Tag Archives: the couple in the cage

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?

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.

Deflecting Guilt: Using the ‘Next Generation’ as a Shield

While I was extremely disturbed by the visitor responses to “The Couple in a Cage” described in Coco Fusco’s article, I would like to focus on  Fusco’s analysis of children’s reactions to the exhibit. Last week in our class discussion on memorials, I believe Rica brought up the constant refrain of ‘educating future generations’ connected to the purpose of memorializing and questioned if it is the current generation’s way of deflecting guilt.  As if the current generation is claiming that they themselves do not need the memorial for commemorating atrocities, but rather it should function as an educational tool for future generations.

Interestingly, and relevant to this discussion about future generations, were children’s responses to “The Couple in the Cage”.  Fusco writes, “[f]or all the concern expressed about shocking children, we found that their reactions have been the most humane” and “[b]oys and girls often asked their parents excellent questions about us, prompting ethical discussions about racism and treatment of indigenous peoples” (16).  In this respect, children were able to honestly approach their feelings of discomfort and confusion and question the exhibit, rather than their adult counterparts who either ignored their feelings of discomfort or behaved as colonizers.

These two different conversations about the next generation, prompt me to question how and why do adults build up mechanisms of defense in dealing with uncomfortable situations and guilt. How does utilizing the excuse of ‘educating the next generation’ and concern over “shocking children” shield and ironically infantilize adults/the current generation? What can public historians do to counteract this shield and force adults to face and deal with uncomfortable feelings?

A (Failed) Performance of Live Reading Fusco’s “The Other History of Intercultural Performance”

I wanted to try something new this week – live tweeting myself working through the assigned readings. I had a plan to Storify these tweets, but

  • a) 50 tweets is a lot for a Twitter thread and
  • b) even for Storify, it would be a lot of work.

Here’s the draft of what I had written, though:

Tweet Charac. Count
Trying something new for #AMST2560: bear with me y’all. 55
This week, in talking about “Empathy & Other”, we watched Paula Heredia’s “The Couple in the Cage.” http://bit.ly/2mUaRP5 121
I found myself taking lots of notes on Fusco’s article “The Other History of Intercultural Performance.”  http://bit.ly/2mDQq6Q 127
& seeing as I like livetweeting lectures……why don’t I try livetweeting my notes? So here goes. 95
“While the experiences of many of those who were exhibited is the stuff of legend, it is the accounts by observers and impresarios… 131
…that comprise the historical and literary record of this practice in the West.” 81
There’s an emphasis on historical and literary here…what other records might bring forth diverse accounts? Are there any? 121
The language of “legend” is interesting, too – adding to the exoticness being applied to those exhibited. 106
I rarely read behind-the-scenes review of exhibits, but it’s cool to see Fusco acknowledge the intent & realities of the project. 130
And these realities of fiction and misinformation, literalism and public interest, seem more relevant now than in 1994. 119
“the Bush administration had drawn clear parallels between the ‘discovery’ of the New World and his New World Order.” – I just wrote ? Here. 140
A little research brought me here, explaining her calling Columbus a “smokescreen” http://bit.ly/2ny4fmG 104
“Out of this context arose our decision to take a symbolic vow of silence….” – I wonder what the performance would’ve been like w/o this? 137
Speaking English, of course, wouldn’t have made sense. But how would language have altered the performance? 107
“Our cage became the metaphor for our condition… 48
linking the racism implicit in ethnographic paradigms of discovery with the exocticizing rhetoric of  ‘world beat’ multiculturalism.” 133
I circled the details of the performance – the ‘traditional tasks’ incorporating both old and modern concepts, the ‘ethnic’ dance to rap… 137
…the ‘Amerindian stories’, the guards on hand….the leashes made me EXTREMELY uncomfortable though. 99
Immediately after reading the list of performance environments: “THIS is going to be a point of contention.” 108
What were the conversations were like behind the scenes? Esp. places like the @NMNH or @FieldMuseum? 101
How does performance art fit in natural history museums? Esp. recognizing the history of such events in similar spaces? 120
I mean, I think of intercultural performances as events for state fairs and expositions – but there’s something unsettling… 123
about this in a museum. Even if it is satire. 46
“The contemporary tourist industries…still perpetrate the illusion of authenticity to cater to the Western fascination with otherness.” 135
^this reminded me of seeing shows like The Lion King on Broadway, or iLembe at the National Arts Festival.  http://bit.ly/2mGiLuR 129
In the case of shows, the focus is cultures over exotic individuals…but seeing these shows & paying to see them… 112
…makes me think about how exoticness persists. The type of display has evolved, but is the West masking the intentions of performance? 136
“These shows were where most whites ‘discovered’ the non-Western sector of humanity.” Where do we learn about that now? 119
“The original ethnographic exhibitions often presented people in a simulation of their natural habitat.” 105
^Does Fusco explain why they chose not to do so? I think the cage is more powerful in display if people were taking it as satire. 129
But, as we know, they weren’t… 30
“…even though the idea that America is a colonial system is met with resistiance-since it contradicts the dominant ideology’s presentation… 139
…of our system as a democracy-the audience reactions indicate that colonialist roles have been internalized quite differently.” !!!!! 135
Fusco goes on to discuss how exhibiting humans has continued – through decapitated limbs, gentials, etc. 105
What does removal of the whole body do for these presentations? How does it remove and obscure the “other”? 107
“The desire to look upon predictable forms of Otherness from a safe distance persists.” I’m reminded of Jennicam. http://bit.ly/2mlrlN4 135
Or reality TV. Or YouTube commenters in general. These aren’t racial/ethnic categories of Otherness… 100
…but they are people that we choose to “other.” People we choose to remove ourselves from. People we ogle and do not imagine complexly. 137
“We underestimated public faith in museums as bastions of truth and institutional investement in that role.” !!!!!!!!!!!!!! 123
We had a great conversation about this at #heritage17 w/ Morgan Grefe & Ruth Taylor. http://bit.ly/2n3gMlt 106
Fusco then goes on to discuss the different experiences w/ gen. public from art museums to natural history museums, q’s I mentioned earlier. 140
pg. 157 is just covered in scribbles and notes toward the beginning in the end. 80
But “We found that [children’s] reactions have been the most humane” reminded me of this video: http://bit.ly/2mUohuH 117
Fusco goes on to discuss different audience reactions – POC, white spectators, art aficionados, museum professionals. 117
“No American ever asked about the legitimacy of the map…of the taxonomic information of the signs…” would this change in a smartphone era? 138
(I doubt it, but one would wonder. I, for one, would almost immediately Google it. Or I hope I would.) 102
Fusco then discusses the reactions of Latinos, Native Americans, and Spaniards. She also mentions the gender stereotypes. 122
I’m curious why she chooses to end her article on the frank dicussion of sex – 78
 –  its relationship to exoticness, being catcalled, projection of fantasies onto her body. 92
“Those are also the times when, even though I know I can get out of the cage, I can never quite escape.” 104
(Also did anyone take the time to read through the Encyclopedia Britannica entry? Makes you think about museum exhibition panels.) 130
I’m still fascinated by this performance – its otherness, its satirization, but mostly the reactions. 102
In what ways is this limited to performance art? How do we see elements of what Fusco satirizes in exhibitions, displays? 121
Other questions: what role does performance art have in public humanities? Is it a different one than public art? 114
What stakes does the performer have in its presentation? What about the venue? What if that venue is a museum? 110
Do we need to expect “better” of our patrons? Do we need to challenge ourselves further? To do what, in these cases? 116