This fall saw a grand project in Austin called Heydays.
This four-part interdisciplinary effort at Creative Research Laboratory (CRL), the gallery space for the Art Department at the University of Texas at Austin, was conceived by CRL’s new director Hana Hillerova. Heydays was a grand venture focused on collaboration and the blurring of boundaries between artist and audience.
This scale of interactive event has never before taken place at CRL, let alone involved undergraduates and other departments. But since taking over at the beginning of the summer, Hillerova has made it her goal to reexamine the gallery’s traditional agenda as exhibition space for undergraduate, MFA and faculty work. Hillerova wants to emphasize the laboratory aspect of the Creative Research Laboratory, opening the space to collaborative experimentation.
Admittedly, CRL’s traditional exhibition function is critical for the development of student artists. But until now, the space’s potential for fostering experimentation in a public venue and (perhaps more importantly) for teaching students what is involved in organizing and mounting shows has not really been fulfilled. CRL can offer students an incredible opportunity to demystify the machinery behind executing exhibitions, and to abandon the idea that exhibiting one’s work is a draining and compromising process.
The first component of Heydays was Drawing Across Disciplines, a 12-hour drawing marathon. According to Hillerova, the goal was “to spin a 2D drawing into a 3D immersive environment progressing from LINE to WEB to COCOON to DWELLING.” Drawing Across Disciplines was conceived by Hillerova, as well as Melissa Miller from the Department of Art and Art History, Samantha Krukowski from Radio-Television-Film, and Karen Maness from the Performing Arts Center. The final product of Drawing Across Disciplines very much reflected the LINE-WEB-COCOON- DWELLING evolution. Using different types of media, participants drew on great sheets of white paper and suspended them with anything they could find, so that the crumpled paper formed an intricate net of cave like structures. Color and text covered the floor, walls and tunnels formed out of crumpled paper. The installation looked simultaneously haphazard and intricate; my first impression was that it was a huge mess, but as I walked through it began to look more like a grotto, the kind of environment that shows evidence of many hands working over long periods of time.
The organizers of Drawing Across Disciplines wished to foster collaboration between studio art, design and architecture students, allowing the young artists to learn about other disciplines, and emphasizing the commonality between certain modes of practice. Furthermore, the project called for those who were working to recruit onlookers into becoming participants, prioritizing the process over the finished product. This attitude would carry over into the other three events in Heydays.
The Drawing Across Disciplines installation was left in place as a setting for the next event of Heydays, a “Happening” organized by Karen Skloss from the Department of Art and Art History and Transmedia professor Bill Lundberg. The Happening happened in multiple parts: first, a projection of looped CNN footage of combat in Iraq with a rather crudely designed movie poster, complete with mock quotes of rave reviews. In the main gallery space, a group of women enacted a performance involving sewing, staring listlessly into space, and running around giggling while wearing large papier-mâché breasts, occasionally falling on the floor and wiggling their arms and legs like dying cockroaches. The temperature must have been at least 85 degrees, and this combined with the grotto-cave and the cacophony of sound (air strikes, music, giggling) felt like being in a benign inferno, which although disturbing was not necessarily an unwelcome feeling. Meanwhile, outside in the parking lot, the freshman students of Bill Lundberg’s Transmedia class mounted a double screen projection of abstract film à la Stan Brakhage, and set the piece to music they had composed themselves using household objects. The students had each been told to do something with a set number of frames of celluloid, and the result was surprisingly cohesive. The fast pace of scratchy forms and alternating colors fit well with the frenetic rhythm of the soundtrack.
The next drawing marathon lasted 24 hours, and on top of the already dense installation, saturated the space to the point that the students gave up on adding any more materials and decided instead to engage the space through performance. Unlike the first marathon, which had a concrete idea to guide the participants’ actions, this event was more of a free-for-all centered loosely around theater and music, which led to the space becoming more like a stage for strangely costumed creatures with ambiguous intentions. There was also a lot of live music, which Hillerova credits with drawing a wider audience from around Austin. Indeed, this event drew in an estimated 400- 500 visitors, half of whom were not affiliated with the University.
For the final event, Convention, the gallery was restored to its pristine white-walled chilliness to accommodate professor Michael Smith‘s Transmedia students. Convention was a mock political convention, complete with nametags, hot dogs and pamphlets from actual political organizations (both conservative and liberal). Suited men guided visitors to a film in the back room that was shot from a car driving around Austin neighborhoods, while another projector showed footage from the actual Republican National Convention (RNC). The gallery was crowded, and I had an uncomfortable and slightly paranoid feeling that everybody in the room was a political aide, looking to suck me into their candidate’s platform. As with the previous Happening, when I felt precariously unhinged and very aware of my surroundings, I realized that this is the kind of experience that comes with being inside a performance. In that respect the students succeeded in transforming the CRL space. Also like the week before, there was a film projected in the parking lot, this time by San Francisco artist Ryan Junell. Flatbed Press and AMODA sponsored the screening of Junnel’s film Republican Convention, a huge triple projection of footage from the RNC. There was an odd symmetry between the unreal Convention going on inside and the monstrous images of the actual event outside. Ultimately, they both seemed like simulations.
As stated, Heydays was a great success for all the participants, especially the students. But separated from its context as an educational tool, there isn’t much to be said critically about the work itself. Projects that involve younger students are great, but it seemed like the public was getting a raw deal with Heydays. These events were ultimately in the service of the students’ education, and the people who showed up expecting art on par with the rest of the art in Austin may have felt like they got the short end of the stick. A lot of the performance suffered from too many people wanting to say too much without really knowing when to stop. A lot of the works were too obviously political, and the only reason that doesn’t seem worse to me is the fact that it is a dramatic election year. The feminist overtones of the Happening were likewise quite heavy-handed, with their painfully unsubtle visual rhetoric. As a viewer, the only way to get anything out of was is to participate, and to let go of expectations of skilled or theoretically engaging work.
Where I think the CRL really succeeded with Heydays was during the drawing marathons. These events didn’t cater to an audience; they were open-ended straightforward activities that had no agenda beyond working and experimenting spontaneously. And even if some of the events were not as successful as others, these kinds of projects force younger artists to deal with the public relations side of art, as it was the students themselves who had to publicize Heydays, and to work with large groups of people toward a common end. Over the entire course of Heydays, between 900-1000 people showed up at CRL, which means these students got the type of exposure that used to be reserved only for MFA candidates and faculty. This is no small feat, and CRL is planning to repeat it in February of 2005, hopefully embarking on what will be an excellent ongoing opportunity for UT students.
 From an interview conducted between myself and Hana Hillerova over e-mail October 18-19. [return to article]
Images courtesy of CRL.
Chelsea Weathers is a graduate student of art history at the University of Texas at Austin.