Environment

Since the origins of humankind, the physical environment has been profoundly shaped by the countless ways people make, modify, and interpret the places they inhabit or use.  Conversely the environment has always shaped the material possibilities through which people can order their existence.  Here we investigate the environment as both a material and imaginary field through which social and cultural relations are represented and constituted.

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Environment

    • The author mounting a plant specimen on a collection sheet. 
    • Botany specimen #535779, a Quercus rubra (Red Oak) branch and leaves.  
    The author mounting a plant specimen on a collection sheet. 

    The author mounting a plant specimen on a collection sheet. 

     

    The Anatomy of a Specimen Sheet

    The Botany Department at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH) boasts a collection of over 548,000 plant specimens, with thousands more awaiting documentation. During my time with the department in the Spring 2022 semester, I received hands-on training in the collection process while assisting with a digitization project of plants from the Mid-Atlantic region. To fully appreciate the life and history of the collection, which is freely accessible on the museum’s website, one must know how to understand the wealth of information contained on a specimen sheet. 

    Beyond the physical plant, a specimen sheet includes an institution tag, collection number, information label, and occasionally a small packet for parts that have come loose in the collection process. Each of these aspects contribute to the greater story of the specimen both in its natural habitat and in the museum space. 

    Consider the included picture of a Red Oak specimen, located in the top righthand corner of the page is the institution tag. This label denotes the ownership of the given specimen, useful when a plant is on loan from another museum or herbarium for research or exhibition. Below this is the catalog number, a six-digit code corresponding to the order this specimen was entered into the Botany Department database. In other words, this Red Oak specimen is the 535,779th sheet processed in the collection, and there are well over 548,000 total plants currently housed at CMNH. In the digital catalog, this number is proceeded with the tag “CM” and allows department staff to search for and reference any cataloged specimen. 

    After the plant itself, the most important part of any sheet is the collection label, located in the bottom right corner. This label contains information on when, where, and by whom this plant was gathered, who identified the plant, and its scientific name. This information is used for research, geo-referencing the site of location, and storage within the department’s collection. In the example provided above, Red Oak, or Quercus rubra, belongs to the family Fagaceae. The handwritten number above the collection label, 62 in this case, corresponds to a cabinet or range of cabinets in the upper or lower herbarium at CMNH. Each plant family in the collection is given a number, and specimens are sorted accordingly into their matching cabinets, then further sorted alphabetically into files by genus and species. Within a cabinet, plants collected in Pennsylvania are kept in files separate from those collected in other states, countries, and continents, each color-coded for easy identification. 

    Location data, which is extremely detailed for the Oak specimen pictured here, varies widely throughout the collection as plants have been gathered for the herbarium since the 1800s. Recently acquired plants, such as this one, include the specific coordinates that tie the specimen to the environment in which it was found. Collection labels on the most recently gathered plants host QR codes linking to the iNaturalist page for the specific plant, a free app developed by the California Academy of Sciences and National Geographic which allows anyone to post photos of wildlife they encounter and crowd source observation data. Location details are crucial for researching subjects such as the ecological range of a species and their stage of life at the time of collection. 

    This position has taught me about the complexities and inner workings of the museum and collections work. The herbarium is more than just plants awaiting exhibition, it is a living collection – a library of botanical specimens ready for researchers of all kinds. 

    Categories: 
    • Environment
    • Undergraduate Work
  • The contemporary, digital photographs are from Mary Kavanagh’s collection, from which we both selected to feature in the exhibition. The archival imagery is from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, reprinted with permission by Kavanagh and reinterpreted in her videowork, Trinity3. The text was written by me.

     

    Lily Brewer's 'Weaponized Landscapes' Wins Marstine Prize for Outstanding Work in the Public Humanities

    Since the detonation of the Trinity Test in July 1945, the scientific and cultural consequences of weapons testing in the United States and those consequences’ international entanglements have been mapped and visualized by artists working at the intersection between physics, photography, and protest. My online exhibition, Weaponized Landscapes: Trinity [https://weaponizedlandscapes.com], focuses on the histories of the Trinity Test and its preparation leading up to July 16, 1945, for which photography played no small role. This exhibition showcases Canadian artist-researcher Mary Kavanagh’s videoworks that attend to the motivations and realities of visualizing protocols during the Trinity Test’s preparation and photography’s later role in public and cultural critique against ever-increasing nuclear armament.

