It can be tricky to make yourself vulnerable and take risks for art when you’re thinking about how your professors will react. Just ask Julia Wice.
“I was like, ‘What if I got naked?’ and my friends were like, ‘Yeah, yeah, do it,’” said the third-year new media student.
Wice, who was in her second year at the time, had been deciding whether to undress in front of her professor and 50 classmates while reciting a spoken-word piece for art. The performance would be for her new media theories of representation class and be the finale to a semester-long project.
After picking a single object to represent, students were instructed to do a drawing, write a description, take a photo, create a video, and do a performance or create some type of online presence for the object.
Wice chose a top hat.
“I don’t know what happened in between the drawing and the photo, but it turned into an exploration of my gender,” Wice said. “I didn’t feel like a girl when I wore this hat and I don’t know why.”
At first, Wice was nervous about her presentation idea because she wasn’t sure if her professor would approve. However, Prof. Max Dean accepted it with open arms, as long as the performance wouldn’t hurt her physically or mentally — and if there would be no bodily fluids.
“We use the classroom as a conventional theatre,” Dean said. “Primary criteria is that no one is offended and no one is going to be hurt. It’s much like an activity where you look at an artwork or a photograph and then talk about it in a very matter-of-fact way.”
There is no specific policy to control performance art at Ryerson, but there is a student code of non-academic conduct within which Policy 61 covers aspects of freedom of expression.
Clauses 1, 3 and 8, could be looped together to form a loose policy for performance art on campus.
They regulate that students must always comply with their instructors — including all parameters and direction set by them — never harm themselves or others, and not disrupt the classroom.
According to vice-provost of students Heather Lane Vetere, the code is complaint-driven and policies are only formulated when an issue arises.
“We don’t go looking for things. We’ve never had a (performance) complaint in the (six-and-a-half) years that I’ve been vice-provost,” Vetere said.
She also said that most complaints in the policy have been related to Clause 8 and security surrounding issues like students not leaving an event or not willing to provide their student number upon request by any Ryerson employee.
Faculty members are given full jurisdiction over course assignments and the parameters set, including restrictions of nudity or violence.
If a student feels unfairly evaluated, they would have to go through the grade appeal process.
“Technically any parameter a (professor) sets could be stifling to a student’s artistic expression,” Vetere said.
“The assignment could be, ‘tell a story within five minutes,’ and a student could argue they need eight to tell it properly. But that’s the whole point of the assignment.”
While some students may accept these as artistic challenges, others react by shying away from taking risks in their work.
“Students would rather be good with (professors) than do something risky with the craft,” said Orest Kus, a second-year media production student. “Students who don’t trust (their) work will have (professors) tell them it’s too profane. If you trust your work and can stand by it you’ll be fine.”
Kus produced a short film for one of his classes and was told by an instructor the violence in one of the scenes was “creepy.” He chose to keep the scene in his film despite his instructor’s comments.
Fourth-year performance acting student Félix Beauchamp said his class wasn’t allowed to be fully naked onstage because they were students. Classmate Nikolas Nikita said students were led to believe the theatre school had to clear the nudity with the university, which is why their director avoided it altogether.
“People were offering, saying, ‘I would be naked if needed,’ but our director told us if that’s what they had wanted to do, they would have had to jump a bunch of administrative hoops with the university,” Nikita said.
The director was Sonia Norris, a guest artist to the theatre school.
After her experience, Wice said she wishes more students would take advantage of the liberal policies (and professors) we have at Ryerson.
“I’ve talked one-on-one with a lot of people in my class and they’re awesome people, they have a lot to offer, but I feel they’re trapped because of that fear and lack of self-confidence to open themselves up and be like, ‘Hey, here’s what I have to offer.’”
This story also appeared in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on Feb 4, 2015.