....midway through the first term....

posted on 11 Nov 2013 13:48 by Elena Pinto Simon
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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.