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Memorializing Uncanny Histories: Materiality and Memory at Pulse

Pulse nightclub August 2016 (click for expanded view; image Walter).

In June, 2016 a gunman entered the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida and murdered 49 people.  In the aftermath of the murders the club has been routinely invoked in a wide range of political causes, but materially it has become a place that illuminates the depth of homophobia, complicates gun rights, and recognizes domestic terrorism.  Like most dark history, the Pulse nightclub materializes death and profound tragedy, and that makes it an especially productive place to concede anxiety, apprehension, and fascination alike.  Pulse may have become part of an “uncanny” materiality; that is, it is among a host of things and places that provoke uneasiness because, in Freud’s words, it “ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light” (PDF; compare archaeological examples from Gabriel Moshenska, Paul Graves-Brown, and Graves-Brown, Rodney Harrison, and Angela Piccini).  People flock to Pulse because it allows us to acknowledge anxieties about hate crimes, terrorism, homophobia, and gun violence and potentially brings them into an open public discussion, a discussion that some people welcome and others want to escape.  That discussion is inevitably challenging: the club may be the proverbial historical “open wound,” confronting us with a recent past so repugnant and unpleasantly contemporaneous that we struggle to acknowledge it or simply ignore it entirely.

Offerings at the Pulse memorial (click for expanded view; image Walter).

After the murders Pulse instantly became a scene of spontaneous memorialization, and it is unlikely to ever again be a more-or-less invisible leisure space in the midst of interchangeable retail outlets.  Within a month of the killings The Orlando Sentinel’s Caitlin Dineen recognized that Pulse “has found its way onto itineraries for tourists from around the world who pay their respects and leave handmade memorials” (cf. The Advocate’s June video of the spontaneous memorial).  As visitors continually flock to the club, various parties have begun to discuss a place-based commemoration, which might involve the preservation of the structure, a radical remodeling, or its complete demolition.  Barbara Poma opened the club in 2004 in memory of her brother who had died of AIDS 13 years before, and in the wake of the murders she almost instantly proposed to re-open the club as a memorial.  In August, 2016 Poma proposed to transform the club into a memorial, and in November she reached a preliminary agreement to sell the club to the city of Orlando.  However, before the City Council could approve the $2.25 million selling price, Poma had a change of heart and decided not to sell the club site.

Pulse nightclub street view (click for expanded view; image Walter).

The structure itself may prove too abject to rehabilitate into any sort of memorial space, and it may meet the fate of comparable sites at which place-based memorialization is too unsettling to preserve the material traces of tragedy.  In December 2012, for instance, the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut was the scene of a shooting at which 20 children and six adults were murdered, and in May 2013 Newton administrators voted to demolish the structure and build a new school in its place (the demolition debris was pulverized and discarded at a secret site to prevent it being collected).  The town also acquired the murderer’s home, where he had killed his mother, and it was razed in March 2015.  As a much larger tourist-friendly city, Orlando is a different community than the modest Connecticut town, and the targeting of the gay community at Pulse is somewhat different than the incomprehensible Sandy Hook shooting.  Newton has not attempted to suppress memory of the Sandy Hook shooting; the community has spent several years planning a permanent memorial to the Sandy Hook tragedy, framing memorialization as the community’s acknowledgment of its shared tragedy.  This is quite different than place-based dark tourism in a place like Ground Zero that aspires to promote a very broad reflective if not therapeutic discourse.

Ultimately Orlando may also find that the Pulse structure itself is such an unsettling space that it will be torn down for another material memorial.  In the wake of a 1984 murder of 21 people at a California McDonalds, the company initially planned to return the restaurant to service.  However, within a week of the shooting McDonalds recognized “community revulsion” and agreed to raze the restaurant.  Six years later the site became home to a permanent memorial, which simply recognizes the names of the people who died during the shooting.

Things left at Pulse (click for expanded view; image Walter).

