Dispatches from the Conference Front

Looking forward to sleeping in my own bed tonight, something I’ve only done once in the past nine nights thanks to an ambitious conference tour along the Eastern seaboard.

First thing’s first: On Friday I presented a paper at the 2013 CAA Annual Conference, and that paper and accompanying slideshow is available on this site at https://abramfox.com/caa-2013/. Feel free to read and share it, and comments and suggestions for new directions are greatly appreciated.

Side note: According to SlideShare, in the first five days after I uploaded that presentation, it was viewed 27 times. That’s already a little more than 50% of the audience who saw it live.

The conference adventure started on Sunday night when I headed up to New York City for THATCamp CAA, a two day unconference on technology in the humanities, specifically art history in this case – I’ve been to one previous THATCamp, as well as another generic unconference. At times it seems like the discipline is behind the times, and behind other disciplines in accepting and promoting digital work. There’s no question that digital humanities work and theory are far more visible and promoted at MLA and AHA than at CAA.

Workshop topics ranged from network mapping to digital repositories to the one I proposed, games in class. Some of the workshop participants were more looking for specific game examples rather than more broad concerns about games and gamification in the classroom, but the unpredictability and changing courses of discussion are what make the unconference format work. A basic list of resources covered in the session is available at http://goo.gl/876fa. Another project I worked on was the Art History Flash Book, an open-source textbook created in an hour. Hopefully it continues to receive contributions and becomes a real repository for classes worldwide. Throughout both days, workshops were interspersed with lightning talks from folks who are already digital success stories.

THATCamp CAA ran from Monday afternoon to Tuesday evening on the Upper West Side. The next day was the start of the proper CAA Annual Conference, which lasted Wednesday through Saturday…and I was there for all of it. My presentation on Friday was the primary reason for the trip, and as a CAA newcomer I wanted to make the most of the entire experience. Funding from the College of Arts and Humanities allowed me to make that a reality, as well as a grant from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation for the THATCamp.

The first night of the conference was the scheduled meet-and-greet for the Historians of British Art, at the tony apartment of the emeritus professor who literally wrote the book on Benjamin West, the subject of my dissertation. No pressure. The whole experience went about as well as could be expected, and proved to be a great networking event in general. Friday’s presentation was based on my doctoral dissertation research on West and his workshop based in London. You can see the research at the above link, and the presentation has already generated some great interest in outside organizations for pursuing my work further.

After a brief respite at home on Saturday night and Sunday morning, I was back on the conference path again at the Small Museum Association annual conference in Ocean City, MD. This one I came to through my volunteer work at the Laurel Historical Society as a board member and docent for the Laurel Museum. On the encouragement of the museum’s Executive Director I applied for, and won, a Lesley van der Lee Scholarship, which covered all room and board with the provision to help facilitate some of the sessions.

SMA and CAA were worlds apart, in terms of scope and atmosphere. CAA is a massive, international conference with thousands of participants and hundreds of sessions, while SMA is regional with a couple hundred participants and about two dozen sessions. Both were positive experiences, in their own way. SMA was more about practice than theory, and speaking with so many museum professionals – many my age, if not younger – about the actual experience of working in museums was very helpful in terms of thinking of my own career. I’m not sure about the appeal of working at a site where you can count the number of employees on one hand, but in general the museum world is an appealing destination.

No grand observation at the end here, other than the fact that three conferences in nine days is exhausting and I’m glad to be back operating under some semblance of normalcy at home and at work. No time to rest, though, as I have another paper to deliver at the end of March, and quite a bit more work to do on it before I’m satisfied.

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Network of Mutuality: 50 Years Post-Birmingham

A provocative exhibition, Network of Mutuality: 50 Years Post-Birmingham, opened at The Art Gallery at the University of Maryland at the tail end of last month. The influence of a sequence of events located in and around the largest city in Alabama is still resonant in works largely drawn from the past decade and largely created by African American artists. Two rooms of works on display, as well as one interactive space, provide a perspective on the city and the civil rights movement from artists whose experience of Birmingham has been mediated by time and media.

African Klan Suit #2 (Hypnotic), Michael Paul Britto, 2010

African Klan Suit #2 (Hypnotic), Michael Paul Britto, 2010

Network of Mutuality is a multimedia exhibition, and the sounds of the civil rights movement confront the visitor before he or she can spy a single work. Audio from Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry’s “Within Our Gates” (2008), consisting of songs and chants accompanying three-channel video projected flat on the wall, filters throughout the space. Other audio works are accompanied by speakers, preventing any confusing noise pollution from detracting from the space.

Located in the center of the main room, tucked between a freestanding wall and pillar and facing away from the entrance, is Michael Paul Britto’s “Afrikan Klan Suit #2 (Hypnotic)” (2010), a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood crafted out of fabric resembling traditional kente cloth. From the angle I approached the suit and mannequin were hidden, and I didn’t encounter it until I was on my way out of the exhibit. Both the Klan suit and the cloth design are immediately recognizable, and the juxtaposition struck me as amusing more than anything else.

