Context and Spaces for Dissent

This week’s film and readings made me think about how context is so important to how people react emotionally and intellectually to what is presented to them. While the “Couple in the Cage” did provoke a range of reactions, there were numerous people that took the performance at face value, and did not object to the display of indigenous people in a cage in a museum setting. While this performance immediately reminded me of the long history of such displays at places like Coney Island (see Claire Prentice’s Lost Tribe of Coney Island in addition to the Fusco article) it also reminded me of the Yes Men. The Yes Men are a duo of activists/pranksters/performance artists who impersonate representatives of major corporations and speak at corporate and press conferences, as well as on TV interviews. Initially the Yes Men would present outrageously terrible propositions—for example posing as the World Trade Organization and promoting reinstating slavery in the US economy—and were shocked to find many people passively accepting these propositions, at least as audience members in a conference room where space for dissent was limited or socially taboo. They changed tactics and instead began posing as major corporations or government bodies and presented the policies that they would like to be instated. For example, they posed as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and announced they were accepting the validity of climate science at the National Press Club, and posed as Dow Chemical representatives on the BBC and announced they were going to compensate victims of the Bhopal Disaster with the $12.8 million dollars they would gain by liquidating Union Carbide. The response to these proposal was positive or neutral as well—although in the case of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce it actually led to progress on climate issues.

What I think both the “Couple in the Cage” and the Yes Men speak to is the willingness of an audience to accept what is presented to them in a formal context and how powerfully context can normalize ideas that might otherwise seem outrageous. Although the “Couple in the Cage” film and article offer only a snapshot of the reaction to the piece, they seem to indicate that repudiation of the concept was most frequently vocalized in the interviews and after the initial viewing. In other words, until viewers were directly asked their opinion they were–largely–not visibly or audibly condemning the exhibit, even if they later did so during the interview or called the museum privately to complain. The simple act of viewing an objectionable piece (without going into satire or perception of that piece as art), or similarly being in conference room or theatre listening to an objectionable presentation, does not offer room for vocal opposition within the realm of social acceptability. A challenge for public humanities practitioners then, would be to create spaces in their work where opposition and opinion are encouraged as socially acceptable–as well as to set the stage for empathetic responses.


I approached the readings (and video) for this week thinking about the definition of the words empathy and sympathy, two words which are often confused and used interchangeably.  A blog post on defines the differences in this way: “sympathy is feeling compassion, sorrow, or pity for the hardships that another person encounters, while empathy is putting yourself in the shoes of another.” It was useful to have this definition when viewing The Couple in the Cage film and unpacking visitor responses.

In the video, visitors respond with a variety of feelings: anger, curiosity, pity—but it is rare that visitors empathize with the “natives.”   According to Fusco,  “People of color…have at times expressed discomfort because of their identification… making frequent references to slavery and to the mistreatment of Native people… [while] cross-racial identification with us among whites was less common.”  (pg158)  The thought that a white visitor was more likely to sympathize while a person of color was more likely to empathize raises a lot of questions:

How might the reactions by visitors (especially white visitors) be different if the project the “natives” were said to be from an island off the coast of Norway rather than an island off of the coast of Mexico?  Would this even be plausible for most visitors?  Some visitors refused to believe that the subjects were “Natives” because they looked too white.

How does a person’s race (and other identities) determine who that person can easily empathize with? What implications do identity and empathy have socially and politically?

How would you Prefer your Interpretation Sir: Nonexistent or False?

In watching the video and doing the readings for class this week, I found myself constantly comparing the 1990 LA Festival of the Arts as related in Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s Destination Culture with Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s performance piece entitled The Year of the White Bear and Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West.

A particular point is how the organizers of the LA event went to great lengths to organize and promote the event very carefully, with a particular point of emphasis being the avoidance supplying “gratuitous meaning” to the performances. In so doing, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett claims that audiences were better able to appreciate the “pleasure of the unfamiliar and the incomprehensible” and did not try to assign their own western meanings and values to the performances. It seems to me that a big part of the removing of “gratuitous meaning,” in this case, is positioning the Festival outside of the academy and the museum in public places and community organizations.

In contrast, the effectiveness of The Year of the White Bear and Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West was based on the various meanings ascribed to it by its audiences, due in large part to it being performed in authoritative venues such as the National Museum of Natural History. Also, the artists made a conscious decision not to promote it and to interpret it in a way that was not just “gratuitous,” but completely fictional in the form of interpretive text indicating  that they were natives of a nonexistent island. These choices had much to do with the audiences thinking that the performance was “real” and creating meaning accordingly

A final point is how wonderfully “90’s” both these artistic endeavors were. They were conceived and executed in a world that was globalized and wrestling with western cultural hegemony, but not interconnected like it is now. Today, the smart phone would have challanged both events. In the case of The Year of the White Bear and Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West, people would be looking up the exhibit, discovering that it was a “hoax.” In the case of the L.A. Festival of the Arts, people would be looking up acts before, after, and during performances, inundating themselves with a flood of “gratuitous meaning.” They would also be livestreaming with their phones, which presents a layer of complication beyond the scope of this blog post.


