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Open Enrollment: Something to Talk About

There’s nothing quite like the graduate critique seminar – a visit to a classmate’s studio where ten to fifteen artists are hopefully hopped up on enough caffeine that they’ll engage with the artwork hanging on the walls. Otherwise, the forty-five minute critique can seem like an eternity and everyone is left projecting the weirdest things onto the artist’s incredibly vulnerable and passionate ideas. When the rare and unexpected critique does occur, the room is filled with a lively conversation between multiple voices regarding wonderful random issues that affect us in particular ways – all started because of a work of art. This past month, I attempted to get my peers at San Francisco Art Institute to engage in a fervent chatter, and to do that, I organized two group shows at two separate galleries on campus – The Prize and The Biennial.

Jeffrey Augustine Songco, "poster (Prize)" and "poster (Biennial)." Courtesy the artist.

Under the name of a fictional organization I created years ago, I organized two group shows: The Society of 23 Prize and The Society of 23 Biennial. Like the silly comedian I am, I poked serious fun at highly esteemed art events like the Turner Prize and Whitney Biennial. In my reality, these events are an everyday aspiration, so The Society of 23 Prize and Biennial were kitschy artworks in and of themselves. I asked 10 of my graduating classmates to join me in the journey that was The Prize, where I referred to them as nominees throughout the process. I also asked 23 other classmates, comprised of first and second-year students, to participate in The Biennial. At SFAI, there are two student-run galleries: the Swell Gallery at the Graduate Center and the Diego Rivera Gallery at the historic undergraduate campus that also houses a mural by Diego Rivera. When I learned that my show proposals to each gallery were accepted and were to occur during the same week, I was thrilled and scared.

Jeffrey Augustine Songco, "The Prize Gala." Courtesy of Rachel Mica Weiss.

The Prize was a great success for my peers and me. Successful is one of those terrible terms I despise to hear in a critique, as in, “I think this piece is really successful” or “I don’t think this work is as successful as the work you showed us before.” The reason I despise the word in critique is because I don’t know what success means to the artist who said it. However, here in this blog post, successful is defined as sparking conversation between people. The Swell Gallery was filled with contemporary artwork from a diverse group of artists working in different media. If not a crystal ball for the kind of dramatic work to come from artists of my generation, then the show was at least a glimpse into the new wave of personal stories that mimics the everyday of Facebook profiles and i-this and i-that. For me, my artwork rested in The Prize Gala – an evening of wine and catered food from a local Filipino restaurant and, of course, the announcement of The Prize recipient.

Jeffrey Augustine Songco, "Brother Jeffrey Augustine and Prize Recipient Roby Saavedra." Courtesy Rachel Weiss.

The Biennial was another success story. It’s hard enough to work with one person, but to organize a show of 23 artists was a little overwhelming for someone like me who must have complete control at all times. One example can come from my request for each artist to send me an artist’s bio and statement. The range of responses! If you visit the website linked above, you’ll see how varied they can be. I wanted to be as accommodating as I could because it wasn’t like I was making a catalogue or had some sponsor who would pull out if someone were offensive.

Jeffrey Augustine Songco, "Biennial." Courtesy the artist.

Unlike The Prize, I leaned towards a more curatorial position with The Biennial, and specifically included artwork that played with color in an interesting way. On the other hand, like The Prize, I saw that my artwork lay in the party reception for the show. My friends and I blew up a billion balloons, the food and drink was fabulous and colorful, and of course, I asked the audience to vote for their favorite work of art so I could award an artist with the Silver Angel Audience Award (and in this case, it was a tie and two artists received the acclaim).

Jeffrey Augustine Songco, "Biennial reception." Courtesy the artist.

Jeffrey Augustine Songco, "Biennial reception server, Evan." Courtesy the artist.

From the get-go, I knew that I wanted to give my peers something to talk about. I remember sitting in a critique where my classmate’s artwork just made the room explode with conversation. For a while, my artwork was ineffective and confusing. This blog post could be a promo for some kind of push towards relational aesthetic work, but it could also just be a push to try something different – and in that case, people are bound to say something just regarding your crazy antics. One of my professors, Mark Van Proyen, reminded me that exercising my practice in different areas of the art field, like curating a show or writing for this blog, is like an actor in a drama school working in set design or being a stagehand. My favorite personal quote to come out of these projects: “As an artist, you are the custodian of society.” It’s easy to make a mess, just remember to clean up after yourself!

Jeffrey Augustine Songco, "Biennial clean up." Courtesy the artist.

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