August 21, 2012

Mozilla Ignite “Killer” Apps

The Mozilla Foundation has joined with the National Science Foundation and U.S. Ignite to sponsor a “killer app” challenge. The deadline is August 23. Today I submitted my idea, which you can see here along with many, many others. (There are monetary prizes.)

This is the 150th anniversary of a mass execution of 38 Dakota men in Mankato, Minnesota, in December of 1862. Waziyatawin reports this history in this post. Many more Dakota people died during imprisonment during that winter. Thinking about this genocidal history during a recent trip to Minnesota, I decided to propose an “app” called STOLEN LANDS, BROKEN TREATIES.

Respect Native Hosts, Yard Signs supporting Edgar Heap of Birds' "Beyond the Chief"

Here’s my proposal. The Mozilla Ignite questions are in italics.

Stolen Lands, Broken Treaties

The pitch: in 140 characters
U. S. residents occupy land stolen from indigenous peoples. How can we learn about the land and its inhabitants before us?

The solution:Describe your proposed solution. How does it address the problem or opportunity you’ve identified? (Aim for 400 words or less — brevity is the soul of wit.)

This application for mobile devices will use location services and then pull in historical and geographical data to help visualize the location prior to settlement by white people. Of course, native peoples moved across landscapes over time, so the app will allow the user to specify a fifty year time frame and see the numbers and identifications of different groups in the area. Recognizing that the boundaries of the United States are political, when appropriate, the app will indicate cross-border connections in Canada or Mexico. In the event that the user is on Indian-occupied land, such as a reservation or predominantly tribal area, the app can still be used to show historical changes over centuries.

 In which category does your idea fit?

Education and workforce focus

How will your idea make people’s lives better? Specifically, who would benefit and at what scale?

Mainstream U.S. culture is historically ignorant, and generally unconnected to the land which makes our lives possible. By providing the means to learn about the particular place where a person finds him/herself, individuals or entire classrooms or groups of learners can gain a perspective on their location, as well as become aware that history takes place, that it is spatial as well as temporal. This app can do much more than promote historical awareness, however. As Waziyatawin noted (in a different context) in 2007, it could “compel a reworking of the existing social order…. Truth-telling in this context becomes a major act of decolonization.”

How does your idea take advantage of next-generation networks? Does some version of this already exist? What current technological limitations are making your idea hard to execute? What challenges do you expect?

No version of this app exists to my knowledge. The need for historically accurate digital maps as well as a means to correlate the maps to tribal locations, movements and treaties over time are not so much a technological limitation as much as a digital humanities problem. It is possible that this work has been done and I do not know about it. Further, there is the belief that humans do not “own” the land, but that it is a gift that we should cherish and nourish. Given that our society has, in fact, colonized the land and made it into property, I think this app’s main challenges would be assembling and displaying accurate information based on widely distributed data. In any case, for this size of a country, with several centuries’ of region-specific information, there is big data to manage and interpret, which needs high-speed broadband.

Are you interested in making your idea a reality? Do you want to try and build this app? If so, do you need help? What kind of help — guidance, mentorship, learning materials, more team members? (This won’t have an impact on how your idea is judged — we’re just curious.)

I would need a research team of indigenous historians and geographers, programmers and marketers. I have only have the traditional skills of an historian.

The form then asked for external links to support the idea, so I linked to Waziyatawin’s work, that of Edgar Heap of Birds, and Debbie Reese’s blog.

May 21, 2009


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. Letter writing campaign to 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.
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: 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”

May 6, 2009

Beyond the Chief by Edgar Heap of Birds

"Beyond the Chief" by Edgar Heap of Birds, 2009

We are privileged to have an installation by Hock E Aye Vi/Edgar Heap of Birds on the campus of the University of Illinois. I wrote about being a docent with the work in the previous post. But I wanted to reflect a little more on this powerful work. The backwards writing (FIGHTING ILLINI), which refers to the name of the University of Illinois sports teams, struck me first as mirror writing, which then led me to think about reflection. The way in which Heap of Birds prompts reflection by the use of official-looking signage along an ordinary campus street strikes me as a supremely effective way to repetitively insert the question of “who is hosting whom” in the landscape. It not only encourages reflection, but a reflexive query, “how do I fit in this picture?” because the pedestrian IS in the scene as one walks by.

All of the peoples named in the signs at one time lived in and with this land. Many were forcibly removed, or killed, but of course their descendants continue to live today, mostly not in Illinois. This land grant university is built upon land that does not belong to it…as various broken treaties and outright theft attest. So, Heap of Birds prompts us to reverse the post-colonial claims by reversing the writing. Further, he reclaims the land, in a sense, by installing signs that remind us of those who have come before, and the land that nurtures us. We re-read the landscape.

