004 – Theory-Parkour – Lamb on Parkour, Architecture and the Body – Urban Cultural Studies Podcast

On this interview, Professor Benjamin Fraser from the University of Arizona explores along with scholar Matthew Lamb the spatial and cultural implications of Parkour in cities. Among other things, the “free-running” practice featured in several movies like The Bourne Legacy (2012) from the Bourne film franchise is contrasted against the lifestyle that parkour implies, “the parkour vision”, which is “to achieve a kind of perfect harmony in motion with your environment” (Matthew Lamb).

You can subscribe for free to our own podcast: UCS Podcasts – urbanculturalstudies on iTunes, Spotify, Himalaya, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Our podcast:

To learn more about Professor Benjamin Fraser


UCS 004 Lamb on Parkour, Architecture and the Body (12 August 2013) Conversational interview inspired by scholar Matthew Lamb’s article “Misuse of The Monument: The Art of Parkour and the Discursive Limits of a Disciplinary Architecture,” forthcoming in the Journal of Urban Cultural Studies (1.1, 2013). Pitched at a theoretical level (complementing the specific place-bound analysis of  Monument Circle in Indianapolis found in the article) discussion centers on the origins (and varieties) of parkour–an athletic engagement with the built environment (misuse through climbing, dropping, vaulting, jumping…)–and the conditioning of the body in place and as subject to architectural and urban forces.

View original post


Dish City – A new podcast from WAMU/NPR

On twitter @DishCity

“Do restaurants make neighborhoods, or is it the other way around?” – Patrick Fort

Dish City is a new podcast from the producers of The Kojo Nnamdi Show featuring stories of urban food culture. The podcast will dive into the world of Washington D.C.’s local food scene through the eyes, ears, and palates of Ruth Tam (The Washington Post, WAMU) and Patrick Fort (WAMU).

Announced at the end of August, Dish City will bring to our ears not only the intertwined stories of iconic D.C. dishes and city change but also high-quality soundscapes of the places where those dishes are served and the voices of those who enjoy them. The podcast will air on Thursdays, starting September 12, 2019.

You can subscribe for free to Dish City on iTunes, Spotify, Himalaya, or wherever you listen to podcasts. While you are there, remember to check out our own podcast: UCS Podcasts – urbanculturalstudies, by Professor Benjamin Fraser from the University of Arizona.

About the producers:

  • Ruth Tam is a writer, illustrator, and podcast producer. You can learn more about Ruth here.
  • Patrick Fort is a journalist and podcast producer at WAMU. You can learn more about Patrick at WAMU.

Skinscapes in Cape Town

Tattoo picture by Cody Black on Unsplash

In the study of material culture (Aronin and Ơ Laoire 2013), “skinscapes” (Peck and Stroud 2015), tattoos and other types of body modification are analyzed as cultural artifacts. In skinscape analysis, body inscriptions are inserted as a special type of semiotic landscapes where the skin is part of the daily human experience and the macro-discourses that accompany it. The skin is interesting as part of landscape research because it is private and vulnerable, but also mobile. However, the most special quality of skinscapes is perhaps the fact that the body is an extremely personal canvas.

An important aspect of the study of skinscapes is how body inscriptions co-create meaning along with the spaces where they are displayed and how these allow their wearers to create, align with or challenge identities and power relations. Understanding the meaning of a tattoo is not an easy task since in every particular case several multimodal semiotic resources are at play. The meaning of a tattoo often depends on its symbols, its placement, the moment when it is displayed, the place where it is displayed, and the person who wears it. Indeed, the meaning of a tattoo can be liquid, and these meanings form an indexical field (Eckert 2008) which is always negotiated between the person who wears it and those who can see it.

In this line of work, Roux, Peck, and Banda (2019) analyze skinscapes in Cape Town, one of the three capital cities of South Africa, where both the mainstream cultural trend of tattooing and the “older sub-culture of prison tattooing” (26) are present. The authors aim to frame the practice of tattooing under the views of multilingualism, creativity, and gendered-identity representations. The study follows four of the twenty-four interviews made to female students at three universities in Cape Town. The interviews focused on the narratives of the students’ tattoos. From the resulting corpus of eighty nine tattoos worn by the South African students, the authors selected four of these because of their multilingualism/multiculturalism:

  • A Mexican-like sugar skull from “The Day of the Dead” upper-back tattoo with no lettering
  • A winged-version of the symbol from the Assassin’s Creed video game franchise forearm tattoo with Elvish (Tengwar) lettering
  • A cursive lettering wrist-tattoo in Afrikaans with the words “soet slap sonder sonde” (sleep sweetly without sin), from lyrics of the South African rock band Fokofpolisiekar
  • A rib-tattoo of a tree and birds with Chinese lettering meaning “stability and resilience”

The study focuses on the narratives of these tattoos as well as the South African context where they are displayed. The authors show how students use the multimodal semiotic material of their tattoos to show different alignments between gendered-identity representations in a creative way within Cape Town’s macro-discourses.

