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Syllabus: Open Studios


This is the first installment of a new series focusing on arts pedagogy, incorporating course syllabi and first-hand experience to open dialogues. Here, Cathy McLaurin, an interdisciplinary artist who is currently Visiting Faculty in Performance and Senior Thesis Program at The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston shares her syllabus for Open Studios, a performance art class. 

Performance Open Studios

From September 2012 – May 2013, I taught Performance Open Studios* at The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (SMFA). Open Studios students develop their own work in and around the expanded field of performance.  This work encompasses a range of activity including, but not limited to live work, delegated performance, performance lecture, socially engaged practice, and participatory practice. Teaching in Performance requires consideration of a range of performance interests and fluid boundaries around definitions of what performance art is or can be. Loosely defined, performance art is artistic practice, rooted in the history of painting and sculpture, rather than in theater or dance, involving an artist creating an action live or for the camera (video or still).

If you were a student taking Open Studios, you would find a syllabus like this:

Course Description:
Open Studios is an opportunity for students to develop the skills they have learned in other performance classes. Students will develop their own work, critique each other, assist one another with bigger projects, and work toward a public presentation of their work. We will focus on general performance practices including exercises dealing with specific topics, as well as coaching, and feedback on current work. Occasional workshops on specific topics will be given by visiting artists and graduate students working in performance. Periodically we will take field trips to attend performances or performance-related events. We will also schedule individual consultations as needed.**

Learning Outcomes:

  • Students will gain experience from performing weekly
  • Students will be able to verbally articulate aspects of their work and process.
  • Students will perform in an outside venue at the end of the semester, gaining experience from organizing and promoting the event
  • Students will write an artist statement

Weekly Schedule:
Class 1: Talk about your objectives for the semester.
Discussion of Performance Studio Policies
One Object Performances:
Each student will perform for one minute.
Each student will perform for five minutes.
Each student will perform for fifteen minutes.
Group critique of performances

Keep track of your process throughout the semester in a notebook. Before each performance write down what you have planned. After each performance, write down your thoughts on what you did.

Everyone will sign up on PER OS performance calendar for next three classes. Write your goals for the semester. You must plan and direct documentation of your own your performance each week (still image, video, or other).

Class 2: Each student will give a five to a ten-minute presentation about her/his work.
Students will write down three goals for the semester.
10-minute performances related to what each student wants to experiment with during the semester.
End of each class we will group for critique/discussion.

Class 3-6: 10-15 minute performances. Critique.

Class 6-9: 20 minute performances. Critique.

Class 10-17: 30 minute performances. Critique.

Class 17-20: 1 hour performances. Critique.
Write your artist statement and bring in enough copies for all to exchange.

Class 20-23: Preparing for public performance.
Exchange artist statements for editing.

Class 24: Public performance.

Class 25: Final presentations of your work, including final artist statement and two videos of 5 minutes of performance.

The Performance Classroom
Students in Open Studios have already completed the Beginning Performance Workshop or have equivalent experience in performance, with some having taken Open Studios multiple times. In Open Studios, there are roughly eight to twelve students presenting work on a weekly or bi-weekly schedule. This work ranges from ten to thirty-minute performances to durational three hours or longer performances that take place primarily within the performance studio, a classroom that operates like a black or white box space. Having defined performance art at the outset of this essay as being rooted in the history of painting and sculpture, rather than theater or dance, there is some irony in the physical details of the performance studio. Theater-style lighting allows the artist some control over the amount and type of light present. Curtains, which are the type used on a theater stage, must be protected since the cost to clean and/or replace them is exorbitant. The hardwood floor—one intended for dance—is an ongoing source of tension, as it, too, must be protected from damage that might result from volumes of liquid, anything that might stain, and any action or material that might gouge the surface. A student’s inexperience working with a material created a challenging situation, as well as a hazard for the studio itself, in one class. Covering their body in powdered fabric dye, which was then activated into saturated pigment with the addition of water, the student achieved their desired visual effect, while unintentionally causing the irritation of eyes and lungs of everyone in the studio. The floor had to be immediately and meticulously scrubbed in order to prevent what might have become permanent stains. Having put themselves and their viewers at risk, the student learned the importance of critical consideration when choosing materials.

