The first time I met Aay, he was was giving a presentation at Version Fest in 2007. Aay, Ilana Percher and Rebecca Grady had just returned from Art Shanty Projects on Medicine Lake, where they installed a soft shanty/sculpture called The Soft Shop. They reinstalled this portable, cloth shanty in the Version’s basement, (where all the other art booths stood) and talked about their residency, hosting some of the same fiber workshops they had hosted in its original location in Minnesota. Since that first encounter I have benefited from Aay’s collaborative work in multiple ways. I have been to Chances to dance-dance-dance, a short story of mine was published in an on-line magazine he organizes called Monsters & Dust. I went to No Coast and convinced Aay to make some covers for the Green Lantern Press. I point this out because his work has impacted a wide audience of which I am a part. He creates public, collaborative platforms while producing a concise, independent body of work. Despite having appreciated his work for so long, I have never taken the opportunity to ask him about how these projects relate to one another, and even how he thinks about his own practice. To me, this interview is suited to the beginning of summer. It’s hot outside, the Critical Fierceness Grant is open again (until June 30th) for grant proposals, many artists and faculty alike are facing a new open schedule, and it’s good to remember the alchemical mixture in aesthetics, politics, the body and imagination.
Caroline Picard: You’ve been in Chicago for a number of years and have continued to work with different organizations—I was thinking as far back as Diamonds/Texas Ballroom for instance, No Coast of course and many others—I was wondering if you could talk about your participation in those different organizations; how your role has varied? Do you feel like your participation in different communal structures has impacted your visual work?
Aay Preston-Myint: Well, Diamonds and Texas were two iterations/sections of the same artists collective in warehouse space in Bridgeport, back in the day. We all did our share of programming and running events, mostly art shows and music, and let’s not forget parties. No Coast was a similar collective/consensus structure but centered around the concept and physical space of a bookstore, shared studio space, in addition to an open community workshop. When I look at these and other organizations I’ve been involved with (the online curatorial project Monsters and Dust, the experimental cultural center Mess Hall, and the microgrant/queer dance party called Chances), the difference is not so much in work or ‘roles,’ but the content of each project itself. These are ventures that have all been run by consensus to serve a specific audience or community. As such, roles can shift depending on interest, ability, and the needs of our contingents. I think the impact on my own work has been that I have a desire to engage, entertain, and encourage dialogue through my practice. I enjoy using color, a richness in materials, humor, mystery/seduction, and participation to engage the viewer. Creating a gravitational pull, drawing people into an active space — that’s what all the organizations I work with have done.
CP: Do you categorize different aspects of your art practice?
APM: In a way those divisions (solo work, collaborations, and design/commissions) are often a matter of convenience — an easy way of categorizing, but the nature of the work is different too. I think my solo work has more of a clear narrative, using conceptual, material, and stylistic threads that weave in and out of the work. Collaborations of course deal with similar concepts and interests. However that work tends to take on forms, processes, or issues that I don’t always deal with on my own because of the influence of my partners — each collaboration tends to stand apart. The design work, while perhaps more aesthetically my own, is a whole other beast, often because it’s not used in an art context, and also because the content is decided by the client and maybe even pushed to the background. I think each category exhibits a different kind of development over time, and it can be interesting to compare how they are disparate but also influence one another. From the subject matter of my solo work, to the clients I choose to design for: there are connections that become apparent when you zoom out.
CP: Will you talk a little bit about your relationship to materials?
APM: Responding to materials have always been a key part of my work. For a while when I drew it was almost like I had an issue with attention span; I needed something to respond or anchor myself to, a fabric, wallpaper, a photograph — I disliked drawing on a blank surfaces. Now it’s more about responding to the social, historical, or affective associations with an object or material — rope, a flag, hair, light, even scent. I think in a body of work like mine — which is so about embodiment — the choice of materials is really key when interpreting form.
CP: I’m also really curious about your Hybrid Moments Project—can you talk about that a little?
