Interview between the Bruce High Quality Foundation and BHQFU’s current dean, Haley Mellin


Haley Mellin: What is the Bruce High Quality Foundation?

Bruce High Quality Foundation: The Bruce High Quality Foundation creates installations, videos, paintings, sculptures, performances, and institutions that reveal our collective creative agency within the seemingly monolithic forces of art and social history. In 2009, the Foundation founded BHQFU, an experimental art school in downtown Manhattan. In 2010, the Foundation was included in the Whitney Biennial while simultaneously hosting the Brucennial 2010. Recent projects include “The Retrospective: 2010” at Galerie Bruno Bischofberger in Zurich, “Argumenta” at the 2011 Venice Biennale, “Teach 4 Amerika,” a national arts education tour, and the Brucennial 2012. In June of 2012 the Foundation opened a solo exhibition at New York’s Lever House concerned with art’s relationship to the history of labor. In September the Foundation opened a solo exhibition at Galerie Bruno Bischofberger examining the preservation and destruction of images, specifically The Raft of the Medusa. The Foundation will open a retrospective exhibition titled “Ode to Joy, 2001-2013” at the Brooklyn Museum this June.

HM: What is the Bruce High Quality Foundation University?

BHQF: BHQFU is a learning experiment. It is a generative community of artists—young and old, emerging, established, and never-known—oriented around the principle of creative collaboration. The idea emerged out of our own practice, as a way of bringing a wider audience in on the collaborative learning experience.

HM: What does it do, change, offer, create? Do you consider it an artwork?

BHQF: We typically don’t refer to it as an artwork simply to avoid confusion. But in a broader sense, it is. It’s a means for people to change how they see the world, to complicate their understandings, to bring poetry to bear on the mechanics of living. BHQFU ideally offers a platform for the exchange and cross-pollination of art ideas. It keeps the pot stirring, so to speak.

HM: Who attends?

BHQF: BHQFU has existed to date in a few different iterations. It’s been a local institution where New York artists (typically postgrad) have designed their own educational experiences, taught and taken classes, designed public events, etc. It’s been an experience we’ve taken to other institutions both across the US and abroad: art schools, alternative spaces, museums. And it’s been an idea we’ve attempted to shoehorn into the public imagination: the notion that an artist’s education is fluid, not bound by the particularities of one institution, born of experience, communication, and collaboration with other artists.

HM: Why make a school today?

BHQF: As you are probably aware, the Bruce High Quality Foundation has gained a reputation for being cagy about the details of who its members are, when they started working together, and how the work gets made. This was never intended as a gimmick; rather, it has been a way for us to insist on the efficacy of our collaborative ethos. Furthermore, we don’t think our individual biographies help people relate to our work. But the truth of the matter is that we are a group of artists who met in school and quickly realized after graduation that all we really had in the world was our work and one another.

Our work and practice lives on the feedback of other artists, the rambling midnight-to-morning conversations, chance encounters with common ground, and the sheer joy that comes from being a part of something bigger than ourselves. Because of this, we’ve had opportunities to learn and grow that we never could have imagined on our own. But that’s precisely the point. Whether one works as a solo act or a group, art is a shared experience. It is human beings trying everything they can think of to empathize with one another. At its very core, art is a learning experiment. And that’s why we started BHQFU.

HM: Does BHQFU have an end?

BHQF: The goal is very immediate: to make a space for critical art education out of the shared experience of artists working today. And in the grand scheme of things, the goal is to keep that possibility going in whatever form it needs to take.

HM: How would you define a good arts education?  What are the components?

BHQF: Being a good artist is impossible. You are responsible for everything—every possible interpretation that may happen ever. You have to know everything. Given that impossibility, an arts education can only be about striving. It must nurture creativity and autodidactic thinking. It must nurture curiosity and criticality at the same time. And then you hope for a really profound accident here and there.

HM: And community? What are the ingredients that make up a healthy, productive, and inventive community?

BHQF: It would be difficult to call it one thing. While we think community is something to strive for, it’s really just a moment here and there when plural people suddenly see themselves in one another. It being unexpected is probably crucial to how meaningful it is. Derrida wrote a delicious little book on Nietzsche called Spurs wherein he ends with an examination of what most of Nietzsche’s interpreters considered meaningless marginalia, the sentence “I have forgotten my umbrella.” It pops up in the text like the prick of consciousness, seemingly unrelated to everything that comes before it. Seemingly inexplicable. And, notably, a contradiction, as Nietzsche has apparently just remembered his umbrella. Community, commonality between people, empathy, connections between ideas—it happens like this. By trying very hard to make something happen and then being surprised. Communities are not natural or persistent. They are rare and weird. And they often leave nothing of substance behind. But sometimes they allow us to reimagine our relationships to others and to the institutions we’ve built up to organize ourselves.

