In elementary school, I hated the process of erasing—the grubby flakes that rubbed off when you used the other end of the pencil, the telltale smudges on the page, and those terrible instances when you applied too much pressure and tore right through the paper. Lately, I’ve been pondering the act of erasing and its place in art making and interpretation. Perhaps the most notable example in art history is Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing. For this, Rauschenberg famously obtained a unique drawing from Willem de Kooning and then spent a month painstakingly removing the imagery from the paper.
At first glance, Erased de Kooning Drawing is startling empty, calling into question the basic tenet that anything framed and hung on the wall of a museum is art. But as you look closer you will notice that the paper is not plain at all but in fact covered with traces of both artists—lingering marks from de Kooning’s original drawing, and the small tears, wrinkles, and smears made as Rauschenberg erased. Slowly, we begin to understand the enormity of the task Rauschenberg undertook. Slowly, we marvel at the precision and control he must have exercised to preserve the integrity of the paper. He has succeeded in making erasure itself an art.
A couple of weeks ago, I attended the winter meeting of Chicago Museum Exhibitors Group (CMEG) held at the Museum of Science and Industry. I’m no exhibit builder or designer, but I was intrigued by the topic of this particular meeting—The Maker Movement and Museums. Since a friend of mine is writing her thesis on that very pairing, I decided to attend the meeting on her behalf (she lives in California) to see what I could find out about this subculture that seems to be quickly gaining in popularity and significance.
As I understand it, the Maker movement has grown out of the marriage of several aspects of contemporary culture: the increasing popularity of DIY projects, cheap and readily available technology, and the lack of vocational education in many of today’s schools. “Makerspaces” are focused on engaging participants in inventing creative applications for existent technology, as opposed to solely teaching technical skills or preparing young people for careers in traditional trades. Makerspaces often stress collaboration and community learning as the path to innovation, a likely explanation for why the museum world has begun to take an interest in them.
During the panel discussion, someone asked a simple question that had been on my mind throughout the evening: Is there a fundamental difference between the Maker movement and the kind of hands-on learning that already happens in most museums? The panelist’s answer was yes, though her explanation was a bit opaque. I believe she was trying to express that the Maker movement has potential to positively impact how we live our lives, by instilling members of society with the necessary practical skills and desire to consume less and live more sustainably. The Maker movement is not about creating for creating’s sake, it is about coming up with creative solutions to real-life needs and problems.
As the end of the year approaches, many people look forward to the advent of a new season. Perhaps they anticipate more professional and financial success or a more holistic lifestyle in the next year. Perhaps they are just happy to turn the corner and leave a difficult string of months behind. I have no problem understanding the appeal of resolutions to live better, happier, healthier lives; I just prefer reflecting on the past year to forecasting the one to come. What I love is taking stock.
I’ve never worked in retail, but I have held many an office job that involved filing, and a brief gallery internship that entailed taking inventory. There is something in the sorting and stacking, the shuffling, straightening, and squaring away that I relish. But it is not only the physical process of taking stock that soothes and satisfies me; it is the opportunity to invent and impose a new system on the objects or data in question. I see the same opportunity in the closing of a calendar year, for experiences can also be transformed through classification and analysis. Lest you think I am arguing for a data-driven view of experience, rest assured. That is not my intention. I am merely suggesting that events in our lives, whether they happen to us or we make them happen, often make much more sense in retrospect.
A couple of months ago, I had a last-minute opportunity to accompany the multitalented members of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Teen Creative Agency to Tricia Van Eck’s community arts experiment 6018North, located in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago. The uninsulated and rather dilapidated mansion is currently host to a series of installations that transform each room into one artist’s ruminations on public versus private space. Van Eck explained that this exhibition is the last show open to the public before the crumbling building will be closed and renovated. She mentioned energy-efficient solutions drawn up by Illinois Institute of Technology students in a class she co-taught last spring, which focused on ways to retrofit the old house in environmentally friendly ways. Ever since that day, I’ve been thinking about the word “retrofit.”
To retrofit a structure is essentially to modernize it, by installing equipment not in existence at the time of its construction. There is more to the process than just updating, though, as it is rarely as simple as putting the new parts in place. Oftentimes, there is no “place” for the parts, as an outmoded system will not support the modern technology. The true challenge of retrofitting is devising creative and efficient ways to make the old structure and the new parts fit together.
This struck a chord with me because at the time, I had just begun a job in the external affairs department of a science museum – a marked departure from my recent studies in art education. Putting aside the idea of working on the floor in public programs and accepting a position in museum administration did seem like a risk, but one that I was sure would pay off in the end. Although I can’t articulate it presently, I feel strongly that aside from granting me a steady income, this choice will eventually make perfect sense in the greater trajectory of my career.