APM: Hmm, yes — as you can tell from the text banner series that I made a couple years ago, I like to use pop songs as titles and content sometimes. After I made the first series of screen prints, Hybrid Moments seemed to be the right phrase to contain my work at the time — I think of the title more as a container than the name of a single “project.” I think it still works for the prints and maybe some of the discrete/smaller sculptures, but not so much for the larger sculptures anymore. But in general, it’s the body of work I’m engaged with now. The works make propositions of what mutating, unpredictable forms that community, identity, and the environment—both built and natural — may take on in an unspecified future moment — all through the lens of a critical queerness.
CP: Do you have a static, projected future point that your work is speaking to? Or does that future-vision shift, depending on what your working on?
APM: The future I depict is definitely mutable and unpredictable, that’s kind of the crux of my whole viewpoint. I think part of the criticality of my work is that our projections of the future never match up to what we imagine — I use mutation as a metaphor or allegory for that unpredictability. As soon as one struggle is overcome, new power relations form in place of old ones. Often abuses and rivalries emerge instead of coalitions. The future I imagine is always out of reach.
CP: It makes me want to ask the same question about your lens. Is your lens of critical queerness also static? Do you apply that lens to the present as well? Or is it solely intended as a future-looking tool?
APM: Going off my last answer, the lens definitely applies to the present. Our current struggles are direct results of what we desire or imagine our future to be. I think the It Gets Worse series points to those connections/disconnections. Is marriage a queer issue? Or are supermax prisons and police states a queer issue? Both? Is one more urgent than the other? Why? The national discourse is really far behind with regard to what’s actually being said, thought, and done in queer communities across class, race, and trans/gender lines. How can we make the definition of queer issues — and following that, queer identity — more fluid and open in order to more successfully meet the challenges of the future?
CP: And your SMILE series too—that struck me, partly, because of the element of performance required. I was thinking about it because in Hybrid Moments you seem to be interested in gestures and the significance of those gestures, but then in that instance (am I right?) the resulting work is divorced from living people….
APM: That’s a great question because I think over time those two projects have influenced each other in ways I hadn’t anticipated and, at least in my mind, they aren’t differentiated anymore. The first iteration of SMILE was, I think, the first iteration of my continuing and relatively “mature” body of work. However at that time it was still lacking a specific goal or agenda in terms of content, despite having established the visual style and material concerns. I started Hybrid Moments soon after this, and through those works I began to lock down the kinds of gestures, characters, and ideas I am interested in. Queerness, futurity, power relations, color theory/theories, toxicity and mutation to name a few. So when I did SMILE a second time (at SFCamerawork in September 2010), it became folded into what had become my practice. Some objects that were previously presented as sculptures became props for SMILE — because all these works now inhabited the same world. I was delighted to see some of the situations in my drawings accidentally re-enacted in performance, and in turn, I’ve used the gestures and actions performed in SMILE to create new drawings (e.g. “Totem Ascending”, which was included in this year’s threewalls CSA). The SMILE performances have also helped me to rethink the concepts of figure, site, and the object/viewer relationship in my sculptural work.
CP: Can you talk more about how you experienced your practice coalescing? It’s interesting to me, because it sounds so evident to your process — like the way you differentiate a “mature” body of work and then that you talk about figuring out your material/styalistic concerns before realizing the ideas you were honing in on…like, how did you discover queerness, futurity, power relations, color theory/theories, toxicity and mutation as a central series of threads?
APM: For me, this happens in two ways. I think the first was the development of a certain intuition, in conjunction with a recognizable imprint or style. When I work, I start with a specific idea, and I gather the materials I need to make the object real, but at a certain point in the execution it seems almost like alchemy, like spinning a solid substance out of air. The work begins to outpace my thought, which is a good thing. After a while, you make enough things and you can kind of sit back and look at what makes them all tick. Almost everything I was making had some connection with the body or a body-to-be (figure-based drawings, costumes, stages/arenas), and it made sense to go from there. Futurity and mutation — bodies as agents of change, and subject to change. Power relations —‚ how our physical bodies place us in a hierarchy arranged around gender, color, etc. Queerness — an embodiment of difference or otherness. There comes this juncture, this arrival, where you are able to say, this is it, this is what I’m talking about.
