An interview with Stephanie Owens, CCA DirectorApril 1, 2012 —
What is the current state of art at Cornell? Do you perceive any fluctuations in interest or involvement in Cornell’s art scene? Do you think art at Cornell is any more or less relevant today than it was in the past?
As an artist myself, my sense is that there is a shrinking number of artists, designers and performers doing more and more work. Programs and arts departments across campus are experiencing crippling consolidation and budget cuts which puts a terrible strain on what can be done. But given that the arts in the U.S. have always had to be innovative within limited means, most artists respond creatively to crisis. That’s is why that despite having a smaller number of those in the arts on campus, the quality of the work and nature of creative inquiry is fantastic. When I arrived in 2008 from Parsons in NYC where I taught in the School of Art, Media and Technology, I was surprised at the lack of direct communication and collaboration between arts disciplines on campus. But I have seen this change and recently there is a growing spirit of community between those working in tangential creative fields. There have been significant contemporary exhibitions recently at the Johnson Museum of Art and important residencies in the theater and music departments that show that there is a core group of faculty that are actively cultivating a vital culture for the arts here by reaching out not only to like-minded colleagues within Cornell but also to artists outside the university and the U.S.
What role does contemporary art have at a large research university like Cornell?
Great question. Contemporary art is no longer a single point perspective on culture and society, but a lateral, multi-pointed field of pursuits. In this sense, contemporary art, unlike art during the modern period, has an internal tendency toward investigation and inquiry into the systems of society rather than act as merely the expression of taste or aesthetic concerns. Many of the students who come to study in the Art Department for example, are not those that would attend RISD or CalArts which are stand alone art schools, but are rather those students who know that art today is a practice, not a style. This means that the current processes of art employ the same spirit of curiosity and research that is native to the sciences, but the difference is that a critical art practice seeks to understand and reveal the bias of standards and protocols rather than to simply affirm them. There are an increasing number of art programs in Europe, Asia, South East Asia and Latin America for studying art as research, including many programs leading to a PhD. Although there is some debate about the value and need for a PhD in studio or art practice, the myriad forms that contemporary art now takes—bioart, virtual reality, interactive installations, critical design, site-specific installations, responsive spaces, social practice, generative forms, institutional critique, mobile art—show that art has expanded to include its more speculative and participatory forms. This puts the locus of practice at a place before the art object per se and emphasizes art as an idea that can be manifest in multiple, —often different,—material ways. Given that art practice is now more speculative, I think that contemporary art has more to offer a research university than art of the past. The recent interest on campus of more sustained collaborations in the form of labs and seminars shared by disciplines such as engineering, architecture, art, design, film, dance, and music show this to be the case.
In what ways, do you believe, does a vibrant artistic community contribute to the student body and community as a whole?
Art, unlike science, allows us to experience the more nuanced and expansive aspects of the human mind. As human beings, we are not reducible to the things we do to stay alive or profitable. Art brings an awareness of how society, cultures, nations, neighbors affect our lives and is expressed in our daily interactions with one another. Art is particular kind of sensuous thought—thought as feeling, affect, discovery, reflection, empathy, and purposelessness. Much of what artists do ignites new ideas and insights in other fields of practice and therefore the entire university community benefits when art reminds us what is possible. Students at Cornell who are young and just starting to develop their worldview and knowledge of themselves need art as a condition for challenging the kind of instrumental reason that is so much a part of contemporary education. Art shows that A plus B could be Y. Students, faculty and anyone who understand this, in any field, define the future.
How does the CCA promote participation in the creation and enjoyment of art at Cornell? (I can definitely use information about the grant cycle for this part.)
The CCA is a university-wide organization that provides direct support to individual artists and acts as a platform for experiencing contemporary art at Cornell in a highly visible way. Every year, the CCA awards a total of $76,000 in grants to students, faculty and university organizations for the production of new and challenging work. Individual grant amounts range from $500 to $2,500, supporting an average of 45 art projects each cycle. In addition to financially supporting these individual projects, the CCA promotes the projects through posters distributed around campus and through its website (cca.cornell.edu). Projects vary each year but include projects in film, creative writing, music performance, musical composition, dance, design, interactive media, sculpture, public interventions, installations, plays, exhibitions, and experimental publications. All twelve academic colleges have had a student or faculty member receive a project grant, so the distribution of support, while not always balanced, has been extremely wide. In the latest round of applications, however, we have seen an increase in the number of applications from atypical areas of artistic production, which is exciting. This year, for the first time, the CCA will put all resources outside of its individual grant program into one large exhibition/event that will function somewhat like a biennale or art festival. It will be a curated exhibition that showcases artists and creative projects currently on campus as well as bring leading contemporary artists and thinkers to engage and collaborate with Cornell artists.
Those interested in applying for a CCA grant should apply online at cca.cornell.edu. A call for applicants will be posted on the site sometime this spring for review in fall 2012.
What plans does CCA have, if any, for expanding the presence of art in the lives of Cornellians?
Making the arts visible and consequential on campus is the primary mission of the CCA so all of our efforts are in making this happen. We have just started to develop ideas for the upcoming exhibition scheduled to open in Spring 2013, but it is my goal to have a very diverse population of Cornellians able and excited to participate in it. I believe that part of the challenge for an arts organization committed to serving all of the university community is to get art out of the traditional concert halls and galleries to show how emerging art exists in more surprising and socially productive spaces. If the spring event is successful, Cornellians will not only have more access to the arts generally, but they will understand it in a completely new way.