Attempts of being a multiplicity

with J. Morgan Puett

In 1998 J. Morgan Puett together with Mark Dion and friends re-discovered, 96-acre of abandoned land in the woods of rural Northeastern Pennsylvania, nearby New York State in the upper Delaware River Valley historically known as “the old Miller farm”. However it was Mildred Steffens, one of nine siblings, who was born on the land and met with a man named Vincent Miller. After her full 86 years, the buildings were neglected but the site came to be called Mildred’s Lane in memory of her and her remarkable life.
The original farmhouse where Mildred lived has become The Mildred’s Lane Historical Society and Museum or rather – “a new contemporary art complex(ity)… that holds the preservation of histories and projects of past, present as well as ongoing occurrences of Mildred’s Lane” as we can meet in the official introduction. “It is an ongoing collaboration between J. Morgan Puett, Mark Dion, their son Grey Rabbit Puett, and their friends and colleagues. It is a home and an experiment in living. Mildred’s Lane attempts to co-evolve a rigorous pedagogical strategy, where a working-living-researching environment has been developed to foster engagement with every aspect of life.”

J. Morgan Puett.: There are some many publications on art and pedagogy and every art school now in America has this discourse moving around the subject. Even than back in 90’s all of our colleagues were getting more and more frustrated with the academic institutions. To illustrate the whole topic maybe it’d be enough to mention that you are not allowed to socialize with the students anymore. It’s illegal and that’s not a way we exchange the information. I’d put this question to every historical character in the history of man, human, woman. The best experiences in exchange learning, knowledge production happens over the dinner table, over the glass of wine or over the beer at the local pub. Socializing in such a force is a human nature. That’s how we exchange the information. We were very frustrated as professors, as teachers or participants of contemporary art world in America, that we couldn’t… this was not allowed… Mildred’s Lane became a place where that evolved… We started bringing our students out to the country. It has this free and active conversation about topical issues, political issues; issues around the domesticity because we were building this house on the land… issues about architecture, fashion… So there is an intersection that’s being slowly coevolving with our friends. It’s our home, the heart, the fire, food, bottle of wine. Thus grew Mildred’s Lane and in 2007 it finally formulized as a little school. Instead of being active, over active in institutional critique, it’s my feeling amongst others that the critique model of Frankfurt school is kind of productive can for XXI century. We need to move on to activate this turbulent discourse and I think domesticity becomes the new intersection for that. Table, wine, the conversation, good company, new socializing… Mildred’s Lane is born this way. We’ve compounded that problem creatively by sort of cultivating a new philosophy we call work styles, because as artists we are working in the world and not just living bourgeois life style. I think greatest contemporary artists today are more in public work than anywhere else. Our life is about work. Work style becomes this autobiographical mode of doing, making, thinking, and researching, playing, being. In my thinking Mildred’s Lane now comes to stand for this embodiment of what I call ethics of comportment. How we behave in the world. Our studios are generally outside of our living, but in Mildred’s Lane the whole life is the studio. So your studio practice is left behind, but you bring the conceptual tools when you come to this place. And you are becoming involved in the dialogue, in the conversation, in the topic, or the project. There is no fixed course, no prescribed curriculum, no predetermined dialogue, we try to keep it free enough and for the artists who oppose the problem or the question, project or the situation, that becomes the topic and out of that grows the syllabus, dialogue, conversation, dinners, sociality, community involvement. We are kind of working backwards than the way the contemporary world think. And for me that’s natural intuitive way how the artist functions in society. But instead of describing what the project looks like, or what theory are we going to pose, we raise the topic coming from inside out and build our work from experimentation, living. The Mildred’s Lane comes to be this center for an alternative way of functioning with students, we call fellows. And going against the grain of institutional critique of the 90’s, we have built the reputation and the situation where the institutions are supporting us slowly. There are handful institutions building scholarships and sending fund to support students to come.

CaucasusArtMag: Is it possible to meet radically different age groups in the same circle? We were just talking about the sharing information.