The second part has to do with the research elements of my practice — looking, reading, writing. As I was working on my written thesis I was isolating these core concepts (embodiment, utopia, queerness, etc). The commonalities between the different works I make, and the works of others that I am influenced by. I started making lists, thought maps, and diagrams which would explode these concepts and then bring them back together in different configurations. With the encouragement of friends and teachers, these sketches and diagrams eventually became works in their own right.
CP: Do you draw a connection between power relations and color theory? Like how certain colors will dominate others; there is an inborn, albeit relative hierarchy. Is your list of conceptual concerns similarly linked? Or do you see that list as a body of distinct, non-relating concepts?
APM: Oh yes, there is definitely a connection. However, in my research I don’t talk so much about the optical domination of one color over the other, as much as looking at the social constructs and hierarchies around color. I’m interested in how colors carry associations with certain emotions, objects, situations, and even social and political movements and attitudes. I’ve been especially invested in mixed colors, day-glo colors, and pastel colors — my written thesis was titled “Who’s Afraid of Pink, Purple and Brown?” in contrast to Barnett Newman’s “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue?” I’ve done an artist talk solely on the color pink. It’s a pretty amazing color, not enough people take it seriously. Transgression, difference, queerness, sex, repulsion, obsession, fantasy….it’s all there in that one color.
APM: I think that grad school has been really invaluable to my process….until now I’ve never been able to totally commit myself to developing an artistic stance or worldview, and turn that into a cohesive body of work over time. I can really reflect on how one piece relates to the next, and engage in intense and productive critique from myself and others at a level previously unreached. As hinted at above, I’ve also been able to take advantage of scale and material in a way I hadn’t had the time or financial backing to do before. I’ve been really fortunate to attend a program (UIC) that fosters community, improvisation, self-critique, and collaboration, due to its size, and in particular, the awesomeness and warmth of my cohort. In that way, it really hasn’t been too much different than my DIY experiences. I think my class in particular has truly been like family.
CP: What are you working on right now?
APM: Interesting that you say that — well, the fact is, I’ve just graduated and am looking forward to a lot of travel this summer, and not really sure what kind of work awaits in the fall (residency? teaching? design? working at a bar? these are all options). This means that for the time being, I’m not going to have the large scale modes of production, storage, and display available to me during graduate school — so I unfortunately might have to put the brakes on the large sculptural work for now. It’s strange how time, place, and life situations can have as much, if not more, impact on the work you do as your own concept/process. That said, I’m focusing on prints, drawings and the web at the moment — things I can do at home and at my shared studio at Roxaboxen in Pilsen. Mostly developing the imagery in the Hybrid Moments prints and the It Gets Worse Series — my long-time No Coast collaborator Alex Valentine and I will be taking these and other print/book projects to the Tokyo Art Book fair in July. Also, I can finally put my nose to the grindstone on Monsters and Dust — which you yourself have also made an awesome contribution to. Our next issue is way overdue. But as soon as I get enough space I think I’d like to start working on a “living vomitorium” idea that has been at the back of my head for a while.
CP: How do you determine if a show with your work is successful?
APM: I guess there are a few ways. Of course people might just like the whole thing, which feels great, but I’m often excited when people respond to the work that I’ve had the most doubts about, or the piece that I almost didn’t include. It reminds me to continue thinking outside of myself and to trust other people’s input. If the work motivates people to ask challenging questions rather than just congratulate, that’s great too. I also think a work is successful when people ask funny questions or give things names – “Is that a gloryhole?” or “I like this hair donut,” or “This one is the great birth mother, right?” or “What’s that smell?”
You can see more of Aay’s work by visiting his website.
