MAKING KIN WITH EARTHLINGS: An evening with the children of compost and Donna Haraway

On March 31st, I was fortunate to attend one of three events that Donna Haraway held at the BOZAR in Brussels. The themes of the events covered varied ground but were held together by Haraway’s work and interest in exploring the potential of living-with others. The first two events focussed on film. The first was a series of videos that were the result of the joyful interactions between documentary filmmaker Fabrizio Terranova and Donna Haraway. It included “animation shorts of militant cows, anti-globalization preaches, GoPro cameras strapped to aquatic animals, anti-Trump folk songs… as rituals of resistance and dance against the horror and stagnation”. The second was the presentation of film Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival by Donna Haraway and Fabrizio Terranova. The film foregrounds Haraway’s unique intellect and warmth of character that has explored planetary life for over 40 years. The final event was Donna Haraway reading from her new book Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene. The event was based around Haraway presenting her science-fiction short story The Camille Story, Children of Compost, an inter-species fable for making a liveable world for all. It is this final event that I attended and found extremely engaging, interesting, and informative for thinking through the potential of living differently with all sorts of beings on an equal footing.

donna-haraway

Image courtesy of BOZAR Brussels.

Haraway’s idea of living-with is a philosophical lineage that includes work by Jean-Luc Nancy and ideas about co-existence and being-with explored in Being Singular Plural and stretches towards Latourian Actor-Networks and Bergsonian-Spinozian explorations of affective potential. It also incorporates Feminist scholar’s attention to alternative political acts and interconnectivity of complex systems that Isabelle Stengers has explored via speculative philosophy. A further tradition that emanates from Haraway is American pragmatism. In de-centring the human as the main principle of action and foregrounding how to improve the future against what we’ve learnt in the past Haraway is continuing the work of William James and James Dewey. Keeping these ‘traditions’ in mind Haraway’s fable is as powerful as it is though provoking and opens up many avenues for urban scholars. I do not want to focus on the story but the sentiment. Haraway’s argument is that due to human influenced effects on the climate and how these are changing the planet “the earth is full of refugees, human and not, without refuge”. The planet had afforded safe spaces to all sorts of species to hide and find refuge from natural disasters but these are no longer available.

 

The answer in The Camille Story, Children of Compost is to make kin by humans taking on the characteristics of an endangered species and even grafting some of their attributes. In this way, making kin is something more that ancestry or genealogy to unite beings. The results could seem an aberration but after time it will have proven itself equitable. The idea of ‘kin-making’ therefore is the notion of making persons not tied to being as humans or individuals. In a time when the notion of refugee is used as a political and social lightening rod to demarcate which section of our species is welcome in which manmade and enforced division of the planet, the answer is to be-with others as Haraway advocates. To live-with others is to reformulate the idea of refuges and refugees. To generate flexible biological-cultural-political-technological healing, rehabilitation, and remaking, some of which Haraway argued must include mourning irreversible losses but not raising the dead. As Haraway sums up in a recent commentary in Environmental Humanities “renewed generative flourishing cannot grow from myths of immortality or failure to become-with the dead and the extinct”.

Boston Neorealism: Beantown in Film

I had the pleasure of visiting Boston for the American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting (April 4-8) and found myself enchanted with ‘Beantown’s’ cultural milieu and contradictions. The juxtaposition of high-cultured ‘Brahmin’ Boston with an underlying soul of a working-class fishing town presents a deeply layered, contradictory tapestry: Harvard intellectualism alongside rabid sports fans; Cape Verdean immigrants alongside MIT engineers; buttoned-up Beacon Hill a few miles from rowdy, Irish-Catholic South Boston. With a (European) history nearly 400 years old, perhaps no other major American city features such an entrenched sense of local identity and a particular way of doing things (ok, a fair argument could be made for New Orleans).

