Agency

Art objects, makers, and users all have agency, the capability to do and undo, to transform their worlds.  Here we investigate art as a system of action. Agency in all its many variations mediates between the interests or intentions of an individual, group, or other form of organized social life and an audience, viewership, or community. Areas of inquiry include artistic patronage, collecting and cataloging, propaganda, idolatry and iconoclasm, cult and ritual, and performative spaces.

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Agency

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    Drawing Connections with Public Art in Pittsburgh

    Author: Marisol Villela Balderrama

    As the Teaching Fellow for Pitt’s course Arts and Politics in Modern Latin America (HAA0520), I participated in the class’s first online version this Fall semester. While almost all recitation sections were held remotely, I had the valuable opportunity to meet with some of the students during two optional in-person activities. During these academic encounters we looked together at public art on the Oakland campus.

    Guided by the HAA Environment and Agency Constellations and Judith Baca’s text "Whose Monument Where?" we reflected on the role of monuments in creating public memory for a many-cultured society. For the first in-person activity in September, we met by Allen George Newman The Hiker Monument (1925) outside the Frick Fine Arts Building. A total of 27 out of 100 students enrolled in the course participated in four in-person recitations, while the rest completed an alternate online activity. We also walked together to see Frank Vittor’s sculpture Christopher Columbus Discoverer of America (1958) in Schenley Park. While practicing social distancing, this meeting on the third week of classes allowed us to conduct formal analysis with several students who were taking an art history course for the first time.

    The second in-person meeting took place in October near Tony Smith's 1974 sculpture Light Up. This time, 38 students joined the activity. In each recitation students worked together in small groups, they drew sketches of the sculpture from different perspectives, and created a map that included all the surrounding areas from where the sculpture is visible. I designed this activity as an exercise in observation and spatial perception, rather than focusing on drawing skills. Their sketches helped the students answer questions about the relationship of the sculpture to the built environment and the identity of those who interact with it.

    In accordance with Jennifer Josten, the main instructor for this course, in these activities students engaged outside the boundaries of the key artworks studied in the course. By examining these public artworks in relation to their context, students were able to establish broader connections between the art from Latin America and Pittsburgh’s built environment.

    Categories: 
    • Agency
    • Environment
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    Teaching and Time Management in 2020

    Author: Andrea K. Maxwell

    In the History of Art and Architecture Department (HAA) we benefit from our constellations, researching and learning along meaningful themes of inquiry that unite heterogenous areas of focus.  In a pandemic-stricken society fighting for social and political revolution, these constellation themes suddenly become deeply personal, affecting our ability to work, learn, and live.  Our mobility was frozen, exchange restricted to virtual encounters, personal and institutional agency stunted, identities challenged, persecuted, and strengthened, and our environments on lockdown.  Every routine and hack we had for chugging through regular life was disabled and our pedagogical practices were uprooted.  For graduate students with teaching and research appointments, our usual means of functioning were obsolete.

    Undoubtedly, life in 2020 has emphasized the need for patience, self-care, and understanding, but as working graduate students, we often forget those virtues apply to us and not just our students.  While social media will gladly tell us how to care for ourselves through consumerism, making adjustments to work more efficiently also does wonders for mental well-being.  Having our familiar support systems muted by the pandemic, a return to the basics of time management seemed to be in order.

    As TA Mentor for AY20-21, I led a virtual colloquium in HAA to workshop time management skills with faculty and grads.  As many of us in the department have reiterated, now is not the time to strive for our best work ever, nor should we expect of ourselves the same rigor and productivity as we did in the before-times.  Instead, we must rely on prioritizing what we can and delegating (and deleting) tasks accordingly.  In my initial presentation, I encouraged participants to also consider what level of cognitive demand their high to low priority items required of them.  When developing strategies for time management, when we choose to work on a task is as important as which task we choose.  Personally, I require sunlight and minimal distractions to get difficult tasks completed, so this typically means working in the mornings, after my husband has “gone” to work at his desk and my cats have fallen into their post-breakfast naps.  Non-morning people, however, are making their work harder if they try to start demanding tasks first thing in the day.

    The workshop continued with faculty tips for time management related to teaching and work/life balance.  Beyond these practical suggestions, we also focused on the importance of scheduling self-care and time off from work-related tasks.  In the subsequent discussion, students raised important questions related to the expectations placed on our time, noting that the current system and division of hours for a student with a full-time appointment and coursework requires working over 40 hours a week making days off feel impossible.  We also emphasized that gender discrepancies contribute to these issues of work/life balance and the ability to say no, and women in the university are often burdened with all the emotional labor in their department. While the conversation made it clear there is no easy answer, the faculty that participated were sensitive and responsive to the concerns raised.  We were encouraged to practice making choices that benefit us and our goals, though the issue remains that freedom in making choices is a privilege to which we do not all have equal access.

