You may know that I was away last weekend at the biannual conference for Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA).I had never been to a CIVA conference and, to be honest, never really planned to. The first reason is that it’s not cheap. If you’re resourceful, you can probably find some kind of sponsorship or financial aid. However, this year I heard that noted LA Hammer Museum curator James Elaine was going to be curating the show that accompanies the conference. As I have met James on several occasions and respect him and his reputation, I thought CIVA might be starting to head in the right direction (not that I had any reason to think it wasn’t). I also checked around and found out that a couple of friends of mine were going. They started NYCAMS and I think they’re smart. I also met this artist named Roger Feldman who, at the time, was planning to go and asked if I would be interested in participating. Well, that was really some reason to check it out.
So I signed up and went. My ride out there wasn’t without reservation, I have to admit. To start with, my work wasn’t selected for the juried show, eliminating one reason I had wanted to go in the first place. Secondly, I have a general skepticism of all things with “Christian” in their immediate titles – Christian music, Christian t-shirts, Christian political organization, etc. Lets face it, Christians can be scary and when you get a bunch of them together, if it isn’t church, you’ve got heavy potential for making me hide under the covers preparing my apologies to the general public.
One last reservation. I don’t know who gave it to me, but I distinctly recall a sentiment toward CIVA of a bunch of out of touch lighthouse painters gathering to talk about how great each other is. That is to say, CIVA has kind of a bad rap in some circles.
What I found at the conference, however, broke my stereotypes almost completely. Not only did I meet interesting people right from the outset, but I was never disappointed in the least with the topics or presentations at the keynotes or sessions I went to the whole weekend. There were low points when it came to audience participation, but I’ll get to that later.
First off, the show…well curated, cohesive, and interesting. From what I heard, there was a lack of “old standards” from previous shows seemingly selected in part by reputation. It didn’t take long to get over not actually bing in it. It was a good show.
Next, the first plenary (or keynote, as I found out) address. This was by a guy named Ken Myers from Mars Hill Audio. I wasn’t at all familiar with him from that context, but I had listened to a little radio segment he worked on for NPR called “All Things Considered.” Lets just say he raised the bar for what I knew of Christian intellectualism to this point – not to mention his years in radio make him a professional conversationalist.
The other sessions I went to were as follows:
Earl Tai – Associate Chair at Parsons New School for Art and Design. Tai lectured about socially conscious design, laying a groundwork in theology and examples of artists and designers making a difference around the world. I found it to be incredibly inspiring.
John Silvis and I gave a talk on Relational Aesthetics and hosted discussion afterwards. It was great to have John lay out the groundwork and history of it from his perspective as an artist working in largely relational or collaborative ways. The discussion that followed was lively and interesting.
The third session I went to was a discussion of a book by James Elkins called, “On the Strange place of Religion in Contemporary Art.” It started with a really well with someone giving a well written and scathing rebuttal and Dayton Castleman responding. Castleman is currently enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago and has Elkins for an advisor. Needless to say, Castleman didn’t agree. The ensuing discussion was excellent.
One of the invited speakers for the general assembly was artist Alan Wexler. This was a great choice. Not only is Wexler tremendously well respected as an artist, he is also able to speak about his religion (he’s Jewish) in relation to his work in a way that most Christians can’t even come close to. Wexler’s work reflects interests in community, collaboration, relationship, design, architecture and more. I found that while my current work might not be directly informed by his, I could certainly relate to his methods, thought process and humorous creativity.
Aside from the official conference activities, I managed to photograph about 20 people for my Jesus Portraits series and actually made a few new friends. All-in-all, it was a great experience. The only downside were two instances where my old CIVA stereotype was revealed. Once, during the Elkins discussion, someone went on and on about practically nothing only to conclude that she thought Elkins was just a closet Christian. I don’t think he would agree and we weren’t as elated as she by her proclamation. The other instance was during the only general panel discussion with primary speakers from each session, moderated by Myers. Everything was going as planned when a few people forgot that they hadn’t been scheduled to be the actual panel and proceeded to stand up and give individual monologues on whatever “was on their heart.” Sometimes I wish people would stop laying things on their hearts because it seems to cause them to babble incoherently about themselves while making the surrounding audience really, really uncomfortable. Fortunately, those types of ridiculousness (all to common within the Christian community) were a rarity.
If you had misgivings or pre-conceptions about CIVA before, I’d urge you to re-think them.
My final response can be summed up in a two-word statement I made to a friend on the last night, “I’m in.”