Coffee and politics. They go together almost as good as politics and art. A week ago I met up with a good friend of mine for a cup of coffee and to talk a little about the projects we have been working on. We chatted about school starting, upcoming shows, and each other’s work. Then our conversation shifted a little to talk about Detroit. For the last year, I have been living, working, and going to school in the Detroit Metro area. I spend my time outside of the studio with friends getting to know the various parts of the city. Detroit is host to a wide variety people including those born and raised south of Eminem’s Eight Mile Road and a large amount of recent transplants with origins spanning the world. Detroit has become a bit of an urban testing ground with the media’s recent focus turned towards the nation’s once glamorous car capitol.
Since the 1998 publication of Relational Aesthetics by Nicholas Bourriaud, small flowerings of Relational Art projects have cropped up all over the world. Dinner parties and community gatherings of this nature seem to be thriving in every major city across the US. Chicago’s InCUBATE runs a monthly soup brunch that has become a model for soups from Portland, Oregon, to New York City. It raises money and funds independent creative projects and at the same time provides a place for community discussion. Earlier this year Detroit Soup, founded by Kate Daughdrill and Jessica Hernandez, popped up right here in Motown.
Red waterfalls hang frozen from tarnished candelabra arms above hardened wax puddles joined permanently to a floral cloth. Dew collects on the open mouths of emptied wine bottles as cool morning air washes over the garden table and chairs occupied only hours before. Recently, two close friends and I have been getting together over dinner to talk about art and enjoy each other’s company. Every one of our meetings has been intimately set with just the three of us alone in a garden. On top of candles and wine adding to the atmosphere, the dinners were timed almost magically to correspond to the sunset, making each encounter seem unique and magical. On the morning after these get-togethers, my mind often wanders, ruminating on the conversations of the previous evening. This time I started to think about craft even before the meal ended. Not just craft as it relates to weaving and carving, but a broader definition that can include crafting an idea or situation. This summer, each setting of the table and planning of the menu was done with intention. These experiences were crafted not only to feed our appetites, but also to nurture our comfort, friendship, and conversations.
Since moving to Cranbrook Academy of Art, relationships created in the name of art have been floating around in my periphery. Several critiques and art events I attended this last year were centered on objects and scenarios aimed at bringing people together. Just last week, two Cranbrook alumni, Paul Outlaw and Jennifer Catron, were written up in the New York Times for their newest artistic endeavor—a mobile fish fry truck that has made appearances in Brooklyn teaching city residents how to eat southern-style crawfish. The project creates a specific experience, combining a little of Catron and Outlaw’s spectacle with the weirdly exclusive feeling of being served out of the back of a truck. This seems to have the purpose of helping participants to bond. With the same quirky flair, Outlaw also ran a bar called Exclusions and, a few years earlier, a bodega in his studio that served as a space for students and faculty to spend their bucks and get to know each other during his time at Cranbrook.
Time is slowly slipping by as the thick Michigan air hangs around my studio — stagnant and hot, a veritable swamp. It is the summer between my first and second years of my two year graduate program. The expectations I carried here have not been met exactly.
Vency Yun and I talked last month about our M.F.A.s and the idea of change. We came to realize that the one thing that had changed in us the most since beginning our programs was our expectations. Both of us came to graduate school for different reasons. Vency came to find out if an art practice was what she wanted, and I came to find a community and forum for my art and ideas. Both of us got what we were looking for, but not exactly in the way that we thought. For Vency, her journey through Concordia University and abroad revealed to her the need for a different kind of art practice, one that stems from a yearning for comfort. For me, a much more diverse community is presenting itself, surprising me with a broader base of opinions and backgrounds.
Since the beginning of summer, many of my classmates have scattered across the continents, taking full advantage of the slow summer months. I am caught in the middle, the summer or the slump. Like many other students, I have taken a summer job. I am hanging out right now with a group of 20 high school art students at the Cranbrook Summer Art Institute. It is my job to entertain, feed, and counsel these pre-college teens throughout the summer. The benefits tempted me—free food, boarding, studio and pay. The only problem is time…hanging out with the kids is great, but after all of the responsibilities of the job, there is hardly any time or energy left over for my studio work.
With food, rent, and friendship all on the summer bill, studio work seems to get pushed aside. This summer I had decided to stay in Michigan, make a little money, and work in the studio (I want to be in my studio the most). I have accomplished a little bit of all of those things, yet I am still feeling like I want to do more. I have begun to see professional artists as magicians. Their ability to integrate their daily needs into a successful art practice is a mystery that leaves me in awe. After talking with my colleagues, this summer feeling — slump, really — seems to be the norm for the time in-between.
The weather is warming and that means that the end of the academic year is coming. I am a first year student pursuing my M.F.A. at Cranbrook Academy of Art. The school, located in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan, is small—only 150 students total. Many of us here call it the ‘island.’ Right now, my friends and I are gearing up for the break and trying to get the last bit of use out of the school’s facilities before we leave the island and return to normalcy for the summer. This year, I will be staying in Detroit and working to establish roots in a place targeted by the media during the financial crisis. But the biggest thing that has been on everyone’s mind for the last three months has been the degree show.
At the end of each year, Cranbrook Academy of Art puts together a giant museum exhibition to showcase the work of each year’s emerging graduates. As you can imagine, because each year the school produces 75 M.F.A. graduates with work ranging from painting and 2D design to sculpture and architecture, this show can get easily cluttered.
Several attendees of last year’s show likened it to a three ring circus and this year’s show was similar. In an interview with one of the artists-in-residence, we spoke of how each year there is always “a house, a car, and a song and dance show.” This time, with the exception of the car, the show proved to be quite a spectacle. There were three performances at the opening, each drawing a huge crowd, and one fully functioning house and several other house-like pieces. “In a show with this many people, everyone is trying to get seen,” the artist-in-residence commented.
Ideally, the graduate exhibition should serve as an introduction of the artist to a larger art community and at the same time, use that community to check the quality of the work. That it is why the graduate exhibition is such a valuable part of the M.F.A. education. On its website, the College Art Association states in its M.F.A. guidelines that, “each MFA student should be required to mount a substantial final exhibition of his or her work.” It speaks of this as a way to critically judge the work of the graduates. This final exhibition can range in format from a small solo show at an on or off-campus gallery, to a larger big box museum exhibition like at Cranbrook. This year, the school joined with the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit to present Out of the Woods, a show stuffed to the brim with works by the school’s graduating class.
In reflecting on my own thoughts about the graduate exhibition, I began to wonder how my ideas correlated with those of my peers. So to get a sense of what it is like to be involved in one of these shows, I interviewed several of my classmates, first and second years. We talked about our overall impressions of the show and how being involved in it affected the general dynamic of the school. Instead of transcribing the dialogue for you, I thought it would be interesting to hear the words directly from the mouths of the students. Here are some of the answers I collected: