Sunday, July 30, 2017

Pussyhats and Knitting Resistance

Four MSU Museum staff members—Molly McBride, Lynne Swanson, Shirley Wajda, and Mary Worral— have gathered together as independent curators to create a fascinating new exhibition, in the Art, Art History, and Design Gallery in the MSU Student Union through mid-September.  “Knitting the Resistance” showcases material culture produced and deployed at the Women’s Marches—held on January 25, 2017 on the National Mall and across the country.  The exhibition draws extensively on the MSU “craftivism” (craft plus activism) collection, and centers on materials gathered since the November 8, 2016 presidential election.  The exhibition showcases  the pink “pussyhats" created by marchers and their supporters as a wry response to Donald J. Trump’s infamous assertion in the Access Hollywood tape that he could freely grab women by their genitalia.

As MSU Museum curator Shirley Wajda notes in a January 2017 New Yorker report    pussyhats emerged out of a complex historical genealogy, dating back at least to the neo- classical red Phrygian caps, the woolen conical hats worn by French Revolutionaries, which alluded in part to the pileus cap worn by emancipated slaves in ancient Rome.

During the same period, one might add, textiles and resistance culture were also intimately associated in the storytelling practices of sailors. As detailed by Marcus Rediker in his book,  Outlaws of the Atlantic (Beacon Press, 2014),  18th century sailors picking apart and refashioning the ropes would entertain one another on board ship with dramatic stories of maritime adventure, often emphasizing courageous resistance to  unjust authority. Hence, “Spinning a Yarn” —creating a mesmerizing, hyperbolic narrative that would inspire bravery against all odds.

Quilting, embroidery, and needlework circles also played significant roles in abolitionist and suffragist activism by women across the 19th and early 20th centuries: the intimate, shared voluntary labor of stitching and piecing, primarily by wome, was iconic of the solidarity experienced by those united in the common cause.

More recently, as Kirsty Robertson chronicles in her compelling chapter Rebellious Doilies and Subversive Stitches: Writing a Crafivisit History (in Maria Elena Buszek edited volume, Extra/Ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art) activist women have long reclaimed domestic fabric arts and redirected them into the public sphere.  Anti-militarist women occupying Greenham Common in the UK in the 1980s used knitting and related craft arts in keeping with their emphasis on self-sufficiency, as well as to emphasize (in a manner that was at times critiqued in radical feminist circles) that they were “ordinary women and mothers.”  Diverse feminist and anti-globalization activists have celebrated hand-made craft labor, including knitting, as exemplifying resistance against sweatshops and the global commodified apparel industry. Radical knitting circles, while often sharing patterns and technique on line, have allowed for a re-emphasis on face-to-face solidarity that to some extent seeks to counter balance the alienation and anomie of cyberspace. While often made in private, the products of these efforts are at times forcefully inserted into the public sphere, as in the 2005 “Wombs on Washington” project, in which activists placed knitted wombs on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington DC--as they advocated for court decisions upholding women’s reproductive rights.

Pussyhats exemply this transformation from private domestic production to public culture, in which the classically domestic and “feminine” is used to make dramatic claims on the visible structure of the polis itself. In this sense, they cleverly subvert the broad, unconscious structure of gendered associations that is at the heart, anthropologist Sherry Ortner long ago argued, of the universal subordination of women in virtually all known human societies:  “female is to male, as nature is to culture.”   (Ortner applied here a central insight articulated by Claude Levi-Strauss, the founder of structural anthropology, that many of the most important principles in human cultures are generated out of the underlying equation, A is to B as C is to D—with the important caveat, Levi-Strauss argued, that ultimately those seeming equations are always subject to contradiction, tension and ambiguity. ) In its overt form, the overall equation “female is to nature as male is to culture” generally holds, in effect, that while women are vital to biological reproduction (the gestation of babies and their nurturing through breast feeding) this labor is subordinated to the really important work, generally monopolized by men, of reproducing society itself. Thus, in many human societies, blood associated with female reproductive capacity (menstrual blood or the blood of childbirth) is stigmatized or rendered polluted, while blood associated with male activities of social reproduction (in hunting, sacrifice, or warfare) is glorified and often classified as sacred.

