Community Noise

“Community” has been on my mind for a long time. A text panel at the retrospective exhibition Do You Want the Cosmetic Version or the Real Deal? Los Angeles Poverty Department, 1985-2014 presented at the Queens Museum of Art earlier this year reignited this concern. "Community Art is Bad Art," text panel at Do you want the cosmetic version or do you want the real deal? Los Angeles Poverty Department, 1985-2014, Queens Museum of Art

Founder John Malpede of the Los Angeles Poverty Department, a collective performance group composed of Los Angeles’ Skid Row residents, spotlights one of the main challenges confronting community-based projects: “Community art is a code word for bad art.”

The provocative statement reminded me that my graduate courses in art history rarely addressed “community art.” Through reading essays and books on public art for my research I quickly realized that many academics and art professionals don’t value collaborative projects.

Defining “community” is one of the chief issues plaguing this field of art. In Against the Romance of Community Miranda Joseph suggests that many people employ the term “community” to bolster their social or political agendas.  In this situation,  community becomes a static and exclusionary identity that reinforces conservative attitudes and social hierarchies. Joseph focuses on why people keep invoking the concept and aims to reclaim the radical potential of community. I like that Joseph doesn’t just dismiss the idea of collective practice. She challenges us to analyze how groups form and function as she asserts that community can be a powerful and inclusive political force.

Art historian Miwon Kwon also highlights the interpretative difficulties associated with the concept of community in her book One Place After Another: Site-Specific and Locational Identity. She notes that writers who discuss art grounded in community engagement practices often fail to study how “community” operates in these projects. Kwon finds that people employ “community” to exclude difference or produce reductive, token-like, identifications. Her assault against the ideas of art historian Grant Kester on the efficacy of collaborative work is a must-read for students and practitioners of this field. Instead of community-based art, she proposes “collective praxis,” a form of group-based art that stresses disunity and self-questioning of communal identity.
I find Kwon’s attention to the lack of critical discussion about the meaning of community valid. Yet, I agree with Kester who argues that identity is more complicated that Kwon proposes. People can and do work together while at the same time realizing their differences and the limited nature of group affiliation. (Kester, who finds Kwon’s analysis entrenched in a modernist avant-garde orientation, offers his thrashing response in chapter 5 of his book Conversation Pieces: Community + Communication in Modern Art. It’s  another essential reference.)

Lucy Lippard’s apt remarks on community in her essay “Looking Around: Where We Are, Where We Could Be,” in Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art help us get past the discord. “Community doesn’t mean understanding everything about everybody and resolving all the differences; it means knowing how to work within differences as they change and evolve.” Community is a form of critical consciousness; it’s a “process of recognizing both limitations and possibilities.”

The LAPD exhibition’s ironic panel presents the stereotype and the group’s attention to realistic representations and diverse perspectives. Although the text doesn’t directly oppose the bias, it suggests that art that isn’t based in collective practice is superficial.  Because the Skid Row performers present multiple life stories, they produce a textured, varied conception of kinship. Additionally, the performers’ marginalized status as impoverished people forces viewers to recognize the borders associated with mainstream conceptions of community.

Encountering this narrative prompted me to reconsider how people think about community art. Many members of the rarefied art world undervalue these practices so it’s understandable that some artists disavow connection with the genre. Yet I don’t think dissociation is productive. Here are some of the key questions on my mind:

  • Does rejection of the term “community art” broaden or narrow conceptualizations of art?
  • How does “community art” empower individuals or groups? How does stripping the word “community” from collaborative work of diverse members who include formally and informally trained artists affect its value?
  • Can we retrieve “community”  and infuse it with that powerful and complex possibility that Miranda Joseph suggests?
  • Finally, at the College Art Association’s 2014 conference Chicago artist Theaster Gates proposed another way to think about these community-engaged practices that may be useful here: “What happens when art stops needing to be called art and needs to be called something else?”

 

Related:

Siona Wilson, Review of Do You Want the Cosmetic Version or the Real Deal? Los Angeles Poverty Department, 1985-2014, Queens Museum of Art, ArtReview, March 2014

 

 

August 5, 2014 at 10:30 am Leave a comment

Re-Thinking Representation: Applying Paulo Freire’s Ideas to Memorials

Detail of Ida Wells-Barnett plaque, Extra Mile: Points of Light Volunteer Pathway, Washington, D.C.

Detail of Ida Wells-Barnett plaque, Extra Mile: Points of Light Volunteer Pathway, Washington, D.C. Photo by author, 2010.

