It’s the time of year when, as the frost giants finally abdicate their annual reign over Chicago, applicants the world over are getting their responses from Master of Fine Arts graduate programs. Since mid-February they’ve been braving the slings and arrows of “We are sorry to inform you,” “It is with regret,” and “We wish you every success,” occasionally tempered with the cold comfort of some statistic or mention of the unexpected number of applicants and their impressive collective quality. Some are still dangling, hanging to the desperate hope of a waiting list. Many, though, have been receiving their notifications of acceptance, and with those come choices, sometimes difficult. At least three people I know personally are in this situation this year, and it got me to reminiscing, second-guessing, and Monday-morning quarterbacking the choices I made in my education, and also thinking about the choices facing my friends.
Some applicants are accepted only into a single program, at which point the decision pretty much makes itself, especially if that program was one of the applicant’s top choices. In other cases, if accepted by a “safety,” the choice is between accepting admission into a program that wasn’t one’s first, second, or even third choice, or licking one’s wounds, getting back to work, and applying again the next year, in hopes of getting into a more competitive program.
I actually found myself in this situation ten years ago, in 2003, just after graduating from my undergraduate program at Humboldt State University (my degree was conferred in December 2002). I had applied, rather casually, to a few graduate schools, not really taking the process particularly seriously. Mass Art, Pratt, RISD, and Tulane University all wisely concluded that I wasn’t quite ready, while SAIC informed me that yes, their application deadline was a firm one, and that I’d have to apply again next year.
After receiving all this bad news, I finally received an offer of admission from the University of New Orleans. I had applied to UNO, along with Tulane, primarily out of an interest in its role in the Gothic subculture; even as late as 2003, I was thinking it’d be a good place to meet girls in black lipstick. I had visited New Orleans on a road trip with a friend in summer 2001, and it seemed like an interesting place: I found a porcelain doll’s arm and some fragments of what I’m pretty sure were human bone in the topsoil of a cemetery, and at the New Orleans Art Museum I saw Odd Nerdrum’s “Five Persons Around A Waterhole,” which let me tell you, when I was 21, seemed to me to be the paragon of contemporary art. I know, I know.
So I had applied out of a sort of schoolboy’s crush on the city, and I’d been accepted. By that time, though, the end of March, I’d had a sort of awakening, and had realized that despite having just received my degree, I still had a lot to learn about the actual techniques of painting. My interest was in figurative representation, but I had been pushed away from it by my instructors and classmates, probably in large part because I wasn’t very good at it. Instead, I had been making paintings that were a sort of workaround, essentially drawings on toned canvas, and these were pretty well received. My classmates and faculty were supportive, I showed some in local coffee shops and restaurants, even sold a few (albeit at undergrad-in-a-small-town-coffee-shop prices). But ultimately I knew the work was shit. Or, at least, I thought I did; in hindsight, it might have actually been an interesting direction to go in, but it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. At any rate, by the time the schools I’d heard were good had all rejected me, and UNO had accepted me, I had decided that the work I’d applied with was terrible, and concluded that I “wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have someone like me as a member.”
The point of all this masturbatory, navel-gazing, canker sore-licking reminiscence is that whatever choice you make, you’ll have the rest of your life to second-guess it. And, if you’re anything like me, you will. If I’d accepted that offer of admission, I would have moved to New Orleans in summer of 2003, having just started a series of large self-portraits dressed up as other people (friends, famous artists, and artist stereotypes), which was kind of clever and funny in an undergrad sort of way. A military saying is “No plan survives contact with the enemy,” and how this body of work would have gone over at UNO’s grad program will remain forever unknown. Would I have been pushed in a more interesting direction with it? Encouraged? Sidetracked? Challenged? Coddled? There’s no way to know, but thus relocated, my influences and peers all rearranged, it’s impossible to imagine that I would have gone on to make the same work as I ended up making after deciding to decline their offer and spend another year working on my portfolio to reapply.
As it turned out, I didn’t accept the offer, instead electing to spend another year working on what I thought of at the time as my first real body of work, that dozen or so self portraits. I felt pretty good about them at the time, thought I had a decent shot at getting into a more competitive graduate program the following year. I busted my ass, pulled some crazy all-nighters. I was an animal. I was a machine. All summer, I worked. Some friends and I, all in the same boat, spent Thanksgiving break in the painting studio; we knew how to shimmy across a roof and in through a window so we could paint even when campus was closed. On Thanksgiving, three of us had a little potluck dinner, using the model stand as a table. And then we got back to work. I bought Rock Star (or was in Monster?) at Costco by the case. December came, and with it, the deadlines. I applied to nineteen schools. I was rejected from every single one.
