The following is an abridged transcript from an interview at the Open Engagement conference, which took place from May 13 to 15, 2011, at Portland State University. Open Engagement is an initiative of PSU’s Art and Social Practice MFA program that encourages discussion on various perspectives in social practice. In this conversation, Bad at Sports contributors Duncan MacKenzie, Abigail Satinsky, and Brian Andrews speak with James Voorhies, who was a featured presenter at this year’s conference, about the origin, evolution, and activities of the Bureau for Open Culture.
Duncan McKenzie: We are joined by James Voorhies, the guiding light of the Bureau for Open Culture. And we were just discussing as we sat down to do this that I have no idea how to do this intro, as the Bureau for Open Culture is chimera-like and mercurial. How do you think about what the Bureau for Open Culture is?
James Voorhies: It started when I was asked to curate exhibitions at Columbus College of Art and Design in 2007, and as a way of defining what I was doing. I had entered a moment when I was putting exhibitions into a gallery that was used for other constituents at the college, but I was also doing lots of different projects, in gardens and storefront spaces and parking lots and so forth. It was a way of defining this kind of activity, this curatorial practice, this exhibition program. “Bureau” suggests there’s some sense of organization, while “for Open Culture” reflects where we are now. The Bureau for Open Culture is an invitation to lots of people from different disciplines to participate in projects, and also this shape-shifting space between artist and institution that allows lots of different things to occur, which is happening all over the place under the realm of contemporary art.
Abigal Satinsky: When you started curating exhibitions in Columbus, did you decide that you were going to take this position and create this entity out of it?
JV: It became clear very quickly because, typically, exhibition programs are defined by a space, such as a gallery. But it was really hard to define what I was doing when the space was used for other purposes: college admissions, faculty exhibitions, and student exhibitions. It became almost this manic space. Our website became very important, as did the graphic identity, because at first, no one was coming to our projects. For the first exhibition, I think thirty people showed up, and for the last exhibition I did in Columbus, we had five hundred people show up to the exhibition program. So we built an audience through the graphic design.
DMcK: I want to ask a more practical side of that question. The Bureau for Open Culture arose as your project inside of Columbus, where you had been hired as a curator. But they don’t have any connection to the Bureau now?
JV: Now, they do not. They are searching for a new exhibitions director that will make their own program from the ground up. Right now, I'm going through the paperwork, I just sent the last few answers to the last few questions for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status for the Bureau for Open Culture, and we are working hard to partner with other institutions. So the focus will be on inhabiting, for shorter or longer periods of time, larger institutions to make projects. For example, I have a big project at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) for four months this summer.
DMcK: I don’t think there are many institutional positions where you get to write your own ticket, use their resources to create your project, and grow it out to become its own project.
JV: No, there are not, and I'm very grateful. The great thing is that the exhibitions program is under the academic umbrella, which is the place you want to be positioned—as opposed to under institutional advancement—as it really allows this intellectual exercise to happen with the exhibitions. The provost [at Columbus] is just incredibly visionary and allows certain space for experimentation and uncertainty without knowing the answers to the questions we were asking, or the processes that we were following. And I thought about this a lot: you really have to have those one or two people that allow these things to happen.
AS: Can you explain what your curatorial agenda was when you started and maybe some questions you started with, as well as how you define open culture within that agenda?
JV: I was the deputy director at the Wattis Institute in San Francisco and working there with Ralph Rugoff when I was invited by Columbus to take the position and rebuild their exhibition program. So I knew from the beginning that it was the space where something special could happen, especially in the Midwest, which isn't traditionally seen as some hotbed of cultural production, but is still rich with lots of interested, engaged people.
It was important to use the space of the gallery, but I'm also attracted to the potential in public spaces, the potential in old buildings and storefront spaces. How can you transform those into learning sites through the installation of artwork and the production of some sort of conversation—of some sort of human connection that we can establish with art? And space often dictates that; obviously, this discussion has been going on for years in terms of institutional critique. Those questions were strong in my mind and they still are. It was important to put on exhibitions that were accessible to those who are not so familiar with contemporary art, but then also to allow challenging ideas to take place within the program as well. It’s hard to straddle that, because you never want to be impenetrable in that way.
