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The "Other" Internship: A Summer at Slought

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The "Other" Internship: A Summer at Slought

By Olivia Horn.

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.

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Another central component of Slought’s identity is an aversion to overly professionalized practices. These are weighed down by implications of hierarchy and performativity, which we see as impeding our organic, process-based approach. In this sense, the Slought mindset seems to be situated very much in conflict with the understanding of the internship, so widely held at Penn, as a direct path to career-preparedness. Yet, I will contend that much of what I accomplished during my time at Slought will be enormously beneficial to me in my future professional life. Because Slought’s organizational structure is so dependent on dialogue, working there regularly forced me to assess, voice, and defend my opinions on nuanced issues. This was most the case in the final weeks of my internship, when Aaron, Adrienne, and I tackled a blog post devoted to the topic of institutional access — an issue on which each of us had differing perspectives and concerns. The essay itself ended up being just over a thousand words, but it took the three of us nearly a week to work through our complex opinions on the subject. We debated various conceptions of access — access as legibility and transparency towards a public that has already engaged with the institution, versus access as a concerted effort to welcome and engage new audiences — in an attempt to formally articulate Slought’s position on openness. This debate required careful thought and eloquence, which apart from being vital career skills, are simply good life skills; no matter where my professional pursuits take me, I will always need to be able to articulate and defend the things that I believe in. I am extremely grateful for the way that Slought challenged me to be opinionated in a productive way.

At Slought, I also developed new conceptions of artistic and curatorial practices. I came to understand that virtually anything can be curated, often in an extemporaneous but still impactful way. Much of the inspiration for Slought exhibitions and programs comes not from specific artists or works, but from other sources, like books, current events, etc., which act as scores from which we derive topics that we feel are worth exploring. Artworks and other objects are then integrated based on their relevance and the ideas that they can contribute to this topic. This was the case with an exhibition we developed over the summer together with art historian Xenia Vytuleva, entitled “Straying,” which is set to open in December.  This project emerged from the diary that philosopher Walter Benjamin kept during the winter of 1926, while he was living in Moscow. Using Moscow Diary as its score, the exhibit will feature objects that are specifically mentioned in Benjamin’s text, which Aaron and Xenia will retrieve from Moscow in late September.

This is one way that Slought projects are created. However, exhibition planning often moves in the opposite direction. Being a small institution with limited resources, Slought often has to construct exhibition premises based on whatever miscellaneous objects are made available to us. The intern team did this in our redesign of the Slought storefront — we uncovered a group of cultural artifacts from a 2010 exhibition titled Commercial America, which had been left in storage, and used the odd assemblage to create a playful, wunderkammer-like storefront. The miscellaneous objects, offered without description or explanation, were meant to provoke a kind of curiosity that paralleled the intellectual curiosity that is so central to Slought’s identity.

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My work at Slought this summer had none of the trappings of a conventional college internship; there was no business casual, no deliberate networking, and no professional hierarchy. I didn’t even have a desk. Still, I found that spending time at Slought, where I was pushed to be constantly creative, thoughtful, and receptive to new ideas, resulted in substantial personal and intellectual growth. Certainly, in this way, alternative internship experiences have their own, unique merits.

Olivia Horn is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences, where she is pursuing a BA in Art History, with a minor in Consumer Psychology. Her interest in art includes both the visual and the performing; on campus, she is active in Penn’s Theatre Arts Council, and also performs with Keynotes A Cappella.


Edited by Mariah Macias.