The signs are declarations: straightforward statements that subtly prompt questions. The metallic, highway- sign surfaces seem official yet make the observer wonder about other directions and instructions that should be questioned. They are ironic and funny too. I like the juxtaposition of the signs with the regular no parking sign and the parking meters. Heap of Birds’ signs are street furniture that call for attitudinal shifts and policy changes. I fully support the purchase of this work so that we can have permanent reminders of the history and present/ce of indigenous people on campus in the form of this public art work.

Street Librarianship

Today I stood outside the Native American House as a volunteer docent to answer questions from passersby about the art installation, “Beyond the Chief,” by Edgar Heap of Birds. “Beyond the Chief” is a series of twelve signs posted on both sides of Nevada Street on the University of Illinois (UIUC) campus, where the Native American House and American Indian Studies offices are located, along with Asian American Studies, La Casa Cultural Latina, African American Cultural House and African American Studies. The theme is one effort by an internationally-known artist to address the damage wrought by over 80 years of a sports mascot at UIUC known as Chief Illiniwek, a racist depiction of a fictional chief, invented by a band leader in the 1920s to support the “Fighting Illini” teams. Genocide and land theft are among many other deeds and ideas that the European invasion wrought on indigenous peoples.

"Beyond the Chief," Hock E Aye Vi/Edgar Heap of Birds, 2009
Heap of Birds’ red and white metal signs, which at first glance look like official informational signs, include the words “Fighting Illini” written backwards, over the words “Today your host is…” and then the names of twelve tribal groups. This area was the homeland of Peoria, Piankesaw, Wea, and Kaskaskia peoples. Others passed through what is now Illinois, including Kickapoo, Odawa, Sac, Peoria, Ho-Chunk, Potawatomi, Myaamia, and Meskwaki people. The signs line both sides of Nevada Street, starting at the corner, on the lawn in front of the Department of African American Studies, and then they are placed near the sidewalk so that one can move along to view each one.  The Pienkesaw sign in front of La Casa is in Spanish; other signs in English, Japanese and Korean, if I remember correctly. While Heap of Birds has produced these textimages on other campuses, this is the first time he has used languages other than English.
As Heap of Birds has written: “As we install these 12 sign panels, we walk forward on the University of Illinois campus to honor these ideals and intertribal brothers and sisters from a circular position of respect.” The signs will remain through December of 2009, unless the university purchases them.
My friend, the writer Carol Spindel, who wrote Dancing at Halftime: Sports and the Controversy over American Indian Mascots (NYU Press, 2000), joined me for our two-hour “street talk.” She stood on the corner by a stop sign, and I stood between two signs across the street, in front of Native American House. Carol seemed engaged in quite a few conversations; I myself talked with sixteen people, singly or in pairs, over the course of a sunny afternoon. ShinJoung Yeo, a doctoral student in Information and Society, inspired this “street docent/librarian” idea when we had dinner together last week. She described a group that she helped start in 2004, Radical Reference. Volunteers basically took to the streets during the Republican National Convention in New York City and helped people get the information they needed—from where the nearest bathrooms were, to how to find a lawyer, to where there were clashes with police. People who weren’t on the street provided information via cellphone to those who were fielding questions. I thought it was a brilliant solution to everyday people’s needs.
Last week, artist Edgar Heap of Birds returned to the UIUC campus because his signs were vandalized three times since their installation in February. Director of American Indian Studies Robert Warrior invited him back for a brief visit for a forum to address the campus climate and vandalism. Sadly, this is the first campus installation in which his art has been damaged. Professor Heap of Birds encouraged those of us in the audience to take action, to make offerings to honor those who have gone before, to bring gifts to tie to the signs to help protect them, and to talk about the art around campus. Thus, ShinJoung’s idea of a “street librarian” prompted Carol and me to stand by the signs and interact with those pedestrians who paused to talk with us. While I didn’t have lengthy conversations, it was good to be able to talk with people about their thoughts about the art, and answer a few questions about the artist. I hope to do this again regularly."Beyond the Chief," Hock E Aye Vi/Edgar Heap of Birds, 2009

April 12, 2009

City from Below

One reason I don’t blog more here is because I keep up two other blogs, one for I-Powered, a group of students, staff and faculty at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), and another for the Race, Space and Law Reading Group at UIUC. This report on our most recent meeting has so many great links in it, I will duplicate it here.

