I am not proud to say that I stopped writing politicians several decades ago. OK, I’ve sent an occasional email, usually prompted by some Facebook post, but my overly-long, impassioned missives to national and state officials ended with my use of the typewriter and carbon paper. Similarly, this old newspaper photo of me in front of the White House protesting the Vietnam War made me feel badly at how rarely I show up for protests these days. I’m still mad, still opposed to the drone devastation, Guantanamo, bombing raids, renditions, and on and on…but, but what? I confess it seems pointless, as the Koch Brothers continue to buy our government. But today I wrote to Governor Rauner. It may still be pointless, but, what to do? I kept my message very short and devoid of the RAGE that I feel about the way so many people are treated as disposable and all the programs being demolished that, however imperfectly, aim to serve those folks. This state has been poorly-run for a very long time and there are many systems to blame, while a few people have profited handsomely from the dysfunction, corruption,and callousness. I wrote to the state legislators, too, who are no doubt at least as frustrated as I.
“Dear Governor Rauner [I did not say “Dear Bruce”],” I wrote today, “I support a progressive income tax–as in, tax those of us who can afford to pay for a better Illinois and stop punishing the most vulnerable among us. The state budget impasse has permanently damaged so many non-profits and schools that we cannot recover. Still, we must solve the crisis immediately and begin to repair the damage as quickly and as best we can. Compromise, please, with your equally stubborn and egotistical opponents.
Sincerely, Sharon Irish”
“Dear Sharon,” the Governor [via his robot-minion], replied nearly immediately,
“I appreciate you taking the time to reach out to my office about tax reform in Illinois. My staff is reviewing your message. Please know I value your opinion and thank you for sharing it with me. Hearing from people in Illinois gives me a better idea of what is impacting local communities across the state. Knowing those opinions helps me make decisions for you in Springfield.
Please feel free to contact me in the future. My office phone numbers are (217) 782-0244 and (312) 814-2121.
Governor Bruce Rauner”
So I called and left a message on the machine. Will the machine call me back? To be continued…maybe.
After a really crazy spring semester, I am finally cleaning my home office, finding tidbits here and there that I intended to blog about, but never did. Dawoud Bey was the keynote speaker at this year’s College Art Association conference. He teaches photography at Columbia College in Chicago, and runs a speaker series there. Bey spoke about “authoring the culture of our time.” He quoted a nurse and activist from his childhood growing up in Harlem: “If you know, teach; if you don’t know, learn.” He encouraged those of us at the CAA conference to move beyond our isolated academic circles and engage with the world, noting that “this larger community is key to sustaining and deepening our work.” If memory serves (this was in February 2010, after all!), he also mentioned Walter Hood’s Phillips Lifeways Plan in Charleston, South Carolina, from 2004-09 as an example of artistic engagement. Also during that evening, we discussed a project in Puerto Rico by Chemi Rosado-Seijo. With volunteers and residents of El Cerro, a former coffee plantation near Naranjito, Rosado-Seijo painted a group of houses in Proyecto El Cerro (El Cerro Project), 2002. The documentation of this project was exhibited at the Whitney Biennial, and written about in Literature and Art of the Americas v. 37 issue 1(2004). That article mentioned that Rosado-Seijo wanted the houses to be painted green to match the mountains; there was hesitation by residents of El Cerro because green is associated with the independistas, and most residents are pro-statehood (color, blue), according to this review. So the artist had the residents pick their color and sometimes the colors were combined. The interactions around donated paint and an artist’s ideas mixed with local residents’ responses created more than a colorful hillside.
Last Thursday (December 11), I attended a panel organized by a working group at the University of Illinois called Ubuntu. Computer scientists kind of colonized the word by using it to describe a Debian-based Linux distribution. But in any case, Ubuntu is a Xhosa and Zulu word describing a philosophy of community and sharing. And the UI Ubuntu has come together in the aftermath of the shooting death of 15-year-old Kiwane Carrington of Champaign. Kiwane died after being shot by a police officer in October 2009 at close range, as he was trying to enter a house where he had been staying. His friend who was with him, Jeshaun Manning-Carter, has been charged with aggravated resisting arrest (a felony) for trying to avoid the police. Jeshaun just turned 16, and will be on trial in early 2010. There has been a lot of news coverage (in several publications and online), so I won’t repeat what is covered elsewhere.
