This is the third installment in a four-part series of conversations between peer artists regarding their approaches to the idea of “medium.” Here, Sean Dockray and Hugo Hopping discuss systems of collaboration and pedagogy in contemporary practice and institutions. Both artists are deeply invested in building communities through engaging artists in discussion about practice, context, and the process of exhibition, and the effects of pedagogy and technology on social exchange.
Sean Dockray studied architecture in college and was a member of the Institute for Advanced Architecture in New York. He was never focused on building, however. He is interested in studying networks of people and things, and the way that they operate and are influenced by technology.
Dockray completed his MFA at the Design | Media Arts department at UCLA in 2005. While at UCLA, he became involved with TELIC, a space in Chinatown that hosts exhibitions, performances, screenings, discussions, and all kinds of things with an aim to engage multiple publics in dialogue with contemporary art, media, and architecture. Dockray is Curatorial Director of TELIC Arts Exchange, which he runs with his partner, Executive Director Fiona Whitton. In contrast to the standard white cube, TELIC is a black box—like a stage—making literal its desire to be a place of active, performative engagement with new media and culture. Dockray also teaches at UCLA and UCSD.
Hugo Hopping is based in Los Angeles. He was born in Mexico D.F., Mexico in 1974. Since 1985, he has lived between Los Angeles and Mexico City. He completed his MFA at CalArts in 2005. In 2004, Hopping founded ESL | Esthetics as a Second Language with Mario Garcia Torres and Nate Harrison. ESL was a migratory series of one-day exhibitions and events, funded by donations from other artists (such as Sam Durant, Raymond Pettibon, and Dorit Cypis). Exhibiting artists consisted of local and international artists including Allan Sekula, Deimantas Narkevicius, Ruben Ochoa, Patterson Beckwith, Rainer Ganahl, and Dee Williams. The aim of ESL was to create a stage for discussion of socially motivated work. Hopping is presently an artist-inresidence at Krabbesholm Højskole, Kunst Arkitektur, Design, in Skive, Denmark.
Dockray and Whitton did a project at ESL in early 2006 and since then, the three have been in dialog. Hopping is now on the programming committee at TELIC. The following exchange took place over the Internet and it reads as part of a larger whole; its loose structure reflects a conversation still in process.
Sean Dockray: I’ll begin by sharing an email that I recently received from Art Center. It was apparently sent because at one time I considered applying to their Critical Theory program. We’ve spoken on various occasions about the life cycle of cultural institutions, so I wonder what you make of this.
Dear Prospective Student:
In the past you have inquired about the Art Theory and Criticism program at Art Center. Since you have shown this interest, I wanted you to be aware that we have discontinued this particular program. Critical thinking and theory will still be a significant [sic] part of the art and design education at Art Center and will show up in courses throughout our curriculum. However, we have made the decision to expend our resources and energies in the service of other graduate programs that are clearly aligned with the College’s educational mission. We are sorry to disappoint you, and do hope that you will contact us should any of Art Center’s other degree programs be of interest.
With best regards–
Vice President, Admissions
Hugo Hopping: I don’t know exactly what motivated Art Center to “discontinue” this program but it seems responsible and intelligent to alert prospective students when a program has been dissolved within an institution. The cause of dissolution could be under-enrollment, a consolidation of resources to accommodate financial downturns, or an economically conservative measure to survive them. At small private colleges this is often the case, and if this mortgage crisis continues, expect further reorganization and downsizing. On the other hand, it sucks when universities dissolve entire departments just to get rid of tenured professors, such as the closure of the cultural studies program at Birmingham University back in 2002. Curiously, students of the department at Birmingham found a computer-typed notice tacked to a door of the building one morning in July that read: “This department has been cancelled. Nothing else matters.”
SD: As a point of contrast, think about the decision by Whitney ISP [Whitney Museum Independent Study Program] in the early ‘80s to move the art history and studio programs into the same space. In this case, collapsing the distance between theory and practice transformed the institution in an incredibly productive way. Art Center, on the other hand, says that critical thinking and theory will still “show up” in other courses, which gives me the image of dust balls in the corners. I find the letter discouraging. Here’s an opportunity to radically transform arts education, to breathe new life into theory and criticism, not to mention contemporary practice, but instead theory is just being swept under the rug. Such inauspicious conclusions.