Physical Safety
Protection is a running theme throughout any course in performance that takes place within an institution. As the “teacher” in this situation, protection of the students – those who are making the work and those who are viewing the work—is my primary task. This requires constant vigilance and careful consideration. At the outset of the course, safety guidelines and rules of the space are detailed. This includes rules on the use of the sound and lighting equipment, which also requires protection. Any action that might in some way present physical harm to the artist or to the viewers must first be discussed with me. It is my responsibility to assess the action and whether or not the student is prepared for the type and amount of risk that might be involved in carrying it out. Had the student using the powdered dye informed me in advance about their materials, I would have advised that they use some other non-powdered pigment. Thus, my ability to mitigate risk is impacted by the students’ willingness and/or forethought to share their intentions ahead of making the work. Actions that will be carried out over a long duration can present risk that otherwise would not be present (i.e. binding the body presents risk of cutting blood flow if the binding is left in place for an hour or more). It is my responsibility to facilitate managed risk in the classroom—encouraging risk taking in the work and knowing when to intervene and stop an action that has become too much physical risk for the artist and/or viewers. Actions involving eating the pages of a novel, wrapping one's body in strands of lit twinkle lights, stabbing an object with a sharp knife, or holding a crouching position for more than two hours, are some of the ones that have required careful consideration without intervention on my part. This aspect of teaching in performance is something with which my colleagues who teach in other visual art media are not tasked. Further, what one performance faculty might accept as “safe”, another might deem too risky for the classroom setting. The vigilance required of me around this issue of safety in the classroom bleeds into my viewing of live work outside of the classroom. I have found myself watching live work, realizing that I’m thinking, “If this were happening in the performance studio, I would be stopping this action.”

Personal Risk
Performance class engenders intimate, personal, and revelatory exposure. Over the course of thirteen weeks together, making, viewing, and discussing their work, students become aware of their classmates’ personal experiences, histories, and traumas. This is another type of risk that must be managed in the classroom. Performance, for some students, opens a space that compels them to investigate their identity and existence in the world through the making of work with their body. These bodies, like other bodies, have experienced trauma, illness, violation, othering, and micro and macro aggressions. Performance is a seductive medium, with an immediate audience, who talks back and asks questions. Creating boundaries for individual students and for the class is necessary in order to maintain an effective learning environment. In order to do this, I schedule one-on-one meetings with students to talk directly and privately with them about any concerns that might impact the classroom. These conversations can surface a range of challenges and issues that students are facing, including alienation within the institution, identity, and trauma. In the classroom, I work to keep the focus on the work itself. Asking a student, “Are you working through something, or to something?” can be an important opportunity for self-reflection that informs how a student might channel their personal experience to create compelling work.***

In the position of “teacher,” my role is that of a facilitator. In Performance Open Studios, I facilitate the work that the students want to produce, as well as the discussions that take place in response to the work. Both students and teacher are learning and teaching. In this class, the bulk of our time is spent watching live work, or engaging with a student’s research presented live, and then responding to that work. This requires an active engagement—not a passive audience. For students and anyone interested in performance art, watching a lot of live work is an incomparable learning opportunity. My own artistic practice has benefited from me being engaged with students who are immersed in investigations through performance in and around gender, illness, death, and time.

Over the course of a six hours per week, thirteen-week performance class students engage a devoted and long-term audience—we are all there to witness the work, week after week. This is not something that is a “given” outside of the performance studio classroom and, therefore, one of the things about making art within the context of school that is unique. It is integral to the development of work by students; however, it is important to understand that this is a “privileged” situation that will become challenging to access outside of the performance studio. Students making work involving viewer participation might find a ready and willing audience in the classroom, yet must consider how an audience outside of the classroom will change the work itself, particularly if that audience is unfamiliar with performance art. The seemingly benign request of asking your viewers to close their eyes and hold out their hands to receive salt, sugar, cream, vanilla, and snow—the ingredients that make snow cream—that you then ask them to put in their mouth, carries an expectation within the performance classroom that would likely be absurd in any other context.

Longer duration works present a range of opportunities and challenges. Over the course of a longer duration, bodies and actions break down, creating images, metaphors, and meaning that can be compelling for the artist and their viewer. Time-based artistic practice, such as performance, presents the possibility to consider time as a malleable material, beyond what we might imagine or consider in our day-to-day life. As such, performance allows us to restructure the reality that has been imposed on us by a capitalist society. Durational work presents challenges for the artist, including pacing/structuring, physical and mental exhaustion, and sustained audience engagement. Outside of the classroom, another challenge for this work is finding a venue in which to create durational work. The classroom offers an opportunity for students to consider these duration-specific concerns.