DMcK: One of the ways to access this question of how to open up your notion of culture is to look back at past projects before we get into more recent ones. So I want you to tell me about The New Administration of Fine Arts Education.
JV: Do you like my titles?
DMcK: You have deliberately provocative titles.
JV: The New Administration of Fine Arts Education is essentially a lecture series and a publication. I invited four artists and curators to speak about their practices. For example, John Rubin teaches at Carnegie Mellon University and operates two projects, one called the Waffle Shop and one called the Conflict Kitchen. He integrates so many different practices into the work that he does, from design as communication to engagement with questions of how we educate young artists and what are the expectations that we instill in young artists as they're going through an MFA program. And also, how does a large institution like Carnegie Mellon make this exodus into public space, into rejuvenating an area with something like Conflict Kitchen and the Waffle Shop? As another example, J. Morgan Puett talked about the different ways in which art is being produced and even, to use her phrase, of being as practice. How do you aestheticize a certain lifestyle, and the things that we do, and the people we engage with, as a practice?
All of these artists engage with students and with the production of graduate students. So it was really about the new ways in which we think of art and social practice, but also directly connect with capital; for example, John Rubin is directly engaging with ways to sustain a practice by selling waffles. How do you take that into your own hands, and sustain a life without waiting for someone to discover you?
DMcK: So how do we as institutional bodies in the art world instill that in our students? Do we model that practice? What techniques do we employ to create this next generation of artists?
JV: That’s happening slowly through the disintegration of disciplines, and different departments are inviting or creating MFA programs that are solely based on projects, as opposed to a major. It’s also about looking at cultural production as more of a sweeping creative practice, as opposed to an expertise and the knowledge of one medium, and the way to instill that in young artists is the element of communications. Because whether you like it or not, knowing how to speak in public and through writing, and knowing how to communicate with people online is a way in which your practice will be visible, as well as accessible. I think that’s important.
Brian Andrews: That also begs the question of what basic skills does an artist need to be a maker now? And what are the true foundations?
JV: Where I teach right now, at Bennington College, there are disciplines, but students are not encouraged to and cannot just specialize in visual arts. Students are required to take classes in such areas as environmental studies and visual arts, or philosophy and visual arts. By encouraging students from the ground up to not sequester themselves into this specialized knowledge is one way that is happening. I think that’s a really important question because the MFA is this rarefied program, and these ideas should be thought of more on an undergraduate level.
AS: I was just thinking about that in the context of being here as part of Open Engagement, which is part of [PSU’s] MFA program in social practice, and there’s a lot of conversation about social practice as a nascent disciplinary practice. If we’re talking about creating a situation in which MFAs are working outside of traditional boundaries, but social practice is establishing itself as one particular kind of field, isn’t that limiting?
JV: It’s absolutely problematic, because it’s still falling within these modernistic terms of defining disciplines and defining what you do and who you are. We all pull something from a particular knowledge base that is relevant to a particular moment, so to be able to have that catalogue of skills and knowledge base is really the key. If you go through a program and all you learn to do is to work with paint or another material that’s easy to grab onto, that’s problematic in the long run. And I do think that arts education is moving away from that more and more. But to go back to your original question, sequestering or defining social practice as a—for lack of a better word, medium—is problematic as well.
AS: Do you think that there’s also something liberating about that? One of the things that is interesting to me about social practice, in talking about someone like J. Morgan Puett who has this idea of being in practice, is the question of how you want to operate in the world as a person. And that’s a pretty
expansive notion. A lot of people talk about the world that they want to operate in rather than the art world that they want to operate in. That seems to have a lot of potential there, but at the same time, it seems like professionalization in a particular way, bringing up what Brian was asking about the essential skills that artists need when they get out of school. Because unless programs are creating new jobs for MFA students that are exiting those programs, they don’t have the kind of skills that are marketable in this way that you're talking about.
JV: And that is exactly what The New Administration of a Fine Arts Education was hoping to get at, to introduce this element of taking the reins upon yourself and thinking of a way to use your skills to create an economy or a platform that will create an economy for yourself. I really believe that the best skills anyone can have—not only art students, but particularly art students—are means to communicate and a desire to always want to know more, and always want to improve what you do know. And to be a critical thinker. So that’s what’s important.
