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Crowdfunding and the Arts: UCIRA Interviews Thuy Tran of United States Artists (USA), Steve Lambert, Jeff Crouse and Dan Froot (UCLA) (PART 1)

20 Oct

Crowdfunding and the Arts: UCIRA Interviews Thuy Tran of United States Artists (USA), Steve Lambert, Jeff Crouse and Dan Froot (UCLA).

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Last April, an article appeared in the Seattle weekly The Stranger that caught my eye with the provocative title  ‘Could Kickstarter Be Evil?’ The very next day, Steve Lambert, an artist I’ve known for a while, posed a provocative question through facebook: ‘Crowdfunding: how artists help support right-wing tax cuts. Discuss.’ As an arts funder myself I am always interested in new ways of supporting artists, but was feeling some ambivalence about the steep rise in crowdfunding platforms. As an entry into this subject I gathered a few people with experience in crowdfunding together to see what this new strategy looks like from their perspectives. – Holly Unruh, UCIRA

PART I:

UCIRA: Thuy, you come to this question from an organizational perspective, as a Senior Program Officer for United States Artists. Can you tell me some more about how your organization decided to enter the crowdfunding field?

Thuy: United States Artists (USA) was founded in 2006 with a mission to invest in America’s finest artists and illuminate the value of artists to society. USA operates from the premise that art can be the impetus for building enormous stores of social, political, and economic capital in the 21st century. It also affirms that individual artists are an important cultural resource and recognizes that the needs of American artists today are extraordinary.

USA is committed to addressing these needs. USA was founded in part to fill the gap left when the National Endowment for the Arts cut back its individual artist fellowships. Through the USA Fellows program, which annually awards 50 unrestricted grants of $50,000 each to outstanding performing, visual, media, and literary artists across the country, USA has put $12.5 million in the hands of artists in the five years since its founding.

Last year we launched USA Projects, the first microphilanthropy site dedicated exclusively to artists living and working in the United States, where anyone can discover original projects from some of today’s most innovative artists and make tax-deductible donations to support their work. Donations–of any amount, even $1–also support artist training, artist education, and the broader mission of United States Artists.  USA Projects was created to foster direct connections between artists and the public, catalyze new funding for artists, bring creative projects to life, and build community support for the most accomplished artists in America.

UCIRA: How are the artists chosen for the projects area?  

Thuy: In the course of developing this initiative, research showed that it was important both to artists and potential supporters to ensure a high level of experience and quality among the participating artists. The artists seeking funding on USA Projects have been vetted and recognized for the caliber of their work by USA or by one of more than 100 qualifying organizations across the country. Experts review projects within their fields of expertise for legitimacy, viability, artistic quality, and appropriateness of the scale of the project. Reviewers will change periodically.

USA Projects Partners include organizations such as Creative Capital, Austin Film Society, Penland School of Crafts, the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture (NALAC), National Performance Network, The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, and the California Community Foundation. (A complete list of qualifying organizations, along with artist eligibility requirements and a brief application, are posted online at www.unitedstatesartists.org.)

UCIRA: How do you see this kind of support mechanism changing your relationship with the artists who participate?

Thuy: We believe USA Projects will be a game changing tool for artists and cultural philanthropy in this country.  We know that artists need more money for their work. It is a misconception to think that artists have the funding necessary to develop new creative work just because they have already received recognition. The unfortunate reality is that many of the finest artists in this country are struggling to make ends meet. Even in the short time since the USA Fellows program launched in 2006, there has been a rise in the number of artists who have used their $50,000 award to cover essential needs like medical bills, health insurance, and even housing. Particularly in this difficult economy, the other forms of employment or funding that most artists depend upon have grown scarce, and new sources of support are more critical than ever.

USA Projects was inspired by a desire to leverage the power of the Internet to extend its mission to accomplished artists everywhere. Some benefits for artists include:

–       Generate donations to support new projects

–       Participate in organization and group matching funds

–       Increase their following by showcasing their work to a community of art lovers, supporters, and premier art organizations

–       Build an ever-increasing database of donors that they can come back to time and again

–       Support at every step of the process; USA’s Artist Education and Support Program is designed to help artists thrive in an online fundraising environment (project development, budgeting, segmentation, video production and editing, donor relations, building an online following)

USA Projects offers a sophisticated matching fund system that gives any organization, foundation, group or individual the ability to create a matching fund, specify their criteria, and automatically identify and apply funds to appropriate projects. One of the site’s first matching funds was pioneered by visual artist Mark Bradford, who donated the proceeds from the sale of one of his own paintings to create the Artist2Artist Fund. Every participating artist benefits from this fund, which continues to grow through support from other participating USA Fellows.