We all must bear the marks of our accumulated experiences, but we are also granted the opportunity to explain those marks in any number of ways, and put those accumulated experiences to any number of uses. I am thinking now of the show Jimmy Robert: Vis à vis, which closed last month at the MCA Chicago. The exhibition was beautifully crisp, leaving plenty of room for appreciation of Robert’s delicate aesthetic and for meditation of the themes of his work. Robert is in love with many things, including choreography and the human body, but chief among them is paper. His elegies to the everyday material present and embody an endless cycle of rebirth. A sheet of blank paper becomes crumpled; is dropped on the ground; becomes a photograph; is propped on the floor in the very position in which it was photographed; becomes an art object.
Robert’s work is witty as is, but as a metaphor for the body, it is beautiful. In the same way that our bodies endure physical wear and tear that lead to new and surprisingly lovely iterations, each and every experience we undergo leads to richer and more layered versions of our personal narratives. Sometimes we have to wait many months or years to put those experiences on display in a way that allows us to impose an overarching logic. Eventually, though, the time comes to take stock, and we realize that it all fits together in the end.
About halfway through my freshman year of college, I abandoned plans to major in English, choosing instead to pursue my newly discovered passion for art history. I have never been able to fully explain the cause of that abrupt decision, or at least not until a few weeks ago, when I read an essay by the British author Zadie Smith. The essay is called “Rereading Barthes and Nabokov,” and in it, Smith recalls her experience studying literature at university. She (fondly) remembers professors who encouraged “wild analogy” and “aggressive reading against the grain and across codes and discourses.” The essay revolves around a comparison of this kind of analysis, favored by Roland Barthes, with the kind favored by Vladimir Nabokov, which is almost diametrically opposed to it. As it turns out, I stopped studying English because I identify more with a stodgy Russian novelist than with a progressive French theorist.
Here is the gist of the comparison: Nabokov believed in the importance of studying style and structure, and the indelible link between the author and his writing; Barthes (who was 15 years younger, but still very much a contemporary) championed the “death of the author,” maintaining that the author’s biography and intention should have no influence on the reader’s interpretation of his writing.
The temperature in Chicago was cool for a mid-August day when I drove back into the city on I-90 last week, eagerly anticipating my first glimpse of the unmistakable skyline. My internship at the National Gallery of Art complete, my goodbyes to D.C. and its residents delivered, I was ready to celebrate my return with some lazy afternoons on the shore of Lake Michigan.
Of course, lounging lakeside is less fun with the task of finding a “real job” hanging over one’s head. But before I fully resign myself to trolling career sites for postings and creating endless variations on my resume, I want to talk about my summer.
Some of the most unexpected pleasures of my internship were the twice-weekly morning seminars, in which we (fifteen or so recent grads and current grad students) met with an employee in each of the Gallery’s major departments. In addition to giving us the chance to hear from museum professionals about their career paths and learn about everything from lighting to horticulture to object conservation, these talks allowed us to glimpse the connections between departments and to understand where and how internal collaboration occurs.
I have a confession to make: I’m addicted to clichés. Also idioms, memes, and platitudes. I love all kinds of overused, trite, or essentially meaningless language. (Let me just take this moment to apologize to all of the college professors who had to read my pathetically lame paper titles, many of which used the aforementioned expressions.) The subheadings in this post are an homage to the aphorism, which I think is an appropriate device to use in a column that’s essentially life advice for ex-students like me, at sea in the real world for the first time ever or the first time in a while.
1. Practice Makes Perfect
A little more than a month ago, I wrote my last post for Open Enrollment as a grad student blogger. I had yet to print, collate, and submit my master’s thesis to my department; I had yet to move out of the apartment in which I had written the thesis; and I had yet to begin my first job as an “emerging museum professional.”
I’ve done all of those things now, but of course, it was only a month ago. Not that much has changed.
In fact, in that last post that I wrote, I mused about Paulo Freire’s advice regarding the imbalance of reflection and action in cultural practice. I didn’t use the word, but I was referring to his ideas about praxis: the process of enacting theory, or the embodied combination of reflection and action. How fitting. Practice Praxis does indeed make perfect.
2. Don’t Give Up the Ship
In the space between my life as a student and the beginning of my journey toward permanent employment, I took a brief trip to New York. After a long train ride from Chicago to D.C., the site of my summer internship, I dropped off a large suitcase and caught a bus north to the City. There, I reunited with my friend Lauren for three days of museum and gallery hopping. One stop on the tour and the real reason for our holiday was the Cindy Sherman retrospective, which we caught on its final weekend at MoMA.
Well, it’s done. I am a Master(ess) of Arts. (Unofficially, though, since I won’t receive my diploma until I put the finishing touches on my thesis and submit it to the library.) Now for the hard part.
