With common interests ranging from activism to communal living, AA and Nils here discuss the financial crisis and the importance of education. For This World & Nearer Ones, Nils will fabricate an encampment of communal, architectural structures for protest activities in an outdoor location on the island. AA and his collaborator Peter Hobbs orchestrate the Invocation of the Queer Spirits, a ritual for healing through communication with the dead, commissioned by Creative Time with previous performances in New Orleans and Winnipeg.
Nils Norman: How's life in NYC these days? Do you see many changes in the art world due to the credit crisis? I stopped going to New York galleries about 5 years ago: it seemed like more and more of a waste of time. After Colin De Land died, the fun kind of evaporated...
AAB: I stopped going to New York galleries about the same time. However recently I've noticed myself going to the occasional show. It seems like the recession has brought some more interesting work into the galleries. I gave a talk at Parsons yesterday, and was struck by the white cubicles in which the Masters students work. Why would anyone want to work in a little, white, windowless cube? I think they think of them as a replication of Chelsea galleries. Essentially they’re being trained to be part of the supply line for the marketplace. But I’m curious about your notion of a "school." Can you tell me a little about what you’re doing?
NN: Yes I agree: the way art is taught hasn't changed much in the past decades. Some schools in London only have a visiting program for individual studio visits—there is no group or collective experimentation or even the space to allow it to happen. Maybe the chairs and heads of the more expansive neoliberal art departments should be fired, like the directors of failed banks. I heard, though, that some art school admissions were up, while the schools are so poor they can barely take in new students. It's an interesting contradiction... maybe it’s time again for self-organized, student-led schools. At the art academy in Copenhagen where I work the students and I are developing a more student-led pedagogy: developing collective and smaller group project and activities.
AAB: When I was in architecture school in the mid-sixties in Winnipeg (it was supposed to be one of the best undergrad courses in North America at the time), we led a mini-revolution against the teaching methods. Art history, for example, was taught entirely by memorizing slides. Our solution was to slip cloves of garlic into the slide projector, so that as it heated up, the room would have to be evacuated. Finally, as the battle with administration escalated, a group of us dropped out and formed our own, free school. Being as idealistic as we were, and without any funding whatsoever, we set up a big, cheap studio in an abandoned storefront in a dilapidated part of town, and built a kind of eccentric, even Constructivist, structure of two-by-fours that could be filled in with slabs of refuse to make walls and tables. The whole construct was constantly changing, and although it was probably quite inefficient, it certainly created community. In the front, facing the street, we put an actual store, where we sold things that we made, or that our friends made. Our "teaching" was similarly makeshift. We approached visiting lecturers at the art and architecture schools and got them to spend an evening with us. I think it was Roberto Burle Marx who pinpointed what was going on: he said that in an atmosphere of trust, real pedagogy could start to happen.
NN: It would be great if more students started doing things like that now. Maybe now that real estate has bombed and stores are closing it will be more possible to occupy empty storefronts again. As commercial galleries close or shrink, artists might not feel the necessity to bother with them and move out to other cities and towns—setting up collective and communal experiments in living. At the academy we’ve set up a permaculture gardening course as part of the art curriculum: a landscape architect and permaculture gardener comes ones a month, to teach biology and organic gardening. What other communal or collective activities were you involved with before General Idea?
AAB: The other big thing was the beginning of group therapy. A psychologist came to visit our commune and asked if he could provide free monthly group therapy for our core group. His interest was specifically group therapy for intentional communities. I took to this like a duck to water and ended up apprenticing with him (interning, we would say today!) for several months, travelling across western Canada and visiting various communes, co-ops, and so on, and giving workshops in group processing. By the way, as architecture students, we were doing experiments with compressed earth structures, with the idea that they could be adapted for poor people. Although gardening wasn’t involved we were philosophically very close to your permaculture project.
NN: I’m looking into using pig shit as a building material, mixing it with earth to build with. It’s for a project in Den Haag—the Netherlands has a lot of pigs! In Copenhagen some of the students are looking into therapy in terms of group organization and identity. It’s important when working collaboratively or speaking as or in a group. I sometimes think activists somehow overlook this potential and dimension of group formation and dynamics.
AAB: I’d love sit in on some of the work you are doing with the students in Denmark. It sounds very interesting, and there is nothing remotely like that here that I have heard of. Another aspect of my life that I have not yet mentioned is that I have gone back to school: I am studying for my Master of Divinity at Union Theological Seminary, which is a left-wing, social-justice, non-denominational Christian seminary. (I’m not all that sure that I’m a Christian, however.) I’m very proud of the fact that I’ve convinced them to hire Paul Chan to teach a course on the history of contemporary art in relation to religion. In particular, I’m hoping that he’ll cover the kind of work being done by a lot of people engaged with social interaction, as you are, and as are many of the artists working with Creative Time. We’ll see how that unfolds. It will challenge the average theological student, who thinks of art as being something devotional, or perhaps something to do with beauty. It’s kind of weird, even to me, that I’ve gone to Union, but the challenge feels much more real than working in the art world, and the weirdness feels right.
NN: You should definitely come to CPH. Maybe you could help the students in terms of offering a committed, long-term, politically uncompromised alternative? How one survives financially is always an important question for students involved in activities outside of mainstream art reproduction.
AAB: Yes, I do teach. I think the issues you mentioned are difficult to tackle except by moving forward through life as best one can. How to make art that is not compromised by the marketplace, and how to make money at the same time: always difficult! And perhaps it’s important to emphasize the importance of education. There is lots of lip service paid to education, of course, but a real commitment to education as an ongoing component of our lives can be radical indeed.