This model has proven to be successful for the organization as well as participating artists. Since USA Projects began last year, 75% of all projects successfully reach their goal (another site averages under 50%); average donations are $120 (this is also quite high); and over $1 million has been raised for artists’ projects.

“One of the valuable things that I got from this endeavor was losing my fear to ask. Even though philanthropists slammed doors in my face I was determined to succeed. So the fear was gone and I used every opportunity to ask whenever possible. This led to 48 hours before the deadline and still just over a thousand dollars to raise, I find myself at the symphony where I run into a friend and colleague and decided to ask. The next day she donated $1,000. And as they say the rest is history. Thank you for all your help and guidance throughout this process, I needed your support every step of the way.”

UCIRA: How would you describe the difference between the USA process and others such as  Kickstarter or Rockethub?

Thuy: USA Projects builds on best practices in the burgeoning crowdfunding arena and represents the first online community where the public can find, learn about, and make tax-deductible contributions directly to highly accomplished artists in all disciplines.  USA owes a debt of gratitude to pioneering sites like DonorsChoose, Kiva, and Kickstarter for demonstrating how the web can foster new support for educational and creative endeavors.

What sets United States Artists apart is its network of leading artists in all artistic disciplines and geographic regions of the country; an esteemed annual artist fellowship program; relationships with leading cultural peer organizations; great brand equity among a focused group of committed donors; and an engaged and influential Board of Directors. Some of the key differentiators between USA Projects and the others are:

–       First online community exclusively for artists, their friends, fans and followers

–       Only accomplished artists are invited to post projects

–       Donors directly contribute to a project at any level and may qualify for a range of perks

–       All donations are tax deductible

–       Matching grants allow artists to raise additional money and donors to double their perks

–       Artists receive full-service support and education

–       USAP Partners are a powerful force to help artists advance their work

 

 

CONTINUE READING (CLICK FOR PART 2)

 

 

Dee Hibbert-Jones: Living Condition

19 Oct

 

 

Dee Hibbert-Jones‘s first conception of the project now known as Living Condition was relatively simple–or so she says by phone, during a pre-lunch break from drawing. “We thought we would produce an animated clip that dealt with the manifestations of trauma. Stuttering, hesitations, those kind of things.” It’s a subject—call it the outward and visible signs of inward denial and turmoil–that Hibbert-Jones, Associate Professor of Art and co-director of UCSC‘s Social Practice Research Center, has been investigating for the past decade.

 

But stories, as journalists and novelists often discover, develop a life of their own. In choosing relatives of prisoners on death row as their subject, Hibbert-Jones and her collaborative partner Nomi Talisman, found themselves in a crosscurrent of intersecting narratives and unheard voices. Facts in the cases were sometimes in dispute or unknown; testimony changed over time. And while some family members had spoken publicly about their relative’s case, their own experience of events before and after the sentence often went unmentioned

 

“It became clear,” Hibbert-Jones says, “that we needed a more narrative version. These stories needed telling. We couldn’t just extract the emotional content from them.“ Seven years, dozens of hours of interviews, and thousands of drawings later, Living Condition, intended as one project, is on its way to becoming three: a thirty minute animated film, a series of politically focused webisodes, and an installation highlighting the expressive manifestations of trauma.

 

Animation is notoriously time-consuming. The 5-minute clip that’s posted at http://deehibbert-jones.ucsc.edu/Impact_03.html took Hibbert -Jones and Talisman 3 months to draw. Its final section–from an interview with Bill Babbitt, whose brother, a Viet Nam veteran, was executed in 1999–consists of about 2000 drawings. Hibbert-Jones says that her own morning’s work has yielded about 25 drawings, though there is an advantage to the repetitious frame-by-frame process. “If it’s something I’ve drawn before, I can actually talk to friends and family while doing it.”