Between the two display rooms of the exhibit are a pair of interactive spaces, one a work appearing on the gallery’s checklist and the other not. Emily Wright’s “I’m no racist but…” (2013) invites visitors to apply an ink stamp to a sheet of paper clothespinned to the wall. Prejudiced visitors are asked to apply one stamp – a selection is available, with phrases such as “He’s an articulate black guy” and “We need to take back the country for real Americans” – while non-prejudiced visitors are asked to apply two. Do you apply one stamp, believing yourself an enlightened individual, or do you apply two because you recognize your own failings?

Erin Wright, "I'm not racist but...", 2013

Erin Wright, “I’m not racist but…”, 2013

Wright’s work begs introspection, as does the space opposite, a three-sided room covered in chalkboard paint. Chalk is available to write answers to a prompt posted on the wall, to imagine how your life would be different if you’d born to a different community or with a different identity. As fitting an exhibit on a college campus (or really, anywhere in the world), introspective answers are interspersed with predictable incidents of casual racism, themselves perhaps a reflection of the fact that we’re still nowhere near a post-racial society  in the United States.

"How would your life be different?", interactive space, Network of Mutuality

“How would your life be different?”, interactive space, Network of Mutuality

For the most part, the exhibit, curated by Audra Buck-Coleman and Ruth Lozner, achieves its goals, to “raise awareness and dialogue about the state of race and race relations today [and] leverage the distinct power of art and design as a means to provoke remembrance, reflection, reconsideration, and response.” The exhibition catalog also speaks to responsibility of the privileged, not just those in the minority, to speak out against injustice. It’s an idea that’s presented as forward-thinking, rather than common knowledge. An underlying subtext seems to be that the university itself and its members operate in a privileged position regardless of individual race/gender/class/etc. That’s a point that gets made with far less regularity, and it would be heartening to see that foregrounded more in the exhibit alongside powerful works of racism and racial identity in contemporary America.

Charting New Departmental Directions

At the moment, the Department of Art History and Archaeology at my home institution is undergoing ideological renewal and renovation. For the first time in a decade, and first time since I’ve been a graduate student, the department is selecting a new departmental chair.

One associate professor is running unopposed for the five-year term chair, so it’s not a particularly contested election.

(And for the record, I was hoping she would run and think she will be a fantastic chair.)

Prior to the current election, the departmental chair position was last voted on around 2002. After that chair’s five-year term, the position was held in short spurts by that full professor and another full professor for the next five, leading to the current situation. One result, especially over the past two to three years, has been a state of stagnancy born out of an “interim” mindset.

This isn’t to say that things were bad, only that the department has been slow to respond to some changing situations in education, particularly disciplinary pedagogy. A focus of the prospective chair’s presentation to the department was better preparing graduate students as future faculty and on improving the attractiveness of art history courses to the campus at large – building a larger footprint for a small discipline, which has about 100 majors and 40 minors at the moment. In the same breath, online education, MOOCs, and distance learning were summarily dismissed both by the nominee and the faculty members in attendance, not as fads but as somehow being an inappropriate or ineffective method of education.

Also slow to change has been the department’s view on the purpose of graduate studies. It’s an old-fashioned department, where the primary career output for PhD students is the academy and curating, and that’s it. Compared to some departments, mine (at a research-intensive university) is at least open in that they aren’t chagrined when a grad accepts a position at a SLAC, but the mindset is university teaching, curating, or bust.

All that said, there were a number of innovative ideas to come out of the presentation and ensuing Q&A which hinted at a strong future for the department. One was a classmate who asked how the department might improve its survey courses to enhance the “wow” factor and make them a transformative experience for students. Another was the prospective chair’s suggestion that the department reconsider its name. That’s a fair suggestion, particularly considering the full name is “Department of Art History and Archaeology” and there isn’t a single archaeology professor on the faculty, outside of maybe a Greek specialist whose interest covers architecture as well as art. I would be shocked if the faculty and grad students decided on something radical like “Department of Visual Culture,” but the mere idea – and apparent open reaction from the assembled crowd – was a good sign that the faculty may be on its way toward moving out of that stagnancy and finally accepting that we’re living in the 21st century, for better or for worse.

21st Century Digital Boy

This winter, I’ll be spending my Valentine’s Day in New York City, preparing for a conference presentation the next day at the College Art Association annual conference. The presentation is based on my ongoing dissertation research on Benjamin West and his students, and I’ll be delivering it to an open session of the Historians of Eighteenth Century Art and Architecture.