Not a lot of programs or institutions have an endpoint at their beginning. They go into it with an open-ended commitment, like creating a country. No country (that I know about) has a termination date established in its constitution. Instead they stake out some territory, defend it, and maybe get some more. They create their system of governance, or copy another one, and generally try to keep it all going forever, with minor revisions along the way. Foundations explicitly reinforce this ideology by giving operations money specifically to ensure nonprofit institutions will be around in the years to come. In this context, the “end” is usually a matter of happenstance: the money runs out, interest dries up, the people involved get a better opportunity, or something.
HH: Institutions and programs have life cycles. But often plenty of PR money is spent selling the program to the public, while almost no money or time is spent addressing the issues that bring these programs to an end. Sometimes, they simply evaporate from the cultural landscape. It is crucial to build relations with the public to understand and participate in both the beginning and ending of an institution.
I don’t advocate a “politically correct” approach to closing down departments, but a radical sincerity with the public, where the politics that lead to closure are discussed and sanctioned within/without the institution. To participants this might mean that they don’t have to grieve privately for the demise of programs or be sidelined by a sense of loss. When they are uninformed of the motivations for closure, it interrupts the mechanisms of participation that drive the initiatives and, for that matter, it damages the reputation of the organizers. It seems logical not to reproduce in the cultural sector the colossal erasure that you see in Los Angeles promoted by speculative architecture. Remember the erasure of venues such as Temporary Contemporary [now the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA], Macondo, Regeneracion, and LACMA Lab?
SD: From your perspective, then, it’s a matter of transparency and ethics. The public, or the audience of an institution, ought to be involved and informed not simply in the course of the normal programming, but in its demise as well. The obverse is that the ending is seen from further in the past, that it’s planned or rationally considered. So many projects, collaborations, programs, and institutions have such a clear point of departure, with very little sense of a destination. Two counter-examples, close to home, might be Champion Fine Art or your own ESL, both with pre-defined lifespans. Obviously, I’m critical of the tendency to keep something going forever, or as long as possible. Eventually a point is reached where passion becomes inertia and an institution loses its reason for existing, merely existing to exist.
HH: There is an obligation to the public to be open to ending programming, rather than keeping up appearances and continuing to inhale enough cash just to keep afloat. Institutional stagnation (fostered by the need for survival in an increasingly privatized cultural sector) creates limitations in programming. Bogged down in models of speculation over-planning, they suffocate upcoming institutions that would provide better programming. I don’t see anything unethical in outsourcing to the thriving project spaces in Los Angeles, rather than taking more funding and producing endless redundancy.
For example, I know TELIC has struggled for survival. Although there is community desire to keep it going, TELIC could become a source of programming to the big boys such as MOCA or LACMA, and thereby introduce conditions, situations, or experiences not usually available to these institutions.
SD: We very nearly had abrupt crash endings at TELIC on several occasions. This was always related to money. We have focused on participatory, time-based work: installations, video, performance, discussions, interactive sculptures, sound, or combinations of these. Most is difficult to collect and challenging to install and this is one reason for bigger institutions to be apprehensive about this kind of programming. “Outsourcing” could operate in this context, especially considering there are few venues for this type of work to be seen consistently in Los Angeles, while so much of it is produced here through the many schools and spin-offs from the culture industry.
HH: For another example, look at Eat the Market, Sam Durant’s contribution to the Consider This exhibition at LACMA Lab (before the Lab’s evaporation). Sam invited ART2102, Preserving America’s Cultural Heritage, ESL, LTTR, Orchard, and Estacion Tijuana to program individual, 3-week exhibitions in a gallery at LACMA Lab. Eat the Market was a clear example of outsourced programming, which diversified the exhibition as a whole and introduced some of the best recent programming at LACMA.
SD: We can also think about institutions in terms of duration, whether they are MOCA or LACMA or the Kitchen or the Vienna Secession. Maybe there’s something admirable about those immortal institutions, about their stubborn continuity—of the promise of indefinite commitment, which is a little like being in love.
