Stephen Kwok is a multidisciplinary artist whose work often warps the very meaning of what it means to make art. This semester is his second at Brooklyn College. After having him as a professor over a jam-packed winter class, I decided to chat with him about his thoughts on teaching, academia, and art. His next show is part of the series entitled HEADS, on April 5th, at 99 Scott in Bushwick.
Coleman: What does academia mean to you, why did you go to art school?
Kwok: I studied business in undergrad at the University of Southern California, the scandal laden private school in Los Angeles. It was a very Hollywood, very specific environment, all profit driven. It taught you to perpetuate the old boys club. It was all about ‘do this to get a job.’ In my junior year I had an internship at Paramount Pictures, working red carpets and things like that, while taking a class on feminist theory–my first gender studies class. The internship and that class totally clashed–working the red carpet while learning that capitalism was a construct. Before that I had never thought of an alternative–things were just how they were. This clash resulted in a severe panic attack that was essentially the beginning point of my path as an artist. I didn’t want to drop out of Business school because I was already a junior, so I went to study abroad in Amsterdam instead, and was exposed to art and art history there. Following that, I went to the Rhode Island School of Design to study fashion design and graphic design, but ended up taking a site specific installation course which is where I made my first work. It was a serendipitous introduction to making art, but I was incredibly passionate about the shift. I went back to USC, graduated with my business degree, and then decided to move to New Orleans to make my own work.
That’s a long background story to say, I didn’t have a fear around not knowing how to make art. I just jumped in, so I don’t think it’s something that has to be taught. I know that’s ironic coming from a professor of art. I think the academy, art institutions, and art classes play a role in that they create environments for people to experiment in and learn within, but ultimately, artists learn from their own research and their own interests. I’ve never been one for a top-down understanding of education–that an academy holds access to otherwise unattainable knowledge. It’s probably because I didn’t learn that way. I self-educated by reading theory and looking at artists that I was interested in. At times I recognize that I have gaps because I didn’t learn the canon. I wasn’t interested when I was younger because my definition of art didn’t expand until I was 20. I just thought that art could only be, I don’t know, making a drawing, or something. When that definition opened up for me, art aligned with my personal interests. In terms of academia, I think it’s important supporting material for that internal drive.
Coleman: It’s just a place to do it, right? Having a physical place to go and experiment.
Kwok: Right, so after a few years of self-study, I went to graduate school at 25. I got into an MFA program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and when you go as in MFA you’re expected to know already what you’re doing. I spent the three years in between business school and art school in New Orleans thinking about making a portfolio, reading a lot, and making work. There’s a library in Houston, where I’m from, at Rice University that’s open to the public, so I would drive back to Houston and spend a lot of time there. They have this insanely amazing collection of art books, and I would spend days there just pulling books off the stacks. It was a period where I just used the resources I had at hand–books and the internet–until I made enough work to get into grad school. And I loved grad school. It’s not really about the content of what you learn, it’s mostly the community–you have an audience of supportive peers, which is not something that’s easy to find when you’re making work outside of an institution.
Coleman: I’ve been seeing a ton of pushback towards MFA programs. People say that it’s a waste of money, it’s a factory, etc. But you didn’t find that?
Kwok: Well I think I’m a little different because I just needed to go to art school to ground my interest in being an artist. I didn’t have a BFA but I already had a Bachelor’s, so I wasn’t going to do a four year degree again. I don’t think that MFA programs are necessary, but I do think that finding people who connect to your work is very important. Having a community of people who could see my work first hand, as I was experimenting, is what I got out of grad school. At SAIC, there’s probably 250 or so people in the MFA program, so maybe it is a bit of a factory. I was in the Art and Technology studies program, which wasn’t a perfect fit for me, but I moved around a lot. The school supported that exploration, and the person who I ended up really learning from was a performance professor, Robin Deacon.
Coleman: So how did you begin teaching?
