We first worked with Mary Mattingly in the summer of 2013, when she collaborated with us as one of the teaching artists for the Museum’s first ever 3-D printing course for teens, a program that was set up through our involvement with <a href="http://eyebeam.org/" target=_blank>Eyebeam</a>. When she approached us last fall with an idea for a new teen course, I was immediately intrigued—beyond touching upon themes (war, institutional violence, artistic spaces, and community building) that seemed important and pertinent to our audiences, Mary was proposing the largest physical art project we had ever undertaken—the dismantling, delivery, assembly, and complete artistic reenvisioning of a gigantic military trailer. It was daunting, but thrilling—pushing boundaries (along with the limits of our physical studio and exhibition spaces) is a hallmark of our free teen programming initiatives. Now that the project is finished (and on display to the public in the current Spring 2016 Teen Art Show) Mary has taken some time to reflect on the entire process, from conception, to implementation, to the final exhibition here at The Museum of Modern Art.
—Calder Zwicky, Assistant Director for Teen and Community Partnerships
Objects can connect us through their histories and the stories they carry with them. When we are able to change their form, it can be powerful. We can add our own voice and that can be healing.
I’ve been building ecosystems as art—they are created with military and industrial waste, and they depend on human support. This work connects to ecological, economic, and communal ideals, and last spring it led me to study the practice of nonviolent action. Then, I was able to go to Cuba for two months to work on a sculpture that functioned as a mobile, autonomous zone. President Obama had just announced his intention to reestablish trade relations with Cuba. U.S. media outlets went into overdrive critiquing human rights and freedom of speech there. All I could think about was that double standard—our own acts of violence against other countries are rarely acknowledged in respectable U.S. media outlets. (As I write this there are 89 inmates from 19 countries still in Guantánamo.) I realized that as a person who lives in the U.S., I needed to speak up.
That’s when Calder Zwicky and I talked about what it would mean to take an object with a violent history, bring it into contact with our community of teen art course attendees, and cooperatively transform it. How could we begin to share our experiences and differences through an intergenerational, multiracial, multinational conversation about pain and love? Could we work with our teen artists to imagine a nonviolent world when we are rarely allowed time and space to process its violence? Calder was interested, but we needed to figure out what form the class would take, and how it would work.
So this was the plan: We would purchase a U.S. military trailer at government auction and then the students would be the idea makers, the recreators. They would architect the redesign, keep the budget, and be project managers. With Ivan Gilbert, I would facilitate, question, advise on, and ultimately champion their ideas. I hoped we could tell a story about changing national priorities—from a war and consumption-centered nation to one that is eager to learn from its own violence and vulnerability.
After some diligent time at government auctions, a trailer that had been redelivered to the U.S. (after being used in Iraq) was ours to work with. Picking it up and then finding a place to store it in NYC was nearly impossible, so I found a temporary workspace in New Haven. On consecutive weekends this past winter, I took the Metro North out to New Haven and slowly cut the trailer apart with a Saws-All in order to transport it into MoMA’s Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Education and Research Building through the winding pathways of the Museum’s underground infrastructure.
As a class, we began by asset mapping our skills. I learned how valuable this could be from a professor at Humboldt State University. Lonny Grafman would use asset mapping as a way to discover what resources a place-based community had. That way, people knew about each effort going on around them, and instead of reinventing the wheel they could strengthen something that was already there. So, a different form of asset mapping, we mapped our collective skills, and used that as a starting point for determining what our sculpture could be. Then we designed according to criteria we chose. This included what we had the budget to do, the durability of our design, and our concerns about safety and aesthetics, but it also involved what each person needed the project to say. The two-ton military trailer was a force on its own. Whatever we did to it would resonate and intermingle with the strong and layered meanings the trailer had to us. The object itself allowed us to share stories we otherwise may never have heard. We got to know each other fast.
In the next couple of weeks, we reformed the trailer through making models. We split into smaller groups that aligned closely with everyone’s personal interests, and what new skills they wanted to learn from the class. People focused on the architecture, building, design, art, or documentation. We started, and then soon after, we abandoned a series of ideas. The things we didn’t end up doing:
We didn’t turn the military trailer into a park or a garden.
We didn’t turn the military trailer into a mobile kitchen.
We didn’t turn the military trailer into a giant printmaking press.
We didn’t use the tires for tire swings, or to generate electrical energy.
We didn’t completely deconstruct the trailer and rebuild it into a sphere.
We didn’t turn the military trailer into an art studio, or display artwork made by veterans of war.
We didn’t turn the military trailer on its side and project films on the trailer bed.
We didn’t melt the military trailer down and mold the steel into a spear.
And then we took grinders, saws, drills, hammers, laser cutters, and we built it. Here’s what we built: We made it into a social space that’s near impossible to define. It was a small piece of each of those proposals, and it came from a process of respecting and representing everyone’s voice, months of compromise and working together. It came from learning how to use new tools and taking time to teach each other the tools we were already skilled in.
We liked sharing stories with each other, and wanted to be able to continue to do that with visitors at MoMA. We wanted people to be able to come into this space and use it to speak up about complex ideas: What isn’t propaganda? Who are your enemies and why? What is violent? We wanted to be able to have an ongoing conversation with a stranger, in the form of drawings or graffiti chains, where we could be active with directed questions, but in the end leave the interactions to chance.
The In the Making teen art show is on view to the public through May 9, in the Education and Research Building. Applications and information about our upcoming summer season of In the Making, offering free studio art courses for NYC teens, can be found here. Special thanks to Mary Mattingly, Ivan Blake Gilbert, Kaitlyn Stubbs, and all of the teen artists who participated in the spring 2016 season of courses.