posted on 11 Nov 2013 13:48 by Elena Pinto Simon
EPS: I’ve been catching up with some of our first year students now that we are past mid-term week. We chatted about how they are doing, and what their BGC experiences have been like so far. This is part one of what will be several BLOG posts/conversations with current BGC students….This one is with students Jaimie Luria and Robert Gordon-Fogelson.
EPS: Hello, Jaimie and Robert. Well, you are now heading towards the end of your first semester at the BGC. Tell me a little what it has been like for you both so far.
JL: Nearing the close of our first semester, I have had a chance to really explore the BGC’s unique curriculum and to connect with a remarkable community that extends well past its walls and into New York City. I must express how relieving it is to find a community that fosters such a strong sense of what is going on in contemporary studies of material culture through a diverse interdisciplinary approach. Aside from establishing a hard won routine and finding my own balance between coursework and nurturing personal research interests, I believe that I have found my people. That is to say that my love for all things made (and their stories) is shared by my new professors, colleagues, and friends who value parallel yet distinct explorations of the history of stuff and what we make of it. My experiences inside the classroom have been amplified by outside encounters curated by the BGC, such as a glass-making workshop at Urban Glass and exchanges with conservators and museum staff at the Met, MoMA, and the Whitney through Hanna Hölling’s Cultures of Conservation course. I could not be more excited about this opportunity to expand and refine my curiosities at the BGC at this critical time in the history of material culture studies.
RGF: It’s hard to believe the semester is almost over already. I’m still adjusting to the pace and to the profusion of information and opportunities at the BGC. Having focused so closely on my coursework and research, I barely took advantage of all the lectures, symposia, and brown-bag lunches, not to mention everything that goes on in the city beyond West 86th. I’m hoping to be more adventurous next semester. Having said that, I feel so at home at the BGC already, both academically and socially, that I’m finding it difficult to tear myself away from campus.
EPS: Tell us about your background. Where did you do your undergraduate work, what was your major/minor, and what are you focusing on so far now?
JL: I graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 2012 with a Bachelor’s degree in the liberal arts. Rather than declaring a major in a specific field, something that few SLC students do, I created an individualized concentration that culminated in a thesis on representations of Native North American cultures in museums across the U.S. (most of my research was done in New York, Colorado, and Florida). My interests in cultural anthropology, art history, and studio art- with an emphasis on gender studies, cultural heritage, and indigenous rights- have left me slightly to the peripheries of any one discipline. Since graduating I have worked with curatorial and visitor services departments at traditional and contemporary art museums, as well as the anthropology department at the American Museum of Natural History. Issues of conservation (regarding both material and immaterial subjects), exhibition, and the incorporation of emerging approaches and media to the maintenance and representation of material culture are at the core of my current studies. I am continuing my research on the American Museum of Natural History’s American Indian culture halls and collections, specifically dioramas and displays of medicinal materials.
RGF: When I began my undergraduate career at NYU I thought I might focus in Classics or Ancient Civ, having taken Latin for seven years and ancient Greek for two. I quickly realized these weren’t the right fields for me, and that NYU wasn’t the right school. I transferred to Brown, where I went on to double major in Visual Art and Art History, with a focus in early modern Italian print culture. Now I study twentieth-century interior and product design. I’ve been sort of leap-frogging across the history of human material production, but since I can’t get much more contemporary than I am now I think I’ll stick with this current focus.
EPS: What is it that drew you to study at the BGC?
JL: My first instinct when I began to explore potential graduate programs was to look for museum studies programs with the option of incorporating cultural anthropology. The more I read about museum studies, though, the less I felt a part of that world of scholarship. I knew that if I ended up in a museum studies, anthropology, or art history program, I would be distracted by the structure of the program itself, with the issues concerning the existence of the fields themselves! I originally figured that museum studies was probably the best way for me to combine many of my interests and turn them into a single, ‘trainable’ career path. Now that I think of it, museums themselves have always represented a lot of the interdisciplinary questions that I was asking during my undergraduate studies, so I felt that it was only natural to pursue some kind of path there. Then I spoke with Don Rubell, for whom I worked in Miami at the Rubell Family Collection, who knew of my frustration with traditional approaches to arts and culture. He said, “You must go to Bard.” I had never heard of the BGC and it was not until I scanned Bard College’s masters programs that I read- word for word- a list of terms that were at the very source of my obsessive quest for a field of study: Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture. So, naturally, I applied. But in the process of applying I realized that I was brewing the most diligence, focus, and energy I had ever mustered for any sort of writing or application. Ever! The fact that I had so much fun during my interview with Professors Elizabeth Simpson, Jeffrey Collins, and Aaron Glass (for whom I am currently working as a research assistant) that I continued to laugh and smile the whole subway ride home meant a whole lot, too.
