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AND THEN THERE WERE NONE — FRANCES STARK AND A. L. STEINER IN CONVERSATION – Paris-LA
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AND THEN THERE WERE NONE — FRANCES STARK AND A. L. STEINER IN CONVERSATION

232

AND THEN THERE WERE NONE—

Frances Stark and A. L. Steiner

in conversation with Dorothée Perret

 

Frances Stark is a writer, a professor, a mentor, a mother, a motorcycle land-speed record-holder—a true Angeleno artist. Her recent work addresses and questions the status of the artist-teacher, and the subtle boundaries between the space of the studio and that of the classroom. Her approach is often very intimate as she uses her own life experience as source material and a central subject of work. Stark’s first retrospective, UH–OH: Frances Stark 1991–2015, was on view at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles in 2016. In December 2014, Frances resigned from her position as tenured professor at the Roski School of Art and Design at the University of Southern California.

A.L. Steiner is an artist and teacher, working across a variety of mediums and with a range of collaborators on works that document and contribute to the vibrant communities around her. Friendship, for Steiner, is a political act, the basis of a hedonistic lesbian feminism that is equally engaging and stimulating. In 2015, Steiner showed a complete and working archive of her photographic practice from 1995-2015 in her solo exhibition Come & Go at Blum & Poe, Los Angeles. Steiner worked at USC’s Roski School of Art and Design from 2011–2015 as a professor and MFA Director, until she was illegally terminated in May 2015. That same month, the entire MFA class of seven students collectively withdrew from the university, citing improper curricular changes, actionable failures on the part of the School to honor their funding offers, and the decimation of their core faculty as the primary factors leading to their departure.

What led to the collapse of one of the most respected MFA programs in the country? I met with Steiner and Stark to hear, firsthand, how fine art education is being monetized.

 

Dorothée Perret

I’d like to begin by quoting from the recent Wired magazine cover story on Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine because I think it summarizes the situation at USC Roski: “Iovine isn’t just building products and companies that appreciate both art and tech, he’s created an undergraduate program to help instill those values so they can be carried into the future…The school aims to create a new generation of creative executives…” 1 To me, the USC crisis has to do with an abrupt shift of direction inside the institution, as if the university had been hijacked by unethical business practices.

A.L. Steiner

Richard Florida’s notion of the “creative class”—the monetization and Taylorization of all creative endeavor—describes USC’s current effort to dismantle and redefine their fine arts education program, and depicts the kind of place and pedagogy that they’ll offer students. When Frances taught at the school, she was always invested in a pedagogy that fused this idea of commercial design, fine art, and critical theory, as well as painting, drawing, and writing. Tellingly, Florida relegates “Bohemia” to an almost unidentifiable subclass of a creative human, almost a side note—a citizen-subject who must ultimately be subsumed into some channel of neoliberal crapitalism in order to survive. This specter is informing the reconstitution of the fine arts as a corporatized and financialized discipline within the humanities, and furthermore, academic and research structures, overall.2

Frances Stark

I think the broader crisis in terms of the USC scandal speaks to the role of art in the general culture. The situation was so appalling and eye-opening. The entire field of art got torn asunder in order to feed a different industry. In 2012 there was an external review of the art school. The University Committee on Academic Review (UCAR) report praised the strength and resilience of the MFA Program and its faculty and alumni, and severely criticized the school’s main weakness—its under-developed design area.3 Apparently dead set on expanding its revenue-generating design area, the current dean Erica Muhl—who knew next to nothing about visual art—ignored the report and began characterizing the respected MFA program as both failing and unscholarly, and set out to unilaterally fast-track haphazard, destructive changes which quickly result-ed in the destabilization and ultimate collapse of the Roski MFA Program. It’s impossible to say what Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine’s so-called Academy has to do with any of this because it all happened secretly, and appears to have been dreamt up by marketers targeting consumers, not educators, with an informed vision of an evolving field.4

Dorothée

Can you tell about the philosophy of the school before all this happened?

Steiner

The school I entered in 2011 was largely faculty-run and faculty-driven, but the Roski administration at that time embodied a kind of foreshadowing of what was to come—a top-down ethos of fear, scarcity and austerity-driven measures, a creeping fog of impending financialization angling towards the MFA program. The dean in place at that time, who had been hired in 2010, was abruptly removed in 2012 and replaced by Muhl, who had been in USC’s music program for twenty-plus years. She holds no degree, knowledge or expertise in the fields of fine arts, design or curatorial studies. Muhl was installed to instrumentalize the art school for Silicon Valley donors, and rebuild Roski in her own image. There’s still no clarity or explicit vision as to the connection between the Iovine Young Academy and the Roski School. I’ve never seen any administrators act as recklessly in my fifteen years in higher arts education. It was like being stuck in Sartre’s No Exit with Carly Fiorina.