    Perhaps the most important takeaway is that no individual plan will work for everyone, and what worked for one person in the past may not work now.  The system in which we perform as students, teachers, and employees needs repair, but maybe through the upheaval of 2020 we can start to make those changes and take care of ourselves and each other.  To get there, we need open and honest communication, with each other and with ourselves, and it takes all parties involved to cultivate an environment where change can occur.

    Categories: 
    • Agency
    • Environment
    • Identity
    • Mobility/Exchange
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    Stories of Invisible Cities

    Author: Sahar S. Hosseini

     

    In the past few months, I have been researching and reading about Pittsburgh and its minority neighborhoods. The drive behind this interest and exploration is to design a course around a long-term project that taps into the social and physical environment of minority neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. The project has close ties with Environment Constellation because it aims to uncover traces of ordinary people's lives embedded in the landscapes and built environments of these neighborhoods. Given its focus on marginalized groups and the recovery of their voices, the project is also connected to the Agency Constellation. 

    My vision for this undertaking is fueled by a recently completed project, Ironbound Foodscapes, that I designed and directed in collaboration with the Newest American team and graduate students at the Rutgers University-Newark. The project, which unfolded over six weeks of intensive fieldwork in the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark (NJ), introduced graduate students to various methodologies, through which they uncovered stories of successive waves of immigrants who created, lived, and modified the Ironbound's built environment over the past hundred and forty years or so. 

    Focusing on five distinct restaurants (Mompou, Sabur Unido, Nova Alliance, La Guayaca, and Bocaditos Colombianos), the project foregrounded food and the built environment as matters imbued with material traces left by communities who immigrated to or through the neighborhood. Combining archival work, oral history, ethnography, as well as visual, spatial, and material analysis of the built environment, the project mapped the changing demographics and life of the neighborhood, particularly giving voice to past and present inhabitants that are often invisible in the dominant narrative that associates Ironbound with the Portuguese diaspora community. Positioned at the intersection of food, social life, and built environment, these five sites reveal the agency of these communities, whose resilience and determination are materialized in the process of negotiating their place in the neighborhood.

    Categories: 
    • Agency
    • Environment

    Frontpage of “India in America”: East Indian Furnishings between Ahmedabad and Bryn Mawr by Katie Loney

     

    Digital Exhibition Maps Agency and Identity through Furnishings

    Author: Katie Loney

    PhD Student in History of Art and Architecture and Graduate Student Assistant in Public History

    How can furniture help us understand the world and its connections? As the Graduate Student Assistant in Public History at Pitt’s World History Center, I have developed a digital exhibition that shares the 19th century furniture from India which I study as an art historian beyond my discipline. “India in America”: East Indian Furnishings between Ahmedabad and Bryn Mawr traces the movements of a set of artistic furnishings produced by the Ahmedabad Wood Carving Company in Ahmedabad, India to explore important questions about agency and identity. In the late nineteenth century, the American heiress, philanthropist, and suffragette Mary Garrett purchased this set for her Baltimore estate, later moving it to Bryn Mawr College’s Deanery with the help of the American designer Lockwood de Forest—one of the Ahmedabad Wood Carving Company’s founders.

    Through virtual “galleries,” visitors are able to explore the transnational histories of these Indian furnishings, tracking their movements from Ahmedabad to de Forest’s New York showrooms, Garrett’s Baltimore mansion, and the Deanery, where Garrett lived with her partner, M. Carey Thomas, the then-president of Bryn Mawr College. Looking to period photographs, correspondence, inventory reports, and other archival materials, the digital exhibition reexamines the company’s artistic furnishings and their position within Orientalist interiors, which evoked an imaginary “East” for Western consumption. At each stage, issues of agency and exchange come to the fore by registering the company’s furnishings as objects of skilled craftsmanship, commodities, and exotic luxury furnishings. Taken together, these galleries illuminate the ways nineteenth-century Americans and Indians used luxury goods to navigate their identities and social relationships in an increasingly interconnected world characterized by colonialism and imperialism.

