Direct action

Revolt the system: Parsons The New School’s Anthony Aziz talks student subcultures and the politics wave
By Tempe Nakiska | Art | 9 October 2014

Ariela Kader ‘Social Trash – WANNA TRY’ 2013. Courtesy Parsons The New School and the artist

This article is part of Young Art Week – Defining a generation

Welcome to HERO Young Art Week – our essential, multifaceted guide to the new wave of creatives working at the vanguard of contemporary art today. Across a dynamic week of digital content, we’re exploring what’s happening at the epicentre of this global community: from the ground up, the artists themselves and the key figures witnessing the evolution of the ideas, trends and movements defining this art generation.

History feels like a tape on loop: bombs are still falling, anti-government protesters being jailed, curable diseases killing in droves, journalists and aid workers being prosecuted – all atrocities attributed to any decade in recent history. Add the crumbling effect of our destruction of the environment to the mix and you’ve got one lethal cocktail.

One of the common denominators amongst it all has to be the consistency of artists at the centre of political and social global issues. But what’s constantly in flux is the way that they deal with these issues. Artists’ attitudes can break or shape the course of historic narrative.

Anthony Aziz, Director of the Fine Arts Program at Parsons The New School in New York is himself an established artist who, as one half of the artist duo Aziz + Cucher, protested the AIDS crisis as a young artist in San Francisco in the early 1990s, and who is still politically active today – in 2012, the duo’s film work By Aporia, Pure and Simple (as part of the exhibition Aziz + Cucher: Some People) reflected on tribal tensions amidst the age of terrorism – specifically, the insanity of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

In his work at Parsons, Professor Aziz is witnessing the impact of our changing universe on the creatives who use their work to get their message heard; and specialising in digital imaging, he sees up close the impact of digital technology on student’s preferred methods of communication. These are the students who will help shape our future. And this is the word from the ground up.

Tempe Nakiska: What are the biggest waves you are seeing amongst young artists today, in terms of how they view the world and how they express their perspectives on it?
Anthony Aziz: I would have to say there is an overwhelming desire among young artists to express their ideas and points-of-view through non-traditional, often re-cycled or re-purposed materials that suggest a strong consideration for the environment and sustainability. Additionally, I believe there is a renewed appreciation for craft and the uniqueness that can be found only in one-of-a-kind, singular objects.

Jade Yumang ‘Page 7’ 2013. Scanned gay erotic page and printed with archival ink on cotton, polyurethane foam, chicken wire, handcut tea-soaked rag paper, dress pins, and fringe. Courtesy the artist

I attribute this to two things: first, there seems to be a return to the real – young artists seem to fetishise materiality and have developed a strong backlash towards the virtual and the immaterial; second, there is a desire among many to produce goods that can be bought and sold within the commercial gallery system and to appeal to the recent growth in the number of international art fairs worldwide.

TN: As an artist, you have in the past used mediums like photography and film to express your thoughts on particular political issues. What does politics mean to today’s generation of art grads?
AA: The Fine Arts program at Parsons and The New School is committed to fostering a deep appreciation for social justice and political awareness. However, the majority of young artists do not seem to be working in the same way today. Politically conscious young artists bypass making art objects altogether and focus more on direct political action, positioning that as their artistic practice. This could be the creation of spaces devoted to social change, or starting publications that raise political awareness.

With that said, in New York there are many interesting young curators who organise shows that include many of our recent graduates that deal with social and political issues that are important to them, sometimes in the form of public art projects. ‘Art in Odd Places’, for example, curated by Radhika Subramaniam, or the New Museum’s recent IDEAS CITY project that involved numerous public art projects that addressed relevant issues important to the neighbourhood of the Lower East Side.

Tom Pnini, still image from ‘Volcano Demo’ 2008. “Volcano Demo elevates a volcano to the roof of a residential building in Tel-Aviv” – Tom Pnini. Courtesy the artist

Tom Pnini, still image from ‘Cloud Demo’ 2010. Courtesy the artist

Ariela Kader ‘Social Trash – WANNA TRY’ 2013. Courtesy Parsons The New School and the artist

TN: You studied and started out as an artist in San Francisco. Do you have much to do with that art community today?
AA: I keep in touch with my alma mater, the San Francisco Art Institute. In fact, this past summer my partner and I were invited to be guest faculty in their Low-Residency MFA program. We lived there for two months and reconnected with the art community there, such as it is. We also began a new collaboration with Magnolia Editions, based in Oakland, and we are working with a couple of curators from the Bay Area on two other projects, still to be determined.

TN: So how would you describe the West Coast art scene today?
AA: The West Coast actually has two very distinct arts communities; Los Angeles, and then everything else. What I am most familiar with is the Bay Area (San Francisco) and I have to say that apart from SFMoMA and a few other university galleries and a handful of commercial galleries, the art scene there is going through a lull. In spite of the vibrant start-up economy there, its proximity to Silicon Valley, and its deep appreciation for quality of life, there does not seem to be a lot of appreciation for contemporary art at the moment. The cost of living in San Francisco is one factor – most artists have been forced out of the city, a place well known for its bohemian utopianism, from the 19th century through the Beatnik generation and then on into the 1970s and 80s when it became home to many influential conceptual and performance-based artists. Today, there are very few venues willing to support this type of experimentation.

