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Artist and Parsons Professor Andrea Geyer on Creating The New School’s 14th Site Specific Work of Art

December 5, 2019 at 3:53PM
Artist and Parsons Professor Andrea Geyer on Creating The New School’s 14th Site Specific Work of Art

In November, The New School’s University Art Collection introduced Anemoi, its 14th site-specific artwork, by renowned artist and Parsons professor Andrea Geyer. The installation of this work at the University Center and Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts was an inspirational conclusion to this celebratory centennial year. Geyer’s work joins site-specific works by artists such as José Clemente Orozco, Kara Walker, Sol LeWitt, and Agnes Denes. 

The New School News recently spoke to Geyer about how the project came to fruition.  This is the first part of a two part conversation with the artist.

Can you discuss how the project initially came about? 

I had done a lot of work on the role that women played in American modernism and the way in which their central role has not been recognized. For example, most of the museums in this town were founded by women.  

During a residency I had at the Museum of Modern Art in 2012, I started to get to know these histories. MoMA, of course, was founded by three women: Lillie P. Bliss, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, and Mary Quinn Sullivan. And in researching those women, I found they were connected to individuals that were important to The New School’s founding: Vera List, Emily James Smith Putnam, and Frances Amelia Fincke Hand, just to name a few

I started to look at the relationships women had with each other at the time and found that the women who were pursuing development of the arts were also supporting social and political progress. I created a large-scale diagram mapping their relations, which was shown as a diagram/mural at MoMA in 2015. When Tim Marshall and other members of the New School Art Advisory Committee saw this work and The New School’s role in it, they asked me to develop a proposal that would do a similar kind of mapping of the university’s early history. 

Then you decided to go in another direction? 
While I was considering that, students started to unionize to better their labor conditions at The New School and a whole other landscape evolved.  

I was inspired by what the students were putting forward and started to focus on the history of organizing at The New School, and I became interested in the recent past of the university. This revealed an interesting set of individuals to me that I wasn’t necessarily familiar with.  

This shifted what I decided to put forward to the Centennial commission, and I proposed that  instead of looking 100 years back, I would look at the more recent past and particularly research those people who were and are dedicated to organizing and building community at the university, because one of the things students were asking for were more sites for community,  more ways of connecting to each other, being recognized as a community, and connecting to other communities. 

In the unionization efforts, for example, the students wanted to connect to the cafeteria workers. I wanted to understand the university not as a provider of education to individuals but rather as a community that is a learning environment. 

What were your next steps? 

After I got the go-ahead from the Art Advisory Committee, I started to research different moments in the recent past, starting with the Mobilization for Real Diversity, Democracy, and Economic Justice at The New School (1996-1997) and  the student occupation in the 2000s. I soon realized that no matter how much I researched, it would be hard for me to identify people from the university’s last 30 years who stood out for their investment in community. These histories and those involved are often fleeting due to the cycle of academic annual graduations, leadership changes hirings, contract renewals, and terminations. This made it especially hard to hold on to their story and to their work.

I started to create a community survey and began sharing it with colleagues. In this survey, I asked them to identify individuals that they felt had done incredible work behind the scenes to create a community for staff, for students, and for faculty.

How did you identify potential subjects? What qualities were you looking for? 

They had to be individuals who self-identify today or at some point in their lives identified or were identified as women or female. These are individuals whose work is especially underrecognized historically and their voices are rendered inaudible or outside of fact and knowledge. 

They also had to have actively worked on building community at The New School. So my research entailed asking people were they observed community formation and who initiated that. What was interesting to me is that next to faculty and students, many individuals who were identified to me were staff working in offices or student support, such as the student health center and crisis management. In my research I learned about staff doing incredible work — doing outreach, making decisions collectively, and building community. I witnessed faculty creating community in a dedicated manner through their pedagogy. I witnessed students who, in addition to their academic work, take things into their own hands to create spaces for each other. Often these individuals and their labor are not visible to many. When someone proposed an individual to me and I asked them why they thought this person good for the project, they provided stories identifying why they thought the individual was or is important. 

All of the individuals who were proposed in this way will be named on a website accompanying the project. I sadly can only select a group of 20 individuals to make their portraits (I wish it would be many more). These portraits entail a translation of a photographic image into aluminum leaf on felt.  It’s important to mention that when I choose an individual to be pictured, I reach out and ask them if they want to be part of it. Then I ask them to send me a picture to work from, so that the individuals themselves choose the images. 

Of course, it’s important to say that this project cannot represent every person who has done this important labor. The portraits have to be in a sense stand-ins for the people who are not pictured but named on the website and those people who were never named for this project but are doing the work nevertheless.

And you view these portraits as part of a system? 

The portraits are organized so that they are linked to each other, like cells or an organism. The work proposes a growing system of images, a growing system of community, a growing organism that’s always there and that reaches across walls and buildings, visible and invisible. It invites everyone who looks at the portraits to imagine who else is part of that, where and how it continues. 

Currently thirteen portraits are realized, on view at two sites: on the fourth floor of the University Center and the fourth floor of Lang. But the idea is that people can have a portrait or two portraits linked together in their offices. The idea is that the project spreads out across the architecture of the university. The portraits are hopefully going to travel, and they can be exchanged. There should be at least three or four in circulation in the university collection, so that you can make a request if you want to have a portrait in your office.   

In the second part, Geyer will discuss the people behind the portraits, her unique approach to the materials she has used, and how Anemoi fits in with her previous work.

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