Seeing Weird Theatre: Analysis of an Assignment

My dissertation is about contemporary experimental performance, what I like to call “weird theatre.” I introduce myself to my students, joking that I write about weird little performances that happen in weird little spaces throughout the city. When I give this introduction, when I write on my blog, www.weirdtheatre.org, when I trudge out to these venues, I reflect upon my commitment to weird theatre. What draws me to these weird performances? How does weird theatre make meaning differently than more traditional theatrical forms?  When I teach weird theatre, I often think about the politics that undergird its weirdness. To whom is this theatre accessible?  Who are its intended audiences—is weird theatre only meaningful to “in the know,” experienced spectators?

Some people find experimental work hard to understand or pretentious, but I love its possibilities. As an actor and a feminist, I always found realistic theatre foreclosing; the possibilities of who I could play and what I could do onstage were limited to the realm of the real, which for me often meant sweet, femme-y ingénue characters, women I was not particularly interested in pretending to be. In college, my professors introduced me to experimental performance and feminist and queer performance art and my understanding of the possibilities of performance was forever altered. I can say with certainty that exposure to this work changed the course of my life.

I hope, in exposing my own students to experimental work, I will have some small effect on their perception of the possibilities of performance. Two summers ago, teaching an Introduction to Theatre course, I took my students to one of these weird little theatre spaces, the now defunct Collapsable Hole (sic) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to see a weird little performance called Space//Space by the critically-acclaimed experimental company Banana Bag & Bodice. It was a bit of a risk; in the intro course, many students have never attended live theatre, let alone experimental performance in an off-off-off-Broadway venue. But we had spent the semester defining theatre beyond conventional playtexts, we had discussed devised work, read Godot, and studied non-Western performance traditions. I felt they were prepared for the performance. Company members Jason Craig and Jessica Jelliffe generously agreed to stay afterwards to speak about their process and answer any student questions.

SpaceSpace-11-590x375

Image courtesy of http://bananabagandbodice.org/show/spacespace/

Some students hated the performance. Some loved it. But they all met the challenge of its weirdness.  I had them write reviews of the production, and I was so impressed with their writing, I asked their permission to quote their work in the analysis of the assignment I knew I would someday write. The following are some excerpts from their critiques, all of which demonstrate engaged critical thinking.

Even as a student expresses the ways in which the performance falls short, she still engages critically with it and supports her assertions about its weaknesses:

Sitting through the performance I was puzzled as to what was going on and what was the purpose. Simplistic and often single-worded dialogue left me waiting for that point in which things would make sense. I learned that it wasn’t meant to make sense. . . . Portraying the human mind as it deals with isolation, loneliness, and the downward spin to insanity is hard to achieve. The performance by the actors, I felt, lacked genuineness and therefore evoked feelings of confusion rather than acknowledgement and empathy. There was not enough information to bring the performance together as a whole due to the scattered, simplistic dialogue and limited actions of the performers.

One student, a former professional dancer who felt the performance “penetrated her subconscious,” provides a nuanced reading of Lumus’s transformation from male to female during the course of the play:

By the performance’s conclusion, Jelliffe’s transformation was complete: her pale skin, long hair, and naked, pregnant body, created an angelic, Madonna impression. She finally grew into her namesake, Lumus, similar to luminescence. In physics, luminescence is a form of cold body radiation, which contrasts with incandescence, light emitted as a result of heat. Although Lumus was now physically radiant, she had also undergone a cool emotional transformation. From her initial warm relationship with, and naïve dependence on Penryn (Craig), she evolved into her own entity: standing up to him, questioning him, threatening him, berating him, destroying his life’s work, and ultimately, holding his hand to her pregnant stomach, she cradled him as he died. Her final words, “I have no husband, okay,” completed this transition, and yet, spoken with a note of sadness, they conveyed a hint of regret. Neither completely good nor completely evil, Jelliffe succeeded in portraying the complexity of the human condition . . . Space//Space is a tragicomedy; it portrays man’s limitations and failures, with moments of comedy interspersed. In true Beckettian fashion, it puts its audience through the experience of the characters. We live their waiting and sleeping, we feel their desperation, and we observe their inner struggles, finding ourselves amused by repetitious dialogue, and humbled by the futility of life.

Another, a psychology major, who changed her minor to theatre after taking my class, offers a beautiful analysis of a musical moment in the show:

 . . . the performers used melody and rhythm to express their emotion. Jessica’s character sang a song about being a “space girl in space” when s/he finally accepted the change from a man to a woman. Her voice singing this song still remains in my mind as a very strong moment. I associate it with the feeling of embracing who we are for whoever we are and living with what we have.

