profile: Bruce Ferguson

February 14th, 2011

Welcome back to campus for Spring Semester 2011. The Bulletin resumes its series of faculty interviews in a conversation with Bruce Ferguson, the new Dean of HUSS. Bruce is a native of Canada. He is a well-known figure in the arts world, having curated dozens of shows internationally. His friendliness and sharp wit have already made him popular in the AUC community both on and off campus. Bruce's most recent position was at Arizona State University in Tempe, near Phoenix. Prior to that he was Dean of the School of the Arts at Columbia University, where he was credited with reinventing a previously sleepy arts school, turning it into a serious player on the New York arts scene. In the following discussion we learn about his student years, his reactions to Egypt, his philosophy of academic administration, and his views on the world arts scene today. He also explains his astonishing (but welcome) habit of reading everything written by HUSS faculty.

Q: In your work as an arts curator you had already traveled around the world, but until now never to Egypt. It is a place so different from the Canadian province of Alberta, your original home. Why did Egypt seem interesting at this stage of your career?  

I am a person guided more by intellectual curiosity than by any set of career strategies. As a result I have worked at various times in South America, Denmark, Britain, Australia and Turkey for instance, organizing museum and non-museum exhibitions or, in one case, I co-produced a television series of artists’ video tapes for an emerging television network. When the opportunity to apply to AUC presented itself I was in Arizona but I had kept my apartment in New York and still spent time there. In Arizona I had developed a real interest in deserts and their cultures but I still missed the cosmopolitanism of New York City. Although Lisa Anderson made this into the joke that Cairo was the best of both, I eventually felt that it was truer than not, as Egypt does seem to address both my interests and needs; deserts and large urban experiences.

Not unexpectedly, I am also a great believer in institutions as particular platforms for getting certain kinds of work done. A university with a great history and continued great leadership like AUC suggests multiple opportunities. At this time in this city and region AUC seems prepared to reform itself to create even better conditions for the teaching and learning necessary in turn to create graduates to make a strong contribution to the society we are entering. AUC seems creative and ripe for the challenges of the future and I feel I can accomplish much here.


Q: What are your first impressions of Cairo so far? Any surprises?

So far I like everything about Cairo except Nescafé (although people assure me I will get used to it). I am impressed by the way people move through the city with grace despite the heavy traffic and pollution. I love seeing the Nile River daily as both a reminder of ancient history and of contemporary life with its urgent issues of which water and its management are central. I love feeling somehow connected to that history while at the same time knowing how upstream politics and social lives are playing themselves out before the water arrives here and how significant those issues are in terms of sustainability.


Q: Concerning the Mediterranean region, I’ve heard you say that Beirut and especially Istanbul are emerging centers in the art world. Why is this happening, and where might it lead?

In both places there is an investment by many public and private interests in the health of the cultural sector that is having immediate impact, partially because both places have long histories of cultural importance from literary forms to today’s technological forms of image and sound production. So the combination of relatively unconditional investment into a rich cultural fabric at a time when their governance and economies are seemingly stable and even growing is a deliberate effort on the part of many to create contemporary cultures of significance.  

Any cultural sector needs a healthy infrastructure with schools, galleries and museums, collectors and so on all needing to be strong and have a place and role. No one agency can overwhelm the whole cultural environment or it become stale.  Both Istanbul and Beirut are working to develop and expand that web of interests at a high professional level. It might lead to a kind of cultural equity with formerly dominant cultures.


Q: Now let’s travel back in time a bit. As an undergraduate at the University of Saskatchewan, you majored in Art History. First, I would like to hear if you entered the university already knowing this would be your field. Second, I wonder if there was a particular period of art history that fascinated you the most, and why.

Like the dilemma facing many students today, my parents thought I should be a lawyer and I originally enlisted in a pre-law academic track. I took both art history and philosophy as electives and became intellectually stimulated by them. Both allowed me to think critically about the way in which the world worked historically and encouraged the ability to analyze it from the methodologies they presented for the present and the future. My father was particularly unenthusiastic when I switched majors as he felt that the humanities were ‘soft’ and I would never get a job. He thought art history could be a hobby at best. Before my father died years later he commended me on having led both an interesting and, in his terms, a successful life, by which he meant fully employed. I also took that to mean that he had been wrong to try to force parameters onto me earlier.

I took to modernism with its emphasis on subjective expression and the creation of new institutions for art and that led to contemporary art quite quickly as my abiding interest. I suppose because the vastness of Canada is only united, if it is at all as a nation, by technological extensions (radio, TV, etc.) I was also prone to a familiarity with technological modes of making art as they came “naturally.” And the university in Saskatchewan had the odd habit of inviting the most important New York artists and critics to Emma Lake in the north every summer so I never felt the isolation from central discourses that is often characteristic of ex-centric or seemingly isolated places. In fact my interest in contemporary art was complemented by my closeness to the most contemporary debates at the time.


