Aug 182015
 August 18, 2015
In 2011, Michaela Dwyer traveled to Dublin, Ireland through Kenan’s DukeEngage Dublin program—a civic engagement project that collaborates with community-based organizations in the city grappling with issues facing the migrant and refugee communities. While there, she worked with Metro Éireann, a multicultural newspaper, and found her way to Exchange Dublin, a “collective arts center” downtown known for its inclusivity and democratic structure. With an abiding interest in the intersections of the arts and civic life, community organization, and urban development, Michaela returned to Dublin in June 2014 as Kenan’s Bear Postgraduate Fellow in Ethics alongside the DukeEngage cohort to investigate the news that Exchange had been ordered to suspend their activities following claims of “anti-social behavior.” The piece that follows places Exchange Dublin within a wider context of independent creative spaces as they’ve functioned in Dublin around and since the recent Great Recession.

I. To plot the bounds of Dublin’s Temple Bar neighborhood, start with its physical centerpoint, which is not a bar but rather a movie theater and film institute that serves alcohol, yes, but also pastries and Criterion Collection DVDs and a Japanese-language movie poster from the French film Amélie. For about €16 on a warm Friday evening in June 2014, you could buy a tea and a rhubarb tart and a ticket to an Irish film: the British-directed, Irish-centered Jimmy’s Hall, a romantic biopic that tells of James Gralton’s efforts to establish a community dance hall and arts center in County Leitrim in the 1930s, before his state-imposed exile from the country.

The half-full theater and lilted whispers create a warm buffer: between visitor and native, and, on a civic level, between government-funded arts center and pub after pub after pub, which radiate outward from the Irish Film Institute over cobblestone streets. The map this compass produces is one that is bumpy and uncanny: art galleries abut multi-story dance clubs; late-night tourist bacchanal bubbles over and obscures floor-to-ceiling windows and the artwork housed inside. They seem uneasy neighbors with different sleeping hours. Their existence is cultural diplomacy writ-large, the result of a circular handshake by the organizations, governmental and non-, that schemed the new city. The area’s streets, however, echo the layout of old-city Dublin (Dubh Linn; “black pool”): the Dublin City Council (DCC), which marks the farthest-most point of the neighborhood, stands cement-strong atop a Viking settlement.

To plot the bounds of Dublin’s Temple Bar, go on foot, down Essex St., which cuts East-West through the neighborhood. Notice the store signs, notice the pub signs, notice the lettering of arts venues: notice how their sans-serif fonts differ from the Gaelic script promising Guinness within. Notice the street names as you pass them: Eustace, Sycamore, Parliament, Exchange Upper. Each point marks an intersection: between your body, the buildings, the people, the air. These four streets flow downhill through Temple Bar, toward the River Liffey.


Exchange St. Upper is cool and shady, sheltered by stone storefronts that grow upward into modern apartments. (Dublin architecture is a dance between old rock and new industrial.) Its base hits Essex West, which trundles down and around into Essex East, and at that corner, as the street turns, all is curved and open. A short, flat-roofed old key shop gives way to the sunlight—often, in Dublin, the blanched white behind rain clouds—and the light spills downward into and onto this corner. This corner is the urban equivalent of a forest clearing. It is where you would stand, I imagine, with camera in hand or on back, in order to document the intersection of these streets to ensure their proper representation on Google Maps. The cartographer’s shadow would reflect off of each building in sequence, wood and rock and glass window sharpening or reducing the outline in turn. In June 2014, rounding this corner ever so slightly onto Essex West, at the golden hour, a couple pushes a stroller past, speaking quiet German. The shadow would find itself reflected back in perfect form. Straight ahead, floor-to-ceiling windows convey an empty expanse of wood floors and white walls. The image produced is one of said body: legs, and torso, but, with a Beckettian jolt, the head is disembodied and in its place is a yellow flyer taped to the window that reads, demands, Tell us YOUR vision for Temple Bar.


II. Depending on who you talk to, Exchange Dublin—the “collective arts center” that once occupied this tall-windowed space at the corners of Exchange St. Upper and Essex St. West, existed as either centerpoint or periphery. And depending on who you talk to, Exchange either existed—or exists. “‘Exchange Dublin’ is both a statement of intent and an invitation to the city,” the center’s website once proclaimed. The website has been updated—design, font, secondary pages—and now seemingly vanished since I tracked it daily last spring and summer, looking for archives, and for clues. More frequently trafficked during that period, I imagine, was Exchange’s petition: “Exchange has been asked to close. Help us to stop it!” The petition functioned, in a way, as invitation to testify. Anyone could comment—from long-time volunteers to foreign students or tourists who’d passed through during the summers or semesters abroad. It was an invitation bent toward inclusiveness. The comments went on, seemingly, forever. The diversity of commenters charted an urban, even global, network.

Walking into Exchange was “like walking into a quiet corner of public space.” This is Conor, the first Exchange volunteer I met last summer and one of its prime stewards since the venue’s closure. “The doors were wide open, and I suppose in some ways, it was a bit of a quiet bubble you walked into; it didn’t quite feel separate [from the street outside].” Many volunteers I spoke with echoed this sentiment: Exchange is open and fluid. Its name, taken from the street that housed it, speaks its truth.

In 2011, when I first visited Dublin, I moved easily from off the street in Temple Bar into Exchange. The center was then in full form; toggle back to June 2013 in Google Maps, and you’ll get a snippet; you can literally enter the space via its digital representation. Each room is full of, even bursting with art, people talking, big gestures. Mugs are drying on the kitchen counter; someone is manning the front desk, above which a whiteboard schedule announces weekly events: “Open Cinema,” “Kindness Café,” “Collective Meeting.” This image reflects the space I remember from two summers earlier, where I and seven other American students parked ourselves for a few hours with questionnaires about cultural integration in Dublin. (It’s a really cool space, one of our cohort, serving as location scout, informed the rest of us. Very multicultural, very artsy.) Once inside, there was never any question backed by hostility or suspicion as to why I, an American, was in the space. There was no angle but that of openness; no approach but that of gentle curiosity.

On centerpoints: 2011 marked the mid-point of Exchange’s tenure in its physical space on Exchange St. Upper; it also marked the tail end of the Great Recession and Ireland’s banking crisis. (I’d return to Dublin later that fall to find Occupy Dame Street, tents and tarps pitched, staking its home across the Central Bank of Ireland plaza, a large pedestrian space which bleeds into Temple Bar).

In June of 2014 I met a handful of Exchange volunteers in different spaces throughout the city. We could not meet in Exchange, because, as mandated by the Dublin City Council, the venue had been closed for five months following claims, passed on in part by nearby residents, of Exchange’s complicity in “anti-social behavior”: when “a person causes or, in the circumstances is likely to cause, to one or more persons who are not of the same household as the person: harassment; significant or persistent alarm, distress, fear or intimidation; or significant or persistent impairment of their use or enjoyment of their property.” That the “anti-social” charge was used to supplant Exchange’s communal, everyone-welcome approach was, and is, an irony not lost on its volunteers and supporters. Amidst hundreds of public comments on Exchange’s online petition is a short testimony by Rose Ni Cleirigh, of County Clare. It reads, almost, as incantation:

Because [Exchange Dublin] is a safe space for me and my friends to socialize. Because for many summers now, my friends have produced short films which were always screened at the Exchange; it has kept many young people I know from drinking on the streets, instead focusing their minds on doing something productive. By closing down The Exchange, Temple Bar will truly become the definition of anti-social.

As several Exchange volunteers pointed out, claims of “anti-social behavior” in Temple Bar often involve alcohol-induced harassment and defamation. That Exchange has always been alcohol- and drug-free is not coincidence; its founders set these rules in order to promote a safe space for, especially, young people.

Exchange’s probation, requested via email on Monday, January 27, 2014, was first set to three months, which sidled into five, which is when I arrived in the city: in the heat of high limbo. It turns out fluid spaces can be halted, too: suspended inanimation, as termed on the call-to-arms. I went to Dublin in the summer hoping to catch Exchange’s trajectory at a pivotal moment, and felt like I did. Despite the suspension, there was still a sense of movement, of open desire. Exchange’s weekly collective consensus meetings—trademark events that most embody its impulse of radical democracy—convened elsewhere. Some dance and art classes were meeting in pubs. But even now, in 2015, a year later, the shop’s been boarded up. New cartographies are being made, ones that no longer demarcate Exchange within the physical grid of Temple Bar, nor the furniture beyond its windows, nor the art on its white walls, nor the bodies and their gesticulations from room to inside room.