    Almost serendipitously, my project coincides with a new exhibition of de Forest’s work at Bryn Mawr College, “All-over Design:” Lockwood de Forest between Ahmedabad and Bryn Mawr, curated by Nina Blomfield (Ph.D. candidate at Bryn Mawr College). This led to a series of collaborative events at Pitt and Bryn Mawr college where we were able to discuss both our exhibitions with the public. At Pitt, we hosted a curatorial conversation in the India Nationality Room. We not only discussed our approaches to work of de Forest and the Ahmedabad Wood Carving Company but were able to compare this de Forest’s design as a turn-of-the-century venture with the twenty-first century Indian Nationality Room modeled after the Buddhist Monastic University, Nalanda (active from ca. 500-1200 CE). This comparison raised questions about the global circulation of materials, goods, and aesthetics and how they are used in places deemed new and foreign. Comparing de Forest and the Indian Nationality Room also highlighted the processes of appropriation and inequity on which nineteenth-century Orientalist interiors relied and perpetuated, while illuminating the ways in which the Indian Nationality Room negotiates issues of identity formation for Indian communities in Pittsburgh.

    This event was followed by an object study session at Bryn Mawr College, where Nina and I led an interactive tour of her physical exhibition. Bryn Mawr Special collections provided us with hand lights and gloves to share with attendees, so everyone had the opportunity to engage with the objects visually and tactically. 

    Categories: 
    • Agency
    • Identity
    • Mobility/Exchange
    • Graduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
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    Talking about "The Other": Resources for the CMNH

    Museum Studies Intern at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History - Spring 2017

    This past spring, I had the opportunity to work alongside Dr. Erin Peters and the Department of Education at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH). My job was to provide an outline for a potential curriculum to be used for docent training at the CMNH in talking about cultures which are considered “the other" particularly with Alcoa Hall, but also in general. The term “the other” or alterity in this context refers to cultures which vary greatly from western culture and as such are not well known among the average person in the United States and often the average person has grave misconceptions of these cultures. These facts make it difficult to discuss these cultures in a museum setting.

    In an attempt to tackle this task, I started by talking to professors in several departments at the University of Pittsburgh including anthropology, history of art and architecture, and religious studies to get their opinion on the subject as well as the current state of the cultural halls at the CMNH. I was also able to set up meetings with the director of the Department of Education at CMNH as well as the people in charge of training docents to get their opinions on the subject. I was even able to view the training videos that they use for training the docents at CMNH in the cultural halls.

    By combining the opinions of academics and museum professionals, I was able to get a good idea of where to start my own research. From there, I did a lot of research ranging from specific case studies of mostly representations of Native American groups in museums through to anthropological and historical theory. This took up the bulk of my internship by simply reading through the material and creating short summaries of each paper/book.

    At the end of my internship I created a short outline with all of the ‘big ideas’ of all of the readings for the CMNH as well as a set of summaries for the resources that I gathered. These will be presented to the Department of Education at the CMNH to help guide them as they are changing their docent curriculum.

    Overall, this internship was very research oriented and hands-off. I found that it helped me to better work independently and find better sources for research projects in museum studies research. In the future, I hope to use these skills to further my own research.

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    Looking Behind the Glass: Rediscovering the Women of Botany Hall

    Museum Studies Intern at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History - Fall 2016 

    This semester I had a research internship with the department to work with a group of undergraduate students on the dioramas of CMNH’s Botany Hall. With graduate student Colleen O’Reilly as my mentor, I was given the opportunity to create my own independent project on the topic of my choice. My primary focus was the role women played in the creation of the dioramas from past and present. This subject interested me most because it was a point where botany, museum studies, and gender studies intersected. The section of Botany in the Natural History museum was dominated by women compared to the other departments. The broader thoughts that challenged me throughout this project were about the museum’s accessibility to women during the different stages of botanical dioramas; was Botany Hall a space which simply allowed women to flourish, one that confined them to a subject that was considered “appropriate”, or one that was passed off as “women’s work”? I wanted to take a different approach to presenting this research so I worked with an online program called Scalar. Scalar is a platform that creates a digital book that allows readers to navigate their own path through the narratives that I present. The pictures and documents found in the museum’s archives were vital in the understanding and creation of this project and I felt that I needed a platform that showcased that. Though I ran into just as many technical challenges as I did with my actual research, it was really rewarding to watch it all come together

    Categories: 
    • Agency
    • Current Projects
    • Academic Interns
    • Dioramas in Context
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
  • Race-ing the Museum participants, May 13, 2016, in Braddock PA (minus Marina who had to leave to catch a plane)

     

    Race-ing the Museum: Some Afterthoughts

    Our workshop ended on Friday the 13th with a beautiful day at the Carnegie Library of Braddock with the artist collective Transformazium, after a packed week of field work and intense conversation with an amazing group of graduate students and faculty from across Pitt's campus.

