Dear Michigan

I am very sorry for having caused such a disruption in our classrooms. I had absolutely no intent to insult or offend anyone and had mistakenly assumed that everyone was in on the joke. I had been under the impression that we had collectively agreed to integrating masks into our Skype format. I can’t speak for the others, but I personally misunderstood the resolution of that question, and I was surprised, confused and (extremely) embarrassed by your surprise, confusion and embarassment. I am still not entirely sure what the actual level of outrage here is, and how that fits into the events that occurred. Any additional information that you could provide is not necessary, but would be much appreciated. But regardless, there is no doubt that it was an ill-timed misunderstanding at a very crucial juncture of our working relationship.

As someone exterior to the architectural field, this seminar has been a great learning experience. I am extremely grateful to both classes for allowing me to sit in and contribute to the conversation. The amount of critical thought and rigor in the discussion is both admirable and intimidating. This also relates to my ongoing adjustment to the academic environment. This form of critical discussion is not something often encountered in an art critique, which at Syracuse, is constructed as a fluid and unstable mix of personal narratives, theoretical and cultural interpretation, technical analysis, and a running competition to disrupt any form of convention.

I was shocked by my first graduate art critique experience when my advisor spent two hours relating his personal experiences, including how he came to discover that tall toilets exist. Yesterday morning, he asked me to lead my class in a Tai Chi exercise, and it is not unheard of to respond to a piece with a guitar and a freestyle verse. This was especially jarring because I have been working with a group of hardcore marxist artists attempting to create heavily theoretical contextual practice art. We often run into the discursive problem of contextualizing the many cultural and historical threads running through our projects to the people that we’d like to have participate. Much of the rhetoric that we utilize parallels the ‘social good’ rhetoric emitted by the NGO’s we are studying. Due to the gap in rhetoric and how things often operate on the ground, and how it compromises our ideological positions, we have grown to become a very cynical, jaded and hypocritical bunch. We criticize both art that does not have enough ‘critical’ punch and art that is so hyper-theoretical that it is inaccessible to those who haven’t spent years absorbing theoretical texts.

So to arrive at Syracuse and hear my professor talk about his preference for toilets was initially very irritating. Yet in a seemingly incomprehensible contradiction, my current professor  is very strict on making sure that nobody is using their cell phone or reading a text, or generally not participating in class. He is harsh on those who do not produce and bring work to be critiqued. I was extremely confused initially, and thought he was abusing his power, but I realized that every narrative and joke he makes is strategically deployed to structure the environment. He employs these as disruptions to prompt self-reflexiveness or question the discursive expectations that often leads to a biased interpretation of meaning. Often they don’t and they come across as just an old man testing out his stand-up material. But the advantage of allowing for these derailments (from others also)  is that it encourages people to speak up who feel uncomfortable speaking in a situation where each word has to be rigorously precise. This is crucial in a classroom where half of the class had arrived from China last month and possess only a day-to-day understanding of the language, and even less understanding of the cultural customs.

For me, I’ve realized that it’s easier to speak up after a less well thought-out statement as opposed to one than one that seems unassailably sophisticated. The uncertainty of my art critique allows for the space for both nonsensical tangents and incredibly brilliant insights (mostly nonsense), but it requires a lot of time. There are also many tense arguments, hostilities, personal breakdowns, etc. which are sometimes and sometimes not reconciled. Although this is a fantastic and necessary way to critique art, where most are giftedly inarticulate, I realize now that this is not an efficient model that is appropriate to other environments, especially one as time constricted and precarious as a double-seminar Skype session. I hope you’ll understand and forgive me for so enthusiastically embracing a supposedly legitimate (and extremely rare) opportunity to wear a horse head and discuss theories of non-governmentality at the same time.

I wish we had spent more time together in person, maybe that would have more firmly clarified our expectations and mutual understanding. I believe the conversation between Michigan and Syracuse thus far has been extremely productive—at least for me. I would hate to see this relationship being terminated because of this incident. Again, this is something that needs to be decided as a group, but I hope to continue exploring questions of non-governmentality together.

Peter