The Pulse nightclub structure, its otherwise commonplace surrounding neighborhood, and the things people leave at the site materialize barely expressible grief while conceding anxieties that persist in the wake of the murders.  In July, 2016 the Orange County Regional History Center announced that it had begun collecting and preserving the memorials left at Pulse, and those material offerings provide a systematic politicized commentary on the many anxieties that converge in the memory of Pulse.  The things people bring to Pulse struggle to comprehend the tragedy itself, but at the uncanny margins of the ignored, evaded, and suppressed Pulse and its collective materiality may be more important as expressions of broad anxieties about homophobia, domestic terrorism, and hate crimes that reach well beyond the Orlando tragedy alone.

 

References

Graves-Brown, Paul

2011 Touching from a Distance: alienation, abjection, estrangement and ArchaeologyNorwegian Archaeological Review 44(2): 131-144. (subscription access)

 

Graves-Brown, Paul, Rodney Harrison, and Angela Piccini

2013 Introduction.  In The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of the Contemporary World, eds. Graves-Brown, Paul, Rodney Harrison, and Angela Piccini, pp.1-26.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 

Koshar, Rudy

2001 From Monuments to Traces: Artifacts of German Memory, 1870–1990.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

 

Moshenka, Gabriel

2006 The Archaeological UncannyPublic Archaeology 5:91-99.

2013 The Archaeological Gaze.  In Reclaiming Archaeology: Beyond the Tropes of Modernity, ed. Alfredo González-Ruibal, pp.211-219.  New York: Routledge.

 

Santino, Jack

2004 Performative Commemoratives, the Personal and the Public: Spontaneous Shrines, Emergent Ritual, and the Field of Folklore. The Journal of American Folklore 117(466):363-372.   (subscription access)

2006 Performative Commemoratives: Spontaneous Shrines and the Public Memorialization of Death.  In Spontaneous Shrines and the Public Memorialization of Death, ed. Jack Santino, 5-15.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

 

Stone, Philip and Richard Sharpley

2008 Consuming Dark Tourism: A Thanatological Perspective. Annals of Tourism Research 35 (2): 574-595.

 

Images

Pulse nightclubPulse memorial close-up, Pulse offerings, and Pulse street view images August 2016 from Walter

Orphans across the Color Line: The Indianapolis Asylum for Friendless Colored Children

Invisible Indianapolis

In July, 1892 the Indianapolis News provided this imaginative picture of children at the Colored Orphan's Home. In July, 1892 the Indianapolis News provided this imaginative picture of children at the Colored Orphan’s Home (click for an expanded view).

In the 1890s the Lessenberry and Edmonds families were among the scores of African Americans migrating to Indianapolis.  The two Kentucky families were part of a wave of African Americans who swelled the Circle City’s population in the early 20th century.  Fueled by post-Emancipation optimism as well as a sober acknowledgment of Jim Crow racism, many African-American families went north to cities like Indianapolis.  James Edmonds and his three children came to Indianapolis in 1890, and Price and Amy Lessenberry and their four children followed in 1898.  The families were compelled to contend with Hoosier racism and segregation in their new home, and they were among the many newcomers whose lives were transformed by impoverishment and a segregated social service system.

A migration wave in the wake of…

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A Future-Proof Heritage: Dutch Ice and Intangible Heritage

Hendrick Avercamp, Enjoying the ice (circa 1615-1620. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam; click for expanded view).

Hendrick Avercamp, Enjoying the ice (circa 1615-1620. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam; click for expanded view).

Four centuries ago Hendrick Avercamp immortalized the Dutch winter landscape as a snowscape crowded with ice skaters traversing canals and gathering on frozen ponds.  Painting in the early 17th century, Avercamp’s works are almost wholly devoted to winter scenes that feature numerous people skating.  Avercamp’s idyllic landscapes featured a rich cross-section of people having fun on the ice during a “little Ice Age” that delivered a half-millennium of harsh winters.  Avercamp’s focus on ice and ice skating helped make winter landscapes a staple of Dutch art while confirming skating’s centrality in the heart of the Dutch imagination.