An important contrast highlighted in this study and which is very common in the practice of tattooing is the one that exists between the community language and foreign-language tattoos. Indeed, the practice of tattooing linguistic signs falls under the semiotic landscaping field known as linguistic landscaping. In particular, the study of linguistic skinscapes is the subfield of linguistic landscaping which I label as dermolinguistics, or the study of language on the skin.

The extra-layer of meaning given by the multilingualism that foreign-language tattoos bring to the linguistic landscape of Cape Town is used by the wearers of those tattoos in creative ways. One example is the case of the Elvish inscription beneath the feminized Assassin’s Creed symbol mentioned above. The inscription is a semiotic resource that allows the wearer to subvert the typical Elvish female identity from The Lord of the Rings by encoding the Creed, or the maxim of the Assassin Order, “Nothing is true, everything is permitted”. In the words of the authors, this creative enterprise allowed this student to picture herself “… as not different from the male gamers and male warrior characters in the Lord of the Rings, who are ardent and passionate fighters” (Roux, Peck and Banda 2019: 34).

“Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” Elvish (Tengwar) script generated using Tecendil – The Tengwar Transcriber

The study of skinscapes and its subfield of dermolinguistics are still young and only a handful of studies have started scratching the surface of the enormous amount of meaning that people encode in their skins through scarification, tattooing and other forms of body modification. The distribution of displayed body inscriptions in urban areas, the social meanings they encode and how these skinscapes contribute to the larger macro-discourses of urban landscapes are interesting questions about our modern sociocultural practices that I can only hope are addressed in the future.


  • Eckert, P. (2008). Variation and the indexical field 1. Journal of sociolinguistics, 12(4), 453-476.a
  • Peck, A., & Stroud, C. (2015). Skinscapes. Linguistic Landscape, 1(1–2), 133–151, DOI: 10.1075/ll.1.1-2.08pec
  • Roux, S., Peck, A., & Banda, F. (2019). Playful female skinscapes: body narrations of multilingual tattoos. International Journal of Multilingualism, 16(1), 25-41. DOI: 10.1080/14790718.2018.1500258 https://doi.org/10.1080/14790718.2018.1500258
  • Aronin, L., & Ơ Laoire, M. (2013). The material culture of multilingualism: Moving beyond the linguistic landscape. International Journal of Multilingualism, 10, 225–235.

Call for Video Entries for the 3rd Urban Audiovisual Festival, with the theme “City and Night”

The Urban Audiovisual Festival – UAF emerges as a place for discussion and dialogue between professionals who work on urban life. This scientific meeting aims to promote the production of quality and the dissemination of the audio-visual work carried out by researchers and filmmakers in the field of urban studies, as well as other related disciplines. The UAF is a cultural project developed by (des)Calçada Association with the academic and scientific support of CIES-IUL, CICS-NOVA and IS-UP.

The Festival Crew asks scholars, videomakers, students and video-artist to submit works that approach the night in any of its multiple faces, that portrays what happens at dusk, that gives voice to those who live while we sleep, etc.

The UAF welcomes projects in seven (7) different formats:

• Documentary
• Ethnographic Film
• Music-video
• MobileFilms: films made using cell-phones or tablets
• Experimental: audiovisual projects that evidence a new approach to visual methods
• Fiction films
• Animated films

The event will take place on May 28-30, 2020 at Library of Marvila in Lisbon (Portugal)

You may submit your entries through the platform: https://filmfreeway.com/UrbanAudiovisualFestival

For more information visit the festival website:

Entries Deadline: December 16th, 2019, 12.00 Midnight (GMT)

Please, do not hesitate to contact the UAF at uaf.lisbon@gmail.comuaf.lisbon@gmail.com for any information you may need

Photo by Israel Sundseth on Unsplash


Spaces now available: ‘City Maps’ PhD workshop with Benjamin Fraser

Benjamin Fraser, Executive Editor of the Journal of Urban Cultural Studies, is leading the next City Maps doctoral training workshop, funded by CHASE, which will take place on Friday 28 June 2019 at Birkbeck, University of London.

While places in this workshop series are in the first instance reserved for students funded by CHASE, or studying at a CHASE institution, the organization is pleased to make available a limited number of places for doctoral students studying at other institutions for the next workshop, co-led by Benjamin Fraser (University of Arizona) and Mari Paz Balibrea (Birkbeck).

The description of the workshop is below. If you would like to participate, please send the following information to Mara Arts (m.arts.12@ucl.ac.uk) by no later than 14 June 2019:

  • Name
  • Email Address
  • Institution
  • Working thesis title
  • Summary of your doctoral research (400-500 words)
  • Dietary requirements
  • Other requirements

City Maps Workshop Series: Navigating the Urban Object Across Disciplines

Workshop 5

Urban Cultural Studies: Getting Oriented, Getting Published

Prof. Benjamin Fraser, U. of Arizona

Friday 28 June, 2019

10.00 Arrive/coffee

10.30-12.00 Urban Cultural Studies Method

A talk by Benjamin Fraser on the methodological questions involved in conducting urban cultural studies research. This includes a brief look back at the development of cultural studies, discussion of previous confrontations and intersections between the humanities and the social sciences, and exploration of the current (inter)disciplinary landscape of journal publishing. A range of cultural texts are mentioned including literature, poetry, theatre, film, comics, popular music, performance, painting, video games, and architecture. Emphasis is on the blending of textual analysis, cultural context, and theoretical ground. Examples given from the speaker’s own research and from the pages of the Journal of Urban Cultural Studies.

