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Caroline Woolard

Cultural Producer

Caroline Woolard is a New York City-based artist, and faculty member in SVA's Summer Residency Program Fine Arts: Residency in Contemporary Practices, Division of Continuing Education and MFA Fine Arts Department

Though I am often cited as a socially engaged artist, I consider myself to be a cultural producer.

SVA SUMMER RESIDENCY PROGRAM: Tell us about where you are from. How has it shaped or changed your art practice?

CAROLINE: I was raised on an island in a library of a house, a place where books far outnumbered visitors. I remember my mom amidst boxes of journals and articles, finishing her PhD. I remember my dad fast asleep, a book on his chest. I sensed that, for my parents, books had always been more reliable than people. Books carried my parents out of the childhoods they wished to escape and into a life together. They seemed to say to me: books (not teachers) are the way out. Reading (not school) is a practice of freedom.

I grew up in Jamestown Rhode Island, but my Dad says all Woolards are from North Carolina. According to family lore, Woolard is a made-up last name. Woolard is Willard misspelled and mispronounced by settler-colonists centuries ago, hoping for a new name and a new life as tobacco farmers on stolen land. My Dad, who claims to be the first Woolard to go to college, hid his tobacco-picking hands in books. Scholarships moved my Dad off the farm.

CAROLINE: My Dad’s high school dress code wasn’t slack: “If the Principal can’t drop a golf ball down your pants, they’re too tight.” I loved that story growing up. By the time I was born–this was the 80s, and Dad was making money–it seemed to caption a thousand photographs. Here was Dad in skin-tight bell bottoms, rocking his big hair before he got drafted and left Philosophy class forever. A pacifist and objector to Vietnam, he agreed to be a medic and rode the GI Bill away from philosophy and into his MD. It took the full force of myth to explain how he got here from there.

The Dad I knew was Dr. Woolard, with a mustache, chic glasses, and a collared shirt. Still, I think he was more comfortable with the utilitarianism of the Emergency Room than the rules of what he called “middle class” adulthood; he balked at wearing deodorant, for instance, and washed his hair in the kitchen sink with hand soap. My parents didn’t follow social norms. My dad knew everything about opera but refused to buy new socks. My mom knew everything about the history of Rhode Island but refused to teach me how to shave my legs. They showed me the contours of expectations based on class and gender by rejecting them.

When I got a teaching job, my Dad told me, “Congrats to you coming from outside the 'norm' and gaining this from the academic world with all of the conformity that means. Remember, you are better than simply having this job and this school gains so much by having you. However, their recognition of your work should be celebrated. You've done well taking your path and following it and now making it a path that can be sustained.”

SVA SUMMER RESIDENCY PROGRAM: Tell us about your background. How did you get to be interested in art?

CAROLINE: Growing up, I remember this woman named Mary Paula Hunter. She is a choreographer still today. She has her ballet students dance in local pharmacies, on the street, and in a typical ballet studio. As a kid, I saw her as the embodiment of freedom. She did what she wanted. She spoke back to people and challenged them. She laughed at most things. I always liked to draw and work with my hands, but mostly I wanted to be an artist because, as a kid, I saw that artists like Mary Paula were respected while questioning norms. I got into Cooper Union in 2002 when I was 18 and moved to New York for that. I’ve been here ever since - I guess it’s been 15 years now.

For me, sustainability is the idea that there is no “trash” because waste material becomes source material for new work.

SVA SUMMER RESIDENCY PROGRAM: Your work has roots in activism and collaborative practices. What is your relationship to "sustainability," and how does this concern manifest in your work?

CAROLINE: For me, sustainability is the idea that there is no “trash” because waste material becomes source material for new work. This comes from conceptions of the “commons”. I define “the commons” as shared resources that are managed by and for the people who use those resources. According to contributors to the Peer to Peer Foundation Wiki, “the commons framework is implemented when property cannot (or should not) be owned by individuals. In the commons, use rights, governed by the users / commoners, rather than ownership rights, governed by the state, prevail. A commons can be a “natural” resource that has the ability to regenerate itself, a “digital” resource that can be replicated infinitely, or a “cultural” resource.” Creative Commons does an excellent job of bringing the Free Culture Movement to everyday life, as image rights are now understood in relationship to the commons. That said, I believe Silvia Federici when she writes that most “commons” are in fact “transitional commons” because in a true commons, the collective management of resources would be respected by, and even rival, state and federal law. Janelle Orsi at the Sustainable Economies Law Center is working to produce legal models translate and reinforce practices of commoning according to U.S. law.

CAROLINE: Because I aim to communicate across social spheres, I make multi-year, research-based, site-specific projects that circulate in contemporary art institutions as well as in urban development, critical design, and social entrepreneurship settings. Though I am often cited as a socially engaged artist, I consider myself to be a cultural producer whose interdisciplinary work facilitates social imagination at the intersection of art, urbanism, and political economy.

I create installations and social spaces for encounters with fantasies of cooperation. Police barricades become beds. Money is erased in public. A clock ticks for ninety-nine years. Public seats attach to stop sign posts. Cafe visitors use local currency. Office ceilings hold covert messages. Ten thousand students attend classes by paying teachers with barter items. Statements about arts graduates are read on museum plaques. My work is research-based and site-specific. I alter objects to call forth new norms, roles, and rules. A street corner, a community space, a museum, an office, or a school become sites for collective reimagining.

