At the beginning of this semester, a new sign appeared in the printmaking clean room. It read: “Screenprinting elective list of forbidden topics: rasta rolls, unicorns, pizza, TMNT.” In case you were wondering, I believe “rasta rolls” are rainbow roll-ups using green, red, and black. [Ed. note: the colors in a "rasta roll" are in fact red/green/yellow, see comment section below]. I’m told the teacher who made this sign was so incredibly sick of seeing class after class of undergrads make really lame prints, though as someone who participated in a unicorn print portfolio exchange a couple years back, I use “lame” in the gentlest sense. This idea of recurring trends in art is interesting because I think most artists pride themselves on their originality, though as that saying goes…great artists steal. What it is you’re borrowing or stealing, however, is pretty dang important. If you even know you’re doing it.
I recently had the opportunity to sit in on a first year MFA group critique. As a second year candidate, I was supposed to offer up some kind of great advice or thought-provoking question. My two-cents? “Will there be text in your final book?” While I was very mentally present at this critique, I couldn’t help but be completely distracted by the number of familiar topics I see explored fairly frequently in book arts. Of course, all of these topics are handled differently and usually in very interesting ways. I sat down and drafted this here (almost) exhaustive list of very acceptable / “explored” topics in book arts today:
Ever since writing my last blog post for Open Enrollment, on Bob Irwin and Joni Mitchell, I’ve had the inside spread of Mitchell’s Album For The Roses tacked onto my wall. Inside is an image of Mitchell standing naked and quite Caspar-David-Friedrich-style on a rock, facing outward towards a choppy yet serene ocean. Her contrapposto stance, and slightly-raised left foot, signals action and acceptance. It signals baring herself and her unapologetic music to the world, and moving forward through potential tumultuous times to find peace in herself and her work. Ok…maybe I’m bringing an overly saccharine read to the table here, but having this image on my wall sends me off into the world of uncertain art making each morning with my head on straight…well, fairly straight.
This is not an easy task during your second year of graduate school; pressures of a looming thesis show, applying for residencies, memorizing elevator pitches, researching artists and places to live after school….the list goes on. All this while trying to refine our work yet still leave space for experimentation. Maybe now, you can see why Joni staring out into the blue is such a calming and affirming image, yet, still a hard mental state to arrive to when confronted with clouds of stress.
So, how do we as artists escape ourselves to have this For the Roses moment? This brings me to Erwin Wurm’s image with the subtitle Think About the Void (in his series Instructions for Idleness). When compared to the other sentiments in his series, like Stay in Your Pajamas All Day or Express Yourself Through Yawning, we are able to arrive at a sort of tongue-in-cheek existentialism. Yet taken on its own, Think About The Void doesn’t seem so far from the truth–picture hoards of MFA students desperately trying to find peace by staring out the window for hours on end. Artists are constantly trying to distract themselves in order for their brains to arrive at their next idea, or a solution to a problem in the studio. Artists drive, take showers, swim, or have sex as a way to occupy the body with one task, while allowing the mind some freedom to roam.
Like so many other second years, I had the proverbial graduate school meltdown a few weeks ago. With mounting debt, and the nagging thought of “was this really the right thing to do?”, I turned on my television, like any other good American does, to watch the first of the 2012 Presidential debates. When Mitt Romney proudly said he would cut federal funding for PBS, the subtext read, he’d cut federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts as well.
This isn’t terribly shocking because the issue is not a new thing, but it being an election year, federally-funded art programs are dragged into the spotlight. Recently, Ezra Klein at The Washington Post pointed out just how much money would be saved by cutting these organizations: “In fiscal year 2012, the federal government spent… $146 million on the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities. Getting rid of all these subsidies [including PBS, Amtrak] would have saved the government about $2 billion this year — chump change relative to the scale of cuts that Romney wants.” So not much, but enough so that Romney (and many of the other Republicans before him) can appease conservatives. The arts are the easy target – the scapegoat.
Jillian Steinhauer (Hyperallergic) brings up a good question about the NEA and arts funding. She says “there’s a larger conversation here, about the role of the federal government in arts funding. Should we expect it — or at this point, after decades of struggling to hold on to just a little piece of the pie, should we let it go?”
I hit a wall somewhere in the last few weeks. Between the federal government cutting a lot of aid to graduate students and signing a rental agreement in South Philly, something snapped. I can’t quite put my finger on it but, after my first departmental critique of the year I realized something: my stomach wasn’t in knots anymore.
