BY PAM LONGOBARDI
stranger: the foreigner; also, the stranger. In ways, students are both:
initially a stranger to the teacher, and perhaps a foreigner to ART, but also a
stranger to their own content, traveling as a foreigner in this strange land. A
metaphor I have found very useful in charting the course of my own content,
which I also try to pass on to my students is that of "the foreigner from within" (Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, 1) or even more
appealingly, the stranger from within. Being both simultaneously the self and
the stranger gives one the opportunity to gaze at one's work from two
perspectives. Being inside of the work during the process of making ensures
that the art comes from an emotionally powerful place. Taking on the role of
the Stranger, however, allows one to step outside of the self into the gaze of
a viewer. A dialogue can develop when one "greets the stranger" and
moves from emotional attachment to the world of language. As a teacher, I often
try to act as the minor, a way of modeling the process
of looking at work from the stranger's perspective. Other students in the group
provide additional minors. By internalizing this process, one is able to
create "the externalizing eye," an internal minor for examining the
dialogue created within a work of art.
Living with the other, the foreigner, confronts
us with the possibility or not of being an other... Being alienated from
myself, as painful as that may be, provides me with that exquisite distance
within which perverse pleasure begins, as well as the possibility of my
imagining and thinking: the impetus of my culture. 2
activity of identifying the stranger within, of being both self and other, me
and not me, suggests a doubling of the ego, a splitting of the personality.
Humors first become aware that they all have a "double when they first
recognize their image in a minor: it is a projection or reflection of the self.
This awareness Lacan describes as the "mirror-phase." Like
Alice's trip through the looking glass, “the minor-phase" is a
passageway between Lacan’s two main stages in the development of
consciousness: the Imaginary and the Symbolic. The Imaginary involves a
pre-linguistic stage of consciousness focused around the visual
recognition of images (and here I would posit ... and the emotional
associations they carry). The Symbolic concerns the subject's entry into,
and formation by, the world of language. 3 The creation, and subsequent
viewing, of artwork involves a similar two-part development: access through
emotion (the pre-verbal) and access through language.
routes of entry into content in the input and output phase simply underlines my
belief that the primary motivation behind artmaking is the desire to
communicate. Whether it is desire to communicate one-on-one, desire to
identify with a community, or libidinous desire, desire drives artmaking.
also signal a splitting of the self, love representing a total identification
with the other, to the point that during sexual interactions; it is possible to
realize such a loss of ego boundaries that two identities merge and you can
experience being inside of another person's body. This doubling mechanism of
projection and mirroring can not only be the drive behind the creation of
content, it can serve in the analysis of it. By identifying with the role of
the viewer, one can envision possible interpretations from a third point perspective.
There is no prescriptive sensibility here, as it would never be possible or
even desirable to predict a viewer's interaction with your work. That is the
wonderful wild cud in all of this. However, simply by presenting an external
perspective and acting as the "mirror" for the work, I can, as a
teacher, model the internal process that mi artist can undertake in order to
examine their own work from a point of view a bit outside of their own
subjectivity. It can be extremely humanizing to try and imagine how another
might interpret a scenario, an event, or a work of art. It can really pay to
“walk a mile in my shoes."
make as an artist is inseparable from what you feel, what you think, and what
has happened to you. By privileging a student’s personal history, I can
champion that stance that the better they know themselves the better art they
can make. It takes a certain force of will to believe in what you are doing
enough to pursue that relentlessly, especially in the studio. I, first of all,
believe in them. Soon, they believe in themselves. In one student’s case, the
growth of content in his work spawned a simultaneous construction of identity.
This construction of identity involved the need to create a private and
complete cosmology, a world of gender transference, where men could strap on a
"mother-maker" to experience the exclusive pleasure of nursing an
interesting shift in the perception of one's identity has occurred between the
generation of artists that were my teachers and the generation of artists that
are new my students. When there was a smoother homogeneity to the visible
population of artists (I am thinking of course of the recent decades of
American art history that were meet exclusively composed of white male artists:
Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, and later, early Neo-Expressionism)
identity was a given, something you were born with. Even a second-generation
immigrant, whose families cultural affiliations were perhaps different f1rona
their grandparents, still had a built-in set of associations of a cultural
identity of origin.