“[There’s a] wider sense of loss,” Conor told me. “[To] lot of people, [Exchange] was multifunctional; it served a lot of different communities.

One of the phrases I’ve always had in my mind when people ask what Exchange is—I flip that question back: It’s different things for different people. In the way any city center is.”



III. “This has to be the fourth time someone has brought up this movie to me this week,” Conor told me when I mentioned I’d just seen Jimmy’s Hall. On a Wednesday in early June of last year, I met Conor and his friend Philip, another Exchange volunteer, at the Fumbally Exchange, a sort of co-working space for creatives and innovator types about five-minutes’ walk through Temple Bar from Exchange’s previous location. We posted up in an upstairs room with a large window open to a parking lot and old buildings: some gray stone, some painted hot pink, some graffiti’d. It was raining, as it does in Dublin.

In Jimmy’s Hall we watch as James Gralton’s political leanings comingle with his passionate co-direction and defense of a community dance hall—called, simply, “The Hall”—in the rural townland of Effrinagh (in the northern portion of the country). The collaboratively run, inclusive venue offers free classes in music, dance, literature, geography, history, and the visual arts, among other subjects. It serves as a place for the town to congregate outside the influence of the Catholic Church—that is, until the venue is tipped off by the Church and then harassed and closed by the Gardaí. Gralton, as its leader, is deported, erased from citizenship—a negation of his belief that a country could, and should, blossom through the active participation of its citizens, through claiming their own education and creativity.

Conor and Philip 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.

To say Exchange “started in” is to institutionalize something that has always resisted traditional institutionalization, to mark and pin down something protean. Around and during the summer of 2009, a group of students from the National College of Art and Design and a few from Trinity College Dublin banded together to create an extracurricular all-ages collective space in response to a perceived disconnect: the increase in the amount of arts and cultural events in Dublin, and the lack of physical spaces to support them. The venue on Exchange St. Upper—formerly an upscale furniture shop—was opened that year, and it became a new creative hub, and a multicultural one at that: visual art, African dance classes, recurring movie nights, writing groups, capoeira, a Moth-like live storytelling event called Milk’n’Cookies. “Some of the structures and teachers would’ve had links to the Africa Society at Trinity [College], or, independent of that, would be doing stuff on their own in little pockets in Dublin. [They would] find Exchange as a central space where they could book classes or dance events,” Conor said. Around this time, Temple Bar—once a prostitution hub and a site of urban decay—was enjoying its growing status as a commercial arts and culture destination. This momentum began around 1991, when the non-profit Temple Bar Properties was charged with regenerating the area. (Here it’s worth mentioning the complicated relationship between DCC and the Temple Bar Cultural Trust [TBCT], resulting in DCC’s recent move to sell off TBCT’s commercial assets.) “No other part of Dublin can boast the sheer concentration of cultural institutions to be found in Temple Bar,” TBCT’s website claims, and it’s mostly true; a quick scan of the website reveals a photo grid of 20 prominent arts venues scattered throughout the neighborhood. (Exchange is not included.) In the second row there is an image of a large, modular blue building; this is Project Arts Centre, an incubator for and presenter of innovative work in the performing and visual arts. Project Arts Centre incubated Exchange through its resource-sharing initiative, CATALYST, and managed the space until November 2011.


Conor began volunteering around this time, though his first encounter with Exchange was a year or so earlier, back when he was an undergraduate at Trinity College. One of the first Exchange events he attended was an art market; the proceeds were funding a recent college graduate’s move to New York City. (“There was nothing for her in Dublin as far as she could see,” Conor said.) In the fall of 2011, at the same time Conor became a more formal volunteer, it became clear that Exchange’s immediate future was uncertain. “A lot of people who’d first been involved [with Exchange] had left. Personal connections between Exchange, Project Arts Centre, and Temple Bar had begun to wane and were lost,” he explained. “[We were] two and a bit years into Exchange. I suppose what was really salient at this point was that pretty much everyone involved in starting Exchange saw it as a six-month budget.” In other words: Exchange’s original form was that of a pop-up: a one-off, fixed-term activity occupying a vacant space in the city center. But then it kept going, and going—and outgrew its existent funding structure, but not its space.

With ties severed from Project Arts, Exchange began to subsist on supplementary grants from the Arts Council of Ireland and Dublin City Council’s Intercultural Dublin Office, in addition to donations. Exchange also began to act on advice to form itself as an autonomous charity. The year of 2012 became, according to Conor, the year for Exchange to demonstrate “proof of concept.” Volunteers thought critically about the mission and acted in turn. The space began to generate more income through events; there was a greater influx of volunteers; the community was overall busier and more organized. “We really found ourselves being more productive and starting to feel much more like a cooperative as we intended,” Conor said. And all throughout, the “we” expanded: different groups continued to find the space, from independent artists, to multicultural dancers and choreographers, to hobbyists, to folks looking for spaces to hold conferences and political discussions. Taking a cue from its founders, Exchange became even more of a hub for students, both Irish natives and internationals. Volunteers established training programs and internship-like opportunities for transition-year and Erasmus (European Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students) students. “Most transition-year job things involve packing shelves in a supermarket somewhere,” Philip told me. “We had these guys answering phone calls, doing emails with us, helping set up the space, [setting] up their own event.” This structure furthered Exchange’s ethos of collaborative ownership, allowing its participants to establish meaning-making practices on their own terms while still partaking in something communal. This process was, in essence, professionalization; it was radical because it was professionalization as dictated by those who made, and ran, the space.


Selected quotes from conversations with Exchange volunteers here referred to as A, B, and C:

A: A typical day at Exchange? I’m not sure that one exists, really.

B: A typical Exchange day is something that you refer to in a metaphysical sense. Because it doesn’t adhere to anything specifically but people who are in and out of Exchange.

A: [There were] these very informal, relaxed drawing groups, [for which we’d] just lay out tables with chalk, paint and pencils, and paper. People would just come in and draw and paint in their own head space. Once there was a string quartet that had come in to practice classical music, and this was all going on at same time.

B: We’d have awareness [events]…sometimes we’d host meetings of feminist or LGBT groups—[we were open to] absolutely everyone. We wouldn’t mind as long as they weren’t telling people what to think. We were like a palette, and anyone in there was a color or shade to be mixed up with whatever.

B: What we were doing was showing what people could do if we gave them the right environment. When you take away the incentives of money and drink…you have to innovate, [you have to] suddenly do something else. And it was always better.

C: Everybody understood [Exchange] was not working 100% correctly and efficiently, but at least it’s not, you know, like every other club, group, arts center.

B: The problem in this country is that everything is so static. Societies collapse and stagnate when no one does anything, when people just sit around expecting things to be done for them.

B: On the one hand, the dearth of opportunities means that we can at least—there’s nothing else to do, so why not try to get involved in things?



IV. “One young person leaves Ireland every six minutes.”

This figure, precise at one point between 2011 and 2014, has come to stand in more generally for the massive rates of Irish emigration in the mid-to-late aughts. It is a time marked by a murky sense of “post-,” if not fully in reality then in name: post-Celtic Tiger, post-Banking Crisis, post-Recession. It is a figure that stands in for a new phase in Ireland’s long history of emigration, this time marked in part by hordes of young people leaving for the lack of jobs, for the lack of opportunities at home. This figure is more than a staggering statistic; it also carries symbolic—visual, even artistic—heft. Seeing this figure incorporated into the exhibition text of Residency, a one-week art show up at The Library Project in late June 2014, felt more like an of course than an ah-ha. Residency represented the cumulative effort of a group of third-year photography students from the Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology, just outside Dublin. Next to darkly saturated images of teens and twenty-somethings were snippets of interviews in which young people, both Irish-born and not, discussed their reasons for staying in or leaving Ireland. The exhibition was, at heart, documentary; some pieces were more conceptual, others more realist. But that this exhibition—small but spry, and free and open to the public—existed in part to grapple with a historic amnesia, and did such grappling in the middle of Dublin’s cultural district, says something about the critical consciousness of many in Ireland today. When Philip and I chatted one afternoon in a cafe downtown, he drew out a more cynical view of the interplay of the arts and the economy in Ireland, both past—when literary greats like Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett left the country in order to make work elsewhere—and present: “People in this country pretend to care about poetry, but only care about culture insofar as they can turn a quick book to it.”

