Thursday, October 29, 2009

Rose Cell Phone

Last night we rolled out our expanded Rose Art Museum cell phone, in conjunction with the opening of the Museum's new exhibition, showcasing works from the permanent collection. The exhibition celebrates the publication of the major new catalog, The Rose Art Museum at Brandeis (Abrams, 2009).

I'm very pleased with the work the students have done in scripting and recording the prompts. Mao Matsuda did a haunting prose poem, in English (35#) and Japanese (34#) on Adolph Gottlieb's powerful "Rising"-- meditating on the works apparent evocations of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings. (Ryo Morimoto and I also explored the nuclear resonances of the painting in our commentaries in 19#, 34#, 35#.)

Many of the commentaries are serious and scholarly. Cultural Production grad students Brian Friedberg (28#, 29#) and Pennie Taylor (7#, 33#) , who both work at the Museum, crafted prompts that could appear in a museum catalog, while keeping the tone conversational and engaging.

Several commentators experimented with a playful and humorous approach Polin Abuaf (38#), for instance, cleverly engaged with Sam Francis' White Ring, a large blank canvas painted only around its edge; Polin ventriloquized the voice of the painting, reveling in preservation of its essential blankness. Inspired by Polin's posting, Ellen Schattschneider decided to record a segment(40#) for Richard Prince's Untitled (Cowboy), a large format photograph showing the Marlboro Man riding towards a cow in the snow. Ellen takes on the voice of the cow, in a hilarious feminist stream of consciousness sequence that incorporates Roland Barthes. Daniela Modiano and Jonathan Turbin, in turn, performed two witty skits inspired by Roy Lichenstein's pop masterpiece, "Forget it! Forget Me!," (30#), the work shown in the above photograph, with the former museum director, Michael Rush standing beside it; the students reenact possible dialogues between the two characters in the painting, leading to the same brooding male retort. (Jonathan also taped a more scholarly commentary, 31#, reflecting on critical feminist readings of the work.)

One of our challenges has been sorting out how to pose intellectually stimulating readings without boring our listeners. In his commentary on Jenny Holzer's 2008 installation work, Stave, (which incorporates redacted interrogation transcripts from Guantanamo Bay) Jonathan adopts a tongue in cheek tone, half parodying himself in his citing of Foucault. Andreas Teuber (22#), in his prompt on Warhol's Saturday Disaster refrains from offering scholarly commentary, but instead posts a series of challenging, thought provoking koan-like questions about the work. I should mention that so far, four other commentators have also tackled Andy Warhol's famous "Saturday Disaster" (14#, 15#, 16#, 22#, 24#) from a range of disciplinary perspectives, including anthropology, philosophy and the visual arts. (The artist Steve Miller did a fascinating segment on the work, speaking from his perspective as one who has worked extensively in silk screening.) I'm delighted that Philosophy graduate student Wesley Mattingly did one of the Warhol segments, 22#, forcing us to look at precisely what we "don't see" in the image, leading us into a sophisticated "interrogation of the gaze" that asks us how the dead are revivified through the canvas.

Ji Yun Lee (25#) skilfully comments on Hannah Wilke's Needed-Erase-Her, leading her listeners towards a feminist phenomenological reading of the piece, through a series of questions. [Ji Yun also posted elegant segments on Yayoi Kusama's Blue Dress (29#) and Warhol's Saturday Disaster, 24#]

As a teacher, I'm fascinated by how the exercise of composing for a cell phone tour has impelled my students to engage so thoughtfully and rigorously with major art works: many spent extended periods looking at the works, until a light bulb, clicked as it were; in all cases they came up with original readings and figured out original ways to communicate their excitement to the listeners. The discipline of writing two minute segments for an audio tour, as opposed to writing conventional lengthy academic papers, encouraged the students to craft pithy and deeply insightful commentaries. The knowledge that they are responsible to a larger audience, far beyond the classroom, seems to have inspired them to produce academic work above and beyond the call of duty. Speaking for myself, in the various prompts I recorded, I found myself discovering new aspects of works that I had thought I knew well; like any faculty member, I found the challenge of limiting myself to two minutes to be painful, but it was also exciting to discover how much one can evoke in a brief passage. And I'm just delighted that our international students have found creative way to compose imaginative and critical segments in multiple languages, grappling with important problems in linguistic and cultural translation.

Meanwhile, we're learning about the challenges of guiding Museum visitors to try out the tour. We found last night that tiny labels only listing the prompt numbers, and not the actual phone number, just don't work. And we clearly need a big sign at the museum entrance, explaining the existence of the tour and how to access it. Dave Ashelm, the wonderful president of the company Guide by Cell, who was kindly walked us through this whole process, explains that the best way t to get visitors to use a tour is to have "teasers' printed out near the paintings, with questions like, "What is the couple arguing about?", "Why is there a clock in this painting", "Why is she floating in her living room?" So perhaps we'll experiment with signage along those lines.

It has just been great working with the Museum's full time staff, Roy Dawes and Valerie Wright, who have had to juggle so much in the past few months, but who have remained deeply generous and engaged with all our students. They've been very open to us trying out this experiment, which has been simply thrilling for me as a teacher.

I'm still trying to process the opening last night, which was attended by many hundreds. Some of my colleagues had argued for boycotting the event, which they likened to a "Potemkin Village," presenting the illusion that the Rose is a conventional, functioning entity, while the collection itself still remains under threat. For them, the Rose can be referred to "as the institution formerly known as the Rose Art Museum," but it is not a "museum" as they would define the term. It seemed to me important for us to demonstrate what a vital pedagogical resource the Rose remains for us at the University, though constant engagement at a number of levels, although I recognize that negotiating this ethical territory is quite tricky.

In any event, at the opening, scores of students, faculty, and community members wore "Save the Rose" buttons. This led to some impassioned conversation. For some, the Museum has been "saved," in the sense that the building will be remain open, with at least some of the permanent collection retained. For others, the continuing possibility that the key works of the collection--including the Motherwell, the DeKooning, the Gottlieb, the Lichtenstein, the Johns--might be auctioned off, means that the "Rose" as we have come to know it would no longer exist in any meaningful sense of the term.

This morning, though, all thoughts of the controversy faded away for a joyous event. We hosted over 35 adult students from the Waltham Family School, one of our most important community partners, at the Museum, in preparation for their phase of this project. The women, nearly all of them recent immigrants to the States, came up with marvelous original readings of many art works, which will be the basis of their recorded segments (in English, Spanish, Haitian Creole, Laotian and Cantonese). We had wonderful help from the Spanish language students of my colleague Scott Gravina and the Creole-speaking students of Jane Hale, along with wonderful interpreting work by Anthropology grad student Carlos Martinez Ruiz, so everyone was able to participate in the conversations. (One wonderful thing about working at the Rose is the way it engages people from across the entire community.) We still have to figure out precisely how the recording with the WFS students will work; we're not sure if they will script their commentaries or just speak extemporaneously into the microphone; in any event, we hope to have this multilingual community audio tour up by mid-November!

For anyone who wants to listen to the tour, just call (781) 253-3398 and then press the designated number followed by the pound (#) sign. There is a listing of the "prompts" (as these audio segments are called) at

We'd be extremely grateful for feedback and suggestions on improving the tour!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Reading Love Cemetery

This week I'm teaching China Galland's remarkable book, "Love Cemetery: Unburying the Secret History of Slaves" (Harper, 2007) in my graduate seminar, "Making Culture: Theory and Practice." The book is manifestly an account of the author's attempts at collaborative community activism over the years to help restore and secure community access to a historic African-American cemetery in East Texas, in spite of extensive efforts by private and corporate (white dominated) interests that have closed it off to public access. The book is also, more subtly, an exploration of the author's own internal psychic landscape as she tries to breach the staggering, enduring racial divides in American society in the early 21st century. (I had the pleasure of working some years ago in working with China Galland on a quite different racial reconciliation project, around memories and photographs of lynching, and have followed her Keepers of Love project from a distance with great interest.)

