Supersonic: Boom, Buzz, or Drone?

Bill Wheelock

Installation view, "Supersonic," Art Center

Last month, more than one-hundred and twenty Masters of Fine Arts Students from eight Los Angeles area art schools–Art Center College of Design, California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), Claremont Graduate University, Otis College of Art and Design, University of Southern California, and the University of California’s Irvine, Los Angeles, and San Diego campuses–showed their work together in Supersonic at Art Center’s colossal new 16,000 square-foot gallery, which is situated in a converted wind tunnel. Such cooperation is unprecedented among what have traditionally been perceived to be competing institutions.

The exhibition was announced in full-page, high-profile magazine ads. It was well attended by curators, collectors, and gallerists scouting for new talent and received positive critical attention in local media outlets. The opening event hosted a bar, DJ, and even some dancing. A truly spectacular party, it raged on far past midnight.

Supersonic arrived on the scene roughly five years after a flurry of nationally publicized articles brought the buzz of the biz to many LA art schools. The first of these pieces was Dennis Cooper’s 1997 Spin article, “Too Cool for School,” which equated the lifestyles of UCLA students to those of popular indie rockers. In 1998, Andrew Hultkrans’ “Surf and Turf” appeared in the summer issue of Artforum. In this essay, Hultkrans compared the programs at UCLA and Art Center and found these institutions crawling with careerist students, gallerists, collectors, and consultants all eager to make a killing. Finally, in the summer of 1999, Deborah Solomon’s article in the New York Times Magazine, “How to Succeed in Art” broadened the list of major schools to five (all of which are included in Supersonic) as key sites for coolhunting.

Perhaps the most scathing of these three highly influential articles was “How to Succeed in Art.” Solomon’s main criticism was about the type of work being made in art schools. She complained that it had the look of “art school art,” that is, homework-like pieces derived from canonical academic texts. It is not evident whether this trend can be blamed on the schools entirely or whether it has as much as to do with an art market reaction to a saturation of new talent. Regardless, there are more art students and graduates than ever before, which increases the competition for attention, especially amongst those whose goal is to be adopted by a major professional gallery prior to graduation.

Installation view, "Supersonic," Art Center

The glut of artists has been a component in a shift in the broader context of the art world toward larger and faster shows, the latest venues being the forty-odd international mega biennials and countless, worldwide, weekend-long art fairs. The new circuit of professional venues is changing the format of art, with emphasis being placed on works that can be made quickly, are cheaply and easily shipped, and can be installed in booths with no ceilings. It is no wonder painting and large photographs have become the order of the day. The production of an exhibitional extravaganza like Supersonic suggests that students are now being prepped to show in this type of hyper-competitive arena.

A show that pulls together all the MFA graduates from the top eight art schools in Southern California does seem to be a natural response to the hype surrounding “art school art.” But by so doing, a fiercely competitive market-driven value system is imposed upon work that may not be ready to sustain it. Few of the pieces included were made specifically for the Supersonic event. Instead, projects were generally made to satisfy an intimate committee of MFA program thesis advisors who had been working closely with the art students for a period of two to three years. Collecting the results of such experimental activity enmasse in an exhibition organized by a team of MFA students may not be the ideal way to represent the intensity and commitment of all the participants. After all, a thesis degree exhibition is intended to demonstrate the artist’s facility at a sustained investigation in a particular area, whereas the commercial venue positions the artist as a cynosure in an economy of attention.

Installation view, "Supersonic," Art Center

Huge student art shows are not a new idea. Columbia University, for example, has an enormous opening each year to showcase their graduate department of Fine Arts. And CalArts typically collaborates with another institution to exhibit graduate work. (Last year’s show was held at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena and prior to that it was sponsored by Track 16 Gallery at Bergamot Station.)

Supersonic in no way replaces final MFA thesis exhibitions, but supplements these more complete efforts. Understandably, each artist included in Supersonic deserved more time, space, and attention than would be possible to allocate them in a show of this size. Of all the media, time-based sound, video, and film work get particularly short shrift. An accompanying catalogue included brief statements written or commissioned by the artists that helped make some of the more complex work accessible. However, this document could not compensate for the enormity of the show, which could not really be fully seen in anything less than two days. The effect of this amalgam was truly overwhelming, begging for smaller groupings and shows, which we, doubtless, can expect to see from many of these graduates in the LA and world art scenes in the near future.

