The region of Southern California produces hundreds of MFA graduates each year, yet the traditional (and even non-traditional) art markets barely support a fraction of that number, and teaching jobs that actually pay a living wage are extraordinarily few and far between. So what do MFAs do after they graduate? I really want to know, because I’ve had the fortune to meet so many of these brilliant, creative people. Sometimes they flare up as bright art market stars, or find themselves on trend with certain arts non-profits, or embed themselves as part of activist or pedagogical or experimental communities in this city. Sometimes they just disappear. I am interested in learning more about what happens to them, so have set up an informal survey here: Please forward to MFAs everywhere in the US, though I am particularly interested in people who attended art schools in and around Los Angeles.

One such dynamic group of MFAs from Otis’s Public Practice Program (founded and directed by iconic artist Suzanne Lacy) I was able to get to know over the course of their thesis year. As a visiting critic and then essayist for their final show, I watched their work slowly develop into cohesive ideas (some more sound than others) that were expressed in a final show. The space of that exhibition, in the context of For Your Art’s hybrid programming/events/discursive/marketing-saavy storefront space, confronted the students and their audience with this question about the future — about their future relevance. How to leverage their communicative, creative, critical skills in a cultural economy where everyone is a producer and innovative connective systems become the currency at play?

Below is the essay I wrote for their final exhibition, attempting to get at some of these questions. If you are a recent MFA graduate and find yourself engaged in a hybrid, multivalent, non-traditional career (or even if you have a fairly traditional career), I would love to hear from you. Tell me what you are up to. I plan to publish the results of a little informal survey next month, if it’s interesting.

This article was originally published in April of 2013, for A Mess and  a Pleasure: Practicing in Public, the thesis exhibition of the 2013 Otis Graduate Public Practice MFA cohort. The artists included were Raul Paulino Baltazar, Alexandra Cantle, Teresa Flores, Silvia Juliana Mantilla Ortiz, Tamarind Rossetti, Susan Slade, Rory Sloan and Xiaotong Zhuang.

Imperfect Translations

There is inherent tension in the prospect of translation. Though we normally imagine an act of translation as rendering one language into another, what we are really talking about is how to communicate what is in our heads to other people – how to make idea into language and then back into idea. These attempts to communicate the essential nature of a concept are often achieved through imperfect methods of representation. Sometimes, the ideas we try to represent are altogether incommunicable, so we circle around their core in an effort to build common understanding. We run up against differing definitions, semantic distinctions, conflicting values and cultural processes only partially described, but deeply embedded. The desire to overcome these frustrations is emotional and physical, the result of centuries of evolution. In the human brain, the language production center is linked indelibly to the language processing center, making each of us hardwired for two-way communication, for dialogue and collaboration. So we continue to try to understand one another.

Multiple levels of translation are evident in the 2013 Otis College of Art and Design’s Graduate Public Practice program’s degree exhibition at the ForYourArt space. So many individual projects cite translation indirectly or directly as the content of the work – from an exploration of the psycho-social effects of dyslexia to the generation of a new myth (itself the translation of a set of cultural and contextual values), to funneling the fading memories of a complex life into an autobiography. Others embrace a translational methodology: the subtle destruction of idioms as they pass uneasily from one language to another in conversations around assimilation, or the translation of a right that is heavily in debate (the right for lgbtq couples to marry) into mainstream visibility. These projects are about liminalities; they are about the conceptual and physical space between one culture and another (whether divided by an ocean or by a mountain range), and about the alleyways that belong to everyone and no one in a city. These works have many parts to them and some have many makers; they are dispersed and sprawling practices that are located in geographies quite distant from the ForYourArt space. Suzanne Lacy, chair of the Otis Graduate Public Practice program, acknowledges that “the center of gravity of Public Practice work is in community or public space and its artistic concerns cover local and global issues.” The re-iterations of the projects that exist in this exhibition context must navigate one another, just as they must contend with their own status as partial representations, imperfect translations of work created for another place and with other people. The work presented, under the truly enormous umbrella of public practice, is already a false construct.

