"What the F is This?": A Conversation with Stefan Saffer by Allison Hewitt Ward

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AP Faculty member Stefan Saffer’s work, which includes paper cut outs, sculptures, mobile installations with sonic elements and collaborative projects in public space, is defiantly difficult to package. If there’s any generalization to be made about the Berlin and New York City based artist’s work, it’s that what is present shares the same conceptual space as what is absent; the seemingly empty spaces become fertile ground for play.

Here, he discusses his recent Sound Mobile installation at the “ArtPark” show in Manhattan, his thoughts about abstraction and conceptualism and his desire to lure viewers out of their comfort zone with AP Staff member Allison Hewitt Ward.

AHW: Your cut out pieces don’t fall within the comfortable categories of painting and sculpture, etc., that are so often used to codify works of art. Can you tell me more about your use of this technique as part of a concept-driven practice?

SS: It started like a discovery. I was researching structure and visual networks and reading books about institutions that research the differences between pre-planned street structures to those that developed organically over time. I was interested in physical, visual structures and networks, so I drew them. I also was a fan of Brice Marden’s Cold Mountain series. At some point I realized that I was making a logical mistake. I was drawing and painting networks, but they were still just on paper. So I thought, let’s cut that away. When I did that a new world of new things opened up in front of me. At first, I made the mistake of putting the cut out directly onto the wall. I corrected that by hanging it slightly off the wall and all of a sudden it transformed. There was a shadow, there was an object. It was not just a drawing, it became something like a painting, something in between categories. Most of all, it started living.

I love that cut outs have their roots in folk art, more so than in fine art. I love this neighborhood, this kind of frame. Showing my pieces all over the world I noticed that people had access to them who weren’t ever looking at art before. They felt comfortable with the fact that there’s something cut out—crafted, in a way. They could directly relate. There wasn’t a term Cut Out when I started using this technique. That’s only recently become a category in contemporary art.

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AHW: What year did you start these pieces?

SS: 1991 or 1990. I had been totally frustrated the year before I began. I was an organizer and manager of students at my own small art academy in Nuremberg. I found the academy quite boring and not particularly creative, so I tried to change it. I invited people to come and talk about their practice. Hans Ulrich Obrist, for example, came very early in his career.

I later went to Goldsmiths in London which was much more interesting, but I was frustrated with the white cube and the homogeneous art crowd so I began to improvise works in my studio and work in public space. Though it confused many of my teachers and fellow students, working in public space allowed me to learn more about audiences and provided an amazing new field of discoveries for my practice.

AHW: Your work seems to delineate space as much as it occupies it, both in your cut out pieces and public installations like Mobile Porch. How did you use that object, or perhaps platform, to create a public space?

SS: I’m not sure you can create a public space, maybe public attention. There is a difference of contexts when you talk about public space.  My first investigation of public space in 1999 was born out of my frustration with the White Cube. It was a project called Sandwich, an outdoor corner gallery on London’s Brick Lane, right on the street. I invited 25 artists to do short-term interventions at that corner. It was all rather illegal. Nobody knew it was art, that was very important for me. I didn’t say it was art. I wanted to see how people reacted to the work directly and whether the artworks would succeed in that context. I understood that every artwork has its own public and its own mechanisms to draw attention. A cut out is public to a small number of people if it’s in a private collection, but more people will see it if it appears in the streets. In public space there is a more democratic and less predictable crowd. We had no clue about who would come – and that was great.

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AHW: What texts or thinkers influenced your thoughts on public space at that time?

SS: London was so exciting that I really didn’t read much. I should confess that. There was more partying than reading, but I experimented a lot in public space. I tested out ideas.

Thomas Demand did his first little objects in public space in New Cross outside Goldsmiths. Many people don’t know that anymore, but that’s how he started. He did some little macquettes and put them back on the sidewalk where trash was piling up and took photos of them. So that was testing too, I guess.

The consciousness about what public space meant came later. You mentioned Mobile Porch, which wasn’t just my own baby. I was there in collaboration with an artist, K. Boehm, and an architect, Andreas Lang, who came from the AA in London. We started on the street. We came across very different audiences and very different functions of art. We formed a group called Public Works, which ultimately became an umbrella that would continue to exist after individuals left. I left Public Works in 2005 or 2006 after seven years of collaborating to return my focus to my own work. Public works is now a company in London.

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I never made a qualitative distinction between my cut outs and those public projects projects, or any other form of art, for that matter. Though different types of work follow different rules, they are equally interesting. It’s really stupid to say painting is better then public art or performance is better then digital art and so on. It’s the 21st century. We have to look into what the art says or does rather then which category it belongs to.

AHW: That reminds me of the 18th Century British Academy with its hierarchy of historical painting, portrait painting and landscape painting.

SS: And that’s still at work today. People need to create categories like cut outs.

AHW: Do you think it has to do with salability?

SS: Commodification and salability, of course. What do you do when you want to sell something? You have to wrap it up in a one-liner. But we all know that selling art is ridiculous, because you sell something that can’t really be captured, if it’s good, that is. You sell an idea, or not even that. There’s a popular fascination about how much money art makes. But in the end what’s left is not what was bought or sold, it’s the content of the artwork.

I have a good example. The first stock market started in Holland for the tulip trade. It ultimately crashed and lots of people were financially ruined. But tulips still grow. They’re still around. The tulips survived, not the market for tulips.

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AHW: You’ve said that you want to create work that people with no understanding of art or background in art can access and engage with.

SS: I love that, if it happens. I’m not sure if I’m always good at doing that consciously. If people engage that way it means that the work is open. It has a gate you can walk through, even if it may look banal first. Of course, I love when people go further and get more depth. If that happens, I’m a good artist. It’s very difficult to be a good artist. I’ve come to realize that over the course of ten years you’ll be lucky if you make five really good pieces.

AHW: Do you have a working definition of what a good artist is?

SS: I have a sort of educated guess rather than a definition. I think good artists are honest with themselves and with what they do. They understand that they make art not just for themselves but for society. Maybe that’s the most important: to be truthful to oneself and to society. That stands the test of time.

AHW: A lot of your work appears very formal and abstract, but you’re also dealing with social and political issues. How do you see the relationship between your beautifully crafted forms and the concepts that you address?

SS: This is a two-category problem. I come from a formal background. In my first years in the academy I learned about shapes and color and the relationships between those things from very formal professors. I studied what a composition is and what it isn’t, when a line should be a little bit left or a little bit right. I love this. I love the idea of abstract pieces and good compositions because abstraction is a free spirit that allows people to very freely associate things with it. On the other side there’s content—I work with language a lot—which is close to poetry. I address issues more directly, more so than in the abstract piece.

I can’t tell you whether I’d like to stand in front of a Rothko for an hour or if I want to read a Lawrence Weiner. I think both of them are great. For me, coming back every now and again to abstract compositions after working with social and sometimes political issues feels like coming home. I try to test myself by making a drawing to let something out.

AHW: So you see an ontological distinction between the abstract compositions and the more concept-driven work?

SS: Yes, there’s a distinction. If you make an abstract piece and you write very small word like fuck in the middle of it, you’ve changed the entire work. But if you have an abstract piece, an abstract composition, you have a different thing. It resonates on different levels. A Mondrian resonates with you for certain reasons, not just the right angles. It’s how he condensed a deep life experience into a very reduced composition. You can see the difference.

AHW: In your own work I see both of those elements. Do you see some works as addressing more the formal and the abstract and others as addressing…

SS: Yes. Some are just purely abstract and some are more epic. Those epic pieces tell a story or try to start a story. A lot of works are the start of a story, or the end, or something in between. They leave things open the same way that poetry does. Poetry is like painting with words. I love just painting something to take paints seriously in their own rights without any other connotations. This makes it so different. It’s difficult to package me. I can’t even package myself. I love being interested in different things at different times. I come back to different cycles of my work whenever I feel I have to do that. I do whatever I want, pretty much.

AHW: When you put it that way it almost seems so silly that we expect artists, or people in any profession, to have just one thing that they do all the time.

SS: I find that amazingly boring. A lot of my colleagues make careers doing that, though. They make a lot of money, which is great. There is a quality in trying to make one thing better over years and years and years. It’s a very German thing. They make one Mercedes and make it a little bit better every year. It’s always a Mercedes, though. There’s something to be admired in that, but I’m not patient enough for it. My work is more scattered. I did cut outs, I stopped and took a huge break, and then I started doing cut outs again. I’ll probably start and stop again. I think the right balance between starting with an idea and the time it takes to work that idea out is key.

AHW: Was there a different concept each time you worked with cut outs?

SS: Yes, very much. The concept changes. They’re only unified by the technique. I would have skipped it if it wasn’t working for me, but it does work. It’s like an oil painter who paints on canvas. The medium works, he just changes the painting. It’s the same for me. I change the contents of the cutouts. My latest piece was in Denmark and the cut outs there were very harsh. There were words—very ugly, aggressive poetry—coming through in these beautiful cut outs.

AHW: I’d like to bring up the “ArtPark” show that you recently participated in. You showed a Sound Mobile installation, an interactive work that you’ve described as a drawing and a drum.

SS: It’s sort of a painting composition which doubles as a musical instrument, but it’s not really an instrument and it’s not really a painting. It moves. Mobile is an interesting symbol. It’s a very complex structure because it has to be balanced. All the pieces hang on one string and are connected with all the others. The structure is similar in my cut outs: everything you see is connected to everything else, otherwise it would fall out. In a mobile it’s like that, but three dimensional. I paint on the surfaces of the mobile in order to create a composition that holds together even though it moves. It’s visible and present but it can also be seen through.

The mobile I showed in “ArtPark” is the third or fourth mobile that doubles as a drum. In many of my works I introduce the Brechtian idea of alienation affect. Brecht proposed that the introduction of alienation affects in theater destroys the illusion for a moment and kicks the viewer back into reality; it forces you to take another look at what’s real. That’s exactly what I try there, in a very soft way: introducing a sound alongside the movement of the mobile forces you to use a different part of your brain. You have a moment of reconfiguring your thoughts towards that piece, and it’s your decision whether you want to do that or not. I leave that open. I love this idea. I’m really a fan of music, and it’s kind of like a random music piece then. You can play, but it needs you to concentrate on it to throw the ball, and so on. There’s movement in the space, too, since you have to pick up the ball again. It’s very complex. Change can happen in one moment and then there is reconfiguration in order to be changed again.