If I’d accepted that offer from UNO, I would have been finishing up my first year, instead of collecting a massive stack of rejection letters. As it was, I started a new body of work, better than the last (I actually still like a few of those paintings), and tried again, and that third year was accepted into three of my top choices: Mass Art, Cranbrook, and MICA. They were all basically good programs, and I had to choose between them. None had offered me a full fellowship, the proverbial “free ride” that MFA students sometimes get, which would have made the choice easier. (Some programs are free for anyone who’s accepted, but none of these three were.) I had a friend at Cranbrook, which was tempting, but ultimately I decided that the Hoffberger School of Painting at MICA was the best fit for me, due to its director Grace Hartigan’s emphasis on figurative representation. I started at MICA in August of 2005. A month later, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, leaving me to wonder what would have happened to me if I’d gone to UNO. Would I have found a teaching position in the area and been hit by the hurricane, or would I have found work elsewhere and dodged the bullet? If I’d been affected, how? Would I have stubbornly refused to evacuate? Might I even have been killed? More likely, I would have survived, and it’s almost impossible to conceive that I wouldn’t have made work about it, but would it have been any good?
Like Maximus said in Gladiator: “The choices we make in life echo in eternity.” The problem is that we can’t always know how our choices will echo. Whether or not the wingbeat of a butterfly can really effect weather systems a continent away, unexpected outcomes are certainly the rule rather than the exception. So maybe, as you’re mulling over your options for MFA programs, you should picture Jeff Goldbloom playing with droplets of water on the back of your hand, explaining that there is no way you can know what consequences your choice will have.
I never could have known that Hurricane Katrina was headed for the city I would have moved to if I’d accepted UNO’s offer, nor could I have known that by staying in Humboldt for another two years, I would meet the woman who would become my wife. There’s a certain hippie, New Age kind of mindset that may be more prevalent on the West Coast than in Chicago, that the universe has some sort of plan, that everything happens for a reason, and looking in hindsight at some of these consequences leads some to say, “Well, see? There you go! It all worked out.” But of course, if it hadn’t , something else would have worked out. If I’d never met my wife, I would probably have met somebody else. (Tim Minchin’s got a great song about this.) If I can draw any lesson from my experience, it’s that the most important outcomes of any decision tend to be the ones you can’t predict, and there’s not a damned thing you can do about it anyway.
In the interests of concluding with something a little more actionable, I’ll share two pieces of advice I received while looking at graduate programs. The first was “Follow the money,” that is, go to the school that will result in the least student loan debt. This is great if you are offered a full scholarship to your top choice, or even one of your top choices. But it’s difficult if you’re facing the choice between taking on a major debt load to attend a program that really feels right for you, versus getting a free ride at a school that feels slightly less right to you. Add to this the fact that some programs (Northwestern, for example, and also UIUC I believe) are free for anyone accepted, and at others you can teach in exchange for a tuition waver and sometimes a stipend to live on. It’s a tough choice, not one I ever had to face, but one that some of my friends are facing right now. One mitigating factor in favor of getting to the school that’s best for you, debt be damned, is the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. This says that, in effect, if you work full time for a non-profit public service institution for ten years, while making your scheduled student loan payments on time, at the end of that period they’ll forgive the rest of your loan debt. Considering that a.) a primary reason a lot of people pursue an MFA degree is in order to teach, and b.) that most colleges count, and that c.) you can make fairly low student loan payments on the income-based repayment plan, this means that you can go to the fancy MFA program, teach for ten years (if you can find the work, and that’s a big “if”), make modest loan payments of as little as eighty bucks a month, and then you’re free and clear. This takes some of the hurt and fear out of going to a more costly school that might offer the kind of program you’re looking for.
The other piece of advice I got, though, was that the most important aspect of graduate program was the city you’d be living in while attending. It makes some sense; certainly we see players in Chicago’s art scene who represent students and alumni from not just SAIC but also Columbia, UIUC, UIC, and more; attending graduate school in Chicago can be an entry point into Chicago’s art scene regardless of which school one attends. On the other hand, Yale’s MFA program pretty obviously has influence outside New Haven, Connecticut. Cranbrook is located in an almost monastic retreat in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, not particularly close to Detroit or anywhere else, and yet its graduates show up, doing well, all over.
