". . . [Q]uestions the viewer's perception of their own presence . . . The viewer's sensation is heightened by the artwork's ability to propose an altered relationship between the individual and their social environment and the actual bodily experience through the muting of sound . . . creates artificial conditions and provides an environment separate from the external world. At the same time, it is a functioning environment which offers a parallel experience in real time." — Nicolas de Oliveira, Installation Art in The New Millennium

"What do I want? I want to live forever, and I can't have that." — Damien Hirst, in an interview with Gordon Burn, On The Way To Work


I know next to nothing about art. My knowledge is miniscule, a drop in the proverbial bucket. I practice the stuff, I play Artist, but this does little to aid the weak and shaking grasp that I have on this thing, this idea, this bigger-than-words, Art.

None of these kids have the acumen, the mastery that they pretend to possess. Not really. They play savvy, intuitive, appearing to perceive what no one outside this place could ever see, but it is mostly luck and appropriation that give them their airs of brilliance. There is a code, a language one hears in these classrooms. The sages speak it and we mimic the sounds, hoping one day to finally seize the meaning. Elusive, but we'll get it. We pay outrageous sums for the chase. Using this language is a skill, one of the many we're taught here, and arguably the most important. The fine art world is the Eastern Bloc of Western culture; no one gets very far if he does not speak the language.

It is curious that no one ever acknowledges this code. At least in the departments of fine art, talking about the language is taboo. In this way the language is unspoken. We understand that our code is tacit, but those departments possessing less tact sometimes do not. In the building of Illustration studies, for example, or maybe Industrial Design, one might hear a student or even an ill-mannered professor citing the language. Or maybe I'm wrong. Being in the department of Painting, I am certainly biased. The animosity is long-standing, age-old, a tradition of sorts. It existed before the school was founded and will continue indefinitely. The disciplines of Fine Art and Design have always been at odds.

I don't know much about art, and I know even less about this child of postmodernity named installation. I am a painter, I understand color and texture, the creation of light and form, representation and abstraction. Installation is a three-dimensional sentence, not an image, but a non-linear narration involving space and the audience, submerging the viewer. This is confusing to me. I don't know what the viewers will think of this decision or that one, I cannot predict how the space I've created will relate to one's idea of the self or body, and all the video art I've ever seen has been too tedious for me to make any sense of it at all. Give me colored mud on canvas any day.

Installation "provides a complex model for art in which the mechanism is revealed, not the intended result." The end product, the ultimate truth, doesn't matter in such cases, and this is extremely disconcerting. We want the stability that comes with the conclusion. We may work back into a painting or print ad infinitum, but we have it in our hands, we feel it, this commodity produced by Us. But we have to remember, of course, that the attachment to an end product is quickly becoming tres passˇ. Process is more important than product, mind over matter, it seems that the documentation, the by-product of an event or performance will soon be the only exception.

I am slightly annoyed, thinking of everything that I don't understand about installation, while my ceramics teacher explains our final project. Of course, it is an installation. Why can't I just make a coffee cup? Can't I just be an average, arts-n-crafts-loving Midwesterner for once? This business of interpreting culture and creating new and insightful pieces of art based on said interpretations has become far too demanding. I am exhausted, I am critiqued to shreds, I just want to paint, or make a cute animal out of clay. I do not want to "create a space and integrate my ceramic work into that space, or non-space." Maybe I should smoke more pot, as the spiritual epiphanies spurred by a stoned existence seem to make up the bulk of the rest of these kids' inspirations.


Alex Field is tall and scrawny, with dirty blonde hair (unless he's bleached it) clipped into an ironic mullet. His face would be unassuming, had he not chosen to become an artist, and thus a hipster - that vague descriptor quickly on its way out of fashion. I have spoken to Alex Field once, at a party in a warehouse downtown. I told him I liked his sneakers, we shook hands, we noted the several friends we have in common, but we've never again acknowledged each other. I see him daily.

