ON RECORD #4: Cheyney Thompson

Cheyney Thompson on Art Education

ON RECORD is a series of dialogues with contemporary artists about the ideas and influences that inspire their works. ON RECORD #4 was conducted in Tokyo and edited by ART iT in collaboration with Cheyney Thompson. This is the first in a multi-part interview with the artist.

Exterior view of Café et Restaurant Figaro near Rat Hole Gallery in Minami-Aoyama, Tokyo. Photo ART iT.

ART iT: Your works often reference art history as well as historical systems of knowledge and exchange, and you are also a member of the painting faculty at Bard College in upstate New York. What do you think about the current state of art education and curricula in the US?

CT: That’s a big question. My experience as a teacher is almost exclusively in graduate teaching. I think I would prefer undergraduate teaching because that’s where a curriculum makes more sense and you can take a more constructive approach to pedagogy. I wouldn’t say that teaching in a MFA context is “reactive,” but it’s very responsive in real time, and most of that is one-on-one, varying from person to person. As graduate faculty you go from being a colleague to being a therapist to an asshole – you play all those roles in your relationships with students and, at Bard, colleagues alike. A big part of Bard’s appeal is its emphasis on interdisciplinarity. I have to meet with other faculty members and students who are writers, musicians, filmmakers, and even among those groups one can cover a wide range of ground. That is a strength, but it makes it difficult to have a fixed curriculum or even a fixed set of methodologies.
If I were to generalize about my approach to critiques I would say that I tend to be fairly negative. It’s rarely about looking at a specific thing or discussing a specific technique, though that does come up and I enjoy it. The exchange is more about trying to reach a zero or starting point where everything they’re – that we – are doing is impossible; you think it shouldn’t exist in some way, or there’s no justification for it. In other words, I would hope that the issues that are discussed among artists in this away are able to be shared, precisely because they point to problems that threaten to move outside the narrow scope of the aesthetic.
I think an educational environment is a place to really feel the pressure of the split between theory and practice. This is something I don’t always experience when I am working. Sometimes my practice is structured or informed by theory, but at others it feels like a set of technical concerns or the application of practical knowledge to a given problem, so I know that I am not always aware of the theoretical frame operative in the work. With teaching you can again experience the antagonism between those two poles. I think it’s good for us to experience that pressure between the two because often history or theory is simply put in service of the work and is not seen as a threshold or a horizon that the work moves toward but can never reach.

ART iT: Do you think Bard’s is a good model for art education?

CT: I think there are aspects of it that are great. It would be a stretch to say that this is because of its interdisciplinary structure – many programs are interdisciplinary – but the interesting thing about Bard is that it still tries to hold onto or figure out the specific parameters of the disciplines for which students apply. If you apply to the writing department, you’ll spend two years trying to figure out what that means – and because there’s something like 60 faculty to maybe 100 students, you have a pretty broad spectrum of practices represented in each discipline.
More importantly, I think Bard does not have a singular cultural-economic model -whether spoken or unspoken – in which the students feel pressured to participate. At Columbia you can pretty much assume everyone there wants to get a gallery show, and that’s really not the case at Bard; whether it’s painting or sculpture, those students and their faculties still have to answer to and be in contact with these other disciplines – music also – that are involved in widely different economic structures and widely different historical trajectories. These structures overlap at times but still apply to pressure to the positions they support.

ART iT: Have you looked at many other approaches to education? I know, for example, that you spent time at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

CT: I think in Paris I got a sense of how the European art school model works, which is really like the old master-student kind of relationship. There was one, primary professor who worked with me, and I was the student of that person. That doesn’t necessarily mean you end up producing work like that professor – in my case Jean-Michel Alberola – but it’s definitely an engagement with a specific point of view. We only met once a week and he almost never addressed individual work. We would have food and speak as a group all day. He would lead discussions on readings and films. The interesting thing about this model is that one was distinctly aware of one’s professor’s position in relation to his or her colleagues. I remember feeling like all the work that happened in that studio stood in opposition to the neighboring professor’s studio and vice versa. It seems like this is a somewhat common feature of European art schools.

ART iT: Yes, I like reading about people on Wikipedia and I’m always struck at these lines of descent among the German artists – it’s very romantic.

