September 4, 2009

Aim High

Aim High poster

Aim High poster

I have been obsessing about this challenge today. This photo, taken by a student in a first-year class that I am co-teaching, captures it well. There’s the goal on a pole, but the pole is rusty and without a top. The conflict I feel is that the efforts I and many others make to “engage” with “community” fall so far short of appropriate responsive-ability (as Meiling Cheng called it in her book, In Other Los Angeleses) that I almost don’t want to aim at all. Meiling meant that reciprocity in relationships–built on trust with some equity of power if not equality–is crucial for partnerships that address key social concerns. The homeless know about being homeless, I do not. The poor know about poverty, I do not. The hungry know about hunger that I can only imagine, and not very well. Compassion and empathy of course matter.  Listening matters. But when it comes to action, how do we create a give-and-take that taps into economic and social resources without taking away power from those who must access it to move out of painful, systemically-nurtured situations? How can I be part of the solution and not part of the problem? It takes courage to “aim high” because one so often misses the mark. So many people have no choice but to keep on aiming, despite the high failure rate. Giving up is not an option.

July 28, 2009

Out in the Country

I just met Mary L. Gray and heard her talk about her new book, Out in the Country (NYU Press, 2009). She spent about three years living in smallish towns in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Tennessee, as a participant observer of LGBTQ youth. The subtitle of her book is “Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America.” She told a story of young people driving for over an hour to meet at a regional Wal-Mart, one of the few places open 24 hours, to dress in drag in the store, show off their outfits, photograph each other and then upload the photos, with the final upload culminating the event. While she talked about the negative images of “rural” that folks in less populous places have to work against–from the bumpkin-ness of “The Beverly Hillbillies” to the violence and hatefulness of “Deliverance” to the bleakness of “Brokeback Mountain”–she suggested that for most rural youth the Internet was less of an escape than a place of connection. Further, that the connections on- and off-line had a continuity that helps support a young person’s identity explorations, since there are so few models of “how to be trans” or “what gayness in a small town looks like.” Mary gave me a whole new understanding of “Deliverance”–a movie I watched once and never cared to think about much after that, and also of “Brokeback Mountain.” Apparently youth in small town USA did not find the homophobic violence believable, nor did they accept the opinion of the Heath Ledger character that two men living together just would not work in their towns. Definitely a book to buy and read. Thanks, Mary!

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

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.

November 20, 2008

Aesthetics and Protest

The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest #6 is out! There are some very fine pieces in it too. Thanks to Robby Herbst, I was able to look it over. Amy Franceschini is interviewed by Christina Ulke on the San Francisco Victory Gardens+2007. Urban agriculture is on the rise, coast to coast. Amy F’s folks were farmers and each had very different takes on the politics of food, but she has her own version, including teaming up with Slow Food Nation to garden in front of SF’s City Hall. There are some nice b&w photos of the garden juxtaposed with the Beaux-Arts municipal headquarters. I got to meet Christina when we were together on the Political Equator 2 trip over a year ago. So, I am glad to “reconnect” with her in print.

There’s an article about InCUBATE, closer to my neck of the woods: the Institute for Community Understanding Between Art and the Everyday, in Chicago. They are committed to exploring a range of sources for support of cultural production. The late Ben Schaafsma, the author of this article and co-founder of InCUBATE, cited one of my favorite books, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded (South End Press, 2007). (Ben died October 25, 2008, at age 26, after being struck by a car while walking in NYC. What a loss!)

Brett Bloom and Bonnie Fortune tell readers about the Midwest Radical Culture Corridor and the Library of Radiant Optimism. It was a pleasure to gather at Bonnie and Brett’s house last summer to hear about part of the mobile symposium around food security issues that they helped organize. Continental Drift (Brian Holmes‘ ruminations on neoliberal globalization and then some) started in Champaign-Urbana and moved north and west. They’ve already collectively published a book about some of what they learned: A Call to Farms!

I really liked learning about Julianna Parr’s crafts nights that she holds in bars. Googly eyes, paper, gluesticks, whatever, and a few drinks, really gets the conversations going! Speaking of conversation Daniel Tucker and Nato Thompson staged regional meetups with particular invited guests to talk about models of art and activism, in Los Angeles, New Orleans, Baltimore, New York City, and Chicago. They had a set series of questions and asked individuals to speak about two or three of them, very briefly. Suzanne Lacy was part of the Los Angeles conversation. The questions were about how art motivates an audience, how the local economy affects people’s art practice, how a particular artistic event expanded social networks and offered political potential, how a politically-engaged art practice relates to social movements, and how these practices tie into larger, national structures. Christina Ulke quoted Lozeh Luna: “DETRAS DE NOSOTROS ESTAMOS USTEDES,” a saying that has a wonderful Mobius strip-like meaning. Not sure I know what radical aesthetics are, but I liked this issue of JOAAP. Keep it up!