Installation view, "Supersonic," Art Center

Artist and UCLA Professor John Baldessari pointed out that Supersonic would make Art Center an “event destination.” (See the full quotation on the show’s press website: .html) True enough, three thousand people were estimated to have shown up for the Supersonic opening at the Wind Tunnel. With this new venue, recently acquired and remodeled and situated just a block from a newly opened Gold Line Metrorail station in Pasadena, Art Center promises to become a flashpoint for culture in the de-centered sprawl of Los Angeles. Plans for a Frank Gehrydesigned building and the remodel of some abandoned industrial buildings at the nearby power plant are currently underway. Construction of student housing starts this year.

Art Center Director Richard Koshalek calls his plans for Art Center a “City within a City.” It conspicuously resembles Koshalek’s ideas for revitalizing downtown Los Angeles when he was the director at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Call it the “Gehry effect.” (During the 1980s, Peter Plagens dubbed it our region’s “Edifice Complex.”) The construction of such “creative communities” has everything to do with real estate values and the economy. By hosting Supersonic and a proposed series of events in the Wind Tunnel, Art Center has indeed put its new building on the cultural map.

Supersonic and the Wind Tunnel have much in common with the massive space reclamation done in the name of art in places like Dia Beacon or Mass MOCA, where industrial wasteland has been revitalized into art spaces the size of polo fields. In a panel discussion on the day following its opening, artist and Otis College faculty member Meg Cranston questioned if Supersonic served, in the end, to foreground its architecture as an institutional framework, to the detriment of art works that are seen as transitory and replaceable. Mass MOCA responds to this problem by devoting the entirety of their quarter-mile space to a single artist for the duration of an entire year. And who knows if Dia Beacon will ever change their exhibit? In the case of Art Center, such excess may not be affordable or appropriate to an educational institution.

Installation view, "Supersonic," Art Center

The most visible aspects of the transformation of the old wind tunnel are oblong, geometric skylights perched on the roof of the building like solar cells fallen from a satellite. These units, which give the building its identity as a “contemporary” piece of architecture, were designed by luminary Bruce Mau, whose eponymous design group is best known for the homogenous covers of MIT’s Zone Books; collaboration with Rem Koolhaas on S, M, L, & XL, Koolhaas’ Office for Metropolitan Architecture manifesto; and “A font called Frank,” typography for all of the signage in Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. Invited to speak at the inaugural Art Center sponsored Design Conference in March of this year, Mau addressed a mostly corporate audience (that could well afford $1,000 admission tickets) about an ambitious new project called Massive Change: The Future of Global Design. Highly theoretical, this project attempts to address the status of design as “second nature.” Mau is particularly interested in the altruistic aspects of design as created by those who have networked to address geographic and demographic problems on a global level. His research, which culminated in the development of curricula for the postgraduate Institute Without Boundaries (housed in the design department at Toronto’s City College), also led him to conclude, “You can no longer, in this age of complexity, produce a renaissance man, but you can produce a renaissance group.”

While the above statement might be disturbing to some if applied to the education of fine artists for today’s art world, it does cast some light on the institutional philosophy of a place like Art Center, which has long prioritized placement of its graduates into “real world” professions such as advertising, commercial photography, and both automobile and industrial design. Mau’s philosophy shifts attention away from individual artists toward Schoolism—the trends and styles promulgated by trained students—and the “buzz of the month” phenomenon. The denial of a renaissance individual is at odds with the art student’s hope for becoming the next celebrity in the art star system. Despite Baldessari’s stated expectations that Supersonic should “up the ante” and foster competition between the schools, in actuality not much evidence of “Schoolism” was present in the show. Instead, the exhibition committee, which consisted of one graduating MFA student elected by their peers from each school, subverted any competitive “call-to-arms” by choosing to arrange the works without regard to institution; there were no segregated college “pavilions.”

