‘No assignment is hopeless to me’
Interview by Sanne Kersten
What relation do arts assignments have to your practice?
There are many ways that art assignments are related to my practice. As a teacher—who thinks of his pedagogical practice as art—I test the materiality of what it means to give an assignment. I pay close attention to my students and try to formulate directives that are tight enough to be generative and loose enough to still manifest individual results. Even though I have given the same assignments more than once, I have never taught the same thing twice.
As an artist who thinks of his creative practice as a form of education, I work within limits—mostly conceptual, but sometimes material—to try to find the pliability of things that might appear to be concretized and immobile at first glance. I see this move as a pedagogical gesture. I’m drawn to the way that some things in the academy (e.g. banality and standardization, the rhythms of the school calendar, the textured relationality between differing stakeholders, and the constant bureaucratic oversight) map over a multitude of conceptual art discourses. In the academy we’re faced with the readily available politics, pathos, angst, economic conundrums, utopian aspirations, and ‘fields’ for experimentation that many conceptual artists aspire to in their work. I see working in a school as a true art gift.
Which arts assignment have made an impression on you?
One of my first painting teachers told me to ‘go talk to Paul Klee in the museum’—what he was really saying was go look at art and see what ‘it’ says to you. This is an assignment that I’ve yet to stop engaging with and it hasn’t ceased to be a productive exercise. In many ways this has turned into a manner of studying anything: go ‘listen’ to it (whatever) and see what it says to you. The trick is to engage things slowly, repeatedly, over long stretches of time, and constantly think about how the thing you’re looking at is constructed formally and leveraged conceptually. This constant and simultaneous formal and conceptual retreading opens up permissions within the observed works. It’s almost as if the thing you’re looking at finally says, ‘This thing that you didn’t know you could do; you actually can do it; if you want to.’
Who are your arts assignment ‘heroes’ or sources of inspiration?
The members of the performance group Goat Island were perhaps some of my greatest art teachers. Every thing generated something so there was never any wasted energy or useless encounter. Well, that’s only half true. Everything ‘gave’ something because we, the observers, were encouraged to look with generative analysis, instead of stifled criticality. We were taught to re-spect—meaning to look again—over and over and over and over. If whatever we were analyzing lacked immediate intrigue or even was anti-aesthetic—regardless if it was student’s work or some simple artefact/phenomenon in the world—the members of Goat Island taught us to find ‘moments of wonder’ and to work from there. This was a very fruitful, even hopeful process that avoided the stagnation that usually comes from critiques where the goal might be to identify and call out errors in the thing that is being critiqued. Goat Island would call it ‘creative response’ and I haven’t stop using this method as a means to get students and myself to make from what is made, as opposed to just talk about what is or is not working.
What defines a good arts assignment?
I suppose a good art assignment is one that opens up a pathway for a student that ends up being a pathway of the student’s own making. Believe it or not this does not exclude rote assignments with prescribed outcomes. Not unlike perfecting a specific dance posture or being taught how to pray by older relatives, sometimes a ritualistic or clearly delineated assignment can open up a personal pathway for an individual and therefore it can’t be bad. The results may be predictable and perhaps quotidian, but with an eye towards generativity a good/slow/generative teacher (or observer) can catch the moments of difference, mistakes, and deviations in even the most uniform assignments to teach towards an expansion of the mind (and the world).
How has your perspective on arts assignments changed over time or throughout your career?
Since teaching in general has become a means by which I think about my creative work, assignments and their mechanisms have become that much more important and curious as a pliable material. No assignment is hopeless to me. I understand an assignment not as a constriction, but as something that art can be launched from. A standard, for example, is not only a firm stipulation or a rallying point, but a means by which we can extend our thinking. Everyday I’m asked by different factions of the academy and the art world to complete tasks within certain parameters. The question that immediately ensues whenever an assignment emerges is: ‘how do I do this thing in a way that is integral to what is important to me and how can I express who I am to the world through these mediations?’ I pose a version of this question to my students with every assignment I give them and I pose it to myself with every task I take on, whether it’s externally or internally given/mandated.