unused; others lamented that what made Bok so ripe for purchase, including its kitchen and automotive facilities, were no longer available to students who so desperately need them. The profit from these facilities will go into private pockets, rather than into the education of local children. Regardless of your stance about Bok’s reincarnation, there is no doubt that the beer garden was not intended to highlight the social justice issues of school closings. That it did so anyway is rather the point.
I found Bok’s missing student presence in Osorio’s recreated classroom. Here the lessons have been interrupted, but learning is still happening.
In making this installation, Osorio collaborated with a small group of former Fairhill students. Over the summer, Tyler provided the students with stipends to work with Osorio. They wrote essays about the school closing, which were later enlarged and pasted on the walls of the installation.
You can also see and hear each student in the found-art sculptural pencils that Osorio created. In the center of every piece, a small screen projects the face and voice of a student. The synchronized videos provide a narrative background to the installation and end with a chorus of student voices repeating: “It’s time that when we speak, you listen.”
Born in Puerto Rico and at one time a social worker in the Bronx, Osorio is a professor of art and co-chair of the Community Arts Program at Tyler. He lives not far from Fairhill. His collaborative installation pieces often evolve from his interactions with neighbors and community members.
For reForm, Osorio wanted to provide a space for participating students to express their emotions about Fairhill, but to also reflect on the reasons why the District chose to close the school in the first place. Osorio discussed the School Reform Commission with students and asked them probing questions about the meaning of public education. In an effort to understand what happened to Fairhill, former students designed a tableau of figures involved in the school closings, presented in the installation as puppets in a larger picture of privatization.
Osorio’s installation seems to ask us how public schools, a basic right provided for students in wealthy school districts, become a tool for corporate profit-making in poor and working-class ones. reForm is about how we measure school success over time and the consequences of ongoing state neglect, as students and families bear the weight of an eroding public school system. It is about the valuing of test scores above trust and community.
Osorio also raises questions about space, home, and belonging. How do communities deal with hulking structures left in their neighborhoods? Like empty factories that remind Philadelphians of once-vibrant industries, closed public schools remind us how the School District and political decision-makers choose private interests above public ones. In the case of Bok, which is perhaps transforming into a “maker space,” a former public school takes on symbolic weight and acts as a mechanism of gentrification.
When reForm closes each day and the classroom door is shut, the cutout of Fairhill’s former principal Darlene Lomax-Garrett changes perspective. Instead of seeing her welcoming face, we now gaze over her shoulder as she watches the classroom through a window in its closed door.
reForm, which runs through April 2016, is an anchor for a constellation of changing workshops, meetings, and community programs happening throughout the year. It is at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, 2001 N. 13th St., Philadelphia.
Beth Uzwiak is an artist, an anthropologist, and a research associate at Creative Research & Evaluation. Her artwork has been exhibited in many places, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Woman Made Gallery, and Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts. Uzwiak has a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from Temple University.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.