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AHW: Could you tell me more about how sound has influenced and shaped your work?

SS: Music is really important for me to listen to because it’s so structural. Bach, for example, is important. I like, and I’m jealous, like many visual artists, of the direct impact music has on people, how it travels, how it contains emotions, this is amazing. Sound exists in a different dimension than the visual world.

I was so happy to find a way to introduce drums. At first, I used rice paper, but it broke because people hit it too hard. Now I have real drum sets that I’ve painted on. I’ll work on mobiles until I die. It’s a slow process, slower than a drawing.

AHW: Looking over your diverse body of work I notice that there’s always a relationship in play: the cutout piece to its shadow on the wall, the mobile to the space, sound and participant.

SS: That’s important. I wasn’t conscious of it in the beginning because as a student I thought you made art for the white cube. Then I realized that what’s really at stake is the way people resonate with the work. It’s a form of communication. The pieces leave me and then they have to be able to speak up for themselves, they have to survive outside my studio. They have to have a life without me. I think it’s important that those artworks are still making sense to people when I’m not around to explain them.

AHW: You can’t stand in every gallery with every work that you show.

SS: I love communication. I sometimes feel like I think myself into the art piece as if the art piece is an actor or a person looking at the viewer. I try to imagine myself as a painting hanging on the wall and looking at you, the viewer. What do I say? I use a carpet as a backdrop to create a little stage, a theatrical setup to make the mobile an actor, a silent actor in many ways, but still and actor. The real artwork is not my work, it’s not what is displayed. It’s what happens between the viewer and the artwork.

AHW: What do you hope that your students take away from their MFA?

I try to understand every student on their own terms and help them discover what’s best for them. Sometimes they don’t understand that. They ask me for my opinion and I say it’s not that important. What’s important for me is whether something makes sense for the individual student or artist. That allows them to develop their own opinion about their work and where it’s going.

I hope they leave this program understanding certain strategies of survival, of how to make art in any circumstance. If a tsunami happens they should continue to make art. That’s what I try to tell them. They have to respect all their life circumstances. They have to figure them in instead of leaving them out. I always ask what’s going on in their lives. Can you factor that into your practice? As artists, we have to embrace that. Otherwise you work against yourself. If you have no money, you might not be able to do a huge installation, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work. You can still work: get a pencil, make a drawing. Make something. Don’t stop. Don’t let yourself be stopped by those problems.

The market comes up a lot, the galleries and stuff. I’m having a big struggle with that. It’s better to ignore that and do your own thing. What’s most important is knowing how to respect yourself and how to value yourself. If you do something just to sell it you will lose. Maybe you’ll make some money in the short term, but you’ll lose in the long term because you make yourself dependent on people who are not even interested in art, really.

AHW: I think there’s a question of what people are making art for and in what context.

SS: That’s the underlying main question. Go back and ask yourself what you’re making work for and then be true to that. Everybody asks themselves this question, even if they’re successful until the end of their life. What do I do that for, really? Why do I do this? Where do I go?

And some people come to very important artworks. Marina Abramovic did a great work staring people in the eye. How minimal, how reduced, but how strong.

AHW: Is she the one who said that the hardest thing to do is the smallest thing?

SS: I’m not sure if she said that but it’s true. We all know that it takes a great deal to get into MoMA, to be able to operate in that context. You can stare people in the eye on any given street corner, but it would have a different impact. The context is an important part of the piece.

AHW: It seems to me that the idea of publicness changes a great deal between the MoMA context and the street corner. I think that some institutional critique of museums winds up a little impotent, because it’s just dealing with the institution as such. It’s not bursting it open, it’s not putting art on the street.

SS: It’s a pretty much academic discussion. You can go outside MoMA to the sidewalk, and it’s a whole different reality. Even before museums existed you could have a similar experience in a church.

AHW: They’re both heterotopias.

SS: A church has different context. You go through the door and you’re in a different space. It’s the same with MoMA. It’s both good and bad for museums. What counts is that we are conscious of all the frames and agendas institutional spaces come with.

AHW: Do you think that art can outlive museums?

SS: Art was happening before museums and will therefore also outlive museums. Art will probably outlive everything because it’s a deep aspect and necessary part of what we call culture. It’s not just survival. It’s culture that makes us thrive. Art is a very primal part of that. Whether a lot of art you see today will survive, I don’t know, but it might outlive museums. Even if there’s no museum some people will feel the need to express something in a non-linguistic way. Language has its limits, more so than painting. An artwork is a form of very open communication that is not so defined as a text or a contract. That’s exactly the advantage. Everybody can talk about it and say, “what the fuck is this?” I like that.

It’s good for people to have something about which they can say, “what the fuck is this?” How boring would life be if you couldn’t say that?

When Mobile Porch was on the street in London, in rough parts of Notting Hill, we felt that it was important that people make the first step, that we didn’t demand that they look. That way, it became an exchange. People came up to us and asked, “what the fuck is this?” We said, “what do you think it is?”

Stefan Saffer teaches third year graduate seminar and studio practice in the MFA Art Practice program.

Speaking of Place: An Interview with Laura F. Gibellini by Thyrza Nichols Goodeve  
  Laura F. Gibellini  (AP Faculty) is a New York based artist, originally from Madrid, who teaches the online course Criticism II and serves as a Thesis Advisor. Gibellini received her PhD in Fine Arts from Complutense University of Madrid. Her dissertation  Local and Global Postmodern Paradoxes of Place  and her work are concerned with notions of place within the context of globalization. She produced a small booklet from her dissertation called   Construyendo un Lugar/ Constructing a Place .  In this, as you will see, “place” for her is hardly simple, nor even stable or containable. It is always in transition, a fiction made and remade. As she puts it, “The notion becoming place can help define the way place will be addressed in this text.” 
 The occasion for this interview is the completion of her 3 station project for the New York City MTA on the M line at the Fresh Pond Road, Forest Avenue and Seneca Avenue stations. Here she talks to fellow AP Faculty member  Thyrza Nichols Goodeve  about this project, what a PhD has meant to her art, and her most recent exhibition currently up at the Slowtrack Gallery in Madrid. 
 “Space is a doubt: I have constantly to make it, to designate it. It’s never mine, never given to me, I have to conquer it […]"  —Georges Perec, Species of Spaces and Other Places. (Quoted on p. 67 of  Construyendo un Lugar/ Constructing a Place  by Laura F. Gibellini.)  
 TNG: To begin I’d like to start with the last paragraph of your booklet,  Construyendo un Lugar/ Constructing a Place  where you say: 
 
 Perhaps there are no longer  places . Maybe they never existed. There are rather temporary locations, more or less contracted or expanded. Inhabitable spaces that are articulated between reflection and practice, between their geographic boundaries and their indefinite expansion: through (the emotional style of) a territory that is not reachable in any one place at all. This is the paradoxical nature of place I intended to refer to here. 
 
 The paradox is it is somehow never attainable, and yet always attainable, like a thread that is held by the points of a stitch but can be removed anytime, a place that as you say, “becomes apprehensible” between the “feasible and the factual.” 
   

 LFG: I think the notion of place is an illusion. I think it’s something that doesn’t quite exist. In my mind it’s not something one can get to but rather something one makes. 
 TNG: Yet, we do in fact inhabit places in very real concrete ways. We do make homes, some more permanent than others. But for you even this permanent home is never resolved because it is always changing. As you put it, “Place articulates a relationship –between the world conceived in the territory of the self, and the home, and the exteriority that circumscribes this state of being.” 
 LFG: Right, a “place” is never a stable location for me. This has to do with the idea of  becoming , of  becoming place  as I put it, but also with the distinction, in Spanish, of the words for place and space. Place is  lugar  and space,  espacio . Space has no coordinates. Whereas place is a place of action, you inhabit it, have a relationship with it. As I said, basically a place doesn’t exist until you make it. They are always changing. They are transitional. So I am interested in how you inhabit your home, but how you inhabit the world, how you construct it. My thesis was about the relationship between local and global and the force of the idea of a place and its application.  
 TNG: What is it about the present time—the time of globalization—that makes such a discussion of place necessary for you. Or is it merely personal? 
 LFG: Well, globalization is all about space and place. It’s about the tension between the consideration of the world as a globe and the specific locations that form the world order. But my interest in the idea of place might have to do with my own upbringing. 
 Growing up I never really felt at home in Madrid although I was born and grew up there. And this is because my Mom is from Italy and my Dad is from a French mother so neither of them are Spaniards. Because of their European backgrounds, my brother and I were kept on a European schedule so we didn’t follow what kids our age were doing. For instance, we went to bed earlier and so were not in the street playing late. We ate early –in Spain people eat at 10 pm. But it became bigger than that. In general, the whole mentality I grew up with, the things that people were interested in never interested me in the same way. I always felt a little bit “out of place.” It’s only later that I came to realize that this feeling has little to do with the specifics of a location but rather with my own mindset and understanding of my own sense of self. 
 TNG: Mapping seems to be the key word for you and yet for you the map is a denial or better a fantasy of a territory, at the same that it is supposedly a representation of it.  You describe maps as a kind of displacement—because the map “also involves norms and values of social order, not merely geographic ones.” I love the way you describe the points, lines and colors of the map as “domesticating” “standardizing” and “conquering a place.”  
 LFG:  Yes maps are the representation of a concept, an idea about the world or a particular space, but then you go to the territory and try to make sense of the map and in one way or another there seems to be a gap between representation and reality, as if concept and reality never quite overlap. 
 TNG: When one looks at the history of maps, one really does see the evolution of various concepts of place based on things like power, colonialism, technology, and so forth. It’s always baffled me how they created maps before the airplane or the use of the kinds of technologies we have now.  
   

