Many people compare visiting a museum to visiting a church. A place that houses art becomes sacred somehow. It becomes a destination for people to observe carefully constructed historical and personal expressions in quiet reverence.
To an extent, the group of Master of Fine Arts students who took over Gallery 479 at UCSB these past few weeks sought to subvert this common notion. Starting last quarter, the artists discussed doing a show together that would be interactive, allowing not only each other to participate in the creation of the work, but also allowing anyone who entered the space to transform and create as they saw fit. Enter: “Groupwork.”
The show started as several blank walls and empty space. Gradually, pink and black balloons, bricks, lamps and other odds and ends made their way into the space. However, the individual items that the artists brought in at the start of the show were not as important as the initial ideas.
“Our goal was to present an exhibition that was concerned with the dialogue in and around the exhibition itself — to present something that transcends itself as well as the group involved,” contributing artist Chris Silva said in an interview via email.
During the time that the gallery was open, the space changed greatly. Objects were brought in, arranged and rearranged again and again by visitors. Some changes to the space were gradual while others were large and abrupt, like when Silva brought students from his Art Studio 7D: Introduction to Contemporary Practice III: Art, Science and Technologies section into the space last Wednesday.
“I noticed some students immediately went to drawing/painting things while others went and started destroying the iMac and some printers that we had there; some people chose to write thoughts around the space. I went around and made things as well,” Silva said. “The only directions I gave were to not hurt yourself, not hurt anyone else, and to not hurt the floor — anything else could be fixed.”
When I visited later that same day, I was not sure where to begin to look. A bright pink string lured me from outside the building into the space. Pink balloons reading “Pop me” twisted temptingly in space above piles of dirt. “What is this shit?” was written and spray-painted repeatedly across the gallery, and almost all of the overhead lights, curiously, had been taken out and leaned against one wall.
“A few of us in the group had the idea that we would let something organically unfold in the space while allowing for genuinely sincere and beautiful gestures to enter the space via other participants or interactions with each other. But this didn’t quite happen,” MFA student Van Tran said in an email interview. “The gallery space was trashed, with spray paint and chocolate over the walls, a printer screwed into the wall, etc. The photo documentation that resulted from the Wednesday participation didn’t reflect group work, but rather individuals taking it on their own to dismantle the space.”
Ryan Bulis, another contributor, enjoyed watching people come back to the space over time, and agreed that large groups of people, like those mentioned by Tran, had a much different way of interacting with the space in comparison to individuals who visited in small groups and earlier on in the show.
“Subtle changes would draw the audience in,” Bulis said. “When the large gesture occurs, it’s kind of a punctuation. Those [larger gestures] made it harder for people to re-enter the space and to share authorship.”
Both Bulis and Tran explained my own feelings about the difficulty of entering the space and uncertainty over how to treat it when they discussed their observations of visitors.
“I noticed a lot of quiet and awestruck expressions,” Tran said. “Those visitors looked puzzled but you could tell that they were questioning and thinking of what was happening or how this is art, and they were delicate in their treatment to the space — by tiptoeing around clutter and destructed matter and examining carefully the remnants of disassembled and disheveled parts.”
In the end, this shows that “Groupwork,” while built of unusual gestures that toed the line between art and vandalism, basically fulfilled the artists’ goals of not only allowing spectators to participate, but also encouraging them, in Tran’s words, to “examine and understand the nature of working in a group setting.”
Silva, who examines the idea of art as dialogue often in his individual work, seemed to be satisfied with how the show overall and considered it “a productive use of the space,” in the end.
“I’m very tired of seeing the same old shitty sculptures, paintings, and exhibitions that keep getting regurgitated for mass consumption,” Silva said. “So keeping Warhol’s idea in mind that there are ‘no new ideas,’ how do we approach art in a way that can be exciting and relevant?”
Another contributing artist, who would like to be known only as Bog, answered that question well.
“If the viewer becomes the artist, then things get interesting,” Bog said in an interview via email. “Art became more than a painting on a wall or a sculpture on a pedestal. Groupwork became a living, breathing monster, that everyone fed, that everyone returned to visit, that everyone had fun with.”
“Groupwork” was interesting examination of group participation in art. It raised many excellent questions about what art is, who can make art and how we should treat it. But for those who missed it, don’t worry. These questions are still out there waiting to be answered — or at least addressed — by artists and audiences alike.
To again quote, Bog: “This is just the beginning. There is more art to make, art that we can all make together. Let’s do it right, let’s do Groupwork!”