In a way that I suspect Levi-Strauss would have appreciated, pussyhats quite literally take this ubiquitous structuralist equation and “turn it on its head.”  The redness of menstrual and uterine blood, and the pinkness of the vagina’s soft tissue, move from being hidden and demeaned (and thus being subject to male domination and violent depredation)  to being the public building blocks of positive political action, key to re-imagining a new public vision of society itself.  The vaginal “pussy” is actively moved from being individual and hidden to being public and visible. (In this sense, the pink pussyhat builds upon the well-known re-appropriation of the Nazi pink triangle in AIDS activism, often linked to the ACT UP tagline, “Silence = Death”).  At a moment of mass crisis, pinkness necessarily had to re-claim its space in the public center of society. Along the way, the feline (classically linked to the solitary and the feminine) cleverly challenges the dominant symbolism of the canine (social, masculine):  untold thousands of pussyhats, sporting a cat’s distinctive upturned ears, flood together into the nation’s streets and public square.

This transition from private to public “pinkness’ and ‘pussy-ness’ is nicely evoked by the exhibition team, which backs the installation with a wall length mural for the Women’s March, in front of which gallery visitors may snap their own selfies, locating themselves within this dramatic historical moment, co-participating as individuals within mass social action.

Walking through the exhibition, I was reminded of two foundational essays on the anthropology of the body, by my teachers Terry Turner and Jean Comaroff.  In  “The Social Skin,”  Terry Turner argued that the skin, the encompassing medium that stands between the person and the wider social context, is invariably a vital dynamic canvas upon which the relationship between person and society can be dramatically altered, especially as a person journeys through successive stages in life:  thus body painting, tattooing, incisions, and changing hair and clothing forms help to constitute new social positions and identities as we moved from the status of newborn through maturity to elder-hood and even through death towards ancestorhood.  In “Bodily Reform as Historical Practice.”  Jean Comaroff, in turn, argues that at moments of historical crisis, the human body, especially its charged surface frontiers, becomes a highly charged arena for re-imagining and re-navigating the overall geography of the social.  Thus, long hair, or dreads, or dyed hair may serve not only as an individual sign of personal differentiation from the mainstream, but as a collective expression of social protest and mass mobilization. 

Is this not precisely the labor to which pussyhats were in part dedicated, transforming the individual into the collective? The human head--which is normally in modern society endlessly manicured and reworked in pursuit of individual, commodified differentiation-- here became a visible platform of interlinked identification. Millions of marchers, around the world, became “pussies,” reclaiming a term long used as an insult into a tangible, touchable expression of strength and solidarity.

And here again, I find myself thinking of Levi-Strauss. He famously argued that animals and plants are not simply “good to eat,” but are “good to think.” Cognition, and especially cognition about the social universe and our place within it, invariably draws on models drawn from the speciation of organisms, a source of endless human contemplation, especially in the institution known as “totemism,” in which many indigenous groups have insisted upon fundamental likeness between themselves and non human species, and on underlying contrasts between themselves and other species (We are the bear clan. They are the raven clan.)  On January 25, millions of people, in effect, became pussycats, in differentiation, it would seem, from predating canines, whom they associated with the newly installed holder of the Office of the Presidency.   In so doing they reclaimed essential components of humanity—female, sexualized, reproductive, generative and nurturing—associated with the other meaning of the word “pussy.”  It would be hard to imagine a clearer demonstration of the central argument in Levi-Strauss’s work: in embracing and embodying tangible signifiers of our non-human alter egos, we come to rediscover and redefine the contours and possibilities of the human itself.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Birdsong in the Museum

Kirtland's warbler
The MSU Museum's newest exhibition, Michigan Bird Conservation Stories:Pigeons Past to Plovers Present,” opened yesterday in our Heritage Gallery, just in time for the annual conference of the American Ornithological Society, hosted this year by MSU.