12.00-13.00 Lunch (provided)

13.00-14.45 Task 1 – The Interdisciplinary Publishing Landscape

This session will be led by both Benjamin Fraser and Mari Paz Balibrea and will help participants reflect on their own work on cities and how it fits in the landscape of urban studies scholarship. Fraser and Balibrea will provide opening remarks about the state of the interdisciplinary publishing landscape in order to capture the breadth of research venues interested in urban-related submissions. Participants will be divided into groups in order to discuss where their intervention best fits in the field, with the goal of identifying the most relevant journals and publishing houses. This session will involve both small-group and large-group Q&A, with the possibility of 1×1 conversations as time permits.

14.45-15.00 Break

15.00-16.45 Task 2 – Transforming Your Thesis into a Book

This session will be led by both Benjamin Fraser and Mari Paz Balibrea. The 15 participants will divide into groups of 3, and each group will compile and discuss a list of questions they have about the process of turning your thesis into a book. All questions are welcome. Among other topics, participants might consider: publishing and the academic job market; dos and don’ts when turning a thesis into a book, how to identify a suitable publisher, organization of a proposal, submitting a proposal, suggesting possible readers of your proposal and manuscript to a press, communication with acquisitions editors, how many proposals to send out at one time, whether to publish articles/chapters separately that might be included in the book, the peer-review process, the revision process, proofing your book, indexing your book, identifying prospects for promotional blurbs and endorsements on the book cover, promoting your book pre- and post- publication.

Groups will have 15-30 minutes for internal discussion driving the creation of their list. Each group will then share their list with the larger workshop group, after which collective exploration of the themes raised will begin with the most common questions first.

On ‘Ballast’, black geographies, and gathering in: an interview with Quenton Baker

our escape then/
a hinterland

Oversized in white text on a translucent mesh screen, these words appear as if broadcast on and through a television suspended from the ceiling. Broadcast through, these words, and their permutations, find other temporary homes including the wooden floor beneath the screen, and the walls parallel to it. Those permutations include fragments from the poem, such as letters “e s” or “a” or “n t” stretched and flipped in ways that both undo and imbue different meanings.

Soon, these words disappear from the screen. Their fleeting presence directs the eye elsewhere. On white walls are vertical black blocks. On closer inspection, these blocks are paragraphs where most words in once-written text have been blacked out to create erasure poems with only a few words visible. From old paragraphs new meanings appear such as “this wound, this public instrument.” Meanings continue to oscillate: upon closer inspection, the blacked out paint is not opaque but translucent, allowing a strained reading of the original text.

This work comprises Ballast, an exhibition by Seattle-based poet Quenton Baker, which runs at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, WA through February 3, 2019.

Ballast, “examines,” from language from the Frye’s website, “the 1841 slave revolt aboard the brig Creole, using the event as a kaleidoscopic lens through which to consider the position of blackness and the ongoing afterlife of slavery.” More from the Frye’s website:

The Creole revolt occurred when a group of enslaved persons, led by Madison Washington, commandeered the ship en route from Virginia to Louisiana, and steered it toward the British island of Nassau. Britain abolished slavery in 1833, meaning that no authority could be exercised over any of the enslaved who landed on English soil, and 135 people gained their freedom as a result. It is the only successful large-scale revolt involving U.S.-born enslaved people in American history.

Ballast then centers the slave revolt on the Creole, a scantly written about event, through two main aesthetic orientations, Baker’s “erasure poems—made using pages from the Senate document detailing the Creole case,” and Baker’s poems in invented form that appear and disappear in segments on screens throughout the space. As such, Ballast aesthetically uses poetry to, in Baker’s words, “resolve … without speaking for people, because that’s impossible and demeaning … to create a language in the void” of silences and erasures of black life. Ballast asks viewers to consider new languages, absences, and presences as an imperfect way to center the lives of black people chronically devalued in and erased from archives. “I want them to feel gathered in,” Baker told me.

What follows is more from our conversation. (Interview edited for length).

JASMINE MAHMOUD: I’d love to hear more about your background, especially the influence of geography. You are from Seattle, you have an MFA in Poetry from the University of Southern Maine, and just debuted this show inspired by a slave revolt from Virginia to Nassau. How do the various geographies with which you dialogue influence your work?

QUENTON BAKER: Geography is an interesting one for me. I was at Cave Canem this summer …

MAHMOUD: What is that?

BAKER: A retreat for black poets.

