Interview with Civic Studio’s Paul Wittenbraker

By Ben Schaafsma

This is the first part of what hopefully will grow into a more fleshed out interview between Ben Schaafsma and GVSU's Paul Wittenbraker. We will post the additional responses from Paul as they come in. -Ed.

Could you give a brief history of your involvement in Grand Rapids as far as community arts and institutions?

[Paul] I moved to GR to teach in an alternative school in the 80’s. My long-term connection to Grand Rapids Culture happened when I met Brenda at the White Rabbit bar on Wealthy Street. After grad school at Cranbrook I was hired as Director at UICA. I was 26. My time there included membership on board of the National Association of Artists Organizations whose members where involved in the NEA crisis. I’ve always seen my involvement with organizations as an extension of my studio practice.

Could you give a brief history of the Civic Studio. Where did the idea for a collaborative studio course outside of the university come from?

Civic Studio was informed by lots of ideas and experiences in both education and the arts, but the formation of it was in response to an initiative at GVSU that gave Faculty time and support to develop engaged learning programs. When this research began in the late 90’s I was surprised that there weren’t more programs in Universities given the prevalence of work being made and presented in public contexts. We did a pilot Civic Studio project in the fall of 1999 as part of another course. Starting in 2003 we’ve done regular studios and are in the 5th implementation now. For me the project is informed by 3 things: learning theory, interest in public and institutional policy, and art that has requires such a response.

While in undergraduate school, were you encouraged to work collaboratively? Graduate school?

I went to undergrad at Wabash College, a small liberal arts college in Indiana. I did a big collaborative project there with Jimmy McKelly that used the whole central campus. We called the piece “Not Ideas about the Thing, but the Thing Itself” after the Wallace Stevens poem. I’m not sure where we got the idea or thought this was something we might do. It was not part of any class. He was studying English and Classics and I was studying Psychology and taking some
art classes.

One of the great things about grad school at Cranbrook was that you had to develop your own encouragements. There were self-initiated groups digging into various ideas, studio work, and theory. There was definitely a feeling that things would and should be different. But, I think the expectation was that the work would fit default exhibition contexts.

Is one of the goals of CS to encourage collaborative work--to crack most students paradigm of the artist as hermit? Are students generally willing to give up an ego for a collective identity or partnership? Or is this not an issue?

The studio has often made work collaboratively. While collaborative studio work is definitely presented as a model and option, I don’t think of it as essential. It is essential to me that the studio work in a public (civic) context. In that way the paradigm of artists as separate-special humans that need to be detached from the world to attain a more perfect and exemplary expression is directly challenged. This idea of public context is at its core more dialogical. I do challenge each studio to be responsible for what is publicly presented and develop a sense of authorship. Things are considered and curated in this context. The other thing I think that has led to collaborative model is the organizational aspect of the project. Operating outside the facilities and structures of the University shifts the responsibility for structuring and organizing to the studio. This “work” occurs in ways that are not clearly distinct from “studio work.”

The ideas and influences of CS seem to stretch across many different disciplines--most prominently studio art, art history, geography, philosophy and sociology. How does this idea of art being transdisciplinary affect the artist’s output?

I hope it makes clearer what there is to be done and ways one might begin to go about it. Art construed within the traditional institutional context affords very little opportunity. All the while the world explodes with deep engagement in new visual and material forms--and seems in need of leadership in terms of how to live with this stuff.

Ideas of inter- and trans-discipinarity are exciting and popular but very difficult to actually do. I think the forms, media, and processes of the visual arts studio are very well suited to be the instrumental medium of substantive transdisciplinarity. I am very interested in the ways in which the Civic Studio might contribute further in this kind of work.

Do you think that an academic institution is the appropriate arena for CS to operate under/within?

I think both the strength and weakness of academia come from its separation from the world. It is what allows the time and space for contemplation, new understanding, and preparation for the world, but also creates the artificial problem of reconnecting.
[To be continued...]

How does this idea affect the ways in which we are able to talk about art? Is it is still appropriate to talk about or critique CS projects using the discourse as a painting class?

This is something I don’t quite understand yet about the studio. It has managed to consistently develop collective authorship of what gets presented publicly, but the politics of this or how it actually develops are not clear to me: It gets organized but not institutionalized, it gets collective, but not group-thinky. I think it has something to do with the organizational complexities of implementing the project and somehow focussing more on the potential and flexibility of what can be made rather than the negation of what has been made. Also, when things are about being situated in a context it becomes difficult to discuss parts in isolation.

Discussions have been an important and significant part of the studio. Being in the context of the thing that you are discussing can make a great difference in your relation to the issues and the people with whom you are talking. Talking about public space in public space, the city in the city, or what can be done when you have an opportunity to do something changes things. For me theory gets put to use through discussion. We could develop this method of situated discussions further.

The main difference I think it the public context and that the studio is committed to public presentations of its work. Often the context for critique can be.

Do you think there is any connection between CS and the conversations about relational aesthetics?

Relational Aesthetics is one of many recent texts that are useful. Another very useful text is Miwon Kwon’s One Place After Another, especially how issues of community are worked out and a range of models are critically considered. Lately I’m trying to understand more about the relationship of things to politics which is leading to a broader (more historical) understanding of the civic aims of art. Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy by Latour and Weibel is helping a great deal with this.

This is not intended to be a rhetorical question – but do you see a relationship between relational/social practices, collaborative work and localism?

I think they all are evidence of a shift in awareness of the importance of relational exchanges with others in a social context and how those events are formed (made). I think the work to be done is understanding this as something more that style or surface or marketing, but to get its potential in larger deeper terms...

Posted on October 12, 2006 6:26 AM

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