The first things to show up were the chairs: those brightly colored stacking chairs you used to see everywhere in the 1970s. Madison, ICA’s building administrator, found them in the bowels of a neighboring building, and they were just what was wanted.
After that, a couple of tables appeared. They weren’t the right color though, so Paul painted the tops a misty gray. Next some posters arrived, big, grainy, black-and-white images of students at CalArts in the 1970s sitting together in spaces not unlike this one. It took a while to decide where to hang them.
That night—in what Tom joked was the I Ching of curatorial practice—there was an excursion to a bookstore to buy a bunch of used paperbacks: The Second Sex, A Marx Reader, Maria Montessori’s Education and Peace, Rubyfruit Jungle. Pretty soon it was looking just like the 1970s on ICA’s Mezzanine, site of our second Excursus project, East of Borneo. This reading room / exhibition / series of programs / online residency, loosely based around ideas of alternative pedagogies, is organized by Thomas Lawson and Stacey Allan, who run an online art magazine, also called East of Borneo, from their base in Los Angeles.
L.A. has been practically one big art exhibition lately (or at least, an endlessly hatching series of many art exhibitions large and small) as Pacific Standard Time (PST), the year-long celebration of art in Los Angeles between 1945 and 1980, rolls on. Tom Lawson, who is also Dean of the Art School of the California Institute of the Arts, concocted the art school’s contribution to PST: a two-year seminar exploring the art and artists of the post-war era. The time period the students got excited about turned out to be the 70s. That class helped develop the exhibition The Experimental Impulse at REDCAT in LA, material and ideas from which informed ICA’s installation. It’s exciting to have a bit of warm PST weather here in the chilly East.
What interested the students, according to Tom, was not so much the art of that decade, but rather “the alternative strategies that artists used in LA in response to various institutional collapses.” In the sixties, there had seemed to be a way to have a career as an artist; there were paths to follow. But by the seventies, that sense had disappeared. Young artists kept making art, but in many ways it was more for themselves and for one another than for a public. They formed collectives and published small magazines. This ethos of making art for the sake of making it—for opening oneself to new methods and ideas—this was what resonated for the CalArts students. The installation on ICA’s mezzanine, with its 40/4 chairs by David Rowland and its “Blueprint for Counter Education” posters (originals in the flat files; reproductions on the walls), is a portal to a moment in history from which to take inspiration.
Maybe it’s just because I grew up during them, but I love the 1970s: the bright colors, the TV shows, the air of idealism. At my elementary school, ca. 1973, we sat on the floor and called our teachers Nell and Rich and Jewell. The Monarch butterfly project we enacted every year—watching the slow, striped caterpillars spin bright green chrysalises for themselves, then break out as brilliant winged creatures—would not be out of place up here on the ICA mezzanine.
Perhaps East of Borneo’s most potent installation object is the Metamorphokit table, which got delayed by UPS and didn’t show up till the very morning of the opening. Metamorphokit is a system of modular furniture designed for the CalArts dorms by Peter de Bretteville and Toby Cowan in 1971. The pieces could be put together in all different kinds of ways. Students would arrive at school, go up to their dorm room, and find a pile of unassembled Metamorphokit pieces. Thus, a student’s first task upon entering CalArts would be to design her own environment. “The idea,” Tom explained, “was that you would build your own dorm room, and in the process you would figure out what kind of artist you were.”
Alex, the Excursus curator, added, “But we found out they aren’t that easy to put together.”
“But they’re very easy to take apart,” Stacey said.
It makes me think of those caterpillars again. Didn’t they too create their own environments, then slip inside them for a while to do something mysterious, until they were ready to dry their new wings and take flight?
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