Maybe my stress levels hit critical mass and, like my anxiety over mounting loan debt, I simply moved it all to the back of my mind. It’s still waiting there but for now I’ve regained my ability to smile into the wind.
I’ve done a lot of hard thinking at this point in my graduate education on what’s next. It’s realistic to say that I’m not going to have a job by August, three months after graduation (though I’ll be trying for one the entire time). So, here’s a list of things artists do to get by, get through, and to just get to creating.
So, happy fall. Welcome back to school and back to 100°+ weather in the San Gabriel Valley. California and weather is a thing I have yet to figure out, so, with my east coast stubbornness I continue to drink hot coffee in the morning and wear scarves to class, but I make sure to do my homework in the pool. But I digress.
It is the start of my second year, my final year of the good ole Grad life, and as I cringe at my mounting loan balance and avoid the questions of “what are you going to do when you graduate?”, I’d like to direct my gaze towards something that is actually happening right this moment, and talk about the unpaid internship.
We all have them, and despite your view on the legality/benefit/awesomness/exploitativeness of them, unpaid internships are a reality for most undergrad and graduate students, and a right of passage for anyone interested in a career in the arts. During InternQuest 2012, my own personal search for the ideal nesting ground, I discovered that most cultural organizations in LA county offer internship positions, you just have to dig for them a little. My method was simple: log onto Wikipedia, look up all the arts organizations in LA, search all their websites for opportunities, send out letters and CV’s to all those that look appealing, then hope for the best.
I read two great biographies this summer: Robert Irwin’s biography, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, by Lawrence Weschler, and Will You Take Me as I Am, Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period, by Michelle Mercer. I find truth in these types of narrative accounts–I put faith in seeing other creative lives unfold. This blog post is my attempt to tie together a myriad of ideas that I’ve been thinking about over the past couple of months, much in relation to these two. Joni Mitchell and Robert Irwin were both constricted by labels throughout their career, and turned to a dedicated “studio” practice (often resulting in reclusive behavior), to sustain their creative acts. I’d like to tie these biographical accounts to the art world at large. Rather than embracing labels and discipline categories, the introspective studio act of making is the current modus operandí for many young artists.
On Winning Swimsuit Competitions: I wouldn’t be the first person to call Joni Mitchell my emotional muse, but she actually despises being pigeon-holed as an introspective autobiographical songwriter. Her songs surely emote, but that is largely due to her undeniable ability to write music pictorially. “‘This is what you get when we get into Debussey-land,’ she says. ‘With La Mer you see the ocean. You see the butterflies. Mozart was very mathematical, you know, the agility is amazing, but it’s not very metaphorical. Not many people can paint pictures with notes’ (Mercer, 55).”
I’m still reeling from my summer. My life was very good, but it was very busy. On top of a trip to South Korea, an internship at the American Philosophical Society, and a family wedding (!!!), I completed my very first artist residency.
At risk of repeating what others have said before me — here are a few good reasons why YOU should apply to residencies.
- It can inspire you in ways you never imagined before. I’m totally serious. Laurie Anderson credited her stint as the first artist in residence at NASA (and maybe the last?) as one of the only reasons why she still lived in the United States at the time. The residency paid off in more ways than one: it was the first performance piece referencing 9/11 I saw that was poignant, beautiful, and had people sobbing in their seats.
- It can lead to collaborations that you never would have thought of before. While technically a commissioned piece, the work done by painter Maxfield Parrish and Louis Comfort Tiffany (of Tiffany Studios) has been called one of the major artistic collaborations in early 20th century America. If you ever find yourself in Philadelphia, I highly recommend a visit. It isn’t called Dream Garden for nothing. Seemingly unlikely pairings like this can and do happen all the time in artist residencies.
- It can offer access to communities of people that were previously unaccessable to you. While at my two-week residency in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania I was asked to present to a group of homeless youth in the nearby Braddock township. While I was initially skeptical that anyone would be interested in what I had to say — I was making thaumatropes at the time — it was a hit! Not only did these kids stay parked in their seats for two whole hours, they made amazing work! It blew my mind…and when would I have ever found myself in that situation if weren’t for participating in that residency?
- Finally — and this is for you current grad students or recent graduates–residencies are just like grad school. Only shorter. It’s a magical time when you can just…make…work. Many residencies don’t even require that “finished” work be produced. It’s a place, and one of the very few, where people understand that the artistic process can look very different from person to person and medium to medium.
Although the application process can be daunting–just do it. Start a Google calendar that reminds you of deadlines a month in advance. Hang every denial form-letter you get like a trophy on the wall and apply to three more programs. Make good work and send it out into the world. GO!
