Saturday, April 18, 2015

Binding Culture Exhibition

It has been an exciting week since the Museum opened our Spring 2015 exhibition, “Binding Culture: Living Landscapes and Material Life in Northern Luzon, Philippines.” Our opening celebration featured a curatorial talk by anthropologist Ellen Schattschneider and an address by Rey Pascua about the Filippino-American community of the Yakima Valley; we also heard from a student representative of the Filippino American Student Association (FAS).

I have been fascinated watching our visitors of varied ages engage with the exhibition. It is a show that rewards close looking and we are gratified that many have been going through the gallery carefully, taking the time to ponder the beautiful baskets and textiles and digest the thought-provoking signage that Ellen authored in conversation with Lynn
The exhibition is organized around the heuristic value of the metaphor of “binding” for making sense of many aspects of the material culture of the diverse indigenous communities of the Cordillera. Basket makers and weavers engage in a range of sophisticated techniques for achieving joins that integrate technical proficiency and aesthetic value; in contrast to a western design philosophy that relegates joins or seams to “off stage” or behind the scenes locales, these artisans tend to call proud attention to their seams or points of inter-connection, through embroidering the seam that links together two thin strips of woven cloth or through rattan binds around the most vulnerable point on a spiraling lip of a rice winnowing tray. As one of Ellen’s label puts it, “Celebrate Seams!

In a broader sense, the binding metaphor applies to the function of material objects in binding together families and diverse communities, a point anthropologists have been pondering since the time of Marcel Mauss; to receive a gift is to be pulled into a relationship of obligation with the donor, and the exchanged object becomes a complex ‘map’ of the social relationship between donor and recipient.  To wear a ceremonial garment produced by one's in laws is to become increasingly bound to them.

Ga'dang garments
Ga'dang garments; other textiles in background
rice winnowing and storage baskets
Many of the articles of clothing and the intimate personal objects on display are exchanged during the marriage process, gradually binding together in laws over time to create broader family networks that cut across lines of rivalry and suspicion.   The binding function of material form is intensified when the exchange object contains food, which is perhaps to most delicate barometer of human social connectedness.

Although the exhibition only touches on the point obliquely, one of the most intriguing objects of binding in the Cordillera is the captured human head, obtained classically in head hunting raids. Nearly all our students are familiar with Renato Rosaldo’s remarkable essay, Grief and the Headhunters’ Rage, which in the spirit of Mauss demonstrates the gradual replacement of the raging agony of loss with more socially productive sentiments, mediated through the changing trajectory of a material object, the taken human head. Over time the mandible of a human head, taken in warfare, is incorporated into a local shrine, that becomes the benevolent guardian of a village boundary. (There are not human remains in the show, although there is one weapon, from an early museum collection, identified in our collections note as a "head hunting axe."

ceremonial tapis (raps) and wooden presentation bowls

Although tattooing is initially an act of cutting, the complex tattoo designs of Kalinga, Ifuago, Bontoc and other mountain communities displayed in the show similarly serve vital binding functions. A fully mature women and man wears tattoos that integrate diverse moments in the life cycle, from warfare to motherhood, into a coherent pattern that also signal geographical  location and sites of affiliation.  Tattooing also signals connectedness to ancestral lines of potency and power and links to the invisible powers of the universe. The net effect is a kind of spatiotemporal binding that is foundational to the tradition-based life giving economies of the Cordillera. We are please to have permission to use some of the remarkable photographs of "tattoo anthropologists" Lars Krutak, especially his images of venerable woman tattoo artist Whang-Od.

Our intern Barbara is in the process of  creating an online version of the exhibition, so please stay tuned as the virtual show develops, at:

Monday, April 13, 2015

Comfort Women Panel

For the past week, many faculty and students at Central Washington University have been concerned over the planned screenings of the ultra-rightist Japanese film, “Scottsboro Girls”, directed by rightist activist Junjiro Taniyama, scheduled for Tuesday, April 28 and Wednesday, April 29. The film, in keeping with a great deal of recent far rightist  discourse in Japan, seeks to deny the historical truth that the Japanese Imperial military sponsored a system of sexual slavery (the euphemistically termed “Comfort Women” system) in brothels and encampments across the Asia-Pacific region during World War II.  The filmmaker is scheduled to speak at both screenings on campus.