Another reads the performance in a larger socio/political context:

Visual metaphors brilliantly included in the play emphasize the power of control the government, society, religion has upon humans. Depending on perspective the spectator takes, it can be interpreted as control of the market, power of surveillance, restricted liberty, the power of the law. For instance, “emergency sandwiches” that come from mysterious hatch, and blue liquid supply (must be water) available for the characters in “spaceship” (which looks more like a laboratory hamster cage), signify that humans throughout their lives are nothing but test subjects.  Human life is represented by the roll of tape that records every step we make, and every word we say. And what we have at the end? Just a broken record . . .

The performance led a pre-med student to reflect on existential questions:

Time and time again, Lumus would ask “Where are we?” and “Why are we here?” and Penrym  would respond with some frustration “We are in Space. We are doing our job.” What their job is exactly is left up to interpretation by the spectators themselves: is it to maintain society’s morals and values in space? Is it to test the effect of being in isolation from the rest of humanity? Are they supposed to give in to their natural instincts? Is their job to ponder their existence or simply just to carry out normal every day functions (such as eating and sleeping) without exercising their brain at all? . . . Space//Space brings to our consciousness the idea of how society have and will continue to shape our perspective of our existence. What the characters suffer from while isolated in space is choosing between living deliberately or serving society and it’s never ending expectations of proper conduct by doing their ‘job’ . . . Social norms and roles may appear restrictive but we now depend on them to give our lives superficial meaning by having us go to school, get educated, and create a career. These things keep us busy in the everyday, material world, but once left alone with just our thoughts our human minds seem to be vulnerable to despair and hopelessness. Space//Space showed us how outside of society, Penrym and Lumus were at a lost as to what they should do with themselves, resulting in both of them undergoing great turmoil that we don’t see get resolved by the conclusion of the performance.

My students’ inspired analyses and astute critiques confirm that spectatorship of experimental work encourages deep critical thinking and creative analysis. Their writing shows that weird theatre is not necessarily esoteric, that spectators of all sorts can find meaning in it.  In fact, the variety of students’ interpretations of the piece leads me to wonder if—because of the openness of the texts—weird theatre is actually more accessible, in some ways, than realistic work.  Regardless, their responses—positive and negative—reaffirm my commitment to weird theatre, and especially to making it available to all audiences of all experience levels.

On the matter of numbers

Mindful of other deadlines, I finally applied pressure to my felt-tipped pen while in transit, on a quiet Sunday morning subway-car. I felt unsuited, ill-prepared, to start writing. No notes to work from. Just a folder full of documents unrelated to this blog post. I did have, for better or for worse, an inky pen with a soft point (ballpoints are better for business) and the blank surface of a manila folder. I began drafting this contextual blog post for the “Writing About Numbers” faculty roundtable that Bill Ferns and I will co-run next week. I ended up with this: drawing out, crossing out, sketching again, a recurring discomfort I’ve had since grade school. The story of this recurring feeling is not particularly remarkable, one that is not so dissimilar from my impulse to avoid the freshly opened new word-processor document on my laptop screen (blankness). The story:  I am immediately stunned by numbers and, in defense, my mind triggers a blank.

scribble

This anecdote is a roundabout way of saying that the initial discomfort I sense when writing in a familiar language is, in some ways, akin to the perceived challenges I feel when encountering figures and languages that I am less literate in (i.e., numbers, data, French). It is, quite frankly, the discomfort–some blending of vulnerability and responsibility–that arises when one communicates while learning, thinking, processing. There is always recourse, though, to leave things blank or to remain silent.

* * *

slaveship

But what does writing, discomfort, and silence (blankness) have to do with numbers and data? I’ll try to explain by turning to a context, by relating my academic work in literary study to the subject of numbers. I study Atlantic slavery and its relationship to literary production. The archival materials and texts affiliated with the Atlantic slave trade have been read as documents that reveal the ways in which lives of the enslaved were reduced and dehumanized by violent abstraction. That is, ledgers, balance books, nautical journals and other accounts of the transatlantic slave trade converted captives into commodities, lives indexed by numbers and figures. Take for instance Stephanie Smallwood’s description, in Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora (2007), of how ledgers rationalized the violent logic of the slave trade:

 “The ledger’s double-entry pages and the neat grid of the invoice gave purposeful shape to the story they told. Through their graphic simplicity and economy, invoices and ledgers effaced the personal histories that fueled the slaving economy. Containing only what could fit within the clean lines of their columns and rows, they reduced an enormous system of traffic in human commodities to a concise chronicle of quantitative ‘facts.’… Instruments such as these did their work, then, while concealing the messiness of history, erasing from view the politics that underlay the neat account keeping” (98).

In spite of the violent accountings of the slave trade, practitioners of the humanities–historians and literary scholars in particular–have been able to supply nuance, variation, and interpretation to realities that are gestured at but not revealed by the neatness of numbers, charts, and graphs. In the area of slavery studies, robust and incisive work has emerged from scholars who engage with and rethink the politics, ethics, and historical contexts that adjoin the quantitative facts and the administrative records of the slave trade. This is evidenced by recent scholarly gatherings, like “‘Against Recovery?’: Slavery, Freedom, and the Archive,” and digital projects, like Vincent Brown’s cartographic narrative of an eighteenth-century slave revolt.