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Like any figure, the “six minutes” must be contextualized, and in this case, it is a matter of accounting for the movement of opposite forces: for those who go out, some must come in, and between those departing and those arriving there is a set that stays put. Coinciding with Ireland’s economic boom and slow bust in and around the Celtic Tiger of the late 1990s, the country experienced a great influx of immigrants—from migrants and refugees leaving Western Africa and Eastern Europe to Americans looking to hit it big at tech companies setting up shop in the glassy office buildings of Grand Canal Square. While in Ireland in 2011, I heard references to the city’s demographic split marked, geographically, by the opposing banks of the River Liffey. To the south: Dublin’s city center, including Temple Bar and Grafton Street, St. Stephens Green, boutique grocery stores, embassies, Grand Canal Square and the Docklands (the latter of which until recently housed Mabos, a warehouse-based makerspace). To the north: immigrant neighborhoods, multicultural markets, hospitals, the Abbey Theatre, the Hugh Lane Gallery, and Seomra Spraoi, a former “radical social center” mentioned often by Exchange volunteers. Each day during the summer of 2011 I commuted across the river, from south to north, to buzz into the offices of a small multicultural newspaper situated above a computer appliance store.

Moving in either direction, you advance away from the city center, away from the commercial art venues and into areas that more fit the term “mixed-use.” As is the current trend in the United States and elsewhere, creative community spaces are emerging in these sorts of areas by recovering abandoned warehouses in underdeveloped neighborhoods through cheap(er) rents. (This is what drew artists and shopowners to Temple Bar in the 1980s, when construction plans for a bus depot made buildings downtown more affordable.) It’s happening so often that this out-migration has become pinpointable as a perceived solution to the booting of places like Exchange: If you can exist here, you can exist anywhere.

Exchange was unique in that it attracted folks from both sides of the river, and from the suburbs that expand outward from the center of Dublin. The space was begun by Irish college students frustrated by the dismal job market, and it remained open in part through the efforts of the non-Irish: expats, immigrants, migrants, refugees. Some would eventually stay in Ireland and some would return to their native homes, spreading the word elsewhere (many Exchange volunteers, I’m told, found the space through Couchsurfing recommendations). When I returned to the States last July, I still had text conversations lingering on my Irish mobile phone with Exchange volunteers past and present who were either back at home or on vacation in places like France, Portugal, Italy, and Greece.


I met one, a Greek woman, in front of a grocery in Grand Canal Square. After moving to Ireland, she found Exchange and began teaching folk dance classes there. In the shadows of monochromatic corporate digs—Grand Canal feels as though it drank from the San Francisco gentrification juice—we talked about the differences between the Recession’s effects on Greek and Irish creative spaces. We also talked about Exchange’s closure and its charges to professionalize its practices if it wanted to reopen, in the city center or elsewhere. She mentioned another arts-centered space in Dublin run by two foreigners called the Centre for Creative Practices (CFCP).


CFCP was founded in 2009—the same year as Exchange and around the time of wider post-Recession creative development in Dublin—as a space for migrant, experimental, and emerging artists. Aside from CFCP’s intentional curatorial efforts to support and showcase the work of niche artists, the organization also offers skills-training, mentoring, and other connective opportunities for artists and creatives. In order to exhibit at CFCP, artists must participate in the promotion of their own work. These practices of documentation and dissemination work, on the one hand, toward increasing sustainability in the arts. On the other, they also seem capable of inspiring a type of pride that is both functional and profound: these are actions that not only make visible creativity and art-making; they also declare that such practices matter—even, and especially, in the face of cuts to arts funding or government-mandated peripheralization of creative spaces. To do this as a migrant artist, or an emerging artist, or both, seems part of a greater fight to claim space. CFCP facilitates this through an education, consulting, and mentoring scheme; Exchange did so through similar programs and by serving as a hub that built its mission on welcoming everyone.

In January of 2015, almost exactly a year after Exchange was given the notice to vacate, I received an email newsletter from CFCP announcing the closure of their venue. The building was being sold; this would terminate their daily programming, and any other events tied to a physical space. It would allow them to continue their work on arts entrepreneurship initiatives, the letter said; “it also gives us a great opportunity to rethink our programme.”

If you Google “Centre for Creative Practices Dublin,” you’ll see a small map image on the right side of the screen. As in Exchange’s case, the image charts CFCP’s [now former] location: part-way down a one-way street, a few blocks southeast of St. Stephen’s Green. (Just outside of the Grafton St.-Temple Bar downtown loop, with a cozy basement spot barely visible from Pembroke Street, CFCP made its home in an area dominated by corporate offices and quick-walking well-suited men.) One image gives way to several more depicting a still-thriving venue; as with Exchange, you can look “inside.” There’s an exhibition in the foreground. In the background, a large dog sleeps on the carpeted floor. But, before you can virtually enter, you’ll see a thick red bar across the photos, atop it the words “Permanently Closed”—a barrier in cyberspace, and the Dublin streets in real-time.


V. It is one thing to learn—especially as an outsider—about creative spaces, to meet with their founders, advocates, volunteers, skeptics, acquaintances, and to ask them to recount stories of these spaces in full bloom. The contours of individual experience are what resonate: the particular joys or frustrations of a single event or exhibition, or an interaction, or a self-revelation. It is another thing entirely to learn about these different spaces and then to try to imagine your way into them, knowing, in many cases, that said spaces have been suspended or permanently closed. I had, while in Dublin in 2011, found my way into both Exchange and CFCP—different spaces with different foci, certainly, but both strong and active in their respective projects. I hadn’t stood inside Supafast, Dubsland, Mabos, The Joinery—all independent creative spaces, all since closed (the most recent being The Joinery, in December 2014). Their beginnings differ slightly from that of Exchange, with its early ties to Project Arts Centre; their missions differ as well, some geared more toward art exhibitions and musical events, others organized more as maker spaces.

“Other spaces, their origins were more independent, in the sense that a small group of people decided to rent a building—usually a dilapidated building—because they wanted something, some place to do things they wanted to do. Often it was just socializing.” I met Paddy, a sociologist, in the rose garden at Trinity College—an impossibly quiet, lush corner in the center of Dublin; this campus is where he completed his doctoral degree. He’s one of the founders of the Provisional University, an online “autonomous research project” that aims to work from the “precarious positions we find ourselves living and working in”—academically, professionally, creatively—with the goal of transforming them. “Research is not a privileged, academic pursuit tied to pre-existing goals,” the website further explains, “but a constructive process that we enter into with other people who share our problems.” One of their projects has been to document Dublin’s independent creative spaces, to figure out what qualities connect them and in turn what qualities connect this network to the cultural, political, and economic forces of Dublin and Ireland at large.

Paddy walked me through the trajectories of many of these spaces. Supafast, he told me, modeled itself on a particular type of openness: if you wanted to use the space, you’d pay €10 a month for a key. Rent, which was very low for a prime city center location, was paid in large part through a monthly community dinner; otherwise the space would hold drawing classes, exhibitions, markets, film screenings and the like. (Paddy himself had a desk there for a while.) The Joinery, farther away from Temple Bar in Stoneybatter, ran for five or six years primarily through one-off events. It was a “curated space” that opened its events to the neighborhood, often securing agreements with local pubs and cafes to offer discounted tickets to the public. “[The Joinery] is interesting,” Paddy said, “in that it trie[d] to integrate that space into the wider community.” Mabos, in the Docklands, emerged from a collective that ran a skateboarding festival. It became so successful that the group acquired a space in the same area. “It was the most incredible space,” Paddy said. “They had all sorts of building workshops, crate furniture; [they were] repurposing old arcade games, repurposing old computers, [holding] workshops, talks, classes, art exhibitions.” Mabos’s home was easy to come by post-Banking Crisis, but recently, Paddy explained, they got caught up in a dynamic bigger than their particular space: [the former] Mabos became incorporated into a “Strategic Development Zone,” defined as “an area of land that is proposed to contain developments of economic or social importance to the State.” These developments, in Mabos’s case, are residential and professional, designed to attract foreign investment. “[Mabos] was commercial, they were paying rent,” Paddy said. “But the landlord could get a better deal and that building is now going to be turned into offices.” It follows a pattern, according to Paddy’s research: the Celtic Tiger property bubble pushed up rents in the early 1990s, which commodified social life in the city center. Then, in 2008, the confluence of the Global Recession and the Irish Banking Crisis brought rents down, and suddenly there were “a lot of young people in Dublin with a lot of desire to do things.” (Young people, like Paddy, who wanted to go to “spaces [that were] less regulated, where there’s a bit more of sense of possibility, and more diverse people,” compared to a formal art gallery or concert venue.) And so these spaces came together, formed communities, and proliferated until the property bubble re-emerged and pushed them out. To an outsider—or even to an insider—this pattern can be mistaken as a tidy narrative, easily confined within Dublin’s stone walls.

“There has to be a recognition that [these independent creative spaces] don’t just operate outside of the city—that they’re caught up, whether they like it or not, in dynamics which are not just Dublin or Ireland, but are now bringing in bigger, [global] players.