     

    For more than seven years, armed with a camera and a range of steely questions, Kavanagh has invited the site’s visitors to sit with her for a moment and talk about their motivations for making the journey to the memorial. Her interviewees recalled stories of duck-and-cover drills, experiences with radioactive cleanup, family members’ experiences with Cold-War-era weapons testing and deployment. These interviews highlight a variety of themes, such as American exceptionalism, radioactive toxicity, and environmental concerns, among others. Through video and text assemblage, she reinterprets the present-day realities of the dangers of nuclear armament and weapons testing around the world.

     

    Together, she and I have selected a suite of videos and testimonies for the exhibition in order to make these grievances and observations available to a wide domain of nuclear and “post”-atomic scholars, photographers, artists, Downwinders and others affected by weapons testing in the United States Southwest. This suite recalls the methods enfolded in contemporary landscape photography’s history while speculating new, humanitarian futures that feature acute attention to civic complaint and conscientious responsiveness that underpin civic entitlements to space and wellbeing. The online exhibition can be found at weaponizedlandscapes.com. (The interviews are password-protected and not available for viewing at this time due to issues of confidentiality.) It features and plays at full length Trinity3, Kavanagh's two-channeled videowork featuring video-recorded interviews and Los Alamos National Laboratory’s archival footage of the first atomic bomb, “Little Boy”’s assembly, loading, and deployment leading up to July 16, 1945, at 5:30 am.

     

    This online exhibition is the first iteration of Weaponized Landscapes’s publishing program that features photographic projects that reckon with militarized landscapes and their communities. Future issues of Weaponized Landscapes will concern environmental and humanitarian responses, speculative solutions, and imagined futures that emerge as results of weapons development and testing around the world.

     

    While physical galleries have exhibited small showings of contemporary landscape photographers working within the fields of the bomb, not one of these exhibitions have been made available outside of small gallery spaces or even in permanent installations. And not one of these small showings has placed nuclear protest and civil resistance at the forefront. It is in this way that Weaponized Landscapes: Trinity is unique. As a public-facing and open-access resource, the online exhibition and introduction is a public resource for a popular audience concerned with how nuclear weapons and their deleterious environmental and social effects are protested by grassroots organizations, artists, and affected communities. Photographers and scholars in “post”-atomic studies have already applauded the possibility of such a resource because this resource compiles, curates, and reframes a collection of grievances and civil resistance efforts, historically and today.

    My decision to make this resource public is informed by my work with open access and para-academic press, punctum books, where I have been associate editor for three years. On the importance and even necessity of open access, punctum’s founder and co-director, Eileen Fradenburg Joy has written that OA endeavors to "create the hospitable open conditions for its creative emergence, beyond what we think we know, in whatever forms it might take."

     

    In a statement by Congressional investigators, it has been demonstrated again and again that

    the greatest irony of our [previous] atmospheric nuclear testing program is that the only victims of Unites States nuclear arms since World War II have been our own people. 

    In the context of Kavanagh and my exhibition, we make a gallery of undecorated casualties of an undeclared atomic war on small southwestern communities freely available and couched in scholarly, responsible, and creative interpretation. 

     

    War is a fact of the past, present, and future. Artists, Kavanagh being only one of them, have used photography to contain, if only for a moment, the horrors of nuclear warfare. Other artists have interviewed workers along the atomic bomb’s pipeline; soldiers who perform in military theater; and Downwinders with stories of their stillborn births, the removal of dozens of malignant tumors, and worse. As I write, one state is actively firing upon the Zaporizka nuclear power plant in Ukraine, and the area around Chornobyl power plant is an active battlefield. The aggressor not only encroaches on its neighbor’s sovereign land and airspace, but its entitlements to that sovereignty, rights to life, and wellbeing. As institutions condemn the invasion of a sovereign nation and the risks to lives, it is hard to imagine, evaluate, or even act on the gravity of our individual and meaningful response in these so-called “unprecedented” times.