RGF: I found the BGC attractive for what I saw as a sort of simultaneous specificity and broadness of scope. There aren’t many institutions where the somewhat offbeat topic of twentieth-century design receives such close attention in terms of exhibitions, research, and coursework. At the same time, there seems to be a nearly endless number of ways to set about studying the subject matter, from art history and anthropology to semiotics and actor-network theory. Being at once committed to a specific moment in the history of design but open to a variety of approaches, the BGC was really an ideal place for me to be.
EPS: We’ll be registering soon for spring term. What will you be focusing on this spring?
JL: The courses offered next semester are so tempting; it will be a very difficult choice! There are a number of conservation and exhibition-focused opportunities, each with a distinct and exciting approach. Many courses involve collaboration and engagement with institutions and communities outside of the BGC, such as conservation labs, museums, public folklore projects, and arts councils. I plan to take Postdoctoral Fellow Gabrielle Berlinger’s Cultural Conservation course, which, in conjunction with new Mellon Foundation Cultures of Conservation initiative, will consider the role of folkloristics- “the study of creative expression in everyday life”- in conceptualizing and maintaining cultural heritage and practice. It will incorporate site visits and work at The Lower East Side Tenement Museum, as well as at public projects related to folklore and community arts programs and councils. I also hope to examine Issues in the Study of Ancient Art with Professors François Louis and Elizabeth Simpson, especially in regards to the ethics and politics of archaeological practices and cultural patrimony. I look forward to working with material from the ancient Mediterranean, Near East, Central Asia, and China, much of which is quite new to me, and to asking questions about national identity-building and ethical, political, and legal conflicts in claiming material heritage of the past. I am excited to take a class with Professor Aaron Glass, whose research also focuses primarily on First Nations art and culture and through whom I have had the honor of contributing to a number of projects regarding Northwest Coast material culture. He is teaching a course called Exhibiting Culture/s: Anthropology In and Of the Museum, which will further consolidate and enrich a lot of my own interests in museum practice and processes of ‘imagining’ and constructing stories of ‘cultural others’.
RGF: I’m on a bit of a theory kick this semester, which I’m looking forward to continuing in the Spring. I have my eye on a number of theory-oriented courses dealing with topics such as consumer culture, the anthropology of the museum, and the theory and ethics of conservation. I’m also hoping to start taking advantage of all the Digital Media Lab has to offer - I have a few ideas fermenting already.
EPS: What are you working towards? What would you like to be doing four or five years from now?
JL: My answer to this question will hopefully never be a simple one. For now I think it will suffice to say that I am working towards a deeper and clearer understanding of the many ways in which objects and their value are constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed. I hope to apply different histories and perspectives to the study, expression, and experience of objects, through the help of my new family at the BGC, in order to re-examine transfers of meaning through the material in everyday life and to imagine how new forms of communication can be made through objects. I feel that whatever it is that I want to do or build, whether it is a kind of space dedicated to the ‘performance’ of culture or an institute, does not yet exist- at least not in a form in which it can be referenced by name- at present. There is certainly something to say for the ways in which people experience material culture and the predicament in which we find cultural institutions and spaces, political and social environments, and the natural environment at present. What I can say is that in the near future I know that I will be using all of my passion for creative expression and all of my knowledge of history, cultural systems, and representation to build positive connections between individuals and communities and a stronger, unified sense of responsibility to our environment and to each other.
RGF: It’s hard to say for sure, but I do know that I want to be educating in some form. I think there’s a real need for people to learn about the history and mechanisms behind the design of their everyday lives, and there are an increasing number of ways to go about teaching this. So while I’m definitely contemplating more traditional paths, such as academia and the museum world, I’ve also considered areas like publishing and the tech industry as alternative means of influencing public discourse around design. I feel that I still have so much more to learn, though, so there’s a good chance that in four years I’ll be continuing the process in a PhD program somewhere.
posted on 07 Nov 2013 13:12 by Elena Pinto Simon
Dan Lee is the Managing Editor of West 86th, the BGC’s journal. He is also Director of BGC Learned Publications. We recently chatted about the range of publications that are a part of the Research Institute at the BGC.