To return to the question: what does writing, discomfort, and silence have to do with numbers and data?  Writing is a practice in working through the discomfort of learning whatever our subject of study might be. If there’s discomfort, I’ve told students who are silent or on the brink of giving up, it’s because learning is challenging and that thorny realities are involved in subjects we choose to study. Whether working on a formula, or analyzing a set of statistics, or deciphering the mind of Milton’s poetry, writing sets into motion a cycle of processing, self-assessing, and renewing material.

Because writing is a striving for the precise combination of words and signs that correspond to a thought and, simultaneously, an exercise that invites feelings of vulnerability and responsibility, it seems to me that writing is a practice of ethics and politics. In other words, through the process of writing, we reflect on the matter that characterizes whatever our study might be and, as a result, learn a bit more about the limits and the possibilities in what matters to us.

sievers

 Works Cited

Smallwood, Stephanie. Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora. Cambridge: Harvard University Press,  2007.

Source of image #2 and #3: The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record (Click on images for exact url address).

When the heart wants art

“What’s your favorite Woody Allen movie,” asks Dylan Farrow in her open letter printed in Kristof’s blog on February 1st. Annie Hall! The part where they’re on her roof. . . ha! . . . with the  subtitles! . . . oh my gosh, and how much would I kill to be able to pull a Marshall McLuhan from behind a movie poster when I need him?! . . . wouldn’t Zizek love to be fished out in those circumstances?. . . the best! . . . and I looooove Duane: “I tell you this as an artist because I think you’ll understand. . .” ha! Ha!

Oh.

In the days after Ms. Farrow’s letter I read every blog post: the response; the response to the response; the Vanity Fair articles; posts of those in the know, in one inside circle or the other; the posts of those who authorized the posts; and tried to fathom the details made public to us.  Like you, I engaged in debate over those tenuous details. Woody Allen’s guilt or innocence suddenly was at the silent center of taste. Do I love the films of a child molester?  It was the question behind Dylan Farrow’s initial question: what’s your favorite Woody Allen film?  And therefore, something came to be at stake in Allen’s guilt or innocence in the way that the art that we love becomes a part of us, no simple affiliation.  People declared their outright disgust, rejecting his body of work, condemning everything he’s ever made and maybe even claiming it testament to the crime. Others claimed his innocence, displaying encyclopedic knowledge of the original 1993 allegations and the proceedings of the investigation.  And then others still went for a plea bargain, allowing that his marriage to Soon-Yi Previn was socially unpalatable but that didn’t make him a criminal.  This would perhaps be followed up by a reference to Charlie Chaplin’s marriage to a rather young lady, which lasted the rest of his life.

Important discussions about sexual violence, abuse, divorce, and the power of Hollywood erupted around the recent articles. And another longstanding problem in regard to art reminded itself to us as well.  What do ethics and art have to do with one another?  The image of the good artist who is also a “good person” is less familiar to us than that of the suffering artist type.  Take a few from Allen’s own films: the growling and miserable Max in Hannah and Her Sisters or the members of the lost generation drinking their way through Midnight in Paris, for example.  What we call selfishness or self-destruction in others often gets the rap of romantic in the artist.  We mind so little that our artists often end up with a shotgun in their mouths that we might even come to expect it.

But again, how do we resolve the problem of art and ethics, or what do they owe to one another?  Charles McGrath, in his June 21, 2012 article in the Times, “Good Art, Bad People,” asks the uncomfortable question of the relation of good art to the bad person, creating a regular rap sheet of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries:

Probably the most frequently cited example is Wagner, whose anti-Semitism was such that he once wrote that Jews were by definition incapable of art. Degas, a painter often praised for his warmth and humanity, was also an anti-Semite and a staunch defender of the French court that falsely convicted Alfred Dreyfus. Ezra Pound was both anti-Semitic and proto-fascist, and if you want to let him off the hook because he was probably crazy as well, the same excuse cannot be made for his friend and protégé T. S. Eliot, whose anti-Semitism, it now seems pretty clear, was more than just casual or what passed for commonplace in those days.

[. . .] Norman Mailer in a rage once tried to kill one of his wives. The painter Caravaggio and the poet and playwright Ben Jonson both killed men in duels or brawls. Genet was a thief, Rimbaud was a smuggler, Byron committed incest, Flaubert paid for sex with boys.

The article begs the question of who really suffers for art:

A more extreme example is Hemingway, whose domestic record is less inspiring than his artistic one: four marriages and at least two screwed-up sons. In November 1952, just after his 21st birthday, Gregory, the youngest (and arguably most talented) of Hemingway’s three children, wrote to his father: “When it’s all added up, papa, it will be: he wrote a few good stories, had a novel and fresh approach to reality and he destroyed five persons — Hadley, Pauline, Marty [Martha Gelhorn, Hemingway’s third wife], Patrick and possibly myself. Which do you think is the most important, your self-centered shit, the stories or the people?”