Avercamp may not have known that Netherlanders would spend the subsequent centuries traveling and playing on frozen waterways, leading numerous 21st-century observers to sound off that skating is “ingrained in Dutch DNA.”  Even beyond the Netherlands, few dimensions of Dutch culture are more firmly impressed in mass imagination than ice skating:  Every four years even Americans are briefly in awe of the Dutch domination of Olympic speed skating, and picturesque images of skaters in Amsterdam’s canals routinely grace tourism literature.


Amsterdam Canal Ice Skating (Getty Images)

On December 19th it was announced that “the tradition of skating on natural ice” was added to the Netherlands’ national inventory of intangible cultural heritage (a list of those traditions is on the Netherlands Cultural Heritage website).  Ice and skating are novel intangible dimensions of heritage, since ice has a fleeting material presence, and skating is common to many other societies; nevertheless, the celebration of ice skating aspires to capture the distinctive Dutch experience of ice and could provide a novel framing for Dutch heritage. Read the rest of this entry

The Triumph of Tackiness: The Materiality of Trump

This room in the Trump penthouse includes a statue of Eros and Psyche, a painting of Apollo in his chariot, and Barron Trump's motorized Mercedes.

This room in the Trump penthouse includes a statue of Eros and Psyche, a painting of Apollo in his chariot, and Barron Trump’s motorized Mercedes.

It has become commonplace to ridicule Donald Trump as “tacky” and dismiss his material style as clumsy excess, a crass display of wealth, or a complete absence of “good taste.”  For instance, in 2015 the National Review’s Kevin Williamson called the newly declared Presidential candidate a “ridiculous buffoon with the worst taste since Caligula.”  Williamson illustrated Trump’s taste with pictures of his densely gilded Manhattan penthouse replete with simulated classical aesthetics, Louis XIV furnishings, and a motorized toy Mercedes 10-year-old son Barron has outgrown.  In 2012 refinery29 interviewed Trump’s wife Melania and somewhat more kindly indicated that the penthouse had “over-the-top surroundings that might make Liberace blush.”  A host of anxious observers fret that the new President will gut the White House with a similar ocean of gilding, marble, and haphazardly assembled historical themes.  In the wake of Trump’s unlikely victory, The Mirror predicted a White House festooned with “gold cherubs, reproduction Renoirs—or a print of Melania naked on a rug from her GQ lads mag shoot”; in a similar vein, the New York Daily News predicted “gaudy gold décor and tacky touches.” Read the rest of this entry

Preserving Repugnant Heritage

A January 2016 image of the Calais "Jungle" (image Malachy Browne).

A January 2016 image of the Calais “Jungle” (image Malachy Browne).

This week few if any heritage planners have proposed a preservation or placemaking plan for Frances’ Calais migration camp.  The camp popularly dubbed the “jungle” was being dismantled this week, its host of makeshift structures to be removed after hosting perhaps 7000-8000 migrants at its peak.  Migrants from various reaches of Africa and Asia have set up temporary camps around the port city of Calais since 1999, with camp residents often hoping to continue on to nearby BritainThe Guardian reported at the end of 2014 that at least 15 people had died in Calais that year, and this year the camp has become an increasingly unpleasant symbol of migration woes.  In the wake of Brexit Calais uncomfortably illuminates lapses in humanitarian rhetoric and state policy disagreements over the accommodation or exclusion of a stream of people escaping countries such as Syria and Iraq.

A January 2016 image of a makeshift Calais library (image Katja Ulbert).

A January 2016 image of a makeshift Calais library (image Katja Ulbert).

Administrators’ commitment to dismantle the camp (by hand rather than bulldozer or fire, to avoid conflicts from earlier camp displacements) seems to confirm the camp’s significance.  Perhaps for most observers Calais can lay no claim to be a heritage site since it is an ephemeral place in our midst, yet Calais may be just the sort of place worthy of heritage contemplation—that is, a material presence inducing contemporary anxiety and rooted in a contentious history.