The exhibition has many clever, eye-catching elements. A photo mural on the opening wall invites us into one of Michigan’s beautiful bird sanctuaries, and the whole gallery now feels like a sanctuary, full of unexpected surprises that repay the patient observer.  Against a pale blue evoking the endless sky, we encounter panels on the wide range of local scientific research by faculty and students on birds and their habitats. Swirling lines of dots evoke both graceful lines of bird flight and the busy beach paths of piping plovers.  Overlapping outlines help us understanding the contrasting aerial profiles of cranes and herons.  A Bird Education station allows children to measure their own “wingspans,” to band themselves, and embark on a scavenger hunt for the over fifty birds on display through the whole museum. The skillfully designed vinyl outline of a Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana)—an important Michigan tree under which endangered Kirtland's warblers build their nests—seems to burst out of the walls.

I'm especially impressed by the imaginative ways in which the exhibition team has integrated scientific and humanistic perspectives on the natural world and our place within it.  The gallery is framed by two mid-nineteenth century literary references to the sounds of birds. We begin with the first stanza of  Emily Dickinson’s beloved poem,

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

(I particularly love the hyphenated pause in the fourth line, which nicely reenacts the experience of listening to bird song; just when you think the melody has ceased, it starts right up again.)   Click here for the full poem)

The Dickinson passage is complemented, on the adjacent wall, by Henry David Thoreau’s aural reminiscence of Wellfleet Beach, from Chapter Four of his Cape Cod book,

“If I were required to name a sound the remembrance of which most perfectly revives the impression which the beach has made, it would be the dreary peep of the piping plover.”

For Emily Dickinson, birdsong was the most perfect objective correlative of optimism—for all that sustains us during the darkest tempests of the soul; in turn, for Rachel Carson, the absence of birdsong was the epitome of individual and collective despair. Appropriately, directly across from Dickinson’s poem is a section on Rachel Carson’s 1962 masterpiece,  Silent Spring.  Here we learn of Carson’s reliance on the important research by MSU ornithologist George Wallace on DDT’s evident impact on the campus’ robins.  (In a clever touch, a flying eagle high on the gallery wall looks down directly at Carson’s book, which so revolutionized our understandings of pesticides and environmental stewardship.)

(Read my predecessor Gary Morgan’s reflections on DDT, George Wallace,  and Rachel Carson)

Near the end of the exhibition, we learn about successful efforts to return Trumpeter Swans to Michigan. I couldn’t help but think of another literary work, E.B White’s 1970 classic work of children’s literature, The Trumpet of the Swan, The book contains a passage that I've long regarded as a vital credo for cultural anthropologists like me (and I suspect for ornithologists who study birdsong):

“The world is full of talkers, but it is rare to find anyone who listens. And I assure you that you can pick up more information when you are listening than when you are talking.”

Just as the final touches were being put on the installation, a five year old girl toured the exhibition with her mother. The girl stared hard at a remarkably realistic small diorama of a plover on a tiny patch of beach, and asked us, “So the bird died, but then, it came back to life. How did you do that?” 

The more we thought about, the more profound we realized her question was  The work of museums, after all, is to store collections in a kind of suspended animation, in silence,  in the vaults, and then, from time to time, to bring them back to “life” to be seen and contemplated by our visitors. This is the poetic truth grasped by the Night at the Museum movies, which imagine a universe in which all the museum’s displays  literally come back to life each night. The “magic" of the taxidermist is give us the illusion of Life Returned. That illusion is intensified when these long-stored mounts are brought back into the light of the public gallery, to become the objects of our restless imaginations. 

The girl’s question reminds us of a most interesting paradox at the heart of the museum’s mission. In museums, we necessarily traffic in dead things—- in preserved remains of organisms and in human- made artifacts long since abandoned. We conserve these elements so that may “live” once again. In so doing, we remind ourseleves of our deepest values and foundations— of the ancient web of life to which we are heir, and of the many strands of culture and heritage that have shaped whom we are, and whom we might become. This is why museums, which are manifestly rationalist institutions, are always hedged about with traces of the spiritual and the sacred:  traveling through the museum, we become re-connected with the profound, classical mysteries of Death and the Regeneration of Life.

