There were no “smart” classrooms or endowed professorships at “The University of Trash.” From the start of the 12-week exhibition, however, a reading group on Karl Marx’s Capital met at the Sculpture Center every Thursday, and silkscreening workshops and free-radio seminars frequently took place. Architecturally too, things were out of the ordinary: in lieu of the gothic spires and red-brick facades that grace so many college campuses, the University offered bales of flattened cardboard boxes, wooden scaffolding, outsize paper lamps and a “Jacuzzi” filled with mattress foam. The esthetics and the ethics of this institution were DIY. One might describe it as a space devoted to radical fun.
If Michael Cataldi and Nils Norman, the artists behind the exhibition, can be thought of as the University’s presidents, they clearly renounced the powers vested in them. Using the exhibition space as an open platform, they invited various groups to build out the University: JustSeeds/Visual Resistance Artists’ Cooperative constructed a half-scale replica of a former Tompkins Square Park band shell, and City-as-School, an alternative New York City high school, set up an imagined live/work space called The Skool of Refuse and Appropriation. There was also the House Magic: Bureau of Foreign Correspondence, run by the pioneering artists’ collective ABC No Rio, which offered information about various squatter groups throughout Europe. With its emphasis on community interaction, the exhibition called to mind various artistic practices that surfaced in New York in the 1980s, such as that of Tim Rollins + K.O.S., which produced text-based artworks in the context of a program for at-risk youth. Thomas Hirschhorn’s installations, such as his Bataille Monument and Musée Précaire Albinet, furnished with theoretical literature and made from “low” materials such as cardboard and packing tape, also figure as relevant predecessors. If the University dispensed with the artistic pretensions of Rollins’s work, however, it also lacked the manic energy of Hirschhorn’s environments.
To put it simply, “The University of Trash” wanted to do the right thing: its aim was to disseminate radical politics and remake institutions—the notional university and the actual Sculpture Center alike—while at the same time pointing to the ever-increasing depoliticization of New York’s cultural landscape. Despite its sincerity and optimism, however, the exhibition could not help but prompt a slight shiver of museal gloom—it was as if the structures that made up the University were themselves homeless buildings squatting in the Center’s cavernous crypt. Exiled from the world outside, these constructions took refuge there. The exhibition was characterized by a tension between the need to preserve and commemorate the ethos of those structures (with the inevitable sense of loss that this entails) and a desire to reignite them.