I only ended up in Chicago out of sheer, dumb luck. I stuck around Humboldt for another year because I wanted to go to a school that was ranked highly by U.S. News and World Report, and then another because none of them would have me. On a whim, I went to crash Freshman Orientation to pick up on freshman girls and scam free pizza. Three years later, I married one of those girls, Stephanie Burke. She’s quick to point out that she was a transfer student, not a freshman, and also there for the free pizza. After she spent a year with me in Baltimore while I finished up at MICA, she applied to her own round of MFA programs. It was her first year applying, and she got into three excellent programs: Virginia Commonwealth, MICA, and SAIC. SAIC had been her top choice, and Baltimore hadn’t really set any hooks into either of us compelling us to say, so we pulled up our stakes and headed for Chicago. Five and a half years later, we’re rocking and rolling in an incredibly vibrant art scene, and while it’s hard for me to imagine doing so well anywhere else, the road that led here is one I couldn’t see at all from where it started.
Christy LeMaster is the powerhouse behind the Nightingale, a Chicago microcinema dedicated to screening experimental film. It’s a welcoming and unpretentious space thanks to her generosity and openness. The Nightingale engages in inclusive conversation surrounding the production, distribution and consumption of new work, but at the heart of everything it does, beats the fans, makers, viewers, colleagues and friends it’s cultivated. LeMaster’s ingenuity, sweat equity and contagious enthusiasm has kept the place humming for the past several years, and now— poised to celebrate a milestone anniversary— she was kind enough to recount the Nightingale’s gradual growth in scale and scope; discuss the film she’s currently making; and give us a teaser regarding the new website she’s developing, a project which will vault the community built in her brick and mortar space into the ether of the internet with the hopes of connecting and supporting even more filmmakers, cinemas and cinephiles.
TLN: April 5 marks the five-year anniversary of the Nightingale. Can you recap the activities and structure of your space over the last few years and let us in on what’s next?
CL: You say “5 years”, and it seems like it’s been so much longer; and at the same time, it feels like it’s happened at light speed. When I started the Nightingale it seemed like access was the issue; there was more work being made than was screened, and seeing one’s work in front of an audience should be the bedrock of artistic development. The city just seemed hungry for it. When I first began talking about starting a microcinema, people just rushed in to help. So I decided to do as many screenings as I could, and to not be overly precious about the idea of curation. There seemed to be a need for a community screening room as well as an experimental cinema; we got requests to be an auxiliary venue for other arts organizations; to screen social-issue documentaries; to host youth-media showcases; and to feature work from all the city’s art schools. And so the momentum became its own practical logic: What do we need right now? What do we have that we can use? Who is coming to town? What is the rest of her work like? Those sorts of questions often propelled me forward more often than “What should we be showing?” Luckily, generous and gifted people keep showing up to help. Patrick Friel has been presenting every month for years; Jon Cates and Nick Briz brought us UpgradeChicago for awhile; My dear friends Doug and Chloe McLaren have been managing tech concerns and special event details for years; Sally Lawton showed up a year ago asking to help out with screenings, and is now involved in every aspect of the place. It all happened pretty organically. I would ask for help as needed and people helped. The place runs entirely on a gift economy and volunteer labor. With exception of special events and multi-artist shorts programs, we always pay artists out of the door and spend the rest until it’s gone. For the most part we break even.
When I started, I gave the project a sunset date of five years so I could re-assess if I was happy doing the work and if the space was still needed. And here we are. I think it is still useful to do, but I am being pulled by other projects. So I am handing off. The main bulk of the work will be managed by five programmers/keyholders: Patrick Friel, Emily Kuehn, Jesse Malmed, Chloe McLaren, and Doug McLaren. They will all have autonomous use of the space. We have structured the new system around transparency. We have put all of the tools for running the space online, and gathered a group of volunteer staff to assist the programmers. And we are taking this moment to refresh the space in lots of other ways too. We will soon launch a kickstarter to get a new projector. We are overhauling the website and changing the look of the space. I am excited for the transition. It seems really natural. I can’t wait to see what happens next. I hope to still organize programs occasionally and think about the space in a more macro way.
TLN: The Nightingale has managed to transcend its programming by acting as an informal hub of community building. I know intentional communities, post-nuclear family structures and Utopias are all part of your research interests, can you tell us more about how they relate to the activities of your micro-cinema and your own arts practice?
CL: Early on, I decided on a few small details that have become our rituals— we make pretty tickets for every screening, we always have a raffle, we host a big potluck every year and film a trailer.
