Next week Bravo premiers its new reality TV series Work of Art. It's like Project Runway or Top Chef... but this time the search is for America's "next great artist." Fourteen of up-and-coming artists will compete for a solo show at the prestigious Brooklyn Museum and a cash prize of $100,000.
One of them will be Lansingburgh resident and RPI associate professor Nao Bustamante.
Bustamante is an internationally known performance artist who teaches New Media and Live Art at RPI.
She took a few minutes to talk with AOA about Troy, being an artist at an engineering school, and her reality TV experience.
You're not originally from the Capital Region, and you've traveled quite a bit. As an artist, how do you view Troy and the Capital Region?
(Laughs) First I should say I'm from a small town, San Joaquin [California], with a very farm kind of culture. When I was growing up there weren't even any chain stores there. We had to travel to the next town for a Shakey's Pizza.
I like this area. Troy has quirky characters and lots of artists. Also, I'm a big canoe enthusiast so I live on the Hudson River and I canoe a lot. I've seen eagles and all kinds of things and I'm very in touch with the natural world. And I can travel to New York City easily.
There are interesting people -- interesting sub-cultures, counter culture. And of course RPI has an interesting entrepreneurial, inventor type of environment so I've actually learned a lot working inside the "military industrial entertainment complex."
People think of RPI as an engineering school. We're not sure a lot of folks really know there are artists there.
You know, what's funny is that the art department at RPI has the highest national ranking of any of the departments at the institute. So in the art world, particularly in the electronic art world, RPI is very well respected. The department really started as a way to offer electives to engineering students, but I think we're getting noticed more now -- particularly since EMPAC -- even though we're not really connected to EMPAC.
How does it feel to be an artist at such a big science school?
Sometimes it feels like I'm in a zoo with one or two of each animal, you know? I'm like "Hmm... where are all the other giraffes?"
But RPI is a research institution, so it's a great place to focus on my work. I think that art and sciences have a really long and rich history of being bound together -- in fact at one point they were completely bound together. So in a way RPI is pooling from that historical place of the art and sciences being together. And when you think about it, the best scientists are creative and the best artists are exploratory.
What is your research like? What issues do you explore? It seems you do a lot with gender exploration.
Some of what I do involves gender exploration. For one of the pieces I did back in the 90s, I went on the Joan Rivers Show as a performance art stunt. I pretended to be an exhibitionist -- and I'm not one in my daily life. I talked about meeting a fellow exhibitionist who was "multi-gendered ambisexual" -- and we had made that word up -- at an aquarium. When I said the word there was an audible gasp and Joan looked at me intently and gasped and shook her head and said... "an aquarium!"
But the whole conversation then became a whole thing with Joan about whether this she or he had a penis or not -- so that piece was very much about gender construction.
But then I did a piece called The Chain South where we drove across the country with me dressed as Ronald Mc Donaldo -- driving to McDonald's and asking for free food. That work was about relocating across boarders and trans-national icons.
But a big part of my research has to do with why I went on the reality competition show. I look at the area of learned behavior in cinema, and the idea that the screen and cinema has taken the place of oral culture. We once had oral culture to tell us how to live and social norms and behavior and it kind of moved to literature and became a sort of broader way to tell our story. And now cinema concentrates life into episodes and we in turn watch these and learn how to behave toward others. I wanted to experience, from inside the machine, the phenomenon of reality television.
I think reality TV is evolution in that we are behaving as ourselves... in these situations.. but the situations are really outside normal situations. But in them we're still trying to behave as we would in our individual lives. And we have these learned behaviors -- this is the way to tell someone you love them -- if you do this action it means this.
Our show was not scripted at all, but we live with scripts inside of us.
What was the experience of being on the show like?
I can say it was, umm... more intense then I expected. I thought I would be able to maintain an equanimity easier. It's really out of the ordinary to be on camera that much. It shook me to my foundation in a way I did not expect, and in that process of shaking up, I think that I was able to pull something out of myself that is unexpected
When I make art I really become vulnerable. I don't typically do that in a public space. Even in a performance, you might experience that vulnerability but then you can close down -- and in this I didn't have the ability to close down.
I set some rules for myself on the show that were a little ridiculous. Like I only did things I didn't know how to do. I wanted to explore a kind of process or exploration that anyone could do, because I also knew that the audience that was there was a television audience and I wanted to connect with them.
A lot of the things judged on reality shows -- food, fashion -- are subjective. But art -- that's really subjective. Is it something that can be judged on a reality show?
You know, the show itself is causing such a hoopla around the art world. I go and read the different blog entries and some are in the "art can not be judged" vein -- but in a way that is such B.S., because art is constantly judged. Art is not allowed to stand on its own merits. Nothing that is created is not judged in someway.
Will your experience on the show make its way into your work?
My process is not to comment on things directly -- it's more a lot of absorption and then kind of barfing everything out. It's going to take a lot of time to process this experience.
Work of Art premieres on Bravo on Wednesday, June 9.
This interview was edited and condensed
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