Tim Parks approaches it from another angle in “Writers Into Saints,” from February 11 in the New York Review of Books:

Over the last ten years or so I have read literary biographies of Dickens, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Hardy, Leopardi, Verga, D. H. Lawrence, Joyce, Woolf, Moravia, Morante, Malaparte, Pavese, Borges, Beckett, Bernhard, Christina Stead, Henry Green, and probably others too. With only the rarest of exceptions, and even then only for a page or two, each author is presented as simply the most gifted and well-meaning of writers, while their behavior, however problematic and possibly outrageous—Dickens’s treatment of his children, Lawrence’s fisticuffs with Frieda—is invariably described in a flattering light. We’re not quite talking hagiography, but special pleading is everywhere evident, as if biographers were afraid that the work might be diminished by a life that was less than noble or not essentially directed toward a lofty cause.

However, Parks’ resistance, immune to the halo effect produced by art he loves, no more solves the question than McGrath’s condemnation does.

Beyond the editorial verdicts, France graduated this moral judgment to the fully social scale when the Ministry of Culture was forced to cancel the official celebration of French author Louis-Ferdinand Céline after a public backlash around his anti-semitic writings.  The government responded by quietly removing his name from the list of figures to be honored that year.

What will the Oscars look like this year?  As questions post to blogs about whether or not Cate Blanchett’s Oscar hopes will be dashed by the recent scandal and MGM tries to assuage my fears by embedding quotes from Annie Hall on my Facebook account, the question is still misguided.  The chasm between aesthetics and ethics remains one we are troubled by.

What role should art play?  Should it be purely mimetic, recording what we live as we understand our living it with all the questions we struggle under ourselves?  Or do we want an art that gives us answers?  Should it be responsible? Do we feel like it fails us when it’s still just a human being creating the condensed version of our feeling, providing us with so much humanity only to learn we can’t admire their failures in the real version of what they create better by illusion?  We want much better truths. Isn’t it the myth and not the mythologist that we love anyways?

As though we don’t want anyone to know we didn’t know it was a myth.  We still believe in stories maybe especially because we’re disappointed by life.

Like Alvy Singer says, “You know how you’re always trying to get things to come out perfect in art because it’s real difficult in life”.

McGrath ends his piece with a real shrug of the shoulders, a note of disappointment that the figures he names have failed to live up to the humanity that they create.

“It reminds me of that old joke- you know, a guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office and says, hey doc, my brother’s crazy! He thinks he’s a chicken. Then the doc says, why don’t you turn him in? Then the guy says, I would but I need the eggs.”

The Complexities of Creative Projects

Honing my teaching philosophy statement last year, I measured the lofty ideals I express there against my actual teaching practice.  I assert that “theatre classes provide an opportunity for an insistent merging of theory and practice, and for a blending of the creative and the critical,” and I write that “I always ask students to engage artistically as well as intellectually with the course material.”  It is true that, over the past few years, I developed a scaffolded writing assignment with my theatre history students called the “dramaturgical notebook,” a semester-long, multi-part project that asks students to imagine a contemporary production of a play, and requires a number of different modes of analysis, types of research, and styles of writing.  But the assignment is, in essence, a series of papers.  If I really believe that “embodiment is epistemology,” that “creativity is a form of knowledge,” then why do I hesitate to ask students in my advanced theatre courses to do creative projects (but feel fine about it in my intro classes)?  When I do assign creative projects, why do I fail to give them the same weight as critical analyses?

My ambivalence stems in part from the long-standing divide that exists in many college theatre departments between the “practical” and the “academic” classes.[1]  Creative projects are often reserved for acting and directing classes, while the “real” critical work is done in the theatre history or the dramatic literature courses.  My first semester teaching at CUNY, I was advised against assigning a creative group project in a theatre history course.  I was told that the students in the course should focus on writing rather than performance, and that creative projects of that sort were for the intro classes. Afraid of making waves, I abandoned the idea and hewed to the syllabi used in previous years, teaching the same plays, using the same textbooks, and giving similar assignments.

I am now in my fourth year there, and, armed with experience and a record of good observations and student evaluations, I felt comfortable taking some calculated pedagogical risks. Assigned to teach an upper-level writing intensive required course for theatre majors, I set up a number challenges for myself this semester: to put the Writing in the Disciplines (WID) strategies I studied last year into practice, to use technology to improve student writing, and to merge theatre theory and performance practice in a real way in the classroom.  I was fortunate enough to have a remarkable group of students—smart, engaged, and hardworking—who were up for helping me to accomplish this.

