For more than a quarter century they made art in imperfect surroundings. Dancers danced in studios carved out of spaces designed as elementary school classrooms, musicians rehearsed in a low ceilinged portable, and actors performed in a Quonset Hut. Strikingly, the results were magical; talent, passion, and perseverance outweigh infrastructure. In the end art wins.
And then we tore it down. We didn’t, I guess, but the construction team did, reducing seventy years of wood, concrete, and plaster to dust and clearing the way for a new campus to open in the fall fo 2021. That building will be designed as an art school, a powerful gift for our kids. In the interim ACMA has taken up residence in the voluminous building that will eventually open as a middle school for more than a thousand students. With our 700 or so kids it feels a little like wearing dad’s suit.
But this bigness isn’t a bad thing, at least in the short term. Having packed our little art school into boxes and traipsed across town, it has been nice to have enough space for everything, and while we know there will be swaths of the building we don’t use, as a temporary home it’s a pretty terrific space.
I’ve been able to gauge reactions to our temporary campus from the handful of teachers, students, and parents who have stopped by over the summer for meetings. As I’ve taken them on impromptu tours, dodging in and out of boxes and furniture in the process of being assembled, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the comments and smiles inspired by the building and what we’re doing with it.
Some cheered at the large clean classrooms, others were wowed by the beautiful wood on the walls of the commons, and two students who walked around couldn’t get over how many bathrooms there are. “And they’re huge,” they added. I suppose they are.
This campus where we’ll spend two years will be nice for our creative ACMA family. With more than enough space, the compromises we’ve had to make (like two years without our performing arts center) seem to be working out (thanks to some good old fashioned creative problem solving), and the overall result is almost what one staff member called it, coming back from a tour: “For a rental, this is perfect!”
That line reminded me of a documentary my film teacher recommended to me last year called The Five Obstructions. It’s a film about art and the creative process, and as I got to thinking about it this summer, it struck me as a nice analogy for what we’re about to do as an art school.
The Five Obstructions takes as its starting point another film, a 1967 short The Perfect Human by Jørgen Leth. The Perfect Human is an artsy meditation on …something. You can see the whole thing here if you like, and if you do you’ll recognize the work a confident artist working in a medium he knows and creating a polished piece that can be classified as art. Visual, creative, and more than a little quirky, there is a whiff of that ACMA spirit about The Perfect Human. It is the kind of film our students would dig.
Filmmaker Lars von Trier certainly dug it, and in 2003 invited his mentor Leth to remake the short five times, each with a collection of “obstructions” that would challenge him to adjust and force him from his original plan as he pushed against the limitations von Trier imposed that blew up his comfortable and familiar way of working.
These obstructions are many and diverse: he must remake the film in Cuba, for example, with no shot lasting more than twelve frames; he must shoot the short in “the most miserable place on earth,” but not show that place on screen; he must turn The Perfect Human into a cartoon.
The results are delightful.
The process, however, Leth describes at one point as “demonic.” And… An oyster without sand under its shell doesn’t produce a pearl, so while Leth complains to von Trier that the constant cuts of the first obstruction (twelve frames is about half a second of screen time) “will be totally destructive,” once done with the film, he reports that “the twelve frames were like a gift.” For an artist, challenges are like that sand in an oyster.
Now I don’t know what unexpected obstructions will come with our temporary (but perfect) home. In August I can anticipate a few: some of the classrooms won’t have the furniture we expected, using lockers for the first time in our school’s history will be different to say the least, that sort of thing. But for every expected obstruction, I’ll wager that there will be another dozen we can’t predict. Some of these will feel “demonic” and some will lead to artistic gifts.
So thinking about The Five Obstructions, I hope that our response to the obstructions we will face will be not to grouse and stamp our feet on the floor, but to embrace the challenges, look for creative solutions, and remake our approach to making art (and our approach to making meaning in the core academic classes) and use this as an opportunity to do something wildly creative.
The results? Heck, they could be all over the map. And that’s okay.
Leth’s series of remakes run the range of emotion, imagery, and innovation. His actors, including him as one of his actors, inhabit environments unfamiliar and evocative. Watching The Five Obstructions, and the remakes included within the documentary, is like pulling back the skull of an artist and peering inside.
Pushing an artist to work within constraints, limit him or herself to a particular palette, or respond to external complications outside him or herself could suggest that the process or the product would be compromised. And yet…
Looking back at the 1967 film that started it all, modern audiences might notice that the “perfect person” smokes a lot (a pipe for him; a cigar for her), is very white, and seems to embrace the trappings of the midcentury western bourgeois society. Given an opportunity to bring fresh perspective to this point of view, many of our students might come up with something innovative, very personal, and new.
How might that hold true for us as we are faced with the obstructions that come in any move? How might these challenges, and we know there will be surprises that challenge us, inspire in us innovation?
I have no doubt that this big yellow building can be a great home for us for two years. Perfect, even, with obstructions.