     

    I have begun to develop a publication and online exhibition program under the title Weaponized Landscapes that draws from WL: Trinity’s themes in order to contour coherence with other weapons-testing programs and the photographers and artists that engage with those topics. Like the first edition, the broader program too will feature brief interceptions in the unfortunately evergreen domain of nuclear radiation, military overreach, unrighteous dominion over sovereign nations and states – moments that are historically defined and will always define the present and future.

     

    My goals for Weaponized Landscapes: Trinity and onward are toward the maintenance and expansion of the website as a scholarly, historical, and visual resource, accessible to all. Its expansion would include further research and networking with artists, scholars, and museums and galleries whose work scrupulously investigates the effects of nuclear armament and weapons testing and the communities that bear the brunt. As an exhibition and publishing space, Weaponized Landscapes: Trinity is a blueprint that responsively and responsibly connects audiences of activists, political and historical scholarship, and artistic research directly to affected communities. My overarching objective is to work with artists who pose a conscientious regard toward suffering others, an objective that outlines scales of civil responsibility we all share. When acts of state-sanctioned violence are committed against others in our communities, we, as citizens and participants in the economy of image-making and critique, must be continuously committed to enacting critical practices that minimize harm in ongoing struggle and to eschewing previous understandings of such political frames as absolute principles. Weaponized Landscapes continuously expresses that these are, decidedly, not unprecedented times.

     

    Categories: 
    • Environment
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Graduate Work
  •  

    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
  •  

    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
  •  

    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
  •  

    Learning of the Local and the Global in the Art Gallery

    Museum Studies Intern at the University Art Gallery - Spring 2019

    My semester-long internship with the University Art Gallery promised from the start to be an exciting opportunity to expand my passion for audio-visual exhibition. The task was to assist with technological arrangements for an exhibition of Chinese video works being curated by Graduate Student Assistant Ellen Larson and set to open in the fall of 2019. The video technology aspect was mostly familiar territory for me, as I frequently organize pop-up microcinema events, which have afforded me with substantial experience in planning the logistics of presenting moving images in various formats. It was the geographic focus of the exhibition that mostly piqued my interest, as my knowledge of contemporary Chinese cinema was limited. As a cinephile who constantly endeavors to push my understanding of the medium and to foster a diverse knowledge base, this was one particular knowledge gap that I was eager to narrow.

    The perspective shift from understanding the world through the art of residents of a country foreign to my own was a welcome aspect of the internship. What I did not anticipate that my work with the UAG would encourage, however, was a different understanding of the gallery settings that were already so familiar and close to home. As the semester progressed, I was delighted to find that, in addition to a steady diet of contemporary Chinese film and video works, I was also offered opportunites to consider gallery exhibition practice beyond my familiar territory of audio-visual needs. It was often precisely in the areas where expectations were not met that I encountered the most enlightening learning experiences.

    Early in the semester, I had devised lists of equipment necessary to display each work selected for the exhibition. Moreover, I learned to use SketchUp software to create visualizations of each installation. The setups were generally straightforward -- display and playback devices, speakers, and various connecting cables -- though it was not until Ellen and I had the equipment in hand and completed a dry-run of the first setup that I began to understand some of the minutiae of exhibition planning for the gallery setting. With the installation assembled, I considered aesthetic details as precise as color and positioning of extension cords and other wires. 

    Although such elements seemed inconsequential at the SketchUp stage, seeing the installations progress from visualization to realization allowed me to understand the importance of such diminutive details to the overall aesthetic of each piece.  It also allowed me to more fully appreciate the labor that takes place within exhibition spaces. In this way, my internship with the University Art Gallery has provided a new way of seeing not just at the global level through a newfound appreciation for contemporary Chinese audio-visual culture, but also right here in Pittsburgh, since no gallery visit will ever be quite the same for me again.