I’m sitting in Tegel airport in Berlin writing my column this month. Two months ago, I was sitting in JFK with a rising sense of panic about leaving my fiancé, my cat, and my friends to go spend eight weeks in intensive language school for a DAAD fellowship in Berlin. I’ve always been a good traveler, but for the first time in my life I almost bolted off the flight, so sure was I that I would miss New York too much and that I was too old to go gallivanting about Europe sans famile. How times have changed. Now, I don’t want to leave Berlin.
There are myriad reasons for this about-face, some connected to graduate life, some connected to the life I like to imagine might happen after graduate school. My rose-tinted glasses have a lot to do with having a much-needed break from the pressures of non-stop New York. For those who have visited Berlin after living in New York, I don’t need to explain the palpable difference in the pace of the two cities, both metaphorically and literally. Early in my stay I found myself enraged (this is not a hyperbolic word choice) at how slow pedestrians moved in Berlin (both tourists and regular city dwellers) before reminding myself that a) like Usain Bolt, New Yorkers are in a class of their own when it comes to moving quickly in one direction, b) I didn’t necessarily have anywhere to get to any quicker than the person in front of me because I wasn’t going to work, and c) stopping to admire the city was a wise move given I was an architectural history student in Berlin, a metropolis ripe for exploration.
I left California almost four months ago and hopped a direct flight back to Boston, fully intending to be a jobless degenerate for at least a month before the melee of my summer job began – for I was doing the thing I said I wasn’t going to do – I was going back to summer camp directing. It should be noted that this is completely okay and justifiable in my line of 501c3 management work, however, since not many people wish to hear about a local artist who told us to pit-fire our pinch pots 642,000 times, the multiple costumes I made from office supplies and spray paint, or, just exactly how many times I listened to Call Me Maybe in the 15-passenger camp van, I’ll spare you and talk about awesome art things instead.
Okay, awesome art things as promised:
This post is guest-contributed by Laura Miller.
This summer was an unyeildingly hot one. I visited my parents in Tennessee, driving along highway 65 to get there. All of the sweet corn I saw along the way was eerily brown-leaved. Fireworks were banned outside of offical productions due to fire hazard. Back at home, living across from a fish market in New York, I was more than relieved to be able to travel this summer to visit some family in Prague, and to make an art pilgrimage to see Documenta 13, aka dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel, Germany.
Traveling with friends, all fellow artists, we decided to stay in an impromptu art installation/living space called Temporary Home. The website for the space is fantastic, and the project itself provided an interesting introduction to dOCUMENTA (13). It’s managed by a collection of local and regional artists and is aimed at questioning what a home means in times of crisis. Relational Aesthetics practices have often approached the home, or temporary living structures, as moments of artistic fruitful-ness. From Rirkrit Tiravanija’s re-creations of apartment spaces for his Untitled pieces to Tatzu Nishi’s upcoming Discovering Columbus in Manhattan’s Columbus Circle, the living space has become a well-worn site for artistic explorations.
Arriving at the actual installation, tired after flights and travel, I found myself at odds negotiating art, commerce, and the lived experience. The artists managing the space were friendly. Beds, they told us, were fifteen to twenty euros each. They tied ribbons on our wrists to keep track of us as paying guests. A Bollywood film played in the expansive ground floor space. We were told that usually, there were more performances taking place, but tonight it was quiet.
The space appeared to be an office school structure temporarily converted by way of thrift store blankets and sheets, pillowcases and decorations, into a makeshift hostel. Mattresses were on the floor, with a mish-mash of patterned sheets and small pillows. The shower was a cold water hose on a patio behind the living space, surrounded by a few plants. The rooms were shared among strangers.
Viewing these circumstances as an artistic living condition makes for a confusing proposition. As a living condition, it did not seem reasonable to charge standard hostel prices for a space without any real beds, hot water, or a proper shower. As an art experience, Temporary Home did feel in some ways like a refugee camp, or a disaster shelter. Maybe more than a refugee camp, Temporary Home felt like an overgrown sleepover party connected to a DIY performance venue.
Art installations that create relationships between people in space are the artistic equivalent to stone soup, or a file-sharing site. Content created and shared by participants might make for a phenomenal moment of human exchange, or a dystopian commune filled with apathy. In either instance, the participants are to blame. Unless the artists want to take credit for it.
Laura Miller is currently an MFA student in Visual Art at Columbia University. Originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, her love of french fries on top of salads will never die. She mixes sculpture and PowerPoint to create installations. She believes in surviving.