Alone Weiss, ‘Negative Spaces (don’t cry you are being manipulated’ still from video projection, 2014. Courtesy the artist

Reena Katz ‘Midnight Dawn 20-10-10’, 2014. Modular sound stage with periodic community-based performances in Windsor and Detroit. From ‘Border Cultures II (work, labour)’, Art Gallery of Windsor. Courtesy Reena Katz

Subcultures against the system

TN: Turning back to New York: obviously it’s a city with a rich art history, and a sprawling art community and industry. But it is said a lot that the massive money inherent in this market is pushing young students out. Is it a matter of geographic isolation, or something more transient?
AA: Young artists are being pushed out, but they are being pushed out of the larger conversation surrounding contemporary art and are forced to start having their own conversations. It doesn’t seem that these young artists are being forced from New York, but rather they are distancing themselves from the traditional system of trying to gain the attention of a gallery and instead are forming their own communities and artist-run spaces. Now the general culture is pushing the idea that you can do whatever you want if you source the resources you need and rely on a community, even if it’s one you create. This focus on DIY entrepreneurship extends into the art community, with smaller galleries and publications being created and run by young individuals – not to compete with big time galleries, but to form their own system and create their own communities. The unfortunate side of this is that young spaces are both popping up and disappearing at alarming rates (again due to logistical and financial constraints), which makes any attention from larger institutions hard to attain. However, the resilience and persistence of young artists today leads them from one venture to another – this also eventually exhausts them.

TN: How is technology impacting on the way young artists communicate?
AA: As mentioned above, I see something of a backlash towards the digital, even an inherent mistrust of the virtual image. At the same time, we are coming out of a time when young artists were primarily concerned with digital identity (as seen in the work of Ryan Trecartin, for example). Granted, this was also a time when, as a society, we were adjusting to the inclusion of technology into everyday life. Now, with a generation who has never known a time before the internet, I see young artists using technology for how it can create meaning and not just for visual effect. Constant participation in and use of the technology that surrounds us produces an unbelievable amount of quantitative data, and I am seeing young artists use this data to fuel their conceptual concerns, which may include an exploration of their identity but it no longer seems to be at the forefront of the work being produced.

I think the problems of having a technology-based society are being thought of as problems of society in general and not just within a specialised area. It seems young artists are working to make sense of this environment – through the creation and examination of communities, through using the ability to source any information desired almost immediately, and through examination of the archive inherently created through using the internet.

Ariela Kader ‘A Painting’ 2012. Plastic bags inside frame. Courtesy the artist

Ariela Kader ‘Studio’ 2012. Plastic bags inside acrylic container. Courtesy the artist

TN: What are the biggest challenges you see young artists facing today?
AA: Young artists today have to know how to multi-task and have a variety of technical, artistic, social and entrepreneurial skills in order to succeed. It is not enough to simply make good work and eventually it will find a market. At Parsons Fine Arts, we teach students to not only make art but also how to become an artist. That is, we teach them how to sustain a career over a lifetime and how to apply what they learn to a number of different professional scenarios, activities that might include how to run their own businesses, take advantage of social media as a PR tool, market themselves, work in tangential art-related businesses while developing their own individual studio practices.

Young artists are entering into a vastly expanded global art market with an increased level of competition – but with that comes more opportunity as well. There are many new international prizes, exhibitions and funding opportunities available to them, such as the Future Generation Prize in Kiev.

TN: How would you describe the ambition of your students today, their attitudes towards their careers?
AA: I continue to observe that young artists see the career paths of established artists and assume the same thing will happen to them. Many art students become acquainted with the careers of the big art stars, the 1%, and assume the same thing is possible for them. Success in an art career is not predetermined. Each artist needs to establish what success looks like to them and try to achieve it – to try and follow the path of another artist is futile.

Is art school worth the slog?

TN: Are young artists taking advantage of private and government support schemes in the US as much as they can or should?
AA: Apart from applying to international residency programs, the majority of emerging artists seem to opt for inclusion or the creation of a community that serves them rather than trying to apply to grants and foundations. Once that happens they then open their minds to participating in additional application prospects. There are, of course, exceptions. Some people get on this boat early, and gain momentum for their practice through private and government grants. It is just hard to convey to emerging artists that researching and applying for these opportunities is a full time job in and of itself.

TN: How important is higher education for budding artists, gallerists, curators etc?
AA: Obviously I am biased in this regard as the Director of the BFA in Fine Arts, so I have taken the liberty of asking a recent alum, Robert Hickerson (BFA 2013) to answer this question and this was his reply:

“To be completely honest, the reason to attend art school is not to further your understanding of art – although that is a bonus. Higher education brings together people, and networking is a crucial part for anyone who desires an career in the arts. I have always favoured an academic environment, because for me art is more in line with philosophy. I understand that this is not the case for everyone. However everyone who wants to be an artist, curator or gallerist can benefit from the exposure and environment higher education provides (unfortunately, only if it is the right school with the right people).” – Robert Hickerson.

Robert Hickerson and Taylor Falco ’24 / Fatale’ 2013. Courtesy the artist

TN: Can you name a handful of graduates whose work you recommend we check out?
AA: From the BFA 2013: Robert Hickerson, Joiri Minaya and Ariela Kader. Others to consider: Brooke Taylor, Cameron Sheedy, Daniel Carrol, Jarrod Crockett, Kodo Nishimura, Nina Paradiz, Susan Schell, Yu Tada. From the MFA, Jade Yumang (2012), Tom Pnini (2010) and Alexandra Smith (2010).

For more information on the Fine Arts program at Parsons The New School, visit the website. Check out the work of Anthony Aziz as Aziz + Cucher here

Stay tuned for more HERO Young Art Week content in the coming days and plug into our social media platforms for updates as they come.

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