EPS: Dan, both you and Paul Stirton, the editor of West 86th, have transformed this journal since its re-launch. Tell us a little about what you have been trying to do.
DL: Hi Elena. The journal is really a reflection of what the BGC has become over the years and hopefully it conveys some of what we do and what interests us as a research institute dedicated to the study of the decorative arts, design history, and material culture. Our institutional remit has gradually broadened over time and from the beginning of the journal re-launch about three years ago, we wanted to convey this broadening by publishing scholarship on objects and artifacts from all periods and cultures and also to accommodate perspectives that come from across academic disciplines.
We aren’t narrowly focused and as Paul is fond of saying, “We have no methodological axe to grind.” If you take a look at what we’ve published so far, I hope that you’ll see a pretty close correlation between who and what we publish and the kinds of scholarship we see in action every day within the confines of our West 86th Street campus through our classes, gallery, seminar series, and lecture events and through the everyday research, writing, and conversation that’s being carried out by our faculty, students, staff, fellows, and guests.
A perfect example of this kind of synergy is an article that appears in the current issue of West 86th by Jeffrey Schnapp called “Crystalline Bodies: Fragments of a Cultural History of Glass.” We first heard a form of this article about two years ago at one of our evening endowed seminars (The Paul and Irene Hollister Seminar on Glass). Since that time, we worked with Jeffrey on turning what was a fabulous talk on the role of tempered glass in the modernist imagination (from architecture in fascist Italy to the transparent and anatomically revealing Glass Man and Glass Woman featured in the German Hygiene Museum in Dresden) into the polished piece that now appears in the journal.
One of the things I’m constantly trying to explain to people who aren’t familiar with the journal is how beautiful it is in print. This isn’t your standard academic journal. We put a good deal of thought, effort, and resources into the design and layout of each issue, right down to the ragged right margins. Chances are you will see more and better high-quality, full-color illustrations in our pages than in any other scholarly journal. While most people will access our content electronically through JSTOR or through the subscription packages that our fantastic publisher, the University of Chicago Press, supplies through institutional libraries, we want everyone to know how beautiful the printed object is and what a pleasure it is to feel the weight and texture of the paper stock and see the contrast of the ink and colors on the page. We wouldn’t be who we are if we neglected this very real and material aspect of our identity.
I think the TLS review from last year captures it best: “Articles are meticulously referenced and supported by photographs and graphics. The result is both stylish and comprehensive. Of interest both to the expert and the amateur enthusiast, West 86th is a splendid addition to scholarship on material culture in all its facets.” A proud moment for us, but something we have to live up to with each issue.
EPS: Indeed, having a high bar to strive for is always a good thing.
Dan, tell us a little about your background and some of what you have done before your arrival at the BGC.
DL: Well, I was consistently unsure of what to do in life, except that I liked to read and to write. I attended St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, where I feel like I first learned how to really read and how to engage with texts and become immersed in the ongoing conversation that good books can facilitate. After my undergraduate studies, I ended up on a Fulbright grant in Budapest, Hungary to study the mass migration of peoples such as the Huns through Europe in the fifth century. Unsure of what to do next, I ended up at the University of Chicago for a brief stint, where I got to read War and Peace with JM Coetzee and Jonathan Lear; after receiving my master’s degree, I started working for the University of Chicago Press, again because I was unsure of what to do with myself, but working with books and with scholars was always appealing. From there, I spent some time at Yale University Press and then at Harvard University Press. It was while I was at Harvard that I first encountered the BGC, through a book series called Cultural Histories of the Material World that was brought to my attention by Bob Darnton, Harvard University Librarian and professor of history. It was Bob who introduced me to Dean Miller, and the rest, as they say, is history.
EPS: Happily for us! The book series, Cultural Histories of the Material World, has already had three impressive books launched. Tell us about the series, and a little about those books.
DL: Simply put, Cultural Histories of the Material World is an ambitious series that’s dedicated to exploring the ways that humans have shaped and interpreted the material world that’s all around. Our contributors come from a wide array of disciplines—there are historians of art and design, science and technology, culture, economics, media, and landscape, along with anthropologists, archaeologists, literary scholars, musicologists, philosophers, and practitioners of the arts among others.
