Stephen Thomas: It's also the first time we've ever been in this room, so we've done that imprimatur. So when we leave we're not going to leave the way we came in because there will be an election party probably raging in that space. We're gonna go out here, we're gonna go outside, and around the back of the river side of this building to the parking lot and straight out. So, who's...?
Patrick Foy: Maceo!
Stephen Thomas: Maceo? He's got it! So I'm gonna let him take over.
Maceo: On February 29, 1845, Casey Gollan was born. You guys all know how leap years work, so he's only 25 now. An alumni of Oxbow, Casey was part of the OS17 class. Then he went on to attend The Cooper Union. He was born in Los Angeles and claims to be from there. [Laughter]. However, his sister disagrees. He grew up just outside of New York City. Casey "falls asleep when I see flashing lights," so he doesn't recall seeing any movies, but he likes books, and his album of 2016 is Heart Of A Dog by Laurie Anderson. He read Walden at Oxbow and then again when he returned to his sending school, and he lost his iPhone two months ago. Even though he's super obsessed with technology, he hopes to never have a phone again. When we attended Oxbow he was terrified of Patrick. He still is. He believed in Santa, and his favorite holiday is Saint Lucia Day, which is a Swedish holiday where little girls wear candles on their head and gold is thrown into fires. This is inconsistently applied throughout the year, as Saint Lucia Day, no one knows when in happens. [Laughter]. Casey is undefeated in his professional life which he has not yet started. So, ladies and gentlemen, give a nice warm Napa County welcome to Casey Gollan.
Casey Gollan: Thank you so much to Patrick for inviting me. Which was a huge surprise because he's scary. [Laughter]. And to everyone for having me. So, I'll get started.
I was here 10 years ago almost, nine years ago, for OS17. When I got this e-mail from Patrick about speaking here it kind of made me think that, like, a lot of the talks that I've been giving in New York are about what's happened at Cooper Union, which is the place that I went to school and it's got a really interesting politics and art story. But I remembered, when I thought back on 10 years, that I actually didn't even know what Cooper Union was when I was here. So it made me think that I should try to reach back in my mind to before this current spiel that I give, and try to remember like: what was I thinking and feeling at Oxbow? And it basically like destroyed me to try to remember 10 years. If I had to do this when I was at Oxbow it would be like trying to remember everything that had happened from the time that I was 6 years old.
Casey Gollan: So, a lot changes. But a lot stays the same.
Casey Gollan: And I tried in every possible way to organize these kind of thoughts.
Casey Gollan: I started on this notebook, and I filled up the notebook with thoughts. And then I filled up this other notebook. And then I found my notebook from Oxbow and was rereading it to try and figure out what I was thinking. And I was chatting with my friend who does theater about what like what it would look like to try to give a talk that's not this straightforward story about Cooper that I'm always repeating in New York.
Casey Gollan: And then I made a million index cards and they got completely scrambled. And then today my sister's car broke down and I didn't have my laptop—
The Whom: [Yo! Hey!]
Casey Gollan: —so she gave me her box of cigarettes and I was writing a rescrambled outline of the talk on that.
Casey Gollan: And then there's digital formats, too.
Casey Gollan: I've tried to organize it in this tool, here. This is the most organized version, in three acts. But the third act never came into existence. And there was also.
Casey Gollan: This thing called a Mindnode, which is a way of trying to do a mind map.
Casey Gollan: And then there was also two Keynote presentations. And then there was also somewhere between one and three Prezis [laughter] which is basically another nonlinear way of trying to arrange some thoughts. I guess that's my starting point, which is to say, like, this is something that I've never had to think about and something that I've never said. So I'm nervous and excited because I think this is one of the most important places in the world to me. I remember that in high school I just hated everything, and here was this time where adults, I just remember, take you seriously. And it's the most shocking thing! To realize that that could...happen? Ha.
Casey Gollan: So I will say some stuff from one of these versions which I guess I will show you as I read my own notes. [Laughter]. Alright, so we did some of this part. Hello, OS35!
The Whom: [Scratch.]
Casey Gollan: Thank you for sharing this room with me.
Casey Gollan: One of my first thoughts was: What does it mean to be asked back? And what does it mean to speak to people in a room? I think it's a strange proposition to invite back an alumni, because I'm like: what do I have to tell you? If anything? Like, why are you sitting here? You're all assigned to be here. But you could walk out, and that's really interesting to me. Because if everyone walks out of this room it's just a test kitchen. It's not this thing that's going on between us. So, people make a room. I think that's an interesting thing to think about.
Casey Gollan: And there are special guests here tonight. One is my sister Freena and her bandmate Yisha.
Casey Gollan: They're members of a band called The Whom. YouTube dot com slash—
The Whom: The Whom 69
The Whom: Yeah! http://youtube.com/thewhom69 They're really good, you should check them out.
Casey Gollan: And they will be soundtracking the third act of the talk that doesn't exist [laughter] and they will also be yelling on this keyboard the word UGH, when things get really boring.