I have been both in classes and casual conversations where “Artist-as-entrepreneur” is raised as an explanation or model for behavior. It feels like a fashionable phrase. Its sounds nice, exciting even, in that million-dollar-idea kind of way. It suggests an inherent value in artistic merit: like a gold mine, if you just figure out how to tap that vein and harvest its treasures, the world will pay top dollar for your whims of fancy. It implies a level of control; your creativity is like a racehorse, and something to leverage in a competitive environment.
The phrase bothers me. When it comes up, it feels like it’s been taken for granted as a truth, as compelling today as “inner child” was in the 90s. What’s interesting, however, is examining what the term implies about the artist’s relationship to his or her work and its place the world. In Mark Fisher’s book,Capitalist Realism he suggests it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. “The power of capitalist realism derives in part from the way that capitalism subsumes and consumes all of previous history: one effect of its ‘system of equivalence’ which can assign all cultural objects, whether they are religious, iconography, pornography or Das Kapital, a monetary value…Capitalism is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration, and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics” (Capitalist Realism, Zero Books, 2009). By calling ourselves entrepreneurs we resign whatever resistance (or even, more bleakly idea of resistence) we might pose via ideology. We internalize the expectations of entrepreneurship, welcoming them into our studios as a means to thereby measure success and failure. Even the artist must justify him or herself according the terminology prescribed by capital. It is this latter point that I find most dangerous, precisely because of how difficult it is to shed those values once they have been adopted.
Jean Baptiste-Say coined the entrepreneur in the 1700s. He suggests “the entrepreneur shifts economic resources out of lower and into higher productivity and greater yield.” The artist therefore becomes an intermediary between the lower work (the labor of making), who make that process more efficient and brings it to a public. The goal is a yield, what can translate into revenue or cultual capital. Under this light, the goal is not the work itself, but the yield to be gained.
It’s worth pointing that, based on that criteria, artists are inherent failures. We are terrible entrepreneurs. Assess the cost of a single work you make. Tally up the number of hours it took, the cost of supplies and then compare that with your prospective price point (if there is one). Consider the percentage you have to give up, if you are represented by a gallery: art making is a fool’s errand. The yield is very very low. While that might be different for those at the top of the ladder, they are nevertheless exceptions with a tenuous hold on their economic standing. There are very very few among us who look anything like Gorden Gekko.
I don’t deny the useful application of business strategy. There are daily issues of sustainability—how does one feed oneself, pay rent, and even disseminate ones work? There is much to be gained from businesses strategies, both on operational and administrative levels. However, I distrust unreflective applications of terminology. Rather than legitimize one’s cultural contribution through ready-made titles, I would like to discuss new terms by which to articulate the artist’s position. Terms reflective of the awkwardness in our easily marginalized but, I would argue, essential civic participation. We could just as easily call ourselves spirit hunters or visual philosophers: what happens to the expectations we have of ourselves under other labels? At the very least could we find terminology that reflects the holisitic relationship between the work itself, the process of making, its modes of dissemination and use-value.
A few days ago I paid a visit to Deborah Boardman’s studio. Having made my way up to Rogers Park, I walked down a side street into a neighborhood that brimmed with pre-summer activity; lawn mowers and birds both seemed endlessly active and I thought about how we’d all emerged for an after-winter stretch before the heat set in. On this street lies Boardman’s house. At the front door I was greeted first by two dogs and then the painter. We climbed up the stairs to her studio on the third floor. Windows on all sides. Leafy, green trees billowed around us where they caught the wind and it was impossible to see the street below. I felt like I was in a green cloud. Boardman has been painting in this room for the last 15 years: a light-addled attic with one, tallest wall where she paints. Other walls are either interrupted by windows or fall at angles defined by the peaked roof. The floor is wooden, spattered with paint. There is a sink in one corner of the room and everything smells vaguely like turpentine. What struck me immediately was the way the light in Boardman’s paintings matched the light in her studio. I understand that usually happens—paintings reflect the space they were produced in, but I always forget that light has variant qualities, depending on where and when it shines. This was a palpable, pervasive shim of light. I’ve never thought of light having density before, but in this room it did. And in Boardman’s paintings the light also has body. It defines the space between lines and marks.
