A safe space for deep criticism of art

manuel arturo abreu discusses home school, a free pop-up art school in Portland, and its upcoming "field day," June 23

In a recent discussion with manuel arturo abreu (they/them) the co-founder of a Portland-based pop-up art school called home school, a fundamental question surfaced—a question that directly relates to the relevance of this very platform: Why would someone hate art?

For abreu, a poet and artist from the Bronx, the answer is ready and waiting: “Because art sucks. It’s really violent. It’s a violent colonial enterprise. How do we reclaim it?”

In the following discourse, which centers the labor and thinking of home school and its organizers, nothing is sacred. Readers with a love for art, academia, and many of the institutions and frameworks designed to support these, might find themselves set off—but please take that response as definitive sign to keep reading.

Image courtesy of home school and MoMA PS1

The way home school came to be is “a classic story” within the home school-community, said abreu. Victoria Anne Reis (she/her), who now runs home school with abreu, previously lived in New York City and studied at New York University, an institution infamously known for being inaccessible to many students without the aid of punishing loads of student debt.

In search of a different option than “the very marketized education that she was paying for,” Reis began taking classes with the Bruce High Quality Foundation University, an alternative arts education structure that self-identified as “a learning experiment” and “New York’s freest art school.”

BHQFU—which is now defunct—was started by several Cooper Union graduates who, initially, remained anonymous and who derived inspiration from German artist Joseph Beuys’ concept of social sculpture. “Rather than an artist working with paint or cardboard or noise or language, an artist is constructing an aesthetic experience from the social interactions of others,” an unnamed source from Bruce High Quality Foundation said of social sculpture in an interview with Social Text Journal.

Social sculpture is “sculpture where society and community is the medium for the art,” abreu explained.

As the story goes, Reis eventually had a child and moved back in with her parents in Boring, her childhood home, east of Portland. Upon settling in the Pacific Northwest, she reached back out to BHQFU to ask if resources were available that would allow her to continue studying remotely. The response was surprising.

According to abreu: “They kind of categorically shut it down, and were like: We don’t do that. We don’t have any distance learning. Remote learning is not part of our concept. The social raw material of the project is local. It’s in New York.”

The shutdown Reis experienced opened up an avenue for something different to emerge. Upon sharing her disappointment at BHQFU’s response with abreu, the two decided to collaborate on running what we now know as “home school.” This free pop-up art school offers a multimedia curriculum, including artist talks, exhibitions, classes, poetry readings, and physical education.

Of course, baked into its mission is an impetus toward distance learning. Now in its third year, home school is building an archive of material (see the website), and live streaming events, “so someone in New York could just click a link and feel like they’re in the room,” said abreu.

Home school has also created a “field day” series, riffing off the classic term, which takes place “in former and current educational institutions as a platform for questioning and reimagining the methods, purposes, and dynamics that connect art and education.” After organizing the first field day of the year at MoMA PS1 in New York City, home school is now bringing the series to Portland’s Reed College this Saturday for field day #2, organized in collaboration with Diné artist Kevin Holden and the Cooley Gallery, with support from black apotrope.

Image courtesy of home school and MoMA PS1

As evidenced by its programming, home school’s mission, curriculum, and pedagogy have been crafted with intentionality, criticality, and nuance. For example, abreu noted, the difference between certain other alternative education models and home school is that “We’re not art; home school is not art. It’s just an art school. There’s no social sculpture.”

In abreu’s view, pedagogical practice as performed by projects such as BHQFU is disingenuous. “They still can fail their students but be good art. In some cases the failure toward students is the goodness of the art—because it’s still a social sculpture. At the end of the day, the pedagogy subsumes under aesthetics. It becomes aesthetic.”

Something becomes aestheticized when it goes “from being normal life, to having the value that art has and operates within the market in the way that art does,” abreu explained. In this sense, alternative arts education models that invoke social sculpture or identify as a kind of larger artistic endeavor are still plausibly falling into the trend of marketization, which is all too familiar in American liberal arts education.

Because home school does not identify as social sculpture or an “art project,” so to speak, it also should not be construed as social practice art, a field with growing history, prominence, and currency in Portland.

