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.

Lynching Reenactments and Passion Plays?

I recently spoke at Boston University's Department of African-American Studies, on my research on an annual multiracial lynching reenactment near Monroe, Georgia. (The talk, "We come back to life: Regeneration and Traumatic Memory in a Multiracial Lynching Reenactment," was broadcast on WBUR and can be accessed on line at: ) I touched on an idea suggested to me by Robert Weiss, at University of Massachusetts-Boston: the intriguing parallels between the reenactment and late medieval passion plays. Both involve amateur actors who reenact a dreadful martyrdom out of a sense of moral or spiritual duty and a desire to engage in transformative public pedagogy. The day-long lynching reenactment moves across a local landscape, compressing the events of several weeks into the space of a half day, in a manner that recalls earlier passages along "stations of the cross." I still need to think more, however, about the parallels and discontinuities between the two cases. The organizers of the lynching reenactment, for instance, seem to resist redemptive narrative closure of their mise en scene: there is no mimetic enactment of rebirth and ascension at its conclusion (although, as seen in the photograph above, a local church choir member does sing over the prone bodies of those playing the victims.) And, while passion plays tended to involve whole communities, the reenactment remains controversial, with few local whites attending (although many local whites have watched, at a distance, over television.)

I am uncertain how to conceptualize these evident paralllels. I don't see evidence that the organizers knew of passion plays as such, although they are all deeply familiar with Gospels. Is the Passion Play a cultural form that, in effect, reproduces itself as a kind of meme or symbolic paradigm over time, emerging in new forms, genres and guises from time to time? I remain grateful, in any event, to Robert Weiss for his rich and intriguing suggestion, which I continue to ponder.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Daniel Perlin's Visuals for the band Nettle

The marvelous "geography-defying" band Nettle, which draws on North African, European and U.S.-based musical histories and sensibiliites, has just completed a three day residency (Nettle: Music for a Nu World) at Brandeis, culminating last night in their first concert in the United States. I've been especially fascinated by the group's partnership with the New York-based visual artist Daniel Perlin, who has developed elaborate visual projection works integrated into the musical performances. These are not entirely pre-scripted: the artist manipulates a configuration of pre-sets as the music and the spirit moves him. (The band's founder and organizer, DJ Rupture, refers to artist as an integral member of the group: "Daniel Perlin on visuals"!)

I love the way that Perlin, like the musicians of the group, moves so skillfully between the nettlesome, that which gets under our skin, and the compassionate, between the provocative and the nurturing, between sensory assaults and an imagery of hope. For one complex, variegated song, Perlin starts us off with an array of audio speakers, on which which green flickering images are glimpsed; these transmogrify in time into the angular rhythmic zig zag lines of the oscilliscope, which in turn expand into pulsating, three-dimensional angular mountainscapes. Yet, quite beautifully, the edgy mountainscape is then graced by white birds in flight, back and forth across the screen. I am reminded by the classical motif of the bird in flight in Islamic poetry, a metaphor for the soul straining towards the Divine (echoed in Rumi's Sufi celebation of the time of love as the moment when the "soul of the bird may rise in flight"). All this complements the progressions in the musical piece, in which out of seeming cacaphony one comes to discern the rising, clear tones of the stringed instruments, granting us unexpected moments of reprieve.

A comparable integration of aural and musical progression informs the song Tabla (named for one of DJ Rupture's old presets). Perlin starts us off with a shot from above of Chinese calisthenics, each figure moving gracefully in perfect (if, to many western eyes, somewhat disturbing) parallelism. He then reduplicates the scene into more and more boxes so that hundred, perhaps thousands, of coordinated exercisers seem to fil our view. As the music itself intensifies and discordant tones are introduced, the boxes themselves begin to distort and unravel, with different segments of the visual field errupting and going them own way across the screen in unxpected trajectories. By the end, we are left with a series of singular, geometric shadow boxes, each of them unique and arresting in their own way.

I found myself thinking of the memorable scene in Werner Herzog's Antarctic documentary "Encounters at the End of the World," in which he mischeviously takes apart "The March of the Penguins" and its collectivist (and pro-natalist) celebration of an entire species moving in lockstep towards ever more perfect Darwinian inclusive fitness. In "March," all the penguins travel and breed together in perfect coordination. In contrast, Herzog loves the rare, eccentric penguins that inexplicably break off from the March of Reproduction and waddle off, with irrespressible tragicomic determination, away from the pack of breeders towards the distant mountains, towards their doom and, Herzog suggets, towards a measure of freedom.

