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Salón Sala Salón (2014)

This project consists of physically exchanging a classroom from the Jose M. Labra public school with one the neighboring Museum's exhibition spaces. Students are taking their class in the museum and in the school's classroom an exhibition from the Museum's collection is held. The building where the museum is located used to be a school and was later restored and transformed into the Museum. As part of the exchange, a creative workshop is offered to the students and teachers on a weekly basis.

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For the past five months, the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico (MAC) in San Juan and the neighboring Rafael María de Labra School exchanged institutional spaces for the duration of Taller Vivo: Salón – Sala – Salón (Live Workshop: Classroom – Gallery – Classroom), a project made by artist Chemi Rosado-Seijo in collaboration with the de Labra School teacher Rita Duprey and young students from the school. Here, Rosado-Seijo discusses the project, which probes the interconnected histories of both buildings, the role of each institution in the local community, and the intersection of contemporary art and public education in Puerto Rico. The project is on view at the MAC exhibition gallery at the Rafael María de Labra School until December 21, 2014.

I'M A SOCIALLY ENGAGED COLLABORATOR, a community-based cultural activist, and an artist who makes paintings and collages from life at specific sites. I’m interested in architecture, history, art, and local knowledge. I begin projects by getting to know the community that will be involved in the work. Then I make an aesthetic proposal that is developed with the people from where the project is taking place, as well as other individuals who become collaborators, helpers, and participants in the process. The museum in San Juan asked me to come up with a project that would involve its neighbors in a celebration of its thirtieth anniversary. This was a moment to address the history, function, and imposing architecture of its 1918 building, which used to be part of the public school behind it. Older students had told me how excited they had been to have the building reopen after a lengthy restoration, but it became a contemporary art museum in 2002. I perceived that since then, these structures and sites of education where culture is built have been somewhat distanced from one another, so I proposed that a classroom become a museum gallery, and that a museum gallery become a classroom. This crossover, this overlapping, was a conceptual collage of the similar yet different realities of the two establishments.

I was interested in how architecture would affect the students’ experience, and how students would affect the museum experience. The museum became a more active place, full of adolescents every day from 8 AM to 2:30 PM. Math, science, and Spanish teachers used the art on view to teach their curriculums. The museum lost its sepulchral silence and became a school again, which for me was a surreal experience. Students reclaimed the old building: We literally opened a door and created a passageway between the institutions. The school gained a calm, reflective exhibition space, and art spectators experienced life at a public school on their way to see videos that would normally be displayed in a museum.

Rita Duprey, a Spanish teacher at the school, asked for an artist intervention in her class, so I directed a weekly art workshop for her students which involved other artists and museum educators. We focused our conversations and drawing, collage, and sculpture projects on the museum building as well as on language and mass media communications in Puerto Rico. The immediate results were incredible. We formed groups within which students chatted in the classroom, proposed techniques, and then worked eagerly on their own creative projects without much input from me. For instance, one group made frottages of all the names of past students carved into the bricks of the museum and wrote stories and plays about their possible lives. Another group wrote words and definitions from their everyday language on Post-it notes and made a community dictionary, which the museum will publish. By the end of the project, the students realized that they are artists too; our original perceptions of each other changed.

We developed a unique model to creatively have an impact on Puerto Rico’s traditional academic system and to positively intervene in the lives and educational experiences of teenagers, teachers, and artists. This project challenged the established structures of the school and the museum almost every day, but no one ever said No to anything. The project is still mutating; we are designing new initiatives to keep the exchange alive. Now I know that I want my future work to involve teenagers, schools, and teachers—things I thought I would never like!

— As told to Cheryl Hartup