Ubuntu participants want to reclaim the Black Studies tradition of scholar-activism, and I applaud them! Historian Clarence Lang talked about the continuum between academic excellence and social responsibility; campus and community; study and struggle. Historian Sundiata Cha-Jua spoke about reviving a Black United Front that would bring about an annual report issued on the police use of force; a petition to Congress to make the police use of excessive force a federal crime; and a citizen’s police review board in Champaign, among other ideas. Imani Bazzell, who wears many hats, mentioned her program, “At Promise…of Success,” which sees youth as promising success rather than “at risk” of failure. She advocated for workshops for public school teachers to increase their knowledge of the black intellectual tradition. Sociologist Ruby Mendenhall spoke about the oral histories that she has been gathering with her students. County Board member Carol Ammons spoke movingly about her anguish and her frustration with teen-police relationships. I cannot even begin to do justice to the powerful words she voiced. Other speakers included Brendeesha Tynes, Ken Salo, Kerry Pimblott, Barbara Kessel, William Kyles and Pastor Nash. Barbara Kessel spoke about her research into “domestic rendition,” the removal of prisoners from Cook County Jail to Kankakee in order to use tasers on these men. Taser use in Cook County is illegal.
The room was packed. There is such a need for coordinated effort and continued conversation. Thanks to Ubuntu for taking up the challenge. I hope we can build a strong wall, with varied bricks and stones, that will collectively support each other and resist disunity in the face of inevitable differences.
Perpetual Peace Project is organized by the Slought Foundation, based on Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace: A Contribution to Political Science (1795). The project “is a two-year initiative of the European Union National Institutes of Culture’s ‘Series in New European Manifestos,’ which re-revisits and re-writes European political texts that have profoundly shaped our modern world.” Kant noted that the phrase “perpetual peace” was posted near a cemetery, with the recognition that death might be the only human way of achieving peace. Kant’s preliminary articles from the late eighteenth century bear listing here, in the same week that Barack Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize while increasing the numbers of US troops to be deployed to Afghanistan. I have much to learn about Kant, because I find these statements surprisingly radical. But then 1795 was a radical time in western Europe. It’s possible that Kant wrote this as irony, and intended to cast doubt on there ever being such a thing as Peace.
Article I. No conclusion of Peace shall be held to be valid as such, when it has been made with the secret reservation of the material for a future War.
Article II. No State having an existence by itself–whether it be small or large–shall be acquirable by another State through inheritance, exchange, purchase or donation.
Article III. Standing Armies shall be entirely abolished in the course of time.
Article IV. No National Debts shall be contracted in connection with the external affairs of the State.
Article V. No State shall intermeddle by force with the Constitution or Government of another State.
Article VI. No State at war with another shall adopt such modes of hostility as would necessarily render mutual confidence impossible in a future Peace; such as the employment of Assassins or Poisoners, the violation of a Capitulation, the instigation of Treason and such like.
Kant says of the modes listed in Article VI that “these are dishonorable stratagems.” Indeed. The Slought Foundation and its collaborators encourage us to rewrite this possibly satirical manifesto in light of contemporary events.
My rewriting of Article I: We must constantly remember that an open hand can become a fist.
Other rewritings to follow. Thanks so much to Aaron Levy of the Slought Foundation for our conversation yesterday!
A number of friends have read the book by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. There’s also a movement by that name. The book was excerpted in the New York Times Magazine recently, which is where I first learned of it. Then my friend Carol interviewed Sheryl on WILL Radio, after reading the book.
My sister Gail compiled a short list of groups from the book that we all have the opportunity to support:
Afghan Institute of Learning operates schools and other programs for women and girls in Afghanistan and in the border areas of Pakistan.
Apne Aap battles sex slavery in India, including in remote areas in Bihar that get little attention.
Campaign for Female Education (CAMFED) supports schooling for girls in Africa.
Fistula Foundation supports the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in Ethiopia, established by Reg and Catherine Hamlin.