Organizers were faced with the difficult task of curating works without the possibility of editing, as everyone who graduated from the eight designated schools was included. The absence of curatorial rigor distinguished Supersonic from a biennial, while the absence of the gallery hustle differentiated it from an art fair. At the most cynical level, one could see the event as a sort of exclusive art student convention or job fair. Perhaps a more accurate contextual model here might be a Cotillion, a sort of grad school coming out ball. Certainly, the rules of exclusion that normally apply to elite social events were relevant to Supersonic. Those on the “inside” made determinations about who was glamorous or popular enough to participate—a number of local schools offering MFA programs did not make the cut. (Programs offered at UC Santa Barbara and the California State Universities at Los Angeles, Long Beach, Fullerton, and Northridge, among others, were left out in the cold.)

Installation view, "Supersonic," Art Center

In terms of preserving the set of expectations about the “LA Scene” as proposed by Cooper, Hultkrans, and Solomon, the show maintained the status quo. Many of the works were remarkably professional. The show was mostly dominated by painting and video dealing with LA’s time-honored narcissistic topics: the beauty of the highway landscape and the looming threat of the entertainment industry. Much of it could even be called conservative— despite the fact that the United States has been at war for over a year now, there was only one conspicuously political work (photographs of antiwar demonstrators). Controversy seems to have been downplayed as a generational distancing amongst the students away from their “Me Generation” faculty, many of whom came of age in the tumultuous late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

The real trouble with applying the buzz of “cool” to art is that art has always had a longer shelf life than the more frenetic and perishable works of popular design. One certainly doesn’t want to have to change one’s art collection or taste every season. While its audience is arguably growing, the art world still attracts a much smaller crowd than popular consumer aesthetic culture. For the uninitiated, art trends are usually more complex and difficult to define. Bruce Hainley recently joked (in conversation with the author) that the historians who will really understand the art of the present are only now being born. This is definitely not the case in the commercial world, where the tail wags the dog and trends are established simultaneously if not prior to manufacture. Bruce Mau’s contentious suggestion that we should produce renaissance groups (as colonies, demographics, or lifestyles) seems to be the intent behind Supersonic’s concretization of Southern California MFAs. However, sheer quantity alone cannot produce ideology. To shape a So-Cal “academy” from this dense accumulation of individuals and then to ask this group to engage in a combative struggle for cool would be to misrepresent the work and the artists’ attempts to collaborate, exchange ideas and just get along.

Apart from the show itself were two notable satellite ventures that explored the potential for relevant exchange between the various west coast art schools. The Southern California Consortium of Art Schools (SoCCAS) presented a panel discussion at the Pacific Design Center a day after the Supersonic opening that was geared toward sharing information and resources between schools. SoCCAS is a new organization that has arisen in tandem with Supersonic (its board members consist entirely of faculty and associates from the art institutions participating in Supersonic) and that serves to promote the Southern California region as a “world leader in art practice, criticism, and pedagogy.” (See a description of SoCCAS at www2.

Installation view, "Supersonic," Art Center

In direct reaction to the institutional agenda of SoCCAS, a group of students calling themselves SuperKids began an initiative designed to generate discourse among students that would be free from institutional interference. SuperKids invited the student participants of Supersonic to share their reactions about the event and to discuss how to best utilize Supersonic to their advantage. Art Center’s forum participants awkwardly outnumbered all others, not only due to having the “hometown” advantage, but also being the only school in session during the summer. Both SoCCAS and SuperKids have the potential to provide a valuable common ground on which to form a pedagogical and professional discourse. However, for such a thing to happen will require equal internal organization from all parties.

Art Center’s Wind Tunnel may well end up being a sort of an institutional social hub, similar to what the Hammer Museum is to UCLA or RedCat to CalArts. It might evolve into a venue that only indirectly benefits its students as it seeks to generate revenue and public interest for institutional programs, rather than promote student work. Art Center’s Graduate Fine Arts Program Chair Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe initially touted Supersonic at the Wind Tunnel as an annual event. However, recent budgetary concerns have apparently led to quieter talk of alternatives. There are rumors that future events may be biannual or even take place on more neutral turf like the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. One suggestion made is that the participating colleges take turns hosting it, like the Olympics. It would indeed be interesting to see if the show generated enough enthusiasm to become an Art Olympics, complete with all the collateral urban renewal that the games tend to promise.

Bill Wheelock is an artist and writer who lives and works in NY and LA. He is currently completing his thesis for the Graduate Criticism + Theory program at Art Center College of Design.

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