At the same time, I read this sequence (in a way that Daniel Perlin might not quite share) as a celebration of the imaginative possibilities inherent in ascetic discipline. This is derived in particular from having been present during my wife Ellen Schattschneider's fieldwork in northeastern Japan on women's ascetic discipline (shugyo) and her book, "Immortal Wishes: Labor and Transcendence on a Japanese Sacred Mountain" (Duke, 2003). Ellen argues that asceticism at Akakura Mountain Shrine (and many other places in Asia) is not exhausted in the seemingly coercive rhythms of collective movement; rather, ascetic discipline is the ground that nurtures the spontaneous emergence of creative insight and novel explorations of the self and its entanglements. These explorations, in turn, are exemplified by new individual spiritual dreams and visions, which the worshipper seeks to capture through creating votive paintings that are supreme offerings to the divinities. Something similar seems to be happening in Perlin's singular vision in this piece, which is grounded in the highly choreographed movements of collective calisthenics, which give birth to an entirely novel, idiosyncratic series of shapes.

Perlin's visuals deftly intensify the meanings of another number, the band's version of a beloved Morrocan song. The lyrics, I understand, convey the sentiment that cities may crumble, finery fade away, but what remains of value is guarding and nurturing our children. Perlin starts us with somewhat abstracted shadowed forms that recall sand dunes. Out of the dunes emerge spiraling white shapes (evoking the sands of time, perhaps) creating an ever-shifting geometric interior space. The immediate sense conveyed, in keeping with lyrics and the music, is one of calm and protectedness. In time, as the varied strands of the music intertwine, the white shapes shifting into intense blue, evoking, to my eyes at least, the life-giving waters of an oasis. The entre field of vision then begins to shimmer, like a desert mirage, a transitory vision of an earthly paradise. In the final images, a circle of delicate black shapes surrounds the dunes, as they themselves dissolve into pixilation. What is left behind, as even the physical dunes and oasis fade away, is a circle of loving, inward looking care.

An oasis of purity and quiet and care endures, even as the mirage of the physical oasis itself shimmers and passes away. Such, in Perlin's video art, is the gift of Nettle and its singular music, which ruptures and integrates, collides and colludes, in a way that leads us, at the end of each work, to hear silence itself in an entirely new way.

"Wearing our Culture" project with the Waltham Family School

This semester my Engaged Anthropology course has been partnering with the Waltham Family School (WFS) in a project we are provisionally calling, "Wearing our Culture, Wearing Ourselves." The Waltham Family School is a family literacy initiative funded through the EvenStart program; about 35 new immigrant adult women, and at least one of their pre-K children are in school together, four mornings a week. (Three mornings a week they are in separate classes, and then on Fridays they come together for interactive literacy). We've worked with the WFS students and teachers in the past on various small projects, but this time around we decided to try something a little more ambitious. Inspired in part by Terry Turner's classic essay, "The Social Skin," we are working with the women as they document their memories of clothing items and as they expore the imaginative possibilities of clothing symbolism as they reflect on their hopes for themselves and their families.

This past Tuesday we met with the women and their teaches at the Rose Art Musem, to view and discuss contemporary art works in which clothing imagery is prominent. Among the works we discussed:
  • Chie Fueki's lovely "The Nature of How We See", based on an imaginary "super-hero" soccer uniform she made for herself (emerging out of her girlhood in Brazil, when she was not allowed to play soccer). [I have posted a video commentary on the painting, which is visible at the start of this post.]
  • Florine Stettheimer's elegiac "Music" (1920) featuring four stylishly dressed women grouped around a piano.
  • Yayoi Kusama, Blue Coat, 1965; a three dimensional work reportedly inspired by the artist's hallucinatory visions.
We heard wonderful readings of the paintings. One woman suggested that the four women in the Stettheimer were in fact one person, since hearing music calls forth multiple aspects of onself.

We then shared children's book in which clothing objects feature prominently and talked about short stories we might write.

At the end of the morning visit, we gathered on the staircase and made pastel drawings inspired by what we had seen. One women drew the dress her grandmother had drawn the day she died; these colors to this day always remind her of her beloved grandmother.

We're feeling our way forward with the women to see how this project will develop. Tenatively, we forsee a collaboratively authored book featuring art and text by the women (and perhaps the Brandeis students) exploring memories associated with garments as well as imaginary clothing, as well as short stories on clothing themes. We'll report on the project at our upcoming symposium on the Pedagogy of the Imagination to be held on April 1 at the Rose.