Lifetime Achievement: Richard Galling, John Riepenhoff, and Oliver Sydello
Lifetime Achievement (LA) is an alternative pedagogical platform based in Milwaukee, WI. Acknowledging that learning is a lifelong pursuit, LA offers an opportunity for art and cultural dialogue guided by thinkers and artists alike. LA’s curriculum is emergent, structured around regular lectures, reading groups, pop-up classes, studio-visit roundtables, parties, concerts, and more. Activities and classes are free, but attendance is required.
Here, Sara Krajewski, Director of INOVA (Institute of Visual Arts) in Milwaukee, sits down with LA coordinators and artists Richard Galling, John Riepenhoff, and Oliver Sydello to discuss the project.
Richard Galling is an artist, music producer, DJ, and co-founder of Lifetime Achievement. He has exhibited at The Suburban, Peregrine Program, Ebermoore and LVL3 (Chicago); The Green Gallery, INOVA, and CENTER (Milwaukee); The Poor Farm (Manawa), The Green Gallery at 47 Canal and Greenpoint Terminal Gallery (New York); Duve (Berlin); the UC Irvine Room Gallery, The John Riepenhoff Experience at Pepin Moore, Autonomie, Commonspace, (Los Angeles).
John Riepenhoff is co-owner of The Green Gallery, Milwaukee, WI; co-founder of Lifetime Achievement, co-organizer of The Milwaukee International and Dark Fairs; and is an inventor of artistic platforms for the expression of others. He currently has work at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville AR; Cooper Cole, Toronto; White Flag Projects, St Louis; Night Gallery, LA; recently started a beer endowment for artist-run-organizations in Milwaukee, and is represented by Marlborough Chelsea.
Oliver Sydello is an artist and co-founder of Lifetime Achievement. He recently graduated from the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design.
Sara Krajewski: How did Lifetime Achievement come to be?
Oliver Sydello: I think we’ll have different answers… I was doing an independent study with Richard and a classmate at MIAD [Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design] researching alternative education programs. Richard brought up that he and John were interested in doing something like this and that led to us meeting up and working together.
Richard Galling: That summarizes it. This was probably about a year ago. For the independent study, our readings included Artificial Hells by Claire Bishop, which has a chapter on pedagogical projects. That’s what started a dialogue about the possibility of doing something like this here. It felt like something that would be worthwhile for our community of artists, but not just artists. In April we all met up, John came up with the name, we put together a web page and got the ball rolling.
SK: Who are the primary participants? Or the ideal participants?
OS: It is applicable for people post-school. It’s a way for people to stay involved in certain dialogues. We’re also trying to make it applicable for students from some of the institutions to attend Lifetime Achievement courses.
SK: Was there a particular model that you based Lifetime Achievement on, or that you see it growing out of?
John Riepenhoff: …which none of us has attended. (laughter)
RG: We’re definitely aware of the other models out there. We looked at things they were doing but wanted our own structure. LA’s program is emergent – we created a set of classes to start with. But in terms of where it goes in the future, that will be determined by the participants or individuals who want to propose courses/projects/etc. We have an open call for instructors who want to run classes and have the ability. That’s how the platform structure is operating – it’s open, fluid, and organic, in a sense. We have goals for where we’d like it to go but it is important that it determines its own course as well. That’s our mindset.
JR: It’s so easy to have conversation.
OS: People are more autodidactic…that and the wealth of information that individuals have access to now, makes it easier to learn and pass these things on without attending an institution.
JR: All the instructors we invited to do projects are people in our overlapping communities that share an outlook and engagement in their world: an open engagement with ideas and moving things forward. Being highly engaged not just in their specialty. The apparatus of Lifetime Achievement is to provide a symbolic storefront for an already existing, highly engaged community that is creating things together and dialoguing in ways that have educational qualities to it. But it also has a serious playfulness to expanding ideas and investigating different value systems. For me, the model is more like, oh this has been happening here for a while, that we inherited it, and now we’re engaged in it. Sometimes it looks like a party, a studio visit, an apartment show… like people hanging out, a dinner party, a bonfire… these kinds of things that don’t fit into a gallery necessarily or these other systems [in the art world]. Putting a blanket term over the whole thing as a pedagogical institution is a way to allow people access to it, gives it a form people can relate to, because really otherwise it looks like these social gatherings, people having conversations, people making things together… we’re providing access to these activities.
SK: It strikes me, and I don’t know how much this exists in other models you looked at, that it has a generosity that feels distinct to parts of Milwaukee’s artist community. There is a kind of democratic accessibility where instructors and students, everyone is seen as a thinker or maker… I’ve found that attitude to be pretty unique in my two years here so far.
JR: The uniqueness comes from individuals. We gave it this institutional form because the class is an interesting model for people to engage in and its something that people have a familiarity with and expectations for. The student / instructor are both highly valued as individuals.
SK: What are your thoughts about formalizing this casual activity and how that functions to take this social exchange in different directions, framing it as a mode of collective production? Do you want to expand the community of participants?
