By Katherine Duke '05

Last month, in Fayerweather, the students in “Comedy as Artistic Strategy” presented what they called their “persona projects”—each had been assigned to create a work of art that centered on a particular persona. Participating in the critique of each project—known in art schools as a “crit”—were the other students; Visiting Artist-in-Residence Sara Greenberger Rafferty, who teaches the course; art writer Todd Alden, who’d been a guest speaker the night before as part of Rafferty’s semester-long Salon Series; and myself.

In this slide from her project for "Comedy as Artistic Strategy," Colombina Valera '10 takes on the persona of a "gallerina."

Colombina Valera ’10 stood up in front of the class first, to present a project based on her efforts to find a job as a “gallerina” (art gallery attendant) in New York City. The photo slide show depicted her in a black dress, tights and trendy glasses, posing in the Mead Art Museum, on the treadmill at the gym and while sunbathing on the quad, with captions such as I try to underplay my beauty so as not to outshine the art I work with.

During the crit, Rafferty suggested that Valera check out a similar project by Andrea Fraser, an artist whose work they’d studied in the course. Valera’s classmates wondered: could she take this project to the next level by actually trying to get a job as this persona? And then Estefania Colon ’11, seated in the back of the room in a short skirt and knee-high boots, gave Valera her opinion of the project: “I think this shows how conceited you really are.”

There was a startled silence, and then a bit of nervous laughter, as we tried to figure out what to make of this comment. Valera responded to it thoughtfully, and then the other students took their turns presenting projects.

"What is, I think, really clear from a lot of the coursework is that we’re digesting images that we’re really, really familiar with by now,” Rafferty told me, “all these different things that the students are seeing as modern-day ways in which personas and the construction of self are infiltrating popular culture.”

Nicole Panico ’11, for example, showed us a webcam video of herself singing along with her iPod, invoking an audition for American Idol; she spoke earnestly, in character, about her choice of song and how “I’ve been working on it with my vocal coach.” (“You suck,” said Colon.) Taking her inspiration from an interview she once tried to do with her mother, Robyn Bahr ’10 made a video that was designed to look choppy and amateurish and then posted the video on YouTube. Chris Temerson ’11—or rather, his wannabe-musician persona—opened his video with the words “Hello, Internet.” Nickolas Sullivan, a senior at UMass, guided us through his failed attempt to join an online chatroom, present himself as a “Cali Bro” surfer dude and convince a stranger to be his girlfriend. Bessie Young ’11 was absent from the class, but through her tearful and apologetic video she revealed that “Bessie Young” had, in fact, been her fictional persona all along; she was actually a 36-year-old social anthropologist who’d infiltrated the Amherst student body in order to write a field study titled The Undergraduate Underbelly. “The time has come for me to return to my husband and children,” she said, but she would maintain her fake “Bessie Young” Facebook page.

When Ian Nacht ’10 showed his video, a (more fully clothed) satire of the kinds of personalities and behaviors often featured in pornography, we all giggled at the outrageousness. But when the video showed Nacht and his co-star parodying a sex act in front of pictures of Rafferty and her work, Rafferty said she was “really mad”—she found this a hostile gesture, an attempt to undermine her authority as a professor. “We might have to disclose this to the chair of the department,” she said.           

The class moved over to one of the studios in Fayerweather to look at projects involving drawing and photography—and to hear Colon deliver a biting monologue about her frustrations with life as a racial minority at Amherst. She had, we now understood, been performing her persona all along: a stereotypical Latina character who doesn’t censor herself. “I’m actually really nice,” Colon assured us, “really quiet and reserved.” She’d given herself a headache, she said, worrying about whether her classmates would be genuinely hurt by her comments.

At the conclusion of the class, Rafferty revealed that she, too, had been performing—she wasn’t really angry at or offended by Nacht’s project, and she knows that one of his goals as an artist, throughout the semester, has been to explore different ways of pushing people’s buttons. Her reaction was “part of the fiction,” she said. In fact, she firmly believes “that the space of the classroom, of the crit, is a kind of laboratory,” she told me later. Even when students have ideas that they think might be offensive, she said, her response is “‘Try us, try us, try us, because testing the limits of what is actually offensive in the discursive space of a work of art, as opposed to in the real life, is an interesting thing to try.’”

See photos and videos of the students' persona projects and other work on the course's Web page,
Joke Joke

(Note: Some projects feature language and imagery that some viewers might find offensive.)