The book's subtitle, which sounds like a publisher-imposed phrase, doesn't really do the text justice. As China herself notes early on, the term "slaves" itself is problematic as it limits the personhood of those who were enslaved to their legal status. And in any event the book doesn't have all that much to say about the historical experiences of enslaved persons in Harrison County, but is much more concerned with the experiences and legacies of Jim Crow in the region, and with "unburying" the unresolved psychic trauma of those enduring legacies of black and white Americans.

Having worked extensively on a different set of African-American cemetery restoration and reclamation projects (primarily in Georgia) reading the book was an exhilerating and at times deeply disturbing experience, bringing back powerful memories of joy, fulfillment, disappointment and anguish.

I love the framing moment early on: at the close of China’s first visit to the cemetery with two members of the descendant community, a large elm tree comes down with a crash. One of the African American women remarks, “That’s just the Ancestors lettin’ us know they seen us,” she said, “and that they’re happy we’re here." (p. 26)
 The remark puts me in mind of the deep significance attached to trees in African-American communities throughout the American South, as repositories of the spirit. (I discuss this symbolism in some detail in my recent article, "Going by the Trees: Death and Regeneration in Georgia's Haunted Landscapes' [Electronic Antiquity, 2009]) For the Kongo people of West-Central Africa, trees are explicitly the houses of the honored dead. In the rural South, in Georgia as well as in East Texas, there seem to be mere enigmatic associations among these elements. Trees are the signals of gravesites and mark the boundaries of graveyards; they span great gulfs of time between generations, between those who came before us and those who will come after. Their great reaches span the visible extent of branches and the hidden abyss of mysterious roots, allowing them in multiple imaginative registers to bridge visible and invisible, the conscious and the unconscious, the articulated and the unspeakable.

But if the dense space of the tree-covered African-American cemetery opens up possibilities of reconciliation with ancestors and with those across the color line, this mythic space also opens up potentially terrifying chasms of mis-recognition and painful misunderstanding. In the most startling and penetrating sections of her book, China unflichingly recounts her breach with her closest African-American community partner, Doris, who becomes for a time deeply disenchanted with her. China herself attributes their troubles to her own attempt to have Dorris and other community members sign a release to allow for a video documentary to be shot. As China notes, in Harrison County the scenario of a white person seeking signatures from black folks conjures up a painful history of land dispossession. Yet while I'm sure this was part of the story, more seems to have been going on: given the staggering burden of racialized history in the region, it seems inevitable that cross-racial attempts at reconciliation will face complex backlashes across racial lines, even among people of good will deeply committed to tolerance and mutual understanding. Doris at one point tells China, "We didn't need you," and ths seems to go to the heart of complex politics of dependency and independence in the ostensibly post-civil rights South. What does it mean for any white person to try to "help" in these contexts? Does aid always imply a relationship of power, a reduction of the person of color being aided to a structural position of dependence? How do we find a way back to a spirit of true collaboration and mutual liberation? And how do we really understand how things, so often, go wrong? As thoughtful as China's account of their break is, I found myself wishing for an Afterword by Doris herself, to understand her own perspective on this ruptured, if ultimately repaired, friendship.

If China gets herself into trouble through the prototypical 'white' ritual practice of seeking written signatures, it is surely appropriate that she is returned to grace and the beloved community through a very different ritual context, within the sacred confines of Afro-Baptist worship. After a long period of self-conscious critical examination, in which she finds herself repeatedly saying the wrong things (I must admit that I read these sections with a great deal of anxious and embarrassed recognition!) she finally surrenders herself to the flow and power of a call and response service, and in so surrendering, is in effect rescued by Doris. This remarkable scene is poignant testimony to the redemptive power of ritual to transcend the pitfalls of rational thought and to cross-cut conventional categorical oppositions.

This contrast, between text-based knowledge (exemplified by the written releases that nearly destroy the friendship between the two women) and a deeper form of knowledge embedded in the landscape itself, runs through the entire book. At a certain point, the author realizes that istory is not exhausted in the (white) textual legal records she is obsessively research ("Records are the victor's story,"she acknowledges). Rather History, in the form of historical consciousness, emerges through embodied performance, through shared physical labor in the cemetery, through worshipful song in sanctified spaces, through the quiet struggles to unlock a gate or figure out how to pour out a libation together. This form of Historicity is hardly a seemless narrative but is composed of stops and starts, abrupt reversals, misfires and miscues. And yet this kind of knowledge-in-becoming finally, improbably moves people forward in deepening relationships, in part because these relationships, which rest on mutual vulnerability, develop their own histories over time, histories that make possible a mutual recognition of History in its fullest forms.

It is hard not to think, in this context, of Baby Suggs' sermon in the Clearing, in Toni Morrison's Beloved. Against the long history of white-dominated textual history, Baby Suggs insists that true knowledge of past and future are to be grounded in the land and embodied into flesh: "Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And oh my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it, and hold it up."

In this beautiful book, it seems to me, China Galland is trying to conjure up for us a reconstructed collective body, in the figure of Love Cemetery as a shared object of adoration and struggle. This long-neglected burial ground becomes, through this honest and painful retelling, a historical body of land and love -- one that we can all put a hand to and all hold up.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Walking as Cultural Production

This week in my graduate seminar we are reading Rebecca Solnit's intriguing book, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (Penguin, 2000). Solnit argues that while walking has been practiced by our species for untold millenia, walking as a specific cultural practice, engaged in for the sake of walking (as opposed to simply a means of getting somewhere) is only a few centuries old. (She especially associates the practice's emergence with Rousseau's walks, as archived in Reveries of the Solitary Walker and the Confessions. Living as we do in Concord, Massachusetts, where Henry David Thoreau took so many of the walks immortalized in his essay Walking (1862), it is hard not to ponder the ways in which our experiences of walking have been shaped and structured by the great local walkers of the region's past.

Yesterday, as my wife Ellen Schattschneider and I took one of our favorite walks, along the "Battle Road" trail of the Minute Man National Historic Park in Concord, I found myself wondering about the extent to which walking can be understood not only as a historically and culturally-constituted practice but also as a site of cultural production, through which socially-salient meanings, and even new forms of inter-subjectivity can be generated.

Our walk began by crossing the small wooden footbridge near Merriam's Corner, where on April 19, 1775, the first day of the Revolutionary War, intense fighting had taken place between British regular and the colonial Minutemen. A National Park Service interpretive plaque summarizes the fighting along the battle road that day and declares that the fighting was foundational in forging "American identity." In this sense, the five mile trail can be understood as a nationalist site, designed for inculcating a set of patriotic sensibilities in those who hike it. I must admit that given how beautiful the trail is, and how low key the NPS signage is, I tend to resist this reading, at least emotionally. Yet during this, the 50th anniversary of the founding of the park, it is certainly worth reflecting on the ideological climate in 1959 that led Congress to establish the park, and that led subsequently to the trail being surveyed and preserved.

As we crossed the footbridge, we found ourselves thinking of a very different walk and of a very different kind of produced intersubjective awareness. During her ethnographic fieldwork at Akakura Mountain Shrine in northeastern Japan, Ellen would routinely cross over a footbridge in the early hours of the morning to begin a ritualized ascetic climb up the sacred mountain. She discusses this ascetic walk in great detail in Chapter Five ("My mother's garden: ascetic discipline on the mountain") of her book Immortal Wishes: Labor and Transcendence on a Sacred Japanese Mountain (Duke University Press, 2003) Worshippers residing at the shrine, nearly all of the women, are expected to climb one of the mountain's pathways each morning, praying and undergoing various forms of ascetic purification as they do so. The walks, Ellen argues, are not only socially organized, they are also productive of new forms of consciousness. In traversing a rugged landscape intimately associated with their foremothers, who have repeatedly moved across this territory, worshippers enter into intimate relationship with their antecedents. They are opened up to the possibility of dream-visions on the mountain, which they are expected to narrate to their fellow worshippers each evening back in the shrine, and which they immortalize through painting votive images, which are hung about in the shrine's inner sanctum or Shinden. A climbing ascetic might at the mountain's sacred waterfal, for instance behold a vision of the mountain's great avatar, Akakura Daigongen, manifesting himself as a pair of green male and female dragons, and later paint that vision as a form of offering back to the mountain divinities (kami). Subsequently, that particular site on the mountain will be known to worshippers, in part, through that remembered vision. In this way, each ascetic walk up the mountain is partly conditioned by the pre-existing established subculture of the shrine, and also potentially transformative of that subculture.

