Tim Rollins at SVA: Pedagogy, Performance and “a flower that will make you fall in love with the next living creature you see upon awakening from a dream” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

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Tim Rollins and K.O.S., From the A Midsummer Night’s Dream series.

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K.O.S. working on the Amerika series based on Franz Kafka. 

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Tim Rollins and K.O.S. ( Far left: Angel Abreu, Rick Savanino)

written by Thyrza Nichols Goodeve (AP Faculty)

“Tim Rollins (AP Faculty) has been tremendously important to us as participants of SVA’s Art Practice Program. In our phone interview in 2012 we remember Tim saying,“we’re going to make history.” Having watched the documentary Kids of Survival: The Art and Life of Tim Rollins + KOS, it was energizing to see members Angel, Rick and George, then only kids in the film, together in the studio. Working with everyone felt like we were invited to a family reunion, even though we were only there for the first time.  We were welcomed as family, not as guests, and given the historical background of Darwin’s On The Origin of Species and it’s importance to the group. The two paintings [we worked on] measure 8’x16’, and became a meditative practice of application as we all danced and shifted places in front of each canvas. The mood in the studio was light, heartfelt, hilarious and also serious and concerning. They all bounced off of one another while working, whether it was adding onto a joke, and/or commenting on the current state of a painting, asking one another for opinions. As collaborative artists, Tim Rollins and KOS reaffirmed for us the strength in collaboration, and the persistence, hope and determination that you can have for creating work while bettering lives through art, and isn’t that what art is supposed to do?”

Tracey Mancenido Tribble (MFA AP14) and Frank Tribble’s (MFA AP14) (Tribble and Mancenido) description of working with Tim Rollins and K.O.S. on the current “On the Origin,” exhibition at Lehmann Maupin

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Tim Rollins and Tracy Mancenido at work on Darwin’s Origin of Species, Fall 2013.

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Frank Tribble at work at the K.O.S. Studio (Darwin’s Origin of Species. Fall 2013.)

In an essay on the “pedagogical turn” in contemporary art, Kristina Lee Podevsa asks us to: 

begin with the simple proposition that education as a form of art making constitutes a relatively new medium. It is distinct from projects that take education and its institution, the academy, as a subject or facilitator of production and is worth examining in more detail through the following questions: How has the medium of education been historically situated? What movements and practices have conditioned its appearance? What does its circulation tell us about the academy—and art making—in the present? And finally, does the emergence of this medium represent a fad, or is it a manifestation of a larger and more sustained “pedagogical turn” in contemporary art.

She goes on to discuss Josef Beuys at length, Nicholas Bourriard, Rikrit Tiravanija, Irit Rogoff, and the corporatization of the academy. There is not one mention of Tim Rollins and K.O.S. 

“I am often asked, what are you first, an educator or an artist? For me it’s like the old question of form vs. content, when in fact form and content are like the two sides of the same sheet of paper.” Tim Rollins 

For Rollins, teaching is neither fad nor vocation but it is certainly a participatory experience, an art that leads to the production of art, or better as he confessed one day, an excuse to make community, engage with history, have a lot of fun, and teach kids that Shakespeare, Melville, or Kafka are nothing to be afraid of. It is relational and social avant la lettre. In other words, Rollins has been engaged with social practice well before such a term came into being. In fact, he is one of the pioneers of participatory art. Yet, even though he started in 1981 in the New York City public school system as a teacher who was also a working artist, working with non-artists as well as artists, or “kids” on projects to create large singular works that sell in galleries, he has been left out of the history of the major discussions of “the pedagogical impulse” in contemporary art. One finds no mention in “Pedagogical Projects: ‘How do you bring a classroom to life as if it were a work of art?’” by Claire Bishop’s ( Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (New York: Verso, 2012)) or Irit Rogoff’s, “Academy as Potential, also 2007, or A Pedagogical Turn Brief Notes on Education as Art,” by Kristina Lee Podevsa (2007) quoted above.  