The Whom: I brought — sorry — the wrong keyboard, so I don't have the UGH keys but I have like, YO! HEY! [Laugher].
Casey Gollan: Excellent.
Casey Gollan: Oh yeah! And the third special guest is my ghost. I started to think about my ghost. There is a version of me, and I think there probably will be a version of everyone, that never leaves Oxbow. I was trying to reconnect with myself from 10 years ago and understand. So, my ghost is here. Sitting there. Came to my talk and has been having the same existential thoughts for 10 years while I've gotten the chance to move through and do other stuff. I thought it's nice that my ghost is here. It's really hard to talk to yourself from 10 years ago. I started to think: what would I want to hear from myself at 35? And I was like...I kind of might not? Or like if I could talk to death — or something? — and know how I'm going to die? I might not want to know. It made me think a lot about like what that means. The time relationships here are really interesting.
Casey Gollan: This is an interesting chart.
Casey Gollan: So it's an immense amount of stuff to process and I was — with all of these forms — sitting in different coffee shops, almost bursting into tears or laughing to myself. I looked really crazy, and like disappeared from all of my friends because I was like, "I'm working on this talk!"
Casey Gollan: So I figured I'd try to break it into three acts.
Casey Gollan: The first one is exposition: where I tell you who I am. Why am I here? Why are you here? What are we doing? And what is this talk about? And then I'm also going to try to talk about Cooper Union, in less time than I have ever done before, because I think it's a huge and important part of my life and an interesting thing going on in the world. But then I'm going to cut to a project that I worked on about a year ago, and try to slow down and talk about that for like maybe 15 or 20 minutes. And then in act three I'm going to try to like talk to my ghost, but I've been really unsuccessful so far. So...I don't know if it's going to work. But, like, if it doesn't...whatever. We can just have a Q&A.
Casey Gollan: So, this is my bio. I don't know if you saw the bio that was on the website. But after I put it together I remembered that I had better bios from when I was like seven years old. I love to think about the difference between the way you describe yourself when you're seven. "I have a goldfish named Orange," and "I love to make friends." And now it's like this list of like accolades and invitations and whatever. So I wanted to think about that. I think even the invitation to give a talk sets up some kind of like invisible relationships between us, where it's like: I know something that I'm going to tell you, that you don't know! Ha. Or like, "These things make sense!" Like, "This is a narrative! I'm a hero!" Or something. Or, like, "There is there is any kind of plot here!" I'm going to show a really dramatic video clip from Cooper. And part of what I think would be interesting for me, if you all could help me think in this way as a room, is to actually try to untie any ends that start to come together. Or to just help me fray what seems cohesive. It's one of the things that has stuck out to me the most about the past 10 years: how things complexify, but they also kind of cohere. It's something that I've been grappling with.
Casey Gollan: Cool. So. Oh! Actually, I want to start with like the most painful thing ever. Which is like for a five minute karaoke song. Because I didn't know what to say on election night about institutions. This stuff is really heavy and it's really serious. So I think, like, it pairs well with karaoke.
Casey Gollan: EeeEEevery night in my dreamsss
Casey Gollan: I see you, I feel you.
Casey Gollan: ThaT is how I know you GoOOoo ONNnnnNN
Casey Gollan: Faaar across the distanceEE and SPaaces between UUusss
Casey Gollan: You have come to showWW you GOOoo oOONNnn
Casey Gollan: Nearrr, farRR, wherEEeEeEEver you AREEEE
Casey Gollan: I BELIEVE THAT THE HEART DOES GO ONNNN
Casey Gollan: oooONCE MOoOoOREEeE, you ooOOPen the DOOooorrr
Casey Gollan: You are HEeeREEe in MY HEART
Casey Gollan: And. My HEART. Will Go On. And onnnn.
Casey Gollan: LOVE can touch us one time. And last FOOOR a LIFEtime. Never let go til we're gone.
Casey Gollan: Love was when I loved you. One true time I hold you.
Casey Gollan: In my life we'll always goooo ONnnn. Near. Far. Wherever you are.
Casey Gollan: I believe that the heart will go on.
Casey Gollan: Once more you open the door. And you're here in my heart and my hear will go on and on. Own.
Casey Gollan: This is the part where it would end if it made sense. You're HERE. There's nothing to fear. And I knoOOOOooOOoW that the hear will go OooooooooonNNNN. We'll stay. ForeveEEEEEver this way.
Casey Gollan: You are ssafe in my heart. And My heart will go on and onnnnnnn.
Casey Gollan: Well, thank you. I feel like so much better now. I was like so stressed out before that. Ok, cool. So, I'm going to jump into Act I.