   

   

   

 LFG: That was the very first thing I was thinking of: how there is a “globe” and then we have a representation of it, a projection, a map that is flat. So of course it’s impossible for the experience of a place and its representation to overlap perfectly. There is a gap there, something that does not quite fit. Any theory about a space, or a territory, that you are going to apply to the “real” world is just never going to make sense. 
 TNG: So the map is a theory to you. 
 LFG: Yes. For me the map is a metaphor of the relationship between theory and practice. A map represents an idea about a specific location or place, but maps are also devised for specific purposes. For instance certain maps are used for navigation at sea while others are used in airfare. In all cases, there is a theory that lives in a different realm, occupying an abstract space but then there is the application of that theory onto the territory. When you have to confront the territory or when you apply your ideas to a material entity, there is always an inherent disconnect that I am interested in exploring. It’s like art practice or writing. First you have an idea you want to explore and then, when you work in the studio or put words on a page, all kinds of things happen, all kind of decisions and factors including boredom, affect the practice and its outcome. I think of artworks or writings as ideas projected onto the territory, onto the physicality of the materials and the material world. 
 TNG: I love this idea of practice as territory and the map as theory, or better thinking of theory as a map rather than as a territory. When you did your PhD you were a practicing artist, right? 
 LFG: Yes, I studied art, fine arts and then I left school and worked for a couple of years in management, while maintaining my work as an artist. But it just became very exhausting. It was a complicated life to sustain so I thought I should go back to school for a PhD. The University I went to in Madrid has a very strong theory and art history department. They have an avenue where you can get a PhD in the school of Fine Art so my PhD is in Fine Art. My advisor was an art historian, and she was interested like you are, in making, in more than just a written thesis. So my PhD was a weird creature because it was in art but it also involved a great deal of writing. 
 TNG: Which is similar to what we do in Art Practice. For you your experience was successful. You were able to make art while also pursuing something that was research based and written? And you didn’t feel the research and writing was taking away from your work? 
 LFG: Two things happened. It is true, at a certain point I realized that if I wanted to finish my PhD I could not devote much time to making work. But I didn’t have much time for anything else anyway. I mean I didn’t have much of a life outside of the thesis work because that is the nature of writing, and the more you get into a particular topic the more you realize there is a certain end to one’s research yet at the same time, no particular end. But the importance of the thesis for my own making is essential, and that is very reassuring. 
 TNG: We deal with this question of reading, writing and research in tandem with making art all the time in this program because so much art today is inspired by more than just art, and it’s exhausting. We are inundated by new authors, new readings, new artists, but that is what the art world is today. It is a very complex and overpopulated space. It’s the Twitter logic, there’s something popping up and disappearing all the time. The question then, is, had you reached a point in your art practice that in order to do the work you are doing now, you felt you needed to spend time doing intense reading and reflection? 
 LFG: I think that’s correct to a certain extent. I couldn’t be happier now—what the PhD gave me was the capacity to go deeply into things in a way I couldn’t have done otherwise. Yes it can be a dry process but it is also a very fruitful one and for me it was the basis of many things that happened afterward. Of course, if you want to devote your time and energy to a thesis you have to have a mentor who is the right person. My advisor is by training an art historian but she is also detached from art history as an academic form. You would like her, she is interested in the sublime and Frankenstein and teaches all of that and she is more and more engaged in ecology issues and land art. She works with different approaches and develops projects with her partner, who is a geologist. Her interest in making was fundamental to me. 
 TNG: What do you think made your thesis different from one written by someone who wasn’t an artist? 
 LFG: Well, I think that artists “think” differently than art historians, for example, because art has its own way of existing and it is a particular mode of thinking. I considered my thesis a place in and of itself. It had its own logic. The most controversial thing about it is that it didn’t have conclusions. 
 TNG: It was about mapping? 
 LFG: Exactly it was about mapping some problems that were inherent in what I was thinking about, so there really wasn’t a conclusive argument or a thesis to prove—it was an exploration, a mapping. 
 TNG: Of different places or different definitions? 
 LFG: Definitions… The title was  Local and Global Postmodern Paradoxes of Place . It relates to this conversation we are having here. It started with the question, “what is a place?” and it focused on the relationship between the local and the global realm. 
 TNG: Could you give me some specific authors or concepts you were dealing with? 
 LFG: One of the big influences was Peter Sloterdijk’s  Spheres,  where he deals with forms of existence and their organization as spherical entities from the little cell to the cosmos, and the set of relationships they establish and that constitute our world order. I also grappled with artworks from the fall of the Berlin wall onward. 
   

 TNG: Was Bachelard a part of it? 
 LFG: A little, especially at the beginning of the process but I am really not that interested in the exploration of memory, or childhood, or even in the experience of a poetic space. I was thinking differently than that. 
 TNG: Could you talk about the piece you did for   JAR  (Journal for Artistic Research)  where you have a line drawing and then numbers?  
   

 LFG: This image as presented here was part of a text derived from my investigations on the nature of place.  JAR  offers an online platform to explore what they call “artistic research” where, due to the technological constitution of the site, text, audio, video, slides, images—everything interacts in a very interesting way. The drawing belongs to a series called  NYC Panorama . I took 25 buildings of NYC and did a follow-the-dot schema. 
 TNG: Are we supposed to follow the dots? Is there a key? If we drew a line between the dots would we see a place emerge? Where am I? Is this in a gallery? Or what is it? What am I seeing? What do the numbers reference? 
 LFG: It’s a drawing. And if you follow the numbers and the dots you are able to complete the image of the building. I am very interested in how these minimal elements— lines, dots (and colors) define an image, or create a place. 
 TNG: But on the web site there is interaction so it could be web art. 
 LFG: That’s interesting.   
 TNG: It almost works better than as a discrete drawing since it makes your point about place as movement, change, i.e.,  making  a place. 
 LFG: That’s in the nature of the platform,  JAR . But something I’ve come to terms with about my art is that it is never about the piece. It’s always about the next piece, or about the process, or about the work as a whole… so it’s an ongoing thinking process that never ends. You make something that opens up problems and then you go to the next. I went to a talk at Cooper Union with Francis Alÿs the other day and he said, “When the work is done it is done.” And I try to get into this mentality because for me specific artworks make sense in the context of a particular sequence of thought. Once that is finished the piece is a mere residue. 
 TNG: Which brings us to the MTA subway station project. When did it go up and where? 
   

   
   

   
 LFG: It was finished on December 31, 2013 and it is at three stations along the M line: Fresh Pond Road, Forest Avenue and Seneca Avenue stations.  
 TNG: How did it evolve? 
 LFG: When I was selected for the project they brought all the finalists in and showed us the stations and the neighborhood. They set out very specific parameters such as there would be a total of twelve laminated glass windows and a mosaic mural. 
 TNG: So your task was to fill the windows? 
 LFG: I actually had to develop a project for three adjacent stations that would work as a whole but also as individual pieces, and in two very different media, mosaic and glass (none of which I had worked with before). The first piece depicts an interior space that is a bedroom (that is based on a real one). This is the starting point of the project. 
 TNG: I’m curious how you made the selection. What was it about that bedroom in particular that made you choose it for the mosaic? 
 LFG: Because it was old fashioned and speaks to everyone. 
 TNG: And a private space? 
 LFG: Yes, a private space that occupies a public one. But the image in the mosaic has different elements that link it to the exterior too. There is a wallpaper in the background that comes from a series of wallpaper patterns that I developed some time ago and that derive from maps. So the map is in there. There are also trees and patters from nature. And there is a window. 
 TNG: Does the map have any relation to anything in particular? The map is of what? 
 LFG: It’s a pattern made as if it were a map but it isn’t based on any actual location. The colors do come from a real map of the Adirondack area. This appears in the background and then there are these trees and vegetable life that enter into the room. So it is an interior space that is an exterior one at the same time. This was the mosaic. The next two stations had hanging clothes on the windows. I have been interested in the way clotheslines represent the interior dimension of a life projected outside. 
 TNG: And New York City used to be covered with clotheslines. That’s what the Ashcan school painted – like John Sloan’s 1912 “A Woman’s Work.” 
   

 The curator was very smart to give you three so the passenger on the subway sees the iteration of your ideas of interior and exterior NYC places.  
 LFG: Right. People still hang clothes out there. And the fact they are windows means you can see the actual landscape of New York City in the background through the image.  
 TNG: For most people subways are not cozy but about being thrust into the public, into the heart of the city. So the image of these domestic spaces creates a place for people to reimagine themselves back into a private world –one they might either have just left or will return to at the end of the day. 
 LFG: Yes I was trying to give a sense almost of inside out—what is exterior, what is interior—this is a dichotomy that has always interested me. 
 TNG: It makes me think of those projects of Acconci Studio that are all about mixing up the interior and interior in quite funny ways. The Philadelphia International Airport for instance.  
   

 Or his early piece,  Instant House  (1980) 
   

 But in terms of your subway pieces, the permanence must be a bit overwhelming. It’s kind of a revenge against what all your other work has been about.  These are strategic locations, places that may shift in perspective as the viewer moves in the subway but ultimately they are static, permanent, and do not change. 
 LFG: Well it does change (to a certain extent)… based on the time of day the light changes and so do the windows… But yes, I am ambivalent about that aspect. What was hard for me when I started working on the project was its permanence. My work has always been about impermanence or about the ideas, not so much about the material piece itself, and then all of sudden I am asked to do something that will last and that people will see everyday. I felt a great sense of responsibility. Now I feel better because I think the project belongs to its location but I am glad I don’t have to take that subway everyday. 
 TNG: I guess the question to end with then is will this change the nature of your work from this point on? 
 LFG: Well the next thing that happened was a show at a gallery in Madrid. The basis of that project was the subway installation. I wanted to find a way to bring it inside the gallery but also to link it to other new pieces.  
   

   

 What you see in the background is a print, and the glass pieces are based on the subway project, it’s the same type of glass. I was interested once again in the idea and how it is translated into the paper, into a window. How it exists in NYC but can also exist elsewhere. Added to the windows is an image of clouds in the background that relate to more recent projects (the subway piece was developed over more than a year and by the time it was completed my mind was somewhere else). Recently I did a whole series of drawing of rocks and clouds that were also shown in Madrid. 
   