While the session is on a Friday, if all goes well I’ll be up in NYC all week for conference-related activities; namely, THATCamp CAA on Monday and Tuesday. What is a THATCamp? Well, per their site…

What is a THATCamp?
It is an informal, discussion based, collaborative unconference, on topics related to the humanities and technology. The participants propose sessions and create the program. All participants are expected to talk and work with fellow participants in every session.

Now I’ve never attended a CAA Annual Conference before, but I really see the THATCamp as just as, if not more, important toward my personal and professional development. Beyond the simple fact that technology continues to drive pedagogical innovation, this sort of meeting provides essential learning and networking opportunities for a young professional. It’ll also simply be good encouragement toward dissertation completion – it’s the sort of thing that makes one excited to be an art historian.

If I’m able to attend (registration closed a few days ago and they haven’t announced the invite list yet), it wouldn’t be my first unconference, or even THATCamp. Last January my home institution was host to THATCamp Games, which broadly covered, yes, games as pedagogical tools , for and as learning. As one of the more neophyte attendees – I’m well-versed in playing games, but haven’t really had the chance to utilize them in a classroom setting – I benefited most from the unconference as an introduction to thinking about the subject matter in an academic environment. To date the THATCamp Games experience has inspired the Close Playing roundtable series that I was awarded a fellowship from Honors Humanities to plan this semester, as well as inspiration for some improvements I have in mind for the 2013 installment of ARTH389E.

A month before THATCamp Games I attended my first true unconference, Bmore Historic, also inspired by the THATCamp concept. That was both more general and specific in subject: the theme was historic Baltimore, and the sessions ranged across the spectrum, covering academia, museums, historic preservation and so on.

I’ll be the first to admit that the more hours I put into my dissertation, the less time I devote to other aspects of my academic environment. While I see the importance in my work, I also understand that in order to reach real audiences (not just for my dissertation, but art history in general) will require engagement with 21st century learning pedagogies. Smarthistory has been on my radar for a while, as an inspired system for delivering short bits of academic content to interested parties. I’ve shared Smarthistory links with students while a TA, and it’s fantastic that they’re a sponsor of THATCamp CAA. Same with the Khan Academy and the Center for History and New Media (Zotero has been a lifesaver for collecting research).

There are fantastic things happening in pedagogy right now. If I want to get this dissertation done, I’ve got to keep shutting them out, to some extent. However, I hope I’ll get the chance to be part of THATCamp CAA, where the participants aren’t just learning about new pedagogical strategies (and research strategies too, can’t forget them, though I see my personal career heading down more of an educational path) but creating them as well. Should be a fantastic time.

When Opportunity Knocks

Later this month I’m going on a family vacation in Ocean City, MD. On a Sunday morning, when the rest of my family is having breakfast and preparing for another two days at the beach, I’m hopping in a car and making a 6 1/2 hour drive north to distinctly un-beach-like Farmington, CT, where I’ll spend the next five days staying in an eighteenth-century house and stare at prints, engravings, and paintings for six to eight hours a day. Willingly. Clearly I chose the right academic pursuit.

This won’t be my first trip to Connecticut to utilize some of Yale’s facilities, though certainly the most involved. How the trip came about could be called coincidence and luck, but really it’s the best example of networking I’ve experienced to date. The class is offered by the Lewis Walpole Library, which is owned by Yale and offers week-long master classes on a regular basis. Many of these classes are for Yale students only, or at least geared that way. As it happened, this particular class has two open spots. I found out about it from a fellow graduate (to whom I was introduced by a classmate who was in the same fellowship program two years ago) who heard about it from her advisor. Information made it down the line, and a few days later I’ve locked down accommodations and started to look into travel options.

In turn, this class will be an opportunity to build connections at the library as well as at the numerous other institutions we’ll visit, and the seven other graduate students I’ll be meeting for the first time at the opening session. Not bad for what almost amounts to a short vacation right before the start of the semester.

Steam Sale Shopping List

During the middle of July, Valve Corporation held it’s semiannual sale on its Steam digital distribution platform. The Steam Sales are big events, with most games on sale and many at discounts of 50%, 75%, or more. Buoyed by a positive experience with a one-week unit on videogames toward the end of my summer course on comics and digital art, I used the Steam sale opportunity to purchase a few games that have been praised for their art.

With an eye to the visual experience rather than the narrative, a few games stood out (and I look forward to the opportunity to test them out): The Binding of Isaac, LIMBO, Lone Survivor, and PixelJunk Eden. The first three also possess strong narrative, manifested in completely different ways. LIMBO, for example, provides no outward hints to its theme other than its title. When the game starts, the screen transitions from black to a greyscale with a small boy, seen in silhouette save for his bright white eyes, acting as your avatar in a side-scrolling atmosphere. Very little audio, no narration or on-screen text, not even instructions on how to operate in the game space. As you progress through the continuous level you piece together hints of game mechanics as well as antagonists and an expanded diegesis. It’s breathtaking, enjoyable, and incredibly dark for its simplistic graphic style.