Meeting the first of my two challenges, I had students set up and maintain their own WordPress blogs, posting responses to prompts that I provided for each of the plays we studied during the semester. The blog posts were practice for the semester’s major writing assignment: a 2,000 – 2,500 word critical analysis of a play, chosen from a list of five. I used the blog prompts to encourage both critical and creative thought.  For example, to prime students for the creative project, I asked them to describe and justify a set design for Chekhov’s The Seagull, to write about how they would direct the bear scene in The Winter’s Tale, and to analyze a character from The Glass Menagerie as if they were cast in a production of the play.  For the creative project then, I asked students to respond creatively to the play they were analyzing in their critical essays and to present this response to the class.  I suggested that they might, for instance, create and present a set, lighting, projection, or costume design, perform a monologue or scene, describe a directorial vision, or compose and perform music for their play.  An “A” project, I told them, will demonstrate a clear connection between the critical analysis and the creative project, provide a compelling creative interpretation of the play, and be well-planned and rehearsed.  The critical analysis and the creative project would count as the same percentage of their final grade.

During the three days of presentations, there were some truly stand out projects, but watching my students read monologues, show drawings, and present video clips and audio tracks, I had moments of doubt: Were these projects really worth the same weight as the paper?  Would my colleagues deem them silly, the results of an inappropriate assignment for an upper-level class?  Did the students learn anything from them or were they a waste of valuable class time?

But when I asked my students how they felt about the experience of doing the projects, they unanimously expressed that they were valuable.  One student pointed out that she has difficulty with the linear thought and argumentation required in papers; she found it liberating to be able to express her ideas creatively instead. I realized that my feelings of doubt were rooted in a lingering bias about what constitutes academic rigor.  I thought about one of my mentors and a model of exemplary teaching, Omi Osun Olomo, whom I had the pleasure and privilege of assisting during my Master’s program at the University of Texas.  She writes in a piece about her performance “Sista Docta,”

“Performance is a form of embodied knowledge and theorizing that challenges the academy’s print bias. While intellectual rigor has long been measured in terms of linguistic acuity and print productivity that reinforces the dominant culture’s deep meanings, performance is suspect because of its ephemeral, emotional, and physical nature.”[2]

And later, “Performance is theory.  It need not be written about in order for its theory to be present.”[3]  Her words remind me that creative engagement is deceptively demanding, inherently theoretical, and always instructive.

Of course, there were some very thoughtful projects and some less thoughtful—just as there would be with any assignment, creative or critical.  But the fact is that each and every creative project demonstrated a level of engagement with the play text that rivals that presented in the papers. A student, whose paper compared Sam Shepard’s Buried Child to classical Greek tragedy, wrote an eloquent and illuminating monologue for one of the play’s main characters in the style of Sophocles and presented it to the class.  One student did a projection design of an imagined production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, creating a series of abstract paintings that express the title character’s confinement in her class and gender roles.  An aspiring makeup artist presented detailed face charts for all the characters in Maria Irene Fornes’s Mud.  She presented three different designs that moved from realistic to very distorted and expressionist. (Her paper discusses the expressionist techniques used in the play.) An actor/director filmed a trailer for Buried Child, carefully selecting the moments from the play that best show his paper’s argument that the characters are haunted by their past. The students who performed monologues in essence performed close readings of passages from their plays, embodying for the class the evidence that supports their theses, rather than writing about it.  Those who designed costumes engaged deeply with the play’s characters—analyzing them in terms of both their literal and symbolic functions within the play—but the work manifested itself in images rather than text.

I remain committed to giving creative projects and critical analyses equal weight in my theatre classes, but I see now that still have a way to go to overcome my own prejudices, before I can assert that  “embodiment is epistemology,” that “creativity is a form of knowledge,” and really mean it.  I realize in retrospect that, despite my best efforts, I still privileged the critical analysis over the creative project.  I conceived of the creative projects as coming out of the students’ papers when, in fact, it might be useful to imagine it the other way around; perhaps a creative response to a particular play could lead to a strong thesis about its content or form.  In the future I will adjust the assignment, asking students to start generating ideas for the project earlier in the semester, to work on them alongside their papers, rather than as an afterthought.  As I grade my students’ final papers this week, I will be thinking about what the experience of assessing the creative projects might have to teach me about assessing critical writing.  Through the process of developing and implementing the creative project, I learned that, while students have an easy time moving between critical and creative analysis, bridging the gap between my pedagogical theories and practice is not always so easy.


[1] See Shannon Jackson’s book Professing Performance for a history of Theatre Studies in the academy.

[2] Joni L. Jones. “’Sista Docta’: Performance as Critique of the Academy.” TDR, Vol. 41, No. 2 (Summer, 1997), pp. 51-67. 53.

[3] Ibid., 55.


