It’s the Economy, Stupid

Left: Harald Szeemann pictured in a slide during “Exhibition History as Contemporary Art History.” (Photo: Eva Diaz) Right: Matthew Ritchie speaking at “Diagram Aesthetics in the Twentieth Century: Histories and Theories.” Photo: Jessica van Brakle.

THE LAST TIME I went to a College Art Association conference I didn’t attend a single panel. Instead I shopped a book proposal around in meetings with editors at CAA’s vast onsite book fair. At that time I couldn’t stomach (afford) renewing my membership and paying the steep registration fees. Currently the entrance fees total $490 if you signed up at the conference ($380 if you had your act together and registered in early January); attending a single two-and-a-half-hour panel costs $50. Tack on transportation and a night or two of a hotel, and CAA will set you back a cool grand. But it’s a funny pay-to-play kind of democracy—just about everyone shells out, no matter if they are chairing a panel, speaking at one, or just listening in. Technically you’re even supposed to pay to get into the book fair, though lurking is easy if you have a few bites from publishers.

Little wonder that networking is a word you hear with icky frequency at CAA. With the conference costing most folks a chunk of their annual take-home pay, the overall networkyness is somewhat understandable. This year there were 208 panels—that’s around one thousand twenty-minute talks one could attend over four days—yet many people at CAA have only half their heads on the content of the sessions, often showing up only to put together a book deal or land a job. This also might explain why people stampede in and out of panel sessions and rarely stay for the Q&As; overscheduling and economic precarity are twin engines of anxiety at CAA.

I’m not the only one who has noticed the disparity between what CAA offers as an ideal (a cornucopia-like schedule of about fifteen panels during each time slot, covering new research in the fields of art history and contemporary art practice), and what it delivers (the ground-zero demonstration of how there are not enough research-driven jobs in higher education for recent MFA and PhD graduates). DeWitt Godfrey, current CAA president, made the frightening economics of the field the focus of his convening address last Wednesday night for the 104th conference, in Washington, DC. Godfrey pointed out the 30 percent drop in CAA membership since 2010, and the 25 percent drop in conference attendance between 2013–15, linking these reductions to steep cuts in travel funding and research grants at colleges and universities, and—surprise!—to the growth of a poorly paid adjunct population who cannot afford to participate.

Artist Tania Bruguera made job hunting a focus of her keynote address following Godfrey’s remarks, announcing that she was hiring a program coordinator for an institute for art and activism based in her home, and would conduct an interview right then. After calling an audience member to the stage, the interview was conducted before the thousands gathered for the convocation. No pressure. But as a conceit, the interview allowed Bruguera to cleverly tell a story about changes in Cuban society, and to emphasize the potential of art as cultural research over its marketization.

A few lungfuls of fresh air could be had in the hundred-yard walk between the two conference hotels, and strategies for swift movement between sessions in the labyrinthine Marriott conference center devised. Due to a threat of snow most attendees seemed sensibly dressed, however CAA is not a Louboutin kinda place. Prada maybe; Rockport more like. A man in a tie or a woman in heels: good chance you’re looking at a job hunter.

Bustling amid the crowds one is aware that CAA is a feast in which you might miss the best courses no matter how well you plan. Two of the most buzzy panels were scheduled during the same slot: “Diagram Aesthetics in the Twentieth Century: Histories and Theories” (chaired by Natilee Harren, with art historians Astrit Schmidt-Burkhardt, T’ai L. Smith, Trevor Stark, Benjamin Meyer-Krahmer, and artist Matthew Ritchie) and “Making a Killing: Art, Capital, and Value in the Twenty-first Century” (chaired by Tom McDonough with D. Jacob Rabinowitz, Jordana Moore Saggese, Martin Zeilinger, and Peter Mörtenböck). Friday morning also had several coincident panels: I thought “Spool to Spool: Audio Tape as Historical Evidence” sounded intriguing, though it meant jilting “Institutionalizing Socially Engaged Art in the Twenty-first Century,” “Formalism Before Clement Greenberg—Part 1,” and the blandly titled “Surface and Significance,” which focused on artists such as Doris Salcedo and Erin Shirreff.

Left: John Tain of the Getty Research Institute and Judith Rodenbeck of University of California, Riverside. Right: Soyoung Yoon speaking at “Spool to Spool: Audio Tape as Historical Evidence.” (Photos: Eva Diaz)

Luckily “Spool to Spool” was an absorbing choice. Soyoung Yoon of the New School presented a fascinating analysis of 1960s French cinema verité and its relationship to audio recording. Jean Rouch’s 1960 film Chronicle of a Summer employed the newly invented NAGRA portable audio recorder, and clip-on mics allowed for a radical mobility for filmed subjects—Rouch termed it pédovision—in which a walking camera followed a peripatetic subject. One might compare this to the kind of choreography of the street theorized by Situationists as a dérive. Though contemporaneous film critics like Edgar Marin lauded verité’s emphasis on the close-up as a sign of the authenticity of speech as it unfolded through thinking silences and the long take, pédovision was purposefully incomplete, produced only in editing as camera operators had little idea what the filmed subject was saying when the camera followed or anticipated his or her movements through the city.

On the same panel Claire Daigle of the San Francisco Art Institute gave a lovely, meandering talk about her hunt for a tape of a lecture by David Wilson, founder of Los Angeles’s Museum of Jurassic Technology. Predictably, her search was fraught with uncanny coincidences, mnemonic gaps, and “referential illusions” (Roland Barthes’s words) that characterize the MJT’s collection of mysterious histories. Comparing the obsolescence of audio tapes to the struggle between experience and the decay of forgetting, Daigle, like Proust, sees remembering as a feat of imagining in which a kind of ecstatic truth can emerge. Unfortunately I had to bail on the rest the session before Jennie Hirsh delivered her talk on Dario Robleto. Bummer.

Julian Myers-Szupinska, professor at California College of the Arts, injected a healthy dose of skepticism to “Exhibition History as Contemporary Art History,” chaired by John Tain of the Getty Research Institute and featuring curators Lynne Cooke of the National Gallery and Glenn Phillips of the GRI. Myers-Szupinska needled his panelists about an “auteur theory of curating” that posits the history of exhibitions as a “parainstitutional discourse” to art history. Though an exhibition, as a “form made up of forms,” can be a useful critical lever for understanding what Myers-Szupinska called the “art history of the group,” exhibition histories are often phobic about the study of actual artworks and avoid the specificity of a single artwork by aggregating lots of them in the study of curated shows.

Within minutes of my departure on Saturday I was told how wonderful the conference app, the one I hadn’t downloaded, was for sorting out all the time conflicts. Tant pis. But better news: For the next conference CAA is radically revising its submission process. In the future panels can be assembled as a group beforehand, and conversely papers can be submitted untethered to a topic. The current system of a call for session topics going out, and then session chairs picking four or five papers, encourages a “write to the topic” process that can feel forced. The much-needed change of shortening panel sessions to one-and-a-half hours is also in the works. CAA will never be small, but there’s progress perhaps toward stopping the mad dashes.