Some Thoughts on Snippets from Caclini’s Hybrid Cultures

I have recently been paying close attention to US politics. More accurately: I have long paid close attention to US politics, but recent events have resulted in me spending an unhealthy amount of time and energy staying up to date on this roller coaster ride of an administration.

As I was trying to distract myself with the reading for this week, I grew listless as I trudged through Calclini’s theories on the hybrid of modernity and traditional culture. Then, at the end of Chapter 3, I found several digestible theory nuggets that I think have a lot of bearing on the current nature of things in this country.

To whit:

“Is it the basis of a democratic society to create conditions in which everyone has access to cultural goods … in order to understand the meaning conceived by the writer or the painter?” To I which I was tempted to reply: “Obviously!”

However, Calclini then goes on to astutely point out that “there is an authoritarian component in the desire that the interpretations of the receivers and the meaning proposed by the transmitter completely coincide.” I had never really considered this before, but it very much rang true for me.

I have recently been keeping tabs on the movie “Dear White People,” which currently only exists (publicly at least) as a trailer. The show is pretty clearly a “biting satire of racial politics” (in the words of Jada Yuan of New York Magazine). However, many members of the so-called “alt-right” have been taking the show’s content at face value, despite the fact that it satirizes precisely the kind of identity politics that that many of the alt-right claim to abhor (I am of the personal belief that the alt-right is totally based around a white identity politics, but I digress).

I am very much interested in living in an America where a movie like “Dear White People” doesn’t elicit the kind of reaction I have described. Is my desire for everyone to recognize this movie as satire “authoritarian?” At one point in my life, I would have been confident in our democratic traditions and the “moral arc of the universe” (to quote Martin Luther King) to make it so. In Calclini’s words, however, “differences based on inequality are not settled by formal democracy.” This is becoming increasingly apparent to me, as it seems that elections clearly have been exacerbating our cultural fault lines instead of “healing” them.

Caclini continues: “It must be asked if the predominant cultures … are capable only of reproducing themselves, or also creating the conditions whereby marginal, heterodox forms of art and culture are manifested and communicated.” Let’s hope it’s the latter.

The One Where I Ask What it Means to Make (kinda) Public Spaces More Public

Hilde Hein’s, “Public Art: Thinking Museums Differently” argues that museums should follow the lead of public art projects, in creating a relevant and visitor focused dialogue with the public. Hein encourages us to think about museums as public art, spaces that “wield power to move and re-assimilate us.” Historically, thanks to our Victorian forefathers in the museum sphere, museums are seen as elitist institutions where, if engulfed in flames, employees would save the valuable painting over the human visitor. Hein offers the public art model as a needed alternative way to best serve modern audiences. Public art is centered on engaging the visitor with many differing questions and realities. There is no right or wrong, instead a space filled with dialogue that engages. While I love the idea in theory I wonder how it would work in practice. I imagine it would require a constant change in programming and exhibits to keep the dialogue fresh and interesting for a 21st century audience, which could be difficult to implement.

I was also interested in the section about “art in public spaces”, as memorials. I’m currently working on a project about the architecture of Downtown Providence. Much of Westminster, Weybosset, and Washington Street’s architectural gems are late 19th and early 20th century financial buildings. From an artistic point of view, Hein writes off the architectural flourishes of buildings as “corporate baubles”, that merely add aesthetic value to otherwise boring office spaces. However because of the financial hardships that hit Downtown, several buildings were left vacant, most notably, the iconic “Superman Building”. Though privately owned, it’s an icon of downtown and a point of navigational reference for many who explore downtown. I wonder how the tallest structure in the Providence city skyline can be transformed from simply an empty art deco building with Gorham bronze doors and beautiful frieze work into a memorial to the prosperity of Providence’s past? Since it no longer truly serves its original purpose as “art in public space” can it be transformed into a monument or memorial to happier financial times? Can it become “public art”? How can we think about art in (kinda) public space as an evolving experience to engage with?

Should Museums look to the Public Art Model?

Thinking through our conversation last week about publics and museums and the interrelationship between the two, I found Hilde Hein’s Public Art: Thinking Museums Differently thought provoking in its argument that museums can learn from public art methods. Hein explains that public art is created with the intended purpose of instigating discourse about important social issues among the public (64, 89). In this sense, the art itself is not an aesthetic product, but rather a process in which public reaction and discussion is embodied within the art itself (90). Recognizing public art’s positive impact on the public, Hein argues that as museums attempt to distance themselves from their paternalistic, top-down tradition, they should embrace the public art model (18). In fact, she posits, museums in of themselves are public art in so far as they are public places that spark public discourse (17). Like the ephemeral nature of public art, Hein writes that museums should not offer undeniable truths, but rather should present less rigid and more fluid narratives that promote exchange between visitors and the institution (18).

