David Xu Borgonjon discusses the racial politics of art school recruitment, and its structural effects on contemporary art.
In early April 2018, “International Students” was briefly a meme format that would superimpose luxury brands on ordinary objects or experiences. This meme, by @mister_worldwides, both makes use and fun of a typically USian anti-Indigenous narrative about immigrant settlement, by overlaying it with a brand associated with Chinese new money. How did we get here?
The Ideal International Student
In art schools in the US today, the international student is imagined in gendered, raced, and classed terms: East Asian, woman more often than not, from a moneyed family. A stereotype, a social construction, the result of decades of policy-engineering and interest convergence. A product of the post-Cold War commercialisation of education, she is, it turns out, the invention of a history recent enough that we are still living it.1
Art schools get defensive if you ask too many questions about recruitment. To pilfer the words of one school’s mid-nineties newsletter, which included a column introducing typical “Americanisms” for international students, they will insist that their practices are “above board (adjective): legitimate, proper, honest; from the practice of an honest gambler who shuffles a deck of cards in full view.” But when you dig into the archives, you find that things get “wacky (adjective): eccentric. Example: She has a wacky sense of fashion.”2
In the post-war period, there was almost no active recruitment, tuitions were comparatively low, and government scholarships were more common. As Bu Liping describes, foreign students (as they were called then) came primarily from OPEC countries like Iran and Nigeria.3 That changed when, in the 1980s, American schools faced a post-Boomer demographic crisis. There wasn’t enough enrollment to fill classrooms and float budgets. State funding was cut, and endowments were thin or non-existent. New, business-savvy administrations found the answer on the other side of the Pacific. Iranian students were “too political,” and West African students were associated with non-payment of tuition. Schools “struck gold” with South Korean students, and from there, expanded their recruitment to other markets like China.4
“Western” racial politics cannot easily be separated from “Non-Western” art production.
Art schools transformed and expanded international student bodies in this period. They made use of post-Cold War mobilities and capitalised on the post-Fordist love of all things creative. Taking stock of this transformation requires going back forty years, and investigating the ephemera of the art school—assignments, postcards, brochures, yearbooks, newspapers. Here, I’ll focus on three instances of art students who actively reflected on the ways in which artists are made in this institutional apparatus, and suggest that “Western” racial politics cannot easily be separated from “Non-Western” art production.
Yearbooks and Visas
This research began by leafing through old art school yearbooks, looking for evidence of an art history of admissions and immigration at the end of the twentieth century. I found a game of exquisite corpse; a collection of trading cards; a fake magazine, ads and all. Tuition bills, late fines, student IDs, the entire paper architecture of the art school appears here as the elements of design: “ID please.”
Amid the cheesy polaroids, thank-you notes, and exhibition announcements, one page, decorated with the official typography of US immigration, caught my eye.
1981, Rhode Island School of Design, at a time when international students were still called foreign students. In place of the studied neutrality of the school ID or passport, Shahin Barzin’s expression suggests resentment. Chin lifted, eyes sidelong, this Rome-issued student visa co-habits a Xerox collage together with a moody group photo and a deportation notice (which had been triggered by a RISD administrative error). The photograph depicts a shadow-speckled stoop that frames Barzin and two friends, or three if the dark hound counts. From the perspective of the student at the machine, composing these documents like an exercise in design, the open door of this home is not pressed beneath the weight of immigration law. Rather, it floats above, identity and identification laminated together.
“When I went to the US Embassy in Rome [in 1979], it was the first time I really experienced discrimination. There were two lines: one for Iranians and one for everyone else […] When I left, I felt such shame. Everyone was asking me: 'Did you get it? Did you get the visa?' And because I was a student, still, I was able to go back.”5
Some things have changed in the intervening forty years, though there are echoes of the present. For those who travel with the privileges of being majority and middle-class at home, a ticket to America is also a crash course in the politics of race: the first time you really experience discrimination. It is a contradictory introduction to the politics of race: as a non-white foreigner, you are subject to novel forms of discrimination. Yet as an international student, you’re often treated both legally and socially with more leniency than those who come (only) to work: you’re one of the good ones. Making sense of all this is part of making art on a visa.
How often has anyone besides a university administrator or an immigration officer understood Shirin Neshat, Ai Weiwei, and Doho Suh as products of the same institutional apparatus? Each of these artists lived through, simultaneously, the politicisation of the student-protestor in Gwangju, Tiananmen, or Tehran, and the commodification of the international student led by American art schools. When we speak of the politics of art, our vocabulary for art defaults too easily to the national. The international is simply there, not a political project or product, just background information.
