Exquisite Corps(e) | Laura Reeder

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Creating a corpse to work as a corps.

Doing arts-based professional development in lots of different places has presented one consistent, universal challenge: How can we explore complex, pedagogical ideas when our art-making materials must be simple enough to pass through airport security? While this is not a deeply critical concern, it does mean that adult students work with materials that have led to outdated “school art” (Efland, 1976) stereotypes being reinforced. I have seen too many hearts and rainbows made by default when grown-ups are frozen by child-oriented tools.

When confronted with those old limitations of markers, paper, and glue-sticks, I have used an Exquisite Corpseparlor game as an exercise for unpacking contemporary teaching and learning ideas with a wide range of professional development communities. The resulting outcome has been an increasing army of grownups who remember that playfulness still has an intellectual role in their serious work.

Exquisite Corpse was named by Surrealists in the early twentieth century as a working metaphor (and drinking game) for synthesizing playfulness and individual ideas with assigned structures and multiple voices. A single piece of paper is folded into three or four sections. A head, body with arms, legs, and feet is drawn or collaged onto each section and it is passed along so that each part is completed by a different person, and a final corpse or body is created. The flexibility of this simple artistic structure has provided a dynamic form for many professional development situations.

Creativity Corps

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Pre-service, undergraduate teacher “corps of creative corpses”, Syracuse University.

I played Exquisite Corpseas a game with education students who were trying to let go of fears about creativity and picture making. The final corps of corpses, or body of bodies, was thrilling because each individual was off the hook for creating something perfect on their own. The emphasis moved from their individual abilities or perceived disabilities and toward their shared roles in the work. Each individual was hunting actively for the parts that they contributed to different bodies. They could not believe that they created something so unique in fifteen-short minutes. This set the stage for a semester of fearless explorations and new ownership of creativity in their future classrooms.

Critical Thinking Corps

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While the Surrealists were using Exquisite Corpse as a drinking game, progressive educator John Dewey (1938) was urging school systems to slow down highly-scheduled and standardized school schedules to incorporate more time for contemplation so that learners could reflect on their play or work. Similarly, when I used this game as an exercise in reflective and critical thinking with elementary teachers and teaching artists, we slowed down the process and used it to reflect on a day of study in an art museum.

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Veteran teacher and teaching artist “corps of critical corpses”, Parrish Art Museum.

The conversations that took place during each of the twenty-minute collage sections and the final critique were about frustrations teachers and teaching artists felt with school systems that did not allow them to work and play this deeply. Critical conversations emerged about using this as an instructional method for reading concepts, mathematical skills, and human ideals. The method became a possible tool for instruction, but being reminded about a slower pace and depth of thinking was even more exciting for these professionals who finished the day with a renewed determination to push back against efficient schedules and fight for more effective ways to use of learning time.

Communication and Collaboration Corps

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Mixed “corps of communicating, collaborative corpses”, Habla Center for Language & Culture.

During summer institutes in Connecticut, Long Island, Florida, and Merida, Yucatan, the combination of participants was so diverse and there were so many individual needs to address, it became hard to invigorate everyone around any artistic method. At those times, Exquisite Corpse has been an artistic metaphor for examining our own identities and understanding the ways that we can communicate and collaborate in diverse learning communities. Whether it was due to the summer “school’s out” atmosphere, or to the intense commitment of teachers, artists, administrators, and cultural workers to figuring out new ways to improve their work, this approach always became a conversational celebration.

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During each of these Exquisite Corpse sessions, folks sat around tables, swapping images and chatting about their work, they formed a vocabulary of shapes, metaphors, and symbols. Strangers found common ground. Buddies imitated each other or played off of differences. When we unfolded our final corpses and put them together into a corps of ideas, it was impossible to find a way to end a critique. So many connections to life, and work, and each other emerged, that we often needed to sit together at lunch or head off to a local pub to finish those conversations.

Teaching artists found parallel structures of the Exquisite Corpse in their disciplines: open-ended writing prompts for poets, object transformation for actors, theme variation for musicians. Teachers found a form for better supporting collaborative projects, explaining narrative processes, and modeling formulaic structures in science and in math. We emerged with a nimble method for tackling unfolding issues in our work. We emerged – minds and bodies linked – as a more determined critical, creative, communicative, and collaborative corps.

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