headlines | about |

Bruce High Quality? No.

^ Bruce High Quality Foundation, Bachelors of Avignon ^

Bruce High Quality Foundation University
Susan Inglett Gallery
522 West 24 Street
New York NY 10011
December 8, 2009 - January 23, 2010

I had to dig up my six gun from the backyard for this. I last used it on Mel Ramos in 1975. But the Bruce High Quality Foundation’s show at Susan Inglett is the worst I’ve seen in many a moon, and that’s why I gotta get on their asses.

The whole question of extracurricular artists’ schools is pretty interesting. I’m co-convener of a panel at the Chicago CAA convention in February on the question, looking at artists’ initiatives towards self-education, towards knowledge and skill sharing outside accredited academies in historical depth. It’s been going on in Europe for quite some time now, with Copenhagen Free University among the most influential, and innumerable “pirate universities” in occupied social centers all across that land.

In the U.S.A. we’ve seen nationwide anarchist skill-shares – a feature of the Miss Rockaway Armada – and 16 Beaver Group and University of Trash (NYC), Public School (LA, NYC), and many more. (I wrote about this movement a few years ago.)

Striking a blow, as Robert Smith opines, “against the big business of art schools” seems kind of like the least of it. The move outside academia is in response to outmoded and undemocratic pedagogical systems, natch; but most significantly it is a fightback to the widespread withdrawal of support for public education in an era of rampant privatization.

In Europe, the Edu-Factory collective has formed to articulate resistance to the “Bologna Process,” a drive to standardize post-secondary education so corporations can know what they are getting when they hire a college grad, no matter the nationality. This group’s new book just arrived in the mail – “Towards a Global Autonomous University: Cognitive Labor, the Production of Knowledge and Exodus from the Education Factory” (Autonomedia, 2009). The list-serve and website of Edu-Factory is your source for news on the global uprisings on college and university campuses around the world.

Oh, hadn’t you heard? Yes. Much fun was made – if in fact it was noticed -- of the hoity-toity New School and NYU students who took busts in the aborted occupations of this past spring. Those were altruistic acts of solidarity with international struggles, evincing bravery and self-sacrifice. Whoops! Socialist rhetoric. Right, this is New York, proud host to Comedy Central, and speculating capital is our core business. It is to laugh, yes?

To walk into an exhibition fronted by a printout banner of Raphael’s “School of Athens” with the faces repainted with white-out and magic marker, and behind it a sad array of children’s deskforms cobbled together out of sheet rock between an array of blackboards festooned with thrift store children’s toys just kind of made me ill. No sense of humor, I guess.

Silly me, I had just come to Chelsea from the Radical Urbanism conference at CUNY Grad Center, and listened to Michelle Fine talk about the Bloomberg-driven remake of the New York City school system. Through high stakes tests, union-busting, and the imposition of multiple private-run charter schools the mayor is driving towards “a more market friendly public sector.” That is a setup to drive poor kids out to prisons (big business), and the better-off into the labor pool. With the city’s public university system now run by 70% temporary professorial labor teaching for 25%-35% of full time salary – well, really, aren’t statistics boring? Especially if you don’t care what kind of salary you might ever get for any kind of um, “labor”?

That the BHQF gang, in imagining art education, was unable to come up with anything besides cut-rate Gelitin shows me that they aren’t really trying very hard. (And to be collectively sardonic – Americans just aren’t equipped to beat the rank carnal strain that Austrians do so very well. They got the civet; BHQF got only the alcohol.)

When my editor, who may be somewhat too susceptible to the charms of cynicism, pumped the BHQF to me, I guess I expected something. The show at Susan Inglett ain’t that. And, Steven Kaplan tells me, the BHQF have been invited into the Whitney Biennial. That’s like inviting Flip Wilson to talk about the Black Panthers in 1970 – whoops, too ageist a reference. Like asking Ben to talk about Dada in 1965. Too obscure? Sorry … say, aren’t you guys running a “university”? The problem is, this is just a really sluggish response to a discourse that is already very well developed internationally, both in and out of the art world. That it is applauded is a classic instance of connoisseurs who don’t look far past their Manhattan-shaped noses …

I heard that the Bruce High Quality Foundation made a really cool zombie film about the art world, and showed it in a condemned movie theater on the former military base on Governor’s Island. I missed it. I hope I can catch it at the Whitney. I think they should stay out of the education business unless they have something to say. Teach us. You can’t make us laugh.

