The VisCrit Alumni Award has been established to annually recognize an alumni whose work after graduation from CCA exemplifies the interdisciplinary values of the VCS program and the dedication and scholarship demanded within the broader field of Visual and Critical Studies. This award recognizes the innovative and diverse ways VCS graduates mobilize the skills they honed and the ideas they germinated while at CCA in a broad range of creative and professional arenas, further evidencing the versatility of the degree and the luminosity of this community.
2017 VisCrit Alumni Award Winner: Michele Carlson
Carlson is one third of the arts collective, Related Tactics, which entertains diverse projects at the intersection of race, art and culture. She teaches in the graduate Fine Arts and graduate Visual and Critical Studies departments at California College of the Arts, San Francisco, CA.
One “l” Michele
a profile by Carolina Magis Weinberg
Michele Carlson, her name is written with only one “l” and from that very moment “one l Michele” hints to the presence of singularity. Her name forecasts a unique career and a person who continuously steps away from the norm.
Michele Carlson is a fierce community builder, devoted to creating networks of thinkers where ideas unite with the common goal of dismantling and rebuilding the existing artworld towards a more inclusive, plural, and responsive space. As my professor in the Art Practical: Profession of Writing course at CCA in Spring 2017, Carlson herself recurrently told us, her students, in an inviting but also challenging manner: “make the artworld that you want to see.” This call to critical action is one that she practices by example. Acting, activating, participating, engaging, are all fundamental aspects to Carlson’s understanding of what it should mean to be a participant in the artistic scene at large, and specifically in one’s own community in the turbulent contemporary moment.
When described, Carlson cannot escape lists because just one job will not encompass her totality: she is at once a practicing artist, writer, educator, editor, and curator. And she performs all of these roles simultaneously. In a regular day Carlson can be found leading a discussion about the politics of publishing that consider power and accessibility as a professor in her Writing Practicum graduate seminar at California College of the Arts; managing publications, timesheets, and content as Executive Director of the digital journals Daily Serving and Art Practicalor in her previous position as Editor in Chief for Hyphenmagazine; as an artist collaging intricate black and white patterns where vessels, pompous gowns, and falling columns merge; or circulating the intricate Bay Area to see all the exhibitions that she will then review in a myriad of publications. But these are all activities that happen in synchronicity, everyday, all the time. And this, as Carlson insists, is the reality of the life of a person who seeks to have an intense participation in the arts. All of these actions aim to one same objective taking different forms; the continuous thread of her work investigates the intersections of history, loss, power, and visual culture, and find ways to destabilize the preexisting structures.
She is a central node in the Bay Area contemporary art network constructed by interdisciplinary practices. Her presence is key in the branching aspects of the artworld, from the editorial and curatorial spheres to the space of production. In her professional endeavors, Carlson embodies the intricate life of a Dual Degree, having been part of the first cohort to graduate from this program in CCA in 2007. Refusing to only be an artist, she pursued a program that fed her need for plurality; this refusal to fit the reductionist expectations of a conventional artist opened the possibilities to become a maker who is also a writer, a curator, an editor, and a critic. At the same time, the Visual and Critical Studies portion of the degree helped voice Carlson’s interests in popular culture as a shaper of the conversations that should be taking place in academia. Again, once during our course at CCA, when discussing the scope of an arts writer’s practitioner, she said, in a full VCS modality: “What is really the difference between Tintoretto and Wolverine?” Beyond the witty and provocative comment lies Carlson’s interest in understanding and critiquing the limits of the institution of academia, and the expansive view that every aspect of life is also an aspect of culture, and thus, of art.
From the early years, her career has been exploratory, resourceful, and ambitious. Carlson thinks of art expansively and honestly, understanding it as a space of labor, where ends have to be met, where, behind the artworks, galleries, and institutions, there are real people with true passions and ideas they are devoting their lives and energies to achieve. This care for the context and reality of an artist’s life can be seen in Carlson’s series “Inside the Artist’s Studio,” four articles she wrote for Art Practical between 2011 and 2013. In these long conversational articles, Carlson interviewed Matthew Gordon, Jackie Im, Jaime Cortez, and Chris E. Vargas. In them we see Carlson as a writer-interviewer paying equal attention to the color of the teacups, the gestures of the artists, the status of their projects, and the physical reality of their workspace. All of these details create a full practice, a true career. Understanding the human and material reality of the artworld, Carlson shares her extensive knowledge to navigate the plurality of these worlds and find spaces to build and rebuild everyday from different viewpoints. As she proves with her everyday endeavors, it is through collaborative critical thought that the artworld can be changed to become a more inclusive and impartial space.
Ever since her years in graduate school, Carlson has been profoundly interested in the notion of home and homelessness, expanding to the process in which a home becomes one through memory and transplantation. As an extension of this research, in her recent projects Carlson has explored how institutions—such as adoption or incarceration—can shape kinship, build or break personal bonds, and ultimately operate as mediators in the formation of family and power. She approaches institutions (such as the artworld) with the interest in knowing how they operate, and at the same time, to learn their operational methodologies in order to dismantle the series of relationships they establish and naturalize. Both her extensive academic research and her active role in the artistic community offer mechanisms to break and remodel structures from within.
In a way, Carlson could be defined as an inter-institutional translator, a speaker of many voices: she who operates a printing press and an exacto knife with the same swiftness as she operates Excel and budget planning. Amongst the tangible material reality of art making and art administrating, Carlson has really understood her position in the artworld as a facilitator, a chain-builder, a leader—a role that she has earned through exceptionally hard work and care.
Carlson has taught her students and peers that the artworld is really a constellation of interdependence that has to be built with enormous amounts of generosity. The collaborative model of construction is messy, often uncomfortable, and requires bravery in the process of exchange with the other. But it is in the personal that we find the political, as Carlson has explored. The personal is indeed the most generative space for systems to be understood and eventually dismantled and rebuilt. But, instead of the tame simplicity of a singular narrative, Carlson aims for the messiness of radicality because it is itself a refusal of the structures of order, clarity, and visibility. Aim for the intersection, the crossroads, the meeting point, where things get murky! Through care, respect, and expansive thinking such as that of Carlson’s the art world will become a space where all feel welcome. Know that art is a conversation, and that you have the responsibility to determine your language, know your audience, understand your positionality, and start to speak.
As Michele Carlson said in one of her courses: “Frustrate a linear reading.” Because the system wants linearity, let us give the artworld some curves.
Carolina Magis Weinberg (MFA Fine Arts/MA VCS, 2017) is an accented artist, writer, and confettï connoisseur based in Mexico City.