Aug 152014
 
 August 15, 2014

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I’ve been spending the week thus far with Project Change. By design, the Durham-immersion program is intensive—packed with events, discussions, challenges, and exploration in Durham. I haven’t had much time to write, but I’ve had a lot of time to engage with the students and the ways they’re thinking about how they interact—with each other, with ideas, with the world. I’m thankful to share that space with them.

I’ll be back next week with a longer post, but in the meantime, check out Kenan’s Instagram feed for some more photos from the week.

—MD

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Aug 072014
 
 August 7, 2014

Ira Glass took to Twitter recently in an annoyed response to Shakespeare in the Park. “@JohnLithgow as Lear tonight: amazing. Shakespeare: not good. No stakes, not relatable. I think I’m realizing: Shakespeare sucks.” When I first saw Glass’s tweets, I thought he was being sarcastic. Surely he thinks Shakespeare speaks Truth. Besides, Glass is a straight white male, well-educated, a paragon of 20th and 21st century American artistic accomplishment (having originated the popular public radio program This American Life). Shakespeare is part of the canon to which Glass must admit he’s beholden. This is the canon he must in some way relate to, the canon that told him what storytelling was and helped him think about what it could be. After all, as Tom Jokinen proposes in Hazlitt, This American Life’s story structure resembles that of the Bard’s many plays.

Let me back up: This piece—the one I’m writing right now—isn’t really about Shakespeare, or the ways in which T.A.L. is like Shakespeare, or what did Glass really intend when he tweeted those super-mean tweets about Shakespeare? As Jokinen suggests, maybe these are fruitless interpretational impulses, reminiscent of grade-school lessons on Symbolism 101. Interpretation removes us from the personal, tells us that an emotional response (“Shakespeare sucks”) isn’t subject matter for classroom discussion. There’s purpose in this restriction: to characterize the writer’s style, to understand narrative coherence (or incoherence), to distill broad insights about how humans create meaning in life.

But what of the visceral, emotional experience of reading? How do we read? Why do we read? Who is reading? Last week, New Yorker staff writer Rebecca Mead posted “The Scourge of ‘Relatability.’” She criticizes Glass’s knee-jerk “unrelatable” charge. “To demand that a work be ‘relatable,’” she writes, “expresses a[n]… expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her.” I thought, yes! When reading, when experiencing art of any kind—heck, when living—we should reach outward. Go beyond what we think we know. Be open. Like the final two sentences of Leslie Jamison’s essay collection The Empathy Exams: “I want our hearts to be open. I mean it.”

But doesn’t this start by flexing our emotional muscle? Giving ourselves over to the knee-jerk because it’s what we feel first? There’s Ira Glass saying, “Shakespeare sucks,” and then there’s a black teenage woman reading, in English class, book after book authored by white men, detailing the exploits of white people, thinking, and maybe saying, “I don’t like this. None of these characters look like me, and none of these stories look like mine.” Do we create space for these things to be said, for this failure of relatability to be teased out? Do the essays we read—in The New Yorker, in the New York Times, in Slate, in Hazlitt—do justice, in their interpretational thrusts, to the multiplicities of reading experience? Really, is there justice done in mainstream-media’s proliferation of essays written by largely white men and women about Ira Glass’s offhand response to Shakespeare?

I spent a long time yesterday reading Jed Perl’s essay “Liberals Are Killing Art.” I didn’t want to, but I fell into the trap, my siren song: the long, controversially-titled essay about art. Perl would claim ‘art and justice’ is a problematic linkage, same as ‘art in education’ or ‘art in society’ or ‘art and politics.’ He contests that art exists in an independent sphere, apart from, say, war or public education or you eating your ham-and-cheese sandwich at lunch.

I find arguments like Perl’s tiresome at best, dangerous at worst. These are the same arguments that use statements like “art has transcendental power” to alienate lived experience from creative expression. These are also the arguments used to justify the egregious underfunding awarded, at least in this country, to artists and creative professionals who labor, just like the rest of us do, for something Perl relegates to the nebulous, the abstract, the “transcendental.” These are the arguments that call art “the imagination interacting with the world” while citing the work of mostly white male artists. It’s a posturing of empathy. It’s also a failure to acknowledge that ‘the world’ is made up of radically diverse people living radically diverse lives, lives that don’t fit into “easy platitudes about getting along and we’re all the same,” as Christian said in a recent Project Change email exchange. 

I’m wondering a lot lately about how we create space in American classrooms for the sharing of stories and experiences that are not accounted for in the canon or in the mainstream. About how I think we have a responsibility to, as a friend said yesterday, a “conscious diversification of what we consume—from food to television to literature.” A responsibility to reach outward, to reject passive, self-reflexive relatability. I’m also wondering whether we can and should legislate the same for people whose races, ethnicities, cultural backgrounds, stories, ideas, feelings are still not granted significant (read: the space afforded to Shakespeare) space or authorship—whether in a curriculum or in a think-piece about relatability.

I’m wondering about my over-reliance on the “we,” about how it assumes universality. It also assumes that people want to try to relate to one another, to owe each other attention, an eager ear, space to be.

“We who?” This is Teju Cole’s Twitter biography. It is also a sly, biting mandate to be open. To call out postures of empathy and universality as, well, postures.