CT: …and patrilineal and phallocentric.

ART iT: Of course in the US there are programs like Yale and Columbia that are artist factories, but you don’t really get the sense of that patrilineality, and I think at least until recently they were also good at hiding the factory element. The thing about the patrilineal structure, as well as the kunsthalle system, is that it seems to enable young artists in Europe to quickly assimilate into mainstream contemporary art practice whereas in general their peers in New York go through a slower build up.

CT: I think the advantage of the patrilineal structure – if you can even call it an advantage because it is and can be brutal if you are excluded – is that it does provide an identity in a more traditional sense, because you have a “father” and a genealogy and you can say, by right I am this person who has had access to this person and they had access to this other person, and that goes back to wherever they trace their origins, which is tradition in an almost necessarily racist, sexist or at least nationalist way. Maybe this accounts for what you’re saying about the quick integration of young European artists into an art market but I think that has more to do with the great reserve of cultural capital that still exists in public institutions in Europe. American dealers can import this work with more confidence and cash in on that reserve.
On the other side I think the patrilineal structure is replaced by other particular economic models: supply and demand, competition based on proficiency, futures trading. So you go to school to become proficient. Strangely, for a while now proficiency means good critical thinking, having a grasp of critical histories of art, and I think that can cause a very confused kind of art when those histories are instrumentalized through the language of marketing.
My own experience of education was more piecemeal in a way. Though my CV says Harvard, it was Harvard extension school. My foundation was at the Museum School of Boston, which was still very experimental when I arrived and where most of the faculty had been there for a long time, through some of its best periods. But by the time I left, it had been reinvented as a pretty slick professional school.

ART iT: To what extent do you see the market or critical forums like the Whitney Biennial or Venice Biennale as playing out a shared, international curriculum? A canon, I guess, is the proper word for it.

CT: That’s a tricky question. Despite what I just said about critical thought equaling proficiency, which is almost a best-case scenario, the cynical answer would be something like, as an artist if I go to grad school, I have to understand critical art theory in order to graduate and get a good show – although I doubt many people actually think that way. If you’re talking in general about the survey shows of the last decade in which I’ve participated, I’d say maybe there’s no criterion. On the one hand, it’s a bunch of people trying to make a living and they do that on a participatory model saying, “OK, if we do these things, we know there’s enough surplus capital generated by these large surveys such that everyone benefits, including the curator, and the artists.” But the core of that of what’s being said – what those shows ideally could frame as a set of concerns about cultural practice – I think that’s last on the list. I think at the top is the machinery of keeping things going. That’s the cynical account.
Taking the problem seriously, you have contemporary art as this huge set, and a potentially infinite set of practices contained within that set that have different geographic, political, aesthetic and historical programs that are put into play and the only thing that binds them together is that they’re happening now, and that situation I would melancholically say makes it very difficult to experience the trauma of a given historical moment, in the sense that really experiencing the present as history seems like it would feel like trauma, in that you would notice it as history through violence and crisis, not simply through it’s ability to maintain itself. I think that’s a difficulty that pertains to schools and teaching – what kind of or how much emphasis to put on history and also on these survey shows, in terms of the contemporary art world as such. Obviously, even the galleries like the kind that show my work also show dead artists because of their importance for contemporary art, and seek to put history to work in the service of contemporary art. The dead and the undead mingle freely so long as the dead function as a reserve, which through brute proximity mystically confers value.

Installation view of the exhibition “Chronochromes, Data, Motifs” at Rat Hole Gallery, 2011.

ART iT: We are living through an interesting time though, considering the Chinese art boom as it’s crested over the past decade as well as the brief rise of Japanese Superflat-style art in the international marketplace. In some ways these trends put the US-European canon in crisis because they don’t conform to the standard curriculum.

CT: I agree to an extent, but I don’t think it puts what you are calling a canon into crisis – and this may sound conservative – because I think the idea of a canon, especially in its ability to be put to work in a market context, has eroded, or rather been transformed. If we can agree that a canon has often been the expression of hegemony, then the question changes slightly. The question becomes, what is in the interest of power when it shows itself through its performance in a market or a survey show? How do we measure the shifts in cultural production so that the interests of power, and contrarily, those denied power, come in to focus? In some respects it poses no crisis because it’s just a diversification of the market place. That’s not assigning blame anywhere, it’s not like the market is necessarily serving Western interests or Chinese-Japanese interests in promoting the work that’s going on. I think it’s a symptom of the near sacred conception of capital as something that’s able to globally flow without interruption by labor or material, and the institutions that facilitate that aim.

