Though the sun is finally coming out from behind the clouds and spring is finally in full bloom, I’m recalling a pretty awesome weekend spent in the brisk, snowy woods not too long ago. About a month earlier, I had the pleasure of attending an overnight trip for my Senior Seminar, Curating as Socially-Engaged Practice. The class explores theories of curatorial practice for researching, critiquing, and creating meaningful, socially-active artworks and exhibitions. Simply put, art that makes a difference. So how does a field trip play into the curriculum?
One of my favorite things about going to school in a city with such a vibrant art and design culture is that my education expands outside the classroom walls. I think other Parsons kids can agree that it’s pretty awesome to get our butts off the stools and leave the studios to see exactly what we’re learning about, first-hand. New York City is filled with great museums—The Met, MoMA, The New Museum, The Guggenheim, The Whitney—just to name a few. Parsons professors will often hold a class session at a museum or gallery, especially if there’s a special exhibit.
Beyond these museum trips though, there’s still so much that the city (and the surrounding area) offers! I know of professors taking their drawing class to sketch on the High Line, communication design students going to Queens to research graffiti and street art, and architecture kids making the trek upstate to study the design of Dia:Beacon. Even in D&M, my Financial Management professor took my class to an open forum during the Occupy Wall Street movement, and my International Business professor is planning a visit to the UN.
It was no different for my Senior Seminar. To coincide with the topics we were discussing in class, my professor Lydia Matthews organized this weekend excursion away from the hustle and bustle of New York City. Many Parsons professors share Lydia’s belief that occasionally escaping the classroom is critical for rich, diversified education. “You’re only in university for a limited number of years,” she stated. “Even while you’re in a university setting, you’re also part of broader communities. I’m against the idea of the ‘Ivory Tower.’ I’m very much interested in the kind of learning that can happen−not only with expertise within a university, but the kind of knowledges that exist outside of it. And being in dialogues that the two inform each other.” Mildred’s Lane−a rustic, 96-acre farm-turned-art complex located in rural Pennsylvania.
The homestead dates back to the 1830’s and was run as a family for years, but it wasn’t until 1998 when artists Mark Dion and J. Morgan Puett discovered the property and turned the land into the artist complex now known as Mildred’s Lane. During a tour of the property, our gracious host Morgan explained that Mildred’s Lane is “a landscape site. Everything is living, breathing, and useful. There’s no static art.” There aren’t any works in the traditional form—paintings and sculpture are no where to be found. So where’s the art?
Our class conversations often culminate in debates about what does and doesn’t constitute art and how to define, not only the aesthetic value, but also the pedagogical value of socially-engaged art practices. If that sounds a bit confusing, don’t worry…it is. I sometimes have trouble wrapping my head around the topics we discuss in my class too.
The philosophy of Mildred’s Lane is to “create new modes of being in the world” through collaboration. The aesthetic of the project isn’t found in a painting or sculpture; rather, it’s found in the way that we interact with our environment. As Morgan would say, doing things “artfully.” This could mean anything from the way you prepare dinner, to the stories you tell around the campfire, to how you decorate a room in the house. In addition to being the home of Mark and Morgan along with their son Grey Rabbit, Mildred’s Lane functions as a cultural think tank where the traditional roles of the artist and practitioner have collapsed. Artists, scholars, researchers, and students are invited to the community to challenge and negotiate the system in which society traditionally operates. “I consider it a forward way of living,” Morgan explained. “I’m concerned about the future…living in a system that collaborates with the landscape. It’s 19th century land, and we work to live among it and with it, rather than tear it down and replace it.” Morgan considers Mildred’s Lane a living museum, but it’s definitely nothing like your typical contemporary art institution. Scattered among the property are various buildings and site-specific installations that compliment and exist in tandem with their environmental surroundings. According to Morgan, “the installations are part of an organic, functioning community that respect the nature.”
During our stay, we cooperated with the “Mildred way” of doing things. Because the project is so heavily focused on collaboration and fostering a community, our participation was crucial to fully understand its philosophy. We helped to collect wood, build fires, cook dinner, and clean up. They sound like chores (and for all intents and purposes, they are), but it’s the way in which we completed these chores that really gave our tasks a deeper meaning. Commenting on the Mildred’s Lane philosophy, Lydia explained:
“Mildred’s Lane is both a community of people and also a place that you have to physically experience. You have to move through the landscape in order to really undrestand what the project is. You can look at in a classroom scenario−that’s one way of absorbing the information. But the true nature Mildred’s Lane is rooted in the body…rooted in the conversations between people forming communities and becoming collectively engaged. They’re producing an experience together, whether its making dinner or a series of stories being told around a fire. You really can’t experience and understand without actually going and becoming a participant in the project. It’s participatory by nature.”
Going beyond class discussions, attending this trip and interacting with the same sort of philosophies and theories from our curriculum was definitely a valuable, enriching experience. And not to mention, the trip was super fun! My advice to all Parsonites is that when an opportunity arises to stretch you legs and experience the world outside the classroom…DO IT!!