Twitter is an exercise in relatablity, in experimental empathy. I think it bends toward openness. Glass himself is a Twitter neophyte; he just “joined” this year. And with his Shakespeare tweets, Glass pouted, in the same way that many people (myself included) do from time to time on Twitter. Life is messy for all of us. For some of us, that messiness is compounded in ways that are, thanks to history, policy, curricula, social systems, media, et al., left dangerously dim to those of us who say “our canon” and think it represents the U.S.’s—and the world’s—actual demographic breakdown. I like to think Glass’s tweets were actually sly mandates to be open, to grant legitimacy to the idea that Shakespeare’s work could, for someone, feel unrelatable. That that feeling, and its articulation, are worth attention. That one day, that essay is the one we’re (emphasis on the “we”) sharing.

—MD

 

Jul 312014
 
 July 31, 2014

Blogger’s note: As we move into the fall, I’m going to use the Insider space occasionally to investigate “Ethics Around Campus.” This includes events, talks, exhibitions, performances, and general Duke campus happenings outside of Kenan that align broadly with our thematic programming and focus on engagement, analysis, and debate of ethical issues. If you’re savvy with our website, you’ve likely seen “Ethics Around Campus” highlighted before—it’s at the bottom of our main page, in RSS feed form. Throughout the semester, as usual, the feed will be updated with links to various campus events. I’ll highlight a few here—partly out of my own curiosity for what ethics can be and look like at a university, and partly to connect Kenan’s work with other campus work, and vice versa. 

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Adichie’s novel. Image courtesy of NPR.

I, like many others at Duke right now, am reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah. It’s kind of a neat feeling, to read a book alongside a huge network of people, many of whom I don’t know, as we all spend our 9-to-5s doing and studying ostensibly quite different things. Doing something in common—like reading a book, or, say, playing on a kickball team—can blast us out of isolation and into the sudden, personal sharing of something. You dog-eared that passage, too? How did it resonate with you?

David C. Driskell, Woman in Interior, 2008. Screenprint with mixed media on paper, 37 1/4 x 25 1/4 inches (94.6 x 64.1 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, NC. Gift of Franklin and Sheila Jackson, 2008.12.1. © David C. Driskell. Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion.

David C. Driskell, Woman in Interior, 2008. Screenprint with mixed media on paper, 37 1/4 x 25 1/4 inches (94.6 x 64.1 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, NC. Gift of Franklin and Sheila Jackson, 2008.12.1. © David C. Driskell. Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion.

If we’re lucky, we can come together through these mutual realizations. Duke has done something clever in the past few years by building the Summer Reading selection—typically reserved for first-year bonding exercises during orientation week—into a university-wide conversation. Faculty and staff book clubs (including Kenan’s), as well as initiatives like DukeReads, read and discuss the book together. The author comes to campus for a lecture in the fall. And beginning with Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals (the 2011 selection), the Nasher Museum has curated a small exhibition in tandem with the Summer Reading Book’s themes. This year, the exhibition—on view in the Nasher’s Academic Focus Gallery—includes works from the Nasher’s permanent collection, ranging from West African wood tools to contemporary paintings, photographs, and mixed-media works by the likes of Jasper Johns, the Guerrilla Girls, and Henry Clay Anderson, among others. The curated collection gives life to Adichie’s story of Ifemelu and Obinze, two young Nigerian lovers growing up in recent decades between Nigeria, the United States, and the U.K. Together and apart, the pair navigate displacement, immigration, race, and identity. The novel takes its title from the term “Americanah”—used to refer to a native Nigerian who emigrates (often to the U.S. or U.K.) and returns to Nigeria with foreign affectations. When Ifemelu returns to Lagos after several years abroad—during which she becomes famous as the blogger behind “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-­American Black”—some friends call her, mockingly, “Americanah.”

The Nasher exhibition interprets these themes broadly and pulls together a sharp collection of works. The hallway is spatially tight, which gives the exhibition a conversational effect: Dan Perjovschi’s Postcards from America sits opposite Vik Muniz’s American Flag; a Nigerian Janus Headpiece looks diagonally toward Dan Driskell’s Woman in Interior. Pieces talk across time, as if saying, hey, this is what being an outsider in America felt like to me then, and here’s what a barbershop—in London, or Durham, or Lagos—looks like to me now. The gem for me, though, is the accompanying gallery guide. A handful of Duke administrators, faculty, and librarians were asked to respond to various works in the exhibition, drawing in their experiences reading Adichie’s novel. The respondents, and their responses, are wonderfully diverse. Karla FC Holloway, James B. Duke Professor of  English and Professor of Law, unpacks Driskell’s painting via quotations from Toni Morrison, Destiny’s Child, and Ralph Ellison. She likens Adichie’s Ifemelu to the “quilted concoction,” the “diasporan woman” of Driskell’s painting. Li-Chen Chin, Director of Intercultural Programs, writes—in response to Vik Muniz—about immigrating to the United States from Taiwan. “The last thing I did before I left Taiwan was learn to ride a bike because in many university brochures I had received, the ‘American’ students were always smiling and either standing next to or riding their bikes on campus.” Her words push us to consider what it means to “look American,” or to “be American.”

Guerrilla Girls, Pop Quiz from the portfolio Guerrilla Girls' Most Wanted: 1985-2006, 1990 (printed 2008). Print on paper, 17 x 22 inches (43.2 x 55.9 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, NC. Museum purchase, 2011.6.1.12. © Guerrilla Girls. Courtesy www.guerrillagirls.com. Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion.