HH: Then the break-up.
SD: Is that what felt so strange at the final LACMA Lab event?
HH: I am sure that is one strong reason why it felt strange. At the start, many people weren’t aware that LACMA Lab was closing, including me. Very little was discussed about Eat the Market. The event was overtaken by questions about the closing. I felt like the French foreign-travel student who suddenly finds out his host parents are getting a divorce. It was confusing and a little sad.
SD: The concept of “break-up” makes sense in terms of Art Center’s Art Theory and Criticism program because the program is apparently being broken up into little pieces and scattered through the college. At face value, I’m ambivalent about the loss of the program. On one hand, critical thinking and theory are already institutions within the academy and seem increasingly arcane, so it’s exciting that there’s some action and conflict. On the other hand, there’s a movement in architecture with often problematic politics (not at all specific to architecture) called the “post-critical,” which, to put it reductively, privileges making over thought. Although post-critical architecture opposes the academy, it does so largely from within the framework of the academy. You and I have talked before about projects that exist outside of educational institutions but take up some of the work or goals of those institutions.
HH: Yes, we also share an interest in alternative cultural programming, independent and liberalized from institutional confines. We are part of a community that seeks critical and discursive forums. But there is little discussion of how we should network these energies, to put them into distribution to compete with and challenge established institutions.
SD: I’d agree the discourse around how we organize ourselves lacks depth and history of discussion about other forms of cultural production. We implicitly understand alternative spaces as places where we can experiment with new forms of collectivity and experience, but sometimes they seem more like farm teams for larger institutions. I like the sound of “networking these energies” though. Can you explain what you mean?
HH: I would argue art theory, critical theory, and criticism are not in the domain of academic and publishing institutions anymore. Those who continue to pursue them through these institutions do so because of their relationship with the established market. Though we can’t ignore their relationship with the market, independent programs, like your own AAAARG.ORG, generate agendas for cultural programming that are rich in content with the same referential and quotable structure as academia. It is very easy to download Lev Manovich’s doctoral thesis, “The Engineering of Vision from Constructivism to Computers”1 or a curriculum from the University of Barcelona that aims to explore new aesthetic and narrative maps.2 Any auto-didactic end-user, with no ties to academia, could do anything with these documents. That is very exciting.
Now there is so much flexibility in educational content and new pedagogical forms are being created to deal with the wave of information that floods the Internet. For example, the European Graduate School3 and its Mexico City cousin 17: Instituto de Studios Críticos4 both offer thorough education at a fraction of what the Art Center program costs. Or you can pay nothing at the Copenhagen Free University and circumvent capitalistic models marketing knowledge altogether.5
SD: One motivation in creating AAAARG.ORG (a collaboration with Aaron Forrest) was to invite many different people that I work with, teach, or admire to share something with one another. Literally, people share theory and criticism texts. In popular culture, when people trade movies and music they’re usually acting on a passion for something they’re uploading or downloading. Why not foster the same thing for theory? Beyond that, I wanted promiscuity amongst these different people and disciplines (artists, architects, curators, students, writers, computer programmers) so they become aware of, curious about, and maybe even seduced by others’ projects or agendas. Ultimately, it is an experiment in seeing how the practice of file-sharing might result in critical discourse outside an institutional framework.
HH: I admit I am co-opting AAAARG.ORG as the reader for an alternative graduate school that starts next year. I call it Free MFA. It will be, put bluntly, an initiative that highlights this passion for self-education that you mention, and aims to locate or produce a new auto-didactic impulse. It will be an independent and politically driven aesthetic think tank. It will also inquire into the politics of MFA programs and the place of the artist in contemporary art and practice. It will run for only 6 months. I have assigned the admissions process to young artists who run a project called Satellite Group. We have received interest and commitments so far through word of mouth, from students and teachers who want to participate. And yes—it will be completely free!
SD: This recent propagation of artist-initiated schools is exciting. The Bauhaus and Black Mountain College and, more locally, SCI-Arc (which was originally called The New School) have partially paved the way for more contemporary projects, like unitednationsplaza, The Mountain School, École Temporaire, University of Openness, or viral presentation-concepts like Dorkbot and Pecha Kucha. Jacques Rancière’s “Emancipated Spectator” lecture has found an attentive audience in the art world and not long ago Frances Stark organized the symposium On the Future of Art School at USC.