Back on the Battle Road trail, we found ourselves surrounded in a meadow of tall sunflowers, some of them five or six feet tall. I had been only dimly aware of the sunflowers a few weeks ago, when we last walked on the trail, but they had rocketed upwards since then, and the meadow was a blaze of yellows in the stunning sunlight of an autumn late afternoon. We found ourselves pondering the various directions the of the flower petals were facing: in the open-most part of the meadow most were facing in the direction of the morning sun, although some smaller plants, whose access to the eastern sun had blocked by the higher stalks, had turned their faces towards the western sun. As the trail turned to run alongside the woods to our right, we saw that the sunflowers to our left had turned their faces away from the woods, towards the more open spaces to the north-west. Peering into the faces of the flowers, we saw bees nestled into the interior, evidently hunkering down in the cold.

Along the trail in the midst of the meadow another National Park Service interpretive plaque recounted details of the running battle, including the fact that the effective range of a musket was roughly the distance from the sign to Route 2a, about seventy-five yards away. Yet in this blaze of autumnal color it was hard to imagine many walkers stopping to read the sign; the consciousness being imposed on the walker was more one exultation, perhaps tinged by awareness of the coming of winter, a sense intensified by the darkening reds of the foliage and the slight chill in the air. Indeed, a few minutes later, as we emerged from the woods onto the next open meadow, we came across an older woman, her face turned upwards to the sun. Seeing us, she smiled and held open arms. "Glorious!" she said, "isn't it glorious?" Ellen agreed: "I just wish it could stay like this forever." The woman nodded and smiled, "Forever!" So, for a moment at least, we had an instant of the making of something, if not quite of culture, then of a shared frame of intersubjective awareness, a celebration of life in face of its antithesis.

Later on the walk, walking across one of the boardwalks that crosses the open marshlands, filled with riotous purple loosestrife (an invader, Ellen tells me) and framed by the distant flash of swamp maples, all ablaze with color, we overheard another reminder of how the Autumn beauty of the walk seems to inspire meditations on mortality. A spry elderly gentleman talking on his cell phone passed us. "I'm so old, " he declared cheerfully into the phone, "I can't believe I'm so f***ing old!" A moment later, he caught Ellen's eye and they both laughed delightedly.

So it is a curious paradox of walks out in "nature", that we are simultaneously encouraged to enter into solitary reveries and yet find ourselves, from time to time, caught up in moments of intense "communitas," in Victor Turner's sense, in which we sense ourselves deeply linked to the strangers who pass us by. Perhaps these are not quite instances of culture-making, of the sort found on the rocky paths of Mount Akakura, but they are at least the foundational frames of intersubjective awareness, expanding our horizons beyond our private interior thoughts into possibilities of imaginative social exchange.

Monday, September 7, 2009

First Weekend of Nantucket Research

We're on the ferry now heading back from Nantucket to the mainland (or to "America" as some islanders call it) after a wonderful initial weekend of research on the island's African-American oral history. We were warmly welcomed by many of the island's specialists in African-American history, and very well looked after by our hosts Renee and Bill Oliver of the African Meeting House/Museum of African-American History. It had been great getting to know members of the small but deeply committed multicultural network of Nantucketers committed to researching and celebrating the island’s African-American history as well as that of other communities of color on the island. It has also been delightful getting to know my grad students Mengqing, Shasha and Yaxin, who are skilled, energetic and imaginative researchers.

On Saturday we worked primarily in the Oliver's living room, recording key community historians. The interviews were rich and fascinating, but at the same time reminded us how difficult it is to elicit usable footage for an audio walking tour (accessible via cell phone) through unscripted interviews, especially if the recordings aren't being done in situ. The problem is compounded when gathering accounts of historical events that took place well over a century ago; inevitably, interiews qualify their remarks with "I seem to recall, " or "check this, but I think...", all of which is entirely understandable when they are away from their books, but which won't quite work for a cell phone tour. We'll clearly need to work much more carefully with our community partners and historians in scripting specific segments, which can be read aloud by local people.

The richest footage, we found, were unexpected 'experience near' moments. Frank Spriggs described a potent memory from the late 1940s, when he was the only student of color in Nantucket's public school system. He got to play Santa Claus in the Holiday pageant. At the time, he experienced this as a welcoming and inclusive act, but only decades did it occur to him how telling it was that in playing the role he was required to wear long white gloves and white-face makeup. For white folks, after all, Santa Claus was, unquestionably, white. The memory, which he describes beautifully, should make for an evocative segment on the tour. (We're not quite sure where to place it geographically: perhaps near the high school complex as part of a series of memories on race and the school system?)

Frank also shared some fascinating memories of the seasonal community of African-American domestic servants during the 1940s and 1950s; during the summer the island's population of color would swell from under ten to several hundreds. On their 'free days' (Thursday and half Sunday) these men and women (employed by wealthy summering employers as chauffers, maids, cooks and so forth) would congregate on Main Street and on one particular beach. We'd love to collect more of their stories and include them in the audio tour.

Through a lucky break, on our very first moment on the island we met, on the dock, Mr. Michael Miller, a long time member of the island's African-American community. He directs the Nantucket Martial Arts Academy and is a Master teacher of Tae Kwon Do. He invited us to his Dojon (training center) and we did a great interview with him about his work with young people on the island. We are thinking that this might be one of the final segments of the tour, since it exemplifies a long term narrative on the island, of the creative synthesis of cultures, including East/West and trans-Atlantic exchanges.

Sunday was an extraordinary beautiful, windy early fall New England day; we attended worship service with the Olivers at the First Congregational Chuch, which is featured in Moby Dick (although it is not clear that Melville had actually been on Nantucket when we wrote the novel!). At the front door we were greeted by a woman in the congregation wearing colonial garh, as had her mother and grand-mother before her. (She's pictured above with Mengqing, Yaxin and Shasha).

Mengqing, Yaxin and Sharsha continue to be fascinated by the tragic story of Quak Te, a servant from China who was in effect marooned on Nantucket in 1807 and who committed suicide in 1809. He had been left behind by his employer, the merchant from Canton identified as “Punqua Wingchong” (my students tell me this is an improbable name) . We hope to work more on untangling his story and developing an effective way of including the narrative in the audio tour.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Starting the Nantucket Audio Tour Project!

I'm blogging this onboard the "slow" ferry to Nantucket, with three of our grad students, as we head out to start our community history project with the African-American community on the island this weekend. Renee at the African American Meeting house/Museum of African American History Museum has kindly set up about five interviews for us over the course of the weekend, which is exciting. I'm really pleased that we'll get to meet members of the Jamaican-American community on the island, whom we are hoping to learn about. We've been reading the fascinating studies of the island's African-American history in Robert Johnson's excellent edited volume. Since this group of grad students (Shasha, Yaxin and Meqging) are all from China, we're also very interested in the accounts we've read of Chinese on the island during the Nineteenth century; we wonder if we'll find a way to include some of their stories on the tour.

One thing we are already wondering about is how best to incorporate music and environmental sound into the audio tour. Isabel Kalenback-Montemayor's fascinating essay in the Johnson volume gives some lines of a ballad composed in honor of Absalom Boston, the African-American captain of the 1832 all-black crew of the whaling ship Industry. We're hoping we can find some singers willing to perform the ballad, set to a plausible tune. We're also hoping to record appropriate maritime sounds, of seabirds, surf and wind to edit into various audio segments.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Thoughts on outdoor Cell Phone Audio Tours

We're currently exploring a Fall semester project partnering with the Museum of African American History's campus on the island of Nantucket. This will be based in my graduate seminar, "Making Culture: Theory and Practice" (CP 201), in which we continue to explore new uses of social media technologies in the building of community, at local and regional levels.