The first three books in the series, Antiquarianism and Intellectual Life in Europe and China, 1500-1800 (CHMW 1), The Sea: Thalassography and Historiography (CHMW 2), and the eponymous Cultural Histories of the Material World (CHMW 3), were published by the University of Michigan Press over the last two years. They gathered together some of the leading scholars in their respective fields and variously explored the comparative material histories and practice of antiquarianism in Europe and China (CHMW 1), the ways in which sea-based history-writing focused on material exchange influences the practice of historical scholarship itself (CHMW 2), and the deep relationship between the man-made and the natural as seen by twenty-three contributors across disciplines and continents (CHMW 3). This last volume really lays out the stakes and prepares some of the groundwork for what is to come in future volumes.
Between these first three volumes alone, there are a lot of new facets of materiality for a scholar to encounter and engage. It’s obvious that material culture does not belong to any one discipline and that its study has relevance that could reverberate for many years to come throughout the arts and humanities.
EPS: So, tell us what’s next in this important series?
The next two books in the series are Ways of Making and Knowing: The Material Culture of Empirical Knowledge (edited by Pamela Smith at Columbia, Hal Cook at Brown, and Amy Meyers, of the Yale Center for British Art) and a book called The Technical Image: A History of Styles in Scientific Imagery, which is collaborative effort between the BGC and the members of Das Technische Bild, a research project founded in 2000 by Horst Bredekamp at the Humboldt University of Berlin.
After that, we have a book in the works from Ben Kafka, Lilly Chumley, and Lisa Gitelman of NYU called The Paper Trail: Photographs from the Survey of Federal Archives, Oregon, 1935-36, which will be a major contribution to the emerging field of “paperwork studies” that scholars like Kafka and Gitelman have been spearheading. (Both were featured in a New York Times profile called “The Paper Trail Through History” last December.) We also have a collection on Ex Votos across periods and cultures, a volume called The Anthropology of Expeditions: Travel, Visualities, Afterlives, and several translations of primary source materials in process, including the first English-language translation of the German historian Karl Schlögel’s important work Im Raume lesen wir die Zeit (In Space We Read Time: On the History of Civilization and Geopolitics), which takes history back to its geographical and spatial roots.
We’re also moving towards publishing some shorter-length monographs; we’re in conversations with several authors about new projects and are always interested in receiving relevant proposals.
EPS: An amazing agenda, especially in the light of so many that have expressed concern about the future of academic publishing in this country. Tell us why these kinds of scholarly works need to continue to see the light of day in book form.
DL: While it’s true that there is a great deal of concern about the future of academic publishing—particularly in the arts and humanities—the demand for good, well-written, well-reasoned, and well-researched scholarship has not gone away. New topics and debates emerge and scholarship goes on. There may be a more widespread public perception that the value of a scholarly monograph or collection of essays on the materiality of color or on “thingness” is suspect, but anyone who is engaged in serious scholarship—anyone who is actively involved in research or writing in the humanities—doesn’t question the value inherent in pursuing knowledge and in knowing oneself or one’s culture and place in the world to the fullest possible extent. There is a broader debate about the value of all of the Humanities and its place in the University and in education in general that I find to be exceedingly disturbing. I think the whole premise that scholarly publishing doesn’t really follow a sustainable business model and thus ought to be cut or that a humanities education doesn’t really work out in terms of a cost-benefit analysis of one’s life is wrong and it really begs the question. Just because some people don’t value the humanities, doesn’t mean the humanities are ipso facto worthless. The humanities and humanities-based research and publishing is done because this is a human endeavor that a lot of people still value and cherish and pursue for its own sake. Its part of what makes us who we are. People don’t become art or design or cultural historians in order to get rich or even to balance their checkbooks. Like anything people are passionate about, they do it in spite of the hurdles set out before them. Sure, there are new tools and technologies that enable our research and help to spread information further afield; the Internet and all of the changes that it’s wrought are now taken mostly for granted (not that we understand everything about what’s happening as it’s occurring, but that it’s happening, nobody debates). But I don’t see the desire for the book and the kind of unique story that each one tells to ever go away.
EPS: Great response. What do you think the next 10 years in academic publishing will bring?
DL:The landscape potentially could change quite a bit, but I think it would be a mistake for publishers to panic and change things just for the sake of changing. I feel like I was in the thick of some of this kind of thinking in the past decade as Presses began moving towards digital workflows and making some necessary changes to accommodate new electronic publishing formats (I was director of Digital Publishing at Yale and Harvard). The economics of scholarly publishing never quite made sense, but we were all happy going along with it until suddenly, we weren’t. Academic presses can’t survive on their own or without the support of their home institutions. The survival of these Presses really depends on the survival of the humanities and whether their host institutions continue to value some pretty basic humanistic pursuits. If the priority for a scholarly, University-based publisher or for its sponsoring institution becomes how many copies a book is able to sell in its first month or two of publication, then they ought to just start disbanding now and leave the business of books to Basic or to Brill.