Objectification of People

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett raises the question “What does it mean to show?” and explores the agency of display in settings like museums, festivals, world’s fairs and tourist attractions. This week’s readings and video all touched on how objects and people are collected and exhibited, and are made to display or perform their meaning.

The satirical video “The Couple in the Cage” criticized the objectification of African women in the 19th century. A parallel runs with this during this same period is the display of Chinese people (Chinese women in particular) in museums, circuses, and world’s fairs, which eroticized and objectified Chinese people and its culture, establishing a stereotype/framework within which the general public became familiar with viewing the Chinese and Chinese immigrants.

According to Sucheta Mazumdar’s chapter in the first major book covering women’s experiences in the United States published in 1998, for Chinese immigrant women, their history of being exotic and objectified began when American merchants brought a Chinese woman with bound feet to America for display in the 19th century:

The first recorded Asian woman in the United States was Afong Moy. Between 1834 and 1847, she sat every day surrounded with Chinese lanterns, vases, and Asian artifacts at the American Museum, the Brooklyn Institute, and other New York locations. She talked and counted in Chinese and ate with chopsticks to entertain the thousands who lined up to see her. Barnum’s Chinese Museum later brought over Miss Pwan-ye-koo and her maidservant with great fanfare. The small, bound feet of both women were a prime attraction. This objectification of Asian women and their portrayal as alien and exotic creatures is one dimension of American popular culture that has endured until the contemporary period. (46-47)

Here Mazumdar points to the fact that Chinese women were objectified and commodified in the 19th century America and the shows helped construct the earliest stereotype of Chinese women (East Asian women in general) as exotic and more sexually desirable.

Actually, Peabody Museum at Harvard holds a collection of New Daguerreotype Discoveries, and the National Women’s History Museum offers an online exhibit “Chinese American Women: A History of Resilience and Resistance,” both of which provide background information and research about the performance troop “The Living Chinese Family” in 1850 by famed circus showman P.T. Barnum.

Works Cited:

Mazumdar, Sucheta. (1998). “Asian Pacific Women.” In W. P. Mankiller et al. (Eds.). The Reader’s Companion to U.S. Women’s History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Books, 43-49.

The Future of Empathy?

“The Couple in a Cage” highlights the long history of “othering” in public spaces. Circuses, World Fairs, and museums have long “othered” individuals in the name of entertainment or education. As we tackle the large subject of empathy and the public, it’s important to find spaces where dialogue can actually occur. Fusco nods to kids as the ones to bring about change. However, this is a trope that’s been around for generations. Fusco writes, “for all the concern expressed about shocking children, we found that their reactions have been the most humane. Young children invariably have gotten the closest to the cage; they would seek direct contact, offer to shake our hands, and try to catch our eyes and smile.” Free of many years of encountering stereotypes, learning damaging behaviors, and getting hardened to history, many children are able to see humanity and situations with fresh eyes. Children who encountered “The Couple in a Cage” turned to their parents with questions prompting important conversations about race, history, and the treatment of indigenous peoples. Perhaps if this project had a more educational focus, interpreters could’ve been on hand to assist parents with answering those questions. Otherwise, the idea of children as vessels for empathy and compassion are moot without the guidance of equally empathetic and compassionate adults. The future of an empathetic public doesn’t lie within children without spaces to encourage dialogue and resources to assist parents. How can institutions better support that dialogue? What kind of programming can be done to encourage questions from kids and empathetic responses from parents?

The Story of the Nacirema

Reading about the Couple in a Cage resurrected for me a similar pedagogic project. When I was in middle school, our class read a story about the “Nacirema.” It described the culture of an “exotic” North American tribe in language clearly designed to scandalize us. (I don’t remember all the details, but I do remember that in the account, the Nacirema went to see a man who “carved holes in their teeth.”)

The big reveal at the end of the story is that the people in the story are American, or “Nacirema” spelled backwards. (The man who drilled holes in teeth was a dentist.) Whatever the context in which we read the story, it is one of very few classroom activities that stands out from my K-12 years.

I did some research on the Nacirema and learned that the original story, “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema” meant to satirize anthropological writing. Much of the story fixates on Americans’ obsession with looks. (The article contends, “The fundamental belief underlying the whole system appears to be that the human body is ugly and that its natural tendency is to debility and disease.”) If the internet is to be believed, the story is still used for teaching in fields where intercultural communication takes place.  (Here’s an updated version from the Huffington Post mocking modern American dating, wherein the women wait obsessively for men to contact them through a loud “horn call.”)

I wonder about the implications of this approach to empathy: rather than humanizing the other, othering the self.  I think cultural self-awareness and criticism are among the most important goals of education, but using this lens also perpetuates the often problematic focus on visual and aesthetic difference. What positive work does the story of the Nacirema do? What risks does it bring?

Empathy as Habit of Mind

One of the first results for a Google image search for “empathy.” I liked the play between overlapping minds and the idea of a habit of mind.

