On a cold February night, long after the day’s classes had ended and the campus dining halls had cleared, undergraduates, grad students, professors, and a visiting lecturer lingered over tea and dinner, engaged in conversations about the definition and creation of art. The discourse had sprung up, and now flowed, organically; were it not for the age differences, it would have been difficult to distinguish the adults from the undergrads.
The discussion was unique for the Princeton campus in two ways. The first was the intellectual atmosphere, which combined enthusiasm that kept students for one-and-a-half hours after the lecture ended with equality among voices and opinions, achieving a preceptor or seminar instructor’s previously unreachable dream. The second was where it took place: in a 20-foot diameter geodesic orange tent mounted on a wooden platform on New South Lawn.
This is the Princeton Student Colony, a settlement conceptualized and created by nine students and two professors over the duration of the semester. Student participants receive credit for their work in the Colony, listed under the Atelier, Visual Arts, and Architecture Departments, and are graded on a P/D/F basis. Participation in the Colony also fills the University’s LA distribution requirement.
Taught by Dan Wood, a professor at Princeton’s School of Architecture, and Fritz Haeg, a conceptual artist whose recent works include “Edible Estates,” in which he planted “edible landscapes” on lawns across the country—he also seems to have an affinity for geodesic domes, with his personal website suggesting that the Colony represents at least his third dome project—the class meets every Monday from 1:30 to 4:30, though students say they generally remain at the site until 9:30 on Monday evening.
Both class time and outside work—some of which seems to be done on Monday afternoons—are singularly devoted to developing the space the Colony occupies, a task that one of the students simplified to “redecorating” for Art students, “imagining” for Architecture students, and perhaps having student performers in the commune liven the area with their talents. Laura Preston ’13 notes that the goals for the space are to make it “livable” and to “tailor things to the environment.”
The course also has a short syllabus featuring a number of books for students to read over the semester. So far, Preston reports, the Colony’s work has centered on practical matters and mostly been done on Mondays. However, its participants expect to be spending more time at the New South site throughout the coming weeks, implementing their ambitious visions for the Colony.
Though the Colony functions as a center of activity Monday afternoons, it’s the evening when it truly comes alive. Last week, guests piled into the heated tent to see the lecture delivered by Can Altay, a Turkish artist and friend of Haeg. The Colony prides itself on being open to the public—at any rate, warm and welcoming. The first-timers are even encouraged to sign a guest book. Guests are invited to stay after the lecture for discussion and dinner, cooked by the students.
On this night, the crowd numbered about twenty, and Haeg was delighted to introduce the project and Altay to the group. Haeg described the Colony as a response to a misconception that important academic work must be “alone and inside.” In discussing the group’s progress, he advocated the creation of a “bigger whole that’s responding to each other.” Though Haeg was specifically referring to the relationships between the students in the settlement, the sentiment of his words—and the ideas of art as public exhibition espoused by both Altay and him—suggested that the Princeton community needed to be part of that whole.
This, it seems, is where the Colony will run into its greatest obstacle. In spite of its outreach and seemingly high turnout, I was one of only two guests at the Altay lecture who wasn’t a graduate student in art, affiliated with an Atelier program of some sort, or a friend or family member of one of the Colony’s students. How, then, can a project that makes such an effort to be inclusive feel so exclusive?
The group seems to lack some self-awareness, or else not care very much about its image, as it clings to a particular subculture. When guests entered the tent, they were immediately offered tea; dinner was a fresh Ethiopian-style bread and vegetable stew. According to Haeg’s website, while most students coordinate a number of reasonable arms of the project, from social media to providing food, one is in charge of “hospitality and recycling.”
Another element of this is the course’s syllabus, which includes activities such as composting, napping, and stretching as central themes of the Colony. When I jokingly asked one of the students about napping, she seemed confused—for the students, the Colony may be about highlighting habits as art (or movement, or interactions between people), but napping is out of sight and out of mind. Unfortunately, though, the Colony’s artistic and architectural aims may be overshadowed by its connection to this subculture, which reinforces the stereotypes believed by some while preventing others from feeling comfortable in the settlement.
The development of the Colony over the semester will certainly be interesting to watch as it tries to achieve its impressive potential. Senior D.J. Judd actually argues that one of the best and most instructive attributes of the Colony is the possibility of failure involved. For Princeton students (probably for college students in general), he says, failure is the biggest fear. But in the Colony, an idea might not be up to snuff, or a project, or the entire finished work.
And so the Princeton Student Colony moves boldly ahead. For its successes—the intellectual atmosphere it fosters—there will also be failures: its so-far inability to draw the public to its side. Here’s hoping there’s more of the first than the second.