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Films are often how we come to understand a place, through stories and themes represented in a certain way. There are many American cities that are brought to life by films that, in some way, bring out their character, their quirks, their beauty, their darkness, their madness. New York has been the stage for countless love stories; dramas; comedies; disasters. San Francisco has been torn apart by Godzilla; ripped apart by earthquakes; and burned to the ground in a ‘Towering Inferno’. Los Angeles has been conjured into a dream and nightmare; Seattle has been ‘Sleepless’, and ‘Fargo’ has been the stage for a great, gothic story of murder and deception. New Orleans seems to lend itself to ‘Vampires’ and ghosts; Washington DC, unsurprisingly, to tales of political intrigue, corruption, and the art of the deal.

I realized that I know Boston more from the way it has been represented through film than I do as a visitor, having spent limited time on brief visits to friends and family over the years. The stories that emerge on the silver screen about Boston seem to coalesce around particularly dark, and indeed, real themes: Boston is rarely the stage for comedies, love stories or frivolous disaster flicks. When the aliens descend on ‘Independence Day’, the death-beam destruction of Boston was not included in the plot.

Rather, Boston as a setting and muse for films has given rise to its own micro-genre, which I am calling Boston Neorealism, in the tradition of ‘Cinema Veritas’, or the cinema of truth. Boston films do not ‘filter’ its often-gray skies; they play up, rather than down, its inherent grittiness; class tensions and social ruptures are brought to the surface, not buried; and human suffering and the oppressive nature of the everyday are brought into sharp focus. Boston films are where dirty laundry is aired, where skeletons in the closet are found.

I think of the great era of neorealist films, in the years and decades after World War Two: Italian Neorealism perhaps being the best example, with its no-holds barred focus on poverty, suffering and misfortune in films like ‘The Bicycle Thief’ and  ‘Rome, Open City’. Through these narratives, the story does not necessarily end with a happy twist; lives are not spared; bruises are not covered. In Fellini’s ‘Amarcord’, humor and love are woven together through visceral scenes of life under fascism. Scenes of laughter-filled feasts stick with me, as does the scene of one of Mussolini’s agents pouring hot oil down the throat of a suspected enemy of the state.

On the airplane back to the West Coast from Boston I watched ‘Manchester by the Sea’ (2016), and the themes and motifs of Boston neorealism emerged that seem to punctuate so many of the films set in, or around Boston. Gray skies and the relentless cold of New England winter, for one. In a gothic twist, the ground is too frozen to bury the dead – and the character Patrick must wait until Spring to bury his father, who spends the winter in a refrigerator. As if William Faulkner himself emerged to write this part of the script.

hero_Manchester-by-the-Sea-2016Fishing boats. Fishing boats seem to always feature in Boston stories, and a boat is one of the main characters in ‘Manchester’. In ‘The Perfect Storm’, a boat disappears in a great Atlantic storm, killing all aboard.

Irish Catholicism: no Boston film is without it, in varying shades. (In ‘Manchester’, Irish Catholicism was not a major plot feature, but still permeated the story).  However, in ‘Mystic River’ and more recently, ‘Spotlight’ – the Catholic Church and its history of sexual abuse are portrayed as anchors of Boston’s fabric. Working-class Irish-Catholic culture also plays a central role in ‘The Departed’, Martin Scorsese’s exploration of mobster / gangster culture in South Boston. South-Boston Irish identity also forms an important core of the character development in ‘Good Will Hunting’, a story about a boy from ‘Southie’ with serious math skills. In one of the most poignant scenes from the film, class struggle is on display when Will (Matt Damon) accepts a challenge from a braggart Harvard student at a bar in Cambridge – and ends up the intellectual winner. ‘How bout them Apples?’ (says Will), remains one of the most memorable lines from the film, and a metaphor for a smack in the face to Boston’s intellectual snobbery. These themes (as well as a winter backdrop) also appear in ‘With Honors’, where a homeless man engages with, and bemuses, a group of competitive Harvard students.