Alex Field looks to be the quintessential RISD student. He fits the stereotype like a glove. A Printmaking major, he spends his studio time carving woodblocks of wolves and making copper plates of fantastic creatures. He has a penchant for matted fur, and wears an decrepit fox tail on his coat sometimes. He cannot be bothered to make "serious" art, because in using the archaic techniques of his department to make images like he does, he is so hip. Very postmodern. Everyone knows this. Some say that he wastes his tuition money, but those kids are probably in Illustration or something. Alex Field is the one cited when his friends are referenced, and if you are friends with Alex Field, you are friends with all of them. Befriending Alex Field can be a difficult task, however, because he is painfully shy, even socially awkward at times. He grew up in Rhode Island, not Providence, but one of the smaller, quainter towns speckling this tiny state. The Puddle State. He did not have to travel far to get to this place. I saw him at Whole Foods once, with an older woman, ostensibly his mother. She was dressed conservatively, almost frumpily, and had an homely but honest face and a concerned expression. She had the same narrow jawline and small, quizzical eyes as he. She, much shorter but also slim, made his neon attire and zebra-print cap look absurd. As I watched them (rudely, and probably obviously), she tilted her head upwards and asked him to grab some more turkey from the deli, please. We caught eye contact as he walked off but we both looked away quickly.


We stumble up the stairs and stop at the second floor apartment. There are chocolate chip cookies sitting on the table, no plate. This doesn't strike me as odd for some reason, and I grab one and put it unwrapped into my bag. Someone says they looked at this apartment last spring. I say, So did we. The people living on the second floor are in their living room smoking hookah and they don't want us to join or break anything, so they tell us to leave. We try the third floor.

We sit and lie on floor cushions while one of the girls tries on clothes to model for us. The room is hazy, but her costumes are sequined, and although my vision is doubled, I can appreciate the sparkle. I take off my coat because it's hot, and then I slump over. I close my eyes for a second but that's all, because I know falling asleep here isn't a good idea, who knows what could happen in this bedroom-cum-opium den. Also, I have the hiccups.

The impromptu fashion show is still going on, but Hayden, the model and inhabitant of the bedroom, has only tried on two sequined shirts and is no longer wearing pants. There is an Andy Warhol print on her underwear, boyshorts. In the next moment my friends are shaking me awake, it's time to go, you can't sleep here. Hayden objects, I'm welcome to pass out here, I don't have to walk all the way home if I'm so tired. She is adamant and very friendly, but my friends insist on dragging me, semi-conscious, the half-mile back to our apartment. Along the way I babble about my studio work, I am upset because I have so much to do, I obviously don't have time to sleep tonight, and I don't understand why these people are taking me prisoner in my own bedroom. I am trying to be responsible and productive, and they only want to corrupt my dedication by forcing me to sleep.

I do grudgingly end up in bed, and sleep until four the next day. The sky is already darkening again, I am still hungover, and I don't go to studio. At some point I get up and look in my purse. There is a smashed, gooey chocolate chip cookie lining the inside. I stay in bed the rest of the afternoon, eat something, and then finally venture back out into the sundry network that decides my weekend itineraries. We end up at some house, a familiar address.

"Look what I'm doing. Look what I'm doing." A girl, a freshman and also a coke dealer, has the powder piled on top of a compact. We waiting in line for the bathroom laugh with her at this zaniness, and then someone leaves the toilet and we are in.

Daniel enters first, mutes the outside noise with a slam of the door, immediately tugs at the medicine cabinet mirror. No luck. Don't break it, I say, we'll just use this small one from my purse. Jung takes out her stash and dumps some on my mirror and chops up the little chunks with a razor blade she bought from the RISD store. She owes us, both Daniel and I, which is why we're all three in the bathroom together, so I don't feel bad that we're doing the rest of the bag. The bathroom feels very Midwestern. There is a floral pattern lining the ceiling and the toilet, sink, and bathtub are a pale peach color. The hand towels (what college student owns hand towels?) look almost handmade, ultra kitschy and likely imported from Ohio. Very unsettling.

Banging on the door hurries us, kind of, and we erase Jung's blow with several enthusiastic snorts while kids outside, probably waiting to do the same thing, yell through the door.

I open it and fall back into the crush of people and sound and cigarette smoke and heat, my senses on high alert. This party's gotten clever, and dangerous. Pulsing, popping, zoo-bopping, printmakers eating chemicals like candy and painters smoking pipes full of great green gobs and dancing; this pipe is packed with dancing! This cup is filled with prancing! We kids are together, all of us, not kids anymore, but artists, creators and interpreters of the universe who don't need silly things like sleep or food or jobs or age- the world doesn't mind if we spend our days in glazed revelry, senses dulled then sharpened, Painting and Sculpture replacing Sodom and Gomorrah. But we are clever! We are much smarter! We will not be destroyed by fire and brimstone! They will not turn us to sand!