My writing on artists’ education initiatives:
More interesting links from Cleveland:

BHQFDems.jpg113.55 KB

Fired Up! Ready to Go!

Wow Alan. I was all set to start the crossword this morning when I checked the site and saw your article. Now I know why you left the ABC No Rio benefit so suddenly last night, without saying goodbye to either me or Steve Englander. You really had to sit in front of a keyboard and get this off your chest. Somehow my touting of BHQF months ago left you feeling adrift and betrayed after viewing the exhibition at Inglett. Still, it prompted you to write this passionate critique, and elicited my response, so all is not lost. I hope you like the edits. Nothing major. Just some punctuation and paragraphing, and the addition of images from the gallery website.

I have not yet seen the show you reviewed. It just opened at Inglett on Tuesday. I returned from Art Basel Miami on Thursday. (The Bruces also had a presence there, by the way, with a rambling show installed in a hotel ballroom, organized by Vito Schnabel.) Right now I am buried under a backlog of mail, both e- and snail, and it's freezing cold in NY. But I plan to view the BHQFU show at my earliest opportunity. It's on my must see list.

I understand how someone like yourself, who has been fully engaged for years with issues of alternative pedagogy, squat culture, collective artists organizations, and other grassroots initiatives aimed at abetting the creation of an egalitarian, anti-capitalist new world order, could find the "humorous" approach of the Bruces a bit off putting, perhaps even a slap in the face to those who work earnestly for change. From your perspective, the Bruces might come off as overfed, overly entitled, downtown NY art world brats, who have suckled too long at the nurturing teats of Cooper Union, and who have now regurgitated the expected vomitus of half digested, spoiled milk, "fun art" for the delectation of other similarly minded brats and effete cognoscenti. Perhaps you find their orientation a bit jejune, simplistic, immature, unevolved. Perhaps you see them as wet behind the ears, a sort of Gelitin redux but watered down and less threatening, without a strong anarchist cachet.

Strangely enough, your misgivings are echoed by Charlie Finch, who in a recent ArtNet rant called them the "Low Quality Douche Brigade", found their work "derivative", and opined that their recent success "is indicative of the desperation of the munchkins in our tiny world to associate with any low spark of potential creativity." His words are perhaps more caustic than yours, but that's Finch's MO. Still, the critique is similar. It must feel strange to be sitting on the same side of the fence as The Great Curmudgeon.

Could be I really am "too susceptible to the charms of cynicism". But while I have not seen the current show, I remain an advocate for the Bruces and would still "pump" them to you on the basis of what I have previously observed. What you find sophomoric or lacking in proper seriousness, I might applaud as harnessing the revolutionary power of laughter. I have followed BHQF over the years, and enjoy their blend of performance and lecture formats, their take on NY art world historiography (with an emphasis on Cooper axioms Allan Kaprow and Hans Haacke), their critical examination of the marketplace and of arts education, plus their penchant for public advocacy and their ability to harness great creative powers at fairly short notice. Their better side is possibly revealed in the arena of live, collective action rather than in the simple, inert blackboard pieces and jerrybuilt sheet rock desks that you decry.

This past summer, I saw them organize, in a short but concentrated burst of activity, a grand art extravaganza in Ray Smith's cavernous Brooklyn studio just off the Gowanus Canal. The "Smithumenta" poked gentle fun at the pretensions of haute art institutions like Documenta, while presenting hundreds of paintings; sculptures; drawings; installations; vitrines; water, neon and automobile-based pieces; performances; musical acts; acrobats and the like, drawn from a heady, extended underground of NY based artists. It was a four day barbecue and beer blast, an unforgettable statement of community and communality.

The Bruces also previously produced "CATS on Broadway", a low rent version of the long running Broadway play. It was rehearsed, set dressed, costumed, staged, scored and presented within their ramshackle Bushwick/Bed-Stuy storefront, coincidentally located on Brooklyn's own Broadway (under the elevated J,M,Z train), and survives as a collectible, feature length CD that includes rehearsals, interviews with participants and audience, behind the scenes footage, and a full length version of the play culled from several nights of performance. It can be viewed here.