While Hein provides a convincing viewpoint, I was left wondering if it is practically possible for museums to embrace this methodology. Public art, according to Hein, is mobile and temporary, while museums are bureaucratic institutions with expenses and responsibilities to their donors, board members, and invaluable collections. Therefore, while public art may be a jumping off point for thinking through how to improve the museum experience, I think it is also necessary to highlight and recognize their fundamental differences.

Making Museums Public vs. Making Museum Publics

In talking about public humanities, our first question is always how do we make humanities public? And the question, as identified in these readings, is always a structural one. Especially in the Bandelli and Williams article, the shifts occurring in the museological sphere emphasize changing the hierarchical structures and levels of authority in museum staffing. The article identifies giving a public a voice within the decision-making process, while still upholding reliability and trustworthiness – as key to making museums democratic spaces.

Hein’s identification of the museum as an artifact, “a product of collective human design,” uses language of private, non-private, public to negotiate similar structural issues to viewing art. In discussing critical public art, Hein starts to address the idea of how engagement in the artistic discourse as a form of self-discovery strengthens contemporary memorial art. While Hein’s focus is also more structural than I care for, the mediation of an everyday perception of the world seems to me the most important aspect of our work as public humans.

My central question: Are we talking about making museums public, or is this a discussion about making museum publics? Are we still focused on getting “the public” in the door, or getting them to come back? Thinking of Warner’s idea that anyone coming in contact with “the discourse” and chooses to engage becomes a part of a public, I think only Hein’s approach starts to deconstruct this notion. (Even then, I’m not sure it’s going far enough.) We can make these structural changes in which “the public” is incorporated into the engagement structures of the museum, but in what ways can we use other disciplines to improve upon the discourse we’re presenting? This is where Bandelli’s point re: valuing different knowledge formations (cognitive, experiential, and social) comes into play. Similarly, this is what Canclini starts to address in Chapter 4 around the opposition of sacred/profaned past. In what ways can we shape the existing publics of a museum to look beyond these ideas of conservation, preservation, or temporal culture? Is that even really what’s at stake? How do we center the negotiation of making culture as the role of museums in a different way? Are the structural issues really the ones that need work – how does content factor into all of this?

AnArcHy iN tHE usa

I really like Hybrid Cultures’ description of humanities and social sciences as metafields that can “redesign the floor plans” of our conceptions of modernity. This assertion justifies the continued existence of the humanities but also tacitly refers to the necessity of the human in the humanities. That is to say that if the function of the humanities is to “connect the levels,” we must be socially engaged on an individual level in order to do our work.

This sounds kind of obvious, but I don’t think it always is. Too often, the humanities assume an intrinsic, timeless, and mass value of art, literature, history, etc. and forgets to adequately connect these artifacts to contemporary existence. Similarly, I think we talk a lot about “engaging communities” without thinking of a community as a group of individual people. I’m also noticing a lot of reductive use of the word “culture” where it seems assumed that members of said culture all respond the same to given stimuli. A community or “culture” cannot engage unless the individuals who compose it are motivated to engage. And isn’t everyone more motivated by a personal connection?

My frustration with the opacity and overuse of these terms tends to stoke my anarchist tendencies, which were supported by the discussion of Latin American and specifically Mexican art history in the text. I happen to be researching the same topic for a show I’m curating and I think there is some topically relevant content to glean from revisiting Mexican art history – specifically in regard to the success of ahierarchical models in opposing authoritarian government. While Hybrid Cultures dismissed the Zapatista movement as substituting one hierarchical model for another, it did inspire a legacy of ahierarchical organization that has proved adept at resisting oppression. For instance, El Taller de Gráfica Popular managed to not only produce and circulate thousands of subversive prints. hold the Mexican government publically accountable for atrocities committed, and train hundreds of artists, but it also had enough social sway internationally to earn one of the founders, Leopoldo Mendez, an International Peace Prize. Even contemporary organizations like Self-Help Graphics in Los Angeles have had sustained success for decades organizing themselves in this way.

