Draw It With Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment
(N+1 Foundation, 2012)
Draw It With Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment, edited and published by Paper Monument, is a complex constellation of around 90 contributions of accounts by professors and teachers, many of whom are artists. For all of the philosophical and pedagogical discussions that arise in Draw It With Your Eyes Closed, its humanistic warmth is perhaps the most revelatory and comedic aspect of this collection. The psychic tension between teacher, subject, and student is always at play and is addressed either explicitly or implicitly in just about every entry within the book.
Draw It With Your Eyes Closed explores these varied sociological mechanisms through a cacophonous multi-biography of teacher and student, illustrating the triumphs and follies of academia. It succeeds more often than it fails. Jessica Powers notes the “sour contentedness” that exists for the student within the constraints of the assignment, and the delicate balance between providing a structure that can be meaningfully trespassed by participants. Assignments “acclimatize you to the idea that failure and humiliation are part of the deal, and without them you can’t be sure you’ve really exhausted a possibility,” as Mamie Tinkler states. This organic, loaded feedback loop (institution, teacher, student, teacher, and institution) is experienced anew with every entry. As Richard Wentworth observes, “What needs to be taught—when, why, where, and how—is a question of tiring insistence.”
The term “assignment” has restrictive connotations: its origins in mathematics and law associate the word with the defining of variables or the transfer of assets to new owners. In this sense, knowledge becomes an intellectual property to be given and received. Pedagogically, the word implies a hierarchy “between professor (parent) and student (child),” as Anna Craycroft puts it. For some, these associations are too much to bear: as Liam Gillick argues, “The assignment allows the student to avoid taking responsibility for his or her own critical awareness and replaces that with a set of ‘potentials’ that are actually rehearsals for future instructions from various powers.” Behind the principled yet rigid ideology that underscores this statement is a sense of agitation shared by a number in this collection. Justin Lieberman’s disarming mock proclamation directed at students inquiring about an assignment, “I am not your father!,” perhaps speaks to a similar tenor of apprehension regarding the top-down powers imbued upon him, and a need to mediate his influence.
For those who negotiate more intricately within the conventions of the assignment, knowledge is discovered through this structure rather than seen as hierarchical intellectual property. Many discuss the slippery and richly associative experiences initiated through the artificial controls of the assignment. Projects and prompts are delivered as progressive and exploratory tools in John Baldessari’s list of commands, Rochelle Feinstein’s Lab, and Wayne Gonzales’s discussion of Hoyt Sherman’s Flash Lab at Ohio State, just to name a few. Jackie Gendel and Tom McGrath’s “Got No Stylus” implores students to make a drawing, but only after a long list of material and conceptual restrictions. The demands of the project seem intended to tear students away from traditional modes of working. Some luxuriate within these sorts of limits while others speak to the comedy of errors that arises from unintended consequences.
In an industry increasingly obsessed with learning “outcomes,” it is clear that what is learned from the assignment, the class, or the art school is almost never exactly what was intended. This is a collection that owns up to the multifaceted nature of the assignment and its potential pitfalls, but it also explores the unexpected epiphanies that endure beyond the short-term promise of the initial project. Jay Batlle’s alternately hilarious and unsettling entry, titled “Spiderman’s Dick,” is a description of his participation as a student in Paul McCarthy’s Beginning New Genres course. What begins as an earnest attempt to make a 10-minute video piece ends with Batlle on the ground dressed in a small boy’s shredded Spiderman costume. This unscripted malfunction—the inadvertent tearing of the undersized costume at “every seam” while being worn—becomes the central event in Batlle’s project and unleashes for him an array of associative childhood memory. In his words, “That’s when I remembered the car show, meeting my hero, and the lost childhood I was trying to regain.” Where Batlle’s mistake elicits a kind of circuitous introspection, Mira Schor urges her students to explore failure more directly. In her assignment, “FAIL!,” she encourages an embrace of risk-taking, an undercutting of intentionality, in the face of increasingly corporate institutions that demand more conventional success. But, perhaps ironically, she says, “No one has followed this advice anywhere near to the letter.” It appears that directed transgression has its difficulties as a strategy, partially because of the academic context of the gesture. Indeed, failure may be impossible when prescribed rather than inadvertently experienced.
The pseudo-parental presence of the institution is indeed felt on several levels, both as a restrictive entity to be challenged but also as an interesting cultural condition through which further learning occurs. Anecdotes have value here because they are specific: artwork is nearly or actually censored from a school exhibition because of its content (Colleen Asper, Bill Komodore), a student serves pot muffins to her unsuspecting classmates (Kevin Zucker), a class that incorporates the creation of pornography is rumored in a game of academic telephone (Amie Siegel), a faculty labor dispute becomes a “lucky break” for then-student Jon Pylypchuk to create his own non-academic collaboration. These case studies allude to the provocative tension, and potential dysfunction negotiated within the school’s moving parts.
The psychology of influence between multiple generations of teachers and students becomes an important thread that knits together the book. Assignments are “like folk songs, or certain kinds of jokes,” in that they are adapted by future teachers and “tinkered with, misheard, brought up to date” (George Rush). Chris Kraus, Bob Nickas, Sofía Olascoaga, Harrell Fletcher, Abraham Cruzvillegas, and Naomi Rincon Gallardo all discuss the iconic challenge of Paul Thek’s Teaching Notes, which are later delivered as a primary source. In this way, the structure of the collection somewhat mimics this idea of a story retold, but through the act of retelling there is a sense that an individualistic evolution is inevitable. This linkage and exchange of ideas between writers helps to bond together what at times threatens to become an isle of misfit toys, allowing a group of disparate entries to cohere into what is perhaps one meandering drama told from many different vantage points.
Somewhere in the middle of weaving through this irregular drumbeat of entries, some discrete and others expansive, some intensely poetic and others thoroughly analytical, it occurred to me that Draw It With Your Eyes Closed isn’t entirely about assignments after all. Or rather that the conundrum of teaching and learning is almost always complicated by the social interactions that exist on the periphery of the class structure, the dynamics between teacher and student that spill out beyond the moment of traditional instruction. In fact, the emotional condition of the student seems most felt when things threaten to fall apart, when the assignment begins to fracture due to student confusion (Christine Hill), student transgression (Sara Greenberger Rafferty), or faculty error (Brad Farwell).
As is the case in any classroom, an organic subtext reveals itself within this compilation through a series of subtle interactions, feints, and trespasses between participants. Despite the observations of academic trends discussed in the Editor’s Afterword, the conflicted academia embodied in Draw It With Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment offers little in the way of resolution or unifying statement, but rather a series of malleable strategies not unlike those employed by any artist—rules made to be obeyed, broken, and recycled.