BHQF originally came to my attention in 2005, when they insolently conflated two art world shibboleths, chasing Robert Smithson's posthumously realized "Floating Island" project around Manhattan's rivers in a small motorboat with a replica of one of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's "The Gates", its miniature saffron fronds fluttering balefully but pathetically in the wake of an ever receding tug boat/island. It was one signifier doggedly pursuing another signifier (but decidedly falling short of the signified), eliciting - at least in this observer - a great absurdist snort of dry eyed hilarity.

There are numerous other examples, testifying to BHQF's brilliant conceptual repertoire and their engaging, caustic humor, including the zombie film you mention, "Isle of the Dead/Summer of '69", viewable here, which was screened this summer as part of Creative Time's Governors Island initiative.

And of course there is the ongoing pedagogical experiment on West Broadway, the Bruce High Quality Foundation University. The blackboards and desks at Inglett are merely a physical representation, perhaps purposely metaphorical or fanciful or naive, of the daily activities at this unaccredited institution, with an ever expanding schedule of lectures, courses, symposia and other activities. Everyone is welcome.

My point is there is more to BHQF than the current gallery exhibition. Their website might be instructive in this regard. But even the show at Inglett seems to be provocative enough. It certainly provoked your text and my response on these pages.


Yeah, well... It's all about the photographs anyway, and that's a generous spread you gave them. I'm happy also to poke the pile a little. That clatter can be a joyful noise. I'll look over your comments in hard copy, but my main impulse to sling some mud here came about because I feel artists should be using their unique positions as interdisciplinary, intermodal creatures, burrowers within the episteme -- worms, if you will -- to really make change possible... to aerate the soil of general affect. Also, call it the passion of the long-term unemployed, but I believe in education; I buy it that those pedagogical relationships can be a source of great strength, renewal, and, yes, the basis of people power. We are going through a period where public education is being privatized, turned into a profit center. Students worldwide are mobilizing to resist this, and -- blah blah. I said that already. But artists I think owe a debt to social change, especially when they are working themes in a crucial area. Neo-infantilist (as opposed to neo-conceptual) takes on art school at this moment are simply exhausting in their uselessness.

Responses to the Bruce Questions

1. I like pics on a blog. Each one theoretically saves me the expenditure of 1000 words.

2. The infantile and the "unlearned", even when they feel somewhat rehearsed or strained or cutesy, are just fine with me. As an overall strategy for creative endeavor that allows for play, chance and intuition, they are aces above the high dudgeon of the committed ideologue, or the dreary protocols of formal academic debate. When the administrators control the parameters of discussion, art can easily arrive stillborn. That's one problem with overly earnest political art: it is so convinced of its righteousness that it forgets to provide some tangible aesthetic satisfaction or sensory blandishment. Entertain me, please.

3. I believe the Bruces are quite cognizant of their status as "burrowers within the episteme". So they do not mind when you "poke the pile" a bit, as they are engaged in the same process of "aerating the soil of general affect." (Great turns of phrase, by the way.) And their program at BHQFU deals with the tendency for education to be "privatized, turned into a profit center". Their alternative, free form, not-for-profit "university" is in fact a questioning of the status quo and a direct challenge to MFA-ism, to the process of turning out expensively trained, fully accredited professionals as grist for the art world mill, much the same as your critique of Bologna Process standardization. Their experiment in pedagogy is trying to find other pathways that veer away from an "industry standard", employing simple but effective parameters: collapsing the hierarchy between teacher and student, opening the discourse and curriculum to constant and fluid revision, and most of all eliminating the deadening measurements of grades, tuition, credits etc.

4. When I recommended BHQFU to you, I was not thinking of the work made for gallery exhibition and sale, the blackboards accessorized with toys and video monitors, the collaged banners, altered photos and pathetically devolved school desks - although I like all of these quite a bit - but rather the overarching pedagogical experiment. I was actually suggesting, some months ago, that you drop by 225 West Broadway, nose around, and see if you could collaborate with them.

5. In the interest of full disclosure, I asked BHQF some months ago to collaborate on this site. I suggested they become contributors, like the other artists who post projects and texts here. Thus far they claim to have been far too busy, as their many activities clearly attest. But perhaps as the holiday season approaches they'll have a moment to catch their breath and log in. So how about it, Bruces? Care to pile on now?

BHQF's "The Sack of Rome", at Y Gallery's booth at the NADA Fair, Miami Beach