All posts by Rica Maestas

(sorry to those of you who have heard me gush about this a thousand times)

Reading through Museums in a Troubled World, specifically the chapter “It’s a jungle in here: Museums and their self-inflicted challenges,” I immediately thought of my beloved Meow Wolf. This Santa Fe organization seems to excel in many of the areas the author criticizes and brings up interesting questions about how we perceive museums and cultural organizations as functioning or not functioning.

A little background: Meow Wolf was established about 10 years ago, growing organically out of a community project of artists making things in a garage and inviting others to join them. Over time it became a bona fide art collective, unifying individual artist ideas in massive, maximalist installations around Santa Fe. They now run permanent art space in Santa Fe that is both an experiential artwork and an educational tool to teach people how to use various maker tools. Think of an otherworldly children’s museum with a lot of secret doors, unexpected musical instruments, an inter-dimensional detective narrative, and subtext of way more adult interfamilial strife and like, Nietzsche. This concept has become so popular that they’re anticipating expanding to another Southwestern city within the next year. They do all this without a hierarchical structure, as the concept originated and thrives on polyphony. For legal purposes, they do have a CEO, but this distinction is in name only (supposedly). Though their projects culminate in a singular installation, the individual voices within the space are evident and they regularly incorporate outside projects and exhibitions into their programming.

The  questions I think Meow Wolf brings up for the purposes of our discussion this week stem from these, shall we say, alternative origins. First, do organizations need to originate from a point of collectivity, teamwork, and democracy in order to function that way in the future? In other words, is it possible for institutions to change their ways if they want to become less stratified? Secondly, what does it do to know that Meow Wolf is both for- and non-profit? The art space is for-profit, supposedly to show that art can be a financially sustainable pursuit, while the maker studio and classes are non-profit. What’s going on there? What does being a for-profit enterprise change about working in the public arts and humanities? Does it matter? And I suppose more holistically, are you all sold on this model or are you skeptical? If you’re skeptical, where does that skepticism come from?


In case anyone hasn’t already picked this up from my raccoon-filled computer background and general ethos, I will clarify that I am in fact an anarchist. Anarchy gets a bad name from things like The Purge or Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight Rises (though I have very nuanced and extensive thoughts about the ladder for another time). However, as we can see from Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums, anarchy isn’t all about destruction. Of course, by nature anarchy isn’t really about anything, or rather, it’s about a vast and varied number of things depending on the practitioner. For me, anarchy is about acknowledging that systems are enacted—something we affirm or deny in every interaction. For this reason, I see the structures we live in as inherently chaotic and only made systematic through our perception and enaction of that systematicity. This is not just a vibe I get, there is political, economic, behavioral, and linguistic data that show this. So if you grant that social structures are constructed and reconstructed on a case-by-case basis, anarchy then is about radical trust, intimacy, and responsibility between people constructing this thing together.

But my pontification aside, I was both enamored and skeptical of The Anarchist’s Guide. For many of the points—like making HHM’s voyeuristic, tactile, well-staffed and explained, and engaged in the surrounding intersectional community (rather than condescendingly “engaging the community”)—I couldn’t agree more. However, there were a couple moments where I thought perhaps the utopic ideology of radical change and anarchy prevented the author from articulating a nuanced perspective. First, I found the rather uncritical championing of social media engagement and subsequent tailoring of museum content to the brief forms available pretty eye-rolly. From the perspective of being engaged in the community, hell yes, Snapchat the shit out of your historic dentures. However, in our current political climate where tweets are authoritative and the news is fake, I wish there had been a more nuanced analysis of using social media to convey “facts.”

Secondly, in the argument about making museums exciting places to be, the author references the Futurist Movement and Marinetti’s descriptions of a bright, pulsing modernity. This may be the picky art historian in me, but Marinetti and the Futurists were fascists! Find someone better to prove your anarchist point please, there have to be plenty. Otherwise, great read, so important for all of us. Don’t be stuffy and boring and impersonal and restrictive! Go forth and do anarchy!

get out of here CAPITALISM you’re not wanted

I thought it was really interesting that both chapters we read from Introduction to Cultural Appropriation refer to culture as a products, a possession of one group of people that can be stolen in some way by another. It embeds the discussion of cultural appropriation into a capitalist context that certainly works for some cases (ie the jazz musician situation) but I think unduly complicates others.

Of course, this kind of ownership-centric rhetoric successfully explains the detriment of cultural appropriation to an audience who is perhaps myopically embedded in economic and legal concerns over monetary value and who owns what. However, culture aside, copy write and Fair Use laws that only focus on one’s legal ability to demarcate “creative capital” and defend it against unauthorized use are still pretty shaky. According to the Fair Use Act, you are legally permitted to copy copyrighted material for a “transformative” purposes (to comment on, criticize, or parody) without permission from the copyright owner. However, the enforcement of this law is willy-nilly at best and often favors those who can muster the most experienced and expensive legal team.

