What Counts? Q & A with Elizabeth Stephens (UCSC)

31 May
Elizabeth Stephens is a performance artist, activist and educator whose art-work, performance art and writing have explored themes of queerness, feminism and environmentalism for over 25 years. Her latest project is a collaboration with Annie Sprinkle called SexEcology. Stephens is a professor of art at University of California, Santa Cruz and is currently pursuing a PhD in Performance Studies at UC Davis. Stephens agreed to let SOTA interview her via email on May 26, 2011.

Q: The UC system charges faculty with producing research, teaching and public service. How do professors in the arts have to approach this directive in a unique way and do you see the balance tipping towards one area more strongly?

A: One of the things that I like about the UC System is that there are a myriad of ways one can approach their art (research), teaching and service. These diverse approaches offer a great deal more freedom regarding how one works than the more uniform approaches that employees in corporate jobs, nine to five service jobs, temp agencies or military posts usually have in order to hold down their jobs. As the budget cuts erode the quality of research we can engage in, the education that we can provide, and the services that we can render, some areas within the university that do not produce what may be considered profitable research by administrators will receive less support. In my opinion, this is a short-sighted and anti-intellectual approach for building the future of the university because it forecloses the experimental potential of research, which could lead to radically new kinds of knowledge. The process of discovery might not produce a quantifiable profit in the short-run but it may create or lead to ideas whose benefits we cannot even imagine during this time and from our respective positions.

Artists navigate the university’s threefold charge differently from professors in other fields because professors in the arts (and I am mostly talking about the visual arts) have a slightly different relationship to the university than researchers in other academic fields. Scientists and engineers whose research is more materially oriented share some research methodologies with artists although they are more funded because their work has corporate and military applications. The humanities and social sciences tend to do research that is university bound. By this I mean that these fields are more dependent upon university evaluation for gaining standing in their particular field. Academic research mostly circulates in academic circles whereas the work produced in the arts circulates in the world at large as well as in the university.  This gives arts researchers more flexibility around the creation of their work, which in turn influences their teaching as well as their service. I tend to think that being an artist in this society is a service in and of itself.  It is rumored that Winston Churchill, when his finance minister suggested cutting funding for the arts in order to increase funding for the war effort responded by saying, “Then what are we fighting for?” That Churchill said this may be a myth, but I echo the sentiment. I also consider teaching to be a huge service.  Both the arts and teaching are under-recognized and under-rewarded in our society –  – but we all know that.

Another difference between the arts and other academic fields is that most of these fields have much longer histories within the university system. This has provided them with greater validation as evidenced by the historical availability of the PhD. PhD’s in the visual arts have only recently become available or even desirable in some instances. Gaining the PhD will empower artists within the university. This is especially so for artists whose practice encompassed both material production as well as theory. Currently negotiating the university charges in a “unique” manner is what artists have had to do in order to educate the rest of the university community that the work they produce operates within the research mandate. The university as a whole is charged with producing “new” knowledge and this charge insists that the utility of the work be provable.  In many ways this is anathema to the artistic process. In some ways this attempt to look and act like another field in order to gain status within the institution has dulled what is unique about the knowledge production of art itself.

Artists are a diverse group and are well suited to carrying out the ideals represented by the responsibility to uphold the research/teaching/service mandate. One could critique the UC System for asking too much of its professors, and especially of assistant professors. It is true that the responsibility to carry out these charges is intense. We also know that some professors are better at carrying out some aspects of this charge than others and that research is more heavily weighted than service and teaching. I personally like the challenge of trying to accomplish all three at once. I have watched colleagues such as Donna Haraway or Chip Lord do this and I have always admired the combination of rigor and generosity that they bring to any situation. I think these three parts of the overall job description represent a good (although not perfect) set of guidelines that could potentially bring out the best of the university as a whole.