   

   
 I was interested in the representation of nature, in the same way I was interested in the clothesline as the representation of a life, this hanging life represented in the clothes. What you see in this piece are both clouds and rocks rendered as a collection of dots. But it is hard to tell which one is which—because in essence they are the same thing, with a similar shape. My idea for this show was to explore representation, and the “nature of things” and the “things in nature” (hence the title). I included some pieces that I called “Key to the Artworks” that refer once more to maps, measurement systems, schemes of colors—the color in the glass and so on.  
 TNG: It seems like your work is becoming less ephemeral. 
 LFG: Well, perhaps. Still when people ask me what I do I always say drawing because drawing is what I am doing all the time. And for me it is similar to thinking. I recently did a piece in Knoxville that is a drawing of the contour of Tennessee as an extended line. It comes from a series where I have all the countries of the world represented as a line. It’s interesting, when I was in Tennessee I had to drive everywhere and I don’t have a smart phone so whenever I had to go anywhere I drew a small map of how to get there. And that is so important to me. I have to do that, otherwise I have no sense of a place. It is about the practice of the territory, the experience of it, the drawing of it. The drawing is like thinking for me—the place where the thinking and the doing are connected. And, by the way, I can never follow a map.  
   

 TNG: That’s hysterical—you like maps precisely because you can’t follow them?!  
 LFG: Right. I can’t follow them because they do not overlap with the territory for me. 
 TNG: Unless  you  make it. 
 LFG: That’s right, unless I make it, or draw it. 
 ***  
 “every place has a hole through which it threatens to fall, where it is at risk of losing it’s identity, a crack through which its nature and spirit escape and penetrates the putrid air …” 
 —Jose Luis Pardo,  A cualquier cosa llaman arte , (Free Translation. Quoted on page 67 of  Construyendo un Lugar/ Constructing a Place )

Speaking of Place: An Interview with Laura F. Gibellini by Thyrza Nichols Goodeve

Laura F. Gibellini (AP Faculty) is a New York based artist, originally from Madrid, who teaches the online course Criticism II and serves as a Thesis Advisor. Gibellini received her PhD in Fine Arts from Complutense University of Madrid. Her dissertation Local and Global Postmodern Paradoxes of Place and her work are concerned with notions of place within the context of globalization. She produced a small booklet from her dissertation called Construyendo un Lugar/ Constructing a PlaceIn this, as you will see, “place” for her is hardly simple, nor even stable or containable. It is always in transition, a fiction made and remade. As she puts it, “The notion becoming place can help define the way place will be addressed in this text.”

The occasion for this interview is the completion of her 3 station project for the New York City MTA on the M line at the Fresh Pond Road, Forest Avenue and Seneca Avenue stations. Here she talks to fellow AP Faculty member Thyrza Nichols Goodeve about this project, what a PhD has meant to her art, and her most recent exhibition currently up at the Slowtrack Gallery in Madrid.

“Space is a doubt: I have constantly to make it, to designate it. It’s never mine, never given to me, I have to conquer it […]" 
—Georges Perec, Species of Spaces and Other Places. (Quoted on p. 67 of Construyendo un Lugar/ Constructing a Place by Laura F. Gibellini.)

TNG: To begin I’d like to start with the last paragraph of your booklet, Construyendo un Lugar/ Constructing a Place where you say:

Perhaps there are no longer places. Maybe they never existed. There are rather temporary locations, more or less contracted or expanded. Inhabitable spaces that are articulated between reflection and practice, between their geographic boundaries and their indefinite expansion: through (the emotional style of) a territory that is not reachable in any one place at all. This is the paradoxical nature of place I intended to refer to here.

The paradox is it is somehow never attainable, and yet always attainable, like a thread that is held by the points of a stitch but can be removed anytime, a place that as you say, “becomes apprehensible” between the “feasible and the factual.”

LFG: I think the notion of place is an illusion. I think it’s something that doesn’t quite exist. In my mind it’s not something one can get to but rather something one makes.

TNG: Yet, we do in fact inhabit places in very real concrete ways. We do make homes, some more permanent than others. But for you even this permanent home is never resolved because it is always changing. As you put it, “Place articulates a relationship –between the world conceived in the territory of the self, and the home, and the exteriority that circumscribes this state of being.”

LFG: Right, a “place” is never a stable location for me. This has to do with the idea of becoming, of becoming place as I put it, but also with the distinction, in Spanish, of the words for place and space. Place is lugar and space, espacio. Space has no coordinates. Whereas place is a place of action, you inhabit it, have a relationship with it. As I said, basically a place doesn’t exist until you make it. They are always changing. They are transitional. So I am interested in how you inhabit your home, but how you inhabit the world, how you construct it. My thesis was about the relationship between local and global and the force of the idea of a place and its application. 

TNG: What is it about the present time—the time of globalization—that makes such a discussion of place necessary for you. Or is it merely personal?

LFG: Well, globalization is all about space and place. It’s about the tension between the consideration of the world as a globe and the specific locations that form the world order. But my interest in the idea of place might have to do with my own upbringing.

Growing up I never really felt at home in Madrid although I was born and grew up there. And this is because my Mom is from Italy and my Dad is from a French mother so neither of them are Spaniards. Because of their European backgrounds, my brother and I were kept on a European schedule so we didn’t follow what kids our age were doing. For instance, we went to bed earlier and so were not in the street playing late. We ate early –in Spain people eat at 10 pm. But it became bigger than that. In general, the whole mentality I grew up with, the things that people were interested in never interested me in the same way. I always felt a little bit “out of place.” It’s only later that I came to realize that this feeling has little to do with the specifics of a location but rather with my own mindset and understanding of my own sense of self.

TNG: Mapping seems to be the key word for you and yet for you the map is a denial or better a fantasy of a territory, at the same that it is supposedly a representation of it.  You describe maps as a kind of displacement—because the map “also involves norms and values of social order, not merely geographic ones.” I love the way you describe the points, lines and colors of the map as “domesticating” “standardizing” and “conquering a place.” 

LFG:  Yes maps are the representation of a concept, an idea about the world or a particular space, but then you go to the territory and try to make sense of the map and in one way or another there seems to be a gap between representation and reality, as if concept and reality never quite overlap.

TNG: When one looks at the history of maps, one really does see the evolution of various concepts of place based on things like power, colonialism, technology, and so forth. It’s always baffled me how they created maps before the airplane or the use of the kinds of technologies we have now. 

LFG: That was the very first thing I was thinking of: how there is a “globe” and then we have a representation of it, a projection, a map that is flat. So of course it’s impossible for the experience of a place and its representation to overlap perfectly. There is a gap there, something that does not quite fit. Any theory about a space, or a territory, that you are going to apply to the “real” world is just never going to make sense.

TNG: So the map is a theory to you.

LFG: Yes. For me the map is a metaphor of the relationship between theory and practice. A map represents an idea about a specific location or place, but maps are also devised for specific purposes. For instance certain maps are used for navigation at sea while others are used in airfare. In all cases, there is a theory that lives in a different realm, occupying an abstract space but then there is the application of that theory onto the territory. When you have to confront the territory or when you apply your ideas to a material entity, there is always an inherent disconnect that I am interested in exploring. It’s like art practice or writing. First you have an idea you want to explore and then, when you work in the studio or put words on a page, all kinds of things happen, all kind of decisions and factors including boredom, affect the practice and its outcome. I think of artworks or writings as ideas projected onto the territory, onto the physicality of the materials and the material world.

TNG: I love this idea of practice as territory and the map as theory, or better thinking of theory as a map rather than as a territory. When you did your PhD you were a practicing artist, right?

LFG: Yes, I studied art, fine arts and then I left school and worked for a couple of years in management, while maintaining my work as an artist. But it just became very exhausting. It was a complicated life to sustain so I thought I should go back to school for a PhD. The University I went to in Madrid has a very strong theory and art history department. They have an avenue where you can get a PhD in the school of Fine Art so my PhD is in Fine Art. My advisor was an art historian, and she was interested like you are, in making, in more than just a written thesis. So my PhD was a weird creature because it was in art but it also involved a great deal of writing.

TNG: Which is similar to what we do in Art Practice. For you your experience was successful. You were able to make art while also pursuing something that was research based and written? And you didn’t feel the research and writing was taking away from your work?

LFG: Two things happened. It is true, at a certain point I realized that if I wanted to finish my PhD I could not devote much time to making work. But I didn’t have much time for anything else anyway. I mean I didn’t have much of a life outside of the thesis work because that is the nature of writing, and the more you get into a particular topic the more you realize there is a certain end to one’s research yet at the same time, no particular end. But the importance of the thesis for my own making is essential, and that is very reassuring.

TNG: We deal with this question of reading, writing and research in tandem with making art all the time in this program because so much art today is inspired by more than just art, and it’s exhausting. We are inundated by new authors, new readings, new artists, but that is what the art world is today. It is a very complex and overpopulated space. It’s the Twitter logic, there’s something popping up and disappearing all the time. The question then, is, had you reached a point in your art practice that in order to do the work you are doing now, you felt you needed to spend time doing intense reading and reflection?

LFG: I think that’s correct to a certain extent. I couldn’t be happier now—what the PhD gave me was the capacity to go deeply into things in a way I couldn’t have done otherwise. Yes it can be a dry process but it is also a very fruitful one and for me it was the basis of many things that happened afterward. Of course, if you want to devote your time and energy to a thesis you have to have a mentor who is the right person. My advisor is by training an art historian but she is also detached from art history as an academic form. You would like her, she is interested in the sublime and Frankenstein and teaches all of that and she is more and more engaged in ecology issues and land art. She works with different approaches and develops projects with her partner, who is a geologist. Her interest in making was fundamental to me.

TNG: What do you think made your thesis different from one written by someone who wasn’t an artist?

LFG: Well, I think that artists “think” differently than art historians, for example, because art has its own way of existing and it is a particular mode of thinking. I considered my thesis a place in and of itself. It had its own logic. The most controversial thing about it is that it didn’t have conclusions.

TNG: It was about mapping?

LFG: Exactly it was about mapping some problems that were inherent in what I was thinking about, so there really wasn’t a conclusive argument or a thesis to prove—it was an exploration, a mapping.

TNG: Of different places or different definitions?

LFG: Definitions… The title was Local and Global Postmodern Paradoxes of Place. It relates to this conversation we are having here. It started with the question, “what is a place?” and it focused on the relationship between the local and the global realm.

TNG: Could you give me some specific authors or concepts you were dealing with?

LFG: One of the big influences was Peter Sloterdijk’s Spheres, where he deals with forms of existence and their organization as spherical entities from the little cell to the cosmos, and the set of relationships they establish and that constitute our world order. I also grappled with artworks from the fall of the Berlin wall onward.