Q: You have decades of curatorial experience in the arts. Can you tell us about the first show you curated, and perhaps also something about your favorite show of all the ones you did over the years?   

The first show I curated of any consequence was called “correspondences,” a term that has a certain and different philosophical meaning to you, I am sure. I took the title from the writings of Baudelaire and in effect it meant something more like Zeitgeist – or “something in the air”, culturally, things that had similarities from one thing to another. It had works of art in it that were traditional and older and works that were completely contemporary and in new media – from representational paintings to robots. It was really about the renewed interest at that time in “representation” and the problems associated with that concept.

My favorite show was called “Walking and Thinking and Walking” held at the Louisiana Museum in Humlebak, Denmark. I used the museum’s modernist architecture to construct an exhibition of works of art about “walking,” a subject which was then doubled by the phenomena of walking through the show.  It was inspired partly by Dick Hebdige’s notion of “doing the knowledge” as opposed to having knowledge I suppose. The exhibition started with Warhol’s painting of dance steps and went through to an acoustic piece in the garden by Janet Cardiff that, via headphones, walked you through a history and a narrative around the museum. We did enough research on it that we could have opened a museum of walking and peripatetic thinking and still been at it.  It introduced artists like Francis Alys to Europeans and other artists like Marina Abromovic in different contexts than prior exhibitions.


Q: The art world is populated with numerous colorful characters. What is the strangest experience you ever had in your career? You must have seen some strange things happen. 

I think my strangest experience was driving across New Mexico with an Eastern European artist in the passenger seat beside me. We suddenly came across a group of horses standing in a circle round a colt that seemed to have died as it was being birthed. We got out to look at the horses that were protecting it, with their hind ends to the collapsed colt and their heads out to the world and us in a circle of defense, just like Muskoxen do when threatened. The artist took a picture of the scene from behind the protection of a barbed wire fence and just at that moment, the colt came to life, seemingly at the instant and the sound of the camera’s click. The artist said, “That’s what artists do; we bring things to life” and he got back in the car to wait for me to drive on. I was, and am, fascinated by the artistic ego which is often such a combination of delusion and confidence and yet, somehow precise in its metaphoric truth. They interrupt the world and provide new insights.


Q: What about New York? Following World War II it became the dominant global city in the arts. Do you think New York is still a center for vital innovation in the arts, or has it been eclipsed by other places?

New York is still a center of global media and economics and thus a center for vital innovation at the beginning of this century. Young artists still go to New York in droves enthralled with the myths and the realities of the place. But obviously other places from Berlin to Kwangju are competing with it and the Internet allows a different access to both production and distribution than ever before that decentralizes both.  The market is still a large part of the understanding of New York as central but as alternative markets emerge other places are becoming equal to it. But it is still the most international of the cities in the world as Paris was at the beginning of the twentieth century and Berlin was in the eighteenth.


Q: Who in your opinion is the most significant living artist in the world? And who are some of the emerging younger artists we should be watching?

Francis Alys is certainly one of the most significant artists in the world today and I am watching lots of people, including Inci Eviner from Istanbul or here in Cairo or Rebecca Horn in Germany. But the truth is there are many thousands of artists throughout the world who are doing good work, more than ever before in the history of the world, and no one is an expert on all of it any longer. We are all just better or worse informed with regard to a huge net of interests and productions.  And there is no central aesthetic that is agreed upon either.


Q: What have you learned so far about the Cairo arts scene? And what can AUC offer to it?

The art world here is quite complex, divided by those who are playing out modernism according to local historical receptions, those who are inculcated into and embrace the contemporary global scene and those who are preservationists of traditional forms and values, even crafts. As such, like most cosmopolitan art scenes, it is full of dialogue and passion and intrigue. AUC can play the role of putting the production and distribution of the arts into a liberal arts context from which students can learn different histories and different methodologies of production and interpretation. As the curriculum demands concentrations but not exclusivities, the intellectual stimulation and the current thinking offered to a student to assist in becoming a critical citizen are enormous. I am a believer that artists can emerge from anywhere but a good university background speeds up the process of becoming an artist and gives a good intellectual grounding which is always desirable as a career develops.  In other words, if you come to AUC you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We have some outstanding faculty who are world class in their areas and artists always benefit by butting heads with other creative individuals.


Q: From 1999-2006 you served as Dean of the School of the Arts at Columbia University. You have been credited with transforming that School from a sleepy backwater into a considerable power on the competitive New York arts scene. How did you do it? And how many of the lessons of that experience are applicable to the situation you face at HUSS?

I think I learned that the conditions for learning are important to maintain at a structural level; that is a teaching and learning situation must be sustained over a long period of time and a curriculum must make sense in terms of development beyond the charismatic faculty members who are also, hopefully, present. I also learned the benefits of allowing students to teach each other and to be taught by their environment as well as their pedagogical situations. I also learned to listen to students. Some of our best faculty hires were because students were interested in a particular person or subject.  Education is a mysterious business and it is our role to offer the best conditions for intellectual development to occur without quite knowing when it might occur. We turned the school into a laboratory for interdisciplinary studies without losing specialized skills.


