By LILLY WEI
Eventually, they began to work directly onto the pages of the books they read, cut out and arranged in a grid over canvas, thus creating the unmistakable style of what was to become the long-running, highly visible, paradigmatic collaborative known as Tim Rollins and KOS (Kids of Survival). Soon, Rollins started the Art and Knowledge Workshop, an afterschool programme in a nearby community centre. In 1987, Rollins and KOS established a travelling workshop to inspire others beyond the South Bronx. These workshops soon acquired a national and international audience and remain in great demand.
Tim Rollins and KOS had their first exhibition in 1986 and have shown in many galleries, museums and other art institutions in the United States and abroad since then, insisting that their work be contextualised and assessed as fine art rather than as a social project. Nonetheless, their stance is activist, questioning issues such as accessibility, community, social justice, authorship and much more. In 1996, Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller made an Emmy-award-winning documentary, Kids of Survival, which gives an intimate, indepth picture of the sometimes controversial group. Tim Rollins and KOS have participated twice in the Whitney Biennial in New York and have shown at Documenta in Kassel, the Venice Biennale and the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh, among other notable international exhibitions, and their work is collected worldwide.
At Savannah College of Art and Design’s deFINE ART, they created a series of new, often monumental works in their hallmark combination of image and text for their SCAD Museum of Art exhibition. Called Rivers, on view until 8 June, it was inspired by the conflicted history of the American South as envisioned in literature and music. Their sources include Duke Ellington’s ballet score for The River (a work made with students from the Esther F Garrison School of Visual and Performing Arts in Savannah), the orations of Martin Luther King Jr, poems by Langston Hughes and narratives from Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Darkwater by WEB Du Bois.
At the SCAD Museum, Lilly Wei talked with Tim Rollins and Angel Abreu and Rick Savinon, two of the original members of Kids of Survival about KOS, its past, present and future, and about the exhibition.
Lilly Wei: In the early 80s, when KOS was founded, it wasn’t so much the project that was criticised as you, Tim. Is that fair to say?
Tim Rollins: Yes, everybody thought this was bullshit – this weird, white guy making art with black and Latino kids in the Bronx. There was lots of pushback.
Angel Abreu: And after we didn’t go away, there was a second wave of negativity.
TR: The more successful we became, the more critical people became. It’s a New York state of mind. I question this project every week to make sure we get it right, but there’s lots of cynicism around. There’s a crucial difference between cynicism and scepticism and I’m not cynical. It was quite clear to me in 1981 looking into Angel’s eyes at the age of 11, into Rick’s, that we had got to do something. I was married to a rock star, it was a nice life, very cool, I had started Group Material, but I heard the voice. This is romantic but true. I met the kids and that was it. I fell in love with the kids, the parents and the community. I knew we could do this together.
Rick Savinon: What I thought was funny was that the people who should have looked at Tim critically were the parents and the community, and they embraced him. It was the outside world that interfered.
AA: My parents never understood what I do, but they accepted it.
LW: And Tim, how did you come up with KOS?
TR: I was moved to do it, but it comes from somewhere, from my love for the Reverend Martin Luther King and for Paulo Freire and Cornel West and Richard Rorty, WEB Dubois and Julia Kristeva, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, and especially Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. But I’m also New England to the bone, raised on Emerson, Thoreau and transcendentalism, on William James and American pragmatism and varieties of religious experiences.
LW: And Angel, Rick, were you critical of Tim at the time?
AA: There aren’t more honest critics than kids, especially from the South Bronx. Tim demanded excellence and mutual respect, and we responded to that.
RS: Tim wasn’t patronising. I met him at a summer programme at a Lehman College workshop. He gave us drawing pads and said do whatever you want.
TR: We interviewed all these kids for the workshop. It’s called creaming, to take all the goody-goodies, who won’t upset the programme. And there was Rick and his friend George Garces drawing caricatures of the others. I saw them drawing and I looked at the caricatures and they were hilarious. I was told they were trouble, they were bad boys, but I said I wouldn’t do the workshop without them. I said: “I want them.” I can spot the ones I want a mile away.
