Category Archives: Conferences

Sanjit Sethi likes his community.

Born in Rochester, New York, Sanjit Sethi has done a residency at the Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada, as well as earned a master of science in advanced visual studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Visual Arts Program in 2002. His work consistently deals with issues of nomadism, identity, the residue of labor, memory, and movement in the urban sphere—all of which involve various disparate social and geographic communities.

Having completed a Fulbright Fellowship in India on the Building Nomads Project, Sanjit continued his strong focus on interdisciplinary collaboration while director of the MFA Program at the Memphis College of Art. His dedication to diverse forms of artistic practice extends in his new position as California College of the Art’s chair of Community Arts Program, and Co-Director of CCA’s Center for Art and Public Life.

Sanjit’s current work includes a collaborative project titled, Urban Defibrillation, the Gypsy Bridge Project, and the Kuni Wada Bakery.

Dwayne Butcher: What brings you to CAA? Any there any particular panel or sessions you are interested in seeing?

Sanjit Sethi:  I have attended several panels. There was a panel about the role of museum education; I am interested in the subject itself. There was also the African cities panel. It was about how do we view a city, in this case, from an architectural and urban development standpoint, it was really interesting. I attended a community arts project panel, tying to see different methodologies other than my own. I am really interested in questions. Any mission statement I have for the operations of my individual practice and the work I do through the college revolves around addressing a specific question. I am not here, necessarily, to somehow absorb the conference in its entirety and expect that the light will finally flicker. But rather to see what other questions that people bring up and how they are actively and dynamically working on those questions. I also use this as an opportunity to reconnect with people, which is just as important as anything, whether it is colleagues or former students, just to see what it is going on. I do have concerns whether I did a good enough job, was I good at whatever it was I was doing? So, it good to reconnect and see what the students have been up to.

DB: Can you talk about your experiences of interviewing at CAA?

SS: I did not interview at CAA for my first teaching job, it was an instance where I sent in a packet after someone had abruptly left and I got the position. But, I have interviewed in the “room.” It was probably the most unpleasant experience I have ever been through, there is the institutional lighting, you can hear the hum of the sodium lights. It is kind of like doing a prep walk as well. I am having flashbacks being with you here in this lobby.

One year while the conference was in New York, which I can chuckle about now, while still teaching at MCA, I had three interviews. Generally, you meet the person at the prescribed time in the lobby and go up to the hotel room, which is great and how it should be. For one of those interviews I remember, to my horror, that the institution wanted to meet around the corner. So I meet them around the corner. As I was walking by, my current boss at the time, was sitting there, not fifteen feet away, interviewing someone for another position. During the entire interview I was totally unnerved, I blew that interview. It was a fiasco.

DB: Can you explain your role at the California College of the Arts?

SS: I wear three hats at CCA. I am a tenure track faculty member, I teach in the in the Community Arts Program, which I chair, I am also the Director of the Center for Art and Public Life. Originally, I was just a tenure track faculty member and to chair the Community Arts Program, six months later, I was asked to be the Director of the Center for Art and Public life, which I thought would be an interesting opportunity. It has a great history of engaging the public and working on issues of social justice, racism, diversity issues and sustainability. It has been really exciting.

DB: What type of projects are you working on with the Center? And how do you come up with the projects?