This is all to say that in many of the cases of cultural appropriation we read about, the issue centers on the defacement of something culturally sacred—not loss of monetary value. Some party might be making money from cultural appropriation but the main issue is that something sacred was defaced in the process. Cultural appropriation/defamation/hybridity in these texts seems to me like an issue more embedded in empathy, being able to respect and learn about a difference that you may not totally understand, than an economic issue. In some cases, there may be an economic element that adds insult to injury, but I’m still not sold about referring to culture as a product with capitalistic ownership.

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.

potentially the most subversive (and unintentional) conceptual art move in the world

Amid our bombardment with examples of politically instrumental memorials this week, I would like to posit one more. Allow me to regale you with a tale of when I found myself in Skopje, Macedonia—the first stop on my tour de cheapest Air BnB rates in Eastern Europe. It would have been even cheaper too had I taken the man I sat next to on the plane up on his offer to let me stay at his house, but movies like Taken and Hostile have ruined random international acts of kindness for me.

As a result of my trust issues, I found myself wandering uninformed through a landscape of Cyrillic-labeled but Turkish-looking food, the best damn coffee I’ve ever had, and literally hundreds of obscure monuments. I assumed that all these statues must have some rich and contested history—as similar looking statues do in the US—and marveled at their concentration in one location. None seemed to have explanatory labels, but perhaps all were readily recognizable to someone more educated on Macedonian history and culture than I was.

The next day, I left the city with a massive, jovial, and ruggedly attractive guide named Jane, who informed me that contrary to my initial assumption, the many monuments in Skopje were brand new and had little to no basis in Macedonian culture or history. He explained that their placement was a strategic ploy by the Macedonian government to increase tourism and boost the tiny, struggling economy. Jane remarked snidely that most of the country lacked paved roads, yet the government had hundreds of millions of dollars to sink into meaningless entertainment for tourists.

I think this example compliments our readings not just by adding an international example to a heavily US-based narrative, but also to complicate the idea of memorials as instrumental to historical narrative. The memorials in Skopje create the illusion of a grand national past that is almost entirely fictional. It serves as an index of a hypothetical national identity rather than an educational purpose for an ignorant or uncritical audience—a motivation that I think is also at play in American monuments. Not unlike strategic selfie lighting, memorials help us depict the identity of a place the way we would like it to be seen.

some more super-important supplemental reading, not that anyone needs or wants it

Reading for this week, I couldn’t help wishing I had the foresight to suggest the classic Roland Barthes text, Myth Today (50149_Barthes_Myths), when we were creating the syllabus. I happened to have read it for another class this week and it paralleled so well with our content that I thought I’d summarize it here.

In this text (which I’m sure many of you are familiar with), Barthes analyzes what myth consists of in a contemporary context. The simple answer is that myth is a type of speech, subject to the same semiological distinctions between “form” (sign, word, image) and “meaning” where the a form by itself is arbitrary but becomes meaningful in social use. For Barthes, the form a myth takes can be anything – an advertisement, a magazine article, a movie, a book, an artifact – so long as it takes on the meaning of a certain reality for its audience. However, in order to qualify as “myth,” the meaning of this representation must go largely unquestioned. It must register as neutral, standard, normal, or default in some way. Think the deified Founding Fathers narrative and our weirdly unquestioned reliance on that super old, out of date, ultra vague text called the Constitution…

In this way, myth is a whole system of values, a way of seeing, and unfortunately, always instrumental. It is intended to simplify a concept beyond controversy, normalize something, or assert a dominant view. Of course, we saw this concept all over the reading this week, but most specifically in the remembrance of Memorial Day and Aaron Burr. Barthes’ famous example is an image of a saluting black child on the cover of a French magazine – illustrating diverse patriotism on the surface but normalizing French imperialism at the same time. Seeing the intentionality behind these supposedly standard representations obliterates the myth. However, because anything can become mythologized (given a meaning that conforms to a simplified dominant view), nothing is safe from being perceived in the framework of myth. Like those science museumgoers that remind their kids that evolution isn’t real, anything you produce will be subject to someone else’s reality.

Conversely, you cannot escape myth in your own viewpoint either, but you can look for it by being a critical consumer of social artifacts. Bathes tells you how but I’m sure you already have your own schema for doing this. However, in this pursuit I think Barthes makes an important distinction between myth and a lie. Myth hides nothing – it merely presents a version of reality. The relationship of myth to reality is more similar to a Freudian idea of repression – myth is the socially appropriate surface structure masking a potentially less attractive deeper structure. In other words, Hamilton may adjust the Founding Fathers myth to make room for minorities, but it doesn’t make the real Founding Father’s any less racist.