In 2014, in response to AAM’s newly released diversity and inclusion policy, the Incluseum featured guest posts (Part 1, Part 2) from Gretchen Jennings, a museum consultant and founder of the Empathetic Museum. In both posts, Jennings describes empathy as a “consistent quality, a state of being, a habit of mind”. Translated to a museum, empathy as a habit of mind is:

“A persistent orientation to its community, such that whatever is happening in the community (whether or not it is related to museum type or collection) is of interest (and is considered to be legitimately of interest) to the institution and is taken into consideration in its planning and activities.”

While Fusco notes that Couple in a Cage “became a pretext for internal discussions about the extent of self-criticism those museums could openly be engaged in” (159), I’m curious about what motivated them to show Couple in a Cage in the first place. Was it reactive to what was happening in the community, a desire to be aligned with contemporary performance art, a recognition of the injustices of anthropology and colonialism, some combination, or something else entirely?

so so so good (too good?)

Watching the documentation of Couple in a Cage, I was once again struck by what a fantastic intersection this performance is between art and so-called natural history. I’m amazed Coco Fusco and Paula Heredia were able to pull off something so strikingly subversive, and for better or worse, don’t think a similar concept would be accepted by institutional venues today.

However, I also wonder if the sheer potency of Couple in a Cage as a critical act perhaps undermines some of its applicability to more subtle forms of creepiness in natural history museums. Of course, many viewers made the connection to colonization and the practice of dehumanizing nonwestern peoples through display. However my concern is that the connections extend only to more socially visible forms like fetishization that take place in media outlets (i.e. the very emotional woman’s concern about what the uncritical picture taking says about America and the Native American man’s lament that he could just as easily see his grand children in the cage). By putting image-culture at the forefront of the critique, I think Couple in a Cage fails to implicate contemporary natural history museums in doing the same thing today. By hosting Couple in a Cage, these institutions imply that they were forward thinking and radical enough not to perpetuate similar structures in the rest of their museum. However, I would venture a guess that these same spaces have displayed the bones of an indigenous person or have a diorama featuring mannequin people in “traditional garb” squatting on the floor over a cooking pot. These conventions are just as problematic but much less attention grabbing and perhaps overlooked in the hubbub of performance art.

Discomfort + Empathy = Action?

Can discomfort with a presentation or performance move viewers to empathy and reflection? Perhaps more importantly, can this empathy push people (both museum leaders and visitors) to action?

Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s “The Couple in the Cage” and Coco Fusco’s piece on the performance both focus on visitor reactions to the piece. While some visitors leisurely strolled up to the cage for a photo or to speak directly to Fusco and Gómez-Peña, many shied away from direct contact and looked uncomfortable. Some parents “looked very nervous” explaining the exhibit to their children” and others “feared getting too close, preferring instead to stay at the periphery of the audience” (Fusco 157, 160). Fusco also described that many asked the museum guards about their treatment in the cage and then “continued with a politely delivered stream of questions about our eating, work, and sexual habits” (Fusco 159). In all these examples, viewers are reacting to their discomfort – either by leaning away from the uncomfortable experience or by seeking an explanation to normalize the performance.

It seems that this is often how museums react, as well. It is easier to disassociate with potentially controversial content rather than making a political statement. It is also easier for museums to call themselves socially responsible by explaining the context of certain items in the collection rather than repatriate them. I was surprised that so many prominent museums agreed to Fusco and Gómez-Peña’s performance and open themselves up to potential criticism, but also curious to see how this criticism might have changed museums’ colonialist approach to collections. Fusco does mention that at natural history sites “our project became a pretext for internal discussions about the extent of self-criticism those museums could openly be engaged in,” though little about how the internal museum conversation continued (if it did at all) after the exhibit (Fusco 159).

Empathy from museum curators, board members, and other professionals could provide a new way for those in leadership roles to view colonialism and change narratives in the museum. Perhaps empathy from the visitors that leads to protest is more important. Demanding changes would make the institution uncomfortable and perhaps force change – museums do depend on visitors as “customers” after all.

Expectations of Empathy

If museums are uniquely situated locations for empathetic encounters, it’s interesting to think about what an effective outcome would look like from different perspectives within the museum (curatorial, artistic, and administrative, among others). I bet each would look very different.

Museum work can almost be psychologically organized according to what type of (and how much) empathy is expected from the various professions that fall under its purview. From a curatorial perspective, minimally, it is absolutely crucial to cognitively empathize in order to put on a successful exhibition (though I think a truly inspired curator is able to affectively empathize as well). Affective empathy, in abundance, is something that is expected of artists, but not necessarily of administrators.

In the context of the museum, it is also interesting to point out how these discrepancies in expected empathy are valued. For instance, curators (as salaried employees of museum) benefit from stable salaries and health insurance but tend to keep low profiles. Artists suffer from notoriously unstable and often inadequate wages but receive perhaps more cultural capital than anyone else in a museum context.

Thinking about all of this, I wonder: if most humans are inclined towards one type of empathy over another, how productive is it to encourage museum workers to develop other types of empathy? Is one kind of empathy more feasible to develop than another?