DIY SPACES | DIY MFA
Amplifiy Art Denver and ArtPlanet x Black Cube at Redline, January 10–11, 2017
I visited Redline recently for two forums back-to-back. The first night, hosted by Amplify Art Denver, was a town-hall-style forum about how artists can flee or fight back against Denver’s eviction strategy of sweeping up DIY spaces. The second night, hosted by ArtPlant and Black Cube, invited the architects of a handful of different experimental art schools across the country and abroad as a Q & A panel. These educators, admittedly flying by the seat of their pants, are throwing paint at the wall in order to create the community scaffolding that artists need to sharpen their horns on each other.
Night one — DIY Spaces
The night opened with an ominous statement about the “pre- and post- Ghost Ship” mentality that local arts communities are discussing. Ghost Ship, an artist collective in Oakland, burned down Dec. 2, 2016. Thirty-five people died in the fire, making it the deadliest in Oakland’s history. The warehouse wasn’t zoned for residential use or use as a venue but operated underground as both. If utopia is cheap rent and freedom, this was it; and if the road to dystopia is paved with good intentions, then this was also it. Denver, realizing the potential danger of the situation, evicted community members from its own little Ghost Ship analogs, Rhinoceropolis and Glob. “About a dozen people,” were evicted from Rhinoceropolis on Dec 8, 2016. That night, the low was 10°F. While the venues passed every fire department inspection in the past five years except one, Rhinoceropolis and Glob are not zoned for residential use. In order for people to live there, the spaces would need to be equipped with smoke alarms, sprinklers, etc. The Fire Department turned a blind eye to the live-work scenario in years past, but this winter the Ghost Ship tragedy made them reconsider.
Space, “Space”, SPACE: the darling buzzword for the world of theory and practice. It was on everyone’s tongue at the forum. It’s kind of a perfect blend of the two abstractedly. It’s vague enough to be theory, but also auto-applies to any situation in its immediacy. Because the arts are such a shapeshifter, really the only elements necessary to make art are a place to create and the time to do it. This is hard. Time and space are not free. They have to be carved out. They have to be lit up and imagined. While it’d be nice if someone would McDonaldize affordable housing and create a safe franchise for people to cook up ideas cheaply, I’m not sure if the market would allow that any time soon.
While the general consciousness at the meeting formerly seemed to believe that these spaces could form organically, many were begging for more organized ideation. “How do we communicate with the city?” they asked. How can artists have the time and space to work outside of derelict places? Is the law prohibitive of these imagined live-work collectives and what does it take to change them? If the underground scene can’t survive, can these venues function as a proper non-profits? The answers at the forum ranged from shoulda-woulda-coulda vagueries of younger artists to specific ideas about law and architecture from professionals looking to contribute. What most guests agreed on was that something about Denver has to change if it wants to retain its artists.
Some of America’s most successful cities are so because of the quality of life the arts provide. It’s a familiar story: an area becomes “cool” because people settle low rent areas, they flourish, more people move there, rent increases, blah blah, all of the sudden the artsyness of a community is replaced with an empty brand. Imagine your favorite expensive dive bar! Its called colonization. If The River North ARTS District is going to build condos with fake graffiti on them on top of the homes of its native artists, it is no longer an arts district — it’s a simulation. Sure, hypocrisy in politics is not uncommon, but cynical complacency with politics is just another form of obedience. The city of Denver touts its commitment to “The Arts” out of one side of its mouth, while commanding a task force to evict artists out of the other.
Another interesting observation from the evening is how many voices spoke up about “rights”. I’m a firm believer that the world is created rather than discovered, and I think that what these artists did. They created a place to connect and create. There was a lot of talk, dripping with naïveté, about artists rights to have a place to create. What is an artist though? A person that makes art? What is a plumber? A person who plumbs? Why should these people who make art be granted rights to space that the city doesn’t even seem to bestow on its homeless population? Our society exists the way it does because we are specialized. Highly specialized people that work at a computer all day have to be good at sitting still not social skills. A good restaurant server has exceptional social grace, not a long attention span. People in academia have to be good at focusing, not reflexes. These are gross generalizations, but the point is society has created the specialized role of the artist. And it’s that hyper-specialization that forces the artist to disregard safety in an effort to make a valuable product. Right? Dismiss these as philosophical judgments and I’ll show you a real economic need. The ethos at this forum was that artists in Denver have a right to urban space and if the city wanted to keep the arts around, it would have to be nurtured; for affordable space to be reserved.