Her work is in constant communion with this place, whether literally depicting the studio as a subject, or by using its same palette and wind. Motifs repeat like patterns as she paints from life in oil, then transcribes that painting multiple times, again and again, with different variations into gouache on paper. While looking over her work, I began to learn the language she uses–to parse clusters of marks from other lines, differentiating what lines referred to the wooden trunk standing against another wall of the room and what series of marks described another painting. I was able to see how the depiction of the trunk lost it’s literal authority as, time and time again, it was redrawn in ever increasing abstraction. Other motifs were similarly repeated—the sink, a bottle of dish soap, paint brushes, other paintings, photographs, books and vials. The most prominent window is also a regular image as are the objects it boasts: small vials, a meditation cloth, books and small, skeletal remnants of a bird, an entire crayfish, the jowl of a fish. Different paintings feature the tree outside with leaves or bare with winter. To start understanding Boardman’s work is to spend time in this space, in her studio—a place so integral to her process it becomes not simply the location of work, but also its subject. She also paints patterns. Patterns are painted onto canvases and paper; where sometimes they stand alone, in other instances one pattern abuts another pattern, in still other instances a patterns lies, like a veil, over domestic landscapes. Sometimes those landscapes are represented simply, without a pattern, but there is a dialogue between those choices. It’s a dialogue about seeing and how we see and how we locate ourselves within what we see. What follows is an interview I embarked upon with her. We talk about painting and the canvas and pattern and windows.
Caroline Picard: Can you talk a little bit about how your painting practice has developed over time? Do you notice a consistent investigation of themes or ideas?
Deborah Boardman: Definitely there are themes I return to over and over again. One is my relationship to painting in which it becomes evidence of my physical body and my hand conveys a kind of emotional warmth, no matter what image is represented. Another is my love of other people’s paintings, whether artists like Watteau or Manet or Noland, or friends’ paintings. I find the emotional timbre in the works of my friends gives me a sense of affirmation, like singing along to a great song. I often find myself connecting to the work of others by copying them, rendering these works as cluster of notes I am examining in my studio, including my own.
CP: I’m interested in how you talk about the canvas/painting as an emotive, expressive front. I was wondering if you could describe more about what that is like, for you. Does a painting inspire warmth for you? Or is it the act of painting? And, if it’s possible to ask, why?–where does the emotion come from for you and what is it for?
DB: I can say that both looking at painting and the act of painting elicit similar feelings of warmth, excitement and vigor. There is usually a struggle with self doubt in both circumstances…the great painting that I want to emulate, but can I and my own paralysis when faced with the unknown and what feels like sometimes overwhelming inadequacy.
Where it comes from is harder to answer. I think there is both a physical recognition through bodily memory, especially if the one looking at painting also paints, and empathy. Yet I know people who don’t paint at all who have looked at my painting and got that physical recognition. It’s a kind of resonance, a pleasure (and often pain) we feel in common.
CP: How do you think about pattern in your practice?
DB: Pattern is everywhere, sometimes it is more obvious to us. I love when painting reveals something fresh about the coherence in the world which sometimes I observe and sometimes is just subtle sensation. When I paint patterns, I focus on the color and the size and weight of the brush stroke, and the variances that occur when my hand wobbles, or when the water blurs, things that I try not to control and that surprise me. The focus painting patterns brings is very different than looking at my surroundings, which in some ways is more difficult, and requires greater discipline. I like combining the two in my studio paintings.
CP: I feel like this is a question I’ve been meaning to ask for a long time, actually. I started wondering about it when I noticed all of your paintings of your studio. I then thought about it again when Chicago was doing its city-wide studio investigations (via the MCA and Smart Museum). How do you think about the studio as a source of inspiration?