Frances

I want to be clear that I don’t have any animosity towards commercial design. USC students simply haven’t been getting the foundational education that could bridge art and design. In the nine years I taught there I was acutely aware of the need for this bridge, but there simply wasn’t support to build one.

Steiner

We have this fusion—especially in the United States—between what is perceived as the fine arts and the commercial arts, because there is very little state or public funding of the fine arts. So you have public-private partnerships, wherein the non-profit is financialized and must acquiesce to the terms of the commercial marketplace in order to survive, with the utility of the fine arts imagined to be subsumed in the creative business of design. This is now doc-trinaire in arts education.

Dorothée

And the school has made an obvious distinction between fine arts on one hand, and art and design on the other.

Frances

I’m guessing that probably about five years ago, USC president Nikias was sitting in a meeting with a high-powered consultant, and he got the memo that “disruption” is the wave of the future. For a primer on this empty, warmed-over rhetoric, people should read Jill Lepore’s “The Disruption Machine” (The New Yorker, June 23, 2014).  I have no investment in this concept and don’t feel comfortable trying to explain it. I think the school just saw the opportunity to insert an out-sider from the music school with close ties to the entertainment industry. And then I guess they said, “We’re going to get a bunch of money— from tech, from Iovine and Dre—so we need an environment that is going to easily receive this giant seventy million dollar gift.”

Dorothée

Obviously the final intention was clear and direct.

Steiner

Right. There was a political and ideological shift to dismantle the program, openly and with hostility. We held a stellar pedagogical reputation, and were engaged in collaborative and collective research-based processes, as well as energy exchange—all of which was consistently and productively progressive within the cohort. But fine arts pedagogy can’t be measured in metrics, which is why arts education has often been sacrificed in lower education. Rather, it is contingent. And our logos within this research, coupled with this sense of open-ness and possibility, was immediately targeted as problematic by the new strain of neoliberal administrators.

This new crop of administrative faculty-managers are fed a propaganda diet consisting of faddish buzzwords, debunked economic theory and self-help schlock like Joseph Pine’s The Experience Economy and Clayton Christensen’s Disrupting Class and the Innovator’s Dilemma. After cobbling together a fourth-rate under-graduate ‘biznnovative’ academy—complete with the Applesque “Garage” and a few now-obsolete 3D printers—voila!, there’s a perceived “redesign” plan for the Roski school’s Fine Arts programs. This visionless plan devised by Muhl and implemented by a group of four administrators consisted of starving and dismantling the MFA program, then trying to feed off of its corpse. No one was safe, nothing was honored or protected—it was all quickly disrupted to death in a spiral of chaos, confusion, and crisis—ripped limb from limb. As Naomi Klein describes it in The Shock Doctrine, “disaster capitalism.” And then the administration was surprised that no one wanted to attend their non-existent MFA program.

Frances

Here’s what’s really interesting. What Steiner is articulating as the value that USC couldn’t understand—the value they literally just dismissed, that they didn’t believe in—is a value that goes both ways. It’s not unidirectional only towards the student as customer, it also goes towards the professors who play important roles in the ecology of art in this city. And that’s precisely the type of unquantifiable value that makes interesting practices come out of artists who teach. The energy that we’re injecting into the students is not just something where we say, here, take what we offer and run off and do your thing. Their energy is actually feeding back to me, and then I’m putting that back into the art world, so to speak.

Steiner

Yes, and this is getting at the larger questions. What about that space of complete and utter unpredictability, of a complete unknown, of those allowing themselves to break down and rebuild with one another? It was beautiful what I saw happen in the former Roski MFA Program. Amazing artists.

Dorothée

Right. The corporate class has no clue of what it is to be an artist, per se. They’re just looking at figures, profits, and return on investments.

Frances

The broader question is, how does this reflect on the fragility of thinkers or intellectuals? At the end of my time at USC, I started reading Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual. I’ve never considered myself an intellectual, even though that’s what I’ve always identified with. During all this it suddenly became clear— our culture is utterly fixated and enslaved by a preoccupation with branding, and the intellectual is an endangered species.

Dorothée

It brings up the idea of resistance. Do you feel in a state of resistance because of the hostility addressed against you and your practice?