Take, for example, Mo Bahc, the South Korean artist, or at least that’s how he’s normally framed. Think of him instead as someone with an F-1 visa trying to get an MFA. Even though Bahc lived for a decade in New York City, where he founded the first Greenpoint alternative space, where he organised exhibitions on Palestinian solidarity and minjung art,6 “a lot of his work got lost in translation to a US audience.”7 Then again, perhaps it was on purpose: even the name he used in the US was not a birth name but an easy-to-pronounce generic, something like “John Doe.”
One year, Bahc had to Fast After Thanksgiving Day (1984), the title of an artwork for a performance wherein he walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, dragging an empty rice pot behind him. The implied contrast between the cheap comfort of white rice, and the absence of a family to return to, suggests a kind of cruel optimism behind artistic migration. Like the dislocation from East Asia to the East Coast, the trek from the outer borough of Brooklyn across the bridge into the glittering centre of the art world, Manhattan, is part of a search for success and recognition. Ironically, of course, this reflection on loneliness required a photographer, perhaps another student visa-holder, to trail in his wake.
When we speak of the politics of art, our vocabulary for art defaults too easily to the national. The international is simply there, not a political project or product, just background information.
Bahc is perhaps best known for his series Speaking American, shown in 1990 in New York, but also a version called Learning American (1993) shown in Korea. In the work, an instructional video set to music for Koreans learning English is redubbed with other phrases: “Hello, someone’s breaking into my store” and “Oh my! Call the police.”8 These two versions enframed conflicts between Korean and Black Americans in LA in 1992, after the acquittal of the police attackers of Rodney King.
If we took seriously the institutional network of international education that structured artist mobilities, what would we say about contemporary art? Among other things, we would see how going global also meant becoming racial. It is no surprise that the lessons in American that Mo fixated on were about race: he discovered that Koreanness was defined not by an essence but by a relation to other groups, white, Black, and Asian-American among them.
Like capital, people moved: in 1995, Bahc left New York for Seoul, where he taught for years at the newly-founded Samsung Art and Design Institute (SADI). This school ran on a novel model: for just 300,000USD per year, it could use the Parsons name. One wonders how much of the American that Bahc learned worked its way back into his Korean career.
The Student Body’s Voice
The end of the Cold War was supposed to knit the world into a “global village,” post-colonial, post-socialist, and even post-racial. Yet from here it seems like this world did not do away with so much as capitalise on racial difference.9
One remarkable October 1992 issue of The Prattler, illustrated by art director John Simonson, the school newspaper of Pratt Institute, tried to correct this. As editor-in-chief, the Korean-American artist Jean Shin wrote: “Hard working, hard to adjust, or hard to understand? We hardly know, but this group is hardly shrinking and they have a voice that deserves and needs to be heard.” Her African-American colleague Patrik Henry Bass bemoaned the lack of Korean visibility in the public realm; instead of spokespeople, “for every Korean stereotype…there are only consumers.” Customers might be always right, but unlike citizens, they had no rights.
A roundtable with administrators in the same issue suggests that international students did speak, but in ways that the institution could not or would not hear of. “We explain our situation…but [the Bursar’s Office] won’t listen to us,” computer graphics student Sangman Han complained. Perhaps the administration needed ESL lessons, too—something always prevented them from offering payment plans, emergency loans, or late fee waivers. A later op-ed asked, “How do you say ripoff?”
Minority students like Shin and Bass offered themselves up as a different kind of expert, whose knowledge, unlike those of foreign student advisors, came from familiarity with American racism and ability to handle American institutions. What’s more, they listened: at year’s end, The Prattler redistributed their substantial excess budget to the underfunded Korean student’s association, aware that all the ESL classes and cultural awareness in the world could not be cashed in.
In the cover collage, a jagged hand reaches up to pick-off part of a mask, revealing a single, blank eye. The natural individual (indicated by the conventions of identity portraiture) deep down frees herself from an artificial, superficial stereotype (symbolised by the papier-mâché folk mask). On first viewing, the illustration indulges in the notion that Asians are held back from self-expression by traditional culture. Yet we could read this not as a process of unmasking but a process of construction. Perhaps the hand moves not away from but towards the face, a work in progress made of bits of art school: a papier-mâché exercise here, a school ID photograph there…
Which is just to say that the image of Asian international students as consumers is not just a stereotype. It is the inevitable outcome of a system in which art schools, starved of federal and state funding because of neoliberalism, turned to international student tuition to fill the gaps: a process of capitalist racialisation.
