Nov 28, 2017
Rob Giampietro’s Lined and Unlined had this excerpt from Lawrence Weschler’s terrific book on the artist Robert Irwin, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, way back in 2010. I had read Seeing in the late 90s and since then, I can pretty much predict that Irwin People will almost always be My People too.* But in 2010, and now, the part that particularly resonates is this idea of Irwin’s on his practices of aesthetic encounters in the late 60s and early 70s: being available in response.
“I just sort of let it be known that I was available, in a way like I’m saying it to you. I mean, I didn’t put out any ads or anything, but word got around. And you could be, let’s say, up at UCLA, and you’d say, ‘Well, let’s take advantage of that. We’ll have him come up and talk to the students.’ And that’s what I’d do. Or, ‘We’ll have him come up and do a piece on the patio.’ And I would just come up and do that.
Irwin was available in response, but for a long time nobody asked. Nobody knew what to make of the offer, and Irwin was no help: he didn’t have a clue. “Curators would ask me, ‘If we invite you, what are you going to do?’ and I would have to say, ‘Well, I don’t know what I’m going to do; I’ll just spend some time there and then decide.’ […] In other words, we had no connection, because they kept needing something tangible, and I kept saying, ‘I don’t know,’ which also put into these situations the possibility of failure. I could go to the Walker Museum, let’s say, and they’d set up an exhibition with all their catalogues and press releases and everything, and there was a risk that when I got there, I wouldn’t be able to come up with anything.’”
Eventually Irwin’s availability was widely sought after. Rob has more excerpts that round out the tale, but I want to dig into the idea of availability in teaching—in the affective sense, not just the conceptual one. Availability is about being deeply attuned to what’s happening for a group of three, or ten, or twenty-one students, and understanding the differences between those groups so you can calibrate accordingly. It’s broadcasting enough confidence and calm up front that people will trust your intentions, but also the clarity of mind to alter your plans mid-stream and try something else—in response. Plenty of people found it difficult to trust whether Irwin could really pull off something substantive with all of his waiting around, and it takes a tremendous amount of trust for both teachers and students to act together in this way. But availability isn’t disorganization. It’s a quality of attention to the specificities of encounters, this minute, and then this one, and the next.
Steve Seidel, who gave me my first full-time job at Project Zero and first put me onto Irwin, modeled this kind of availability over and over for me. He’d taught in high school classrooms for seventeen years before going into research, and I was lucky to witness, in my early twenties, the ways he welcomed graduate students into his office and his courses, treating their concerns and questions with absolute dignity, like he had all the time in the world for them (and he didn’t!). I saw that there’s a sincere performance aspect to availability: the artificial slowing of time, the listening carefully, and the under-determined nature of exchanges with students, even if you can predict what might be on their minds. I’ve spent the last many years trying to emulate him as much as I can.
The availability thing really came alive, though, when I spent a couple of days at a time down at the School for Poetic Computation in New York. I was there twice as a visiting artist, and both times I gave a talk and then students signed up for half-hour or hour conversations. We walked, or we sat in a garden, or we looked at their work, and we talked. And most of time—these were strangers to me—I tried to get right to the essence with questions and more questions. What’s on your mind? And tell me more. And so on. You have to shore up all your reserves, to marshal all your wits about you when you do this. You have to smile and squelch the urge to fill silences, take a deep breath and pretend like you’ve known each other for some time, in the hopes that this person can get a little space to work longer on what’s in their heads and on paper, or in code, or whatever it is.
I got a little glimpse of this, too, when just a couple of weeks ago I spent time with students in the ID2 program of the Angewandte (university for applied arts) in Vienna. Students were at a halfway point in their course, which had nothing to do with disability. I came and introduced some ideas, and then they prototyped rapidly: a series of ideas-in-things, held in the provisional. There are so many reasons this kind of workshop should ultimately fail. The teacher drops in from outside; there’s no extrinsic motive for them to come along for your invitation. When it succeeds, it’s because of availability in response. With a thousand cues you have to signal: I am here now, holding space for you to do some good work.
*If you want more Irwin, I strongly recommend the documentary on him and his work, The Beauty of Questions.