SS: The role I play as Director, is certainly parallel ideologically to the work I do with my individual practice. The Center for Art and Public life evolves around the question, “How can an institution of higher education that is devoted to creativity utilize the brain trust of its students and faculty to address areas of critical, cultural, social, geographic, and economic needs we see within local, national and global communities?” What I am able to do is have a role inventing and crafting programs that try to best address this meta-question. Right now, we actually trimmed our sails to running three programs. These three programs have implications across the college, and ideally, across communities. One of the curricular projects is “Engage at CCA” which is basically how we support faculty members to adapt their own curriculum to collaborate with a community partner, to address the learning outcomes they have with that course. For example, a furniture design class builds tables for a local charter school that cannot afford tables. The Center has a great history of working with community partners that were built with the efforts of my predecessors. I am able to take advantage of these partnerships and the great reputation that the Center has in the Bay area, especially with the non-profit and education communities. It is also about forging new partnerships as well. We just launched an initiative called “The Impact Social Entrepreneurship Award.” We graciously received start-up funding to create an interdisciplinary award program where we ask students to come up with projects in collaboration with a community partner. They have to find that partner and seek a letter of support from that partner for a project, for example, the students talk with an after school program and that school really needs a collapsible performance stage. This proposal will come from students that are studying to be architects, industrial designers, and maybe an illustrator, the students have to come up with the project. The Center, through a really competitive selection process, will award three groups for each of the next three years, ten thousand dollars each to execute these projects. This is really exciting to have curricular based and project based learning combined with community engagement. Again, these students should ideally have their own studio practice. Not to say that everyone is all of sudden going to devote themselves to working in and for non-profits. The idea is for the students to get a well-rounded aspect of how they can assist in all these different communities. We like for the students to take their own initiative and this galvanizes the idea of independent student learning. The deadlines for the projects were yesterday, (February 11, 2011) so we will see.

DB: So, what are some of the projects you are working on for yourself?

SS: I have an ongoing series called, “Indians and Indians.” It is a personal practice reflection on the idea of hybrid identity and this artificial name we associate with an identity. I recently finished a series of flag projects creating a hybridized flag, an American Indian flag. I am also about to create American flags using only material from Indian flags. Which is a nightmare quilting project from hell. I have this beautiful hand-woven Indian flag that I am both excited and terrified about cutting into. I have also been doing a series of photographs, kind of a diptych called “Watching Indians.” I am looking at representations of Indians, both American Indians and India Indians by western cinematographers. So basically, I am watching these films on a large flat screen television, I am looking at the way they are depicting Indians for clues. I am also searching for aberrations or interpretations. So, there are these photographs, these diptychs of me staring and scrutinizing the screen itself.

DB: Well, I think that is about it. That wasn’t too bad, was it?

SS: It was the best interview I ever had.

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Endings and Beginnings

As I reflect back on my 2011 CAA conference experience, it was by far “unique.” I qualify it for the number of milestones that took place, in the place of such familiarity.

It was wonderful to be back in NYC again—I have missed the energy, the noise, even the surliness of the baristas at Starbucks and the delis. I thrive on these opportunities for challenging my mindset everyday, to see how far I need to push myself to smile, be present, and recalibrate my day, as I did for seven years as a NYC resident. California, with its smiling baristas, makes it too easy. Also, the sheer availability of free or low-cost art activities is as unfathomable as I remember. Comparing New York City to the San Francisco Bay Area, SF might as well be in a permanent art drought.

This was the first year that I attended the annual conference without an agenda, the first time in 13 years. No session to chair. No paper to present. No committee work to see to. No duties of an outside job to worry about (such as supporting faculty hiring committees). The only other person I offered support to was my spouse, who was attending his very first conference, and was unsuccessful in securing any interviews for a job. This was a very difficult outcome for both of us, but we made the best of an unpleasant situation.

It was a conference in which I re-evaluated my current standing as an MA in art history, and explored my potential future as an MFA in studio. This has been a large, and exciting, shift to make. I have been an art historian for 17 years—a very long time to get comfortable with a very successful identity. Yet, I’m still just young enough to make a choice to change. The circumstances of the change were not under my control, but at least the choice itself is mine to make.

This is also the first conference wherein I have spoken openly about the circumstances of my career challenges. Since 2001, I had been very private about the turmoil in my private, and professional, life. As I have watched my professional life fall apart, while working to regain my health and sanity, it just has not mattered much anymore. Now that everything is out on the table, it has been incredible the support I have received, both from long-time colleagues and strangers alike. It reminds me of how important these conferences are. Not just to present papers, but to share ideas, experiences, and connections.

Back in California now, I am contacting all the people I have collected business cards from, making new connections. I am preparing the short-term plan, which is basically maintaining status quo—continue with the studio practice, and the portfolio. Then there is the long-term plan, preparing for the next application window.