Thus, the museum’s Heritage Gallery strikes me as a most appropriate setting for telling important stories of environmental conservation, especially of birds, our voluble companions in nearly every possible environment across the globe, whose endlessly diverse songs were surely the inspiration for the invention of human music many thousands of years ago.   In struggling to help bring back bird species from the edge of extinction, we give a gift to ourselves and to our posterity: the enduring promise that we may forever learn to listen, once again, to “the song without the words” and to the sound of hope that sustains us all.

Michigan Bird Conservation Stories: Pigeons Past to Piping Plovers
Heritage Gallery July 27, 2017 - June 30, 2018 

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Resilient Tree and the Other Side of Paradise

Christopher Long, Dean of the MSU  College of Arts and Letters, recently drew my attention to the remarkable ‘resilient tree’, still growing, against all odds, along the walkway that connects  the MSU Museum to Linton Hall (the earlier site of the Museum).   As explained by botany professor Frank Telewski in

this surprisingly long-lived white oak was heavily damaged in a storm in July 2016. Although its inner core was extensively rotted, the exterior zone of the surviving trunk is sufficiently healthy that the organism continues to sprout productive leaves and branches. Dr. Telewski notes that the tree, which may date to the mid-17th century, had been “topped”, or extensively pruned, in the late 1850s or early 1860s, in order to induce a more pleasinghe, bushy appearance among the trees of the old campus. A wound resulting from this harsh “topping” was subsequently covered with a metal sheet metal cap, which Dr. Telewski re-discovered in inspecting the damaged tree after the 2016 storm. The tree’s root system had presumably long suffered by the sidewalk that has run along it for many decades.

It occurs to me the complex history of this tree is an example of a phenomenon I have long been interested in, the ‘underside” of utopian imagery in campus landscape architecture.  In previous work, I have explored traces of submerged histories of slavery in the landscape of Emory College in Georgia, and other U.S. college and university campuses:       (This discussion is expanded in Chapter Five of my book The Accidental Slaveowner  

For a millennium, universities have been structured as utopian spaces, permitting their visitors and residents tangible glances of the Eternal. Yet in much of the United States, these physical models of Paradise rested upon the coerced labor of enslaved peoples, who were owned or rented by university administrations.  The long-ignored histories of the enslaved can be, in many instances, gradually teased out if we learn how to listen to the stories that the land and descendant communities have to tell.  As my consultant Emogene Williams puts it, Emory College was a kind of “paradise” for its students and professors; yet the African American community that in slavery and post slavery helped to build and maintain the campus labored and dwelled, in her words,  “on the other side of Paradise.”

Michigan was of course a free state. In contrast to colleges in the South and along the eastern seaboard, the early Michigan Agricultural College (the forerunner of Michigan State University)  did not directly rest upon the labor of enslaved people. (Although one might argue that, in a distant fashion, antebellum commercial agricultural production in the Great Lakes region was partly driven by the growing demand for produce to feed four million enslaved persons in the US South.)   In any event, is there not a sense that the hoped for utopian landscape of the College rested upon another form of subjugation, of a struggle for supremacy over the natural world?  The M.A.C. was built over a previously dense forest. The original oaks appeared overly thin and spindly to the college’s early residents. “Topping” was an effort to produce a rounded, full appearance to the trees dotting the college landscape, more in keeping with the era’s growing pastoral conceptions.  (New York’s Central Park, the epitome of this pastoral aesthetic, was designed by Olmstead and Vaux in the 1850s, the same decade that saw the creation of the M.A.C.).  The urban park movement itself had emerged in part of the suburban pastoral cemetery movement, in which the Dead were afforded permanent rest in a physical simulacrum of their Heavenly reward. Pleasantly rounded trees, in concert with gently rounded hills, were key to this redemptive and soothing window into the Great Beyond.  Such a vision became increasingly important in American campus landscape architecture, in which youth were invited to contemplate the university’s mysteries in equally other worldly, serene environs, which also echoed the mythos of Eden, before Adam and Eve’s loss of innocence and their expulsion from the Garden.