We might find the answer if we spent time parsing the intricacies of these histories but that is not the intent here. Instead what follows is a portrait of Rollins and to a lesser extent, K.O.S. in action at SVA. Although his role in this history has yet to be written, for the moment we will just listen to him. 

“Today we are going to make art and we are also going to make history.” 

Tim Rollins has been teaching at SVA since the early 90s but his history goes back further, to the mid 70s when he called the School of Visual Arts from Pittsfield, Maine and asked for an application in order to move to New York City to study with the Conceptual Artist Joseph Kosuth. David Rhodes, the President of SVA, remembers meeting with him. In fact he interviewed Tim at the time (the admissions director was not available). Rhodes remembers the conversation to this day—“this kid from Maine who knew all about Joseph Kosuth. I knew I had something special in front of me. This was in 1975.” 

Rollins, whose town’s population was just over a thousand, discovered Gregory Battock’s book Idea Art in his library. Perhaps because one book changed so much for him, he would develop his art practice around the “breaking down” as he calls it, of particular books because he discovered Kosuth’s essay, “Art After Philosophy” in Battock’s book. He was so taken by it, he called the School of Visual Arts where Kosuth was teaching and asked for an application. Within a year he would move to New York from rural Maine with a portfolio of conceptual art sent in an old black leather satchel Rollins bought in a thrift store. 

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Group Material: Democracy: Education, 1988. Dia Art Foundation. 

Rollins career as an artist began with Group Material, a small collective he founded in 1979 with his roommate at NYU while he was a grad student in art education. Soon Mundy McLaughlin, Julie Ault, who Rollins had met in Augusta Maine when she was merely 16 and a bit of a truant, Doug Ashford, and eventually a skeptical Felix González-Torres joined. Group Material was community-based and political. It sought action in the community rather than the community as a vehicle to make art for a gallery. As Rollins said in the November 11, 1980 Village Voice, “We’re less interested in reflecting than in projecting out into the community.” Of interest today, when curatorial practice is the concern-of-the-moment as Daniel Birnbaum pointed out at the Summit on Curatorial Practice held at SVA on November 2nd, much of their political work was achieved via curating events and exhibitions. Although they began critiquing the art world itself – the production of an anti-catalogue for the Whitney Biennial, soon their work engaged the issues of the day such as consumer culture, U.S. intervention in Nicaragua and El Salvador and the AIDS crisis. In an essay on Group Material by D. George on the Franklin Furnace website:  

Beyond the basic dilution of authorship in collaboration, the activities of Group Material have moved the idea of art from isolated models of refinement to a self-consciously political and cultural approach to communication. As the interface between subject matter and society, presentation space was adopted as a significant artistic medium, removing the distinction between artists and curators. Moreover, the status of presentation space itself as a standard of access to information was opened beyond the museum and gallery to engage the public through storefronts, talks, town meetings, newspaper ads, magazines, bus posters, etc. http://www.franklinfurnace.org/research/ projects/flow/gpmat/bush.html

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In 1988 they published the book Democracy, edited by Brian Wallis. To this day, it continues to be a record of a singularly successful work of socially engaged art. The result of months of exhibitions and town meetings held at the Dia Foundation in Soho, the book contains essays by Henry Louis Gates, Barbara Ehrenreich, Noam Chomsky and artists such as Yvonne Rainer who appear in the transcripts of the town meetings held on topics such as education and AIDS. In 1989 Group Material produced a brilliant critique of the AIDS crisis through the evidentiary AIDS Timeline. Merely by mapping out the evolution of the government’s non-engagement with the disease, the history of the illness within various communities, and the most current medical research at the time, they produced a devastating critique.

Group Material made little distinction between the material of fine art and everyday cultural objects. Art and life were wed together into one big conversation. 

