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!