29 March 2012

Seemingly Innocuous Assignments That Will Lead to Improbable Calamities

Cautionary Notes for Teachers, Unfortunately Based on Personal* Experience

The following piece comes from Paper Monument’s new book, Draw It With Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment, now available for sale and much cheaper and arguably more instructive than art school.

Make something ugly

Some twisted genius will stumble upon the ultimate solution to this art school chestnut: when it’s their turn to be critiqued they’ll just stand up and destroy the work of one of their classmates. An administrative shitstorm will ensue. 

Make a work on paper that is either embarrassing or serves a confessional purpose

This assignment turns out to be appropriate only for grad students, who, unlike undergrads, can generally be trusted not to pin you against the crit wall and try to make out with you. Not that you’d be that comfortable getting publicly molested by any of your students, but it bears noting that the student who does this will inevitably be of the gender you’re appreciably less into making out with. Still beet-red fifteen minutes later, you will have to find some way to address the “work” in a group critique where nobody can stop laughing. Since the assignment was given in a works on paper class, you, at a total loss, will first ask how paper was in any way involved—to which the student will point out that the wall against which the performance took place was made of Homasote, technically a paper product. 

“The Five Obstructions”

Each member of the class is asked to bring in a successful work they’ve made previously. They then watch Lars von Trier’s The Five Obstructions as a group. After this screening each student has to sit silently and transcribe as their classmates shout out possible ways to “obstruct” that student’s previously successful works (as von Trier does to Jørgen Leth in the movie). Finally, they take the lists they’ve transcribed back to their studios and have two weeks to produce five obstructed remakes of their original, based on five of the suggestions. 

As above, you can give this to grad students. In the hands of BFA students, however, someone will find a way to reinterpret a champagne-colored abstraction as a performance in which they funnel an entire bottle of champagne in a matter of seconds and then immediately puke it back up into a garbage can. (You will have to explain to your department head that it happened too quickly for you to intervene.) Years later, when you email this former student to see if he can remember what assignment he did this in response to, his helpful answer will end with the line, “it was intended as a foil to the Saab painting.” 

Bring in a song you’re embarrassed you like / bring in images of past work you’re now embarrassed by

Here the opposite proves to be true: whatever marginal credibility you have as an authority figure with undergrads will prevent them from staging a revolt in response to this first-day-of-class, getting-to-know-you assignment. Grad students, on the other hand (especially if you’re not too much older than some of them), will demand that you participate, creating a situation where you’re all sitting around listening to an unforgivable Gin Blossoms song you taped off the radio in eighth grade while watching a slideshow of the weird-shaped canvas/wall drawing show you did with the Belgian gallery you haven’t heard from since. Squeezing your eyes shut hard as the song comes to its lame conclusion, you will wonder how anyone in the group of MFA students you’re supposed to work closely with for the next two years will ever take anything you say seriously. 

Indexical drawing (“index” in the sense of Peirce’s semiotics: a sign whose signifier and signified have a real and often physical relationship to one another prior to interpretation. Like, you might explain when introducing the assignment, smoke coming out of the window of a burning house, lipstick on a wine glass, or the Cage / Rauschenberg tire-track print made by a moving car)

You should have known better than to give this assignment again after the time a student with an obscure skin condition that makes even light scratches stand out in welts had a friend trace something across the surface of her back with a fingernail, and the whole class looked on while the words GRAD SCHOOL slowly appeared in raised skin surrounded by angry red marks. This time, nobody will admit to pinning the skidmarked undies to the wall. Thankfully they will disappear after the first break, sparing you and the class the indignity of having to critique them. Still, fuck. 

Détournement

Don’t forget how easy it is for them to find images of your work on the internet. 

Go on a field trip to Dia Beacon

The trip itself will be pleasant and uneventful. However, the following day, officials from the charter bus company will call your department head and allege that student behavior on the return drive involved alcohol consumption, the formation of an impromptu mobile drum circle, and verbal abuse of the driver. While these allegations will be persuasively denied by both the teaching assistant chaperoning the bus (who’s older and probably more responsible than you are) and the forty or so 22-year-old students present, you will nonetheless be censured for not being on the bus in emails that will be copied to a large part of the school’s faculty and administration. 

Anything related to Viennese Actionism

Do not mention it, in any class, ever. If a student brings it up, give them a patronizing laugh and “patiently” explain that the whole thing is an urban legend. Even if for some reason you have to admit that the movement actually happened, don’t allow any license for studio work to be made in response to it. This should probably be self-evident, but if you haven’t been teaching for that long you might forget exactly what 19-year-olds are capable of, and naively think it would be good for them to know what something genuinely shocking might look like. Years later, never quite the same, you will still be haunted by the things you saw that semester. 

Give a presentation on an artist of your choosing

Someone will pick Richard Prince, and focus on his early work. The student will do a good job, but when the dean comes in midway through the presentation to sit in on your class as part of the review process for pre-tenure faculty, there will be a very large image of Prince’s Spiritual America projected on the screen at the front of the room. Some of the students may find the reflex bad joke you make about your “history of child pornography seminar” amusing, but the person responsible for determining whether your contract gets renewed will not. 

Bring food to class

Someone will decide that everyone in the class would like to unknowingly eat pot muffins at 8 am on a Tuesday. You will have to wander around for the next four hours with a bunch of tripping students, trying to explain to those unfamiliar with the experience that “yes, it’s way more intense than smoking it” and “this will only last a couple of hours” and “no, there’s nothing wrong with your heart, just stop holding your breath.” 

One particularly innocent student, someone you suspect has never so much as taken a drag off a cigarette, will actually start doing the “dude, have you ever really looked at your hands?” thing that nobody ever does except in movies about hallucinogens made by people who have never taken hallucinogens. When you, concerned, ask how she’s feeling, she will pause for a long time before slowly looking up from her outstretched palms and thoughtfully replying, “I feel very . . . focused.” 

Figuring if you just handle this yourself you’re going to get fired for it, you will bring your entire class, stoned and giggling, to your department head. She will have no choice but to call the school’s public safety office, which will then apparently have no choice but to call the local police, who will threaten to charge the baker of the muffins with nine counts of felony poisoning. While you would be happy to see her get in some kind of trouble on the principle that everyone should have the right to decide themselves what drugs they want to do and when, the prospect of her having to do hard time seems a bit extreme and everyone involved is relieved when nobody shows up to arrest her. 

Later that afternoon you will have to endure a lengthy meeting with someone from the college’s “risk management” office. This official’s job description, enthusiasm for discharging his duties, and Men’s Wearhouse suit will all combine to make you bottomlessly sad. For the next hour he will run through the whole Aristotelian taxonomy of logical fallacies as he tries to shoulder you with responsibility for the situation in a transparent effort to minimize the school’s exposure to litigious parents. After he finally gives up and goes away, you will fall asleep in an uncomfortable chair in your office. When you wake up hours later, sweating, in the middle of the night, you will have missed your train back to New York. 

* The first one happened not to me but to someone I know. The rest are firsthand. Any resemblance to actual people, places, or events at the school at which I am presently employed and hope to pass tenure review soon is purely coincidental.

Image: Hermann Nitsch, 3. Aktion, Fest des psychophysischen Naturalismus, Wien, Perinetgasse 1, June 28, 1963. Photo: Ludwig Hoffenreich.

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