Fritz Haeg conducting the Los Angeles Seminary for Civic and Embodied Arts Summer 2014.
Photo: Mary Anna Pomonis
2014 Summer workshop participants in the Los Angeles Seminary for Civic and Embodied Arts.
photo: Mary Anna Pomonis
The Seminary for Civic and Embodied Arts: An Interview with Fritz haeg
March 1, 2016
by Mary Anna Pomonis
The following interview was conducted at the home of Fritz Haeg in the summer of 2014.
Mary Anna Pomonis:
I want to start by addressing the origins of this interview. It grew out of a class I was teaching at CalArts that centered on contemporary pedagogy. We were discussing alternative classroom models and the students were very interested in artists who utilize the classroom environment as a means of social practice. Two students in particular mentioned your name as a desired guest, not actually thinking it would be possible, but then I asked and you agreed, which was wonderful. One of the things you talked about in that initial introduction to the class was the conception of yourself as a primary learner in your art practice. I wonder if you could expand on that here, because I think it’s such an interesting way to think about yourself as an artist, and it feels very relevant to the topic of alternative pedagogy.
To go back to the early place of education in my work, I was teaching pretty seriously, pretty much full time, for about ten years, from my late twenties to my late thirties. It was a really critical period of development in my work, where I was really figuring new things out. This was still before the period of what I would call my ‘mature work’. Oh, no, gosh, it wasn’t even from my late twenties, it was from my mid twenties to my mid thirties, really from when I was about 24 to 34.
When I was teaching, I was really able to use my studios and classes as a laboratory or a place to explore territory that I was curious about and interested in, along with my students. Whens possible, within my teaching jobs, I made the most of whatever freedom I had and really tried to leverage those classes as a place for exploration. When that period of formal teaching curtailed and my personal work began, it was kind of a natural transition from paid institutional teaching jobs to creating a similar place within my own art practice for that kind of activity.
Initially, the school ran for twelve weeks. I think there were ten students and about thirty or forty visitors coming through with teachers curating the workshops. Then, when I started travelling for my work, it became much more fluid and the schoolhouse became itinerant. It could consist of a daylong series of dance workshops or a full season of gardening workshops, but it was always somehow tied to whatever work I was doing at the time, and, more broadly, to this kind of open space within my practice where I could explore with other people whatever territory I was interested in at that moment.
In that way, as you were saying, what became clear was that the school was not a conventional school where I was the primary or leader; it was my personal school where I was the chief student and the direction, theme, or topic was always driven by what I wanted to learn, always with the assumption that if I’m interested, there’s probably a few other people who are interested too. It was easy, given the range of topics I selected, to find people interested in participating/leading/teaching to whatever extent they chose.
It’s fascinating because, in a way, it not only brought the lesson to you as a center but it also brought together a community that was willing to work on any given open-ended question with you. It’s a very open vision of being an artist and it’s a very generous one. I’m wondering if that came out of the idea of dialogue in general as something that is tremendously influential, or whether it came out of a need that you had directly as a student out of school or a teacher out of classroom.
No, I think it goes back to some bigger belief system or idea, really fundamental ideas about what place art and artists should have in our society, or any kind of creativity for that matter.
My background is in architecture. I have migrated very far away from that now but I have kind of a broad set of experiences in different kinds of disciplines from art and design to architecture and even a certain period of time when I was painting.
I think the thing that I became extremely bored with, but also skeptical of, was this idea of art and the artist as the rarified, mysterious, special force that the general public doesn’t have access to or understanding of, like the works of architects and artists are meant to be virtuosic and unachievable by others. A lot of times, you get that sense in school even. The assumption is that everyone’s working towards doing something that no one else can do, a kind of virtuosity. I really enjoy seeing virtuosity but if all of our creative output and all of our cultural endeavors are focused exclusively on that way of working, I think it’s very oppressive and depressing because it sets up a world where you have a very small number of people who are meant to be the creative ones. By that thinking, everyone else is destined to be consumers of that creativity, or at best passive observers of it. I don’t like that kind of world where the line is so defined. There’s just such a narrow spectrum of people that are qualified to be ‘creative’ in that way and it’s so boring to to be completely focused on trying to do things that nobody else can do. Instead, when you do things that everyone can do, and you actually invite them in, then it opens up the work so powerfully. It becomes viral; it becomes something that goes beyond you. It actually has a much greater impact, I think, on people’s lives.
Right, and the support structure that the artist enjoyed is a very shared and symbiotic relationship in contrast to the mythos surrounding the lonely artist-figure, that the artist is supposed to be solitary and that knowledge will drop from the sky like a thunderbolt. It’s always felt powerfully patriarchal to me, like there’s this sense of authority that comes with being the genius. I think it’s very alienating to the audience and to the culture in general. I think as the population itself feels more and more alienated, art shrinks in our culture or our engagement with it shrinks. When it is opened up and social, then there is genuine community interest and support.
Yeah, I think those ways of working are very much tied to patriarchy.
Did you want to talk a little bit about what happened to you this summer? I had the chance to visit twice and it was amazing. There was a beautiful rapport between the people you selected to be a part of the seminary. Can you talk a little bit about what your focus was for the seminary this summer?
Yeah, this summer was a return to the beginning of the Sundown Schoolhouse. We had twelve weeks, one day a week, one hour a day, but it was less like a school and more like a retreat center or incubator. There were ten people participating and the focus of our Saturdays together was a lunch where we would have really long three- or four-hour meals with special guests who would join us and guided, focus group conversations around certain topics that our visitors would bring.
It was called the Los Angles Seminary for Embodied and Civic Arts. We were thinking about this kind of extension of the body out to the city, and the private to the public, and the nature of civic space and civic projects. The assumption was that everyone participating was interested in the civic nature of cultural production. It was a great group. I truly believe that it’s almost impossible to absorb things and apply things in your work at the same time. This summer, there were a lot of conversations, a lot of connections, and a lot of dialogue, and I think that most of the interesting work to come out of this summer is yet to happen.
Mary Anna Pomonis is a teaching artist, curator and a writer living in Los Angeles. Her work incorporates elements of social practice, performance and painting. She is currently teaching in the program of Visual Studies at CSUSB, The Teaching Artists Institute at Cal Arts and Herbert Hoover High School. Her latest curatorial project, "Rosette" opened at Charlie James Gallery in January of 2016.
Fritz Haeg's work has included animal architecture, crocheted rugs, domestic gatherings, edible gardens, educational environments, preserved foods, public dances, sculptural knitwear, temporary encampments, urban parades, wild landscapes, and occasionally buildings for people.