Saturday, May 13, 2006

School of the Art Institute, Chicago

“Soap and education are not as sudden as a massacre, but they are more deadly in the long run.”
Mark Twain ( The Perpetual Pessimist)

Electronic rites and rituals- School of the Art Institute

Is this storytelling in the digital age?
I’ve just signed up for a new module called Electronic Rites and Rituals and I walk in to the classroom to find it in total darkness except for a video projection of a fire on the floor and a silent expectant group of students sitting on the floor in a circle around this virtual fire.

We are asked to share information about ourselves, to reveal our ambitions. While the half a dozen of us from Europe and the Far East squirm with embarrassment we listen with astonishment as our North American colleagues sit there cross- legged , confident and articulate their dreams.
They know exactly where they are going, and what they need to do to achieve their dreams.

There follows a discussion on the way
technology is not only changing our lives and the way we operate as human beings but also in the kind of art work we produce and the way it is consumed.
We are urged to check out the web site of the MIT Media Lab.

Already I feel that technology is running my life and I am struggling to keep up not only with the software packages in the college but in the everyday living where everything seems to be reduced to a series of digital numbers. I am not alone in finding this brave new world so foreign.
A chance meeting with a middle aged Canadian artist here to do an MFA confirms its her impression too:
“I didn't expect Chicago to be so foreign. I feel I have to learn how to operate again in a city.”
I feel I have handed over responsibility for my life to a series of numbers.
I cannot get through a day without needing a bunch of electronic cards and to loose one is to be cast adrift from this electronic network.
If you are not hooked up to this digital world its the equivalent of being blind.

The college newspaper carries a series of interviews asking former students to write about their experiences of SAIC. One describes it as a “boot camp”.
He says it’s great if you have a clear vision and you know where you are going , then you will receive all the help and encouragement you want to fulfil your dreams. But for those who are still trying to find themselves SAIC can be a disconcerting experience.
It is not for the weak of spirits and I wonder, not for the first time, how on earth I am going to survive....
Meanwhile students find all kinds of methods to help pay their way through college.
Some female students sell their eggs to infertile women. Its a risky business and requires them to take large doses of hormones to stimulate growth. But the money is good, in excess of 20,000 dollars and that goes some way towards college fees.
So they take the risk.

One enterprising Hispanic poet
got a job looking after the wardrobe of an ultra rich Chicago family in order to pay her way through post grad college.
Now she’s written about it in the local paper.
She says the “walk in wardrobes” were bigger than the average American apartment, and her employer had “advisers” , personal consultants , flown in regularly from Paris to check her wardrobe was not only up to date with the latest designer clothes but that she was also wearing the right accessories to match too.
The poets job was to ensure that all the clothes, shoes and handbags were kept in immaculate condition. Other household staff took care of cooking, cleaning and shopping. Well, it’s certainly beats working in Macdonalds.

Digesting this new found culture both inside and outside the college is a 24/7 job.
There’s so much on offer both inside the college and in the city that one is literally swamped for choice. Every minute of every day one has a choice of lectures, seminars, discussions, concerts, conferences, films, and most of it free too.
like the Writers Conference for those working on the Net. The basic advise was:
“ Get sex in the first paragraph!” and don’t write more than 500 words because that’s about as much as people are prepared to read on-screen at one go.
Afterwards I drift into Borders and decide to seek out the novel “ Going to the Sun” written by my tutor, James McManus in the Writing Class.
There’s only two copies in the shop and the assistant has some difficulty finding them. The book after all was published some four years ago.I thank him and find a chair , sit down to read and open the book at random.
My jaw drops.
“We made love 14 time. I counted.” And much more in a similar vein. All about going to Alaska. What on earth? He's written a homoerotic novel!
It’s totally at odds with the man who harangues us once a week, who goes into a rant over sloppy writing.
I've got the sex wrong. Because he’s written it in the first person I had assumed it was from a male perspective. For the purpose of the book he's female. No wonder the account of lovemaking had a strange ring to it.
Later I ask him about the gender change. Why had he chosen to write it in the first person narrative from a female perspective?
“The majority of readers of fiction are women. They want to identify with the protagonist.”

The Making of a Contemporary Artist
“ The world is made of people who never quite get into the first team and who just miss the prizes at the flower show.”
(The Face of Violence) J. Bronowski

Art today is all about giving people experiences, and making them think about things they may never have thought about before. Well this moment of epiphany occurred to me after visiting Phoebe’s exhibition in Gallery X, the one allocated to student work run by the School of the Art Institute.
Our tutor takes us along to see her work. Everyone, including the tutor, is impressed with the speed at which Phoebe has got her artistic act together. here she is in first semester with her own exhibition! while the rest of us are struggling to complete projects on time.
The work consists of two projections, the one of a woman falling down and the other of a woman getting up.
We stare at them in polite silence secretly wondering : is this it?
One guy asks:
“What is the work about?
Phoebe shrugs:”I want viewers to take from it what they want.”
A few of us exchange uneasy glances: is this a cop out?
Meanwhile our tutor, asks in a solicitous tone:

“ Are you able yet to articulate what your work is about?”
“No” replies Phoebe sitting confident and cross legged on the floor.
Now her work is being considered, along with all other current exhibitions, for selection into an international exhibition on cutting edge art . We marvel at Phoebe’s insouciance and her naked ambition.

Throughout the campus there are notice boards giving regular updates on “incidents” involving students . I read them every day with a certain morbid fascination.
Most alarming are the number of assaults that have taken place in broad daylight, or very early evening , say six o clock, involving being grabbed from behind, with a knife at the throat demanding money.

Today a new one has appeared that is particularly gruesome. A 19 year old girl on crutches was getting out of a taxi near Columbia University at 9 o’clock in the evening when she was grabbed, taken up a back street and raped.

We are advised to be on our guard all the time, to be streetwise, not to travel late on the El.
And there’s an unspoken rule too: if you use public transport make yourself as inconspicuous as possible.
Meanwhile there’s plenty of black humour around. Rosie, the giddy blonde from Nebraska in our digital photograph class, works in a bar and she came into class full of last nights macabre exploits to celebrate Halloween.
“Two men came in dressed as Payne Stewart.”
“Ugh! that’s sick.” says Carol. “His corpse is not even cold.”
Only a few days before golfer Payne Stewart's private Lear jet became de-pressured in flight killing all the passengers and crew and the plane flew for four hours before crashing.
Now men are wandering around Chicago dressed as Payne Stewart.
“I think it’s sick.”
For once we all agree.


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