apples_featurePuritanism, morality, and discipline. In contrast to Irish-Catholic culture, Boston’s puritan heritage and its associated set of strict morals have given rise to a sub-genre of films which look at both history and the present day. ‘The Witch’ (2016) was a terrifying peek into the torment of a Puritan settler family in the New England woods (not far from present-day Boston) and the tension between religion, morality, and the temptation of evil. Salem (now a suburb of Boston) is the setting for ‘The Crucible’, based on the Arthur Miller play about paranoia in politics which was as relevant during the McCarthy hearings (around when it was released) as it is now. Ok, and ‘Hocus Pocus’, the witch-themed Halloween comedy. The straightlaced world of the New England boarding school have set the stage in ‘A Separate Peace’; in ‘Dead Poet’s Society’ and others – often featuring tortured adolescent men grappling with big questions of expectations, morals, personal autonomy, discipline, punishment, and resistance.

I look forward to the next Boston story, no doubt featuring winter, fishing boats, the Irish, and the tension between intellectualism / snobbery and working-class pragmatism. Neorealism – and truth in film – are powerful reflections of turbulent times, and at a time such as this, all catharsis is welcome. *

Call for Papers: WOUNDED GALAXIES / 1968: Beneath the Paving Stones, the Beach

WOUNDED GALAXIES / 1968: Beneath the Paving Stones, the Beach

Festival + Symposium 

Feb 8-10, 2018

Indiana University

Call for Papers

The Sixties were a turbulent period, characterized by major revolutions in scholarship, politics, culture and the arts.  Indiana University, in conjunction with The Burroughs Century, plans an academic symposium welcoming scholars, archivists, filmmakers, and others interested in exploring the intellectual and aesthetic legacy of 1968, during its 50th anniversary year.  The conference will be held on the beautiful Bloomington, Indiana campus and will be hosted by Indiana University’s Media School; the Indiana University Libraries (including the Lilly Library and the IU Libraries Moving Image Archive); and Indiana University Cinema, which has earned an international reputation for the high quality of its facilities and programming.

Accompanying the symposium will be a series of films and an exhibition featuring rare and unique items from the IU Library collection. Renowned scholars such as Greil Marcus McKenzie Wark, and, possibly, Penelope Rosemont are expected to give talks, introduce films, and appear in Q&A sessions following screenings.

In addition, we are planning an art exhibit, as well as series of experimental music performances and spoken word presentations, in keeping with the larger theme of radical aesthetics.  We plan to publish the conference proceedings.

Interested participants are invited to submit paper proposals on any aspect of the international history and cultural legacy of 1968.  Papers need not be limited to any particular critical, theoretical, historical, or political subject or method. We hope to receive proposals that deal with previously unexplored issues, but we are also interested in proposals that offer fresh approaches to much-discussed work.  As the symposium title suggests, we are using the Situationists as a point of departure and particularly welcome presentations that consider the revolutionary potential of the Everyday—in both historical and contemporary situations.

But we are happy to consider any proposals that address the historical legacy of 1968, and welcome submissions that attempt to trace the legacy of 68 in contemporary art and culture.

Possible topics include but are not limited to:

history and historiography of 1968; the post-1968 generation and terrorism; post ’68 science fiction; anthropology and the Situationists; architecture after ’68; counter/sub-cultures after ’68; literature and literary theory; The Annales school and radical shifts in historiography; Marshall McLuhan and the electronic revolution; The history and legacy of the Black Panther Party; Chicago 1968; The International Student Movement(s); Revolution and the University;Prague Spring – experimental & avant-garde art, film, literature & music made during this period of freedom; the avant-garde going underground during Normalization; lingering impacts of Prague Spring on experimental & avant-garde art/music/lit/etc.; Surrealisms outside France – the internationalization of surrealism that happened in the late-60s onward (U.S., African surrealisms, Poland’s “Orange Alternative”, etc.); Neo-Dada and Fluxus; French New Wave cinema and its response to the events of Mai; Third Cinema(s); East vs. West perspectives: pro-socialist avant-gardes in the West Europe versus anti-socialist avant-gardes in East Europe

