Agency

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

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Agency

  • National Soldier Lot, Allegheny Cemetery

     

    Actual decomposing bodies

    I am gearing up to do a DH project which has some interesting parallels with Decomposing Bodies, the Bertillon project about which Jen and others have been posting.

    My project will analyze the federal soldiers lot at Allegheny Cemetery, which, it turns out, is part of the national soldier cemetery system initially established during the U.S. Civil War.  This was the first time in the modern world that a nation-state assumed responsibility for its war dead and established a national system for burying and protecting its dead soldiers.  To my knowledge no national cemetery in the U.S. has been systematically studied – not as an archive of bodies in any case. 

    The soldier lot in Allegheny Cemetery was first established during the Civil War as a local initiative and then federalized in 1875.  It’s a hybrid – an interesting intersection of local and national space/authority.  The graves are laid out on flat ground in a neat grid, with nearly identical white headstones, around an allegorical monument to the Union in the center.  The strong impression of uniformity and unity around a common cause contrasts starkly with the family plots on the hillside nearby, which are individualized and laid out in deliberately irregular patterns.

    But this landscape of unity in death is deeply misleading.  The tidy national “plot” or storyline overrides the local plots – the messy, often heartbreaking stories of the individual men (and one woman) whose bodies migrated to this small patch of ground.  My preliminary spot research is suggesting that many, if not most, of the soldiers who were buried here died in local camps or hospitals or soldier homes and ended up in this lot because they had nowhere else to go.  Of course the project will help confirm or revise this hypothesis, but it’s safe to say that in the process of tracking these soldiers in life and death we will be tracking an often tragic history of displacement, in both its physical and metaphysical dimensions.

    So what does this have to do with Bertillon cards?  The Bertillon cards were a system for attaching metadata (measurements) to photographs (of faces).  The instrumental purpose of the metadata was to organize the photographs into retrievable files, but in a larger sense the metadata and image worked reciprocally to create a unique personal identity.  Similarly the headstones in the soldier lot attach metadata to the graves – the metadata being a number, a name, and a regiment (if known).  The headstone points to the grave, just as the measurements pointed to the face. Headstone and grave work reciprocally to perpetuate a unique identity after death; if one or the other is removed, the person is lost.  In both the soldier lot and the Bertillon card collection, the constructed identity is drastically reductive, with the person’s life shrunk to a narrowly defined set of data collected or manufactured by the apparatus of the state.  A major difference between the two systems is the visibility of the body: the body materializes in the head shot on the Bertillon card, while the body quite literally disappears into the grave.  The headstone is a “card” of sorts but by necessity must also serve as an image, a sign that combines contiguity (at the “head” of the body) and substitution (the upright stone “standing in” for the upright person and for the portal through which the person must pass). 

    In this open-air archive of unseen bodies, the headstone is essential but remarkably fragile.  Witness the nearby veterans lot, created under the auspices of the Union veterans organization the Grand Army of the Republic, where the once upright headstones have been pushed flat into the ground and their metadata have become unreadable.  Identity is perpetuated in the soldier lot only because the headstones have been replaced and reinstalled several times, made to look original by the intaglio style that mimics the first federal stones.

    If the data are robust enough, I hope to track the bodies, graves, and headstones – and illuminate how and why they have come to intersect in this peculiarly liminal space, poised between death and life, the national and the local, the abstract and the concrete.

    Categories: 
    • Agency
    • Identity
    • Current Projects
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    Teaching portfolios: the good, the bad, and the ugly

    We will be holding a colloquium on this topic on Wed Nov 12 at noon.  In preparation I am posting here a PDF containing some responses to questions I asked of three recent PhDs in HAA who got placed on the job market.  This is not a systematic survey by any means but a starting point for discussion.

    Categories: 
    • Agency
    • Graduate Work
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    Bertillon Identities: Who are they?

    Recording data set after data set of prisoner identification cards, a curious abstraction occurs.  The brain seeks the numbers, driving the input process of thirty or fourtly files in a digitized sequence and distilling the final phyiscal traces of these men into an endless chain of data.  The numbers are cold, firm, but not completely infallible (How did his arm get THAT much smaller between 1902 and 1906?)  The computer asks for the data, but the card itself tells another story.  The man himself looks back through the photograph.  He is typically of European or African descent, and almost always relavtively young.  Sometimes he is an immigrant.  The youngest in the batch, claiming to be 16, is a baby-faced adolescent.  The oldest, not more than 35, appears haggard beyond his years.   He represents a cross-section of rural life in early twenthieth-century Ohio, often listing "farmer" in addition to another profession.   He is also labeled by his crime: larceny, horsetheivery, forgery, manslaughter, and so on.  The photograph, in the case of the Bertillon identification cards, is the criminal's one limited space of autonomy.  Many of the men stare blankly ahead with a hard stare; they look straight into the camera and defiantly reveal nothing of themselves.  Others, especially the younger boys, cannot hide their fear and confusion.  One teenager, imprisoned for throwing rocks at cars, stares out on the verge of tears.  Another set subtly smirk at the camera, their eyes dancing with private amusement.  A cocky teamster cracks a smile, and seemingly mocks the camera, the Bertillon process, the ever-diligent R.U. Hastings who has just taken his measurements, and, perhaps, even the twenth-first century researcher who still finds these cards relevant.  

