There were twenty-four of us in the Workshop for Art Research and Practice. At WARP, a bootcamp and brand new program for incoming freshmen to teach them contemporary art and ignite their practice, we were encouraged to pursue big ideas, take risks, and, at times, fail. We learned about the postmodernists, performance art, conceptual art, installation, neo-expressionism, and land art. The post-1970s art world—a phenomenon none of us had been previously exposed to—exploded into our classroom and became the obsession of our waking thoughts and dream lives.
We were handed smart readings and a list of three hundred living artists whose work we were expected to know by the end of the semester. We discovered the impossible sculpture of Sarah Sze and Louise Bourgeois’ seductive and frightening forms. We learned about artists like Joseph Beuys, David Hammons, and Andrea Zittel, who broadened our understanding regarding the role of the artist. We watched John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, and made performances, sculpture, self-portraits, and public art. Assignments were always conceptual, and it was our work to think deeply about them and respond.
We stayed up all night in the studio together, not out of fear or obligation but because we loved working alongside one another. One student installed a twenty-foot replica of Optimus Prime in the courtyard. Another group organized a Situationist-like happening: six students in chef costumes jumped out of a white van and wrapped The Potato (a thirty-million-year-old ten-ton rock situated in the main campus square) in tin foil. The WARP bootcamp was notorious on campus, and any antics, WARP-initiated or not, would result in an immediate phone call to Sean and Bethany, our professors, at least a few times a semester.
Not all projects were performative or funny. Many of the works were deep, thoughtful, and revealing of the maker. I remember a beautiful final sculpture made by a friend: a small rusted house filled with wax. Another project, a series of love letters, each mailed in increasingly small envelopes, created an uncertainty regarding whether they would navigate the postal machines and arrive intact to their intended recipient.
We made ourselves vulnerable in front of each other and were, for the first time, treated seriously as artists.
And then a few weeks before our final class, our professor Sean stood up on a platform intended for nude models and offered another kind of reveal: “Your community, the artists and makers you meet and share your work with, will matter as much to you as your own art practice. They will be the reason you will continue if you find yourself stuck and they will be the ones to always show up at your openings, who truly understand and care about your work. Your community is everything.”
His sermon was prompted by one of our final readings, an essay by Dave Hickey titled “Romancing the Looky-Loos”. His words were, in fact, a kind of last lecture after an intense and life-changing semester. A beacon for our lives as makers and artists in college and, more importantly, beyond.
His words and the emotional nature of his sermon have stayed with me. I was nineteen and had never, until joining art school, felt I belonged to a community. After months spent with the same small cohort, sharing, critiquing, and championing one another’s work, the discovery that this was a community and I was a participant affected me.
Since this lecture, my creative practice has changed and, in turn, so has the shape of my community. But the ideas about participation, bearing witness to and championing each other, is an ideal I relentlessly pursue.
I’m incredibly grateful for the community I’ve found. I’ve met colleagues and friends who care deeply about the work they do, and even more about one another. It seems this ideal of participation, of showing up and championing each other, is already in the DNA of people who work on the web. For the next generation of practitioners, let belonging to and participating in a community not be a lesson to learn, but something entirely native to our profession.