 

In its expanded version, Living Condition will relate the experiences of three people whose relatives—a son in one case, a sibling in two others—faced the death penalty. Visually, the film’s focus moves from black and white headshots—line-drawn in a tight frame-by frame sequence that follows the speakers’ mouth movements—to more distant, views of crowds, neighborhoods, and events. These—sometimes fragmented or almost dream-like—are accented with washes of color. There’s an unreal quality to some sections, Hibbert-Jones says, “because elements of the story are being told second-hand, or they’re telling how they reacted. We’re still experimenting with animating those sections in very different ways to create these surrealistic moods.”

 

They plan to weave the participants’ narratives around a linear chronology: childhood, to sentencing to execution or release. The cases are all different, she notes, but everybody says the same things. “Everyone says ‘it was one thing after another.’ Everybody says ‘I couldn’t think about that. Death. How could it be death?’ There are these utterances, these phrases and denials, these accepting of responsibilities that we want to echo through the film.”

 

For Hibbert-Jones who grew up in England—a country that doesn’t have capital punishment—the notion itself is “almost unbelievable.” What, she wonders, are “the implications of a decision made democratically to execute someone?” The question looms larger after Troy Davis’s recent execution. Davis’s sister, Martina Correia, who actively fought for a reconsideration of his case in Georgia and federal courts, is one of their three voices. Her narrative, which once occupied a hopeful middle ground in the film’s structure, with the prisoner’s fate still undecided, has turned into another with a grim outcome. The artists now must go back and re-interview her. The story has grown again.

 

There is another similarity between the speakers. Although it wasn’t the artists’ intention, all of the families in the film are African American. Hibbert-Jones says she and Talisman chose to present the stories as animation, “partly for anonymity for some of the people involved,” and partly because animation makes it easier for people to identify with what they’re watching. Rather than making physical details of race or, class explicit, a drawing creates the opportunity for viewers to see themselves in the character. It’s as though the space inside the animator’s frame becomes a kind of hologram—multidimensional, but always clearly elsewhere.

 

An illustration of that power to confer both perspective and intimacy came when Hibbert-Jones showed the clip of Bill Babbitt to audiences in its video version, before it was animated. In it, he describes in wrenching detail the guilt he continues to feel over his brother Manny’s death. (Bill turned him in to the police hoping he would get treatment for his obvious psychological and stress-related disorders. The rest of his family has not forgiven him.).

 

“People couldn’t deal with it,” Hibbert-Jones says of the un-animated version. “It’s hard to witness his pain.” She links the audience’s response to Eve Sedgwick’s studies of shame and the overwhelming urge to look away it produces. Animated, Babbitt’s testimony remains anguishing, but it’s also riveting. The illusory wall created by the moving screen becomes a kind of shared ground, like the psychological territory that Sedgwick sees shame creating.

 

“Bill bangs the microphone at one point,” Hibbert-Jones says, ”and it becomes really real. His hand comes up and somehow breaks the flat wall of animation, and part of you is going, Wow! You have a relationship. You can connect to the experience without feeling implicated too much. That’s our hope, at least.” The idea, in other words, is that Living Condition will construct, for both speaker and audience, a safe space to inhabit together.

 

Unfinished stories and unattended voices are a constant in HIbbert-Jones’ work. Her first degree was in literature and she went on to do masters degrees in women’s studies and teaching. “Part of my investment in teaching,” she says “is allowing people these voices that they don’t get to hear.” The turn toward images– and an MFA –came later, inspired by her father’s stroke. In wiping out his ability to speak or write, it abruptly halted their weekly letters. In their absence, Hibbert-Jones found herself relying more and more on artwork to express her feelings.

 

Her first collaboration with Talisman, Letter to an Unknown Friend (2004), was inspired by correspondence Hibbert-Jones salvaged from the San Francisco Landfill. Visitors were invited to sit at a desk with a manipulated typewriter equipped with an LCD screen (Talisman is a new media specialist) and reply to letters that dated from almost every decade in the 20th century

 

Some of the unheard voices she investigates are those enshrined in language. In “Metaphors We Live By” (2006) the physical implications usually ignored in common synonyms like “help” and “support” or “similarity” and “closeness” become the subject of iconic line drawings. In I-140 the voices are more personal. The 2009 video shows Talisman and Hibbert-Jones–life as well as artistic partners– holding signs by the highway chronicling Talisman’s struggle with the US Immigration Service. “It was extremely difficult to do the piece. We were both shocked at how abject and pathetically middle-aged and worn we looked, standing on the side of streets. But we wanted it to have that rawness to it,” Hibbert-Jones says. That sense of rawness and openness to emotion has become increasingly important to them in Living Condition.

