In the first of a two-part recount, Pittsburgh-based artist Jon Rubin chronicles the development of his practice, starting from his time as a graduate student studying under Suzanne Lacy at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco through to the creation and demise of The Independent School of Art, the quasi-institution he ran from 2005 to 2007 in the Bay area. Through this narrative, Rubin’s thoughts on and engagement with concerns across the field of social practice becomes clear through the descriptions of the odd biographies, institutional models, transparent artist economies, and everyday performances he directs through his projects. — Chelsea Haines
I went to graduate school at the California College of Arts and Crafts (1991-93) while Suzanne Lacy was teaching there and she had a powerful presence on campus. I studied with her and Larry Sultan, who was my mentor and later collaborator as well. At the time, I was really interested in exploring the flexible nature of telling true stories and Larry was really informative about that. He was publishing a book about his parents, called Pictures from Home, and while it seemed like a kind of biographical account of his family it was really a transparent projection of his own fears and desires. The book had several quotes from his parents about how they felt – Larry was manipulating and staging their identities and they didn’t feel at all like the people that were depicted in the photographs. Obviously, including their contradictions to his images created a more complex way to look at portraiture and biography. Larry and I had a lot of talks about the ethics of staging what seemed like true stories, and watching him and Suzanne and seeing how highly orchestrated their projects was actually very liberating and exciting to me at the time.
I also met Harrell Fletcher, who was in the graduate program as well. We started to share similar interests and influences, and so kind of accidentally developed a collaborative practice that extended for about six or seven years beyond school. One of the first projects we did was created a project called Gallery HERE that only showed work we made about people who lived in the neighborhood directly around the gallery space. We were interested in this really tight loop of subject and audience and we created tons of shows, many of them abject failures, but learned more in the year and a half of running this project than in all of our time in grad school. We were cobbling together a practice by playfully interrogating the things that were right in front of us. We had a strong belief that there were no “important” places or people, that wherever we found ourselves was the spot to be, and whoever we met was a perfect subject for an exhibition.
At that time some people were calling us “community artists,” as terms like social practice, relational aesthetics, and whatnot just didn’t exist. Frankly, the term seemed to imply artists who weren’t really serious about being artists but were performing some sort of usually ineffectual community service. It just felt like a simplified category that really had little to do with our core interests at the time, which was experimenting with how many ways you can construct true stories in the public. Several years later, Suzanne Lacy came out with Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art which included her ideas of how artists can give voice to often underserved populations in order to exert forms of agency and social change. Although I was interested in this broader definition created through that book, it was not where I felt my motivation was coming from. As far as I was concerned there really were no right or wrong subjects or audiences. I was more into what occurred when my ideas met with someone else’s life, or the preexisting context of a place. I was always looking for the works to tell stories that seem like they just might not be true. For example, I did a project here in Pittsburgh where I creating a radio station that just plays the sound of an extinct bird. It’s in a town where the industry is extinct and all the homes are extinct, so there’s a social reason for it, but there’s also a kind of very deadpan story there that seems slightly implausible— “did you hear about this radio station that only plays the sounds of this extinct bird?” It has an attitude that is funny to me. Sometimes funny is sad, or poetic, or just nicely wrong. You know, like that’s not the right thing to do or say, and I think that’s a powerful position for an artwork.
So, I spent a lot of time in my early work, looking at individuals—almost like biographies or portraits, but always sort of feeling out some in-between space where someone’s identity and my own ideas and fantasies met. One project Harrell and I did was about a 10 year old boy who wore a video helmet on his head and recorded every aspect of his life for three weeks. In the end we had an exhibition in his hometown that presented small, beautiful, inconsequential moments from those three weeks played in very slow motion. We spent a week pouring through all of the footage and in essence what we presented was really our first person account culled from his first person perception. Even though it might have appeared at first to be his perspective in an almost literal way, there were many clues to how we were personally curating our own story through his brain.
I’ve never really liked performance art but I’ve always been obsessed with how we’re performing all the time anyway, throughout our daily lives. Anyway, I’ve been paying attention to this more and more in group behavior—how our individual fantasy life gets magnified when we multiply it within a like-minded group. Astria Suparak and I just put together an exhibition about Pittsburgh Steelers fans that focused on this. There is a massive phenomenon in this city in which fans take the branded identity of the team and remix it into something strangely personal, and then how that binds them together in this larger force of culture that permeates the entire city. I mean this is nothing new – obsessed fandom – but it is unique how cross-demographic it is in this city, and how the byproducts of this obsession leak into almost all elements of the city’s collective identity. It’s equally disturbing and fascinating to see all of the weird manifestations that come from this. Whether its Steelers fans, reenactment societies, politicians, or art students—performance often doesn’t get any better than what we are already doing. The danger occurs when we take ourselves and our fantasies too seriously, and these fantasies solidify into something that seems like a social condition that is divorced from our agency. It goes on with or without us.