As an artistic thought experiment one could apply Joseph Beuys’ concept that “everyone is an artist,” to the research/teaching/service triad. My friend Natalie Loveless, PhD  reminded me that he also said, “teaching is the highest form of art.” Using Beuys’ concept as a springboard we could posit that “everyone is a creative researcher,” “everyone is a teacher,” and “everyone is capable of providing some service (to their community or beyond).” If society at large were charged with upholding these standards and our educational systems were charged with teaching students to model this form of citizenry then we might not be left to deal with some of the ongoing neoliberal policies that determine the allocation of resources. This particular allocation process is literally bankrupting the country as well as the world at large. In the highest sense, the research+teaching+service model is one that spurs us to at least try to be exemplary professors in order to form an  institution that  models these ideals for our students who then go out into society when they graduate. The uniqueness of the artist’s engagement in attaining these standards is that artists have to interpret and engage these charges more creatively than their colleagues in other fields because artists have to doubly legitimate their work in the face of deep-seated suspicion about art’s ability to contribute to the pursuit of new knowledge rather than simply being considered a form of cultural excess. The creative engagement with the university mandate by the arts has the potential to keep the idealistic intentions of these three charges flexible and alive rather than allowing them to reify into inflexible rules and standards.

Do I think that the balance is tipping towards one area more strongly? Research has always been considered the most important thrust of this three-pronged charge. UC is a research university and I hope that it remains so. At UC Santa Cruz teaching is considered important. The faculty are very good teachers. Now more than ever service is important within the university if the faculty are going to maintain faculty governance and hope to maintain some agency around how the budget cuts are implemented throughout the system. Allotting additional weight to teaching and service would not devalue the university’s identity as a research university (with all the social currency that such a designation entails), rather it would speak to the real ecology of practices that UC professors engage in and how, on the ground, they are, at their best, interwoven and mutually supportive practices.

Q: As someone with a diverse range of interests, how do you deal with the tension between doing work that “counts” and is recognized as valid and work that you just want to do or your students pull you towards?

A: Regarding this question, my strengths are my weaknesses and my weaknesses are my strengths. I’ve been told that I did all of the “wrong” kinds of work before tenure. This comment referred to the fact that I was doing art about sex and sexuality. This was work that I just wanted to do but it was also work that was exhibited and critically reviewed. I was warned that it could potentially offend (and in fact it did) some of the very people who would determine whether or not I would be granted tenure. Some of my work was labeled “pornographic” — — a charge intended to taint my entire body of research. My teaching was chastised for being charismatic. “Charismatic” was code for implying that I somehow seduced my students with my personality but did not really teach them anything of substance. And finally my service was thrown into question when I organized a lecture by performance artist Annie Sprinkle.  Many students felt very inspired and liberated by her work and ideas. Of course there were also some people who found her work difficult and offensive. I found myself having to defend her work to the Chancellor’s Publicity Affairs Officer. I did receive tenure and it was controversial.  That controversy was okay by me as I knew that my tenure created more space for others to make work about sexuality, gender issues and the body as well as for artists who work collaboratively to get hired into the university system and to possibly get tenure. I don’t think about the validity of my work. I simply assume that it is valid whether or not it gets shown, because even the work that does not get shown or written about feeds work that does. I would have worried about this if I never exhibited the work or the work wasn’t written about, but it is, and widely. I only do artwork that I want to do as this is my most honest course of action. I’ve always believed that making what one wants is the payoff for being an experimental artist and I feel that this is especially true for artists situated in a research university. Furthermore it is what scholars in the humanities do! It is our duty to follow our creative process in our research.

Q: What are the biggest differences you’ve observed when comparing the arts that you teach and perform in and the scholarly realm you are engaging as a PhD candidate at UC Davis? 

A: Great question! First I’m noticing that the entire atmosphere of school has changed dramatically from when I was an art student in the nineties. This change in climate is directly tied to the unstable economic situation that we currently occupy. Returning to school as a student has given me a whole new perspective on education and a great deal of respect and compassion for our students. They are facing diminished job prospects, probable lower standards of living, degraded environmental conditions and tumultuous political landscapes. Before as a student, I had a lot more space in which to experiment because it was much cheaper to live well enough, jobs were plentiful and everyone was much less stressed out so there was less competition and more solidarity among colleagues. There was infinitely more time to think, more room to play and there was even time to relax and dream. This is no longer the case for the average student and everyone suffers because of it, as can be gauged by the astounding number of students who are on antidepressants, anti-anxiety or anti-ADD meds.  This has given me more compassion for and insight into my own students as well as admiration for their ability to face this future as they move into it.