 

Pursuing it, they’ve become willing to go where the story leads—even when it heads in an unplanned direction. When Community Resource Initiative, the San Francisco capital defense office they worked with on the project, recommended Bill Babbitt as an interview subject, Hibbert- Jones declined, fearing the fact that his brother was a Viet Nam veteran would add too many extra elements and distract their focus. But, she recalls, one of the women in the office kept telling them “you know, you want to interview Bill.” Eventually, Hibbert-Jones heard what the woman was saying: “You want to interview Bill.” “And,” the artist says, “she was right.”

 

Getting a story is one thing; listening to it is another.

 

 

Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

Some Birds

10 Oct

Like the sky-filling flocks of snow geese that descend on the Sacramento Valley in fall, Birds, Chico MacMurtrie’s kinetic installation which opened September 29th at UC Davis’s Nelson gallery, transforms a familiar landscape into a mysterious one.

Entering, visitors encounter ten large white fabric objects, tapered at each end —MacMurtrie has described them as recalling “the simplest line drawing of a bird”— hanging in the air above their heads. The installation has itself migrated up the Pacific flyway, having spent the spring at UC Irvine’s Beale Gallery. At the Nelson, curator Renny Pritikin calls the set-up “quite theatrical, with the only lights coming from underneath the birds.” Hung in a line, they fill one arm of the U-shaped gallery, then turn the corner.

Initially, though, the birds remain objects: pendulous, limp. For MacMurtrie, artistic director of Amorphic Robot Works (ARW), creation means bringing some thing to life. He and his congregation of artists, engineers, fabricators and software designers have spent two decades —first in the Bay Area, now in Brooklyn— devising sculptural machines that seem to be self-propelled, even self-motivated. An early example, Urge, in San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Gardens, sets a life-size bronze androgyne on top of a 12 foot globe. When a sufficiently heavy visitor sits on a facing bench, the figure flexes and lowers —via underground lever and counterweight—to a similar sitting position.

In Birds, the animating mechanisms that ARW formerly constructed from metal or wood have been re-envisioned in high-tensile fabric. Each bird contains an arrangement of flexible joints and textile “muscles” (some originally designed for military use but reshaped here.) With air valves and potentiometers under computer control, these featherweight pneumatic structures fill and gradually lift their enveloping material: a flock rising in answer to an in-borne call.

Fully inflated, each pair of wings at the Nelson stretches almost from wall to wall. Once the sculptures have achieved lift-off, rhythmic alternation of inflation and deflation can create a flapping motion and a breathing sound. What is not always apparent is that the entire process is impacted by its viewers.

The presence of people in the gallery not only triggers the birds’ inflation, but can also have an inhibiting effect. A computer vision system tracks the number of humans in any given space. Too much human presence—too many, too close?—initiates a different cycle. Flight can falter. The disruptive effects on one unit in time extend to the rest.

“As in most digital interaction,” Pritikin says, “there is not an immediate, one-to-one reaction. It takes a while for the sculpture to react, and it reacts subtly. So sometimes people are impatient and don’t wait or don’t appreciate the tremors that their presence sets off in the birds.”

In their earliest conception, robots moved via exterior controls, usually with a wild-haired inventor at the knobs. Later friendlier models like R2D2 activated their own built-in circuitry —a process sometimes known as intelligence. MacMurtrie’s new generations of robots reflect a world in which control is not simply a matter of power or will but a network of impulses, reactions, instincts, and information.

For Pritikin, though, MacMurtrie’s installation is “not primarily about the interactivity, but rather about the meditative, silent evolution of the birds, just as though you were watching a flock of swans on a pond, oblivious of you.”

Breaking movement down into its nuts and bolts —or, in the case of Birds, to a fabric, four-muscle universal joint— robots illuminate the similarities all species share beneath their startling diversity. Still, the puzzle remains: what exactly propels us?