I think moving forward these examples can provide a basic framework for connecting the humanities to individuals on a mass scale (aka the “public”) in a way that feels more intimate than modernist-style museums. While hierarchy and mental distance from the subject matter may sometimes inspire awe and wonder (which is important), it is imperative that we push beyond that if we want to continue to be socially relevant (aka to have jobs when the government no longer values us). Given examples of alternative methods of achieving social success through the arts, I hope we can think outside the rigid administrative ladder we’ve all been trained by. As the co-director of Self-Help Graphics told me on the phone the other night, “Don’t believe the hype!” – it can be done.

Providence: The Creative Capital & its Creative Capital

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I found myself drawn to Barrett’s earlier chapters, discussing the history of “the public,” and the role of the state within museums/institutions to craft these narratives of education, leisure, and discipline.  It reminded me of tours I conducted in downtown Providence with the Rhode Island Historical  Society (RIHS). With this collaborative urban education program, the students and I explored the resources of the city.  RIHS made the decision to showcase these resources through publics spaces that emphasized art, history, and culture. Discussing the city as a system of parts, we used places like the Convention Center, Kennedy Plaza, RISD Library, and Burnside Park to celebrate the value of public spaces within the function of a city.

Like Barrett describes in these early chapters, architects and urban planners incorporated these elements of culture into public spaces to emphasize the cosmopolitan-ness of it all. Creating these public spaces that Habermas describes – places where discourse can take place, like the library – and places that intrinsically inspire discourse – the Howard Ben Tre Plaza – Providence’s branding as the “Creative Capital” made a lot of sense to me. As an outsider, I appreciated the tour as way to see how the influences of higher ed resources and these artistic communiteis had been shaped into the city.

But I also found it interesting as part of this tour, and as Barrett reminds me, these spaces weren’t the ones in which the students valued as “public.” The presence of the half-Gaspee in Burnside Park didn’t inspire conversations about the history of the American Revolution. Waterplace Park as a space for multisensory working art was cool to them, but more as something to look at  than as a way of engaging with other people. RISD Library, with its security, gates, and overwhelming quietness (and arguably, not being a public space) came off less as a model for adaptive reuse and more of a liminal space.

The students didn’t feel comfortable in the public spaces we took them through, because the city as a public space (or at least in my interpretation of it) didn’t value their own experiences. Even though we had created this interesting tour to celebrate public space, the students came away feeling like strangers. As Barrett quotes of Zukin in Chapter 3, the relationship of art and culture within the economics of a city can often make publics or communities feel manipulated by this visuality.  I think the students intrinsically saw RIHS as a frame through which they could view these spaces as public, and yet still felt as though the dominant culture kept them from experiencing the city in that way.

How do we as cultural workers, museum professionals, or new public intellectuals make sure to use the value of publics to the fullest extent? How do we respect the intrinsic value of a public and its knowledge as well as create our narratives in these spaces that acknowledge differing public missions? And can Providence be a creative capital without marketing on that point?

 

Can we collaborate with a ‘public’ and other questions about the public sphere

When considering the question of ‘the public’ that both Barrett and Warner dissect, I wondered about what these definitions meant for the possibility of genuine collaboration in public humanities. By Warner’s interpretation a public is very much separate from the sort of official organization a collaboration would require. Public is also defined very much in a receptive mode in Warner’s text, where the public receives and consumes discourse, or text that can be written, visual, or aural. If the public humanities, at its best, represents collaboration between institutions or organizations and the public (or perhaps even more radically, the production of humanities by a non-institutional public) this sort of definition of public, which is allergic to formal organization, seems to disqualify almost all forms of collaborative projects that might make use of varying sources of expertise.

Another question that arose from this week’s reading for me was the question of spatiality and the public. Warner’s definition of the public seems to intentionally lack roots in the physical world, instead existing in time but not space and remaining necessarily immeasurable. In Museum and the Public Sphere by Jennifer Barrett, the museum is a physical space that she describes as aiming (with and without success) to serve the public. This grounding in public space, and the very idea of public space in the physical realm seems to some degree at odds with Warner’s conception which holds limitlessness amorphousness as paramount to its definition. Both of these readings in conversation push me to question the benefits and deficits of a physically defined public, which by necessity limit the potential definition of ‘public’ for which the humanities produced can serve. In the digital age and with crowd-sourced cultural production the importance of physical public space seems perhaps less vital as a stage for public humanities but perhaps still serves a role in cultivating an audience—although both Warner and Barrett seem to dismiss the ‘audience’ as a less desirable and non-synonymous phenomena compared to the ‘public.’