And I think each one that closes has a ripple effect. I think that the kinds of people who may have been involved in one space lose energy and lose the drive to do it again. It’s that sense of each time [these closures] are not challenged, that defeat has some kind of insidious effect, you know? And that’s why some form of resistance to these external forces, whether it be the real estate market coming back or whether it be the City Council…if there’s no resistance, there’s not really any hope for the spaces, as far as I see it.”



VI. What kind of city does Dublin want to be? What kind of city does any city want to be? On my last days in the city last summer I did a lot of walking: from south to north; up and down Temple Bar; from gallery to gallery. I joined Conor, his friend and Exchange volunteer Jules, and Johanna, a representative from TURAS, an EU-wide initiative bringing together urban communities, businesses, local authorities, and academic researchers to strategize sustainable urban living solutions. As part of Dublin’s TURAS team, she was working with the Dublin City Council to study issues surrounding urban regeneration, especially in the context of Ireland’s recent economic history. We convened in Filmbase, a member-led organization supporting the Irish film industry. (It happens to sit a street over from the Irish Film Institute.) I listened as Johanna spoke with Conor and Jules about the fate of Exchange. The conversation continued as we ambled down Essex St., late-afternoon sun rays pooling between the usual mess of bodies packing Temple Bar. We ended up, eventually, at the former location of Exchange. Conor and Jules recounted the organization’s history in front of the big windows. Then I walked a few more blocks with Conor and Jules to TOG Dublin, a hackerspace completely funded by its members, who also have access to the space 24/7 to work on creative projects. (“Tog” is an Old Irish word, a verb meaning to hoist, to build, to excite.) Scattered throughout the cinderblock-walled warehouse venue are gadgets—a laser cutter, a 3-D printer—and projects in various stages of development, including a “Twitter-knitter.” The space is unvarnished: this is a place where you rely on a flat surface, material, and your hands in motion. I asked Jules about the difference between a “makerspace” and a “hackerspace.” He referred to a comment he heard once, issued perhaps partly in jest: “Makers will finish stuff, whereas hackers won’t.”


Whether implicitly or explicitly, we all have ideas about what a city could—and should—look like. When I began interviewing Exchange volunteers last summer, I asked them to either draw their “ideal community space,” or to finish this sentence: “My ideal community space would look like…”, encouraging either abstract or concrete responses. It should have sort of a magnetic pull—like a building that attracts and invites people into a community that’s open and welcoming and looking for new ideas. A space that’s self-generating or self-regenerating. I want a space where people can try to do different things, and be enabled to try to do different things. Implicit or explicit answers emerged elsewhere. From a DCC Community Development Officer: maybe we need to take creative spaces like Exchange outward, to the edges of the city, to a suburb. From an activist and organizer working with Anti-Racism Ireland: it’s about creating spaces where an asylum-seeker or refugee could walk in and feel safe—spaces where people can relate to one another as equals. I wondered, as I gathered these stories: is Dublin making a point to gather these stories, to hear its own residents articulate their desires? To provide and affirm spaces where its residents gather for the purpose of trying new things—and failing, and trying again—together? I think, now: Could the city itself model itself after a hackerspace? What if the city looked a little more like TOG and a little less like Grand Canal Square?

Over a year later, Exchange Dublin is still physically closed. Its Facebook and Twitter pages, however, serve as lively public archives of its activities and developments since closure. Over the course of a given week, there may be a post from volunteers clarifying the nature of the continued suspension or a photo of the abandoned storefront, with the “E” now absent from “Exchange Dublin,” accompanied by a jokey comment: “DCC took our ‘E’!”; the next day would be a post suggesting events to attend in the city, which could be as varied as a Butoh dance performance or a march led by students from the National College of Art and Design. As part of Exchange’s ongoing suspension, and partly as suggested by DCC, volunteers have had conversations with possible partner organizations in the city to satisfy DCC’s charges for Exchange to professionalize its operations. What have emerged are small, connective partnerships. Most recently, some Exchange volunteers have been working with Connect the Dots, an initiative that aims to bring together citizens and stakeholders—and their accumulated knowledge—over food and drink, and, more substantially, the issue of vacant city space. Connect the Dots is tied to a new masters program in design and visual practice called The Dublin Project. The one-year program is a collaboration between the Dublin Institute of Technology, DCC, and Design TwentyFirst Century; it combines research and practice specifically to “solve challenging problems facing Dublin City.” Reusing Dublin, a separate but thematically connected initiative through TURAS, is an online mapping resource through which users are encouraged to “tag” vacant spaces throughout the city and supply zoning, ownership, and heritage information (if applicable). That both these initiatives are in some way connected to DCC, who still at least partly control Exchange’s movements, can look suspicious; the cynical view is that this is a pernicious circle, a furthering of “suspended inanimation.” The more optimistic view, as Jules voiced to me, is that similar efforts may actually mark an “inflection point” in the city.

In Ireland, in 2015, a national popular vote made same-sex marriage legal. In Ireland, people are banding together and marching: against water charges, against the corporatization of higher education, against housing privatization. Connect the Dots continues to host dinners. Seomra Spraoi hosted an event gauging interest in a “new squatted social center,” now active “in the heart of Dublin.” Exchange asserts itself through different channels with uncompromised energy, and often hosts events—including drawing night—at TOG. As Paddy shared his research on Dublin’s independent creative spaces, he noted that few would deem their activities “political.” “But what they’re doing,” he continued, “is producing the city in a radically different way.”

On centerpoints: These spaces, many of which refer to themselves as “centers,” stake new physical centers in a city, and in a global culture, that at times seems bent on peripheralizing creativity. The preservation of community spaces matters because it says: by placing the arts in a continuum with civic life, this city prioritizes inclusiveness, this city acknowledges and supports its own diversity. The communities that emerged through and after their physical venues know this, and are taking steps together to organize beyond the specific, individual practices of each space. Their actions advocate as much for the material importance of arts and creative spaces as for the necessity of openness and transparency in city-wide decision-making processes. What does your ideal community space look like? Their actions advocate for a new politics of listening: over the din of pub glasses, over the hushed talking, and promises, and moneyed aspirations of a “new Ireland.” Their actions are saying, loudly: Eulogy is not enough.

May 292015
 May 29, 2015

A few days ago, at my Kenan farewell lunch, one of my co-workers asked, as I was part-way through chewing a french fry, “What’s the wackiest thing you’ve done at Kenan?” Caught off-guard, I tried to steel myself when my mind was actually pirouetting in ten different directions—mostly around the word “wacky.” I became hyper-attuned to context: things I might describe about my job as “wacky” to my friends would likely differ from things I would share with my coworkers, and vice versa. And events that may have felt wacky to me at the time were likely not wacky to others involved—after all, perceptions naturally bend across a spectrum of personal experience.

For example: I helped lead a group of Duke undergraduates around Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic for a week, despite my lack of intimate knowledge re. the immigration and citizenship dynamics affecting Dominicans and Dominican-born Haitians as well as my several years’-untested Spanish. The students seemed to have a blast, but I was tense the whole time—tense in my confusion of how to comport myself while there, and tense in helping to ensure the students’ safety. (In the end, it was taking a risk to use my modicum of Spanish that helped me feel more connected.) I accumulated just enough knowledge about something totally unfamiliar—genocide studies—to write a successful proposal for a multi-tier humanities working group. My second week of work at Kenan, back in 2013, happened to be the same week as Project Change, for which I was to assume a leadership position for a high-intensity and immersive student-centered program. I had no first-hand knowledge or experience with PChange. One of my first Kenan Insider posts tried to grapple with the surreality of that week: “How is leadership possible when you have no idea what you’re doing? The answer comes through a trust in improvisation. As a dancer, I find contact improvisation thrilling because spontaneity is the operating principle. There is no other way to proceed but to make choices in the present moment: how my body could fill the negative space created by yours; how my movement could connect with yours if I initiate with, say, my hip—instead of the more typical choices: an arm, a leg.

Working in the capacity of postgraduate fellow at Kenan for nearly two years has been similarly thrilling, and sometimes terrifying, and ultimately clarifying. Not only have I been exposed to and been forced to reckon with that which I do not understand or know inherently; I have also studied and presented, through various events, work and ideas that I love; these events in turn have allowed me to determine why I love them (and want to defend them) in the first place. A film series on the American South. A nonfiction-centered visiting writers series engaging two women writers whose words, and practices, I deeply admire. These programs helped me continue my long engagement with bolstering the visibility of the arts—and particularly the underrepresented arts—on this campus. Seeing 150 people—including a handful of my friends and colleagues—fill the Nelson Music Room for Leslie Jamison‘s reading felt like a love-letter back to myself, a freshly-graduated Dukie, passionately demanding that other students—and everyone, really—take more seriously the things they love so as to open up the possibility of connecting with others over them.