Q: More recently you were working at Arizona State University, in the suburbs of Phoenix. Could you tell us what you were doing at Arizona State?

At ASU I ran an institute called F.A.R. (Future Arts Research). Its mandate was to introduce the university and the larger community of the valley to the idea that artists do considerable and important research just like the sciences and the humanities and that their research is equal in knowledge production to that of other disciplines. We did this through research initiatives, international artists residencies, symposia, public participation and so on. Artists like Bernard Khoury, an architect from Beirut visited and Peter Sellars, the memorable and inspirational opera director came as well. Eventually we evolved to underwrite a “desert initiative” with Dick Hebdige at UC Santa Barbara and others in the region which is becoming a biennale with a world wide emphasis on art, design and architecture in the desert communities throughout the 23 or 25 major deserts of the world.  Deserts and desert cities are of course, the canaries in the coalmine of global climate change. As such, deserts are urgent environments and what creative minds think about and do in deserts are of foremost interest to the future.  F.A.R. was a good example of seeing working artists in action to share responsibly the civic and academic goals of a research university.


Q: Let’s change the subject slightly and talk about your upcoming work as Dean of HUSS. The School is huge, with nearly 200 faculty. Following the new campus move and the arrival of a new provost, all of AUC’s Schools have been in a reformist mood. But how does one go about reforming such a large School as HUSS? What’s the key?

I don’t think there is one key but I would say that in AUC’s move from being essentially a village to becoming a city (ironically because physically it is a move from a city to something more akin to a village), in terms of professionalizing or from a familial environment to a formal one, there is great need to systematize procedures and processes. The goal is to become a university that can run as a background to the figure of the student and the faculty. By that I mean that what was done in the past through personal and often-casual means must now be subsumed into efficient management systems.

But the main issue in all of this is to have the agents who are a part of the university understand these reforms as advantages to their existing strengths not as disadvantages. And most people are resistant to change.  

HUSS is the center of the university, the school that most gives AUC its competitive advantage in this region and to the other schools at AUC as well as differentiating from their competitors. It now has to act as a School, not as a series of different departments and disciplines, and it has to act with mutual respect for the other forms of knowledge production. In other words, it has to learn to play well with others while developing every strength of its faculty, its methodologies and its students.  So the issue is as much psychological as it is structural and I suppose the key, if there is one, is to present the reforms in such ways as to be convincing and persuasive to gain as much cooperation from all levels of participation as is possible.


Q: Despite your strong professional background, you seem to be strongly committed to the liberal arts rather than to professional training. What is the history of your relation to the liberal arts?

I think being in the arts and being influenced by artists and a wide variety of intellectuals I have come to appreciate how the arts scavenge brutally all the other disciplines for their own ends. Whether it is science or philosophy or political or hermeneutical theories or the writings of any number of people from any number of other disciplines, the arts are interdisciplinary in their research, methodologies and productions. So, my interest in the liberal arts came organically as opposed to being a decision I suppose. I gave up art history for “communications” because I realized I was more interested in the possible methodologies for communication (art among linguistics, mass media, one to one, poetry, literature, manuals, cinema, etc. etc. etc. ad infinitum) than I was in any medium in particular.  Slowly all of this of course, and no surprise to a philosopher like yourself, led to thinking about language and its lacks and then all of the other media as kinds of languages and their lacks and so on.  And all of the reading and the good work done in any of these areas tend to be in the so-called liberal arts or humanities and social sciences. Not being defined by a discipline meant to me not being disciplined by a definition.


Q: Finally, I wanted to comment on one of the remarkable things you have already done as Dean of HUSS that may seem small, but that came as such a pleasant surprise. Namely, you are actually reading the books written by HUSS faculty! It’s a nice and completely unexpected gesture and we all appreciate it. But your free time as HUSS Dean is limited. Why did you make this activity such a priority so early in your stay here?

I don’t think it is a very complicated idea. I need and want to understand whom I am dealing with and what their core values are. This is possible to some degree through interactions and judgments and so on as is usually the case in the world. But also, in the case of academics and artists, and this is a tremendous luxury and benefit, it is possible to find understanding through their produced or published works. Faculty have put a great deal of time and rigorous effort into their particular productions, and it is through those that the deepest thoughts are sometimes found. How they feel emotionally and politically, if those can be separated, and how they think through issues and research their subjects are what in poker might be called “tells.” They tell me something important about my colleagues apart from their usual charismatic, charming and convivial selves that I get to deal with more directly. I also enjoy reading, the pleasure of the text, and being introduced to new areas of interest through the good writings of good writers and the faculty have an abundance of both. But it is not entirely altruistic as I alluded to above. There is a certain hunter and prey oscillation to reading and if I truly understand the work of a faculty member’s work, I might be inclined to take advantage of their expertise in formulating a better school. As a result, I want to be their best reader yet.

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