The ability to critically engage with messages flying around the internet is a major challenge for everyone in modern society, including young people. For one student, it started with adding a fart bubble to a photograph of the prime minister.

That artwork was a recent creation from the Never Gallery Ready projectwhich since 2006 has encouraged Toronto area youth to use paper collage, digital art, animation and augmented reality to engage in civic discourse and challenge the world as they find it.

“They’ve changed the way that the message is read by changing one element of it, and so that helps them understand the process of how meaning is constructed,” explained Karen Darricades, founder and artistic director of the non-profit, which was recognized with the Toronto Arts Foundation’s Arts for Youth Award last week.

While teachers often want students to learn to navigate established classification systems such as the Dewey library system, Darricades argues that the internet and how it operates are much more relevant.

That means understanding how hashtags, metadata and search engines work and “what information is free, what is archived in machines, and how to access those things and how to know how something got to page one and what kind of critical thinking we should be bringing.” to the information that finds us and the information that we find,” she said.

Collage concepts and culture jamming are key to Darricades’ work since they require no technical artistic skill that could discourage participation.

Like memes and the cultural currency of the internet in general, she says the thousands of pieces of work young people have made over the lifetime of the project often directly juxtapose the silly and serious — with purpose.

“Let’s start interacting with the things we see around us and asking questions of it,” she said. “Like what does it mean, and who says so, and how can we all know that it means that, and how can we change it, and what would we like it to mean? And where is it — is it a massive billboard outside my housing and I have no choice but to see it? And how do all these things relate to power and to politics and all that?”

Ecological issues feature in some of the young people’s art, such as Tell The Children The Truth. Photo supplied by Karen Darricades

Those questions, which she has been posing to young people consistently for the past 15 years, become increasingly relevant as social media morphs into an increasingly complex and disconnected universe of opinions separated from each other by mediated feeds.

The found images young people turn into art as part of @NeverGalReady help them understand how messages are created and hold power, and how to critically engage with them

Sites such as Twitter and Facebook, once championed as aides to the early 2010s Arab Spring of protests against authoritarianism, have since been blamed for spreading false or misleading information that shaped public opinion in the 2016 British referendum in which citizens voted to leave the European Union , the election of Donald Trump as US president later that year, and the emergence of the QAnon conspiracy theory in the United States.

While baby boomers are the age demographic most likely to share fake news, Darricades says it is never too early to instill media literacy.

“The sooner we can get it started the better,” she said, noting the importance of social belonging in the teenage years. Developing critical thinking is “connected to their ability to have safe space and just understand all the things that are happening in their world,” she said.

In one of the workshops she runs for young people, they will take her on a storytelling tour of the school or community.

“We stop at certain places where they’ll say, ‘I witnessed violence here’ or ‘I made my best friend here’ or ‘This is where everyone hides out and passes notes,’” she said, laughing about the amount of time they spend in washrooms, the only place where they are not surveilled by adults.

One young participant’s contribution to the Never Gallery Ready project called Enjoy Your Life as a Lady. Photo supplied by Karen Darricades
Darricades, who has until recently styled her name as Karen Darricades in a nod to the late feminist academic bell hooks, is shifting somewhat as she turns the long-running Never Gallery Ready concept into a for-profit social enterprise.

Her young company, Lit Kit, is developing digital media maker kits, which will help teenagers create and engage with GIFs, memes, emojis, algorithms and deepfakes. Darricades hopes to have these media education/entertainment experiences in a box ready for action next year.

Shh! is another of the more serious pieces produced by a young Never Gallery Ready participant. Photo supplied by Karen Darricades

She said that while technology will increasingly disrupt our lives and livelihoods, the values ​​imbibed by the arts offer respite and a way for humans to remain relevant.

“The robots don’t do divergent thinking and compassion, and they are coming for a lot of our workflows and workforces,” she said. “So our stock is going up as humans if we lean into the parts of us that do inter- and anti- and multidisciplinary, divergent thinking, compassion, humor, play, all of these things the robot can’t do.

“So if we focus on those pieces, we might have a chance, I guess,” she laughed.

Morgan Sharp / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

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