EPS: Are you an optimist or a pessimist on this topic?
DL: I guess I’m as optimistic as a natural pessimist can be. Scholarship will go on—even if it reverts back to personal letters exchanged between interested and educated individuals who share a common and intense interest in a topic, like the antiquarians of old. There are some who want to go back to a form of pre-publishing in the scholarly context. Or to use new technologies to do away with publishers and other intermediaries all together since they’re often perceived as posing restrictive and unnecessary obstacles to getting one’s work out fast. It’s true: there are a lot of annoying, frustrating things about the publication process that we all complain about—proposals, meetings, permissions, deadlines, delays; but in the end all of these painful processes, all of the behind the scenes work that’s done to bring a manuscript into book shape—editing, design, production, marketing, distribution, not to mention all of the back and forth in negotiating reviews, reports, revisions, contracts, etc.—all of this invisible hard labor is what makes a book a book. Each book is a real accomplishment. It’s difficult to see this whole enterprise as worthless and replaceable by a blog or a series of exchanges on the latest social network.
It shouldn’t take a scholar of the book to know that producing a book is a huge (and often expensive) collaborative effort between dozens of interested parties. Really, it ought to inspire wonder that there are so many people still invested in bringing the written word to life or to shaping complex theories and ideas in order to advance human understanding. It can be done better at times and the process can stand to move more efficiently, but it’s an encouraging sign that not everything we work for or towards is some disposable or consumable commodity, to be measured purely in terms of monetary profit or loss. But whether this is something that anyone will still care about in ten or twenty years is anybody’s guess. We live in a weird world.
posted on 04 Nov 2013 13:06 by Elena Pinto Simon
Hanna Hoelling and Gabrielle Berlinger are Visiting Professor, and Postdoctoral Fellow, respectively, for our Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Initiative, Cultures of Conservation. I had a chance to chat with them about how they are finding the BGC so far, and what their work here is all about…..
EPS: Greetings, Hanna and Gabrielle, and welcome to the BGC! Tell us a little about your first reactions to our institute.
HH: Many thanks, dear Elena, for your kind welcome. First of all, I am absolutely grateful for the friendship of my new colleagues at the BGC, for their interest and curiosity in my research and the many inspiring discussions! I am truly impressed by the range of the courses proposed and the scope of research performed at the institution. There is so much going on here, from symposia and seminars, through various types of academic events, exhibitions to more informal Brown Bag Lunch events – it is hardly possible to be selective. The programs of the BGC galleries and own publication series, including the journal West 86th are truly rich resource to explore. I find the library holdings, Digital Media Lab and the research facilities very helpful to quickly set up the teaching and own research agenda. Last but not least, I have a great group of students taking my course, active and inspirational. All in all, it is a great place to be, a place of immense potentialities and I am looking forward to the next years.
GB: Thank you — it’s such a pleasure to be joining the BGC. My first reaction to the institute is an inspiring impression of the BGC faculty, students, and staff – their intellectual rigor, creative vision, and community spirit. The diversity of scholarly traditions that you represent and cultural programming that the BGC nurture’s makes it such a vibrant and dynamic institute. Every day has presented new opportunities for gratifying learning and exchange—a public lecture about dress and curatorship by cultural and fashion historian Amy de la Haye (“Objects of a Passion: Exhibiting Fashion and Dress in the Museum”), a BGC exhibition and symposium that re-examined Georgian British design (“William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain), a lunchtime talk about perceptual controversies surrounding prehistoric cave art by philosopher Mats Rosengren (“Cave Art, Perception, and Knowledge: A Doxic Investigation”), classroom discussions, and chance hallway encounters, to name only a few. I strongly believe in the BGC’s commitment to engaging scholars, artists, and practitioners across disciplinary and institutional boundaries as I also aim to bridge the academic and public spheres in my own discipline of folklore. I am therefor extremely excited by student and faculty involvement in museums across the city, in our own two galleries here on West 86th street, and in the BGC’s innovative Digital Media Lab.
EPS: Hanna, can you tell us a little about your background?