MAHMOUD: Where is it?

BAKER: It’s held … they’re based in New York, but it’s held in Greensburg, Pennsylvania on a satellite campus for Pitt. It’s run by Cornelius Eady and Toi Derricotte. They started twenty some years ago.

So at Cave there’s 34 fellows per … all black poets from across the world really. I was talking to Dante Micheaux about where I lived and moved … born in Seattle, grew up in Seattle, lived in Seattle for most of my life. Moved to Portland, Oregon when I was rapping, and that was where that career took place and then I went to Portland Maine.

He was curious, he was like “those are obviously all like really not black spaces … but with your work, knowing what I know of your work, it makes sense that you would choose those places, because you don’t have a provincial focus, or because you’re focused on these broader themes.”

That made me think about it, because that was the first time I really thought about geography in my work. I think because of how black folks are positioned globally, but specifically here in Seattle, there’s just this extreme isolation. Even of course, even if you have a community, even if you have folks, just the way that the city is oriented and created. It’s meant to … even in community, you’re meant to be isolated from so many of the broader moves and most of the city. And I think that influences me, and influenced me, my experience in the city, but also as a writer. Essentially it dictated my internal landscape, so much. So for me it’s less about the external geography. As a poet of place, I really consider myself to be a poet of the interior. So, it’s the ways in which these places have created and folded into that interiority.

So really I think I’m drawn to places where I am externally isolated, because that matches the isolation that blackness as a position inhabits within civil society. And where I can retreat in some ways to work, and still have community when I do venture outside, but really … because when you write in New York, or San Francisco or like the Bay … the city becomes a character in some way and you have to attend to that. But, here I felt like I can think and write broadly, using my understanding of how civil society enacts itself through the lens of Seattle, but without having to attend to the physical geography or topography in anyway.

MAHMOUD: How did you first learn about the Creole and how did your engagement with the revolt influence your process?

BAKER: While I am a poet of the interior landscape, I’m also a poet of research and history. I was writing a project about the Negro Leagues, Negro league baseball. One of the directions I ended up reading about was the secondary slave market. Partially it was also because I had just gone to New Orleans for my sister’s wedding. She got married in New Orleans and … the barracoons are just right there. There’s still slave markets and shit. The slave pens are still right there. Which of course, that was my first time in the south, so that was like damn. So then I wanted to read about those.

Soul by Soul by Walter Johnson is a fantastic book and [Johnson] mentions it just briefly, and I was like, “wait what? A what?” Because I was under the impression that there were no large-scale revolts that succeeded. So I started tracking down more information, which was difficult because it’s very sparse in comparison with something like the Amistad of course, which got Spielberg treatment. Coming across this story, and feeling like there was something there, that was worthy of looking at, was really what grabbed me.

MAHMOUD: In the exhibit you do blackout poetry on the US Senate document that details the Creole case. What was your process with engaging with that text? And also, how were you thinking geographically about Virginia, Louisiana, Nassau?

BAKER: You have to think geographically when you’re thinking about chattel slavery, for so many different reasons. Geography influences life outcomes, potential for escape, family, kinship ties, everything. The geography becomes… it’s such a determining factor, you can’t help but think about it. When I first came across it and started reading about it, I really thought I was going to do a straight narrative, maybe persona work. I just really thought it would be pretty straightforward, just like I’m going to write about this thing because this thing I think deserves more attention.

It’s emblematic of a certain kind of reification of black non-being or black non-existence. The way we can be banished to no place instantly. So that I just wanted just to look at it. To give it time. It’s like Claudia Rankine says [to paraphrase], “bring forth the forgotten bodies, the forgotten names.” I just wanted to do that. But, it really changed a lot, because I also assumed there’d be more material to engage with.

MAHMOUD: How much was it? What does the archive look like?

BAKER: Fredrick Douglass wrote his only piece of fiction, he wrote a novella about this.

MAHMOUD: Oh wow, I didn’t know that.

BAKER: Yeah, it was one of the first things he ever wrote, and the only piece of fiction. It was essentially an abolitionist tract. So, what I found was that most of it was turned into like pro-abolition propaganda, basically, which felt like a different kind of erasure. And, a frustrating one. Obviously, the abolition movement was so problematic. No one was interested in making an engagement with how the slave position was entangled with social death. No one was interested in resolving that, because of course it would mean the complete demolition of the social structure. So, abolition became this call for etiquette basically.

So Madison Washington. The leader of the revolt, there’s some things that we know: we know he did escape slavery and ended up in Canada. And we know that for some reason he went back. We know he was a skilled laborer, but we know very little about him. What Douglass — and there were some other people who wrote novellas about this abolitionist — they all hit on the fact that he was going back to save his wife, and there was variations, sometimes the wife was on the ship, and then he saw her and decided to–

It’s always this very clean narrative, and then a very clean sort of delineation of a kind of agency, which is ahistorical and obliterating in a lot of ways. And so it was at that point, I was reading the narratives of these other people, and of course their novellas are fiction. But that really set me off the concept of … that made me have a really long, still ongoing session with myself about what it means to engage with this kind of material. What it means to consider the slave … to really have a really really solid understanding of what chattel slavery and modern anti-blackness mean in terms of how black people and blackness are positioned within civil society. That became paramount, so that really changed everything. Mainly being so aghast and offended because the most frustrating thing was Douglass. Because I’m like, “bruh, you are in the Bahamas, you’re in Jamaica, you’re in all these places. You could have gone to Jamaica and talked to these folks, but you didn’t.”

