"If you try, you can indeed alter the face and the heart of America." by Altman Studeny

In his introduction to the University of Wisconsin’s landmark 1967 “Arts in the Small Community” study, program director Robert Gard wrote:

 “If we are seeking in America, let it be a seeking for the reality of democracy in art… let us start by acceptance, not negation – acceptance that the arts are important everywhere, and that they can exist and flourish in small places as well as large; with money or without; according to the will of the people.” (http://www.americansforthearts.org/sites/default/files/ArtsintheSmallCommunity.pdf)”

Gard’s assertion that a region’s drive towards self-expression will find an outlet whether modulated or not still feels revolutionary these nearly-fifty years down the line. It has become almost fashionable to believe that the efforts necessary to prioritize art in the Midwest would be too difficult and expensive, and to insist that the intellectual fields have either gone fallow or that the ground was never all that fertile in the first place. While it’s sometimes satisfying to feel so put upon, this attitude ignores that the potential for a more broad-minded and open approach towards the role of art in rural places crackles like an electric current through every one of our daily interactions. 

Using art processes as instruments for encouraging unexpected and novel interactions with familiar people, places, and ideas is not a new notion in the discipline, but here in the OTA region, artists have only recently begun to explore the positive impact they might have by facilitating social engagement through collaboration with audiences rarely involved in the creation of “art” as it is traditionally understood. By approaching the act of relationship-building between individuals, neighborhoods, and cities as a question of design, the artist’s toolkit of critical thinking, problem solving, and intentionality can be applied to fostering meaningful cultural cooperation and evolution based not on some fantastical ideal of "community," but by helping to uncover at the very roots ideas that have been waiting to emerge from those specific desires and resources as are actually present in each community. Perhaps the end product is an oral history archive of Midwestern foodways or a public conversation about institutional racism in the Plains States. Perhaps what is needed is a concrete plan for a neighborhood bike lane, or a mural honoring one hundred and twenty-five years of local enterprise. What “wants” to emerge will look different for every situation, and it is the artist’s adaptability which will allow him or her to respond with eagerness and curiosity to the unique variables at play in each new challenge.

It has been said that all great innovations are inevitable, that given the occurrence of enough seemingly disconnected events, there can be no alternative but for the lightbulb to be called into being. For artists to broker such a dialog as will acknowledge those diverse and innate creative approaches within us all allows the opportunity for thoughts and opinions that might otherwise be shouted down to blend with others to create novel solutions for complex issues. And artworks, those documents of our constant processes of "becoming," will flourish, too, in ways that will alter the visual and conceptual landscape of our region for generations to come.

"Dakota Feeds the World" by Altman Studeny

She is this season the bright particular star in the agricultural firmament – the sparkler whose brilliancy makes every other star pale and wan and diminished in luster – the only one which can rank as of the first magnitude.

She comes out from behind the clouds which at one time or another in its history have obscured every other star, and now beams her attractions throughout the sky.

It will need no almanac nor astronomical chart to locate South Dakota hereafter – she’ll stick out so luminously prominent that no man can turn his gaze upward or outward without seeing her.

And now let every resident turn astrologer and induce the people of the east and west and the north and the south to accept the opportunity to get directly under denignant influence of this luck winner – this star of the empire.

It shines for all – under its rays the homeseekers of a whole continent may come.

Say to them as Emerson said: “Hitch your wagon to a star”– and while you’re hitching, pick out the dandiest blazer in the firmament – Sigma Delta in the new northwest constellation.

- Sioux Falls Press, The State Feels Proud as a Turkey Cock Over the Agricultural Outlook of 1882

How To Make Jell-O by Altman Studeny

1.) Dissolve one package of any fruit flavored Jell-O Gelatin in one cup of boiling water. Begin to recollect your personal memories of eating Jell-O: the pleasures, the challenges, the anxieties, the joys.

2.) Drain one can fruit cocktail of juice, reserving 3/4 cup syrup while considering the regional history of unironic Jell-O salad consumption which you are, in some small measure, laboring to preserve by unironically making a Jell-O salad to consume. 

3.) Add reserved syrup and one tablespoon of lemon juice to gelatin. Chill until very thick, about two hours, time that can be used to reflect upon the shifting perceptions of Jell-O from a dish of refined elegance and economic privilege in an era of limited refrigeration to a symbol of the perceived limited cultural experience of a hinterland so unsophisticated as to still use cream of chicken soup as sauce and crushed potato chips as garnish, and strive to define whether you are critiquing that perception or, in fact, inadvertently perpetuating it.

