Faculty Spotlight: Sebastian Grant

Please tell us about your academic background.

I did my undergraduate studies at McGill University up in Montreal, where I double-majored in art history and classics. So a lot more of an ancient Greek, Latin, historical classicism, background there. And then I came down here to Parsons to do my masters in the ADHT’s History of Design and Curatorial Studies program where I completed the program’s first curatorial capstone project, which involved a cooperation with the Cooper Hewitt Museum. I collaborated with them on the show that’s open right now at the moment, the Susan Grant Lewin collection, “The Jewelry of Ideas”. I was working on that with the curators for a year while completing the rest of my studies at the Cooper Hewitt and with ADHT. I did a semester abroad in Paris to check out the Parson’s Paris campus, where I went and did a few projects myself there, and then came back here to complete my Master’s program.

What classes are you teaching in the first-year program?

Two classes of Integrative Studios and one class of Objects as History. I taught Objects last semester, so this is my second time teaching it, and I’m trying out Integrative for the first time.

How would you describe your pedagogical approaches to both Objects as History and Integrative Studios?

I would say that one of the most important things is looking at the relevance of the topics that you’re teaching. Most of the time whenever I’m teaching topics or using old objects from years and years and years ago, I’m trying to look at what is the reason why they still exist today, what is the reason why they still matter to us today and trying to show students what is the reason why we still use these objects and need them. So, I’ll go and maybe relate them to memes that are popular, sometimes taking these subjects, these ideas, and turning them on their heads, or relate them to news stories, to current events. A lot of times I even look at how pop culture reacts to the use of these objects, whether or not they come from prehistory or exist in the industrialization age, and try to just show how these topics play an extremely important role in everything that we do. Whether it’s the objects we have or the systems that we work with, and making sure that students themselves realize this as they approach their learning and their studies.

How do you think these pedagogical approaches have been informed by your time as a student in the HDCS program?

Back in the HDCS program, I think for me, there were parts of the program that were more difficult and challenging, and there were parts that were easier, because I had the opportunity to learn them before. Back in Canada, all the way from the beginning of my undergraduate studies, we reviewed the basic core tenants of art and design history, no matter how challenging the concept, and I believe it benefitted me to learn concepts the hard way, because when I came here for my masters program, learning some of those concepts again became easier. So when it comes to my students, I’m not afraid to go and give them the hard stuff, give them the complex material, so then we can then break it down and be able to understand parts of it, understand the important facts of it, and utilize that for their studies later. It would be something like talking about Foucault or Barthes, and not going in, expecting them to understand what every word in the reading means, but expecting them to understand what the idea behind it is, especially as they’re going to be encountering these readings and encountering these authors over and over and over again, as I have. And I think what I believe is the most important part of encountering these topics over and over again is that once you keep getting the repetition of it, you start to get it, and you start to understand what the meaning, what the idea behind it is. And you start allowing yourself to critically think about these terms, these ideas, once you’re able to get more of an understanding about what they’re trying to say and what they’re trying to mean in their writings.

What do you think is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from your students? What’s the most valuable lesson you yourself have learned as a student?

That’s a really good question. I think one of the most valuable things that I’ve learned from my students is that I sometimes teach my classes or speak at a level that’s of a higher caliber than students may possibly expect. That sounds really arrogant in that way, but I mean that I will start obsessing over a topic and start spouting out a bunch of theory and topics that I learned long ago and worked to build up to a point, and all of a sudden I expect my students to just understand those same things. And I think that my students have really taught me to make sure I do slow down and to know that they’re only learning this for the first time, just like when I was learning this for the first time. They really encourage me to go and get deeper into the discussion and have them try and understand what I’m trying to say, instead of speaking and rhetorizing without explaining what the hell it is that I’m trying to say.

And then something I learned from being a student… I feel like I’ve learned so many things being a student, especially in the HDCS program. What I came to this program for was really a hands-on approach to learning and understanding art objects that I studied in hours and hours of undergrad classes back in McGill. So what these programs really did was they allowed me to get that hands-on approach and to understand the practical and physical reasons of why we work with the objects as we do, and understand the importance of these objects beyond just the scholarly and academic points of view of them as well. I think that’s really what I did learn very much as a student was to understand that practical approach, so then I feel like I can try and impart that same idea of practicality to other students. Because the problem that a lot of us go and deal with academia is we spend so much time theorizing and doing armchair theory over and over, that sometimes it doesn’t get anything done, or when you try and go out there to the real world outside of academia, you’re speaking to people who don’t want to listen to you just theorize but want you to actually do something. And I think learning some of those approaches and those ways of being more practical with my theory is teaching me more and more about how to go and reach out to those outside of academia and to be able to describe and tell them practical ways that academia represents a really important part of our society.

How do politics inform your artwork and vice versa?

All the time.

All the time?

[laughs] All the time.

In what ways do you try to bridge the two? Your political engagement and your artistic engagement?

I usually focus my art on identity and identity politics, specifically on body politics. I usually look at my own personal identity and the multiplicities of my identity. I come from a mixed background. My family comes from Jamaica, and we’re a mixture of black, white, Spanish, Jewish, Native American, Indian, Chinese. So with all those backgrounds, and listening to that family history all the time, it really allowed me time to go and explore my own identity and who I am as a person, through race, through orientation, through gender, through code and creed, and religion, and color. All these types of different identities that all of us really assume. And I usually use my art to go and explore those identities.

