WHAT’S NEXT: THE FUTURE OF ART WITH MICHAEL CASSELLI ‘87
By Matt Walker ‘04
Michael has been interested in the hybridization of forms and media since receiving his undergraduate degree in visual arts/performance theory from Antioch College in 1987. While at the college, Michael staged large-scale outdoor mixed media performance installations, whose primary focus was an attempt to clarify issues of sense-based perception and the physicality inherent in performative work. After Antioch, he was accepted into the Master’s Program in Sculpture at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).
While at RISD his work started to move away from the performative context, while maintaining a vested interest in this relationship to physicality, choosing to focus on the role that the spectator plays as a necessary figurative element of completed work. It was at RISD that he started to define this as one of the dominant contextual frameworks through which his work was to be experienced. By eliminating physical boundaries between the viewer and the work, he provided an opportunity to closely interact with the work that could present potential physical danger to the spectator.
While these concerns still remain active in the work he produces today, Michael’s vocabulary has expanded to include more subtle ways of asking the same questions and has allowed him to consider a broader palate of contemporary media in the creation of his work, utilizing video, robotics, and home-grown technologies. Michael spent twenty years in New York City within the underground art and performance scene, fully integrating early concerns with performance and the visual arts. While continuing to create large-scale installations, he found himself able to apply many of the same concerns within the performance arena, creating scenic and video designs for dance and theater, earning a Michael Bessie Award for Scenic Design in 1998 for his work with choreographer Elizabeth Streb. In 2008, Michael relocated to Yellow Springs, Ohio to establish the Manic Design Studio, a place for hybrid experimentation in all media. In 2013, he was awarded the Ohio Arts Council Award for Individual Excellence.
We sat down with Professor Casselli recently to discuss Art, Antioch, and the future. Please enjoy the interview!
Matt Walker (MW): “Can you start by saying what’s your current position, please?”
Michael Casselli (MC): “My current position is Chair of the Arts Division at Antioch College. They announced my tenure, but it doesn’t really become active until July, but that would make my title Associate Professor of Sculpture and Installation. I’m also the Interim Director and Creative Director of the Herndon Gallery, and Faculty Representative to the Board of Trustees, as well as the Faculty Rep. on CommCil.”
MW: “I’d love to hear your thoughts on the future, the future of art, and the future of art at Antioch, any of those things:”
MC: “Currently, we’re a division of four really because Luisa Bieri Rios also teaches in performance, and has a role in the division now as a teacher. We brought Luisa in early on because they’re the Arts person for Co-Op and we thought it’s really important to have them present in the division. And then it was kind of codified more by Kevin McGruder by adding them also as a person in the division. But really we’re a division of four when we should be a division of six. And I would say we’re actually a division of three point something because Louisa can’t teach full time. She teaches a course in the winter called ‘Storytelling’. And she’s available to work with students who are doing their Self-designed Major with the performance part. Luckily, also, I have a background in performance and in media. Catalina Jordan-Alvarez has got a background in performance. Catalina went to the experimental wing of the theater school at NYU. She worked with some really interesting people. I know a lot of people in that program. There’s also Forest Bright who’s great. He did a natural dyes workshop for Community Day last week that went really well.”
“We have a lot of stuff going on in addition to our classes. We’re trying to work out activities outside of the classroom also, making things available… But I think really the kind of future, or what we’re trying to enact, it’s really an interdisciplinary kind of approach to the Arts, which can mean many things. It’s very much a Contemporary approach to the Arts. We’re not so much siloed in 2D, 3D, 4D, though we do have our programs. The Art Division is made up of Sculpture. It’s made up of Drawing, Printmaking and Painting, Media. Media is focused within Filmmaking and Performance because Catalina is a filmmaker, a documentary filmmaker in a sense, but it’s a different form of documentary. It’s not the same traditional documentary because of what she does with the content. She’s very interested in historical information and representing that. It’d be great to talk with her and really dig in to what she’s doing. Her background’s very interesting. She studied in Germany in Berlin. And she studied in the US. She’s fluent in Spanish, English and German. She’s worked a lot in Berlin. And she’s working the Antioch Ant Farm Art Building (AAFAB) preservation project, which I’m peripherally involved in. I’ve been in and out. I do things with them because of my interest in the Art Building.
