Reading

Ten Year Reunion: What our MFAs from UMBC’s IMDA Program Mean to Us Now

Previous Story
Article Image

BmoreArt’s Picks: January 23-20

Next Story
Article Image

BmoreArt News: Center Stage Cutbacks, Mayor’ [...]

Exactly a decade ago, you almost certainly could’ve found me hunkered-down in a cavernous industrial space on the corner of Wicomico and Cross streets, indexing hundreds of hours of grainy gallery surveillance camera footage and blurry Fuji Instax photos from a series of performances and exhibitions. A few cubicles over, one of my best friends was arranging digital prints of glitchy video stills and slathering fire-engine red acrylic paint onto a fainting couch we had salvaged from a very surreal divorce sale at a McMansion in Montgomery County a few weeks before with a borrowed van.

We were probably shivering, somewhat sleep deprived, and subsisting on a diet of crappy bodega coffee and improbably good takeout from the underrated Ethiopian spot run out of a sign-less rowhouse living room around the corner. At the time, I probably wouldn’t have believed I’d be looking back on those cold January late-nights nostalgically, but here we are.

Lexie Mountain and I were preparing our MFA thesis exhibitions from the former UMBC graduate studios in Pigtown, wrapping-up our transformative three-year stint in the Intermedia and Digital Arts (IMDA) program. Much like those heaping $8 clamshells of homemade injera and perfectly seasoned legumes, I think of IMDA as one of Baltimore’s best-kept secrets.

Ten years later, both that takeout place and the graduate program have moved. IMDA now boasts swankier, better-heated facilities in the Lion Brothers Building a fifteen minute walk north, but it still feels like one of those in-the-know, word-of-mouth gems. And a decade later, I still feel like I got my money’s worth—I’m sated, with leftovers comprising skills, connections, and a library of theory PDFs I find myself picking at to this day, wrapped in the warm, spongy goodness of fond memories.

So when UMBC reached out to BmoreArt to help spread the word about the program, I thought immediately about Lexie and our decision to apply together years ago. The current round of applications for IMDA close on February 1st, and I thought it would be useful for potential candidates to read about our experiences in the program. We caught up over Zoom (because we’re Masters of the Digital, now, duh!) and we’ve shared a lightly-edited transcript of that conversation.

 

Michael Anthony Farley: I cannot believe it’s going to be ten years since we graduated! 

Lexie Mountain: TEN YEARS! I mean, I can. Andrew Liang is going through the program now, and he told me has been looking at my thesis, then he’s the one who said “ten years ago.” And I was like… [makes strangling/gurgling sound] When I think about that, it’s this total disbelief of time…

It’s funny you should mention our mutual friend Andrew Liang, because one of the things I was thinking about IMDA is that we have this almost “keep it in the family vibe” with Baltimore’s DIY scenein which you and I cut our teeth before grad school, and Andrew’s been such a keystone as an organizer and culture worker, for years at Current Space and other art spaces. And I love how IMDA has been a natural next step for so many of us in that friend/collaborator group, just from word-of-mouth and synchronicity. 

But it has also been an opportunity to be exposed to new artists who are coming from out of town, or students who were coming directly from UMBC undergrad who maybe weren’t part of our scene in the city. I think it has been a really good opportunity for people like us to figure out how to professionalize—or maybe just structure—the kinds of practices we’ve had organically through those networks, just from being artists in Baltimore.

I remember that being one of the major motivations for us deciding to go back to school together: finding a way to stay in Baltimore and to make our lives in Baltimore more sustainable career-wise. That’s a huge part of the appeal of this program now. It’s so funny to me that for a long time so many institutions seemed to view their location in—or proximity toBaltimore as a liability instead of a resource. But now, you know, for our generation, being in Baltimore was a huge part of the appeal. Having 24 hour access to our studios in Pigtown was so important. 

I think the university leadership has realized that. Now they have the campus shuttle to Downtown… I would’ve killed for that when we were in school reverse commuting from the city! And now the graduate center is located in the Lion Brothers Building by the UMD Biopark in the city, walking distance from my house and the Bromo Arts District! 

Absolutely. I was also really influenced by people who were in the programwhich at the time was Imaging Media and Digital Art—who weren’t specifically making something that you would consider “digital art.”  I’m thinking of [longtime Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts leader and art scene stalwart] Gary Kachadourian, who outside of putting together hand-drawn images on a computer, wouldn’t necessarily be thought of as a “digital artist.” 