Rollins began teaching at the underfed, under-funded and distressed P.S. 52 in 1981 at the invitation of the school’s principal George Gallego. He had been introduced to Gallego by Arthur Albert the crisis intervention teacher who had met Tim at a workshop at a Learning to Read Through the Arts workshop held at the Community Elementary School  4 in the South Bronx. Tim was supposed to stay for two weeks. But as he put it, he “fell in love” and remained at 52 until 1987.P.S. 52 was one of the most neglected public schools in the South Bronx at the time. Here is his description of it in 2013:

The physical site was so atrocious. It was a 1904 building. There was no air conditioning. No toilet paper in the toilets. At first the sink didn’t have a drain. We put a white bucket underneath in order to collect the water. The windows had been broken out years before and were covered with this crappy plywood. The kids were making graffiti allover it but they had to make their own markers. They’d take roll-on deodorant. Do they even make roll-on deodorant anymore? Well, they’d take those bottles fill them with ink and use them as markers.

On top of that Rollins was given the Special Ed class of the supposed unteachable students deemed as such because of learning disabilities, lousy attitude or emotional trauma. In 1984 they were able to rent a space near the school and Rollins opened up the Art and Knowledge workshop with the students from 52 who would go there each day after school. He asked them to come up with a name and they chose Kids of Survival (K.O.S.). “They liked the sound of it. It was arch like FBI, CIA, KGB or KKK.” Since that time Rollins has worked with over 60 “kids” many of whom are now in their 40s with families of their own. For a list with biographies see Tim Rollins and K.O.S. A History, edited by Ian Barry (MIT Press, 2009). Only Richard Savinon and Angel Abreu still work in the studio daily having joined with K.O.S. when they were 13 and 11. All other members come and go. Some have participated for only a week, others years. Today former members of K.O.S. are police officers, designers, construction workers, college graduates as well as those whose lives didn’t go so smoothly and ended up battling drugs, prison, and the culture of poverty and violence that was the South Bronx in the 80s.   

K.O.S. recently opened a major exhibition at Lehmann Maupin in Chelsea based on Darwin’s Origin of Species. The exhibition runs through the end of December. Another exhibition will be mounted before the end of the year curated in conjunction with the Highline. This summer I joined the Art Practice class of 2014 and a handful of teenage girls to learn the K.O.S. method and work on this exhibition. 

Tim’s talking voice is pure preacher rhythm. He speaks with an accent that to most of us sounds southern Tennessee Williams but he swears is upper Appalachia. “My people just haven’t gotten out much.” In order to maintain the feel of Rollins’ style, the punchy, seductive back and forth call as if we were at church, is an edited transcript of this one day. As Rick Savinon has said, “No one understands how we do what we do.” Well here it is: one day in the life of Tim Rollins and K.O.S.—the work of the many that will become an exhibition.  

The scene: Rollins stands in front of a U-shaped series of tables where MFA Art Practice participants and teenage girls from the Lab School sit. A Pentecostal Baptist “to the bone” Rollins style is molded to the rhythms of the preacher. 

SLAM! 

Rollins slams down a paperback copy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream onto the table. Graduate students from the MFA program in Art Practice are mixed with a group of teenage girls from the Lab School. We are situated in a u-shaped circle of tables where Rollins walks up and down. 

SLAM!

Everyone jumps. 

“There’s no revolution without revolutionary practice. You should listen to Martin Luther King, Jane Addams or the great John Dewey who said, ‘The truth is what works and you can’t have revolutionary practice without revolutionary theory.’

Today we come together to do, to make, but I want to share with you. I come from the hills of rural Maine and even then I was kind of smart. I came here so I could study with Joseph Kosuth. But after SVA I attended a graduate program at NYU in art education, politics, and philosophy. But I spent most of my time skipping my required classes in art education because I found a wonderful place called La Maison Francaise. You can go see it now—along that little street off of University Place near NYU. It’s like a Hollywood set of Paris and when you enter you feel you’re going to see the ghost of Jean Paul Sartre or Simone Beauvoir wandering around. But in truth I stumbled upon Michel Foucault and Jean Baudrillard, Deleuze and Guattari, Julia Kristeva and Roland Barthes. I mean at night I was having dinner with Joseph Kosuth doing dishes and he says, ‘You might want to come along to hear some of these lectures.’ 

