Monday, December 7, 2015

Forensic Photography and the Roads of the Dead

I have just finished reading Jason De León’s stunning new ethnography, “The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail” (University of California Press, 2015). He makes a powerful argument that the official US “Prevention through Deterrence” immigration policy funnels hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants through the killing fields of the Sonora Desert, allowing Federal policy makers to disavow direct complicity the annual deaths of thousands, projecting onto the realm of nature responsibility that more properly should rest with collective human agency.  (See the evocative National Geographic interview with the author on the project.)  

I’m especially moved by the way in which De León builds on the forensic work he and his students in the Undocumented Migration Project  have been doing, teasing out from the bodily remains and material traces of lost migrants to reconstruct the lives of those who travel el camino, “the road,” in search of a modicum of economic security in the United States.  To my mind, the book becomes profoundly compelling n its final third, as the discovered corpse of one woman, eventually identified as Maricela, found in the desert, opens up in the reconstructed narrative of an entire kinship network that spreads from Cuenca, Ecuador to New York City. Central to this ethnographic process of giving voice to the dead and the survivors is Jason’s meditation on the circulation of photographic images taken by him and his team.  Although he had initial reservations about photographing the dead woman refugee and sharing the image of her remains with her surviving relations, he gradually came to appreciate that the image, in time, came to function as a kind of substitute body, providing a degree of resolution for those negotiating the agony of “ambiguous loss,” uncertain whether to conceptualize their loved one as alive or dead.  The photograph, as it is contemplated and re-narrated by her relatives in collaboration with the ethnographer, allows them to imaginatively re-situate her on the migrant “road,” to arrive at a degree of understanding of her final moments as she attempted, with whatever strength remained in her body, to fulfill her dream of traversing the borderlands and providing for her children left back home. Through the UMP’s forensic work and the labor of her New York family, her remains, albeit devastated by the desert environment, were in time returned for internment in Cuenca. Her physical remains and the spectral shadow of the forensic photograph  continue to exist in a complex tension in the social imaginary of her mourning family.

For all the life-diminishing functions of the “state of exception” produced through US border policy, these memorial practices have restored a measure of dignity and personhood to at least one lost soul.  One is put in mind of Roland Barthes’ meditations in Camera Lucida  on the simultaneously tortuous and life-sustaining functions of memorial photography, which allow for curious forms of time travel, moving back and forth across the borderlands of life and death: to paraphrase Barthes, “She is dead; and she is going to die.”  To be sure, there are many circumstances in which sharing forensic photographs of dead economic refugees with their family would be an act of social and psychic violence, but in this fascinating, haunting instance, the photograph takes on a vital substitute function for the absent person. (It is perhaps for this reason that De León could not bring himself simply to email her image to the family, but felt compelled to present her family members with physical prints of the photographs; merely digital images, one senses, could not adequately convey or embody the ritual dimensions of the missing body/person.)

I am also fascinated by another instance of ritualized image deployment in the book, a desert religious shrine photographed by Jason’s collaborator Michael Wells (p.176).  In a niche within a weathered rockface, somewhere in the desert, we see over a dozen votive images of the Virgin and of saints, along with rosaries and crucifixes, left by migrants evidently praying for safe passage across the potentially deadly desert expanse. The images are lodged into rocky ledges and the lines of prayer beads in some cases seem to extend along indentations in the stone, worn over time by water or extremes of temperature. Speculatively, might these offerings —-consisting of a framed image and an extended line of beads— themselves function as microcosmic models of the traveling selfhood of each migrant, or, in structuralist terms, as ‘structural operators,” that mediated between migrant, saint and the desert landscape--producing iconic images of “the road” (el camino) that the refugees seek to complete?  Is each line of beads, in other words, a little model of the hoped for line of the dreamed-of path to a safe haven? Might we conceive of such a shrine, in Godfrey Lienhardt’s terms, as a kind of  symbolic action, performatively calling into being a hoped-for extension of the donor’s intentionality?  Beyond that, might such ritual practices be understood as an attempt to re-enchant, to render knowable, the otherwise alien and enigmatic landscape of the desert, for migrant passersby who are, as De León notes, alienated from the multi-layered knowledge of the land that its indigenous communities are heir to? At the same time, given that migrants are deeply cognizant of the dead who have proceeded them on el camino, and of the great risk of death they themselves face, can such votive shrines be understood, in part, as memorials for others, as well as acts of potential, pre-mortem self-memorialization--so that even if one does not physically survive the trek, an aspirational pathway to the Other World is traced?

To be sure, given the extraordinarily tenuous and perilous circumstances of fieldwork by the UMP—and given the fact, as De León notes, that surviving migrants are nearly always unwilling to dwell on their experiences in the desert---these may be ethnographic speculations beyond clear cut verification. Yet they are the kinds of vital, if heart-breaking questions, suggested by this painfully beautiful book.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Film Noir of Lampedusa by Clay Apenouvon

“Film Noir of Lampedusa." Clay Apenouvon
“Film Noir of Lampedusa” (November 20 - December 20, 2015)
Artist: Clay Apenouvon
Commissioned by the Église Saint-Merri, (Church Saint Merri) for the Paris Climate Conference COP21.  Installation in situ: Extended plastic film with various objects.