Thanks, Pierre Nora, for explaining my crippling self-doubt

Oh, man. If Pierre Nora was getting all hot and bothered over too much documentation in 1989, he wouldn’t even be able to survive today. He’d see the outline of the Twitter logo and spontaneously combust. It’s funny I think, and refreshing to remember that everyone catastrophizes their present situation – even historians professing to call for a more circumspect recording of history apart from mere memory. It’s ironic that Nora should find his reality so exceptional in the scope of history (or remembrance as the case may be). Everyone’s history is the most important one when they’re living it.

While the whole essay was thought-provoking in some way or other, I was drawn most to the idea of our anxiety over our own changing identity and subsequent compulsion to document everything. Like if we cannot capture the moment, it never happened. The substitution of documentation for lived experience is an interesting phenomenon, something I ponder every time I draft a resume or cover letter. Perhaps the schism Nora describes between recorded history and personal memory is the root of Imposter Syndrome – or mine at least. Our (or is it just me?) memory of doing busywork for days on end outweighs the programs we coordinated, the exhibits we curated, the initiatives we started, the grants we got. When it’s all on a resume it feels foreign, like a lie, because the intermittent accomplishments seem so much grander than the boring, unimpressive, day-to-day activities. But they happened, they were documented, we did them. Thank god we don’t have to log our hours of staring off into space waiting for it to be lunch time on a resume, amiright?

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.

Public is a four-letter word (if you only count the first four letters [don’t worry about it])

Reading through Michael Warner’s Publics and Counterpublics, I don’t know if I believe in such a thing as a ‘public’ anymore. His description of ‘public’ by virtue of joint attention to me sounds more like a collection of individual experiences, which are experienced separately and internally, not in some collective sense as is presumed by the term ‘public.’ Maybe this impersonal experience of the same thing without an accompanying sense of community or togetherness is what he means by ‘public.’ However, defining the public this way seems disjointed and dissolved to the point of uselessness. What does it mean to address ‘the public’ if your addressees remain distant and anonymous? Why would you waste your time initiating a discourse if you do not also create an invested/engaged community?

At one point last semester when I was doing my Methods project, Susan asked me who my public was. She thought I should direct my efforts at Brown students but I wanted to try to reach “further” than that. The public was what I was going for since it was a ‘public’ program. But there’s a problem there that’s really only become obvious to me now. Brown would be an easier target because it is a community not a public. It’s self-organized in a way, but it’s also institutional, which is a no-no for Warner’s interpretation of publicness. I can promote an event within a community, within several communities even, but addressing “the public” is like addressing no one. (At least given my interpretation of Warner’s interpretation.)

But yet, people came to my cold call to no one (a.k.a. my Methods project directed at ‘the public’). Not a lot, but some, Brown and non-Brown alike. I like to think that by virtue of coming together, experiencing something in unison, this amorphous and anonymous ‘public’ ephemerally became a community. Strangers that became less strange, as Warner might put it. I wonder if it may be more productive in the Public Humanities to talk about community building (even if the community only lasts as long as an exhibit) rather than simply “addressing the public.” I don’t want to be anonymous or impersonal and I don’t want my work to be either. I’d rather people’s internal perception of what I do (professionally or otherwise) draw them into a shared narrative rather than alienate them as a member of an unseen, disconnected ‘public.’

Innovative public humanities project we should all be aware of!!

Though it’s not on the syllabus, everyone should borrow and read Funeral for a Home. It beautifully chronicles a compassionate, impactful, and incredibly well researched public humanities project that I think we can all learn a lot from. Plus, the book itself is a precious little thing full of memorabilia from the project (pieces of wall paper, pressed flowers, newspaper clippings, etc.). It’s exhilarating to explore but sadly, this scrapbook-like quality inevitably limits the number of copies available, making it difficult to acquire. If you’re going to read it, which you should, borrow it this semester.

As a quick preview, Funeral for a Home is a project that co-opts the scheduled demolition of a 146-year-old row house in Mantua. By throwing the house a funeral—complete with a eulogy, gospel choir, garlands, and a dump truck painted like a coffin—Temple Contemporary Tyler School of Art was able to make an artwork that impacted an entire neighborhood and expose a marginalized history of housing that mirrors dying neighborhoods around the country. In their words, the Mantua row house “becomes every house,” creating a nationally pressing conversation out of a cathartic, community-building experience.

As many of you know, I’m all about whimsy and organic, communal forms of understanding (like mourning or celebration). As a result, I place a lot of value on examples of public humanities projects that break free from the institutional context that can often read as sterile, objective, boring, or not part of in “real life.” Funeral for a Home is one of the best examples I have seen in that it’s simultaneously whimsical, informative, and a call to action. This kind of practice should be on all of our radars.