“We should talk”

Offense+Dissent began as a conversation among Julia Foulkes, Mark Larrimore, and Radhika Subramaniam, colleagues at the New School from different divisions and disciplines. They shared an interest in the history of the school and, particularly, how the past shapes our present vision of the place. But the exhibition required a great deal of research and, especially, conversation, in figuring out the theme, the format, the look, and the space. The conversation itself became the framework for much of the exhibition.

Mark: The conversation began at the turnstiles near the Aronson Gallery in Fall 2013. Julia and I had just emerged from our lecture course on New School History in which we had been discussing the controversy that arose about an image in the exhibition of the graphic artist Shin Matsunaga in 1989. Radhika and [Parsons’ Dean] Nadine Bourgeois walked by and I asked them if they knew anything about the controversy. 

Radhika: I just remember the email from Mark that I received that night saying “I understand that while I was hearing from Nadine how strong her memories were of the ‘Matsunaga Affair,’ you and Julia were imagining an exhibition revisiting it for its 25th anniversary. Fantastic idea!” 

My response was: Did we discuss an exhibition? I missed that! I think Julia was talking about the 25th anniversary, and I suggested that the American Race Crisis Lectures (an exhibition curated by student Miles Kohrman, under Wendy Scheir’s guidance, which was slated for later in the year) might be a site for such a discussion. Surely, though, I knew that a conversation was necessary, if only for my own understanding of the Matsunaga controversy.

Julia: I think this beginning really informs what followed, because what I remember most is meeting every two weeks with no particular agenda but just “to talk,” to hear about what Laura Wing (the student assistant we hired to conduct archival research) had found, and to fumble toward animating questions, pick up on bits of the controversies that seemed important, etc. It was early on that we identified that the first question was about images that spark controversy. 

Mark: And there was another obvious example of this in New School history — the curtain placed over Stalin and Lenin in the Orozco mural. Digging a bit more, it seemed as though the 1970 Parsons exhibition in protest of the Vietnam War might be a third illuminating incident. 

Radhika: Our conversation began to circle around a question that I had explored in a previous exhibition “Masterpieces of New York,” which was built by contributions from New School faculty. That is: “Who is the university’s ‘we’?” How do “we” exist together (or not) here?

Mark: This was a really important question as it was exactly what Lang faculty member Sekou Sundiata responded to in the Matsunaga controversy: the showing of a racist image confirmed to him that he was not a part of the school’s “we.”

Julia: And a key part of our conversations about the “we” of the New School was to bring that question both forward and backward in time. We wanted to discuss these controversies in the past but also to invite people into the conversation about these issues today. Eventually, we realized that the controversy around images extended to the university’s extensive Art Collection. There was a tidbit in the Orozco research in which the president at the time said that the problem was less about Stalin or Lenin than that people had to face the image every day in the cafeteria. We realized that there were analogous situations today: that people have to face an image on a daily basis – literally, sometimes, in the way their desk is situated, for example – that may unsettle or offend them. 

Radhika: This got us closer to the theme that could hold all the parts together. Laura brought to our attention controversies around objects in other university art collections and there was a larger debate about “trigger warnings” in classroom conversation. We began to realize that the exhibition was ultimately about how institutions deal with disagreement, particularly educational institutions whose very mandate it is to foster critical thought. 

Mark: For Julia and me, who had never curated an exhibition, the theme clarified the research, possible narrative and argument, but I remember asking in our biweekly conversations: but what is this going to look like? Is this an exhibition?!

Julia: In fact, as a historian, I was perhaps the most reluctant about a show built around archival artifacts. I wasn’t sure they were interesting enough. And it certainly wasn’t visual enough. When Radhika insisted that it was an exhibition for the Kellen Gallery – with its large, space and big, white walls — I couldn’t imagine filling it in a visually compelling way. 

Radhika: As a curator, I knew there was a way. I had been thinking that we could enliven the archival story through an artistic interpretation.  In fact, these commissions of Parsons’ faculty would be one part of the broader participation in the show. Given that we could show some of the original artwork from the Parsons 1970 exhibition and large in-situ images of the Art Collection for the contemporary part, it seemed obvious to focus on commissions for the Orozco and Matsunaga stories. Inviting illustrator George Bates to compress the Orozco narrative in a comic strip was a form of visual political commentary as was designer Dimitry Tetin’s interpretation through graphic elements of the Matsunaga saga.  The decisions for the form of these commissions were quite specific—the mural controversy would be depicted through a cartoon which was, after all, originally the preparatory drawing for a fresco and the logo controversy through an exploration of university bulletins and graphic identities.

Mark: We talked a lot about the need to have various levels of redundancy in the exhibition, for different kinds of viewers: those who would pass through quickly, those who might linger here or there, and those who would follow step by step. Manuel’s design really enabled that flexibility, too, in that large open space, by allowing people to flow in and out of the various components. 

Radhika: Inviting people to respond to the spaces of their daily life here and the images in it also brought this historical conversation forcefully into the present.  The eloquence with which everyone talked about these provocations to irritation and pleasure was quite amazing.

Julia: I hope the success of the show is that it was a display of this extended conversation with each other and with others. Mark and I may have had years of conversation already about the history of the New School but we needed Radhika, Manuel, George, Dimtry, and many others, to bring that conversation into a new form, one that took it out of the classroom and into the gallery and the spaces of our everyday university life.