The world of art and art history may be small, but when it comes to conferences, it can still strike a pose.
UCLA graduate students and professors participated and presented their most intriguing work at the premiere conference in the art world, the annual meeting of the College Art Association (CAA), which took place last weekend at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
The conference boasted of visits to the Getty Villa, a keynote speech from the chief archaeologist at Mexico City’s Templo Mayor, a special exhibition at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, a gala reception at the Getty, and a book and trade fair featuring exhibitors from all over the world.
The prime attractions, however, are the papers and presentations given by artists and art historians grouped into themed sessions chaired by senior faculty members from highly regarded institutions.
“We are seeing in person a lot of the people we’ve read for a long time, or people who influence the way we think about our field,” says Jessa Farquhar, a graduate student in art history. “It’s also great to see other graduate students in your field, whom you would never meet otherwise.”
Farquhar, a first year student in the Ph. D. program specializing in Southeast Asian art, is also using CAA as a way to prepare for her career. For one thing, she was watching carefully how her friends and colleagues are presenting their work, so that she would not be completely surprised when it comes time to present her own work.
“There’s a certain amount of nerves that comes with coming to a conference like this and presenting because it’s a really big deal,” says Farquhar. “I want to expose myself to as many of these [situations] as possible, so I can take from people how they are effective when they’re speaking.”
From a presentation on the canon of art history education given by Padma Kaimal of Colgate University, Farquhar learned about teaching methodology, such as how to frame a museum visit around course content. These methodology questions, in both education and research, are especially intriguing to Farquhar.
“We usually take for granted what objects we choose when we teach a class, and how we go about making an argument,” says Farquhar. “These are questions that everyone, not just me as a grad student but also senior faculty, everyone is grappling with right now.”
Farquhar is also using CAA as a model for how to run conferences. Along with other UCLA first year graduate students, Farquhar is organizing a symposium of student research to be held at the Hammer Museum scheduled to run next October.
Organizing sessions for CAA is nothing new for UCLA art history professor Steven Nelson, who specializes in modern African art. Although his primary research is working on a book about the art, film, and post-colonial politics of Dakar, Senegal, Nelson presented at this CAA instead on a 1989 exhibit that sought to create the genre of contemporary African art, a show called “African Remix.”
“CAA is different for different people, and different depending on where one is in one’s career,” says Nelson. “For me, it’s [a way to] try out an article that I may not necessarily do somewhere else.”
Nelson described his article as a think piece on how curators package and reinvent contemporary African art, even when the art that is being shown runs contrary to the curator’s intent.
As one example, Nelson presented Allan deSouza’s photograph of Las Vegas called “The Goncourt Brothers Stand Between Caesar and the Thief of Baghdad.” It was presented in the part of the show called “City and Land,” which was supposed to highlight people from urban centers who wanted to return to the country to their roots. Instead, deSouza’s photograph is a panoramic view of the Sin City
“The curator’s desire to present people lost and wandering, looking for an Africa that doesn’t exist anymore trumped what [deSouza’s] work does in an exploration of American imperialism and American politics at the beginning of the twenty-first century,” says Nelson. “The work got put into a space where it doesn’t fit well, where it might not behave.”
Nelson notes that the interviews at CAA for faculty and studio positions means that CAA can make someone’s career. He recalls one person who got a faculty position at Harvard in 1999 after presenting a paper at CAA just when the university was looking for someone to teach African art.
There are also a lot of social and networking opportunities, including a reception for UCLA art history faculty and students. Nelson sees the conference as a venue for seeing friends, colleagues, and editors he doesn’t see all year long. The proximity to the city where he lives doesn’t hurt either.
Perhaps most importantly, CAA allows Nelson to see his students in action, showing off their work to a general audience interested in art. This year, his student Michelle Craig presented on photographs taken during an armed attack of the Jewish quarter of Fez, Morocco. Craig was the only student among a panel of five exploring art and the memory of revolution.
Another graduate student who presented at CAA this year is Amanda Herring, who described the Ottoman approach to archaeological excavations of classic sites at Magnesia and Lagina.
Herring responded to a call for papers in the summer by applying to the chairwoman for the session on the Classical Unconscious. She started preparing the manuscript and presentation in the fall, and was still making changes up to the day before her presentation.
“I gave [the paper] to friends of mine and other people in the art history department,” says Herring. “My husband has heard it a couple of times, and I even [gave] it to my dog a few times; they listen very well.”
Herring got feedback from people in the panel, as well as the general audience. One suggestion is to examine the educational system of Germany, and how it contributed to the way German excavations of the Turkish sites were conducted.
“[UCLA] had a very strong showing,” says Herring, in regards to the art history department’s participation in CAA. “Not only did a lot of professors and students attend, but we had a very high number of students and professors presenting; if you flip through the program UCLA pops up all over the place, so it was a nice cross representation of what our program is and who we are.”
And for those students like Farquhar who came to CAA as spectators, there’s always an exciting opportunity to present next year.