TNG: Was Bachelard a part of it?

LFG: A little, especially at the beginning of the process but I am really not that interested in the exploration of memory, or childhood, or even in the experience of a poetic space. I was thinking differently than that.

TNG: Could you talk about the piece you did for JAR (Journal for Artistic Research) where you have a line drawing and then numbers? 

LFG: This image as presented here was part of a text derived from my investigations on the nature of place. JAR offers an online platform to explore what they call “artistic research” where, due to the technological constitution of the site, text, audio, video, slides, images—everything interacts in a very interesting way. The drawing belongs to a series called NYC Panorama. I took 25 buildings of NYC and did a follow-the-dot schema.

TNG: Are we supposed to follow the dots? Is there a key? If we drew a line between the dots would we see a place emerge? Where am I? Is this in a gallery? Or what is it? What am I seeing? What do the numbers reference?

LFG: It’s a drawing. And if you follow the numbers and the dots you are able to complete the image of the building. I am very interested in how these minimal elements— lines, dots (and colors) define an image, or create a place.

TNG: But on the web site there is interaction so it could be web art.

LFG: That’s interesting.  

TNG: It almost works better than as a discrete drawing since it makes your point about place as movement, change, i.e., making a place.

LFG: That’s in the nature of the platform, JAR. But something I’ve come to terms with about my art is that it is never about the piece. It’s always about the next piece, or about the process, or about the work as a whole… so it’s an ongoing thinking process that never ends. You make something that opens up problems and then you go to the next. I went to a talk at Cooper Union with Francis Alÿs the other day and he said, “When the work is done it is done.” And I try to get into this mentality because for me specific artworks make sense in the context of a particular sequence of thought. Once that is finished the piece is a mere residue.

TNG: Which brings us to the MTA subway station project. When did it go up and where?

LFG: It was finished on December 31, 2013 and it is at three stations along the M line: Fresh Pond Road, Forest Avenue and Seneca Avenue stations. 

TNG: How did it evolve?

LFG: When I was selected for the project they brought all the finalists in and showed us the stations and the neighborhood. They set out very specific parameters such as there would be a total of twelve laminated glass windows and a mosaic mural.

TNG: So your task was to fill the windows?

LFG: I actually had to develop a project for three adjacent stations that would work as a whole but also as individual pieces, and in two very different media, mosaic and glass (none of which I had worked with before). The first piece depicts an interior space that is a bedroom (that is based on a real one). This is the starting point of the project.

TNG: I’m curious how you made the selection. What was it about that bedroom in particular that made you choose it for the mosaic?

LFG: Because it was old fashioned and speaks to everyone.

TNG: And a private space?

LFG: Yes, a private space that occupies a public one. But the image in the mosaic has different elements that link it to the exterior too. There is a wallpaper in the background that comes from a series of wallpaper patterns that I developed some time ago and that derive from maps. So the map is in there. There are also trees and patters from nature. And there is a window.

TNG: Does the map have any relation to anything in particular? The map is of what?

LFG: It’s a pattern made as if it were a map but it isn’t based on any actual location. The colors do come from a real map of the Adirondack area. This appears in the background and then there are these trees and vegetable life that enter into the room. So it is an interior space that is an exterior one at the same time. This was the mosaic. The next two stations had hanging clothes on the windows. I have been interested in the way clotheslines represent the interior dimension of a life projected outside.

TNG: And New York City used to be covered with clotheslines. That’s what the Ashcan school painted – like John Sloan’s 1912 “A Woman’s Work.”

The curator was very smart to give you three so the passenger on the subway sees the iteration of your ideas of interior and exterior NYC places. 

LFG: Right. People still hang clothes out there. And the fact they are windows means you can see the actual landscape of New York City in the background through the image. 

TNG: For most people subways are not cozy but about being thrust into the public, into the heart of the city. So the image of these domestic spaces creates a place for people to reimagine themselves back into a private world –one they might either have just left or will return to at the end of the day.

LFG: Yes I was trying to give a sense almost of inside out—what is exterior, what is interior—this is a dichotomy that has always interested me.

TNG: It makes me think of those projects of Acconci Studio that are all about mixing up the interior and interior in quite funny ways. The Philadelphia International Airport for instance. 

Or his early piece, Instant House (1980)

But in terms of your subway pieces, the permanence must be a bit overwhelming. It’s kind of a revenge against what all your other work has been about.  These are strategic locations, places that may shift in perspective as the viewer moves in the subway but ultimately they are static, permanent, and do not change.

LFG: Well it does change (to a certain extent)… based on the time of day the light changes and so do the windows… But yes, I am ambivalent about that aspect. What was hard for me when I started working on the project was its permanence. My work has always been about impermanence or about the ideas, not so much about the material piece itself, and then all of sudden I am asked to do something that will last and that people will see everyday. I felt a great sense of responsibility. Now I feel better because I think the project belongs to its location but I am glad I don’t have to take that subway everyday.

TNG: I guess the question to end with then is will this change the nature of your work from this point on?

LFG: Well the next thing that happened was a show at a gallery in Madrid. The basis of that project was the subway installation. I wanted to find a way to bring it inside the gallery but also to link it to other new pieces. 

What you see in the background is a print, and the glass pieces are based on the subway project, it’s the same type of glass. I was interested once again in the idea and how it is translated into the paper, into a window. How it exists in NYC but can also exist elsewhere. Added to the windows is an image of clouds in the background that relate to more recent projects (the subway piece was developed over more than a year and by the time it was completed my mind was somewhere else). Recently I did a whole series of drawing of rocks and clouds that were also shown in Madrid.

I was interested in the representation of nature, in the same way I was interested in the clothesline as the representation of a life, this hanging life represented in the clothes. What you see in this piece are both clouds and rocks rendered as a collection of dots. But it is hard to tell which one is which—because in essence they are the same thing, with a similar shape. My idea for this show was to explore representation, and the “nature of things” and the “things in nature” (hence the title). I included some pieces that I called “Key to the Artworks” that refer once more to maps, measurement systems, schemes of colors—the color in the glass and so on. 

TNG: It seems like your work is becoming less ephemeral.

LFG: Well, perhaps. Still when people ask me what I do I always say drawing because drawing is what I am doing all the time. And for me it is similar to thinking. I recently did a piece in Knoxville that is a drawing of the contour of Tennessee as an extended line. It comes from a series where I have all the countries of the world represented as a line. It’s interesting, when I was in Tennessee I had to drive everywhere and I don’t have a smart phone so whenever I had to go anywhere I drew a small map of how to get there. And that is so important to me. I have to do that, otherwise I have no sense of a place. It is about the practice of the territory, the experience of it, the drawing of it. The drawing is like thinking for me—the place where the thinking and the doing are connected. And, by the way, I can never follow a map. 

TNG: That’s hysterical—you like maps precisely because you can’t follow them?! 

LFG: Right. I can’t follow them because they do not overlap with the territory for me.

TNG: Unless you make it.

LFG: That’s right, unless I make it, or draw it.

*** 

“every place has a hole through which it threatens to fall, where it is at risk of losing it’s identity, a crack through which its nature and spirit escape and penetrates the putrid air …”

—Jose Luis Pardo, A cualquier cosa llaman arte, (Free Translation. Quoted on page 67 of Construyendo un Lugar/ Constructing a Place)

Faculty Feature: The Contested Territories of Sarah G. Sharp

image

What does it mean to be outside? What does it mean to be inside? What does it mean to build a utopian community?

Last Monday AP faculty member Sarah G. Sharp (far right) joined artist Ariel Jackson at Videology in Brooklyn to talk about the moving image and art. The event was part of the DELVE networking series hosted by Kind Aesthetic

Allison Hewitt Ward profiles her. 

 

Sarah’s work explores the representations and iconography of space, both physical and cultural. While she often responds to the language(s) of media, she explained that her practice is based in materials. “I make a lot of things with my hands,” she told the group assembled around tables in Videology’s screening room, “which comes out of drawing.”

In The Devil in Our Midst, an ongoing multimedia project, Sarah uses drawings and an interactive Google map to present an archive of American sites with “devil names”(e.g., Devil’s Tower, Wyoming). She explained that many of these sites contained  resources that European settlers wanted to keep to themselves, so they assigned names designed to frighten  others away. These significations of land by and in the service of societies are interrogated frequently in her work.


Sierra Madre/Rio Claro from Sarah G Sharp on Vimeo.

During a 2011 residency at the Cortijada Los Gazquez in the Parque Natural Sierra Maria - Los Velez in Spain, Sarah used collage to explore the shapes of now-defunct property boundaries in the landscape. This body of work, entitled The Other Side, addresses the mutable personal and cultural mythologies of landscape.  It includes panoramas rendered into video that Sarah created by turning her body to position herself as the perceptive agent at the intersection of nature and cultural signification. Another video presents a still time-lapse of the landscape in which day and night pass over in the course of an hour. Her use of moving images allows her to collage elements of time and space just as she does boundaries and vistas.

Sarah credits a childhood defined by her utopian fundamentalist Christian family with her continuing interest in the dialectic of inside and outside. “What does it mean to be outside?” she asks. “What does it mean to be inside? What does it mean to build a utopian community?” Her most recent work, The Youth Communes of the Pacific States, takes on these questions. Through research in photo archives of ‘60s and ‘70s communes, mini-utopias guided by a fantasy of primitivism and a rejection of contemporary society, Sarah discovered a body of somewhat paradoxical images: representations of ”alternative lifestyles” whose subjects were all white and heterosexual. She was particularly interested in a special issue of Life Magazine entitled “The Youth Communes,” which took on the task of representing the ”alternative” to the ”mainstream.” In a series of works that combine embroidery and collaged deconstructions that take after Buckminster Fuller’s utopian geometry she breaks open the layers of representation of work in these images in order to unpack the narratives they form and repeat of who we, as a culture, are.

Sarah G. Sharp teaches Beginner Video and Sound Editing and Intermediate-Advanced Video and Sound Editing in the MFA Art Practice program at the School of Visual Arts.