In this extraordinary installation, artist Clay Apenouvon, born in Togo, West Africa, has created a haunting memorial to the untold thousands of migrants/refugees from Africa and the Middle East who have struggled across the Mediterranean to reach Sicily and the safety of Europe in makeshift boats and rafts. In many cases, their corpses and possessions have washed up on the small Italian island of Lampedusa, 70 miles from Tunisia and 127 miles from Sicily. The artist is inspired by the work of Lampedusa activist Giacomo Sferlazzo, who has tirelessly collected the objects thrown overboard or lost at sea by the refugees and assembled them into a “Museum of Silence,” composed of the mute traces of those lost forever beneath the waves.

Nearly all of those who attempt this perilous crossing are climate refugees, victims of the modern world’s relentless hunger for hydrocarbon-based energy. The current wars and economic crises in Africa and the Middle East are ultimately driven by struggles over oil and related resources, and are exacerbated by climate change, itself the product of the endless burning of fossil fuels. Here, from a ledge that sometimes hold the host, an endless waterfall of blackness pours out from the walls, a vast oil spill that cannot be capped. Upon the floor of the sanctuary waves of black gold disgorge all manner of lost things—a mismatched pair of children’s shoes, a bottle containing a message of love, a Qur’an, an image of the virgin, a small crucifix, a cell phone.   In this corner of a stunningly beautiful ancient church we find ourselves before a latter-day sacrificial altar, pondering all those whose dreams of refuge will never be realized.

The work’s title, “Film Noir,” has many allusions.  It recalls the black film left on the ocean’s surface by each oil spill. It reminds us that so many of the victims of the Mediterranean are African, who all too quickly fade from the view and conscience of the world’s wealthy nations. It evokes as well the Film Noir genre of Hollywood melodrama, celebrated for tangled plot lines of crime and passion, low key lighting and unbalanced composition. For here we are in the presence of a vast crime scene, a movie reel that plays over and over and over again, a film noir nightmare from which, it appears, we can never awake.

The installation was commissioned for the Paris Climate Conference COP21, before the brutal mass murders of Friday, November 13 in the environs of the Saint Merri Church.  The work now strikes us eerily prophetic, anticipating the spontaneous memorials erected to the lost in the nearby Place de la République.  The very walls of the church, one senses, are weeping—for all the victims, near and far. This endless filmstrip of tragedy plays again and again, mute testimony to all those who can no longer speak for themselves.

Appropriately, Apenouvon’s installation emerges from beneath the grand painting by Charles Antoine Coypel,  Les Disciples d'Emmaüs,(The Disciples of Emmaus, 1749),  Soon after his death and resurrection, Jesus reveals himself to two of his disciples, who are despondent over his crucifixion. When he breaks bread with them, they recognize him and are filled with joy (Luke 24:13-35). This setting, it seems to me, is even more deeply appropriate after the terrorist horrors of November 13. In our anguish, in our grief,  whatever our faith, we long for some trace of hope, for a better future for ourselves and for those that will come after us.  That is the spirit of COP21—an insistence that we gaze squarely and unflinchingly upon the ravages to which our planet is now subjected, combined with a demand that we act in concert to imagine, and actively produce, a better world. That is now the silent prayer of Clay Apenouvon, a Parisian born in West Africa: that the atrocities of the Paris assaults will not cause us to turn our back on the world’s least fortunate, on the refugees struggling to reach Fortress Europe. The terrorists, after all, viciously attacked those engaged in the most fundamental expressions of common humanity—eating and drinking together, listening to music, dancing together.   Should not our response, in the spirit of Coypel’s painting of the scene from Luke 21, be to move beyond misrecognition of those whom we encounter on the journey? Should we not, instead, recognize in the Other all that binds us, from the richest and poorest, and join in that most basic of communions, breaking bread together?

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Tacoma Detention Center

Protest signs at the NW Detention Center
Aztec Dance troupe on street in front of Detention Center. 
Yesterday, I accompanied curator and art historian Susan Platt on a trip to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, a for-profit detention institution run by the Geo Corporation under contract to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.)   Susan has organized the excellent exhibition “Migration,”
on display at Columbia City Gallery in Seattle through July 5

The NW Detention Center has been in the news for alleged human rights violations, including beatings and extreme use of solitary confinement, directed against undocumented persons who have not been been convicted of (or even charged with) any crime. As of yesterday 1,466 detainees were held in the center.  The immigration detention system, run by for profit corporations, exists outside of the US Federal correctional system and is not subject to regular judicial oversight. The Center was recently discussed in a stinging Seattle Times editorial:

For years, there have been Saturday community protests outside of the detention center, in the Tidal Flats area of Tacoma.  Yesterday, the protests featured a skilled dance performance by a Seattle-based Aztec-style dance troupe, who sought the blessing of Mother Earth as they began their dance, honoring the four cardinal directions. The courageous (undocumented) immigration rights activist Maru Mora Villalpando explained in her remarks that the performers also honored the indigenous divinities of the Puyallup Tribe, on whose land the Detention Center stands. The dances were dazzling; the beautifully feathered and caped performers burned incense in a special ritual vessel, placed on a bandana, toward which they repeatedly knelt as they danced in the street in front of the Detention Center.