Casey Gollan: This is a grid of every piece of art [laughter] that I made between the time that I was about 16 and almost 25. So, yeah, it's just weird. I don't even know what to say about to say about it. It's bizarre to see it all in one image. And I tried to sort of info-vis it. You can see here that this section is high school before Oxbow and then Oxbow starts down here and it goes for this whole column. And then this is like a return to high school. This is college at Cooper Union. And then this is after I was done with college. But really I'm probably somewhere over by the word bottom.
Because this kind of ends right after I graduated, which was in 2013, so three years ago. It's just kind of interesting. I was basically like tripping out on the idea of time, and thinking like whoa you guys are kind of like here. Like this is my final project. So like here in this image.
I started to think, the meaning of art changed a lot for me. And it's not something that I have other chances to talk about because in a lot of ways like the Cooper story which I'm going to get to through this, is all about an art school, but in a lot of ways I played a kind of like instrumental role in what happened there, as somebody who participated in protests.
There's been at least five like seismic shifts in the way that I think about art. So if I started like in high school and like I mean, if I started in the 1400's, this is like the invention of perspective. The idea that you could take something real and flatten it into an image, like a religious icon. It doesn't represent reality, it's an abstraction of it. Or does it seem faithful to it? It's a really strange historical question. I think my entry point into art, aside from writing those books when I was like seven, with the illustrious bios, was photography. I remember the first time that I played with an SLR camera, probably when I was like twelve. I was just like hooked on photography. If you look in this grid so many of these are just like photos of my little sister. It's not all here, but a Photoshop of my little sister like throwing a water balloon.
The Whom: Haha.
Like my dog, little sister, my mom. When you're 12 and you're making art and you're around your family.
I started learning about different photographic processes and getting into a darkroom, here. I loved the the whole process. But I think looking back on what it meant, having a tool to make things, and also the idea that you could kind of like squeeze reality through a pinhole and make an image? That's the weirdest thing I've ever thought about. Ha.
So I did a lot of photography, and some experiments, a little bit of ceramics. And then I came to Oxbow.
These are Polaroids, because everyone had a Polaroid. They still make Polaroids, right? When this photo was taken it was as if Polaroid was about to stop existing, but somehow it continued forever?
I ran into one of my friends at a Halloween party super randomly, I was really bored. As Maceo mentioned, I lost my phone two months ago. When you're really bored at a party and you don't have a phone there's kind of nothing to do. So I was just like sitting in a chair and this devil turned to me, and was like, "Casey??" And it was one of my friends from Oxbow, Lindsey, who was really bad, like caused a lot of trouble. So I told her like, "Wow I'm giving this talk and I can't even remember what happened 10 years ago." And she was like well my dad always asks me how that guy who was obsessed with cones is doing. And I was like, "What are you talking about??" And then I remember that when I was at Oxbow something happened where in a weird moment of clarity, I just like discovered the existence of conceptual art. It's so weird, when I think back on it, that like there can be a time that you don't know something and then a time that see it and you're like whoa, this is great, this is me. I read in this notebook that I was, like, scared to make a conceptual art piece, because I had made photographs and they were like straightforward, there're a lot of really clear ways you can read a photo. Maybe it's just documentation of your family or your travels or maybe it's something that you set up and it has a meaning like a still life.
But I started to think about what it would mean. I don't know if this was Project X but I got a prompt for the word "reciprocal". And so I put these pieces of paper on the ground and just let people walk on them as they went in and out of the studio. And I was like yeah, it's reciprocal, you're stepping on my paper and you're drawing. And there was a whole artist statement about the relationship to the environment, and the dirt on your shoes, and the difference between soil and dust.
But I was really scared. Because I was like, "What does this mean?" I didn't actually explain it. Like, I wrote that in this journal. But I just remember being like, "oh my god". And then I got another prompt. I can't remember because it doesn't sound like something that anyone would task me with doing, but it was to create a sculpture that describes the interface between your internal and external point of view. So what is the shape of the space between the inside of your mind and the world? And like out of nowhere in one of those like moments of clarity like, "it's a cone!" And then I was like, great, I'm going to make a sculpture of a cone, because that's the shape of the space. And then I realized that there's no way to make a perfectly mathematical shape in sculpture, like you actually just can't, because reality is so...crumbly. Like, paper has a seam.
So I started to make all of these different cones, and I was just pissed off. So I was like, this piece made of spray adhesive, and yes adhesive, and elders glue, and superglue, and tape, and graphite, and skewers, and nails and frustration.
So, it's funny, I'm like...that's kind of twee. But at the same time it was like out of nowhere. I had seen this idea in a museum, that said, this is a Lawrence Wiener piece, he does a lot of work with text and the idea of translation. So he issues a statement like, a glass of salt water poured on a rug. And sometimes you could just write it on a wall, and other times a curator might decide to spill a glass of salt water on a rug. And so every installation is different. I just remember being obsessed with this idea. You don't to make art...to make art? The artist may construct the piece, the piece maybe fabricated, the piece need not be built.
I was trying it. And then I went back to high school.
