Experiential Education

Hallie Ford Fellows in the Visual Arts 2017–19
Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art
University of Oregon
Eugene, Oregon
October 3, 2020 to January 10, 2021

Building Community: PSU Art + Design Faculty, Past + Present
Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at Portland State University
Portland State University
Portland, Oregon
March 9, 2021 to May 9, 2021

This project might be a little hard to understand conceptually. I used what I call “retroactive claiming” to go back in time and formalize something I did in the past as a work of art now. I’ve included a description of what exactly I mean by “retroactive claiming” and how it can be employed, not just by me, but by anyone who might find it useful. The work itself is a text piece (enlarged for exhibition) describing the past activity. In the project crediting I did something that I think is probably a stretch—suggesting it is a “collaboration” with someone who is currently dead. Students of mine always seem to want to push the idea of what collaboration can be into areas that I generally think are probably something else (usually just project content) like the idea of collaborating with non-human animals, plants, fictional characters, etc. I don’t have anything against working with those categories of entities (I’m a big plant and animal fan!) but my definition of collaboration includes the idea that all parties must have some kind of agency in the project, and also maybe just as importantly, that all of the collaborators find some value in the collaboration. As far as I can tell non-human animals, plants, fictional characters, and dead people, don’t have any interest in art projects. Even so I felt compelled to include a collaborator in this project who is dead and has no agency in the decision I have made to reclaim the activity that I did with him decades ago as art. I suppose in this case I’m thinking of the collaboration credit more as an honorary status than an active one. It’s a debatable thing to do, but I did it anyway.

A coincidence occurred in regard to the project’s presentation. The first time it was shown was at the JSMA at the University of Oregon which held specific significance because that museum is located across the street from the special collections library that was referenced in the piece, but because of the Covid pandemic I never saw it installed (the museum consulted me remotely about how to produce and present the work) and very few other people were able to experience it either because of museum access restrictions. Soon after the show that the project was a part of came down, I was asked to contribute a piece to another show happening at the newly constructed JSMA at Portland State University (where I teach). Since the first version had a very limited audience, I thought it would be a nice opportunity to try to re-present the project (even though the site-specificity was more removed). As it would happen the pandemic and its restrictions continued through that exhibition as well. So, the same piece was shown at two JSMA’s in less than a year and neither one really had an in-person audience. I guess that’s just the way it goes sometimes, but at least now I can present the work in this mediated form here on this website.

Read the project brochure from the exhibit at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon.

Experiential Education
Harrell Fletcher with Bill Devall
Arcata, California
1998, 2020 

When I was an undergraduate student at Humboldt State University, I took a class from sociology professor Bill Devall. Devall was well known as the co-author of the book Deep Ecology, but I didn’t know that at the time that I signed up for the class. We met in a typical classroom at the university on the first day of class, but Devall immediately asked us (my recollection was that there were about twenty students) to follow him out the door and onto a trail that led into the redwood forest behind the campus. We wandered for a while and then found a clearing to sit down in. Devall told us that for the rest of the semester we would not be meeting during the class times and that, instead, he wanted us to each choose an outdoor activity to do on our own during those times. He also suggested that we keep a journal about our thoughts and observations. 

I was a bit perplexed but diligently decided to follow Devall’s prompt. Two days a week at the appointed time for the rest of the term I walked from my apartment to the Arcata Bird Sanctuary. There I stepped onto the rail of train tracks and started walking south towards the city of Eureka, balancing in an attempt to not fall off for the full duration of the class (I can’t remember now how long that was, maybe ninety minutes). Soon I could walk on the rails with my eyes closed, run, jump back and forth from one rail to the other, and spin around in a circle, all without slipping off. At the end of each walk I would sit and write down my thoughts in a journal I brought along with me, and then I would head back home. 

At the end of the term we were told to prepare for a two-night campout with the rest of the class. A bus picked us up on campus and drove into the forest somewhere north of Arcata. I expected Devall to ask us to talk about our individual experiences, but he never did. Instead we wound up doing solo silent hikes and other similar activities. He didn’t even ask to see our journals. I remember wondering what the other students had chosen for their outdoor activities and if they actually did them during class, but I don’t remember ever finding that out, and for some reason, even in casual conversation, it didn’t come up. 

Time went by and I transferred to an art school in San Francisco, graduated from there, took a couple of years off to travel and work, went to graduate school, and eventually started to teach at colleges myself. Somehow even now, over thirty years later, Devall’s class (which wasn’t really a class at all in the normal sense) sticks out for me as the one that I learned the most from, and that has shaped my life and work, as an artist and teacher, more than any other. 

At some point I started to wonder what happened to Bill Devall. I did a little online research and realized he had died a few years ago, and that, interestingly, his archive is located at the University of Oregon’s Special Collections at the Knight Library (Devall received his PhD from UO) right across the street from the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. I scheduled an appointment and spent several hours looking through the boxes of Devall’s papers trying to see if I could find a syllabus for the course that I had taken with him. I wasn’t able to, though there was a lot of other interesting material. I guess it wasn’t that kind of class. 