HH: I am a conservator and art/cultural historian specializing in art and media installations with particular emphasis on the developments of the 1960s and 70s. I am interested in aspects of time, changeability, continuity, identity and archive in relation to how we conceive of artworks in terms of objects that endure. Before coming to the BGC, during the last four years I was a NWO Dutch Scientific Organization founded research fellow within the project New Strategies in the Conservation of Contemporary Art (at the University of Amsterdam, Maastricht University and Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands). Within this project I completed my PhD at the University of Amsterdam at the Institute of Art History and Cultural Studies (September 2013) theorizing conservation and its 'objects' in relation to their temporal and relational materiality and change undergone. The outcome of this project – my thesis book entitled Re:Paik; On Time, Changeability and Identity in the conservation of Nam June Paik Multimedia Installations has just been published.
During my Amsterdam years, I was fortunate to participate in a number of research projects, such as The Material Lives of Things at the Courtauld Institute in London, Obsolete Equipment at the Netherlands Media Art Institute in Amsterdam (now LIMA) and I taught in various programs and seminars on conservation, media and art history, and museology at a number of universities and academies in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Glasgow and Stuttgart.
Prior to returning to academia, I was active as a conservator for contemporary art and media in a number of institutions, and most recently at the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, where I became head of conservation department responsible for two collections – Media Museum and Museum of Contemporary Art – and current exhibitions.
Although in my academic years I have been still acting as a conservator merely in a consulting capacity, my professional development is definitely oriented towards research and teaching. I like to think that I combine practical experience, knowledge and skills with a substantial theoretical background, so necessary in this young, emerging field.
At the BGC, I am Visiting Professor within the initiative Cultures of Conservation, supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. In my thinking and writing I focus on the diversity of Fluxus media, performance, leftovers and ephemera 1960s+ in relation to their ontic and ontological status, lives and ‘afterlives,’ and institutionalization.
Currently, I teach courses that bridge material culture studies and knowledge derived from humanities with the conservation’s approach to study materials and media. This semester’s course (Fall 2013) entitled Cultures of Conservation: Form Objects to Subjects – On Sites, Rites and Paradigms aims at studying diverse cultures of conservation, approaches to objects and institutional and professional attitudes. By examining a variety of media, we focus on the historical conditions that shaped the conservation theory and ethics and follow the development of the discipline and paradigm shift introduced by the new forms of artistic expression. The Spring semester 2014 course that I am currently designing is entitled Beyond the Object Principle: Event – Performance – Process. It will engage with the issues related to the conservation of media and technology-based installations, performance and ephemeral art forms. During this course, in discussions, lectures and during site visits we will challenge the assumptions about conservation facing fleeting, transient and heterogeneous forms of recent media.
EPS: Gabrielle, how about you?
GB: I was born and raised here in New York City, and studied and worked in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Indiana, and Israel before returning to New York this year to join the BGC. I received my B.A. in Cultural Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, and my MA and PhD in Folklore at Indiana University in Bloomington. In between undergraduate and graduate school, I worked at several applied anthropology and public folklore organizations, such as Cultural Survival, Documentary Educational Resources, and the Folk Arts and Heritage Program of the Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC). With the Massachusetts State Folklorist at the MCC, I documented traditional artists across the state for the folklore archive and for public programming events and realized how much I love the study of creative expression in everyday life (folklore).
I deeply value learning about individuals’ life experiences and worldviews as expressed through their material arts, occupational practices, food-based customs, dress and adornment, verbal arts, music and dance forms, and religious beliefs and customs (the fieldwork). I also worked in a number of inspiring public folklore organizations in New York City during graduate school, including City Lore, Inc., and the Folk Arts Program at the Brooklyn Arts Council. There I learned from the pioneering folklorists who direct those programs how vitally important are research and community-based public programming around the social and cultural traditions of underrepresented populations across the city, both to educate ourselves and to develop systems of support for self-empowerment through creative expression.
Most recently, for my dissertation research, I spent 16 months in a working-class, multicultural neighborhood of South Tel Aviv, Israel called Shchunat Hatikva (‘Neighborhood of Hope’) to document the ritual observance of an annual Jewish festival called Sukkot. For two cycles of this holiday, I documented how observant Jewish residents of the neighborhood, who had emigrated largely from Yemen, Iraq, Uzbekistan, Iran, Egypt, Morocco, and Syria, constructed, decorated, and used the traditional ritual shelters (sukkot) that are built as sacred structures symbolic of the domestic space for the seven days of this festival. In between the two holiday cycles, I participated in and observed daily social activities as well as cultural and ritual practices of the residents of this neighborhood—a neighborhood that was experiencing dramatic demographic change and social unrest during the period of my fieldwork as the Israeli government was placing tens of thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers in disadvantaged areas of Israel, such as South Tel Aviv’s neighborhoods. It was a complex, rich, and moving research period and project that involved material culture documentation, participant-observation in neighborhood life, archival research, and in-depth, ongoing interviews.