On that note, perhaps one of the “wackiest” things I’ve done at Kenan is buy more than 100 new books for the Kenan library. (Yes, we have a library.) I bought one half through Amazon and one half through The Regulator, which is and will continue to be one of Durham’s finest gems even as the downtown landscape changes. I walked in on a slow afternoon earlier this week and two booksellers very graciously curated piles of their own that they thought Duke students, staff, and faculty would enjoy reading. My self-created dictum: relatively contemporary titles; a good balance between fiction, dynamic nonfiction, poetry, and graphic [novel, memoir, etc.]; special attention to writers of color and women writers. Those books, which represent their selections combined with my own, are now stocked at Kenan and available for your perusal. They are perhaps the best thing I can leave behind. And I’d be remiss not to share a list of those books because those books are for you.


Adler, Renata After the Tall Timber: Collected Nonfiction
Agee, James and Evans, Walker Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Alexander, Michelle The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
Antopol, Molly The UnAmericans
Baldwin, James Notes of a Native Son
Bechdel, Allison Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
Behar, Ruth The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology that Breaks Your Heart
Bergman, Megan Mayhew Birds of a Lesser Paradise
Bishop, Elizabeth Poems
Biss, Eula Notes from No Man’s Land
Biss, Eula On Immunity
Boggs, Belle Mattaponi Queen: Stories
Bolaño, Roberto The Savage Detectives
Bourgeois, Philippe Righteous Dopefiend
Bulawayo, NoViolet We Need New Names
Butler, Octavia Kindred
Cain, Susan Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking
Camus, Albert The Stranger
Catton, Eleanor The Luminaries
Chandra, Vikram Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, The Code of Beauty
Chast, Roz Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
Clark, Chris The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914
Cohan, William The Price of Silence
Cole, Teju Every Day is for the Thief
Danticat, Edwidge Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work
Daum, Meghan The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion
Davis, Lydia The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
De Beauvoir, Simone The Second Sex
Deraniyagala, Sonali Wave
Díaz, Junot This is How You Lose Her
Díaz, Junot The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Dickinson, Emily Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson
Doerr, Anthony All the Light We Cannot See
Doughty, Caitlin Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory
Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk
Duneier, Mitchell Sidewalk
Enright, Anne The Green Road
Erdrich, Louise The Round House
Fadiman, Anne The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures
Ferris, Bill The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists
Finney, Nikky Rice: Poems
Fowler, Karen Joy We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
Freedman, Estelle The Essential Feminist Reader
Gawande, Atul Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End
Gay, Roxane Bad Feminist: Essays
Gingher, Marianne Amazing Place: What North Carolina Means to Writers
Gornick, Vivian The Odd Woman and the City
Grealy, Lucy Autobiography of a Face
Green, Karen Bough Down
Greenwald, Glenn No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State
Grimsley, Jim How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Racist Lessons of a Southern Childhood
Gurganus, Allan The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All
Harmon, Katharine You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination
Henríquez, Cristina The Book of Unknown Americans
Heti, Sheila How Should a Person Be?
Hobbs, Jeff The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League
Howley, Kerry Thrown
Jacobs, Jane The Death and Life of Great American Cities
James, Tania The Tusk that Did the Damage
Jamison, Leslie The Empathy Exams
Jamison, Leslie The Gin Closet
John Hope Franklin Young Scholars Running for Hope: A novel by the John Hope Franklin Young Scholars with illustrations from the autobiography of John Hope Franklin
Jones, Saeed Prelude to Bruise
July, Miranda No One Belongs Here More Than You: Stories
Kenan, Randall A Visitation of Spirits
King, Lily Euphoria
Klay, Phil Redeployment
Knausgaard, Karl Ove My Struggle: Book One
Kolbert, Elizabeth The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
Krakauer, Jon Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town
Kramer, Mark Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide from the Nieman Foundation
Kushner, Rachel The Flamethrowers
Kushner, Tony Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes
Leblanc, Adrian Nicole Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx
Lee, Chang-rae On Such a Full Sea
Lee, Rebecca Bobcat & Other Stories
Lewis, John March: Books 1 and 2
Love, Reggie Power Forward: My Presidential Education
Mackey, Nathaniel Splay Anthem
Mandel, Emily St. John Station Eleven
Manguso, Sara Ongoingness: The End of a Diary
Manguso, Sara The Two Kinds of Decay: A Memoir
Mann, Sally Hold Still
Matejka, Adrian The Big Smoke
McBride, Eimear A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing
McClelland, Mac Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story
Morrison, Toni God Help the Child
Morrison, Toni Song of Solomon
Munro, Alice Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Marriage
Murakami, Haruki The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Murray, Paul Skippy Dies
Nafisi, Azar The Republic of Imagination
Nelson, Maggie The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning
Obreht, Téa The Tiger’s Wife
Offill, Jenny Dept. of Speculation
Orwell, George Homage to Catalonia
Oyeyemi, Helen Boy, Snow, Bird
Patchett, Ann Truth and Beauty: A Friendship
Percy, Jennifer Demon Camp
Piketty, Charles Capital in the 21st Century
Price, Reynolds Ardent Spirits
Rankine, Claudia Citizen: An American Lyric
Rankine, Claudia Don’t Let Me Be Lonely
Saunders, George Tenth of December: Stories
Sebald, W.G. The Emigrants
Shapton, Leanne Swimming Studies
Shields, David Reality Hunger: A Manifesto
Solnit, Rebecca Men Explain Things to Me
Strayed, Cheryl Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
Sullivan, John Jeremiah Pulphead: Essays
Tartt, Donna The Goldfinch
Thompson, Tracy The New Mind of the South
Tyson, Tim Blood Done Sign My Name
Waldman, Adelle The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P
Wallace, David Foster A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again
Wallace, David Foster Both Flesh and Not
Wallace, David Foster Infinite Jest
Ward, Jesmyn Men We Reaped
Ward, Jesmyn Salvage the Bones
Wilkerson, Isabel The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration
Woodson, Jacqueline Brown Girl Dreaming
Wooten, Kelly Make Your Own History: Documenting Feminist and Queer Activism in the 21st Century
Wright, C.D. One Big Self
Yousafzai, Malala I Am Malala
May 222015
 May 22, 2015

Around this time of year, if you happen to stop by West Duke—it’s very quiet, sometimes eerily so, with the students gone—you’ll see on one of Kenan’s two video screens, usually used to announce events during the school year, a quite lovely watercolor map of the world. On it there are a smattering of red pins. Several, you’ll notice, are clustered loosely around where North Carolina begins and ends, and where its western borders meet those of Virginia and Tenneesee, whose own borders meet those of Kentucky and West Virginia, and then to the South, the lowest-most points of Appalachia in Georgia. And then there are the pins a bit closer in, toward where I imagine West Duke would register on a satellite map. Zoom out and you’ll see pins dropped in California, Ireland, Kenya, and Jordan.

It’s always exciting to see where Kenan students fling themselves and land during the summers, and what types of projects they undertake in said places (on said pins). It’s especially exciting to me this year to see projects equally balanced between home and abroad—and to see places close to Duke and Durham signify home for a number of undergraduates. The Bull City Dignity Project, spearheaded by Summer Fellows alum Lara Haft and Project Change alum Kari Barclay, as well as documentarian Mariana Calvo, will engage Durham high-schoolers and Durham community members in a documentary theater project. At the heart of the project—which you can read more about here—are questions surrounding the idea of “dignity”: “What worth do we place on ourselves and on those around us? Is dignity something we’re born with or something granted to us by others? How do our identities shape how people perceive us and how we perceive ourselves?”

There are four Kenan Summer Fellows this summer, and their first updates are just now rolling in: from San Francisco, CA (and eventually Nairobi, Kenya); Clarkston, GA; the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia; and, well, cyberspace. On the latter: Alex Zrenner, a Project Change alum and Team Kenan member, will investigate the ethics of online society and economy by focusing on a cyber harassment victim advocacy organization. I’ll be interested to see how Alex develops a sense of place and centrality through her research, which draws from instances of harassment that could be catalogued to no end online.

