In way of introduction:
( this essay is part of my participation in Blueberry Blintz, a cohort of six individuals all taking the Stanford University MOOC : Practice Based Research in the Arts)
The online meeting I had today with my co-Blueberries was in many ways, the most helpful and informative exercise I’ve had during this class. The two-way interaction, and seeing first-hand and in real-time, the perspectives of the classmates in my cohort, further influenced my direction in how I will finalize my class project.
Due to the complexities of finding a mutually available time in which 6 very busy persons (one overseas) can all meet, only a very heavily scheduled Monday morning was available. Since all the people I interacted with throughout my day are more than acquaintances (they are typically collaborators, friends, mentors and other members of my community), finding a random person to be simply ‘social’ with, is easier said then done.
Once today’s online class meeting adjourned, I had to find a way to integrate the assignment of a simple social action, with an ‘acquaintance’ into my already fully booked day. I operate within an extended family of multi-generational, and multicultural arts professionals, and the opportunity to meet a new acquaintance often permeates the various buildings surrounding my studio. But this is always by chance; somedays, a number of people, often strangers, will simply walk into my studio and start a conversation. Of course, that wouldn’t happen today….I have decided to document the intricacies of how such an extended arts family overlaps each other.
Meanwhile, outside my studio door…
My classmate Molly had mentioned how in her hometown of San Francisco, the Latina celebration of Day of the Dead is a major cultural occurrence. Likewise, the same is true in my hometown of LA. Outside my studio door, groups of Otis College of Art & Design MFA students, majoring in Public Practice, have been collaborating with high school age students living in Mexico. They’ve placed a series of Day of the Dead-themed installations throughout the lobbies and public areas in the building I’m in.
I thought this would be a perfect way to do a simple social gesture with a student stranger or acquaintance. I stepped outside my studio door, to a community table they set up in one of the installations. Regrettably, after standing around for a while, hoping to run into one or more of either the MFA or high school students, I realized that they all would be elsewhere, of course, and all in class.
The Day of the Dead tradition is one of most healthy expressions of the ( current ) reality of our own mortalities. During the online meet with my cohorts, I had just reacted to classmate Vanessa’s total integration of her physical and virtual selves. I raised the uncomfortable question with the class about current trends in the more science-centric academic departments (i.e neuroscience, bio-engineering, computer science, etc.) about the cultural movements self-defined as H+, Transhumanism, etc. This issue, is still under the radar for many, even among those who consider themselves ‘educated’ (whatever that has come to mean). The contrast was so clearly demonstrated between the virtual non-location based mediated reality I was experiencing inside my studio (but more correctly in cyberspace) and some resistance to change that many in both academia and pop culture were articulating. I saw a sharp, perhaps even definitively contrasted self-perception, between the virtual space I was co-inhabiting with my classmates inside my studio, and the confrontational message placed a few days ago, in the Otis MFA/high school student exhibition outside my door.
Without question, at least one of these students is overtly and unabashedly questioning the conventional and canonical academic norms of ‘artspeak’ (which I suppose I’ve just used) with this challenging wall piece:
The student’s confrontational question resonates with me, and not only challenges, but interrogates many Euro-centric notions ingrained in art “theory’. Although I have learned to use such academically-driven verbiage in my interactions with my professional colleagues ( among other things I currently serve as a Commissioner on the City of Santa Monica Arts Commission), I also realize the limitations and boundaries it creates, in furthering the cause of multicultural dialogue.
Following the end the end of today’s online class meeting, I needed to refocus my attention to what I needed to do throughout the day.
Kate Johnson (below), media artist and Otis faculty member, witnessed my online meeting with my classmates. Kate (among other types of art practice) creates some of the largest projected images to date, and her work has been projected onto the exterior walls of the entire 5 building Getty Museum, as well as site-specific work around the world.
We talked briefly afterwards about my online interaction with my classmates. Kate commented on the potential difficulty of vocabulary, in building a common language among diverse thinkers (even as seemingly culturally homogeneous a group as ours). I assured her that despite the visual appearance of the group, that we were clearly all exploring a very wide range of opinions and genre-adoptions. It would take more than one meeting for us to even begin to know each other as so-called ‘artist-scholars’. Kate agreed that this was an important step that would benefit the class process as a whole. As MOOCs are, by nature, often (to use a contentious word ) de-humanizing, whatever steps to re-introduce the conventional experiences of meeting your classmates ‘in person’, enhances the educational process, as it has done for thousands of years. Again, Vanessa’s successful adoption of the new virtual body is another clue to more effective ways in which persons of diverse cultural backgrounds are learning to interact.
Then David, a collaborator of Kate’s, and an acquaintance of mine, walked into the studio. This was, I thought, my first opportunity to follow-through on the requirements of fulfilling the class assignment.