The film screenings are not sponsored by any department or unit at Central; rather they are taking place at the behest of an individual faculty member, a Japanese language instructor.

ADDENDUM: There has been a great deal of discussion back and forth about whether or not an academic unit at CWU is "sponsoring" the screenings of Scottsboro Girls. Our understanding is that while no department considers itself to be a "sponsor," the faculty member in question scheduled the screening venues through her home department and that scheduling arrangement continues. The semantic distinctions between "sponsoring" and "scheduling" are a matter of continued discussion.

The film’s on line previews:

and the announcement of the screening:

suggest that the film is an appallingly shoddy, sexist and racist piece of propaganda, without any serious scholarly content.  It repeats many of the standard talking points of far rightist Japanese activists denying official complicity in the "Comfort Women" system during the war period.

For those who read Japanese, the letter of invitation by the Japanese language lecturer and the response by the director, are at:

Their correspondence refers to the possibility that Korean (or Korea-associated) faculty might interfere with the screening.  (This appear to be a thinly veiled attack on our colleague, the political scientist Dr. Bang-Soon Yoon, who has published extensively on wartime sexual slavery and  "Comfort Women," and who some years ago brought a surviving witness to speak on campus. )The film preview makes absurd, unfounded allegations against serious scholars of the "Comfort Women" issue, such as Katharine Moon.

The timing of the screenings would appear planned to coincide with the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his address on April 29 a the joint meeting of Congress.  (Addendum: Thanks to a comment poster below for noting that April 28 is the 114th birthday of the Showa Emperor, Hirohito.) Abe has of course been notable for his denial of Japanese state complicity in wartime human rights atrocities, including state-sponsorship of the sexual slavery or “Comfort Women” system.

All of this is consistent with what appears to be a general campaign waged by Japanese rightists, in conjunction with reported efforts by the Japanese Foreign Ministry, to pressure US and Japanese academics from engaging in critical research and publishing on the "Comfort Women" or wartime sexual slavery issue. See an important letter by prominent US Japan historians on this crisis:

And see the rebuttal points to the major ultra-rightist  nationalist claims on the "Comfort Women" issue.

In this context, my colleague the historian Chong Eun Ahn and I, in consultation with many scholars here and elsewhere, have organized an academic symposium on the "Comfort Women"issue and related struggles over historical memory in Japan and the Pacific, to take place on Tuesday, April 28 at 7:00 pm in the SURC ballroom.  We’re calling the gathering, “Sexual Slavery in the Wartime Japanese Empire: The Historical Record and the Politics of Memory: A Panel of Concerned Scholars.” Panelists are
  • Dr. Bang-Soon Yoon (Political Science)
  • Chong Eun Ahn (History)
  • Dr. Anne CubiliĆ©  (Douglas Honors College)
  • Dr.  Yukiko Shigeto (Foreign Languages and Literatures, Whitman College)
  • Dr.  Davinder Bhowmik  (Asian Languages and Literature, University of Washington)
  • Dr. Justin Jesty (Asian Languages and Literature, University of Washington)
  • Dr. Mark Auslander (Anthropology and Museum Studies)
  • Moderator: Dr. Stacey Robertson (Dean, College of Arts and Humanities)
We are especially grateful to Yuki, Davinder, and Justin for coming in from other campuses to speak on this important panel. Before the panel,  at 6:00 pm, we'll gather in the SURC pit as students read aloud first person testimony by persons euphemistically termed "Comfort Women" (this event is being organized by our colleague Jay Ball in Theater.)

Details at:

Some of our colleagues initially suggested it would be better not to dignify this poisonous film with a scholarly response, but on reflection, it seems to us that not to organize a counter-point would be, in a sense, to be complicit with the screening.  I’m especially mindful, overseeing a Museum Studies program that teaches our students how to tackle with difficult dialogues about history, belonging and memory, that we have a special pedagogic responsibility to model effective and thoughtful academic responses to these kinds of traumatic fault-lines.