However, by situating this presentation of work in the ForYourArt space—which is relatively new, small, event-driven, dedicated to supporting temporary projects and to incubating experimental artistic innovation—rather than a more traditional exhibition venue, the Public Practice program as well as ForYourArt betray a much larger collective project. This drive to focus not only on the work, but to cast practitioners as entrepreneurs and define their value not only as artists but as producers of cultural innovation, stems from ForYourArt’s self-identification as an incubator. Inspired by the recent Silicon Beach crop of Los Angeles tech incubators like Launchpad LA, Amplify LA, and Muckerlab, ForYourArt is positioning itself as a space that supports arts experimentation and creates a viable, sustainable model beyond a traditional arts market. It recognizes the great importance of contemporary art to a vital and healthy creative economy, but acknowledges the challenges it poses to traditional investment models. Venture capitalists take on risk in order to get a piece of something that is eminently scalable, that has an inclusive, necessary, cool, and useful product or service. Almost by definition art resists categorization, utility, or scalabity. At an extreme, it can be “imprisoned by its own self-reference,” as ForYourArt founder Bettina Korek wrote in a recent LA Currents article, and is therefore rendered irrelevant to vast swathes of the public.1

But works like those nurtured by the Otis Public Practice program are connected to larger societal dynamics, and arguably function as research and development for cultural inquiry more broadly. These artists already see themselves as mediums, facilitators, conversationalists, and researchers. The aggregate power of their work, their questions, and their methodologies are bold and experimental forays into the territories of emergent imagination, co-production, and networked cognition.2 These are ways of organizing, of working with others that reflect the most cutting edge think tanks and horizontal organizational structures. These methods have the potential to slice across disciplines, they hold lessons for the relevancy of cultural community development, and they push boundaries and question assumptions. Layered atop ForYourArt and Otis’s belief in contemporary public artistic practice as a hotbed for creative entrepreneurship, is the sobering reality of perennial precarity that artists experience today. Risky work must be enabled by risk capital, and that does not exist in the current art market. Through a new market paradigm, neo-liberal agendas can be rewritten to recognize the market value of social justice and compose alternatives to the nonprofit model, a spectacular failure in so many ways. There is sustainability at play here, the sustainability of an art career, of labor, of social and economic stability. We are fighting a rele-vancy war on all fronts, and only through a market system that supports experimental projects in the public realm (despite their immediate lack of scalability, utility, or easy categorization) can we begin to value the creative, agitating, critical skills that make artists such natural innovators. This critical capacity must be valued for its own sake, made achievable and embedded in society, so as to avoid that more nefarious leveraging of creative economy that co-opts the stimulatory effects of artists to create luxury loft districts out of their economic precarity.

This exhibition is indeed an uneasy marriage of goals, one that vacillates between individual achievement and aesthetic presentation, and a collective drive to valorize political consciousness and address issues that affect the creative class by re-imagining the art market status quo.

The collective project of this exhibition might very well require a translation in how we package, talk about, and understand these artworks. How does one reach an audience of social entrepreneurs, investors, policy makers and technology innovators, who have very different questions than the traditional art audience? What products or processes can be monetized? How do we begin to think about scalability in these projects? Or if this is a thought experiment on a macro scale, to somehow shift the ecosystem of artistic support and encourage entrepreneurship, doesn’t that pose an inherent threat to the status quo? There remains, through this all, the careers of these artists, and the need for them to find validation in the only models that currently exist. How much is ForYourArt building bridges with an audience that would create a tipping point of investment, or does its incubatory value still lie in its considerable art world cache?

The true impact of this endeavor lies in the conversation that will emerge. This must mark a paradigm shift in thinking about art, artists, and how they are relevant to the world. Public practice offers an argument for this relevancy, and by understanding its practitioners as researchers that are pushing the boundaries of cultural understanding, we craft a new way of valuing artistic innovation. Organizations such as ForYourArt are positioned to envision a new market and new methods of support for these artists, whereas schools like Otis must foster the flexible new skills as well as new expectations that will be required in this untested landscape.

[1] Korek, Bettina. “The Tides of Culture: Who Cares about MOCA?” LA Currents, March 11, 2013. Accessed April 15, 2013.

[2] The terms emergent imagination, co-production, and networked cognition all describe the methods and outcomes of working horizontally with a group, without a prescriptive vision or authoritative figure determining the group’s collective concerns or actions. These are derived from theories of popular education, the science of emergence, and human cognition.