Each class begins with students sharing details with me about what they require for an amount of time and assistance for the set-up and clean-up of their performances, and whether or not they want documentation and, if so, specific instructions for that documentation. Students bring a wide range of media into their performance work, from film/video to sound, drawing, painting and sculpture, to texts. One student in Open Studios was a painter, investigating through the making of live work in order to bring new content into her paintings. As an artist who teaches, I am invested in creating an environment in which the possibility of generating something “new” is privileged over any prescriptive pedagogy. While studying performance, I was told by a teacher, “I can’t comment on this work because it’s not the type of performance I’m interested in.” This experience informs me as a teacher. While acknowledging of my own specific interests in performance as part of my art practice, it is imperative that I do not impose restrictions on students’ performance work. Within an inter-disciplinary learning environment, such as The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, it is my responsibility to consider a wide range of media and content, as well as an expanded performance field.

Students are asked to write before they present work. Following each performance the artist who has presented work, and all those who have watched the performance write in response. Processing through writing is an important step toward speaking for both the viewers and the artist. This is an important “break” allowing the artist to transition from performing the action to talking about it. The artist presenting the work frames a conversation by asking questions specific to what they want to discuss and are hoping to learn through the dialogue. Questions might be framed around duration, structure, materials, and/or meaning. The viewers’ role is to help the artist move their work forward and we are all there to work toward that goal. I facilitate this process by encouraging those who remain silent to speak and, at times, asking Socratic questions of the artist and/or the viewers in order to clarify their responses and to encourage critical looking and thinking.  Asking, “What did you see that is informing your comment?” encourages viewers to go back to the work itself. Asking the artist about their specific choices of materials and objects—“Why that specific chair?” or “How is the color orange operating in this work?”—helps students to understand that all of their choices convey meaning to their viewer. A student removing their clothing in order to present what they have imagined is a “neutral” body, will be informed on the many ways that their particular body is coded by gender, race, and the other specific meaning that body conveys to their viewer. A student eating a juicy watermelon through the mouth hole of a zentai suit might not have realized the eroticism inherent in this action before they’ve heard the collective response of their viewers.

The Public
At the end of the semester, students present their work in a one-night event, which takes place in and around SMFA’s Fenway building or at some other venue. The two semesters that I taught Performance Open Studios, the semesters’ end performances took place at the now-defunct Howard Art Project in Dorchester, and at the Pozen Center at MassArt. Planning toward and production of the show involves all students. I facilitate this process, including a group visit to the space for students to determine where they will make their work, with some students working directly to engage and/or respond to the site; securing the site, including discussion with the venue about what actions and/or materials might not be possible, as well as what lighting and other adjustments might be made; and creating a schedule for the performances, some of which will take place over the course of the three-hour event, and some of which will take place for a shorter period of time throughout the event. Students design and produce an event poster and email to promote the show, as well as work with SMFA’s PR and Student Affairs offices to promote through those channels. This public event is an important opportunity for students to present work outside of the performance classroom, and for some students, it is the first time that they have access to a larger and unexpecting audience.

Performance demands presence from the artist who is making the work and from the viewers who are watching it. In the classroom setting, performance also demands a response to be shared. All are asked to respect their classmates by not talking about what happens in the performance studio outside of that space. In order to learn and to advance their work, students must be willing to take risks and to fail. In order to take risks, students must feel that they are in an environment that, while critical, is supportive to that risk-taking. My role is to create that critical and supportive environment, which involves creating a structure, such as the one I’ve described above, as well as establishing a space of trust and respect. My role requires adaptability as students’ work and needs change over the course of our time working together.

Performance is a process of transformation that I am compelled to engage with through making and through teaching in order to experience and witness this transformation often and in many different forms. The conversation that takes place in and around performance is one that does not happen in any other discipline or institutional space in quite the same way. It is a conversation about time, body, and space that invites imagining new possibilities of how to exist in and position oneself in relation to life and the world. For these reasons, I am drawn to performance. For these reasons, students are drawn to performance. Students frequently say that performance class is the only place within the academic institution where they feel that they are fully engaged—mentally and physically. Students discover something about themselves through making and watching performance work. In the way that the practice of drawing trains the eye to see, and the hand to translate from the eye to make a mark on paper, the practice of performance trains the whole body, including the eye, the ear, and the mind to be present, to see, to hear, and to think.

*I taught Open Studios as a Graduate Teaching Fellow. I have been Visiting Faculty in Performance, teaching Beginning Performance since 2014.

**This course description is credited to Marilyn Arsem. Marilyn established the Performance Area at The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, and is the founder of the Boston-based non-profit performance art organization, Mobius.

***This is a question that I heard asked by my advisor and mentor, Tony Schwensen, when I studied performance at The School of the Museum of Fine Arts.

About Author

Cathy McLaurin is an interdisciplinary artist, integrating performance, video, photography, drawing, and bookmaking with storytelling, history, and reflection upon family, place, and society. In her investigative practice, research operates as both content and form. She is currently Visiting Faculty in Performance and Senior Thesis Program at The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

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