SFMOMA’s ’Project Los Altos’ strikes nostalgic chord with LAHS students

Photo By: Courtesy of SFMOMA
Photo Courtesy Of Sfmoma

“Drill Team Homecoming Parade 1974” lives on. A video of the project is scheduled for display during the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s “Project Los Altos SFMOMA in Silicon Valley,” slated to run Nov. 9 through March 2, 2014.

When Los Altos High School teacher Charles Garoian’s art students approached him in 1974 with a performance-art idea they warned might “disrupt” that year’s homecoming parade, he took a deep breath.

“If you do something intelligent, I’m all for it and I’ll support you,” he told his students. “Otherwise, you’re on your own.”

Hired in 1969 by Principal Dude Angius, Garoian believed that conceptual art had an “ironical, paradoxical element that appealed to adolescents.”

After listening to his students’ idea, Garoian opted in, laboring all night on “Drill Team,” a “walking float” based on a visual pun about drilling. Students practiced marching on the football field while he shouted, “Hup one, hup two.”

Nearly four decades later, their project – “Drill Team: Homecoming Parade 1974” lives on. It is scheduled for display during the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s “Project Los Altos: SFMOMA in Silicon Valley,” scheduled to run Nov. 9 through March 2, 2014, in various venues throughout Los Altos.

SFMOMA called Garoian two months ago requesting permission to install a video of the work for “Project Los Altos.” He also plans to give a public talk about his art history classes at Los Altos High, his first teaching job.

Parade performance

The performance work was “started by art students who felt excluded by the pep girls and athletes, the marching bands and drill teams, but who got to march through the Los Altos village that day,” Garoian said. A leading performance artist and now professor of art education theory at Pennsylvania State University, he spoke with the Town Crier by phone last week.

Students marched in cadence in the mile-long parade, sporting chambray shirts and work boots. Each row carried a two-by-four, with two teens in the middle actually drilling into the boards.

The art students landed right behind two brand-new Porsches carrying the homecoming king and queen, creating a further contrast with their sight gag. Garoian told students to look serious and play it straight, because “a comedian never laughs at his own joke.” Plenty of chuckles could be heard from spectators along the parade route, though, and the school’s official drill team brought up the rear.

Garoian taught at Los Altos High for 16 years. He chronicled his experiences in “Performing Pedagogy: Toward an Art of Politics” (SUNY, 1999). He originally intended to use his first teaching job to subsidize his studio art, but he soon found the classroom to be “an extremely rewarding experience in itself.”

The Fresno native introduced “live performance art” to his classes. Springing from the Dadaist and futurist movements, performance art often uses visual puns in an “unannounced happening, sort of like a street performance,” according to Garoian.

At Los Altos High, Garoian said many performances occurred behind closed doors. In particular, he said he exposed students to artist Allan Kaprow’s popular ideas on “Happenings,” which call for using performance art “as a laboratory for experiments.”

Often, performance art occurred when students filed off buses in the morning or into the courtyard as they ate lunch at noon. Garoian said adolescents particularly benefited from conceptual art, which was “exploratory, experimental and improvisational.”

“It got them to take risks, and it got them to experiment in ways other than using drugs,” he said.

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