I spoke with the very eloquent Ms. Villalpando, who has appeared on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now
and on many other broadcasting platforms.

I noted that Central Washington University is embarking on a year devoted to exploring the theme of mass incarceration, including administrative detention of undocumented immigrants.  Might it be possible to partner with the various organizations working with and on behalf of the detained?  Maru thought it was well worth exploring. We could certainly do expressive arts workshops, poetry writing/performance or family literacy events for the family members of detainees, on the strip of grass in front of the center. (The courts have adjudicated this area of "free speech zone," a civil liberties attorney explained.)  Direct access to the detainees, with whom we might want to do arts or performance projects, will be much more challenging since normally they are only able to communicate with the outside world across glass windows on telephones that don’t work well. But it may be possible to request a more flexible policy. 

We heard many moving and disturbing stories from former detainees and relatives about conditions inside the Detention Center. Hardly any exercise or activities for the detainees, who in some cases have been kept imprisoned for up to three years with minimal contacts with loved ones.  Beatings, threats and intimidation by the private security guards, with retaliation by ICE and the GEO corporation for any protests, including hunger strikes.  Maru said some detainees try to create art on their own out of scraps of plastic; more systematic expressive arts workshops would be life-sustaining, she thought.

A great deal to look into, clearly!

Monday, June 8, 2015

Scarlett Coten Mektoub

On Thursday June 18, Scarlett Coten's exhibition, Mectoub (Mektoub) will be opening at Mariane Ibrahim Gallery in Seattle.
Scarlet Coten, Mectoub

Her work in this series may be seen on line at:

I've drafted a preliminary label for her installation:

Scarlett Coten.  Mectoub

The “Arab Spring” of 2011 gave media visibility to courageous struggles by Muslim men and women in the Mediterranean world to reclaim the public sphere and exercise their democratic rights against violent forces of repression.  Much less is known about their interior struggles for dignity, joy, beauty, and self-fulfillment—in a rapidly changing, often precarious world.

Since 2011, Scarlett Coten has worked with urban Arab men across the region, from Morocco to Palestine, situating them in interior spaces.  She titles the series “Mectoub” (Mektoub), a word in Arabic literally meaning “It is written.”  The term, sometimes translated as “Fate” or “Destiny,” can also be understood in the sense of a profound personal journey of discovery, the goals and contours of which are rarely revealed to the traveler at the outset. 

Coten’s work is framed by a critical knowledge of the long history of Western Orientalist photography, in which Arab women in particular have been depicted as exotic, desirable, and forbidden “subjects” of the European camera.  In Mektoub, men at times stretch out on divans in ways that play on the “Odalisque” genre in Western art, in which beautiful women of the “East” were displayed presenting themselves for the eroticized pleasure of the male gaze.Yet, the men in Cotten’s images are hardly compliant or subordinate; they stare back at the camera with pride, strength, and defiance. At times, they appear to look beyond the camera or the photographer, towards a still-uncharted future. Towards their Mektoub. Their journey. Their fate.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Rachel Corrie event

Yesterday, our colleagues Cynthia Mitchell (Journalism) and Jay Ball (Theater) organized an event around a reading of selections from the play, "My Name is Rachel Corrie," to kick off our campus celebrations of First Amendment week.  Rachel's parents, Craig and Cindy Corrie, spoke eloquently about their daughter's life and the work of the Foundation they have established in her memory. Three skilled students in our Theater BFA program, directed by Jay, performed scenes from the work.  The play, in Rachel's own words, is usually performed as a one woman show, but in this instance Jay had the lines move  fluidly between the three young women performers  At one point, two of the actresses accidentally spoke over one another, which struck me as quite as quite appropriate, given the play's evocation of Rachel's own overlapping, at times messy, internal dialogue. As in the past, I was particularly struck by the line in which the young Rachel ponders her own frequent shifts in point of view, and wonders if that is what life is--"a new draft for every day"?

Cindy spoke of the famous incident, a month before her daughter's death, in which Rachel was photographed burning a child's drawing of the American flag. As Cindy noted, it is important to understand the context of this event. This was on the day of the international mass protests against the US invasion of Iraq, at time when it was vital that members of the International Solidarity Movement build a degree of trust with the local Palestinian community; Rachel had refused the initial request to burn an image of the Israeli flag on the grounds she would never desecrate a Star of David; and she had penciled in the strips of the "flag' the names of the US military-industrial corporations most likely to benefit from the coming war, precisely to demonstrate that not all of America was equally complicit in the coming war.  (As my colleague Geraldine O'Mahoney noted, these nuances were often reported in European coverage of the incident, but were often left out in US coverage.) At the time, some US rightwing commentators asserted that having committed this flag-burning act of treason Rachel "deserved" her death at hands of an IDF bulldozer driver.  As Anne Cubilie and Craig Corrie remarked, such representations entirely effaced the enormous courage required to engage in sustained non-violent protest and international solidarity in human rights struggles.

In my remarks on the panel, I riffed a bit on the point, made repeatedly by Noam Chomsky, that freedom of expression is repressed in the US not primarily through governmental action, but through more subtle mechanism of market-oriented mass media conglomerates, and the even more subtly through the organization of seeming “common sense” in modern American culture. The Amnesty International report on human rights atrocities during the recent IDF operations in Gaza, for example, is freely available to all on line, but was hardly reported in mainstream US coverage.