“Let’s bring this all the way back to social practice,” said abreu when the subject arose, “That’s what we’re fighting against.” abreu’s inquiry raises the question: Under what circumstances should any kind of labor be defined or branded as art—and, when it is, who benefits from this? Moreover, whose labor is being capitalized upon? “There’s almost a market incentive to brand yourself that way, to even make that kind of work in the first place,” abreu mused about social practice art, continuing, “The dynamics are weird…They’re very white dynamics.”

Image courtesy of home school and MoMA PS1

Speaking of white dynamics, this comes to bear on the environment in which home school was conceived, and the fact that Portland is “whitest big city in America.” Abreu talked me through the mission of home school, which includes providing “welcoming contexts for critical engagement with contemporary art and its issues.” Part of home school’s mission stems from what abreu observed as a distinct lack of space for critique in Portland.

“We wanted to create a space for it, where someone could actually, earnestly, and semi-safely be like f*ck art, f*ck all this white shit, f*ck the PAM, f*ck Fourteen30 Contemporary, f*ck Elizabeth Leach [Gallery],” said abreu, adding, “You can’t say that here [in Portland]. You cannot. People are offended, and people are like, what do you mean? They’re cultural creators. They’re community resources. And I’m like, to what community? What resources?”

In actuality, critical engagement can be a form of generosity. “The fact that someone is paying attention to your work in a critical way is a gift, and it’s not a threat. It’s not toxic,” abreu reflected. “It’s actually generative and can form community.”

“A big part of the project for me has been just creating that cathartic space,” said abreu; and cultivating a welcoming and cathartic space has been an ongoing process that entails something of a paradox. “To actually truly be welcoming you have to be exclusionary,” abreu continued. “You have to consciously construct and facilitate a space that excludes toxic beliefs and behaviors—to not welcome racism, misogyny, ableism, queerphobia, all this stuff. The success of our work in that context is obviously up for debate. No space is safe. But we are committed to creating that context.”

Questions around power dynamics and censorship never cease to surface in any learning environment, which begs for careful consideration around who is being elevated through home school’s programming. Take, for example, the fact that no white man has given a talk at home school. “Very explicitly, we don’t want that,” said abreu, “They have other platforms. They’re good.” And while home school events are open to the public, the invitations are often very targeted to trusted circles of home school’s community who, presumably, are interested in engaging in critical discourse.

Abreu emphasized that the important artists who present work through home school—artists such as Demian DinéYazhi´, Melanie Stevens, and sidony o’neal, to name just a few—deserve a rigorous, critically engaged space and community where their work can exist and be experienced.

However, rigorous critical engagement also entails a level of reckoning with greater forces at play in our world.

As we moved on to discuss artistic medium and ephemeral work, abreu suggested: “If we accept that we can’t necessarily escape the market, we can [still] face up to it.” For abreu, this entails “taking, at face value, the claims of these tragic white art movements,” and facing up to the market by turning a critical lens toward art historical myths.

“When modernism, for example, or conceptualism talk about the political ramifications of themselves, you can take those claims at face value, take them seriously, but in a way that undermines the movements or kind of reveals their violence,” said abreu.

This might entail asking: What were the radical claims have been made by these art movements? What did these movements accomplish, and for whom, and, ultimately, to what end?

At this point in our conversation, I laughed and could not keep from remarking on the heartbreaking nature of it all. To this, abreu replied, “It’s only heartbreaking because we have a covert investment in it, and that’s exactly what I think needs to be drawn out.”

*****

You can support home school’s work by donating via Paypal to portland.home.school@gmail.com.

field day #2 is presented by home school, Diné artist Kevin Holden, and the Cooley Gallery, with support from black apotrope. field day #2 will take place 2-8 pm Saturday, June 23, at Reed College in the Psychology Building in rooms 102/103, and continuing throughout the day in the Psych building and Eliot 314. Schedule and rooms will be clearly posted.

field day #2 orients itself around medium-nonconforming, medium-agnostic, and medium-antagonistic gestures and practices in performance. For more information, visit the Cooley Gallery website.

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