That was part of what I was trying to examine with The Independent School of Art—that feeling where all involved are constantly reminded that we are just making this whole thing up. There was no money, no accreditation, no buildingt—nothing. If we didn’t show up we just didn’t exist. This was around 2005 and I was teaching as an adjunct at a bunch of different schools, feeling there was less and less difference between my labor as a teacher and my labor as an artist, except that my teaching was more or less invisible. I guess I just wanted to find a way to bring the two together and at the time the best strategy for looking at the collective labor of teaching and learning as an aesthetic act was to divorce the whole thing from any institutional affiliation or trappings. I mean, most schools promote this idea of edifice both conceptually and architecturally and often this leads to a type of participatory lethargy where the students and teachers feel their presence and production have little impact on the institutions present or future.
At one point, I was teaching a class at the San Francisco Art Institute and I asked my class— I think some kids showed up late to class and there was some apathy in the room—I asked if you didn’t pay tuition and I didn’t have this job, would we still show up each week? And if you took away all of the tuition, degrees, classes, buildings, etc. and we still showed up, would the nature of this experience be different? Would it change the quality of the educational process? I decided right then that I would do it, but of course I had no idea how haphazardly and how deeply it would develop over time.
In order for the ISA to maintain its tenuous existence, all involved had to temporarily suspend their disbelief and agree that their presence and participation were the only factors that defined the school’s identity. For a moment the institution is real and when all of the students leave it disappears. Making very explicit that fantasy, and then carrying on nonetheless, is something both comedic and poetic to me. I think it goes back to that idea of creating something real in the world that seems like it might not be true.
When I started the ISA, I was conscious that I wanted it to be completely site-less, and started thinking more and more about how architecture defines learning. Especially in an urban environment, how you relate to architectural space often defines the majority of your relationships and experiences. Additionally, institutional architecture, whether it’s the office you go to work in, the school you study in, or the studio you make your work in, defines your production for you, and this certainly seems like an idea that is antithetical to the notion of an artistic training where the student is encouraged to create their own systems and realities (although it is debatable if that is the goal of most art schools). I wanted to remove physical architecture so the imprint of each individual could be magnified into a social architecture that defined the structure of our made-up “institution.”
So, the first question every week was where do we meet? And that was always a really interesting question to think about pedagogically and to negotiate practically. It was also an important way to think about in a city like San Francisco, which is so expensive. We ended up all over the map: at bars, on the beach, on buses, people’s apartments, empty classrooms in other schools, and even in galleries and museums (which were great because they are often practically empty most the time). This allowed us to always start with the question of how do we live and make space for ourselves in the world as artists.
Unlike now, there really weren’t many artist-driven pedagogical projects at the time, but I did look at some older art-related models like Beuys’ Free University and Black Mountain College—a more instructive model. I really wanted the school to be more than a poetic conceit or a theoretical school. I think a formative part of my thinking about the ISA was that my mother was a teacher and I was a student in “alternative” schools in the 70s. I saw firsthand the possibilities and disasters of post-60s utopian educational model—where often great ideas were ruined by too many chefs in the kitchen.
I had been in the Bay Area for over a decade and knew a lot of people and taught in a lot of places. It was all word of mouth that I was starting a school and initially we had 25 people sign up, which was amazing but more than I expected. I invited another artist, Bob Linder who was teaching at the Art Institute at the time, to split the school in half. All of a sudden I was running an institution as opposed to something much smaller and intimate so I shrunk it after that. We had classes and students would lead them—they would determine when we met, where we met, and what we would read or talk about and how their work would be contextualized within that framework—simple stuff really at first.
One of the first things a new student would have to do was earn a $100 in a week without getting a job. It could look like a preexisting job, but it had to be of their own creation. It usually hovered between providing a product, service or models of begging, which I guess could be read as a type of service. What this did was make their relationship to audience and public entirely explicit. I also wanted to remove aesthetic parameters so they were just paying attention to if people cared or not about what they were offering in a cut-and-dry way. Students would start off with these “creative” ideas and I would say, “I do not care how interesting your idea is. Make the money.” It forced them into a whole other reality—outside the conjecture of how wonderful their notions where and into direct confrontation with what is of collective value to on a daily basis to most people. It was a very quick way of introducing them to how their work exists within complex systems of exchange. It’s a very different experience than putting up work for critique in a classroom where everyone is obligated to look at it and no one is concerned with what will happen to the work once the class is over.