Kwok: I began teaching in New Orleans, right after college. I needed to find work so I looked in the education sector because, at that time, there were a lot of education nonprofits in New Orleans. It was five years after Katrina and a ton of funding and energy had been pumped into the city. I started teaching after-school programs for public elementary and middle schools and immediately took to the classroom environment. At grad school I continued to TA. My classes now at Brooklyn College and Medgar Evers College are my first higher-ed teaching experiences. It’s the best fit for me and I’m grateful to be teaching college students that are open-minded and exploratory. At one point when I first moved to New York, I taught elderly Chinese people how to use computers in Mandarin. I’ve worked with so many different student bodies. Teaching for me is really about creating a learning environment for my students, no matter the age or topic of study. I’m grateful for the diverse opportunities I’ve had.
Coleman: I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that your artwork is mostly relational, which requires a lot of coordinating with people, and you run classrooms as an educator. Do you have similar goals when you’re teaching and making work?:
Kwok: Yes, for the past couple of years, I’ve been developing an idea for an alternative art school called “the school of structures”. All of the classes would be conceptual and experiential exercises where the participants are somewhere between audience members and students. This isn’t off the ground yet, but it’s a very clear bridge–it’s what would happen if I were to merge the two and really dig into that. Making the connection between art and teaching wasn’t legible to me until I started making performance in grad school. It was there that I started to reflect on my time as a teacher in New Orleans, which as a city has its own culture and value system–it’s a bit punk, it’s not super competitive or ambitious, and I really adopted that ethos. At grad school, I found myself in an institution that didn’t share those values. And so I think the relational nature of my work emerged both as a reflection of what I had been doing for work and as a reaction to the situation that I was in at the moment. I took that New Orleans attitude and pushed back against the hierarchical nature of school, making performances where I, as a student, inhabited the role of the teacher and made performances modeled after that form of power. A lot of that work was very antagonistic, and not everyone was crazy about it. I did a piece where I called roll on the faculty during a review and some of them really did not like it. The criticism that I got from that piece stuck with me for a long time, and from that experience I learned so much. I subsequently started to think that if I wanted to challenge that hierarchy, I needed to go about it a different way. Since then, I see myself as a facilitator rather than a performer or teacher, that the work I make focuses on audience members’ agency. There’s not just one, but many ways to operate within the performance. I’m there to provide a setting, not enforce it.
Coleman: In your piece, Charger (2013-2017), you participated alongside the performers. Was that something that you were cognizant of because of some of your past criticisms?
Kwok: I think so. I think that my philosophy between performance and teaching very much coincide. As a facilitator who thinks about certain conditions and arranging certain resources, I provide a certain amount of structure which is ideally non-hierarchical. If I don’t want to participate in the environment I’m creating, why would anyone else want to? I think of both teaching and making art in terms of service. It’s service oriented in the sense that I don’t want to think of myself as someone who has answers. I very rarely make a performance where I am the central focus audience. In my performances I’m a worker or a stagehand, performing some function that anyone else could. I’m not content. The same goes for my classes. In the Intro Design class that you were in, we moved through frameworks. I would give you all an exercise, and arrange other exercises around it to provide structure, but I’d never say this is what it’s supposed to result in. I think it’s really valuable to learn from ourselves and our peers, and I’ll only step in when I can provide supporting knowledge. Both my performances and the classrooms are made by what people bring to them.
I know a lot of art teachers or educators who have hesitations about supporting the pursuit of degrees that do not guarantee any type of financial stability. Obviously with an MFA you can teach, which is my plan–I knew that having the degree would open up the door to be able to teach at colleges. But I was having a conversation with a student about how I think that not everyone should be an artist, or to pursue it as a career, because I know not everyone has the same approach as I do. I’m not going to tell anyone that they can’t or shouldn’t pursue an MFA, but not everyone has the means to go to an MFA program. The work that I’m invested in certainly has no financial guarantee, and I won’t sugarcoat that. For example, there’s at least a decent market for painting. I know it’s not easy to “make it” as a painter, but I do think it’s more difficult to be financially sustainable as a conceptual performance artist. One, the work I make is ephemeral, there’s really nothing to own or sell; and two, it’s based around a concept. Politically, I’m cool with that, but I don’t feel comfortable promoting the type of work that I make to someone who wants a job or to make money with their work, unless they plan to teach. Sometimes I think that my work can only exist with some type of support from an educational institution. Very few artists are trying to operate in the art market are committed to performance in that way. The artists who make performances have to have a more diversified practice, they make sculpture, too. And I do too. Performance isn’t something that’s easy to sell.