Can Experimental Cultural Centers Replace MFA Programs?

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #5 in October 2007]

While it starts in a place relatively remote from Chicago, this text focuses on Mess Hall, an experimental cultural center in the city’s Rogers Park neighborhood.
In June 2006, I was on a long walk in southern Minnesota. While spending a luxurious night at a Best Western in Cannon Falls, I caught a brief report on the TV—something about Stephen Hawking (a British physicist known for his work on black holes), saying that he felt there ought to be a global effort to colonize outer space, as a response to impending global disasters like nuclear war and radical climate degradation. It certainly wasn’t a new idea, but this time the notion lodged itself in my head.
Days later, I arrived on the outskirts of a town called Mankato, where my grandmother lives. I had been walking for three or four days on a former railway converted to a bike path. In addition to the new buildings and strip malls, I saw a few gas stations, some fast food drive-thrus, and of course, parking lots. It was at that moment that Hawking’s idea about colonizing space became dislodged. I saw people ordering food from their vehicles, moving about this place as if trying not to touch the ground, absorbed in the wonderful things we love to absorb ourselves in: tiny little screens on cell phones, the dashboard controls, the drive-through interface, the display on the gas pump, and shopping bags full of zesty, processed food that will not rot well at all.
How appropriate, I thought. This is all very good practice for space travel. If we are going to colonize space, we are going to have to learn how to live without touching the ground. We are going to have to be able to conduct most of our communications electronically. We are going to have to learn how to live in small, sealed containers. I could do that, I think, but it would wear me down.
However, my inclination at the moment is to involve myself in things that are on the other end of the spectrum of mediated experience: to learn things that bring me closer to the ground, to learn the pleasures and dangers of communicating face to face. While I think I will never forget the pleasure of movies, screens and remote media, I want to know what it is like to spend extended periods of time being entertained by the people who are near to me. The question I was asking myself, after walking more or less alone through a rarified corridor for several days, being confronted by strip-mall culture is, “Is this how we want to be living?” Of course, everyone can answer for himself.
First off, let’s remember why it is important to ask this kind of question, “Is this how we want to be living?” Depending on the circumstances of the person asking, questions like this may be about things that we feel are beyond our control, or matters where we have no choice. So why bother asking? Questioning is powerful because it is inherently open-ended and unfinished. It is an act that produces liquidity, requires improvisation. It invites participation and solution making. It is an act that, rather than closing things off, produces openings.    Another great thing about it is that we are all capable of it. Our minds are constantly spewing forth questions. Only a few of the questions are allowed to surface; that is our training. For me, the exciting implication in the question “Is this how we want to be living?” is that we learned how to live this way: strip mall culture. We taught each other to live this way, so it stands to reason that we could eventually teach each other something else, maybe numerous other ways of living.
The more I participated in cultural work, the more it seemed obvious to me that an artist ought to be able to socialize, and to organize social events and gatherings to involve different kinds of people. Before, so many of the gatherings of people I had been a part of where arranged by the schools I had attended: classes, field trips, or large commercial ventures like sporting events or fairs. They were institutionally and commercially driven. I had somehow falsely learned that people cannot gather themselves, that the capacity to gather people is not my capacity. But there was something else happening. There was my family who gathered almost daily for dinner, and gathered in larger groups seasonally, for some holidays and celebrations. It is certainly possible to reflect on and learn from these gatherings. Also there was skateboarding, truly a way of gathering with people and making decisions, as a loose, changing group, about where to go and what to do. This may be one of the more valuable self-directed educations I was fortunate enough to have. We built a few ramps using scavenged materials, we gathered on street corners, we found alternative uses for public space, and of course we were confronted by police and security guards.
Later in Chicago, as a recent Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) recipient, I began to go to some art galleries in the city. I learned about galleries in apartments, a space in a garage, or in an old warehouse. And when I was brave, I could talk one-on-one with the people who initiated these spaces, and to the artists who contributed to the exhibitions. I saw how they worked, and that while there are some risks involved, they are actually quite minimal and that it is quite easy to put something in a space like this. It takes little more than the help of a few trusted cohorts. That is, I saw how the artists helped each other, how they spent time working on things that were not their own. Some artists had technical knowledge and time that they would share with other artists, and some had equipment that they would share. I came to see that so many projects would not have happened with out this kind of sharing and mutual support. And I realized that if this was really important to me—I’d better start helping too. It was all very similar to some of the things that we were doing as skaters, building ramps, lending each other tools or parts to keep rolling, but also I can see parallels to the family activity; there is passion and love of the deepest kind involved here. I did say this was risky, didn’t I?
So far I’ve been talking about my education leading up to my involvement in Mess Hall. Now I want to talk about my education since my involvement with Mess Hall.
But first, here’s a joke:
How many autodidacts does it take to change a light bulb?
Answer: I don’t know; figure it out yourself.
No, seriously: How many people does it take to make an experimental cultural space?
Answer: There is a core group of eleven “keyholders” that coordinate and organize all of the events the take place at Mess Hall—or under the Mess Hall name, since sometimes Mess Hall projects happen at other places too. I am one of the people in that group. But beyond that group there are so many people who have contributed huge amounts of energy, thought, time, material, and emotional support to this experiment: neighbors, scholars, speakers, activists, introverts, artists, technicians, organizers, locals, tinkerers, eccentrics, landlords, hoarders, travelers, archivists, cranks, writers, cooks, talkers, audience members; all of them are cultural contributors: the foundation of Mess Hall.
Egregiously, I left educators off that list. Certainly many professional educators have contributed to Mess Hall and wonderful things have come out that, but Mess Hall has also been a place for co-education, a place where non-professionals can educate and where there is some possibility for anyone to become a teacher. Sometimes teaching happens by overt, formal lesson; sometimes in spontaneous situations where lessons can’t help but bloom, and other times there are difficult situations that can only be navigated by on-the-spot learning.
An MFA can be a very important part of an artist or cultural worker’s education. Many dear friends of mine have MFAs, but I can’t help ask the question: what kind of education does an MFA provide and can it answer all of my needs as a cultural worker? Can it teach me the lessons I need to learn? Surely people have learned to do vital, interesting cultural work without going to art school. What makes that possible? Mess Hall, for the past three years, has been central to my education as a cultural worker. I have been in the privileged position of being a key holder. Becoming a key holder was nothing like applying and getting accepted to an MFA program. It was what I would call an organic process. When Mess Hall started I was a friend and great admirer of the work of the people who first initiated the space, so I spent as much time as I could there, soon became involved in some events, and then was invited me to be a key holder. To be sure, there are certain things that a place like Mess Hall can provide and certain things that it can’t. But I have come to think of my work at Mess Hall as being a replacement or an alternative to attending an MFA program. This might not work for everyone—hell, it might not even be working for me—but I think some comparison is worthwhile: between my Mess Hall experience, and what a graduate school experience might have been.
MFA programs provide a lot of different things for different people, obviously. Let us assume that all these things are important parts of a contemporary education in art. There are four main categories that I can think of when it comes to what an MFA program provides a student: (one) space and time to work, (two) critical thinking skills, (three) networking, and (four) qualification for possible employment. I am going to flesh out each of these four main categories and draw some comparisons with experiences at Mess Hall.