My eyes are crusty with mascara and glitter, and I stumble into the Met alongside my comrades. It is half past noon. My hair smells like a crack den. My insides are empty and I feel light and airy and ephemeral. I feel foreign as I stare down the buffet-style cafeteria. We spread out after grabbing trays and survey the mock chicken nuggets and tempeh stir fry (we're vegan), the scrambled eggs and cheddar cheese (but we cheat), the jeweled salad bar and soggy pasta salad. Stainless steel hurts my eyes, but it feels solid and comforting to be around.

Eventually we have all migrated to the booths on the eastern side of the Met, and thus begins the tradition of rehash. Due to last night's antics, I have no appetite, but I am more focused on the speculations circling the table.

"Did you see-"

" — ha, yeah, and oh my god! I talked to — "

"Wait, who?"

" — they were only there for maybe fifteen minutes, but — "

" — didn't see her, are you sure?"

"Oh, I forgot to tell you — "

" — was super awkward. These eggs are kind of — "

"I feel like hell."

" — had some powder but wouldn't share any of it."

"Really? She gave — "

" — just because she already owed — "

" — still think that's just rude — "

" — hey look — "

" — weird — "

" — at Skeller, he probably — "

" — doubt he's even been to — "

"I mean, I barely had two hours — "

" — passed out around five,"

"so did I, maybe five — thirty — "

" — around six."

" — that's crazy how — "

" — today?"

" — or did you mean Friday night — "

" — have some printing to finish."

" — the Metcalf — "

"I have to — "

" — probably go in a bit — "

" — to studio."

We are itching to get there, but we wince as we enter our respective departments. Studio work is a bizarre concept: it is homework and hobby at once. It is the reason we live, and how we plan to make a living. We put all of ourselves into this work and we are graded on the result. This feels somewhat contrived . . . the composition really isn't helping . . . more work could be done in these areas, this doesn't feel very resolved. Visual representation of the depth of your soul: C+. We develop thick but porous skins, we must not get discouraged but we cannot become jaded. We persist in the face of stinging, incredulous criticism. We are not students of dentistry.


"Hey." My neighbor in studio, Kieley, peers around the massive canvas she's been poking at to look at me purposefully. "I just talked to JD. He's stopping by." I raise an eyebrow in mock admonishment, and she rolls her eyes nervously.

"I know, I mean, whatever, I know it's not . . . Whatever. I know it'll make me get my work done. Do you want any?" I tell her no, that I'm fine, I'm not going to be working very late anyway. I make some casual, generic comment along the lines of "you gotta do what you gotta do" and she shrugs, goes back to staring at her work.

It makes sense, given the endless hours we devote to studio work, that there exists a certain affinity for stimulants on this campus. Coffee, by far the most common, is a legal example. Cigarettes, a close second. But it is the barely legal, by — prescription — only, and the absolutely illegal that lend a certain excitement, an undertone of seediness and seriousness to the work in some studios. It is an amplification of the work, an aggrandizement of the process. We push ourselves to the limit, speeding towards the apocalypse, while the four horsemen act as snide critics behind us.

By the time I leave, Kieley is no longer bothering to hide her activities in the bathroom. She has lines cut on her glass palette. Her painting looks terrible.


The ceramics studio is buzzing with the nerves that come with preparing an installation when I arrive for the final critique. I am not nervous, mine is simple and I probably won't get such a good grade, but I am just ready to be done with this non-major studio elective. I am checked out.

Alison, however, is not checked out. Alison is in my class, another non-ceramics major, not a friend, but we've seen each other out on the weekends before and it is understood that we share some of the same interests and values. She is speaking quickly to a friend of hers, Sophie, who is not in our class but is likely helping Alison with her installation. Maybe it'll be a performance piece. There is an animal skull, ostensibly ceramic, set on the table where Alison seems to be setting up. It is some type of cattle or goat. Alison and Sophie are both friends of Alex Field's, so I guess dead animals must be a trend in that circle.

I sit at my usual spot and put my head down until it is time to begin. I wonder if Kieley is still working.

"Ok, well . . . " My teacher, Susan, gets our attention, pauses and studies the paper in her hand. Can we just get on with it? I am irritable because I know I haven't spent enough time on my work for this class. I am aggravated with myself, and I know it is my fault that I won't get a very good critique. I want this to be over with.

