Sep 112014
 September 11, 2014

Ellerbe Creek is a body of water that runs through downtown Durham. Meaning: it runs through our city and contains our muck. “Think of all the medicines people take and then flush down the toilet,” the tour guide implores. “I wouldn’t let my kids swim in here. Fecal coliform.”

The water looks mucky indeed: clay-colored, churning fast, loopy with oily bubbles. It feeds into Falls Lake, which is not a natural lake. Its non-naturalness frustrated, and continues to frustrate, nearby residents; their land was taken and dug and filled with water, yes, but also mosquitoes and pollution. photo 1

The tour of the Glennstone Nature Preserve turns out to be as much about the surrounding forest—its canopies, its rose-hips and big-bodied black snakes, its spray-painted neon orange, marking where public land stops and Army Corps land begins—as about the water itself. (Where did my body end and the crystal and white world begin?). It is also, perhaps equally, about the history of Durham development, filtered through two Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association tour guides. They’ve lived in Durham long enough to have conversations with people who worked in Erwin Mill when it was an actual mill. Blue jean indigo used to run into the creek.

I scribbled that in my notebook the other day—the creek running blue—because I liked the image (forget the pollution!). But my assignment, assigned on the creekbank, was to write about something I’d noticed on the trail, and to describe it in formal, third-person detail. This was—is—hard for me. I wanted to write about the two women tour guides, how they gave our group a collaborative map of Ellerbe Creek by finishing each other’s sentences. How their excitement about stump sprouts excited me. How the leaves looked next to the mushroom fairy rings. I wanted to understand the forest, the creek, and the developed land holistically: one thing, albeit nuanced, but one thing. I wanna be cohesive!, as the fictional Hushpuppy moans in Beasts of the Southern Wild.

In other words, I wanted to position myself at the center of the ecosystem: me, writing about my surroundings. Which is funny, because I’d just dropped in on this trail on this day through a class I’m taking. And as I told one of the guides, I’d lived here my whole life, but never traversed the banks of Ellerbe. 23 years is a lot of time for a city to transform: livelihoods can revert, invert, take different shape. So can creekbeds and the creeks they carry.

It’s a lot to ask to understand the before, during, and after—of a place, a person, a story. On this day, September 11, I read a Facebook remembrance post by a friend. She wrote about those of us who have little memory of what came “before” that date. I was in fifth-grade; I’ve told “my” story a million times (it was sunny out; I was confused about how something bad could be happening in the world if it was sunny out). But it was vaguely kid-stuff before, and adolescence after.

photo 2I start to wonder: is that before memory within my control? What about the during, and after? I asked one of the tour guides if an investigative article had ever been written about the creek, considering it exists within plain sight of Durham’s residents. “No,” she said, after asking her tour partner. “Maybe you should write it!” I fantasized my potential agency: I write a luxurious, sprawling journalistic account of the creek’s history, and suddenly more people care. It’s the same fantasy that flickers sometimes about my project in Dublin this summer: if I write a good piece about the multiple dimensions of The Exchange’s suspension, maybe more people will care that it happened at all, or at least want to understand the situation more deeply. Maybe they’ll want to understand each other more deeply.

In this current, there’s an ethics of control, and there’s an ethics of empathy, and I want to be able to cite enough philosophers and enough theorists to cover every inch of nuance of both. I’m not sure that project is within my control, nor am I sure it should be. Inevitably, it will revert, invert, take different shape.

This morning, feeling weight from the day and from the idea of writing, I walked outside our building and sat at a picnic table and watched a ball of fluff float until my eyes strained or the ball became indistinguishable with the color of the sky or both. I sat there for a few minutes and then walked back. My legs lately feel taut and Tinman-like. (I just started dancing again after a few months’ break. “I’m a little rickety,” I keep telling people. I also walked about 1.6 miles through the woods yesterday).

I came inside and opened The Chronicle; there was a 9/11 Remembrance advertisement on one page, and a giant Miró painting on the other. I came back to my desk, and Ikea USA had tweeted, “Save time for reflection this Patriot Day morning.” (The account has since deleted the tweet). I felt strange about that (who decided it was called “Patriot Day”?), so I started writing my way into and out of it—that current, that stream—controlling only as much as the words ahead of me.