The great risk of going to grad school is the possibility that several years down the road, you will find yourself with another piece of paper and no better idea of how to gain entry into and function within the professional world. Luckily, I don’t doubt for a minute that pursuing an advanced degree was the right choice for me. I feel much better equipped to begin a career as a cultural worker than I did two years ago. Still, I worry that sustaining my current level of passion for issues in my chosen field will become increasingly difficult as the pressures of getting a job and figuring out the rest of my life intensify.
In my last post, I wrote about my interest in dialogue, and discussed it in relationship to contemporary art, literature, and museum practice. I neglected to mention Paulo Freire, the scholar who is perhaps the most provocative theorist of dialogue. Freire, a Brazilian educator and author who died in 1997, is something of an icon in my social justice-focused art education program. Part of my reluctance to talk about his work is my conviction that I cannot do proper justice to its eloquence and meaning.
In his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire refers to dialogue as “an existential necessity,” and “the way by which men achieve significance as men.” He further explains:
Dialogue is the encounter between men, mediated by the world, in order to name the world. Hence, dialogue cannot occur between those who want to name the world and those who do not wish this naming – between those who deny other men the right to speak their word and those whose right to speak has been denied them. (Excerpts from Paulo Freire, 1970, pp. 75-86)
This naming of the world through dialogue, Freire warns, cannot transpire “in the absence of a profound love for the world and for men.”
It’s thesis crunch time in my second-year grad student bubble right now, and I, like most of my peers, am swimming in ink. A mess of printed pages, covered with red pen edits; a towering stack of books to return to the library; a thousand different versions of each of my chapters, saved in at least three places on my hard drive: such is the state of my life.
I might be guilty of neglecting the physical ordering of my space, but I’m doing my best to make sure that the chaos doesn’t spill over into my writing. This means undertaking one of my least favorite parts of composition: rereading each section of the paper to check for continuity and minimize repetition. In the process, I’ve discovered that my biggest problem is actually an omission. I forgot to define my key terms. Just over a year after my Research Methodology professor asked me to draft definitions of my keywords, I finally understand the significance of the exercise. How on earth are my readers going to make sense of my thesis unless I explicitly outline the meaning of the terms that I use again and again within it?
I’ve succeeded at nailing down definitions for most of these words, but one in particular is proving resistant to delineation, and that is dialogue. My research centers on the presence and potential of doubt in the museum of art, and examines dialogue as the site of both its expression and transformation. The problem is, dialogue means a lot of things, to a lot of people. What do I want it to mean?
Returning to my annotations of those library books in the towering stack, I came across this thought from Rika Burnham and Elliott Kai-Kee’s 2011 Teaching in the Art Museum: “opposition makes for rich and productive dialogue” (p. 89). My definition of dialogue definitely has something to do with opposition, and I finally feel as though I’m getting close to figuring out exactly what it is.
Last Monday, I had the opportunity to attend a lecture given by the artist Marilyn Minter as part of the School of the Art Institute’s Visiting Artists Program. At that point, I was not very familiar with her work, and it was a treat to sit back, listen, and look at her lustrous photos, lush enamel paintings, and entrancing video work.
Every time I get a student loan statement in the mail, I wonder if I’ll still think getting a master’s degree was worth it ten years down the road. Nina Simon, champion of the “Participatory Museum” and household name to most museum grad students, once wrote a post about the trouble with museum graduate programs, going so far as to (jokingly) compare them to zombie factories. Am I condemning myself to a lifetime of zombie-ness, in addition to my already established loan payment servitude?
It’s not surprising that Simon is suspicious of grad school for those interested in careers in museums, for two reasons: a) she made a name for herself in the field at a young age simply by starting on the floor and working her way up; and b) she is an avowed critic of schooling and proponent of informal education. She has several reasons for distrusting the programs she talks about, but the most salient one is that a standardized course of study homogenizes the skills and perspectives of the workforce, thereby making radical change much less common in the field.
Like Simon, I’m wary of any degree program that threatens to rob me of my distinct perspective or set aside my diverse interests for the pursuit of a predetermined skill set. One of the main reasons I chose to enroll in my current art education program was that it required relatively few core courses and encouraged multidisciplinary work and study. Still, I have become frustrated on several occasions with the lack of breadth in course offerings and the lack of support offered to students interested in extending their academic experience beyond the classroom.
It is in these moments of frustration that I regularly rediscover what has become for me the most unexpected pleasure and the most vital part of graduate school: my fellow students. I am surrounded by a community of bright and tireless amateurs, and my practice is incredibly enriched by their energy and ideas. We are not like-minded and we often disagree on polemical issues, but we have certain ideologies in common and are determined to work together to shape a learning environment that benefits our individual and collective needs. We revel in the unknown and the experimental, and try on each other’s perspectives and pastimes whenever we have a chance. My peers are my greatest source of inspiration, and I would not have made half of the progress I have in grad school if not for them.