Abby Harmon and Ryan Griffis reported on the conference, The City from Below. Abby started off talking about presentations by Picture the Homeless. This is a self-organized group based in NYC, founded in 1998. They work to do away with the shelter system and to fill vacant units. They did one on-the-ground data collection and found enough vacancies to theoretically house the 35,000 people filling the spots in shelters in NYC. NYC has a “right to shelter” law that means in fact that the shelter system is a $750 million industry. PHC has successfully joined the continuum of care groups in NYC so that they now have 33% of the votes, which really helps take charge of how services are delivered. Abby reported that the US Interagency Council on Homelessness has a ten-year plan to end chronic homelessness, which sounds good, but in fact limits options. There are three “official” levels of homelessness–episodic, transitional, chronic. The chronic label stigmatizes people by labeling them as having a personal disability–substance abuse and/or mental illness. “Permanent supportive housing,” which also sounds good, assumes the person needs support, when really they need housing. This seems to be summed up by the statement: IT’S A HOUSING CRISIS, NOT A HOMELESS CRISIS! PHC also questions “whose quality of life?” in the legislation intended to enhance urban “quality of life.” Abby also made the point that “low-income” categories also damage people by pigeon-holing them into boxes that cut out opportunities.

There were also presentations by Anarchitecture, Abandonment Issues, Max Rameau of Take Back the Land in Miami. The latter group limits their takeovers to municipally-owned property, although Umoja Village, a shantytown built in 2006 on public land in Liberty City, resulted in a lot of arrests and harassment. Abandonment Issues in Toronto has posted on their blog a policy brief outlining the city’s need for the Use It or Lose It bylaw and issuing recommendations for how this bylaw would best be implemented. Other presentations mentioned include the Baltimore Algebra Project, a group of students in Baltimore who organized for better schools; Shiri Pasternak; Cheri Honkala of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign (PPEHRC) and United Workers. These groups are all inspiring!

The Baltimore Algebra Project students held a die-in at the state capitol to stress the connection between lack of education and high mortality rates. They tried to make a citizen’s arrest of the Maryland governor.  They started peer-to-peer tutoring in a network where they leveraged each others’ strengths. The Baltimore United Workers all maintain working-class jobs and use storytelling as a way of making demands. These stories are spatial and lived, effective ways to get the powers-that-be involved in the stories these workers are making. For example, they created a Human Rights Zone at the Baltimore harbor. They developed a list of the Five Big Worst Employers. They always have a part of their events that is a surprise to catch power off-guard.

One useful distinction for me was “we are organized” vs the passive “being organized” by, say, a community organizer. No matter how much trust, there is a significant difference between self-organized groups and those working “with” an organizer. Organizers can provide tactical support and be allies.

A rich and challenging discussion!

February 8, 2009

Technology as Spatial Lens

In early February I went to hear Paul Dourish when he was visiting the University of Illinois. He’s a professor of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, with courtesy appointments in Computer Science and in Anthropology. In addition to the Informatics program, he also teaches in the interdisciplinary graduate program in Arts, Computation, and Engineering (ACE). His research lies at the intersection of computer science and social science, with a particular interest in ubiquitous and mobile computing and the practices surrounding new media. His rather long title, “Accountabilities of Presence and the Commoditization of Location: Getting Beyond Privacy in Location-Based Systems,” didn’t mean much to me, but his talk was very interesting.
Here’s his abstract:
The development of mobile and ubiquitous computing applications is typically attended by concerns about privacy and disclosure. However, despite much effort over many years, the problems of privacy seem as difficult as ever. Opinions differ greatly. To some, privacy is a major obstacle to the development of location-based technologies; to others, privacy simply doesn’t matter. Perhaps the problem is that the term “privacy” isn’t very useful? In order to ground these questions empirically — and to see our way past the problems of privacy as a concept — colleagues and I have been studying a group for whom it is not a useful conceptual framework. Paroled sex offenders tracked via GPS have, as far as the law is concerned, forfeited any right to privacy — and yet the ways in which they are accountable to various other groups for their movements and their presences highlight the complex, contingent, and fluid practices that lie behind a simplistic notion of privacy.