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A Few Minutes with Claudia Sbrissa

I will echo the sentiments of my fellow bloggers—the Annual Conference provides innumerable ways to catch up with friends, in unlikely ways. After catching the Health and Safety in the Studio session in ARTspace, I was able to sit down very briefly with Claudia Sbrissa for a chat. I invited Claudia on a panel I chaired in 2009 in Los Angeles, entitled “Ornament Now: Reassessing its Theories and Functions,” but have not seen her since. Thank goodness for Facebook!

After getting caught up with our personal lives since 2009, we got down to professional activities! Claudia was busy recently working on a new series. She notes, “The series Satis House continues my engagement with notions of place and space. The work explores processes of transformation; the simultaneous perishing and reinventing of our narrative; our collective loss, desire and longing.”

Claudia continues, “My process involves shredding black velvet into flocking, which I use as a drawing material. The abstract forms and shapes though mysterious are rooted in the natural world, alluding to organisms and the body in flux; a world overwhelmed, dissolving, and mutating. I work back into these spaces using pen, ink and watercolor to create dense clusters and masses. These spaces move from microscopic to macroscopic, suggesting illusions of infinite depth and space. Somewhere within these fragmented worlds lies our future; the promise of renewal.”

Currently teaching at St. John’s University, New York, Claudia received a BFA from York University, Toronto, Canada, a Bachelor’s in Education from Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada, and an MFA from Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. Recent exhibitions and projects include: this place is a bunch of lines Salon, Salon Ciel, New York, NY (2010), a site specific installation & works on paper, The Muriel Guepin Gallery, NY, NY 2010, The Persistent Future, Cue Foundation, New York, NY 2010, Utopia is Hard, Courthouse Gallery, Lake George Art Project, Lake George, NY 2009, Uncommon Threads, Walsh Gallery, Seton Hall University, NJ 2009, Exquisite Corpse, curated by Anonda Bell & Caren King, Paul Robeson Galleries, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, 2009. Awards include residencies at Woman’s Studio Workshop, Rosendale, NY, Contemporary Artist Center, North Adams, MA; I-Park in East Haddam, CT; Lower Eastside Printshop, NYC; and Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture, Skowhegan, ME; as well as grants from Queen’s Council on the Arts, and The Canada Council on the Arts.

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Green that Studio!

CAA Services to Artists Committee
Health and Safety in the Artist Studio
Wednesday, February 9th
Chairs: Mark Gottsegen, AMIEN and ICA Art Conservation; and Brian Bishop, Framington State University
Panelists: Jennifer Steensma Hoag, Calvin College
Brian Gillis, University of Oregon
Claudia Sbrissa, St. John’s University
David Zenk, Gund Partnership; and Monona Rossol, Arts, Crafts, and Theater Safety, Inc.
Mark Gottsegen, AMIEN, and ICA Art Conservation

At the 2008 CAA conference in Dallas, I co-chaired for the Professional Practices Committee, with Duane Slick of the Services to Artists Committee, a session entitled “The Sustainable Studio.” That session, also held in ARTspace, consisted of Duane speaking to his experience upgrading the RISD painting studios. As the art historian on the panel, I presented a paper entitled “Hazardous Traditions: A Short History of the Environmental Impact of Art Practice,” tracing the origins and historical usage of traditionally toxic materials in art practice. We also invited the artist Jae-Rhim Lee of MIT, whose studio work focused specifically on bio-remediation, to posit a potential answer to the use of toxic materials in the studio. Since then, there has been an explosion in the interest in “greening” the studio, and practice. So it was with great curiosity, and pleasure, that I attended this year’s Services to Artists Committee and ARTspace session “Health and Safety in the Artist Studio.”

This particular session, in comparison to the 2008 session, provided specifically ideas, information, and even where to start, if one has been bestowed with the arduous task by their department to create an environmentally safer, OSHA-compliant, accreditation-accommodating, and pedagogically advantageous studio. The nuts-and-bolts nature and breadth of these presentations made them easy to understand, and they covered a wide variety of disciplines.

Jennifer Steensma Hoag and Brian Gillis addressed the explicit needs of the specialized photography and ceramics studios. Jennifer went into detail about the different high tech collection systems Calvin College is utilizing to process developing chemicals. Brian provided in depth information about the leading occupational lung disease known to ceramists, Silicosis. Information regarding shop hazards, and common health and safety issues in a ceramics studio was also discussed.