Frances

I’m very blessed to have worked on two major museum exhibitions after resigning USC.5 I’m in a situation where I’m reflecting on everything I’ve done since I started exhibiting in the early 90s. I have total confidence in the work that I make. The dean and her allies seem to be under the impression that what my colleagues and I do professionally is shout into an echo chamber of elites inside an antiquated art world. They believe that the future of art is Mark Zuckerberg and Will.i.am. I know that neither of those things are the case. My art touches all kinds of people and I have ample proof of that fact. It’s also worth noting that all the people working in the museums that are hosting my exhibitions—from the directors, to the curators, to the preparators and the guards—all play a significant role in creating the best conditions for art to sing. The music industry mentality that so egregiously disrespected me and my colleagues is hostile to the notion of song, and my resistance is to keep on singing.

Dorothée

Is the work you’re producing now, alone in the studio, different than what you’ve created until now with the institution at your side?

Steiner

I don’t work in a studio, I work from wherever I am. I don’t offer dollars for landlordism.6 And if I worked alone, I’d never make anything.

The corporatocracy is demanding pedagogy without bodies in a room, but I’m trying to understand place and context. Our engagement with Roski in this transition was an extremely palpable version of systems in which voices are silenced and languages of judgment, rather than wonder, are elevated.7 These institutions desperately need their clocks to be stopped. We are all inside of crisis. I think Frances and I maybe are in some form of rebuilding mode, in the midst of bloodbath and beyond.

Frances

The lecture program that Steiner organized at the end of our time at USC was the most interesting, brilliant thing. It was a masterful editorial choreography, such a fucking complex set of relationships. And that’s a form of thought, right? That’s what the institution is meant to allow for, for artists and intellectuals to per-form complex thought over extended periods of time. That is not something any of us have the personal budget or freedom to explore without institutional support.

Steiner

Our methods, whatever they may be called, are completely reliant on that type of long-term thinking. We’re not making things where we have a deadline, because, in our practices, nothing is ever going to end. It’s about understanding something over a period of time, and how continuum and flux are such central, crucial parts of this process.

Dorothée

This idea about “long-term thinking” in your practice is one of the key problems in the USC crisis. The university is actually at the opposite pole from this idea.

Frances

One of the key characteristics that Steiner brought up about real-life, in-person situations is this collaborative thing about being open to chance. But one of the main things about people being together, and having some kind of solidarity, is that we are in concert. Here’s my fantasy about a school. Since they’re so obsessed with this as a business, let’s think of it as a fac-tory, and the faculty is the machinery to make the product that’s being sold. Wouldn’t you de-sign the factory floor so that it worked? It’s possible to choreograph thought, and that’s what a school has to offer. And that’s where I felt like USC really wasted it. Now, there is no faculty. What we had was a faculty—a group, a culture.

Steiner

And as Charlie White said, “You can’t kill the culture of a program and have a program any-more.”8

Frances

In the broader culture, what’s really disturbing is that the music industry has nothing to do with music anymore. The September 2015 cover lines of Wired magazine refer to Dre and Iovine as “the new professors,” and claim they have a plan to “teach the next generation of creators how to lead.” They’re going to do this by destroying an art school and producing more workers for the tech industry? They want to be the top players and monopolize the marketplace of music. But they’re not concerned with musicians, or the interpretation of music, or the value of music. They’re only interested in dominating the marketplace and being in the top position.

Steiner

Yes. In the Wall Street Journal Magazine (November 2014), Iovine described the purpose of the Academy succinctly: “We want kids who can work at Beats or at Apple.” That’s it. A vocational school where the students must complete their undergraduate degree by making a “successful prototype” in the “Garage” for Beats or Apple. That is now considered some form of “arts” pedagogy at a research university. The first commencement speaker that Muhl brought in was a Roski design graduate who worked for Viacom, who tried to inspire the crowd by discussing her work on a Wendy’s campaign and how she really liked keeping in touch with her friends on social media. The speech was a shameful failure but indicative of a tech-myopia malady. That which re-mains in “higher learning” is a brand. We are maybe heading into the post-semantic—an absence of language that would allow for critical thought.

Dorothée

Have you ever thought about creating your own school?

Frances

People have talked about that a lot, and I used to talk about that, but now what I’m in the process of doing is getting my studio to actually function as a studio. So, I’m cleaning up my side of the street in the studio, so I can thrive as an artist.

Steiner

I didn’t attend an MFA program but my role as student has never ended. I think Frances and I both believe that learning isn’t something that’s beholden to being inside or outside of a specific space or institution. There are innumerous pedagogical systems.