Understandably, David was only interested in discussing his current project, and the near-impossible deadline that he and Kate were under. They are in the final days/hours of creating a series of digital animations for a 100 foot wide projection, as part of the grand-re-opening of the Long Beach Arena. These, seemingly purely commercial commissions, are actually bold experiments in how the integration of site-specific projection and the live theatrical experience may be explored, enhanced and evolved. In what I call ‘art as anthropology, I am very interested in discovering why someone considers something to be art, than whether it is actually art of not ( or if the question still, if ever has any merit, or is an artifact held over from a colonialist and culture-bound perspective).
I decided to let them work, and went out to find more ‘acquaintances’. But I only ran into friends. Santa Monica, an ocean-side city which is part of Los Angeles County, is largely car culture, therefore nobody walks down the streets near where the 18th Street Arts Center (where my studio is situated) is located. Therefore anyone around here was likely already someone I have gotten to know fairly well.
surprise visit with my intro to LA Performance Art History 101:
I ran into two elder LA art history statespersons here, Sue Dakin and Barbara T. Smith. Coincidentally I had just mentioned Barbara in the online meeting with my classmates. She was, quite unexpectedly here at the arts center, visiting her old friend Sue.
Barbara, among many other things, in the 1970’s, co-founded with Chris Burden, Nancy Buchanan and others, the historically significant ( although short-lived) gallery called F Space. It was there where Chris Burden did his now famous/notorious performance piece “Shoot”.
A true pioneer in California feminist performance art, Barbara’s work has been exhibited in venues such as the Pompidou in Paris, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and numerous other spaces internationally.
My classmate Katrina had correctly pointed out the significant role that Alan Kaprow has played in the discourse surrounding performance and live art. Again, coincidentally, Barbara also collaborated with her life-long friend Alan Kaprow, and was asked ( along with John Baldesari and Paul Mccarthy) to re-stage some of Kaprow’s seminal works at LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art, in the largest retrospective yet on Kaprow. And when Kaprow would not be able to teach his UCSD class, he would often ask Barbara to make the 100 mile trip from LA, to fill in for him, and he also performed in some of her most important works.
Barbara’s life story, both controversial as well as inspiring, is fast becoming essential study for any serious scholar of performance art.
Sue Dakin was also, coincidentally, someone I had previously mentioned as a neighbor that the classmates and I could possibly visit as part of our online meeting. Sue, mainly an artist, was publisher (under her company name Astro Artz) of the seminal performance art journal High Performance, which was published for 20 years, and documented the rise and proliferation of live art post WW2. It also contributed to the long process of art scholars world-wide gaining a fuller understanding of Southern California’s critical role in defining performance. In 1984, Sue did an intriguing and yet humorous work of performance art called An Artist for President,. She actually ran for U.S. President and gained national notoriety for her campaign slogan ‘the nation is an artwork, we are the artists‘.
Sue also co-founded the 18th Street Arts Center, where we are all artists in residence. 18th Street was also ‘ground zero’ for much of the performance art associated with the so-called, and highly contentious “NEA 4” U.S. Supreme Court case ( Finley vs NEA). Three of these four artists were deeply associated with 18th Street, including Tim Miller, who co-founded Highways Performance Space, still operating here, 25 years later
Sue is extremely humble and is very reluctant to talk about her immense works of philanthropy. Born quite rich, she gave virtually all of her money away, years ago, and now lives modestly, in a very small cottage on the campus of 18th Street Arts Center. In addition to funding the 18th Street Arts Center (which she immediately then turned over to a separate non-profit organization), she funded major projects in Africa, fighting female genital mutilation and also contributed significantly to a U.S. based non-prof which deals with environmental and socially progressive uses of the sciences. But you’d never know any of that talking to her.
Both in their 80’s, Sue and Barbara are so proactive, positive and socially engaged, even though they are both officially retired. I was glad to see them both, and told them I had dropped their names in an online class I was taking. They laughed and said my classmates were likely not interested in a couple of ‘old timers’. I told them if my classmates had any sense at all, this would not be true. I mentioned that all my cohorts in the class were women, and that no matter what each might think of the ( often controversial ) art work that Sue and Barbara had produced, supported and/or endorsed, that it was important that younger generations, especially women, fully grasp the enormous contributions made by the courageous female artists of previous generations. At a time when then began their careers, few other women were among their classmates, and less than 20% of artists exhibited in galleries (and far fewer in museum collections) were women. Again, they gave a knowing smile.
We then settled down to small talk, art center gossip, and shared a meal and some drinks. My classmate Vanessa had suggested that for this project, we do something ‘social’. Sometimes just being social truly is the most profound form of art, and today’s impromptu visit with Sue and Barbara, reminded me of that.