David Zenk and Monona Rossol, and Mark Gottsegen addressed more general building design parameters, such as building codes, energy conservation, chemical storage and use, the storage and disposal of hazardous waste. Mark showed several examples of good and bad examples of proper ventilation and storage. The information provided was vast, and extremely illuminating. In particular, Mark Gottsegen reminded all of us that studios are also, technically, chemical labs and industrial machine shops, and should be treated accordingly. Secondly, he reminded us to “READ THE LABELS!”

Claudia Sbrissa brought a unique and equally significant point of view to the discussion. In her paper “Greening the Studio,” Claudia discussed the convergence of receiving the commission in 2003 to renovate the printmaking studio at St. John’s University in New York, a studio not modernized since the 1970s, and the necessity to make massive changes to her own artistic and personal life, to make them “greener.” During the course of the panel discussion, dialogue veered toward the attitudes, and/or willingness, of the faculty and students to maintain this “green” sensibility. Again, Claudia experience best provided for this answer. She made it very clear that, if you continually practice “green art,” your students will take note, and follow suit. She mentioned, and I agree, that most students today are very aware of, and passionate about, environmental issues, they just need to learn the detailed training in studio management, and the encouragement from faculty to integrate these practices into their professional and personal lives.

Brian Gillis offered a brief overview for putting together a proposal for studio upgrades. In other words, for asking for what you need:
• A needs assessment/report
• Proposal
• Meet with Department Head
• Meet with Safety Officer
• Meet with Dean
• Try to connect with diverse funding sources on and off campus
• Because of budget issues, try as much as possible to connect funding with best practices.

In response to funding, here are key areas to look at:
• Training
• Policies/Protocols
• Curriculum
• Facilities
• Equipment

I remember creating in studios caked with paint, resins, and inks. Students and faculty alike repeatedly ate, drank, and even smoked inside the studios, alongside the pigments and mineral spirits. Ventilation was at a minimum. Thanks to Brian Bishop and Mark Gottsegen, and everyone on this panel, as well as previous panels, for highlighting such an important issue!

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To Doctorate or not to Doctorate?

CAA Education Committee
MFA? DFA? Ph.D? DVA? Determining the Terminal Degree in Studio Art Practice for the Twenty-First Century
Wednesday, February 9, 12:30-2:00pm
Chair: Hilary Braysmith, University of Southern Indiana
Ellen Levy, University of Plymouth
James Elkins, School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Margaret Kennedy-Dygas, University of Louisiana, Lafayette


Artmaking as New Knowledge: Research, Practice, Production
Friday, February 11, 2:30-5:00pm
Chairs: Derek Conrad Murray, University of California, Santa Cruz; Soraya Murray, University of California, Santa Cruz
Timothy Emlyn Jones, Burren College of Art
Sandra Adams, Curtin University of Technology
Ignaz Cassar, University of Leeds
Simonetta Moro, Eugene Lang College, The New School for Liberal Arts
Frances Whitehead, School of the Art Institute of Chicago

During past CAA conferences the issue of the studio practice doctorate has been treated as a curiosity, or as a specialty area. Not so this year, where I have counted no less than four sessions over the course of this year’s conference addressing either the studio practice doctorate debate directly, or exploring the emergence of research-based art practice and theory. As an art historian who has moved into the studio, and using art historian research tools to inform my process and methodologies, I am taking great interest in all these developments!

A couple of years ago, I sat down with a colleague I truly respect, to ask advice about the MFA. To my surprise, he told me to look at the MFA as a stepping-stone, and to sincerely plan on doing the studio doctorate. I was baffled by his request, but continued to research this route. This year’s conference has been extremely helpful in enumerating many sides of this debate, as well as defining and discussing the premise of “research-based” art, or “new knowledge.” In particular, both these sessions succeeded in highlighting, and summarizing, a number of major issues needed to understand the complexities implicit in this debate.

