Standing in front of the unfinished Alchemist’s Shack with artist and Mildred’s Lane codirector J. Morgan Puett, I realized that some things can take forever. An art installation-cum-habitation, the shack has been a work in progress for Puett, artist and codirector Mark Dion, artist Robert Williams, and the countless participants who have visited Mildred’s Lane for nearly twenty years. Over a two-week summer 2016 session, Williams worked with several Mildred’s Lane fellows to complete the installation’s rustic exterior and create a Wunderkammer inside filled with gold and silver skeletons, Williams’s hand-blown glass scientific instruments, antique books, and other alchemical accoutrements. The fellows supplemented physical labor with texts about the history of alchemy and how it might be applied to contemporary art practices. Over the course of this session, the parties involved might finish the Alchemist’s Shack, or they might not. That’s fine, of course, because everything is incremental at Mildred’s Lane.
Mildred’s Lane is neither a residency nor a retreat, but a Gesamtkunstwerk. It is a site of perpetual reinvention and growth, a pedagogical experiment, and a “style of poetics,” to quote Puett. She estimates that the origins of the Mildred’s Lane property go back to the 1830s when it was settled as a homestead. Mildred Steffens was born there in 1902 and lived all eighty-six years of her life on the property. Steffens’s family had immaculately cared for the place before selling the property to Puett and Dion in 1997. “It was as if Mildred had just walked down the lane,” recalls Puett, who lives there year round with her and Dion’s son, Grey Rabbit. Puett and Dion began their art-as-living project informally with the help of friends, slowly building out the main edifice and satellite buildings around the property brick by brick, grant by grant, eventually growing Mildred’s Lane to ninety-six acres. Every aspect of the property is designed to evoke a pastoral yet elegant aesthetic. Taxidermic animals adorn every nook, steel-paneled walls are patinated in umber, and Puett meticulously stained the bathroom with a convincing faux-creep of mold. (There is Wi-Fi and electricity because “we live in the twenty-first century, after all,” Puett told me.) “Much like zen practices,” former fellow and visiting artist Donna Cleary explains, “Morgan’s work is about the intention behind every act [so] that each act has purpose, aesthetic value, and care embedded in it.”
As both a total work of art and a form of alternative pedagogy, the Mildred’s Lane program pushes the limits of what art can do beyond perpetuating its own discourse. “We take the three-letter word [art] out of it,” Puett remarks. Dion understands Mildred’s Lane as a place that preserves the kind of education he had in the 1980s, in which “the pub was a pedagogic space.” Since 2007, hundreds of fellows—artists, writers, graduate students—have attended one of the three to six recurring or unique sessions each summer on truly diverse (and enigmatic) topics. Summer 2016 sessions included “Attention Lab,” “Pond,” and “TOWN.” Puett views Mildred’s Lane as an opportunity for passers-through to rethink everyday habits, in order to “maximize your experience of everything” in a way that “reassembles every bit of you.” Outside of what Dion describes as today’s “stifling academic structures,” the education system is carefully curated to encourage freedom and self-realization, all of which is complemented by “a lot of productive hanging out.” Purposefully eluding narrow definitions, Mildred’s Lane is, according to Puett, a “complex(ity).”
Puett and Dion encourage fellows to embrace a new lexicon for art and life that operates outside of established speech. This is crucial to the experience of Mildred’s Lane. It takes an afternoon or so to acclimate to these creative reimaginings of bureaucracy, domestic labor, and self-identification. For instance, Puett is not the director of Mildred’s Lane but the “Ambassador of Entanglement.” Dion is the “Cabinet Minister Peregrinator.” Cesar Valdes was this summer’s “Ministry of Comfort,” an artist-in-residence of sorts who tracks the satisfaction levels of fellows and guests by creating a work of art in the form of a drawing, diagram, craft object, or sculpture called the “comfortometer.” Paul Bartow is not just an architect and designer, but the “Master of Applied Complex(ity).” Cheryl Edwards is the “Digestion Choreographer” (eating, and eating well, is central to the experience of Mildred’s Lane). Indeed, if everything in our world is administered and managed, then why not do so artfully?
After completing a session, the dozen or so fellows receive a “Certificate of Plenipotentiary” qualifying them to act as ambassadors of the Mildred’s Lane “workstyles” pedagogy. While session topics vary, all emphasize workstyles, a type of social education that Puett characterizes as a way to expand what constitutes labor and chores. What is traditionally considered “women’s work,” according to Puett, “what you expect someone else to do,” is done by all at Mildred’s Lane. Cooking, cleaning, gardening, and “hooshing”—arranging objects in a beautiful and useful manner around the property—become efficient and graceful forms of labor that render every aspect of life meaningful. Workstyling is about learning to work and be together; shared experience becomes a pedagogical tool in its own right. Puett instructs fellows in the fine art of hooshing (white dishware goes here, and only here, patterned plates and bowls over there). Hodges teaches fellows how to maximize cooking (if you catch on quickly, you’ll learn how to make pots clean themselves). Fellow Wesley Chavis reflected that workstyling “compelled me to notice the journey, the gesture, the history of my laboring body.” For him, the Mildred’s Lane experience was “about reclaiming tasks that capitalism has made mundane by reexamining, reframing, and dignifying quotidian labor.” There is even a seminar about poetically cleaning the toilet.
