There comes a time in every Penn student’s life — usually early spring of their sophomore or junior year — when everyone around them seems to develop an almost obsessive interest in internships. As students with our eyes toward the future, determined to succeed in the “real world” that awaits us beyond college, we prize internships as an invaluable means of gaining marketable skills, professional networks, and, in the case of some lucky individuals, return job offers. I was one of the many sophomores who spent her spring semester scoping out various opportunities, but it was completely by chance that I stumbled upon the Slought Foundation internship that I ultimately chose to pursue.
In addition to running Slought, the organization’s Executive Director Aaron Levy is a Senior Lecturer in Penn’s English and History of Art departments. He was one of the instructors for a Summer Abroad course which took a group of students, including myself, to Cuba for the 2015 Havana Biennial. As we met in preparation for the trip, I came to know more about Aaron’s projects at Slought and was thoroughly intrigued. Slought is an organization that, in many ways, defies explanation or categorization. It is something of a hybrid between an art gallery and a social advocacy group, which uses artworks and cultural artifacts to instigate conversation about various topical issues. Because Slought is so small, and is thus free from the bureaucratic restrictions that confine other, larger institutions, its projects are developed in an extremely collaborative and organic way. A rotating cast of contributors, many located at Penn and in Philadelphia, and many elsewhere in the country and abroad, participate in projects rooted in the organization’s nine key values — Urgency, Dialogue, Resistance, Partnerships, Exception, Display, Publics, Geographies, and Process. These take the form of art installations, community partnership projects, symposia, and public conversation pieces coordinated by prominent thinkers in a multitude of fields, all of which are developed in an accelerated timeframe with some degree of spontaneity.
This kind of organizational structure (or lack thereof) necessitated tremendous flexibility in my role as an intern. Instead of being assigned the kind of specific, sometimes menial tasks often relegated to interns in more conventional programs, I was more often asked just to sit and brainstorm with Aaron and the two other interns, Adrienne and Alanna, in our shared workspace. Together, we conceptualized and coauthored descriptive texts about upcoming exhibitions and programs, including a web art piece by the Korean duo Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries on cynicism in the age of the Internet, and a photo and video installation by artist Daniel Traub on the social life of a bridge in Guangzhou, China and the populations that have a precarious foothold there. Our team also shared the more straightforward administrative duties — responding to emails, writing funding proposals, etc. This overall approach goes to the heart of the Slought ethos — as an organization, we value the input of many individual voices, which coalesce to form a strong, united institutional voice. We call this group the “inner public,” referencing a theory put forth by artist Krzysztof Wodiczko, which expounds on the value of the collaborative experience of a project, as well as the product that it ultimately creates.