To make this shift from object to group, I concern myself with duration and political economy. When I source materials, invite joint-work, share or deny decision-making power, and shape future markets for each work, a community of practice emerges. Experience becomes a criterion of knowledge. To the conventional labels of Title, Author(s), Materials, Dimensions, Date, and Provenance, I add Duration, forms of Property, Labor, Transactions, Enterprise, and Finance. Objects become materializations of collective debate; entry points for encounters with fantasies of cooperation.

The objects I make cannot be disentangled from their economic and social lives. My Work Dress is available for barter only. My Statements increase in price according to student loan rates. Artists Report Back is made by BFAMFAPhD, a group which you could contribute to. I understand art as mode of inquiry that expands beyond exhibition and toward life cycle; from display to production, consumption, and surplus allocation. I begin each project with an invitation. I facilitate an experience. A group gathers. I share and develop leadership. The project becomes a group effort, and the objects multiply. The objects are known in the group and shown much later

I create installations and social spaces for encounters with fantasies of cooperation.

SVA SUMMER RESIDENCY PROGRAM: How does this manifest in your teaching?

CAROLINE: In the classroom, arts educators confront the socially idealized occupation of the cultural producer and the frequent disavowal of a relationship between cultural production and the contemporary political economy. It is my aim to articulate existing economies of cultural production as well as plausible futures of ecological sustainability and social cooperation in art. I do this in my teaching, scholarship, and independent work.

CAROLINE: Most recently, my co-authored articles (On the Cultural Value Debate) and teaching tools (Untitled formerly Ten Leaps) speak to these concerns. For example, here is an excerpt from Untitled, formerly Ten Leaps, co-authored with Susan Jahoda and co-designed with Emilio Reynaldo Martinez Poppe, a recent graduate of Cooper Union:

We aim to articulate the relationship between art making, pedagogy, and political economy. We believe that practices of collaboration and solidarity economies are foundational for contemporary visual arts, design, and new media education.


  1. Through our labor practices (i.e. who works for whom, who gets compensated, and by whom) we, as artists, produce and reproduce social relationships.
  2. By talking and writing about the labor practices involved in making any project, we narrate production “work stories” that make actually existing social relationships and art worlds visible and open to contestation.
  3. The labor practices behind any art project can become integral to the meaning of the work — as important as the materials used, the title, the duration, or the dimensions.
  4. The myth of autonomy in the arts is so strong that seeing labor in art and understanding artists as workers appears to collapse the category of Art itself.
  5. An art of supply chains may be a move from autonomy and art as not-work toward distributed authorship and solidarity art economies.

Our text, workbook, and game will be online at http://bfamfaphd.com after September 1st. For now, you can see an early version of our game at http://cards.bfamfaphd.com.

My art community is wherever my collaborators are - anywhere I find someone with shared research interests and a wifi connection.

SVA SUMMER RESIDENCY PROGRAM: Please tell us about your ‘local’ art scene. Is it geographic in nature (NYC-based), or more dispersed? How do you define your art community?

CAROLINE: My art community is wherever my collaborators are - in New York City but also anywhere I find someone with shared research interests and a wifi connection. Right now I’m working with Helen Lee in Madison, WI and Alex Rosenberg in Philadelphia, PA, for example, and we do most of our planning and preparation using shared online documents.

I often work collaboratively because it allows me to refine my ideas in debate and in encounters with difference - difference of experience, of perspective, of values. I believe that a diversity of opinions strengthens projects because collaborators are challenged to confront their individual assumptions and either come to agreement as a group or make space to consent to individual expression or dissensus. In collaboration, we often take time to speak about our individual and collective approaches to allocating time and money in projects. In this way, people interested in collaboration often are interested in collaborative, sharing, or solidarity economies.

As collaborators attempt to agree upon which resources to share, collaboration is also always a conversation about political economy. We often ask: Which resources - time, money, space - are most important to us right now? How will we share the resources we accumulate together? Who has more time, space, or money in the group, and which institutions uphold this fact? By practicing shared work and shared decision making in a collaborative project, an economy of shared time and resources emerges. Practitioners of collaboration also become practitioners of solidarity economies, looking at shared livelihoods as always already part of shared production.

I teach because I get to remain in constant dialogue with ideas. Teaching requires me to listen deeply enough to change my mind.

SVA SUMMER RESIDENCY PROGRAM: You play many roles at SVA, including as faculty in the MFA Fine Arts Department, Division of Continuing Education and the Summer Residency Program. You’ve also been an artist-in-residence in SVA’s Visible Futures Lab. How have these experiences shaped the future of your practice?

CAROLINE: I teach because I get to remain in constant dialogue with ideas. Teaching requires me to listen deeply enough to change my mind. Being on faculty means that I get to participate in a community of continuous debate and dialog about art with the likes of Fred Wilson and Mark Tribe. It is an honor to run critiques with Dara Birnbaum, to chat with Miguel Luciano in the halls each week, and to sit in meetings with faculty member Rico Gatson.

Teaching here, I have learned that the most important thing I can impart to my students is the capacity to fuse imagination with insight in order to locate what Audre Lorde calls “a revelatory distillation of experience.” I balance critical thinking with technical mastery in order to help students grasp their ability to make ideas manifest while working across and beyond disciplines.

I believe that art is a mode of inquiry, and that students should learn to identify the communities of discourse that are relevant to their work. I consider myself to have succeeded pedagogically when the students who take my courses sense the power of their own volition and become responsible to it, finding partners in other disciplines and recognizing themselves as artistic researchers who contribute critical reflections to an expanding ecology of culture.

To see more of Caroline's work visit carolinewoolard.com

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