[We all had to write self-assessments at the end of our studio topics course. Mine doubles as a spot check on the value of grad school for me thus far. I do not know whether my classmates had similar experiences. For more information on the group project described in this post, look at the project blog, this, and also this.]
August 10, 2013
The scope and ambition of my studio practice grew significantly since I began this MFA program last year. My artwork became stronger, but it all still remained purely within the context of studio painting. Extending my artistic efforts outside of the studio’s safety always felt forced and insincere. The concept of collaborating with other artists also conjured memories of group projects in which twice the work was invariably traded for half the credit.
The first day of this summer’s Studio Topics class intimidated me. Collaboration and interactive art were least familiar bugbears, but social practice, community art, and interdisciplinary art were concepts I never expected to relate to my own efforts. Relational aesthetics were a completely new set of concepts. It was soon obvious that I was going to have to dramatically expand the list titled “things Colleen is capable of trying” unless I wanted to go home early.
Somehow everything came together in a surprisingly natural manner. I was already beginning to incorporate playfulness into my artwork. I have long been intrigued by the trickster archetype, which uses humor to facilitate otherwise-painful or -unwelcome truthfulness. It was with that puckishness in mind that I suggested the group project on surveillance that I still prefer to call “You are here.”
The surveillance project would never have occurred to me at home. We certainly have security cameras in northern California, but most of the buildings have only one story. It is easier to build out than up, which leads to squat buildings and greater distances between destinations. The sheer number of pedestrians in metropolitan areas fascinates me. My predilection for walking to do my errands is relatively unusual and impractical at home. To recap: a surveillance camera in my region would be located at ground level and wouldn’t record anything but vehicular traffic.
In Philadelphia during this summer, however, I had a studio on the eighth floor. The sidewalks are in constant use, so there is always someone to see. The first time I took a photo from this vantage point, people in the photograph serendipitously spotted me. That was the interaction I hoped to repeat and explore. The tables were turned on me, and it was an intriguing but harmless experience for all involved.
I wanted to collaborate with Robin Brewer and Meg Brady because their studio work and demeanor tends to have a mix of cleverness and warmth that I admire. Meg spoke in class discussions about wanting to set up a project that was open-ended enough that she wasn’t forcing strangers into an uncomfortable situation. Robin’s work over the last year has impressed me with its sincerity and thoughtfulness. Her photographic focus seemed a very practical fit to this sort of project. At this time, we informally agreed on the project title “You are here” as part of our effort to keep our postcards and overall project closer to the light-hearted context of souvenirs and tourism than paranoia and surveillance.
Well-intentioned though we were, we were also willfully ignoring stark realities about what it means to climb an ivory tower in order to document the little people far below. Michelle Cade, Aaron Kather, and Zac Pritchard only seemed to see that side of the project, so the sinister side became impossible to ignore once that trio asked to join our group. Having to accept and incorporate their perspectives was as helpful to understanding the project’s possibilities as drafting several versions of the project proposal was to clarify our goals.
I never excelled as a leader on the rare occasion that I acted as one, so being politely forced into that role was a bizarre irony. I tried to avoid stifling my classmates in this project while protecting our overall goals. I did better than before, but but next time I will have to come up with a tactful way to protect both group harmony and artistic ambitions.
This project as it actually happened clarified for me a degree of assertiveness in interactive art which I am capable of but don’t care to repeat (without compelling reasons). It was an interesting project, and it will absolutely inform my future decision-making about privacy and artistic pranks, but I consider it complete. I would require either a significantly different way in which to execute the concept or a new reason to pursue it.
My aspirations have grown this summer. I found a way to explore these concepts in Philadelphia during a temporary stay, but it would be far more meaningful to me to tackle community art in my hometown. The process of requesting permission and submitting proposals for the “You are here” project gives me a faint idea of just how much time, tact, and humility is involved in doing community and collaborative art in a meaningful and responsible way. It will not happen soon, but now I believe it is possible. The difference between “if only” and “possibly” is enormous, as is the switch from “someone” to “me.”
I see room for personal improvement in my ability to work collaboratively and with relevance to my community. I am encouraged by the fact that this summer is the first time I have addressed these topics out of a sense of personal need rather than external expectations. I have a sequence of mail art projects (both begun and projected) which should consolidate this progress as I prepare for larger dreams like beautifying small towns in northern California.
The question of whether or not the “You are here” surveillance or community beautification truly count as Fine Art is fairly trivial. If I focus instead on the question of whether or not these projects address a personal or collective need, then it is quite obvious that I need to quit dithering about art credibility and simply get to work.