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Conceptual Art Class Splinters Social Expectations

Last week, several students could be seen carrying large wooden boards across campus. Strikingly out of place, this act immediately sparked questions and conversation surrounding the reasoning behind these objects. When asked, participating students explained that the exercise was a project for a class called Theory and Practice of Conceptual Art, taught by Professor John Muse.

“My focus [in the course] is on what happened in contemporary art in the 1960s and 70s that changed everything so that being a skilled practitioner in a medium… no longer seemed to be an absolutely necessary qualification for being an artist,” said Muse. “I wanted to put together a curriculum that would reflect that I could show students not only a lot of interesting contemporary art, but also bring them into it as a practice and with very simple exercises.”

Students were instructed to cut a standard 2×4 piece of pine to their height and carry it around for one full week starting on Friday, January 26th. For the entire week, students had to keep the board with them at all times, no farther than an arm’s length away. In this way, the board was meant to mirror the students who carried them, such that they and others around them felt that they were confronted with another person. Students also kept a record of their experience and thoughts in a class blog. Most, if not all, of the students shared the experience of many people approaching them and asking them questions about the cumbersome wooden slab they carried. However, opinions and thoughts about the exercise varied widely from person-to-person.

Some found it to difficult because it forced them to change how they navigated both their physical and social environment. Simply having the board acted as a catalyst for conversation, in which others felt like it was an invitation or a first move in opening a dialogue.

I think the hardest part about carrying the plank around for me was feeling like I was taking up way too much space all the time and feeling kind of guilty about that,” said Ariel Censor ‘20, a student in Muse’s Conceptual Art course. “The most positive element of having the plank was talking to a lot of people I generally wouldn’t interact with.”

Some students also decided to take the project in a creative direction. For example, one student, Micah Maben ‘21, used the project as an avenue for self-expression by refashioning the plank into a guitar.

“I was immediately drawn to the course both because it’s in the VCAM Makerspace and because it’s conceptual art,” said Maben. “[I] immediately fell in love with the class, the content, and the professor because doing stuff like this is kind of the reason I’m an artist, and the reason I’m interested in this spectrum of creative expression. I took the 2×4 project in this direction because I didn’t want to be carrying around something that wasn’t ‘useful’ for a week… I wanted to take it a little bit further.”

Maben is also a hobbyist guitar-maker, and stated that the structure of this exercise made them immediately want to transform the 2×4 plank into a guitar by adding hardware and strings. In this way, Maben was able to personalize the conceptual project to align with their own interests as an artist. However, Maben noticed that converting the board into a guitar also altered their experience with it.

“About three hours into having it be a guitar, I found that it lacked the intimacy it had as a 2×4 which was not something I was expecting,” said Maben. “But I think it makes up for it in the fact that everyone’s been asking me, ‘Oh, what is that? Can I play it?’ So it kind of becomes this centering point for any story I want to tell just in a moment… It’s interesting to see how this project evolves between your interaction with the board and others’, and I think that it really reflects that this is as much as social project as it is an individual [one].”

Muse himself also participated in the exercise, carrying around his own personalized wooden board for the week, even fitted with a strap to make it easier to carry. While he shared the experience of many of his students in that more people would approach him and ask questions about the board, he had some unique encounters as well. In fact, early on in the week he was asked to leave a high school basketball game because someone thought the board could be considered a weapon. He stated that one of the project’s goals is to see how people will react and ask questions, but it goes beyond just that.

“I think that larger purpose that has to do with the tradition and practice that we’re studying to think about what the minimum conditions to make something like a work, and in this case, all it takes to make something is to carry something,” said Muse. “And the work is in all of these encounters and detecting the distortions to the social field, detecting distortions to your own sense of bodily space… It’s a performance.”

Muse stated that the exercise served as both an initiation and a trial, in that those who followed through with it truly wanted to be in the course. In a similar fashion, the shared experience among the students and professor also served as a solidifying bonding experience.

“We’ve built a sort of camaraderie from seeing each other around with our planks that I think has translated into a really supportive classroom environment that I’m looking forward to building upon for the rest of the semester,” said Censor.

Over the duration of the course, Muse hopes that his students will learn that conceptual art is defined by interpretation and interrogation, rather than necessarily the piece or object itself. Furthermore, he hopes that the class will teach them to reshape their way of thinking to adopt this questioning and reflective mindset.

“A work of conceptual art reflects on its own conditions of being,” said Muse. “It has to be a mirror of sorts… The work of conceptual art is to provoke an interrogation of what an artwork is, and what it is we expect from artworks, and what artists are, and what viewers of art want when they look… I think questioning is the key. A work of conceptual work, grammatically speaking, is in the interrogative mode where what art is and for is at stake.”

This article was updated on February 9th, 2018.

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