“Welcome…to the most important group show in all of history, ever!” a black-robed twenty-something shouted last Sunday night from a wooden platform, stacked with hay bales. The first floor of the Brucennial’s pop-up gallery had been transformed into a pop-up musical theater. Packed with the type of people you’d expect to see at an art school reunion, and helped by the free beer and an artists-only hanging of work, it felt like a homecoming; what the Brucennial loses in curation or individual messages, it gains as a big, familial show of pride. The set was lit by the aluminum spot lamps common to art school studios (during scene changes, these would be rapidly switched on and off to induce a goofy strobe effect).
As the play opens, four actors in pig noses plop down on a row of hay bales. It’s a barnyard graduation ceremony, complete with Pomp and Circumstance, and as the students settle in for typical ceremony entertainments—braiding each others’ hair, snapping cell phone pictures, drinking beer—a screen framed by a Styrofoam pig head begins the commencement speech. Its computerized voice cautions them not to forget their roots: “We are the music makers, the dreamers of dreams. The great gift that has been our education … must not be forgotten, but must live on like credit card debt or an untreatable disease.” He goes on to quote the BHQFU anthem: “Every pig is an artist. No pig flies alone. Teaching others is our greatest work. We can’t do it on our own.”
The same cast of four play nearly all the parts in the play, transforming over its course into a board of trustees (in which pig noses are swapped for chicken noses) and starving graduates (in which they wear pink t-shirts). As the chicken board, they drive the school bankrupt; one of the members with her investment firm, another by using his development company to build a “goddamn state-of-the-art architectural monstrosity.” Suddenly pressed, the school considers charging tuition for the first time in its 150 years; as a result, talented students stop applying. “All of our students are chickens!” moan the board members. They give up, signing the school to the dog-run private equity firm BITE. Its representative, a Tex Avery-style dog, begins to utterly dismantle the school.
Meanwhile, the graduates have had enough of serving beer and interning. Grabbing their canvases and instruments, they determine to leave the art world forever, setting out in a a makeshift raft—indicated by a pole and a scrap of cloth—upon the East River. In a spurt of enthusiasm, they sing a quick Gilbert and Sullivan-style ditty; it serves to declare them free.
Freedom, though, does not bring satisfaction. On the raft, the pigs spend their time strumming idly at a mandolin, or painting cubist pig-faces; one chisels away at a spray-painted marble sculpture (made, of course, of Styrofoam). Slowly, they realize their mistake: the pigs don’t need to abandon society, they need to remake it. Here, as in so much of the Bruces’ work, collaboration is the answer. One of the boys asks, “Wasn’t that the whole point anyway? To make a better art world for us and piggies like us?” The sculptor abandons his chiseling with a shout: “Let’s start our own fucking school!”
So they do. They sing another song, and as it closes—its refrain declaring, “We only want to free your mind”—the house lights turn on; in a moment, the pigs illuminate the hundreds of artworks around us. Pressing the point, they run out into the audience. The Beatles-esque lyrics immediately reminded me of the ones I’d seen scrawled in the basement stairwell: “There’s nothing you can framed that can’t be framed…There’s nothing you can hang that can’t be hanged.” (All you need is love…)
In the final scene, BITE and Co. are playing poker back at the BHQFU, a location indicated by a styrofoam sign stuck in a hay bale. They growl about online courses—“We only have to pay one teacher, and we can keep charging thousands of times!”—and joke that they’re making enough money to stop charging tuition. They laugh, but are stopped short when they hear a far-off voice; it sings, “We can do it on our own!”
As the lights went up to a round of applause, a twenty-something guy brought us back to the talking points, reminding us that Cooper Union is considering charging tuition and directing us to the fundraising campaign. It strikes home with much of the audience, because many are current or former students; the Bruces themselves met at the school nearly a decade ago. By the end of the play, I felt that I’d gone there, too. Scanning the art-packed walls one last time, the game of “find the famous artwork” felt even more trivial; this event, plus the Brucennial, was about community, not the strategic positioning of one personality over another.
The message here fits neatly with the Bruce High Quality Foundation motto: Professional Challenges. Amateur Solutions. In the face of institutional (and curatorial) tyranny, and the imperative to grow from caring, collaborative groups into competitive, professional individuals, the pigs cheerfully stay the course. The Bruces ask us: is that so immature?