Monday, February 25, 2008

Yoko Loves Me

Now back in Berkeley, fully caffeinated with an appropriate number of cats "assisting" me, I want to step back a couple of days and revisit Friday, Day 3 of the College Art Association in Dallas. In particular, I want to try to describe the experience of seeing Yoko Ono.

I'll start by saying I've always loved Ono's artwork. The sense of outreach, of inclusion, was a huge hook for me; her works always make you, the viewer, not just an audience but a co-creator—sometimes in a sly way, sometimes more overtly. This is, of course, a core principle of the movement that came to be called Fluxus, of which Ono was a central figure along with John Cage, Joseph Beuys, Allen Kaprow, and many others. But rather that mosey off on an art history tangent, I want to take a more personally meaningful one. On Friday afternoon, I got to be in the same room with Yoko Ono, and it was nothing short of a spiritual experience for me.

I was about two-thirds of the way back in an enormous ballroom that was packed to standing room by those of us who had come to hear her. She graciously came to Dallas to accept an award from CAA for her "Lifetime Body of Work," and to participate in a traditional post-award interview, but the atmosphere was more like that of a rock concert. When she came out onto the stage, I was struck by how tiny she is--an incredibly petite figure in black pants, black hat, dark glasses and a bright red jacket. The only camera I had with me was my pathetic cell phone camera, yet I got this picture of her, which I think is incredibly representative: she's a very small woman with an almost impossibly large spirit.

I can't adequately describe this experience; after writing and re-writing this blog entry many times, it seemed too journalistic (well, I was a journalist for 10 years, so don't hate me for that, it's kind of second nature at this point), but worse, it sounds trite. This was anything except a trite experience, and all I can do is say that.

Her capacity to give profound answers to mundane questions was astonishing. She discussed her early years as an artist, and the "naming" of Fluxus. The interviewer noted, "You were a very young artist at that time, weren't you?" and Yoko turned thoughtful for a moment, then replied "I know I am 75 years old, because you all keep telling me I am. But I have no sense of being 75, I only have a sense of being me. It is the same sense of being me that I have always had. So if you were to tell me I was a very young artist then, I would be surprised!"

Her conversation, comments and work shared with us that afternoon struck me like pure love with an optimism so strong that it was irresistable. She brought gifts for us all, to include us in two of her ongoing projects. The first, "Onochord," asks us all to participate in "covering the world with love" in order to save it. We all got a tiny penlight and a postcard with the Onochord poem and sequence to use to make our lights say "I love you," over and over again, as often as we can, to everyone we can, from everywhere we can. She showed a brief video of the project being introduced in large arenas all over the world, to a soundtrack of "Give Peace a Chance." Within a few seconds, the whole conference audience was flashing their penlights at Yoko and each other, whispering with delight; Yoko had her own penlight and flashed back at us. I held mine as high as I could and sent her a heart-felt "I Love You," and in return I felt her light hit my face and flash back the same message.

She talks about her family and friends with great affection, talks about John Lennon with enormous love in her voice as if she just left him in the other room. She is energetic and bright and profound without any thought to it at all. She is modest and playful and funny and so optimistic ...

Which brings me to our other gift, the second art project. The other gift is a shard of a shattered enormous Japanese vase. She brought the pieces out in a large box and tumbled them out onto the edge of the stage, and invited everyone to come up and take one. "In ten years," she said, "we'll all get together again and we'll reassemble the vase."

Ten years, meet Yoko. I have it on my calendar, I'll be there. And I have every faith that Yoko will be there too, one way or another.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Coming Soon: Love in New Media, Clandestine Affairs, and I {{Heart}} Yoko ...

I'm finishing up a hectic and full fourth day at the College Art Association Conference today, taking a break between extraordinarily good sessions to utilize the hotel's pathetic Wi-Fi to let everyone know what's coming up ...

1. Reflections on the state of new media ... hell, on the definition of new media.

2. Veiled and mysterious reports on notable Clandestine Affairs that have been shared with me. I could tell you more, but Mel Chin would have to kill you.

3. Yoko! Ono! We were in the same room. I am still affected ...

All this written wisdom and pictures too when I find myself back in Berkeley, the land of good coffee, comfy chairs, and high-speed internet connections.

So, 'til then!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Day 2 in Dallas: More Pieces of the Puzzle

Today has been a very interesting day; I've learned a lot. First the mundane things:

1. Apparently, almost everyone has either lived in, knows someone who lived in, or wants to live in Berkeley.

2. Dallas does not adhere to the same coffee standards as Northern California.

Now. On to the more esoteric lessons.

The day started off with an interesting conference session entitled "Photography After Photography," in which exactly two of the seven panelists identified themselves as photographers. This I can easily forgive the art historian on the panel, as art-making is not really supposed to be the baileywick of historians, and she certainly knew volumes about the history of photography. But I wondered what exactly was being said by the composition of this panel. Is "Photography After Photography" doomed to be nothing more than documentation?

Some of the panelists made the argument that the real "photography after photography" is collaboration. But even so, it appeared to be a sort of "after the point" kind of collaboration with photography playing a subservient role to performance or social practice or some other mode of artistic endeavor. This worried me a little bit. I work in a variety of media, but I AM a photographer (and not a digital one, either); I don't want to believe that my most-loved medium is unimportant, subservient, or doomed.

This is not to say I didn't enjoy the session; I certainly did enjoy it. And I got ideas from it about ways I'd like to work (which means I'm nicking one panelist's process, but I'm sure she won't mind) and arenas I'd like to explore. All of the presentations were uncommonly engaging, and even those panelists who simply stood up and read their presentations did so with a certain amount of vocal animation. So "Photography After Photography," once blended with an appropriate amount of espresso and a tasty breakfast pastry, turned out to be a good way to begin my day.

