Tag Archives: UC Santa Cruz

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

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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.

What Counts with Hibbert-Jones (UCSC) and Hebdige (UCSB)

18 May
Interview with Dee Hibbert-Jones (UCSC) and Dick Hebdige (UCSB)

Dee Hibbert-Jones is Co-Director of the Social Practice Research Center and Associate Professor of Art at UCSC. A cultural critic and theorist, Dick Hebdige has published widely on youth subculture, contemporary music, art and design, and consumer and media culture and is Professor of Film & Media Studies and Art Studio at UCSB as well as Ex-officio Director at the UCIRA. Both Hibbert-Jones and Hebdige are British expatriates and board members of the UCIRA and agreed to be interviewed together via email.

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?

Dee: To be an artist in a research institution is already to be the odd duck in the room, no one is quite sure what we do or how studio art fits definitions of research. We are often seen as either decorative or irrelevant, coupled with this we don’t even bring in the big grants! I do spend time framing my work as research for the university, explaining and defining it for promotion and among some non-arts colleagues. At least you produce publications, Dick, a form that the University recognizes as “research”. A small example: the bio bibliography forms used to evaluate professors aren’t tailored to exhibitions or screenings, I manage to squeeze in my exhibition record on about page ten of the form after navigating through a host of other sections which are either irrelevant or secondary to my practice.

In UC Santa Cruz tenure and promotion files research is considered primary, followed closely by teaching and then service. Although we all know service and teaching take up physical time and our own research is squeezed in around the rest, but this isn’t specific to the arts. However studio art professors do actually teach more hours than most other professors. This is because studio hours (at least at UCSC) are counted as ‘lab’ not lecture hours. Harking back to the idea, I presume, that art is a skill and that studio classes are technical not conceptual. The presumption is that there is no class prep involved, which is absolutely untrue. In terms of a balance then, teaching takes up more physical time, and with the budget cuts service is greater than ever before as we try desperately to develop entirely new curriculum to manage enlarged class sizes and reduced numbers of classes. The one benefit is that we form amazing relationships with the students – we spend a lot of small class time with them (this may somewhat change with budget cuts) Right now I often times collaborate with students on projects that build my own research, serve their learning needs and kick start their exhibition records. Is the balance tipping? The University still says research first when we being, but there are more and more demands made on us for service and teaching, which simply means less time for research.

Dick: Dee lays out the main issues clearly and succinctly: for the purposes of parity and comparison with colleagues in other fields and in order to secure tenure and salary increases, artists working in the system have to translate their work and achievements into University-speak and that means placing ‘research’ front and center in the self-monitoring UC bio-bibliography. But the reality is that while many of the current Arts and Humanities Deans get it, many University administrators and non-arts faculty still have a hard time identifying the research component in art unless the work is either A) located on some visible techno-scientific ‘frontier’ (where it gets to merge with science) or  B) has explicit documentary/representational value  (where it can serve an illustrative function vis-a-vis agendas already established in the Humanities, Social Sciences, cultural studies etc). This awkwardness with the definition of art-as-research isn’t really surprising as individual arts faculty don’t themselves agree on what constitutes meaningful research for an artist. Plus of course determinations of what constitutes essential skill/knowledge in the making of a work can differ widely from one discipline, medium, tendency or school to the next. In some of the most thoroughly researched artworks, I find that the work that, as it were, went into the [art]work gets subsumed i.e. folded into the work and made to disappear. Artists tend to erase their tracks, preferring to let the piece-whatever it is and irrespective of the medium – speak for itself. Unlike good scholars, good artists don’t provide footnotes. So while I strongly believe art has its own particular research modalities and methodologies it’s hard (possibly even counter-productive) to specify exactly what they might be. Art is all about the unexpected move so the work that goes into making it is hard to codify.

At the same time, the ideas many university administrators and non arts faculty have about arts education tend to be based in the old conservatory model. At the undergraduate level what that means is the transmission of technical skills to large groups of students through repetition, practice, osmosis and mimesis in a process that for all practical purposes is assumed to bypass cognition. Hence the long class-times and the perception on the part of many of our non arts-department colleagues  (and a large part of the student population) that A) art is representational and essentially non-cerebral – mechanical ,intuitive and/or self-expressive, B) that all determinations of quality are subjective (”in the eye of the beholder”) and C) that teaching art to undergrads is tantamount to baby-sitting. The rationale for our continued place on the university curriculum is rooted, on the one hand, in a rapidly eroding communal faith in a humanist pedagogical ethos (‘educate the whole person’) and, on the other, in the corporate investment in creativity as an exploitable innovation-and-revenue-generating asset.