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

Art of Regional Change

8 Sep
Q & A with jesikah maria ross on The Art of Regional Change (UC Davis)

Over the last few years jesikah maria ross has been the founding director of the UC Davis Art of Regional Change program (ARC), a joint initiative of the Davis Humanities Institute and the Center for Regional Change.  Ross is a community cultural development practitioner whose teaching and production work centers on collaborations with schools, community-based organizations and social action groups to create projects that generate media art, civic participation, and social change.
Multi-ethnic urban youth document places they want to change in West Sacramento as part of ARC's participatory action research project Youth Voices for Change.

Multi-ethnic urban youth document places they want to change in West Sacramento as part of ARC's participatory action research project Youth Voices for Change.

Q: Your work at ARC has directly tried to resolve the “town and gown” divide by putting university resources into developing art and media projects in the region around the Davis campus that address social and environmental issues. Can you explain what led to UCD and your other funders to support this kind of off-campus community engagement with farmers, activists, indigenous groups, youth, and others you have worked with?

A: I think that UCD leaders and our other funders saw the need for a new way of doing “community outreach” and also wanted to find avenues for generating public scholarship and innovative teaching.   Since ARC brings all of these components together, the program was pretty easy for a lot of people get behind from the start.   I also think it helped that I framed ARC as a strategic collaboration.   Nowadays, universities want to be seen as more active and responsive to local communities, scholars want their research to be more relevant to the public, students want opportunities for field-based learning, and taxpayers want to see that their money is making in a difference outside the ivory tower.   Community-based programs like ARC are uniquely able to meet these diverse university goals. Communities, on the other hand, want resources to document their cultures, histories, struggles, and strategies for change. They need social animators equipped with facilitation skills and gear to help them identify the stories they want to share and craft them in aesthetically compelling ways. And they need technical support to get their stories out to broad audiences.   Faculty and student artists have the unique skill set to meet these needs.

So in discussions with UC Davis administrators and affiliated funders, I pitched ARC as a strategic collaboration.   I spelled out how it could give the university a platform for doing innovative campus-community engagement projects while generating media products that support university research, classroom teaching and community development.  I spoke about how ARC could provide communities access to university resources (scholars, students, artists) which would entice local groups to participate and how it would pioneer a new venue for media makers to do public projects. I also pointed out how the university could make good on its commitment to serving the broader community though ARC projects.  I think the notion of a meeting multiple goals, coupled with the increasing need to demonstrate the universities value to the general public beyond the classroom, really motivated administrators and funders to give ARC some initial seed funding.

Rural residents set up a community recording workspace in the rural High Sierra Mountains for ARC's Passion for the Land project.

Rural residents set up a community recording workspace in the rural High Sierra Mountains for ARC's Passion for the Land project.

Q: Over the last few months SOTA has featured interviews on the theme of what “counts” as research within the arts in the UC system. How you have framed it as research so that it is valued within the academic context?

A: To be honest, I don’t think I’ve been able to successfully frame our work as research within academia.   That’s probably, in part, because it hasn’t been my top priority while we have been in our start up phase–we are just beginning our third year!    And since I am an academic coordinator and not faculty, focusing on research isn’t actually my job; I’m tasked with creating and implementing a university-community engagement program.  But, it’s become crystal clear to me that research is the currency of the university and that for ARC to survive and thrive we need to be actively demonstrating how what we do IS research.    So I am moving in that direction.   And to that end, I’ve really started spelling out, whenever I can, how ARC’s community arts process is grounded in participatory action research methods and utilizes cultural studies research approaches.   I find that just talking about collaborative art-making as research in this way helps non-arts faculty and administrators be more open to viewing what we do as bonefide research.   It’s like setting a tone.   It maybe ephemeral, but I do feel it contributes to making others rethink art as research.

I also make it a point to work with faculty and graduate students early on in our projects to identify how our community arts process synchs up with their research agenda and publications or exhibition needs.   Again, I think this communicates a certain level of gravitas that helps academics themselves view collaborative art-making as research.   On the flipside, these conversations also help me think through how their involvement raises the bar on the different ways research will happen through our projects, which in turn helps me articulate how ARC projects are research.   Perhaps here I should mention, in case folks don’t know, that ARC is an interdisciplinary program, involving humanists, social scientists and artists.    All of us collaborate as a cohort in partnership with a community organization on a media arts project.  So while art making is at the core of our work, it isn’t the only type of research that happens.  Typically an ARC project results in media productions, articles, exhibitions or broadcasts, and new curriculum. Speaking of products, I also talk about the work that we generate as research and to speak about the different products equally, so that a video screened at a city council meeting and an article in a peer reviewed journal are treated similarly in the way I present them.   I don’t necessarily think that flies in an academic context, but I do think it helps build the echo chamber that a lot of us are contributing to that, collectively, will help push forward the idea that art is research worthy of academic value.

