Circle Time: Jennet Thomas’s School of Change

Showing at Matt's Gallery, June 20 – July 29, 2012


Jennet Thomas: School of Change production stills. Copyright the artist and Matt's Gallery, 2012

Jennet Thomas directing School of Change, Spring 2012

Jennet Thomas, Leo Chadburn and Rachel Withers discuss

School of Change

by Jennet Thomas, featuring a musical score by Leo Chadburn


Jennet Thomas: In its Matt’s Gallery incarnation, School of Change includes a big sculptural element which you encounter before you see the film. You walk up a long, low ramp that starts at the gallery entrance and rises very gradually towards a stage at the back of the inner gallery. On one side are stick figures – very large, about seven feet high – in various postures. Creatures like these also appear in the film, as animated instructional models. There’s a performer in the gallery – a School of Change schoolgirl – who is busy at various tasks, and the space is marked with motifs in the black and yellow colours of the School of Change uniforms: lines, circles, spheres – and stripes, of course.

Rachel Withers: Of course, because the events in School of Change take place during ‘Festival of Stripes’.

JT: Yes, though viewers will only discover the installation’s significance once they’ve arrived in the arena-like stage area and watched the film, which lasts about 42 minutes. It forms an endless loop: it’s cut so that the narrative appears to be continuous. The protagonist, Number Ten, seems to escape into the outside world but finds herself back in the School. The looping device is partly to do with the formal constraint of showing a video or film in a gallery: it’s not like a theatre where you walk in at a specific time and follow a narrative with a conventional beginning, middle and end. But the constraint is also an opportunity. It’s nicer to work with rather than against the context and here the paranoid looping exactly suits what I’m doing in the work.

RW: Yes. The atmosphere in School of Change is mildly nightmarish. Number Ten has been kidnapped from the ‘outside’, brainwashed in some fashion and shoehorned into a dehumanizing, exploitative experiment. The school is represented as an absurd technocracy, awash with managerialism and Newspeak. And the pupils are trapped inside by the dangerous ‘hard weather’, whatever that may be. Of course those are just aspects of the work’s narrative, but some people are undoubtedly going to want to read School of Change simplistically – as an allegory that can be unlocked quite straightforwardly once one has decoded the ‘hidden meaning’. How do you feel about that?

JT: Well, maybe it’s inevitable. Allegory is arguably what science fiction is, after all, and School of Change uses sci-fi as a coat hanger for the things it’s actually doing. Sci-fi is what School of Change says it it.

RW: So it’s OK for people to explain this to themselves as an allegory about current anxieties – about the environment, the education system, managerialism, social division, and so on?

JT: Yes, why not. That’s OK!

RW: But if they do that, aren’t they overlooking what it does as a work of art?

JT: Well, School of Change reflects those anxieties back. It’s absolutely not trying to set out some coherent underlying philosophy that might offer solutions.  It might be more useful to see School of Change as about those attempts to make allegories. School of Change reflects poetically on that desire. It builds its own, alternative, poetic logic, and that’s a lot harder to talk about than the more obvious ‘contents’. So if people tend to focus more on the piece’s more easily legible, surface meanings than its poetic language, that won’t surprise me.

RW: The film reminded me how I spent much of my time at school in a state of mild paranoia, bugged by a constant fear that I was about to breach some rule that I didn’t know about. Or that I was about to be pulled up and humiliated over some unfathomable ‘offence’ that I’d already unwittingly committed. Looking back, it makes me quite angry.

Leo Chadburn: I think school doesn’t suit the vast majority of people – they find it an alienating experience. It’s a very unnatural situation. You are forced together with an arbitrary group of people your own age, in a manufactured ‘society’. Also, schools’ institutional assumptions about how children learn can often be a poor reflection of individual children’s learning processes. Hence all those experiments in ‘alternative’ schools and ‘free’ schools: Steiner schools, Summerhill, etcetera.

RW: I suppose the vulgar Foucauldian explanation would be that school is precisely designed to programme social subjects into a condition of self-surveillance. Contained communities like schools or cults are perfect crucibles for inculcating that kind of paranoid subjectivity. I believe it was the North American nineteenth-century cults who pioneered the practice of peer critique, for instance. In relation to this I’ve been wondering about resemblances between School of Change and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which I’m sure will come up in discussions of the Matt’s Gallery show – not just because of the frumpy headscarves, but the whole scenario, in which girls are being trained up for ‘production’.

