Radical Empowerment: The Students Run the Show
Jeffry Cudlin, Instructor, Exhibition Development Seminar
Some folks refuse to believe that Exhibition Development Seminar (EDS) really operates as advertised. Those who have direct experience with it know that EDS empowers students to make key decisions regarding every element of the show they create. Yet many arts professionals I know outside of MICA assume that EDS students are just glorified interns: Sure, the class takes on some small, token curatorial tasks, but ultimately they must be following the instructor’s marching orders. Accordingly, no matter what this year’s EDS class writes about their experiences creating Under Cover, some will still think that the show is my pet project.

It isn’t. From start to finish, Under Cover has been entirely conceived and produced by the EDS hive mind. In fact, perhaps more than any other EDS class before them, these students have asserted ownership over every single facet of their show.

Typically, students enroll in the class knowing who or what their research topic, resident artist, or institutional partner will be—some starting point is selected prior to the beginning of class in order to speed things along. This year we tried an experiment: For the first time ever, there was no preexisting theme. Instead, through a long, deliberative process that occupied the first five weeks of the Fall 2011 semester, these 16 students explored their individual research interests, proposed possible show concepts, and arrived at a consensus. The resulting exhibition Under Cover brings together nine artists who think about public and private spaces (both real and virtual), new models of urban or nomadic living, and the ubiquity of surveillance in contemporary life.

All of these issues directly affect the group of students who warily eye a hostile economic climate and attempt to navigate a world in which all activities are regarded as suspicious and monitored accordingly. Once the subject had been determined, the class sprinted furiously to the finish: A conversation that had begun in August of 2011 resulted in a show that opens in January of 2012.

I have heard EDS described by alumni as tantamount to a job. But delivering a contemporary themed art exhibit—a timely, well-researched, smartly designed one— in less than six months is not a task that any paid professional would relish. Even small, nimble non-profit spaces need significantly longer lead times to develop programming. In other words: EDS students are not just taking on real-world tasks; they’re doing so under impossible conditions.

This is my first semester teaching EDS. It’s been a challenge for me to work with the structure that George Ciscle has been refining since he founded the course in 1997. His model of teaching is more about listening than lecturing—and, frankly, I like to talk. But it’s easier to tell students stories than to challenge them to learn. According to George, at some magic point in every year of EDS, the project takes on a life of its own, and the instructor fades into the background. Students start setting their own priorities, giving one another assignments, and following their own timelines. I’ve now seen this happen firsthand, and have spent entire six hour class periods watching the class move from one decision or issue to the next organically, without any prodding from me. It’s exhilarating, and unlike any other classroom experience I’ve had. I look forward to gradually becoming irrelevant to many more EDS students to come.

 
 

Take Cover Now! Privacy and Shelter Reconsidered
By Katie Johnson, Johns Hopkins University Doctorate Art History Candidate

What does it mean to go under cover? It can suggest to hide one’s identity or to

take on a new persona. Or it can convey something more concrete: to take shelter in order

to protect one’s body from harm. The artists featured in Under Cover ask us to consider

the continuously shifting definition of this concept. They do so by creating artworks that

question the role and meaning of shelter, particularly as it relates to issues of public and

private spaces.