DB: Yes, quite a long time ago, I decided to counter my tendency to make very curvy, gestural images out of my head with attempts to ground myself in the present world. The most obvious place to start was my studio and that led me naturally to Matisse and his studio paintings. I also stumbled upon a painting by a student of David’s one summer visiting the Louvre. The painting depicts about twelve of David’s students painting in a small, dimly lit studio. I was so struck by the state of absorption and evident pleasure represented in the painting that I copied it many times and also researched other versions of artists in their studios, mostly from the 19th century. I think I found affirmation and reassurance through these paintings in what is often a lonely and doubt-ridden pursuit. I think the studio is a concrete stand-in for the self and ultimately what one deals with as an artist is the weight and sum of how to find meaning and connection to others through ones work.
CP: When you talk about the studio as being a representation of the self, I’m immediately curious about what your physical experience is like, when you enter your studio…like how does that feeling of being inside your studio compare to being in a classroom where you teach, or a room in your house? And then, too, what is it like for you to walk into the studios of others?
DB: My studio is deeply familiar and generally feels good to be in. Sometimes there are periods when I am working out of a particular palette that I end up disliking and crave the antidote. I make periodic purges of work, editing and cleaning out, which refreshes and opens up the space again.
My studio doesn’t need to accommodate others, at least at this point, and in that way is very different from the spaces I share with others, like my family or students. I really dislike the classroom studios at saic, as they are overwhelmingly gray and anonymous. I tend to love the studios of friends and of artists I admire that I may not be close to, like Byron Kim. I love to see the ordering of the space, and what is prioritized and valued.
CP: What happens to the studio space when it becomes public? (whether being presented in an exhibition, or in a painting or via an open studio?)
DB: The public studio space is less intimate, and becomes an artifact of itself, and therefore theatrical. An exhibition is always in some aspects, a version of the public studio space.
CP: How does a canvas relate to a window?
DB: While my canvases evoke the renaissance ideal of looking through a window into another world, they also remain very much objects in the physical world. I am less interested in the illusion of space than alluding to other spaces, while reinforcing the material and physical conditions of the body.
CP: How do you negotiate ideas of failure? I was thinking partly about *The Book of Faults* and the LaLaLa Singers, for instance—in that instance it seemed like an idea of failure became a collaborative performance that was then able to transcend itself…?
DB: It was such an epiphany to learn about Xavier Le Pichon’s idea of geological faults being necessary to the health and wellbeing of the earth as a living being. He makes the analogy that human frailty is also necessary for our survival as a species and reveals to us our essentially interdependent nature. It is a very different model than the competitive, survival of the fittest, only the “best” artists or “best” anything deserve our attention. I love how Le Pichon’s theory dovetails with the modernist idea of failure, as a kind of heroic risk taking one must experience despite of ones anxieties and belief that artistic perfection, let alone trying to make anything worthwhile, is impossible to realize in the modern world
What singing with the La La La Singers reminds me again and again, is that connecting with other human beings, singing in harmony is a kind of effortless, pure joy that creates the kind of warmth I crave.
I also find working with ED JR. relieves an enormous amount of the anxiety about self worth. It is easier to trust the instincts of our collective minds, and a heck of a lot more fun. That said, I am not giving up my “day job” as a painter in the studio, as I find the solitude and introspection it brings, also essential to my clarity and growth as an artist.
This Sunday, on May 29th, Deborah Boardman’s collaborative group, ED JR (also Edra Soto, Jeroen Nelemans and Ryan Richey) will present their performance, Painting is Dead from 3-7pm at the Charnel House. With special guests Charles Mahaffee, Diego Leclery, Kayce Bayer, Chris Lin, Hannis Pannis, La La La Singing, Laughing Eye Weeping Eye (Rebecca Schoenecker and Patrick Holbrook). Painting is Dead is part of an on-going series called Five Funerals.
