Tacit Knowledge: Post Studio/Feminism – CalArts 1970–1977 12/2019, Camera Austria International

In 1971, Judy Chicago photographed a hand taking a blood-soaked tampon out of a vagina. The same year, John Baldessari had students writing the sentence “I will not make any more boring art” on an art college’s wall. Both works mark a turn to more radical ventures in the arts, one feminist, the other conceptual. Both now serve as cover images for the publication “Tacit Knowledge.” In two parts and accessible from each side, the book focuses on two classes held at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in the early seventies which both shape contemporary artistic practice to date: Judy Chicago’s and Miriam Schapiro’s Feminist Art Program (FAP), a unique only-women class that ran from 1971 to 1975, and John Baldessari’s Post-Studio class.

The collaboratively authored book evolved as part of the project “Tacit Knowledge: Post Studio/Feminism – CalArts (1970–77)” initiated by Annette Jael Lehmann, professor of contemporary art, visual culture, and theater at the Freie Universität Berlin (FU) in collaboration with the metaLAB (at) Harvard and the Kestner Gesellschaft Hannover. It brings together texts produced by MA students at the FU on the two classes and also broader investigations into the Los Angeles art scenes of the 1960s and 1970s, notes by the editors, and interviews with the collaborators, a rich variety of photographs of class activities, and excerpts from diverse documents relevant to the subject. The latter includes for example Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” (1970), which influenced new pedagogical conceptions at the time, and Judith Adler’s “Artists in Offices: An Ethnography of an Academic Art Scene” (1976) that focuses on the early years at CalArts.

As the works featured on the two covers illustrate, the output of the classes could not have been more different. Drawing on methods brought about by second-wave feminism, such as “consciousness-raising” sessions based on instructions by radical feminist Kathie Sarachild, Chicago promoted an artistic practice that focused on the personal experiences of women, with issues ranging from menstruation to rape. Baldessari’s students practiced a more distanced, conceptual approach. Nevertheless, both pedagogical approaches had quite some things in common, as becomes clear in the book. They left behind the modernist studio paradigm and promoted nonhierarchical forms of learning. They blurred the boundaries between teaching and learning and laid their focus on an artistic knowledge production that was practice-based, relational, and bound to bodily actions, a concept that philosopher Michael Polanyi had developed as “tacit knowledge” in the 1950s. Not only the title of the publication is based on this notion; it is also mirrored in its very production process.

Set in a magazine-style editorial design, readers navigate through a variety of sections titled “case studies” and “briefings,” interrupted by commercial print ads from the 1970s. The ads promote photo cameras and a whole range of everyday products that offer a critical glimpse into an American society which was becoming increasingly entangled in a universe of endlessly reproducible sexist images. Biographies introduce students, like Vanalyne Green, Karen LeCocq, or James Welling. The texts in “Tacit Knowledge: Post Studio” explore Baldessari’s teaching methods or deliver the histories around the production of his conceptual photographic works. Most of “Tacit Knowledge: Feminism” revolves around the legendary FAP project titled “Womanhouse,” a collaboratively produced, extensive environment built in 1972 in an abandoned and later demolished house in Hollywood. With 27 female artists involved, it served as a working and exhibition/performance space. Judy Chicago’s “Red Flag” presented on the cover came about within the project after conversations on the tabooed subject of menstruation that led to her installation “Menstruation Bathroom” (1972), a blood-stained bathroom with a trash can overflowing with bloody tampons.

As in Chicago’s case, teaching the Post-Studio class became an integral part of Baldessari’s own artistic practice, a fact that most obviously manifests in his work “CalArts Post-Studio Art: Class Assignments (optional)” (1970), also contained in the book. The 109 typewritten instructions for his students with several handwritten notes illustrate his less personal approach, more oriented toward media and land art. One instruction reads: “Photograph landscape in color. Make 8 × 10 color print. Make some color changes. Color landscape to match retouched photo. Color landscape to match photo. Rephoto.” Not only his idea of art practice was little attractive to the feminists. As former student Suzanne Lacy states, the CalArts feminists “who were conceptually oriented, gravitated toward [Allan] Kaprow, because he was infinitely more receptive to that than Baldessari, who used to discuss such things as how rape might be considered an artform.”

The research crowd drew on and activated several archives, most of which are freely accessible on the Internet. The quote is taken from an interview with Lacy conducted in 1990 for the Southern California Oral History Project, which features audio excerpts and full transcripts of conversations open for research and held at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. Other important sources were the Feminist Art Materials Collection at the CalArts Archives, the Womanhouse Online Archive, and the Duke Digital Repository of Duke University Libraries, which provides materials documenting the women’s movement in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s.

The book’s aspiration of “disrupting and intervening in centralized, culturally specific discourses” is maybe best met in two inserts contributed by Jeffrey Schnapp and Kim Albrecht, both members of the metaLAB (at) Harvard, a coalition of experimental researchers that focus on critical visualization practices. Their project “Womanhouse (a memory theater)” visualizes strands of narration revolving around “Womanhouse.” The book features an experiment in which they superimpose photographs and press articles on floor-plan sketches drawn by former students Nancy Youdelman and Faith Wilding from memory. For “CalArts Data Portaiture,” presented on a foldout in the form of a diagram, they compare the portrayal of the art school through the open data platform Wikidata against narrations created by art historians and researchers. Schnapp and Albrecht have altered the incomplete perspective of the archive by inserting handwritten entries, gesturing at the over- and underrepresentation of certain individuals and the blind spots of contemporary networked knowledge.

With its rich, crowdsourced, and visually appealing approach, the publication can likewise serve as an introduction for newcomers to the subject and a resource for experts, offering starting points for new inquiries. It can be equally read like a magazine or a scientific journal. It is definitely not just another boring book, but is an inspiring project pointing toward new possible forms of a collaborative publishing practice.

Tacit Knowledge: Post Studio/Feminism – CalArts 1970–1977

Ed. by Annette Jael Lehmann, Verena Kittel.

With contributions by Kim Albrecht, Lea Becker, Katharina Brandt, Léïla Douliba, Carla Gabriel, Jennifer Gaschler, Pauline Gründing a.o. (eng.).

Spector Books, Leipzig 2019.

273 pages, 20.5 × 27 cm, 180 b/w illustrations.

€ 28.– / ISBN 978-3-95905-341-9