PixelJunk Eden is a completely different beast. It has a stronger sense of narrative, more interaction between the game and the player, and is clear on directions and objectives. I can’t imagine anyone would play it for the narrative, though; the point is the bold, interactive visuals and relaxing soundtrack.

It’s difficult to balance the visual and narrative aspects of videogames for the classroom. Many of the most popular game hone in on a compelling storyline or the hook of fun and/or addictive gameplay elements. The visual is seen as a complementary element, unless it’s a game like PixelJunk Eden in which the visual is the only element of note, with a thin veneer of a story laid over it. That’s more of a 20th and 21st century mindset for art, which fits. Coming from the perspective of a scholar of 18th and 19th century art, where a strict hierarchy of academic art placed history painting at the top, it’s an enjoyable challenge to seek out a middle ground. I think LIMBO and Lone Survivor do a good job. They’re not classical, in any sense. If I had to compare them to something it would be the Baroque, Romanticism, or maybe Neoclassic Gothic. Once I actually finish them, I’ll report back.

What the Ancients Knew

In addition to my doctoral studies, I write about the Washington Capitals for a local sports blog. In response to some of the histrionic responses and rationalizations after Monday night’s overtime loss, I wrote this post as a bit of long perspective. Most of the following research was conducted in graduate seminars at the University of Maryland. Yes, this is a post about a hockey game.

The ancient Greeks famously made their gods into humans, and their humans into gods.

After death, heroes like Theseus, Odysseus, and Jason were deified, honored with memorials and hero cults. After death, they possessed the ability to enact positive effect – in a limited geographic range – to those who honored them (or negative to those who did not) through ritual tribute and sacrifice.

Gods were divine beings who possessed even great power than heroes and who were also venerated, out of fear more than respect. Gods were capricious, unpredictable. We’re familiar with the Olympians, but emotions, primordial elements, and even physical locations were governed by gods as well.

Marble sculpture of Tyche, wearing a crown shaped like city walls. This Tyche was meant to bring luck to a specific city. Image from Flickr user mharrsch (http://www.flickr.com/photos/mharrsch/)

Eris, Eros, Hypnos, Thanatos. Strife, love, sleep, death. Helios, the sun. Selene, the moon.

Tyche, daughter of Hermes and Aphrodite (you probably remember her, right?), was a favorite goddess of cities and other institutions. She’s the goddess and personification of luck.

Implicit in this type of mythological system is the search for the answer to a fundamental question: Why do bad things happen to us?

Not “why do bad things happen to good people,” although morality at times became a factor. Why do bad things happen to us?

(And how do we define “us”, anyway? That’s a subject for another day.)

Happen to us. Passive voice. The bane of freshman English comp students. Passive voice is weakness, a lack of agency. When you make something happen, you control it. When something happens to you, you have no control.

The gods became a coping method as the ancient Greeks realized how much of the world around them was out of their control. Mount Etna erupting? The titan Typhon trapped underneath it, struggling to break free. Harsh storms at sea? Poseidon raging against a lack of tribute, the misdeeds of someone on the ship, or perhaps he was fighting another god and the fleet is caught in the crossfire. Now there is agency. There is a reason. You can still believe in an order to the universe.

Sure, it’s not that much solace when your friends are dead or your ship is sinking, but at least you know why. Even the things that are completely out of your control still have an underlying reason, a structure, and that brings small comfort. More so if you, in some small way, had (or could have had) control over the event through prayer, offerings, or actions.

Another aspect of Greek religious practice was the scapegoat, though in that part of the Mediterranean the unfortunate being was a human. This person, the pharmakos, was a marginalized member of society – slave, beggar, disfigured – who was expelled from the community. The pharmakos could be deemed necessary when a disaster befell the community, or as part of regular ritual practice.

Much like the Biblical scapegoat, most pharmakoi weren’t actually killed as part of the ritual, though they were beaten and derided before being driven from the gates. The act of expelling a pharmakos or scapegoat is a rite of purification. Whether in response to calamity or as a regular matter of course, the pharmakos carried all the sins and negative baggage of the community, purifying that community to allow it to prosper in his or her (usually his) absence.

Identifying and expelling the pharmakos, the scapegoat, was an act of agency by the community. It didn’t necessarily allow them to regain control over their own fate, but at the least it was a reset button. It was an act of catharsis as well.

Small consolation to that man wandering the rocky Greek countryside. Small consolation to the one individual given responsibility for the ills of the entire community. The scapegoat has no say in his selection.

Prayers to the gods. Tributes offered to local heroes. Rituals. Scapegoats. Reactions of a community to events happening to them, beyond their control, that seemingly make no sense.

Nature abhors a vacuum, especially when it comes to meaning.

Funny how some things never change.