From a theoretical point of view, Timothy Emlyn Jones, from the Burren College of Art in Ireland, and Dr. James Elkins, from School of the Art Institute of Chicago, both discussed the base definition of “New Knowledge” and how this forms the foundation of the studio doctorate. Mr. Jones views New Knowledge as taking “information in through the bodily senses,” by way of experience and emotion, and encompasses “abstract thinking and embodied knowing.” Dr. Elkins regards this New Knowledge as rooted in the idea of Tacit Knowledge, or knowledge that is difficult to communicate, and to be understood by others. Visual arts, indeed, is a high form of knowledge, and when viewed through the Kantian prism of aesthetic cognitivism, as Dr. Elkins does here, should exist on the same plane as the sciences. Yet, without the shared feature of repeatable research methodologies to substantiate and communicate this knowledge, art has a built-in handicap.

In fact, Mr. Jones believes that studio doctorates should be considered as a different tradition. He asserts that while artists may employ the use of standard research practices and methodologies, such as those in the hard and social sciences and technologies, they may also adapt relational strategies and creativity theories that are equally valid and present equally valid results. Mr. Jones, in his abstract for this talk, suggests that the “creative processes of art can be understood as enquiry and thus as a distinct form of research, different from yet complimentary to science.” (CAA Abstracts 2011, 96) He further proposes, “The intelligence of fine-art practice need not be shrouded in the mystique favored by the marketplace.” (CAA Abstracts 2011, 96) Instead, “we need to look at what artists actually do rather than at what they are thought to do.” (CAA Abstracts 2011, 96) Once you sift through all the jargon, Mr. Jones and Dr. Elkins actually agree.

The next, and quite volatile, issue centers on how the studio doctorate should look here in the US. Ellen Levy gave the example of her program, Z-Node Zurich, as a European model. With a science and technology focus, it features different interrelating areas, for example ecology, biology, psychology, and artificial intelligence. Z-Node’s particular characteristics as a program, including its emphasis on interdisciplinarity and collaboration, its push to redefine what research is, it rigorousness, and how it continuously repositions art practice within and outside these other disciplines, highlights the transdisciplinary issues of the state of the field, shared influences, key issues and debates, and methodologies and tools. Margaret Kennedy-Dygas provided an intriguing comparison, the Doctorate of Music. As a performing art, sharing with visual art similar concerns about research, understanding, and outcomes, I wonder why I have not heard more about this relationship.

Dr. Elkins enters the US studio doctorate debate as “The Skeptic.” He gives 3 reasons for why it might not be a good idea. Firstly, there is either the need to adjust to the U.K. definition of New Knowledge, create our own, or come to a universally agreed-upon one. Second, we need to consider who is NOT a good prospective studio doctorate student (intuitive/non-verbal, non-theory dependent practice, non-self-reflexive). Lastly, think long and hard about definitions of programs. It was this final reason that caught my attention, due to my extensive work in college administration and teaching, and by association, accreditation. Dr. Elkins commented that the definitions of many MFA programs are “less than a page long,” and speak only to producing students with “professional proficiency and the ability to make art.” He observes that actual programs rarely look anything like they do in accreditation paperwork, yet are still tied to very outcomes subscribed to within that heap of paper. Dr. Elkins ended with the observation that “no one knows what the Ph.D is because no one knows what the MFA is because no one knows what the BFA is.”

Two presentations spoke to me as examples of the potential of the studio doctorate, and how the studio doctorate does not have to be a source of fear or fury. Simonetta Moro discussed her doctorate exhibition, and how the opportunities to pursue different research methodologies and practices has continued to inform her creative process and teaching. Frances Whitehead, of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago presented The Embedded Artist Project, a collaboration between SAIC and the City of Chicago. Created as a knowledge lab, or new knowledge-producing initiative, artists are “embedded” into institutions throughout the city, and become part of a larger “cultural entrepreneurialism” creating “knowledge through transdisciplinary engagement.” Its focus was sustainability within the 4-pillar system encompassing Environment, Social, Economic, and Cultural. It is this type of art/science/community collaboration that is an ideal example of what Ms. Whitehead defined as Métis, or craftiness; knowledge emerged in practice.

After attending these sessions, and speaking with the panelists, I am no longer “baffled” by the initial request to consider the studio doctorate. My journey will play out in time. I will continue my inquiry along the lines of Timothy Emlyn Jones: “What’s the most important thing you don’t know?”

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