I’m winding down my tenure here—next week will mark my last blog post for Kenan before our new Bear Fellow, Cece Mercer, comes onboard to introduce herself with her first. Very soon I’ll publish what I’ve put together from my two weeks in Ireland last summer, which I spent partly in conjunction with the DukeEngage Dublin students (a new set is about to embark on their time in Ireland; watch the Kenan site for more), and partly in the throes of an investigation into the abrupt closure of a creative community center downtown. Central to the piece is a type of a mapping, a pin-dropping, which both reinforces the idea of claiming space and invites readers to embody the landscape themselves. Another way to do that is, of course, to imbibe the place-based stories of others—and luckily, you can, by following the stories of where Kenan students have immersed themselves this summer.


May 152015
 May 15, 2015

Deep in the trenches of fairly private (soon-to-be-public) writing this week, I’ve focused my outward attention on pieces of the “news”—or, information of a wider circulation—that consider the bounds of the “public” and make interventions in those bounds in turn.

  • Yesterday a friend posted this Awl article, “Podcasting and the Selling of Public Radio,” which considers a recent NPR-helmed event that served to pump up media and marketing folks with the idea of using public media as a branding service. Ira Glass, most famous for pioneering the This American Life juggernaut, provided a choice quote, dripping in sarcasm that seems to betray its actual honesty: “My hope is that we can move away from a model of asking listeners for money and join the free market. Public radio is ready for capitalism.” The article arrives at a fortuitous time, when podcasts, despite being produced in similar ways for years, have assumed a new, more urgent popularity through shows like Serial (disclaimer: I’ve never listened; I’m wary of any documentary project around which listeners rally by treating and talking about real people as fictional characters)—and some of these shows now happen to utilize advertisements that sound like the podcast itself. As Gillies writes,

“Advertising on public radio doesn’t totally undermine the virtues that make public radio public or worth supporting; we accept ads on city subway platforms and in non-profit magazines.3 However, what makes these ads troubling is that they don’t sound like ads: They sound like public radio. They exploit a special kind of trust listeners reserve for noncommercial educational media.”

  • I am in awe of the work of Duke-based Project Vox, as much as I am at what I perceive to be the widespread dearth of women philosophers studied—even represented—in philosophy’s academic life. Vox, a collaborative project begun by Duke philosophy professor Andrew Janiak and students and researchers at Duke, Columbia, and the University of Pennsylvania, aims to make accessible and advocate for the inclusion of the work of women philosophers in the academic canon (the title of this Atlantic article, which profiles the project, might better be “Creating the Female Canon”). Vox’s digital site, which is—speaking of publics—open-source, includes texts by 17th-century women philosophers as well as sample syllabi that incorporate said work. The emphasis of the project is as much on presenting this work as it is on ensuring it’s presented—and made visible—in the best possible ways. This reinforces Vox’s belief in the high stakes of this material; as Duke Ph.D. candidate Adela Deanova said, “We don’t want people to add women to a course for politically correct reasons. We want them to teach these works because they are important part of this time period, and if you are not teaching them, you are not giving students an accurate picture of what went on.”
  • Recently Durham invited residents to tour an auspicious location: Durham’s Central Park, which has recently provided room for a new occupant—a giant red construction crane—ahead of its forthcoming occupants: the many who will supposedly fill the 100-unit condo complex scheduled to be built in the next year or so. For Indy Week, my friend and Duke Magazine staff writer Elizabeth Van Brocklin jumped into the community-centered walking tour, which was also Durham’s first Jane’s Walk, a nationally organized activity meant to honor the legacy of urban anthropologist Jane Jacobs. Those on the tour learned about the buildings and businesses—past, present, and future—in the Central Park area. A walker with a two-year-old son, who moved from Los Angeles eight years ago, wonders what a Durham Jane’s Walk will look and feel like when is son is five—and when his son is twenty-five. The walk’s leaders, two founders of the Central Park (from which the neighborhood gets its name), intended the trip to be an invitation to the public: to Durham’s public, to anyone who cares about the future of the city, about how, as Van Brocklin writes, the city “can grow gracefully,” even, in Durham’s case, when new construction seems to demand the opposite.


May 082015
 May 8, 2015

“I was leaving the South

To fling myself into the unknown….

I was taking a part of the South

To transplant in alien soil,

To see if it could grow differently,

If it could drink of new and cool rains,

Bend in strange winds,

Respond to the warmth of other suns

And, perhaps, to bloom.”

-Richard Wright (excerpted as epigraph in Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns)

My excerpting Richard Wright above serves not as prelude to a great explication of migration as it functions currently in and out of the American South, or anywhere elsewhere; nor to a grand thesis on the intertwining of race, inequity, and urban and rural life as this intertwining functions historically and contemporarily. These issues require big theses, but moreso they require micro-level work: i.e., learning them in the first place.

Lately I’ve been hyper-cognizant of putting myself in the way of learning: of discerning when I am listening with an outward focus or an inward focus; of what I tolerate and do not tolerate in social conversation, especially in light of current events (a recent chat to which I was privy made prison into a flippant concept, and I reeled); of when I am speaking that which resounds personally, or when I am repeating vague claims.

I think about the mental and physical spaces I occupy most frequently, and what I take from them: my office, which this week has been quiet save for the outside movement of students attending DukeEngage Academy in preparation for summer projects and the looming of graduation exercises. The internet, which I use as fuel for my own work and a place to escape it. My pathway to and from work and to and from various cities in the Triangle, between which I circulate and think a lot about what it means to move and what it means to stay in place, and specifically to stay here, in North Carolina. (Aren’t you worried you’ll have a narrow perspective? a pushy stranger asked me earlier this week as I revealed my decision to continue my schooling in the region where I grew up.) The five Word document windows open at all times, as I draw together more than 100 pages of notes compiled between now and last summer, when I investigated the closure of a collective arts center in Ireland. (That this story germinated from Ireland’s historic and contemporary out-migration and in-migration patterns is no accident: the center’s volunteer base is made up of high numbers of both native Irish who chose to stay and internationals who chose to move—both groups striving to create meaningful communities in a country whose finances were on the down-and-out. These migration patterns were the subject of my own DukeEngage experience back in 2011.)

When I work with students on any given project, I first want to know what propels them. Why do they care about the things they say they care about? What does it mean to a given person to be “into” public policy? Renaissance art? Forced migration? These are the sorts of questions I’m not sure I fully asked myself before I packed my bags for DukeEngage, before I went to work with an immigrant-focused newspaper in Dublin run by a Nigerian editor. I knew that I was a writer, and that I came from a family almost wholly composed of Irish immigrants. I didn’t feel comfortable connecting these, well, connections to a community and an “issue” with which I felt mostly unfamiliar.

I recently bookmarked Isabel Wilkerson’s award-winning The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration as part of a bulk order to amp up Kenan’s lending library (did you know that we have a lending library?). I’ve snagged it for now. Although I just started, reading it is helping me think through some of these questions in the present-day. It has reminded me that these are questions I want to pose to all students as they embark on DukeEngage projects both local and international; as they graduate; as they move out and into other spaces. I want to remind students—remind myself—that moving out and elsewhere is a privilege, and that staying put is also a privilege. And that “staying put” is never really staying put. In any place or space, we bring to bear our particular histories; we try to live in ways that do justice to ourselves—to tend gardens for our own growing.

But, of course, we live in a world of others—others complicit, either directly or not, in the realistic unfolding of our blueprints, our plans. What does it mean for me to choose to live in the South because I know I can make a home here (and already have)? What does it mean that my white parents left their northern urban center to make a home here while African-American families fled North Carolina for the north well through, and after, the mid-20th century? Does my living here subtract from the flourishing of someone else? These questions are the ground-level plans for a much larger structure—one we, I, can build, if we choose to.


May 022015
 May 2, 2015

Poet Saeed Jones’s review of Toni Morrison’s new novel God Help the Child starts like this: “When we talk about Toni Morrison, we are also talking about what it means to thrive in the midst of well-manicured and eloquent hostility.” It wasn’t until after I finished reading his piece—and it’s a great piece, an incisive and short dive into the what is the what of Toni Morrison and her work—that I remembered I began a review of Morrison’s two-books-ago novel Home, in 2012, with similar words, though framed as a question: “How to write about Toni Morrison?” I had to write something, so I went with what I associated with her at that time: nostalgia for high school English; my and my friends’ somewhat vague, though earnest, admiration of her work. Jones’s review does a bit more, saying that Morrison’s newest novel offers us “an opportunity to meditate on the tension between the idea of the artist and the reality of the artist herself.”

He goes on to explain:

“[Morrison’s] name becomes shorthand for a republic of women and black artists with ‘no home in this place’ to borrow a phrase from Morrison’s Nobel lecture, people who create, reclaim and celebrate art that is intent on offering something of use back to the people whom it illuminates.”