It has been a painful process for so many of us--realizing that our campus is in a sense under assault from those who would seek to repress these horrific chapters in collective terror and injustice; these efforts do strike many of us as akin to Holocaust denial.  It is also distressing to see the cynical way that the language of “academic freedom” is used to defend discourse that really is tantamount to un-scholarly hate speech.  For a scholar of African American Studies it is especially galling to see the cynical appropriation of the "Scottsboro Boys" case in entitling the film (quite ludicrously) "Scottsboro Girls," evidently implying that the Japanese military has been falsely accused of mass rape during wartime.

 At the same time, it has been heartening to experience so much support from conscientious colleagues and students here, and around the world, who have been helping us think about how best to respond to this dreadful film in a way that turns this assault on historical truth into a "teachable moment."

ADDENDUM: While I appreciate the intensity of interest this matter has generated, especially from conservative bloggers, it does now strike me as counter-productive to continue comments for this post, especially since a couple of commentators out there are posting ad hominen attacks on individuals (deleted) or posting rather generic, well rehearsed  pieces, reproduced from other sources, on the broader Comfort Women issue.  So comments are closed for this specific post.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Mobile App and Historical Gazes

Baseball players, north of Barge Hall
The students have continued to develop content for our Explore Central mobile app.  We were kindly given permission to include Jackie O’Ryan and RIck Spencer’s excellent video of Javier Cavazos performing his slam poem, “History 101: Mt. Stewart” atop Lion Rock on Table Mountain, north of town. Clicking on the yellow “poetry” button on Table mountain now brings up the video of Javier’s striking performance.   We hope this inspires students in the coming quarters to create audio and video recordings of new poems, linked to specific locales in town and in the county.

The 31 sites on the Historic Ellensburg walking tour of downtown architectural history are now uploaded, with distinctive “Architecture”  pins for each at the correct location.  Brittany, in turn, wrote captions for 34 historical photographs of Ellensburg in the university archives and linked each image to a specific location on the GoogleMap; these images are now uploaded to the app. Since the downtown map was getting crowded with “History” pins, we create a new color-code “Historical Photographs” pins for these images, which we hope will simplify navigation. We’re hoping that future classes will develop audio commentaries to go with the old photographs, perhaps critically unpacking the composition of the images, reflecting on shifts in the ‘habitus” (including how bodies occupied public space), or even creating audio skits, imagining conversations that might have taken place during these scenes.

I’m fascinated, for example, by the stances of the students on the college lawn in this image, taken just north of Barge Hall, the college’s oldest building. How different are the stances of the catcher, batter,  fielder,  pitcher and runner at first base from present-day college baseball players? Just what is the fellow doing in the left foreground, stretched out on the ground near what seems to be third base?  iI he acting out sliding into third for the camera? And what is the man in the hat doing to his right, bending over? And why are four apparent players stretched out on the ground between what appears to be third and home?  Are any of these little mysteries recoverable from the thin evidence presented by the image itself?

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Tactile Tour of Campus

American Ash tree, at start of the Tactile Tour

Fauna Sculpture, Benson Shaw

My student Sarah Bair and I have been working on a tactile tour of the outdoor area surrounding the Museum, so  that low vision and no vision visitors will be able to explore nature and art through the sense of touch.  We have been hoping this will work with the ExploreCentral mobile app under development with the Computer Science students in collaboration with my Museum Studies students.  

We have started with several trees in the campus arboretum, just behind the Museum.  (Sarah notes that it is more difficult for the blind to navigate when they off the sidewalk, so for the moment we are concentrating on trees that are immediately along the main paved sidewalk that meanders through the arboretum.)  We are writing down tactile descriptions of each tree’s bark, as well as season-specific notes on other tactile-accessible elements —such as needles, pine cones, buds and leaves. We will supplement this data with botanical information from Biology Department faculty.  Our hope is to have audio segments, geared to the blind, on each of these trees.

It is fortuitous that the eight vase sculptures in Benson Shaw’s “Resources” public art project are all accessible to the sense of touch.  Each vase is devoted to a different natural or social resource, such as “Sun” or “Fauna” or “Community,”  and displays punched-out metal shapes that are well suited to haptic exploration.  Thus “Fauna” centers on the metal shape of an owl with outstretched wings, and “Flora” displays touchable plants with a root structure.