We actually have an initiative at TELIC called the Public School that begins in January. The premise is quite simple. First, anybody can propose a class they want to take or teach; second, anybody can sign up and say “I’d like to take that hypothetical class”; and finally, when an appropriate number of people sign up, we will find a teacher (if necessary) and offer the class. Even though it hasn’t started yet, I’m already excited by the prospect of classes that won’t happen! I hope after a while we’ll find the seeds for a new kind of academy for cultural production in the Public School and its failures. I think the indeterminacy is interesting—seeing what consequences or ideas develop out of some system.
It is fair to say we both argue that “alternative spaces”—whether they’re institutions, schools, websites, galleries, collaborations, or networks— could be considered in terms of medium.
HH: I think about how one can further a theoretical-political approach through an alternative space system—its programming, its participants, and the public with which it interfaces. It could be said already-at-use alternative spaces and their networks are a medium. In this regard, collaboration is the medium we have in common. Pluralistic and accessible on the surface, alternative spaces are largely safe, conservative cultural formations, but the context is not so familiar—a global cultural apparatus made of increased travel, art fairs, temporary academic positions, magazines, and so on. Through this context, high density traffic becomes available that can displace the conservative form and nurture other perspectives.
Networks can be expressed in phenomenological terms, but they can also be implemented into praxis. If approached as constellate satellites of complex ideas, transponders that send/receive through this medium (the collaboration between subjects, objects, members, participants and their programming), a redrafting of ethics and aesthetics is produced by collaboration. Collaboration is the medium whose product is knowledge, so what is there to lose?
SD: This idea of “constellation” brings to mind Michel Serres’ “quasi-object” in his book The Parasite.6 The way I understand it is that, because of its context, the quasi-object acquires a kind of agency and produces collectivity in the process. Although Serres calls it a quasi-object, it ultimately is the prop in a game. The logic of play has infiltrated our culture through the market and soured my taste for it—fun, individualism, the blurring of art and life—all these things that I suppose were important to people in the ‘60s now seem co-opted by customized products, user-centered design (the “I-everything”), experiences, and consumption as a form of production. Or what Deleuze writes about in “Postscript on Societies of Control,” where “surfing” is our paradigmatic activity. I’m attracted to Serres’ theorization of the quasi-object because it seems like a useful descriptive and productive tool for today. He gives the example of the soccer ball: it’s not simply that the player kicks the ball. Rather, the ball, attracted by goals at either end of the field, animates the players! When it moves, the players move in response, their roles shifting depending on their position in relation to the ball and each other. If architects began to think of quasi-architecture, we would see fewer building-object renderings that have people Photoshopped into them as an afterthought. Architects might abandon buildings altogether and think about relations, groups, events, and so on. In the same spirit as the “constellations” you’ve just mentioned, they could work at 1:1 scale, escaping the traditional alienation between drawing and building.
But I’d like to go back to your call for developing an approach to the alternative space system. A few years ago, I collaborated with Tom Pilla and Fiona Whitton on a two-hour architectural radio program that aired once a month and ran for 20 shows. The July 2003 show was called “Institutions 1.” in which we conducted interviews as the beginning of an exploration of the geography of alternative institutions in Los Angeles, in architectural terms. A year later, Fritz Haeg brought alternative organizations together for one of his Sundown Salons and since then Art 2102 has developed the conversation.
With the radio show, we tried to initiate an audio archive of organizations, getting them to open up about how they worked so their experiences might become tools for future organizations. Finally, we were interested in the relationship between individual and group: how these groups can be treated as a kind of architecture by virtue of the way that they explicitly or implicitly formalize social relations in order to create a kind of enclosure—the group. It was apparent that the group wasn’t simply a thing (or a “sum of its parts”), but rather a performance. Perhaps this is most evident by listening to the way the representatives adopt the pronoun “we.” When does the “I” become a “we”? What actions can the “we” perform?
You’ve made me think about how the “I” and the “we” can be both the individual and the organization I’m a part of, but it can also be the organization and the networks it is a part of. I’m interested in how you see ESL within these networks.