There’s a temptation for the contradiction between these two rationales to be resolved within Universities programatically. Art Studio departments, charged with servicing a large general student population in classes stocked by a steady supply of grad student TA’s threaten to degenerate into undergrad teaching treadmills while programs in ‘new media’ and art/science fusions like Media Art Technology at UCSB or Design/Media Arts at UCLA have limited contact with undergraduates and tend to be identified with the applied sciences, research-driven innovation, the development of marketable applications and the Future. Of course this is an over simplification and I’m not suggesting that faculty affiliated with the technologically ‘advanced’ programs have it any easier than their colleagues elsewhere in the University arts (we’re all under pressure to produce and serve/teach more). And I’m sure that Arts faculty in the new interdisciplinary programs have to fight even harder than the rest of us to be taken seriously by the scientists and engineers with whom they’re meant to be collaborating as the latter may feel discomfited by the cross over (c.f. matter out of place) and vice-versa. However the segregation of the ‘new’ from the not-new, the nearly new and the comparatively recent can have real implications not only conceptually but also in terms of access to resources. Sabbaticals aside (and they’re awarded on the basis of accumulated teaching credits), research time for most Arts faculty is, in general, stolen time (weekends, summer break etc).
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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.

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Oct 7th at UCSC from Kyle Mckinley

13 Oct

Students, workers, faculty and community members came together today, at UC Santa Cruz’s Bay Tree Plaza, to voice opposition to privatization, fee hikes and pay cuts. This is the same site where, one year ago, dozens of students kicked off a year of occupations, strikes and teach-ins by seizing and communizing a study lab known as the “Graduate Student Commons.” Though the number of people in attendance today (estimated to be 100-200) was overshadowed by the massive rallies and campus shut-downs of the last academic year, enthusiasm was high in the plaza as students shared the stage with workers and local politicians. Participants vowed to continue the struggle against the corporatization of public education with further direct actions, legislative pressure and consciousness-raising.

The highlight of the event was a skit by faculty members that literalized the metaphor of “pie-charts” in order to make apparent the disproportionate allocation of funds given over to administration. Some faculty members – dressed as cigar-puffing fat-cats – wore signs identifying them as “executive compensation,” and “Yudof’s housing expenses,” while other faculty played the roles of “teaching budget,” “ethnic resources,” “graduate student support”  and “language instructors.” As might be predicted, when dollar sign-inscribed apple pies were laid out before these competing sectors of the UC budget, it was the administrative concerns that wolfed down the lion’s share, while other players were left with crumbs and crust. By the end of the skit the crowd was roaring with boos and laughter at the expense of the good-willed faculty who, it should be said, had a great deal of pie on their faces.

Check out the video here:

Among the participating professors, all of whom are members of the Faculty Organizing Group (FOG), was Ben Leeds Carson. At UCSC, Professor Carson (http://bencarson.squarespace.com/) teaches music theory and composition for the Music Deptartment and graduate level courses in art theory and practice for the Digital Art and New Media program. He joined me for an informal conversation about the role of artist-academics in this social movement and the importance of arts divisions embracing struggle for public education. Carson’s analysis of how Arts divisions have been suffering the effects of privatization begins with the administration pulling a bait-and-switch. Departments were told a decade ago that when their enrollment increased, so would their funding. “Increasing enrollment was easy,” Carson remarked, “but the goal posts shifted; disparities in resource allocation continued.” The paradox that Carson emphasizes is that at the same time as class sizes have increased, there is ever more pressure on academic-artists to seek the sponsorship of private and corporate donors who sometimes value art as a kind of luxury. Voicing a common sentiment, Carson explained that “we’re left with an impression that our programs don’t deserve funding simply for their serious contributions to research and education.”

Such sentiments are reinforced by commonplace misunderstandings about UC budgets. “There is a widespread perception that engineering and biomedical research pay for themselves with corporate partnerships,” Carson explains, “but we (arts instructors) offer a disproportionately large amount of the teaching labor that generates the U.C.’s tuition revenue.”

Despite the palpability of these problems, Carson notes that there is “far from a consensus” about how to grapple with these pressing issues. At UCSC the struggle against privatization has been overwhelmingly led by educators from the humanities and social sciences; a lack of consensus as to what is to be done may one of the reasons for the relatively meager response of Arts faculty to the student movements. Carson asks, “why aren’t arts faculty angry about this subservient funding model? It doesn’t match the reality of our contribution to knowledge and learning at this institution.”

Though reluctant to make overarching claims about “Art,” Carson’s optimism for the future role of artists in social movements is grounded in his simple observation that almost all arts practitioners today are likely to agree that art has an important role to play in the production of social values. “I hardly think anyone would disagree with the idea that art is a provocation,” Carson explains, “when we distinguish ourselves as creative workers, or as producers of culture, we understand that distinction as something of an ability to echo society back to itself in a way that is illuminating or in a way that teaches.”

That sense of the imaginative capacity of creative workers was certainly bourne out by the faculty skit and in other events throughout the day in Santa Cruz. A critical-mass type bike ride, students dressed as zombies (in a now familiar reference to Yudof’s “graveyard”) and a rally to bring together K-12 students and teachers with higher education activists were each infused with a sense of good humor and possibility as Santa Cruz kicks off another year of actions in defense of public education.

Kyle McKinley is a student in the Digital Arts and New Media MFA Program at UC Santa Cruz. Read more at http://kylemckinley.com/

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