Teaching with Contemporary Art

Look at This! (Films to Watch with the Sound Off)

April 10, 2023
Azikiwe Mohammed wearing a floral patterned shirt, standing in a purple room with yellow beams, with red support poles, looking up at a black ceiling with neon clouds on the ceiling.

IMAGE: Production still from the Art21 New York Close Up film, “Azikiwe Mohammed is a Guy Who Makes Stuff.” © Art21, Inc. 2022.

Years ago, in a conversation with one of Art21’s founders, Susan Sollins, I made the suggestion that teachers could utilize some of Art21’s films by showing them with the sound off, or by simply playing the audio with the picture turned off. 

I have come to believe that there is great potential in using Art21 films much like an elementary school teacher might share a picture book — asking students along the way to predict what will happen next based on what they’re seeing, or to make inferences based on the way images are telling the story. 

In the first of two new playlists, I’d like to revisit this idea of utilizing Art21 films in a different way: to ask a few key questions and then watch the film with the sound off, asking students to predict what the artist might be saying about certain works before going back and watching the film with the sound on. Art21 advocates for active viewing of all films when used in educational settings and this allows for a different kind of active viewing. By watching the films without audio as a guided exercise, students get the opportunity to look into the images being shown and make their own predictions and interpretations before the artist steps in and talks about them in their own words.

A profile shot of Tommy Kha wearing a batman mask and garbage bag over his clothes, looking through a camera.

IMAGE: Tommy Kha in his childhood backyard in Memphis, 2021. Production still from the Art21 “New York Close Up” film, “Tommy Kha’s Bits & Pieces.” © Art21, Inc. 2022.

Give it a try! Here’s a small selection below of our Extended Play and New York Close Up films that you can share with your students. All films are less than 10 minutes and can easily watch part of the film if you want to focus on a smaller portion of the film. The first time through, simply play the video with the sound off. Then, while students are watching, ask them to think about these key questions:

  • Based on what you’re seeing, how might this artist describe their work?
  • As you watch the film, what kinds of stories might the artist be sharing about the work? What might this work be about, and why do you think so?

After the first viewing, go back and play the film again with the sound on. As students watch the film a second time, ask them to reflect on what they’re learning:

  • How does the way the artist describes their work compare with your initial impressions? 
  • What kinds of things did you learn through the stories being told in the film? How are these stories similar to, or different from, what you imagined when watching the first time?

Here are a few films to get you started, but feel free to try this strategy with any Art21 film, or even a segment of a film. And remember to preview all films before sharing them with your students.

Watch Joe’s playlist, “Look at This! (Films to Watch with the Sound Off)”

EXTRA CREDIT: Do you have an idea for another Art21 film that may work well with this strategy? Email me at [email protected]; I would love to hear your suggestions!

Joe Fusaro is the Education Advisor at Art21. He is an exhibiting artist, educator, and director of the Teacher Center for the Nyack Public Schools in New York. He served as the visual arts chair for Nyack from 2003-2022, and prior to his work there he was an art educator and staff developer for the New York City Schools from 1990-2003. Fusaro is a member of the adjunct faculty at New York University’s Graduate Program in Art and Arts Professions and has led staff development workshops in contemporary art education for schools and museums across the country including MASS MoCA, the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Seattle Art Museum, Massachusetts College of Art and Design and the National Art Education Association.