Proposals should be limited to 300 words in length and consist of a brief description of the paper’s theme or focus, plus a one-page vita. Proposals may be submitted for individual papers or for sessions featuring two or three panelists. Proposals for panels should be submitted as a group by the organizer, along with a short explanation of the unifying theme. In addition, each panel proposal should consist of individual paper descriptions (limited to 300 words in length), names of panelists and their vitae.

Please email your proposals to Joan Hawkins jchawkin@indiana.edu, by July 1, 2017. The Symposium Program Committee will evaluate all submissions and notify all candidates of the results by Aug 1, 2017. We look forward to your proposals, and to celebrating/reevaluating the legacy of international political and aesthetic upheaval.

 

St. Louis Map Room

How do maps reflect a place and its culture? How do maps inscribe meaning into place? What do maps conceal about a space and its culture?

This week, my class engaged these questions at the St. Louis Map Room. The Map Room is a temporary exhibit located at Stevens Middle School, a shuttered St. Louis Public School in Vandeventer, a North St. Louis City neighborhood. We entered the school, walked down a hallway, and then turned right into the gymnasium. There we saw dozens upon dozens of huge maps (about 15’ by 15’), most of them hanging vertically in two rows. On a platform at the center of the room, another huge map rested. Another smaller map appeared on the t-shirt of a staff member. All maps were of St. Louis.

Maps in the St. Louis Map Room

We met Emily Catedral, a teaching artist and site coordinator for the Map Room. She led our engagement, first giving a pointed lecture about the role of maps in history and culture. She displayed, via a top-down projector, various world maps. There was the version seen by most Americans that centers the Atlantic Ocean. There was a version often used in non-Western countries that centers the Pacific Ocean. There was an “upside down map” created by an Australian high school student sick of being told he was from “down under.” Catedral asked us questions about each map: What countries did each map center and decenter? What colors were apparent? What places were included and what places were missing?

Emily Catedral

Various World Maps

From this display, Catedral presented her thesis: maps are subjective. They do not reflect universal truths. Rather as constructed representations of space they do not and cannot accurately portray everything a space has. In what they do portray, they influence readings of space and of the world. (I could not help but think of last week’s news, that Boston Public Schools dropped the Mercator projection maps, which have for the last 500 years drastically diminished the representational size of South America and Africa).

After displaying world maps, Catedral continued her talk on topics including “Borders and Names,” “Politics and Biases,” “St. Louis,” and “Personal and Community Mapping.” She gave examples of how politics—international, national, and local—influence maps. When using Google Maps, for example, the border of Crimea changes based on whether one is in or outside of Russia. More locally, she asked our group about the most popular places in St. Louis. We responded: the Arch, Forest Park, and Blueberry Hill. These places often appear on St. Louis maps but not wholly reflect places meaningful to St. Louisians.

Her talk led us through maps used in St. Louis past and present, such as redlining maps from the 1930s that marked certain white areas as non-risky and ripe for bank loans and investment, and marked black areas as risky and thus prevented substantial loans and investment. She toggled between redlining maps from nearly a century ago to current demographic and income maps to reveal the racial, economic, and infrastructural impact of those past racist zoning policies.

Redlining map from early 20th century

Income by zip codes in the early 21st century

A description from the Map Room’s website reads: “The Office For Creative Research, in partnership with COCA, is taking over a shuttered school in St Louis to make the St. Louis Map Room: a community space for creating and exploring original, interpretive maps of the city that reflect the personal stories and lived experiences of its residents.” COCA, the Center of Creative Arts, a non-profit arts organization, serves St. Louis City and County with arts classes, exhibitions, and performances. The Office for Creative Research is according to its website a “hybrid research group, working at the intersection of technology, culture and education,” based in New York City and co-founded by Jer Thorp, a former COCA artist in residence. According to COCA, “During his 2014 visit to St. Louis, Jer was struck by the city’s divided geography and began to explore the role that map-making has on the identity of communities and its residents.” St. Louis Public Schools loaned the space of Stevens Middle School, which closed a few years ago, to the project.