I’m really interested in issues around interdependence. I think in the wake of the implosion of the nuclear family, we’re all sort of floating into new models of how to take care of each other. I heard a woman say once, “co-dependence is no joke in a world without interdependence,” and that’s really led my interest. It was always more important that the Nightingale be accessible instead off curatorially perfect. And for a long time I didn’t think I had an art practice, I just thought I had projects. But over the last couple years I’ve started to see that all of my projects are concerned with the same issues— how do people establish interdependence outside of traditional means; heteronormative relationships, institutions of church or work? I think a lot of us arts organizers in Chicago are remaking a small corner of the world in a vision that we value. Utopia is social critique. We aren’t interested any more, it seems, in removing ourselves from society entirely, but a lot of people we know are working very hard to rebuild small parts of society from the ground up. The Nightingale is my vision of an interdependent cinema, and a lot of my other projects are concerned with the same dynamics. I’m working on a movie about utopias where I invite different arts organizations in Chicago to re-enact an intentional or utopian community from American history; I’m researching sacred harp choirs because of how they use performance as collaborative practice. I’ve been thinking about how to be a good collaborator for 10 years, and I’m only now applying it pragmatically.
TLN: Your network of colleagues and collaborators extends well beyond the city of Chicago, which makes you the perfect person to take on the build out of Splitbeam, an online resource you dreamt up and secured funding to implement. Tell us more about the project, its function and its design.
CL: It turns out that the experimental cinema community is pretty small; Splitbeam is an idea that I had over the last years at the Nightingale— I wanted a resource where I could see what other microcinemas were doing, and right now experimental moving image makers are working on a sort of punk-rock model where you book your own shows; we’re not really relying on media to travel independently of the artist very often. Splitbeam is a web directory of microcinemas, independent and alternative cinemas, and it houses a modular, open distribution that is meant to take some of the administrative burden off of curators and artists. I am lucky to be working on it with my good friends Nick Briz and Michael Castelle; Nick is doing the front-end design and Michael is handling the database, and I am taking on the research and organization. We received a generous grant from the Propeller Fund and used it to hire Sonnenzimmer to create a visual concept for the site. We’re going to work on it hard this summer and hope to launch in the Fall of 2013.
Interview conducted over email March 2013.
La Ribot – a performer, choreographer and visual artist – developed her first choreographic works in Madrid in the 80s, later becoming known for her solo work. By the late 90s, she had become a figurehead in the Live Art scene in London, where she was based between 1997-2004. In the mid 90s, she produced “Distinguished Pieces” – short solos presented in a series that were put on sale and purchased by art collectors. In 2003, she presented a meta-performance of these 34 solos produced until then under the title “Panoramix,” at the Tate Modern in London, at the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, and at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, among others. More recently, she has produced work with her company including “40 espontaneos” (2004) a piece for 40 extras, “Laughing Hole” (2006) a 6-hour performance for three performers and one musician, “Gustavia” (2008) a duet created and performed with Mathilde Monnier, as well as “llamame mariachi” (2009). Her work has appeared in various theatres and numerous museums, passing from Théâtre de la Ville and Festival d’Automne in Paris, from Queen Elizabeth Hall in London and from Festival Montpellier Danse to Art Unlimited / Art Basel in Switzerland, Museo Serralves in Porto, S.M.A.K. in Gent, Nam Jun Paik Art Centre in Seoul, Aichi Triennale in Japan, Galeria Soledad Lorenzo in Madrid, and the Haus der Kunst in Munich, among many others. In 2004, she relocated to Switzerland where she taught at the Haute Ecole d’Art et de Design in Geneva. In collaboration with her colleagues she founded a new Department for the live arts – Art/Action – and taught there until 2008.
La Ribot recently came to Chicago to present the US premiere of “Laughing Hole” and the video “mariachi 17″ as part of the IN>TIME 13 Festival . Appearing for six hours at the Chicago Cultural Center, “Laughing Hole” traveled to Los Angeles where it appeared at LACMA in early March. Prior to the “Laughing Hole” performance, La Ribot sat down with local artists Hannah Verrill and Jane Jerardi to talk about her work. The video interview captures excerpts of her conversation with Hannah, with Jane behind the camera.
Hannah Verrill is a performance maker currently working towards her MFA from the School of The Art Institute of Chicago. She was grateful for this opportunity to sit and speak with La Ribot.