HH: To further the notion of collaboration as a conceptual practice, I seek through my own practice models to begin an investigation into displacing the subjectivity of the artist, as an institution in itself. ESL, a project I share with Harrison and Garcia Torres, has allowed me to experiment with this displacement.
ESL asked participating artists to slow their aesthetic process in order to form a discursive space. We investigated our notion of peer review with artists who are working in politics, or better, are working politically, through their aesthetic practice. We began presenting events once a month, organized as a volume (10 artists doing 10 one-day projects over 10 months).
In the beginning, we had only a little money pooled together, coupled with the desire to work with individuals who shared our interests as artists. We have held a number of events in which each artist was engaged by three other artists in conversation. It has led to greater insight into each practice for everyone involved—ESL, the artist and the audience.
A central question is: How well do you know your contemporaries? This is a huge part of how I see ESL within these other networks. ESL gives us access to practices not usually supported in the L.A. gallery scene. It has received support from other artists outside our network; some approached us with petitions to participate in future events. In April, the alternative space SITE Gallery in Düsseldorf, Germany, generously invited us to DC: Düsseldorf Contemporary Art Fair where we won an award for presenting (exporting) artists that have little visibility in the U.S. and Europe.
The ESL model of self-organization is only made possible because of the intellectual/artistic energy that results from belief in our programming. Our audience comprises the quasi-nomadic, bourgeoning class of creative individuals that come to Los Angeles or live here.
ESL works by networking with international, national, and local artists who constantly move through Los Angeles. That it became this pursuit, albeit at an intimate level, is indicative of subjective and cultural formations brought about by globalization. ESL programming fills a part of the cultural gaps that exist throughout L.A. Larger institutions such as LACMA or MOCA cannot span these gaps for myriad reasons. ESL moved into the geography of other idiosyncratic project spaces without any restrictions or permissions.
Other venues such as ART2102, Outpost for Contemporary Art, Another Year in LA, Machine Project, and G727 also produce alternative programming. Their projects can be seen as an(other) concept that thrives in the geopolitical and aesthetic global center of Los Angeles. In this city, creativity has always been measured in economic terms; however it also can be measured in terms of concepts that blend with other urban concepts—speculative or planned. Lauri Firstenberg [director/curator of LAXART] has said that she thinks of the activity that occurred at The Backroom in Culver City (from September to December 2005) as existing where there are “no ideal downtowns.” She suggests that like the city itself, independent art spaces and projects are “objects and concepts put into distribution.” As such they counteract “the solid geography of art production.”7 By this, I take it she means the hermetic gallery, collector, and art object economic system in Los Angeles.
SD: Firstenberg’s quote about “objects and concepts put into distribution” seems appropriate to thinking of alternative spaces as a medium. Her market metaphor works well, but what does that mean “objects and concepts put into distribution”? What is the difference between that and anything else? Nonetheless, I appreciate attempts to think in the language of exchange and economies because these are very real media, almost a substance operating between us all, mediating social life. Institutions like e-flux and the Artist’s Pension Trust are relatively absent from art critique, yet they have real effects on the art world, by creating value and acting like postindustrial galleries.
I recently saw a presentation by a curator who proposed his space was an empty box waiting to be filled, and it seemed pointless. When you say ESL engages the artist and slows down their creative process, it is much more appealing to me, at least in that it doesn’t uphold the autonomy of the artist as some sacred cow. At TELIC, so many projects have been realized in our space that the exchange between artist and organization is necessarily substantial.
All things that happen within our gallery are events, whether meetings, musical performances, installations, or exhibitions. Some last 2 hours, others might last months. To this end, we’ve begun to record everything that we possibly can within the space, shifting it more toward a television studio than an art gallery. So much of the work that we show is interactive or participatory in nature that TELIC functions as a stage. People are actors as soon as they walk through the door.