The museum already puts on a wonderful historic walking tour along its Black Heritage Trail, which includes its two remarkable properties, the African Meeting House and the Seneca Boston-Florence Higginbotham House. Our current plan is to help the Museum develop a digital audio walking tour, along the lines of the podcasted community history project we did several years ago in West Medford, Massachusetts, with the West Medford Afro-American Remembrance Committee. We'll also build on some of the approaches we explored in our on line oral history project in the Mississippi Delta, "Wade in the Water," several years ago, in which we tied oral history segments to a schematized map of several communities.

This time around we are hoping to make use of new telephone based technologies, perhaps working with a third party vendor, to make the tour accessible through cell phone to walkers. As with the West Medford project, we'd Like to avoid monologues or singular narration, but rather record multiple voices from the community, especially elders sharing their memories and stories that have passed down through the generations. We're also hoping to edit in local music and environmental sounds of the land and sea, and perhaps promote some forms of inter-generational dialogues through the audio tracks.

We'll spend a good deal of time listening to existing cell phone-accessible audio tours (for museum, zoos, and outdoor heritage sites) and discussing effective strategies. [A good resource is the comprehensive list of cell phone tours hosted by "Guide by Cell", one of leading providers in the field.]

In the class, we'll be reading Thoreau's classic essay on walking, as well as Rebecca Solnit's book Wanderlust: A History of Walking. One of the issues we'll be grappling with is how to promote the kinds of meditative "ruminating" called for by Thoreau in the context of cell phone-mediated audio tour. Most of the time, I realize, our ever-growing addiction to cell phones and mobile communication devices is probably eroding our contemplative and observant faculties; we engage in a great deal of largely extraneous chatter as a way of not really being any place at on time, but rather suspended between fluidly shifting virtual locations, so as to never face the weight of being truly alone with our thoughts. But might there be a way to re-capture, through these same technologies, the conversational or dialogic qualities of a great walk with a friend, or to inspire the walker, after hearing a good story or a well-edited melange of audio, to walk on a bit and think new thoughts to himself or herself? Can we encourage, even inspire, listeners not just to consume information passively but to observe their surroundings, to switch off external digital stimuli, and develop new connections themselves between what they've learned and what they are observing? [It seems to me that the most skillfully designed art museum cell phone tours do this, posing intriguing questions about a work of art in ways that encourage the visitor to linger and really look at the piece, or discover something new for himself or herself.]

A related challenge we'll grapple with in engineering the audio tour, beyond transmitting vital factual information about African-American history on the island, will be how to convey or evoke, more subtly perhaps, the rich texture of community historical experience across the decades and century. This would include experiences of slavery and emancipation, 19th century struggle of school desegregation, 19th whaling trips, and the nature of women's work on the island. Will we be able to integrate sounds of labor, protest, music-makingn and of the sea itself effectively into the presentations, in ways that enhance, rather than detract from, the stories and voices of community members? As always, we'll need to think about whether or not there is a recognizable recurrent narrator to the tour, or if there are many voices moving in and out of the tour without a specific identifiable 'guide.' Presumably, we'll have a 'core' set of factual segments, with options to listen to the more evocative or aesthetically rich segments to deepen or extend the audio experience.

We'll be conscious of the need to keep running our draft audio segments past our partners, at the Museum and in the wider community, and to modify the audio tour accordingly. We'll also need to think carefully about forms of evaluation and assessment, to get a sense of how well the tour is reaching our 'target audiences,' once it is on line and accessible by cell phone.

Community History Intern Project: Summer 2009

This summer Ellen and I spent about four weeks working with a group of low-income minority teenagers in a community history project in Covington, Georgia. This stimulus-funded project was a collaborative partnership between the Washington Street Community Center and the African-American Historical Association of Newton County, on whose board of directors I serve.

The first week, my involvement with the project was at a distance, and the six young people were directly supervised by local activists Forrest Sawyer, Jr. and Flemmie Pitts, who are civil rights activists with long standing interesting in community history and youth empowerment in Newton County. The teens concentrated on building up the Association's wiki, researching local African-American church histories and sport histories as well as their own family histories. Carlus for instance explored the fascinating history of the Goss Family, researching its roots in nearby Walton County. In this work, the teens received a great deal of help from staff and volunteers at the Newton County Public Library in Covington, and began to learn how to use the wonderful resources in the library's Georgia History room.

When Ellen and I arrived, we introduced the young people to video shooting and editing techniques, and helped them set up and administer a YouTube channel for the African-American Historical Association. We had a great session in Covington's two major African American cemeteries (Westview and the city cemetery) with Ms. Emogene Williams, one of the leading community historians. (The above photograph shows us in the City Cemetery with Ms. Williams, near the grave of Rev. Toney Baker, one of Ms. Williams' ancestors.) Carlus took us to meet her wonderful grandmother, Ms. Bertha Goss, the founder of a noted local beauty salon; the group made their first YouTube video about this visit.

We also worked closely with Deacon Richard Johnson, who had been a prominent activist in the County during the Civil Rights movement. The students shot and edited a brief video of him sharing memories of the movement standing in Covington square, where the local desegregation struggle had culminated in the spring of 1970. In this and the videos that followed, the young people edited in some music, sung by themselves and their friends at the Washington Street Community Center,and recorded themselves doing introductions and wrap up clips. They also did several fascinating video sessions inside the old County jail, videoing former SCLC activist Tyrone Brooks (now a George State Representative) and Deacon Johnson, sharing their memories of incarceration during the Freedom Struggle.

The young men interns, who were fascinated by local sports history, also did an interview with Deacon Sawyer on his season as quarterback with the Wolverines Football Team during the 1967 season. (The young women had a good deal of fun with their friends organizing and recording football cheers for this segment) The group later shot another video at the site of R.L. Cousins high school, where the Wolverines won an outstanding victory. In addtion to the video footage shot in the field, the group conceived of the idea of creating a YouTube TV studio at the Washington Street Community Center, which they termed the "Washington Street Community History Network," inviting community members to be interviewed about various aspects of community history. The young men interviewed such prominent figures as Mr. J.P. Godfrey, Jr. about his experiences in the Armed Forces and his memories of Jim Crow in and out of the service.

The young woman, in turn, concentrated on video documentation of African-American women leaders in the county. These included:

We also did work with slavery-related records in the county's Judicial Center, concentrating on the records in Probate Court and in real estate deeds. Carlus became fascinated with the story of an enslaved group of people owned by Benjamin Overby and sold apart from one another after his death. Jasmine and Michah were especially intrigued by the story of a free woman of color known as Susan Ivey, who in December 1863 petitioned the Inferior Court for the right to be made a slave, designating the white woman she wished to be her mistress and owner. We were, with help from Walton County activist Bobby Howard, able to locate and interview Susan Ivey's living descendants, who were able to fill in some of the gaps in the historical documentary record. Working with the extraordinary local storyteller and performer Andy Irwin, the thre young woman scripted and workshopped a play about Susan Ivey, in which they speculated on the series of events that led her to take this unusual step. They did several wonderful workshop performances of the play in Covington, including a memorable one at Bethlehem Baptist Church (the County's oldest African American house of worship). We hope they'll be able to do a full performance for the community at some point this Fall.

The young women interns decided to name themselves "The I.N.D.E.P.E.N.D.E.N.T 3" and created a wrap up video about their summer experiences on the project.

Along the way, the interns also developed concepts for Historic Markers throughout the County, marking significant sites in local African-American history, including church history and the Freedom Struggle.

We received an enormous amount of help from community members during the summer. We are grateful in particular for support from Ms. Cherly Delk, Special Projects Coordinator for the county, who made it possible for the young people to use excellent video and recording equipment; to Ms. Bea Jackson, the Director of the Washington Street Community Center; which generously hosted the project, Bob Fernard, who instructed the young people in video shooting and editing; Betsy Morehouse (who kindly hosted our visit to historic Burge Plantation); Bobby Howard and Waymand Mundy (Moore's Ford Memorial Committee), who took us around historic sites in Walton County; Rev. Avis Williams, the artist Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier; and to many, many others.

