The Mobile Studio was formed to respond to public education challenges in rural communities and to create opportunities for undergraduate and graduate-level university students to enter local communities, to establish partnerships, and to teach and learn through a model of reciprocity. The contemporary public schooling experience is increasingly characterized by standardized exam preparation and testing, an emphasis on reading and mathematics, and a corresponding de-emphasis on the arts, on place, and on participation in civic life. The studio contends that design models of education incorporate an integrated way of thinking, seeing, and acting on the community/world not met by traditional standardized education systems. The art and design of the landscape provide access to learning across economic, social, and racial barriers. Landscape imaging and placemaking become active means of participating in civic life and advancing civic health.
This submission, a 16-minute video, explores four years of emerging pedagogy and methodology for community-based art and design practice. The Mobile Studio is an intermedia, co-creative collective actively representing, reinterpreting, and reimagining Alabama landscapes in the field. Through this process, the studio advances the delicate work of creating and sustaining reciprocal partnerships between academic, community partners, civic and political leaders, and artists.
This filmic essay features three key projects that cross scales from the state to the county to the schoolyard, exemplifying principles and practices of the studio. The first project investigates the Old Federal Road, built in 1809 to connect Washington DC to New Orleans through the heart of the Creek Nation, the current state of Alabama. The Mobile Studio investigates the remnants of this landscape feature that crosses 13 contemporary counties, exploring three towns whose history predates the road. What emerges is a model of an open dialogic civic art practice that enables larger discussions of land use and economic development futures by acknowledging diverse histories, ecologies, and perspectives.
The second project, the Civic Data Challenge, was an opportunity to continue to explore the landscapes of the Old Federal Road closer to home in Macon County, adjacent to the studio's home base at Auburn University. The Old Federal Road traverses this former stronghold of the Creek Nation along navigable ridges that overlook the wetlands of the Chattahoochee and Tallapoosa watersheds. Today, Macon County is home to Tuskegee University and the legacies of Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver; however, it is challenged with high poverty, high dropout rates, and underacknowledged resources. Partnerships here between The Mobile Studio, Auburn University's Office of Civic Learning Initiatives, and a group of high school students in the Bridge Builders program tested and advanced the co-creative approach to landscape study and placemaking. Translating messages about civic health into the public realm through art and into conversation with local politicians and leaders proves to be empowering both as a means to activate citizenship and as a way to catalyze new, buildable future infrastructures.
The third project, Re-Imagining Schoolgrounds, brings the Mobile Studio's methods and partnerships into the Master of Landscape Architecture (MLA) program at Auburn University. This design studio asks the simple question of all its participants—students, teachers, principals, and community members alike—What can a school landscape become? Implicit in the question is the claim that these important common grounds might better serve children and the greater community through design that extends opportunities for teaching/learning, experimentation, exploration, interaction, and play, out of doors. Working with partners at two schools in Macon County and one in Montgomery County, MLA students designed and explored potential alternatives to the notion that school grounds are discrete, "closed," or finished endeavors; as commons, school grounds should accurately reflect the common aspirations of the communities in which they reside. These alternatives were derived through dialogue and embodied learning alongside their elementary school colleagues.
One notable example of intergenerational teaching and learning featured in this project was the hosting of the Re-Imagining Schoolgrounds Exhibition at the historic Shiloh Rosenwald School. The Shiloh School seeks to celebrate the accomplishments of its students all the way back to the late 1800s through its closing in the 1960s. The Shiloh School contains within its collective memory the legacy of George Washington Carver's teaching from the land approach and Booker T. Washington's commitment to positive social change by teaching teachers. At the exhibition, members of the Shiloh community, public school administrators from the school sites across the county, MLA students, and faculty all interacted with the central question of the studio via the design proposals. The wisdom of community elders was presented alongside proposals of emergent student voices calling for a new era of engaged schools. Findings suggest intergenerational teaching and learning is integral to the arts and politics of placemaking.
Common Ground in Alabama reports on the long-term goals and preliminary outcomes of the Mobile Studio through the media of film to traverse time and reveal diverse perspectives.
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