I’m in the middle of working up a bunch of interviews for the coming weeks! Really exciting stuff, I can’t wait to get it all out in the world. This week I just posted some notes I put together about studio arts PhDs. I’m working on a longer article around and about James Elkins’ book Artists with PhDs: On the new Doctoral Degree in Studio Art, but I wanted to collect my thoughts before diving into his. Anyway, if you all have any ideas of how to further my research on the subject, let me know.
While objecting to the PhD studio art program might be as useless as anti-cell phone sentiments in 2002, I wanted to wave a small flag. Off the bat, PhD studio practices seem to add one more step in what (already) looks a little like a pyramid scheme; art schools feeds themselves: students are initiated into a canon, which they then struggle to be legitimized and supported by for an indefinite amount of time after their matriculation. While on the one hand self-reliant circulatory systems are wondrous, the success of a given artist is not an automatic consequence of a scholastic advance. That’s applicable to any project in the humanities, of course, and I think it’s something that every participant is more or less aware of. College doesn’t guarantee success, but you hope a good education will get you that much closer to its likelihood.
The first thing to do, probably, is ask oneself what that vision of success looks like. It’s very likely different for everyone, though, I bet, with a common base of economic sustainability. Every artist (or really, just anybody) wants to be secure in their lifestyle. Obviously it’s impossible for any institution to promise that. The question of how to support oneself as an artist, while also developing one’s practice does not have an easy solution. It never will. I have heard stories about artists in Manhattan who can only paint one type of painting (and have been for the last 30 years) because those are the paintings that sell and they have car/house/child care payments to make. On another end of the spectrum, there are those who don’t have gallery representation, don’t own anything and work for money as little as possible in order to make more artwork. Those are just two examples in a sea of countless scenarious. Everybody knows it’s hard. That’s not the question. The PhD just promises to ease that difficulty, to make it *feel* a little bit easier, without necessarily helping in the long run. It’s a balm.
MFA programs do the same thing. I should know, I went to one and I also loved it. I wouldn’t trade it for anything—I learned a lot, worked with fantastic professors in addition to meeting a group of peers on whom I still rely. Furthermore the MFA ensured three years to dedicated to my practice. Bought and paid for, I chose to follow an impractical whim and in so doing, by inhabiting the consequence of that absurdity, began to believe more fully (perhaps by necessity) in myself as someone who could make a legitimate cultural contribution. I don’t know that anyone would disagree—art school is great. It’s amazing. You’re suddenly entrenched in a community that takes your efforts very seriously. It’s kind of like having a therapist, except the therapist is an impersonal building filled with passionate people who more or less share your (largely non-commercial) interests. Once you go to school you are immediately immersed in a creative support system.
While the MFA program has become a predominant feature on the artist’s CV, it was an exception for previous generations. Even while more and more people went on to secondary institutions, artists remained very much on the outskirts of that movement. Instead of school, they used cities, underground clubs, music venues and galleries as educational sites and community oases. Their experience was much more affordable; it was also less conventional. Obviously we can’t go back and in looking back we change what was. Nevertheless, I appreciate that our artistic predecessors operated in the margins of a society—working in an easily overlooked wilderness that was impossible to translate at more conventional gatherings—like family reunions, for instance—where one might be asked what one does. Explaining that you make art and work in a dingy dive bar in Alphabet City wouldn’t sell any obvious credibility those conventional others. Telling a relative that you’re in a scholastic program, even if they don’t agree with it, you’re situating yourself within an institution—something larger than the opinion of any one person. Getting degrees is a way to signify public (albeit purchased) support. It eases the loneliness of a marginalized practice/lifestyle.
And what is wrong with that?
Nothing, really. I would probably be one of the first to jump into another 5 years of a studio practice if I could afford it. Further, in joining those programs, I’d be using my purchasing power to ensure their existence—a kind of investment for my own future given that, probably, what one does afterwards is try to teach at one of those schools. The more college/graduate level art courses, the better. And another point: of all the things that people should do more of, goddamn they should learn more! And please, study art! Study the humanities! The more citizens who care about narratives and critical thinking and historical insight and philosophy, the better!