The other thing, I guess, before I went back to high school, was that those conceptual experiments, I had tried a little bit of printmaking but it was really hard, I tried some painting, that didn't work out great.
It kind of morphed into this idea of like spaces for conversation. That it might be more interesting to just talk than to talk about a photo of my sister. I realized like I might not always want to talk about a photo of my sister. [Laughter]. But that was all I had. So a lot of the stuff that followed was these kinds of spaces. So this is a final project, and a lot of projects were just a space where I was asking people to come and talk to me about ideas. I was like I just want to talk forever about what it means to exist. Ha. So that was installed in this tree by the river.
So after Oxbow, I think it makes sense but I decided that I didn't necessarily want to be an artist and I didn't want him to go to art school. So I applied to Bennington, Bard, Oberlin, Skidmore, and Grinnell. Which are liberal arts schools with strong art programs, as far as I could tell. And I was at a review for Bennington, which I thought was really cool because it's basically the college version of Oxbow, in Vermont. They don't really make you do anything in particular, they have buildings that look like weirdly exactly the same.
I'm glad I didn't end up there.
But I was doing a review and somebody from Cooper was reviewing sort of nearby. And I actually didn't know what Cooper was. But this girl stormed away crying, and she said like, "thanks for ruining my day!" to the reviewer, and I was like whoa this lady seems kind of like a byotch. I should talk to her while I'm here.
And she told me to apply. I realized, oh, this is a free art school. Even if I don't think that I'm going to go to art school, it might be worth checking it out. So that's how I ended up at Cooper Union. Not really knowing much and not thinking that I would continue in art that strongly. And when I got there it was kind of like a culture shock. The first year is a lot like Oxbow in some ways. You get some prompts and you work with the same group all year.
It's a foundation year model, I think a lot of art schools do it, based on a Bauhaus-style of pedagogy, I've come to learn. It's been around forever.
But after that first year, they basically for the next three years give you a studio and they plunge you into a three year final project experience. They're like: OK, now, your practice! And I kind of freaked out. Like I basically like art died for me. I think all I could think about was, what can you do in a studio and what can you not doin a studio? And what kind of art would get good feedback in a crit? And what kind of things would stifle discussion? I think those were some of the same questions that I started to ask here, but they kind of turned weird and bitter. So this is this thing that I dug up from hell, this is like art that no one should ever do, but I took these "sexy" photos with other people's art. Like, I don't know why, but I was like, ooh art! I was just...what was I thinking?
Like I was just making stuff to make fun of other people. Really confused. But I think, beneath the meanness, trying to ask questions about the culture of a school. Like what does this school produce? What are these students making? And what is art? And what does it mean to be an artist? And why am I here? And why are you here?
Yeah. But in a really kind of fucked up way.
And then the school kind of collapsed. So, on Halloween of my sophomore year the president sort of called like a school-wide meeting, but we didn't need to go to the school-wide meeting because that morning in The New York Times there was this headline, "Cooper Union won't be free anymore". Ha.
So I'm actually going to jump to this other Prezi.
I think it's a good point, right before I show you that Ivory Tower clip, to talk about: what is Cooper Union? I don't know if anyone is familiar, because I wasn't, but I know people are. I had no idea what I was getting into, but it turns out that like places have histories that are like really interesting. It only slowly unfurled for me over years. Like even when I was in Cooper for two years I didn't know any of this stuff.
Cooper was a school founded almost around the time that I was born in 1859 by Peter Cooper.
—who was a philanthropist, an industrialist, an inventor. A robber baron, maybe, you know? Like there're a lot of conflicting historical reports about whether these "benevolent" rich people of the Gilded Age who were founding important cultural institutions really had progressive ideas about the society they were using their money to shape. I think they got remembered sort of romantically or not.
At any rate Peter Cooper is a really interesting figure in the history of New York because he was born really poor and his family was in debt and he never learned to read. He was completely a self made kinda guy in 1800's New York and he invented a lot of stuff. He's credited with inventing gelatin, and his wife turned it into Jell-O. He invented the rolled steel beam, which made the skyscraper possible. He was instrumental in laying the transatlantic cable. This is like the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. Before this cable there was no realtime communication between continents. And then one day they laid this cable — well, it took like a long time and a lot of failed attempts — but suddenly there was realtime communication between continents. He was really involved in all kinds of infrastructure. He helped lay aqueducts to bring clean water into New York, drinking water and plumbing. You can see, it was like a lot more industrial.
I don't know if you're from New York or been there, but the New York Public Library used to be this reservoir. So they actually drained the reservoir and made it a library.
I was freaking out as I walked in here because this place used to be called Copia and it was like a center for wine or something and now it's like a center for food. And I was like, "that's so relevant to my talk, things that used to be another thing!" What a lot of people consider his greatest life's work, despite all of this, was to found this school in the East Village called Cooper Union. Because of his upbringing and his views on the world, he became a rich guy through all of these friends and businesses, but he has a lot of interesting writing. Like he said that great wealth is a public trust. He did a lot to redistribute his own gains, not just by handing people money — which apparently is something that he also did, you could show up to his house and there were lines to get money — but one way was to found an institution. So before New York even had a library Peter Cooper founded Cooper Unionwhich had the city's first free reading room.
