Visual Arts Commentary: Five Highlights from the TransCultural Exchange’s 2013 Conference

Residences are such a prominent feature of contemporary creative life that there’s an important gathering, the TransCultural Exchange’s Conference on International Opportunities in the Arts, that brings together artists and residency directors to share information, ideas, and opportunities.

Laser Panorama over Boston

The blue-green laser projecting over I-90 between the BU School of Law and Student Village 2.

2013 Conference on International Opportunities in the Arts, presented by TransCultural Exchange, October 10 through 13. Hosted by Boston University.

By Franklin Einspruch

Being an artist is in many ways so different from workaday life for most people that it is sometimes difficult for them to comprehend what we do. Chief among these perplexities is the residency, in which the artist spends a block of time at a specified location for the purpose of working on his art. Because these locations are often scenic or exotic, and because the artist is typically encouraged to use the time however he likes, on more than a few occasions I been asked, upon returning from a residency, to explain what I did there and if it was really just a kind of vacation.

Residencies, however enjoyable and whatever respite they offer, are not vacations. Artists are expected to practice their art at an intense level during the time allotted. The lack of distractions often turns into an opportunity to rethink one’s practice from first principles. Residencies are now considered to be a standard feature of a mature artist’s curriculum vita, just as exhibitions and grants are. They are such a prominent aspect of contemporary creative life that there’s an important gathering, the TransCultural Exchange’s Conference on International Opportunities in the Arts, that brings together artists and residency directors to share information, ideas, and opportunities.

The conference took place Thursday to Sunday last week, primarily on the campus of Boston University. Now in its twenty-fifth year, it featured numerous panel discussions covering practical and theoretical concerns, performance and exhibition, and copious opportunities for networking. Below are some of the high points.

1. Grant Writing Workshop

Melissa Potter is an accomplished multi-media artist who teaches at Columbia College Chicago. She is a two-time Fulbright winner and has been a visiting artist in programs as far away as Serbia. She was also instrumental in the development of NYFA Source, a database of artist opportunities which she said is within 10 or 15 percent of being comprehensive. Potter also identified herself as a fourth-generation feminist and made a dig at neoliberalism in the course of her talk on grant writing, though this turned out to have practical rather than political implications.

Money is a problem for most artists, even among those who produce salable objects, which, of course, not all of them do. Many sources for arts funding exist; it’s a matter of digging them up, and surmising whether they’re appropriate to one’s project. “Winning grants is 30 percent research,” she explained. “That’s not the fun part, but aside from receiving the grant, there is no fun part.” She advised partnering with an organization if possible but that becoming one’s own 501(c)3 entity was most likely not worth the trouble, though some artists have found success doing so. She pointed out that the money garnered from the arts foundations is a means for building one’s career, but cautioned that it is not an end in itself. Awards are available for special projects, fellowships, travel and study, and production. There are even emergency grants for times of crisis, but such awards are no substitute for appropriate planning of arts projects. Ultimately, the artist has to ask himself what he’s doing for the granting organization, not just what the organization can do for him. Finally, there are thousands of grants, she said, aimed at special constituencies, such as her own as a feminist with an anti-market position. “Know thyself” is not just a Greek proverb, but a career consideration when it comes to generating funding.

2. Trans Artist Workshop

Following immediately upon the grant writing workshop was a tour of the Trans Artist website called “Finding the Best Fit,” led by Bojana Panevska, a Macedonia-born, Amsterdam-based performance artist. Speaking of residencies, about which she has comprehensive knowledge, “Dorothy famously noticed that there is no place like home, although in current times, it seems, the idea to escape from home comes quite often, especially among artists. The reasons behind the need to get away can be very different, but one thing is common – being an outsider puts you in a different frame of mind. Your senses are sharpened, you are more critically observant and open to outside influences.”

Panevska mentioned a wide range of opportunities, including one that takes place in a disused train car in Torino, and another in Norway in which the closest town is eight kilometers away. “It’s good to get out of your comfort zone to make art,” said Panevska, but you have to be realistic about your limits (an artist she knows only lasted two days in Norway) and about your practical artistic needs. An entirely different sort of experience is available at ufaFabrik Berlin, one of the few residencies in the world that can accommodate a group of a dozen people working on the same project.

Panevska talked briefly about her own residency experiences, including one in Sardinia in which locals took turns cooking for the residents, and another in China in which she was far more isolated, and found that the project she has proposed wouldn’t be possible given the parameters of the residency. Ultimately the Chinese host helped her to realize another project, thus prompting Panevska to advise the room to be unafraid of failure – the next possibility may lay around the corner.

3. Laurie Anderson Keynote

Laurie Anderson

Laurie Anderson advised that artists “create your own context.” Photo: William Morse.

This sentiment was echoed more than once by Laurie Anderson in her keynote speech. One might think that Anderson, a seminal figure in performance art and electronic music, would be teeming with confidence and artistic surety, but I’m coming to realize that any artist worth a damn suffers from nigh-unrelenting self-doubt. “A lot of my work is based on failure,” she said. “I have always been shoved into weirdly inappropriate places. ‘Come play jazz for us!’ someone would say. I don’t know any jazz whatsoever. I never know what I’m doing.”