Lately I’ve been considering how Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed* can help me to study memorials.  The book isn’t about visual representation and it isn’t a typical source for art historians.  However, it is prominent in educational literature and many of the author’s thoughts apply to the contentious world of visual culture.  Freire (1921-1997), a Brazilian educator, argued that a restructured educational system rooted in collaboration, critical reflection paired with organized action, and real-world issues could empower people to fight social oppression.

Of his many important ideas, his perspectives about research have strengthened my interests in inclusive, participatory approaches.  Similar to his suggestion that teachers and students work in a dualistic manner (both groups instruct and learn as they critically assess problems), Freire proposes that researchers work as partners with people “who would normally be considered objects of that investigation.” (87)  He identifies these people as co-investigators and suggests that the researcher include their views in the evaluation process.  For Freire and sociologist Maria Edy Ferreira, the purpose of the research shouldn’t center on studying people.  Instead, researchers should seek to understand people’s situation or experiences in the world. (91)  To conduct research cooperatively, Freire encourages researchers to focus on understanding through sympathetic observation.  This approach forgoes dictating to the participants.

As I discussed in my previous post “Learning through Participation,” I employ collaborative, socially based methods for my study of lynching memorials.  One of my main challenges involves addressing current criticisms of therapeutic memorials (“victim memorials”).  In addition to considering the role of sentimentalization and art historian Kirk Savage’s useful historical discussion of “victim memorials,”* I believe Freire’s work will help me to reveal the political dimensions.  His attention to how oppressed groups can work together to improve their condition will help me to dismantle censures such as “Why are these people getting a monument? Why is their pain more important than the pain of someone else?”  Freire’s arguments could help to enrich memorial scholarship by identifying the assumptions of these perspectives.

References:

*Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, London: Penguin Books, 1993, 1970.
*Kirk Savage, Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape, Berkeley, CA: University of California, 236-244.

August 31, 2013 at 10:04 pm Leave a comment

Learning through Participation

Ribbons of Remembrance at Clayton Jackson McGhie vigil, June 2013, Duluth, Minnesota

Ribbons of Remembrance at the Clayton Jackson McGhie vigil, June 15, 2013, Duluth, Minnesota (Attendees tied ribbons to this fence adjacent to the graves of the three men lynched in 1920)

In my research I’m blending approaches from the fields of memorial culture* and public art* for a holistic perspective as I study how people commemorate lynching violence in the U.S. To uncover social significance I attend memorial events and interview artists and various community members. My direct involvement with these contemporary practices encourages me to also ponder the role of the scholar in the production of culture. When I meet with folks, I realize that my presence and interest in their work may influence their understanding of the memorial process. Because I’m focusing on the social, I also need to indicate my degree of participation and people’s reactions to my actions in a thoughtful manner.
——–
A few weeks ago I presented a paper* at the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial Annual Remembrance event in Duluth, Minnesota. Members of the board asked me to address how the memorial operates as a sacred space.  This event was my first talk at a memorial site and I was honored to participate in the ceremony.   Although I’ve presented my research at several venues, this occasion posed its own challenges. I couldn’t rely on the visual comparison method via PowerPoint that academic art historians often employ. I was outside in the memorial space. So my experience discussing objects for museum visitors proved helpful in this circumstance.  I focused on the history of the lynching, the community’s present activities, and the physical space of the memorial. The studies of cultural geographer Kenneth Foote* and cultural theorist Marita Sturken” helped me to highlight how the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial functions as hallowed ground.
For the sake of time, I didn’t delve into current discussions in memorial studies centered on “victim memorials” or the ambiguities associated with the concept of community. (I will wrestle with those complex issues at a later time.) I aimed to provide a balanced, contextualized assessment. Also, I spoke with reporters about how the Duluth memorial differs from other commemorative practices.  While my participation did identify the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial as noteworthy, I tried not to steer any of the committee members’ decisions about the memorial. Afterwards, several residents thanked me for providing this overview and specific attention to the spatial aspects of Duluth’s memorial.
——–
The process of evolving into a scholar entails identifying one’s allegiances, values, and mindset. Through my interdisciplinary orientation, I’ve realized that I’m not interested in traditional notions of the scholar as someone who tells individuals and communities how they should memorialize persons or events. Instead, I understand my position as providing historical context, demonstrating similarities and differences between memorials, sparking discussions, facilitating the memorial-making processes by helping communities discover related projects, and learning from the actions of communities and my participation in commemorations. For me, research is about collaboration.