On Disorganizing and Reorganizing

(Or, “8 Things That Listicles Tell Us About Process”)

  1. If I begin with a list, I’m about to start a project— maybe tonight’s dinner, tomorrow’s trip, a draft, or a revision. “This is what I need to do,” I assure myself.
  2. The word “listicle” is odd and ugly. But I don’t mean ugly in the same way that Stanley Fish means it when he says: “…‘blog’ is an ugly word (as are clog, smog, and slog).”  The word, listicle, is crudely formed by smashing together “list” and “article.” It’s an article that plays on a system of classification.  The writing (thinking) process, the drafting of ideas, and evaluating of information can be uncomfortable, clunky, and uneven procedures. The word “listicle” honestly reflects the messiness of process.
  3. A list is a familiar form of writing and a tool of organization. Some examples: What do I need to get at the grocery store? How many more course credits do I need? What don’t I know? What do I know? A list is a useful genre for prioritizing tasks, assessing objectives, and discerning values.
  4. A list is a familiar form of writing and a tool for organization. A retail worker uses it to check a store’s inventory. A bartender scribbles a list of what to restock a bar with. An administrator of any rank is an expert in the form. A syllabus is a hybrid list. A student can use it to brainstorm.
  5. I make lists to remember. I realize I haven’t talked about what makes the word “listicle” an odd word… It shares sounds with unexpected words, like tickle, pickle, and popsicle. Listicle also conveniently rhymes with mythological and ideological.
  6. To create a list is to create a mission, a manifesto of some sort. Perhaps a list is content in desire of form; maybe it’s knowledge impatiently in want of coherence.
  7. A numbered list implies order. But sometimes the order seems arbitrary or trivial. “23 Signs You’ve Lived In New York City,” “31 GIFs That Will Make You Laugh Every Time.” Why 23? Why 31? Lists draw on the appearance of structure, but maybe they’re just disorder masquerading as (or maybe they’re new shapes waiting to supersede) order.
  8. A list can be a form of critical inquiry. Place two lists next to each other— one for pros, the other for cons— and a one person debate can commence. Art is in “listicle,” tactically obscured from view, and it’s present if one wants (or has) a poetic mission. A list can be a form of critical inquiry: a “to do” list might actually be a “to know” list. Or maybe a list is, at its core, a performance of: “This is what I do and this is what I know.”

***

A confession and some brief notes on my pedagogy:

This blog post is an attempted exercise in demonstrating how meaning is built into form (which is what I tried to do with my previous piece on the mixtape). It is also an excuse to quarrel with an Internet form that I have long been ambivalent about.

In my classroom, students and I spend a lot of time discussing form and structure. Meaning, I tell them, is not just located in content and plot: meaning is also mediated through its structure. This might be obvious, especially for those who specialize in literary criticism, but it can be a challenge to get undergraduates to think about structure in concert with content. In our more dynamic and fruitful discussions, students and I merge our close-readings of a narrative’s texture and relate our collective reading to that narrative’s structure. Chapter seven, “Structural Principles: The Example of the Sonnet,” of Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter and Poetic Form has been particularly helpful in getting students to think about form and structure, not just in terms of poetry, but also in terms of shaping their own form(s) of critical inquiry.

On Haunting and Inhabiting

The Docks, Port-au-Prince, Haiti (1921), NYPL Digital Collections

The Docks, Port-au-Prince, Haiti (1921), NYPL Digital Collections

The past is present on the internet. Specters of the past, particularly those that are marginalized or ignored in traditional historical narratives, dwell in digitized open-access archives. Websites like The Public Archive: Black History in Dark Times, Digitizing “Chinese Englishmen,” and People of Color in European Art History curate texts that challenge conventional knowledge and reveal other contexts for understanding the world. By attending to difference and nuance, these archives bring obscured histories to the fore. Dissatisfied with the uneven production of knowledge and histories about certain regions and communities, individuals from within, and outside of, academia foster digital spaces for critical inquiry.

The accelerated speed of internet communication seems to encourage a tendency to reduce or compress information into smaller parts. Sound bites, gifs, images, and excerpts effectively draw attention and mobilize political sentiment. There is a risk, of course. This speed can reproduce damaging assumptions, for internet users might rely on old habits of thought in order to make sense of fragmentary information. But archival projects like the ones listed above enact a critical exercise that shatters any simplistic, one-dimensional representation of a community, region, or historical period. For example, The Public Archive was born out of a frustration with the mainstream media’s depiction of Haiti after the the earthquake in January 2010. Professor Peter James Hudson  explains the digital humanities initiative: “As professional historians with laymen’s interests in Haiti, we thought that we needed to make some small, however limited, intervention in the coverage of Haiti, and we agreed that the best way to do it was by mobilising the research skills we had as historians in an attempt to provide some context for understanding Haiti’s history, and how that history was constructed and represented in the media.”