As a case of point of the ideological operations of cultural-mediated repression, I returned to the flag burning incident and its circulation in the US mediascape.  The incident, it occurred to me, stands in striking  contrast to the performance we had just seen. At stake in these two moments are two very different modes of envisioning  relations between the Living and the Dead; they exemplify what we might call the Nationalist and Humanistic visions of memorialization, two alternate modes of imagining symbolic exchange between the Living and the Dead.  The first  tends to represses free expression, while the second is potentially liberatory.

In their book,  Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag, Carolyn Marvin and David W. Ingle argue that in modern American civil religion, the Stars and Stripes has been sacralized as the reborn soul of the martyred soldier who has fallen in battle, through whose blood sacrifice in war the entire nation is regenerated.  This has the unfortunate effect of homogenizing the dead, rendering them all identical in a generic fashion, erasing all traces of their complexity and individuality.  We saw this process at play in the weeks after 9-11 in lower Manhattan, as the haunting mini-memorials to the lost, in the form of photocopied photographs of missing loved ones, were gradually replaced with American flags, a process that marked the nationalization of the Dead, turning them into a nationalist pantheon of martyrs. This ritual process of "recruiting" the homogenized Dead was critical in the ideological run up to the Iraq war. It was also consistent with the public demonization by the Right of Rache, as if, in burning the child's drawing of the flag, she had desecrated the memory of the 9-11 victims and American military servicemen.

How different from this rather cult-like mechanical ritualization of the generic Dead, is the play "My Name is Rachel Corrie", which enables a very different dynamic relationship to emerge between the Living and the Dead, between the living audience and the lost young woman whom we come to know.  The play bravely complexifies a particular person, in all her contradictions, tensions, with multiple, experimental voices, sometimes even bursting out into song and dance. Hence, the brilliance of staging the play through three activists, allowing them even to talk over one another.  The text edited by Alan Rickman in this respect is reminiscent of The Diary of Anne Frank, allowing us, in effect, to listen in on the process of interior psycho-social development. We hear a changing voice governed by a profound ethical sense, but protean, in process, in continuous revision. In Rachel’s own words, we hear life being lived as “a new draft for every day.”

And that at the end of the day is what we fight for each day in defending the First Amendment (both in its US constitutional form and as a yet-to-be-realized global ideal)-- the right not to be governed by a singular homogenous reductive vision of the Living or of the Dead. The right to exist in a state of contradiction and of experimentation, the right to listen, against all odds, for those small unacknowledged voices in productive tension with one another.  The right, so beautifully demonstrated in the play, to acknowledge nightmares and humor in the same line, to profoundly disagree with others and even with oneself. For the right in Rachel’s words, to live life in a constant  process of becoming. To live a “new draft for every day.”

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Jim Chuchu New Works

ReMixing Possession:  Dreaming Futures Past in the Work of Jim Chuchu
Jim Chuchu, Pagans, 2014

1.Video: “To Catch a Dream (215)
2. Photographic series:  Pagans (2014)
3. Video: “Invocation (Part One/ The Severance of Ties; Part Two/Release (2015) Currently on display in Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, Seattle, WA, MAY 7 – JUNE 13, 2015
(For purchase in Collector's Edition only)

I recently attended an opening of  Kenyan artist Jim Chuchu at the Mariane Ibrahim Gallery in Seattle, WA.  Chuchu manages to traverse territories of experience that are simultaneously ancient and contemporary, rediscovering in the heart of cosmopolitan hipness startling dreamscapes that open up unexpected chasms, into spiritual zones half-forgotten or long eclipsed.

In the new video work, “To Catch a Dream,” by Chuchu and his NEST collective, a young woman (played by famed Kenyan supermodel Ajuma Nasenyana) is plagued each night by the dream of her dead lover, as she sleeps in her fashionable urbane home. Catching the dream in a bag she travels into the Land of Dreams to return the soul of the dead to a deity (another beautiful female figure, perhaps an alter ego of the dreamer) who claims the soul as her own. Her quest takes her across water and through canyons, into a distant African past that remains sharp and stylish. Caught between the lands of the living and of the dead, between waking and sleep, she makes a profound choice, embracing love and union with Mystery, leaving her metropolitan home quiet, still, and empty.

In “Pagans” (2014) and “Invocation,” (2015)  Chuchu takes us on other profound and dizzying journeys of psycho-spiritual time travel, spanning distant African pasts and potential Afro-futures,  In so doing he remixes the popular religious experience of spirit possession—the penetration of the human body, at times willful, at times unbidden, by the vast, invisible forces of the universe. In many communities in African and its Diaspora, spiritual presences are summoned into the body of the novice through dance, music, chanting, masking and other disciplines. The initial experience of possession, many devotees explain, is often terrifying, experienced as a kind of dreadful, incapacitating illness or sense of freefall. Seeking healing, the possessed often join secret societies or “cults of affliction” that promise them relief from the terrors of the possessing other.  In striking contrast to many Christian and Muslim traditions, the goal of ceremonial action is not to exorcise or cast out the spirit out. Rather, the rites establish productive alliances between the living worshipper and the spirit, so that that the mysterious power becomes a source of life-enhancing strength, binding the once troubled soul into an empowered community of “wounded healers.”   