JT: Well, I’m most interested in the point where those kinds of social practice meet up with new technology. In School of Change the technology has also been internalized – given to the pupils as a pleasurable thing. It’s their ‘internal learning surface’. They are being monitored on the inside so that they can be made useful, via devices that no longer need to be visible. So this goes beyond some kind of peer control system. I played around with the idea of representing the devices via a variety of special effects, but in the end I decided it was better that the technology not be seen. In the final work, its only manifestations are some quite banal or ridiculous things. For example, the student’s learning scores appear as statistics inside their mouths, and they have a kind of control spot on their wrists – one of those sticky circles used for marking paintings as ‘sold’.

One of the structures in School of Change is that there are four classes: the three you see side by side on the screen (with all three are played by the same group of actors then multiplied using special effects) and the Control class, which is not ‘sponsored’. And that class is basically abject. They are getting nothing.  Here I should explain that School of Change has a quite complicated kind of infrastructure or backstory to it; it has relatively clear, logical structures that aren’t necessarily visible in the film, though I hope they help make the work substantial. The doll-figures, for instance, are ‘remote learners’ – stand-ins for pupils who can’t attend a class. Each class has to be a class of ten, of course, hence the importance of having a ‘tenth’. But as I worked on the film, I realized it was much more interesting to keep them implicit and leave some loose ends. I’m quite in favour of the loose end. That’s what life is full of.

On the subject of surveillance, a better reference point for School of Change would be contemporary organisations such as Landmark Education – the Forum, as it used to be known. These groups interest me and have come up in my work before. They are secular cults in which people police one another through group dynamics, but they also have an aspirational aspect. They are about making yourself ‘successful’ in conventional terms in life.

LC: Yes, they spout the rhetoric of self-help programmes. We (that is, the cast) had various conversations about these groups during the making of the film. We found that a spookily large number of us have had experiences of friends trying to coerce us into attending Landmark meetings or events along similar lines. It seems weirdly prevalent.

RW: And how about art schools? The art school ‘crit’, for instance. Isn’t that another incarnation of a confessional, coercive situation? It’s not enough for students to make work, they must be trained to make a highly ritualised kind of verbal performance around it. Talk of which is forcing me to name the proverbial elephant in the room here, Jennet, which is that you and I both teach – or attempt to teach – in an academic art school, within in a sector where the managerialism and corporatism and lack of room to manouevre, or challenge the conventions (and let’s not go anywhere near the question of funding!) can often feel well-nigh intolerable.

JT: Yes, it just comes through inevitably, doesn’t it? Things that bother me in life keep seeping through into the work in lots of ways, and that’s one of the more clearly recognizable ones. There’s also the obsession with quantification and the substitution of value with monetary value. In School of Change the barriers between actual learning and a credit system have dissolved. Lurking around in the School of Change back-story is the idea of units of learning, of knowing, that accumulate through ‘production’ and contribute to ‘growth’, represented by those rather unattractive polystyrene balls that serve as food, for instance.

RW: That’s a great moment in the film, when we see a trio of pupils ‘in production’, magicking little pellets out of the air and dropping them in a bucket. It suggests that the School’s primary purpose, the end point of all this complicated training, is the production of this banal, unappetizing-looking food. It hints that the school is really a weird kind of farm where female children are both the labour force and the source of food!

JT: There’s a slight reference there to the film Soylent Green. Another closed loop: the production of a substance solely to enable more production.

RW: But there’s also the pervading sense of crisis. The characters are coping with an environmental disaster of some kind: the ‘hard weather’ that can make bits of you fall off. 

JT: All of these general devices are classic, endlessly recurring ingredients in dystopian sci-fi.

RW: And it’s proverbial that in fiction, dystopias are miles more fun both to invent and to consume than utopias. As a source of inspiration, social ills offer by far the richest hunting ground. So are you a parasite, Jennet? Do you feed off social ills?

JT: We are all forced into being parasites, Rachel! It’s impossible to disentangle yourself. Look at our jobs: we are both embedded in a system organized around the awarding of units, of ‘credits’. You find yourself saying to students, ‘This will increase your employability’; ‘ This represents good professional practice’; ‘Why have you missed your tutorial? You are paying for it’, and so on. We talk about…

RW & JT: … transferrable skills!…

RW:  … yes, it’s pervasive, inescapable. And when I think about the so-called ‘creative’ job market today – looking at the Guardian’s job adverts, for instance – I’m stunned by its hyper-professionalization. Even the bottom rung on the work ladder seems unfeasibly high. If I was a twenty-something today I can’t imagine how I’d clamber onto it. Plus people’s scope to move from one kind of job to another looks desperately restricted. To be basically clever, literate, hardworking, sensible, curious about one’s field and keen to learn – these aren’t enough; competence in – and acceptance of – insane proliferations of managerial and technical arcana seem compulsory. And our ‘teaching and learning cultures’ seem designed to acclimatize students to all this, not to question it. 