Slowly we evolved into something where we took on ideas of what a school was and played with them. The focus of the school became the school itself. We wanted to present a lecture series, but re-think the defaults of such an idea. So we started with something called the Dinner Guest Lecture, which was somewhere between having great dinner guests and a guest lecture. In the end, the guests were as important as the speakers. Usually we would invite a speaker who dealt with ideas of autonomy, like Simon Stadler talking about Archigram or Megan and Rick Prelinger discussing their own public library. Then we would find a space and the students would cook and we would invite the most interesting guests we could find to come to the lecture and eat with us. It was always a roughly 50/50 split between students and the public. The public guests were always as carefully curated as the speaker. One of the problems with art education is that it’s so insular—we sit in a room and we talk theoretically about how the world functions with the same people over and over, so the idea was that the students had to sit next to really interesting people from the public who they might not normally meet.
We did this all relatively cheaply, but ingeniously. My work, and the work of any visitor, was paid for through barter with the students, otherwise the school was free. The economics of every scenario we were involved in were really important practically and pedagogically. Few students in a university ever wonder where their tuition specifically goes or for that matter where the money comes from in the first place. Loans are abstract until you have to pay them back. Grants are tied to processes and donors you’ll never know much about. I wanted to make sure we were always having a conversation about how do we survive, how do we make money, do we need to do the later in order for the former to occur, if not then what are the options?
We had another idea that started from a conversation about how none of us will ever own the works we study and how art school encourages copying from the “masters” as a very traditional methodology for understanding their technique, but rarely looks into the economic system that is also created by these works. So we created something called the Black Market Auction where our students and another 80 invited artists made knock-offs of famous artworks and then sold them in an attempt to make them available to people like us who could never afford them otherwise. We also used this system to insert over a hundred forgeries into the art market. In fact, a year later someone sent me a link where a Damien Hirst knock-off from the auction that sold for $700 was put on Ebay for $10,000. Funny enough, the seller even noted that it was a knock off from our school. What became instructional was how a system can be manipulated that was more than just the system of object making—how you, as young artists, can have some agency immediately although parasitically.
After about a year-and-a-half, the school started strange status in the city where people thought I was operating some sort of secret cult. Of course, what was happening was mostly us talking in a room in the same banal way any group of students and teachers do. In response, I decided to create a public presentation of our inner workings. Instead of creating a school catalog or something we decided to put on a play. We recorded one of our meetings and converted it into a script and then we hired actors to perform that meeting verbatim in a community playhouse. On the one hand, we were making a big deal about ourselves and, on the other, it was quite awkward and boring, which was probably closest to the truth.
Basically, by the end we shifted from a student project model to an institution as project model. We gave out a grant, started a publication, had some illicit money making schemes—you know all the things a real institution is supposed to do. It was really an amazing amount of work and fun to do.
I left the project when I got this job at Carnegie Mellon University in 2007. We had a one-year-old and working as an adjunct just wasn’t going to cut it for long in the Bay Area. At that time, there were a couple of students who kept the ISA going, but it slowly dissolved. I think it was perfectly fine that it faded out, and I wish the same thing now for some art departments and universities. It would be good if they had a stamped expiration date. I think most institutions should be more tenuous—the more tenuous they are the more they acknowledge their own fictions.
Ironically, right after I left the Bay Area I was invited by Dominic Wilsdon, who is the curator of education and public programs at SFMOMA, to develop another education project, this time working with Stanford. I came up with a concept that I was super excited about and would still like to do one day but unfortunately it never got off the ground. It was to be a think tank about a think tank. It was going to be called The Bastard Academy and it was going to be a research center dedicated exclusively to the study of the Hoover Institution (a legendary right-wing public policy think tank located on the Stanford campus). The Bastard Academy was going to be sited for one year adjacent to the Hoover Institution in a temporary structure that hosted meetings, presentations and research distribution. The goal was to contemplate the insidious role of the Hoover both on campus and in the world. Part of the inspiration came from Rodin’s Thinker, located on Stanford’s campus, which is the figurative embodiment of the poet/philosopher which happens to sit next to his equally famous piece the Gates of Hell. But unlike Rodin’s sculpture, the Bastard Academy was not figurative (or abstract), but literal, designed to function as a platform for thinking about thinking—the fundamental labor of the philosopher. Strangely, the Hoover is not only a semi-secretive right-wing public policy production center, but also an open federal archive with the largest collection of post WWII leftist propaganda in the country. So one of the goals was for each Bastard Academy fellow to publish their research in the form of a poster, which, because of the nature of its focus on the Hoover itself, would be sure to be welcome in the Hoover’s own archives.