Joey Creekmore (Miwok) records Pat McGreevy about his efforts to establish more parks and trails to generate jobs and recreation opportunities in Sierra foothills as part of ARC's Up from the UnderStory project.

Joey Creekmore (Miwok) records Pat McGreevy about his efforts to establish more parks and trails to generate jobs and recreation opportunities in Sierra foothills as part of ARC's Up from the UnderStory project.

Q: In the context of budget cuts to public education (and arts in particular), public universities need to maintain arts programs that benefit their surrounding communities both because the private sector is not doing it and because it helps to illustrate/demonstrate the power of art and public education to voting tax-paying engaged citizens that will advocate for continued funding into the future. As someone with a unique perspective who has a foot inside and outside the academy, can you think of examples you’ve seen that point to ways that the public universities should illustrate/demonstrate their significance to the surrounding society?

A:  Well, with my foot inside the academy, I think Syracuse University is an AMAZING example of what can happen when a higher education really dedicates itself to doing scholarship (and i include the arts within scholarship!) by, with, and for the communities around it.   Their entire university operates on the vision of “scholarship in action” which is about “forging bold, imaginative, reciprocal, and sustained engagements” with constituent communities locally and around the globe. I highly recommend heading to their website and reading everything their Chancellor Nancy Cantor has posted–she has written quite a bit and always involves arts project the university has done in collaboration with regional stakeholders.   I’ve met Nancy and she is incredibly supportive and willing to share knowledge, resources, and best practices…or point you to people around her that can.  They are a model to emulate!

Outside the academy, i think one of the more interesting places to look are at various public media outlets–regional PBS and NPR stations.   Like public universities, public media has had to increasingly demonstrate it’s value to the tax-paying and membership paying public.   And like universities, the public media system has been under a lot of attack in the past few years.    One constant criticism is that lack of public in public media; the dearth of connection with or benefit to the those outside the limited public media demographic.  And some stations have generated some really interested collaborative, public programs as a result.  KCET comes to mind, with their Departures project, which is an on-line community mapping and history project focused on the diverse neighborhoods in LA.   A lot of other hyper-local and community co-generated public media work has been done through the J-Lab, and for inspiration I recommend traipsing through their list of Knight Batten award winners.

While this might be a bit farther afield, I also think that the California Council of Humanities offers an excellent example outside of the academy when it comes to an institution articulating it’s significance to the larger society.  CCH eloquently speaks to the vital role of arts and humanities in community life.   And it’s not just on their website, it’s folded into how they operate as an organization–what they do, who they fund, how they provide support.   Every now and again i visit their grant program section to see how they frame the role of the humanities and to who they’ve funded to get inspiration on the diverse ways artists and humanists engage communities through story-based projects.

Q & A with the organizers of BOOM

15 Aug

William Kaminski, "Well" 2011

SOTA did an email interview with Elizabeth Kunath and Daniela Campins, two recent MFA graduates from southern California art schools who were part of the group that organized BOOM: 2011 Southern California MFA Group Exhibition. Institutions represented by BOOM artists include: Art Center College of Design – Pasadena, Claremont Graduate University, California State University Northridge, Otis College of Art and Design, University of California – Los Angeles, and University of California – Santa Barbara. BOOM was supported by the UCIRA and we look forward to seeing where this experiment in sharing resources across institutions goes. For more information on BOOM, see http://www.BOOMlosangeles.com

Q: Is BOOM responding to a perceived lack of critical attention or attendance at southern California area MFA exhibitions? 

Cima Rahmankhan, "Ask", 2011

Elizabeth Kunath: Not exactly. Our original idea for BOOM was a result of finding out that the former “Super Sonic” (a very widely attended and massive production) was no longer happening. We wanted to create a smaller version of this to see if it would pick up – if other schools would be interested in participating, etc. I think the theme was “power in numbers”, maximizing visibility, but not in a way that forcefully compensates for a perceived lack of visibility or lack of attendance at MFA exhibitions. I am an MFA student at UC Santa Barbara, so our MFA exhibition audiences are slightly different than the those of the Los Angeles programs.