Guerrilla Girls, Pop Quiz from the portfolio Guerrilla Girls’ Most Wanted: 1985-2006, 1990 (printed 2008). Print on paper, 17 x 22 inches (43.2 x 55.9 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, NC. Museum purchase, 2011.6.1.12. © Guerrilla Girls. Courtesy www.guerrillagirls.com. Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion.

The final work on the first wall is Hurvin Anderson’s 2010 Barbershop Print. Ben Adams, Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions, wrote a long anecdotal piece in response, recalling trips throughout his childhood to the hair salon with his grandmother. He ties in one of the main plot points of Americanah: Ifemelu travels to Trenton, NJ from Princeton (where she is on a humanities fellowship) to have her hair braided before she returns to Nigeria. “What Ifemelu had hoped would be an afternoon of braiding,” Adams writes, “turns into a detangling of hair, race, and the immigrant experience in America.” Adams then talks about his grandmother’s own conflicted salon experience, and the function of the salon or barbershop generally: it can be a space of both community formation and community unraveling, where the individual can “literally or figuratively look in the mirror” and draw a distinction between “‘us’ and ‘them.’” In similar ways, Americanah—both the book and the exhibition—remind us of both the precariousness and power of community. It dares us to form our own, too.

—MD

Americanah is on view in the Academic Focus Gallery at the Nasher Museum of Art through October 12.

Jul 282014
 
 July 28, 2014

By Michaela Dwyer

photo 3There is a book in my office with the words “You are here” on the cover. It was bought in Boston, then an unfamiliar city. I gravitated toward it in the basement of the Harvard Book Store not for the globular shapes and colors on its cover, nor for the title’s reassurance of stability. At the time, the book was actually displayed backwards. “Where am I?” I was thinking. “Where are you?” the back cover answered—answers—back. Between a grid of small, colorful maps are these three words, one falling after the other, like a more wistful Tic-Tac-Toe.

And now I am sitting at my desk, in my office, and to the right of me is this book. I flipped the cover over, so I’m still reading the words “Where are you?” I brought the book to work because Project Change begins in two weeks, and—without giving too much away, as mystery and messiness are hallmarks of the program—we’ve been strategizing how 21 incoming Duke students can document Durham’s geography over the course of the week. Many of these students have never visited the city. We want them to be able to stand at the corner of Corcoran and Parrish and know they’re at the corner of Corcoran and Parrish—literally, physically, as per street signage. But we also want them to take stock of how they got there, what types of places they noticed on the way, the attitudes of the people they encountered. If the students ask a stranger where are you?, what does she say in return? How does she describe her place in the city? Can she describe the city without placing herself in it? What are the contours of the city’s history, as she tells it?

Can we literally, physically, map these tellings, these retellings?

I think about Katie Davis’s “Memory Map,” one of the few written pieces included in You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination. Davis, a writer and former Washington, D.C.-based NPR reporter, began producing the original radio series Neighborhood Stories in 1999. She did something simple, but radical at the time: reported stories from Adams Morgan, on the street and around the neighborhood where she’d lived for most of her life. You can hear one, called “Wide Shot,” here.

In “Memory Map,” she talks about being a reporter in Nicaragua after the Revolution. She was looking for the office of the censor. “A Sandinista official pointed north. ‘Go a few blocks and take a left where the big tree used to be before the earthquake.’” Davis got lost and missed the interview because, of course, she wasn’t there before, or during, the earthquake. She “began to use the story as an example of how different it is down south.”

Until her story of difference didn’t hold up. Davis realized her own tendency to “[use] memory as a map.” Back in D.C., years later, she tells friends looking for an Ethiopian restaurant to check out the one “where the post office used to be”—the post office with brass boxes and huge windows. “Yes, but is the food good?” her friends would ask.

I think about whether I do this. I’ve received messages in the past two weeks from a few people, one I’ve never met, who are about to move (back) to Durham. They ask me what my job is like. They ask me to describe the city. I cast myself as narrator. I say, Durham is different than it was in 2008. I can say, the food is good, and list my favorite restaurants. Of course, there is a lot I don’t say.

12 months ago I moved “back” to Durham*. 12 months ago I started working here, and rambled around Durham with 21 incoming Duke students for a week. Each night I went to bed with a head bobbing between threads of a city I’d known for four years in specific and poignant ways—ways that suddenly, in the context of others’ stories, felt severely limited. One month ago I returned to Durham from one month in Ireland and pointed out new construction around the city to my family. There’s the lot on Main St. that will soon house a Marriott. The architects are preserving the brick façade from what used to be McPherson Hospital. For several years prior, more than just the façade still stood. Anyone passing through downtown could see the sky through the abandoned brick building’s negative space, vines blowing in the wind.

But right now it is right now. I am planning an activity that requires students to document a city they’ve never spent time in: to create a map that incorporates, by necessity, histories and memories outside themselves. I’m hoping it’ll both alienate and somehow ground them. I’m hoping it will help them to straddle, in equal part, questions and answers: where are we? and we are here. To point neither to X nor Y, neither Corcoran nor Parrish, exactly, but to the idea of documenting space itself. To point, even with shaky fingers, at how difficult it is, and how unjust it can be, to pin down a common orientation in the first place. What information do we privilege? What, and who, do we leave out? How do we know? Do we know?

