New post on Tim Rollins & K.O.S by Johnny Gailey at Artworks Scotland


In August 2012, Tim Rollins and KOS arrived in Edinburgh in advance of the opening of their exhibition, The Black Spot, at the Talbot Rice Gallery. Artworks Scotland organised a day’s seminar for practicing artists and educators, which sought to explore   ‘what was there to learn from Tim’s long practice?’  By gathering written responses of the seminar from five practicing artists and educators, we have sought to collate multiple responses that may be of transference to other educators working in the field:

The following are some ten thoughts, responding to the artists’ reviews, of what artists’ might take from Tim Rollins’ practice.

 1. Charisma

There is no doubt that Tim has presence.  Attendees talked of being ‘intoxicated’ by Tim’s presentation, and by his style of presentation.  Holding a room, being confident, being a performer is allied to belief, and indeed self-belief.  Rollins has assurance – he knew what he was doing in the present, without having to know where he was going in the future

 2. Cultural Improvisation 

 The difference between improvisation and innovation then, is not that the one works within established convention while the other breaks with it, but that the former characterizes creativity by way of its processes, the latter by the way of its products.  To read creativity as innovation is, if you will, to read it backwards, in terms of its results, instead of forwards, in terms of the movements that gave rise to them.  This backwards reading, symptomatic of modernity, finds in creativity a power not so much of adjustment and response to the conditions of a world-in-formation as of liberation from the constraints of the world already made.[1]

There was some concern about the methodology developed and used by Rollins over the last thirty years.  Had this process exhausted itself?  As Tim Ingold notes in the introduction to his book, Creativity and Cultural Improvisation there is a trap to thinking of creativity as essentially the production of something novel.  Real creativity is the way we adapt to the world according to multiple factors.  We can approach the same task on a given day, and just two days later, same task, end up on completely different trajectory.  The educator should be open and flexible.

 3. A framework

Rollins developed a framework (reading an excerpt from a book, and drawing on the imaginative responses) that provides stability and focus for participants to understand and locate themselves, whilst allowing for the group to build towards something greater than the sum of its parts.  This creates a collective work that is just not possible from just one person, indeed it retains it’s very power due to its’ collective authorship.

 4. Collaboration versus participation

How much are the Kids of Survival determining the direction of the creative endeavour? Are they composing or are they interpreting?  Rather than aligning ourselves in a binary fashion, as to which is right and which is wrong, I’d suggest we observe the process.

 5. Quality versus equality

Can quality and equality co-exist?  I would suggest that one is always sacrificed at the altar of the other.  Unfortunately, given the material bias of the world of the arts where things are judged (according to certain values) by their outcomes or products, quality is often placed above equality.

If we wish to encourage more people to get involved in creating artwork, then we have to accept that it will therefore change what the artwork looks like.

And if we wish to create “a democracy of making”, then we must accept “a democracy of looking’, where we acknowledge and value less-prescribed versions of what constitutes artwork.    We must prioritize equality over quality.

 6. Commitment and patience

The story of Tim Rollins and KOS shows an incredible patience and commitment to the kids, to the process, to the project, to the vision.  There is an understanding that deep engagement will lead somewhere, and that the production of artwork is the driver to that deep engagement.

And yet this investment is neither sacrifice not selflessness – Rollins is not there as a do-gooder, as a missionary but as someone on is on a mission, who believes that this is worth something.  The roots of this mission are there in the work of Group Material, who sought to place the primary of the work, of visual culture above the institutional presentation of it.  Whilst the work with KOS was at first separate from his own artistic practice, by 1986 it had become his practice.

 7. Potential and discipline

Rollins work comes from a deep-rooted belief in potential and discipline.  In his best work, he asks his charges to achieve the impossible, (‘today you’re going to make the best drawing you’ve ever done’) thereby rendering it possible.  Ask becomes task.  He creates hunger and reward.  By not asking someone to reproduce something already existing, but instead drawing on the innate creative power of the imagination, he is insisting on what Walker Percy would have as the “sovereign right” of someone to experience something first-hand.

 8. The context

In order for the work to take off, and match his ambitions for it,  Rollins’  had to get the group out of the classroom, which unwittingly constrained the work, and into a studio.  Walker Percy, in his 1954 essay, The Loss of the Creature, writes

A young Falkland Islander walking along a beach and spying a dead dogfish and going to work on it with his jackknife has, in a fashion wholly unprovided in modern educational theory, a great advantage over the Scarsdale high-school pupil who finds the dogfish on his laboratory desk. Similarly the citizen of Huxley’s Brave New World who stumbles across a volume of Shakespeare in some vine-grown ruins and squats on a potsherd to read it is in a fairer way of getting at a sonnet than the Harvard sophomore taking English Poetry II.

 The educator whose business it is to teach students biology or poetry is unaware of a whole ensemble of relations which exist between the student and the dogfish and between the student and the Shakespeare sonnet.

 To put it bluntly: A student who has the desire to get at a dogfish or a Shakespeare sonnet may have the greatest difficulty in salvaging the creature itself from the educational package in which it is presented. The great difficulty is that he is not aware that there is a difficulty; surely, he thinks, in such a fine classroom, with such a fine textbook, the sonnet must come across! What’s wrong with me?[2]

By escaping the classroom, the kids escaped that crushing self-doubt, that undermining of their own potential by the context of the ‘educational package’, which comes between the learner and the thing.   The group were free to follow (and set) their own course.

 9. Creating community

When Tim Rollins first arrived in the South Bronx, he spoke of his feelings of estrangement, of alienation, of being a Southern white boy in a black ghetto.  He overcame this, not being trying to assimilate himself to a broader notion of community, but by creating a new community.

The early work of KOS uses the visual language of the South Bronx – broken bricks, graffiti and cartooning – all appropriated as the work sought to reflect the community from which it sprang.  But once he committed to this new community, once he took it outside of the school, once it became part of his artistic project, and not separate, once it became a shared endeavour, once it set its own course – the project became less about reflecting community and more about creating community.  By creating a community, the kids were allowed agency in the determination of that community.

10. Praxis

In Russia, The Tuve people describe the past as being ahead of them, and the future behind them.[3] In other words, the past is laid out before us to see, whilst we step backwards into the unknown future.

Rollins talks of the ‘paralysis of analysis’ that, for him, dogged Group Material – the frustrations of people sitting around discussing things which do not change the unknown future.  That requires action, albeit aligned to reflection.   Only by doing something will you test the theory in its real life application.  Only by doing something can you be progressive. Only by doing something can you be constructive. Only by doing something can you be creative.

The ten preceding thoughts are, of course, not intended to be a prescriptive checklist of how to be an effective educator.  Tim Rollins is unique in who he is and what he has achieved.  Perhaps the main lesson to learn from Rollins, and indeed the sole check of being an effective educator is being true to yourself… As Ralph Waldo Emerson, a writer Rollins greatly admired as a young man, would have it…

 There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried…

 Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string[4]

[1] ‘Creativity and Cultural Improvisation’, edited by Elizabeth Hallam and Tim Ingold, p3, (Berg, New York, 2007)

[2] ‘The Loss of the Creature’, in “The Message in the Bottle” pps. 46 – 63, Walker Percy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1977)

[3] In the Tuvan language, the word for the ‘future’ (songgaar) means to ‘go back’, whilst the word for the past ( burungaar) means ‘to go forward’. ‘Lost Languages’ by Russ Rymer pps. 60 – 93, National Geographic, Vol 222, No.1 July 2012.

[4] ‘Self-Reliance’ Ralph Waldo Emerson (Connecticut, 1841)- see


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