The AAFAB project is going for historical preservation status for that building which would open up grant funding. So I do work with them. They’re doing an application right now to Goethe Institute for an exhibition; an educational, pedagogical exchange with the Bauhaus. So there’s actually an application due to the Goethe Institute, Friday. And I’m participating and writing a letter of support as the chair of the division and the interim, Creative Director of the gallery, to say that we’re in support of this project, dedicating some money to it, that we are able to. So there’s lots of stuff that’s going on.”
“I’d be really excited to strengthen our performance program again, because I’m going to teach a device theater class in spring. I’ve done a lot of performance work in my background. Luisa is going to do the storytelling class. Forrest is going to do a contemporary, collaborative practice class which may involve performances of some sort. And then also integrating those.”
“I’m doing some stuff in the gallery right now but it’s a lot of work to run a gallery. It’s really the only thing you should be doing. Maybe you’re teaching and running a gallery. But what I’m trying to do with the gallery currently is the show starting this quarter called “From the Collection of…”. This show is about objects you live with: ones that are called Art, and one’s that are more thought of as mementos or tchotchkes. We’re asking people to submit one of each that they live with and they have a special connection to, and then to write a description of why they have a connection to both those things. But speaking about them, putting them on the same level, because of the day-to-day importance of those things. And showing that the Art thing doesn’t have to be thought of as unattainable. It’s about how it exists in your life. And the memento can be elevated to have the same effects. Memento are connected to memory and are connected to things you’ve done and celebrating, in some way, those things you’ve done.”
“So, I’m having people do that. Right now, I’ve got 10 people participating. We’re going to have all the pieces up. They each have their own wall in the gallery. They each get a card that has their descriptions on it. And then at the bottom it says “from the collection of” and then names the person whose stuff it is. So it’s kind of this play on what you see in museums. When they say “this is borrowed from this collection” they’re honoring that person. So our exhibition is honoring and celebrating the person who contributed to the exhibition. And it’s based specifically within the on-the-ground community of the college.”
MW: “Maybe we should change gears for a second and get kind of nerdy. Do you have any thoughts on the future of Art in general – where’s Art going?”
MC: “We can get really nerdy and start going to Post Modernism and then Post-Post Modernism and what Post Modernism is… It all depends on which segment of Art you’re talking about. If you’re talking about the Art Market, I find it incredibly destructive. It doesn’t seem like people are celebrating the work. It seems like they’re celebrating the investment. And Banksy had a really good response to that with his painting that shredded itself. As soon as the gavel went down, it just shredded itself.”
“I do see a lot of work going on around political issues. I think all people’s work has a political stance. But I’m really interested in that work that is able to nuance those conditions they’re speaking to. I’m really interested in work that makes you work a little bit too. And I think that’s really important. There’s also been some amazing work that I’ve seen where people are using traditional techniques to do commentary on current conditions. And, also, commentary on past conditions and past framing of what’s relevant and what’s not. Because, if you look at Modernism, it’s a white, male, European documentation that ignores all these other things that were happening simultaneously.”
“There’s a really interesting show that I want to see right now that’s at the African American History Museum in Washington D.C.. Because it’s about Black Artists starting in the 1800s and the work that was being produced. So, rethinking that timeline and rethinking what else was going on and what was excluded. I think that’s really important. Making people more aware of those histories, I think, is happening in the Arts. And it’ a really positive and dynamic development.”
“I’ve been looking at other things too: there’s Critical Resistance which is an Artists group who are opposed to the carceral system. The work they’re doing is on how to incorporate people’s creative production into pushing back against systems that are disruptive and detrimental to the culture. I’m really interested in that kind of work. I’m not much of a formalist. And I’ve never really investigated form in that way. Though I am interested in it, but it’s not something I consider part of my practice – to produce things devoid of other connotations.”