*PDF copy of my address “The Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial as Hallowed Ground” – Autry-CJMM as Hallowed Ground-remembrance event 6-14-2013
I would like to thank the following organizations for supporting my recent research trip to Duluth, Minnesota: The Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial Board and the Department of Art History at the University of Delaware.

A Few Key References
*
Memorial Studies– Savage, Young, and Winter encourage scholars to consider social issues

  • Kurt Savage, “History, Memory, and Monuments: An Overview of the Scholarly Literature on Commemoration, http://www.nps.gov/history/history/resedu/savage.htm.
  • James Edward Young, “America’s Holocaust: Memory and the Politics of Identity,” in The Americanization of the Holocaust, edited by H. Flanzbaum, Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University, 1999.
  • Jay M. Winter, Remembering War: The Great War between Memory and History in the 20th Century, New Haven, CT: Yale University, 2006.

*Public Art

  • Tom Finkelpearl, Dialogues in Public Art, Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2000.
  • Tom Finkelpearl, What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation, Durham, NC: Duke University, 2013.
  • Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity, Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2002.
  • Grant H. Kester, Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art, Berkeley, CA: University of California, 2004.

*Cultural Geography and Collective Memory

  • Kenneth Foote, Shadowed Ground: America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy, Austin, TX: University of Texas, 2003, 7-33.
  • Marita Sturken, Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero, Durham, NC: Duke University, 2007, 200.

July 11, 2013 at 5:04 pm Leave a comment

Pinning My Inquietudes/Hopes for Art History

Lately I’ve been revising my Pinterest boards so that they engage key concerns I have about art history. Pinterest boards-May 2013I began using Pinterest, an online customizable set of bulletin boards, last summer when I taught History of Photography.  The boards for arth318snapshot served as a resource for my undergraduate students and broader publics.  I later started my own artstuffmatters‘ set of boards. Initially it focused mainly on books about various subject areas.  I didn’t really do much with it.  However, I recently had a “eureka moment” that sparked a different, more passionate direction.

Last fall at the Imagining America October 2012 conference, I heard a presentation that continues to inspire and challenge me.  Dr. Marta Vega, Executive Director and Founder of the Caribbean Cultural Center and African Diaspora Institute, centered her address on “inquietudes,” things that make one feel ill at ease, in relationships between academia and the wider world.  She argued that many academics don’t engage community organizations as partners or as higher education institutions.  Because they don’t value the knowledge and experience of these agencies, these scholars can’t actually engage most people.  She urged the scholarly sphere to recognize that it is a part of community instead of promoting hierarchical behaviors.  If we are serious about civic engagement and creating enduring social change, we need to foster connections between people. We need to make our arts centers inclusive.

These ideas resonated for me because in my work as a graduate student I sometimes feel apprehensive about scholarly research, dissemination methods, and traditional constructions of the discipline. One of my major inquietudes involves issues of inclusion and diversity.  When I hear about diversity in art history, it’s usually in regards to museums careers. In the academic sphere most of this discussion involves courses in art of non-western cultures. While varied course offerings are very important, we need to make this strategy a part of a system that spans types of art, chronologies, and fields.  We need to consider full inclusion and diversity in relation to our research and pedagogical methods as well.  We should communicate this focus to our undergraduate and graduate students. (I have encountered more than one art history graduate student who mistakenly believes that diversity-related topics only pertain to modern and contemporary art. One person even told me that race is only a relevant topic for those who study African or African-American art.) Our lack of attention to community and vernacular arts compounds this problem. Additionally, we need to consider how we can encourage people of diverse races and ethnic backgrounds to study and teach art history.  The discipline sorely lacks diversity in terms of students and faculty members. Addressing these matters can help us to engage broader publics and demonstrate the significance of our discipline and the humanities.

I have created boards for topics I’d like to see more art historians critically engage – diversity, community arts, public scholarship, digital scholarship, teaching techniques, and image use among others. These boards contain links to resources that I would have loved to know about when I started graduate school. I hope students, instructors, and others interested in the arts find this collection helpful. If you have suggestions for the boards, please let me know through the comment feature here or on Pinterest. As I work to create positive change in the discipline, I’ll continue blogging about these inquietudes in future posts because this platform is one way to explore, expand, and celebrate my connection to community.