In culling freely accessed texts, The Public Archive composes a fuller, more intricate, picture of Haiti. The Public Archive does history in a way that is legible for a wider audience without compromising the assertion that rigorous study is still necessary. Its entries oscillate between past and present, text and image, still photographs and videos. The website also offers extensive dossiers, interviews with scholars, and recommended reading lists. In this curatorial move, the archive allows visitors to briefly inhabit the grammar of places, historical periods, and connections that we may have not been conscious of before. Take, for instance, a published post entitled “The National City Bank of New York & Haiti” that sheds light on U.S. military occupation and corporate involvement in Haiti during the early twentieth century. Plural perspectives, multiple genres, and temporalities come together in one post: a Bloomberg blog entry from 2012, a Haitian newspaper printed in 1927 that announces the arrival of National City Bank’s president, an academic article published earlier this year, a pamphlet printed in 1920 that critiques U.S. presence in Haiti, the National City Bank’s rationale in 1920 for its ventures into Haiti.

Marketplace, Port-au-Prince, Haiti (1919), NYPL Digital Collections

The critical attitude that is “discontent with reified objects” and “impatien[t] with guilds, special interests, imperialized fiefdoms, and orthodox habits of mind” can flourish in public, digital spaces. This critical attitude, exemplified by The Public Archive and other similar projects, invigorate the sense of a knowledge commons. It seems to me that while the internet may disorganize traditional approaches to acquiring information (i.e., the physical space of a classroom, a codex textbook), knowledge is being reorganized in emergent, sometimes unrecognizable, shapes on the internet. The process of disorganizing and reorganizing knowledge and its politics, I suspect, is activated by collective desires to dilate the space and time allotted to learning.

***

Note:  This  blog is, in part, inspired by the “Why the Research Block?” Faculty Roundtable discussion that I helped Senior BLSCI Fellow Meechal Hoffman organize earlier this month. Also, see this recent NYT Op-Ed piece by Laurent Dubois for a discussion on Haiti and economic history.

Teaching with images. Learning through art.

cave_painting_l

One of my first tasks in my new role as a Writing Fellow at the Schwartz Institute is to collaborate on an upcoming Roundtable in the English Department at Baruch.  Each year, English students take a course called Great Works, a selection of compelling literary works from across the globe. My task? To work with professors Cheryl Smith (English) and Karen Shelby (Art History), and another more seasoned Schwartz fellow, Meechal Hoffman, to deliver a professional development session that helps English professors help their students make connections between images and texts. The roundtable is meant to spark discussion on the pedagogical relationships between texts and images, and to begin to model strategies for engaging English students through visual means as a way of deepening their involvement with and understanding of the literature they are asked to study.

I’m excited to be involved for many reasons, not least because it reminds me of my own first forays in reading Great Works (and many less well known works) of visual art. Before I came back to academia, I worked in the Adult Education department at the Guggenheim Museum. I was lucky enough to be there with some really fantastic educators. It was also the moment when the Learning Through Art department was conducting an externally-moderated research-based study on the impact visual thinking processes that K-12 school visitors undertook at the museum had on their overall critical analysis abilities across subject areas back in the school classroom. The primary question that guided this study was close to the one that guides our roundtable at Baruch: Can looking at and making art teach students how to be better critical thinkers?

The project wasn’t the first of its kind. The “Arts in Medicine” Narrative Medicine program at Columbia University has been partnering with the Met Museum, the MoMA, and the Frick Collection since 2005, recognizing that when future doctors and surgeons hone their close looking skills, they enhance their overall aptitude for critical analysis of patients, symptoms, and surgical procedures. Med students participate in museum workshops (including classes with one of my teaching heroes, Rika Burnham) that ask them to parlay their visual observations into spoken, written, and sketch formats. Sounds simple? It can be much harder than one might think to clearly articulate what one sees, and why the elements described might be important, interesting, or compelling to another person. At the Guggenheim, the Learning Through Art program found that when students really practiced visual observation and discussion they became “better learners and thinkers … findings indicate that those who participated in the program performed better in all six categories of the following literacy and critical-thinking skills: Extended focus; Hypothesizing; Providing multiple interpretations; Schema-building; Giving evidence; Thorough description.” These sound like transferrable skills – skills that we want our students to develop across disciplines, and skills that students can take into the job market regardless of their major.

The roundtable at Baruch takes places at the end of October, and I am already excited about the opportunity for interdisciplinary exchange. Art historians are very familiar with reading images and helping our students to do so too. We often take for granted the vocabulary we have developed for (we hope) clearly articulating what something looks like, why, how it came to be made that way, and what these processes tell us about wider social, economic, political, and philosophical histories. I think I’ll have a lot to learn from those who attend the roundtable, and I hope they’ll take away some strategies for helping their students read images, and learn through the visual arts.

Publicly Sponsored Hate Speech

I hadn’t intended to write another post about the virulent hatred of fat, fatness, and fat people that is currently shaping our culture. My previous post on the topic led to some interesting and intense conversation, but there are many other topics to discuss and many other dangerous political trends to analyze. Besides, this is a communications blog.

But when I came across this astonishing campaign image on the subway recently, I realized that it deserves its own post.

"Cut the Junk" NYC Campaign

“Cut the Junk” NYC Campaign

[Read more...]