The silence over Calais stands in opposition to the flurry of heritage scholars advocating the preservation of Adolf Hitler’s birthplace and earliest home in Braunau am Inn, Austria.  Both Calais and Braunau share a repugnancy that revolves around their unpleasant stories and unresolved effects.  Hitler holds a persistent grip on our collective imagination and exerts an especially unsettling effect on right wing extremists; Calais lays bare the crisis of humanitarian idealism that risks being undone by state passivity and xenophobia. In both cases some planners hope that razing these reviled spaces will eliminate the public discussions they spark, but there seems to be a more productive discussion harbored in their preservation than in their absence. Read the rest of this entry

The Last Holdouts: Community Displacement and Urban Renewal on the IUPUI Campus

Some readers interested in post-war urban displacement, race, and Indianapolis histories may be interested in this piece from the Invisible Indianapolis blog.

Invisible Indianapolis

In April, 1980 the home at 725 West vermont Street sat in the center of this picture of the IUPUI campus. 311 Bright Street stood just to its south at the right side of the image (click for larger image). In April, 1980 the home at 725 West vermont Street sat in the center of this picture of the IUPUI campus. 311 Bright Street stood just to its south at the right side of the image (click for larger image).

In 1874 the first residents moved into 311 Bright Street in Indianapolis’ near-Westside.  The modest frame house sat in the midst of a neighborhood that rapidly emerged after the Civil War.  It sat across the street from Garden Baptist Church, which opened in 1872, alongside 36 houses in the two blocks between New York and Michigan Streets.

The same year the house was built on Bright Street Ira Johnson was born in Cassville, Georgia.  Johnson, his wife Lillian, and their 13 children worked on farms in and around Bartow County, Georgia for more than 50 years.  Lillian died in 1923, and in about 1930 Ira Johnson moved to Indianapolis. …

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The Trauma of Things

The Tower of Faces in the Holocaust Memorial Museum

The Tower of Faces in the Holocaust Memorial Museum

In 2013 the Washington Post’s Ken Ringle probed the unsettling experience of visiting Washington’s United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  The museum revolves around traumatic things, images, and narratives that visitors vicariously contemplate across time and in the face of the inexpressible irrationality of hatred.  The museum provides some concrete mechanisms like “privacy walls” to avoid some of the most unsettling material and visual dimensions of the museum’s narrative; nevertheless, Ringle argued that the museum perhaps collapsed that distance most effectively when visitors “have to look into the face of someone caught in the Nazi death machine.”  The Tower of Faces, for instance, is a massive three-story installation of 1,032 images of the residents of Eishyshok, a community in contemporary Lithuania where the Nazis massacred nearly the entire town in 1941.  Ringle argues that the pre-war family photographs are among the museum’s objects, images, and stories that force visitors to confront their “limit” by displaying prosaic humanity while acknowledging how these lives tragically ended.

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Cutlery recovered from a holocaust site are typical of the prosaic things that populate much of the Holocaust Museum.

The everyday things populating the archaeological record secure much of their power from their familiarity—personal trinkets like eyeglasses and jewelry, food, and bodily remains themselves narrate humanizing stories, but those sympathetic and even uplifting human experiences are simultaneously complicated by sober realities.  Scholars often champion narratives that aspire to define the concrete realities of human adversity if not despair, often with an ambition to examine the lingering effects of historical trauma.  Archaeology in particular has gradually shifted its focus from material description toward “dark” histories of enslavement, racism, warfare, sexism, and violence that perhaps strike some observers as a rather bleak picture of everyday life across time and into the present.  Human tragedies and adversities materialized in things often spark emotional responses that archaeologists aim to channel into reflective discussion.  This may come as a surprise to observers who fantasize archaeology as a dispassionate empirical description of the distant past that has no substantive connection to contemporary life, and some people inevitably will find history’s trail of horrors profoundly disconcerting if not an ideological distortion of a more-or-less placid human experience. Read the rest of this entry

Spacious Vulgarity: The Aesthetics and Morals of McMansions

This Washington DC home features a massive garage and an ecelctic mix of oversized architectural features typical of McMansions (image DC Urban Mom).

This Washington DC home features a massive garage and an eclectic mix of oversized architectural features typical of McMansions (image DC Urban Mom).

