Finishing School got its start in 2001 in Los Angeles; the art collective builds site-specific work, does studio art and creates other forms of media, all with the intention of sparking conversation around social issues, politics and shared everyday human experiences. The artists recently produced Finishing School: BLISS, a social-engagement project running through September 11 at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art that looks at surveillance technology through the re-creation of a military bunker. Members of the group will also be teaching Evasion Yoga, an interactive workshop combining military survival techniques with Vinyasa flow this Saturday, July 16, at Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design's summer FARMCAD event.
Finishing School member Matt Fisher took some time to talk with Westword about the collective's creative process, how BLISS came to be, and what, exactly, constitutes Evasion Yoga.
Westword: When Finishing School does site-specific installations or work specifically tailored in some way to the location where the piece is going — like the "We Will Show You Fear in a Handful of Dust" drone sculpture at Occidental College that President Obama attended — what's the process like for figuring out what the collective is going to create?
Matt Fisher: Usually, the hosting institution has some of idea that they come to us with. That was the case with both Occidental and BMoCA. It just so happened that with BMoCA, we had been talking to museum director [David Dadone] for, I think, over three years now about this project. The conversation evolved because of the Occidental drone piece; he liked that what we were doing was slightly confrontational, and he had been looking for the same kind of attitude. It may have come a little from him being new to Boulder and new to the institution and having a response of someone who is not an American [Dadone is from Argentina] and is coming into the situation where, in Boulder, you have things like a very affluent, sort of homogenous class that lives there while also having things like Rocky Flats right outside Boulder. Part of the original conversation was about trying to do something that was pointed in a way and felt related to Boulder's history.
We talked about Rocky Flats for a long time and thought about doing a whole Rocky Flats project. We decided we couldn't do it right, but we definitely wanted to include it, especially after doing all of the research. The general way we work is, we get together and talk about things we're thinking about. In this case, we had been doing research and reading into institutional, government things, and because of that, we had been reading a lot of manuals. We read a survival manual — it felt appropriate, not just for the Rocky Flats idea, but for the Western notion of independence and rugged individualism — and that's where the idea came from for the bunker [the piece Finishing School created for BMoCA]. The bunker was a strange architectural idea that kept coming up in conversations we were having.
It came up when we were talking about being safe, it came up when we were talking about government institutions, it came up when we were talking about small, safe meeting spaces. In a long time over this studio gestation, the bunker architectural form kept coming up. As we burned through lots of ideas, it just wouldn't go away.
Finishing School members Ed Giardina, Matt Fisher, Jean Robison and Nadia Afghani outside the "bunker" created for BLISS at BMoCA.
Via the BMOCA Facebook page.
Reading about the BLISS installation at BMOCA — BLISS is a military term that stands for Blend, Low Silhouette, Irregular Shape, Small, Secluded Location — made me think about how, as a civilian, I don't have any experience with the military. Every time I read about something that the military does, it seems like this crazy, cryptic other world that coexists with, well, everyday life. Like, if you're not in it, you're not in it.
So, there's the BLISS acronym, but there's also the thing that crystalized from creating this project — and I think we will have more projects that come out of BLISS — and that is, if you read these survival manuals, the first thing they talk about is the psychological. For instance, say you're a downed soldier behind enemy lines: All the things that they tell you are very Zen-like. It's all about staying calm and going with the moment. This was strange to us, but it became a metaphor for us: You have the abstract state and the most intimate sense of person, and they are meeting by these instructions on how to be. Those two points on the line set up the entire psychology of what we were trying to address, in a way.
We've done a lot of projects on surveillance and quantifying surveillance, or quantifying things about the parts of the military that are left over in culture and are still being perpetuated, but we have never done something quite this psychological. The information we were coming across lent itself to a psychological project.
In coming across this Zen-like notion in tactical military guides, is that where the idea came from for the interactive Evasion Yoga workshop that Finishing School is doing at RMCAD?
Absolutely. We were thinking [that] these are the kinds of things a teacher would prompt you to do while you were in yoga class, and that obviously became the project. In our script for Evasion Yoga, there is some Vinyasa, but most of the prompts come right from a survival manual. The idea is that you have to interpret the script into movement. In the back room of BMoCA, there are video pieces that we did with students from CU Boulder where they were interpreting movements from the survival manuals.
I'm sure Colorado is not unique or alone in this, but yoga is a huge part of this hyper-athletic culture we're known for, so it seems appropriate.
Well, the thing is, we really try hard not to come in and critique a culture. We come into a place and sense things right away — and it's really hard to do without seeming [like] we're cherry-picking issues or things and support some kind of simplified version of things. There is certainly something in Boulder about this certain middle-class striving toward the idea of utopian middle-class living. That happens everywhere; that's not unique to Boulder, but we wanted to address that kind of stuff.
There were a lot of things we were trying to bring into this project, and one of them was the sort of racial and financial makeup of a place like Boulder. One of them was the idea that you have Rocky Flats and Naropa in proximity to each other; we just had to do something with that. There are also all of these government labs outside Boulder, and we were trying to figure out how to pull that in. The way that we felt like we did it was by trying to talk about the body and all the pressures put on the body. We made these bunkers that are very safe in the inside, but they are also very aggressive on the outside; you can't look at them. They have lights that are eye-level and aggressive. I think the museum workers are not very pleased with us. [Laughs.]