The Point of View of Composition
Privately, administrators were not shy about the aesthetic criteria behind their search for an ideal student body. In 1994 the Dean of Parsons remarked, for example, that “from the point of view of composition, of international diversity, the Korean element is overwhelming at this time…and is now less desirable”; as a result, they arbitrarily tightened their ESL standards to restrict Korean admissions.10 Voice, language, communication—these weren’t the problem. Rather, it was just another tool that could be used when the school needed more money, or fewer Asians.
The story of the making of the international student goes something like this: white men presided, white women advised, East Asians paid, and Asian Americans made it work. But it didn’t end there: the creation of the international student as a desirable student body has always rested upon comparisons implicit and explicit to various others: those from the Third World, Black people, and Indigenous peoples, for example.
Smart people have written so much about global contemporary art, and yet have so little to say about the American art schools that processed many of its stars.
Let’s turn to a more recent subversion of ESL by the artist (and former international student) Joiri Minaya. When she performed Prudencia (2011) in class at Parsons, she had only recently graduated from Altos de Chavon, an affiliated school in the Dominican Republic.11 In the video documentation of the performance (shown in a 2014 exhibition), Minaya asks her classmates in the computer lab to stand up. She’s speaking Spanish. Those who understood were then invited, in turn, to wash the feet of those who did not, using wet wipes that she provided. As they performed this awkward, Christ-like act, Minaya asked them to follow her lead in speaking about their own histories of migration.
Minaya’s artwork dramatised the power differences between North and Latin America by reproducing them. At the same time, in using Spanish as the language of the performance, and integrating the performance into the class, she also inverts the hierarchy of English and Spanish that typically exists in those classrooms. The key act, of partially undressing people and washing their feet, also makes student’s bodies (in terms of gender, race, even hygiene) present in ways that are uncomfortable in the visual arts environment. Rather than seeking understanding, it emphasises these conditions of incomprehensibility and chooses to invert rather than improve them.
Smart people have written so much about global contemporary art, and yet have so little to say about the American art schools that processed many of its stars. The syntax of schooltime is boring, not quite real. Not yet real. For both Minaya and Bahc, these artworks about learning and unlearning American exist in two versions, before and after graduation, as if the student work had to exit the school to become real. This bracketing of school from real life is, I think, part of what makes it possible to forget that the international art world is racial by design.
Customers might be always right, but unlike citizens, they had no rights.
Like immigration officers reviewing applicant cases in search of human capital, those who study art focus too much on individuals and not enough on institutions. Without questioning the definition of these concepts, we find ourselves scurrying for evidence of “‘talent,’ ‘ability,’ ‘aptitude,’ and ‘skill,’ in combination with adjectives such as ‘extraordinary,’ ‘superb,’ ‘gifted,’ ‘unique,’ or ‘genius.’”12
In the archives of American art schools, we find that the international student was a product of the arbitrage of the politics of American immigration and Asian industrialisation. What’s more, when the foreign student was rebranded as the international student, she was also depoliticised. The political history of this category was not exactly suppressed. Rather, it lives in plain sight, in recruitment brochures and the gossip of students, too banal to merit attention. In a neoliberal context that privileged creativity, commerce, and cosmopolitanism, what could be more natural?
On the topmost of this packet of postcards, we see coins, airports, prices, a certain famous statue, and coins again. These photographs were taken in a programme targeted to Asian students.13 Somewhere between a thesis show and an advertising brochure, they are a product and an instrument of an educational system that relies on the embedding of Asians within a racial economy as consumers.
In the foremost postcard’s photograph—perhaps an assignment about focal length—pennies are mirrored in water and recede into a horizon that separates it in two. Follow the money: a paper band imprinted with the SVA logo holds together the packet, and precisely obscures this horizon. When I look at these postcards, all I can think of is tuition. How much? What percent of the school’s income? And I wonder if the photographer Soon Park was weighing similar concerns.
The coronavirus pandemic and the worldwide ethnonationalist turn may lead to a precipitous fall in international student enrollment, drawing an era of international education to an end. We should not be nostalgic for a system that was, in many cases, a profit-making venture dressed up in the neoliberal rhetoric of creativity. However, looking back, we can perhaps recognise the ways that a category like Asian art was made possible in part by the racialising power of transpacific capital. In the process, we might also discover how far we are from internationalism as a genuine political and cultural project.