No one did. The fact that no one, 135 five people, five of them went back to New Orleans, 130, I think one or two died. I mean 128 people who mostly all went to Jamaica, you wanted to find them, you could of found them. You wanted to write about them, you wanted their story, you toured with it, you orated, you gave all these talks but you didn’t go, no one went and talked to them.

That was so frustrating for me. So I wanted to resolve that without speaking for people, because that’s impossible and demeaning. But I wanted to speak. I wanted to find a language, I guess, to create. In my mind, the way that I could approach redress, of course I could never succeed, but was to create a language in the void. It wasn’t going to be their language exactly. It’s not going to be my language exactly, but there is a void, there’s these and other, all these voices, all these interior spaces missing and, in that elision I can put something. It won’t be perfect… it’ll be something I hope, that’s the hope. So, that’s how I came to … so my methods really just did a complete shift over the process of researching and thinking through it.

MAHMOUD: I want to talk to you about the aesthetics of the show itself. How did you make the decisions about what Ballast would look like, and how it would dialogue with the meanings you were making as a poet?

BAKER: The erasure stuff … I started writing this in 2015 and then adapted it for the show. So, all the erasures existed already on the page in similar formats.

MAHMOUD: So you would put the blackout text on a page?

BAKER: Yeah, so that’s part of the manuscript and then it was just a natural fit, so then it was, okay let’s find a way to adapt these. So they’re not exactly the same because I painted them in.

MAHMOUD: In that space?

BAKER: In that space. Then also thinking more about they’re gigantic now, so how do I maintain a level of visual interest that maybe isn’t necessary or possible on the page? I think it comes back to wanting to dig underneath that obliteration, because when I read the … I originally just got the Senate document just for research, just because it was a primary document. You want to get your hands on everything that you can. As many primary documents, as many secondary sources as you can.

I was reading it and got very angry. The Senate document is a back and forth between the US Consulate in the Bahamas and the British Consulate in the Bahamas, and it’s very political language. It’s very polite but also they’re super mad at each other.

And, then it’s testimony, sworn affidavits from the white crew members. It’s for the United Stated Senate, so it’s hard to layer more hegemony in one document than what’s there already. Essentially the US … he’s trying to get the United States’ property back, but he’s also trying to make a point about how Britain is overstepping their … because this whole thing. Most of the reason why there is any record of this is because it was a political kerfuffle. Because the United States and Britain were about to go to war, potentially. They were at odds and then this was another thing, and so it was just … and of course this still happens all the time now but just to have your existence, your life, which of course isn’t really considered that at all.

To have it be a chess piece, like a strategic move, because you see them making strategic moves against each other, you see the game being played at a very high level, but what it’s being played over. It’s just this constant paving over of what’s actually happening, what’s actually occurring when we’re talking about … So it really became just out of anger, I just wanted to … it just felt like digging into a very deep grave to just toss back all of these layers of soil to get at anything that wasn’t that.

Just to find any echo, anything that could … to find in their language, in this language, anything that could speak or attend to what was important there. What actually happened there. Of course, yeah it was a successful revolt and that’s good, it is, but it’s also so inconsequential because there’s no freedom from social death. There’s no freedom from non-being. There’s the ways in which, as the unimpeachable Saidiya Hartman says, we give ourselves redress, we give ourselves these flawed victories. And so to think that this fantastic and wonderful flawed victory was still so hidden and still so paved over, but then also that we would have to do so much work just to pay homage to essentially a wonderful failing also fuels the anger. So that’s what the erasures became about for me, just a way to attend to — however inadequately or unexpertly — to attend to just what was lost and alighted and what an elision for your whole existence, and the existence of everyone that you could possibly care about to be able to be like in elision is, of course these theorists in chattel slavery and of course the experience in our modern moment as well. And so it was just, “how do I attend to that within this document?”

MAHMOUD: Have you read Saidiya Hartman’s “Venus in Two Acts”?


MAHMOUD: I was just thinking about that these girls, you know girls who were horribly abused and murdered, that their only life is documented in a footnote.

BAKER: Yeah, that attends to the same issue.

MAHMOUD: What does this exhibit mean for Seattle? Many have written about the role of restrictive covenants and redlining (and more broadly the spatial dispossession of black people and other people of color) in the making of Seattle, as a city, that despite its reputation for progressiveness, was founded on the dispossession of indigenous people. What does your exhibit – engaging a slave revolt nearly 200 years ago – mean for Seattle today? How is this show resonating with Seattle for you and also from what you’re hearing from people?