    The photographs reveal a humantity not capable of being described, contained, or limited by the numerical system of measurement and cataloging.  The sublte reactions intueted from the photographs are subjective, they can never be known.  But the human side of the Bertillon process could become an increasingly interesting question.  Recent research into the use of the Bertillon system with the Chinese Exclusion Act tenatively reveals that subjects found the process humiliating because they were treated like criminals.  This begs several questions: How well were the criminal identification cards known to the broader population?  What were the societal implications of submitting the such a system? And, pertaining to the subjectivity of the men in the photographs, how does the limited autonomy of the photograph reveal the identity of the man behind the numbers?

    Categories: 
    • Agency
    • Identity
    • Decomposing Bodies
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    MLA Report on Doctoral Education in the Humanities

    I attended an interesting dicussion today on the (controversial) MLA report advocating significant structural changes in humanities PhD programs.  Don Bialostosky, chair of English, moderated, and the two featured speakers were Dennis Looney (now working for MLA) and John Stevenson (Grad Dean, Univ Colorado Boulder).

    The report argues in fairly blunt language that the academic job market stinks and will never recover to its pre-crash levels, that  9 years to complete the PhD is way too long, that PhD programs have to move away from the model of "replication" (training students exclusively as research professors) to a model of "transformation" for a variety of careers, that the dissertation itself should be reimagined as more than just a proto-print book, and that single-author books should no longer be made the standard for hiring and promotion.  Many of the changes advocated in the report (incorporating collaborative research and teaching into grad programs, emphasizing public engagement, revising traditional area coverage curricula) are precisely what HAA's constellations aspire to do.  I was therefore surprised to hear that the report, released in Feb., had come under strong attack from several quarters.

    I've attached my notes in PDF form but here are a few of the issues I found most interesting and perplexing in the discussion:

    Reducing time to degree may be laudable, one person argued, but the reality of the job market now is that the most successful students are taking years of pre-docs and post-docs, dragging out the time they spend before they hit the job market so that they can beef up their cv's with publications and even a book contract.  How is someone who steamrolls to a PhD in 5 years supposed to compete with them?  I do know of many people who have used external pre-docs for this purpose, not to speed their degree but actually to lengthen it so they can work on articles and other projects.  Postdocs do something similar on the other side of the degree.  In other words, the incentive structure works against the goal it is supposed to be supporting.

    Similarly, the incentive structure in research universities works against many of the report's recommendations.  Scholars in the humanities who are doing the new sort of work that the report advocates, geared toward collaboration and public engagement, tend to land in nontenured jobs if at all.  Value is still defined by the single-authored monograph.

    Dave Bartholome of the English Dept made the interesting point that the problem of the "contingent" work force in academia is a direct result of the reduction of teaching loads for tenure-stream research faculty.  At Pitt teaching loads for tenure-stream faculty way back when used to be 4-4 for everyone and were reduced first to 3-3, then to 2-2, to make increasing time for research production.  His point is that we lack credibility if we lament the rise of the contigent work force when that work force arose to subsidize our own research time.

    The MLA report is available here: http://www.mla.org/pdf/taskforcedocstudy2014.pdf

     

    Categories: 
    • Agency
    • Graduate Work
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    New forum to discuss constellations event 2016

    For those of you who weren't at the Agency meeting on Sept 28, we decided that we would take up the challenge offered by Barbara to help create a "signature" event for the Constellations to be held in Spring 2016.  The basic goal of the event is to bring national/international attention to our constellations model here and to forge possible collaborations with scholars and others outside our university.  We are clear that we don't want to do the standard keynote + conference panels, and that instead we want to put into practice what we are preaching here -- new models of collaboration and research practice, pedagogical innovation, and public engagement.  Barbara's initial idea was to build on the question posed by Gretchen, WHAAM (why history of art and architecture matters).  Some good discussion of this idea pro and con took place at the meeting.  If I can offer my takeaway from that discussion, it was this: while we do need to make our work matter to people outside our subfield, discipline, and instittution, we also need to give those external constituencies some good reason to join us.  