While this has produced a good deal of experimental work, it also crosses into the realm of entertainment in our experience economy. It is important to question the artist’s role here, particularly in relation to non-profits. How are artists compensated? What are they asked to do? Who asks them to do it? For a while, we abstained from these questions by insisting that the work doesn’t sell, but I think it’s more interesting to ask how it could, how such an economy might be sustainable. To a certain extent, this is something that we tried to explore with The Fundraising Show. This was both a show and a fundraiser in which we asked one artist each day for a month to come into the gallery in order to make money, 75 percent of which would go to the gallery; 25 percent would be kept by the artist. Typically, the non-profit fundraiser is rigorously excluded from normal programming, yet it uses the labor of artists. What position is the artist put in by the political and economic demands that are placed on cultural institutions? Well, that question seems to be secondary to “How can we make money?” It’s amazing how little we talk publicly about money, outside of occasional comments about “the art market.”
Concepts of economy, systems, organization, and communication—realities for administrative subjects and institutions—can be mobilized to project new worlds and think about our existing one. The proliferation of schools, collectives, collaborations, and artist-run institutions indicates a fairly interesting and substantial engagement that cultural producers have with organization and administration.
HH: And it is not necessarily bad, or unethical, to develop and exploit these spaces to generate actual revenue, such as the young dealers who organized the Gramercy International Art Fair at the Gramercy Hotel in New York in 1993. This fair represented an “alternative” to established fairs. These young dealers self-organized in the 1990s, as part of an unofficial and unrestricted effort, to create temporary art galleries out of hotel/motel bedrooms. The Gramercy fair led to the “official” art fair that is now know as the Armory Show. I am also reminded of the shows in the late nineties that took place in Los Angeles in hotel rooms at the upscale Chateau Marmont on Sunset and the low-brow Farmer’s Daughter Motel on Fairfax and Third that were an important part of my art education.
Rosalind Krauss’ book A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition (1999) helps to further understand these cultural producers who at the same time are organizers and administrators. In this inquiry into medium specificity, Krauss surveys practices that have gone further, incorporating materials as part of a spatial relationship with installation and its development. I am interested her idea of “post-medium,” not as a notion to be embraced, but as a method for understanding the entire process of collaboration produced through the alternative system. The term can be employed to discuss the movement and activity of networks and groups that include all branches of medium-specific art practices, but to distribute the practices exclusively as an event, rather than seeking to be registered in the indexical art histories lying around to be inherited. These alternative structures embrace a POSTMEDIA/MEDIUM condition, as well as locate their sites of production in such rudimentary tasks as administrative and public relations work. One is tempted to recall Judith E. Adler’s book, Artists in Offices: An Ethnography of an Academic Art Scene (1979), only today it would need to be rewritten to accommodate the artists who are not in academia, do not benefit directly from the art world, and still work independently through collaboration. It might be titled: Artists Who Make Their Own Offices: A Sociological Study of Self-organization in the Art Scene.
To answer your questions about the rise of “independent-administrative-institutional-organizational” subjects, one cannot ignore that this is largely a formation that goes beyond usual narratives about cultural frustration or complicity with the market. For some it can be a rather combative, frustrating, and exhaustive process (in which case they abandon it, hopefully with no feelings hurt). This is not a utopia. Myriad entry points further complicate the process. Many directors of these forums share the same educational background and/or are transplants (cultural migrants) from other parts of the country who have found an audience here. For others, the process of generating cultural start-ups simply mirrors their desires to become institutions—as an end in itself—while to others it is a genuine way to fill cultural deficits that exist in the city, complete with a complicated set of cultural codes and ethical structures to draw public attention. But largely, this expressive form is very much a medium, as if the situations and events created are the product of such activity, which foments new aesthetic directives and practices.
- Lev Manovich, “The Engineering of Vision from Constructivism to Computers” (http://www.manovich.net/EV/ev.pdf)↵
- University of Barcelona, http://www.ub.es/bellesarts/bbaa/programes/pdfs/narrativesinteractives.pdf↵
- European Graduate School, http://www.egs.edu/↵
- 17: Instituto de Studios Críticos, http://www.17.edu.mx/↵
- Copenhagen Free University, http://www.copenhagenfreeuniversity.dk↵
- Michel Serres, The Parasite (Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982).↵
- Institutional Critique and After (SOCCAS Symposia), Vol. 2 (JRP/Ringier), p. 318.↵