4.) Fold-in fruit and 1/4 cup of coarsely chopped nuts. Pour into a one quart mold and chill until firm, another two to three hours. While waiting, consider the amount of time and effort required to make what has through its history been touted as a simple dish for the housewife of Middle America to prepare and serve to her expectant family; how that amount of time and effort required was not nor ever has been seen as equivalent to the secret mythic power of an artist laboring in his studio; how that perception of artist’s secret mythic power, led, during the 1950s, to artists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem deKooning being heralded in a purpose-starved post-War culture (the very culture most closely associated with the making of such Jell-O salads as you are now laboring to make...) as “heroes” for enacting a phallocentric drip and flick performance upon a symbolically supine canvas; and how culture has not yet adapted its mythologies to accept a definition of “hero” that neither rabidly embraces nor actively rebels against these signs and signifiers but is instead completely indifferent to the terms of the debate. 

5.) Unmold carefully, ruminating on the essential absurdity of making Jell-O when, in two-point-three billion years, the Earth and every solitary remnant of the culture which brought about Jell-O; saw Jell-O as class; saw Jell-O as kitsch; used Jell-O as cultural critique; put fruit cocktail in tins; cared anything at all about Jackson Pollock; painted, in addition to “Lavender Mist” and “Guernica” and “The Beethoven Frieze” and “Young Corn,” glistening Jell-O molds to be printed in booklets to sell more Jell-O; perpetuated arbitrary concepts of perfection with four-color lithography; fully embraced those arbitrary concepts of perfection because, “hey!, at least it’s something”; established gendered roles and family structures; created and abandoned gods; created potato chips; crushed up potato chips to sprinkle over cream soup and ground beef; domesticated cattle; made the skins and bones of those cattle into a powder which allowed deserts to hold the shape of pinwheels; defined the concept of “irony”; had nervous systems developed enough to recognize distinctions between irony and sincerity; had feelings to be hurt when the two collide; were advanced to the point of needing a term like “phallocentric”; never advanced much beyond the idea that their phalluses were really something special; et cetera, et cetera, yes, THAT Earth, will be reduced to nothing more than a charred husk failing into the surface of the rapidly-expanding sun. 

6.) Serve with whipped cream.


"The living mask of green that trembled over everything..." by Altman Studeny

“I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.” 
"My Antonia," Willa Cather

Since the late-1950s, the boundaries between Art and Life have blurred to the point of non-existence, and though artists and critics have long bemoaned the toppling of that proscribed power structure that drives art as an economy, this dissolution of archaic approaches can herald great new opportunities for artists and the communities in which they choose to live and work.

The visual culture of the Midwest communicates crucial truths about the importance of preserving a regional identity and, by extension, how often-overlooked regions have a valid voice in shaping a more inclusive future for art and culture in our country and the world.

More often than not, the products of our Plains-minded inquiry are expressed through non-traditional means: the farmer who counts the hawks he sees from the seat of his cultivator; the grandmother who tats endless yards of lace to stave off arthritis; the festival that draws out a population proud of its potatoes, its pageant, its pow-wow, or its polka. Viewed through a lens of inclusivity, these are all “projects” with powerful “art” components. They bear evocative traces of the circumstances surrounding their creation, exemplify cultural trends toward a greater social intelligence and collective talent, and communicate a profound sense of place. If they were enacted by “an artist,” they’d find space on the walls of Art Basel.

Here, however, they’re just ways to pass the time.

Institutional authority is powerful framing device. To accept new, un-art methods of making as stages of a vital evolution of the Grand Ol’ Traditions provides thrilling opportunities to reverse the generally-accepted understanding of which direction the culture river runs. It, furthermore, opens the door to the choice to live artfully in environments where artists are not “supposed” to thrive. For this to happen, however, it requires a radical redefinition of the modes and codes that govern the purpose and function of art. Which is to say: though a community might not necessarily need a painter, one might apply the qualities of a painter to the necessary needs of a community.

Survival in rural areas requires perseverance, ingenuity, investment in community, and a back-breaking amount of hard work. The social interactions engendered through the practice and processes of art that will thrive in this cultural ecosystem will be those which express an understanding and acceptance of these truths at every level.

At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.” And it’s true: one blade of grass does not the prairie make.

Drip Music by Altman Studeny


Consider an object. Call what is not the object “other.”

EXERCISE: Add to the object, from the “other,” another object, to form a new object and a new “other.”

Repeat until there is no more “other.”

EXERCISE: Take a part from the object and add it to the “other,” to form a new object and a new “other.”

Repeat until there is no more object.

- Georges Brecht, 1961