Night Two — DIY MFA
The following night, we talked about the alternatives to a Masters in Fine Arts. “Why bother?” the guest panel asked. People get checks daily for writing about how the college degree is becoming less useful. An MFA, is low-hanging fruit for debt collectors. Art has a unique existence in the academy as being completely rhizomatic. It starts and ends wherever it wants; wherever it can exist. Contrary to popular belief and the hundreds of thousands of dollars people spend on their degrees, art doesn’t necessarily require the foundations that other disciplines in humanities and sciences might. The best artists smash ideas, express themselves, and are willing and able to use their time and resources for their craft. Theoretically, art is non-hierarchical. In reality, it’s difficult to escape art’s who-you-know relationship to academies of prestige.
The format of the evening was a question and answer panel with four guests from different experimental art schools: Andrew Berardini of The Mountain School in Los Angeles, Sean Carney and Seth Cameron of The Bruce High Quality Foundation University in New York, and Carla Herrera-Pratt of SOMA Summer in Mexico City. The guests were all friendly and charming, and the atmosphere was more playful and less cynical than the night before. A fun part of the night was listening to the speakers talk about what their alternative to the MFA actually is. At the very least, the panelists could say where their programs happen and when. Further than that, explanations varied from laughing their way through explanations, relying on anecdotes, or requiring the audience to use their imagination. Does this mean they’re bullshit? Of course not, they are experiments. The lack of clear form and explicit ideology lets the chips fall where they may. While some of the “classes” may have certain prompts or themes, it seems the real goal is to dedicate time and space to creative practice for its inherent rewards: community and productivity.
If the previous night’s buzzword was “space”, DIY MFA was about “community.” This time, the link between theory and practice is obvious but still blurry. In theory, these pioneers want an alternative to dominant arts education and in practice they are experimenting. Aside from instruction and access to tools and materials, an arts education affords students an invaluable resource; a peer group with which to live and work. The Internet is a great place to communicate, share, and imagine these places outside of arts education, but it’s another caliber of radicalism to actualize this concept IRL. The panelists want to create intentional spaces that are more horizontal and inclusive without slouching into a party. In contrast to Rhinoceropolis, which is known for drugs and raves, Herrera-Pratt’s SOMA Summer has a zero-tolerance policy for illicit substances. At Rhinoceropolis, residents paid rent and had bedroom studios, meanwhile at The Bruce High Quality Foundation students don’t pay room and board or tuition, but class still exists on a schedule. Each has their own approach to community.
If these DIY MFA programs seem to be up in the clouds or seem unrealistic compared to the empire of arts education looming over them, remember these experimenters are not asking how high but how far they can go. With whom can they connect and from where can they capture students? Rather than capital, they are asking for diversity of connection. Already, you can see these relationships forming. Seth Cameron mentioned that if in his pool of applicants he were to see a former student of Andrew Berardini’s, he would probably jump that person to the top of the stack. This is the beginning of an alumni network. As artists emerge from these incubators, they have a host of former peers around the country with which to collaborate and pool resources. Isn’t this the same way all powerful constituencies form?
Refreshingly, both nights at Redline maintained a solidarity of purpose that still left room for critical debate. Dialogue like that of the two nights at Redline is necessary if we are going to get past lazy critique-of-capitalism banter and truly examine and explore options. The artist community in Denver and that of the DIY art schools want solutions, but on what terms? The starving struggling artist exists for a reason: in a capitalist society it is rebellious to ignore the demands of the market and prioritize creative practice — whether you live in Denver or anywhere else. Most people want an affordable place to live and a decent education. These issues expand far outside of the artist community. How about affordable housing for the rest of Denver’s homeless? How about DIY education for other disciplines? The critical answer is that the participants in the forums at Redline found a something in common to rally around. The next step after Redline is to find even more in common, more solidarity, in order to increase the collective volume of these questions.