It's so old that the concept of a library did not exist. Libraries were private. And this was the first place in New York that a working class person could show up after work and read at these carrels, the newspapers and books.
And it was a multi-use space with a lot of integrated functions. So it had a library, it also had some retail space, it had a museum, which is now the Cooper-Hewitt Museum uptown, it used to be in this building. And it also had a Women's School of Art, which was weird at the time. Like that was also not something that happened. Women didn't get this kind of education. It also had night classes too. So it did a lot to accommodate kind of working classes, women, and over the years the NAACP was founded here, Susan B. Anthony had an office, every president spoke. In the basement there's this thing called The Great Hall, which was a center for public debate. So going back to like that 1800's, this building has been so deeply symbolic and functional and intertwined with the city and history. I love this drawing, it's called "A Heckler at Cooper Union". This is in the 1800's someone standing up and yelling at a lecture. In the building, too, it had this circular shaft, from the bottom of the building from the top. It was for a circular elevator, when the concept of an elevator, let alone a circular one, did not yet exist. So Cooper was an inventor, but he was a speculative inventor. He left a space for something that people were telling him might one day be a good idea. And actually the first elevator that they put in here, they couldn't yet figure out how to make a circular elevator, so they put a square inside the circle. Only later did they figure out the circle. Now there's this circular elevator.
So that's some backstory. I didn't really know. The history is shocking.
So I'm going to jump to clip from Ivory Tower. It's a documentary and made by Andrew Rossi a couple of years ago, about the state of education in the United States. He goes all over the country, if you haven't seen it's really good. It's on Netflix, I think. It's kind of boring but I think it's really interesting too. Especially if you're thinking about college. He visits Harvard, he visits Arizona State University is always the top party school on the list. He visits Silicon Valley and looks into people creating online courses. There's also a group of people that think people shouldn't go to college, so he talks to them. He looks at historically black colleges. He looks at Deep Springs which is a work college, only for men, where you kind of learn to be a philosopher cowboy, but in 2016.
He was done shooting the movie but he stumbled upon an article about Cooper Union and basically approached us, mostly my friend Victoria who's a close collaborator, and he ended up cutting it into the movie in a huge way, after he was already done with it. He completely reshaped it. It's just kind of interesting to think about, how even when the movie was already done. It's the dramatic part of it, so I'll just show you, because I could talk about all the protests and the creative activism and stuff but I think this gives a really good texture to what it felt like to be there. There's also some history but I skipped it.
[Ivory Tower Clip.]
So, that's Ivory Tower. And I realized that the thing that I forgot to talk about in all of that infrastructure is basically the meaning of free at Cooper. Like why would we do any of this stuff? I don't think it's apples and oranges, but I was doing my homework for the talk and I always look at some of the stuff, so I was like oh Oxbow has a board, who's on that board? What is it cost? Cooper's not free anymore. They voted to charge tuition and now it costs $20,000 a year, on average people pay about ten thousand with financial aid. And that's considered a really, really good deal, still, which is interesting, because just for comparisonI realized a semester of Oxbow is like $26,000.
So Cooper is like less than half of the price of Oxbow. But I think it's something that I wanted to clarify and I think it gets lost even in depictions like this which I think do a really good job of showing what things felt like, which is like: why do this? For me, I think questions about education and systems get framed as a financial problem. It's like, "It costs money to go there. How are we going to find it?" or like, "This school's out of money!" like, "Where's the money going to come from? Where'd the money go? Who made the bad decisions?" Ultimately what I think has been the harder point to make over-and-over is that some of these problems are not really financial. I think it's really complex. Like I still don't really understand, like, what is money? For example, how can this school be in debt and the lights still turn on? Like, you can be in debt, hundreds of millions of dollars in institutional debt, or the U.S. is in trillions of dollars of debt, but it's not like we don't still have roads and subways. Like maybe they're crappy but like things still work. Concept like credit and debt mean that money is not these gold doubloons that we trade. I think what some of us realized as Cooper students is that what we were working with was not a financial problem, it's not that the school needs like $200 million dollars or something to get out of its debt, but that it's a cultural problem, which is about a mindset of growth and expansion and the globalization and generification of a university, and a standardization of education, and a kind of professionalization.
I feel like those are all kind of the same word.
But the way it worked at Cooper is not that some people get a good deal, but that every single admitted person gets to go there for free. The cost and the relationship to money is not just a practical one, it's a symbolic relationship. That changes the terms of what happens in the classroom, and it changes the social relations. And I think it is complicated, because you have to ask, do people studying art at NYU not have as good of an education? And I don't think that the answer is yes. It's not like it's great because it's free. There's a really complicated nuance, and it's I guess part of what I was trying to couch infinitely at the beginning, that these things still don't even make sense to me, except that they're deep intuitions, that I think we were all following. That when you see a financial problem, to consider that it could be a cultural problem.