Saturday, March 16, 2013 4:00-6:00 pm
Chicago Cultural Center, Millennium Park Room, 5th Floor
Panel Discussion & Book Release with Joyce Fernandes, Stuart Keeler and Allison Peters Quinn
There are all kinds of overlaps in this art world of ours, old friends and close friends and collaborators — I find myself working with people in different capacities all the time. This weekend my press, The Green Lantern, is releasing a book three years in the making. It’s a project that exemplifies the overlap and intersection of various networks — what is perhaps especially fitting, given that it centers on the subject of socially engaged art practice. To celebrate the release of the GLP’s next book, “SERVICE MEDIA: IS IT PUBLIC ART? OR IS IT ART IN PUBLIC SPACE?” we’ll be having a panel discussion at the Cultural Center, moderated by Bad at Sports’ own, Duncan MacKenzie. Details are as follows:
Inspired by The Green Lantern Press’ 30th title, Service Media: Is it “Public Art” or is it Art in a Public Space?, this panel, a Poetry Center of Chicago Heap of Language Series event, will discuss unconventional art works and practices that take place outside of galleries. As such, the panel extends a conversation that Service Media begins, from text-on-the-page to an evening of public discourse. Service Media: Is it “Public Art” or is it Art in a Public Space? is a collection of essays that investigates socially engaged art. Editor Stuart Keeler strives to reexamine the terminology surrounding this discipline, just as ensuing contributors explore and critique a range of socially minded projects as artists, administrators and critics. It’s a collection that deserves attention for its careful assessment of a once-radical practice that has since become a staple in contemporary art practices and institutions alike.
Joyce Fernades, Executive Director of archi-treasures since 1998, is a cultural worker whose career encompasses extensive experience in arts administration, lecturing and teaching, critical writing, and visual arts practice. Her primary focus has been to develop innovative community arts practices. As Executive Director of archi-treasures she works hard to facilitate strong community partnerships by recognizing and honoring the tremendous assets and resources that are available in all communities, and designing creative projects that leverage and complement those assets. Fernandes is also the former Director of Exhibitions and Events at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the former Program Director at Sculpture Chicago. She received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and her BFA from Tyler School of Arts in Philidelphia.
Stuart Keeler is an artist of public spaces who organizes exhibitions and multi-platform projects with the collaborative role of “curator” as the conceptual identity of his practice. Is it “public art” or is it art in public space? The role of the artist is challenged by his investigative projects interpreting social praxis as an innovative business model. Keeler aims to model a new process of curatorial practices by engaging with a continuing dialogue in public space centered on the expanded role of the artist. With an MFA from the School at the Art Institute of Chicago (2005), Keeler has exhibited at Gallery 400 UIC, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Center on Contemporary Art, Espace-Art Unit, The Hyde Park Art Center, John Michael Kohler Arts Center among others. Innovative curatorial projects include Art 44|46, Chicago, Le Flash! – Atlanta, LEITMOTIF, Nuit Blanche – Toronto. Keeler has completed over 75 public art commissions in North America and Internationally. He is currently completing a commission a the San Diego International Airport with Swaroskvi Crystal–Austria. He currently holds the position of Director/Curator at The Art Gallery of Mississauga, Canada.
Allison Peters Quinn is the Director of Exhibitions at the Hyde Park Art Center (Chicago), where she has curated exhibitions, and produced symposiums, performances and publications since 2004. She has organized significant exhibitions for emerging and established artists such as Cándida Alvarez, Theaster Gates, Kelly Kaczynski, and Bibiana Suárez. She has served on critique panels and taught graduate seminars at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and The University of Chicago Graham School. Awarded the Ramapo College Curatorial Prize, she has served as juror for the Artadia Award, Efroymson Award, and the Ragdale Foundation. Her writing has appeared in Proximity Magazine and artists’ monographic publications including William Steiger: Transport (2011) and Altogether Mutable: The Work of Mary Lou Zelazny (2009). Allison studied a MA at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, and a BA at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.
Founded in 2005, The Green Lantern Press is an artist-run, non-profit press focused on emerging or forgotten texts in order to bridge contemporary experience with historical form. We celebrate the integration of artistic mediums. We celebrate the amateur, the idealist and those who recognize the importance of small independent practice. In a cultural climate where the humanities must often defend themselves, we provide intimate examples of creative thought. Dedicated to the “slow media” approach, the Green Lantern Press conceives each book as a curatorial site; small editions are printed with artist plates, ephemeral inserts and silk screen covers. We are efficient about the material we use, economic about our proportion and intent on local production. More information at www.press.thegreenlantern.org
An independent not-for-profit arts organization founded in 1974, The Poetry Center of Chicago’s mission is to promote poetry through readings, workshops, residencies and arts education, to make poetry accessible to the general public, to stimulate and encourage young poets, and to advance the careers of poets by offering them professional opportunities. The Poetry Center is in residence at the Chicago Cultural Center. A Heap of Language is the Poetry Center’s 2012/13 Event Series, at the Chicago Cultural Center.