In time, we hope to expand this to create a tactile tour of the whole campus; we’ll need to be attentive to meaningful touch experiences available around campus that would  offer significant natural history or aesthetic encounters, supplemented by audio segments through the mobile app.  We are not quite sure about navigation for low vision/no vision visitors. One possibility would be a relief map of the campus, affixed to a wall in Dean Hall outside of the museum, or a portable relief map with braille that could be distributed to blind visitors.

We aren’t sure yet if voice recognition in the Android system will work well with the mobile app: the idea eventually would be that as a user moves her/his finger over a button, the text will be audible to the user. And we may  need to create a separate category, like "TACTILE" within the Mobile App to make it as easy as possible for users to find these Points of Interest (in addition to  tagging them with "Art" or "Nature", etc.)  We’ll clearly need to keep working on this experimentally as we develop the accessibility of the product.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

New ExploreCentral App

This quarter my Museum Studies students and  I have been partnering with a group of Computer Science seniors to create a mobile app, called “ExploreCentral” that will allow smart phone users to access material on art and other sites of historical and environmental interest on campus and in town. In contrast to the mobile phone tours we’ve done in the past, which only consist of audio material, the new app, embedded in a GoogleMaps environment, will allow people to call up text, audio, still images and videos. We are hoping the app will drive traffic to the Museum of Culture and Environment and will in turn encourage Museum visitors to explore the campus and the wider community.

Users will be able to select for a menu of categories, such as:
  • Architecture
  • Art
  • History
  • Mysteries
  • Nature
  • Social Services
  • Sports
Initially at least, the app will open with a GoogleMap centered on Ellensburg, WA with different colored pins indicating “points of interest.”  The user can filter all these points of interest, by selecting a category, such as “Architecture” and the map on their smart phone screen will display pins for all relevant locations in the immediate vicinity; I believe there will also be an indication how many meters the user is from each attraction.

At this point, the app only works on smart phones running the Android operating system, and will shortly be available through the Google Play Store at

It  is our hope that we will in time be able to run an IOS version of the app on iPhones  (this will involve some expense for a licensing fee, I gather.)

Following suggestions from students in my class, my grad student Nicolas has created a Facebook public page, “CWU’s Explore Central,” at
 so that users can easily share feedback on the app, and post helpful content (including commentary and images) that we might add to the app over time.

The plan is the app will be available  in beta form by March 13 (we have been loading content in advance of this); we’re eager to “test” it with students and community members in the coming weeks.  So please stay tuned!

Monday, January 12, 2015

Second Homeplace Workshop

Homeplace workshop II, 1/10/15
On Saturday, we held our second art-making workshop on the theme of “Homeplace,” as we prepare to open our exhibition “Righteous Dopefiend: Homelessness, Addiction and Poverty in Urban America,” based on the work of anthropologists Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg.  Community members and students were invited to create art on the theme of “homeplace”: what does home, and the lack of home, mean to you?  Once again, the workshop was organized by expressive arts therapist Nan Doollitle and her student intern Maggie Bauremeister, who brought in bountiful art supplies and helped participants translate their stories into material form.

Sarah Bair, "All are Welcome"
Sarah Bair, co-president of the student disability rights group ABLE, decided to make a piece of tactile art that could be discovered by visitors through the sense of touch. She had initially planned to create a box, modeled on the kinds of "Touch the World" enclosed boxes that anthropologist Kojiro Hirose had taught us about last year, into which museum visitors would insert their hands to feel objects within. But as she worked with the materials, she instead created a little “tent city,” centered on a cardboard tent with flaps in front of it: through the flaps sighted and non-sighted visitors can reach to feel a tiny sleeping bag and pillow within.  Hope Amason helped her create items of clothing to hang from an adjacent clothesline. Sarah also created a small sofa to go in front of the tent. Onto this, she playfully placed a little scorpion created by ABLE's other co-president Josh Hackney, which I take for her evoked the “sting” of fear associated with the homeless by passersby. After some thought she entitled the piece “All are Welcome.”

BARS-Behind America's Ruggesd System

Saeed and Olaf, in turn,  were inspired by a recent local newspaper article on a homeless man who had been arrested and placed in jail for creating a fire outdoors to keep warm on a cold day. They created two linked black boxes, evoking a homeless encampment and a jail house. The homeless camp space is covered with collage images signaling the open fire and police surveillance; all under a tattered American flag, reminding us of the nation’s promise, not always fulfilled, to care for its most vulnerable. (The flag also recalls Righteous Dopefiend's opening banner image of a homeless veteran proudly waving an American flag above his tent.)  The cells in the jailhouse are marked by narrow bars. They called the assemblage “B.A.R.S”—“Behind American’s Rugged System.”  For far too many in America, they explained, prison has become their principal “home-place.”

