Reimagining the critique as community-building

image of group gathering around a fire

On a Friday in November, some 35 or so friends, acquaintances, peers and strangers met in the parking spaces behind a Hyde Park home in Austin. The temperature had dipped to almost 50 degrees, so a fire pit was started as participants trickled in, often peeking their heads cautiously around the side of the house to see if they had found the correct location. They were met by the hosts of the event: UT Studio Art and Art History double major and museum studies minor Emily Elisabeth Lee and Studio Art BFA alumnus Henry Smith, as well as Lee’s energetic and affectionate bulldog, Bean; who would all seek out new faces in the growing crowd and introduce themselves with varied styles. Lee, especially, had taken it upon herself to welcome anyone and everyone, responding to worries from a few participants that they would not have the necessary credentials or background to contribute to the event with the warm rejoinder, “you don’t need to be an artist or a critic [to be here/to join]. You just need to be a feeler.”

What if critique was an act of communal vulnerability? What if in a city where accessible space is limited, we made communal spaces just by our proximity to one another?

This would be a maxim that would carry through the night and was repeated in both the passed around brochures introducing Crit Club’s mission and in the opening statement by Lee and Smith. “Crit Club redefines what it means to ‘show’ work,” the brochure reads. “What if critique was an act of communal vulnerability? What if in a city where accessible space is limited, we made communal spaces just by our proximity to one another?”  

Long the touchstone of an art education, Lee and Smith are experimenting with the critique as form—whether the critique has the ability to create space in a city where space, let alone affordable space, is scarce. “Crit Club seeks to reframe the way one’s studio practice engages with space” writes Lee. 

Something that remains central to both my research in art history and my studio practice is the idea that the structures both literal and social—museum architecture, display layout, bureaucratic hierarchies, social norms—are all tools used to define a work of art, its value and individual artists. I view this as a form of manipulation and deliberate exclusion. For a studio artist, it discourages a studio practice that is process based, it disincentivizes ephemeral works, it reinforces the ideal that artists use work towards their work living forever in stasis within the perfectly neutral (read: not at all neutral) museum or gallery space. Crit Club is an experiment in alternative forms of space-making and community-building in the arts.

Crit Club first began in the fall of 2017, when it was simply a gathering of Studio Art students who dedicated time to critique each other’s work outside of class. But as the community around the critiques grew stronger, there were the seeds of something new in the works. The 2018 iteration expands the notion of what can be critiqued from visual art to “writing, film, music, performances, ideas, food, and experiments” and invites artists to bring unfinished works in progress. 

“We’re trying to work against the hierarchical and the exclusive, which all too often get conflated with the idea of professionalism,” write Lee and Smith about the ideas behind Crit Club. “Vulnerability is, we think, one of the most radical tools in connecting with others. Vulnerability is what allows someone to offer their work for critique, but it’s also simultaneously the thing that allows someone to speak up in a group setting and discuss that work. It’s what allows us to make these weirdo events even though they have the potential of being really socially awkward situations.”

images of group gathering at night

In the first event of this new period for Crit Club, there were three pieces presented: a DJ set from ang.mp3, poetry from CC Calloway and a screening of a short film from Jan Švankmajer. Reflecting on the first event, Lee and Smith write, “Over the course of the night it felt as if things opened up more and more and everyone felt free to contribute and voice their thoughts. Neither of us have experience such a social setting in Austin previously, and it was a warm environment for people to open up and share ideas.”

“The highlights in sharing my DJ set were seeing others expressively and freely engage with the music and connect with other people around them,” said Art History major and Museum Studies, French and Women’s and Gender Studies minor Angelique Rosales Salgado (going by artistic pseudonym ang.mp3). “The feedback I received about the set was thoughtful and enthusiastic. A few people commented on the artists and tracks I selected while others commented on the transitions or premise of the work– to create an inclusive sensorial space, unassuming in terms of experiential structure that encompasses the importance of social interaction to broaden perspectives.”

Lee and Smith hope to continue soliciting new and more varied work-in-progress to Crit Club, opening up the conversation to a discussion of the group’s structure and direction. Both Lee and Smith are open to whatever Crit Club participants may want from this space; they see themselves as facilitators rather than organizers of the “amorphous entity” that is Crit Club. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have plans. With Lee close to graduation, ideas have shifted to what comes next and the possibility of opening a co-op space for young artists called Pool Co-op. “We don’t have the funding or the space. We do have the community, so fostering and building upon that is what we’re focusing on now."

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