IRVINE, CA — I went to high school not too far from the University of California, Irvine, at a small school with a dedicated arts program. With my peers vying for spots in UCI’s MFA program after graduating, I became aware of the university’s reputation as an art school, which was known for its students who blended disciplines. The UCI Claire Trevor School of the Arts is focused on studio production and provides its students with a wide range of resources, including a motion-capture studio, several sound recording facilities, and the Experimental Media Performance Lab — a 4,000 sq ft black box theater and performance space with state-of-the-art technology — referred to as the xMPL. Students in the MFA program can apply for residencies in the space and many use it to work on aspects of their final thesis presentations.
When I spoke to second-year MFA student Emily Babette, she mentioned she would be using her time in the space to workshop elements of a video and performance piece for her thesis project. She spent the year preparing a full-length film, with many elements of the future work on view in her studio, including two puppets Darwin and Emily (a realistic-looking replica of the artist) that will act as star performers, large format paper cutouts that will act as sets, and a handmade costume that the artist will wear when she makes an appearance in the eventual video work. Babette plans for the film — a comedy horror — to explore elements of the human psyche, using the Emily puppet as a proxy. Originally a painter by trade, Babette has devoted her time at UCI to learning and solidifying new mediums, including expanding beyond art to incorporate writing, psychology, and philosophy into her studio practice.
The interdisciplinary mode of thinking at the program reflects the faculty, as current professors in the program include Ulysses Jenkins, Daniel Joseph Martinez, Monica Majoli, and Amanda Ross-Ho, artists all known for their fluid use of media. Ross-Ho, full of renewed energy as the school transitioned back to campus full time, introduced me to her senior students Tarik Garrett and Katherine Aungier. The pair of students collaborated during their time at UCI, culminating with a combined thesis presentation titled “The Ringer Irreconcilable” which shared similar themes of site-specificity. Aungier spent time researching UCI’s on-campus yurt, known simply as The Yurt. A theatrical landmark of sorts on campus, the yurt was first built in the early 1990s when UCI Drama professor and theater director Jerzy Grotowski requested the dwelling be built as a gathering place and resource for his theater students. During Grotowski’s time, the space was used by students to develop work and became known as a space where late-night courses and experimental exploration were championed. For Aungier, the dwelling served as the setting of a video work: a methodically shot meditation on the domed skylight of the space, exploring its importance to the physical location of UCI’s campus and the way it has affected students who spend time in the school’s many art departments. The video was exhibited alongside a tea set and the sun-stained curtains from the yurt, seeming to speak to the imprint left on the space by both time and its many inhabitants. Garrett, meanwhile, presented a series of found-object monuments, such as towers of mini-refrigerators, or else car tires either emerging from the galleries or stacked into heights almost reaching the ceilings, thus revealing the internal architecture of the space. Shown together with wall works featuring distressed labels from glass bottles of beer like Modelo and Budweiser, Garrett’s works highlight a kind of leftover material, perhaps from his time on campus at UCI. The viewer is left to wonder if Garrett’s sculptures of tires also constitute the leftover material of time.
Ross-Ho encouraged me to check out the xMPL before I headed back up to LA. There, I encountered the work of Zach Benson and Brain Bowman, who also presented a combined thesis project titled “Hall Minotaur” — an immersive multimedia work comprising sculpture, video, animation, and coding, which explores institutional hallways as labyrinths. Utilizing custom coding in computer software Max MSP, the duo mapped the resonance of specific halls on UCI’s campus. Due to their use of reverberated audio and multiple screens, the piece created a disorienting effect — a sensation further heightened by the presence of a camera tracking the movement of attendees, playing its footage back into the space. In addition, Benson sculpted a replica of the university’s hallway, adding to the elaborate construction and the complicated feedback loop of the piece. Although individual elements from Benson and Bowman were clearly present, the entire piece blurred the lines between both artists’ practices, functioning as a catalyst for a much larger path for the two to explore their relationship as collaborators.
As I headed back up to LA, I spent my time reflecting on how much the interdisciplinary work I experienced at UCI related to the idea of exploring a specific place, many of them the halls, studios, and unseen spaces of the university itself.