letter from the editor
Grass at Columbia University, circa May 2017. Courtesy Unyimeabasi Udoh.
Where Plates co-founder Unyimeabasi Udoh went to college was a very pretty place: Columbia University, the largest landowner in New York City.1 Nestled in all this land is a set of very beautiful lawns. How do they keep their lawns so beautiful? They have a system.
First—as with many systems we would like to criticise—they have a fence. The fences are low; you could maybe jump them, except that around the fences are hedges. Also, you would get yelled at.
Second—and again as with many systems we would like to criticise—there are flags. Red flags and green flags indicate when you do (green) or do not (red) have permission to enter the lawn. But these flags almost always run red: they’re red after it rains, before it might rain, all through the winter, and whenever it strikes groundskeeping’s fancy. Really there are only about two weeks when the lawns are open: one in spring and another in fall, when parents are in town and are wont to do what they are wont to do with the lawns for which they claim to have paid. Perhaps there is greater access over summer, when students are elsewhere, but Udoh cannot attest to that.
In order to preserve the lawns over winter, the school wraps them in what is formally called a “turf blanket” but anyone you might ask calls “lawn condoms”: white custom tarps that have holes cut out for trees. When the snow falls on the lawn condoms you cannot tell from a distance what is condom and what is snow.
When spring comes, the school removes the condoms and— success!—the lawns are beautiful. We gaze on ye mighty and think, maybe all the restrictions are worth it. Young lads ready their croquet mallets, salmon-coloured shorts, and Lacoste polos and all seems right with the world for a moment. But then it comes time for graduation, and the school rolls its fake grass over its real grass, puts the graduation bleachers on top, and leaves it that way for a month.
Of course, suffocated for so long, the real grass dies, so after graduation they pull it all out and replace it with new grass.
Meanwhile, in 2018, 51 of 54 of Columbia University’s Visual Art graduates met with their Provost and Dean, demanding full tuition refunds, citing absentee instructors and studios with flooding issues, temperatures that match a sweltering summer day or else a cold winter morning, and crumbling ceilings. Even though the Provost reportedly agreed with the students that the programme is a “disgrace,” no refund was given.2
The state of the lawns during this meeting could not be confirmed, but according to the schedule it was likely in or approaching the “fake grass” section of the cycle.
Though recent articles on Columbia University’s Facilities and Operations website would have you believe greater access has been granted to these lawns since Udoh’s graduation,3 we’re not really talking about lawns, are we. Well, we are (these lawns are ridiculous), but we’re also talking about the logic of the institution.
Both of us graduated from MFA programmes4 in 2019. While there is a lot we could speak warmly of in regards to our cumulative 37 years in school—especially of having met each other—the system is pretty rotten.
This first issue of Plates: An experimental journal of art and culture presents seven pieces that scrutinise the educational institution. We invited contributors to critically reflect on the institution as we knew it, as we know it, and as we could know it.
Thank you so much for reading Plates Issue 1: School’s Out. In order to remain exactly as we would like, Plates is not held under the wing of any institution. However, this also means we rely on the income generated from our store and donations towards the publication’s continued financial solvency. Please consider making a contribution.
Thank you for choosing us for your most important meal of the day / Bon appétit / Eat that up, it’s good for you,5
Casey Carsel and Unyimeabasi Udoh
2 Benjamin Sutton, “Columbia University MFA Students Demand Tuition Refunds,” Hyperallergic, 30 April 2018.
3 “As Fall Semester Comes to a Close, Presence of Green Flags on Lawns Is the Norm,” Columbia University Facilities and Operations, 11 December 2017.
4 Well, the same one, or two different departmental heads of the same art-school Hydra; we’re not naming names, but we’re sure you can figure it out.