David Xu Borgonjon is a former international student who is currently researching the cultural history of “foreign capital” in Asia.
The author would like to express his indebtedness to the encouragement and support of Shahin Barzin, Dain Oh, Victor Peterson II, Anayvelyse Allen-Mossman, Anna Robinson-Sweet, Christina H. Moon, my tireless comrades in the International and Immigrant Student Worker Alliance, the International Student Advisor who spoke to me in depth, and the wonderful archivists at SVA, RISD, Pratt, NYU, and Parsons, some of whom are now unfairly threatened with furloughs and layoffs due to a pandemic response that prioritises profit over people.
1. One year in art school, a much-loved teacher introduced a visiting artist like so: “You’d think that these paintings would be made by some little Asian girl, rather than some big guy from the Bronx.” Who was this little Asian girl that the professor invoked; was she one of us, the undergraduate painters crowded into the galleries? Those who fit the bill wondered at the artworks, these playful pointillist grisailles, the size of paperback books, thinking about what Asian art was supposed to look like.
2. International Students Newsletter, 1980s (Pratt Institute Archives).
3. Liping Bu, Making the World like Us: Education, Cultural Expansion, and the American Century (Praeger Publishers, 2003).
4. A recruiter for Parsons School of Design wrote privately that students were “certainly qualified, talented and interesting. Plus, in every case, they pay full freight—which, I know, is one reason international students look so attractive.” See Susan Mozer, New School for Social Research Kellen Archives, Dean of Parsons Charles S. Olton Papers, International Programs Box, Hong Kong Folder (17 June 1993). Private notes show that deans will be deans: “we should keep track of the Shin boy. The family has a lot of resources.” See Charles S. Olton, New School for Social Research Kellen Archives, Dean of Parsons Charles S. Olton Papers, International Programs, SADI Folders (27 March 1995). Or in a letter to the Samsung family: “I have a vivid memory of the day Seo Hyun first came to Parsons for an interview (it was the same day that the World Trade Center was bombed!).” See Charles S. Olton, New School for Social Research Kellen Archives, Dean of Parsons Charles S. Olton Papers, International Programs, SADI Folders (21 January 1993).
5. Shahin Barzin, interview. 14 April 2019.
6. Sohl Lee, “Exhibiting Minjung Art Abroad,” In Revisiting Minjung: New Perspectives on the Cultural History of 1980s South Korea (University of Michigan Press, 2019), 103.
7. Soon Min Yong, “Park Sang Yu, Aka Mo Bahc, Aka Bahc Yiso (1956-2004),” X-TRA (2004).
8. Joan Kee, “Bahc Yiso,” Grove Art Online, 22 Sep. 2005.
9. One of the flashpoints of violence in LA in 1992 was resentment against Asian ownership of stores in Black neighborhoods, and in particular against storeowners that beat or shot people who threatened their property. It is the discursive and actual association of Asians with wealth that links LA to Pratt.
10. See Charles S. Olton, New School for Social Research Kellen Archives, Dean of Parsons Charles S. Olton Papers, International Programs, SADI Folders.
11. The difference between Parsons’ relationship to Bahc’s workplace, SADI, and Minaya’s alma mater, Altos is instructive: the former was a profit-making model, and SADI graduates who transferred into Parsons on graduation paid full tuition. There was even an arrangement whereby Parsons would redirect excess transfers to other art schools like the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, who wanted a steady flow of Korean students for fiscal certainty. The relationship with Altos, on the other hand, was based on an older philanthropic model, where a subset of graduates would be given a partial (but usually insufficient) scholarship to attend Parsons. In some ways, Parsons-Altos is a holdover from a Cold War model where the US positioned itself as a benefactor for the Third World, while Parsons-SADI marked the start of a new model, where the US exported education to a world market.
13. The School for Visual Arts, until recently a for-profit company, was a pioneer in modifying language policies to accommodate international students. In the early 1990s, SVA established the Korean Art Student Program (KASP), which had lowered TOEFL requirements. “A perfect blend of the American Spirit with aspects of traditional Korean culture. Again, East has met West with a favorable outcome.” See Andrew Chang, “Introduction,” Korean Art Students Program, School of Visual Arts, 1993 (School of Visual Arts Archive, RG 7.2.). The ESL Summer Studio Program is a descendant of the KASP.