BAKER: Yeah, there were a lot of previews. One of the previews was mostly black and brown folks and so the questions that they had for me, specifically black folks. … I felt like how they were engaging with the work made me feel like what was being communicated was on point, like that’s what I wanted, the kinds of questions they were asking were the kinds of questions that I would want.

MAHMOUD: Do you remember what some of those questions were?

BAKER: Yeah, so someone asked me about … so it was this younger cat, I mean he’s probably 20 something and he just walked me over to one of the pieces and he was like “I don’t get this.” And I was like “that’s cool. You ain’t got to get it necessarily,” but I took him through what I was thinking about it and he was like, “oh damn.” He’s like, “I never really thought about that, but that makes sense.” And that’s really like … I want black folks or people who have an investment and care for black life outside white imagination … I want them to feel gathered in, in a way. Like I’ve done all this work so that when people encounter my work, they can feel seen and called to expand if they want to. Because that’s how I felt and that’s how I feel when I come to the work that changes what I think is possible or inspires me or expands me in some way. So that’s what I want to do, I don’t know if my work is doing … obviously I’m conditioned to not think of myself very highly. But I want … ideally in a community we expand each other.

Even if we encounter something that we already know, in encountering it over and over again, we’re expanded. Encountering it in a new space or even just to see ourselves again, considered. Just for people to feel like they’re … that they were attended to, in some way is what I got from the questions.

Someone asked me about the title of the show Ballast. And I gave them the real answer. … I want people to walk into the show, or read the book, when and if it comes out — to know what they are. There’s a way in which … we all value each other’s survival. We all value the way we create under constraint and provide what we can for one another but we also live in like a civil society that in no way attends to our actual entanglements. In no way, can call on or make visible our interiority, so of course it’s on us to make it visible for one another. So that’s all that I want, is just for that to take place.

MAHMOUD: What does the title mean?

BAKER: Ballast. For me there’s something … what I think is so unique about chattel slavery but really the position of blackness is like a historical and current force within the way that American social life and global social life is ordered, is that the ways in which black people are made to be the counterweight to their own destruction.

And so obviously with Ballast, it’s the counterweight that a ship carries before it on loads its cargo and then it’s offloaded at the port; well now they use water but back in the day, bars of iron and take the bars of iron out, leave them at the port and load in any of the cargo. Of course, sometimes it was humans, sometimes it was tobacco, sometimes it was molasses, whatever. But just the ways in which black people were like the semiotics that we engage with, the kind of myth-making around blackness, the way that whiteness only coheres through violence against black flesh and blackness as a concept. Like of all those ways that we’re made to perform our own death until then when we actually die.

And I think like … to me this comes up in police brutality a lot, like shootings … it’s always that the black person was scary and aggressive. There’s a way in which the black people are made to perform that aggression, and you’re made to perform that aggression for an exact moment. The ways we have to, no matter how hard we try not to, we have to hold the space for what undoes us. … There’s no way for the ship to run without that weight and there’s no way for the ship to return to port without its cargo. There’s no way that the whiteness [in] America civil society functions without blackness and black flesh as both counterweight and property.

MAHMOUD: What I really liked about the projections was the way they cascaded. You saw a phrase and then words disappeared. Which kind of mimicked a performance of reading, or a performance of listening. Because it made me pay attention to words, so I appreciated that.

BAKER: I was really happy with how it turned out. That was a challenge to– the inventive form poems are on the page, are very spread out and they’re meant to be read like in any direction.

There isn’t really a way … there maybe is a way, but with what else was going on in the show, there really wasn’t a way to like demonstrate that, so yeah, we settled on like … then let’s really have people consider this but also try to get some of that, I guess autonomy of each couplet or image or thought. So that was one of the challenges. But it’s funny cause it’s kind of an inversion in the ways … in the manuscript view, the erasure poems are like pretty straightforward and then the invented form poems are much wider and sprawling and then in this space you can choose any direction to go with the erasure poems and then the inventive forms are like pretty determined.

It was a weird flip, which I wasn’t necessarily like … when I set out, I wasn’t intending that but I liked how it ended up.

MAHMOUD: Do you have any other final thoughts you want to add?

BAKER: Well, you asked me what does it mean for Seattle, I don’t think I answered that. I hope what it means is that some folks who would never go to a museum, or would never go to a museum and think that anything was in there for them, I hope that those folks will go and see the show. And feel like something was for them. Maybe not for like a museum, not for like anything, but just somebody was thinking about you and somebody made work for you.

This work and all my future work really is for people who are able to think about black life free from the white imagination because it’s so damaging when people can’t … and living in that and within that, it’s traumatizing and horrifying and there’s no reprieve and no let-up. And I don’t think that my work will be a reprieve but I just think it’s part of those flawed victories.

Quenton Baker: Ballast runs at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, WA through February 3, 2019.

‘Tales of the City’ Turns 40: as the World Burns

40 years ago (in 1978), the first of Armistead Maupin’s ‘Tales of the City’ installments appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.