*Note: I adopted this retelling style from a piece posted by Adrienne Mathiowetz on Public Radio Exchange (PRX) a few weeks ago.

Jul 172014
 
 July 17, 2014

By Michaela Dwyer

Last Friday, in the heart of downtown Durham, I watched a small French man receive a lifetime achievement award in dance. Following three different laudatory introductions, he, short and nimble, crept out from behind the red stage curtain as if part of a magician’s reveal. He accepted the award humbly, speaking in heavily accented English of the dancers and choreographers who had previously won the award—among them Merce Cunningham, Pina Bausch, Bill T. Jones—as his “heroes.” He then disappeared offstage and the performance began: two straight hours of rigorous choreography executed by four dancers—two women, two men—set to a John Cage vocal score recorded live in Milan in 1977.

Parched of particulars, this description might be alienating. The choreographers I listed above may be foreign names; Angelin Preljocaj, this year’s Samuel H. Scripps/American Dance Festival Award winner, may cap off the unfamiliarity. Sitting in one place for two hours anywhere—whether mandatory or not—is likely an undesirable activity. If mandatory, then even more so. But sometimes I feel as though the messaging around art implies that it’s a voluntary contract. On one level, we can always opt to leave a museum or performance. On another, we can divert funding elsewhere, categorize the arts as superfluous, relegate them to the nebulous realm of the “emotional” and “beautiful,” remove them from public education, bypass the nominating procedures for a state’s poet laureate.

The Cage score to which Ballet Preljocaj’s three-part Empty Moves is set features Cage reading parts of Henry David Thoreau’s journals. Though “read” gives the impression that what Cage performs sounds straightforward and tame, i.e., “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” punctuated by tasteful pauses. Not exactly. Cage pedals on for two hours, speaking in phonemes—the “smallest contrastive unit in the sound system of a language.” Mostly the recording sounds like a drone. And then it sounds like this: the crowd in Milan thinks Cage is done, begins applauding, gets angry when Cage drones on. The remainder of the recording could pass for a political riot in its barrage of hostile sounds: jeers, chants, screams, sirens, and objects hitting something—or someone—with force. But all throughout, calm and steady, are Cage’s phonemes. And, all throughout, the four dancers dance—unflagging, seemingly incognizant of the audiences. I use the plural because, really, there are two: the audience bristling in Milan in 1977, and the audience that paid to see them sweat in Durham, which includes me.

I didn’t originally intend to write a piece about dance. I fear the alienation effect in my writing in the same way that I fear bringing someone largely unfamiliar with capital-“D” Dance to a show like the one I describe above. I fear the lack of connection afterward, the fumbling for words; I fear becoming self-satisfied and closed-off in my knowledge of the field. But I also fear alienating myself from engaging in material that does something to me. I thank my dance training for linking my appreciation and engagement with art with the physical. I know art does something when my body moves in response; when I sprout goosebumps; when I pitch forward in my seat; when I squeeze the hand of the person sitting next to me.

The day after Preljocaj’s show, I had a Twitter conversation about it with someone I’ve never met. I told him I liked thinking about the way Cage’s score manipulated both audiences; he wondered why the Durham audience didn’t respond in the way Cage’s did. In other words, why no riot?

I’d wondered the same thing, having seen only a few walk out during the performance. I treasure these little disruptions. I look around eagerly to see if other people notice them. The leaving feels to me like another physical response to art: a more overtly social one, one that breaks my solitary understanding of a performance (read: me, watching dancers onstage) and forces it into a wider network (the heavy-breathing woman behind me; the man who walks out briskly). This feels like a stepping-stone to community, to a Hey, look at that person who’s had enough! In fact, look at us existing in this space together! We’ve been here for an hour-and-a-half and these dancers show no signs of stopping! What if we never leave?

But what would I have done had I been at Kara Walker’s exhibit when Nicholas Powers started yelling? Would I have felt similarly compelled to yell? Would I have felt safe? Would I use the word “treasure” in an essay later to categorize Powers’s disruption?

We respond to challenging things—art is only one among them—on the spectrum of politeness. Maybe there’s Point A: bristling at two hours of dance (or John Cage) but glazing over the discomfort, and then Point B: yelling, and then writing a piece about it, and keeping the conversation going. Which response to alienation is more productive? And for whom?

I think it circles back to us. We who do the making—and the defending—whether we’re artists, politicians, students, activists, pre-orientation program leaders. In the material we produce and share, we can huddle around the didactic or the to-be-determined. Point A and Point B. We help hold the space, and the bristling, in between—the space where maybe, hopefully, we’re bristling together.

Jul 082014
 
 July 8, 2014

As part of her work as Kenan’s inaugural Graduate Arts Fellow, Caitlin Margaret Kelly led a group of undergraduates students in the creation of a collaborative public art project around the theme of global migration. The product—#Migrations: People, Policy, and the Ambiguity of Language—emerged from interviews with migrants and immigrants living at Duke and in Durham, and takes the form of a mixed-media installation combining audio recordings, moving portraits, and a live Twitter feed. Bear Fellow Michaela Dwyer spoke recently with Kari Barclay, Political Science and Theater Studies ’16, and Erin Leyson, Public Policy ’15, about the creative process, the relationship between art and policy, and how to, in Leyson’s words, “bring real people and cyberspace into dialogue.”