By the way: While I’m serious about a lot of things, I also have a sense of humor. My boards “Foot Fetish in Sculpture” and “Theory Can Be Fun” are works in progress just because they make me smile. Foot Fetish Sculpture

Related articles:

“Art History Department Explores Diversity, Accessibility” The Oberlin Review, 4/17/2013

May 30, 2013 at 2:42 am 2 comments

Strategies for Remembering Trauma

Trees at City Hall, Los Angeles. Photo by author, March 2013.

Trees at City Hall, Los Angeles. Photo by author, March 2013.

When I was in Los Angeles a few of weeks ago, I explored Ken Gonzales-Day’s Lynching Walking Tour from his Erased Lynching series, 2002-2011. While journeying on this path through the El Pueblo and Civic Center areas with a print-out of the tour instructions, I was often struck by the lack of physical markers on the landscape.  This brutal yet significant history involves multiple bodies. But the tour sites mask those bodies.

This experience made me return to my ruminations on how people memorialize trauma. Art about devastating historical events and other violent ordeals engages difficult issues of representation. How does one express the effects of suffering on the body? Is figurative art too literal? Is it too revealing? Does depicting a person’s body in pain remove her/his subjectivity? Is abstraction a more responsible choice? Or is abstraction insensitive? Does it use form to mask human feelings? What is the most appropriate way to represent trauma experienced by individuals versus groups? Is absence a more ethical strategy when dealing with violence involving spectacle and fetishization? What are the sociopolitical repercussions of these choices?
These are difficult questions to confront. Artists make personal choices here that sometimes become more complex when working for commissions. When the work is for outdoor public art, the stakes are even higher because the decision-making process involves more voices and a greater number of people will interact with the work.

This conundrum is central to the memorials of lynching violence that I study. For example, in Duluth, Minnesota, artists Carla Stetson and Anthony Peyton Porter, and memorial board members of the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial opted to include naturalistic figurative reliefs that restore the victims’ bodies to an intact state. Sculptor Carla Stetson even elevated the social status of each man by dressing the figures in middle-class attire instead of clothing resembling those of itinerant laborers. In contrast, in Waco, which is located in Central Texas, an area with an extremely high number of lynchings, residents have had trouble building consensus about commemorating this aspect of their history. While they haven’t established any outdoor artworks or markers to memorialize the lynchings, they did produce three resolution statements. Community members presented two of these at outdoor public gatherings.

The lack of physical forms commemorating lynching violence in the U.S. contrasts greatly with how we memorialize the Holocaust in our built environments. Artists memorializing the Holocaust sometimes employ abstraction as Joel Shapiro did in his Loss and Regeneration, 1993, Washington, D.C. However, many employ figurative art that depicts effects of pain on the body like Nathan Rapoport’s 1964 Monument to Six Million Jewish Martyrs in downtown Philadelphia or Elbert Weinberg’s Holocaust Memorial, 1979 in Wilmington, Delaware. While these works highlight anguish, the figures aren’t personalized. Instead of depicting particular individuals, these memorials present anonymous, stylized stand-ins to represent an ethnic group.

Detail of Memorial to the Genocide in the Ukraine, Los Angeles. Photo by author, March 2013.

Detail of Memorial to the Genocide in the Ukraine, Los Angeles.
Photo by author, March 2013.

After I finished the Lynching Walking Tour, I walked into a park off N. Grand Avenue in the Civic Center area. I happened upon a memorial to genocide in the Ukraine (see photo at right). The artist and the committee obviously felt that stylized figurative art that features the body in a diminished condition was the most powerful way to communicate their message. Again, we have types instead of individuals. As I was looking at this structure, I felt that it was somewhat ironic to come across this memorial to violence that occurred in Europe after witnessing the lack of material commemorative signs to the violence that occurred on the streets of Los Angeles.

April 15, 2013 at 6:08 pm 3 comments

Evolving Reflections – The National September 11 Memorial

IMGP3398

National September 11 Memorial, New York, NY
[Reflecting pool at North Tower, September 11 Museum by Davis Brody Bond in background] Dedicated September 11, 2011, Michael Arad, architect and Peter Walker, landscape architect; Photo by La Tanya S. Autry, 3/6/13

My recent visit to the National September 11 Memorial continues to linger on my mind. Over the years I have read many articles by scholars and journalists about the site. So I already had an idea of the memorial layout and design strategies. However, my experience at the site profoundly affects how I now understand it. Some key reflections:

  • The scale of Michael Arad‘s beautiful and austere pools on the architectural footprint of the World Trade Center is impressive. The immense size prohibits the ground-level viewer from seeing into the bottom of the open grave-like centers.
  • The waterfalls create a very dynamic element. The persistent sound of water is probably soothing. But on a stormy day such as when I visited, the flow of water was unsettling.  The unruly waves of water blowing out of the pool created a highly dramatic aspect that I didn’t anticipate.
  • The park-like space encourages contemplation and interaction. But it is counter-acted by the heavily guarded borders. As I expected, the area is highly regulated. Visitors have to secure passes to enter and go through airport-like security measures. But I hadn’t thought a great deal about how these restrictions intervene with the city layout and public memory until I was at the memorial.
  • Additionally, after following the roped paths to the exit,  a gift store – the visitor center, confronts the visitor. This consumerist feature relates the memorial to the prevalent museum strategy of blockbuster art exhibitions and, as Professor Marita Sturken describes, the “kitchificscation of experience.”  Yet, the memorial visitor fortunately isn’t forced to walk through the shop as is the case at many museums.

In a  2012 Huffington Post editorial, Sturken argued that the National September 11 Memorial needs to contextualize 9/11 within the broader realm of human rights issues.  She cites various memorial strategies that people have implemented in several South American countries.
As an art historian, I appreciate her position. Yet I think it’s important to note the role of politics in shaping the public memory of 9/11. I think the National September 11 Memorial is responding to our current situation that remains embroiled in a contentious flux involving definitions of national tragedy, military conflict, anti-terrorist measures, and citizenship. Similar to the surrounding construction zone, this memorial is still in a state of evolution. With time the memorial’s interpretative strategies will probably change and perhaps become more expansive as Sturken suggests.

March 12, 2013 at 5:56 pm Leave a comment

“Seeing Photographically”- Best of 2012

Vietnam Women's Memorial, Glenna Goodacre, 1993Washington, D.C.Photo by La Tanya S. Autry, June 2012

Vietnam Women’s Memorial,
Glenna Goodacre, 1993
Washington, D.C.
Photo by La Tanya S. Autry, June 2012

“The photographer’s most important and likewise most difficult task is not learning to manage his camera, or to develop, or to print. It is learning to see photographically – that is, learning to see his subject matter in terms of the capacities of his tools and processes, so that he can instantaneously translate the elements and values in a scene before him into the photograph he wants to make.”Edward Weston

I read Edward Weston’s “Seeing Photographically” essay years ago. But I only came to grasp its meaning this year as I was taking a digital photography class. Although I’m not sure how Weston would have felt about digital photography since he wasn’t a fan of color, hated what he called photo-painting, and preferred simple equipment, I believe my learning experience corresponds to the core idea of his essay – the need for good composition. Weston urged photographers to carefully frame their subjects. He believed this process should happen as the photographer captured the image, not later in the darkroom.

In the past I’ve created many poor images because I didn’t pay attention to composition, focus, lighting, or image quality. While my shots were usually ok as informal snapshots, they were horrible for sharing my research. This problem was doubly worrisome because I study the history of photography. Although I often examine well composed photographs, I wasn’t spending much thought on constructing my own images. One day while presenting blurry images in a PowerPoint, I realized that I needed to upgrade my camera and learn how to take photographs of outdoor art and landscapes that actually conveyed the work and experience of being in those spaces.
The course that I took at Delaware Art Museum taught me how to use the dslr that I purchased for my fieldwork. As I learned how to frame my shots, I began to better understand photographic techniques such as depth of field. In addition to now being better able to teach my students, the class has also encouraged me to see public art differently. Now when I’m looking  I’m thinking about how to best document and capture the spirit of the works. Consequently, I spend more time closely looking at the works than I did before.  After taking numerous shots of a memorial, I study each image at home on my computer. This process often leads me to realize what I’ve missed. So when possible, I return to sites to re-look.
For instance, a couple of years ago I had visited Glenna Goodacre’s Vietnam Women’s Memorial, 1993. At that time I quickly surveyed the sculpture and took a few wide shots and one close-up. This past summer, after my photography class, I re-visited the memorial and I spent much more time at the site. I paid closer attention to the sculpture as a multidimensional work and I noticed more details of the individual figures. My new training encouraged me to zoom in on those details. As I kept looking, I realized that there’s a tenderness in the faces and interaction of these figures that I didn’t recognize when I was just snapping quick shots.

I’ll continue working on my photography skills over the next year. You can see more of my photographs of Glenna Goodacre’s Vietnam Women’s Memorial and other public artworks on Flickr.

December 29, 2012 at 9:37 pm Leave a comment

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