Broken Toilet. That’s what the sign taped to the door of the bathroom at BHQFU says. During a party last night marking the conclusion of our year-long studio + teaching residency, some full-bladdered partygoer had the misfortune of walking into a pile of shit. From the evidence at foot, they were likely not the first to confront these circumstances suggesting that several revelers went about their business as usual – without thinking anything of it.
John Dewey writes in How We Think:
“Every one has experienced how learning an appropriate name for what was dim and vague cleared up and crystallized the whole matter. Some meaning seems distinct almost within reach, but is elusive; it refuses to condense into definite form; the attaching of a word somehow (just how, it is almost impossible to say) puts limits around the meaning, draws it out from the void, makes it stand out as an entity on its own account.”
Likewise, our partygoer, in the face of the elusive, indefinite form before them, spreading toward their shoes, decided to make the condition of the shit-strewn floor stand out as an entity of its own account. They found a piece of paper, a marker, some tape and they did what humans do in addition to shitting and partying: they made a sign.
As the sign “Broken Toilet” was placed over one reading “Toilet,” we need not enter the bathroom to know that an ontological transformation has occurred within. In The Plague of Fantasies Slavoj Zizek describes how toilet designs in different dominant cultures reflect distinct ideological priorities: French revolutionary politics necessitates the swift eradication of the prior order of excrement, German conservatism necessitates a hermeneutic approach, leaving the shit in place for careful inspection, and the Anglo-American variation pragmatically splits the difference, dispersing the poop in water before flushing it away. But this new sign, “Broken Toilet,” covering over the old, discloses a change of a more fundamental order. Behold, behind this door, there once was toilet. But the toilet is no more. In its place we have a new unfixed entity, an aporia, a being as becoming. A broken toilet.
“Broken Toilet,” overcomes the logocentric metaphysics of Being to call its interlocutors into action. Our celebrants, upon reading, were prompted to redirect their defecatory efforts toward the adjacent working bathroom (we hope). The author of said sign is to be commended for their apt fulfillment of the social contract that binds them to the wider community of partygoers and their party shoes.
But now it is the next morning, and “Broken Toilet” calls me to a different action. In the light of day, amidst the remnants of revelry, the sign speaks softly, yet with urgency: “Fix the Toilet.”
And yet, I want it to fester and stink. I want the shit to leak out from under the crack in the door, into the classroom, out the windows and onto the pedestrian malls of Industry City. I want the shit to cross the river and flood Manhattan, to smear loafers and Louboutins all equally in the educatory excrement of BHQFU as it closes.
You see, eight years ago, having forgone graduate school, we, the members of The Bruce High Quality Foundation, set out to compare our own experiences of art learning and art making with those of our peers engaged in MFA programs. This comparison made us aware of a whole other pile of shit.
THE SHIT PILE BEFORE US
On the one hand, art (learning and making) is its own reward. And we learn more when we have access to more diverse arguments and points of view, which is why the collaborative put so much effort into working with as many artists as possible. On the other hand, the academic version of higher education in the arts costs money (a lot of it). This immediately limits access to a diversity of arguments and points of view and thus shrinks the possible scope of art learning. Meanwhile, by making students into customers, academic higher education in the arts has established learning as a commodity with a value inexorably directed toward the institutional marketplace of financial and honorific success, further undermining art (learning and making) as its own reward.
We were not the first to confront this problem. Our own recognition of it leaned heavily on Howard Singerman’s 1999 book Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University, research into Joseph Beuys’ tenure at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, the writing of the “free school” pioneer A.S. Neil, and our own undergraduate experiences at the then tuition-free Cooper Union. And we won’t be the last (the Mountain School in Los Angeles, BFAMFAPhD, SOMA in Mexico City, all compatriots in arms).
Nonetheless, in the face of this elusive indefinite form before us, we felt compelled to make our own elusive indefinite call to action: A sign reading “BHQFU.”
A BRIEF ETYMOLOGY
In the beginning there was no name, but there was a voice. A group of anonymous artists, having constructed an oversized puppet head for the purposes of mock-auditioning for an art world reality television show, plugged an Apple laptop running a text-to-speech software into a portable speaker mounted inside the puppet’s mouth and began typing: and the earth was dark, an unshapen mass of flame and fire. The heavens were chaos, water and wind…
The software, developed in large part by Professor Patricia Keating of the UCLA Phonetics Lab, had several voice options in 2005, among them two based on the voice of her husband, Professor Bruce Hayes, also of UCLA. The first was named “Bruce.” The second, a slightly improved version, was named “Bruce, high quality.”
And Bruce spoke the word and the word was good.
Now having a voice, the group made a name. First, we removed the comma, lending it an air simultaneously honorific, as in Louis the Great, and deflationary, as in “High Quality, Low Prices.”
He spoke, Let there be Bruce High Quality.
Next, we added “Foundation” to signify that Bruce High Quality was dead. All the work produced under this name “The Bruce High Quality Foundation” would therefore exist in furtherance of the indignant prerogative of a fictional “dead author.” The Bruce High Quality Foundation thus became a metalinguistic “birth of the reader” space, in keeping with the group’s active critical approach to the art world.
The absurdity of the name was intended to stave off its potential to become a logocentric sign, an indicator of fixed meaning, a dead metaphor. In other words, we built the name so as to keep what we were up to unnameable and, therefore, in motion.
In 2009 The Bruce High Quality Foundation split the atom of its activities and BHQFU was born. The U means “university” and it means “universe.” We wanted to convey scale, not limits. We wanted the sign above our imaginary campus gate to change with the wind – nothing singular or definitive, not a school, but a whole bunch of them. However, as opposed to a traditional university with several schools running in tandem, BHQFU would iterate over time, one model superseding another, each iteration learning from the last, so that the structure of art education itself remained the subject of our inquiry – a Big Bang and a mini Bruce universe, all things turning into one.
Crystallized in the middle was an interjection of protest – “Fuck You” – the spiritus vitae of our educational concerns. This polemical approach, rather than any settled ideology, would move the project forward. We were not presuming to have an answer to THE SHIT PILE BEFORE US. Rather we were proposing to continuously and recursively shift, like Flaubert’s “Bouvard and Pecuchet,” between proposition and critique. The only parameters we set on our propositions were the terms “free” and “open.”
We learned quickly that classes where anyone can attend can actually close down the free exchange of ideas. We learned that democracy, in all its bureaucratic glory, can stifle individual freedom. How much? is the only answerable question. And while we’ve spent the last eight years tinkering with what free and open mean, the context of BHQFU itself has started to congeal into a fixed meaning.
We got lazy. I got lazy. It’s just easier to call BHQFU a “school” or an “institution” or a “nonprofit” or an “art project.” It’s just easier to not worry about where the money comes from, or how the curriculum gets designed. And without any sign giving us an urgent I’m going to piss myself–sense of the imperative of participation in a social contract, Donald Trump is going to keep being the President of the United States and BHQFU is going to become just another offering on a “Free Crap To Do in Brooklyn” listicle.
So, before BHQFU stops meaning “THE SHIT PILE BEFORE US” and starts meaning “someone else will fix it,” let’s take down the sign. BHQFU is dead. There’s no space, no classes, no faculty, no students, no staff, no president, no plan. All that remains is a problem. It’s my problem, Bruce’s problem, and it’s yours if you want it.
SETH CAMERON is a painter and writer, and Ex-President of BHQFU.