Meta-critical Mobilization

by Larissa Harris, Curator, Queens Museum of Art, 2020

Between 2009 and 2013 the Queens Museum expanded, but at a certain point it appeared there wasn’t enough money yet to program and staff the doubled building. Our director Tom Finkelpearl had the idea to start a studio program in what would become the old wing. We got funding from a foundation whose guidelines stipulated that it had to include “artist services” and “professional development.” Caroline was part of our first cohort, and used this fund- ing stream to hold a series of public conver- sations under the name BFAMFAPhD, which referred to an emerging collective Woolard hoped would form and solidify.

These events tackled some of the same questions around professionalization or institutionalization of creative work that the funding itself embodied. The series combined community conversations and talking with people who had written about the art-school complex. Against the back-drop of Caroline’s own experience in and desire to build para- or counter-institutions whose members could see and control the power and resources they themselves produced, these were open conversations that avoided complete condemnation of “professionalization,” and instead debated the possibilities, comprised or not, inherent in the institutions that inevitably shape artists and the arts as a field. As Caroline said at the start of one of these early BFAMFAPhD events, “The question is not the scandal of the individual, necessarily, but how can individuals create institutions that they want to be part of? Where they see the power of the institution as collectively generated, rather than a random chance occurrence they need to participate in.” In this case, Caroline used resources at the Queens Museum to imagine and enact collective action outside the institution.

these were open conversations that avoided complete condemnation of “professionalization”

BFAMFAPhD’s first major project, Artist’s Report Back, was produced the summer after this series, amidst the energy of the protests around Cooper Union tuition, Debt Strike, and Rolling Jubilee (now Debt Collective). It revealed data on the interface between higher-education debt and art careers. But the most striking statistic for me was how many more artists without a BA apparently make a career from their art than those with degrees. Debt is obviously one reason for this, but the wide-open definition of art (both in society and in the survey) is probably a bigger one.

The Queens Museum has been a place that sought out and supported working-class creativity. In the immigrant neighborhoods that flank our park, people develop businesses — web design, wedding photography — based on what they have to offer and the needs of their communities. Caroline has also mentioned that this statistic includes a lot of musicians, whose economy has always been broad-based rather than semi-feudal like visual art as conventionally understood. I believe Caroline was the only artist in the studios that year to take advantage of the funding available for “professional development.” Taking her critical mobilization of the concept as a starting point, could “artists services” be a tool to connect the makers of more broadly defined creative work with the people for whom art school is a likely proposition (even if it produces debt)? Is this solidarity around cultural work what we will need now, to the extent that it crosses real class and cultural boundaries, and as we face down a world in which at least some patronage may be out of the running?

That year Caroline also built a mobile sleep- ing unit in her studio, reacting in a practical manner to the realities of life in the “real estate state” (as Sam Stein calls it). Not originally meant for exhibition, but making underlying structural problems visible (and thereby calling up Krzysztof Wodiczko’s “interrogative design”), these small refuges (she built a similar structure at another artists residency in 2009) may protect her from the pressure on precious solitude that comes with a commitment to living and thinking together — whether it be your living space or an active life in New York. Caroline extrapolates questions from her own life situations about the structure of society under capitalism, makes and catalyzes tools and communities to address these structures, then ploughs back what she learns into her own life and her commitment to making the process of social change a democratic and inclusive one. Indeed this book itself is an attempt to make this iterative practice visible.

Larissa Harris is a curator at the Queens Museum. Exhibitions at QMA include Red Lines Housing Crisis Learning Center, a project on home finance by artist and urban designer Damon Rich; the first U.S. solo presentation of Korean video and performance artist Sung Hwan Kim; People’s United Nations (pUN) by Pedro Reyes; 13 Most Wanted Men: Andy Warhol at the 1964 World’s Fair; and, with Patti Phillips, Mierle Laderman Ukeles: Maintenance Art.

fig. 5-1 Caroline Woolard in her studio in 2008. Courtesy of the artist.

Caroline extrapolates questions from her own life situations about the structure of society under capitalism, makes and catalyzes tools and communities to address these structures then ploughs back what she learns into her own life and her commitment to making the process of social change a democratic and inclusive one.

— Larissa Harris

Art holds the fantasy and the contradiction of mobility, of individuality, and of the desire to resist that, to imagine cooperative ways of being. These houses on wheels at the MacDowell Colony and at the Queens Museum do that, too. They might want to move, but you can't get very far with those little wheels! These structures are symbols, metonyms, for bodies — architecture as an extension of the body, as supportive spaces for dreaming, thinking, and making. They are sculptures that are functional, that are places where conversation, hanging out, and making art happen. They might imagine mobility, but in reality, they are quite fixed.

—Caroline Woolard, interview with Larissa Harris

fig. 5-2 Shaker Residence, 2008, birch wood, sheetrock, paint, performance, 72 × 36 × 144 inches. Courtesy of the artist and the MacDowell Colony.
fig. 5-3 Studio/Home, 2014 (reconstructed 2020), framing lumber, hardware, mattress, fabric, casters, 86 × 46 × 98 inches. Courtesy of the artist and the Queens Museum. Photo by Aaron Strauss.
fig. 5-4 Caroline Woolard, Technical Drawings for Studio/Home, dimensions variable, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.