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.