We're still assessing the strengths and limitations of the program, and thinking about how to make the program better the next time around. There's no question that we need to do a better job of direct, hands on supervision. There were times when many of the interns, most of whom had not held regular jobs before, felt they were at loose ends at times. Sometimes the level of "creative chaos" in the project, especially in the video studio, got a little too intense for productive work (although at times, the informal give and take yielded wonderful results.) In some cases, there simply wasn't time to follow through on many of the interns' excellent ideas, including their desire to present their proposals for inclusive Historic Markers to the County Board of Commissioners. But all in all I remain deeply grateful to the young people who worked so hard, and to the many volunteers who gave some generously of their time during the summer.

I'm eager to bring some of my Cultural Production graduate students, as well as my undergraduate students from Brandeis, back to Covington at some point to continue this collaborative work in public history.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Community History Internship update

This week, from up here in Concord, Massachusetts, I've continued to 'co-supervise' at long distance the six community history interns down in Covington, Georgia, while Forrest Sawyer has been doing the on-site supervision. I'm really pleased at how quickly the interns have learned their way around the wiki of the African American Historical Association of Newton County--they've been updating news links and putting in historical materials on sports (including African-American women's sports in the county history). Guided by Mr. Bob Halcums and Ms. Jane Williams at the Newton County Public Library, they've been pursuing genealogical research on their own kin in the County. Yesterday, they mapped out the gravesites in the historically African-American section of the Covington City Cemetery, which date back to the late 1800s; they evidently uncovered one Masonic headstone, marked with the distinctive Masonic chains. Today, the plan is for them to map the more recent Westside cemetery on the other side of Covington.

Ellen and I are driving down to Georgia this weekend and I'll get a chance to start working with the youth on Monday. I'm pretty sure we'll concentrate on video and multimedia projects. We'll start on brief YouTube videos on the two Covington cemeteries, and perhaps include the Oxford cemetery as well. Ideally, older community members will be able to take some walks through the cemteries sharing their memories of those who are laid to rest there, and reflecting on the history of segregation in these sites. I expect the interns will video some walks with civil rights movement veterans through the Covington square, as they recall the days of struggle.

We'll also try to do some digitial slide shows on local family history, incorporating old family photographs and archival documents to tell various kinds of stories about local history and memory. We might pay a visit to Monroe and the Moore's Ford bridge site to document some of the forms of continuing 'memory work' in reference to the July 1946 mass lynching, in which four persons were killed.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Community History Interns in Georgia: African American Public History

This week, we've started up a new Community History Internship program in Newton County, Georgia. This is a partnership between the African-American Historical Association of Newton County and the Washington Street Community Center in Covington, Georgia. The program is supported by Federal stimulus funds. Six African-American teens in Newton County are employed this summer as community history interns; they've just made "Self-Introduction" pages on the wiki.

The interns are being supervised by me, Deacon Forrest Sawyer, Jr (president of the Historical Association) and Mr. Flemmie Pitts, a civic leader active in the Community Center. Emogene Williams( a retired educator who is one of the local community's leading historians) and Pastor Avis Williams are also advising and helping out in various ways.

Throughout the summer the teens will be enhancing and expanding the Association's wiki, developing links to news story on African-American heritage as well as its various sections on slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movements, and African-American artistic, musical and cultural accomplishments. We're very pleased that thanks to Covington Mayor Kim Carter several important deed books of the Covington African-American cemeteries, dating back to the 1890s, have just come to light: the young people will be mapping and documenting the cemeteries (in the Covington City Cemetery and the Westside cemetery) and tracing the stories of those who are buried there. Perhaps we'll be able to develop a brochure walking guide to the two cemeteries. There's also interest in documenting the early history of African-American schools in the area, including Washington Street School (The photograph above shows third grade teachers Ms. Eva Wright and Ms. Sarah Hardeman with their students, along with Professor Nathaniel Mitchell.)

We'll have to see what ideas the interns have for upcoming projects. It would be interesting to develop some sort of children's book on local African-American history for instance. Perhaps we'll do some sort of multimedia project, involving our new YouTube channel, documenting historical story-telling in the County.

At this point, I've only met the young people over the telephone; they sound terrific. I really look forward to meeting them in person next week when I visit Covington and we can begin the oral history, video, and archival components of the project.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Reflections on Michael Rush: "Balance and Power"

During this curious week, perhaps the last week in which the Rose Art Museum will exist as a fully functioning public art museum, I've been reflecting on the many academic partnerships that Cultural Production faculty and staff had with the museum's director, Michael Rush. Our first such partnership emerged when Michael brought to campus the remarkable exhibition, "Balance and Power", on video surveillance in contemporary art, which he had organized the year before at the Krannert (University of Illinois). Michael encourage me and my colleague Andreas Teuber (Philosophy) to develop an academic symposium in conversation with the exhibition. Inspired by the happy coincidence that Justice Louis Brandeis, for whom this university is named, had invented the right to privacy in 1890, we called the conference, "Privacy Rites: Space, Surveillance and Power in Historical Perspective." Our colleagues' musings ranged across the toilets of Pompeii, the dynamics of subjection and surveillance in Elizabethan poetics, and post modern and post panoptic regimes of marketing and contemporary art practice. We concluded with a performance in the Rose of Dmitri Shostakovich's Chamber Symphony, evoking the terrifying knocks on the door of NKVD and its regime of constant surveillance.

In the Foster wing, Michael had curated a dizzying labriynth of video screens, juxtaposed at angles, displaying an array of contemporary video artists' engagement with the problem of surveillance.

As an anthropologist, I found his linked installations led me to new insights on my own research in rural southern Africa, on a topic seemingly remote from contemporary video art. In the late 1980s, I spent about a year following a mass witchfinding movement as it made its way across the impoverished rural communities of eastern Zambia. As had been the case with previous popular movements in southern and central Africa aimed at detecting and neutralizing suspected witches, spirit-possessed diviners held large ceremonies in which they directed small hand mirrors at each every villager, one at a time. The mirrors, which were frequently compared to “cameras” and “X-ray machines,“ were said to reveal to the witchfinder the otherwise secret amount of “witchcraft substance” inside each man and woman. Those accused hardly ever protested their innocence, and often stood by meekly as their house walls, roofs and personal possessions were ransacked by the youthful witchfinders seeking incriminating witchcraft horns, which were widely held to be definitive proof of mystical malfeasance.

When I asked the leading witchfinder, “Doctor Moses” why hardly anyone resisted these interrogations, he explained,

"When they stand in front of the mirror, they can’t resist, they can’t run away… It is like when somebody is in front of a television camera. They just want to be seen. Even if they have a secret they want to hide, they can’t resist the camera. They just want to be on the screen, they can’t say no... That is how we trap them, here in the Circle of Truth. No one can turn his face away from the camera, as much as might want to!"

Two decades later, encountering Michael Rush's exhibition, I began to understand how deeply prescient Doctor Moses’ words were. Surveillance is ever-more extensive, and yet, as suggested by the works of art in Balance and Power, as well as the ever growing popularity of American Idol and Reality TV, the lure of the camera is ever more irresistible.

The all-seeing camera, we are repeatedly told by those in authority has the capacity to safeguard the body politic of all that afflicts us, even as it renders us paralyzed in a stupefying hall of mirrors. For months even years after each witchfinding rite, communities were caught up in complex, painful debates over degrees of complicity in the violence of the ceremony, which caused them in various way to see themselves as the embodying both the gaze of the righteous as well as the subject and object of voyeuristic, licentious gazes.

Our title, “Privacy Rites” evoked these and many other ironies, so reminiscent of the core paradoxes at the heart of any ritual process: we are deeply attracted and flattered by the camera and the screen, even as we seek to flee or evade them. Yet privacy in its modern forms is not itself a ritual process as such, but rather seems born of the interruption of earlier ritual sequences, especially those oriented around the domestic realm. Consider for example the mythic crisis which supposedly gave birth to the modern “right to privacy”, as formulated in Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis’ famous 1890 law review article. They were, it is said, inspired to write the essay due to the violation by a news photographer of the wedding breakfast party of Samuel Warren’s daughter.