“Pagans” ( 2014)

In his Pagans series, Chuchu evokes and remixes these enigmatic moments of possession, of intimate, radical encounters with spiritual entities that are both terrifying and life-fulfilling. The possessing forces are glimpsed by the dancer in the form of lightning, wild animals, or the celestial energies of a nocturnal starscape, wrapping itself around and through the body of the worshiper.  Starting in Images 7 and 8, the ancient spiritual novice blast off to become, in images 9 through 12 a far future “Afronaut” —flying through galaxies as yet uncharted, becoming, in the flash of a supernova, at one with the cosmos.  In many African spiritual traditions, trees are understood as abodes of the ancestors and divinities, providing their human charges with medicines and spiritual tools (including wood for mask making) that connect the living to the invisible powers. Appropriately, in Pagans 8,10, and 12, the devotee seems to grow branches out of his eyes or arms, transforming his body into a kind of world tree—conducting the chaotic, creative energies of the universe between sky and earth in great arcs of light.

We witness a more intimate process of possession in images 13, 14, 15.  In 13, three female adepts are bathed in the glow of a sphere, perhaps a distant planet, that seems to pulse with spiritual energy. In 14, the power of divinity selects out a singular worshiper, descending towards her with the lightness of a feather. Her eyes are now dramatically animated; she has become fully awakened. In 15, the electrical explosion of Spirit has merged with her being, the sphere now radiating out of her skull as the released currents leap skyward.

In image 16, I am guessing, we have reached a new level of consciousness. Perhaps, following their celestial odyssey the Afronauts have landed on a new world.  Here, the worshippers-turned-deities are connected to the sky not through blinding lightning bolts but through thin, graceful lines of transmission. The floating feather is no longer a dangerous source of uncontrolled power but rather a gentle element of spiritual potency, to be played with in the breeze. Here, suspended somewhere between most ancient past and future farscape, the Afronauts have come home.

(Video installation, 2015)

Rites of possession in Africa have long been associated with alternate forms of personhood and connection.  In many tradition-based communities, persons who feel oppressed within the lineage or clan into which they we were born may be born anew into the collectivity of the secret society, made up of those who have learned to live productively with their possessing spirit.

In “Invocation,” Chuchu remixes this ancient template to envision a much more radical separation.  In part one/the severance of tie, a swirling young male body dances, to the movement and rhythms that in other times would be associated with spirit possession, with the summoning of an invisible presence into visible flesh.  A disembodied male voice pronounces, to a beat that is simultaneously ancient and techno: I am not your son. I am not your blood. Letters and a pulsing curser flash across the screen, alluding to duty and love and evil, perhaps traces of an anguished, emailed correspondence between father and son.

Are we to infer that the young man has come out to his father, and that the father, in homophobic rage, has cast out his son? Now, in this novel, psychedelic rite of techno-possession, the young man pronounces his own separation from the bonds of biological lineage and compulsory heterosexuality.

As in ancient rites of  possession in Africa, this act of invocation, while emerging out of pain and unexpected injury, is transformed into a purposeful occasion of strength and empowerment. The body, swirling like a Sufi devotee seeking oneness with the Godhead, pulses with growing energy, growing the multiple arms of a Hindu divinity, emerging out of a chrysalis towards some other form of being.

Although the young man has been rejected and cast out, he is not facing an entirely solitary future.  He is guided after all by the clapping rhythms of a line of young men, who would seem to stand in solidarity with him. Like the ancient initiate, he loses one family only to gain another one. We share the hope that like the soaring Afronauts of the Pagans series he too will, in time, safely land on a new planet, a new home, a new Nest offering love and dignity and harmony.

In the video work's conclusion, Part two/Release, we are allowed a glimpse of this more optimistic future. Two male figures in silhouette move across the screen, rising and falling from our field vision; they hold their heads upwards, and from their mouths columns of smoke billow skywards. Presumably, they are expelling a lifetime of stigma and stifled longing, perhaps even self loathing and externalized oppression. One figure falls below the screen and a new one, evidently reborn in a fuller, more integrated form, appears to the left. He moves towards the second figure, and they momentarily embrace and intertwine. Rejected from one set of ties, the traveler, at long last, is coming home.


Saturday, May 2, 2015

Comfort Women Panel Review

Reading of "Comfort Women" testimonies, SURC pit
On Tuesday evening, April 28 we held our academic panel on the “Comfort Women” issue (“Sexual Slavery in the Wartime Japanese Empire: The Historical Record and the Politics of Memory”) and associated activities.  Since the two different groups were in such close proximity, we had been a little nervous about potential confrontations with the Comfort Women denier group, associated with the screening of the film “Scottsboro Girls,” but everything was peaceful and without overt confrontation.  A group of students from China staged a dignified, silent vigil in front of the theater room in the Student Union, where the film was being screened, without any unpleasant incidents.

The Korean Association chartered a bus from Seattle, and we had many fascinating and moving conversations with community members as everyone milled around waiting for the events to start. Our History and Museum Studies students had worked closely with Bang-Soon and Chong Eun to create in the SURC pit a striking small exhibition about Comfort Women and their long-term Wednesday protests in Seoul.