    Over the course of the week we met and talked with various curators, educators, and archivists at the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Teenie Harris Archive, the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, the Heinz History Center, the Allegheny City Gallery on the Northside, Pitt’s special collections and multiple archives, and the Art Lending Library in Braddock.  We interacted in various ways with objects on display and brought from storage, as well as curated selections of mixed materials from larger collections, and on the last day had a chance to do some speed-curating of our own in the art lending space at the Braddock Library.  In between, we talked a lot about what we had seen and heard and about what we should do to put ideas in practice and push the conversation forward in public.

    For me personally it was a revelation to move from one radically different collection to another and to ponder the structural differences that help determine their narratives, audiences, and engagements.  Each institution has its own criteria of quality and value.  These value systems in turn create communities around them.  Some systems are inherently more exclusive than others and therefore present particular challenges for an ethic of inclusion.

    At the Hunt Institute, for example, with the help of their generous staff we spent a couple of hours examining prints and books mostly against the grain: we looked through botany books and various records of collecting expeditions by European and Anglo colonizers to see how they represented the indigenous and enslaved peoples who actually supplied much of the knowledge.  Against the hierarchy of power and knowledge communicated by the materials themselves, we worked to recover the devalued voice and expertise of the peoples at the bottom of the hierarchy. At the Teenie Harris Archive, in the Carnegie Museum of Art, with the help of their equally generous curators, we had the privilege of entering a lost world – the largely African American Hill district before the destruction wrought by urban renewal – through the eye and lens of the maker himself, a man who did not self-identify as an artist and who rarely entered the art museum where his huge collection eventually found a home.  Here the institution has the good fortune to mine the knowledge of the community, because many of them from those days are still alive and come in to talk about their pictures and their world.  And so an archive of images has also become an archive of oral memory and of written history, all deeply interwoven into a still living community fabric.  A quote my co-facilitator Shirin read to us two days later keeps returning to my mind: If one no longer has land, but has memory of land, then one can make a map.

    And in Braddock, where Shirin read that passage – one of the poorest municipalities in our region – we thought about the value system of an art lending library in the context of a community whose resources, knowledge, and creativity tend to be ignored in a racialized master narrative of blight and distress.  Here is a public library that lends original art for three weeks to anyone with a county library card – art that includes work donated by every artist represented in the 2013 Carnegie International, black arts printmakers, emerging artists, and paintings by incarcerated men in a prison art program.  All of it surrounded by books on art and society in a light-filled room with salaried art and culture facilitators from the nearby community to discuss the art and its makers and stories.  From these artworks and books we curated our own multi-media displays on various themes which had emerged here and there in our week-long conversation.

    That conversation was simultaneously challenging, contentious, draining, and energizing.  But the big question we returned to all week was what can we do?  Many interesting ideas for real projects came out over the course of the week, and some initiatives have gotten started.  We are talking about exhibitions and websites and courses and new partnerships and pedagogical initiatives.  I’m sorry I won’t get too specific at the moment, because we are in the early stages and some ideas may blossom and others may not.  But, with a little patience and some more work, we’ll start to roll out ideas and proposals and solicit advice and feedback.  We promise to keep you posted.

    Categories: 
    • Research Groups
    • Agency
    • Temporalities
    • Environment
    • Identity
    • Mobility/Exchange
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Graduate Work
    • Faculty Work
  • Carnegie Museum Gallery of Ethnology 1908

     

    Race and the Museum: A Pittsburgh Workshop

    In our far from post-racial world, museums are increasingly feeling the pressures of demographic change and urgent new campaigns for racial justice.  Famous European museums are altering the titles of art works to eliminate demeaning terms; Confederate monuments are being dismantled in public space and sent to history museums for storage; museums across the U.S. are scrambling to shed their image as bastions of privilege and to diversify their audiences and supporters. 

    How have museums, as collections and as institutions, created, supported, or challenged constructions of race and racial identity?  How are museums and their objects implicated in the history of slavery, indigenous peoples, and race relations?  How have museums represented and interpreted these issues?  How can and should their collections tell different stories?  What can museums do to combat white privilege, and become more inclusive in their institutional structures and in their audiences?

    For one week in May, a group of twelve faculty and graduate students representing nine different departments here at Pitt will tackle these questions in a new workshop funded by the A.W. Mellon Foundation.  Drawn from a wide array of fields from anthropology and history of science to English and art, the participants will go behind the scenes in local museums, dig into collections, and talk with curators and museum educators to see how they deal with these issues in their institutions and careers.             

    But we also plan to do more than just talk, as important as that is.  Every participant in the workshop will develop an individual or collaborative project to carry the workshop forward, whether it be a revised course for undergraduates, an exhibition, a publication, a community engagement initiative, or even a new partnership with a local institution.  We hope these projects will not only be transformative for the participants themselves but have ripple effects within the university and museum communities and ultimately out in the city and region as well.  Please check back in later and we will point you to a new website documenting their work and its impact.

