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.

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