AS: Can you talk about the importance of publishing in relationship to the exhibitions? I've always been excited and impressed to have a readily accessible pdf that includes so much material about the shows. It seems that you're employing a design that doesn’t need to reinvent itself for each iteration, but creates a body of scholarship around this material. Is that part of your curatorial agenda?
JV: The publications were a very important part of the exhibition and not simply documentation of an exhibition. I really tried to make a book that extended the idea, so that the book became integral and not an appendage to the exhibition. For instance, we did an exhibition titled Calling Beauty that looked at expanded notions of painting, and we reprinted an essay by Susan Sontag called “An Argument about Beauty” that was related to the ideas in it.
The publications are sold cheaply and the pdfs are online for free. They’ve become an extended platform for me to experiment with the creative curatorial practice that I have. For instance, Seventh Dream of a Teenage Heaven is the most recent publication and it’s about the demise of postmodernism and thinking about this moment that we are in now. Jennifer Allen, the editor of Frieze, produced an issue last fall on superhybridity that was really inspiring to me in thinking about this moment, in which so much information and media and ideas are coming at us from so many different directions, and about what happened to postmodernism. It was so important for so long and now it’s gone, and I put that together for the catalog.
I'm not a scholar on postmodernism or modernism, or even thinking about how anyone can get a grasp on what’s happening today, but I was thinking about postmodernism and how culture began to fold upon itself. Postmodernism began to dismantle this special and rare space that modernism had carved out for itself, and folded the everyday into it.
Think about this collision of commerce and consumerism and high art, jumbled up within the postmodern element, as well as everything else—gender identity, feminism, and queer identity— that marks that postmodernism moment. I'm still thinking through these ideas and trying to understand them. But because almost everything is available on Facebook, and we have this aggregate of everything just stacked up on top of each other, as opposed to folding one thing upon another. It’s hard to define it, and it’s hard to understand it. I think it can be somewhat distressing in a way, keeping up with it. Whatever it is.
DMcK: That brings us comfortably into the Descent to Revolution. Tell us a little about that.
JV: Descent to Revolution was a project that I did in the fall of 2009, inviting people to consider how to produce knowledge about a particular space that can incrementally make changes over time. It came from revolutionary ideas of people like Guy Debord and Henri LeFebvre, in terms of relationships with urban space and transformation over time by an understanding of where we are.
The project resulted in part from the gallery space at the Columbus College of Art and Design. It’s nine thousand square feet and my budget was not very big at all. So I became really sick of this gallery because it’s unwieldy, horrible, and I also had a strong critique of things that were happening in Columbus, Ohio, in terms of support for bicyclists and alternative transportation. For Descent to Revolution, we just completely vacated the gallery. We left it open as long as the building where the gallery was located was open, and I invited six artist collectives to come to Columbus and offer their outside perspective of a city that usually only outsiders have. I invited Red 76, Learning Site, Claire Fontaine, Tercerunquinto, and REINIGUNGSGESELLSCHAFT, a German collective out of Dresden,. Over the course of two months, they resided for varying lengths of time and made a work in the city space of Columbus. They were thinking about producing a certain knowledge about the city. For instance, the artists of Learning Site, who are from Stockholm and Copenhagen, were obsessed with all the surface parking lots, automobiles, the malls, and the amount of space, so they did projects in the parking lot that aggravated those ideas.
Also, we needed some sort of center of activity, so I rented an empty storefront space about three blocks from the college and set that up as the headquarters. It was called the Office of Collective Play, and it was where I did auxiliary programming associated with the exhibition, as well as where the artists used to make work and host different events. For instance, Temporary Travel Office gave a talk about parking lots. Red 76 used it quite a bit. That was something that was really important to me. It opens up ideas about the relationship we have with institutions, and not only with the educational institution, but also how one acts inside a gallery. By holding these talks and different activities, a lot of people—particularly the students at the college—engaged more richly with the ideas, simply because we were three blocks away from the college, and we were in a space that wasn’t necessarily run by an institution. And no one even knew what the hell was going on, really. I liked it. It was confusion that was productive.
DMcK: What impact did that have on Columbus? All these jerks show up with their art and point out what you’re doing wrong!