Kenan Insider: What, in your own words, is #Migrations?

Kari Barclay: The project very much has two walls: one is the Twitter feeds and the other is the videos of actual people who’ve migrated. It’s about exploring some of their experiences and how they line up or disconnect with the online representation of migrants’ experiences.

KI: I’m interested in how your different disciplinary backgrounds drew you to and manifested in the project.

Erin Leyson: I joined the project because art and migration is something that I do and study. This summer I’m [in] Mexico to look at how emigration from some of the communities in Oaxaca affects the ability to preserve indigenous cultural forms and art forms. To me, [#Migrations] was perfect because I look at art and migration, but in a different way. I look at how migration affects art, not how we make art about migration.

I’d never used any kind of video recording, and I didn’t know what a moving portrait was. I [wanted to] see how I could I could learn something different about something I already study.

A view of the installation. Photo by Caitlin Margaret Kelly.

A view of the installation. Photo by Caitlin Margaret Kelly.

KB: I’ve been for the past two years working with refugees in the Durham area. I’ve gotten to know that community, and that got me interested in migration in a certain way. Also, as a kid I moved around a lot, and I’ve always been interested in what it takes to enter new communities and feel welcomed there.

My background is in the theater world, and I was interested in this project because it seemed primarily visual arts-related. When I direct plays I’m always interested in—when you enter the theatrical space, what does it feel like, being in the space? Where does your eye go? Do you feel overwhelmed, comfortable? Things like that. For this project I was really interested in—when you enter this art installation, where does your focus go, how can you coexist in the space with the art? I think having the two walls made it a really immersive space, having your eye jump back and forth between the two.

KI: One of the hardest things for me to wrap my head around when thinking about the relationship between art and policy is whether we’re making policy related to art or art in tandem with policy, how can we provide for or promote complex experiences while also making a point?

KB: I like to think of art as democratic space, ideally. With this project in particular we’re taking people’s voices and perspectives and giving them a chance to come into dialogue, a space to work out issues. The final project puts forth, officially or unofficially, recommendations for how we as society, or as communities, can respond to issues like migration.

In terms of conveying complexity, something we wanted to do was to juxtapose political and seemingly big-picture ideas with everyday life. We had Twitter feeds about the DREAM Act and policy. [But] in our audio feed, we put in ambient audio from people’s daily lives. There’s one [clip] of somebody riding a bus, and another of somebody making rice. So, we wanted to say, Well, is migration always about these big issues or can migration be about the sounds of everyday life?

EL: I think the point with our project is that we weren’t really making a point. We’re giving everyone the tools they need to make their own point. That’s difficult for me, coming from a public policy background where everything is very pointed. We could easily push an agenda, [but] we don’t really want to do that. We want people to be able to come into the space, look at things, and think about it. I really liked when Caitlin said that; it changed the way I think about putting art and policy together.

KB: Some things exist outside the realm of the political or the realm of what policy can affect or change. The language that we use around migration is very much an everyday occurrence. It’s not something you really can legislate. Policy is more informal and it comes through experiences.

KI: For each of you, what was the hardest thing about the project, logistically and intellectually?

KB: For me, logistically, it was about [figuring out] the camera equipment. Intellectually, the hardest thing was, again, what Erin was talking about—making room for openness of interpretation and not trying to jump to a conclusion or a clear message.

EL: Logistically, I’d say the same thing. The intellectual challenge was that it was really easy to figure out a point I wanted to tell people about with the art. Especially because we’d sit in our meetings and think of the worst things you could possibly call certain immigrants. We’d look up Wikipedia lists about racial slurs; we were looking for bad tweets. Sometimes the biggest challenge was being okay with tweets that were not that horrible or not that racially absurd. [We decided to include a variety] so that people can make own decision and come to their own conclusion about it. It would’ve been really easy to just say that the point of the art is that we say really bad things online about really nice people who exist in real life and we should stop saying [these things].

KI: If you could place this project in the ideal space or location, where would it go?

EL: I would like it to be on campus because I think it’s important for students to see. But if I could put anywhere, I’d actually put it in a house. I think a lot of #Migrations comes down to daily living, and a lot of our portraits were taken in living spaces. How would we discuss [the tweets] if we’re in someone else’s space? Maybe it would be a little more uncomfortable, but it would be a little more like real life.

KB: I think it’d be cool to put it in a computer lab, so that it’s already in a space with an emphasis on the digital. People would be on their computers, doing work, and look up and see this project—an intersection between the digital world and the real world.

EL: I’m excited to see where it goes, and I wonder where it will actually live. I hope it can [be shown] somewhere on campus. I think people would appreciate it and think about it. And without it being censored. That defeats the whole purpose of a live, uncontrollable Twitter feed.

Stay tuned this fall for #Migrations exhibition details.  

Jun 152014
 
 June 15, 2014

By Michaela Dwyer

The night after I arrived in Ireland I went to the Irish Film Institute. Dizzy from jetlag and the surreality of being in a familiar space again after three years, I hardly knew what was “on” at the theaters. I decided to bank on the time my DukeEngage cohort spontaneously saw and enjoyed the Iranian film A Separation, though I think part of my excitement that time came from seeing our Iranian group-mate excited to connect with the film.

