Outsider: Alternative Media
Faculty: Elizabeth Chaney and Brit Tornes
Spiral Director: Olivia Gude
The Outsiders group explored alternative methods of making, outside the range of typical art school or school art projects. We explored what it means to be an outsider versus an insider, paying attention to the personal and social effects of labels and hierarchies. Looking at Outsider Art and art working outside the traditional canon of making as our inspiration, we investigated:
Outside of Real: Surrealist Mapping
Outside of Apathy: Automatic Writing
Outside of the Label: D.I.Y. Clothing
Outside of Context: Recontextualizing Flyers
Outside of the Gallery And On the Streets: Health Care Stencils
Outside of Literature: Altered Books
The outsiders worked with traditional materials—paint, needle and thread, pastels, ink, X-acto knives, stencils—materials thought by many to be playing a diminishing role in artistic creation as the digital becomes the dominant mode of making and sharing images. The students considered how meaning is created by these old media.
What is the difference between recycling a book or using a computer to make art?
What is the difference between store bought clothing and clothing hand sewn as art?
How do these methods of making translate into the meaning of the artwork?
Using these questions we explored and challenged our perceptions of the division between art and everyday life. By altering pre-existing objects—cutting, removing, and adding elements—we became cultural surgeons, trying to preserve and extend the lives of these objects now and into the future.
The youth artists decided that being an outsider is not necessarily negative; it is the habit of labeling anything that is “other” that is negative. By reflecting on how social groups are positioned against each other, as either inside or outside, the Outsider artists critically considered who “wins” when people are set up in opposition to each other.
Outside of Real:Surrealist Mapping
Using Surrealist techniques, we introduced our students to the possibilities of spontaneous making, a theme that has permeated the Outsider curriculum.
We began with creating collaborative Poems of Opposites. Each student wrote a sentence describing a place—a place he or she wants to visit, a memory of a favorite place, or a place that exists only in the imagination. Passing the poem around the room, each participant wrote an “opposite sentence”—selecting words that seemed to be the opposite of each word. Check out the surprising and evocative results. Students became comfortable playing with text and collaboratively began the investigation of the unconscious territory.
The Outsiders were next shown a variety of images by classic Surrealist artists as well as by artists who use maps in their work. We also looked at photographs of phenomenon such as geological formations, crop circles, and geoglyphs. We watched a video of clouds and named what we saw: bunnies, alligators, ghosts, and much more. While looking at these images, we discussed the human need to name the landscape, the need to discern boundaries, to determine what these boundaries mean. We considered our unconscious projection of images onto the landscape.
Facing a wall covered with maps, each Outsider was prompted to pick one that called to them. The students looked at the maps from every direction, searching for images “hidden” within the map. The Outsiders could use the geographical features of the map or the official boundary lines between states, countries, or districts. Using charcoal, pastels, black and white paint, ebony pencils, and erasers students made what they saw visible to others.
Outside of Apathy: Automatic Writing
Continuing with our Surrealist gaming activities, the Outsiders moved on to Automatic writing. We looked at how outsider artists often make art obsessively on everything around them—turning all of their possessions and their houses into ornate pieces of art.
We declared that while automatic writing would start on paper, it would flow off onto the desk, the floor, and the walls. We let our minds and our writing wander over ominous black manifestations of familiar objects.
Students practiced the automatic writing technique on worksheets, specially designed to stimulate the free flow of obsessive thought. The Outsiders recognized that the look of a text and the way it conformed to or denied the surfaces of an object are just as important to making meaning as what the words say.
Students were shown works by Rene Magritte, Joseph Kosuth, Gillian Wearing, Ian Hubert, Agnes Richter, Jacob Mohr, Emma Hauck, Sarah King, Hersh Eydesai, Tauba Auerbach and Mel Bochner.
With our thoughts and pens freely flowing, we let the unconscious guide what and where we wrote.
Outside of Content: Recontextualizing Flyers
The Outsider artists learned about the wide range of interventionist art. Artists we studied included Jean Claude and Cristo's wrapped public art pieces, the Ghost Bike project (in which white-painted bicycles are chained to locations where cyclists have been killed), faux lost flyers, and Kusama Yayoi's wrapped trees. We talked about how art can become part of every aspect of life–from billboards to inventive notes left in unlikely places.
We began by gathering flyers from bulletin boards around the University of Illinois at Chicago campus. Because we are good citizens we only removed outdated flyers, thus performing a public service as we were securing materials for our artmaking.