JR: It gives it some solidarity, clustering these things together – maybe even just on a website; we’re suggesting a loose engineering for people who have similar interests to come together. It also sets up expectations for them and for us. For reading groups, other activities, and a lot of the courses, they double for certain things. The idea of “lifetime achievement” speaks to this: we’re not just trying to achieve some sort of credibility or diploma for that sake of that. There actually is no end to it. The classes, reading groups are things we want to do, and we set up social expectations to get through them together. The activity itself is a production. The school itself has these expectations for everyone involved that don’t follow the normal course of what other institutions do.
SK: I’m interested in the precursors to this, that were maybe more of a closed circle. You seem to be opening that up, simply by virtue of putting it on the Internet and inviting other people into conversation. That opens an opportunity to expand discourses in perhaps unpredictable ways. You have a way of providing some direction and some authorship depending on what you choose to promote with the school. But if you are truly interested in it taking on its own trajectory then…
JR: Earlier I referenced studio visits, apartment openings, even when I was a student at UWM I’d go to performances at Darling Hall [an important performance series in late 90s, early 2000s]…it was the conversation around the performance, and providing a space for people to come together. There are certain nodes that you can plug into, and then there are people you have brief conversations with that you bump into at an opening… there is a value that is built up through these relationships that we can formalize. Not to get ahead of ourselves, it could grow into many things, but yeah, promotion, a public place for promotion is an important tool.
SK: I have to admit that as the director of a local institution I sometimes feel out of the loop because so many productive conversations happen very informally amongst artists here and then really interesting activity suddenly just appears – or so it seems to me. I am excited by this freedom to initiate and act. But in my experience I have only a glancing exposure to this significant feedback loop, so I see opportunities for continued conversation with a larger group of people as really valuable. It’s not just the conversation, but also the information sharing and the ability to establish contexts for what’s happening here.
JR: Good observations. When you get a critical mass of people’s attention then things can start producing at a quicker rate and with more intensity. There is a subtle undertone of ‘hey, how do we enhance production,’ but not only production-based, content-based, from the core out.
RG: Right now, we are in the early stages. There is a highlighting of certain individuals and conversations we are trying to bring in, fostering and formalizing them loosely, to create a node for people to come in and out of, or work off of.
SK: How do you develop the curriculum?
RG: A lot of it is based on interest of individuals involved or who want to get involved. There are courses/etc we would like to run but I think it is important to let the curriculum evolve from the inside – i.e.: the [ANTS / LaTour] reading group we have now might lead to another course based on a peripheral text we cover and student interest in covering said text. The curriculum is really shaped by the participants, we merely want to offer a platform for that opportunity.
JR: Some of the classes coming up are classes that were proposed for other institutions in town, but maybe there wasn’t high enough attendance, or the classes are what the instructors are really passionate about, but they were orphans. The instructors do what they want. We want people to have access to them as individuals. So, it’s not exclusively about a curriculum – it’s actually about seeing how people engage in the world and having models of how to live, sorta. So sometimes the curriculum transcends any sort of didactical control.
RG: It’s actually important that we don’t give the instructors guidelines – we want them to do what they want to do. If they want to have one meeting with a group of people or two hundred, how they structure it is really up to them.
SK: What about the first round of classes – what have been the responses?
JR: I’m playing hooky from it right now
OS: It’s going on right now.
SK: Oh no…
JR: Full disclosure … it was a last minute, pop-up… it wasn’t a…
RG: who are you playing hooky with?
JR: Well, you guys.
SK: I could have come to the class.
JR: Yeah, us too.
RG: We have Steve Strupp’s one-minute guitar lessons, Oliver, Ben Balcom and myself have a class called “ANTS” where we’re reading Bruno LaTour’s Reassembling the Social and John and Nicholas Frank are doing a class called “Some Awe.” We had some projects at the Poor Farm [in August]. Oliver curated an obstacle course group sculpture show; Karl Saffran organized poetry readings; Ben Balcom put together a program for a Microlights [an experimental cinema venue in Milwaukee] screening. That’s what we’ve done so far but we’ve only been operating publicly since July.
JR: At its core, it could just be seen as a website that suggests people get together, stimulate ideas and do stuff. But you can definitely get at the idea of how we build value through attention towards each other. Alternate ways to the monetary economy has a huge impact on the place that we’re in. But there are other value systems that don’t trade as currency but definitely affect our lives, as we build these other worlds within the structure of the city. Everyone’s a volunteer – they do it because they want to.
RG: And all the classes are free.
OS: Ideally, one day, the teachers and the students would be paid to attend the courses. That’s a nice representation of what Lifetime Achievement wants to be. Also that it is grounds to explore what education can be. As much as we solicit people hopefully it becomes a platform for people to solicit us with ideas – that is starting to happen. I think the one minute guitar lessons is already pushing it; there are courses coming up that will be playing with that form some more.
SK: In some way, it captures some of this fleeting activity too, or at least brings more people into contact with it. It’s just occurring to me that without a lot of critical writing or institutional forums for exchange…
JR: … and validation …
SK: …that these dialogues are one-on-one exchanges and moments of validation in a community like Milwaukee… maybe this provides another forum. It’s discourse, not writing, but it seems it could fill a void.
JR: There is a need, so let’s design something to fill it.
Images courtesy of John Riepenhoff.