Alex Wisser

photocentric

Month: January, 2010

NAS II

by Alex Wisser

Orig­i­nally pub­lished  2010-01-23 on carnivalaskew.com

Since my last post was spent rail­ing against the ineluctable, silent effi­ciency of that jug­ger­naut of insti­tu­tional change, Anita Tay­lor and her plans to turn a dinosaur into a jet air­plane with no other tools than a cal­cu­la­tor and a carv­ing knife — I thought it only appro­pri­ate to ded­i­cate this post to the other side of the argu­ment.  The argu­ment for change that is.  I know how to but­ter my bread on both sides, and burn my bridges from both ends.

I knew the nature of the National Art School long before I went there.  My part­ner suf­fered 3 long years in the Land That Time For­got and I suf­fered beside her.  The con­ser­vatism of the school is long famous, and while I won’t bore you with all the absur­dist minu­tia which was our daily din­ner con­ver­sa­tion, I will treat you to a few. Per­haps my favorite was the sug­ges­tion that Richard Bell was a racist when he made the claim that Abo­rig­i­nal Art was a white thing.  Or then there was the time that Christo­pher Allen raised his glass at a fac­ulty party to toast the fact that the National Art School had avoided post mod­ernism all together.  Frankly I found NAS to be post-modern in the extreme, if only for its blithe capac­ity to encom­pass con­tra­dic­tion and log­i­cal incon­sis­tency with­out feel­ing at all obliged to resolve them.  It was at the NAS library that I read from David Antin that “From the mod­ernism you want, you get the post­mod­ernism you deserve”.  I couldn’t think of a bet­ter motto for the school, and sug­gest now to its new man­age­ment that it be ren­dered in bronze and hung above the entrance to the school, per­haps trans­lated into Latin just to impress people.

If that weren’t enough of a warn­ing, I had friends, estab­lished artists, who cer­tainly knew bet­ter than I, dis­cour­age me in force­ful terms from my pro­posed course of study, sug­gest­ing cofa or sca and rec­om­mend­ing I write to such and such head of depart­ment who they were friends with.  Still, I was deter­mined… as all young fools (ok mid­dle aged fools) are, to have my own way in life, and go in the direc­tion that I had decided was best for me.  And to tell you the truth, after all is said and done, I believe I made the right decision.

This deci­sion was based on the fact that I had a my under­grad­u­ate degree from Syd­ney Uni­ver­sity with a triple major, choco­late sprin­kles and a cherry on top. I had been play­ing with the pos­si­bil­ity of an aca­d­e­mic future, but had grown dis­il­lu­sioned with the poten­tials of con­tem­po­rary the­ory and the dis­course pro­duc­tion indus­try.  So I had the­ory; what I had no expe­ri­ence of and no idea about, was the prac­tice of being an artist.   While COFA and SCA cer­tainly had bet­ter cre­den­tials than NAS and the cur­ricu­lum seemed to be focused on far more con­tem­po­rary cur­rents of art mak­ing, I was attracted to NAS because it would give me the kind of stu­dio based edu­ca­tion I needed, includ­ing sub­stan­tial con­tact hours with work­ing artists.  The under­grad­u­ate course my part­ner went through required a 40 hour week, either in stu­dio or in lec­tures and I was attracted to the prospect of being required to treat art mak­ing like a proper occu­pa­tion.  If you com­pare this to cofa and sca where con­tact hours are as low as 12 hours a week in large classes and the oblig­a­tion placed on stu­dents are from what I’ve heard, ambiva­lent at best — NAS had some­thing going for it that couldn’t be got­ten any­where else.  While both cofa and sca have their strengths, as I was inves­ti­gat­ing my options, I came across a good per­cent­age of their stu­dents com­plain­ing that while they were learn­ing a lot of the­ory they weren’t learn­ing the practice.