Few architectural forms seem to secure as much overwrought disdain as the massive homes that are often referred to as “McMansions.”  Architectural aesthetes have a rich history of attacking built environments that spark deep-seated aesthetic and social revulsion, and over-sized 21st-century homes have become targets of comparable critique.  Critics of massive residential homes often lament departures from stylistic codes, which typically includes tract mansions’ massive scale, asymmetrical forms, lack of proportionality, inferior materials, and departures from established historical or local architectural distinctions.  However, such analyses routinely descend into ethnographically shallow social and class commentaries that fail to wrestle with our inchoate aversion for this particular material form.  It is indeed hard to fathom the attraction of many oversized residences, and it is unreasonable to simply ignore our emotional revulsion for them; nevertheless, a compelling assessment of McMansions–and reflective urban planning–should sympathetically wrestle with our experiences of these structures.

McMansion Hell is among the legion of observers ridiculing massive “garage Mahals” and “starter mansions.”  McMansion Hell is distinguished by its concrete architectural analysis of oversized residences, spending much of its energy dissecting specific material elements of the pejorative McMansion.  This is in some ways an archaeological approach to a class of material things, revolving around systematic material description of specific architectural features that unsettle many observers.  McMansion Hell does not try to stake a claim to contrived objectivity, instead acknowledging its aversion for massive residences, sarcastically deconstructing a host of aesthetic features, and painting a very distinctive social and material notion of the stylistic if not social deplorability of tract mansions.  However, it focuses on the stylistic dimensions of “bad” architecture and does not feature especially clear ethnographic evidence that might interrogate both the appeal of McMansions and the widespread distaste for them. Read the rest of this entry

Pokémon Go and the Sanctity of Heritage Landscapes

Soldiers' graves at the Kiiminki Church in northern Finland.

Soldiers’ graves at the Kiiminki Church in northern Finland.

One of Finland’s best-preserved wooden churches today sits outside Oulu, where the Kiiminki Church was completed in 1760.  The modest cruciform frame church in northern Finland was designed by church architect Matti Honka and is noted for its spectacularly well-preserved altar painted by Mikael Toppelius in the 1780s.  Like scores of other Finnish community church yards, the Kiiminki church is surrounded by a cemetery that includes the remains of local soldiers who fell during World War II.  Often referred to as “heroes’ cemeteries” or “hero graves,” these resting places are staples of the Finnish countryside testifying to the Finns’ concrete World War II losses—and at least implicitly underscoring the nation’s defense against global super powers.

In the midst of the Kiiminki cemetery a stream of visitors moves across the site in a very distinctive motion familiar everywhere in the world with wireless coverage.  In small groups shuffling forward, trading counsel, and studying their cell phone screens, Pokémon Go players hunt down virtual creatures in real-world surroundings including Kiiminki’s church and cemetery.  The augmented reality mode of Pokémon Go transforms prosaic spaces—neighborhoods, religious spaces, historic sites–into newly engaged landscapes populated by multi-colored creatures, Poké Stops to fortify your avatar’s supplies, and Poké Gyms to train and bond with other players. Read the rest of this entry

The Privacy of Style: Imagining Underwear

The anatomy of a $100 pair of underwear by Frigo.

The anatomy of a $100 pair of underwear by Frigo.

Last month the New York Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony joined 50 Cent to launch the rapper’s fashion line at Bloomingdale’s in New York City.  Observers attempting to fathom consumption are routinely befuddled by the apparently irrational expense consumers will devote to style, and 50 Cent’s endorsement will leave many of those observers once more scratching their heads.  The rapper has been joined by Anthony and Timbaland as investors in Frigo underwear, taking aim at the “premium” men’s underwear market with a line that includes a $100 pair with a patented “interior pouch”.   A surprising universe of companies appeal to this upscale men’s drawers market ranging from the likes of Versace (a pair of briefs at $175) and Derek Rose to upstarts like the Swedish firm Tani or Mark Mocy (which promises to protect you from an astounding range of personal offenses).  The pricey celebrity-endorsed undies illuminate the confluence of consumer desire, branding, and individual material imagination in what might seem to be the most prosaic of all things. Read the rest of this entry