HM: What are the philosophies that the school community is built around?

BHQF: Artists should torture themselves and one another. And they should also offer themselves and one another something like relief. And then they should figure out how to do both at the same time.

HM: Does BHQFU produce classes, or events?

BHQF: We consider BHQFU to be pragmatic but not practical. It doesn’t teach anyone how to stretch a canvas or cook rice, but hopefully it can teach some how to think about stretching a canvas or cooking rice. In this sense it produces knowledge. An unfixed kind of knowledge, but knowledge nonetheless. Classes, events, texts, discussions—these are all available means.

HM: How does the school assist practice, or become practice?

BHQF: The exchange of ideas with others is fundamental to artistic practice. What else is there? An artist doesn’t paint a stroke for no one to see.

HM: Where do you draw your approaches from?

BHQF: The critique model that began in the 1970s with schools like CalArts and Cooper Union—that’s important. Put people in a room and have them throw words at objects until something sticks long enough for a conversation to happen. The fundamental anarchy of this model still drives us.

HM: I’ve been thinking about independence and interdependence, and how novel approaches to collaboration can come from a mixture of the two.

BHQF: The Bruce High Quality Foundation University testifies to the necessity of collaboration—between people, between ideas. Artists cannot exist in a vacuum. They also can’t rely on the world to do all the work for them.

HM: What current issues in arts education are we trying to shift, or give a voice to?

BHQF: The predominant institutional models of arts education are suffering the same circumstances as higher education across the country. It’s too expensive. This breeds a professionalized culture. There is no real market to sustain so many professional artists. So hopefully BHQFU can be one among many models that offer an alternative educational narrative for artists.

HM: Historical education models in the United States place a premium on the attainment of a degree. What does BHQFU emphasize?

BHQF: BHQFU emphasizes doing something. Our education is not seen as a protected time or space; rather, it is about placing yourself at constant risk. This experience is not given parameters. It is intended as a continual state of being. We don’t ask participants to organize themselves toward the attainment of anything. It is always about now.

HM: What is your favorite color?

BHQF: The primaries.

HM: What is your favorite song?

BHQF: “Con Te Partirò,” by Francesco Sartori and Lucio Quarantotto. The title literally translates, “With you, I will leave,” and does an excellent job of answering your question about independence and interdependence. It is a song about collaboration. About being alone together.

HM: Artists work in a collaborative manner, if not with each other, then with their time, with institutions, with visual languages that are created by communities.  What is your advice on collaborating?

BHQF: Don’t overthink it. Now do that every day.

HM: How do the differences between you become productive in making work, in editing, in forging a path?

BHQF: It may be more trouble than it’s worth. But sometimes it’s easier to see what is working and what isn’t with a little distance, with something like objectivity. We are engaged in the optimistic/empathetic act of trying to see the world through other people’s potential eyes. How might an audience understand this? What if they are just a little smarter? A little more sensitive?

HM: As artists working collaboratively, how do you handle issues of independence, and singular mindsets?

BHQF: Trial and error. Mostly error.

HM: How does your studio work and your interest in education and community combine?

BHQF: We create objects (paintings, movies, sculptures) that are subject to the history of those mediums, but otherwise they are no different from the exhibitions, actions, and institutions we make. Each type of thing must account for its own language, but the message doesn’t really deviate.

HM: What is social sculpture?

BHQF: “Social sculpture” is a metaphor that allows us to see society and its institutions as subject to the means of poetics. So rather than an artist working with paint or cardboard or noise or language, an artist is constructing an aesthetic experience from the social interactions of others. This concretizes the idea of “the viewer completes the work,” because often in social sculpture, they literally do. Joseph Beuys coined the term to describe an expanded field of influence for artists, one where the artist could act as a teacher, a politician, a social worker. Conversely, the term attempts to see preexisting social constructions as available to metaphor, to beauty, and reflection.

HM: In addition to social sculpture, you also make discrete objects: sculptures, paintings, collages, and other more traditional artworks. How do these relate to the institutional and social missions of BHQF?

BHQF: We work out of and into the histories of the specific mediums we are working with at any given moment, whether a painting, an installation, or even a school. Discrete object artworks have the capacity to enter into a historical conversation very different from works constituted of a fleeting social situation. Nonetheless, we consider them all part and parcel of the same overall project of the Foundation. For instance, we create many sculptures that we refer to as Portable Museums. We understand these works will exist in the future inside of art collections, even “fixed” museums. And it is our interest that they be understood as constituting their own kind of space—one that in a metaphoric capacity functions like a museum: preserving culture, educating the public, and most importantly, deconstructing everyday life.

HM: How does one make a school?

BHQF: Invite some people over for dinner.


bruce high quality foundation

Haley Mellin