Ah that was a long time ago.”

Slam. Slam. Slam. 

“30 years ago!! So I’ve read a lot and it is still useful but I am interested in what you do with the book. I don’t want to look at you and see a bibliography. I want to see your project or to see you write your own thing. So let’s get back to my tradition, where I started from and that would be Thoreau and Emerson. Oh this stuff gets you going hmmm mmmm good.

Thoreau, Emerson, brilliant. W.E.B. Dubois, brilliant. Jane Addams, John Dewey, Charles Sanders Pierce, William James? You catching this? And these folk are in English, real English—New England English. 

So hello.

When you get your practice ready—you say, turn the other cheek, well I’ve got 4.” [He slaps his two cheeks on his face followed by the two cheeks of his bum.] “1,2,3,4, cause you’re going to get your ass whipped and no theory’s going to help you with that. When you get your practice going, that’s the ultimate practice. Does this make sense? You see, no more dress rehearsal. You must generate, write something that other people want. You can be a hero to the world but ultimately you’ve got to be a doer. Does this make any sense? This is what I am trying to encourage you to do. When we talk one on one later today I want you to show me what you did yesterday and tell me where you want to go.

There should be no fear in this making. One of my favorite quotes by Robert Ryman is “I know what I’m doing when I don’t know what I’m doing.  When I know what I’m doing I can’t know what I’m doing in order to do it.”

Nonetheless, I smell it. There’s an odor in the room. It stinks of trepidation. And I don’t know where it comes from. I come all this way and spend all this time and still I smell trepidation. You hear that?!? You hear?”

SLAM!

“Yah. We’re here people. And it’s a miracle for some of us. How did a gay kid from the hills of Maine get to New York City? We’re here. That’s what’s important. Procrastination always comes from fear. Dr. King called it the paralysis of analysis. That’s good – right? It’s like you’re so afraid of doing the wrong thing that you do ……”(He waits.)

“Nothing!

You like a beautiful car in idle. You ain’t going forward. You ain’t going back. Why are you idling? My job is to tell you to take off your brakes. I can tell some of you like driving Interstate I-95 with the emergency brake on. Oh smell that burning rubber! 

I like to move and that’s what the kids taught me. Don’t overthink this stuff. Let’s get into it. There’s a word for this program and it’s called practice. That’s why you’re here. Are you hearing me? I want to see stuff. Then we’ll talk about it later.  We’ll write about it later. Where’s the stuff. The stuff.     

Any questions about my attitude?” 

You gonna just sit there and go, he crazy. Well you may think I’m the craziest asshole you met in your life but you’re not going to leave here…”

Slam!

“Without doing something. I surrender to you. I should be dead 5 times over. That’s why I have such authority over my kids because I’ve been there. I’m serious about this thing. 

Make a mess. You gotta make a whole lot of trash before you make anything. What is your best tool in the studio? The trash can. You got to make trash to make treasure. You make 200 of something you gonna hit gold just by sheer accident. 

So what you gonna do today?

He points to one of the Art Practice participants, Rosanna Scimeca (MFA AP14).

“Make drawings.”

Great. 

Sitting next to her is Nat Castenada (MFA AP14), “I am going to do work for my day job and then I want to read.”

What?!?! 

“But also start a video.” Everyone is laughing. 

Don’t read in your studio. You take a train here? Read on the train.

“Can I read for half an hour?” 

No, no, no. 

“But, it’s fiction.”

I don’t care if it is fiction. You’re telling me a fiction now. No No.

 SLAM!

Make something!!

Andrew Prieto (MFA AP14) speaks up, “Yesterday I went into my studio and made a replica of an antique saw so today I am going to make the handle.”

Feels good, doesn’t it? It feels good to make something. What about you, what are you going to do? 

It’s Rachel Chick’s turn (MFA AP14) “Go to the garment district and get some material.”