     

    Categories: 
    • Research Groups
    • Agency
    • Identity
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Current Projects
  • Digital Tools

    Image Source: https://mydigitalhumanity.wordpress.com/

     

    Digital Tools of Interest: Winter 2015-2016

    Below please find a curated list of the digital tools I am currently recommending to people when they come to me with particular humanities-based tasks that they'd like to accomplish.

    Text Processing

    Data Visualization

    Blank Slates

    Time and Place

    Data FitnessTM (Matt Burton)

    Time-Based Media

    Still-Image-Based

    Text Annotation

    App Creation

    HTML Creation

    Network Analysis

    Another nice, not ovewhelming, list is found here from the Carolina Digital Humanities Initiative: http://digitalhumanities.unc.edu/resources/tools/

    Categories: 
    • Agency
    • Faculty Work
    • VMW
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    Contemporaneity submission deadline extended!

    Hello all!

    Contemporaneity co-editors in chief invite you to submit to the department's journal Contemporaneity. The new deadline is September 30th, 2015. We hope that this constellation-based edition sparks conversation in the department and beyond. Please share with your colleagues.

    CONTEMPORANEITY 5 CALL FOR PAPERS:

    AGENCY IN MOTION

    In the 2013 documentary The Missing Picture Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh revisits his own painful memories and experiences of the Khmer Rouge genocide by creating miniature dioramas from a deeply personalized account of historical settings and personages. As Panh said in an interview, "these aren’t just figurines, they are something else, they have a soul.” Panh’s traumatic experiences relay not only a very personalized account of the grainy historical record, they give a particular agency to artistic objects.

    In its 5th edition, Contemporaneity will focus on the concept of agency in visual culture. As a method, agency examines the dynamics of visual culture and human relations, questioning the work, its makers, its audience. The concept of agency has enjoyed increasing currency within multiple disciplines—the humanities and social sciences among them—opening up new avenues for understanding social and aesthetic interactions, including anthropologist Alfred Gell’s conception of the art object as embedded in a system of action, Michael Baxandall’s examination of artistic intent, and the extension of relational and contextual artistic practices by Claire Bishop. Contemporaneity is seeking submissions that cover a wide range of issues, topics, periods, and disciplines with an emphasis on the complexity of human and non-human agents interacting in the visual world. These topics may include, but are not limited to:

    • Historiographical/theoretical models of agency
    • Virtual agency, avatars, self-fashioning, branding
    • Indigeneity, mestizaje, hybridity, trans-/cross-culturation
    • Gendered, queer, ethnic, classed, race/racialized identities
    • Embodiment, cult objects, iconoclasm
    • Curation, patronage, collecting
    • Artist intention, artist workshops and collaboration
    • War, counter-histories/memories, politics of testimonial and memorial practices
    • Political agency, activism, riots
    • The disappeared, the dead, the missing, the absent

    SPECIAL SUBSECTION: REENACTMENT

    We are further seeking papers for a special subsection that address, problematize, or work through the conceptual issues surrounding “Reenactment” as a mode of artistic production. What may be lost, what may be gained, when one reenacts? Who is allowed to reenact, when, where and to what purpose? How does one begin to assess the innovative work of artists, like Panh, who seem motivated by alternative historiographical values such as resurrection, embodiment, and vivification? This includes but is not limited to the following issues:

    • Trans-multi-inter media considerations of reenactment in visual art, film, or theatre and performance
    • Formal strategies of recursive processes
    • The body as a means of generating and preserving history
    • Paradigms of ritual, re-performance, and altered states
    • Revisiting traumatic acts of institutionalized violence
    • Techniques of historical staging in curation and exhibition studies

    The deadline for submissions is September 30, 2015. Manuscripts (6,000 word maximum) should include an abstract, 3-5 keywords, and adhere to the Chicago Manual of Style. To make a submission, visit contemporaneity.pitt.edu, click Register and create an Author profile to get started. Proposals for book and exhibition reviews, interviews, or scholarly discussions will also be considered, and we recognize that these submissions may take many forms. Proposals can be uploaded online at contemporaneity.pitt.edu

    Contemporaneity is a peer-reviewed online journal organized by the History of Art and Architecture Department at the University of Pittsburgh. Visit contemporaneity.pitt.edu and constellations.pitt.edu

     

     

    Categories: 
    • Research Groups
    • Agency
    • Temporalities
    • Current Projects
    • Graduate Work
    • VMW

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