Alex shared his now completed fantastical drawing of a castle floating in the area above a beautiful mountainscape, tethered to earth only by a thin chain. A ladder from the castle almost, but not quite touches, the steps below, carved in stone. I continue to wonder if we can read the image through Alex’s quest for a safe and secure place to live. Nan suggests the castle, just above an almost inaccessible mountain slope, is situated on a space from which one can never be evicted. In a previous post, I thought the planet-like balloons orbiting the castle might evoke  the safe  configurations of a family home denied to the artist in his current predicament. But at the same time —as I regard the ways in which the castle in the air spans the great gulf from earth to star-filled cosmos—I recognize that a work of art may very well exist at an imaginative domain far beyond the material conditions of its production.

Ellen Schattschneider HouseHolding.
Ellen Schattschneider created a beautiful nestlike, woven structure in the spirit of the work of Andy Goldsworthy. She wove together raffia with cat tails growing wild in front of the Museum, connecting us to the natural environment upon which the Museum sits and to this land's Native American heritage. She calls the work, "HouseHolding" and provides an artist's statement: "Living in Ellensburg on landed ceded from the Yakama Nation we are mindful of the heritage of
Native American peoples of this area. As I was making this "nest" I wanted to use an ancient basketmaking technique called "twining" in which one strand/reed, folded over in half, works to
surround or "embrace" a strand running perpendicular to it. This creates a surface of connected, yet distinct, pieces--eventually binding them into a single structure, be it a basket, piece of clothing, or building structure. As I was binding together strands of raffia, reeds and willow branches I began to think that this was not unlike the way a family is made--distinct individuals bound together,

indeed embraced and held by the place we call "home”.

Sandra Costi, Momma's Backyard

Several participants created garden spaces, either based on a remembered garden of their childhood or a kind of secret garden they continue to carry with them internally. 

Finally, Drew wrote a moving commentary about his experiences during military deployment in Afghanistan. For him, the closest thing to “home” was sleeping on a mat on the front hood of his Humvee, above the engine’s warm and familiar vibrations-- a small patch of security in an unfamiliar, potentially treacherous world.

The art works are now installed in the Museum's lobby as part of the student-developed exhibition, “All our stories are so different but we’re all the same: Homelessness and Heroin in our Community.” We’re eager to see what other works are made by community members and how the installation develops over the course of the quarter, as more and more people engage with Righteous Dopefiend and its deeply moving images and text panels.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

First Homeplace Workshop

On Tuesday afternoon we held our first expressive art workshop in preparation for the exhibition, “Righteous Dopefiend: Addiction, Poverty and Homelessness in Urban America”, a traveling show from the Penn Museum, based on the ethnographic work of Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg.  The workshop, organized by expressive art therapist Nan Doolitle and undergraduate intern Maggie Bauermeister, was hosted by Gallery One in downtown Ellensburg.  Dinner for participants was kindly provided by Grace Episcopal Church.  Members of the homeless community were invited to participate, as well as those who have direct experience with addiction and substance abuse.

We met in the Gallery One ceramics studio, where Nan and Maggie had set up a great variety of art materials. The workshop, they explained, was organized around the theme of “Homeplace;” participants were invited to create artistic renderings of dwellings or temporary shelters in which they had lived, or to envision an ideal home in which they might want to reside someday.

One participant, a skilled artist who is currently homeless, produced a beautiful drawing of a grand castle of unimaginably large proportions, to which were loosely tethered entire planets, including a planet with Saturn-like rings, all floating above a lovely cloud-covered landscape beneath a brilliant multi-hued sky.  (Thinking about the work afterwards, I wondered if the various floating planets might for the artist be associated with the multiple places he has been staying, loosely, even tenuously, connected to one another. Or would he dismiss any direct link between this evocative fantasy image and his own present condition? I hope to talk to him about this next time we see one another.)