young artists that are students now are far enough removed from the
traditions of and identification with a culture of origin that, in some
respects, there is more of a sense of a blank screen, of a personal
history waiting to be written. As one student recently remarked to me that
her guiding force of identification, and therefore world view, ultimately
manifested in the
content of her work, is MTV. This is clearly a chosen
identity, manufactured to an extent by pop media, which is rapidly becoming
a global community of identification. David Robbins writes, "Pop culture
and info dreck convey the kernel of an idea of community based upon concept and
taste - a chosen community as opposed to the old world's idea of a tribal
community based on blood and heritage.” 4
championing of identity in art making is most likely a reaction to the invisibility of the maker particularly the female maker - in
my early training. In attempting to help
students explore and embrace their identity, I began to re-evaluate my own
personal history. What I arrived at was that, different from the inherited
identity of an earlier generation, my personal circumstances were such that I
was left to construct my identity.
How does one
meet the stranger within? In the absence of known truths, one can construct
fictions which stand as real - as plausible as family history which is
handed down. Why not? If you don1 know the answer, you can make something up.
scant known facts about my mother's secret adoption at birth. The irretrievable
invisibility of my matriarchal ancestry had a simple framework: 12 children,
born in an unidentified European country, Catholic, the mother was an opera
singer, three of the sisters adopted as infants into the United States. Within
that open frame, one could become anything - it was as yet an unwritten
began to be written for me at age 20 when I married an Italian cowboy and
changed my name. I chose to be Italian, and upon changing my name, have
embraced the possibility as fervently
as one does religious conversion. It’s as good a guess as my, and the
simpatico was there, lending credence to the intuition.
taken me years to get over the secret panic that would set in when someone
would ask me about my family background, my ancestry. There was always a sense
of embarrassment or shame, of something hidden for a good reason, in the stiff
New- England family my mother was adopted into. It was not to be talked
about. What I did not realize until later was the incredible liberation their
silence gave me - I could be anything I wanted to.
missing element of my own personal history has made itself manifest in my work
in the large areas of void punctuated by specific historical references.
These references are elisions from Italian paintings, suggesting an incomplete
narrative, and historical markers, found published text fragments concerning
beliefs. I originally related the desire to crop out gestures as signification
of the missing stories of recorded history, and my own participation in the
creation of quote "fact" in scientific illustration, and they me this
too. But now I can more fully understand them in that they also reference the
unknowns in my own identity.
This sense of having constructed my own identity has
given me insight
this sensibility which find prevalent in my students. It seems as if to them,
the creative members of their generation, that in them is indeed a blank space
to fill, which they actively respond to by constructing an identity. (This sense of the void is often misguidedly used as a
symptom for categorizing individuals as members of generation X or
today's lost youth.) The best of the students I have encountered
openly identify with this sense of vagueness, but rather than feeling it as a
less, they mostly vim it as an opportunity. The family identity, for students
of marginalized communities of personal choice, does not lie with biological
family so much as it does with family, or community, of choice.
discovery of the self's true identity can occur through the process of
making art. The growth of the work means moving through a naturalized
awareness of self to actualizing self-identity. At this point, the personal
can expand to include the social, the connection of the self to an outer
cultural, political or ideological framework.
a teacher, I avoid any reference to myself as "mentor", with its
load of academic baggage, implied hierarchical relationship, and suggestion
of the closed-society passing of a garlanded baton. I prefer to think of
myself instead as an "un-mentor," an accomplice. For amusement, I
like to think of the students as Houdinis in a cabinet, with shackles which
may have been placed by the self or the society. 5 Bess was Houdini's
accomplice, secretly passing him the key. I prefer to act as Bess, a willing
accomplice participating in the creation of the illusion. This
activity is more collusive and collaborative than the traditional
teacher-student model. The success of the "escape," the illusion,
is fully dependent on this collusion with Bess. Of course, Houdini always
first had to give Bess the key,
Originally presented on a panel entitled
"Unlocking the Cabinet: Personal Contents and Passing the
Key, "23rd SGC Conference, Knoxville Tennessee, March 1995.
1. Julia Kristeva Strangers to
Ourselves, trans. Leon S. Roudies (NY: Columbia University Press), p. 14.
2. Ibid., p. 13.
Jacques Lacan, "The Mirror-Phase as Formative of the Function of the
L" Art inTheory 1900-1990, eds. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, (Oxford
and Cambridge, MA:Blackwell, 1992) p. 609.
4. David Robbins, "The Rise of Systems
Man", Art Issues, Summer 1995, p. 31.
5. Christopher Milbourne, Houdini: The
Untold Story, (NY: Crowell, 1969).