RS: George and I were best friends, but then he drifted off, in another direction. Tim shows you where the door is, but you open it for yourself.
LW: How do you define what you do – as an art practice or a social practice?
TR: As both, they are indivisible, two sides of the same page.
LW: How do you produce a work together?
AA: Early on, they looked like quilts, and if you’ve seen quilt-makers, they are all trying to blow each other out of the water in a healthy competition. We were trying to blow each other out of the water, making the biggest, the best Scarlet Letter, the most elaborate Golden Horn. As we got older and the work matured, it started looking like it was made by one person.
TR: The great Jane Addams, the Chicago social activist, had a notion of democratic aesthetics. It’s like a community choir and people get together. Some sing like Aretha Franklin and some do not, but everyone is allowed to be in the choir and everyone’s voices are raised in unison in one common song. That’s the spirit of this group.
LW: How are the books selected?
TR: Intuition. A dry classroom catches on fire real quick and there’s excitement in discovering how we can converse with famous classics, how we can insinuate ourselves into the cosmic conversation.
AA: And it can take awhile to marinate. The Great Gatsby took 10 years – it was put on the back burner with several other projects. Our studio is like a science lab.
RS: We experiment all the time. There was the HG Wells’s The Time Machine, which we had to shelve. And one day I saw the movie and we began to work on it again for a whole year before it finally came together.
AA: When I first joined KOS, I didn’t know how special it was. It was natural to be there every day. Then I went to Deerfield for high school. It was late summer of 1992, and we went to the Hirshhorn Museum to make Animal Farm. We ended up on the front page of the Washington Post’s art section. When Deerfield started in September, my art teacher asked me, what’s this, showing me the Post. I had never told him that I was in KOS. I realised then that it was big.
TR: Another time early on was at the Philadelphia Museum, after Mark Rosenthal and Anne d’Harnoncourt had acquired a work from us in 1988. So there we were, between Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. And the guard said, that’s them, that’s our kids. Usually, if you walk into a museum with inner-city youth, it’s trepidation, not pride.
LW: And how did you arrive at the name Tim Rollins and KOS?
TR: It’s about responsibility. I had to protect my kids and we’re organic, the group changes. It’s like a river: this way we keep the flow and I’m the anchor. Now, it’s morphed into Studio KOS. It’s incorporated and includes individual practices within it; Tim Rollins and KOS is only one part of it. We don’t need to change, just to expand.
LW: But you remain the anchor?
TR: It’s a substantial group, but me, Angel and Rick are the trinity.
AA: Day to day, one of the three of us is in the studios – with eight or nine others when there’s a deadline.
RS: I do a lot of freelance work, but if I’m working and not available, Angel can come in; everyone passes around ideas – no egos, no negativity.
TR: It’s ridiculously beautiful. It just echoes the community ethos of our project.
LW: How did it feel, growing up in such different worlds, the South Bronx and the art world?
AA: We had to learn to straddle so many worlds as youngsters. We thought at first that the museum and gallery world wasn’t for us, but Tim said, walk through that door as if you own it, it’s your door, MoMA [the Museum of Modern Art] is for you. And the same for Deerfield. KOS helped me walk through that door like I belonged and would do well there.
RS: I always knew I had a voice, but I needed someone to hear it. I’ve always been an outsider, but the minute I met Tim and the group I knew this was what I was looking for. And I managed to stay. One of my moments was when I left the group for a year and when I returned, I found out that Felix Gonzalez-Torres, a great friend of ours, had died and I didn’t have the chance to say goodbye and was feeling very bad about it and about other things. But then I was in a car and looked out and there was a giant billboard of his work, and it was like he spoke just to me. It made me realise what art is for, what it can do. I want to speak to others, to have a voice.
TR: We’re Courbet’s The Painter’s Studio, but ours is not an allegory, it’s a reality, it’s ongoing, it flows, and that’s what keeps it exciting.