How does place influence art?
That’s the question Alex Jen ’19 posed with “No Agenda,” an exhibition he curated in Williamstown’s Municipal Building, featuring works by five visiting art professors.
Jen got the idea for a site-specific installation in the building—which was once a college fraternity house and now home to the town offices and police department—after an informal conversation last year with Town Manager Jason Hoch ’95. The concept was cemented over the summer, when Jen interned for artist Theaster Gates in Chicago.
“His spaces that repurposed abandoned buildings into libraries, archives and galleries on the South Side felt as sublime as a museum would, but they didn’t have that level of intimidation. They felt open and welcoming,” says Jen, an art history major.
Jen realized he could do the same thing in a space few Williams students ever visit. When he returned to campus in the fall, he approached the five visiting professors new to the faculty this year. “It all happened very fast,” Jen says. “We worked along a six-week timeline to encourage unexpected pairings of art and site—it was exhilarating and stressful, but I was able to learn so much from the artists.”
“No Agenda” brought together the work of Zak Arctander, whose photographs and videos seem to swing between the innocent and the sinister, the banal and the bleak; Allana Clarke, whose use of sound in video brings the viewer closer to question the subject; Kim Faler, whose paintings preserve and then break down other people’s personal notes; Ilana Harris-Babou, whose instructional and DIY videos and casts of obsolete office technology provide satirical commentary on our society; and Nicole Maloof, whose dry-erase marker drawings on whiteboards are sourced from town records and ask whose histories are archived there—and whose aren’t.
Jen says their work, taken as a whole, “fixes a critical gaze on hierarchies and social pressures active and latent in our governments and communities.”
A walk through the exhibition brought the visitor into boardrooms, down little-used staircases, into a basement most visitors would never see and upstairs into offices where artwork typically doesn’t hang. Site-specific installations sat on town employee desks, perched next to lost and unclaimed bicycles, and adorned hallways most often traveled by police officers, not museum-goers.
Jen says he is proud of what he calls a “wide-ranging investigation of contemporary politics given form by the particularities of the place.” He says, “‘No Agenda’ is something of a misnomer, because there is an idea—to show site-specific work by these artists—but that the steps toward it are malleable, like making art or teaching. The title is a swipe at embodying the improvisational nature of such a rapidly-assembled exhibition.”
Hoch says the installation was important because it helped to ground the college in the larger context of the Williamstown community. “Opening this building up for student engagement is part of a larger effort to cultivate a commitment among students to the community as well as to the college,” he says. “It’s been wonderful to see so many students in Town Hall.”
“No Agenda” ran through Dec. 15, 2017.
Photos by Grace Fan ’19. Select any image to see the full gallery, with captions.