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University of Southern California BFA Students Speak Out and Burn Work in Solidarity with #USC7

"We Are Still Here" at the USC Fine Arts Lindhurst Gallery, Nov. 12, 2015 (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic except where noted)
Installation view of ‘We Are Still Here’ at the USC Fine Arts Lindhurst Gallery on November 12, 2015 (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic except where noted)

LOS ANGELES — Since the entire first year MFA class at USC Roski School of Art and Design dropped out in May, the turbulence surrounding the program has been well documented. Until now, most of the public focus has been on the graduate program, with little attention paid to the undergraduates. Last month, however, BFA students staged an exhibition and issued a statement providing insight into their position.

We Are Still Here, a senior seminar exhibition, opened on November 12 and featured work from 19 graduating students across all disciplines from painting to design. Presented every year, this group show offers students an opportunity to work collaboratively to curate a coherent show featuring a wide variety of work. Faced with the current disruptions at Roski, the students unanimously decided that they could not simply put on a standard group show. Half of the students headed out to the desert east of Los Angeles, while the other half met at the beach, where they burned pieces of their artwork.

"We Are Still Here" at the USC Fine Arts Lindhurst Gallery, Nov. 12, 2015
Installation view of ‘We Are Still Here’ at the USC Fine Arts Lindhurst Gallery (click to enlarge)

“With the masthead gone at the MFA school and the turmoil, it’s been hard to find meaning in being here for the last three years, especially for the seniors because we’ve seen everything changing,” senior Brian Dario told Hyperallergic. “When I first got here, there was such a strong presence. This was a nationally recognized MFA program. That’s why I came here, to have proximity to that program. The MFAs were the TAs here. We’re missing that discourse. That was just such an integral part of the experience here. We came very democratically to the idea of, ‘Let’s have this ritual and burn our work’.”

Paintings, sculptures, hard drives, even a VCR all went into the fire. “Work that didn’t feed our souls, that was for someone else’s dreams. The things we didn’t have the courage to do right, the things we were cowards for, the things we lied in. Work that was shoddy, shanked, shitty,” read a collaborative text that accompanied the show. Each student created an urn to house the ashes which were then displayed on a long table in the gallery. A film documenting the actions was projected onto one wall, while another wall was covered in flowers, a makeshift altar. A group reading of the text was played over speakers.

"We Are Still Here" at the USC Fine Arts Lindhurst Gallery, Nov. 12, 2015
Installation view of ‘We Are Still Here’ at the USC Fine Arts Lindhurst Gallery (click to enlarge)

The exhibition was not only a way to acknowledge what has happened with the graduate program, but also a way for the students to refocus and reinvigorate their own art practices. “We were all so affected by what happened in the spring and there was no way we could just push those feelings away,” said senior Emily Weiss. “Instead we decided to go through this ritual of the burning and the metamorphosis of the artwork into ash, not only as a remembrance of the MFA students and what that program meant to the school, but as a statement that we are still here, we’re still making artwork, we’re still a part of the Roski community and we’re trying to rebuild that.”

As senior Larry Johnson succinctly put it: “Even though there’s political turmoil, even though there’s changes you don’t particularly understand or care for, you still have to make art.”

A representative for Roski said that Dean Muhl could not respond for comment in a timely manner, however she did attend the opening of the exhibition. “She expressed her understanding of us and the situation,” Dario said, “and she said she received the work as heartfelt.”

A week after the show’s opening, pink flyers with the headline “What is Happening to Our Fine Arts Education?” began appearing around the Roski Art Buildings. Composed by a group of students calling themselves the Roski Undergrad Collective, the flyer’s statement (reproduced in full below) holds “the administration responsible for their actions against us as a collective of individuals seeking the most of a Fine Arts Education.” It focuses on three issues: the loss of faculty including Sharon Lockhart, A.L. Steiner, and tenured professor Frances Stark; curricular changes such as overcrowded classes; and changes to the community including the loss of the MFA program (there is currently one graduate student) and the reduction of guest lecturers. This “pink slip” was signed by 58 undergraduate Roski students.

Posters hung outside the Roski School by the Roski Undergrad Collective (via roskiundergrads.tumblr.com)
Posters hung outside the Roski School by the Roski Undergrad Collective (via roskiundergrads.tumblr.com)

In addition to being posted throughout campus buildings, the statement was sent to the administration with a request for an open forum discussion with faculty and students. Penelope Jones, the Assistant Dean for Student Services at Roski, responded with a letter addressing the students’ grievances, touting new faculty hires including Edgar Arceneaux and Nao Bustamante, as well as a new visiting speaker series, Roski Talks. (A representative for Roski told Hyperallergic that Bustamante would not be available for comment until she begins in January.)

Jones also agreed to an open forum on December 7. Throughout the semester, Dean Muhl has been holding informal pizza lunch discussions with students to address their concerns, however the Collective told Hyperallergic via email that these were not “conducive to the serious types of discussions we want to open with our administrations. With this open forum, our hope is that it is more formal and includes both faculty and staff.”

Monday’s meeting was attended by over 60 students and the majority of Roski faculty and staff. “We had a lot of points to cover and feel that many of our questions/points were avoided with the default response, ‘This is an issue that we have been looking into’,” the Collective said via email. “However, this meeting was crucial for us in developing a more finalized list of demands for the administration and spurring student awareness and interest. With more widespread awareness amongst students, we have more power to hold the administration accountable.”

The full text of the Roski Undergrad Collective flyer:

Flyer posted by the Roski Undergraduate (via roskiundergrads.tumblr.com)
Flyer posted by the Roski Undergraduate Collective (via roskiundergrads.tumblr.com)
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