I visited Mildred’s Lane during an Attention Lab session led by The Order of the Third Bird, an elusive organization of transient researchers around the world that investigates “Practical Aesthesis,” a mix of ritual and experiment that revolves around the act of close looking in order to give attention to things that need it. One associate (referred to as a “Bird”) characterized the Order as an “acephalous body”; a member does not necessarily know how many other members there are, nor is there a delineated hierarchy. (However, there is a more public parallel group, Estar (Ser), that seeks to uncover the history of the Order.) To resist what was described as “institutional capture,” the Order may convene whenever and wherever objects require attention.
Billed as “part guerilla seminar and part meditative and kinetic practicum,” Attention Lab introduces fellows to some of the Order’s fundamental protocols so they may develop new forms of awareness. Following a day of workstyling and hooshing, Mildred’s Lane fellows could participate in a special “night vigil,” as I did. On a cool, late-summer evening, five fellows and I gathered on the floor of the Lane’s Barn Lycaeum around a shrouded object. As a Bird read an elegy, we focused our thoughts on what was before us, until the object was revealed. We were invited to consider and commune with the object for as long as we desired; and for the rest of the night, fellows and Birds alike could do so at leisure. Though not representative of the Order’s protocols or standard practices—which Birds do not disclose to those outside of the organization—the night vigil was a more open, informal, and experimental occurrence, shrouded in mystery. Nevertheless, to be with something for no other reason than to be with it was an intimate and quietly powerful experience. “Sharing our experiences of the object,” noted fellow Joana Stillwell, and learning to be “generous towards it … ended up being very rewarding for ourselves.”
Pond, held earlier in the summer, embodies the Mildred’s Lane ethos of connecting fellows to ways of being and learning distinct from standard pedagogical approaches. In 2010, Puett began conversations with landscape architect Mark Thomann about how best to utilize a small cow pond on the property. Thomann, himself preoccupied with “how a pond, a seemingly banal construct, can embody many principles of design” such as “flows, seasonality, weather,” saw the pond’s pedagogical potential as a “a source of life and complex interaction of many processes.” With the aid of a bulldozer and many hours of sweat equity, the cow pond soon grew many times its size. It is now a central component of the Mildred’s Lane experience, and session leaders like Gina Siepel can use their time at the Lane to activate the pond. Over a week this past summer, Siepel worked with fellows and guest artists to build coracles (small woven boats) for the pond. Days of bending wood and hammering copper rivets “enacted a kind of collaborative learning for all of us,” explained Siepel, that led to a “less boundaried life and art practice.”
The philosophy of Mildred’s Lane extends beyond the site’s property line and into Narrowsburg, New York, just across the Delaware River. There, Puett conducts a session called TOWN, in which Narrowsburg becomes a surrogate for “Main Street, USA” and a testing ground for engagements with a typology of a place (and its inhabitants) that has scant or infrequent encounters with contemporary art. This is the most important session to Puett. Politically speaking, TOWN is an effort to combat what she characterizes as “amazing snobbery between the urban and country” and a complete lack of understanding between these two demographics. Puett laments that “most liberals in our country wouldn’t know how to go to a town meeting,” and many rural Americans, in turn, view urbanites with outright skepticism. In addition to workshops and interventions about community and social practice at Mildred’s Lane, fellows can walk the mile or so to Narrowsburg, where Puett also runs the Mildred Complex(ity), a project space for exhibitions, events, and lectures, and her studio. The Mildred Complex(ity) “is a vitrine for the outside to look into what we’re doing at Mildred’s Lane,” explains Puett. Along with the alternative pedagogy of Mildred’s Lane, The Mildred Complex(ity) seeks to dispel the false binary between town and country, which, for Puett, are not “disconnected realms of shared experience.”
Former Mildred’s Lane fellows often return. Pond collaborator Kenny Tang explains that many are drawn to how Mildred’s Lane “dissects the banal and reductive aspects of our culture and reframes them to create wonder and new relationships.” Indeed, there is a dearth of wonder in this world of over-rationalization and over-quantification. Puett hopes fellows and visitors alike find a sense of “radical freedom” when they realize “anything can happen” at the Lane. “The world is so overly strategized, minute by minute,” Puett remarks, and all too often we feel “what somebody else wants you to experience.” She emphasizes that passers-through “pull away from the urban pace and anxiety” at Mildred’s Lane and encounter “ways to reassemble time.” But if there is anywhere that seeks to re-imbue being with a sense of mystery, enchantment, and the unknown, that place is Mildred’s Lane. In Speed and Politics, Paul Virilio said that “the revolutionary contingent … is a producer of speed,” and at Mildred’s Lane, the revolution is slow, but lasting and real.