Back in the 1970s and ’80s when San Diego artist Eleanor Antin taught at the University of California, San Diego, she gave students in her performance art class an offbeat assignment: Go out and commit a crime — without hurting anyone, stealing or damaging anything and without getting arrested.
“It forced them to think of a more complex crime,” Antin said. “It made the kids open up and be fearless, and it made the word ‘crime’ and ‘criminal’ a little more complicated – there was a lot to discuss.”
Antin said she’d get annual calls from the San Diego Police Department asking in advance if she’d be doing the assignment again so officers could be better prepared for some of the stunts students ended up pulling off. “I’d say, ‘Oh yeah, it’ll be over in about two weeks,’ and they’d say, ‘OK, that’s fine just keep it in control,'” Antin recalled.
Antin is one of the artists featured in “The Uses of Photography: Art, Politics, and the Reinvention of a Medium,” an exhibition opening Saturday at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s La Jolla location. The show focuses on artists in and around UCSD who were active between the late 1960s and early 1980s and whose experiments with photography pushed the medium to more interesting and political places. Some of Antin’s photos will be shown alongside the works of artists John Baldessari, Allan Kaprow, Fred Lonidier and others.
I called Antin to talk about photography, but the conversation quickly bubbled over to include other art genres.
She said the UCSD art department was among the first to pave the way toward postmodernism by blending genres and focusing on conceptual art – or art that was less about aesthetics and more about communicating an idea. She and her colleagues and students broke most of the rules and definitions of each medium.