The surviving white oak trunk is justly celebrated on campus for its resilience in the face of storm and calamity. Yet I am equally fascinated by its long term, recently-exposed wound, a product of an effort, over 150 years ago, to reshape this striking natural being into a mythical image of “nature,” in a project to re-create a vision of paradise for campus residents--adjacent to the early residence hall, now known, appropriately, as “Saint’s Rest.”  Universities and museums are all caught up in vital utopian projects, in a mythos that attempts to arrest death and decay, to allow us step outside of the normal flow of events, and contemplate the mysteries of time and the universe from extraordinary vantage points. We should honor and celebrate the precious qualities of that ritual project, which allows us to transcend the everyday and struggle for deeper forms of understanding and creation. Yet, as the resilient oak tree, and its long-hidden wound reminds us, we should also continue to contemplate the concealed histories of domination and  implicit violence, against persons and natural beings, upon which our utopian projects continue to rest.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Museums and the Anthropocene

As the (brand new) Director of the Michigan State University Museum (MSUM), I’ve been giving particular thought of late to the strengths and limitations of the term, “The Anthropocene” in museum contexts. The term, as is well known, is rather a “portmanteau” word that has been variously used by scholars to characterize world history since: (a) the first nuclear explosions in 1945,  (b) since c. 1780 and the rise of the industrial revolution, (c)  dating back to the Neolithic Revolution and the rise of agriculture about 13,000 years ago, or even (d)  back to the late Upper Paleolithic and the rise of particularly effective human mass hunting strategies, perhaps 17.000 or 18,000 years ago.  Whatever the specific timescale being invoked, the posited era is characterized by one or more of the following: human-caused climate change, rising ocean temperatures, a profound decline in animal and plant biodiversity, a rise in mass extinctions (the “sixth great extinction” era) and anticipated dramatic rises in sea level.
State of Exception exhibition (Richard Barnes)

For a museum like MSUM— featuring major collections in natural history, archaeology, ethnology, folk arts, and cultural history—the “Anthropocene” is clearly an engaging concept, suggesting promising avenues for integrating diverse collections, exhibitions, public programs and research projects. One could imagine fascinating exhibitions, for example, linking the visual and performance arts of modern refugee communities to migration patterns induced by global climate dynamics (e.g. droughts, cyclones, aquifer depletion);  or, using ornithological, mammalian, and cultural collections to tell stories about how different societies have understood extinction events over the past several centuries; or,  relating Great Lakes archaeological materials on the rise of maize cultivation millennia ago to present day debates around the world about the politics of monoculture and the centralization of control over seed distribution;  or,  drawing on collections of indigenous watercraft and stilt houses to suggest creative ways humanity might cope with “Waterworld”-like futures; or, interpreting aesthetic representations of nature, landscape, and natural species in diverse global cultures in reference to nostalgic impulses born of massive habitat loss and biodiversity reduction. (Such a show might start with Dutch landscaping paintings, which prominently featured windmills and reclaimed former underwater lands as a celebration of the power of Capital to transform the visible world.) 

In an era in which arts and humanities funding is increasingly imperiled, it is perhaps inevitable that we as curators and museum administrators seek to recast much of our work as being “STEM-relevant,” as explicable and salient within scientific and technological frameworks. My impression is that a number of major museums around the world, including the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, are increasingly headed in this direction: exhibition and research projects that can present themselves as related to the “Anthropocene,” have better odds of being funded, approved, and nurtured. At a time when we all find ourselves having to make  the case for the continuing value of scientific and cultural collections, it is always useful to cite instances in which these collections can be used to help evaluate the past impact of climate and environmental change, and potentially suggest solutions for future climate-triggered upheavals.  The impulse here is not entirely cynical; there are to be sure, genuinely fascinating intellectual connections to drawn out for our publics, in exhibitions about how domains of human culture can be fruitfully reinterpreted with an eye to dramatic global environmental transformations.