-Allison Hewitt Ward (AP Staff)

Categorical Disruption: A Conversation with Beth B by Allison Hewitt Ward

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Bunny Love performs in EXPOSED, a documentary produced and directed by Beth B


After graduating from the School of Visual Arts in the 1970s, Art Practice faculty member Beth B was active in the New York underground scene as a filmmaker and installation artist. After subsequent years working in television, she’s returned to her roots with her new documentary, EXPOSED, an in-depth look at the lives and work of eight of New York city’s most groundbreaking burlesque performers. Beth B sat down with AP staff member Allison Hewitt Ward to discuss the making of the documentary, and the breaking down of boundaries in both art and culture at large.

On Monday, March 3 Beth B will be joined by the stars of EXPOSED for a screening of the film at the Museum of Modern Art.  On March 13, EXPOSED begins a theatrical run at the IFC Center, NYC. Starring Bambi the Mermaid, Bunny Love, Dirty Martini, Julie Atlas Muz, Mat Fraser, Rose Wood, Tigger!, World Famous *BOB* and James Habacker.


AHW: It seems like a lot of your work has dealt with marginal or liminal subjectivities. What drew you to burlesque performers as the subject of your new documentary?

BB: I worked in independent film and in the fine arts for most of my career and at a certain point I had to figure out how to actually survive financially as an artist, so I started to work in television. I kind of took a hiatus from fine arts and independent filmmaking and I worked as a producer and director for cable television for about eight years . It was a whole different world for me, one that I could learn a lot in, but after eight years I felt like my heart was breaking. It was becoming very painful to put so much energy into these documentary programs where artistic compromises had to be made ongoingly. I needed to get back to my roots in filmmaking and art making where I could be in control…ultimately, it’s all about control. I started to go to some clubs with the idea of doing something really different on my own terms without being told to cut this, change the voiceover, re-write this.

When I started to go to some of the burlesque clubs, I was mesmerized by the performers on stage. These were performers who were using the vehicle of burlesque to address certain social, political and gender issues. After filming many hours in the clubs, I started to focus on eight performers who were doing groundbreaking work that harked back to the work of Karen Finley and Robert Mapplethorpe. I hadn’t seen people pushing boundaries in this way for some time—I wanted to make a film that was as uncensored as the performance artists I saw on stage, so it was really giving the performance artists kind of a stage within the film to express themselves without judgment or censorship or manipulation. But of course in film there always is manipulation. When I start editing or what angle I’m filming them at, there’s always manipulation in that regard, but I felt like I was not coming in there with judgment about what they were doing, or endorsing what they were doing, even, but rather, offering it up for thought and query.


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James Habacker at Mat Fraser 


AHW: You shot much of this film by yourself without a crew. Did that affect what you were able to capture and offer up in the film?

BB: For the first few months I worked with a wonderful cameraman, Dan Karlok, but the performers were really hesitant about letting me film backstage with any kind of crew. I talked to one of the performers and she said, “You know, Beth, I think you need to just do it yourself and get a really small camera—no crew.” That really brought me back to my days of super 8 filmmaking when all I had was a little box camera, and I realized that I had to return full circle to my roots in guerilla filmmaking. I basically did everything myself. It worked like a charm and the performers graciously invited me backstage and into situations where they had previously been reticent to open the door.

We started filming in SD and some of the footage is so pixelated that I cringe when I see it, but in a sense, it’s a historical document. It’s documenting a time and a place in NY. It’s back to guerilla filmmaking as I experienced it when I first made films with super 8 film. Now, in the distribution process, instead of carrying my super 8 projector around, I’m traveling with the film, and often with one of the performers, to do a live presentation. We’re framing it as an event. We’ve done this a lot in Europe where we’ve brought the film to a cinema or to a film festival and had live performance as well as Q&A with the audience. EXPOSED is about inclusivity vs. exclusivity. These performer want to seduce, humor, entertain and then talk about important social, political and gender issues. It’s a transcendent experience. The film is about the interchange between the performers and the audience. In the film you rarely see a reaction shot from the club audience. This is a deliberate choice. I don’t want there to be anyone mediating that direct experience between the performer and the cinema audience.

AHW: So you’re really positioning the audience as the viewers of the performance in the club.

BB: Yes. And so in a way, I’m trying to transport the cinema audience into that framework, into the context of the club, so that we’re getting their reactions as opposed to seeing the reactions of the audience members who were in the club. And even the way I chose to film it, the point of view is very straight on, just inches from the stage, often from one angle, as though you are intimately front and center at the foot of the stage.

AHW: There’s none of those stand-up show cuts to the person laughing in the front row.

BB: Exactly. So that was a very critical choice for me in terms of the shooting of EXPOSED and in the editing. Some people get very disturbed by that. I had one producer who kept saying, “but you need audience shots!” and I said, “No! I don’t want audience shots.” Because it’s a removal. It distances the audience from the experience.

AHW: It makes it all the more mediated.

BB: Yeah.

AHW: Something that Julie Atlas Muz, one of the featured performers, talked about was using burlesque to disrupt the male gaze, an effect you also seem to accomplish in the film. It doesn’t feel voyeuristic to me.

BB: To me, what these performers are doing is not even sexual in a sense.

AHW: It was not titillating.

BB: It’s not about that, just as when Karen Finley performed, she was in the nude, but it wasn’t for the sake of titillating the audience. Burlesque does have this long tradition that has been meant for the male gaze. These performers that I chose are really recasting that point of view. I feel like these performers are looking to blur gender lines, to question our limits of sexuality and sensuality. Whatever the gender of the audience is doesn’t matter, because it’s the performer’s point of view. They’re not doing it to please, or to titillate…

AHW: … to tease

BB: …tease. That’s not the purpose. There’s humor. A lot of it is very comedic. You do not see comedy in traditional strip clubs, you know, you’d get thrown out if you were doing something comic in a strip club, so I think the element of comedy is really important in regards to these performers’ personas. They give a little wink and a nod to the audience. Again, it’s more inclusive than exclusive. The performers want to include the audience, they actually physically go out into the audience, they sometimes spit on the audience, and a lot of that has to do with sort of a desire to have the audience look at their own individual boundaries, like how far is too far? Rose Wood addresses this very specifically in her work and that’s what she’s constantly doing: wanting the audience to question.

AHW: One of the things that I noticed was how much they talked about their work in the context of liberation and freedom. Tigger! talked about how liberating it was to shed certain aspects of ‘male’ normativity.

BB: Right, his reference to “ridicuous-looking genitals.”

AHW: More often when we think about gender norms we think about the constraints that they place on women. But he addressed the liberation of shedding male gender norms in performance.

BB: Many, if not all of the performers are talking about liberation of the mind. So it’s not just the body, it’s how we think about the body, nudity, how comfortable are we with our nakedness and others’ nakedness and that’s why I included footage of Tigger! in the audience with an erection. People may think it was gratuitous for me to put that in, but that was really important, for us to all question why our sexuality is still so taboo, why the orgasm or an erection is still taboo…unless it’s “pornography”. Who has written these rules of appropriateness? I think at one time in history we were so much freer with our bodies.


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Julie Atlas Muz 


AHW: Julie Atlas Muz, talked about taking people back to the garden of Eden, before the time when Eve ate the apple

BB: Yeah, also in terms of role-playing. And I think that’s a really powerful and liberating thing to see in the film. Some of the characters are inhabiting different gender roles and allowing themselves to be subservient in a way that we are perhaps not used to, others being more dominant. You know, Mat Frazier and Julie, they have a wonderful love story in the film and there’s a truly kind of profound moment in the performance with the ukulele where Mat’s arms are actually Julie’s arms, and his fingers are actually her fingers, and there’s a true sense of vulnerability in that piece. It strips away that hierarchy of the male over the female and he allows himself to be so vulnerable and dependent, letting the female be his voice, because they use their bodies as their voice.

There are moments like that in the film that are genuinely startling and touching and heartbreaking. I find some of the stories in the film to be so honest and brave. These are courageous performers who allow us, even invite us to accept ourselves, warts and all, by revealing their own flaws and vulnerability.

AHW: In your previous work you’ve often defied medium specificity and crossed boundaries between art disciplines: you’ve done multimedia installations, for example, and your screenings of EXPOSED have included live performances. A lot of the performers in EXPOSED are dealing with normativity and disintegrating the boundaries between genders. There seems to be a correlation between the way your work pokes at boundaries between media and these performances that poke at the boundaries delineated by gender.

BB: I think that’s definitely true. My entire career has been about breaking down the boundaries between art disciplines. I guess I am utterly and forever attracted to those people who are breaking down boundaries in whatever world they are operating in, whatever milieu or medium or workplace. I’ve always been attracted to the outsider, those breaking down the hierarchy or the traditional norms and the rules, not just for the sake of going against the rules. I think that true artistic expression is about finding one’s own boundaries and one’s own set of rules and not adhering to the norms. To me that’s been the most important part of my creative process. It’s also been a problem. I have problems with boundaries in many aspects of my life because there’s a part of me that doesn’t feel that we should have boundaries, even though I know that we have to have boundaries, because otherwise we’d all possibly be murdering each other.

I think that there is a correlation between the performers’ limitless proclamation to break our boundaries down and my art practice and my process. I start with the content. What is the content? What is the idea? To me, that’s the most important thing. That then dictates what form it’s going to take. Do I make a film, do I create a multi-media installation, do I make a painting, do I create a sculpture? And what is the context? Do I show it in a gallery, is it for a museum, is it to be shown in a penitentiary, is it up on a screen in a cinema, or is it in a club? So I think that all those considerations definitely define how a piece is seen and you can use those different possibilities to, again, break down peoples’ not just boundaries but  perceptions, perspectives and expectations. That’s been one of the problems with EXPOSED, is that people hear burlesque and they have expectations about what burlesque is. And what this film is really doing is breaking down those expectations and boundaries and creating a whole new way of expressing oneself with the body that has long historical connections with performance art, but creates in a sense its own language, a new language.

AHW: Your film highlights a form of performance art that’s not often seen in traditional art world institutions. Do you think that screening it at MoMA in that art world context might serve to bring that type of burlesque performance into traditional institutions? Is that even a desirable thing?

