It’s a rainy Sunday evening and libraries all over campus are filling with students getting ready to hit the books. But in a hallway tucked away somewhere on North Campus, a different kind of study group is forming.
Four students stand behind a table with miniature costumes draped around their necks, their hands in shoes placed flat across the tabletop. Partners duck behind them, lending their arms to the characters as a woman sits in front of them all, guiding their improvisational comedic conversations. These students are participants in a performance art workshop, and, beginning next semester, people interested in this art form will have a home in the University.
This fall, Interarts will join the University’s roster of majors, creating an area of study for students interested in performance art. The program will be a joint venture between the University’s School of Art & Design and the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, and it will grant graduates a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Interarts Performance. The collaboration between schools will allow students to take advantage of both theater and dance training in movement, narrative, set and lighting design as well as art and design training in visual language vocabulary, experimental art and new media technologies.
University professors and members of the Interarts board Holly Hughes and Malcolm Tulip were inspired to create a program in which students could feel free to develop their artistic voices in new, time-based work without the constraints of the more narrowly focused tracts offered by the two schools.
“A program like this is for those people who don’t want to be forced to decide on a discipline, but know that they are an artist and want to use all the skills that they have at their disposal,” Tulip said.
Until now, most performance art curricula have been limited to graduate programs, making the new program at the University one of the first of its kind. Not only will the major be rare for an undergraduate program, but it will also follow a uniquely individualistic approach to education. Students will choose from what Tulip dubbed a “smorgasbord” of classes (like playwriting, digital studio, costume design, movement, drawing and acting classes), and take responsibility for shaping their own educational experience.
Such broad experience is needed in what is a truly varied art form. Performance art can range from monologue performances to body art and puppetry to flash mobs. Artists also come from a wide variety of art backgrounds. Still, Hughes and Tulip welcome these challenges.
The small size of the program will engender cohesion and allow advisors to keep a watchful eye on each student’s progress through discussion groups like the weekly Interarts forum.
“We’ll talk about topics related to performance to give people sort of a sense of, you know, our own little clubhouse, and to build a sense of community,” Hughes said.
Students can also benefit from visiting performers and University alumni. Pat Olesko studied sculpture at the University in the late ’60s and came to performance art after one particular project made her realize how useful her body could be in conveying her ideas.
“I started hanging things on myself and using that as a way to expand and comment on things not only that I was attending but things that I was creating, as the work itself would create a performance,” Olesko said.
Olesko aims to shed light on what she perceives as absurd elements of society using vivid, visual structures and verbal performances.
“I think that art is a fool’s tool to … not change society, but to illuminate it, and, so, art is actually the expression that words ignore and can’t reach,” she said.
These qualities extend into most art forms, but it’s the “live” aspect of performance art that makes it such a dynamic, interactive art, and one that will no doubt make its mark around campus.
“For this kind of program, everywhere is (a performance space),” Tulip said. Which means you can expect artistic performers to become a mainstay around town.
“You know, we’ll be invading — through the correct channels of course!” Tulip said. “We’ll be fighting for space, you know, like all performance. Once you introduce performance then you’re fighting for space … but we’re tough fighters.”
Not only must they toil for physical location, but performance artists must also vie for space in the general public discourse. Though little is known about it, the art form goes back almost a century.
“I’d be very surprised if anyone gets taught the history of this kind of work,” Tulip said.
In order to address the obscure history of performance art, the new major will also be accompanied by a lecture series discussing the development of the art form’s history.
“There are very established people working and have been working a long time,” Tulip said. “And I think when they see that it has had its place in the performance and art world for a long time, that gives the students a more solid base to work from.”
Once given that base, the professors hope to see the students work to advance their art form.
“We have to be as much listeners and observers as givers and leaders because the program will start to define itself even more by the students,” Tulip said. “I mean, the work that the students do will define what the program is eventually. Because I think that’s one thing we’re waiting for, is to see what new voices come.”
But such development depends on those new voices coming forth — a task often stilted by parental concerns. Many parents have qualms about sending their sons and daughters to theater and art schools, even if they have well-established programs, noting the unpredictable and competitive job market for artists and performers.
Still, Hughes sees hope for such creative occupations. “Perhaps in this economy, I would argue that we all have to be thinking like artists. You know, everybody has to be creative, and there’s no clear career path.”
Regardless of post-graduation plans, Tulip offers some advice to aspiring performance artists: “I think what the students need is that unshakable knowledge … ‘Nothing’s going to stop me, wherever I am, wherever, whatever I’m doing, I’ll be making my art, however it grows.’ ”
One thing is sure: The Interarts major will provide a haven for colorfully creative minds, and their handiwork will add to the already vibrant backdrop of arts on campus.