Having said that, I'm uneasy about a headlong embrace of the “Anthropocene” as the be all and end all of museum exhibitions and initiatives. To begin with, one of the most important functions of museums is deepening the public’s wonder and knowledge about the vast range of the non-human, to contemplate temporal and spatial scales and dynamics far beyond the human realm-- as valuable in and of themselves. Museums offer glorious vistas in radical alterity,  opportunities to behold the glories of stellar nurseries thousands of light years away (the topic of the most recent exhibit I’ve worked on) or the pulsating soundscapes and lightscapes and crickets and fireflies (which I wrote about in my last blog post , on  Robin Meier and AndrĂ© Gwerder’s remarkable Synchronicity installation at the Broad). To be sure, there are fascinating human-related elements to all these topics, such as, in the case of the molecular clouds in which stars are born,  the ingenious use of new space-born instruments to perceive and analyze data gathered from non visible segments of the Electromagnetic spectrum, and the complex digital algorithms used to create dazzling color enhanced photographs of stellar nurseries. Yet, the value of these kinds of important natural phenomena should never be reduced solely to the human: otherwise, museums risk a kind of solipsism in which our species alone becomes the measure of all things.

In turn, there are risks in reducing the enormously complex tapestries of human cultures, including visual and performance arts, to a kind of uni-dimensional environmental calculus. As Claude Levi-Strauss long ago observed, while human cultural imaginations have long been obsessed with faunal and floral speciation, and long used metaphors of species differentiation as foundations for thinking about society and personhood, the complex structure of how those species are evaluated in any given human culture cannot be reduced to their material functionality. As Levi Strauss famously observes in The Science of the Concrete, “species are not known because they are used; they are used because they are known.”  Museums need to convey the dynamic interplay between meaning and environment in any given sociocultural order, without reducing one to the other.

An interesting, thought-provoking example of an “Anthropocene”-framed exhibition is State of Exception, organized by anthropologist Jason de Leon, recently on view at the University of Arizona and the Parsons School of Design in New York City. Inspired by De Leon’s remarkable book, The Land of Open Graves, the exhibition provides a heartbreaking archaeology of the present, chronicling the stories of economic migrants who traverse (or fail to traverse) the Sonora desert borderlands between Mexico and the United States. The exhibition centers on a startling installation of the backpacks, water bottlers, images of the Virgin of  Guadalupe, and other ephemera left behind by migrant women and men, objects which in many cases come to function as symbolic substitutes for the never-recovered human remains of those who have succumbed to snakebite, dehydration, or homicide during ill-fated desert crossing. The exhibition subtly explores the intersection between political, cultural, and environmental factors in contributing to this little understood body count. De Leon’s text emphasizes the ways in which the US Department of Homeland Security deploys, in effect, the Sonora desert as an alibi for the mass death of refugees. Even though border control policy funnels refugees into dangerous desert zones, this policy is left unstated, so that thousands of deaths can be attributed to “natural causes.”  The migrants themselves can in many instances be understood as climate or agro-policy refugees, in many instances driven north by the dumping of cheap US grown corn into Mexican and Central American markets.

The exhibition intensifies the spectral qualities of these inanimate reliquaries by having audio tracks of the voices of migrants emerge as if from within the abandoned backpacks. The gallery space here is figured as an uncanny frontier between the living and the dead, which holds up a particularly disturbing mirror to North American viewers who bear a degree of complicity in current US immigration policy.   Here then is a museum project that powerfully foregrounds the dramatic eco-scapes of the Anthropocene, without reducing the meaning and impact of mass human migration to purely environmental factors or determinants. For all us in the business of integrative, interdisciplinary museum projects, this is surely an example worth pondering.