• Scott Baker

In Conversation: Osman Khan, Amanda Potter

In early August, Executive Director Natalie Marsh had the pleasure of connecting with one of our Artist-Educator pairs: Osman Khan and Amanda Potter. Through ViVA, Amanda and Osman have gotten to know each other over recent months. Their collaboration has grown as Amanda developed a ViVA Artist Packet about Osman and his work. Our Artist Packets are exemplary toolkits meant to aid our client-partners in situating a ViVA talk in relationship to a range of audiences. Excerpted here is part of an online dialogue during which a range of topics emerged: our own educations, how art tells compelling stories that resonate decades (or even centuries) later, and how our changing environment forces us to see and know our world differently.

Natalie: It’s been such a pleasure to get to know you both through ViVA. Osman, you have a unique professional trajectory, having started in mechanical engineering and then web development, before returning to school for your MFA in design and media arts. It seems like this background informs the environments and social criticism at work in your practice. Can you talk a little about that?

Osman: Diverse experiences are always great fodder for any art practice, having a varying career path allowed for a couple of things: a non-conventional approach to art-making equally informed by other disciplinary methodologies and mediums, and the latest tools and practices from industry, as much as by contemporary discourses around art, and maybe more interestingly, an insider perspective of seeing these technology-focused industries effectively change our social conditions. In particular, it was seeing how these industries only saw 'progress' through a techno-positive lens (the how) and lacked any self-criticality (never the why) that ultimately drew me to art; producing works that explored the affordances of technology as an aesthetic medium and engaging technology as a way to critique its own conditions. And if nothing else, the money I saved working all those years did pay for my MFA tuition!

Natalie: Amanda, our paths crossed in Ohio, where you were formerly a long-time member of the education department at the Wexner Center for the Arts, where I happened to work to pay for my own MFA tuition in the mid-1990s, but I’ve actually had the pleasure of getting to know you better through ViVA. Can you share how your personal and professional interests led you to museum education and how that, in turn, led you to ViVA?

Amanda: I was lucky to grow up in Glens Falls, New York, a small city way upstate with an extraordinary art museum, The Hyde Collection. I had many wonderful experiences there growing up, though I didn’t realize at the time that those experiences were largely shaped by museum educators. Fast forward to my senior year in college when a transformative internship at my college’s museum helped me realize that museum education was the way I could fuse my interests in art, history, and people. I’ve been lucky to work in this field for 15+ years now, and the joy of helping others discover the magic and power of art never gets old. The pandemic forced me (and many others in the field) to reassess assumptions about the primacy of physical presence in terms of learning with art. Working with ViVA feels like a natural outgrowth of new possibilities born out of the necessities of the last year, and my longstanding desire to build connection between ideas, objects, and new audiences.

Natalie: What are some of the kinds of contemporary art related education projects you have most valued as a museum educator?

Amanda: More than any one project, I think what I value most about working with contemporary artists as a museum educator is the opportunity to dispel myths about living artists and art in general. Popular culture is not kind to the art world, almost always playing up notions of class and intellectual snobbery. In many parts of the country, arts education in K-12 settings has been decimated. Taken together, the vast majority of students enter college with the idea that art is “not for them.” When a student hears from an artist directly, they can see that a) this person is not some beret-wearing stereotype, and b) artists are experiencing and processing the same news and culture as the rest of us. An artist might look at the same research as a climate scientist, for example, but instead of analyzing that data through graphs and charts, they visualize that information in a wholly unique way. Both forms of communication have value, and that’s what I hope to help audiences see.

Amanda: Osman, what would you say to a first-year student about why engaging with visual art (either as a viewer or maker) is important?

Osman: Art allows us to see through someone else’s eyes, to consider how they think, what they feel, and what matters to them. I look now at the incredible diversity of art being created today; the stories and histories being shared, the people being represented who were not before, the incisive commentary on some of society’s most pressing issues. There’s so much to learn about the world and about each other, and I believe art is a vastly underappreciated way to do so.

Natalie: Amanda, you are working closely with Osman in developing educational materials that could be useful to a wide range of disciplines, people, and organizations, from arts and humanities classes to natural and social science teachers, gallery and museum programs, and other kinds of organizations. If you could create a “dream connection” for Osman and his work, what would that look like?

Amanda: That is a great, but tough question! Taken together, Osman’s body of work spans a whole university of ideas from commerce and technology to environmental studies to literature to critical race theory and identity studies (and so many others), so there are many intriguing possibilities to consider. However, given that his career path began in engineering, and his practice has continued to draw upon the technological advances engineers make possible, I would love to see an engagement where Osman could help connect arts and engineering students. Though artists have long explored technology as a subject and means for making art, in my professional and personal experience, engineering students are rarely encouraged to engage with art in any capacity. I think introducing them to art as another approach to problem solving, and also as an aid to divergent thinking and creativity could be very impactful.

Natalie: So, what about your own connections? Is there a work of art that has been meaningful to you, or has taken on new meaning for you, as you have lived through the last 17 months?

Amanda: A work that resonates with my pandemic experience is Ann Hamilton’s ongoing project O N E E V E R Y O N E, where she photographs individuals through a polyurethane membrane. Only what is nearest to the membrane is clear; everything else is blurred, creating a sense of both intimacy and otherworldly distance. In this period marked by separation, where for so long so many of us were apart from loved ones (some are still, some permanently) and screens were primary ways of communicating, the notion of attempting connection through an impermeable barrier in O N E E V E R Y O N E has taken on new significance for me.

Natalie: I know that project. I remember it from an art fair from what feels like many years ago. Osman, what about you?

Osman: Having watched an inordinate amount of YouTube how-to videos during this time (tips on gardening, cooking, picking up new skills, etc.), but maybe more importantly reflecting on the information/media bubbles that more than ever inform our worldviews, I am reminded of a 2002 work by Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, How I Learned, that asks, if everything you knew came from the TV show Kung Fu, what would you know? The work breaks down the original TV series shot by shot and each clip is categorized by the artists according to lessons that it might teach a viewer. The absurdity of its premise only illuminates the fact that many of us are still very much prisoners in Plato's Cave.

Natalie: Wow, I’ll have to look at that work! Climbing out of that Cave, in many ways, and in a number of your works, Osman, you deal with climate change and environmental justice. I also noticed that power and the sophisticated elision of technologies and cultures are also consistent issues. What have you noticed about the convergence of all of these? It seems like that is what excites and motivates you.

Osman: If the Anthropocene has made anything clear, it is that we, humanity and its myriad activities and structures, are an inseparable part of our global ecosystem. The holistic view of the planet is the acceptance that all activities are entwined and actions here effect results there. So, one can't think about environmental concerns without thinking about ramifications on social justice (and vice versa), Capitalism's exploitation of people finds parallels in its misuse of land, and so on. What art allows and does so well and what makes it so exciting to be an artist, is to be able to make these connections between what, at times, seem like disparate, distanced, and diverse narratives, prodding, exposing, highlighting connective threads, and hopefully laying bare these truths (even if guised in speculative spectacles) of our contemporary condition.

Amanda: Osman, if you could assign every college student (or anyone) one book to read and think about, what would it be?

Osman: No one answer suffices here and it would probably change depending on the day... on this day, I may recommend Pablo Neruda's Book of Questions, a collection of poems that are paradoxes, riddles and unanswerable suppositions, simultaneously absurd and profound. Addressing topics as diverse as mortality, nationhood, nature, and the color yellow (and that is in just one poem) and so much more, they offer no answers, just the enlightenment of pondering...

Though not a book, all aspiring artists should embrace John Baldessari's 1971 work, I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art.

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