Why was this so terribly heinous? After all, a picture of the bride and groom taken that afternoon after the wedding ceremony would presumably have been viewed as an entirely appropriate addition to the Society page. During an afternoon visit to Balance and Power, looking at the various filmic penetrations of bodily space and ostensibly "private: domains it occured to me that the key violation in the Warren case seems to lie in the (premature) interruption of the processual structure of the wedding rite. As anthropologists Arnold Van Gennep and Victor Turner note, rites of passage are structured in three phases: (a) separation of the principals from everyday life,(b) the liminal or "betwixt and between" phase, in which the principals stand outside of conventional categories and experiential coordinates, and (c) re-integration or re-aggregation, in which the principals re-enter ordinary life, usually at a higher or altered social level or status. At the Warren breakfast wedding party, the photographer seems to have invaded the first phase, of separation, from which even the groom would have been excluded, as the bride's immediate family celebrate their solidarity with one another through commonsality just as they are about suffer their impending partial dissolutoin, that is to say the 'loss' of their daughter. The unauthorized photograph in this sense punctures the restricted ritual domain of the separation phase, thus imperiling the overall logic of the entire wedding ceremony, the quintessential rite of bourgeois social reproduction that celebrates the birth of the ethereal transcendental adult selfhood. The modern concept of “privacy”, in other words, is born of a truncated or perverted ritual process.

This theme, of a captivating violation of ritual, a rupture that is itself constitutive of new modes of personhood, ran through the many presentations we heard at the Privacy Rites symposium, as well as the many works of art displayed in Balance and Power. Tim Hyde’s Untitled Bus allowed the viewer to partake of a dreamscape of nocturnal travel, the reverie of the mind’s blankness on the ride home at day’s end, which only bursts when a passenger spies the camera and in turn locks our gaze in his gaze. We were propelled into a sudden awareness of of private space only at the moment when the normally secure wall of the screen has been punctured. In Jill Magid’s Lobby the artist’s willfull violation of conventional bodily and public/private boundaries, hijacking a public video screen to reveal her bodily orifices while standing in full and open sight of passers by, inspired multiple reflections by viewers of the nature of voyeurism: we are not only taken on a microcosmic fantastic journey though under her clothes but also, from the commanding heights of the lobby atrium, gaze upon the faces of astonished onlookers, whose public privacy we now violate. In turn, in Mirror Site, Kevin Hamilton skillfully presented us with a fractured vision of contemporary media-mediated public space. We are strangely exposed on screen, even more so than we are in normal public space, precisely because conventional relations of self-other are inverted and subverted in such puzzling ways.

There is thus, I gradually realized, a thread of continuity across twelve decades from Warren and Brandeis’ wall climbing photographer to these recent works of video art, each of which, paradoxically, helps birth a new awareness of the private through acts of rupture, violation and transgression.

More subtle violated boundaries characterized Jim Cambell’s Library (2004) in which the shadows move in and out of of the New York Public Library. Libraries are, in the best sense of the term, deeply haunted places, in which the presences of those who have come (and left) before us are continuously sensed if not quite immediately graspable. The monochramatic schema of the piece nicely evokes the black and white textual media through which, in effect, the living and the dead encounter one another in the library. His evocation of photogravure also moves us back and forth across generational time: are we seeing the library staircase as it was yesterday, last year, or a century ago? Are all the city's dwellers, the living and the dead, passing by one another in a great, shadowy parade? Might we sense a mournful, elegiac tone that obliquely references the losses and the legacies of September 11, 2001? (And might we also read the work as a commentary on the Patriot Act and the increasingly routine surveillance of libraries and their patrons that has followed in the wake of that tragic day?)

As I hope this example suggests, Michael's exhibitions, substantial works of scholarship in and of themsleves, have stimulated and propelled further works of scholarly reflection and critique. I've loved that his shows push us to see the political and the aesthetic in new, unexpected ways that they simultaneously engage our intellectual and artistic faculties, that they are conversation with classical and contemporary works of scholarship and encourage us to re-read these works with new eyes. Michael's relentless curiosity, his rigorous standards for analysis and presentation, have constantly pushed me as a scholar of ritual to rediscover the enigmatic dynamics of symbolic action lodged in the interstices of late capitalist social worlds. For that, I remain deeply grateful.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Waterfall projection project...moves indoors!

Since rain was predicted for over the weekend, we reluctantly decided to move the waterfall projection project ("My hands were busy/my mind could wander: Creative Economies on the Charles River") indoors, as our contribution to the 10th Boston CyberArts Festival. So Sunday night (May 3) we gathered in the main hall of the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation, and projected the eight minute video loop on the redbrick interior wall of the hall, immediately down river from the waterfall itself. Bryce Peake, the class TA, and I were assisted in this by Howard Phillips, Associate Director and video instructor at the Boston University Center for Digital Imaging Art (CDIA), his student Mike, a film and video student at CDIA and Elln Hagney, the Museum's Director of Education and Development. The video work itself was developed by students in the Museums and Public Memory (Anth 159a) course--Casey Golomski, Jesse Cates, Theresa Barbaro, Mao Matsuda, and Shai Dobrusin--along with Bryce Peake and our undergraduate Community Engaged Fellow, Anna-Lisa Macon.

Earlier in the day Bryce realized that if we were going to move to within the Museum space, it made sense to re-edit the audio of the piece, taking out the industrial machinery noise, and putting in background audio of the Moody Street waterall. Bryce also effectively superimposed the video on a background of the moving water of the waterfall, so that the viewer had some sense of what the piece would look like projected on the falls. (Bryce's intention was that we would some of the Museum's machinery in the background during the screening; as it happened, we found the actual machinery noises made it difficult to make out the recorded audio, so in the end we ran the work without live machine sound.)

We had been toying with projecting the work straight upwards, onto a fabric scrim that we would trig between the upper gallery and the large boiler, but as we looked around the space, we realized it would be a shame to enclose the marvelous open gallery of the main exhibition hall, with its evocative, looming machinery and distant vaulted ceiling. Howard kindly brought over a couple of CDIA video projectors and a splitter. (In theory, this should have allowed us to project the video work through three different projectors, but for some reason we were only able to get this work through two projectors). We aimed one projector at the great red brick upper wall of the gallery; we mounted a second projector on a music stand and tited it downward so that it would project onto gallery's main floor. This would have been a really interesting effect, but for some reason, after a minute or so the tilted projector begin to project a strange "spiderweb" effect, which made it very difficult to discern the actual video work. (We realized later in thee evening that we could have overcome the effect of tilting by using a mirror system to angle the projected image downwards...which we might try next time.)

In any event, we ended up projecting the second image straight out, on the far right brick wall of the gallery, as a kind of elongated, fainter echo of the first image.

We were quite pleased with the overall effect of the installation. With the lights lowered, the marvelous machinery assembled within the museum took on uncanny qualities, a little reminiscent of the gaslight or oil lamps that might once have illuminated the Victorian interior. Although we lost a good deal of resolution in the projected moving images, the redbrick background, in between the grand arcing windows of the gallery, did summon up the sense of a portal into the past--the very effect we had been hoping from the waterfall projection. Even the reduced color saturation and resolution of the elongated far left projection (near the looming shadowy, massive hulk of the old boiler and heating ventwork) worked nicely, summoning up associations with the early days of black and white film, fading back, as the eye continued left, to an evocation of the magic lantern era that preceded film itself.

As the piece looped for the next 90 minutes or so, I found myself discovering new aspects of the video work in this particular environment. Lined up between the grand interior windows on the main hall's inner wall, the three frames of the video's triptych manifested themselves as a line of windows, opening up to different moments in the city's industrial and post-industrial history. The Francis Cabot Lowell factory buildings had initially depended on the energies of the Charles River, channelled through sluices, turbines and conveyor belts, and it was marvelous to view the video montage of the legacies of those translated energies (of mechanical and human labor) surrounded by the mechanical looms and converyor belts of the early industrial revolution. The central segment with Barbara Zeles (from which the work takes its title) worked especially well within the industrial hall; her work with yarn and fabric seemed a kind of living memorial to the generations of women who labored in this space, between flowing water and pounding machinery, to transform fibers into fabric. Even the soundtrack, building towards a cacophny of voices and water power, took on evocative effects within the factory hall, summoning up, to my mind at least, spectres of the workers and machinery that had for so long labored and cycled inside this cavernous space.