But look at the broadness of that definition! It’s been so interesting to see the other people who have come into the program from the Baltimore art scene, like [Current Space co-director best known for fiber arts] Monique Crabb, right? Or Andrew… people who don’t necessarily work specifically in “digital media” as such.

More of that should happen!  I would like to see more people working with different, concrete, “classical” kinds of art styles and materials coming into programs like IMDA and being forced to push their work furtherwhatever that means to them. I think I really benefited at that time from having the space, the challenges, and the conversations about my work. 

I went to a liberal arts school for undergrad, so I did not go to MICA or the School of the Museum of Fine Arts or something like that. I wanted to go into critical theory and colonial studies. And that was my vibe. Finally I was like, “Okay, I think my approach to art making is going to be different. This is my chance to really go to art school, see what that is about, give myself this space to like, play around and be challenged.” 

Yeah. It’s very much a program where you get out of it what you put into it. You have to be self-motivated in a way that was good for me in terms of developing a more independent, rigorous studio practice—which is something I weirdly have always struggled with. In undergrad, art school is kinda like being on a reality TV show, like “For this week’s challenge, we’re asking contestants to respond to ‘Semiotics of the Kitchen’ using only materials found at this thrift store. You have 48 hours to impress the judges. Your time starts now!” And I think I got kind of addicted to that project-based, almost call-and-response way of art making. And for me, the IMDA program was a great path to really interrogate what I was actually interested in and force myself to be more… I don’t know, deliberate, perhaps? Or maybe to both experiment and find a more deliberate way of doing the things that I personally wanted to do.

But it’s funny when we talk about the distinction between what is digital art and what is not. I think for our generation, at least, the discussions that happened in the program became a lot about just the nature of images in general. And at this point, it’s 2024! Every artwork ultimately ends up being experienced as a digital image on a screen, right? 

Yeah, to a large degree. Absolutely. There’s some sort of digital interface that you’re either willingly approaching or are forced to approach, you know? There are certain things that you are forced to do online. If you do something with your image on a computer at any point then it’s like its relationship to the world in that state has changed, for better or for worse, or… I don’t know? Chaotic neutral? 

I think prior to grad school, a lot of people think “I shouldn’t have to justify my art. I shouldn’t have to explain it. It should just exist.” Which, yes, absolutely, a hundred percent! You should not have to justify your art.

However, if you are coming into a program where you’re in conversation with other artists on some level being challenged to speak about it, being challenged to write about it, and being challenged to develop your ideas and your convictions… that’s kind of the point! But I was also coming from a background of being very into talking about art, and being very into theory. That was fun, you know, just to say those words again.

I’m glad we had what was maybe a less conventional MFA experience. I think in many programs a lot of artists hit this kind of strange “grad school slump” where they either get confronted and overwhelmed by ideas like, “Why am I doing anything that I’m doing? What would Susan Sontag even say about my crocheted sculptures!?” 

And people hit this crisis of identity with their studio practice, or people just dig-in to their niche and become entrenched, hitting one note that they know and are comfortable with. I see this especially with paintersthey make the same kind of painting that’s well received and almost become an assembly line without experimentation or growth—they just refine what it is that they’re already doing. I’m not convinced anyone actually needs an MFA in painting if that’s what the end result is going to be. 

Anyway, I invented a word the other day and I think it applies to you and me and what we were like when we entered grad school: Gesamtkunstwerkaholics. Especially maybe when we were younger, we had hands in a lot of pies… I mean, we still do. But it was really difficult for you or me to define what our respective (and sometimes overlapping) practices were because some days we’d be sewing sequins onto a jumpsuit that one of us was going to wear while DJing in some warehouse. And then next week I’m making a painting and the week after that we’re appearing in somebody’s crazy music video or play. We just said yes to everything all the time! Constantly doing different, weird things! And I think maybe grad school helped us realize that through thoughtful writing and documentation, we could see that all of these different types of activities were actually parts of the same total art/life practice?

I had the enormous privilege of curating an exhibition featuring Genesis P-Orridge a few years back, before they died, and they gave one of the best artist talks I’ve ever heard. They said something along the lines of, “if you had told me when I was a 19-year-old pissing in a bottle as performance art that 20 or 30 years later I’d have fought successfully to free this beautiful dolphin who had lived its whole life in captivity, I wouldn’t have believed you! But now that I’m older, looking back on my life, I realize that they’re just different steps of the same process.”

