Conceptual Oregon Performance School (C.O.P.S.), The Oregonian
Conceptual Oregon Performance School (C.O.P.S.) at Rocksbox Contemporary Fine Art, Portland, OR
Originally published in The Oregonian

When the Bruce High Quality Foundation presented its "Teach 4 Amerika" rally at Portland State University last April, the Brooklyn-based art collective decried two pervasive problems plaguing today's art schools: exorbitant tuition and outmoded curriculum. 

This is especially problematic in an art market such as Portland, where a vibrant legacy of performance-based art has crystallized around Portland Institute for Contemporary Art founder Kristy Edmund's Time-Based Art Festival and, more recently, booming interest in social practice art. Here, young artists are eager to embrace emerging disciplines, though they seldom have the institutional resources -- such as course offerings or experienced instructors -- to pursue them with much specificity. 

This summer, however, the Conceptual Oregon Performance School (C.O.P.S). -- organized by artists Patrick Rock, Matthew Green, Michael Reinsch, and Sean Joseph Patrick Carney -- has created an antidote through its weekly, tuition-free classes focused on contemporary art practices, from performance to video art. 

While free, artist-run alternative schools are nothing new, C.O.P.S. is not intended as a form of institutional critique, but, as Carney explains, a "supplement" to existing resources. For the C.O.P.S. instructors, it has been an opportunity to design classes from scratch, without concern for the generalist demands of most institutional coursework. In short, it provides both students and instructors with an opportunity to critically examine aspects of contemporary art that often fall outside of a canonical curriculum. 

For instance, Reinsch's sessions have focused on the dynamic between the performer and the audience, especially as it relates to the Internet, while Carney's have explored stand-up comedy as an analogue to contemporary performance art. Similar to conventional art schools, C.O.P.S. students are tasked with creating and presenting work in response to these ideas throughout the summer, receiving critical feedback from instructors as well as guests, who have included Arnold Kemp, Pacific Northwest College of Art's Master of Fine Arts chair of Visual Studies, and San Francisco-based performance artists Jennifer Locke, Lucas Murgida and Michael Barrett. 

So far, the response has been tremendous -- underscoring the need for art instruction that addresses experimental disciplines and new media. Participants have ranged from students enrolled in local art schools to interested members of the community, while critique sessions have stretched to marathon lengths, concluding as late as 2 in the morning. 

Though the sessions operate in much the same way a conventional classroom, C.O.P.S. instructors say that, by virtue of the school's alternative status, students feel safer to share their ideas and express themselves. Rock -- who owns the short-term residency and exhibition space, Rocksbox Contemporary Fine Art, where classes are held -- credits the thriving discourse to students actually wanting to be there: Without tuition or credit at stake, artistic growth becomes the chief motivator to attend and engage.  When I attended a group critique two Saturdays ago, nearly 20 students packed the nondescript room at Rocksbox, sitting in folding chairs around a table with nothing more than a projector on it. It was uncomfortably warm, but this didn't deter students from staying late, discussing one another's work with surprising candor or soaking up feedback from Locke, Murgida and Barrett. 

The work ranged dramatically, veering from a performance in which one student directed a trio of stand-ins to interface with the audience to another in which a student attempted to translate the aimless and unselfconscious activity of surfing the Internet into voyeuristic spectacle. 

While the student work was uniformly tentative and unresolved, it showed young artists actively trying to make sense of new mediums and strategies. In that sense, C.O.P.S. stresses the need for non-institutional educational opportunities, while revealing how nurturing experimentation and marginalized forms of expression can only enrich the city's art scene.