I attended the first half hour of the revisionist session upstairs in the theater. Our colleague Mariko Okada-Collins (a Japanese language instructor in World Languages) initially spoke about how she come to invite the director, Junjiro Taniyama. I was struck that at one point she explained she was doing all of this in part to redeem and defend the memory of her grandfather who had died, perhaps of starvation, in combat operations in New Guinea during World War II. She held up his photograph as she spoke and noted that her family had never even gotten his bones; she feels called to defend him, in effect, from charges of rape—the implication that the Imperial Japanese military organized  a wartime sexual slavery system.  I was very moved and fascinated by this moment, and later reflected upon it in my remarks at the academic panel, summarized below.

I did get to hear some of Dr. Koichi Mera’s remarks; he’s particularly known for this role in the lawsuit seeking to block the Comfort Women statue in Glendale, CA. So far as I could tell, he followed the standard revisionist script, repeating the points that have been repeatedly rebutted in such sites as:

We then went downstairs for a screening of a film about the Comfort Women activists, “The Butterflies flying high with Hope,”  in the SURC pit. I was gratified to see a substantial crowd, that swelled to about 140 for the readings of Comfort Women testimonies, organized by my colleague Jay Ball in Theater. Jay, in consultation with the rest of the organizing committee, was careful to incorporate testimonies by Korean, Chinese, Filippino and Chinese women; the team worked hard to complicate standard nationalist narratives by including different kinds of accounts from diverse sources.  They also practiced in an aesthetic sense what Julian Bonder has termed an ‘ethics of deferral’; they strove to speak clearly and simply, not emoting or ‘acting’ out the testimonies but, as much as possible, serving only as channels for the testimonies themselves. (Inevitably, given the power of the material, some emotions did break through.) The readings were restrained and dignified, with haunting moments of silence along the way.

Brian Carroll of our History Department then read  aloud the widely circulated letter by US historians of Japan, submitted to the AHA:

Brian noted that all members of the CWU History Department had added their names to the letter in solidarity.

We then moved upstairs to the ballroom for the academic panel. By our count, about 285 gathered in the room, and the great majority stayed for the whole two hour session.  We’d agreed to keep ourselves to strict time limits, to allow for serious discussion with the audience, and we were grateful that  Arts and Humanities Dean Stacey Robertson, our moderator, was able to keep us right on track, never easy with a group of scholars!   We began with a keynote by political scientist Bang-Soon Yoon providing an overview of the state sponsored system of sexual slavery known euphemistically as the “Comfort Women” system, first developed by the Japanese Imperial Navy in Shanghai in 1932 and then adapted by the Imperial Army. She then reviewed some of the solidarity work done by the Comfort Women activists and their close allies. These groups have worked in support of victims of military rape in other contexts around the globe, from the Eastern Congo to (most recently) Vietnam. Later she was able to show us some of the paintings created by Comfort Women, in some cases in art therapy contexts; really fascinating images that call for close readings of the intertwined dynamics of violence and redemption.

Yukiko Shigeto of Whitman College took us in a quite different direction from the narrative historiography of the keynote, noting the challenges of any process of representing the pain of others, especially those, like the Comfort Women, whose voices have been so long effaced or erased. How do we begin to hear their voices, without, in performance or in written texts, unintentionally erasing them? She linked this challenge to the insidious dangers of the discourse of “multiple perspectives” within the normative American ideological framework of academic freedom and the the co equal marketplace of ideas. The revisionist film’s title, “Scottsboro Girls” implies that testimonies of the women are fabricated, inflicting in her view an epistemic violence that pushes their voices into oblivion. How, she asks, in the face of all of this do we learn to listen, “beyond our conventional hearing range”?

Justin Jesty (University of Washington) then took us through the twists and turns of public discourse in Japan and the wider region of the Comfort Women issue across seventy years, noting that while there’s nothing new in the historical record as such (no new documents or substantial novelties in witness testimonies), the political valorizations of the narratives have dramatically altered over time. He gave particular attention to developments following the 2012 election of Prime Minister Abe’s government, including the often signaled desire by the current Cabinet to revisit the Kono statement and the increasingly toxic pressure placed on Japan’s print and broadcast media.

Davinder Bhowmik, also at the University of Washington, considered the various nationalist re-metaphorizations of the Comfort Women issue; as in other post colonial contexts, the image of the violated women’s body becomes useful for patriarchal nationalists in remasculinizing the postcolonial state; picking up on Yukiko’s points, she noted that this often happens in such a way as to undo the integrity of women’s experiences of suffering and subvert potential transnational solidarities among women.  Art and literature she emphasized, are vital media for recovering those voices and productive potentialities, in the face of cynical nationalist deployments of the CW issue, across the political and geographical spectrum. To illustrate the point she read a selection from an Okinawan short story she has translated (soon to be published), “The Tree of the Butterflies,” set during the tumultuous battle of Okinawa in spring 1945. A group of women seek refuge in a cave, a deeply resonant trope in postwar Okinawa literature, redolent with the imagery of the many civilians killed by Imperial Japanese and Allied forces during the battle. If I understood Davinder’s reading, the cave in the story is simultaneously figured as a kind tomb and womb, a site of nearly unbearable loss as well as potential coming to consciousness. An Okinawan woman is “comforted” (a term replete with irony in these contexts) by a Korean “Comfort Woman,” who caresses her wounded back as they cower in silence. Later the Okinawan woman realizes she never even thought to ask the Korean women her name.  The challenge of that silence, of the un-namedness, haunts us still as we struggle to trace the all-too-tenuous lines of connectedness among women in the Asia Pacific region, so easily fractured by multiple nationalist projects.