Sep 042014
 September 4, 2014

If you want to go on an adventure in plain sight on a Tuesday, you must first tell yourself it is an adventure. Hitch a bus from Smith Warehouse and sit in the very back, on the right, where you can rest your legs, fully extended, on the metal crossbar. Feel the weight of your body brace the window as the bus turns left; stare at the unfurling greenery as you make your way to West Campus. You make notes in your notebook under the heading, “To West on a Tuesday.”

The history of LGBTQ activism, advocacy, and acceptance at Duke was “neither quick nor linear,” as an information plaque in the Perkins Gallery tells you. This is part of a new exhibition—Queering Duke History—curated by Denzell Faison, who graduated this past spring. This is the exhibition you travel to West Campus to see. It’s about the history of queer activism at Duke; it’s about, as Faison says in his curatorial statement, “refut[ing] the prevailing theory that Duke University never actively discriminated against LGBTQ individuals.”

The exhibition feels both introductory and comprehensive; accessible, but chock-full of deep cuts—Chronicle editorials, banners, “Coming Out Party” flyers—from the Duke Archives. There are photos of impassioned student protestors and there is a hard copy of Steven Petrow’s controversial 1990s Duke Magazine article on the AIDS crisis. There is a big red “rejected” stamp on a queer student group’s charter.

photo-5You come to West Campus, not for a class or a meeting, but in search of this exhibition—because you want to write about it, which means you want to place it within some larger conversation about the history of Duke and what Duke looks like now. You live and breathe what Duke looks like now, because you both went to school and now work here, so you focus on the visceral particulars. When you get off the bus on West Campus, you’re greeted by heat and negative space. Walking through campus on 97-degree days feels like a whole-body gulp of hot tonic. You take photos of the construction alongside Perkins and the Divinity School; there is no shade, due to the magnolia trees now being gone, but there is the chain-link fence and the excavated dirt behind it. There is the banner on the fake Gothic construction siding: “Coming Soon to Bostock: The Research Commons.” There is the mulch path you must now take to Perkins. A desire line you didn’t make.

Once inside, you walk around the Queering Duke History, which is arranged in a chronological circle. Some students walk through, en route to class, and bemoan loudly that they “hate how the [usual Perkins] entrance is closed.” Another stops and peers down into one of the glass boxes while talking on the phone in Spanish. You think about how maybe, now, the Perkins Gallery is an extension of the library’s commons, the sudden link between Von der Heyden and the circulation desk.

You think about your last interview in Dublin this summer, with a sociologist, in the rose garden at Trinity College. He studies the commons. He also, after the Great Recession, co-founded an online activist hub called The Provisional University, an “autonomous research project that emerges in response to the precarious conditions we find ourselves living and working in and a desire to transform them.” Their mission seems like a rebuke to the “tragedy of the commons”: its participants choose, in present circumstances, to collectively imagine better. They acknowledge what they’ve lost, but devise an image of how the community, the commons, could look different.

You think about how this particular exhibition seems timely: at the beginning of a new school year, in the face of campus’s changing facades, in this young university’s ongoing process of self-definition. You think that maybe, hopefully, others on camps are thinking similar things. But at some point you close your notebook and float out of the air conditioning and into the heat wave. You board a bus back to where you came from in the first place.

In other news:

  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie will speak this Friday, the 5, at 7 p.m. in Baldwin Auditorium about the 2014 Duke Summer Reading, Americanah. The event is free and open to the public.
  • Last week, the Durham Herald Sun reprinted my recent Insider piece, “Surfacing.” You can read it online here.


Aug 292014
 August 29, 2014

On Thursday, August 28, Kenan held its annual fall BBQ as a way to welcome students, faculty, and staff back to campus and into the semester. Adhering to the BBQ tradition, we unveiled a new t-shirt expressing the theme for this school year: Ethics Outside the Box. In keeping with the theme, I meandered around the BBQ, prodding students with one (perhaps unusual) question: how do you do ethics outside the box? Below are their photos—replete with creative box poses—and responses. You can check them out and follow us on SoundCloud, too!


