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Students and Responsibility

If politics are inescapable and life and art are intertwined, what does this mean to the student artist at SAIC? Is there a responsibility involved in being an artist?

By Arts & Culture

At a time when the art world seems to be shying away from so-called “political art,” (perhaps in favor of art with a capital “A”), some students at SAIC have answered by saying that life itself is art. And also that living life is in and of itself intrinsically political. Therefore, by going out into the community to affect social change and challenge the dominant cultural mind-set, these artists are creating a type of art.

So, who are these students and what are they doing? Daniel Tucker is a senior at SAIC. His self-described emphasis is a BFA in exhibition studies, space reclamation, and squashing haters and loving lovers. He has so many projects going on I wonder that he has time for classes amidst everything else. Tucker describes his project Version>04 invisibleNetworks as “designed to facilitate connections between activists and digital media makers from all over the city, country, and world. Events like this allow for groups that are involved in creative resistance projects to meet, bounce ideas off each other, show work, discuss and party.” According to the website the 2004 theme of invisibleNetworks “addresses the concepts, aesthetics, politics, technologies and systems of secrecy and visibility in contemporary cultures.”

Tucker’s other projects include The Journal of Aesthetics & Protest; discount cinema an organization that curates film and video programs throughout Chicago, hosts traveling programs and filmmakers, and like the name suggests, offers a sliding scale of $5 – $10; and the God Bless Graffiti Coalition, “a graffiti advocacy organization which wants to promote graffiti and fight graffiti abatement, like Mayor Daley’s graffiti blasters.” Retooling Dissent: Creative Resistance Projects at the World Economic Forum Protests is a video that Tucker has worked on and is now distributing. According to the website, this video documents “creative resistance projects from protests against the World Economic Forum.” On the website there are pictures of various projects and events like the spontaneous protests in Chicago against MTV’s The Real World and something called Daley Village, a cardboard housing project. All of these are efforts that take place out in the community. All of these projects are creative and, depending on your personal definition, could be called art.

Simon Spartalian, first year BA in Visual and Critical Studies is one of those people who would define what Daniel Tucker is doing as art. “I am really open with what I consider art,” Spartalian explains. “There are electron microscope images that I consider art. I walk outside and there are visual daily experiences that I consider art that are produced by the community in general without even knowing it.” Spartalian concedes, though, that “this is a very personal thing. I don’t think that many people would agree with me, although I think people would agree with me if I said that the movie Amélie presents life as art.” Tucker himself prefers the term “visual culture” as he is tired of the never ending “what is art?” question and debate. “‘Visual culture,’” he explains, “can prove to be a useful term for people interested in social change, as well as the aesthetics of everyday living and the built world.”

Simon Spartalian’s major on-going project, which is his art-in-the-world/visual culture, is summed up in an organization called the Vermont Separatist Alliance (VSA). Spartalian, who hails from Burlington, Vermont, has created the VSA and also the anti-VSA, which is run by the fictional Gunnery Sergeant Retired Bill Bradley and his three-legged dog, Tripod. Both organizations have followers and have created commotion in Burlington. The whole thing, though, is an experiment, or art. It’s a creation, and at some point in the future Spartalian will reveal it as such. For now, though, it’s still his work-in-progress.

Spartalian’s more recent project is a mobile art gallery. He’s currently working to develop a six-foot-by-six-foot wall on wheels which would show two exhibitions simultaneously; one on each side of the wall. He has hopes of this becoming a student group in the future. “Our community is really insular,” he says, “it’s our responsibility as artists to engage the community. I think there’s a reluctance to do that because it seems there’s a question: is that really our agenda? Should we make that our agenda? But you don’t see stage performers asking if it’s their agenda to put on a play. It’s what you do. It’s your job. And I feel that engaging the community in a visual sense is our job.” Spartalian hopes that with this mobile gallery he can break down some of the actual and metaphorical walls of the traditional art gallery by taking this out into the public space. He wants to rig a generator to a bicycle and by human pedal power light his gallery, furthering its performance aspect. “I really do believe it’s my responsibility to engage the community,” Spartalian states, and his mobile gallery is “intrinsically public. It’s a gallery that is made to be put in the public’s face.”

And so the boundaries continue to blur…art, visual culture, theater, political activism, social change. Travis Culley is a first year MFA in Writing student who previously completed a BFA in theater. Although Culley told me that he disagrees with Spartalian’s statement that life is art (“I guess, to me, art is a statement of value, and everything cannot have value. When I look out the window and experience beauty, I credit that experience to the genius of simply being human.”), he does refer to the street as theater. When he talks of Critical Mass, a bike activist event in cities across the world that happens the last Friday of every month (in Chicago meet at Daley Plaza, 50 W. Washington at 5:30 p.m., ride at 6 p.m.) he admits that “it involves rather elaborate theatrics. Accomplishing these sorts of theatrics is a way of amplifying the voice of that political will. The theatrics of the street are decided by all, and so the beauty of the event is not contrived by sole authors and singular visions. The street is a co-op, you can add anything you’d like to it.”

While Culley may not call his activism art, he does seem comfortable calling it theater. And his stage definitely seems to be the street and perhaps his bicycle is his main prop. In his book The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power, Culley describes riding his bike to work at an art gallery initially as a way to conserve funds, yet by riding he becomes intimately involved with and enamored of the street: “When I arrived at an art gallery filled with these images [of the streets], I would always wonder, Which was the more honest arena? The street? Or the exhibition? And which was the more profound? The street, of course, the street, in almost every case.” All of this leads to the idea that, once again, despite the apparent shying away from the political nature of the art world “out there,” for some people art and life are inherently political. As Michael Kiser, a MFA in Writing student, explains, politics cannot be escaped by artists, writers, or anyone else. This is because he defines politics as simply being a citizen. As a citizen, he says, “It seems to me it would be impossible to not be at least somewhat aware.” You’re aware of the facts of your daily life and simply by being aware of these facets of how you live and making choices you are engaging in politics. He explains, “We all have to play the game somehow, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be the meaningless way that we associate it with.” In the simplest sense, he says that “in writing, as well as the visual arts, there is a sense of politics in that you’re always communicating with other writing, with other artwork.”

And if politics are inescapable and life and art are intertwined, what does this mean to the student artist at SAIC? Is there a responsibility involved in being an artist? Well, yes, and no. “Artists are citizens, too,” sums up Mary Patten, professor in the Film, Video, and New Media Department, “and thus have no more or less ‘social responsibility’ than anyone else. However, artists, writers, or anyone claiming to be an intellectual or critical thinker have a responsibility to foster complexity of thinking and feeling.” And, then, what responsibilities might that put on the instructors at an art school such as SAIC? Mary answers, “While, of course, I believe that I and other faculty who are committed to social change have a responsibility to creatively translate those politics into useful pedagogies, it is every generation’s responsibility to autonomously sort out what needs to be done, thought, challenged. We’re counting on you all to not just ‘keep on,’ but to enrich and complicate the mix.”

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