    I have set up a forum to brainstorm and discuss this event.  Go to forums in the navigation bar up above and you will find it listed.  Only constellations registrants can see the forum for now. 

    Categories: 
    • Research Groups
    • Agency
    • Temporalities
    • Environment
    • Identity
    • Mobility/Exchange
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Current Projects
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    Building Decomposing Bodies: Thinking about interactions with Bertillon Furniture

    In thinking about a possible exhibition on Decomising Bodies, I hope to create an interactive exhibit that recreates the Bertillion furniture.  Visitors could meausure themselves and fill out Berthillon cards for themsevles and their companions, thus transcribing their own bodies into the system of measurement and identification.  This concept has important implications for concepts of the agency. Signalment assumes the "absolute immutablity" of the skekeltal structure of an adult body, the uniquenes of each human subject, and the ability of precise comparative measurement that can transform each subject into a set of data measurements.   As agents, participants would take an active role the creation of this unique trace of their own perons.  However, the trace becomes part of a human archive that effectively transcribes unique beings into data and code.  Furthermore, the dynamic developped between measurer and measured, both following a prescribed set of bodily motions, becomes one of controller and conrolled.   The measured subject become an object of knowledge, while the measurer is placed in a position of authority,  thus physically revealing the power sturcture embedded in concept of measurment for the the participants.

    As discussed in the agency meeting, this piece could potentially accompany other interactive systems of measurement, such as a physiongnomtrace or an exhibit on nineteenth-century photography, and thus contribute to a wider exbibtion on the body made legbile thorugh a set of systematic tools, reproductions, and material objects.

    Logistically, the furniture is simple and could be recreated by a contractor using a basic set of construction drawings.  This is where my architectural background becomes very useful.  The following components are listed in Signalic Instructions.  The provided dimensions are limted, but using these controlling dimensions and the images provided I could create working drawings for a set of furniture.  Some dimensions will have to be estimated using the infomration given, but I should be able to make an informed decision about the construction of the furniture.  Further research could provide more detailed dimensions.  A times the instructions specify a certain type of wood, and this wood may be hard to come by or expensive today.  For cost and ease of a temporary exhibition, I do not think we need to follow these wood specifications.

    1. Stool for measuring the foot

    2. Stool for measuring the trunk

    3. Trestle for measuring the forearm

    4. Square with double projection and handle

    6. Backboards for the support of the sheet and the rulers.

    There are a series of tools needed, some which could be collected, others constructed:

    1. A large sheet, ruled in squares

    2. A rigid wooden meter, 1 cm thick and 3 cm wide, graduated in millimeters

    3. A rigid wooden half meter, graduated from 0 m 70 to 1 m 20 for seated measurent

    5. A grauated double decimetre with a handle

    Four metal instruments would be needed to complete the measurement: 

    1.A calipher compass (or head calipher) with an arch of a circle graduated from the 12th to the 22nd centimeter.

    2. A small calipher rule calibrated from 0 to 10 centimeters,

    3. A large calipher rule calibrated from 0 to 60 centimeters.  

    4. Scissors

    Contemporary versions of these are available, but some product reasearch will need to be done to verify the measuring systems will be compatible.  Scissors are also listed for the cutting of longer nails to acheive a correct measurement, but we may prefer to omit that part!

    Categories: 
    • Agency
    • Current Projects
    • Decomposing Bodies
    • Graduate Work
    • VMW

    Desk set of mementoes from Gettysburg sold to the tourist trade, late 19th century.

     

    Hyperobject: Soldiers and Sailors Memorial, Pittsburgh

    Some examples of the objects on display at S&S, objects within a hyper- or encompassing object that is itself part of a larger set of phenomena and practices that both transfer and transform individual objects and give them efficacy and power.

    Categories: 
    • Agency
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    Hyperobject: Nanook of the North (reenactment)

     

    Categories: 
    • Agency
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    Just Weather

    Shane Pickett, Medicine grounds that become ready during Bunuroo, 2008 acrylic on linen 183 x 153 cm

    For the sake of clarity, I should probably note that Bunuroo (often spelled Bunuru) is the Noongar word for the season occuring around Feburary-March. It is the hottest time of the year. According to Pickett, "Bunuru is the season where many adolescents become adults and the songs of marriage and responsibilities are of importance."

    Categories: 
    • Agency
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    Hyperobject: Gold

    6, 1959. MoMA

    Mathias Goeritz (German, active Mexico City), Message No. 7B, Eccles. VII:6, 1959. MoMA

     

    Alberto Burri, Sackcloth and Gold, 1953. Fondazione Burri

    Alberto Burri (Italy), Sacco e oro (Sackcloth and Gold), 1953. Fondazione Burri, Castello. 

    Categories: 
    • Agency
    • Faculty Work
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