JV: That’s a good question, because that is where the aesthetics of political work comes in, because political work can just be “You're bad,” or “This is wrong.”
As a curator—a lot of curators know this—to allow projects to develop, you're interfacing with the administration on what’s going on in the parking lots and why this was supposed to be a two-week project, and now it’s a six-week project, but I think that’s where curatorial practice can act a bit as that buffer zone that allows artistic intent to continue without necessarily being constrained too much.
AS: But it sounds like you had such an ideal situation in a lot of ways, where you had free rein to produce these projects all over the city.
JV: It was, and again, I think it’s because of the provost there. Just think about how many things you try to do in life and people want to know what the product or the deliverable is. I’m supposed to create an experimental space and I'm not sure how that’s going to turn out. I think we’re all uncomfortable with uncertainty in different ways, in different facets of our life, and I’m not so sure how the Bureau For Open Culture is going to turn out. I have a framework, but have to say, “Let’s see how this goes.”
This summer I'm operating a biergarten as part of the project, I am Searching for Field Character. Susan Cross, the curator at MASS MoCA, invited the Bureau for Open Culture to make this project in association with her exhibition, The Workers. One of the things we’re doing is a biergarten. I don’t know how to operate a biergarten, I've never operated a biergarten, but that’s part of the programming. How do you attach yourself to this capitalist stream to fund a certain project, and allow that creative space to happen without always going just towards the grants?
I Am Searching for Field Character is an exhibition that will run from the end of May through September, and it looks at the different kinds of labor that define North Adams, but also the general Berkshire area in western Massachusetts. Because it is a region that was originally and physically defined by an America that manufactured objects by labor, but today that region is marked—not completely, but increasingly—by education, arts, and experience. And so people like myself, whose labor is immaterial, who make ideas and designs and concepts, inhabit these spaces.
I think that things have changed in North Adams and there’s a lot of space for change in the North Adams area, but it also reflects what it means to instrumentalize art, in terms of city planning and urban planning. What are the expectations that are laid down upon art, and sometimes, don’t come to fruition as much as one thinks? And that’s what makes this project really interesting. I am Searching For Field Character thinks about these overlapping layers of labor and what the characteristics of this region are.
I like this project because it draws specifically on the fact that there are so many people sitting alone working, and what happens when people who don’t know one another unite in a space. So it thinks about how there is actually community in a work site, and even though these designers, writers, and artists may not know one another in the area, they come together and can actually produce and share and maybe even get work from one another.
DMcK: So as a final question, Jim, how do you identify in all of this? Are you an artist-curator? Are you an institution? Are you an institution with hundreds of collaborators that you just happen to be more involved in?
JV: I love working with people. But I think I—
DMcK: You think they're hateful, crappy meat sacks.
JV: Which ones?
JV: Sometimes. No. No, they're not. A certain element of artistic practice is coming out of the Bureau of Open Culture. Even as it is taking shape as an institution, it’s almost expanding what we think of as institutions, or maybe even using the term institution to then allow for much more creative things to happen. What I’ve produced with the artists I've worked with—sometimes, but not always— is a collaboration. I think I'm confident enough to say that the work we’ve produced here for Open Engagement is a work by Bureau of Open Culture. It is not an exhibition. And I've insisted on calling it that, so it’s not an exhibition where five artists participated in it, it’s a work that I made with artists collaborating on it. I don’t know if I've answered your question; there are still things we’re working through.
DMcK: Maybe it is or is not art, and I think that is a fine position to put yourself in.
JV: I think so too.
James Voorhies is the founder of the Bureau for Open Culture, a curatorial and pedagogic institution for the contemporary arts. The Bureau for Open Culture works intentionally to re-imagine the art exhibition as a discursive form of education that creates a kind of new public sphere or new institution. Exhibitions take shape as installations, screenings, informal talks, and performances; they occur in parking lots, storefronts, libraries, industrial sites, country roads, gardens, and galleries. In doing so, the Bureau generates platforms for learning and knowledge production that make ideas accessible, relevant, and inviting for diverse audiences. This model encourages overlaps of art, science, ecology, the built environment, philosophy, and design. Form, content and site are underlining points of critical inquiry for Bureau for Open Culture.