“With Contemporary Art you can go anywhere. I think that the idea of making working and putting it out there is itself a political act because you’re contributing to the culture. And you’re contributing your voice to the culture. And I think also, in Contemporary Art, the boundaries have loosened up. This whole thing about Pluralism and the kind of de-siloing of the Arts that, I think, allows things like Performance and Sculpture and Installation all to be kind of crossing over each other, and running into each other. My favorite thing is these collisions that happen and inform the process that you’re working in. And I think they are really important. The idea of collision – running into something, unexpectedly, and then having to rethink what your approach is. I think that that kind of energy that’s being imbued into the work, especially these days, is really important. And I really want to see work that’s been ignored be elevated. I think it’s really important. Making sure that those voices have a part in the conversation, not by allowing them, because that’s a kind of a colonial idea, “I’m gonna allow you to be at this table…”. It’s opening up the table so people can join. Realizing that people need to step back so others can step forward. It really is an important idea. And a lot of people seem to have a lot of problem with it because they feel like they’re losing something by opening it up. Or even being asked to consider opening things up it’s like all of a sudden “I don’t have the dominance I once had, and I don’t want that. I want to be safe in my comfort.” I have a bit of a spiel…”
MW: “I just have a couple more questions: you don’t have to name names, but, what types of student work are you seeing and what types of student work are you really excited about?”
MC: “Yeah, so I’m teaching two classes right now. I’m teaching ‘Stuff’, which is what’s called the Antioch Commons tag course. It’s part of the Gen Ed requirement and the Commons tag. Basically, it’s a number of different classes from different disciplines dealing with the concept of the commons, people can look that up. Some people may be familiar with it. It’s more about shared resources and things like that but also how each discipline has imagined the commons or imagines the commons operating within their discipline. I wanted to make this a first-level sculpture class but also to take the pressure off of the capital A art when making Art and just say we’re making stuff. We make stuff. We’re going to learn how to do work in different ways. This is the second time I’ve taught it. I’ve structured it around dealing with the pandemic – staying safe is one of the projects. They are making a shoe of their own and then talking about creating a narrative of safety and protection based on the shoe and expanding off of it. And then there’s other criteria that they have to fill and that’s all hand-built clay. They learn how to do slab building, coil building and then they create. They create an object based on a real object and then they extended it to a narrative about safety. We did one about shelter, sheltering in place, where they build shelters out of bamboo back behind the Art and Science building.”
“All the projects have to do with that but they learn techniques. We’re doing a lot of clay and plaster right now so they’re learning how to do plaster casting and slip molding and hand building. And then I have my other studio class ‘The Object In Space: Time, Place and Presence in the Mediated Landscape’. It’s designed to hit upon the growth of the idea of sculpture since the 1970s, to start to include things like Performance and durational work. Right now, as part of the ‘Objects In Space’ course, we’re doing a project called ‘The Familiar Reframed’ where students are asked to create a piece that makes us look at something we recognized in a new way. So that’s a really cool one. Someone’s building a huge pinhole camera for taking pictures of Main Building and doing it with glass negatives. It’s big enough so they can also use the pinhole camera as a camera obscura, but also as a dark room. So they’re building that. Another student is doing a mobile windchime, but using cicadas and servo motors and Arduinos, which are microcontrollers, and a pulse measure to measure your pulse. You stick your finger in and it makes the cicadas kind of twitch and move according to your heartbeat. Another one’s doing a piece with a mirror that does facial recognition using a Raspberry Pie. The idea is that it’s lit up and you look in the mirror and the artist has already inputted your pictures so it knows who you are. When it identifies you, it turns the lights off so you can’t see yourself anymore. This piece is playing with this idea of defeating the purpose of the object, through interaction with it, which is something they want to carry on into their senior project.”