"Alison, it looks like you're first. Are you all ready to go?" Alison nods and shows the class where to sit. I hadn't noticed the lit candles on and around the table, filling the space. She turns off the overhead lights and hits play on a tape player that's she's brought to class. This might actually be good. At least for entertainment, if not good in the academic sense.

The ceramic skull sits on a table covered in black cloth and a translucent red liquid drips down the skull, the table, and pools in the fabric. A bottle of red Gatorade rests comically against the far wall. Noise softly begins to rise from the tape player, it sounds like whispering over an accordian or some other instrument common in Romania or Slovakia. It sounds like the noise is really trying to be scary. A figure appears at the door, draped in black fabric, carrying a candle, probably Sophie. She is walking so slowly I have to stop myself from sighing out loud.

Sophie finally makes it to the table, kneels down predictably, makes some odd hand motions. Alison's voice comes from the tape player, over the music: "Life is golden. Life is golden." This phrase repeats indefinitely, and I am embarrassed for her. I can't tell what is supposed to be transpiring over at the table. I have no idea what she will possibly say in defense of this. As always, though, there is a good chance that I am unique in my bewilderment and the teachers will sing the praises of this silly piece.

"Uh, ok," Susan looks over at the guest critic, someone she's asked to come in from the Sculpture department. Guest Critic stares back blankly. "Well, Alison, would you like to say a few words?"

"Umm, well, yeah," Alison stands mouse — like before us, like whatever we just saw was supposed to be cute. "Well, I was just trying to comment on rituals, in general, and the randomness of them. I think rituals play a really, like, interesting part in a lot of cultures, but it's kind of funny because they're just so random."

Susan says nothing, unconvinced. Guest Critic appears to be deep in thought. A loud click ensues from the old tape player as it begins again.

"I really wanted to create an environment that felt kind of, like, spiritual or from another world," Alison continues. "And then I just tried to kind of recreate some ideas I have when I think of rituals, like the candles, the black fabric, the goat's skull and blood . . . " Silence usually doesn't bode well in critiques. And silence is heavy in this one. We don't know what to say, and neither do Susan or the other teacher. All I can think is, are you kidding? This silence is painful. I hope somebody speaks soon. I would, but I don't want to hurt Alison's feelings. The performance, or installation, was heinous, yes, but she seemed excited about it, and I feel sorry for her.

"Well, Alison, I'm a bit confused," Guest Critic finally speaks up. "You're talking about the 'randomness' of rituals, but the nature of ritual is anything but random. Rituals exist to symbolize and remind us of something significant, whether that be an event, tradition, belief, or what have you."

"Yes, I agree," Susan adds. "I'm not sure if you're trying to be ironic, or whimsical, or serious . . . I guess I'm confused, too." Alison, visibly uncomfortable, tries to clarify by repeating what she has already said, and the class swarms her with questions. They back off, mercifully, after two or three and Susan decides to move on.

"Ok, thank you, Alison. So . . . Min is next. Where are you taking us, Min?"As Alison and Sophie clean up I hear them muttering to each other, both bruised and defensive.

"I mean, what isn't random about rituals? They didn't — "

" — didn't even really explain what she meant, that wasn't fair. I liked it."

"Yeah, I like the, you know, randomness of it all . . . "

"Rituals are so, just, they don't even make any sense, and I like that about them . . . " Most have left the ceramics studio at this time on their way to the site of the next installation. Alison handles the goat's head carefully while cleaning off the Gatorade. Seen outside the context of her piece, the ceramic has been competently and meticulously crafted. The homemade tape is still playing and Alison, still flustered, goes to turn it off as her voice returns to the studio over crinkly and clichéd sound effects: "Life is golden. Life is golden. Life is golden."

"It's life, Gordon. It comes down to fucking God. I always think that art, God, and love are really connected. I've always said I don't believe in God. At all. I don't want to believe in God. But I suddenly realized that my belief in art is really fucking similar to believing in God. And I'm having difficulties believing in art without believing in God. And it's, like, if I don't believe in God, I can't believe in art. You can't put your finger on it. It's a fucking dream state. It's a fucking mad thing. It's a weird thing. I'm hanging on to art."

— Damien Hirst, in an interview with Gordon Burn, On The Way To Work

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25 December 2007