Chong Eun Ahn (an historian at Central) in turn picked up on themes in Davinder and Yukiko’s comments; she spoke to the complexities  of colonial subjectivity, in occupied Korea and elsewhere. For all the simplistic efforts to reduce the Comfort Women histories to simplistic binaries (Korea vs. Japan,  Conqueror vs Conquered, etc. the experience of colonial women in the system can’t be reduced to resistance or complicity; there is a complex intermediate space inhabited by colonial subjects, and most complexly by women coerced into sexual subjugations in wartime.  Similarly, the categories of race and ethnicity in the discourse of the rightist revisionists, and of nationalists elsewhere in the region, need to be critiqued and rethought. How do we acknowledge the vast weight and numbing terror of oppressive systems of structural violence, while also recognizing subaltern agency and dignity, amidst all that which seeks to strip them of dignity? To do this she turns to DeCerteau’s distinction between strategies (generally available to the dominant) and tactics (generally available to the subaltern), Our challenge in alliance with the oppressed, past and present, might be conceived of as transforming tactics (of everyday survival and resistance) into strategies (of long term empowerment, dignity, solidarity,and nurturance) that cut across putative nationalist distinctions.

Anne Cubilié, another colleague at Central, who has written extensively on women’s wartime narratives of human rights atrocities in wartime, spoke to profound value of women’s first hand testimonies. Like others, she noted that for all the minor variations, there is a profound consistency to the deep patterns of the events described, a consistency that speaks to their great evidentiary value, which had been dismissed at the well known early post war tribunals. She emphasized the enormous courage it takes for women to tell of sexual violence and rape, of the need to respect meaningful silences, and of the necessity of art, fiction, poetry and other media that transcend conventional language to evoke, explore and redress the fundamental assaults on language, meaning and bodily integrity associated with rape in wartime.

I closed with some reflections on how the problem of the un-mourned Dead is interpolated into these crises of historical interpretation.  I had been so struck at the revisionist event, that Ms. Okada Collins began her remarks by holding the photograph of her dead grandfather, killed in war in an unknown place, his remains denied to his loved ones. I found myself think of Roland Barthes’ famous observation that in the era of photography, we all die two deaths; a physical death and the second death when our face in the photograph is no longer recognized.  Photographs of the under-recognized dead are also held in Seoul in the weekly "Comfort Women" Wednesday protests by survivors and their allies.  For all the bitter arguments that divide us, how striking that all turn to these familiar everyday icon of modernity, the family photograph, to express the un-expressable pain of loss. How do we make sense of the ways in which the unsettled Dead weigh upon the minds and hearts of so many in the wider Asia Pacific region? (John Dower, in Embracing Defeat encapsulates a fundamental cultural challenge of the Occupation era to Japanese psyches in his pithy phrase: what do you tell the Dean when you lose?  There are a multitude of other voices of the unrecognized dead in the devastated lands of the war’s ostensible victors.)  How do these un-mourned souls enter into our undertakings at this moment, in the adjacent room of the revisionists and among us pondering this scholarly panel tonight?

In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry notes that a primary function of torture is to erase the voice of the tortured. This is true from Treblinka to Guantanamo, and surely there was an aspect to that dynamic in the “Comfort Women” brothels and encampments, a silencing, erasure and shattering of language intertwined with the most intimate forms of violence against bodily integrity.  Against that history, cruelly echoed by postwar structures of shame and overt repression, how do we heed Yukiko’s call for learning to listen beyond our own hearing range? Art, as others have noted, is more than solace; it is a vital point of departure and return for the reconstruction of narrative coherence.  Davinder’s commentary on the Okinawan short story, “The Tree of Butterflies” is exemplary: the space of the cave, a space of terror where names disappear in the darkness, is paradoxically also a place of potential rebirth, where in the caressing touch between women new bonds of connectedness just might, against all odds, come into being.

That image of the lost name, the name never asked for in the darkness, puts me in mind of Shoshanna Feldman’s re-reading in The Judicial Unconscious of the famous incident discussed in Hannah Arendt’s Eichman in Jerusalem, in which a witness, a former inmate at Auschwitz, is asked his name by the Prosecutor. Here in Planet Auschwitz we have no names, the names are somewhere else, on the planet of the living.  He begins, in panic to hear the voices of the unnamed Dead. He tries to escape from the voices summoned up by the trial by leaving the witness box and is ordered back in by a magistrate. In terror, he collapses.

For Arendt, such moments demonstrate the futility of public tribunals predicated on survivor testimony, on what she views as unseemly spectacle, in contrast to the gravitas of Nuremberg in which evidence of was grounded in the written documents of the perpetrators.  For Feldman, in contrast, the witness’ collapse, the embodied performance of ellipsis, is the most eloquent responses to the unspeakable terror and violation of the Shoah.  

