Project artists, fellows, and guests converse before dinner at Mildred's Lane, a work-live-research environment that fosters rigorous engagement with every aspect of life (2009).
What I've noticed, lately, is the way art has been veering toward optimism. I'm talking less about the art I see in museums and galleries, and more about the art that exists outside those institutions, and needs to exist outside those institutions because by offering up their optimism they're offering up the possibility of a different relationship, to art and to the world.
I can't say I understand French philosophy, but I get the idea that Deleuze and Guattari and Foucault were, at the core of their erudition, preaching a kind of optimism. "I dream of a new age of curiosity," Foucault has said, and the art I'm talking about, a kind of cockroach art that finds its way into unused spaces, is based on curiosity and experimentation. And when I say experimentation I mean a real experiment in which the outcome is unknown. Galleries are, at best, places to show experiments that have been proven successful, and that's fine, but there's something exciting in watching an experiment as it’s actually happening.
Last winter, on the Lower East Side, a storefront was set up to house Trade School, where people traded their knowledge for… anything. People brought in socks and blueberry pies and triple A batteries in exchange for classes in composting and grant writing and toffee making. In this case the exchange took the form of barter, but the idea was to experiment with, and investigate, the notion of how we function as a society.
Monique Bourgea teaches students how to make butter from raw milk and demonstrates some recipes for butter-based sauces in a February 2010 workshop at Trade School.
I'm encouraged by this investigation, not so much because I care about institutional critiques, but because those institutions act as frames, and although frames can be useful, it's nice, and even liberating, when people (whether or not they call themselves artists) point out how those frames act to contain and limit our relationships to each other, and suggest how things can be different.
This form of soft politics informs a number of collaborative groups working under, or barely above, the cultural radar. In the upper Delaware Valley, near the town of Narrowsburg, NY, Mildred's Lane functions as a school, a museum, a studio, a home, and a giant experiment in the collaborative art-making process. Like a Zen monastery with dance parties, this 96-acre experience in communal living is an event-based, project-driven, research environment based on a way of being in which the line between art and life gets blurred. Students eat, sleep, and work together for three week sessions during the summer, each session focusing on a theme, with lectures and presentations augmenting that theme, As with the best kind of school, students learn is how to think, and by being artists, what they learn is how to think like artists.
The main house at Mildred’s Lane sits on 92+ acres of mostly wooded land in the upper Delaware River Valley region of Pennsylvania near New York City. This active site is a long-term experiment in large-scale project-, research- and event-based practices.
Mildred's Lane was founded by two artists who, along with their son, live on the property, and because it is also a home, the traditionally (though not necessarily) mundane aspects of living are given a thorough re-evaluation. Food becomes life and life becomes art, and the practice of living and working gets rolled up into a notion, called workstyles, which permeates the place and infects the participants. The visiting artists and the fellows teach one another, and they all spend their time collaborating with forms of art-making that can best be incubated outside the traditional art world.
The key ingredient at Mildred's Lane is intentionality. Dinners are elaborate performative affairs with everything from tables to textiles all carefully chosen and arranged. Like the accommodations (a horse shed, a bird blind, a tree house) they are meant to be part of the artistic process, created by a community of artists and fellows who live the works of art they make. Like Trade School, and other alternative places of exchange, openness and possibility are the guiding principles at Mildred’s Lane.
Art has, for as long as it's existed, shown us a vision, both of the world we inhabit and the world we might possibly inhabit, a vision that, usually years later, gets co-opted by the culture at large. Shakespeare said something about art holding a mirror up to nature, and what these alternative (and sometimes virtual) spaces do is hold up a mirror, and by tilting it, give us a glimpse into what the future might be. In the mirror of these particular experiments I see a future that doesn't, at this moment, seem quite possible, but by presenting that possibility to us, we are given the opportunity to make with it what we will.
John Haskell is the author of the short story collection, I Am Not Jackson Pollock, the novel, American Purgatorio, and most recently, Out of My Skin. He has contributed to magazines such as A Public Space, n+1, Black Clock, Conjunctions, and McSweeney’s, and recently received a NYFA grant and a Guggenheim Foundation grant.
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