Reflections on UCIRA Conferences 2005-2010

19 Jan

Reflections on UCIRA Conferences 2004-2010 from Dr. Holly E. Unruh (Associate Director of UC Institute for Research in the Arts)

November 2010 marked the 4th time UCIRA held its ‘State of the Arts’ conference – an event designed to bring together artists, scholars and arts administrators from across the system and beyond. Over the course of the three days we spent at UC San Diego considering the theme Future Tense: Alternative Arts and Economies in the University, I was asked several times about the history of the ‘State of the Arts’ conferences – what differentiated each one, what sorts of discussions were generated by the different themes; how did they vary from campus to campus? But perhaps most importantly I was provoked to think about the question of what it really means to ‘do’ a system/statewide ‘arts’ conference. When we launched ‘State of the Arts’ in 2005, the stakes – for faculty and for students, for arts education, for public education in general – were much different. The idea of a conference which was more like a festival (an un-conference), celebrating and linking the arts across UC and thus across the state, was an exciting prospect to consider. As we enter the very different climate of 2011 the question looms: where to spend our efforts and our dwindling funds? What can we best accomplish with our resources and how? Should ‘State of the Arts’ continue?

Still Building workshop and installation on California student movements at UCIRA Conference (UCSD in November, 2010)

‘State of the Arts’ has now been held on the UC Santa Barbara, UC Berkeley, UC Riverside and UC San Diego campuses. One thing that has remained a constant from year to year, venue to venue, has been the urging on our part that the host campus try to include a few proven elements: a multiplicity of voices (disciplinary, generational, etc.); an emphasis on the presentation of work over ideas (doing over discourse, in our internal parlance); and that they use the conference as an opportunity to showcase the work happening on their own campus. Our hope is that by using ‘State of the Arts’ as a showcase platform they will hit upon an atmosphere that will make it more like an arts festival than academic conference. This happens when artists on the campus open up studios, labs, work spaces and even classrooms. When we get past the polished critical analysis of work already completed, it becomes clear how much of what we do in the arts in the University environment is not only grounded in solid research and theoretically sophisticated (as a traditional panel presentation will surely aim to stress) but also lively and improvisational, action-based, and focused on the testing of forms, collaborative configurations and ideas – all values UCIRA as an institution highly prizes.

Deans Panel at UCIRA's Future Tense Conference (at UCSD November, 2010)

Another thread connecting each conference has been the invitation for UC administrators to come, witness, and hopefully respond to, the work in question. Since our second conference in 2007, we have been joined each year by a panel of arts Deans from across UC. By the third time they came to ‘State of the Arts’ in 2010, the Deans were (we like to think) comfortable enough with the work we were doing  to not only speak freely about what they saw as the challenges facing UC’s arts departments in the current fiscal crisis, but also to form a working committee that hopes to engage in very concrete ways with addressing some of these issues.

Different campuses have configured the conference in different ways: In year 1 (2005) at UCSB we did not have an overarching theme, although as the board sat down to curate the panels it became clear that we were all (latently) aware of some major strengths in arts research spanning the system – strengths that seemed to need articulation, connection and discussion. Over the two days of this initial conference we witnessed a variety of projects undertaken by UC artists which exemplified what we as an institution were then calling ‘Action Research’ – work which took what could easily have been purely academic questions out into the real world for testing, involved students as co-learners in the endeavor and co-producers of the knowledge, and which more often that not was as deeply collaborative in nature as it was spatially embedded in particular situations or issues. We also found that numerous individuals shared an interest in questions of habitation, design and architecture and the linked issue of sustainability – conceived both in economic, environmental and also in social terms. Finally, a strong theme to many of the presentations was the cross-cutting work being done to link art, science and technology throughout the UC system. A major project we highlighted that year was Marko Peljhan’s (Art./MAT, UCSB – and now our UCIRA co-Director) Makrolab.