But for all of the safety that the bunkers provide on the inside, and for as dark as they are on the outside, they actually force you to avert and take a certain posture when walking through the museum. Most people won't notice until they leave. Maybe they will draw a correlation between that and the video piece in the back, but they may not. The place where we are trying to draw all of this stuff together is about the way that your body adjusts to things like this in our culture that won't go away.
I was in Las Vegas last summer and was disturbed by how there are televisions assaulting every space occupied by humans. They were in the bathrooms, in tables at restaurants — I noticed my body reacting negatively to them every time. The presence of televisions is something in culture I never anticipated having such a negative response to as an adult.
It's funny. There are five people in Finishing School right now — over the years, there have been as many as seven people involved at a time. Right now, there are five of us, and of those five, three of us are teachers, three of us have small children, one of us is gay and one of us is Muslim. Whatever the project is, it just comes from all of our concerns. We tried to be the meeting ground for whatever we're thinking about. With this project, the notion of personal safety and a sense of protection from the outside world hit home for lots of us for lots of different reasons, especially after Orlando. It changed quite a bit for us.
The fact that we created such a physical barrier didn't feel like it was the heart of the project until after Orlando; then it was obvious. It became a weirder, darker, less fun piece, and it felt like it was okay. Normally we try to play off of things that we think are really absurd, but this one had an edge to it. With the RMCAD Evasion Yoga, it feels a little more ironic and fun. But the BMoCA museum show definitely has a serious tone, and I think that's perfectly fine.
Absolutely. Especially when we're looking at Orlando and talking about what exactly is a safe space — reading about the "safe space" mentally that Pulse had created for the community and then reading about the experience people had that night inside of that safe space, trying to find cover and blend in and not be seen.
Every time you think you've put some of these issues to bed, they come back.
The BLISS installation at BMoCA.
Courtesy of Finishing School's website.
Something else I see as a running theme for Finishing School is the government's role in our lives, whether we see it or not — being a collective that's been around since 2001, through a post-9/11 world and the following period we're still living in now with of talk about surveillance, big data, WikiLeaks, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, all of it. In 2002 , Finishing School created "Today It's Voluntary" (a performative piece exploring how easily people give up their right to privacy in the name of security). As a group, has your mission changed at all as issues of personal surveillance, security and safety have become a huge topic in the last fifteen years?
It's interesting; we don't really have a "Finishing School is..." mission. It's just that the things that are concerns keep coming back. It's what we think about. We actually talked a lot about "Today It's Voluntary" in trying to frame how we might do a project at the museum. I've known the Finishing School folks forever, but I wasn't one of the original members. I do know that the group was formed in 2001, not as a way to talk about 9/11, but definitely in the aftermath of trying to figure out how we talk about things in public now.
[Finishing School] has definitely had its origin in a concern with, like, what do we do as reasonable grownups to try to figure out why our lives are the way that they are? The tradeoff certainly hasn't gotten any less weird between your personal freedoms and what we see as the growing influence of the surveillance state of the government. [And] not just the government, because it all blends together in this continuum of government interest and corporate interest and military interest. They all have this ominous feeling, in a lot of respects. It's gotten to the point where it's almost a permanent part of our culture. Maybe it always was, we don't really know. There's just a point where you start to pay more attention to things, and then, of course, you have confirmation bias where you find the thing you're looking for.
In our discussion around the BMoCA piece, we talked about this being part of the Cold War. This has been going on since H-bombs. This isn't necessarily something new; it's something we inherited. That was part of the reason architecture looked the way that it did. But, yes, we are very concerned with the government — and not just the government, but the ways that you as a person have to conform to certain kinds of things.
Post 9/11, the conversation around surveillance has shaped every one of our lives.
It's weird to think that 9/11 was so long ago that there are people who are young enough to not remember anything before it — it's strange. The weirdness of post-9/11 America is the only thing that they know. We, of course, remember hair metal and mid-’80s MTV, and that seems like a completely different universe. [Laughs.]
Especially when looking at technology and its role in the proliferation and globalization of popular culture —whereas way back when, MTV may have been the only portal we had to exposure to counterculture.
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Cable TV was this enormous firehouse of culture that your parents hated and that came right into your living room. Now it seems like cable TV was such a tiny, tiny piece of the overwhelming tide of everything that watches over you every day now. The thing I keep thinking about is that we're all doing this experiment together. There's no one who has any better perspective on it than anybody else, no matter how old you are. It's not about being a digital native or being under 25 or something; it's like being attached to Facebook all the time is new for the entire planet. We've only been doing this experiment for a few years and have no idea what the fallout is, and there's no one who can tell us, because we are all doing it.
Oh shit, we're all turning green at the same rate! [Laughs.] No one can tell us how green we are, because we're all green.
Finishing School's Evasion Yoga happens this Saturday, July 16, at 11 a.m., noon and 1 p.m. on the RMCAD campus in Lakewood; it’s part of the Visiting Artist, Scholar and Designer program's summer series for the FARMCAD farmers' market. Finishing School’s exhibition, BLISS, is showing concurrently at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art in Boulder, where it runs through September 11. For more information on Evasion Yoga, call 800-888-ARTS or visit the school's website. Visit BMoCA's home or Finishing School online for more on the group’s work.