So I guess this leads me to the next point in the stages of art inversions, for me. Art was kind of dead for me, and then I became instrumental in these protests, even if I was struggling to make stuff for the studio and to understand what that was about, the meaning of the place was deeply important to me. And in some ways to work on the school like utilized a really different set of skills that I had. Organizational ones, but also creative and lateral ones. And I think it kind of put the trolling to good use, because I was kind of taking out some aggression about culture on my classmates, which is a really weird thing to do. But suddenly we had this target. It wasn't clear that the administration was doing the wrong thing. I think it has become clear over the years, it's become proven that this institution was mismanaged. But in the beginning it was largely framed as if we were just kids who didn't know what we were talking about. That was the other thread that I remembered from being here. I think one of the most amazing things about Oxbow is, I think I said it, but the idea that people take you seriously. And what that does for your brain. It made everything possible.
I was remembering going back to my high school, and this thing Stephen says at the end which is, don't be bitter at your high school for being shitty not as good as this, because it will just not really help. But in some ways I think like you also don't need to be bitter once you've been taken seriously once. It's enough. Part of the thing about these like protests is that even if one of them just lasted for seven days, or the one in the summer lasted for like sixty-five days. Then it ended. But it changed everyone that was part of it. Inside their mind. You realize that the rules are kind of malleable. No always, but you start to see where you can pick a fight that's effective.
So I'm going to really quickly run through some of these, just because I think they're really fun. I didn't want to skip them. These are Vines. That was a Halloween action.
This was dropping ping pong balls down the grand staircase of the new building. All of these things came with a manifesto, basically. Like this one was about needless spending on ping-pong tables. Like why is the school investing in sports? And also calling attention to this stupid new space. The architects of Cooper's New Building proposed that this would be like a social gathering space. This was a performance of a leaked board meeting. We were skyping with incoming students. Basically finding every chance to rewrite the narrative, because it was slipping away from us, about what was important. This is what it looked like to sleep there. That's the view.
And people were making art inside of these actions. This is crap from the president that they couldn't pull out in time, and people were making these little sculptures.
That's Sara Haley, she went to Oxbow. Part of this whole thing about being irresponsible kids is that people started to say things like they're endangering the community! They don't know what they're talking about! They're just partying up there! So we started to post vines of ourselves cleaning, because we're like, "No, we're actually trying to have a serious discussion about culture."
This is Reverend Billy's choir.
Through all of this stuff, part of the story that gets erased, even in Ivory Tower, is how fun this stuff was. Like it was like really hard and really confusing and every hour that you spend thinking about the school and the way the school runs and having to learn about it, like reading like a governance document or understanding an org chart, it's time that you're not really making your art. So in some ways this stuff instrumentalized a lot of people, myself included. So I kind of feel like it stunted my ability to understand, "Who am I? What is my practice?" What I ended up doing in college was not what I came there to do. Luckily it was really cool.
We were also able to kind of make ourselves a platform, so by taking this space, there were huge things going on in the world, in Turkey, in South America, and we were putting up huge banners on this iconic super-visible building to send solidarity messages back-and-forth.
Not something that the administration would've done.
This chant is actually the "Jamshed Bharucha dot com, send him a pizza right now". Because we set up a web cam on the president's door. And like you could call and order a pizza. This is a black lives matter protest. So like Cooper is in the midst of all of this. It came a lot out of Occupy, the possibility that these actions like these, and there were still street marches and stuff going on that just happened passed by, but were also interrelated.
This is at CUNY, a gigantic protest. So anyway I think I'm done talking about the Cooperstown. And I also think I'm taking a lot of time, it's like eight, right? So we're theoretically done. And I kind of want to leave some time for questions, so I think I may skip the part about the ghost, unfortunately for The Whom.
But I might quickly trying to show you some stuff that happened in the wake of all this.
So, I graduated. Well, I actually didn't graduate because I failed biology. So I never graduated. But I got an empty diploma from Cooper Union, during the occupation. So, like, school ended and we were still living in the president's office. So we graduated and then went back up. Every possible rule that was supposed to apply was just completely bent or stretched or obscured.
For a lot of us that had done some of these things it was an open question, like, so now we just leave? Like...we're done? I didn't even get a diploma, why would I leave? Should I go, now, into the world and do, like, my art practice? I forgot what it is. I've been working on this thing. So some alumni kind of took pity on us, I think, and they gave us this fellowship at a nearby species. So we taught a fake class about education, officially, that the public could come to. So we had like six students and we would sit around a table and talk abstractly about pedagogy at 6pm. And then at 1pm, when the Cooper classes got out like 50 or 80 people would come and fill this space and we would do a night school, which I thought felt really funny historically. But also, again, I think there's something here about the possibility for two things at once. That there was a secret school every night for a fall. We were planning a third action which would be like the biggest one yet. We were going to invite celebrities at this point it had been enough in the media and we had organized some stuff, we had a process that we could I call them and we knew that we could organize buses from a different schools and cities like clunkier and we like it was like someone knows Joanna Newsom, someone knows Stephen Colbert. We can hit all the targets. Ha. It was really intense, the planning. And the other thing we were doing, while we were planning the big auction, was that we were also researching. So we started to have our own strategic and visioning process, to say, "What should Cooper Union be?" We'd been working on it so long, that like what were we even working on?
