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Sex & Low Beach
Barnard professor Nicolás Guagnini is not necessarily what you would expect from an educator. A well-known and received visual artist in his own right, Guagnini engages many questions in his artwork, including those of political and institutional framing, which he reveals are also taken up in his art criticism seminar and drawing classrooms.
Where were you born? When did you become familiar with fine art, and how?
Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1966. At home, my grandmother was an art dealer, my grandfather was a collector. It’s not an incredible story; essentially they were upper middle class, but they were very educated Jews. My father was a journalist, my mother a psychoanalyst. The ideological configuration was existentialism, Marxism, and psychoanalysis. I was born in ’66, so the ghost of ’68 pervaded my childhood. This had a strong anti-imperialist tint. The idea was that television was a means of mass domination. Essentially I grew up in high culture, and the decorations in my room were paintings by modern and contemporary artists.
Were they feeding you the critical art and text of the seventies?
That was the prevailing ideology and they were friends with artists. ... Revolution was in the air—that was the culture and the people I grew up with.
Why did you decide to go to art school?
The institutional life in Argentina did not compare to the life I was having at home. Essentially, there were two military coups—one in ’66, and there was a succession of military and civil governments, and another in 1976 that heavily persecuted my family. So by the time I was out of high school in ’83, the dictatorship was about to finish, and the people in charge of the institutions were essentially accomplices or builders of the dictatorship. So I did go to art school, but there was nothing in there for me. ... My real education came from a combination of home and the old way of coffee tables: Modern café culture in which, when you start making art, you have to show up at the table for younger people. ... It was a lot more ruthless than an institution in the sense that there are no boundaries, and someone can come right up to you and tell you, “Your art is shit. This has been done ten times before, this is nothing new,” and essentially tear it apart. And afterwards, [you must] stand up to that level of criticism.
Now the institution holds water for you—you’re a faculty member at Barnard.
Yes, but to an extent also by chance, in the sense that I didn’t seek that. When I arrived to the United States, I noticed the intense reciprocal relationship between museums, the academic institution, and the art market itself. Regardless of how critical we can be of the institution in and of itself and its economic underpinning—of how it is quintessentially unfair or how the race and class divide is epitomized in higher education, and so on and so forth—universities are still a relatively open institution, and more so compared to the brutality of the art market as the dominant force of a social form of exchange. Academia is still a place for the open exchange of ideas. ... Yes, it certainly does hold water.
Barnard and Columbia are institutions under the pretense of being a space and forum for the exchange of ideas. How do you live up to that objective? How do you cultivate that in your drawing class? In your seminar?
They are very different undertakings. The criticism class is a seminar. There is a fixed object of knowledge we run against, a set of texts and artistic practices by third parties. ... The object of knowledge is external to us. In a drawing class, we generate knowledge internally: a set of premises or instructions or ideas are thrown to the students, the students get back at me with what they have. Both modes of teaching have an underlying or core component of the free exchange of ideas, but the terms in which ideas are exchanged are different within a seminar and in a drawing class. In a seminar, knowledge is somewhat incremental, you learn A and then B comes from A, and you won’t understand C if you don’t understand A and B.
Are you in charge of A and B? Then are C and D spaces in which they explore more complex concerns, like formal and social critique?
I’m not sure if I’m in charge of A and B when teaching art—certain tension happens in the relationship between incremental knowledge, typical of the hard and social sciences, and art making. The paradigm of incremental knowledge, by which the university naturally must live, expects that the student meets the benchmark of a product. The product is typically the paper, or an exam, or a test. In art making, the way of transmitting critical thought is not the product, it’s the process. The emphasis is in the process, not the product. The process, to be successful, encompasses crisis. To teach crisis, you come up with something and you kind of dismantle or show the other possibilities, or reverse (that something), and that brings about a crisis. That is the very structure of art making. Of course there’s the technical aspect which is naturally incremental, because all technique is incremental, but those increments come out as necessity through successive crisis. This often brings about fear of failure—academic and otherwise.
The way you described the incremental nature of learning in the drawing class: Are you mimicking that process, a progression?
For the diagrammatic portion, we try to represent events that happen in time. Representing space in drawing would be mapping, right? But then representing events in time as drawing—I think of musical notation and all the possibilities within it—opens another space. One of the exercises is that you have to retell a film, your favorite film, and you can’t use language and you cannot use recognizable imagery. For example, you cannot make a portrait of Paul Newman, or something like that. It needs to visually articulate the symbolic level with some kind of structure.
I would want to make a portrait of Paul Newman, wouldn’t you?
No, I don’t. But I'd certainly would like to see a diagrammatic drawing based on The Hustler. [laughs].
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