ART iT: But if a Chinese artist doing pop figuration enters the New York market where you already have a local artist making the so-called critical work because that has been encouraged by the local curriculum, and the two end up on an equal plane, doesn’t that throw the curriculum’s equation of critical knowledge with proficiency into doubt?

CT: So in a way you’re asking where does that critical knowledge come from, what are its boundaries? This is something I was talking about with the artist Ei Arakawa, who I know from New York and is now in Japan on a residency. He was saying that the history of Japanese art upon which he relies basically starts from the 1950s onward, but he’s becoming increasingly interested in earlier Japanese art practices like 1920s Japanese Dada and Constructivism, and trying to understand that narrative.
There are nuances to any such narrative. For example: the Polish Unists who diverged from the narrated trajectory of Suprematism-Constructivism-Productivism that led to art disappearing in some accounts or being fully absorbed into state terror. In a way the Unists had the same theory, the same ideas, but because of the local politics, ambitions and ideals, their practices took a different form. They were responding to concretely different criteria. There will always be minor – from the point of view of power – cultural forms that in retrospect take on new contours of intelligibility, especially when there is a market that believes in its own consummate neutrality.
Of course at this point someone in the US could also have a career doing pop-figurative work, so that’s not to say that what we’re loosely referring to as critical practice is a unified lineage that starts from Courbet and ends at Andrea Fraser. I think you can try out those things but there are always exceptions, branches, parallel developments. It’s just that I’m wary of having the criteria for recognition being a work’s visibility and mobility within a global art market, even while that’s exactly what I’m doing. I fully acknowledge that, but that’s also why it’s foregrounded for me. Why should I be able to come to Tokyo and show this work, which has aspects that are opaquely idiosyncratic but also participates within a particular account of a particular history? So you say, why? What’s happening when it’s moving around?

ART iT: I’ve not spoken with Ei about it, but from listening to you maybe one reason for his interest in the Japanese history is that it has been suppressed by the global market narrative of Superflat. Throughout the 20th century there are examples of Japanese artists actively exchanging critical ideas and approaches with their international peers and then starting in the 1990s everything – as refracted by the international market and critical forums – became very inward looking.

CT: I think historically, in the 20th century, cultural producers began to understand their task on an international scale as being both oppositional and integrated, and that’s where you see overlaps with their peers through active exchanges, engagements and, of course, censure, whereas in the 1980s and ’90s you have the rise of a neo-liberal economy and an art world that’s participating in that economy, so it almost looks the same – certainly people collaborate and end up thinking things in a similar way across the world, there’s still this international character to it – but it maybe loses some of its oppositional or antagonistic relationship to the world, mostly because the concept of the world itself shifts or at the very least the social itself becomes that which is only understood as the preeminent data set capable of insuring enough spatio-temporal fixes for the efficient accumulation of capital.

ART iT: Concurrently the international curriculum has become increasingly streamlined, so that you can go to school in France or Japan or the US and you’ll probably come away with a similar set of references, although certainly differences in actual educational experience remain.

CT: My concern is always that economic models first and foremost structure those relations and even the types of knowledges – and this may sound like a business manual – that are useful in a global market place. But there are things that are outside of official histories that cannot be easily streamlined into a usable narrative to legitimize whatever it is you’re doing, pertaining both to theory and to material practices. So again I don’t know the details because I haven’t taught in so many places but that’s my hunch, unfortunately: there’s a world that celebrates certain proficiencies, and rewards them, and it’s hard for an institution to fight against that. To say, perhaps, there are all sorts of other knowledges and practices that may or may not be put to use differently – or even to simply engage in the speculation that a type of knowledge or practice may or may not be useful for learning certain things – with emphasis placed on the “may not.”

Cheyney Thompson‘s work is currently on view in the solo exhibition “Chronochromes, Data, Motifs” at Rat Hole Gallery, Tokyo, through June 12.

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