Bauhaus and Beyond: An Interview with Gloria Sutton

Gloria Sutton
ACT at MIT

Gloria Sutton is Associate Professor of Contemporary Art History at Northeastern University and a Research Affiliate in the Program in Art, Culture and Technology at MIT. Her scholarship focuses on the ways that time-based media have critically shaped the reception of visual art since the 1960s. Sutton’s book The Experience Machine: Stan VanDerBeek’s Movie-Drome and Expanded Cinema was the first study of a signal member of the American avant-garde whose experimental art works combined the logic of painting, film, video, photography, dance, television, computer programming, and architecture to anticipate the current ways contemporary art operates under the pressure of digital networks.

Marissa Friedman: You were just in Berlin for the Bauhaus Imaginista Symposium and I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit more about the work you’re doing there.

Gloria Sutton: It was organized by the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HWK), in Berlin. It is an important institution which has a storied reputation for being interested in historical and diasporic issues, and in issues around creativity. HKW is a really amazing resource; it’s really about the confluence of not only visual art, but the way that visual art is able to be a point of inquiry to look at broader historical and cultural issues.

For example, it’s the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus, and instead of proposing a hagiography about the greatness of this institution, what the curators, Marion von Osten and Grant Watson, organized was a multi-year, in-depth research project to begin mapping out what we would think of as the diaspora of the Bauhaus. We are looking at how it was adapted and adopted by a diverse range of cultural centers: Rabat, Hangzhou, New York, Kyoto, Moscow, Tokyo, São Paulo, Lagos, Delhi.

This exhibition, research program, and symposium are investigating the ways in which art, technology, and design concepts and ideas permeated the broader global culture in the post-war.

These questions are pertinent for the ACT community today. What if we move away from thinking about recuperating lost visionaries, or if we move away from the narrative of artistic exploration, or artistic research, what do we begin to think about? In particular, this symposium was interested in looking at the political aspect of Bauhaus in contemporary terms.

MF: Can you define what you mean by Bauhaus in contemporary terms?

GS: It’s thinking about what the iterations of Bauhaus thinking and pedagogy are in the current moment.

I think it has huge resonance with ACT’s own internalizing, or questions around thinking about it’s own chance position, or transformation from CAVS to ACT. And then, more importantly, prognosticating what do our culture and technology look like for the future?

The panel I was on was called, “How to Politicize Art, Technology and Popular Culture,” which looked at different narratives around art and technology in the post-war period. One of the things that we were interested in looking at is the implication or overlap between experimental art practices that emerge in the post-war period, and the kind of institutionalization of those practices, whether it be at MIT, or at Bauhaus, or Black Mountain College, and other establishments.

We are essentially asking what type of political action becomes viable in working through those institutional adaptations of experimental practices.

MF: You’re speaking about art as it relates to politics. Knowing that the Bauhaus closed in 1933 because of the Third Reich, have you noticed a shift or reaction in contemporary art since the 2016 election?

GS: Yes. I think that artists have always been asking these pressing questions around  tyranny and political oppression. I think that, while the election of Donald Trump was a watershed moment, it was  symptomatic of something that has long been fermenting in the cultural landscape.

For many artists that I work with, it really was a kind of confirmation of all of the microaggressions and overt racism that has always existed in institutional power grabbing; it just became quite visual and front-and-center when this was validated through a national election. I don’t think the election of Trump changed anything; I think it was symptomatic of a larger ground swell in American culture as a kind of reaction to the last 20 years.

MF: What does it means to be an Affiliate at ACT?

GS: I came to Boston in 2012, and being an affiliate is a natural way for me to work in the field at large. The way I see my work is that my scholarly and tenure home is at Northeastern, but my work is in the field. That field takes different forms and points of contact, and whether that’s in territorial moments, like collaborating or contributing to exhibitions, or working with students at ACT during crits. ACT is a unique environment; I see it as a kind of nexus point to think about larger questions in the field.

MF: How would you describe your work?

GS: I would say definitely I’m an art historian. I am very invested in thinking about the material histories of works of art, and the material conditions around these works. For me, it’s absolutely important to think about the exhibition framework; the way in which work is displayed, or housed, or contextualized. Those are the questions that are deeply important to me. In particular, my new book project is really looking at the ways in which art history itself, as a discipline, has many methodologies that have not yet been brought to bear on contemporary digital culture.

MF: Can you speak a little more about this current book project?

GS: I’m working on Pattern Recognitions: Scale or Conditions of Contemporary Art, which is really a reactionary book for me. As I mentioned, having worked over the last five years on many different exhibitions, engaging the archives and the estates of artists, one of the things that became interesting and compelling for me was to develop a critique of the term immersive.

The term immersive, like interactive and participatory, have basically been conjoined with every type of contemporary art since the 1970s with very little discernment or differentiation. The end-game of this book is to develop a more granular critique of this concept of the immersive.

 

Gloria Sutton will be giving an Artistic Research presentation on Tuesday, April 23.