I found myself thinking that taken as a whole, the installation in this particular site also summoned up a anticipatory sense of the cyborg, the enigmatic bio-mechanical figure that functions as a kind of totemic emblem of our era (yet another Terminator film is set to be released this summer.) As Anselm Rabinbach argues in The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue and the Origins of Modernity, a defining obsession of the 19th century was the tableau of the human body as a complex mechanical engine, simultaneously liberated and enslaved by the mechanical devices fashioned by its own hands. Watching the varied hands projected on the factory's interior brick walls, engaged in diverse forms of mechanically-mediated labor (from setting linotype to bicycle-making) I had a visceral sense of what the transitional moments to industrial labor just might have been like, as human creative energies were simultaneously magnified and alienated, intensified and dissipated, liberated and re-imprisoned.

To our delight, at least forty-five community members, a number of them digital artists associated with the Boston CyberArts festival, attended the production. We had a range of fascinating conversations, and were left excited at the prospect of future collaborations down the road, including in the next CyberArts festival in 2011. I should mention that the other new media works in the museum, including installations by Claudia Bucher, Chris Abrahms, Tim Hickey's students, and others, looked great, and it was fun to see our work, in effect, in conversation, in conversation with theirs.

We're still eager to project the work on the Moody Street waterfall, and may try to do this for the upcoming Charles River festival in June or Historic Waltham days in July, and perhaps once school is back in session in September. But for now we're delighted with this chance to collaborate with Elln Hagney and the CMRI, in their continuing explorations of the shadowlands between the mechanical and the digital--and between, to paraphrase Barbara Zeles, the labor of human hands and the labor of the human imagination.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

By any other name exhibition

I was delighted Thursday evening by the opening of the exhibition, "By any other name: A social and cultural history of the Rose Art Museum," organized by eight of my students in the Museums and Public Memory class (Anth 159a). The show, tracing the history of the Museum from 1961 to the present moment, is cleverly organized around a large graph of the Dow Jones Industrial average, showing its upticks and downticks over nearly five decades. Interspersed along the way are documentary materials and commentaries on the museum's successive directors, exhibitions, and moments of triumph and peril. In contrast to the common tendency in the art world to relegate matters of finance to the shadowy background, this show puts economic matters front and center; when the market was bullish, we see, art prices were elevated and accession funds soared; in turn, in bear markets university administrations have looked covetously at their collections and pursued, with various degrees of success, deaccession policies. The Museum lent the students catalogues of diverse Museum shows over the decades, which hover above and below the stock market graph line.

Drawing on their archival research, the organizers frame this timeline in terms of student protests: the October 1961 opening of the Rose Museum building, they show, was occassioned by student complaints that the funds expended on it could better have been spent on scholarships or faculty salaries; in the past three months of course the campus has seen multiple student protests calling for the preservation of the museum in the face of administration attempts to close it. A monitor plays looped videos of protests by students, faculty, staff and others calling for the museum's preservation. The red line of the stock market culminates in a splotch of red splashed across a "Save the Rose" T-shirt.

At the opening reception, Cultural Production grad student Claire Mauro provocatively suggested that the red line of the Dow Jones could be read as a "blood line," tracing out the varied forms of symbolic kinship and descent associated with the museum, from the founding bequest by Edward and Bertha Rose, to the labor of successive directors, curators, artists, donors, and art lovers over these many years. I was put in mind of Francis Perket's extraordinary commentary at the recent Museum symposium, "Preserving Trust: Art and the Art Museum amidst Financial Crisis." Francis, a Rose family member, noted that Edward and Bertha did not have children of their own, that the paintings were in a sense their offspring and that each moment of artistic revelation within the museum could be understood as their "Jahrzeit" celebrating Kaddish, a prayer of life. [Her commentary is available on YouTube.] Claire's reading perhaps helps account for the deep sense of anguish felt by so many in face of the Museum's current predicament; the Museum is more than the sum of the contents of its extraordinary collection; it has emerged as the embodiment of a vast extended family, and its current crisis can be interpreted as a life or death struggle for lineage and for its posterity. (One student compared the jagged ups and downs of the red stock market line to the sputtering EKG lines of a patient on life support.)

The show is also framed by students' artistic responses to the current crisis, including a large painting by graduating senior Danielle Friedman based on multiple iterations of the word "Rose." Students energetically mined, as well, the university archives and the public record to chronicle, in displayed materials, the twists and turns of the Museum's fate over the years, with particular attention to media coverage since January 26 of this year.

The exhibition concludes with a lovely children's book, "Beatrice visits the Rose Art Museum," created by Gail Goldspiel in happier times, when she took Robin Dash's course, "Looking with the Learner." The book chronicles the visit to the Rose by Stanley School elementary school students in the company of Brandeis undergraduates, pondering contemporary art and engaging in art making of their own. (One of the joys of the Rose under Michael Rush's leadership has been the Museum's willingness to allow visitors of all ages, on special occassions to make art in the Foster wing and the Museum's stairwell.) The children are accompanied by "Beatrice the Butterfly" who delicately floats above the proceedings and tries her hand (wings?) at making art as well. I was put in mind of the daemons in Phillip Pullman's The Golden Compass, the animal avatars of the human characters, who embody their human's dreams and anxieties; Beatrice registers the children's excitement and fear over engaging with the art and in that respects is a stand in for the children themselves; but I also read the butterfly as an embodiment of the museum itself which similarly seems to float and flitter delicately over the campus: beautiful, playful, intensely curious, and terribly vulnerable.

Exhibition organizers: Ronya Gordon, Yarden Abukasis. Brian Friedberg, Emily Leifer, Sarah Stephenson. Penelope Taylor, Igor Zhukovsky, Will Burnett/

The exhibition is in the Shapiro campus center student art gallery (third floor) through Wednesday, April 28 I believe.

Please share your comments in the space below, and please follow the exhibition Twitter at

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Slavery and Universities: Possible Conference?

We had a fascinating roundtable panel at the Organization of American Historians annual meetings in Seattle on March 28 on legacies of slavery and the slave trade at American universities.

Jim Campbell (Stanford) discussed the project he'd headed at Brown University, exploring the university's complex historical relationship to the trans Atlantic slave trade. See his presentation on line on the History News Network at:

nb. The Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, which Jim chaired, has a fascinating website at:

Al Brophy (UNC) talked about the historical role of American colleges and universities in providing intellectual legtimation for slavery, especially in law and theology, with particular reference to the University of Alabama case. See his videoed presentation:

Leslie Harris (Emory) discussed the Transforming Community Project, a multiyear project of racial, ethnic and class based initiative of reconciliation at Emory, which emerged largely in response to a disturbinging racial incident at Emory several years ago. See her presentation at:

My presentation, on the work my students and I did "excavating" memories and histories of slavery at Emory University, primarily in Oxford, Georgia(the original site of Emory College) is also on line on the History News Network at:
Among other things, I talked about the obelisk (pictured above) in the Oxford, GA City Cemetery to Bishop James O. Andrew (first president of the Emory College Board of Trustees) whose slaveowning status in 1844 catalyzed the great national schism in the Methodist Church; and about my students' work developing exhibitions on slavery in Emory's history.

We then moved into a lively discussion with audience members about the many tangled ways in which the historical legacies of enslavement continute to structure (or perhaps haunt) the "buried lives" of American institutions of higher education. The conversation among other things touched on:
  • Dr. Felix Armfield (Buffalo State College) mentioned his work with colleagues on a "slaves on campus" project, tracing the experiences of enslaved persons brought as "servants" to American colleges and universities by slaveowning students: what impact did the experience of being on college campuses have on these enslaved individuals?
  • Possible forms of restorative justice being explored by some schools; about the impact of such projects of historical research and reflection on faculty, students, staff and community members;
  • ways of sharing documentary histories of slavery and the slave trade (something the Brown University Committee in particular has done on its repository website);
  • the at times banal nature of non-specific blanket apologies for slavery(as at the University of Viriginia and the University of Alabama several years ago); the politics of apology is the topic of a recent book by Melissa Nobles, one of the roundtable's organizers.
  • the challenges of integrating materials on on-campus slavery into the curriculum
  • Jim Crow era loyal slave memorials
  • the difficult cultural politics of "postcolonial" monuments and memorials around slavery and Jim Crow on campus.