We wracked our brains and came up with our own thoughts about what an art school and a school could be. And also tried to expand our breadth and think about other schools. So we looked a lot at this college called Antioch, which Peter Cooper was on the board of, it's in Ohio, it has a radical history, it had a really bad financial situation. So it actually shut down, unlike Cooper, but interestingly the community kept the school going even after the buildings closed. It felt, in some ways, kind of similar. They were just like, we're not done.
We're not done, and you can't shut us down, and we don't really need you. I think it goes back to those questions like what are we doing here? Like how much of this infrastructure is Oxbow, and how much of Oxbow could be just two people? I'm not proposing that you don't need any of that infrastructure, I think in a lot of ways you do. Anyway Antioch was an interesting example we found. And meanwhile things got really annoying at Cooper.
There was a huge lawsuit. And if you remember this chart at the way beginning, Stages of a Movement, this is traditional activist training material, to say that when you're working on a social problem you go through phases in your campaign. You start with "business as usual", that's what some of these creative actions could break through. "Normal channels fail", that's like when student council's not really putting it, in terms of like dealing with the level of mismanagement here. "Conditions ripen", that's like when we were finding out what rules we could bend or break. "Take off", that's what you saw in Ivory Tower, that this was a nationally recognized student protest. And then was "activist failure", like, we graduated, the school was not fixed, and it basically sucked. People were burnt out. That's the other part about it all, and it's another thing that I think especially with a longterm relationship with a place, when you don't just cycle through and you're working with the same people, at this point I've been in and around Cooper for like seven years. It's the exact same people. Like I see the lady who made the girl cry in the portfolio review. And that lady's like really burnt out, because she's a faculty that's been through a lot of bullshit for almost a decade. So it really does feel, in a lot of ways, like this deep failure and malaise.
And at the same time we pushed through. So a group of alumni launched a lawsuit and said it's actually illegal what you're doing at Cooper Union, you're violating these historical documents. They made a case, they hired lawyers, they raised six hundred thousand dollars. In the meantime, we were trying to do these actions, but facing that activist failure. That action we planned with the celebrities never happened, because people were sick of it.
They were like, protests don't work! Occupy had ended. People were burnt out, they felt like my education got stolen from me. Like, I didn't get to go to art school, we didn't get to fix the school, I just want to make my art for the one more month that I'm here.
And that's not really a condition that's receptive to this kind of thinking about visions and change. At the same time, I think it's interesting that simultaneously you can be in a majority of public win, like having this lawsuit, and then on the ground feel the sense of failure. The lawsuit won, basically.
So for the year that it was happening we were not allowed to do any protests. Like all of our professors and everyone were like, imagine everyone you respect telling you, keep quiet, we're not joking, if you make any disruption you will disrupt the impending success. So internally we had this really strange damper. Anyway the lawsuit won and it got 10 years of regulation for the school. So theoretically, in the next 10 years, if a committee can prove to the state that there is a way to return Cooper to free, they are legally obligated to return their free. They also had to put alumni and students on the board, and faculty and staff. And they need to have any transaction over $100,000 vetted. And a lot of board members that made these decisions resigned at once, and the president was ousted.
So that's kind of like crazy, to be in this space of having these deep success and deep failure at the same time. It's not something that I know what to do about, still, except that we didn't stop.
We, with this sort of research about Antioch, actually took a roadtrip. We went out there twice, really randomly, like not knowing why, but we were, like, well we're dealing with this deep malaise. And this seems similar.
Nonstop was really interesting. That was what they called their initiative to run a school without any infrastructure of a school.
So we showed up and we stood on the lawn, basically in their quad, and we just tried to talk to people. We didn't know a single person. It turns out that if you do that in a small town in Ohio you get really deep in, really, really quickly. So a ton of crazy stuff happened. We got access to every single building, and because they had shut down their campus was in disarray. It had reopened here, so we were there to see this first reopening of an institution and hear their new president speak. To chase him down and try to meet with him. I think one thing we realized is that it was more complicated than we could have possibly imagined. It also embodied this deep success andd deep failure.
So we took two really long weird road trips there for no clear reason.
And then we got back to New York and we pitched a project to Cooper, to say we should learn from this other institution, and we need to create a space for discussion, and people are burnt out on red and black and protest, and there's no space that people want to meet in because every space, at this point, in the school has housed a meeting that has hurt people's feelings or made them really bored or whatever.