What intrigues me about this sentence is how it stakes a claim and interrogates said claim; Jones seems to be saying, even affirming, yes, these people—this “republic”—do create and share art with these aims, but also warning: don’t talk in brushstrokes, don’t manhandle the meticulous, don’t assume authority. In other words: What republic? Who’s running it? How do they want to be called?

I haven’t read Morrison’s latest book yet, but I’ve found myself recently wanting to return to those I have read: Paradise, The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, Home. The end of the semester seems to mark a desire to change the patterns in which I am reading. I’ve made a strong commitment to reading books predominately by women this past year—due in part to my role in Kenan’s Visiting Writers Series—and yet I feel myself turning away from this commitment in a kind of fatigue. I voluntarily read a sequence of women-authored memoir and essay collections this spring—many either implicitly or explicitly about the need for more women to tell their stories and claim their emotions openly, through writing and documentation—and somehow felt exhausted, despite my identifying with that “republic,” or wanting to feel that identification more forcefully. I was exhausted by these texts because I was exhausted by the pattern they created—which meant, in effect, the pattern created for them, authored by the “republic” of bookbuyers, of book-categorizers, of Amazon “you might like lists,” shuttling these titles along into lists that circled back in on themselves: women-authored, women-facing fiction/nonfiction written for women. Circularity is of course not necessarily insularity, but equating them makes for easier marketing, easier categorization.

My response to what’s happening right now in Baltimore has largely been to read—that which I can make time for, that which I am already reading that I can stretch to relate, in my mind, to Baltimore. Jones’s review belongs in this camp; so does Director of Duke’s Islamic Studies Center Omid Safi’s On Being piece (“Between Nepal and Balitmore”); so does, somehow, Leanne Shapton’s memoir/art book Swimming Studies; so does Duke mathematician Anita Layton’s Good Question. The latter, as in Jones’s Morrison review, both stakes and interrogates a claim: We have all sorts of data at our fingertipson healthcare trials and treatments, crime statistics, and weather patterns for example. But how do we use the data to make the best and most ethical decisions? Watching mainstream media reports of and from Baltimore, I’ve become more cognizant of another kind of circularity—the circularity of my audience to newscasters seemingly determined to quickly, easily, and efficiently reinvent the wheel, to calibrate outrage on the same level with each new act of violence. This determination is one poised to offer, consistently, effect without cause: in other words, to say these things just keep happening. This is the claim, but where is the interrogation of said claim?

The weight of this realization feels important—like a smaller-scale, self-authored but outward-focused recalibration. It feels sort of like how I feel reading and then talking, with one or two others, about Toni Morrison. Whether in 2006 or 2015, this has felt like a process of uncovering new truths. How do we use the data to make the best and most ethical decisions? We reject amnesia, first of all, and in doing so, understand why the shorthand has come to be—and maybe we reject that, too.


Apr 242015
 April 24, 2015

“The way in which we choose those who will die reveals the depth of moral commitment among the living.”

(Justice William J. Brennan)

Today the sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and classes have ended for Duke undergraduates; I’m reading over my notes on the death penalty.

Earlier this week, scholars and practitioners—both local and non—gathered for the last Conversation in Human Rights for this academic year, “The Death Penalty in N.C. and the U.S.” The panel consisted of two law professors, a political scientist-economist, a historian, and a practitioner. The discussion was lively and embodied; Corinna Lain and James Gibson, both from the University of Richmond School of Law, spoke animatedly about their co-authored paper, “Death Penalty Drugs and the International Moral Marketplace”; Seth Kotch, from UNC-CH’s Department of American Studies, rapidly talked us through his research on the case study of Alvin Mansel, an African-American man from Western North Carolina who sat on death row but was eventually commuted and given parole. Isaac Unah, from Political Science at UNC, and Gretchen Engel, who heads up the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation, honed the local focus with an overview of recent death penalty cases in North Carolina.

On a general level, I was struck, as I am often in academic panels—or any panel for that matter—by the rapid-fire, real-time bringing together of different types and snippets of knowledge (each panelist was given a total of six minutes to present his or her thesis and ideas). Ideally, in such a scenario, each panelist brings to the table a distinct disciplinary perspective; also ideally, such perspectives can mesh together so that the panel becomes or at least feels to the audience like a conversation, rather than an abstract issuing-forth. And this Conversation indeed felt like a conversation; the panelists were engaging, they played well together, and they played well with the audience. All this despite, or perhaps in light of, the subject matter, which has felt unavoidable in the local and national news lately. And, probably, it should feel that way; comments were made more than once during the discussion that alluded to how little Americans know about the death penalty—we make up part of the remaining 18% of U.N. member countries that still allow it; we source drugs for lethal injections from European pharmaceutical companies, while the EU restricts the death penalty—regardless of whether they choose to support it or not.

To behold a somewhat cheery, dynamic conversation about these issues is disorienting, but moreso compelling, given the manner in which issues surrounding the death penalty are taken up in the national, public sphere: in conjunction with high-profile cases, such as the Boston Marathon bombing—first, the facts, then reportage on the emotional response. There was something powerful in Monday’s conversation in the admission of this action happening, it’s inherent to our national and local landscape, and it can be approached in these various ways. Those who research and advocate for issues relating to the death penalty (and/or its abolition in the U.S.) know about things like the Innocence Project, about its mission to a) exonerate and b) reform the system—a proactive effort, and a public-facing and publicly inclusive one at that. Being privy to this week’s conversation made me wonder to what degree these multi-faceted, emphasis-on-knowledge-production-and-question-generation conversations are happening with regard to the issue of the death penalty, and to what extent they increase the accessibility of the issue in the first place. I’d err on the side of to a large extent—that is, when they happen in the first place.


Apr 172015
 April 17, 2015

The strongest feeling I feel regarding the ubiquity of inchworms is annoyance, but the second-strongest is wonder: at their incremental ways of moving, at their ability to canvass the canopy some-odd feet above our heads and some-odd feet below the tree branches. Their assertion of space jibes against mine: I deserve to walk home free from these small leech-like green bodies, to not-dip under their transparent web-threads dangling down from the trees.

And then the rain comes, and with the pollen they are gone—dead, perhaps, or otherwise invisible by the human eye. My body sighs in relief. I expand the radius of where I can comfortably maneuver myself. I don’t dodge the plunging stairwell that connects my downstairs office to the control center of Kenan, as I did yesterday when I saw a green worm floating in that negative space and chose to take the elevator instead.

As someone with a background in movement training, I’m partly fascinated by this choreography of avoidance and partly unnerved by it. It invokes a privileging of private, individual space—the same privileging I denounce when undergraduates cluster together with loud voices at Durham establishments, or extend their limbs farther than their limbs can reach on Duke buses.

It is the end of the semester and we are tired. It has been a long year. I found Duke senior (and Kenan student) Leena El-Sadek’s Chronicle column this week, “Counting down and looking back,” particularly apt. She uses the metaphor of a running a recent half-marathon to chart her own exhaustion and frustration with uneven (read: unequal) terrains:

“One month till the Duke finish line.

They fooled me. I waited for the final semester email, but it never came. Faculty and family begin cheering, and I realize I’m only a couple of weeks away from the finish line. I begin to pick up my pace, but certain powers step out in front of me. Some people step out in front of me. I realize that I know these people. The America I come from is not the America they come from. I ran the same race, I conquered every hill and I never stopped. On paper, though, it looks like they beat me. Life isn’t fair.”

And yet she keeps going, keeps running: “I want to conquer those hills. I want to finish those miles. And maybe just then, I’ll run and feel like a winner.” This work is duly enervating because it is necessary—the continuity, the keeping-on itself is necessary. And so, as the semester closes, we grasp more and more at the spaces, activities, and people that make us feel more comfortable—partly as a reaction to the exhaustion, be it physical, emotional, intellectual, political, cultural…you name it. I can’t speak for Leena’s exhaustion; she speaks it, and speaks it eloquently, herself. In terms of my own, I’m looking back at a post I wrote a year(-ish) ago, after Teju Cole’s visit to Duke. In that post I was looking back at a note I wrote for Recess at the end of my senior year as a Duke undergraduate. I feel now, as I did then, the anxiety of summing things up, of creating clean conclusions even, and especially, as the self has exhausted itself. I have recent Duke, local, and national events on my mind, and they hang heavy: the noose incident, the adhan debate, the murders in Chapel Hill, the lives of people of color lost to police violence. I think also about spaces where we have come together: in a lunch with Leslie Jamison, where a group of young women conversed with a writer about creative work and self-care; under the Chapel, where administrators and students tried to process and move forward: some by standing in solidarity, others by implicating Duke in the university’s own problems (Public Policy professor Fritz Mayer wrote an evocative piece about this gathering here).