The ‘Tales’ would eventually be published as 9 novels, from the first ‘Tales of the City’ to 2014’s ‘The Days of Anna Madrigal’. Maupin, who came of age as a young gay man in San Francisco during the halcyon pre-Aids golden age of the 1970s, chronicled a changing city through vignettes surrounding a cast of memorable characters. These characters are archetypes of the San Francisco of-then, and according to Maupin, all bits and pieces of the author’s personality, a sort of dramatized autobiographical sketch. Maupin, hailing from a conservative North Carolina dynasty, found liberation in San Francisco. But alongside liberation, much quirkiness, whimsy, satire, and yes, darkness.

What is most remarkable about the ‘Tales’ series is the way it captures the essence of a vanished world. San Francisco at the turn of the 1980s, just before AIDS decimated gay life in the city and forever transformed the relationship of gay men to urban space. But also, before San Francisco’s first tech boom (which ramped up in the mid-late 1980s) and began the violent cycles of gentrification that continue today in ‘web 2.0’. San Francisco before the murder of Harvey Milk, Mayor Moscone and the mass-suicide of the ‘Jonestown’ cult, (which all happened in November 1978). San Francisco before the neoliberal and growth-friendly leadership embraced whole-heartedly the Manhattanization of downtown and oversaw the replacement of the South-of-Market district from a working-class, artist and LGBT enclave to the dot.com playground it is today. The San Francisco captured in ‘Tales’ is weird and rough around the edges, yet endearing.

In Maupin’s ‘Tales’, sexuality is non-binary and interwoven, with several characters (straight, gay, bisexual) enmeshed in various liaisons. In ‘Tales’, San Francisco is inexpensive and smart phones are non-existent. Dates happen at the roller skating rink or the bath house. There are no Apple Watches or Alexas.

The earnest young gay man, spreading his social (and sexual) wings for the first time, encapsulated in Michael Tolliver or ‘Mouse’. The naïve and white-bread Midwest newcomer, opening up to West coast libertinism and hedonism, in the form of the young woman, Mary Ann Singleton. The mysterious, elegant and avuncular Anna Madrigal, landlady with a secret (and a ready bowl of pre-rolled joints), ultimately one of the most memorable and perhaps earliest significant transgender characters in popular culture. The carefree and bohemian (and bisexual) Mona Ramsey, who takes Mary Ann under her wing.

And a supporting cast of San Francisco types: the WASPY socialite DeDe Halcyon (of Pacific Heights) and her scheming, bisexual husband Beauchamp Day. The lothario Brian Hawkins. The rough-as-tumbleweed Momma ‘Mucca (from Winnemucca), who runs a Nevada desert brothel but has complex ties to the urban characters.

This San Francisco is quaint and small-town, and yet, one can still find these stereotypes around the city, recycled for new generations. Despite the city’s changes, encroaching mono-culture and sanitized urban spaces, it retains a powerful gravitational pull for the adventurous, the queer, the questioning, the naïve, the young.

‘Tales’ was made into a successful TV miniseries in the early 1990s (starring Olympia Dukakis as Anna Madrigal and Laura Linney as Mary Ann Singleton) and is now being again made into a series (with Linney attached to the project) updated for the millennial age, produced by Netflix.


Characters ‘Mouse’, ‘Mary Ann’ and ‘Mona’ in the TV Series ‘Tales of the City’ (Channel 4 UK, PBS/ Showtime US)

If there is a critique of what ‘Tales’ captures / captured, it would be in the things absent. Maupin had a deep window into white, WASPY and gay San Francisco and dissects that personality spot-on, but there are few to no characters of color and San Francisco’s Asian and Latinx cultures are seen as supplementary appendages and not as the central motifs that they are (alongside Gay culture, WASPY old Pacific Heights, the Hillsborough set, etc.) But Maupin’s world did not extend to the city’s edges nor are ‘Tales’ meant to be a sociological analysis of class, race and ethnicity in the Bay Area. Rather, they are snapshots of a certain time, a certain place, and a certain magic in a city that at least historically has been a place of awakening, self-knowledge, and above all, love and freedom.

The geographic center of the series is ‘Barbary Lane’, the garden-filled mews high on a steep hill, often shrouded in fog, within ear-range of the ubiquitous fog horn, where Mary Ann Singleton, Anna Madrigal, and several other characters live. Barbary Lane was based on the real ‘Macondray Lane’, located in Russian Hill.


Macondray Lane in Russian Hill, stand in for ‘Barbary Lane’ in ‘Tales of the City’

This collection of characters living together on such a picturesque mews is, too, a relic of history: it is highly unlikely today that such a quirky assemblage of bohemians would be able to afford Russian Hill, let alone anywhere in the city. Mary Ann Singleton after all came to San Francisco from Cleveland without a job! (But quickly found one, thanks to the kind patriarch and advertising executive Edgar Halcyon, father of DeDe Halcyon, but then, I digress into spoilers..).