NAS was the exact oppo­site.  While you got a truly gen­er­ous num­ber of con­tact hours and stu­dio time, the aca­d­e­mic expe­ri­ence was pal­try to say the least.  I had to explain to fourth year stu­dents in the break of our Art His­tory and The­ory lec­ture what semi­otics was.  I know that up to 2008 at least Christo­pher Allen was still tor­ment­ing his stu­dents with 19th cen­tury style rote learn­ing in the form of slide tests for which you were required to mem­o­rize the sta­tis­tics of famous paint­ings.  The library was minute and had sig­nif­i­cant gaps in its col­lec­tion.  I couldn’t find a copy of Lyotard’s “The Post­mod­ern Con­di­tion” (appear­antly because the con­di­tion didn’t apply) and while there were some excel­lent lec­tur­ers, lets face it, as an aca­d­e­mic insti­tu­tion, NAS was a joke.  Any art school that would pro­duce an hon­ors level grad­u­ate who could in all good con­science claim that their work was uni­fied as a body because they were all made by the same per­son, has some seri­ous prob­lems (and pos­si­bly needs to give that stu­dent a refund).

But for me, who had enough the­ory (and I mean enough already) — what the National Art School gave me could not have come from another envi­ron­ment.  I entered hon­ors year with absolutely no prac­tice as an artist what­so­ever, and within a nine month period, to everyone’s sur­prise, I pro­duced a pretty pass­able stu­dent show.  I look back and won­der what the hell they were think­ing, let­ting me in in the first place.  I should have fallen flat on my face, and yet, through the near con­stant, and very con­sis­tent guid­ance of some excel­lent teach­ers, I com­pleted my course and left the National Art School with the one thing a stu­dent can and should expect to have when they leave art school: a begin­ning.  I under­stand that my case can­not be taken to argue the rule: it was an excep­tion, and it is the fail­ing of an art school if it trains its stu­dents in their craft with­out giv­ing them a real­is­tic under­stand­ing of the intel­lec­tual con­text in which they are meant to prac­tice it.  That said, the pre­dom­i­nance of the­ory at the expense of prac­tice cre­ates its own malaise in which the mak­ing of things becomes equiv­a­lent to illus­trat­ing ideas, and as an activ­ity comes closer to writ­ing than to the think­ing that can only be done through mak­ing.  We all under­stand this.  What the National Art School did, even if it was from a reac­tionary posi­tion, was to offer a model of prac­ti­cal edu­ca­tion that is slowly becom­ing extinct (for eco­nomic as much as ide­o­log­i­cal rea­sons).  It will be to our loss, if in reform­ing its flaws we fail to improve and build upon its unique qual­ity and instead tear it down and rebuild it in the image of what we already have enough of.

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Management by Gallows at The National Art School

by Alex Wisser

Originally published 2010-01-15 on Carnivalaskew.com

So, the gal­lows are work­ing again at the old Dar­linghurst Goal and the Syd­ney art com­mu­nity is abuzz with the col­lec­tive silence that sur­rounds the rad­i­cal over­haul of one its major insti­tu­tions.  It’s true that Jacques Delaru­elle wrote a let­ter, at once elo­quent and tooth­less, The Aus­tralian pub­lished a non-committal story basi­cally report­ing that Jacque had writ­ten a let­ter, and Vasili Kali­man tweeted a barbed good rid­dance.  Aside from that, there is an abid­ing silence and an almost com­plete lack of pub­lic dia­logue around the forces play­ing them­selves out at the National Art School.  The Board of Direc­tors has called an emer­gency meet­ing to dis­cuss the fall­out from this cur­rent cri­sis, but if this is the media storm they are fac­ing, I can’t see what they’re wor­ried about.

Let me declare from the begin­ning that I grad­u­ated last year from The National Art School, that I believe that NAS is in great need of seri­ous struc­tural change to make it rel­e­vant as a con­tem­po­rary arts insti­tu­tion and that as a stu­dent, scur­ry­ing about try­ing to com­plete my degree under the gath­er­ing shadow of the events unfold­ing before us today, I came into con­tact with much gos­sip and spec­u­la­tion which I am com­pletely pre­pared to share.   Some­one has to say some­thing out loud.