Oooh, the fashion district is the beat! 

Anthony Hawley (MFA AP14) “I’m trying to work with metal which I’ve never done before. And I am also trying to make my own bead letters.” 

“Not trying.”

Anthony smiles, “No, I’m making them.” 

When everyone has finished describing what they will do this afternoon after class, Tim starts in on the work of the class: introducing Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We have not been asked to read it nor is he all that interested in whether we have read it in order to produce work.

“What we’re going to be doing here today—we’re going to be studying a wonderful, comical text. It’s called, repeat after me, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Now say it.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Written by whom? 

Everyone: “William Shakespeare.” 

There you go! SLAM “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” SLAM. “Does anyone know when it was written?” 

The room is quiet. 

Guess? 

And he points to one of the high school girls. 

“I don’t know.” 

Someone shouts: “1500?”

“Close.”

 “1600?” 

“Yes.” Tim claps. [The play is written between 1590 and 1596.]

“Okay, so William Shakespeare,” SLAM “1600,” SLAM, “Where was it first performed? Do you know? Yell at me!” 

Teenage girl: “A theater. “

“Yes, a theater but do you know the name of the theater?” She shakes her head no. “Say, sorry I don’t know.” 

“Sorry I don’t know.”

“That’s alright.” He looks around. “Do you have any idea?” 

“The Globe” (I say it tentatively)

“There you go. But when you know the answer say it like you know it. The Globe.” 

I repeat with conviction, “The Globe.”

“There you go. Give her a hand. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, SLAM William Shakespeare, SLAM 1600, SLAM The Globe theater. London England. Now,  

does anyone know where the play is set? I love this. I’m really teaching you.

“Summer?”  yells someone. Everyone laughs.

“Athens, Greece. Say Athens Greece.” 

“Athens Greece.” 

“Gee I wonder, who wrote incidental music for it around 1843 when he was only 16 years old? Does anyone know who this was?”

Teenage girl: “You told us this yesterday.”

I did so come on. His name is Felix Mendelsson. Say Mendelsson.

“Mendelsson” 

Everyone say it like you own it. Mendlesson. You older ones don’t get cute. 

1600, SLAM 1843, SLAM A Midsummer Nights Dream, SLAM London England. Globe Theater. Athens Greece. I think we kind of got it. Now, let’s break it down. Say break it down Professor Tim.

“Break it down Professor Tim!” 

“Here we go. We’re in ancient times and in ancient Greece and the king is Theseus, say Theseus.

“Theseus.”

“And Theseus is in love with an Amazon woman. Does anyone remember that show Xena? Back in the day. You’d see kids running down the streets to get home in time to watch the show at 6pm. Xena was fierce, right? That was like Hippolyta. Theseus is the King of Athens and he and Hippolyta want to get married. They are preparing a big festival. 

Now here is where we got the situation. Say ‘situation.’

“Situation.”

And then here comes this mean old crusty dude and this wonderful girl named Hermia. Say Hermia.

“Hermia.”

And Hermia is in love with this dude named Lysander although her father wants her to marry Lysander’s friend Demetrious. But Demetrius is a player. He’s one of those guys you going to meet [he is addressing the teenage girls] –he look so good—he’ll tell you ‘I’m in love with you.’ You know what I’m talking about. There’s a beautiful line about love in this play, “Love sees not with the eye but the mind.” Get it? But Demitrius, he is bad. He wants Hermia because she’s got the bucks. But Hermia’s father wants her to meet Demitrius so they got this thing going on because in those days I don’t think it’s changed much. The girls were the property of the father. So her father, he’s like Judge Judy. He decides everything. Look, I want my daughter to be with Demitrius even though she is in love with Lysander. But in the law of Athens my daughter is my property so guess what—if she doesn’t agree to marry Demitrius, two things are gonna happen: Number 1, death. I’ll kill him. For real. I tell you, this is how it was. Or she becomes a nun. You go into a convent and you were never seen again. And that’s not bad if that’s what you want. I know some great nuns but this is not what Hermia wanted to do. 