So, looking back 40 years, and with ‘Tales’ about to be re-released by Netflix, I have mused on what a ‘new’ episode might be like, given today’s San Francisco. I will close with a bit of mock dialogue-cum-fan fiction, of what a synopsis of the episode ‘November Smoke’ might contain.

II. Fictional Episode of ‘Tales of the City’: 40 Years on – ‘November Smoke'” (Courtesy of Jason Luger). wildfires.jpg

Scene: November 11, 2018. The air in San Francisco is thick with smoke and ash particles from record breaking wildfires hundreds of miles away.

Mary Ann Singleton, from Cleveland, arrives in the city with hopes and dreams and some training with Microsoft Office Suite. She is ‘ok’ with Excel, in her words.

Mary Ann has heard about an apartment open house in Russian Hill. The apartment is 400 square feet with a shared bathroom with two other units, but it looks cute in the photos. Mary Ann saw that the price said “$4,500 per month” but assumed it was a mistake – surely it was $450 a month, still more than such a unit would cost back home in Cleveland. She walks up a steep hill and almost doubles-over in a coughing fit – the air is hard to breathe. The smoke is so thick that Mary Ann doesn’t notice the Coit Tower, which would be visible straight ahead on a clear-air day. Mary Ann stops half-way up the hill to take a rest, and notices a woman sitting on the curb to her right. The woman does not appear to be wearing pants, and is furiously scratching herself, and Mary Ann notices there are open sores covering the woman’s legs. ‘My goodness’, Mary Ann catches herself saying aloud.

Upon arriving at the address she has written down on a piece of paper in her pocket, Mary Ann knocks on the door of the apartment, and a friendly man opens it. Mary Ann sees that there are 20 people already inside, taking pictures. All white (like her), but much younger – they seem to be in their early 20s (Mary Ann is almost 30). Mary Ann sees several of the others hand packages to the man (who must be the landlord) – credit histories? Bank statements? Employment references? Mary Ann has none of those things. Dejected, she leaves.

Luckily, Mary Ann has a friend she can stay with – a gay man named Michael. Mary Ann meets up with him, and they head to lunch in a trendy neighborhood (having looked at the menu, Mary Ann isn’t sure how she’ll pay for her meal – but hey, she has just arrived, should treat herself). Michael seems distracted, though. He keeps checking his watch (one of those fancy Apple-watches, Mary Ann notices), and barely makes eye contact with her.

“Let me show you this guy who wants to meet up with me”, Michael says, and shows Mary Ann a photo on his phone of what appears to be a man’s torso – no head. “You can’t see his face?” asks Mary Ann. “Face? Lol.” says Michael, “I can see his 6% bodyfat and I’m interested”. Mary Ann doesn’t know what “bodyfat” is, but doesn’t want to ask since that might make her seem unsophisticated.

After brunch, the two stop at a Cannabis store and buy some chocolate snacks. Mary Ann eats one, and says goodbye to Michael, and goes for a walk to Golden Gate Park. She starts to feel strange: is this what pot makes you feel like, Mary Ann thinks? Time seems – slower, but also faster; the grass seems a bit greener. She falls asleep on the grass, under a Monterey Pine. When Mary Ann wakes up, she is freezing: the fog has come in, blowing away the smoke. She forgot a jacket.


A few days later, Mary Ann finds an apartment. Well, not so much an apartment, as a room in an older woman’s apartment. But it is affordable, and she’s told, in a good location. Meanwhile, Mary Ann has found work as a caterer (on the weekends), and a waitress at a Peruvian restaurant downtown. She has not had any replies yet from office jobs.

The woman’s name is Anna Madrigal, and she is kind, if a bit mysterious. She and Mary Ann find themselves sitting in Anna’s living room, which Mary Ann now shares. Anna seems upset.

“What’s wrong?” Mary Ann asks.

“Well -” Anna Madrigal begins, “it’s just that the President – Trump – he’s going after transgender rights again. He is trying to get the Justice Department to basically nullify the definition of transgender as a third sex and thus force us into binary understandings of gender.”

Mary Ann is confused, but listens. Later, she Googles “transgender”.


DeDe Halcyon, eldest daughter of business titan Edgar Halcyon, is packing up her last boxes. She and her husband Beauchamp are moving. Having lived in Pacific Heights for decades, they finally decided that she and Beauchamp should make a new start in Nashville, Tennessee (and Beauchamp is from the South, anyway). It will be nice to be closer to family and oh, the things they could do by saving $10,000 a month on rent.

On the way out of the city, crossing the Bay Bridge in their Subaru, DeDe takes a look back at the smoke-filled sky; the new Salesforce Tower standing watch like a sentinel. In Oakland, DeDe notices a tent city under the elevated freeway – she had not seen this before. And further along, a row of what look like tiny dog-houses. She wonders: are people living there, or animals? This is her last thought as the Subaru leaves the urban sprawl and heads East, toward the Sierra Nevada (now engulfed in flames); toward Nevada; toward Nashville.