And maybe, subconsciously, I did the same last week when I bought a ticket, ate a rhubarb tart, and sat down alone in a theater full of Irish moviegoers for a very Irish film. Jimmy’s Hall—touted as the last feature by British director Ken Loach—is based on the story of James Gralton, an Irish communist leader who became the first and only “illegal alien” deported from Ireland. Throughout the early 1930s, Gralton helped lead the Revolutionary Workers’ Group in County Leitrim. Despite the inclusion of fiery glances and somewhat vague political intimations, Loach’s film focuses on Gralton’s passionate (co-)direction and defense of a community dance hall in the townland of Effrinagh. The collaboratively run, inclusive venue offered free classes in music, dance, literature, geography, history, and the visual arts, among other subjects. It served as a place for the town to congregate outside the influence of the church—portrayed in the film to humorous extremity.

Graffiti atop old Dublin, near St. Stephen's Green.

Graffiti atop old Dublin, near St. Stephen’s Green.

“This has to be the fourth time someone has brought up this movie to me this week.” This is Conor, one of the first people I interviewed as I attempt to document the abrupt closure and ensuing limbo of The Exchange, a collaborative arts-centered venue in downtown Dublin. Conor and his friend Philip, another Exchange volunteer, chuckled at the uncanny similarity between film and reality, past and present. Then they shook their heads and sighed, scratched their beards, and looked downward in unison.

Beyond talk of the typical romanticized-from-afar Irish regalia—shamrocks and green pastures, Guinness, et al—are the more complex things we think we know about the—or any—country. The Famine, the Troubles, the decades of emigration, the pervasive stronghold of the Catholic Church. The “800 babies.” (It’s worth mentioning that these issues barely break the surface of newer ones: immigration and multiculturalism, austerity and the banking crisis, Gen-Y ennui and frustration). And then there’s what many people I’ve talked to refer to as “the amnesia.” A collective forgetting—of the country’s history, of the past that continues to repeat itself in the way that forgotten pasts do. I meet another Exchange volunteer on the way to a community radio show on which I’m apparently guest-starring to talk about my research on the venue. He gestures to storefronts we pass and tells me his next project is finding a way to document Dublin’s abandoned buildings—spaces with histories that people seem not to know or care about. Apparently he’s discovered that The Exchange had a predecessor—another collectively run arts space whose façade still stands down by the River Liffey. It’s the amnesia again, he says. The city as palimpsest, Teju Cole says.

Being here this time has started to feel like an odd nesting-doll challenge in which I fold myself smaller and smaller into a network that becomes bigger and more expansive with each encounter, SMS text, radio show appearance (!). I see a narrative—of this project, of The Exchange or Gralton’s dance hall, of Irish history—ever so slightly taking shape; then it gets fuzzy, and all I see are people who, like me, care deeply about things. I see a buzzing livelihood around a scene that I’m not quite a part of and a history that, despite my heritage, I don’t necessarily share in an immediate sense. But I want to; in the same way I want to be in an Irish cinema seeing an Irish historical drama or in a hotel ballroom for the Africa Day Awards, celebrating the African community in Ireland. And in the same way that I keep asking myself why this project interests me so much. Is it because I would’ve sought out The Exchange had I lived here in its heyday? Because my understanding of strong community has always been through education and the arts?

Or is it that I want to work against the ways in which we may too-briskly position ourselves against an ‘other’—whether that be a group of young volunteers, the City Council, immigrants, emigrants, a country’s history? Because I want to challenge my own interests in the ‘story’ in the first place?

My response: yes, and. My greatest hope with the work I make, whether it be a blog post, an audio documentary, or choreography through a city street, is that I can open both myself and others to multiple ways of being. To claim spaces where we feel comfortable interrogating ourselves, and see if those spaces connect us in turn. Is it all the Leslie Jamison I’m reading? Yes, and. Is it a challenge to collective amnesia? Yes, and.

Jun 062014
 
 June 6, 2014

By Michaela Dwyer

Dear readers,

Before the story and before the prose, the nitty-gritty.

(Note: the above is most certainly not an Irish proverb).

For the next few weeks on the Insider I’ll be sending you stories from Dublin, Ireland, where I’m stationed to assist with the DukeEngage Dublin program. You’ll also be hearing—through our Student Engagement Journals site—from the seven undergraduates participating in the program, with whom I’ll be working on their summer letters home as well as collaborating on documentary representations of the city and of their DukeEngage experiences.

Beyond the Insider, it’s a slightly different, though not disconnected, story. In reference to Ireland’s long history of emigration and new quandaries of immigration and multiculturalism, the DukeEngage Dublin program poses the question, What happens when a country of ‘senders’ becomes a country of ‘receivers’? I participated in DukeEngage during the summer of 2011, when the unemployment rate hovered around 14.7% and emigration of Irish nationals rose sharply to around 40,200, only slightly surpassed by the 42,300 immigrants entering Ireland that same year.

Image from a recent advocacy campaign to save The Exchange.

Image from a recent advocacy campaign to save The Exchange.