Interior entrance to the Map Room

Stevens Middle School exterior

What are the functions of maps? Many use maps everyday for navigation and also for discovery. But maps often do not reflect one’s personal experience in a city—meaningful places, routes taken, names (official and otherwise) assigned (many from the St. Louis region call the major interstate “40” rather than its official name “I-64/ Route 40”). The Map Room seeks to counter this: Catedral closed her presentation discussing the maps hanging in the room, maps made by local community groups. From COCA’s website:

The St. Louis Map Room combines theatrical set design, sophisticated interactive experiences, and facilitated workshops to bring members of the community together. Over the course of a month, a diverse set of community groups–spanning students, activists, historians, artists, public servants, and more–will convene to make large-scale maps that express their experiences in the historically divided city of St. Louis.

To make a map, each group picked the geographic area of St. Louis they wanted to focus on; using digital mapping software, Catedral imprinted canvases with a basic map reflective of those chosen boundaries. Upon that, each group gathered to draw places meaningful to them.

We viewed, displayed in images below, maps from University City High School students (University City is a St. Louis County inner-ring suburb city adjacent to St. Louis City); a migration map; a Homelessness and its History in St. Louis Map; a trails map; a redlining map including the home at the focus of the 1948 Shelley vs. Kraemer Supreme Court Case that made racial covenants unconstitutional; a Diversity Awareness Partnership map; a map created by those from St. Louis Children’s hospital; and a Foodbank map, created by the St. Louis Area Foodbank. Each is an example of community maps made by community mapping.

Map by University City High School Students

Migration Map

Homelessness and its History in St. Louis

Trails Map

Redlining Map including on home at the center of the Shelley vs. Kraemer Supreme Court case

Diversity Awareness Partnership Map

Map from St. Louis Children’s Hospital

Foodbank Map

The St. Louis Map Room, located at 1033 Whittier Street, St. Louis, MO, is open until April 11, 2017.

The City Outside the Window

By Gareth Millington

Recently I have been thinking about two images. Gustave Caillebotte’s painting Young Man at his Window from 1876 and Jeff Wall’s colour photograph A View from an Apartment from 2004-05. In both works, the city (Paris and Vancouver respectively) is framed by an interior window within a domestic setting. Caillebotte’s painting is especaillebottecially significant for its time because it is an urban rather than a ‘natural’ scene that can be seen through the window.  The painting portrays Caillebotte’s younger brother René rising from his chair to nonchalantly stare, hands-in-pockets, at a female figure in the street (at the intersection of rue de Miromesnil and rue de Lisbonne). Rapetti (1995: 148) states of Caillebotte’s painting that it ‘stage[s] a confrontation between interior and exterior’. Moreover ‘[…] the modern world, and not only its exterior aspect: modern iconography was to go hand in hand with a modernity of feeling, with evocations of the effect produced by the new environment on individual human lives’ (ibid).

 

Jeff Wall’s photograph (below) also stages a combination of inside and outside.  It produces two pictorial worlds in a single image: the domestic interior occupied by two women, one reading a magazine in chair and the other attending to domestic chores; and the panorama of the port of Vancouver that is seen through the window. The household objects that are scattered, or cluttered, around the room provide the picture with a sense of everydayness that contrasts with the view from the window. As Wagstaff (2005: 18) comments, it is a ‘commonplace scene that functions as a quiet iconography of modern life’.