    Categories: 
    • Environment
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Academic Interns
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Spaces
    • UAG
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
  •  

    Itinera's Best Practices

    In the Fall semester of 2016, I started training potential Itinera contributors outside the post of project manager. These individuals included Eleanor Harvey, senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Fracesca Torello, professor of architecture at Carnegie Mellon, S. E. Hackney, fellow Visual Media Workshop project manager, and Lindsay Decker, VMW graduate assistant. Through their feedback and questions during the trainings, I was able to refine my Spring semester project, which is to develop a Scalar site dedicated to outlining the best practices for Itinera. My vision for this project is to provide a platform for scholars interested in the mission of Itinera to be able to view and appreciate its networked complexity and readily envision themselves contributing to that complexity with their own objects and processes of inquiry.
     

    Scalar
    Currently, the content manager I am looking into is Scalar, an open-sourced authoring and publishing platform developed by the University of Southern California. Their mission is to enable their authors to assemble various media with text to create and structure easily navigatable, long-form and essay-length pages. From Itinera's point of view, the benefit of organizing information in this digital format is creating a business-card-like deliverable that, when given to interested parties, demonstrates the networked and relational complexity–while still, I hope, the do-ability–of working with Itinera through Collective Access, the University of Pittsburgh's web-based cataloging tool. (Collective Access is used to catalog the digital images for both the University Art Gallery and Decomposing Bodies project here at the University of Pittsburgh.)
     

    Itinera's Best Practices
    In using Scalar, I am building an online manual that: one, walks the user through the process of data input, both in text-based and video/screen capture directions; two, outlines common issues that arise when the historical record is translated into structural hierarchies in flattened input forms; and three, answers to frequently asked questions. I am certain to include the workflow, diligently put together by Jen Donnelly and Meredith North before me. Also, my growing list of chapters include: Source Authorities, Highlighting Narrative and Historical Tone, Location Specificity, Object Metadata, Supporting Agents Input, and a template for Users' Logging and Reflections. The aim of these chapters is to highlight issues that have emerged for the art historians working on Itinera that concern the nuances of the historical narrative that are lost in the metadata.

    For example, "Highlighting Narrative:"
    Tour Case Study:

    AG16051001_mn, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu:

    This is a factual overview of Montagu’s Turkish tour:
    With her husband and ambassador Edward Wortley Montagu, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu set out to Turkey from Westminster, England by way of the Netherlands, Austria, and Serbia from August of 1716 to November 1718.

    This is historical context suggesting the motivations behind the tour:
    At that time, Turkey was at war with the Venetian Republic, whereby Mr. Montagu was assigned to mediate on behalf of England an agreement with Austria, in the attempt to prevent Austria from engaging with the Spanish power in the Mediterranean.

    This is my interpretation of the historical account, preserving the voice of the original historical record:
    During this time, Lady Montagu entertained at court while studying Arabic and reading Arabic poetry. Toward the end of their tour, her husband inevitably failed at establishing a truce with Austria, his position was usurped by a competitor, and he failed to ascend to a political post of any import, resulting in a general, bitter demeanor. Shortly after they separated. Lady Montagu turned her sights to Italy for almost the rest of her life, keeping up with her studies and correspondence with her stately and artistic friends abroad. She died in 1962, reviled and adored across Europe and the Near East.

    In short, my intention is to create an editable and mutable document that demonstrates the complexity of historical and social histories for Itinerant posterity.

    Categories: 
    • Environment
    • Mobility/Exchange
    • Itinera
    • Graduate Work
    • VMW
  •  

    Site Specificity and Diversity Concerns within Itinera

     

    Since starting on Itinera, I've focused on Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, an 18th-Century aristocrat and poet. Specifically, I focus on her tour from London, through Eastern Europe, and into Istanbul with her hubsband, the English ambassador to Turkey. As her introduction reads:

    With her husband and ambassador Edward Wortley Montagu, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu set out to Turkey from Westminster, England by way of the Netherlands, Austria, and Serbia in August of 1716. At that time, Turkey was at war with the Venetian Republic, whereby Mr. Montagu was assigned to mediate on behalf of England an agreement with Austria, in the attempt to prevent Austria from engaging with the Spanish power in the Mediterranean. During this time, Lady Montagu entertained at court while studying Arabic and reading Arabic poetry. Toward the end of their tour, her husband inevitably failed at establishing a truce with Austria, his position was usurped by competition, and he failed to ascend to a political post of any import. Shortly after they separated. Lady Montagu turned her sights to Italy for almost the rest of her life, keeping up with her studies and correspondence with her stately and artistic friends abroad.