But here – before I go and jump in front of a train – I should recall my opening agenda, which was to discuss the School of Change as art, and not exclusively as social satire.

JT: Yes, that’s important, and it’s not the easy option for discussion. I really want to head people away from making ‘pat’ readings of the piece. A few responses to my previous Matt’s Gallery show, ALL SUFFERING SOON TO END! focused selectively on specific elements then read it principally as a ‘critique of religion’, which was very frustrating. As a science-fiction musical, School of Change tells you absolutely nothing about the possible shape of the future, applications of new technology, and so on. That’s not what it’s about. It’s better to think of it as having two trajectories. One of them interlinks near-abstractions, there’s a lot of play with systems and numbers and symmetries, all in relation to the music, but these abstractions are interpenetrated by another set of concerns: shards of aggravating facts from the real world. It would be wrong to emphasise one over the other. There’s a purposeful, peculiar interplay between the work’s various devices. For me, that’s its most positive quality.

RW:  And School of Change has some really pretty, lyrical moments – points when the music becomes mellifluous and offers an interlude, like the songs in Shakespeare’s comedies. ‘We are framed’, for instance. The mood becomes charming and lighthearted. ‘Family friendly’, even!

JT: Yes. I wanted it to give pleasure and seduce and pull people along. That’s very important. One of the reference points for School of Change is Woody Allen’s Sleeper, a unique film and such a hilarious parody of the idea of trying to make a film about the future. Another is Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man, which offers huge amounts of pleasure and playfulness and mischief as well as setting up quite diffuse commentaries on the present state of things. That’s something I really admire. The joylessness inherent in much current ‘political’ works is something I find inexcusable, really. But I also like a bit of confusion, bamboozling, distraction: setting up a pleasurable aesthetic moment to frustrate attempts to decode the critique. Because that’s what life is like. You’re in a kind of soup of distractions, constantly diverted away from ‘the real issues’.

LC: That’s certainly true of O Lucky Man. It persistently makes it hard to say what its ‘messages’ are and it’s full of pleasures. Beautiful cinematography, and so on.

RW: But Anderson’s film belongs in a very different cultural and political moment. School of Change is bound up with contemporary technologies, communications, politics and social practices. In so far as it has obviously nostalgic aspects, they are like 1970s and 1980s kids’ television: Grange Hill for example. The scene with the ‘fight’ in the corridor between 10th and 1st, instance. The homemade feel of the camerawork and the awkward acting go together with that.

JT: And in a way, that’s what I do; I’ve always been interested in the aesthetics of handmade film. That somewhat ‘polished-amateur’ quality is intrinsic to the way I work. I’m not following an industrial production model. I think that aesthetic model, the ‘professional practice’ of mainstream media forms, brings a specific kind of political baggage with it. Artist-filmmakers can literally buy into it by hiring a professional Director of Photography, etcetera. But if I used that aesthetic I’d need to ‘détourne’ it very precisely – for example, like Jeff Koons does with the overstated slickness of his industrially fabricated surfaces –and that clearly wouldn’t be right for this project. School of Change maps onto the idea of the sincere school production. It’s the context of the hand-painted mural; the collective endeavor to get some job done. Those kinds of productions chime with the approach I take. The actors with singing roles don’t have trained voices but they do their own singing. Apart from Leo, of course! Leo is a performer in the film as well as its soundtrack composer, and his singing performance introduces a moment of unexpected ‘mastery’ into the proceedings. The idea of a collective effort drawing on everyone’s individual resources is one of the few consistent aesthetic-political gestures in this piece.

LC: There was a stage during the development of the soundtrack when we talked about using material from 1970s educational TV. A kind of perky world of analogue synthesizers – that’s one of the musical reference points. But there are other ‘handmade’ ingredients. In particular, there’s the clanky, recurring percussion, which draws on school music classes and in particular on the Orff Schulwerk system, an educational music programme devised by Carl Orff in the 1930s and centred on tuned percussion: marimbas, dulcimers and so on. Most visitors will have heard Orff Schulwerk themes even if they don’t know the name – they get used in advertising all the time. So the score has lots of xylophone and drums, especially in the corridor scenes. The world of the film: the language, the visuals, the performances, the music, the gestures, the jargon – is strongly codified. It’s simplified, emblematic.