It’s kind of stunning to me how that all manifested. I guess that’s also the thing about grad school—giving yourself the chance to draw connections and let this whole constellation of your life unfold and play around with those connections.
Lexie Mountain

Yeah. It’s really true! And I think that we both sort of hold optimism and cynicism in equal measure, you know? I guess that’s what “having a critical approach” is part of, or all about maybe? We like being criticized, and we like being—wait… actually no—we don’t like being criticized. But we do like the chance to talk about and defend what we are doing. 

I love being criticized! 

Maybe because part of what we do comes from a very deep, unspeakable, unknowable place. And then there’s another part that’s like “okay!” I enjoyed being able to chase reason and image at the same time. 

In grad school I was making images of things largely because I was really into the resources we had at our disposal. I was making these lobster videos—just, like, touching a lobster—because I could. I could take a video of it—a really, really like thick, juicy video—very close up of this really complex animal. And in that way also, like digesting it and then thinking about how that digestion is related to how we process art, you know? 

But it is really wild to reflect on how ten years ago I had a very influential professor, Fred Worden, cut a couch in half with a chainsaw at my thesis exhibition opening. I can reflect on how kind of wild it is to have this destruction of a symbol from classical painting of the sort of luxury of femininity or maybe a woman’s invalidity or a protectedness—and then to wreck that in an aggressive, almost like Italian postmodern masculine performance way, through a man who has the same name as my father. A decade later I’m negotiating a different kind of domesticity as I’m primarily a caretaker for my parents. 

It’s kind of stunning to me how that all manifested. I guess that’s also the thing about grad school—giving yourself the chance to draw connections and let this whole constellation of your life unfold and play around with those connections. At first I just had aesthetic pleasure of consuming an image and then ten years later there are reasons I’m still realizing things—or that your reasons behind a work can change. 

For people who aren’t familiar with the work, could you give the Cliffs Notes/elevator pitch of your thesis? The lobster, the odalisque’s fainting couch—these symbols of consumption or desire or commodifying the other…

Margaret Atwood wrote one paragraph about these connections in her 1988 book Cat’s Eye. Nobody told me! I wanted to take it further, anyhow. I had three years of research—this agonizing research about the connection between the form of the feminine as a myth of edibility or consumption, almost like a crustacean—into that, like the couch and how that the lobster itself sort of looked like an inversion of the couch and that reclining figure. 

Mike Kelly’s “Odalisque” (2010) embodies this relationship. It has a heaviness and a lightness to it… And this was why I wrote a thesis that was sort of like a big puzzle. It was trying to fit, seeing connection between the prepared lobster presented on a silver platter, Victorine Meurent in a white outfit on a red couch, the lying-down, the whiteness, edibility, the fantasy and problem of the white figure, the myth of consumability ascribed to the representation of the female figure. 

Using the lobster as a symbol of luxury and inaccessibility, but at the same time ubiquitous, perfect, and powerful. It’s hard shelled and resilient and fast moving and actually very light, even though it is covered in a protective shell. 

Weird “us” synchronicity I probably wouldn’t have noticed, were it not for the fact that one is sitting on my desk next to my laptop and I’m seeing it while listening to you: lately I’ve been making ceramic vessels that bonsai trees will live in. They look like big shiny red stripper heels with cockroaches. Those colors/forms/associations/exoskeletons from your thesis probably subliminally influenced these, ha! Even the idea of another living thing whose existence we sort of reduce to an aesthetic experience to be consumed…

It’s totally bizarre how we still have this psychic zeitgeist, you and me! I see you’re also in your studio. What have you been making these days? And you’re about to head to an artist residency?

I have a residency coming up at the Wedding Cake House in Providence, Rhode Island, run by the artists of Dirt Palace. It’ll be a group residency for caregivers, an experimental residency format involving skill-share and exhibition. I’m very excited and honored to be part of that program. The exhibition will be on location at the Wedding Cake House itself I believe, towards the end of the residency, maybe March 4th or 5th? Keep checking their Instagram for updates. I can’t wait. 

I also have been making these cassettes. Really, I made a record, but I put it out as a tape. So there’s a hundred copies of this cassette and like 30 of them are in this all-white package. And then I covered them in these paintings of an ocean with a storm above. It’s called I’m Here to Win One Million Dollars.

These are so lovely. They remind me of a framed watercolor you gave meall the blues and greens that match my house. 

Yay! I mean, that’s kind of where I am. I ended up being the lobster and staying in the water and being into watercolors and kind of never really touching video that much again? Well…a little bit here and there. But my relationship to digital art making has definitely changed. I think that my relationship to the meaninglike the joy and an appreciation of the process—across the board for a lot of things that people do has really expanded. And it’s definitely deepened my emotional connection to these things. And I still want to have a sense of humor about this stuff too.