I return to Dublin this time around, three years later, with a documentary eye aimed at what has changed and what has sustained. Mostly, I’m interested in how life feels—for everyone living here, in tandem with the larger forces of migration, cultural integration, austerity, and national identity. Though “everyone” is hardly a feasible focus group, and “larger forces” can quickly become too abstract for the documentary medium. The medium, at least in my case, fuels itself from stories shared—which I’d, with great care, cluster and accumulate around general statements: I was here, it felt this way, it’s important to me because. And within the stories nestled within these statements, I’m interested in the unexpected, the digression, the spontaneous architecture of conversation and sharing. I seek ways to build this architecture into my documentary approach, to compose “a compass by which to get lost,” as Rebecca Solnit writes.

Three summers ago, my DukeEngage cohort devised a public survey project that set itself up, comfy chairs and all, in various spots throughout the city. We asked Dublin residents to tell us how they felt about cultural integration in the city, about race and ethnic relations. One of those spots was The Exchange, which describes itself on Twitter as the following: “Volunteer-run all-ages non-profit arts-cultural-social over-hyphenated open space in Dublin – currently in Limbo…” When I visited The Exchange in 2011, I noticed its demographic diversity; its volunteers eagerly chatting with one another; its literal and metaphorical openness: rooms cascaded into more rooms, large glass windows opened to the streets of Temple Bar. Galleries also served as performance spaces, hangout areas were spaces for discussion, workshopping, advocacy. Since its inception in 2009, the consensus-based, inclusive venue has been known as a vibrant community space in Dublin. It’s also committed to connection and learning through the arts, offering classes and exhibition space for the creatively inclined.

The Exchange made news recently when the Dublin City Council—also The Exchange’s funder and landlord—suspended the venue for a three-month “review” period due to claims of “anti-social behaviour” in The Exchange’s vicinity. Supporters of the venue argue back: isn’t closing a community arts center an act of anti-social behaviour? They point toward larger social issues: the perceived lack of safe and productive social spaces in Dublin for especially young people, the presence and direction of arts funding in times of austerity, the odd urban plan of Temple Bar, which joins at the hip progressive arts venues and tourist bars (and which I wrote about for Recess in 2011). If “anti-social behaviour” exists, the supporters say, it does elsewhere, and for other reasons that won’t be solved, let alone addressed, by closing The Exchange.

But still, the venue is closed for the time being, under “suspended inanimation,” The Exchange’s Change.org petition terms it. I’m hoping to unpack some of that inanimation and hear from members of the Exchange community about how that inanimation feels. What has changed? What has sustained? But also: What brought you to this space? What does it give you that other spaces do not? I want to hear from community members elsewhere: City Council members, neighbors, young people in the creative industries. What function do creative community spaces serve? How do we ensure our citizens’ access to productive, meaningful lives? What do changing demographics mean for urban organization? Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posing these questions. Over the next few months, I’ll be producing a series of audio documentary portraits from these interviews, as well as writing a longform nonfiction piece about my time here—both over the years and in the present-tense. I continue to grapple with what it means to participate in and identify with a community; for me, this community typically intersects with the arts in some form, and thus I find myself here, with lots of questions.

I invite you to join me as I myself reflect, over the next few weeks, about what it feels like to be here.

May 272014
 
 May 27, 2014
Right: Prince Harry. Left: Matt Hicks, Prince Harry-lookalike

Left: Prince Harry. Right: Matt Hicks, Prince Harry-lookalike

By Nathan Nye

I love reality TV. I actually don’t watch that much of it, but as a construct, I enjoy seeing the shameless manipulation of events that could resemble real life packaged into a surreal viewing experience.

But, sometimes I am forced to consider if we’ve gone too far.

The show I Want to Marry Harry, which I must admit I have not seen, recently premiered on FOX, and the premise has perturbed my love of reality TV.

A group of women is being misled into believing that they’re courting Prince Harry of the Windsor Royal Family by giving them glimpses of a Prince Harry-lookalike who has been instructed to lead them to believe he could be royal. Of course, this is not the case. As the actor playing the butler says in a promotional clip, “there’s going to be heartache and tears before bedtime.”

The mockery of contestants, particularly women, is central to reality TV’s brand, but having a show in which the concept is “Let’s Tell A Bold-Faced Lie” is pretty twisted. This is has been tried before with shows like Joe Millionaire in which a construction worker with a heart of gold pretends to be a millionaire and dates women. The point of the show was ostensibly to be about class and dating and the role money plays in love. The furthest the show went to explore that angle was ominous voiceovers that said things like, “Will she still love him when she discovers he is in fact just an average Joe?”

But I Want to Marry Harry is not that. It’s not concerned with this guy or what he wants. He is a pawn in a game that we, the television prankster audience, are passively employing through FOX.

Ostensibly, these shows were started to give us a peek into a world that either mirrored our own to build solidarity or was completely inaccessible to ours to indulge fantasy. Instead, they’ve somehow become hours and hours of schadenfreude.

And in fact there is a whole new genre spawned by the self-awareness of reality’s newfound purpose, namely cruelty. Shows like Rupaul’s Drag Race take the absurdity and often capriciousness of those other shows and winkingly employ them. The result isn’t very different, there are often drag queens diving into dunk tanks or being forced to create a dress out of materials from a dumpster, but it feels more self-aware. I’ve always given them a pass for being cruel, but self-aware about their cruelty, which should probably be examined in a later blog post.

I’m left wondering if the possibility of reward offered by reality shows like The Bachelor is a fair exchange for the kind of suffering they inflict on their (generally willing) participants. I’m left pondering why I enjoy other’s discomfort so strongly. I’m left questioning my role in perpetuating human misery as sport. I’m left with the weird feeling that maybe reality TV could be both creatively and morally bankrupt entirely.