RW: Yes, in a deliberately naïve way. It’s very direct and, as you say, emblematic. And in the absence of a reassuringly ‘professional’ style of production, the viewer is put in a precarious place. I find myself mirroring Catherine Thomas’s facial expressions because they at least represent a familiar language. I experience anxiety not just through identification with her but in relation to the film’s teetering, for want of a better word ‘unreliable’, production style.

JT: Well, that’s good, because that’s exactly what I was intending. That was a conscious decision: to make the syntax of the production direct and necessary, and not aspiring to current arty fashions for swaying, restless, cushioned camerawork. Also, constraints of budget and time can produce unpredictable solutions. You can see clearly when I’ve grabbed the camera and gone in to get a close-up, as it’ll be at a low angle – me being so small! But the central character stands as a very familiar narrative device and acts like a handrail that viewers can hold onto, identifying with her as she undergoes various adventures. I wanted the viewer to have a warm, sympathetic relationship to her. So that’s the opposite of a kind of distanced ironic semaphore. Throughout the film (and especially in the final scene, before she exits the world) there are a lot of dislocated elements that can’t be made sense of, but I didn’t want the audience to feel totally pushed away. She puts some warmth into the machine.

RW: And we haven’t mentioned it so far, but School of Change is shot in your old secondary school.

JT: Yes: an entirely generic 1960s, mid-century-modern state school – which, I believe, Leo’s architect father may have had some involvement in designing.

LC: It could be! I recall him explaining that all those school buildings were effectively kits.  Under schemes called things like CLASP (‘Consortium of Local Authorities Special Programme’) and SCOLA, different local authorities around the country would manufacture a particular component of the whole building. One authority did windows, another did roofs and so on, so the buildings were put together from generic components and effectively looked identical, wherever they were in the UK. And of course they attracted their share of the criticism directed later at architectural modernism. Some wags reinterpreted ‘ CLASP’ as ‘collection of loosely assembled steel parts’…

RW: Fantastic! ‘CLASP’ sounds like something straight from the world of School of Change. And those interiors really are unflaggingly familiar, aren’t they? The hexagonal laminate tables, and the parquet floor in the gym that would be slathered with a layer of treacly varnish once a year, during the summer holidays.

LC: It’s also important that a lot of the film’s sound effects and parts of the score, especially the percussion tracks, are taken from field recordings within the school building.

JT: You spent hours going around with a recorder, banging on things! I think Leo banged on pretty much everything in the school.

LC: The school was percussed! But some of the stranger, more science-fiction-y sounds are actually quite banal school objects. The industrial dishwashers, for example. Although they aren’t really noticeable in the film, there are quite a few interesting aural ‘mismatches’ in the soundtrack. The Van der Graaf generator. Oxygen bottles…

JT: Because we were recording and filming during the summer holidays, we had access to all areas, just to play. We went running around the classrooms pulling out all kinds of weird things. A recording I used loads was the sound of a rubber gym crash mat being dragged along the floor. It’s a bizarre sound. The Van der Graaf generator made a beautiful noise.

LC: A very clear bell-like sound. You hear that at the start of the song ‘We are Happy that there is Change’. It comes up a lot. So from a musical point of view the soundtrack is like the dialogue and the visuals. They are all ‘in world’; they have an internal consistency. The instrumental music is made using variations of the song material, for instance.

RW: Leo, you’ve worked on a wide variety of different musical projects to date, and I wondered how School of Change compares to the others?

LC: The 2009 video project I did with Richard Grayson, The Golden Space City of God, is probably the closest comparison, simply because the score was for an installed video work. However the actual working process was significantly different. Richard’s piece had a lot of text to be set to music. Once the written score was finished off it went, and it came back from Texas performed and recorded. So I wasn’t involved with the performance of the score. Generally, School of Change hasn’t involved composing to the actual screen picture. Rather, Jennet and I have spent months exchanging palettes of sound, and revising things in quite a lot of detail to achieve very specific moods and atmospheres. The film’s visuals are a kind of collage of different genres and the music follows suit.

JT: Yes, it’s been a complex dialogue, and great fun. I was very pleased that Leo wanted to work with ‘found sounds’ from the school because that chimed with my philosophy of making. The audience doesn’t need to know where the sounds came from, but nevertheless the underlying creative logic is important, and it does seem to have an effect.

