Jun 22, 2009

The Institute for Social Research

Just about this time last year I was deeply enmeshed with a group of artists called the Institute for Social Research. I'm remembering our time together with reverie.


The ISR grew out of a pedagogical initiative at CCA that aimed to rethink notions of "the commune" through collaborative art practice. Brian Conley, who was then the chair of graduate fine arts at CCA, invited the conceptual artist Christian Jankowski to the Bay Area, along with his 12 students from an art school in Stuttgart. The international students (as well as several of those from CCA) lived together for 90 days in a communal house on Ocean Beach and there made a tremendous amount of work that blurred boundaries of artist and audience, author and actor, cause and effect, individual and group, art and life.


The ISR produced numerous "projects" everyday. These projects were often organized by one artist, but required the group's involvement to complete, use, enact, or demonstrate the project. There was a dinner party during which everyone wore ear plugs, enjoying food for the sound it makes inside the head. There was a single breath passed from mouth to mouth, through the entire commune as it lined the Golden Gate Bridge. When street-scrounged couches were no longer desired for the group's living room, they were turned into a jacuzzi that served as the centerpiece for a debaucherous Halloween party. The artists slept for a night with their heads at the center of a circle to see if such close proximity would affect their dreams.
Some artists recorded in minutia, the workings of the house -- the decision-making processes, the household objects collected over time, the sleeping patterns, the money matters -- while others scoured the urban landscape in search of utopian leftovers. At one point during the semester, the artists ventured into the outer reaches of the Bay Area looking for examples of communalism. One found a commune in the naval shipyards while another found a commune in northern California amidst a group of Midwestern redneck refugees. Over and over, the ISR's approach to communalism, art-making, collaboration, and California was fresh and vital.


I met the group towards the end of their 90-day stint in San Francisco and was immediately enthralled. I was fascinated by the way they perceived the Bay Area and its hippie legacy. I was intrigued too by the way they made decisions, even conversation. Everything happened by consensus which was difficult given that more a dozen language were spoken by the group collectively. From the start I sensed their fascination with communication and miscommunication, happy slippages and poetic misreadings. Moreover I was captivated by the incredible spirit of the group. They immediately took me in, seduced me. I went to their house to give a lecture on Drop City and to learn about their project and ended up joining a jam session in the music room. I stomped out a rhythm on the floor while pianos and tambourines vibrated together in the dark.


A storm of magical events, a bunch of German art money and the ISR's enduring quest for the ultimate collaboration made possible a set of exhibitions and a massive catalog that were produced over the subsequent 9 months. It feels inaccurate to call myself the curator of these shows. Basically, I helped to organize a bunch of logistics and communications (particularly harrowing was the challenge to find free housing for 8 artists -- turned out to be 24! -- in the East Bay near public transportation for three weeks, but it came together beautifully). What happened during our exhibition-making time together was indescribable, yet left lasting impressions on all involved. Without going into too much detail, I should note a few basic ways that working with the ISR has contributed to my thinking about Red Legacy.

1) Curating a project like the ISR is not about directing or even about art. It's about creating opportunities for things to happen. Nothing goes very far without some level of facilitation, nor does anything happen in the face of too much planning or too many rules. I'm constantly learning about this delicate balance of control and freedom.

2) Most institutions have a hard time with on-site experimentation. It's hard to argue full freedom for artists, and even harder for institutions to follow through with letting this happen. Schools, underground gallery spaces, parties, and foreign soil are some great places to experiment; museums or public non-profits are not. My main job as the curator of these projects was to fight for the artists to have access, freedom, money, time, and respect.


3) Incredible things happen when groups of people are put together for extended periods of time. When a group loses track of the beginning and end of their time together, the middle becomes extremely potent. It's important to get lost in time, but to have a limited amount of time in which to allow oneself to get lost. It's also nice to have repeated periods of togetherness. I loved how the ISR had 90 days of uber-togetherness in San Francisco, six months of quasi-togetherness in disparate parts of the globe, 3 weeks of togetherness in the East Bay, a month apart, and 2 weeks more-or-less together in Stuttgart.

4) Limitations allow things to blossom. Some amount of struggle brings a group of people together. The ISR thrived in the face of their limits and on numerous levels they subverted poverty, language barriers, lack of private space with their innovative adaptations.

5) One of the most important things I did for the ISR, aside from providing occasional food, beer and shelter, was to be a sounding board for their collaboration. Most of my ideas were rejected or ignored (this was life under group-rule after all), but my ideas were material for the group to react against. I asked a lot of questions and made a ton of proposals, but never had the last word about anything. I have learned a lot about choosing battles.


6) As a curator working with a group like the ISR, it was imperative that I serve as some sort of translator between the sponsoring institutions and the artists, as well as between the audience and the presented work. Many people asked, "why is this art?" and although I have a personal aversion to this kind of conversation, it was really important to have an open exchange about the value of making and of doing.

7) Place has everything to do with potent collaboration. The foreign students thrived in San Francisco, because they were not subjected to their daily lives. The local students could not participate at the same level due to jobs, apartments, relationships, and classes. This is one of many instances when I've seen the power of physical removal in empowering a developing group process.

A blog is the not the proper venue to unload my tales and observations of this group. There is much I could say about the experience of working with the ISR and about their work itself. I'm in the process of writing a chapter about the ISR for a forth-coming anthology on California communes and I've written an essay in the ISR's 447-page catalog; more of my ISR-related ramblings can be found there.


The artists involved in the Institute for Social Research include: Michelle Blade, Luke Butler, Donna Chung, Dina Danish, Christina Empedocles, Martina Geiger-Gerlach, Patrick W. Gillespie, Kamil Goerlich, Robert Goerlich, Tanor Hudson, Jana Jacob, Anita Kapraljevic, Byung Chul Kim, Florian Klette, Paul Kramer, Travis Joseph Meinolf, Nicholas Meyer, Helena Rempel, Cristina Rodrigo, Rosa Rücker, Marco Schmitt, Ines Lilith Schreiner, Gareth Spor, Kestutis Svirnelis, Sara Thacher, Christoph Trendel, and Pablo Wendel.

"The Institute for Social Research and the Discovery of Art God" were a set of experimental exhibitions made possible by Ministry for Science, Research and Art, Baden-Württemberg; Rectorship of the State Academy of Fine Arts, Stuttgart; Friends of the State Academy of Fine Arts, Stuttgart; DAAD German Academic Exchange Service; California College of the Arts, San Francisco; Staatlichen Akademie der Bildenden Künste Stuttgart; Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart; The Richmond Art Center, Richmond, CA; The German Consulate of San Francisco; Lobot Gallery, Oakland and many more!

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