—Space and time.  Most MFA programs will provide studios or some kind of working spaces for students, along with some equipment and technical resources. This is a defined, protected, and even rarified place for concentrated work and I assume time spent in the studio is one of the central features of most MFA programs.
My own cultural practice has been about working in the cracks, finding materials and tools that are cheap and free, making space in my own domestic space to do work. There is a long tradition in the modern avant-garde of turning one’s own domestic space over to one’s artistic practice. For better or worse, I have embraced that tradition. For a short time, I rented a small studio a couple of miles from my apartment but found that I didn’t like trying to split my time between there and my domestic space, so I decided the expense wasn’t worth it. But that doesn’t mean I only work in my domestic space. For example, a friend with a large loft left town and allowed me to use her place to make a large object which never would have even fit in my apartment. On more than one occasion, Mess Hall itself has served as a studio or working space for various projects, both for individuals and groups. But obviously there is not enough room there to let one person use it on a permanent basis. All of this is a contrast to working in a studio space provided by an art school or a university. It is all more tenuous, and often less convenient, and that effects the outcome, but it also forces me to be more creative in problem solving and depend on other people a bit more to finish my work (which I see as advantageous). As far as time is concerned, I have had a full-time job for much of the time that I have been a keyholder at Mess Hall. That in itself, though, may not be different from people who have to hold down a job, or even two, while they attend graduate school to keep up with tuition, bills, and other living expenses. It’s not ideal, but it is real.

—Critical thought.  Another central aspect of a graduate education in art is to engender strong skills in critical thinking. This includes learning where and how to find knowledge and knowledge resources, deepening reading skills, and becoming more articulate when writing and speaking.
One of the central values of Mess Hall is an ethic of self-interrogation. That is, we are constantly asking ourselves and each other about the effects and meanings of the work we are doing: who it is serving, and what interests it represents. Each key holder looks at every event and project proposal that comes our way, and has to evaluate whether it fits in. There is no consensus process at Mess Hall. Events can happen even if some of the keyholders don’t like them, but there is always an exchange and space made for people to voice their concerns. There is a unique atmosphere of mutual respect and trust that has somehow emerged among the keyholders, so we are always interested in each other’s points of view. Sometimes the exchanges can become quite intense. It is a pragmatic criticality that is at work, always asking, “What would the effects of this event or project be, why is it a good idea?” Or “Why does it not fit in at Mess Hall?” Sometimes we will share an article or a piece of text with the group, something to help inform what Mess Hall is, or will help us clarify a position on a given project. Since a great deal of these exchanges take place via email, the whole process has helped me to become a better, more articulate writer, both in terms of making my arguments and reading other people’s.