BB: I think that some of the burlesque performers are already performing in that context. I guess that it really has again to do with breaking down these categories. In these aspects of our lives we’re so defined by the categories. I am a painter, I am a sculptor, I am a multimedia artist, I am a filmmaker, I’m a performance artist, I’m a burlesque performer. I consider myself to be a creator first. I think that the more that those delineations can be blurred, if those lines can become more disintegrated, it would create a forum to view art in a much more inclusive and interactive way. In a weird way it harks back to when I just started to become an artist in New York City after I graduated from SVA. I ended up working with a large group of artists who were not just artists. They were filmmakers, actors, painters, sculptors, musicians, you know, a huge scene of disenfranchised misfits. The organization that we started was called Collaborative Projects, Inc. and the whole concept of artmaking was to be all-inclusive and with the focus on content, not structure and form. It wasn’t artists working in one medium, it was about creativity.

That, ultimately, is where my desire resides today in terms of my own art practice. It echoes the desires and attitudes of me in my twenties–not to be defined and not to be categorized because once you’re in that box, it prevents true innovation. The performers in EXPOSED are working to break away from these things that bind us, whether it’s binding our bodies or our minds, the way that we think about gender specification, whether it’s burlesque, whether it’s performance art, whether it’s economics. I think it’s embedded in all of their performances. They’re really questioning the system and conventions that we live with, and it questions what is acceptable within the norms of society. In a sense it’s asking to accept everything and transcend our limitations.



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David Ross, chair of the Art Practice department talks with Beth B, Dirty Martini and Dr. Lucky in a post-screening Q&A at the Beacon Film Society.

It Starts From Working With Artists: A Conversation with David A. Ross by Thyrza Nichols Goodeve

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Image: David A. Ross and members of MFA AP13 at the studio of Mike and Doug Starn

The Art Practice program was founded in 2010 under the direction of David A. Ross, former director of The Whitney Museum of American Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Boston ICA. This summer AP graduated its first class of participants. In lieu of this milestone, AP Faculty member Thyrza Nichols Goodeve sat down with Ross in his West 16th office to talk about the origins, progress and vision of the program. In particular, how did he go about conceiving of an MFA in the context of the 21st century when art and education are no longer the experience of the few. The MFA in particular has become a ubiquitous, near required degree. As you will see, Ross, with so much experience in the art world from the late 70s to the present, took on the task of developing a low residency MFA as a creative challenge.

TNG: When did you begin to think about starting an MFA art practice program?

DR: The idea of the MFA Art Practice Program began with a conversation I had over a period of months with David Rhodes, President of SVA. I had done some lectures here and was teaching for Suzanne Anker in the BFA program. She had an idea that David and I should meet because in all my years as the Director at the Whitney Museum I never met David Rhodes. I only knew of the Rhodes family and SVA as that school where every artist you knew worked at some point. It was not like a typical art school or a typical department in a larger university— it was a lot funkier, less rigid. But at that point I hadn’t thought about SVA much. I had taught over the years in various art schools around the country usually as the “celebrity” museum director—which meant that I would come in, do my lectures, but I didn’t have to attend faculty meetings. I wasn’t interested in tenure. I was outside of all of those circles.

TNG: Were you teaching before you were a museum director?

DR: I started teaching in 1975 at the University of California, San Diego and Irvine, working with graduate students, which was ironic because I was only 26 years old and hadn’t gone to graduate school myself. At UCSD I was really an outsider but David and Eleanor Antin and that gang brought me down to San Diego where Allen Sekula and Martha Rosler were just finishing grad school. Eleanor Antin was doing a lot of video so I already knew her.

 TNG: What exactly were you teaching?

DR: I taught the (still very young) history of video and the history of performance art and it was great fun. Just driving down from Long Beach to San Diego once a week to teach my seminar trying to stay awake on the Pacific Highway— it was like being in a Tom Waits’ song. Late in the 70s I taught at the San Francisco Art Institute while I was Chief Curator at what is now called The Berkeley Art Museum. UC Berkeley never asked me to teach. It was and remains a great art history program, but at the time they were quite conservative in regard to new media. It was one of the best art history programs in the country, but like many such programs around the country, they didn’t consider video as a legitimate art form at that point.

But I recognized something while teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute. I began to feel that tenure was not necessarily always the best thing for an art department. Not that these artists did not deserve (and at time need) the protection of academic or creative freedom that tenure confers but often, the tenured artists were no longer active players. And even though the academy no longer had the kind of control over the development of art as it had in the 19th and early 20th century, at a time when artists were striving to find a way to make their work more relevant, the university seemed an escape rather than a site for contest.

TNG: But at the same time, there is something to be said for experience, historical perspective, and the wisdom of age. What you are saying about the limits of older artists as instructors can be destructive and play into structures of ageism. How do you protect the artist, or better, do you see the role of the teaching institute as a way to support artists who’s work is not necessarily marketable, i.e., it seems it is very important to protect artists in an economy that privileges youth, flash, trend and so forth. I think SVA is great this way precisely because everyone is an adjunct and so people teach what they know, what they are good at, and what students want which is another way of keeping instructors from getting stale.

DR: Yes, I’ve always felt that one of the great strengths of this school is that even though there’s always been this historical divide between the design side, the applied-arts side, and the fine arts, David Rhodes felt very much like I felt that moving forward, in the 21st century, SVA has got to be more like the world where those divides are less and less important. And part of that is preparing artists for what they want and need to do, what their talent is, not simply for establishing their place in the marketplace. In other words, within SVA we have artists who are filmmakers, painters who are musicians, graphic designers who do graphic design as sculpture and performance artists make paintings. Those former distinctions serve the needs of another kind of institutional structure that is no longer the dominant reality but the rear mirror reflection of a structure of the cultural world that mirrored traditional academic structures.

I had these same problems with most of the art museums I worked in. Those distinctions made less sense as time moved on. You’d have a curator of drawing and painting. Now why? Well, yes drawings and all work on paper demands a very different kind of conservation than painting and not every one who draws makes paintings, this is all true. But some of them make films. Some of them make sculpture and drawings—so what is the division about? Seems to me that these types of essentially false categories have forced practitioners to declare, “I’m a photographer, or something of that sort” And in the end, what does that mean?

So the kinds of questions I remain interested in stem from the concerns that arise when artists ask themselves, “what is my job as an artist?” So, for instance, having Vito Acconci come and speak about how his practice has developed becomes enormously instructive to artists facing the pressure of their own decision-making.

And since I was given the opportunity to create a structure to explore these kinds of issues or give others the space to explore them, I thought it would be interesting to develop a graduate program that worked against a silo mentality and revolved around a truly interdisciplinary approach.

TNG: All of the students who came to our information session said they were interested in coming here because we are one of the only programs that doesn’t demand they declare themselves as a specific kind of practitioner. 

DR: Yes.  I really don’t understand how a 17 year old— or a 37 year old for that matter— should have to make that kind of declaration. To define oneself by a medium today is way too restrictive because, for one thing, we live in an era where Conceptual Art has changed the rules for everyone. The idea is at the center. Now that doesn’t mean all art has to be philosophical in its intent, but no artist can escape that aspect of art in the 21st century. You can’t go back and say, Oh that paradigm shift didn’t take place.

TNG: What do you do when you have artists who are unskilled?

DR: That depends on how you define unskilled. What kind of skills are we talking about? Certain skills are really useful for an artist— but what about the skill to be able to negotiate? Or what about the skill to be able to forage? What about the ability to think clearly, and express yourself in writing? Those are also interesting skills. It may not be the same skill as being able to draw like Tiepolo or Ingres. But Ingres already exists. Now— a century and a half past the invention of photography— there are lots of ways of bringing the world of imagery and imagination into play in a work of art. So, what’s more interesting to me is conceptual and intellectual ambition. In a way, that was what was so interesting about teaching at UC San Diego in he 70’s, traditional notions of talent had little to do with who got into or succeeded in that school

It was there that I became interested in a program where talent wasn’t the issue because, in a way, everyone has some relevant talent. To me the question is, is your concept interesting? Is what you want to do going to advance the body of knowledge in some way? Is it going to engage the world in a way that refreshes our understanding of the world? Throughout history, great artists have done just that.

I think about those neurology experiments where they held subjects eyeballs completely still with these instruments they use for eye operations, so your eye would remain exactly still – so there’s no muscle movement. What they found is if your eye was held immobile like that, within about 30 seconds your vision went black because in order to protect the retina it simply shuts down. So your eye is always moving teeny bits just to keep refreshing parts of your retina with the image. If your eye stopped you’d go blind. For me that was an interesting metaphor for how you have to keep your vision moving on other levels not just on this micro level. So the question becomes, how can you apply this to art practice because blindness is the biggest problem in art. I don’t mean people losing their sight but people losing their vision.

TNG: That’s amazing. What I like about your perspective on art and what I share with you is trying not to have preconceived ideas about what “talent” is. It shifts with each generation. And the problem with some schools is they get stuck in a rut based on their own criteria of success or how they define “talent” at that moment. And then, depending on the school, everything comes out looking like Jessica Stockholder or there is a Yale or Columbia feel to the work circa specific historical moments. The challenge is how to keep the conversation going.

DR: It’s not that I don’t have my own tastes, my own likes and dislikes, and schools should have a point of view, but why would I impose mine? Even within the kind of connoisseurship one has to practice as a museum director— particularly in building a museum’s permanent collection— even there you have to weigh the value of your own taste against what’s needed in order to construct a broader context describing that moment.

Kurt Varnedoe really went a huge distance to solve problems of the pre-Varnedoe, Bill Rubin era. Rubin had a very rigid idea of history of art, a brilliantly defended canon, and you didn’t dare go up against that if you worked at the Modern because that was the only history allowed to be expressed. He saw that his work was to establish and protect that canon because that’s how he defined the role of the museum.

But I saw the job as allowing the canon to shift or change over time by acquiring a broad range of work confident that history would sort things out. I do not believe that art history can be sorted out in real time.

It seems to me that art schools have similar structural problems where they are blinded by people with great intelligence, great taste, and great power with often corresponding high levels of arrogance and little tolerance for difference. And of all things I think I’m not, I hope I’m not arrogant in that way. In fact, I think of myself as appropriately and usefully insecure. My insecurity, which is not something I’m embarrassed by, comes from the fact that I believe deeply that one can never know enough, and that change is both inevitable and deeply desirable.

TNG: It’s humility. You talked about this a lot in other interviews I read with you, that what a museum director needs most of all is humility because how can you second guess the opinions of someone else’s choices from an historical context that precedes you, based on currents of the times.

