On a Saturday in January, a frozen pipe in the basement of the 112 S. Michigan building burst, flooding the school’s Neon and Holography labs. For all of the Spring 2009 semester the labs have remained closed, with the students who were supposed to be the Holography TAs working to pack up the equipment, rather than assisting their students.
“The teacher we were supposed to TA for called us that day,” said second-year students Emily Boksenbaum and Adriene Lilly. “There was visible water damage on the ceiling, but the equipment still worked and the rooms weren’t trashed.” The two would-be TAs, who both credit holography with changing how they see the world and deeply impacting their artistic practice, were told that the future of these classes looked bleak, although there hasn’t been much follow-up since then. Even before the flooding, however, there was talk of closing the labs—emblematic of the school’s increasing emphasis on design over traditional hands-on art, according to a longtime member of the Art and Tech faculty.
Although the official line is that the curriculum and the proposed cuts to the course catalogue are still under review, advanced registration starts on April 13 and SAIC’s Fall 2009 schedule will be finalized any day now. Lisa Wainwright, Interim Dean of Faculty, said, “The economic situation demands that we scrutinize everything, and now the decision [about Neon and Holography] is with the curriculum committee. Sometimes institutions need to make unpopular decisions.”
An influential administrator told F Newsmagazine that arguments for not rebuilding these labs include that “it is costly to run these programs that have a relatively small student capacity, that the Holography curriculum was never properly integrated into the department, and neon is an outdated technique,” as well as that the space could be better used. (One possible new use for the space that has been discussed would be graduate studios, which would allow the school to admit a few more grad students a year.)
According to Art and Tech staff, it is a myth that these classes are expensive to run, because the students provide all their own materials from resale, the equipment is not costly to maintain, and the insurance money from the flood should cover the cost of rebuilding the rooms. Between the Neon Techniques, Neon Animation, and Beginning and Advanced Holography classes being offered each semester and in the summer, the Neon lab actually serves about 54 students a year, and the Holography lab serves 40, which combines to servicing nearly 100 students per year.
Greg Mowery, SAIC alum and longtime Neon guru, combats the small classroom space by over-enrolling his Neon Techniques classes to fit 12 instead of 10 students a semester, with 6 students coming in the morning and 6 in the afternoon. The situation is not ideal, as it limits the amount of work time each student gets, but it seems like the problem is not that the labs are extraneous, but that they are in fact too small. The Neon classes, especially, are very popular and always fill to or beyond capacity.
These classes are not offered by other art schools, and one of the only other places to study Holography is MIT. As Emily Boksenbaum said, “These are the classes that make this school unique. I could take painting anywhere.”
The bottom line is that the programs are mothballed as of now, and it seems the teachers of these classes are either not interested in fighting for their survival or are scared of retribution. At this point, the students are the only ones who can possibly impact the administration’s decision.
Aaron Greene, who decided to transition from being a Continuing Education student to a fulltime Undergraduate after taking Neon Animation in Fall 2008, has been working hard to save these labs. He recently founded the Neon Underpanties, a student group working to save the integrity of the Art and Tech curriculum, as well as to facilitate frank discussion between students, faculty and administrators.
“I came to this school for the unique classes, especially Neon,” Greene said. “It’s false advertising for the school to attract students with the breadth of courses and then take the best ones off the table.” The Neon Underpanties succeeded in getting over 200 students (10% of the undergraduate student body) in just three afternoons to sign petitions in the form of applications to transfer to other schools.
Greene found that “not all, but definitely the majority of students I spoke to either have taken Neon or Holography in the past or want to in the future. The student body seems very passionate about these classes remaining in the curriculum.”
Greene delivered his sizable stack of petitions to the President, who was very receptive and seemed open to further discussions with the students. In this conversation, Duke agreed that neon is an applicable trade right out of school, but qualified his statement by saying that it is an extremely limited field. Greene later responded to this, saying, “Making it on your own in fine arts is a considerably more limited field. I think the students need to be involved in these discussions about where vocation and high art meet, and the future of the classes we came here to take. In the end it is our futures on the line, and we need to be thinking about what we will do when we get out of school and how school will facilitate our futures.”