She spoke about a project she created for Kronos Quartet, which approached her with the desire, as they put it, to tell stories. “So I suggested, why don’t I write some software that will enable you to do so? Of course, I had no idea how to do that.” But her research and experimentation led to a device, which she demonstrated on stage, that translated the sounds of her voice to an arbitrary vocabulary that appeared on a projection screen behind her as she spoke. First her words appeared as non-sequitur snippets of English, followed by Korean, and then invented alphabets based on pictures and lists of extinct animals. “The art that I like relates to meaning. This work explores how we are meaning machines, built to ask the question ‘What does that mean?'”

Puzzling over what to say for a commencement speech at RISD, Yo-Yo Ma recommended that she pretend the whole audience was dogs. This remark led to her Music for Dogs performance at the Sydney Opera House. “We were expecting a few hundred people to show up with their dogs. Over a thousand did. Owners had been prepping their dogs for weeks – ‘We’re going to see a concert for dogs and you’re going to have a great time!’ It was beautiful. There were rocker dogs, bobbing their heads. There were the front-row droolers. At the end I said, ‘Let’s do some barking.’ And everyone did, barking for the joy of barking.”

“Do not wait for someone to invite you to do your own thing,” she told the audience. “Create your own context.”

4. “How To Make It All Happen”

Subtitled “Travel, Produce Art, and Fund Your Dreams,” this was the power panel of the weekend. The moderator was Mira Bartok, New York Times best-selling author, illustrator, and proprietress of the eminently respected though recently retired Mira’s List, which had been tracking and announcing artist opportunities since the ’08 crash. Panelists included Sarah Tanguy, a curator with the ART in Embassies Program of the State Department, Sarah Berry of The Art Connection here in Boston, Dan Blask of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, Linda Lighton of the Lighton International Artists’ Exchange Program, and Dorothy Bocian, the Grants, Residencies, and Fulbright Program Advisor at RISD.

While some of this covered ground examined in the previous talks, the panelists had some wily solutions to thorny problems raised by the residency process. To take an example, it’s typical that when an artist gets an opportunity to do a residency abroad most of the expenses are covered by the host institution, but the costs of travel are not. Bartok has solved this problem in the past by approaching the appropriate Sister City program or international friendship club to fund her travel once the award has been secured in the country in question. Bartok was thus able to fund traveling to a residency in Scandinavia via the American-Scandinavian Society.

“There are many websites and books that address the process of writing grants, how to organize information, conduct research, and how to direct the proposal and writing to the funder’s primary aim, mission, or vision,” said Bocian. “What is key is having all the information you need to support your idea at your fingertips before you start writing the proposal. If you don’t you quickly realize how being uninformed is counterproductive to being able to write an effective proposal.”

Huang Yi. Photo: Xiadong Wu

Taiwanese dancer, choreographer, and technology artist Huang Yi. Photo: Xiadong Wu.

5. Huang Yi and a Giant Laser

On Friday evening there was a cocktail reception and dinner followed by a performance by Huang Yi, a Taiwanese dancer, choreographer, and technology artist. A projection cast his silhouette on the wall while he made subtle movements from his seated position on a chair, but this image turned out to be a recorded video which produced additional silhouettes. After a short while Yi was dancing with phantoms of himself, moving towards and away from the chair as if trying to accommodate them all. After the performance he explained with touching ingenuousness that he was from a poor family that lived on the top floor of a disused commercial building in Taiwan. Climbing the stairs to reach his home gave him the strong legs he needed for dance; his parents sacrificed to buy him a computer when he was fifteen so that he would have better opportunities in life. He was profoundly grateful to the 3LD Art & Technology Center for sponsoring his current residency in New York City.

Outside, a light fog enhanced the view of the blue-green laser projecting over I-90 between the BU School of Law and Student Village 2. The laser was a project by the German media artist Florian Dombois, who teaches at Zurich University of the Arts. One had to hunt the sky a bit to find it, but once found, it’s presence prompted this viewer to contemplate the massive area described below it, an area pierced by heedless traffic headed in and out of the city. It was as if a Fred Sandback line had been implemented on the scale of civil engineering. The logistics of getting the installation approved by the city potentates responsible for permitting such things, I learned, were formidable. But the work was done, the gesture made, and the impact was all out of proportion to its simplicity. It was an apt metaphor for the conference.

Franklin Einspruch‘s work spans a wide range of traditional and digital media. While maintaining a studio practice as a painter, he is active in art criticism and comics, and has long experience in Web-based publishing. His seventeenth solo exhibition will take place at Ohio State University, Lima in Februrary 2014. He has completed artist residencies at the Aegean Center for the Fine Arts (Paros, GR), Stock 20 (Taichung, TW), the Heliker-LaHotan Foundation (Cranberry Isles, ME), and the Morris Graves Foundation (Loleta, CA). He contributes regularly to Art in America and the New Criterion, and produces one of the longest-running blogs about visual art, He publishes under the imprint New Modern Press, whose first title is Comics as Poetry.

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