In Retrospect: Rachel Boillot on her first semester

Rachel Boillot

The first semester of the MFAEDA program was an unbelievable whirlwind, wonderful in its intensity.

There are a lot of questions about the program, as we are truly breaking new ground. I rarely have good canned answers ready in response to such questions, and we are all still figuring it out. Regardless, here are some of my initial impressions and reflections, which will hopefully piece together some semblance of a response.

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In choosing to return to school for further education, we must ask ourselves what it is that we require from the experience. What do we need at this point in our respective careers? What tools and resources are necessary for forward progress? I think each professional that returns to school must grapple with these questions. In the MFAEDA program, we are particularly aware of such inquiries. Being part of a new program makes literal what graduate school is all about. Daily, we must consider how a program might be constructed to meet our varying needs. It makes us more proactive and more reflective throughout the entire process. It makes us consider our own trajectory and that of higher education.

What I find most exciting about a new program is that the mold is not yet established. Many graduate programs become little factories, set in their niche, churning out students working in a certain manner.

I don’t mean to wholesale condemn this model of graduate school: frankly, it makes sense. Programs have specialties, allowing them to excel within a particular microcosm. Prospective students choose programs with the orientation that is most pertinent for their practice. It is simply effective to do so. The result is an efficient, streamlined process of attainment. Over time, the mold is cemented by the members of a graduate school community that represent its school of thought. It becomes a most circuitous route of branding.

Here, we are between molds. As indicated, the mold doesn’t exist because of the program’s youth. We are still grappling with the raw materials of construction. But perhaps even more significantly, the program exists between molds by its very design. I am in constant awe of the sheer diversity within my cohort. We all have such different backgrounds, aspirations and beliefs. We both document and experiment; we make films and robots. This diversity and the interdisciplinary approach are crucial to the program’s very foundation.

It is not efficient, per se: it takes time to understand one another. Because we have had such different life experiences and produce very different work, we have to learn how to help one another through our respective processes. We can’t just hop onto the assembly line because this is not a “one size fits all” process.

I personally find it to be a far more enriching process. It requires more time and energy than will ever be apparent on a transcript, but it’s worth it. I can’t fathom a more rewarding process than working to understand my peers. In doing so, I learn in ways I simply could not have foreseen, ways invisible on my syllabi, wonderful in their surprise.

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Ultimately, the MFAEDA is about creating a community. After finishing my first semester, I regard our sense of community as the most significant aspect of the program.

One of the first ways we worked to understand one another was by sharing our influences with one another. In Alex Harris’ Documentary Fieldwork class, we shared with one another what work had shaped us in order to explain who we are as artists and thinkers. It forced us to consider the tradition in which we follow and articulate how we envision our trajectory in pursuit. I found it to be one of the most inspirational and enjoyable bonding experiences possible. My peers exposed me to worlds of which I had previously been unaware. It was particularly illuminating to discuss these influences while pursuing our first graduate school projects. We were looking back while moving forward, reflecting while exploring. (View our final Influences blog here.)

The final requirement for Documentary Fieldwork was to share our work from the semester with the public. All work was presented as in progress. However, the process of presenting the work to a broader audience forced us to stand by the work, regardless of its state of completion. This, too, was a crucial way of forming community. We had all seen one another’s work throughout the semester–not to mention almost constantly the week prior, as we worked late into the night, side by side. (I still find myself humming tunes from my friends’ film soundtracks.) But presenting our work together engendered a real sense of pride in our shared efforts. I found myself anxiously scanning the crowd throughout, gauging the viewer’s response to the work of my peers. I felt as nervous as if it were my own work. It was like having a teammate up at bat.

Of course, Documentary Fieldwork was not the only class that helped us to create this sense of community. With the MFAEDA core curriculum, we attended the same classes together, cementing our new unit. Our Genealogies of the Experimental course gave me the opportunity to research media innovation over history. I explored how modes of expression, storytelling, and the distribution of information have historically interacted with culture and technology. We read critical theory that contextualized such innovation, begging questions of us as both artists and citizens.

For my final Genealogies project, I delved into the history of the U.S. Postal Service, providing the backdrop for my studio practice. In Documentary Fieldwork, I had been photographing this disappearing service. The research I did for the Genealogies final provided an intellectual framework for this photographic inquiry. It allowed me to locate the decline of the post office within larger technological shifts. Perhaps more importantly, I considered critical perspectives on the meaning of these changes.

I must admit, as a still photographer I felt incredibly reluctant in regards to our Experimental Film/Video coursework. The moving image was a daunting new medium for me. Regardless of its close relationship to photography, it seemed a foreign language. Of course, I knew prior to attending the program that this would be a part of my Duke experience. I was aware that film-making was built into the core curriculum, and I was glad for that. I genuinely wanted to learn how to work with the moving image. That being said, I initially approached it as a practical endeavor, one of simply expanding my toolbox for utilitarian purposes. In all honesty, I thought it would be good to be able to list it as a skill on the bottom of my CV. I viewed it as something to check off the list and move on.

My perspective changed while I was dealing with a personal loss. My grandmother fell ill in November, and I returned home to care for her during her final days. A new medium allowed me to approach this harrowing experience with a fresh perspective. It freed me to explore and express this sense of loss. Though I remain a still photographer, I am glad to have had this experience to explore. I am still shocked by how much I enjoyed the process, how invested I became in the outcome.

The medium also taught me a great deal about my own medium of choice. Responding to the same experience in two different media taught me a great deal about both ways of working.

It is not possible to work without recognizing the laws of one’s own art form.

– Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time

Working in a new medium also meant that I had to rely further on the support of my peers, who were more familiar with the tools of film-making. As we all scrambled to complete our final projects, our varying skill-sets became the community’s very asset. If one of us wasn’t confident with a certain process, surely someone nearby could help them to master the tools at hand.

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Ultimately, the first semester of the MFAEDA program was much more than I bargained for and I’m glad.

–Rachel Boillot