Global Fund for Women operates like a venture capital fund for women’s groups in poor countries.
Heal Africa runs a hospital in Goma, Congo, that repairs fistulas and tends to rape victims.
Worldwide Fistula Fund works to improve maternal health and is building a fistula hospital in Niger.
With all the bad news in the world, it is gratifying to know of these amazing, tenacious efforts to support women, and men.
Walking on the sidewalk with “Respect Native Hosts” yard signs under my arm, I am on my way to deliver them in east Urbana.
Man on porch whistles, then yells at me: “Let me see those signs!”
Retracing my steps, I stand in his driveway and say that the signs are in support of Heap of Birds’ work on campus.
Man, now standing, cigarette in hand: “I was just curious to see the signs. You ever been to Allerton?”
Man: “I went to 4-H camp there and the cabins were named after Indian tribes.”
Me: “Well, we live on their land now.”
Man, loudly: “No we don’t!”
Me: “How so?”
Man, swearing even more loudly and then: “It’s ours now. Get over it! Get out of here!”
Me: “OK!” Retreating, the man continues to yell, telling me to get over it, calling me a moron, and other rude nouns with adjectives that I am sure you can imagine.
I kept thinking of Charlene Teters, standing all alone in front of Assembly Hall almost 20 years ago, protesting the racist mascot, chief Illiniwek, and the abuse she endured. Some of the story is told by Jay Rosenstein’s documentary “In Whose Honor?” It is very difficult, maybe impossible in this evening’s case, to respectfully engage with someone who vehemently disagrees with me. I felt kind of bad walking away, but I also felt a little scared. Then I ran into a couple walking with their children and they greeted me with the comment that they already had a sign in their yard, and were glad to have one. So, on balance, one and one!
Here’s the press release that a group of us wrote to accompany distribution of the yard signs created in solidarity with Edgar Heap of Birds’ art installation, “Beyond the Chief.”
Respect Native Hosts, a grassroots campaign in support of Native American artist’s public art installation
Student groups, local activists, and concerned citizens join today, Thursday, June 25, 2009, with the Native American House (1206 W. Nevada Street) and the American Indian Studies program (1204 W. Nevada St.) on the University of Illinois campus to confront racism with a creative and heartfelt response. The response takes the form of declarative yard signs that read: “Respect Native Hosts: Peoria, Kaskaskia, Wea, Piankesaw,” explicitly showing support for “Beyond the Chief,” a public art exhibit of twelve signs by the internationally exhibited Cheyenne-Arapaho artist, HOCK E AYE VI Edgar Heap of Birds.
“Beyond the Chief” was installed along West Nevada Street in Urbana in February 2009 and asks viewers to reflect on political and social histories of central Illinois, especially those related to indigenous peoples. Since their installation, there have been six separate incidents of vandalism followed by the theft of two of the signs, the latter resulting in the June 18 arrest of a recent University of Illinois graduate. Despite these egregious instances of violence directed toward the artwork, there has been little official response from University administrators.
With “Beyond the Chief,” Heap of Birds adapts his text-based artwork, at least in part, to respond directly to the local campus community and the ongoing conflict surrounding the use of the sports mascot “chief Illiniwek” that promoted University of Illinois intercollegiate athletics for 81 years. Though the “chief” was retired as an official mascot in 2007, music and graphics still appear at Illinois sporting events in an unofficial capacity. On each of the twelve “Beyond the Chief” signs, “Fighting Illini” is printed backwards above the words “Today Your Host Is…” followed by the name of an indigenous group such as the Peoria, Kaskaskia, or the Wea, to inspire reflection on those American Indian communities that formerly lived in this region and the complex histories of this landscape.
“One thing I have thought about the ‘Beyond the Chief’exhibit is that it marks in specific ways previously unmarked and unnamed removals, ” said Robert Warrior, Professor and Director of the Native American House and American Indian Studies, and curator of “Beyond the Chief.” “Perhaps the local signs can do the same sort of naming, remembering and respecting the Peoria, Piankesaw, Wea, and Kaskaskia specifically.” Responding to the continued defacement of the artwork, a group of Champaign-Urbana citizens came together to design a reproducible sign to extend the original message of the Heap of Birds artwork to the community at large.
