Follow-up to What is Umwelt?

(It’s now a project-based art lesson with a name!)

On April 27, 2020, I wrote about the special hold the word umwelt has had on me since 8th grade. Umwelt comes from German and essentially translates to how one experiences a situation from where one stands. I learned the word from my art and social studies teachers while completing a project-based assignment that I never had a name for other than my umwelt art.

Enter Tim Needles, a Twitter connection (is there a term for someone one only knows from Twitter? A Tweet-pal?). Tim is an artist, art teacher and author of the book titled, Steam Power: Infusing Art Into Your STEM Curriculum. Tim wrote: It sounds like you’re talking about an agamograph?

Agamograph. It sounded like a procedure conducted in a radiology suite. But no, that was it! That’s what I had made! After a Google search, I found the artist who created the technique, Yaacov Agam, a 91-year old Israeli-born artist who now lives in my very favorite city, Paris. The art teacher who taught me this technique, Reginald Adams, is now 95-years old. So, they were contemporaries. I might just call Mr. Adams to see if he remembers this project!

Agam was well known for what was called kinetic art, Op Art–art which contained movement or art that changes with the participation of the onlooker. So here is what and agamograph looks like:

As I noted in my earlier piece, the agamographs we made in 8th grade were designed to teach us the concept of umwelt. When one stood to the left of the art piece, one saw picture A. When one stood to the right of the piece; only picture B appeared. Looking straight on, one saw a third picture which was the result of A and B coming together. It was a powerful lesson on how three people could look at the same image and see three different pictures.

Here’s a quick YouTube video which highlights the effect.

So many lessons can come from the construction of an agamograph. In my last blog post I talked about how I used the concept of umwelt when teaching journalism. But the concept can clearly dovetail into other academic areas. A student could demonstrate the understanding of classics like the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; or, The Picture of Dorian Grey. Any lesson where one wants to teach a dichotomy.

In my journalism class, I use umwelt to drive home that a group of reporters can all be at the same event, but not report the event in the same way. One example I used was the coverage of the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. Only one camera continued to roll while shots were being fired; ABC News cameraman Hank Brown stood firm and got the video no other network has. Lots of variables can impact news coverage.

I could see umwelt and agamograph combined for a social emotional lesson, especially for children newly arrived to a country. My daughter was born in China. When we started homeschooling, the first six months of our journey began with the question: What does it mean to be from two countries? I wish I had thought about a agamograph. She could have made one picture of her Chinese self and one picture of her naturalized American self. Using the agamograph, she might have quickly seen that the middle picture was her true self–a person infused from two worlds.

For younger students, how about agamographs of seed and flower? Cocoon and butterfly? For a local history project, a student might find a picture of an old location and then take a picture of what the location looks like today, and create an agamograph.

Agamograph instructions abound on YouTube. There are very simple ways to make one; and there are the more complex instructions for larger pieces.

Finally, know that maybe someday, fifty years down the road, one of your students will be writing about one of your lessons which made a profound impact on their life. I’m going to call Mr. Adams tonight!

image of art teacher next to artwork
Reginald Adams, retired Jamesville-Dewitt Art Teacher (2012)

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