He gave a clear presentation, with a graphically elegant power point.
He started by talking about privacy being a performance, in that it is what we do, how we interact, rather than something we have. The concept of privacy obscures other social relations that may be more relevant or important.
Dourish introduced the term technocorrections to describe the uses of databases to track sex offenders using lifetime monitoring with GPS units. In California, where Dourish conducted his study, two sets of laws–labeled Megan’s law and Jessica’s law—were passed based on emotional responses to victims of violent sexual crimes and not on whether the spatial monitoring of sex offenders was effective. With Jessica’s law, the definition of “sexual” offender became quite Draconian, so that many more people are now being monitored.  There is no gradation of risk for sex offenders in California: all are labeled high risk. Parole officers are overwhelmed with data and have very little face-to-face time with the people they are monitoring. There is no rehabilitation, just surveillance.
The experiences of the parolee wearing the device are remarkable. For example, wearing a GPS anklet disciplines the body: people wear multiple socks to pad the device and/or to hide the device. It is easily damaged and any damage is a parole violation. The wearer cannot take it off, cannot get it wet, and must recharge it while wearing it, so those things affect the jobs that the wearer can get, the way in which the wearer can get clean, and how long the wearer can be away from an electrical outlet. The battery can be damaged by overcharging it, so one cannot charge it while sleeping! This device, then, affects the ways a person carries their body, marks a person (like the Scarlet Letter), if it is visible, serves as a constant reminder of a conviction, and, for some, has the positive aspect of providing an alibi, since the person’s whereabouts is always known. The device structures a person’s time, through the necessity of battery recharging.
Space is also structured by forcing people to wear a GPS unit. There are prohibited spaces, and spaces of danger and safety for the wearer. Many end up living near prisons, because there are no schools in the vicinity, so they are not in violation of their parole conditions. Sex offenders are not allowed to get online, so they have to rely on physical maps or circumstance to learn the locations of parks, playgrounds, and schools.
Dourish then moved into broader issues related to the spread of locative technologies, and social contexts that lend location meaning: legibility of space, from within, as lived;  and from without, as representational schemas, or presence and traces; technology and the body where locative devices affect comportment, among other things; commodification (actually he called it “commoditization”) of location in which relationships are dissolved (ie, between parolees and officers); transforming data to location, and transforming location to intent (why were they there?); and recovering accountabilities; accountability of presence that is beyond a “privacy” debate; heterogeneous accountabilities that are productive of space rather than responsive.

July 16, 2008

Active History

There’s a conference coming up in the Fall of 2008 in Toronto called “Active History.” I have been having email “conversations” with several colleagues about the roles that history plays in contemporary art practice, in design studios, and in community settings. Nick Brown reminded me of a couple of efforts in Pittsburgh and in Toronto that engage in what Greg Sholette and his group called REPOhistory

: The Missing Plaque Project in Toronto and the Howling Mob Society. The Toronto-based group (really one artist, Tim Groves) creates posters on overlooked historical events.
The Howling Mob Society focuses on the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and makes markers telling about the events related to that strike, one of which is on the left here. When markers like this, or posters, or actions in public occur on the streets it is a kind of informal education, with layers of a site uncovered that many don’t know about. The Active History conference will include sessions on community research, archeology, labor history (or as they say in Canada, labour history), and grassroots activism.

June 29, 2008

The Audacity of Desperation

The art exhibit, “The Audacity of Desperation,” curated by Sarah Ross and Jessica Lawless left Urbana’s Independent Media Center and opened last weekend in NYC at PS 122. Congratulations Sarah and Jessica!
The closing of the exhibit in Urbana launched the Continental Drift through the Midwest, organized by the fantastic folks of the Radical Midwest Culture Corridor. The energy is good in east central Illinois now, with the Garage and Garden, the Kerr Avenue Development, the Citizens for Peace and Justice work in north Champaign, and folks passing through.

September 20, 2007

Chicago. Fig.

Chicago. Fig. These are titles of two books by the photographic team of Adam Bloomberg and Oliver Chanarin. “Chicago” is the name of a cardboard and junk city in the Negev used to train Israeli and US soldiers in milieus that simulate Gaza or a refugee camp. “Fig” includes images of pine forests that have been planted across Israel in previously occupied territory. These are painful, contested stories, with flashes of heat from all sides.

It leads me to wonder about the best way to discuss these hotly-debated, deeply-felt issues. If not at a university, then where? Where might respectful exchanges of opinions best unfold, even if the only common ground is that a setting for exchange is important? I think every institution is political, in the sense that power relationships are unequal within them and people’s priorities are skewed by those power relationships. I am worried about the continued (and increasing?) polarization of the university, where “toxic” becomes not just descriptive of the physical environment but of the intellectual one as well. Most recently, the establishment of an endowment fund at the University of Illinois, the Academy on Capitalism and Limited Government Fund, and its close connection to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), has sparked debate locally, with all sides jockeying for positions for and against, but the opportunities for teaching each other about the real difficulties of living together on the planet seem to be completely forgotten. People rightly are concerned about “mission creep”–another term reminiscent of toxic dispersal–but is it possible to debate the mission(s) before jumping on board or not? My initial reaction to ACTA is that they say their mission is “academic reform,” but that that is a smokescreen for a completely different mission, which is the imposition of their ideology. NOT, repeat NOT, that this is only a strategy of the right, but given the dominance of the right, it seems hollow to claim their beleaguered stance. And, the website of their ally, the National Association of Scholars, is really ugly to boot.