The biggest differences that I’ve observed when comparing how I teach and perform in my own work to the PhD program in which I am currently engaged is very generally a matter of material processes and tools used to create the different types of knowledge that each field recognizes. My attempt to answer this question is a general pass at differentiating two very complex and diverse fields of practice and research, both of which involve many kinds of methodologies across many medias and disciplines. Even though they are different in many respects there are, however, some shared characteristics which allow them to converse with each other.

In the fine arts courses that I teach and in the performance art that I produce creativity is manifested primarily through the making of material objects, the performances that take place, and the production of visual representations, whether they take the form of digital images/code or utilize more traditional materials such as paint, metal, print or ketchup. Tools and materials include the usual suspects; hammers/nails, paintbrushes/paint, computers/zeros and ones, individual bodies or the social body (as in social practices). The creative process and its material results are most usually privileged in artistic production through exhibition and some form of critical recognition. If the content of the artwork is critical theory or if the work is conceptual art then the critical or conceptual issues and forms will be foregrounded over the process-based aspects and/or materiality of the artwork. Materially-based, critically=based and conceptual artwork operates in the field of art unless the artist declares otherwise. If the artist declares otherwise then their work has to perform in the field to which the artist claims it belongs. Art is itself the production of new knowledge  in field of art.

The PhD program in Performance Studies at UC Davis is a program that grants doctorates of philosophy. As such, the primary goal of this program is the production of new philosophical knowledge within the field of Performance Studies. Many performance studies folks write about art and performance as part of their own knowledge production practices. Writing can be a performative practice and a material practice as well. Generally, the materiality of writing most often seems to yield its power to the weight and import of the ideas that the writing is intended to create, convey, prove and disseminate. In the realm of the PhD, critical theory is the dominant tool with which knowledge is both created and analyzed. In current academic practice this involves a much greater use of deconstructive techniques to examine and critique the ideas under examination. Deconstruction takes place both at the level of already existing work as well as at that of theoretical work that is in the process of being formulated. The beauty of the process of deconstruction is that knowledge is never fixed or set. The danger of deconstruction is that theoreticians can become so critical that they never allow themselves to make any leap of experimental risk-taking that would allow them to discover something new beyond the established opinions and norms of any given field.  Art does not bear the burden of proof in the same way as critical thinking and for this freedom it pays by not being taken as seriously as other academic fields.  This gives art more freedom for experimentation and enables creativity to occupy a more generative position than criticality. In my classes and art practice criticality comes after something has been made, in the PhD the primary engine of creation is critical thinking.

The Performance Studies Department at UC Davis offers a practice as research (PAR) strand to accommodate creative production in addition to the critical work that students are expected to produce. There are several arts practitioners who pursue this PAR strand. This does involve additional work as not only do all of the students have to satisfy the program requirements involving critical and philosophical thinking first and then the PAR requirement is considered. Luckily artists like to work hard. As someone whose primary identity is that of a practicing artist-scholar I think that the PAR is generative for both scholarly as well as practice based work. Offering the PAR makes Davis somewhat unique in the UC system even as it creates other problems or raises other issues around valid knowledge production.  But problems and criticism comprise the nature of taking risks and experimenting. These same things are also what is attractive about engaging new territories that one does not already know. It is not always clear where one is going to end up exactly. I am deeply enjoying the new terrain that pursuing the PhD offers. It has certainly affected my art practice as well my thinking and my teaching practices in exciting ways.

I discussed these questions with my friends Natalie Loveless Ph.D. and Sha LaBare Ph.D.  These conversations and the insights they generated were helpful as I finished formulating my answers to these questions. This was especially so around Arts and the Ph.D. as well as around the UC mandate.  I would like to acknowledge and thank them both for their input.

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