Q: How did the BOOM project get started? Who contacted whom and was there support from your home institutions?

Jacob Fowler, "Marina", 2011

Elizabeth Kunath: As previously discussed, the impetus for BOOM was in part, a response to the desire for another “Super Sonic” (at least on a smaller scale). So initially, Daniela Campins (a recent UCSB alumn) contacted a former curator/organizer for the Super Sonic exhibitions. Also, BOOM came about when the UCSB MFA students decided that a large-scale MFA exhibition for SoCal schools would be a good goal to shoot for for the upcoming year – to promote all of the participating programs, to provide a blended conversation of contemporary art practices, and to reinforce the SoCal emerging art community. Approximately 10 Southern California graduate art programs were contacted. Of those, representatives from 5 schools responded to the desire for a fairly comprehensive art exhibition. There were concerns with space, money and administration. Thankfully, we partnered up with LAUNCH LA, an LA-based non-profit that promotes contemporary art, who secured a space in the LA Mart building and helped with administrative, marketing and organizational tasks for the exhibition.

Michelle Carla Handel, "Love Me Anyway", 2011

Daniela Campins: BOOM started independent from our home institution (UCSB art department), it was student organized, student funded at first.  The same goes for the rest of the programs.  Supersonic was a huge operation of over 300 graduates, many Socal schools were involved, the Southern California Consortium of Art Schools (SOCCAS) was involved, each art department and the UCIRA funded the exhibition and outreached for additional sponsorship.

BOOM started from scratch, it was a new name and it was difficult when we were first getting organized to receive support.  For all of us it was the first time organizing a show of this magnitude (40+ artists, more than 100 art pieces), to be placed in a raw space that needed paint, clean-up, lights, etc…    Thankfully, after things were up and running we received the 7000 sq ft basement space donated by the people from the LA Mart, who trusted our vision and helped us to achieve an amazing exhibition.

Q: What has the response been like? Are you getting motivated to continue doing this work for future years of graduate student artists? Where will BOOM go?

Elizabeth Kunath: The response has been good. It has generated conversations between artists from different programs, aligned people’s practices and provided a sense of the current state of the MFA for outsiders, fellow artists, faculty, etc. We hope that BOOM will go on through the efforts of next years graduate students with the support of LAUNCH LA and the UCIRA. We hope that the exhibition will grow to include more Southern California programs, which will mean finding a larger venue and of course, more money. We also hope that the exhibition will lead to more opportunities for the individual artists featured in the exhibition and more connections between the participants- be it personal or professional.

Daniela Campins: The response has been amazing! The work is fabulous and the space looks great.  Many people have come in, enjoyed the work and have attended our events.  The opening reception last month had maximum attendance, we were visited by other artists from the community, family and friends, writers and critics, faculty, gallery owners, collectors, etc…We have been invited to be part of Art PLatform–Los Angeles, a Contemporary art fair in LA this fall.   Last week we organized a panel discussion and event sponsored by the UCIRA.  The title was  “SoCal MFA: Navigating the Complex Arena of the Emerging Artist”. In Addition other art schools have already started to approach us and shown their interest for next year.  It is up to the new crop of MFAs to organize again and make it happen.  I am certain that there will have another iteration of BOOM in 2012!

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.
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What Counts? With Nicole Paiement of UCSC

24 May
Nicole Paiement is Director of Large Ensembles at the University of California where she conducts the Orchestra, the full productions of Opera and the Chamber Singers. Under her baton, the Orchestra has developed into a quality ensemble that performs music from all period. In addition to her ongoing work at UCSC, she is also the artistic director of the New Music Ensemble at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the BluePrint Project  and of Ensemble Parallèle, a professional ensemble dedicated to the performance of contemporary chamber opera. See more at nicolepaiement.com  
Q: What counts as research in your field?
A: • Commissioning and performing the premiere of new works.
       • Completing CD recordings of works
       • Completing critical editions of new works
       • Guest conducting
       • Mounting professional performances of obscure works to enlarge the canon of repertoire
Q: 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: Since I am very active in my field, I never think  of “what counts” for research. I simply work a great deal and do so in a large variety of areas – commissioning and performing new works; guest conducting; recording; mounting contemporary chamber opera with my professional ensemble; complete new editions with publishers. I also  try to  involve my students in as many varied projects I can.
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