So what are they going to do?

SLAM

He continues to go through the plot, describing the two worlds of the play, of fairies and mortals, of this:

intergalactic battle in the spirit world that is causing all these crappy things to happen on earth. This is Shakespeare in the 1600s. The climate is changing and it’s warm in the winter time, summers are so hot nothing can grow. All of a sudden there are diseases. There are wars and cruelty. They cut each other’s throats—now it’s funny, maybe the spirits are fighting right now as we speak. Shakespeare had wisdom and he wrote for the ages. He didn’t write for Comp Lit students at Yale, Harvard, SVA although that’s cool. He wrote for human beings. He wrote for all of us. 

Okay, so all this stuff is happening. Now there’s this little guy Puck and he has no sex. His name is Puck. Say Puck.”

“Puck.”

Puck, he’s like this Special Ed knucklehead, you know who I’m talking about. The knucklehead in the class who likes to cause mischief just for the fun of it. He’d take you, Valerie [one of the teenagers] and turn you into a donkey. He loves to transform things like we do, us artists, just for the sheer fun of it.”

He turns to the older students, “Richard, Leah, everybody here. I hope you’re not artists to be cool, to get on the cover of Artforum or to get into the next hot gallery and have openings and all that. That’s great. We’ve done it, right? We were just in Europe and they treated us like rock stars. But that came after. We didn’t do it for that. It came after the hard work of making stuff that people care about.”

“So that’s Puck. He’s an artist. He don’t care. He doesn’t give a hoot. He loves doing what he does and he’s a bugout. He has all these magic powers so Oberon says, Look I know a place where the wild thyme warps… there is a flower. It’s called the flower-in-idelness. I want you to go round the world. I want you to find that flower that has the power that when the juice of it is sprinkled on the eyes of a sleeping people, they wake up and they fall in love with the next living creature they see upon awakening from a dream. It’s uncontrollable. Powerful. What is this flower?!? That’s your work. Puck goes out and says I’m gonna get that flower. I’m gonna wait until Tatiana is sleeping and I’m gonna sneak in on her eyes. When she wakes up she’s gonna fall for the next living creature she sees and she’s going to forget all about that little boy and that’s all there is to it.

Tim stops. Smiles. “I win. I broke it down for you. And here’s our mystery. You’re Puck, not punk but Puck. Now what does that flower look like? This flower that has the power to make you fall in love with the first creature you see upon awakening from a dream. I’m gonna tell you something right now. It’s not a daisy. Don’t give me any daisies. No, it’s not a tulip. Remember in Kindergarten when you stuck all those tulips on the windows? Remember that? And please, don’t give me no roses. What is this flower and that ‘s what we’re gonna be making today in your sketch pads. We’ll listen to Mendelsson while we work. Are you ready? We’ll do the K.O.S. technique which is to draw like crazy. Do not rip anything out of your sketchpad. Don’t start thinking just start drawing.” 

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Tim projects Peter Hall’s 1968 psychedelic version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream staring a 22 year old Judi Dench and 23 year old Helen Mirren while everyone gets to work in their sketchbooks. The sound is off so everyone can listen to Mendelsson.

He turns to me, “This is one of Alexander McQueen’s favorite movies. He told me when I met him. I asked him because I just knew that he knew it and he said, ‘No one knows that!’ He said he saw it when he was 13. And you know what? He had the quote, “Love sees not with the eye but the mind” tattoed on his arm! I’m not kidding.”

Tim gets up and starts to check in with everyone looking over their sketchbooks. There are hairy flowers, bulbous flowers, cartoon and elegant flowers. The following day the group will work only with watercolors. Flowers will spread out from among the people in the room. Tim coaches as we make. “Thyrza, you’ve got to work on that flower.” 

Please Note. Along with the Highline exhibition, the Lehmann Maupin show, K.O.S. is currently preparing for a solo show at the Savannah College of Art and Design’s Museum of Art, Georgia, February 2014.