The contemporary notion of public and private arose most forcefully in the 1950’s with the Post-war development of the suburban setting. The sociologist William Dobriner classified suburban life as middle-class, homogenous, removed from an urban center, and one in which “suburbanites can observe each other’s behavior and general life style far more easily than the central city dweller.”1 Playfully perceived by Dan Graham in his 1978 Alteration to a Suburban Home, the artist replaced the façade of a residence with glass and inset the interior with mirrors. Completely exposing the home’s inhabitants, Graham scrutinized the boundaries of public and private, laying bare society’s morbid desire to act the voyeur.2 These boundaries have become murkier with the advent of social networking sites, GPS technology, and public surveillance programs. Hiding under the veil of supposed anonymity, our actions and thoughts have become more widely tracked than ever before. In a world where technology gives us access to an astounding array of information, our concept of shelter and all it entails—privacy, protection, and safety— has changed irrevocably. Examining both the physical and psychological aspects of this subject, the artists in Under Cover create works that range from the literal to the discursive. The artists deal directly and indirectly with the legacy first identified by Dobriner. Responding to the dominance of American suburban culture, multiple artists in the exhibition conceive of alternate lifestyles and emphasize new modes of community development. Others engage more actively with what Dobriner recognized as our desire to “observe each other’s behavior” in order to explore issues of identity and exposure. All the artworks in Under Cover consider the radical changes that have taken place in our twenty-first century society and ask us to think critically about the consequences or possibilities of such progress. No object more perfectly signifies suburbia than the porch awning, that liminal space of transition from outdoor to indoor, public to private. The Washington D.C.-based artist Patrick McDonough explores this site and questions how its meaning might evolve when released from its traditional architectural constraints. Positioned in treetops and floating over water, these reconfigurations comment upon questions of accessibility and functionality. The re-purposing of the utilitarian and the quotidian can also be found in artist Anne Percoco’s dwellings made from discarded objects. Assembling what she terms “site-specific interventions,” the artist transforms trash into habitable spaces. She explains, “I make art not by creating something completely new, but by reorganizing what is already there.”3 In the communities Percoco highlights—often small towns on the outskirts of large city-centers—the most readily available items tend to be urban detritus such as disposed water bottles and plastic food wrappers. A contemporary version of détournement, the artist reclaims refuse shifting its connotation from dirty and undesirable towards life saving and community building. Artist Keith Perelli’s work investigates a phenomenon opposite to that of Percoco, focusing his attention on the loss of home and community. A long-time resident of New Orleans, Perelli’s images capture the ravages of Hurricane Katrina with a personal and emotional eye. His series is a reminder of the fragility of our existence and of the inadequacy of our homes, neighbors, and government to protect us in the face of such destructive forces. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina forced many residents to reconsider what they defined as essential to human survival. Artists Kelly Loudenberg and Mary Mattingly approach this topic with their reconfigurations of modes of modern living. Loudenberg’s New Urbanism project conceives of alternate living spaces that are self-sufficient and utilize locally available materials. In her project, Waterpod, the artist and four of her colleagues stayed aboard a specially designed boat for five months, growing their own food and educating the public about sustainable lifestyles. Loudenberg describes the project as a way to explore “what’s on the edge, new ways to make space more playful, more imaginative.”4 Mary Mattingly also pushes the boundaries of the imagination with her project Wearable Portable Architecture. Envisioning a future in which humans no longer live in traditional homes but rather adopt nomadic living systems, Mattingly transforms the necessities of one’s living space into a functional set of clothing items. She describes her project by stating, “Architecture is the interplay between physical space, network space, and mental space.”5 Her expansion upon the idea of architecture to include non-tangibles opens up a new way of imagining where one takes shelter. For many that new place of shelter has become the space of the World Wide Web, a refuge that perhaps is not as private as we would like it to be. Nate Larson and Marni Shindelman expose this in their Geolocation series. Using GPS coordinates to track down the origins of anonymous tweets, the artists capture images of the often-surprising locations. Their series examines how one’s environment may influence online presence, questioning whether our self-expression in the digital universe is tied to our experience in the physical world. Where Larson and Shindelman hypothesize about the imbrications of the physical and the digital world, artist Jen Davis experiments with the concept of the simulacra, or a coded construction that produces effects of the real. In her Webcam series, the artist records her three-month long relationship with an online character named “Alexi.” The artist’s series challenges the concept of the real, looking at how the Internet enables a sense of false intimacy and connection. Her series ultimately turns the table to ask whether this relationship is any less meaningful than the superficial connections we make and maintain in the real world. For after all, how well do we really know anyone and how deeply can we trust even our closest confidants? Such is the problem that artist Saul Robbins brings to the viewer’s attention with his installation Initial Intake. Making public the deeply private space of the therapist’s office, Robbins lays bare the internal structure—both physical and psychological—of what most consider a “safe space.” Reconstructing the office through photographs, the viewer is invited to sit in the patient’s chair and to act out a scene of personal confession in front of a gallery of strangers. The theme of exposure manifests itself most forcefully in James Coupe’s project The Lover. People who enter the gallery may be surprised to find themselves part of a video installation; with cameras set up throughout the gallery, the artist records and analyzes personal information about the audience, including age and gender. Using this data the artist’s program inserts images of gallery visitors into a pre-recorded soap opera. The empowered point of view of the spectator is withdrawn as he unwittingly and without permission becomes the main character of a romantic narrative. Coupe’s project forces us to think about how much control we have over our personal information. In an increasingly monitored world, has privacy become an illusion? Perhaps this is a future we must embrace as the world population inches closer to seven billion. Vin Grabill aptly captures these overpopulated communities in his collages. Juxtaposing city scenes with images from nature, he focuses on how humans have transformed the planet. The artists in Under Cover are deeply concerned with the topography of modern life. Although they hail from all over the United States, the issues raised are directly applicable to Baltimore. With over three hundred surveillance cameras installed throughout the city, sixteen thousand vacant homes, and a rising population of homeless or vulnerable people, shelter could not be a more pressing issue. Baltimore’s relation to the exhibition may be tangential, but ideas and themes raised by the artworks can help us reflect upon our own community and our role as agents for change. 1William Dobriner, Class in Suburbia, 49. 2Never actually realized, Graham created an architectural model of the house. 3Anne Percoco, Artist’s Statement, ArtSlant.com 4Kelly Loudenberg quoted in Andrew Wagner, “The New ‘New Urbanism’,” Readymade.com 5 Mary Mattingly, Wearable Homes, Artist’s Statement, MaryMattingly.com