Macrolab at UCSB 2005

Makrolab is a fully self-contained mobile technology structure built to house teams of artists and scientists working in remote areas. It was shipped from Slovenia to the U.S. and assembled on the scenic bluffs of the UCSB campus (on what we suspect was an abandoned helipad from the rural campus’s previous life as a military base), where it served both as a demonstration project and exhibition space, and also as the site for our closing night’s festivities. In this initial conference, we worked with this idea of setting both visual and performative work throughout the campus to anchor people’s movements from space to space, and event to event, through encounter with actual work. Pieces from Jane Mulfinger’s Mobile Works class were strategically placed throughout campus and there were a number of open studios, rehearsals and classrooms which attendees navigated with map and brown bag lunch in hand over 2-hour breaks in the middle of each day. Judy Bauerlein led Nuestra Voz, a group of Isla Vista teenagers and senior citizens who had worked with Luis Alfaro on The Monument Project, in a performance that moved conference-goers from the academic spaces of campus into the altogether alien adjacent community of Isla Vista. There they greeted with booming beats, frosty treats and protest literature passed through the window of artist Aaron Gach’s Tactical Ice Cream Unit. UCIRA co-director Kim Yasuda turned the art department’s sculpture yard into a display of mobile housing possibility as she and her class unveiled their modified shipping container-turned studio (produced by the aptly titled Open Container course). Finally, Mike Godwin curated an (im)poster session in one of the campus galleries where students and faculty from throughout the system featured their work in scientific poster-presentation style.

Center for Tactical Magic at UCIRA conference (at UCSB in 2005)

When I think back on that first conference, what impresses me most was the generosity of the presenters from all campuses and disciplines, who agreed to join us and share their work without really understanding the context in which they were placed, or what they might get out of the discussion – we were all still trying to figure out what it meant to be part of ‘the arts’ in this large University system, and it was really exciting.

This month UCIRA’s SOTA blog embarks on a new theme of inquiry – what counts? It seems important to reflect on this question in light of the four conferences we have held over the past 5 years. Why does a campus decide to host the conference? What do they get in return? Who participates and why? And how does this participation ‘count’?

2007: UC Berkeley. The second ‘State of the Arts’ was hosted by the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive, with a focus on the digital arts. This theme provided a broad umbrella under which to explore the digital mediation of performance, space, sound, and other embodied experiences; to showcase faculty and graduate student research projects that exemplified interdisciplinary and intermedia arts; and to consider the impact of new media on the research functions and modalities of arts practice. The theme was also of particular interest to the local conference organizers, Lucinda Barnes (BAM/PFA Deputy Director and curator and then-UCIRA board member), who had curated a major show of digital work from the museum’s permanent collection, and staff member Rick Reinhart, who identified many strengths in the digital arts and new media across the Berkeley campus that were subsequently highlighted through the conference. Most of the formal conference program was recorded and is videocast on BAM/PFA’s site at

UCIRA Conference at UCB in 2007

At Berkeley also we saw the continuation of the tradition of open studios and campus tours begun in 2005. In the context of the sprawling Berkeley campus, student guides were enlisted to navigate conference-goers on their visits to the CNMAT studios, the CITRIS 3-D Tele-Immersive facilities and through the Museum’s own current exhibitions. Other events included Renee Delores’ Monster Tournament, held on the BAM/PFA terrace, and Trevor Paglen’s investigative tour Berkeley is a Secret Base. This year there was clear synergy between the articulation of the museum’s programming goals and campus connections and the theme of the conference. For presenters at this conference, there seemed to be a clearer sense of the purpose of what they were doing, based largely on the articulation of the theme and their academic position in relationship to or against it. ‘State of the Arts’ wasn’t an MLA or CAA for UC, but there was a sense that presenting there mattered in some way – for the discussions that ensued, for the connections to be made, and, let’s face it, for the entry on the c.v.

2008: UC Riverside. Supported by the Dean of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences and produced and organized by then-board member and Assistant Professor of Music, Renee Coulombe, this conference was the first to have a formal call for proposals on the theme ‘Demonstration!’. Coulombe’s strong interest in improvisation and her connections to the inland empire arts community brought together a wide range of artists from both inside and outside the UC system.

UCIRA Conference at UCR in 2008

The theme itself catalyzed many presenters to abandon conventional formats altogether in favor of direct performance/enactment of their work. Despite the rather small number of people in attendance (or perhaps due to this fact) the conference felt more like an informal gathering, which in the end proved really important from our institutional point of view: there were many lasting professional and personal connections made, and everyone who attended went away with a concrete sense of connection to their colleagues across the system, regardless of campus or discipline. The focus on the local also saw us end the conference with a caravan out to the High Desert Test Sites,  ‘a series of experimental art sites located along a stretch of desert communities including Pioneer town, Yucca Valley, Joshua tree, 29 Palms and Wonder Valley [which provide] alternative space for experimental works by both emerging and established artists.’ (from HDTS mission statement) Lead by then co-Director Dick Hebdige, this was the introduction for many, to a part of the California terrain that they have since explored in greater depth through UCIRA’s ongoing Desert Studies Initiative, which Hebdige continues to direct.