So there’s nothing really to complain about. My objection only stems from the resultant streamlining hegemony and it’s because I have this idea that art is a means for cultural/political/societal resistance. I want it to push again predominant status quos, to question the climate of its times, provoking and undermining the stability and moires it occupies. I worry that the PhD Studio Arts degree perpetuates an already insulated world, one rife with internal hierarchies, that consequently continues to focus on itself, while necessarily needing to inflate the aura of its authority.
I believe a healthy society needs people working on its boundaries. I believe that such a course isn’t easy, but the world needs outsiders, mismatched and perhaps bedraggled or confused, those individuals are inadvertently called to question the structure of the culture they inhabit, precisely because it does not fit into it. By pursuing such lines of questioning, it becomes easier to recognize other taken-for-granted and, often, detrimental notions, which then create new turns of cultural development. Maybe the PhD art programs could have auxillary, shadow departments dedicated to investigating the authority of the institution in which it lives.
Yesterday I came across this interview about Ai Weiwei. The interview takes place between Spiegel International and Roger Buergel, a curator who first invited Ai Weiwei to Documenta in 2007. Buergel is certainly quotable, and the thrust of his sentiment is that Western artists are not as bent out of shape about Ai Weiwei’s absence as we ought to be; he suggests an unconscious but palpable jealousness as the cause of our apathy. “Young Western artists are producing works that amount to nothing more than footnotes in art history, and then this Chinese artist appears who takes a totally different approach and makes 98 percent of the art world look very, very old.” It definitely shocked me into paying attention—what is perhaps the larger point of such statements. It is not about what is being said, but what might be done.
Ai Weiwei has been missing for 38 days, since the Police refused to let him board a plan to Hong Kong. His latest disappearance was not his first run-in with Chinese government authority. According to an earlier article in The Washington Post, ”In 2009, in the western city of Chengdu, Ai was beaten so badly that he required surgery to have blood drained from his brain. Late last year, he was stopped at Beijing’s airport from flying to South Korea because authorities feared he might go to Oslo to attend the Nobel ceremony for Liu [2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner].” He was also prevented from having an exhibition in Beijing.
At the same time, I’m not sure what Buergel wants from us. What exactly is his call to action? It seems to me that twitter, facebook and a plethora of media outlets have been regularly fore fronting their concern for Ai Weiwei’s whereabouts. Petitions have been circulating for months now and artists have been making work in tribute. “Anish Kapoor has dedicated his largest ever artwork – a truly enormous cathedral-like space made from inflated PVC – to the missing Chinese artist Ai Weiwei” (Guardian); Kapoor’s installation opens today, May 11th, and will be open to the public until June 23rd at the Grand Palais in Paris. It is called Leviathan, after Hobbes’ instrumental work about social-political structures. Kapoor suggest all the galleries and museums in the world close down for a day, in honor of this missing colleague.
What an amazing thought.
It’s horrifying—the idea of someone getting swept up into absence. Of course it’s unacceptable that anyone would have to undergo such an ordeal. Yet there seems to be a message in Ai Weiwei’s particular missing-ness, because he boasted such an international profile. ”‘If they are willing to go this far with someone like him, then all bets are off,’ said Joshua Rosenzweig, who heads the Hong Kong office of the Dui Hua Foundation, a human-rights organization” (Wall Street Journal).
It is important to counter a sense of powerlessness. I certainly have no idea what someone could do to impact this situation, perhaps in part because there is nothing to see. The action—whatever it is—takes place out of public view, in impossible-to-reach cloisters. Only the absconding was visible. We have no direct access to the artist, only public-go-betweens. Governments are big and it feels difficult, if not impossible, to imagine how to influence such powers. Nevertheless, Kapoor takes a positive step towards a solution, outlining a possible path in order to participate in an action that is poetic, peaceable and demonstrative of a trans-national solidarity.