I feel compelled to compose a conclusion where these uneven terrains coexist, as I think Leena does in her column. This impulse does not move to affirm immorality, inequality, or violence; rather, it acknowledges our culpability. “Dehumanization exists simply because a particular person or community has no place in the larger narrative,” Leena writes. “Inequality exists because we fail to recognize the long-standing effects of our socially constructed policies.” Our power to choreograph avoidance exists alongside our power to choreograph accountability. But choreography is one thing, and embodiment another.


Apr 102015
 April 10, 2015

A few months ago while applying makeup in front of a curved mirror in my family’s home, I noticed a cloudy spot on my right cornea. My usual hazel-green beneath had morphed to milky, and in my usual medical panic, I searched for answers: had I punctured it with my fingernail when wiping sleep from my eyes? Was it evidence of a more serious condition? Had it always been there, and I’d not noticed it until now? The scope of possibilities—of imaginative possibilities—loomed. I saw an opthamologist, who told me it was “benign as it could be,” even if it was evidence of early macular degeneration. Until then, I lived in the space of stories I’d spun for myself. Each narrative was self-controlled: I told them, and I listened in turn.

The cover image of anthropologist and writer Ruth Behar’s book The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology that Breaks Your Heart is a photograph of a mural on Miami’s Calle Ocho. The image is perfect for the book, she explained earlier this week in a lecture at the Center for Documentary Studies. It is of a face, perhaps that of a woman, and half of it—the paint, but also the flesh—is peeling. The scrape ranges from the corner of the mouth to the eyeball above. It almost encroaches on the pupil.

Ruth Behar's The Vulnerable Observer. Image courtesy of Amazon.

Ruth Behar’s The Vulnerable Observer. Image courtesy of Amazon.

It made sense for Behar to reference her book—indeed, the talk (“Ruth Behar and The Vulnerable Observer: After Twenty Years, What Next?”) was specifically about her book, and its evolution in the cultural imaginary since its publication 20 years ago. How does her discourse in Vulnerable Observer—which blends personal essay and ethnography to advocate for a more humanistic anthropology—apply now, given the changing nature of the academy, of the media, of storytelling? Does ethnography still matter? What do we do with the ubiquity of documentation? What do we do with the archives we’re overproducing through our apps, our phones, our computers?

Behar did answer, or tilt toward answering, each of these questions. But perhaps, at one point, before she wrote this lecture, these questions bewildered her—as they bewilder me. Maybe these questions thrummed when her vision field became sprinkled with bright lights during a recent drive. This episode was woven into her lecture. The episode reminded her of her youth—of experiencing migraines vis-à-vis visual “auras.”

So she, like me, went to the doctor. Her current state of bright blinking was diagnosed as retina detachment. It made her anxious. She visited Florida, where she slept by the sea, and suddenly the vastness of the ocean terrified her. She visited an aunt with late-stage macular degeneration. Their ailments found and fondled each other. Behar’s aunt recognized Behar’s pain as she recognized her own—stories openly and evenly told, and received.

Stories—or the blanket concept of story—feels very much in vogue right now. Podcast popularity is suddenly reeling; live storytelling series, such as The Moth and The Monti, are well-attended; new multimedia templates unfold online each week, advertising their features as additive, even formative, bits for our brewing narratives. Just this week, the Franklin Humanities Institute unveiled Story Lab. Stories are sexy, or maybe the feeling they evoke is—in other words, it is now enough to shout “story!” and people will listen.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if people will truly listen. Listening is the ugly work: it feels invisible; it’s highly personal; it requires the investment of (deep) time and (deep) energy. As Leslie Jamison writes, It’s made of exertion—that dowdier cousin of impulse. Can we imagine a “Listening Lab” at Duke? Perhaps— though I think it would shroud itself in other language, dilute its visibility, become something else.

Ruth Behar at CDS this past week. The image onscreen was drawn by a friend in reference to Behar's ethnographic work in Mexico (Behar is pictured on the right).

Ruth Behar at CDS this past week. The image onscreen was drawn by a friend in reference to Behar’s ethnographic work in Mexico (Behar is pictured on the right).

And maybe this, too, is not a bad thing. But how do those “something elses” connect? How can we make listening, as empathetic stance, more visible? Can, and should, it be branded? Can its diverse models be celebrated without being prescribed?

In introducing Ruth Behar, Alex Harris—CDS co-founder, professor, and photographer—described Behar’s ethnographic stance as a paradigm for how to become someone we want to tell stories to. I scribbled this down in my notebook, and underneath it I wrote: How do we become.

When we adjourned to Behar’s reception, I fell in step with an older woman. We walked upstairs into the pre-storm humid breeze, and she remarked that she’d seen me nodding often during the lecture. “Yes,” I said. “I’m trying to become both a writer and a scholar. I haven’t read Behar’s work, but this talk was very affirming for me.”

I wish I had gone on to ask her what she thought of the lecture, but I was caught up in the warm buffer of Behar’s words and the promise of cheese cubes and cauliflower. I left that talk feeling like I could do anything and be anyone. I ate alone and walked off into the dark, conjuring my future story, imagining the permission I would give myself to live it.

When, in the practice of everyday living, these permissions—small, large, sometimes tentative, sometimes exuberant—are given regularly. They must be handled with care, for they are the giving and receiving of stories; they are acts of entrustment; they are, as Behar said, part of “a history of our shared mortality.”

How do we become someone others want to tell stories to? We demonstrate our capacity for listening. We sharpen our ability to see beyond our typical line of vision. We exercise presence even as the paint is peeling.


Apr 032015
 April 3, 2015

There is, in my haphazardly arranged wire desk organizer, a small sheet of paper that’s sat untouched since last October. It is untouched, but even worse, it is uncolored; this is a sheet that emerged from a coloring book, all thin black curved lines buffering a large peace sign, overlaid with the words “confidence,” “collaboration,” “creativity.” This sheet is my souvenir from my first volunteering gig with Girls Rock NC, a nonprofit organization that may best be described by its adherence to the three nouns listed above. Girls Rock NC—with sister orgs in several states—“empowers girls and women—through creative expression—to become confident and engaged members of our communities.” Its staff and volunteers, many of whom are local artists and musicians, facilitate summer camps, workshops, and other development opportunities for young women and women-identified community members.

I’m thinking about those three nouns this week, as I sat dumbstruck and disgusted by the news on campus this week, and as I came in to work on Thursday, noting in passing the Duke Chronicle’s front-page headline: “We are not afraid. We stand together.” It so happens that this week also marks the 20-year anniversary of Tejana musician Selena’s death. Reading about Selena—about whose work I am minimally familiar and limited to Spanish language-class curricula—led me to a 2009 video interview (conducted by Duke Press) with poet and performance scholar Deborah Paredez. Paredez is talking about her then-just-published text Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, and the Performance of Memory, and specifically about the creation of the term “Selenidad.” She explains how her use of the Spanish suffix -idad, which makes a non-noun word into a noun, “evoke[s] something that was of Selena but not just her.” Selenidad is at once specific and general, a holding pattern for the various types of emotional production surrounding Selena’s fame, music, and afterlife. Selenidad is different, but not separate from, other –idads: creatividad (creativity) and comunidad (community).

I don’t know much about Selena, but I want to—I want to know how her legacy speaks to Latin@ culture in the United States today, about how her status as a woman musician shaped women in music today. About how young women—Tejana, Latina, or otherwise—look to her for inspiration or affirmation. I want to draw a line between her work and that of Kathleen Hanna, and her band Bikini Hill, the subject of our final film (The Punk Singer) in this year’s Ethics Film Series. Hanna is another unapologetic frontwoman of a pioneering musical group—one about whom academic texts and non-academic texts alike could, and have, been written. Prior to Bikini Kill’s emergence as a band, the title was used for a “zine”—a self-published documentary compendium of texts, illustrations, and other materials celebrating and advocating for feminist art and music.

As it turns out, these zines included coloring books, with sheets perhaps not unlike the one that continues to sit at my desk. They circulated (and continue to circulate) in order to widen the circle of affirmation and community especially among women. Likewise, my decision to screen The Punk Singer is both curatorial and personal: it is a move to both further widen this circle and to contribute to its documentation—to see how ideas and emotions overlap, how identities take shape both on-screen and in the movie theater (and in the concert crowd, and so on). By deciding to engage with the cultural production of Selena, or of Kathleen Hanna, in the present-tense, we are bringing their work into a new space of existence—in other words, a space, like Selenidad, that is both them and not-them.