Perfect Strangers, Alone Together

This past Valentine’s Day, a once viral video from 2006 re-made the rounds online: Ben Coonley’s Valentine for Perfect Strangers.

I never get tired of Coonley’s video, described as “a romantic e-card from Otto, a feral cat seeking love from a stranger on the Internet. Otto edits himself into clips from the 1980’s sitcom Perfect Strangers and asks strangers on YouTube to return the favor.”

Watching it again this year, I thought about its potential overlap with Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (2012). Ostensibly, Turkle and Coonley are working in the same soil: intimacy and the internet. The website for Turkle’s book features the following language: “Facebook. Twitter. SecondLife. ‘Smart’ phones. Robotic pets. Robotic lovers. Thirty years ago we asked what we would use computers for. Now the question is what don’t we use them for. Now, through technology, we create, navigate, and perform our emotional lives.” “Technology has become the architect of our intimacies,” she goes on to warn.

But as I recalled watching the video for the first time — years ago with the friend who introduced me to it — I thought not of the pathetic ironies of 21st century digitally-mediated longing but of actual relationships: the shared laughter with my friend, and then my subsequent inclusion of the video in a screening program I’d put together in Puerto Rico. In a steamy gallery space with bad acoustics, dozens of young people sat crowded on the floor and watched Coonley’s video and other short works about love and longing. The event wasn’t a particular success, and I don’t have a big thesis — but just a tiny observation: that for every grand evaluation of the impact of technology, there is an immediately available example of its very opposite. Every online alienation might contain the shadow of a genuine encounter in another time/space dimension. We should keep tracking both story lines.

A Brechtian Fire Alarm

Last week I had an experience at the theatre that made me giddy.  In the Foundry Theatre’s production of Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan currently playing at La Mama’s Ellen Stewart Theater, Brecht’s so-called “alienation” or “defamiliarization ” effect comes across without didacticism or heavy-handed militancy, and is alternatingly funny and devastating.  But it was a circumstantial mishap the night that I went to the play that added an additional layer of complexity to the experience.

77628

Shen Te (in red) and various cast members. Photo from David Gordon’s theatremania.com review.

In Brecht’s play, the kind-hearted prostitute Shen Te, deemed a “good person” by a trio of traveling gods, struggles to uphold her commitment to generosity and love, even as every good deed renders her vulnerable to brutal manipulation and betrayal.  Pushed to the edge of despair, Shen Te resorts to impersonating a fictitious cousin from a neighboring town, a man who makes decisions based solely on personal gain, and thereby climbs to a position of precarious prosperity.

At the end of the play, Shen Te asks if there is not something deeply wrong with a world in which basic kindness and generosity are systematically punished with hardship and poverty?  The gods, however, disagree.  They refuse to consider a structural reworking of human society, contenting themselves instead with watching the occasional human struggle to do “good” against the odds.

One aspect that struck me particularly was the production’s use of drag to deepen the central concern of the play.  Taylor Mac’s drag rendition of Shen Te, with his bald head and chest hair unapologetically visible alongside a red dress and heels, destabilized from the start the assumption that Shen Te’s persona is the true identity and the exploitative cousin, Shui Ta, the disguise.  This is not to say that Shui Ta was portrayed as more “real” than Shen Te.  Both personas were disguises—or, perhaps more accurately, both were shown to be contextual manifestations of a multifaceted individual, capable of both profound selflessness and cold calculation, brought out by material necessity.

09GOOD-articleInline

Photo from Charles Isherwood’s New York Times review.

Also, I was oddly lucky to see the show on a night that afforded an additional level of meta-theatrics beyond the defamiliarization of character or social/economic system.  Five minutes before the end of the play, right before the big reveal of Shen Te’s double persona, a small fire broke out onstage.  In a direct address to the audience (and actors, crew, etc.) that Brecht would have been proud of, actor David Turner pointed and shouted, “there’s a fire!”  It took me several long moments to realize that the fire was real.  Since the fire was small and quickly extinguished, I can tell you how much I loved the ensuing moments.  Audience and actors milled about in the lobby, not quite knowing how to acknowledge each other, while the fire department checked out the theater and deemed it safe.  When the show started up again, we witnessed an unusual moment in professional theatre: the actors took their place onstage with the house lights on as audience members resumed position, announced they would take the scene back a few lines, and then flipped back into character.  Taylor Mac made an impromptu reference to Ellen Stewart’s spirit speaking through the fire (Ellen Stewart founded the La Mama Theater in the 1960s), before resuming Shen Te’s final debate with the gods.

Call me romantic and impressionable, but this unexpected interruption drew a curious attention to the act of gathering to see a play, and although a degree of momentum was lost in the final reveal, something was gained through a heightened awareness of our collective commitment to finishing the play.  The threat of fire and the attention to safety foregrounded our physical-ness, our materiality, and our vulnerability to external circumstances, further confirming the conflicted Shen Te’s conclusions.  It’s a mishap I won’t forget.