Another participant, who has close experience with the impact of chemical dependencies, created a striking series of sculptural pieces out of cardboard on the theme of walls. In one work, a large, high wall wall encircled several figures, made out of pipe-cleaners. Each figure within the large wall in turn was encircled by low walls.  The artist explained that the low walls signify for her the barriers that addiction erects around a person; drug use, she notes, allows a person a way of maintaining distance from others who might seek to know them too closely. At the same time, these walls are to her mind pretty permeable, since users can at times easily step over them to deal with other users. The large encircling wall, she explains, represents the collective (and to her mind rather protective) barrier that drug usage creates around the community of users. Those users who endure challenges together, on the street or elsewhere, are bound together in a way outsiders can’t quite understand; hence she located several figures outside the great wall, unaware of what was happening within. (Thinking about the piece later, I find myself speculating that in a curious way the large walled space recalls the Biblical Garden of Eden, which was also walled. Might drug use in any sense for the artist be equivalent to the prohibited Tree of Knowledge at the garden’s center? Once again, I’ll need to ask the artist at some point.)

"Home is where the heart hides" (Anonymous)

The same artist made another work, entitled “Home is where the heart hides.”  She created a building with many scored, cracks on it (equivalent, I believe she told us to scars on a person); two of the cracks open up to be like windows. Inside, barely discernible to a viewer, she has placed a heart shape, made out of a pipe cleaner. A person who suffers, she explains, erects many barriers to others, and only allows them, at most,  a glimpse of her inmost feelings and longings. In front of the building she created a small assemblage of heart shapes. The entire piece, she emphasized, is made to be accessible to low vision and no vision visitors, who can experience it in tactile fashion.  The front hearts are open, like that the exposed emotions of a young child; later on in life, a person has learned to hide her emotions behind a thick layer of scar tissue.

Nan and Maggie urged me to try my hand at making my own imagined “homeplace.”  I found myself creating a kind of bird’s nest, complete with plastic eggs, out of which a small, sheltering tree sprouted. Having recently taught Claude Levi-Strauss’ classic essay, “The Science of the Concrete” , I found myself thinking about the ways in which our ancestors, observing bird nests, may have been inspired to think about their own dwelling places.   Humans are characterized, after all, by the extremely long period our offspring need to be sheltered; in that sense we are different from most of our fellow mammals, who can turn their offspring loose within a year or two. Our homes in a sense must maintain our children in metaphorical egg states, until they are ready to be “hatched” out into the world in adult or quasi-adult status. I called the piece, “First Home: Nest Eggs.”  Reflecting on this piece, I now find myself re-thinking the first artist’s drawing of the castle with the tethered, floating planets; might for him those planets, bound by umbilical-like cords to the great castle, be like children tethered to a parental figure?  Is the homeplace he depicted a remembered scene of early parent-child connection?

"First Home: Nest Eggs" (Mark Auslander)
The historian of the family John Giliis writes that all of us have to two families; the family we live by, and the family we live with. In other words, we carry with us the image of an idealized family as well as the challenging reality of the family configuration, present or absent, we currently experience. This dichotomy  between the ideal and the real may be especially true, even painfully so , for those on the street or struggling with chemical dependencies. It is noteworthy, however, that the second artist spoke of those figures within the great, encircling wall spoke of those bound together by common addiction as “family members.” Fellow users can be experienced as “our real family.”

These complex dynamics are certainly consistent with the lifeworlds on the street explored by Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg in “Righteous Dopefiend” , which we’ll start hosting next month. I’m grateful to Nan and Maggie for their creative vision, which has allowed us to start reflecting on these themes in anticipation of the show itself.

During the workshop, we talked about how these art works and others by students and local community members might be incorporated into the upcoming exhibition, "Righteous Dopefiend. " Perhaps we might attach small shelves to the lobby wall and place the art on these, along with commentary by the artists, whom we expect in most cases will choose to be anonymous.

Nan and Maggie will hold another expressive art workshop on the theme of “Homeplace” in  the Museum's lobby on Saturday, January 10 from 11;00 am-2:00 pm. This will be open to everyone, and we are eager to see what new visions of homes, present and absent, will emerge.  Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Shonberg will be on campus on January 29, and we hope we’ll have many such visions, by community members and students, to share with them.