Visual and Critical Studies took shape as an academic framework in the 1990s in response to demands for alternate models of cultural analysis. Since the year 2000, CCA’s Visual and Critical Studies students have contributed to the expansion of this field’s parameters by interrogating diverse visual transactions—especially the visual strategies of social activism--in ways that reveal the ideological infrastructure of vision, visuality, and visibility. Having completed a rigorous program of interdisciplinary study and a sustained research project, graduating students in VCS distinguish themselves by their level of ability to think critically, through writing, about the visual world.
This year we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Graduate Program in Visual and Critical Studies at California College of the Arts. The program’s graduating cohort, joined by a representative panel of VCS alumni, will share critical perspectives and professional narratives that affirm the centrality of the visual in projects of social criticism and transformation.
10:00 Tenth Anniversary Remarks
Tirza True Latimer, Chair Visual and Critical Studies,CCA: Welcome
Karen Fiss, Associate Professor, CCA: Guest speakers introductions
Mark Breitenberg, Provost, CCA: Critical Writing
Mitchell Schwarzer, Professor, Visual and Critical Studies, CCA: Historical Overview of the Field of Visual Studies
Mabel Wilson, Associate Professor of Architecture, GSAPP, Columbia University: The Future of Visual Studies
1:00 Thesis Presentations
Tirza True Latimer: Introductions
3:15 Alumni Presentations
Lydia Matthews, Co-founder, Visual and Critical Studies, CCA: Reflections and introductions
Duane Deterville ‘09
Weston Teruya ‘07
Andrea Dooley ‘06
Bruce King-Shey ‘05
Hank Willis Thomas ‘04
Berin Golonu ‘03
Candacy Taylor ‘02
Following attacks by the Yugoslav army in 1991, local artists used the Old City of Dubrovnik—its ruins, boarded-up monuments and shop windows—to create site-specific public artworks. Local photographers documented the destruction of the Old City, raising international awareness to the plight of the Croatian people and the attempt to eradicate their culture. Focusing on three case studies, I examine how the artists of Dubrovnik coped with the circumstances of war through these public acts, anthropomorphizing the city, and at the same time contributing to a new Croatian consciousness as the nation struggled for its independence.
The first case study examines the site-specific exhibitions of artist Ivo Grbi´c? on the grounds of his home and studio which had been bombed. Grbi´c? converted this burnt out site into an ongoing exhibition space that drew large audiences. The second case study analyzes the impromptu collaborative public art project by professional and amateur artists that took place during Christmas time in December 1991. The project, which consisted of murals on the Old City’s landmarks and shop windows, was emotionally important to the population as an act of defiance to “break the psychosis of fear.” The final case study examines Pavo Urban’s photographs of the besieged city’s architecture and citizens, which functioned both as memorials of wartime atrocities and as triggers for the formation of a new national identity after the war’s end.
Melville’s novel, Billy Budd, a seminal text within the history of American gay culture, launched a troubling visual erasure of nonwhite people from the canon of exemplary queer bodies in popular media. The African sailor in the opening passages of Melville’s novel and the force of his removal from the rest of the story, frames the textual figuration of my analysis. Once he passes by, the handsome African sailor is also passed by. The plot unfolds on a British military ship without him—in its wake over the next sixty years, the sailor is excised from all visual iterations of Melville’s text and subsequent queer analyses.
This is the narrative path—a movement of image, text and social power—which I would like to posit as historically American. My project catalogues the proliferation of images in art, advertisements and film that can be linked to Billy Budd as raw material. I argue that the representation of Melville's work in contemporary media reflects the way we queer our submission to US citizenship and its attendant racisms, naturalizing white masculinity within self-proclaimed radical sexual subcultures, from dominant gay and lesbian to white transgender male social circles.
Portrait photography has the potential to intervene in how we look at others. It cannot be looked at as truth or as documentation, but can only represent an isolated and suspended moment in the life of the person pictured. When portrait photography attempts to offer insight into an individual subject, it betrays the promise of its own ontology. Portrait photography has the potential to question the naturalized ideologies inherent in looking.
In Unfixing the Photograph I examine how portraits by Catherine Opie and Nikki S. Lee, as well as my own works intervene in the way we look at and visually read people. This project considers how these works resist the reinscription of identities into hegemonic representations of race, class, gender, and other oppressive systems. It also discusses strategies for making images that actively resist dominant paradigms of looking by engaging techniques of coding, cropping, complicating, and withholding visual information.
In order to look critically at portrait photography in this way, I have developed and will discuss three interchangeable and mutually informing lenses: picturing without showing (strategies of visibility and resistance); the distance of proximity (between the photographer and the subject); and self-presentation (hybrid-autoethnography and performing for the lens).
We think of most art as having a social location, in the broad sense that it assumes a public, a group of people viewing it. But how can we characterize the continually changing social relationships that make up art and that art makes up? How are they related to each of our own singular, specific experiences of the way things look, sound, and feel? In Relational Aesthetics, French curator Nicolas Bourriaud offers one account: a relational art “takes as its theoretical horizon the sphere of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an autonomous and private symbolic space.” It is the creation of a network, “whose progression in time and space [the artist] controls.” Since its English publication in 2002, Relational Aesthetics has had immense influence on art production and display, serving as a structural foundation for many contemporary artworks that create participatory structures for viewers to engage (cafes, bookstores, classrooms etc.). This model inadvertently narrows an idea of the social in art, by organizing publics into distinct roles and modes of participation.
The aim of The Generous Object is not to further delimit art’s ethical responsibilities, but to work against this oversimplification in order to reinvigorate a space for the aesthetic in discussions of the social. This involves an investigation of works that are not generally considered socially engaged, but that co-produce open, unresolved relationships with their publics. Works such as these can overthrow simple causal relations, including ethics that try to define what art should and should not do. The rigidity or openness with which we define the social in art is an aesthetic question, one that deals with the overlap between production and consumption, activity and passivity, making and interpreting.
Social Work: Politics, Police and the Legalistic in Art
This project analyzes contemporary artworks that take the form of government policies and legal precedents. These works can be situated alongside strategies within activist communities and left-leaning political projects that aim to ensure equality through the law. However, strictly legalistic practices have the effect of reducing concepts of politics to an ability to negotiate with and create laws. Countering this reduction of the political as well as the assumption that increased protections through law are necessarily capacitating or protective, the works discussed in this paper begin to question not only the relationships between life and law, but the relationships between artistic practice and political efficacy as well.
I focus specifically on a project begun in 2007 by French artists Patrick Bernier and Olive Martin: X&Y vs. France: The Case of a Legal Precedent. In this work, the artists collaborated with immigration and intellectual property lawyers to develop a legal argument whereby undocumented immigrants, posited as co-authors and guardians of immaterial site-specific artworks, can avoid deportation.
By prioritizing its aesthetic content—here understood as the delimitation of spaces, roles and times—this work emerges as a productive site in which established debates surrounding immigration are expanded and rights claims are complicated. As an articulation of subjectivities in transition between legality and illegality, counting and not-counting, author and artwork, the project by Bernier and Martin not only points to the limits of law to address the promise of equality at a fundamental level, but also to the ways in which the law itself is constructed to perpetuate this condition.