Folklore has brought the studies of art, history, and culture into meaningful dialogue in both my academic and applied work, and has allowed me to listen deeply as people tell meaningful stories about their life histories and daily lives, which has been a privilege. Now as a Post-doctoral Fellow in the “Cultures of Conservation” initiative here at the BGC, I am able to integrate my academic and public folklore experience through a research and teaching project at The Lower East Side Tenement Museum, an institution that presents the social histories of New York City’s immigrants of the late 19th/early 20th centuries through the preservation and interpretation of the material culture that they left behind. My project examines the life history of the tenement building, itself, as a material object, to understand the social and cultural lives of the building’s former residents and current users as they construct and reconstruct their physical surroundings. I am interested in viewing the apartment building, now turned museum, as a material object that acts upon, and is acted upon by, the greater changing landscape of the Lower East Side. I am eager to explore this new project from interdisciplinary and ethnographic perspectives with the students and faculty at the BGC and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.
EPS: Hanna, you’ve already started to teach this term. Gabrielle, you will begin in the spring. Can you both tell us a little bit about how you approach your topics of ‘Cultures of Conservation’?
HH: I believe that cultures of conservation can only be approached from a multidisciplinary perspective. This is also why I believe that my contribution can only be partial and non-exhaustive. I am fortune to be a part of a greater network of my faculty colleagues here, at the BGC, but also at the NYU, IFA, MMA, MoMA and the Guggenheim Museum, just as the European and North American research projects such as INCCA, Media Matters and many others.
Although my course involves a number of institutional and private practice perspectives and studies of materials of traditional works (visits to MoMA, MMA, Whitney, The Cloisters), I believe that studying recent and contemporary art and installation is, in this context, especially interesting. The artworks created in the 1960s and 70s and in the spirit of Fluxus seem to dissolve the borderlines between genres and forms, such as object and document, for instance, or performance and event. Musealization of these works, which originally were not conceived as collectables, presents us with yet another aspect of their fleeting identity. In response to that, conservation is confronted with the necessity to divorce itself from the concerns orientated only to the artworks’ physical constituents and the prolongation of their lives to the future. Beyond the safe area of material analysis and precise results, there is a grey zone of questions that cannot be answered straightforwardly. What is an artwork, how it is received and perceived and how it functions within and beyond a certain historical moment? What exactly is being preserved and for whom? Can we change while we preserve, and how much? Is it the past that we are accessing, or rather the present? The answer to such questions can lie only where disciplines overlap. One benefit of such crossovers is that they may produce cultures, such as the culture of the humanities together with conservation envisioned by the BGC and generously founded by Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
GB: Over the course of the next two years, I will be engaged in a project that will document the historic preservation of an 1863 tenement building in Lower Manhattan, now known as The Lower East Side Tenement Museum (LESTM). The course I will teach this spring is based on this project, and will investigate the theoretical and practical issues that material conservators and museum educators must reconcile in their efforts to preserve this historic site. We will explore questions of authenticity, representation, restoration, and heritage in the process of resolving potential conflicts in the conservators’, curators’, visitors’, and neighborhood residents’ agendas. More broadly, I hope to introduce my students to studies of vernacular architecture beyond the boundaries of the LESTM, in sites across New York City where folklorists, cultural scholars and activists are studying individuals’ relationships to their physical environments—the ordinary buildings and settings in which we live—to understand how our surroundings shape, and are shaped by, our social and cultural lives. I approach the conservation of the material world as a way to consider the role of conservation in our social, historical, and cultural lives. Through a study of the things we make, use, repair, destroy, and let fall apart, we can ask, "What is ‘cultural conservation,’ who engages in it, when, how, and why?"
EPS: This new initiative is an exciting one for the BGC; and it really sounds as if it is in really great hands! Thanks, Hanna and Gabrielle.
posted on 24 Oct 2013 18:49 by Elena Pinto Simon
The BGC Library put together a great community day yesterday, as part of their “ex libris” project. Part educational, part fun, all wonderful, ex libris took over build 38 for the day…from the lobby to the 6th floor penthouse.