So I named this album “I’m Here to Win One Million Dollars,” because it’s about that same kind of unattainable idea of luxury as something to aspire to, that everybody deserves. “The Land of Opportunity” kind of idea. Like, “oh everybody has the chance of being a millionaire” or something like that. But when it comes right down to it, if you just have $1 million, you’re like, not even really a millionaire anymore these days! It’s an impossibility for most of us, presented as a divine right. Really though, why shouldn’t everyone have ONE MILLION DOLLARS? 

Money and its relative value is actually a nice lead-in to another thing I wanted to talk about, which is howfrom a financial point of viewUMBC basically saved our lives [laugh]. I was stuck in a rut of the kind of dead-end service jobs so many people find themselves with after art school, and IMDA represented a way out. The work study programs were super useful—and the financial assistance itself was obviously very helpful! But also from a career development perspective, the kinds of jobs that we had for the university were extremely useful as professional practice. When you and I worked together in the video equipment checkout desk we, just by osmosis, became much more familiar with how to light things, how to shoot quality video, things like that. I also worked in the digital print studio, and learned about file type conversions and how to take really gorgeous, large format images from the screen to print. These are things that I use to this day at my “day job”! This job right now! But I’m still really jealous that you got to work in the gallery.  

I do really feel thankful for that timebeing the gallery assistant at the CADVC and being able to do that collaboration with the Highlandtown Arts District organization, and basically being able to make an installation in a storefront in Highlandtownusing all the stuff that was in the building, scavenging an abandoned office to create a museum of reconstructed history by reorganizing and reordering everything and using solely the items within the building. I felt very honored to be trusted with that opportunity. It was really great to be able to be in the gallery aspect of IMDA because the gallery almost seemed to function a little bit separately from our program, in a certain way. I loved being in there and seeing the exhibitions transform the space throughout the seasons.

Speaking of what you were saying about “being a millionaire doesn’t seem like a millionaire anymore” I also want to point out that the fact that we chose to do this program with its modest work study stipends but stayed in Baltimore with its low cost of living was huge, in terms of our quality of life relative to spending power. Obviously Baltimore isn’t as cheap as it was when we were in school, but the fact that I had access to subsidized housing for artists, we had okay public transportation, just generally lower costs not only for education but living, dive bars… I can’t imagine that we would’ve survived going to grad school in basically any other major city and not walking out massively in debt… whereas in Baltimore, we were kinda thriving with really full lives and much less financial stress than our peers who went grad school in New York or Boston or the Sunbelt, you know? 

Baltimore! Yeah… 

I feel like I had a very generous financial aid package… and my experience as a TA really helped me when I came back to teach an undergrad class at UMBC years later. It felt like a nice homecoming, even though it was over Zoom because of the pandemic. 

I regret not starting on a teaching track sooner. I think when I first got there it was a fairly low priority for me because I was so interested in the gallery situation. 

Yeah I definitely resisted the idea that I was going to grad school so that I could be a professor. That wasn’t ever my fantasy life trajectory. And then years later when I did end up teaching, I realized “oh, shit! I love this!” 

I would still like to do it! Things just keep happening and I keep not doing it. 

But it’s funny there’s even synchronicity between my teaching gig at UMBC and my current “day job” here at BmoreArt. I’ve commissioned some former students as writers, the two worlds overlapped. I thought, “oh yeah, I trust these young people to be good writers because I taught them!” Is that a conflict of interest? Is that an ethical dilemma? [laughs]

I’ve even reached out to former professors of ours to contribute to the magazine, which is so cool! I love getting to work with people who were really formative to me. It feels very full circle, because my writing and editing career very directly came out of an internship that I did during grad school for OutLoud, the LGBTQ paper, which, sadly, I think might be defunct these days… through no fault of my arts and culture criticism! 

Oh really?

How did I never tell you this!? I had an internship with OutLoud because I was this dirty punk living in a tent in McKeldin Square during the Occupy movement! And I wrote this manifesto and then met the OutLoud editor one day. She basically said, “Hey, you’re in art school and you can write, we need somebody to cover art and culture. Want to do an internship with us?” And I thought “yeah, sure.” And that was something I was able to get credit for through UMBC and then that, you know, became my career, which is a funny trajectory! Who would’ve thought sleeping in a tent in an empty brutalist fountain at an anti-capitalist protest 11, 12 years ago would’ve led to a career!?

RIP McKeldin Fountain.