Dorothée

It’s great to see you still have the energy to give as much as you receive in term of knowledge. Is this not what the idea of “universal education” is about?

Frances

If you read Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, he describes this amazing teacher, and it’s such a beautiful chapter, because this teacher has all the qualities of one of the wonderful humanities instructors I had at San Francisco State. And he writes about Alan Watts being a guest in his class, and it seems to me he had a better class in prison than what the USC students are getting today. College is increasingly a scam, and everyone should go look up Thomas Frank’s “Academy Fight Song” on the Baffler immediately. Just as I was encountering the realities at USC, I began pursuing conversations with young people who’ve been bound up in the criminal justice system from childhood. Most people think college is the only thing that’s going to save them from poverty or the streets. That’s a myth—half the professors are living in poverty. The dean makes something in the neighborhood of $750,000 a year, and adjunct teachers who actually teach the majority of the classes earn maybe $10,000 a year, if they’re lucky.

Dorothée

Obviously the system is messed up, but are there any new or different answers that can be applied to pedagogy today?

Steiner

The institutions are bastions of the financial class. The fight for fair adjunct/contingent pay is a worthy cause, as the income divide widens further and teachers are considered service workers. Fred Moten stated of the Roski MFA student drop-out, “So for me, the 2016 class leaving is a necessary moment of Exodus. They can no longer survive in the decaying body of that program. And that program can no longer survive in the decaying body of USC. And that decay takes the form of a sort of transfiguration. The university as a place for thought or as a refuge for study—it just doesn’t exist anymore, and it’s kind of crazy to keep acting like it does.”9 All at once, one must eliminate and generate possibility, as I’ve understood through Fred’s exploration of the in-between and nothingness. As Moten and Harney state in The Undercommons, “What the beyond of teaching is really about is not finishing oneself, not passing, not completing; it’s about allowing subjectivity to be unlawfully overcome by others, a radical passion and passivity such that one becomes unfit for subjection, because one does not possess the kind of agency that can hold the regulatory forces of subjecthood… It is not so much the teaching as it is the prophecy in the organization of the act of teaching.”10

Dorothée

Are you saying that we don’t need any institutions to explore and invent new ways of being together?

Steiner

I think about institutionality a lot, for sure. But who “we” are or what is “needed” is contextual and contingent. We are often communing, sometimes as bodies, or bodies with mediation, or just mediation, or voice. And then there are exclusionary, shared or isolated spaces. Things to consider: is there a sense of chance and possibility in these spaces, what is the hierarchy, what are the control mechanisms, what is allowable. Etc. Sometimes one never finds out these answers, sometimes one partially does. Sometimes it’s revelatory.

Dorothée

What about the reality of today’s social life being run by corporate media platforms?

Steiner

Yes, I guess we are in the “stack.”11 Controlled sociality, a society of control. Inside of the rectangles, entangled. We’re tracked and we voluntarily track ourselves; we are code and we voluntarily input more code. It’s like the conundrum of a psychic going out of business.

Frances

You need models. My concern, and one of the things I brought up in my work Bobby Jesus’s Alma Mater—in terms of the icons of these rap stars—is, what is modeling? Who is doing the modeling? If Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre are the new professors, what exactly are they professing?

Dorothée

Who’s your mentor—right? It’s a fundamental question when comes to education and pedagogy, one to be taking with seriousness and concern.

Frances

This is what was so heartbreaking, and which resonates beyond the broader issues of our culture today. I thought, “This is where we tell the truth.” I thought of college like a church, and you’re not supposed to lie there. It’s not a question of being right or wrong, which is, of course, perpetually up for debate. But the administrators at USC were straight-up liars. For example, when they were trying to rewrite the aforementioned damning review of their de-sign program, they attempted to use fine art as window dressing, saying the design program benefitted from having a “fine art sensibility.” I pointed it out to the dean by incredulously reading that phrase aloud. And she said “isn’t that great!?” And I said “No, it’s meaningless.” And without missing a beat she switched positions and said, “Oh, that’s just provost speak.” Their marketing and PR tactics have nothing to do with earnest investments in developing solutions to real problems of how to teach and what to teach. We were repeatedly ridiculed for caring about the actual perception, effect or role of art in the broader culture.