Theater, dance, fiction, poetry, visual art are all highly mediated engagements with those kinds of eloquent performances (even involuntary ones) but the wounded, by the primary witnesses of terror. As illustrated by the readings Jay organized earlier in the evening, they often seem most effective when they are guided by an ethics of deferral that doesn’t claim direct mimesis but rather calls attention to its own devisedness, its necessary artifice and limitation, forging a space of distance in which, paradoxically, we the living may sense remarkable intimacy with the voices and traces of violated dead.

Those voices in the cave, in the dark, are not the monopoly of any given nation or people. During the war, the national radio broadcasts of the Yasukuni Shrine enshrinement rites were unexpectedly punctuated by the cries of mothers and sisters, who found not solace in the Shinto state’s claim that the military war dead were being apotheosized as national divinities.  We need to hear those cries of those bereaved women of Japan as well as the cries of those coerced in sexual slavery as “Comfort Women.” Not because they are all the same, or can can all be considered without regards to measures of complicity. But because they all demand our sustained attention  if we have any hope of escaping the cycles of revenge and mutual recrimination, that still seem to plague the Asia-Pacific seven decades after the war’s end.  We still need to learn to hear the voices of the Dead and those who mourn, and rediscover amidst those echoes the possibilities of our common humanity.

We then turned to discussion with the audience. John Treat (Yale, emeritus) noted the Second World War is, in a sense, still not over in East Asia: Russia and Japan have not signed a peace treaty, the Korean peninsula remains divided. Do the Comfort Women stands in for the absence of resolution to the war?

We found this question fascinating. Davinder brought up Yoshikuni Igarashi’s Bodies of Memory as she pondered why the image of the body of  Comfort Women seems so endlessly productive across all the regions caught up in the Asia Pacific conflict. For Chong Eun, an important legacy of the war are long terms patterns of poverty and economic inequality. Surviving CW were problematic in part because they were low income, belying mythologies of postwar economic miracles in Korea and elsewhere.

Others discussed the challenges of vocabulary. Former CW in the early days struggled over how to characterize themselves, given that no other term than prostitute existed in their mother tongues when they returned home.

A older gentleman who had come out from Seattle shared stories from his own youth in occupied North Korea, of young women fearful of going out on the street, of being taken away from colleges in forced CW recruitment. We were moved that as he spoke he noted that the suffering of Korean women, as terrible as it was, was not unique; that we had to remain mindful of all women raped in war, including German women at the war’s end, as the Red Army advanced.

In similar vein, others noted that the CW case should never be used to excuse other perpetrators of injustice, including the United States. We need to concentrate at certain moments on specific cases, to be sure, but we should do this, ultimately in the interest of refining of comparative understandings of global gender injustice and militarism throughout the globe. Dean Robertson picked up on this theme in her call for a year of dialogue on campus, emerging for this panel, on enduring cycles of gendered violence, sexual slavery and trafficking.  My colleague in American Indian Studies, Marna Carroll, picked up questions about the pedagogic challenges of historical self-critique: we critically examine histories of Native American genocide, she often reminds her students, not because we hate America because we love America, because we wish to help live up its inspiring founding promises. Similarly, to critically examine Japan’s histories of wartime atrocity is not to engage in “Japan bashing” but to be attentive to dialectics of oppression and liberation that exist in a vast number of historical contexts.

One student asked about the challenges faced in educating and empowering youth to engage with these historical narratives, whether about the Holocaust or slavery or Comfort Women, when there has been a profound rupture in generational transmission. The question struck us as especially salient in the wake of Baltimore’s response to Freddie Gray’s death, as young protestors decry not only decades of police brutality but also the failures of older generations’ leadership. What new kinds of media, from Slam Poetry to Spoken Word to Hip Hop, are needed as global youth take up the challenge of recovering histories of suffering and recasting them in ways to extended the bonds of human community?

I don’t feel I’ve done justice to the subtlety of the various commentaries and questions, but I hope plan to put up some video from the panel on line. In the meantime, the following post, in Korean, shares some photographs from the revisionist forum, from our reading of testimonies, and from the academic panel:

Afterwards, a number of students told me how much they enjoyed watching their professors argue among themselves on the panel (without being disagreeable) and that they appreciated that while there were profound critiques of the narratives being promulgated next door in the revisionist forum, there was never a trace of personal hostility or ad hominen attack expressed by the panelists. We had been hoping to model for our students rigorous and mature scholarly discourse, not holding back from expressing our significant disagreements with one another. At the same time, we tried to make clear our shared, fundamental commitment to the principle that there is, at the end of the day, such a thing as “evidence” — that can be rationally and responsibly assessed in our never-ending search for deeper understandings of history and of the potential pathways forward.

So many people, near and far, provided invaluable resources and sounding boards as Chong-Eun and I organized the panel, re-immersed ourselves in the salient literature, and pondered how to hit the right tone—resisting pressures towards silence or simplistic reductionism while also avoiding  pettiness or personal rancor.  Among these were Norma Field, Tomomi Yamaguchi, Ellen Schattschneider, Tani Barlow, Angela Zito, Andy Gordon, Chris Nelson, Jordan Sand, and Emi Koyama. We can’t adequately express our gratitude towards these colleagues and many others, including those who drove out from the University of Washington in Seattle to stand with us in collegial solidarity during this most unexpected evening.  Thank you all.

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 Cubilié  (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.