So lets draw a map.  The National Art School, orig­i­nally belong­ing to the TAFE sys­tem, won itself some mod­icum of inde­pen­dence and even the abil­ity to offer degree courses.  This shifted the sta­tus of the school away from the TAFE model though it was still beholden to the sys­tem, a fact that the school chaffed against, both from an oper­a­tional point of view as well as one of pres­tige.  In 2008, there were a num­ber of approaches to var­i­ous uni­ver­si­ties in the hopes of amal­ga­mat­ing.  As far as I’m aware, the school rejected all pro­pos­als from the uni­ver­si­ties because the lat­ter weren’t as inter­ested in main­tain­ing the National Art School’s inde­pen­dence as the National Art School was.  Cou­ple that with a fund­ing cri­sis, and the mag­i­cal appear­ance of 5 years of fund­ing from the NSW min­istry of arts and edu­ca­tion, inde­pen­dence from TAFE, and appoint­ment of Anita Tay­lor, an ‘out­sider’ as direc­tor must have looked like all the National Art School’s Christ­mases came at once.

But after Christ­mas comes New Year, and after New Year there is always a hang­over.  And all the National Art School’s hang­overs came at once.  On the 31st, the old school was dis­solved.  On the 1st the new pri­vate entity was formed.  And two weeks later heads started to role.  The heads of the heads of depart­ment to be exact.  5 out of 6, and the only sur­vivor kept her job because no one else applied.    In the end, the actual num­ber of casu­al­ties is 8 out of 9 senior staff (though John Bloom­field, ex-head of paint­ing, now holds a six month con­tract as an under­grad­u­ate coordinator).

How is it, I can hear you ask­ing, that an insti­tu­tion, renowned for an entrenched fac­ulty with a rep­u­ta­tion for hold­ing out against the forces of change or reform, could be so defence­less against its new direc­tor, Anita Tay­lor, who walks right in and just starts chop­ping heads?

As I under­stand it, the strat­egy behind the inde­pen­dence of the school was sold to the fac­ulty as the only way for­ward.  It involved dis­solv­ing the old cor­po­ra­tion and reg­is­ter­ing a new one, inde­pen­dent of the TAFE sys­tem.  The fac­ulty were told by Miss Tay­lor that their pas­sage from one insti­tu­tion to the other would be a for­mal­ity, and finally see­ing the light at the end of their job secu­rity night­mare, they voted for the plan with­out much protest.  In one stroke, Miss Tay­lor sev­ers the lines of oblig­a­tion between her­self and the fac­ulty, and pulls the rug out from under any poten­tial oppo­si­tion to the reforms she wishes to ini­ti­ate.  It seems to me a stun­ning coupe, clean and sharp and mil­i­tary in its precision.

While Miss Tay­lor brings the change I have hoped for, her meth­ods make me shiver.  And when I say she brings the change I hope for, I mean only that I hoped for change and she’s cer­tainly deliv­ered that.  I have no idea what kind of change she brings.  Despite the swift­ness of her actions and the sin­gle­ness of her inten­tion, she has betrayed noth­ing of what she hopes to achieve with her reform.  It is this absolute dis­re­gard for the con­sid­er­a­tion of the art com­mu­nity, the sense that she would not con­de­scend to con­sult, or even attempt to con­vince us of the value of her pro­gram that is the most fright­en­ing and infu­ri­at­ing aspect of her man­ner.  Even if she meets all our wildest dreams, would we want to swal­low the sense of dis­en­fran­chise­ment she would serve it with?

NOTE: The meet­ing of the board of direc­tors was brought for­ward to last night and all new appoint­ments have been con­firmed.  The next round will be decid­ing on the fates of 50 frac­tional lec­tur­ers and ses­sional staff.

Olafur Eliason took my time

by Alex Wisser

Orig­i­nally pub­lished on 2010-01-10 at Carnivalaskew.com

I went to see Ola­fur Elias­son the other day.  I’m sorry, but this is begin­ning to look like another fuck­ing art blog.  I was con­sid­er­ing writ­ing about how I ended up in the hos­pi­tal on Christ­mas day with sus­pected gall stones and a good 10 CCs of mor­phine for my trou­bles — how think­ing about the pain as I waited in the wait­ing room  before being seen made me spec­u­late about tor­ture, and how much worse my pain would be if it were expe­ri­enced in a con­text that offered me no hope of relief and no sense of con­cern from the peo­ple around me.  Later, as I con­tin­ued my spec­u­la­tions under the influ­ence of the mor­phine, which didn’t relieve me of my pain but put me at a dis­tance from it and made me a bit nau­seous, the drugs min­gled with the hor­ror of (the thought of) being tor­tured and I became fairly con­vinced that human exis­tence was a mixed bag of suf­fer­ing and futil­ity and really the Ora­cle at Del­phi had it right, if we can’t achieve that ideal of never being born, then the next best thing would be to die quickly. The next morn­ing I woke up no worse for wear and wan­dered back into the world.