Of course, numerous colleagues elsewhere have worked with their students to unearth histories of slavery at their respective institutions. This semester, for instance, Ira Berlin and his students have worked to document slaveowning patterns among founding figures in the history of the University of Maryland. Julie Richter has done comparable work with her students on slavery in the history the College of William and Mary. University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill's Library in 2005 developed on exhibition on the roles of enslaved persons in the making of the school.
We're interested in learning of the many other teaching and research projects along these lines that are surely going on.

It has occured to us that it would be worthwhile holding an academic conference on the topic of slavery and universities. (As Jim notes, this wouldn't necessarily be limited to the United States.) One of the many fascinating problems to explore is the way in which universities have so long been imagined as utopian spaces, yet these spaces (like many other institutions and discursive undertakings associated with early modern, Enlightenment, and Romantic progressivist thought) rested in so many respects upon the structurally invisible labor of the enslaved and the vast profits of the global slave trade.

We're not sure yet who might host the conference. It would be interesting to bring together a wide range of participants, including faculty, students, and college staff members, as well as community partners and family members (descended both from slaveowners and enslaved persons) for critical conversations about research strategies, community engaged learning, and restorative justice on a great range of campuses as we all grapple with the legacies of enslavement, the slave trade, and related forms of racial injustice.

If you have ideas about the conference, or care to share reports on work that has been done at other schools around remembering enslavement on campus, please post a comment in the space below!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Twilight:The enigmatic Native American presence

I've just seen the film "Twilight," which I know Rhonda Hammer and her students at UCLA have been contemplating for some time. I'm especially intrigued by the ways in which the film is framed in terms of an imputed Native American presence. The father-son pair of Quileute indians, Billy and Jacob Black, in their relatively brief appearances, seem to mediate the Anglo-American characters' relations with nature and with the supernatural, and to function as largely invisible protectors for the white heroine. (I understand thes themes are more extensively develop in the book/movie's sequel, New Moon).

In the film, the Quileuete are presented as descendants of wolves (with the hint that they may still be able to transmogrify into wolves). In a scene on a reservation beach (itself an interstitital space) Jacob tells the white heroine Bella that his people know the secret of the Cullen clan (the non-blood-drinking vampires) who have agreed to stay off of their land for generations, ever since they were discovered (evidently feasting on the blood of a deer they had run to ground). Towards the film's end, Jacob is sent by his father Billy to warn Bella of her romance with the vampire hero and to let her know that the Quileute will be watching her (evidently watching over her protectively).

All of these motifis are consistent with Renee Bergland's analysis in the The National Uncanny: Indian Ghosts and American Subjects (2000); as Native American communities were violently annihilated and displaced they were refigured in white literary imaginations as numinous guardian presences for the colonizing Anglo-American majority, ambiguously moving across the shadowlands between conventional and alternate realities. As Twilight suggests, this 19th century mythography has endured as a persistent white fantasy, that Native Americans, in spite of white America's long genocidal history, will still benevolently look over Anglo-Americans, as living guardian spirits intimately linked to the land.

I wonder if in this respect Twilight can be read as a new kind of American nationalist post-9/11 text; threatened by the chilling dangers of a rogue terrorist cell-like coven of al-Queda style "bad" vampires, the white American young heroine is protected by an alliance of Native Americans and "good" vampires (the latter perhaps stand-ins for the extraordinary violence and torture unleashed by U.S. intelligence services in the "War on Terror".)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Twitter, Museums, and the "Unthinking Television" conference

In my Museums and Public Memory class this morning, we talked over why our class experiments with YouTube this semester have been running kind of stale. ( See some of the student class postings at:

Students mentioned that producing YouTube is labor intensive and demands access to technology, which is a hassle, especially to make the work look good. Bryce was a little skeptical about this; he noted that some of the most successful vlogging is done in a very informal mode with decidely low production values. Looking at some recent popular YouTube posts, we wondered why it has been hard for students to "punch up" their YouTube postings with humor? Are museums and exhibitions as cultural sites particularly resistant to humor, perhaps? Or is it that the whole campus has been so exhausted by our ongoing financial crisis and the Rose controversy that a sense of humor has been hard to muster?

In any event, the students expressed a great deal more energetic excitment over the possibilities of Twitter, for rapidfire communication and exchange of ideas (each text message limited to 140 characters). So we decided that I would, right there in class, create a Twitter account (the students patiently walked me through how to do this) and that the students would 'follow' my brand new Twitter micro-blog, "MuseumMark" which is at:

I promised to twitter from the "Unthinking Television" conference on Thursday at George Mason University, at which Bryce and I are presenting on our class experiment with YouTube. The students will twitter back to us, so we can at least all be linked together, in effect, during the conference. I'm curious what kind of conversation will ensue.

In class, we noticed the rather dynamic twitter sites for MOMA

and for the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

and speculated about what kind of cultural (and economic) work these micro-blogs are doing. The consensus was that they probably aren't attracting first time visitors to the museums. Perhaps they getting infrequent visitors to return to the museum more often, by letting them know about interesting exhibitions, highlighted 'art works of the day' and lectures. And perhaps the twitter links help to build a kind of personal relationship with the institution, which might translates into a greater likelihood of membership.

We speculated as well about the interactive possibilities of Twitter in museum and gallery contexts. Is Twitter only a good way to push content out to museum patrons, as a form of "outreach." Alternately, could twitter afford a good way for museum-goers to 'talk back' to the curators, to artists, and to one another about their reflections on art installations, as they roam through art spaces? Is this sort of thing already going on at some museums, I wonder?

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Rose Museum and the Souls of the Dead

At the recent symposium at the Rose Art Museum, "Preserving Trust: Art and the Art Museum amidst Financial Crisis," (March 16, 2009) I was moved and surprised that repeated references were made to the souls of the dead. Poet-laureate Robert Pinsky introduced the theme in his allusions to Keat's poem on the nightingale: only we, who are born to death (that is to say, to the knowledge of our deaths) are compelled to engage in creative aesthetic practice. We do not simply repeat the songs which have been handed down from previous generations, we are compelled to seek forms of symbolic immortality through innovation, through rupture, through alteration. This impulse is embedded in the practices of contemporary art and celebrated in the contemporary art museum as an institution. Paradoxically, in entering into a contemporary art museum such as the Rose, we simultaneously celebrate novelty and the past, the promise of new life amidst reverence for those who have come before us and who are no longer present.

We deny the lingering presence of the dead at our peril. Graduate student Brian Friedberg argued in his commentary that if those of us in the university community do not attend to our responsibilities vis a vis the museum, the building will be "haunted" by the uncanny presences of those who have been neglected, be they benefactors or artists.

This theme was developed in a most remarkable way by Ms. Joyce Perkin, a great-niece of Edward and Bertha Rose about what the Rose Museum has meant to her. She noted that Edward and Bertha did not leave children behind, and thus there were none to see Kaddish, the prayer of life, for them. Yet she has felt that each time a visitor to the museum engages with a great work of art, that is a meaningful act of Kaddish, a prayer of life, a kind of Yahrzeit (annual memorial for the dead.) See her remarkable two and a half minute commentary at the start of:

followed a little later by an exploration of this theme by Robert Pinsky.

It occurs to me that these dynamics of ancestral presence (and absence) are especially true for an institution such as the Rose, which emerges primarily out of Jewish collections in the postwar period. Inevitably, such collections are assembled in the shadow of the Holocaust and memories of the violent expropriation of Jewish art collections in Nazi-occupied Europe. To be sure, contemporary art is not an exclusively Jewish phenomenon, but one can argue that Jews, as collectors, dealers and artists have played a profound (perhaps even leading) role in the history of contemporary art. This particular art collection is thus, for many, a kind of enduring memorial to the survival of Jewish philanthropy and Jewish aesthetic impulses. Hence, in part, the intense physical and spiritual anguish experienced by many as they ponder the impending close of the institution as a public art museum and the threatened sale of its major works.