The whole BGC family — students, staff, faculty gathered throughout the building to learn new skills, find out about new resources available via the library, and perhaps most fun, enjoy multiple craft projects from re-useable, about to be re-cycled library materials.
Projects included, buttons, flowers, magnets, chains, decoupage, wreaths.
A good time ( and some lunchtime pizza) was had by all.
The whole library staff, as well as the BGC facilities group made the day enormously enjoyable and a great success.
posted on 24 Oct 2013 17:44 by Elena Pinto Simon
I recently had a chance to catch up with Professor David Jaffee, one of our Americanists here at the BGC. Prof. Jaffee has just returned from a leave of absence…..
EPS: David, welcome back from your leave. Tell us what you were working on at Harvard last year.
DJ: I was fortunate to have a fellowship at the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard. I was working on my project “Envisioning Nineteenth-Century New York: New York as Cultural Capital, 1840-1880” which is a study of five key urban manufacturers and entrepreneurs who brought a new visual culture of “seeing in the city” into being in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. in the context of their overall trade. New York was the site of production and distribution of this new domestic culture, with its formulaic vocabulary of upholstered parlor furniture, center tables piled high with photographic albums, stereocards, and illustrated periodicals, along with sculpture on pedestals and colorful prints on the walls, as well as its critical subject with well-known images of its urban landscape. Visually, the project will focus on genres such as the bird’s eye view, the “instantaneous” stereoviews of the urban street, and the illustrated periodical woodcut of city life along with the material forms that emerge from these new technologies and promised new visions of the spectacle of modern life.
The theme of the Warren Center for 2012-13 was Everyday Life: The Textures and Politics of the Ordinary, Persistent, and Repeated so our seminars and conversations focused on a host of interesting topics related to how to study and write about everyday life. Also, I had the chance to obtain further training in GIS (Geographic Information Systems) at the Harvard Center for Geographic Analysis. Increasingly, I am seeing this as a spatial project and thinking hard about what the best way to present this fascinating material might be to “readers.” I am exploring a multitude of ways to represent the work in print, exhibition (see below), and digital forms. So I am bringing back all this exciting work to the BGC for my courses on the material culture of New York and new media.
EPS: You just completed another enormously successful NEH Institute here this summer. Tell us a little about that.
DJ: We were so excited at the BGC to receive another grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to host a four week summer institute in July of 2013 for college teachers and other participants. Our theme was American Material Culture: Nineteenth-Century New York. Eighteen college teachers and others involved in undergraduate education joined us. Our goal was to bring this exciting field into wider use for teaching and research in the humanities. We were able ot bring a wonderful group of leading scholars and practitioners in this interdisciplinary field of study to join us as faculty; our weekly leaders included the BGC’s Catherine Whalen, Bernard Herman, Catherine Grier, and Joshua Brown to lead us each for a week on themes such as craft and industry, Space and Place, High and Low, and finally Visual Culture. Best of all, we could take advantage of visiting some of the wonderful collections in and around New York City for our hands-on work with artifacts, including trips to the Yale University Art Gallery, Lyndhurst, the Museum of Chinese in America, and the Merchant’s House Museum,. We also took full advantage of our amazing Digital Media Lab and its Director Kimon Keramidas to offer exposure to new digital tools for research and presentation of scholarly work. Many of our participants enjoyed their time in New York by staying in Bard Hall and all were thrilled with their time at the BGC.
EPS: You are also getting ready for a Focus Gallery exhibition on Nineteenth-Century New York. What can you tell us about that?
DJ: I am working with BGC students to design an exhibit for our Focus Gallery project that will open in the fall of 2014. The exhibit follows the general themes and materials in my Envisioning New York project but we are working together in the exhibit form to explain how New York City entered visual and material consciousness in the nineteenth century, how urban manufacturers and residents made sense of the city and its new spatial organization. We’ve been looking at engravings, lithographs, daguerreotypes, stereoviews, and woodcuts among other objects together in class and in local collections such as The New-York Historical Society. We have been considering what the themes of the exhibition should be, what materials should go into the exhibition, and how do we communicate our understanding of the visuality of nineteenth-century New York through the exhibition medium. We’ve decided to focus on to promote on Broadway, which stood at that emerging visual corpus as well as being the site of the commercial activity. There will also be digital interactives in the gallery along with a digital exhibit online. So there is lots of work to be done and we will be continuing our work together in the spring as we begin our meetings with the BGC Gallery staff.