LC: I think that is a musician’s way of thinking – you lend the work coherence by employing a structure, even if you know the structure won’t be heard.

JT:  But you also find it in the work of Raymond Roussel, for example. I’m a big fan of Roussel’s Locus Solus: crazy extrapolations from ideas of technology, drawn with an obsessive, weird detail and leading to such a rich, strange literature. You get a sense of an internal logic that’s very strong. You don’t know what it is, but you can feel that something’s there.

RW: Or there is Lewis Carroll. School of Change’s plot is very reminiscent of Through the Looking Glass, with Catherine Thomas in the Alice role. Your old school even conveniently supplied you with a chessboard floor! But there is also the ‘abstract play’ you talked about earlier – the fun with systems and numbers and symmetries. The logics of the everyday get reversed, or at least muddled up. Attending school seems to be a kind of work, but schoolwork also seems indistinguishable from play.

Lewis Carroll’s day job was as a mathematician and a logician, and there is now an extensive literature about Alice’s complicated, specialist allusions to logic and maths. Jennet, you are an artist, not a scientist, and you’ve underlined that School of Change is not an exercise in futurology. Nevertheless I know you are a keen reader on science subjects. How does that inform the piece?

JT: At the level of mood, Alice is certainly a good comparison. And you’re right, I am very interested in science and technology. I’m a big New Scientist reader, although I’m no specialist; I have very much a layperson’s understanding of the complex stuff it discusses. I think my interest in science is two-fold. Firstly, it’s in the ways that technology is affecting human behavior and relationships, the mobile phone being the obvious example. I’m concerned by new technologies’ intrusiveness in relation to human interactions: for example, the fact that the things we do and see are becoming more and more ‘taggable’. The length of time we look at particular adverts gets measured, for example. There will be increasing incentives for businesses and governments to track and record what people look at, and for how long. Potentially people will be persuaded to wear devices in contact lenses that precisely log their activity, and they’ll get some kind of reward points for this ‘work’. There are already Facebook currencies based on how, and how much, you interact with the site. I find this expanding monitoring and monetizing of everyday behaviour both interesting and worrying.

At another level I’m fascinated by the extraordinary paradoxes and counter-intuitive propositions of current physics. In the New Scientist you find explanation after explanation of why most physicists believe we live in a multi-dimensional universe, for instance. Or there’s the phenomenon of quantum entanglement: so-called ‘spooky action at a distance’. Two particles (not necessarily sub-atomic particles, they could be as large as tiny diamonds) can be set spinning together at a quantum level, in a way that establishes a relationship between them, and however far away you separate them – even taking one the other side of the planet, say – they will somehow echo one another’s behavior at a speed faster than the speed of light. Entanglement challenges every aspect of everyday causal logic but it isn’t just a wild fantasy in theoretical physics, it’s a phenomenon that’s being put to practical use in encryption right now.

So contemporary science is effectively operating in a completely different kind of reality from the world of the layperson. There’s an extreme incomprehensibility in it that goes way beyond absurdity, and I’m also trying to introduce some sense of that into this work. If School of Change is ‘absurdist’, it’s not about the old kind of twentieth-century, Beckett-type existentialist absurdism. I still love the literature of absurdism; I find it very resonant, but that’s not what I’m doing. I’m interested in exploring what it feels like not to know where technologies are heading. Two hundred years ago nobody was able to predict how we are living now; the future technologies of two hundred years from now equally seem imponderable, and I find that very exciting.

RW: If the human race makes it that far.

JT: O.K.! But that gap in our knowledge of where we are going, I find it wild and wonderful.


Leo Chadburn is a composer who has written music for stage, art gallery and concert hall contexts. Under the pseudonym Simon Bookish he has released three albums of experimental pop and electronic music, and prepared remixes for solo musicians and bands including Grizzly Bear, Owen Pallett and Franz Ferdinand. In 2008-9 he collaborated with Matt’s Gallery artist Richard Grayson on the video installation The Golden Space City of God. He is currently at work on a new piece for the London Symphony Orchestra.

Jennet Thomas is a maker of films, performances and installations and a senior lecturer at Wimbledon College of Art. A co-founder of the Exploding Cinema Collective, her work has featured at film festivals in Rotterdam, Oberhausen, New York and elsewhere. Recent exhibitions include solo shows at Outpost, Norwich, and Peer, London. School of Change is her second solo exhibition at Matt’s Gallery.


Text © Leo Chadburn, Jennet Thomas and Rachel Withers, 2012. Images © Jennet Thomas.