Aug 222014
 August 22, 2014

The following two articles were published (by different newspapers) in quick succession: the first on August 8, the second on August 13. Both are about Durham.

I’ve supplied the lede sentences, and article links, for each below.

  • “Public school teachers, low-level city workers, even journalists can’t afford many, if not most, of the 2,400 new apartments and condos being built in central Durham.”

From “Durham development: What’s being built where and who can afford it?”, Lisa Sorg, Indy Week.

  • “Like firecrackers exploding around downtown Durham, clusters of small businesses are popping up and enlivening one desolate block after another.”

From “Surfacing: A Corner of Durham, N.C., Comes to Life”, Ingrid K. Williams, The New York Times.

Throughout the week of Project Change, it’s odd (and hard), pedagogically, to balance discussion about real-time events, trends, and articles with real-time personal immersion—in Durham, and within the group of 21 PChange students. After all, the students don’t have access to social media or personal technology (they could, hypothetically, pick up a newspaper somewhere). I found this particularly challenging, this past week, with the unfolding events in Ferguson, MO. These are events that touch on a multitude of interconnected issues—including race, justice, and the organization of public space—that continually and intentionally surface during Project Change, often in connection with students’ personal experiences.

That said, the above pairing of articles came up during a conversation about the types of things students noticed throughout the week (things like gentrification) while working on a community garden with Reinvestment Partners. RP is a multi-pronged organization that advocates for economic justice and empowerment in Durham. Right now, they’re creating a food hub and food corridor along East Geer St., which forms part of a traditionally low-income, majority-minority neighborhood.

It’s no coincidence that Geer St. runs into the cultural district Ingrid Williams, with the weight of a New York Times pronouncement, describes as “surfacing.” If she walked up Geer, toward Reinvestment Partners’ office near N. Roxboro, she might call that segment “neglected.” After all, where are the NYT-approved signs of urban progress—the string-lit beer gardens, the runners’ clubs, the warehouse-chic? During a Durham scavenger hunt last week, we had the Project Change students look for (and interpret) “old things” and “new things,” and how they related to “art spaces,” “places to eat,” and “gathering places,” in Durham. How often they coexisted, how often they overlapped—pseudo-rustic signage, new construction abutting abandoned shops, murals on old buildings with new site plans.

Williams’s article is in the travel section; it’s geared toward tourism; it aims to generate a conversation, for outsiders, around desire, around an assumed familiar metric of “cool” and “good.” I want to go there! But I think about how the NYT article, bound by its genre, fails to mention the ~$50mil luxury condo and retail development that’s begun to displace the historic Liberty Warehouse at the corner of Rigsbee and W. Corporation. As Sorg points out in the Indy piece, many locals—all of whom presumably hold the right to access Durham’s cultural center—won’t be able to afford living there. I can’t afford living there. I think of a recent CityLab article about how high-rise apartment dwellers typically feel safe and “cozy” in their respective fortresses, but unsafe in the surrounding neighborhoods. I drive around downtown Durham and see umpteen simultaneous apartment developments. All seem to have a suspiciously similar drab aesthetic, far from Durham’s historic architectural styles; sore thumbs in their respective neighborhoods. I wonder if these new residents will converse with neighbors beyond their building.

Between articles about Ferguson and Durham, and between eight days of Project Change, I’m thinking a lot about framing conversation. Which voices, and which stories, cast the net and create the frame? Is said frame equitable? Who gets easy access? Who doesn’t? How can conversation be framed in unique and unexpected ways, and how does this framing influence “the information” itself? I like to think that the pairing of these two articles about Durham—one from a major national newspaper, one from a local alt-weekly—casts a wide net for several conversations that need to happen. The thematic content and tone of each piece speak to the mere existence of a conversational spectrum. I’ve been similarly inspired following Marcia Chatelain’s #FergusonSyllabus project—a means to expand the net by crowdsourcing articles and resources, both for students and the general public, related to the events in Ferguson. It provides tangible products, but also says, more broadly, this is complicated; let’s err on the side of conversation, and move with it in turn.


Aug 152014
 August 15, 2014


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.



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.



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. 


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 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 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.


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.