    Originally, I saw my take on this project to be one that diversifies both the travelling agent and their destinations. As it was, and, in light of recent electoral events, selecting and following a wealthy, white woman as she travels through Eastern Europe and Turkey was not going to suffice. Thus I've redirected my thinking on what it means to do diverse digital humanities and scholarship as far as I can see: though it would be wrong to ignore the readily available histories of white travellers during this time, I use Montagu as locus to investigate the structural biases built in to the historicization and visualization of these white, European travellers.

    In doing so, I hope to place at the forefront practical and conceptual best practices: practically, I aim for site specificity in order to visually differentiate the plot points on Itinera's map. When an agent, Montagu, visits Rome, for example, she lists details such as churches, squares, villas, often without naming the building or describing its function. So I focus my attention on teasing evidence foremost from the primary material, (i.e., Montagu's Turkish Embassy Letters) and historical data (i.e., histories of medieval bridges, churches, etc.) in order to best differentiate between sites. I ask myself questions such as:

    • Architecturally, which sites, details, buildings were extant while she was visiting and what buildings are known to have been demolished? This question might lead to understanding what peoples were displaced with the destruction of their communities and spaces both during the Austrio-Turskish War as well as more contemporary wars.
    • Socio-politically: what positions did her hosts hold? I can find much of this information in the endnotes, but sometimes this would still need further investigation, especially with the misspelling of a name or location. Certainly, this question can help in determining in what "castle on the hill" she stayed while in Budapest in January 1717, but even more importantly this specificity can shed light on her hosts' alliances and what hand they had in the erasure of other histories.
    • Also socio-politically: what historically significant meetings and events occurred while she was in that city that would indicate the location of a town center, assembly hall, or city center? This question could shed light on significant events in the history of the Habsburg Empire and could point to the location of other points of interest in uncovering other histories. For example, what effects, if any, did Montagu's epistolary criticism of the Imperial German Diet's assembly to other aristocrats (i.e., Alexander Pope) have on court life? Would the ramifications of her criticisms have any political or legistlative effect?

    Practically, if I'm able to piece together pieces of evidence that in some way answer questions such as these, I am able to narrow down a specific location with some degree of certainty. And if such details are not available, I do not take it upon myself to differentiate the location and will, as necessary, defer to others who specialize in these histories. I recognize at this point I am an interlocutor to interpret subjective data and place it into a flattened network of other data points on a map. In this case, if I name the site simply as "Rome instead" of "the north wall of the Colosseum," I leave the reponsibility of further specification to a future historian that may perhaps work with a new visualization and evidence.

    This attention to site specificity, of course, serves a worthwhile conceptual function as well. Although I am still working on this connection, attention to historio-politically mediated spaces in turn draws attention to the systems of power and the erasure of other histories. 

    Categories: 
    • Environment
    • Mobility/Exchange
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Itinera
    • Graduate Work
    • VMW
  • 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
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    Environment Affinity Group at SECAC

    This blog post was created in the context of our Methods class in which we (Sarah, Jackie, Clarisse) are working on the notion of environment. At SECAC we were exploring the ways in which current scholars are approaching their subjects through this methodological lens.

    On Friday morning, we as a group attended a panel called “The Perils of Periodization, the Simplifications of Style: Revisiting Border Crossings in Medieval Art and Architecture”. Inspired by Ethan Matt Kavaler’s book Renaisance Gothic, the panel confronted the limitations of period labels based upon styles, and pushed for a deeper exploration of the specific geographic and temporal boundaries of a particular piece. Sarah Dillon, of Kingsborough Community College, presented a talk, “Italian Stained Glass of the Trecento: Late Medieval, Gothic, or Early Renaissance”. This talk in particular struck us as a particularly effective exploration of the impact of environment within art history. Her talk centered around three Italian stained glass windows from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries: The Duccio Rose window in the Siena Cathedral, the Simone Martini window in the Chapel of St. Martin, and Taddeo Gaddi’s Baroncelli Chapel at Santa Croce. Critically addressing their origins in late Medieval Italy, Dillon argued that these windows represent just a small part of Italian works that defy traditional classifications of ‘Medieval’ or ‘Renaissance’.