But then I decided I really didn’t want you to know that much about me, so I thought I’d write about Ola­fur Elias­son instead.

Of course we can see why this show is here. Other than the bril­liant rep­u­ta­tion of the artist and his art, it is an obvi­ous choice after the block­buster suc­cess of Yayoi Kusama’s “Mir­rored Years”, fol­low­ing which we can safely assume that large scale immer­sive envi­ron­men­tal instal­la­tion reliant on high con­cept opti­cal effects would be all the rage, and a damn safe bet for the insti­tu­tion pay­ing for it.  Well it was a safe bet, wasn’t it?  And I have no doubt the show was a com­plete suc­cess, mostly because what I’ve just described can apply as nicely to a trav­el­ing carni or a block­buster movie.  Don’t get me wrong, I like the car­ni­val; its where I go for my large scale immer­sive envi­ron­men­tal instal­la­tion reliant on high con­cept opti­cal affects, kicks — but it was just a lit­tle dis­ap­point­ing in the MCA.  I mean, where was the smell of horse shit?  Oh… its con­cep­tual…  Sorry, I didn’t mean that.  I like con­cep­tual, and frankly that was one of the reason’s for my dis­ap­point­ment.  I couldn’t find much thought in what I was expe­ri­enc­ing — beyond the tech­ni­cal bril­liance, and inno­v­a­tive imag­i­na­tion that informed the entire bag of tricks, I found myself wan­der­ing from room to room, open­ing my mouth in a big O and say­ing “oooo” and then walk­ing out with­out think­ing any­thing much.  In fact, the over­all impres­sion I came away from the show with was a sense that I had just vis­ited a trade fair for con­tem­po­rary artists.  Every­thing had the sense of being pro­to­typ­i­cal, and on dis­play not for its own sake, but as a poten­tial that some­one who actu­ally had some­thing to say might pick up and use one day.  In con­trast, for instance, Kusama’s mir­rored rooms had the same tech­ni­cal bril­liance, but the effects achieved were employed toward gen­er­at­ing mean­ing — ie, an image of the infi­nite that was at exactly the same time a cheap and obvi­ous trick with faery lights.  I loved Eliasson’s yel­low room, it was incred­i­ble to see peo­ple stand­ing within it turn mono­chrome.  But after I mar­veled at what my eye is hard wired to expe­ri­ence, I turned and walked on to the next dis­trac­tion.  Another of Eliasson’s works which could have worked for me, a spotlit water­fall room, which was ele­giac in its sim­plic­ity and at least had about it that com­ment we can draw from what would oth­er­wise have been a com­mon expe­ri­ence, had been ruined by my expe­ri­ence of nearly the same work in Pri­mav­era by the Aus­tralian artist Michaela Gleave which was so sin­cere in its min­i­mal­is­tic aus­ter­ity, in the hon­est poverty of its means that it made Eliasson’s work seem slick and bur­dened by its high pro­duc­tion val­ues, remind­ing me of some bad expe­ri­ences I’ve had in front of a Bill Viola or two.  As I walked away, my brain hum­ming from the sen­sory stim­uli over­load, I couldn’t really fault the artist.  They weren’t great works in my opin­ion, but cer­tainly they did what the brochure adver­tised, and some of them were fas­ci­nat­ing enough to war­rant blow­ing 15 bucks.  Hell, I’d do that for a block­buster movie when all I want is to sub­ject myself to … oh, don’t make me say it again… but when I come to the MCA I want to be made and chal­lenged to think, not just stim­u­lated and tit­il­lated.   What really ruined the show for me was the inescapable sense of trans­par­ent cal­cu­la­tion behind it, the lin­ger­ing sus­pi­cion that this was an attempt to cash in on a for­mula.  I was going to say that thank­fully for­mu­las don’t work quite as well in the art world as they do in Hol­ly­wood, but that would have been a stu­pid thing to say.