 

Michael Warner, “Publics and Counterpublics,” Public Culture 14, no. 1 (2002): 49–90.

Jennifer Barrett, Museums and the Public Sphere (2011).

The Public: Stranger or Community?

“Community” and “public” are both such complex terms that can lend themselves to many different readings, as Barrett and Warner point out. When placed together, though, they help me to pinpoint my own assumptions about each and general discomfort with creating work for “the public.”

When creating an event for simply “the public,” I often feel discouraged and unsure how to proceed. Who are the individuals and where do their interests lie? It’s like talking to an empty room or a stranger, as described in Warner. Warner, though, seems to believe that his words are worth writing and that someone is listening, whereas I would probably consider my work or article a failure without any community responses .

Here is where I realized that “community” is a huge part of my understanding of public humanities. In an ideal project, I would want to speak with stakeholders, historians, and people with different types of knowledge on the subject. All these people are part of communities and help me to focus my work. If the public is a stranger, what I’m showing might not be relevant to anyone.  While Barrett disagrees, I find communities are easily more concrete than the vastness of the public.

What Is Public?

 

This week’s readings are important and inspiring. Both Jennifer Barrett and Michael Warner are one of the major figures writing about what constitutes a ‘public’ and their works outline the key features that may help us think about this concept and its development.

Jennifer Barrett’s Museums and the Public Sphere reflects on the history of the Museum and its link to the project of democracy as it emerged in 18th century France and examines a few key themes: the concept of the “public,” the contrast between the notions of “space” and “sphere,” ideas about vision and visuality, and the limitations and benefits of considering “community.” Barrett draws heavily from Habermas’ conceptualization of the bourgeois public sphere to begin her discussion, and refers to Tony Bennett’s theories of civic seeing to critique Habermas’ omission of the museum as a site of the public sphere. The author argues that within the context of museums, the term “’public’ suffers from a kind of philosophical poverty, rendering it at times almost meaningless” (43). Barrett suggests that using the term interchangeably with audience, nation, and community, museums and art galleries have failed to identify and address some key questions: “How then does the public participate in public culture; with what histories do the people identify; and what constitutes cultural institutions as public?” (43)

Barrett discusses the roles of the museum curator as public intellectual, one of the richest chapters in the book is very inspiring. And her book contributes to discourse on the role of the museum in society by exploring art, space, and visuality as significant components of the public sphere and the development of democracy.

Michael Warner’s article “Publics and Counterpublics” is equally (if not more) rich and suggestive. It revolves around a central question: What is a public? Warner begins with describing three senses of the word “Public,” and breaks his discussion of publics and counterpublics into seven sections, which were build on one another. He offers an extended examination of different facets of how a public or counter public is constructed.

One thing that I hope we can cover during class discussion is to offer some examples to help better understand these distinctions and why Warner tried to address that in this way.

On Being Public

In thinking about what constitutes the public, I was reminded of an experience I had when volunteering at a local museum last year. As a volunteer, I felt neither a part of the formal, full-time paid museum staff nor a member of the general public. However, when I received a complaint from a visitor, I was forced to reckon with what constitutes the public and where as a volunteer did I fit in. Although I personally agreed with this visitor’s complaint, did I, as a representative of the museum, have to maintain a professional distance? It felt inappropriate to echo his indignation, and yet, wasn’t I a part of that same public as soon as I finished my shift?

Thinking through these questions as I read Jennifer Barrett’s and Michael Warner’s works, I realized that my questioning of what constitutes the public in this instance embodied the very argument Barrett and, in a sense, Warner were putting forth. The museum, as a public space according to Barrett (25), facilitated a discourse between this visitor and myself around how it should represent the world, and through this discourse ‘a public’ came into reality (Warner 414). Furthermore, my questioning of the term ‘public’—a “slippery and mutable” term (Barrett 21)—ensured ipso facto that it was not being taken for granted or exchanged for incompatible terms such as community.

The visitor in this situation, I now realize, was not merely voicing his complaint, but rather was contributing invaluable information about the museum. According to Barrett this give and take is essential to the new reflexive nature of the modern museum that advocates “multiple ways of interpreting the world and its history” (19-20) and views the visitor as a contributor of knowledge about the museum collections (20).