So we were able to, through chance and through a proposal, pitch the interim president who replaced the one that was ousted. and say we need a period of reconciliation here.
And this was our window text.
We've been stuck in like a finger trap. The harder you try to get out of it the deeper you get stuck. We need to sweat out our nervous energy, and move information through our bodies, and de-bunk why bother doing anything, jump our collective battery, envision the next century of community building, conceive of deep engagement, have a barn raising, understand the shuffle, learn to love again, build institutional memory together, talk talk talk, about governance structures, about what kind of culture we're trying to build, about the shift in education that Cooper could stand for, about the stones that we could never lift, tap into the power of displaced community, foster a culture based on mutual respect, create lasting habits, bring materials to share, ask a question, juggle non-linear narratives, unflatten the years, listen to eachother, sit around the table as people not as avatars, remember where we were, how we felt, and what we wanted, confront our fears and expectations, larp ourselves, drink coffee and play cards, take a nap in the hammock, and salsa dance with our paradigms. Free education to all.
We did a lot of stuff in this space. We hosted think tank sessions where we brought together anyone who'd want to show up and say like, how do you think this school could be run? We know that we have no say in it and we know that we get steamrolled. But why not sit around a table and think about it? And we like generated like reams of documentation, there's just infinite post-its and so on.
And we also brought the trustees in. This is the chair of the board, to say, hey, we've got a space, you should meet with us, we're not really anyone, we're not the alumni association, we're just a weird group of people with a space, and we see the need for a meeting. And even that proposition, I think, was deeply unsettling. This meeting was really aggro. But at the same time there's no other forum. Trustees don't talk to students. So for a lot of people it was the first and the only time that they've met this guy who is literally the highest decision maker here. And it happened in our court. So this was a space that the freshmen hanging out in, because freshmen don't get studies. So suddenly it's like oh here's the chair of the board, put down your project and let's chat. We had a lot and karaoke. And after a month it stopped. Because the space is being turned into like a bank and maybe like an ice cream parlor.
The Whom: [Sound effects intensify]
It's a retail space.
I don't really know what to say. So that's a project that we did a year ago we continue to do stuff, but I thought it's an interesting example because it's. I feel like I'm being played off stage. I'm almost done, I swear! I think my question for myself is what does it look like to keep trying to work on these questions after that protests that look so cool, and are thought to be so effective. Like, it's really unclear.
And thank you to The Whom for telling me I've gone on way too long. And thank you to you all for listening because I really did endeavor to condense it and it was really hard. But through this talk some future group of people get a less rambling version, so, thanks.
I don't know if there's time and if you would like to talk.
Audience: You talked a lot about your activism. I was wondering if you've ever incorporated activism into your art or art into your activism?
That is like the central question here, I think, but it's really hard to address because I think it's still unfolding. I think in what I was able to get to, one of the themes is this idea that there's a split between making your art or doing this kind of activist-y stuff. I was just reading this book, there's a zillion books written about Occupy which is like so weird because it was theorized intensely in realtime, art historically, and in terms of movements, bu this book was an art historical read of Occupy about this kind of creative action that we did, claiming it is a form of art. One of the things that I'm doing now with Victoria who you saw in the video, is that we're fellows at this place called the Vera List Center at The New School. So The New School has a center that supports projects at the intersection of art and politics. And that is something that they're constantly redefining. We applied with some of the stuff that we're doing. And I think it's been really uncomfortable, because I think we've had to reconcile a lot of questions about, like, what is art? What is politics? What are we doing? How much of ourselves is in the work that we've done? How much of it is other people? So, yeah. I was talking to my sister before about when you feel like you're bullshitting a piece, like right before you have to show it, or something, and you like didn't do it, and you just bang something out. I think it's the same. I'm pretty sure that no matter what you do, your art and your politics are embedded in it. Later I've come to see in those protests that a lot of what I would consider to be my practice or my thinking was kind of shut out by some of the ways that those things urgently needed to happen, in ways that were legible to the media, legible to administrators, worked with a group. So it's been hard to figure out what it means to do that sort of activism or the civics of Cooper now is a big question, and also what I do is a question, and also the integration is a question. One of the things we're doing right now is teaching a class as visiting artists about the idea of integrating the politics with the studio practice. And interestingly it's rankled people's feathers, because like my friends from my year are like, "you are the one telling us not to make art and telling us to make more phone calls! And now you've come around and you like art again?" I'm like, yeah...it's really confusing.
Stephen Thomas: Other questions?
The Whom: [Ypo]
Stephen Thomas: Again, thank you. I think you couldn't have had a better last lecture at The Oxbow School, because as much as you'd like to think the way in front of you is free and clear.
Casey Gollan: It's not! But in a good way?
Stephen Thomas: —it just gets more confusing. Thank you, Casey.
Casey Gollan: Thank you!
The Whom: [Asdfghjkl;]