Back in the Paris campus, the Parson Paris team did an intervention on the Maurizio Cattelan retrospective that he had there. And the performance that I did was a full appropriation of the artist himself. I went and took on the role of Maurizio Cattelan, and I posed myself in his clothing, as his sculptures, and basically appropriated quotes that he took from interviews that he gave in journals. And what was great about that was that we did this project two weeks after the election. So some of the quotes that I picked in there were from 2007, something like, never before have I seen America at such a point of crisis and at such a crossroads in its life. I’m paraphrasing here, but at the time, when I was using these quotes that he said almost a decade ago, two weeks after the election, there were participants in the show who were like “Oh, my gosh, he really said that? Oh, did he really go and mention America that way? Is he referring to the politics now or the politics that was eight or 10 years ago?” So I feel like that’s the way I usually approach politics, through looking at types of controls and disciplines on the body.

At the same time, I’m preparing another project as well, a video art piece that’s a discussion of the idea of human interaction, and a questioning of human interaction through the technology that we have today. It’s questioning how much are we interacting with one another humans versus us interacting with the machines that go and connect us to other humans? And is that a real form of human interaction or is it more of a relationship that we’re establishing with our phones, our computers, our internet access? So politics does play a big role, but in a more covert way through the ideas of identity, politics, and the body itself.

How do you try to encourage your students to have that same political engagement in their work?

I usually take a bit of the Foucault type of approach, which is just to make sure to be critical of everything, and to look at everything with a critical eye, whether it’s politics, media, pop culture, celebrity. One of the classes we did recently was a discussion of an article on the politics of food, and the idea how food can be used by a system such as capitalism as a commodity that can be made sexually enticing to the viewer, and then making this comparison to women’s bodies, and how women themselves are forced under this heavily patriarchal system of surveillance and discipline of the body, while being tempted by the allure of food. And we were using this article to look at things like celebrities, tabloid magazine covers, and how that type of extreme sociological shaming of the body, especially of the female body, works.

I encourage students to go and just look at everything, and be prepared to question everything and to know that things aren’t usually the way they seem. And apply that then to their own learning, their own interests, and their own ideas, to then understand what are the critiques that can be made of a sociological system that poses itself as this naturalized state of being but of course is its own construction like everything else. Sorry for the long answer [laughs].

No, that was wonderful. The next question is, who are your favorite writers and favorite artists?

I love to hate Foucault. [laughs] I remember when I first read him, I was just really upset, but eventually, I had to go and take at face value that he does prove some really interesting points. Again, coming from a classical background, I definitely have been a Platonist, which is funny because it’s the complete opposite of a Foucauldian ideology. For much less philosophical authors, every now and then, I’m just picking up a new book, and really getting into it, especially with the classics. So I definitely have been in love with Jane Austen for a time, and then I switched to F Scott Fitzgerald, even Hemingway I tolerated. [laughs] My favorite books, I don’t know if I can give an answer to…

Yeah, it’s a very difficult question for me as well. I’m like, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Right. I even love Homer and The Odyssey, that was one of the things that really got me interested in pursuing the classics. So yes, that’s a lot of authors there. But as for artists, I can just obsess about all the artists. I’m definitely influenced by Maurizio Cattelan and the work that he does. I love that he has this very joyful and playful way of looking at life that’s not too serious because I know that I take things way too seriously, and he reminds me to have some fun in life and not just be serious about it. I’m definitely in love with the older masters as well, like Van Gogh. The way he just lived such a complex life, and really spent most of it just mooching off his brother. There’s also artists like Dali. My dad, an artist himself, is really a big fan of Salvador Dali and I really think his work was definitely influential to me, because of ways he really looked beyond what was reality and what was at face value.

I’m absolutely devoted to Caravaggio. I love how he expressed a dramatic way of looking at painting, especially with chiaroscuro, and this use of lighting that created a whole new era of artists. But then, there’s so many contemporary artists that I’ll think of and think that I really like the work that they do as well. If I tried to go and recall one off the top of my head… [chuckle] Oh Someone like David Yellin, his work is really cool. His use of paper cut work to create these very dynamic-looking cages and body pieces. And Steve McQueen, his work is just absolutely amazing too. Both his work as an artist, and then as a director, movies like 12 Years a Slave or Shame.

And then, last but not least, my father. I’ve always been devoted to his artwork. I’m still devoted now. And I think he really led me to the artistic ways that I live my whole life now.

Which objects from our current moment do you think will be studied in the future?

So this is very interesting, because tomorrow we’re having an Integrative Strategies class at the Whitney to look at objects of protest from the exhibit ‘An Incomplete History of Protest’, which is a really fascinating exhibition trying to collect objects from 1940 to now. But one of the readings that I gave my students that I think is very interesting is a New York Times opinion article called ‘The Second Lives of Pussy Hats.’ And it’s taking a look at what happens with these pussy hats made for the Women’s March, and how they’re still playing an important part in certain people’s lives, whether or not they’re being utilized to show a moment of power and of success, or whether they’re kept as a memory of a day where everyone came together, or whether they’re just being used to adorn statues of Susan B. Anthony. And I think there’s so much politics going on that there’s so many objects that can easily be kept and stored away and archived to represent this really dynamic time. So something like a pussy hat, or even the type of technology that we use these days. We’re living in a time where, it’s only been about 10 years and we’re already seeing the first iPods in museums. I saw my first computer in a museum recently, and I really started reflecting on my own age there. And so, with the way that technology moves so quickly, we might start seeing the first VR machines that we have now being placed in museums and being regarded as these magical objects that tried to create virtual realities for the first time. But then again, objects can really be anything that has had some importance to some person. It can even be like a Sonicare toothbrush, that represented a point of technological advancement for dental societies, [laughs] that has served such an important role that it must be archived and stored in a museum as well. The more we start realizing that objects are not just things that are deemed in a high place in a certain hierarchy, but things that are just meant to have value for certain people, we start to realize that maybe any one of these objects could last for 50 years and eventually end up in a museum.