Steiner

That’s a huge, sad point of our story. We experienced what happens—intimately, amongst a collective group such as a “school”—when language and syntax no longer matter. It’s like being in complete freefall. Our relationship to language is crucial. Critical. We are dependent on it. Karen Barad wrote, “Language matters. Discourse matters. Culture matters. There is an important sense in which the only thing that does not seem to matter anymore is matter.”12 But crapitalist corporate culture is predicated on lying, manipulating, stealing, exploiting, extracting, pillaging and burning. Manufacturing fear, desire and consent. There is absolutely no incentive or leverage for moral or ethical structures within our current paradigm. Empathy is remote and we are experiencing “compassion fatigue.”13 We’re distracted, overwhelmed, exhausted. Everything we know is excessive, dead, dying, going haywire, almost gone or extinct. The university rhetorically supported whatever its ye olde mission statement or latest self-help book said, but its administrative art apparatus was fascinated solely by its own metric-growth-power-feedback loop. It does not support or reward consciousness, sentience, intellect or inquiry. Life force. It’s dedicated to obedience, class division, and death of the sensual mind. As Mattathias Schwartz wrote in 2010, “The staying power of the bullshit comes from the way it harnesses the world-destroying forces of Youth and Sex, to control the sites where they are  released, and to use their latent energy to perpetuate bullshit.”14

This conversation was originally published in PARIS LA 14, the “Arts Education” issue (Winter 2016).

Text © PARIS LA.

Notes:

  1. Jason Tanz, “Relentless,” Wired, September 2015, 66–67. “Relentless”—published in a magazine which partnered with USC in 2014 to create an online graduate program—reads like an extended in-house press release wherein Iovine, Dre, Muhl, and Tanz exchange cliché-ridden soundbites predictably bereft of introspection, balance, or evidence of rigorous journalistic practice.
  2. Richard Florida is the author of The Rise of the Creative Class (2002) and the “Bohemian Index.” Taylorism is a management theory which seeks to improve economic efficiency by synthesizing workflows. It was developed by American engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856–1915).
  3. The UCAR report stated: “In nine years, the MFA program has gone from an under-funded, badly-housed, and amateurish program to a tightly moderated, well-supported, well-housed program dedicated to the nurturing of professional artists—people who are ready, upon graduation, to assume their roles in the outer world as practicing artists. The formation of a community of alumni who are continuing their studio practices in Los Angeles, and the success of several recent grads, are evidence of the effectiveness of a seriousness of purpose, along with intensive teaching and mentoring that has been provided by MFA core faculty, and visiting artists and critics.” Conversely, of the design area, it was stated: “However, the current design area of concentration does not have a strong point of view, and is saddled with teaching a large set of classes that are essentially focused on software training. Competency in soft-ware and coding is an essential part of any young designers ‘toolbox,‘ but it is not enough to create a pedagogy. There is no one on the full-time, non-tenure track faculty that has a BFA or MFA degree in design, so the existing curricula feels very oriented to the trade of design practice, with an understand-able link to the entertainment industry practice.”
  4. Erica Muhl is the dean at USC Roski School of Art and Design, as well as the executive director of the Iovine and Young Academy for Arts, Technology, and the Business of Innovation, an undergraduate program funded by Andre Young (Dr. Dre) and Jimmy Iovine’s $70 million gift to the school in 2013.
  5. Prior to the current Hammer retrospective, Frances Stark: Intimism was at the Art Institute of Chicago from May through August 2015.
  6. See Jack Smith, Wait For Me At The Bottom of the Pool (New York: High Risk, 1998).
  7. See Kathy Acker, “Critical Languages,” in Bodies of Work (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1997).
  8. Artist and professor Sharon Lockhart left USC Roski for CalArts in the summer of 2015. Artist Charlie White is a professor at USC Roski.
  9. “Fred Moten in conversation with Amanda McGough,” Haunt: Journal of Art 2 (2015): 78. www.hauntjournal.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/HAUNT_Moten.pdf
  10. Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Black Planning & Fugitive Study (Minor Compositions, 2013).
  11. See Benjamin H. Bratton, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015).
  12. Karen Barad, “Posthuman-ist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter,” Signs 28, no. 3 (2003): 801.
  13. See Guillermo Gómez–Peña, “The New Global Culture: Somewhere between Corporate Multiculturalism and the Mainstream Bizarre (a border perspective)”, TDR: The Drama Review 45, no. 1 (Spring 2001), 7–30.
  14. Mattathias Schwartz, “Teen Sex Energy/Land Money Power,” Megawords Magazine 13 (2010). www.mattathiass-chwartz.com/tse-lmp/.

From top: Frances Stark and A. L. Steiner found image; A. L. Steiner, Untitled (MFA.biz), 2013. Images courtesy and © the artists and PARIS LA.

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