Each Outsider artist chose several flyers as the raw material for making a new art piece. After an x-acto knife demonstration, the Outsiders started deconstructing the flyers, carefully removing and re-organizing aspects of the texts and images. The Outsiders recontextualized the components of the flyers, changing their meanings by inserting them into another discourse.
The new flyers were re-purposed to “advertise” the Outsider artists thoughts such as:
Old or Unwanted, Lightly Worn or Worse
Donate Here or Please…Learn to Live…
Oustide of the Label: Bricolage Clothing
The Outsider artists worked with found and unwanted clothing to create new, eclectic clothing designs. We looked at fashions worn by Yayoi Kusama, Lady Gaga and The Heatherettes to consider the value of dressing according to popular fashion trends compared to making personal fashion statements.
Students explored concepts of identity, conformity and freedom of expression. Artist Niki Lee disguises herself to blend into various racial and ethnic cultures. The resulting photographs of herself in a wide variety of cultural contexts make each viewer aware of his or her own reliance on stereotypes and styles for identifying personal identity and for positioning this identity as different from the identity of “others.”
The Outsiders created their own clothing utilizing the techniques of DIY, bricolage and appropriation. The students learned hand stitching, embroidery, piecing and re-structuring in the creation of innovative, recycled design. The Outsider artists learned a wide range of types of interventions they could make on conventional clothing.
We looked at fashion through the decades and learned about different styles that have been are fashionable in constructing and designing clothing. Peer group critiques were utilized after working for some time on the project so that the students gained fresh perspectives on their emerging creations. They considered whether they wanted their fashion piece to be wearable, art wear, or to become a sculptural piece. Outsiders learned that it is OK to break free from patterns and conventions and create a spontaneous fashion design of their own.
Outside of the Gallery….and On the Street
Health Care Stencils
Our Outsider artists learned how to take art out of expected contexts and into public space. We challenged the youth artists to make a statement about an important theme of today—health care. After discussing the options (or lack of options) for health care in the U.S., we asked the Outsiders to take a stand and make their voices heard.
We created stenciled statements on the pages of newspapers. Such newspaper art can be cheaply produced and put back into circulation, slipped into the business or health sections of newspapers to circulate among people, encouraging them to question what they believe about the need for national healthcare.
Equipped with projectors, a printer, a scanner, and a copier to prepare their images, the Outsider artists used anatomical and medical images to make sure that people know that healthcare should not be outside of affordability for any Americans.
Outside of Literature: Altered Books
We started the day with viewing two scenes from the movie Fahrenheit 451. I
In the first scene, we see a fire truck leaving on a call while a man frantically runs out of his apartment, leaving his cigarette still burning in the ashtray. The firemen search the emptied apartment frantically, but they are not looking for smoke or fire–they are looking for something they deem much more dangerous—books. In this future society, books are illegal. They are thrown out of the apartment window and burned with a blowtorch in front of a growing crowd. In the second scene an elderly woman’s house is searched for a hidden library, tragically she and her library succumb to the deliberately set fire.
We discussed what could cause a book to become banned, and if some books should be or not. Most of the Outsiders agreed that you should be free to read whatever you want, but when we asked about more controversial banned books such as Mien Kampf by Hitler, the Outsiders were a central dilemma of the commitment to free expression and free circulation of knowledge. As part of this discussion, we shared with students a list of the most frequently banned books in America.
In this project we looked at artist Brian Dettmer and how he handles the contents of his altered books. Dettmer conducts, what he calls, book autopsies to recontextulize the content of each book he alters. In his book autopsies he cuts away unwanted material and brings to the surface otheer images and texts. This results in a composition created from additions and subtractions.
We challenged the Outsiders to alter their books thinking about the original contents and what they can add and what they can subtract to alter the meaning.
Mark Bradford’s creative strategy was shared as inspiration:
“Décollage, I take it away; collage, I immediately add it right back. It’s almost like a rhythm. I’m a builder and a demolisher. I put up so I can tear down. I’m a speculator and a developer. In archaeological terms, I excavate and I build at the same time."
Books have a diminishing role in our digitally-oriented society. We wanted to explore the physicality of books as a dying medium. By cutting into these objects, removing, and adding elements, we become cultural surgeons. As Outsider artists we tried to preserve and extend the lives of these objects which are rapidly drifting out of the mainstream of future culture.