    Her analysis of the Duccio window was particularly exciting for our own academic pursuits dealing with the theme of environment. Analyzing the window and its location within the church, Dillon critically addressed the way that this window would have been visible to the thirteenth and fourteenth century viewer. Dillon drew compositional and iconographical connections between the window and the altarpiece situated below it (also a work of Duccio), and she further emphasized the relationship by addressing their specific locations within the church. The altarpiece and window not only iconographically inform one another but the window additionally illuminates the golden altarpiece, highlighting it with its many colors during the day.

    The panel “Casting the ancient World for the Modern World” chaired by Carol Mattusch, from George Mason University, took a different approach to the notion of environment. Presenters discussed the plaster cast as a work of art itself, with its own history, and its complexity that is often overshadowed because of its devalued status of copy for which it has long suffered. Until recently, plaster casts were destroyed or lost because of this reception. Annetta Alexandrinis, from Cornell University, presented two recent exhibition projects: “Firing the Canon! The Cornell Casts and Their Discontents” (http://www.cornell.edu/video/firing-the-canon-cornell-plaster-casts ), and “Cast and Present: Replicating Antiquity in the Museum and the Academy,” (http://museum.cornell.edu/exhibitions/cast-and-present-replicating-antiquity-museum-and-academy )and demonstrated the documentary, as well as artistic, values of these objects for students who worked on these collaborative exhibitions at the university.

    The plaster cast is particularly interesting in our discussion about environment: conceived by 19th century collectors as substitutes of the originals, plaster casts were praised for their pedagogical values in academies and museums, like at the Carnegie Museum of Art. Francesca Torello, from Carnegie School of Architecture, presented a paper on, “Exhibiting Architecture: Plaster Casts in Pittsburgh between Instruction and Professional Debate” which focused on the history of the creation of the collection of plaster casts by Andrew Carnegie between 1904 and 1906. His goal was to bring artworks from across the Atlantic to people in Pittsburgh who could not travel. The original environment of a façade of a church, or a specific architectural element, become lost. However, it allows for the selection of the most representative architectural and sculptural “marvels” that contribute to the creation of the encyclopedic museum. Art historians today can learn from these objects about the history of early 20th century taste, and conceive the plaster casts as works of art themselves, now that the idea of the fragmentary is well accepted.

    Another aspect of environment we noticed at SECAC was present in the session entitled “Reconfiguring Knowledge: Making the Digital Humanities Visual”. Timothy Shea, of Duke University, presented his work “Digitizing Athens: Reconstructing the Urban Topography of Athens with GIS”, which stood for its methodology focused on notions of environment. The focus of this project on graves in Athens was rooted in the understanding of the original markers and their ancient environment, and how the roads would have informed the original viewer experience. There were similarities between Timothy Shea’s methods, and those found in a reading we completed earlier in the course by Lauren Hackworth Peterson. In “The Baker, His Tomb, His Wife, and Her Breadbasket: The Monument of Eurysaces in Rome” (http://www.jstor.org/stable/3177343), Peterson highlights the importance of context through the relation of urban cemeteries to the roads leading to and from the city. Similarly, the mapping project “Digitizing Athens” overlays the locations of known cemetery sites with their contemporary roads and emphasizes the relevance of funerary marker location.

    Given our own research interests, it was informative for us to see how contemporary scholars are using the notion of environment in their work, implicitly or explicitly, through a variety of approaches. The viewer experience and the relationship of the object to its context provide a deeper understanding of artworks, and will inform our current research projects.

    Sarah Conell, Jackie Lombard, and Clarisse Fava-Piz    

     

    Categories: 
    • Environment
    • Graduate Work
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