DR: Even worse, when my colleagues sell off works they didn’t believe in. Who the hell are you? You may be right but other people may equally be right.  Art is not a zero sum game.

TNG: You must think about this with the situation in Detroit right now.

DR: I think the sad situation in Detroit represents another level of museological problem, as it has to do with the civic value of an art museum and the collections that are preserved and cared for as part of the common wealth.  But we are also seeing the nasty underbelly of time in which discussion about the dollar value of great (or simply famous) works of art has supplanted consideration of the equally important but far less easily quantifiable values that art brings to a community. But I really dislike when a museum will sell works from one era, for instance a Hopper, to fund a contemporary art acquisition program. Though not unethical, I still think its kind of cheating.

TNG: It seems unusual for a museum director to have the perspective you do.

DR: Ha! It is, which is probably one reason why I’m not a museum director anymore. Museum boards want that kind of arrogance in the people who are running their museum. They want to know that their leader has firmly held beliefs and they can confidently march behind.

It was particularly useful for me to engage with people like the cultural critic and literary scholar Homi Bhabha when I was still at the Boston ICA. He made the point that the art museum is a site for the contest of values and ideas. That made sense to me. We are not simply an institution that collects, preserves, educates, which was the traditional definition of a museum of art. So I did come to believe the museum’s role was to contest not just preserve.. 

Now, I realize that the art school is not the same as an art museum but the art school too is a site for the contest of values and ideas. And it’s a site in which artists can be supported in engaging in that kind of contestation. Engaging in the conversation. That’s what we want our participants to feel they can do. And the conversation isn’t just internal within the school. In fact, this conversation is how I define the art world. The art world is a conversation between people working in the same moment, working with shared yet distinct histories. 

TNG: It’s always changing.

DR: Yes, and I wanted to be part of a program that could somehow deliver that.

TNG: So, having been a curator, you didn’t think of putting together a curatorial program?

DR: No, I’m not as interested in that, I’m now more interested in working with artists.

TNG: You’ve always been very clear about this, about your love of working with artists.

DR: Exactly. That hasn’t changed. Just about everything I know comes from working with and learning from artists. Artists have always been my teachers. In fact, the best curatorial work I’ve done was the direct result of working with artists. For me, it all starts there, with that sensibility. I wanted to learn things from artists and share them with others. Figure things out— like a journalist. Journalists share information that then helps form the conversation. A journalist tries to uncover truths, and then puts them out there to foster a critically necessary conversation. I realized being in the art world as a teacher and curator it is very much the same.

I will be working with Steven Madoff in his new Curatorial Practice program that begins next year. But my heart is here in my engagement with artists who have been struggling to redefine how they participate in the conversation, and perhaps why. Our program is not designed to simply provide MFA degrees for people who need them to get or keep teaching jobs. 

TNG: There are several high school teachers already participating in the program.

DR: Yes, and I’m glad they are here. Teaching art to children is a saintly act and being a high school art teacher in particular because the art teacher is the only person that people with different forms of intelligence can relate to. They are often a literal life-line for kids who are lost in the traditional education factory. So I honor them and privilege what they do enormously.

Also how can we be in a post-Beuysian moment and not think of the relation between teaching and art. Or, thinking about John Baldessarri as well—thinking about teaching art or art therapy. Have you seen the work that ChanSchatz (AP Faculty and Mentors) are doing? It’s in children’s hospitals so as to engage this huge population of ill and dying and recovering children with a serious art experience. It’s not just about let’s draw on pieces of paper and make cows and tell us about your anxiety but it is work designed to engage them in a very different form of ritual. It’s beautiful. I would never have thought of that.

TNG: What are the criticisms of the program?

DR: The ones I’ve heard and this is not unusual for me—are that we’re demanding too much from participants. We’ve over-programmed them. And yes, we are backing off a little bit, but not too much. I’ve always been aware from a consumer’s point of view that this is an expensive program, and we damn well better deliver value to participants. Real value. But, as in most “fine arts” graduate programs, success will not be measured by whether we can guarantee them post-graduate employment. All we can promise, and hopefully deliver, is that graduates feel they can meaningfully participate in that conversation – in one way or another. 

TNG: But contemporary art these days, since the 80s, or really the 60s—I don’t know, is so informed by all these bodies of work and conversations, as you put it, that it just seems like reading is very much a part of art practice now as much as developing your practice, which could be reading. I think of Moyra Davey’s The Problem of Reading or artists like Pablo Helguera. You can’t be naïve as an artist and not have some familiarity with what people are reading because you’re participating in a world where shows are curated through so many ideas, philosophies and models drawn from research. Yes, of course you can paint or sculpt or take photographs without knowing any of this but chances are it won’t hurt to know what all the yakking is also about.

DR: And you don’t have to buy into it. You may find that that what people are reading is exactly what you can push off against. But you need to know what it is you are pushing against.

I inform all applicants that the program requires 20 or 30 hours a week in fall and spring and,  if English isn’t their primary language, it will be more. I try to make it clear that if they can’t find the time or the balance in their lives, they are not going to change significantly. This is not a program for hand-holding and cuddling. We don’t have enough staff for that but even if we did it would be the wrong thing. This has to be about self-starting and understanding the complexity of what it means to be a professional artist. I guess I believe that graduate education— especially for artists— is kind of wasted on people who haven’t spent a serious amount of time already developing their own practice and coming to grips with whatever their particular demons may be.

TNG: Because, difficult as it is, one is cushioned in graduate school. And if you come in too young…

DR: Well art school is just an extension of the institutionalized life that people have from age 5 to whenever they leave school. People are literally institutionalized! There’s someone looking after them, someone prodding them to perform and conform daily for those formative years of their life.

Well, if you want to become an artist, you have to break away from that and at some point, deinstitutionalize yourself. Then, when you come back to grad school it’s not about simply re-institutionalizing yourself. It’s about using the institution as a tool, using its resources and using the advice and support of more experienced artists. 

You have to say to yourself, I’m going to do this now. I’m going to separate this amount of time and this amount of energy, this amount of money in order to move my practice to a place where I need to get it. And it was precisely from thinking about questions like this within the life of a practicing artist, that I decided we could experiment with this idea of low-residency. The kind of people who are drawn to this kind of program are for the most part those who have their lives established in terms of family and jobs and who are not necessarily living in NYC.

TNG: And low-residency has developed within the context of digital technology. How did the possibilities of technology come into your conception of the program?

DR: Of course, central to the idea of low-residency was the idea of using online technologies. Personally I have always been interested in what happens when you cross-pollinate any new technology with poetry. And I loved the idea that we were going to be able to do something that didn’t yet have a model. 

TNG: Could you be more specific? There were other online courses available when the program started.

DR: Well, in the four years before I began working on the design of the Art Practice MFA, Steven Madoff and I and several other people worked to produce a symposium when I was working with the Anaphiel Foundation. That work led to the publication of Art School: (Propositions for the 21st Century), edited by Steven. Again, as a museum professional and someone who taught but never was deeply involved in thinking about art education sui generis, this symposium gave me many opportunities to listen to some really brilliant people like John Baldessarri. He was also a member of this foundation. And John, whose always been a great friend and mentor, kept pushing one idea— if you can create a graduate art program where there is not much hierarchy, where there’s not much distance between the so-called faculty and so-called students, then something original and useful might happen. It’s the “truest truth,” as he put it, of what he could take from all his years of teaching because it was when there was the closest parity, the furthest removed from hierarchy, that the teaching and learning goes both ways. So we wanted to put that into the mix.

So, back to my initial conversation with David Rhodes, we had this new technology, we had this new notion of low-residency, we had the idea of a program for artists who’ve been out of school for 5, 15, 20 years, and then we had this notion of interdisciplinarity. No single element was more important than another. Again, we tried not to impose any unnecessary hierarchy.  And so David Rhodes and I— I give him an enormous amount of credit, we worked every week for months— he helped me a great deal, as did a number of people who are now working in the program. We worked to create a template, a design, a structure for it. But we had no idea whether people would be interested in it. There were obviously other low-residency programs and so I visited them. The one at Bard is a remarkably good program. The one at MICA is also a really remarkable program.

TNG: Do they offer the same kind of online course we do? 

DR: None of them do precisely what we do. I jokingly always say that our program is about creative disorientation because every one of the people who enter our program have been working a certain way for a certain time and therefore have just been reasserting certain things that make them comfortable. People tend to find the things that reify what they are already invested in.

TNG: So then what would “success” be?

DR: I don’t think it would be anything easily quantifiable. I think it is so specific to each individual that comes out of the program. Somebody could become a better teacher, somebody could decide to stop making art for 10 years, and go work in refugee rights or someone could return to the practice they had before but now feel completely confident that they are actually content with the direction they have already chosen. I don’t want people looking the same.

One of the things I loved about being at the Whitney Museum was the Whitney Independent Study Program because it has functioned at such a high level for so many years and helped so many artists, writers, and curators. Other institutions have tried to do things like the ISP but the ISP is the ISP because of Ron Clark and because of the way Ron views the term independent. I asked him, “Do you mean independent from the Whitney or independent study?” And he said “Independent from the Whitney.” And I said, “Okay, I get it.” So within a museum, the ISP was independent from everything about the museum but the funding source. But what I loved about the program was the artists who came through it.

But to be very frank, what I didn’t like about the program was there was a certain ideological direction that one had to subscribe to in order to have a fully useful experience. Not to say that everyone subscribed to this for there were always people who were rebels, but Ron’s role was to enforce this kind of intellectual and ideological perspective, which was quite profound. I don’t want you to think I am criticizing Ron’s ISP. But I do feel that that an intellectual uniformity was too heavily imposed as a frame. The ISP continues to be a wonderful and unique program and odds are that it is not going anywhere. Ultimately what the ISP has done is so significant that my critique is irrelevant– except when it came to building a situation here at SVA. I don’t believe the SVA Art Practice program should imitate what is already taking place.

TNG: Ron literally said to me once when I was teaching with him, “art has to have an argument.”

DR: I don’t disagree with him. I’m very interested in notions of argument, intention and what propels a work of art. I hope we have built a lively and open community of artists sharing ideas and collaborating in their collective and individual progress.