Tony Oursler, John Baldessari, Carrie Mae Weems—these are just some of the names that have come out of the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) and its forebear institution, Chouinard Art Institute. Next year, CalArts celebrates its 50th anniversary, and 100 years since Chouinard was founded. To mark the occasion, this month the influential art school is launching an ongoing alumni art collection, “50+50: A Creative Century from Chouinard to CalArts.” The first editions, produced with Lisa Ivorian-Jones, are on view this week through March 22, 2020, at REDCAT and later in the year at Frieze New York, with all profits going toward a new student scholarship endowment.
Whitewaller spoke with Oursler about his time at CalArts and the edition he’s created for “50+50.”
WHITEWALLER: You graduated from CalArts with a BFA in 1979. Can you tell us about meeting Mike Kelley there in 1976 and how the two of you came to form “The Poetics”?
TONY OURSLER: One day I was in the Super (wood) shop and, out of the blue, this unusual-looking guy, wearing a weirdo T-shirt, came up to me and asked me if I wanted to sing in a rock band. I told him I’d been in a band in fifth-grade Catholic school where I memorized the whole first Led Zeppelin album.
We talked a little, and upon closer inspection he was making fantastic little birdhouses that involved many absurdist features. They were the coolest thing I’d ever seen. We quickly found a shared sense of humor that could only be described as sick and quickly descended lower and lower, almost bringing me to tears. I told Mike Kelley that I didn’t know how to sing. He insisted that there was nothing to it. Apparently, he had seen some of my short videotapes and liked the sound of my voice. We decided to meet and talk about it, maybe play some stuff.
My friend Nina Salarno said, “Why not give it a try?” We jammed with Mitchell Syrop. Jim Shaw had a guitar, which he played with an electric knife. We’d hang out, and Mike was making some very unusual objects in his studio, megaphone phones, a rubber sheep head and beehives—all of which were infused with a twisted inner logic and incandescent intelligence.
Then instantly “The Poetics” started to make things up: rhymes, songs, jokes, sculpture, dances, anything that popped into our minds, an improvised process. I remember mostly laughter, laughter veered to the utmost obscene—that’s the way it went on and off for years to come.
WW: How did you want to translate that time at CalArts into the edition, Lucky Charm?
TO: It’s a multimedia project like “The Poetics.” There is combination of a variable print, a boom box with our sounds, and a video screen. There are bits and pieces of collaborative sound, video, and graphics. I added a few gems from the vault, unseen elements starting from CalArts and going right up to the present day. The marbled notebook graphic is the cover of the notebook where we keep all our ideas, lyrics, sketches of installations, for dance, whatever.
I was the very, very unlikely scribe—and anyway, it’s funny, years later I saw this little lettering on the notebook showing that it was manufactured, made, near my hometown, meaning I brought that notebook all the way from Nyack, New York, to CalArts. It was a lucky charm. Now a version of it, part of “The Poetics” project related to MK-Ultra, is on semi-permanent display at the Pompidou. We loved the patterns on the cover—it’s the kind of thing teenagers used to doodle onto, a perfect symbol for “The Poetics.”
WW: How formative was your experience there? How do you think your time in California impacted your artistic practice?
TO: CalArts was everything for me. It was a case of right place/right time. There could be an alternative universe out there where I went to another school and am a frustrated painter, crying over a color I’m unable to mix correctly, but for me CalArts allowed me to participate fully in the moment. What more can an artist ask for?