For the afternoon, I headed up to the 37th floor for my 20-minute meeting with my assigned "mentor" to discuss my potential as an art educator.

My "mentor" turned out to have no photographic, video, social practice, or net-art background; he was formerly the chair of the sculpture department at a large East Coast university. He was, however, an extraordinarily nice man and we discovered a shared appreciation of Sophie Calle that ate up at least six of our allotted 20 minutes. And I learned several key things from talking to him.

He confirmed my concern that my lack of classroom time would be seen as problematic in seeking out full-time postions, especially those that are tenure-track. But he also thought my past non-art experience in writing, editing, and web development made me a rather more valuable commodity than the average person, which I had not expected.

"Artists need to know how to write," he said simply. "In the past, they didn't generally understand this, or thought it didn't matter. But now, they do." So my writing ability gives me a leg up both as an artist and as a future art academic; cool, all my years as a professional writer and my journalism degree are not going to waste after all.

He encouraged me to find a way to combine my "working life" resume with my exhibition record so potential employers get a fuller picture of who I am and what I can do for them. And he suggested that I just go right ahead and tell some potential future employers what I can do for them. "Propose a class," he said. "Find a hole in an academic program, and approach them with a solution. You might turn out to be the answer to a prayer, or at least be remembered positively when an opportunity opens up."

And last but not least, he emphasized that in an academic interview, personality counts much more than it might in the "other" world. "If you're applying for a tenure-track position, the interviewing committee could find themselves working with you for 20 years," he said. "Are they going to want to be around you for 20 years? Or are you going to be perceived as a pain in the ass?"

Well, good. That part I think I already have in the bag; people tend to like me and I am generally perceived (and indeed AM) easy to get along with, flexible, pleasant, and with a good sense of humor. And I know I have a lot to offer. Now, if I can just get myself in the door...

And as if by magic, I have an almost immediate opportunity to test these ideas and concepts; there is an opening at a local community college that I plan to apply for. Predictably the pay is rather less than I'm making now, and we're only just getting by as it is, but it's a great chance to see if I can present myself as the highly-desirable commodity my mentor believes me to be, and it's also a chance to edge open the door to those course proposals that could give me the classroom time to make other organizations interested in bringing me on-board.

Tomorrow there are more compelling sessions to attend, plus the interviews with Yoko Ono and Adel Abindin. Not to short-shrift Abindin, but Yoko! Ono! ... And I'm awash with ideas for my artistic practice; the art juices are flowing again. Being here has been good for me in many different ways.

There's a lot to look forward to, I think. A lot to look forward to.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

CAA Day One: The Next Big Piece of the Puzzle

This art life of mine, it's something of a puzzle. It reminds me of all those badly-behaved boyfriends I went through in my 20s; you know in your logical mind that life would be a lot simpler and a lot more straight-forward without them, but you miss them when they're not around, despite the complete and utter lack of any positive reinforcement for your patience and dedication. Art can be like that. It's problematic, it's tricky, it's not always reliable, it's sometimes reluctant to "give back." It sometimes makes me sigh and scratch my head and wonder why I'm bothering. But in the end, the answer is the same as it was for the badly-behaved boyfriends: I stick with it because I love it, because something in me needs it, needs it worse than I'll ever need anything else.

I'm at the College Art Association conference in Dallas right now, in a massive beige hotel that makes me wish I'd brought along my GPS and maybe a sherpa for good measure. I'm not here for the kind of big "social reunion" that these conferences can be; there don't seem to be any people here whom I know, and this is only my second time at the conference. And I'm not here just to soak up the sometimes-great, sometimes-brain-killing programming and presentations on the schedule (although I'm pretty excited about the interview with Yoko Ono happening this Friday).

I'm actually here for the next big piece of the puzzle, you see. I'm here to get ready to start looking for work. Not just any work; "art academic" kind of work.

Notice that I didn't say I was here to look for work; that's a different thing altogether. There definitely are a lot of people here with just that objective; I saw plenty of nervous faces and bodies clearly uncomfortable in suits and skirts and dress shoes milling around the Candidate Center (where actual job interviews take place) from the moment it opened this morning. I witnessed a friend of mine interviewing for jobs at a CAA conference a few years ago, and when I ran into him he was so stressed out he couldn't even manage to talk—and this was at 9 o'clock in the morning.

I'm not quite ready for that; hence, "getting ready" to look, rather than "looking."

I've landed lots of jobs in my life. I'm good at it. I know what my strengths are, I know how to write a cover letter and re-craft a resume to show my experience at best advantage for each job I apply for. I'm a good interview; presentable, personable, professional and prepared. I know how to do my homework, and I know how to follow up. So that much is not a mystery to me.

But the rules are different when it comes to academia. Exhibition records are important. Slides and CDs and printouts are important. And there are all kinds of arcane things for the job-seeker to consider: part-time, full-time, ladder rank, tenure-track, union or non-union, anticipated semester load, load relief, sabbatical, resources.

So I have a 20-minute appointment with an assigned "mentor" tomorrow. I don't know who this mentor is, but assumably he or she has been assigned to me because of some degree of overlap with work or philosophy or maybe it's all really just based on who's available. Who can tell? I have a list of questions to ask, and I have a plan in mind that I want advice on. I think there is probably a lot I need to do to enhance my appeal as an academic job candidate, and I think it will probably take me a year.

But maybe next year, you'll be reading a post about how I'm at the CAA conference to actually look for work. That's what I hope, anyway.