Apr 302014
 
 April 30, 2014
'New York City, 2011.' Photo by Teju Cole.

‘New York City, 2011.’ Photo by Teju Cole.

By Michaela Dwyer

In the last chapter of Teju Cole’s novel Open Citythe narrator, Julius, talks about the German composer Gustav Mahler, about his “obsession with last things.” Julius attends a performance at Carnegie Hall of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. “So strong is Mahler’s sense of an ending,” Julius says, “that his many musical stories of the end almost come to dominate what went before.”

Two weeks ago: a friend and I leave the Nasher Museum auditorium, a cocoon of plush green seats and wood paneling. We’ve just listened to twelve undergraduate students perform monologues adapted from life-story interviews with refugees living in Nepal and Jordan. I have listened to these monologues several times before, having worked with the DukeImmerse students throughout the semester. I have become accustomed to the monologues’ intensity. The audience tonight, most hearing them for the first time, has not. After the bows and the clapping, I see my friend is visibly affected by the production. He, a graduating senior, tells me his feeling is wrapped up in his attention, right now, to “things ending.” I nod. We adjourn for hummus and wine.

I nodded because I was there, in a sense, a year ago: not at the Nasher, certainly not in Nepal or Jordan, and not in the company of Teju Cole’s novel—nor Cole himself, for that matter, as I was this year. I remember mid-April 2013 and “things ending.” I remember sitting in my bedroom and writing my final editor’s note for Recess. I had been called upon to reflect, formally, on my year of work. I didn’t necessarily mean to get political, but the piece turned into a call-to-arms about visibility: to create and claim art as an everyday practice at this university, and to turn this awareness into community. But throughout the piece are glimmers of that month’s, that era’s, emotional intensity, of life getting in the way. When I read parts of it now I can feel the quick breathing, the anxiety of graduation and future plans and of a less immediate social network and of Am I On the Right Track. There’s the confusion, and doubt, and the eventual, political, resolve—that art could be more than paintings painted or dances danced for their own sake. That it could speak powerfully to our continuity in the world.

I am torn between three impulses here. I want to talk about Open City, and how I’m wondering if the novel could be read, in some sense, as moral instruction on how not to live. I want to talk about spending a day, more or less, with Teju Cole, about how his visit to Kenan already feels like a landmark in the life of a young person interested in how we navigate visibility and equality in the contemporary world. I want to replicate the way Cole frames and connects things: art and politics, flowers and drones. From his lunch with undergraduates, for which I served as photographer and happy interloper: “My tweets about flowers and my tweets about drones come from the same place of care about the world. People forget that ‘care’ and ‘accuracy’ come from the same Latin root.”

But, throughout, I am sitting here, on the cusp of May, and thinking about how curious it is that, in the academic world—to which I now have a different relationship, as a non-student—the year is thought of as ‘ending’ in May. We graduate, either formally or informally. We leave our shared space, or immediate social networks. We are called upon to reflect on our respective year(s) of work. We spend time experimenting with how we could exist outside of the space we occupy from August until May—even if, and especially as students, we’re returning to spaces of ‘home.’

And so we distill and teeter on stories of an end.

It’s easy to put endings into blunt terms; it’s not as easy to do the same with continuity. And maybe that’s right. Earlier in Open City, Julius visits Brussels in a halfhearted search for his grandmother. He befriends Farouq, a Moroccan man who works at an Internet café. One of Julius’s visits to the shop coincides with the Eid, which brings many international and immigrant patrons together, all calling home, wherever home is. Julius reflects: “It looked like fiction, that such a small group of people really could be making calls to such a wide spectrum of places.” In his statement there’s inherent disbelief that quite ordinary life—a phone call home—could look like something imaginary, something worth narrativizing.

College, or a fellowship, or a 9-to-5 job, runs the risk of being thought of as an isolatable incident, or a collection of isolatable incidents. I began my fellowship at Kenan last summer, and I am proud of singular initiatives I’ve been a part of. They look nice if viewed as a tableau of achievements; a still-life up for aesthetic analysis by someone like Julius. But how to put in words the feeling that surfaces when I connect with a student after two hours of discussing her research paper on dignity in the context of displacement? When an audience member at a film screening tells me she’s never been to a Kenan event but took a chance because the documentary we’re showing was filmed near her house in Raleigh? Something in me moves; I am moved in turn.

Life gets in the way. Reading Open City, we as readers watch as this happens to Julius in a way discontinuous with his detached dilettantish worldview. We wonder if this changes him. Can his [fictional] existence still be continuous?

There are Mahler symphonies, sure, and graduation, sure, but there is also everything else, and our sometimes messy, and sometimes invisible, connections to the everything else. These are the stories that come before and after. And maybe, sometimes, these are the stories. Two days after Cole’s visit, he tweeted a quotation from Russian photographer Gueorgui Pinkhassov.

“There are things happening before and after the event. These things are even more important than the event itself.”

'SOVIET UNION. Russia. Moscow. Firework display. 1983.' Photo by Gueorgui Pinkhassov.

‘SOVIET UNION. Russia. Moscow. Firework display. 1983.’ Photo by Gueorgui Pinkhassov.