Yeah. I’d like to take this opportunity to plug Nonument101, a gorgeous app/art project by IMDA’s own Lisa Moran and Jaimes Mayhew! They brought McKeldin Fountain back to life, really at the forefront of augmented reality when it was a very new technology. I think it’s another good example of how the faculty and alumni of the program can combine digital media with more “concrete” concerns (pardon the pun). 

 

Maybe the key takeaway—this sounds really corny—but I wanna expose myself to new experiences and new challenges and you know, take myself out of my comfort zone and just try. Which can be really hard! It can be really difficult. 

Yeah. But like I said, I think you and I are/have always been “say yes to everything” people. And that’s why having this program that was really open-ended was great for us. Because we got to say yes to a lot more different kinds of experiences than we probably would have in one of the—I don’t know how to describe it— …one of the MFA programs that has a much more defined kind of rule book. I’m glad we weren’t in an MFA program where we were just 24/7 making ceramics, even though I love ceramics! 

IMDA was all about challenging yourself to try incorporating something completely new into an interest of yours, and figuring out how to create or present something that’s sort of digestible for a viewer, or not… but maybe something that was legible to us as the author… out of those giant crazy gesamtkunstwerkaholic practices that we had back then.

Yeah, it definitely emboldened me in my practice and gave me more confidence about the things that I was doing, the things that could become available to me and the things that I wanted to try to do. Because of the program, I became a Kress Fellow at the Walters. And after that I was able to do a residency at Yaddo which changed my life—that was where I started doing watercolors, kind of nonstop. You could say it ruined my life—now I just wanna do watercolors all the time!

IMDA gives you confidence to talk about what you need to talk about. I guess that’s what people want from this; what you want from a program. You wanna be able to have your confidence built or strengthened in some way. And you want to have access to connections and access to—you know, if there’s that strength within you—the strength that other people are willing to share. 

Definitely. I think it’s so cool that by and large a lot of our generation has all stayed in touch. I talk to so many people from the program and we’re all doing such completely different things now, but we’ve stayed a happy family.

I think that is really great. Because it is smaller, you’re passing down people’s thesis writings. The idea of somebody reading this stuff that I wrote, and looking at it as some sort of barometer that they should be working from, or perhaps it inspires them in some way to unlock—or at least map out—their own puzzle of connections; I find the fact that people will be looking at my work and my writing in that way is deeply validating. You know you usually have to die for that to happen!

New motto: Grad School; it’s Better than Dying! Speaking of which, what’s one piece of advice you would pass on to a new first year MFA candidate?  

You have to remain open—open to things that are going to sound mean. People are going to sound mean and whether or not they actually are, you have to strengthen your personal commitment to the thing that you’re doing and make yourself more flexible. Like a permeable membrane. You sort of have to become a literal sponge wherein you retain your own particular structure while allowing things to pass through you and affect your molecular makeup. Get kinda foamy. 

I was just going to say foam! Who’s the… I wanna say Dutch? critical theorist you were really into…. Peter? With the foam? 

Peter Sloterdijk: Bubbles, Globes, and Foam. Keep yourself open and keep looking at stuff and keep looking at sources of inspiration. Keep your childlike sense of wonder if you have one at all, failing that, put on what you think a childlike sense of wonder might be about. 

 

This article was created with underwriting support from UMBC. The ideas and opinons expressed are exclusively the author's.

Related Stories
A New Group Exhibition from Curator Fabiola R. Delgado Looks Beyond the Numbers on Migration

The ten artists on view in Between, Through, Across represent a diverse, intergenerational, multicultural group of creators with unique backgrounds, styles, and visions—each of whom have their own personal take on the subject of migration.

June and July Exhibitions in the Baltimore Region that Experiment, Collaborate, and Defy Expectations

Megan Lewis at Galerie Myrtis, Fragment(ed)ing at Zo Gallery, Transmission at School 33 Art Center, Nick Wisniewski at Swann House, Here in this Little Bay at the Kreeger Museum, Reflect & Remix at The Walters, and Preoccupied: Indigenizing the Museum at the BMA

An exhibit where theories pale in the bright light of unabashed enthusiasm.

Reflex & Remix at the Walters emphasizes the importance of artistic connections across genres and time.

Dinos Chapman and Jason Yates Two-Person Show at von ammon co. is a Grotesque Dirge for Consumer Kitsch

The eerie convergence of fantasy and reality in Too Little Too Late, which closes Sunday, June 16th, offers a darkly humorous framework within which to dissect American culture and its apparent decline.