Bryan Doniger, who you may have spotted on the first floor of Frost in a camo baseball cap and Wilco t-shirt, embraces his job as Marsh Art’s House Resident Counselor wholeheartedly. The deep love he has expressed for the house shines through his varied contributions over the past two years, first as a resident and then as a resident counselor. From the free jazz segment at Coffee Haus to setting up a system where residents can leave notes for each other in envelopes on the door, Bryan’s seemingly tireless, and his borderline excessive generosity and quirky wisdom provide energy we could use on campus. At a school where differences can be hard to bridge and where the focus on individualism, academics and competition create unique challenges for creating an arts community, I thought that Bryan’s cool, uncle-like role in Marsh would give him a great deal of insight regarding the importance of artistic collaboration in this moment.
Q: What art(s) do you do?
A: I’m a musician, and my primary instrument is the tenor saxophone. I play jazz and rock music. When I was in middle school, I was in a heavy metal band. We were called “Spaz in Eden” and we were sick. As a host of Coffee Haus last year, I also dabbled with comedy performance, which was really fun!
Q: How do you believe you can facilitate artistic collaboration in the Arts House as an RC?
A: I continue to be really fascinated by the strange relationship students at this college seem to develop with work. I’ve never been at a place where work is so strongly attached to public morality, and I think the strange shame so many of us feel at our inability to be endlessly productive is implicitly there in so many of the conversations we have with one another. As the RC at Marsh, work is at the forefront of my mind for two reasons.
The sort of work that artists do is severely undervalued compared with, let’s say, the work that consultants do at Bain or the work that corporate lawyers do passing pieces of paper back and forth among one another. Katherine Stanton has written beautifully about this in the opinion section, and I’m also really partial to David Graeber’s writing about this in his piece on “Bullshit Jobs” from 2013.
Meaningfully building community depends on people putting work into the place they live in that is profoundly different from other sorts of labor. I think we are too quick to conflate all forms of labor together, or else too quick to forget. The end result is a student population that, in the name of “productive work” or “useful labor,” ends up devoting itself to profoundly useless or even harmful tasks: consulting, banking, and various other ways of screwing poor people over.
Being RC of Marsh and living there, it’s been really cool to work with residents who want to devote time and energy into precisely the forms of labor that it’s really easy to dismiss as useless, even when they may be among the most vital. Artistic work and activist work, in these days is the work of living in a community with other people. I see my job as an RC partly as an opportunity to provide spaces and times where work like this can happen.
Q: Has living in a creative community influenced you artistically? If so, how? Has this environment had different effects on you each year with different positions within the house?
A: I learned so much about how to perform in front of people hosting Coffee Haus last year. I pushed myself to do all sorts of acts I would never have done otherwise — the time machine skit, the “go fuck yourself” song — and that was really cool. Also I began making a bunch of weird videos with my friend Brian Zayatz last year, and that was fun.
Q: How do you think the arts communities on campus like Marsh can be more inclusive?
A: I’ve been testing out this year, as a hypothesis, that talking openly and honestly about politics in a face-to-face setting can work a powerful magic when it comes to making a community stronger. There are really meaningful political differences in the house; there always have been. It’s important for all genuine political communities to earnestly address irreconcilable difference. In past years, I think we kept to ourselves until suddenly we couldn’t talk to one another at all, which is really sad because Marsh always has really interesting activists and artists. My aim hasn’t been to create a politically neutral space. It has been instead to work with residents to make places where it feels good to live in a community that is actively negotiating difference.
Q: How do you think Amherst could become a more artistic campus?
A: Making Amherst a more artistic campus interests me precisely because it provides a way that we can meaningfully rethink our campus’ strange, punitive relationship with “useful work.”