M. P.: Sure. For instance Grave Rabbit is now becoming teenager and it’s very interesting. He is the constant resident of the school. In spite of that we move and do projects, Mildred’s Lane is our home and that’s what makes it special. In difference from any other institutions, we are not an institution. We don’t play by the same rules.  When you come there everyone behaves as a guest and as if they were in the museum; we ask to distort those notions and behave democratically with each other, with the building. You have to certainly extend your pre-determined notion about what is a museum, what is a home, what is a studio, what is a project. Because everything is pulled together, there are no borders. We are constantly smuggling across the ideas, across these terrains. So back to the age groups… We have a children camp where little workshops are organized. At the same time we have undergraduate and graduate groups formed by twenty to thirty years old students, generally. And besides we have independent people anywhere from twenty-five to sixty, seventy years old… There are all ages. It’s transgressing it’s an ageism that exists, especially in the contemporary art world where everything is flashing new, young, fashion…

CAM: And does everyone come from art education field?

M. P.: That’s a thing I’m trying to break away from. It’s not just about art, it’s about science, it’s about biology. Forty-five or fifty acres of our property is naturally preserved and untouched for forty years. We don’t do anything on that part. So that’s what I also wanted to add about the ageism, which is kind of muted there.

CAM: Conversation between the generations…

M. P.: I think it’s really important and again about the family. I just want to bring one thing that really touched me reading Bruno Latour. In one of the introductions he overviews how quickly we are forgetting so much people forming our personality. I think it’s addressing to old Marxism and knowledge production and all of these things, because it’s about social context. It’s not just our mothers, fathers, sisters or brothers, but it’s our friends. It’s that coffee shop dialogue; it’s those dinners with wine and arguments, debates, the moments when we really grow. That’s something really freaking in the heart. I have just been liberated when we started Mildred’s Lane and slowly coevolved with our friends and our conversations. It was just such a clear pass of moving ahead with our theory about education, philosophy about working, living, researching. There is so much about the home. Even in the case that you are in the institution where you are studying for your PhD or Masters. Where are you doing that? You are doing that at home, in your bed and on your breakfast table over the coffee.

CAM: Bed is becoming a kind of Iconic image of the education here.

M. P.: Yes, exactly. It’s the place where you have the most intimate dialogue with your partner. It’s about love and happiness. Every element in this installation means an attempt of being a multiplicity. The bed as a sofa; the dining table – is a sawing table, which turns into the chalk board for drafting. So it means to be many things.

CAM: You move through the all purposes…

M. P.: Exactly, pallets mean to be movable, re-arrangable, you can cover the whole floor, to construct the situation. So they are meant to be multiplicities. And these are Deleuzian ideas. It’s my theoretical reference. The landscape means to be constantly active. And in this case the refrigerator is a landscape. It becomes a reflection and the signal to domesticity again. Really importantly, I have just to make a note, is that I’m a woman. And this is post-feminism, acting out. I’m a single parent. I have no career if I can’t do this. I can’t be the woman artist anywhere and the mother, and the teacher and make living unless I do this. So for me in the certain point this is survivalism and the way of creating my life. I’m raising new problems for post-feminism. The history of the work sews me another intersection: the history of women’s work, the home, hard domesticity, cooking, cleaning. That’s why all of these things are here and interestingly I’ve gleaned all of these objects from Tbilisi, Georgia. Each of them is universal. I can find a broom in America; I can find a broom in Africa. I can find the sewing machine anywhere in the world. Emma Goldman came over as an emigrant to New York City; she had one object under her arm – the sewing machine. And all these are very important, I don’t want to say samples, but signals what’re harking back to domesticity – to the woman, the power and the problem of that role. As a woman artist in XXI century, there are many places that I want to be invited to. But how could I leave my kid behind? A man can go anywhere, and leave his wife and child behind and think that’s fine. Something’s wrong with that.

CAM: Maybe it’s not about a man, but personality?

M. P.: Maybe but the majority of the residencies in the world, the institutions, does not allow bringing the children with you. So here I made a problem. The certain aspect of my practice is my child, as for a mother. It’s at the core of that. Mildred’s Lane formed around this family Mark Dion, Grave Rabbit and J. Morgan Puett. And the thing that we are still keeping together even we are apart, Mark and I are very close, and he loves him most and its whole thing what brings things together.