I began teaching Life/Art Projects in 1985 because of an intuition about the nature of the interdisciplinary program I was trying to develop at San Francisco State University. In the Fall of 1984, I had been asked to run the Graduate Program for a department which was then called the Center for Experimental/Interdisciplinary Art (now called the Interarts Center). I taught the introductory course for one semester as a seminar in which students presented their work-in-progress, but this course seemed to me to be going very badly. Basically, the students in the program had little or no shared experience; they came from a wide diversity of backgrounds, worked in various media and intermedia, had different ideas about what experimental might mean, and different ideas about what their ultimate goals were as artists. Thus, in order to give students some sort of shared experience, and to push them beyond their media concerns, I risked imbuing them with my point of view by beginning their Graduate course work with the idea that any life could be framed as art.
This is, of course, a very powerful idea, and particularly so as a teaching tool. First, it allows students to explore autobiographical concerns, but to do so with a strict conceptual underpinning which many of them would not have brought to their work. Life/Art is not a romantic notion, and Life/Art Projects was not meant to be a purely therapeutic experience (more on that later). Second, it introduces students to a whole body of work, both historical and contemporary. In the course, we read books such as Gianfranco Baruchello's How to Imagine and Marcia Tucker's Choices. Linda Montano visited the class at least once a year; Linda's visits were always inspiring, and since she is in the middle of a seven year piece, we became part of that piece, following her growth through the chakras. Finally, the class created a close community; all of the students in a given semester had revealed part of themselves to each other, sometimes in very moving sessions (not always emotional, sometimes humorous, sometimes with ironic detachment, but somehow still very personal) and every Graduate student had gone through the course. It was like an initiation. Although students were not expected to continue with this kind of work, and many didn't, they could embark on their own explorations with a shared experience that gave them new and expansive ways to think about art.
When I began teaching Life/Art Projects, I described the one semester-long assignment in the following manner: Choose an aspect of everyday living that can be explored and expanded into art. It might be a job, a family, an apartment, a neighborhood. Students will present a series of works or transformations of life into art; presentations will be works-in-progress. I soon found two major problems with this description. First, students thought that the works-in-progress were supposed to add up to a final, finished, polished presentation at the end. I continually had to remind them that this whole exploration was about process, not product, and that there was no necessary final goal.
The second problem was more troubling; students sometimes tried to use the class as therapy. I found that I had to put more stress on the idea of a strong conceptual basis for the project, and although this tended to reward students who were more inclined to thinking rather than feeling, nevertheless, it was still a necessary reminder that class was not really the proper place for therapy. There was a fine line between therapy that could not happen in class and therapy that did happen. I felt that as a teacher I was always juggling this complicated series of definitions and powerful emotions.
Some examples might clarify this dilemma. Each student was required by the second week to describe to the class his or her project. One semester a student suggested that she would stop taking drugs and alcohol as her piece; she was heavily addicted to these substances. This clearly seemed to me to be an inappropriate project; I felt unable to deal with the possible repercussions and thought that class was too public a place for this particular set of problems. In a private conference, the student and I decided that it would be better for her to solve her drug problem with a therapist and she dropped the class.
On the other hand, several projects which were conceptually strong were also both very emotional and therapeutic. For example, in the Fall of 1985, Diane Stemper decided to deal with the fact that she was frightened of her new neighborhood by sweeping the steps of her apartment house every day, documenting the process in a journal and with photographs. She also picked up pieces of litter from the steps and made a series of color xeroxes of the objects with text from the journal. Through the course of the semester, Diane found that she began to have conversations with the men who sat on the steps, that they teased her for sweeping, but also tried to cooperate by leaving less litter. Other people in the neighborhood noticed her sweeping and began to talk with her; one man said that he used to sweep but the street was like the bottom of a bowl and litter just fell into it from all over so he eventually got discouraged and gave up. One day Diane came to class very distraught because she had tried to plant flowers around the tree in front of her house and the litter that collected below the tree had killed the tiny plants. I suggested that she plant plastic flowers in a kind of fence and then put her real plants inside, because people couldn't really get the idea when the plants were so small. Although she resisted this idea, hating the image of plastic flowers, she decided to try it out and, indeed, there was no longer any litter around the tree. People commented on the pretty flowers and thanked her for making the neighborhood look better; and eventually the real flowers had a chance to grow. Diane's piece, which she summed up in xerox book at the end of the semester, change her experience of her neighborhood, made living there easier for her, and helped her to interact with her neighbors. The piece was thoughtful and carefully executed; and the book worked well as a record of the processes of the piece.
In the Fall of 1986, Marguerite Thayer decided to document everything that she put on and took off her body in order to pay more attention to her appearance. Marguerite, an older student who admitted that she didn't like the way she looked and felt that her body was aging and therefore unattractive, began by taking polaroids of her clothes each morning before she put them on. In addition, each time that she cut her fingernails, or found hair in the drain of the bathtub, she would collect these objects in a plastic bag, take them to work, and xerox them. As the semester progressed, Marguerite had collected quite a lot of powerful and somewhat creepy objects which she would lay before us in her presentations, describing her feelings about her body as she did so. In her last presentation, Marguerite also showed a videotape in which she documented her naked body; holding the camera close to her leg, she panned up her body commenting: "look, I have varicose veins, my thighs are too fat, I always hated my hips." The younger students in the class, especially the women, found this tape so moving that they were in tears by the end and rushed up to hug Marguerite and tell her how brave and beautiful she really was. This is the kind of therapy that could happen in a life art class, because the work was so deep and so courageous.
All sorts of projects occurred in the three years that I taught Life/Art Projects. Some students created personae and lived as them for the semester. Other students documented the sounds of their job, or the number of times they made phone calls or their obsessions with water. One student created a publishing company, did all of the business aspects and advertising for it, but never intended to have any real books. His descriptions of those books, in a catalog sent out to prospective buyers, were hilariously funny. Some projects were ultimately unsuccessful, but still provided an opportunity for the student to explore a variety of conceptual approaches to both art and life.
Just as doing Life/Art Projects is a personal endeavor, so is teaching Life/Art Projects. When I left San Francisco in 1987, I was especially pleased to be able to turn the class over to Christine Tamblyn, who I knew would teach it from her own experiences as a Life artist. Although I would guess that our approach is somewhat different, I think that we share the basic idea that this class is crucial as both an introduction and initiation for our students. In 1990, I will teach Life/Art again, this time at Franklin and Marshall College to undergraduates in the context of a Performance Studies Program. In this new context, I will try to explore with my students how life and art and life as art can be seen as performance; for performance, like life art, is a powerful beginning in a life as an artist.