Retroactive Claiming

Imagine finding some writings or drawings that you had done ten years earlier. At the time that you made them you had no thoughts about publishing or exhibiting the work, but now much later you see value in considering them differently, so you go about formalizing the work for the public to be able to experience the drawing or writings. Similarly, you might have gone through a hard experience at an earlier time in your life that later on you were able to see as educationally valuable, so in your mind you reframe the experience from negative to positive retroactively and you tell people about that change in perspective.

What if you used that retroactive claiming/framing approach to non-material forms of art? You could at any moment go back in time to earlier activities you did and reframe them as artworks, even though at the time you didn’t think of them as art. The possible activities and experiences are endless, but for example let’s just say you walked to work for a week instead of driving a couple of years earlier and still recall that you enjoyed the chance to get some exercise while noticing things that you didn’t see while in a car and had a few unexpected interactions with people along the ways that were interesting as well. You could take that experience and retroactively claim it as an artwork and reframe it by giving it a title, date, location, description and potentially documentation that could be from that time if you happened to take a photo as you walked or through re-constructing the activity by taking a photo now that represented the earlier activity or by making a drawing, re-performing the activity publicly, etc. though documentation (other than a title etc.) of the retroactive project isn’t actually necessary. You could then add that “project” to your resume and website, create publications based on retroactively claimed works, talk about them in lectures, and apply for funding to retroactively reframe more projects or work with others to select and formalize their own retroactive artworks. I can imagine skeptics saying that without initial intention the past activities can’t be reframed as art, but why should we be concerned about when the activities happened, eventually everything becomes a part of the past, and there is still intention it’s just intention to retroactively reframe rather than intention to do something at a future point.

Another variation on this idea is to think about all of the email writing that you have done in the past not as writing emails, but simply as writing, in which case most of us would have already written enough for several books. It’s a way of valuing what you have already done in ways that you may not have previously done, and through that process it might also make you appreciate what you are currently doing or going to do in the future in a different way.

— Harrell Fletcher

(For the University of Oregon exhibit, a Spanish version of the above wall text was created.)

Reclamo retroactivo

Imagínate que encuentras algunas escrituras o dibujos que hiciste hace diez años. En esos momentos cuando los hiciste, no habías pensado en publicar o exhibir el trabajo, pero ahora muchos años después, ves el valor de considerarlos diferente, por lo que te dedicas a formalizar el trabajo para que el público pueda experimentar los dibujos o escrituras. Igualmente, podrías haber tenido una experiencia difícil en tiempos pasados de tu vida que después pudiste ver como algo valioso educativamente, por lo que en tu mente reformulas la experiencia de negativa a positiva retroactivamente y le cuentas a la gente sobre ese cambio de perspectiva.

¿Qué pasa si usas esa perspectiva de reclamo o reformulamiento retroactivo en las formas no materiales del arte? En cualquier momento, podrías retroceder en el tiempo a las actividades del pasado que hiciste y reformulaste como trabajos de arte, aun cuando en ese tiempo no las considerabas como arte. Las posibles actividades y experiencias son infinitas, pero por ejemplo, simplemente digamos que dos años atrás caminaste a tu trabajo por una semana en vez de conducir tu vehículo y que todavía recuerdas haber disfrutado la oportunidad de hacer un poco de ejercicio mientras notabas cosas que no veías cuando estabas en un carro y tuviste algunas interacciones inesperadas con las personas en el camino que también fueron interesantes. Podrías tomar esa experiencia y reclamarla retroactivamente como un trabajo de arte y reformularla para darle un título, fecha, ubicación, descripción y posiblemente una documentación que podría ser de ese tiempo si coincide que tomaste una foto
mientras caminabas, o mediante una reconstrucción de la actividad tomando una foto ahora que represente la actividad pasada o haciendo un dibujo, volviendo a realizar la actividad en público, etc., aunque una documentación (además de un título, etc.) del proyecto retroactivo no es de hecho necesaria. Entonces, podrías agregar ese “proyecto” a tu currículum vitae y sitio web, crear publicaciones en base a los trabajos reclamados retroactivamente, hablar sobre estos en conferencias y solicitar un financiamiento para reformular retroactivamente más proyectos o trabajar con otras personas para seleccionar y formalizar sus propios trabajos de arte retroactivos. Puedo imaginarme a los escépticos diciendo que sin una intención inicial de actividades pasadas no pueden reformularse como arte, pero por qué deberíamos preocuparnos sobre cuándo ocurrieron las actividades, ya que
eventualmente todo se vuelve parte del pasado y todavía hay una intención, simplemente la intención de reformular retroactivamente en vez de la intención de hacer algo en un momento futuro.

Otra variación de esta idea es pensar sobre todos los correos electrónicos que escribiste en el pasado como algo diferente de una escritura de correos electrónicos, en cuyo caso la mayoría de nosotros ya habríamos escrito lo suficiente para varios libros. Es una manera de valorar lo que ya has hecho de maneras que podrías no haber hecho anteriormente, y a través de ese proceso podría ser que apreciaras lo que haces actualmente o harás en el futuro de una manera diferente.

— Harrell Fletcher