The fact that the 2008 conference took place not on the UC campus, but in downtown Riverside was also important. The conference was housed in the LifeArts building, a revitalized turn of the century site now used for artist live/work space, and adjacent to an area of downtown that UC has heavily invested in redeveloping through the ARTSblock initiative. Through this initiative the campus has placed the Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts, the California Museum of Photography and the Sweeney Art Gallery within the downtown Riverside pedestrian mall in two adjacent refurbished buildings. Again, as was the case at Berkeley, there was some synergy between the goals of the campus – the commitment to investing its academic and fiscal resources, quite literally, in the local community – and the thematic of the conference, ‘Demonstration!’.

Desert Studies Initiative

2010: UC San Diego. Hosted by the office the Dean of Arts and Humanities, the 2010 conference was planned to coincide with the campus’s 50th year anniversary celebrations. A faculty committee from UCSD chose the theme ‘Alternative Arts and Economies in the University’ based in part on one of UCIRA’s new initiatives, Social Ecologies: New Models of Value Exchange. Like many, they had been shaken by the recent challenges to public education that continue to shape our experience of being ‘in’ a public institution today. There was some sense that the conference might be able to address the issue through the lens of arts research and practice at UC. How this was to fit with the celebration of the campus’s 50th anniversary and/or the ‘State of the Arts’ tradition of showcasing the best of arts at UC remained relatively unexamined, as did the question of how to shape the conference format to best address this new kind of topic. As part of the group who helped organize and plan the 2010 conference, not enough time has passed for me to have the kind of critical distance I would need to effectively comment on the event as a whole but I can offer a few ideas about what worked and what didn’t.

Rickerby Hinds' performance at UCIRA Conference held at UCSD in 2010

Let’s start with what seemed problematic this time around: the presentation of work – something we’ve privileged at every prior conference. While every performance or presentation I attended was interesting in its own right, what seemed missing was any way to link to or connect with the work of others present at the conference. Anticipating that the terms of the debate were different this year, we had toyed with the idea of changing the conference format altogether – of having a series of pecha kucha style presentations (6 1/2 minutes, 20 slides per presenter) in day one, followed by a second day of ‘un-conference’ of some sort that allowed people to branch off for work and discussion inspired by ideas brought up (or not brought up) in the first day’s talks. This re-thinking of the event may have gotten the conversations we hoped to see started, but then again, it may have been a total failure.  At the very least I believe it would have picked away at some of the cracks in the very nature of the conference format – the celebratory and often congratulatory nature of presenting work that is already done, in favor of something both more productive and in some sense sustainable.

What did work: discussion. While there were a number of really exciting presentations and interactive works throughout the 3 days (Ken Ehrlich’s Masks, or The Illusion of Power; Kyle McKinley’s Still Building installation; Allyson Greene’s onSIGHT ; S.A. Bachman and students’ Dismantled projection event; and Steven Schick’s inspired keynote Climbing Mount Woodson) the part of the conference that seemed to work best was Dee Hibbert-Jones’ (UCSC, Art) Talk Sandwich, a ‘forum to brainstorm ideal futures for arts education using the metaphor of sandwich building.’ As we sat around our tables making and sharing food, we had, for the first time in an action-packed few days, the time and purpose to talk, to truly discuss ideas and possible courses of action. My only regret was that this event was cut short by our all-too-tight schedule. In what seemed to be a metaphor for the way we all continually operate, just as the discussion got rolling, we had to head off to something else. (check out “Talk Sandwich” documentation here.)

Chicano Secret Service performing at UCIRA's 2010 conference at UCSD

Of course at the heart of the problems I am beginning to outline here is a basic dissonance between an academic conference/festival and an activist gathering/working meeting. This year’s conference couldn’t decide which it wanted to be and as such was neither. This is not a criticism of the organizers  in any sense, rather it is an observation that, as we move away from the initial excitement we felt in 2005 at just identifying and connecting with the amazing group of international artists at work at UC, and begin to look at what we as a group (different players coming and going from year to year) might want to accomplish as the stakes seem to get higher and higher for the arts, the idea of a celebratory conference/festival seems like something we might want to put aside for a while in favor of other ways of articulating a position for the arts within the research university.

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