wallThese images are fascinating because they offer an insight into the relationship between the interior of urban homes and the boredom, desires and despondencies that are intertwined within this private space and the city outside—an element of urban enquiry I have come to think is under explored. More importantly I think, these two images, produced over a century apart, offer a remarkable mediation upon presence or being in the centre of the metropolis. In this way, interiority gains a triple meaning; the subjectivity of the lens and the actors, the domestic interior and its geographical location in the heart of the metropolis buttress each other to provide glimpses of an existential space; a haven that is a retreat from the modern world outside, but is also itself modern. These two images are not, at least relatively speaking, products of the gaze of the alienated; of a flanêur who is confined to the margins. The quiet, everyday quality of the presence depicted in these images is, as we now know, historical; it is no longer something to be complacent about, such are the centrifugal effects of rising rents and staggering property prices, not to mention forced relocation and dispersal from great metropolitan centres. There is also the issue of a generalised urbanization that has slowly erased the distinctiveness of the city and the metropolitan experience. Each image—Caillebotte’s in the style of high modernism and Wall’s photographic invocation of a late modern ‘urban lifestyle’—provides a reminder of an epoch of urban modernity that, we might argue, is eroding before our eyes.

I’m sure this contention will be too strong for some, such is the enduring vivacity of the city-image in common sense, popular culture and political discourse; a trend I have recently called ‘cultural cityism’ (Millington 2016). And yet, the easy, commonplace attitude of ‘nothing much in particular’ that pervades these artistic works—which prioritise interior tension over the exterior, materialist tension of ‘dialectical urbanism’ (Merrifield 2002)—provides a deep sense of uneasiness (that strange mix of desire and melancholy that Walter Benjamin saw combined in the ‘wish image’) when contrasted with the increasingly exclusive rights to urban inhabitability that are predominant in cities today; which is, of course, the place from where we view these images today. And yet, I am often wondering how the privations of our current urban age are being/ will be depicted. The nagging doubt, as Marshall Berman (1982: 24) once put it, is that maybe we have ‘lost the art of putting ourselves in the picture, of recognising ourselves as participants and protagonists in the art and thought of our time’. I’m not an art historian so I would genuinely be interested in receiving recommendations of art works from the last few decades that do convey a contemporary sense of displacement, loss or the new blossoming of urban life in unexpected places.

 

Berman, M. (1982) All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. New York: Verso

Merrifield, A. (2002) Dialectical Urbanism: Social Struggles in the Capitalist City. New York: Monthly Review Press

Millington, G. (2016) ‘Urbanization and the city image in Lowry at Tate Britain: Towards a critique of cultural cityism’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 40 (4) 717–735

Rapetti, R. (1995) ‘Paris seen from a window’ in Distel, A, et al (eds) Gustave Caillebotte: Urban Impressionist. Paris: Abbeville Press

Wagstaff, S. (2005) Jeff Wall: Photographs 1978-2004. London: Tate

The Other Berlin Zoo: The Tierpark Friedrichsfelde

The impact of some forty years of division on the city of Berlin manifested itself in interesting ways in terms of cultural, recreational, and social activities. While most people think immediately of the physical barricade in the form of the Berlin Wall as it impacted traffic patterns and cut through streets and neighborhoods, the division also forced both sides of the city to create mirrored recreational and cultural opportunities. For many cultural institutions that existed in the East such as museums and opera houses, West Berlin needed a cultural equivalent. But what about recreational areas? The Berlin Zoological Garden is a well-known tourist destination and beloved by Berliners as well. But, Berlin actually has two zoos: The Tierpark Friedrichsfelde was founded in 1955 on the grounds of the Friedrichsfelde Palace as an attempt by the East Berlin city magistrate to provide recreation for East Berliners, and thus also encourage East Berliners to remain in their half of the city, for at the time, the borders between East and West were still fluid. Deutschland Archiv has published an interview with the journalist Jan Mohnhaupt about the competition between the two zoos. You can read the full interview here.