Learning through Failure and Collaboration

(Second stanza of “Gateway” poem: sticker paste-up at WITS University (2017)

In the field of education, there is an expectation that successful results should be achieved, and this perception of success is often equated but not limited to positive and satisfactory outcomes. The defining factor that influences the classification of what these outcomes should entail/what criteria should be met, is often determined by a set curriculum that standardises success in ways that will benefit the structure that these named “outcomes/results” must operate within. Success can also be seen as a step-by-step process that is strongly related to the various stages/grade levels or “gateways” in the education system that must be completed and passed through, in order to move forward; up the ladder as it were, toward advantageous objectives.

If a grade is not passed or expectation is not met, then the opposite of success becomes titled and classified: Failure… A word that can have the ability to psychologically brainwash, indoctrinate and determine end results before tasks are attempted. A word that can demotivate and act as a barrier between conviction and learning, prevent productivity and cause anxiety and deterioration. To receive an “F” on a paper or school report can be an incredibly disappointing experience for a student. I have witnessed this first hand, and have failed learners by the influence of my own authority, in a school environment where failure was experienced by myself and the students in the classroom alike, but in different ways. One of the most valuable lessons I have learned from teaching in a classroom is that failure can inevitably cause a huge drop in self-confidence, but also has the ability to encourage an individual to try again, re-attempt, rebuild and re-imagine the same task that was attempted and considered unsuccessful.

In the introduction to “Failure”, a collection of texts addressing the concept of failure and it’s relevance in contemporary art , Lisa le Feuvre writes about the various nuances and influences of failure in a piece aptly named “Striving to Fail”, (2010) . Le Feuvre’s opinion on failure reflects optimism, thus encouraging productive and positive interpretations of the subject:

“If perfection and idealism are satisfying, failure and doubt are engaging, driving us into the unknown. When divorced from a defeatist, disappointed or unsuccessful position, failure can be shifted away from being merely a category of judgement.” (Le Feuvre 2010, 17)

Failure can, therefore, be both debilitating and productive, and I would like to argue that it is important to acknowledge intersectional interpretations and experiences of failure, in order to appreciate the potential of its educational value. Failure can be observed and experienced in many forms; some of which are not limited to language and classification, but rather exists internally, on a psychological level. Failure, therefore, has the ability to set standards, practices realise potential and predetermine outcomes. Artistic and educational practice can gain from the experience of failure as it proves to play a vitally important role in the facilitation of learning and knowledge production. During a process where artistic and educational practices interlink, collaboration is often the catalyst for interdisciplinary action to take place. It is through the constant interaction between these two fields that collaborative and participatory art projects have become practised in various communities and learning environments. Socially engaged projects conducted with the intention to have an educational impact and work with people, often have ethical implications and are therefore subjected to close examination and critique. Claire Bishop unpacks the various reasons why collaborative art projects are so strictly criticised in The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents (2006):

“The social turn in contemporary art has prompted an ethical turn in art criticism. This is manifest in a heightened attention to how a given collaboration is undertaken. In other words, artists are increasingly judged by their working process—the degree to which they supply good or bad models of collaboration—and criticised for any hint of potential exploitation that fails to “fully” represent their subjects as if such a thing were possible.” (Bishop 2006, 2)

Bishop highlights the complexity of collaborative practice as she mentions how working methods are questioned in order to determine whether projects are exploitative or problematic. Collaborative and educational art projects are frequently conducted inside and outside of academia, and this could be as a result of the accelerated necessity to place importance on community, social interaction, and education in contemporary society. It is difficult, however, to fully assess collaborative projects because facilitators often have the power to negate the manner in which the projects are executed and how the outcomes are presented. These projects are often funded by organisations that expect positive feedback in order to fulfil certain requirements that adhere to social responsibilities. Failures are not aspects of collaborative projects often recorded, due to the potential negative impact, this may have on access to funding and reputation.

I would like to suggest that failures and tensions observed and experienced in collaborative practice should be considered important learning tools, instead of being “brushed under the carpet”. In “Spaces of Critical Exchange” (2012), a conversation between Liam Gillick and Fionn Meade, a refreshingly honest description of participatory practice is evident, revealing the inherent problems in collaboration:

“One thing all of those projects have in common is a kind of lack. They’re described as discursive, or […] “collaborative,” when, in fact, they all demonstrate three key things: lack, suspicion, and withdrawal or a sense of subjugation, or something close to that. From the artistic perspective, they demonstrate a kind of submissiveness by working alongside structures or people for whom the process of actually accepting a movement into that kind of space is difficult or problematic”. (Gillick 2012, 1)

Gillick’s statement alludes to the idea that one should perpetually question who is benefiting from the act of collaboration and that there should be a constant and strong critique of the position of power that the artist as teacher or facilitator occupies. This power dynamic can be presented as overt, and the artist/facilitator is perceived “expert” or covert where elements such as language, space and position act as vehicles for these power structures to mobilise.
( see the full text in Gateway: Entering into a Process of Questioning Pedagogical Practice in South African Education. )


Bishop, Claire. “The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents”.Artforum Inc. New York, 2006
Gillik, Liam. 2012. “Spaces Of Critical Exchange – Liam Gillick”. Liamgillick.Info.
Le Feuvre, Lisa. “Failure”.Whitechapel: Documents of Contemporary Art. 2010

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