The design for the “Respect Native Hosts” yard signs was created with the input of Warrior and the artist, Edgar Heap of Birds, who expressed appreciation for all efforts to counter negativity towards the exhibit. It is hoped that the yard signs will open up private spaces for public discussion, and quickly show that homes all over Champaign-Urbana are working to build a community based on inclusivity and justice. The “Respect Native Hosts” solidarity yard signs will be available for free at the Native American House until they are gone. Drop by the yard of Native American House (1206 W. Nevada Street) between 10AM and 11AM and pick up yours today!
If you cannot make it and would like to obtain a sign to promote an anti-racist message in your own yard please contact Sharon Irish, via email. If you would like to donate to the “Respect Native Hosts” project contact Sharon Irish as well. If we receive enough funds, we will print another run of the signs.
I have been having useful conversations with friends and colleagues about “Beyond the Chief” by Edgar Heap of Birds. Here I have linked to Debbie Reese’s blog and her commentary on the art when it was first installed. Today artist Kevin Hamilton told me about this 35-minute documentary (2006), Fits and Starts: A Deer Diary, available on You Tube. It is about the vandalism of a life-sized, rhinestone-encrusted sculpture of a deer called “Fits and Starts” that was placed on the campus of Depauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, in 2005 by artist Marc Swanson. The work was so badly damaged in the two weeks that it was on display that it had to be removed. I was intrigued by the range of responses to the art and the subsequent vandalism, and found some of the reactions instructive for us at Illinois, in the wake of the numerous vandalisms of “Beyond the Chief.”
Administrators, faculty and students gathered at the site of the deer sculpture for speak-outs and represented a range of opinions. It was hard to tell in the film, but it also looked like there were large pieces of paper on the ground with written responses to the events. And two art students created a sculpture that they installed after the deer was removed, as a commentary on “what belongs on campus” and “what is art.” The student collaboration was of a polo shirt that had been stiffened with the collar flipped up. That work was stolen within 24 hours!
Depauw’s response also included interviews by students of faculty and other students on the university television and radio stations, and a public forum that seemed to include the donors. The takeaway is that people were UPSET and felt that the vandalism reflected badly on the campus. Additionally, the controversy prompted extensive conversations in and out of class and postings on Facebook, which the faculty and students saw as a positive exchange of viewpoints.
Other ideas that have been shared with me in the past two days include implementing signage that has sensors embedded in it so that touch would trigger an alarm of some sort (this wouldn’t work if people continue to bring offerings); yard signs that would express solidarity with the artwork and its message; and protective cloth coverings for the signs, akin to Sarah Ross’s archisuits.
Here’s a list of ideas I sent around to folks this morning, reaching toward group activity to respond to the vandalism of art on our campus.
1. Daily Illini and News-Gazette about public art and its potential to raise important questions of common concern? (oblique, educational)
2. Letters condemning vandalism to art (attack the act, doesn’t explain the art)
3. Letters from groups of people: Urbana Public Arts Commission, Art History Department, Art and Design, etc. about value of artwork
4. There’s already a petition online that Ashley Tsosie-Mahieu organized. http://www.petitiononline.com/352Henry/petition.html
5. Regular “docent” gigs on the street (see Street Librarianship post, below.)
6. Performative, interactive events around the signs
7. Tagging the signs for information sources
Number seven was suggested to me by Dianne Harris, who learned of it from Jennifer Giuliano during HASTAC this year. Jennifer says:
With “Microsoft Tagging,” the coded tags are embedded with information (it can be any sort of information from names, places, websites, etc.). You can have both black and white and color tags. You can visit Microsoft tags here: http://www.microsoft.com/tag/ Anyone can use it by downloading the technology onto any cell phone with a camera and an internet connection (to download the reader software from Microsoft.)
And some more…
8. Vigil by the signs
9. Motion sensors on the signs, but those would probably react too often, to everything.
10. Ceremonies by the signs
11. Speaker’s bureau about artistic interventions
12. Donations to a potential Chancellor’s Fund for purchase of Heap of Birds “Beyond the Chief”