—Networking.  On a very basic level, a graduate program brings people into contact with like-minded people in an intensified, somewhat closed or rarified atmosphere. It is a place to bond with people in the field, to learn how professionals in the field speak. It is a place to meet and learn from people who have experience interacting with and working with people who have power in the art world. Teachers and staff at an art school have often dealt with curators, funding organizations, benefactors, administrators, gallerists, collectors, non-profit organizations, and other art institutions. It is their job to show you how to do the same.
Sometimes it seems like that’s all Mess Hall is: a network. It is a network with 11 keyholders somewhere at the middle, all drawing on every connection they can think of to accomplish all of the events and projects Mess Hall does. Mess Hall was initiated by a group called Temporary Services, who have been doing cultural work together for about 10 years. They have reputation for doing engaging, challenging, radical cultural work among many different people all over the country and in different parts of the world. In short, they have a great deal of cultural capital; that is, many people pay attention to what they are doing and find it meaningful. The cultural capital of Temporary Services has undoubtedly been an important part of the robust social network from which Mess Hall has been able to draw. But at the same time, each keyholder is part of another set of social circles that nobody else in the group may have known about or had access to, if not for Mess Hall. The networks we are a part of at Mess Hall connect up with some of those people in power in the art world—curators, non-profits, galleries, and so on—but part of the reason that Mess Hall exists is a frustration with the limitations and assumptions held by these kinds of institutions. (And often even by those people who work at them—indeed, many keyholders do!) Mess Hall makes overt efforts to connect and network with people who would normally have no interest in, or feel alienated by, art galleries or museums. And in some cases it actually works. Mess Hall is more or less funded out of pocket, and tries to do as much as possible with surpluses and for free. Unlike many non-profit institutions, it is not beholden to funding organizations, benefactors, and the wealthy. [1] We are free to expend our social energies with people, regardless of their economic status or background. It has been a place for me to interact and learn to communicate with people of widely varying cultural and economic backgrounds. While I don’t always succeed, I have begun to learn ways of communicating the sometimes very complex and nuanced ideas and projects we deal with at Mess Hall to a broad cross section of people. And while I hope not to condemn the value of art school critiques, that’s a stark contrast to defending your work in a critique with other graduate students.

—Employment and the possibility of employment. Oftentimes a graduate program provides a first opportunity for the student to become a teacher. MFA students often teach introductory undergraduate courses for pay or even as part of their curriculum. For many, it is their first experience working with students. It also seems that an MFA is a minimum qualification for teaching at most art schools or university art departments, which is very important since—unless one is lucky enough and skilled enough to become a bluechip artist and become successful in the commercial art world—teaching often seems like the only option for paying the bills when working in a cultural field in the US.
This is where things get a little touchy, feelings perhaps a bit more raw. First of all, I don’t think being a Mess Hall keyholder will muster qualification enough for most hiring committees, but who knows? Doesn’t it depend on who you know? But my raw feelings give me a very strong urge to question the very economic structure of art education at the college level, and at the same time I cannot propose solutions to the problems I see. I have seen so many friends with MFAs live by the skin of their teeth, trying to pay bills and student loans on the salary of a part-time teacher with various art programs in Chicago. I have seen friends competing for the same teaching jobs with meager pay and no health benefits. They have become frustrated and depressed, and it is hard to watch. It sometimes seems like teaching in the cultural field is becoming more and more like the bluechip art world, an economy that sets people against each other and can only support a fraction of the people who aspire to be a part of it. I think as far as answering our economic needs and the need for health security, collective creativity is needed. I also think that everybody who has a desire to teach should have the chance to do so. The need to teach is as plain as any human need. If you think about it, it is no less essential than the need to learn. It is a basic right which everyone should have access, and maybe not always expect to be paid for it. I don’t claim that Mess Hall has the solution to these problems, but I do claim that Mess Hall is one among millions of open spaces that are needed to begin to make visible our capacity to begin the long process of transformation. Mess Hall in fact a place where I, despite not being in an MFA program, have begun to teach people and even to work with college students. It has taught me, experientially, that I can teach.

It is okay not to answer questions right away. It may be better to let them stew, to let the question change and develop, both inwardly and outwardly. Undoubtedly the questions will affect our actions.
Many people I know are disturbed, depressed, and hurt by some of the ways our culture operates and by the way our economies affect us and others around the world. We are upset that there are very few places to gather with others and learn from each other, and that the places where people can do so seem somehow very limited in scope or are prohibitive on some level. Most places, like movie theaters, museums, bars, cafes, or restaurants, cost money. And others, like churches, have a religious agenda that is far from inclusive.
We want conditions to improve.
Maybe, not unlike an MFA program provides a kind of safe space for a young artist to explore and work on things that seem outlandish to most people, one thing that an experimental cultural center can do is provide a safe space for a variety of people to come and ask questions and see how those questions affect our actions, both in the space and beyond it. This seems like it cold be a valuable part of the slow process of improving conditions. And the times when we are able to work to improve conditions locally are wonderful times.

1.    It should be noted that the storefront space we use is given to us for free by our landlord, Al Goldberg, with whom we have a good relationship. He has never imposed any unreasonable conditions on us for using the space, and we have never felt any need to “butter him up.” As things stand, we have a trusting respectful relationship with him. At the same time we feel that Mess Hall—though it would certainly become something else, as it always is anyway—would not collapse entirely, if for some reason Al turned crazy and stopped sharing the space with us.


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