There is an expression among Vermont College students and faculty that "it's impossible to describe what happens in Vermont." And yet, a debt of gratitude keeps me trying. It might be like trying to explain Chopin's chromatic frenzies to someone who has never heard the Winter Etude or trying to describe gestation and birth to someone who has never known pregnancy. More aptly, if you can pardon the cliché, it is like trying to describe a blinding moment that signals a spiritual conversion. Where are the words? It is perhaps a personal Braille.
Initially, I found Vermont College by groping in the dark--for an MFA degree that might land me a better job, perhaps a tenure-track position, more money, some security. There was no time to go to school--and no school of interest close to home. Vermont emerged as a pragmatic solution back then. I remember being somehow fixated on whether the experience would be worth the money, which seems odd now that I feel I owe Vermont so much more than the tuition could ever repay. But my world was much smaller at the time. Even as I was trying to hold that world together, I secretly longed for it to be blown wide open.
I had already earned degrees from good schools--Indiana University, Brown University--yet, Vermont would be the most challenging and transformational experience by far. How could I have known that ahead of time? The work of Vermont professors and students seemed radical. Ken Johnson of the New York Times would describe Professor Moyra Davey's photographs as "poems about the soul, lost and starved in a land of material overabundance and manic extroversion." (That could have been a snapshot of my psyche at the time.) Representing a different kind of art practice, Professor Faith Wilding was a multidisciplinary artist collaborating with the group called subRosa, "a reproducible cyberfeminist cell of cultural researchers using BioArt and tactical performance to explore and critique the intersections of information and biotechnologies in women’s bodies, lives, and work." Professor Steve Kurtz, a founder of the well-respected Critical Art Ensemble, was teaching himself biochemistry as part of a "new genre" art practice exposing biotech engineering of food. His practice would lead to one of the most famous abuses of the Patriot Act, as he was wrongfully arrested on suspicion of bioterrorism and mail fraud (and later cleared of all charges). Claire Pentecost, who also worked with CAE, was chairing the Department of Photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago while exploring cultural constructions of "nature" as they contextualize factory "pharming" practices. These professors--and many others--would deconstruct everything I thought I understood about art (and life). "I want to honor your struggle," Faith Wilding would share with our group one day. Not ameliorate, not sympathize with, but help us own our process.
I think I could literally feel the neurological pathways growing--the painful, awkward stretch of it all. Sometimes my work at Vermont felt like walking a taught rope suspended far above land, with no end in sight. I knew I could keep moving if only I didn't stop to look down or backwards. With that particular combination of humility and fearlessness, I would write and rewrite my artist's statement perhaps a hundred times, as if I were rewriting myself, rethinking my footing. I started out being a web designer who wanted to be a tenured professor and somehow I became an artist and scholar looking at intersections of feminist criticism and new media theory. More specifically, I was interested in ways that representation (particularly of the body) becomes constructed in electronic culture. My passion for this work soon overcame any single destination I had planned or job I had wanted to land. Each semester became like pinpoints on a new topology: new media art, criticism, filmmaking, teaching. There was literally a new landscape every six months, flying from Florida to Vermont, a small plane cutting through blizzards (wear layers in the winter; bring a fan for summer; and "remember your flip-flops for the shower"). Some students have joked that Vermont College was like Brigadoon, the mythical land that appears from the fog. But it is less like a dream than an awakening: a rethinking of the world, a reconstituting of self; and a deeper sense of connection to our own humanity.
Of course, it defies geography. That is the nature of partial-residency programs. During the time that I was away from Vermont, I was able to work with icons in the field of new media--Josephine Starrs in Australia; Natalie Bookchin at CalArts; Jennifer Montgomery in Illinois. Grounding my experiences during residency, three important mentors were also professors at School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Where else but Vermont College would I have been able to work with such a tailored collection of prominent artists and scholars whose work was consistent with my interests? I felt profoundly humbled and fortunate.
Since graduating, I have had the honor of receiving tenure and see my writing published in top peer-reviewed journals (some of these articles were actually class writings from Vermont that I revised). Most recently, Leonardo (MIT Press) published "Fractured Cybertales: Navigating the Feminine," in which I considered ways that gender stereotypes are encoded in computer interfaces. The artwork I created during my time in Vermont has exhibited at museums and festivals internationally. Neal Benezra, Director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, recently honored my work for its "freshness and originality" by awarding it Honorable Mention among 2796 entries from 40 countries in the "Art of the Digital Show."
Now, as I move into my first sabbatical, thoughts return to Vermont College, as they often do, for direction--for the courage to take a new turn. This time, I'm considering practices of veiling, clothing, nudism--looking at western traditions of body shame that have been expressed in Judeo-Christian mythology (e.g., Adam and Eve in the garden) and deconstructed in the study of "the gaze" (perspectives on power relationships between viewer and viewed). I plan to travel to places as far-flung as the Middle East and the Peruvian Amazon--and have already involved my students in a preliminary exploration of their own attitudes and practices relating to modes of dress.
I often think of the privilege I have in doing this work, and the obligations that come with it--to inspire what a friend of mine calls broad sympathy, moral imagination, intellectual courage. At the same time, I have learned to honor struggle--my own and that of others. Making a decision about graduate school is, in and of itself, a kind of struggle. Let me know if I can be of help (my contact info is below), or visit my web site at www.julietdavis.com (cv: www.julietdavis.com/resume.pdf). Vermont College of Fine Arts is located at www.vermontcollege.edu.
Juliet Davis, MFA
Associate Professor of Communication
The University of Tampa
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