If Things Could Speak

Archaeologists are routinely flummoxed by the idiosyncratic dimensions of material things; we seem unable in most instances to capture the personal histories and inchoate emotions invested in apparently prosaic things.  Nearly all of us have random objects or souvenirs from childhood trips, mundane things associated with life events, or objects passed down to us, and when we are not present to tell those stories they are impossible to capture archaeologically.  A novel kickstarter project proposes to ensure these individual and idiosyncratic meanings remain literally attached to things.  Bemoir proposes to capture oral histories and other data sources about an object’s history and record them via near field technology.  For instance, your grandfather could relate the tale of a well-loved teddy bear, you could include pictures of him with it, and you could add a background history on the bear itself; similarly, you could give somebody a piece of art, attach an interview with the artist, and include a story about the gift-giving occasion that you share via Bemoir’s web page and app.

Bemoir's prototype page

Bemoir’s prototype page.  Among the most commonplace symbols of childhood and innocence, the teddy bear is Bemoir’s brand symbol and appears throughout its literature.

On the one hand, the appeal of Bemoir is its capacity to relate utterly idiosyncratic histories told in the vehicle of everyday things and oral memory.  The archaeological record and material world are certainly populated by myriad things with such histories that we know in only cursory ways (e.g., “this was my mom’s watch”), or they are lodged only in our own minds or simply lost over time.  For instance, I hand-write nearly everything like this blog post in journals before transferring the text to digital form.  That perhaps harbors some philosophical insight into the process of writing (compare Tim Ingold’s defense of hand writing), and I like the literal sensation of a pen nib on paper and the visual dimension of seeing and rearranging text.  However, in large part I do so because I have a wonderful Waterman fountain pen.  In pure functional terms, the pen is easy enough to describe in its physical composition and decorative style, and any modestly skilled archaeologist would deduce its age and original price and assess the symbolism of the Waterman firm and hand-writing in the 21st century.  Such analysis is the nuts-and-bolts of archaeology, but such descriptive details would rarely appear in the oral histories of things that Bemoir aspires to produce. Read the rest of this entry

Memorialization on Canfield Drive

In 1970, African-American engineer Adel Allen testified before the United States Commission on Civil Rights about his experience as one of suburban St. Louis’ earliest Black residents.  Allen circumspectly assessed the police services he initially received in his otherwise White suburb of Kirkwood, concluding that “I think we got more police protection than we required when I first moved there.  I don’t know if they were protecting me or protecting someone from me.”  Allen related experiences with the police that ring familiar today, indicating that “I don’t think there’s a black man in South St. Louis County that hasn’t been stopped at least once if he’s been here more than 2 weeks. . . .There’s an almost automatic suspicion that goes along with being black. . . . I’ve been stopped, searched, and I don’t mean searched in the milder sense, I mean laying across the hood of a car. And then told after they found nothing that my tail light bulb was burned out, or I should have dimmed my lights, something like that.”

Lesley McSpadden (center) places rose petals on the blood stains of her son on Canfield Drive (Huy Mach, St Louis Post-Dispatch.com)

Lesley McSpadden (center) places rose petals where her son died earlier on August 9th on Canfield Drive (Huy Mach, St Louis Post-Dispatch.com)

Adel Allen’s experience underscores the tense, long-term relationship between police and the color line, and perhaps it is tempting to conclude that his story might now be considered a historical aberration.  However, not far from Kirkwood over a half-century after Allen moved to St. Louis, Michael Brown’s death has complicated the American imagination of public space and the color line.  That landscape is perhaps most uncomfortably evoked by the otherwise prosaic suburban street where Brown’s body lay for nearly four hours after he was shot August 9th.  The stretch of Canfield Drive where Brown died has become part of an informal memorial landscape, with an array of idiosyncratic things placed along the street by a steady stream of visitors.  The spectacle of Brown’s body on the non-descript street captures much of the tensions with local police, but the spontaneous memorialization of the Canfield Drive landscape—and resistance to it–provides an especially interesting insight into the ways we discuss race and public space.

The memorialization of the spot where Michael Brown fell illuminates the Black experience of state racism and extrajudicial punishment, but some observers want Canfield Drive to again become invisible.  Many commentators simply rationalize Brown’s shooting, and some reduce the August encounter to an anomaly in an otherwise equitable society.  Asking how society should remember this stretch of pavement beyond the aftermath of Brown’s death—or if we should publicly remember it at all–asks how (or if) we should materialize landscapes of racism and death. Read the rest of this entry

The Elevated Eye: Drones and Gaze in Ruins

A host of photographers, community historians, and self-styled urban critics have produced a fascinating visualization of the architectural detritus of cities, industry, and various failings of modernity.  That flood of so-called “ruin porn” has unleashed a complex breadth of artistic creativity as well as anxieties about the social implications of gaze and how we see, photograph, and imagine architectural remains.  Much of the uneasiness with ruin photography laments the camera’s gaze as a selective and seemingly distorted representation of our visual and physical experience of an objective reality: that is, the implication is that a photographer frames landscapes in selective ways, and the realities confirmed by our eyes are somehow corrupted by digital filters, High Dynamic Range imaging (HDR), and camera lens filters that toy with color balance, light intensity, and nearly every dimension of a photographic image.  This somewhat awkwardly ignores our fascination with ruins and ruin images; it suggests that we should privilege how our eyes and bodies experience ruin landscapes; and it perhaps implies that the only “authentic” representations of ruins can come from residents and people who can somehow lay claim to ruined places’ narratives.

The visual and physical gaze on ruins is now being further complicated by the emergence of drone videos documenting ruin landscapes.  For instance, in 2014 British filmmaker Danny Cooke visited the Chernobyl exclusion zone to film the remains of the 1986 nuclear accident for a 60 Minutes report.  Chernobyl is one of the world’s most intensively photographed ruin sites, a uniquely captivating abandonment in which a whole community apparently dropped everything in place.  The site is used by various observers to evoke the resilience of nature, underscore humans’ consequential impact on public health and the environment, and illuminate a state’s enormous arrogance, so it is an enormously magnetic dark tourism site (nearly 10,000 people visit the exclusion zone each year, see a really interesting analysis of this tourism on The Bohemian Blog). Read the rest of this entry

The Materiality of Virus: The Aesthetics of Ebola

Flu patients being treated at Camp Funston, Kansas during the 1918 epidemic   (image National Museum of Health and Medicine).

Flu patients being treated at Camp Funston, Kansas during the 1918 epidemic (image National Museum of Health and Medicine).

In 1918 over 500 million people were infected by the influenza virus, and its lethality–between 20 and 100 million people died—reaches well beyond AIDS, the Plague, and even the Great War itself.  It is not difficult to comprehend the terror induced by viral disease: we live in a historical moment in which some infectious disease can be rapidly spread aboard airlines and cruise ships; the media and a host of online outlets fan anxieties about epidemic diseases; and popular culture delivers warnings about apocalypse, zombies, and doomsday preparations.  In contrast to the European battlefield in 1918, it was enormously difficult to imagine the material form and aesthetics of a virus that moved invisibly and left as its material wake broken and dead bodies.  Viruses are terrifying because they are so hard to imagine as concrete things, so we spend much of our energy imagining how we can perceive and protect ourselves against an unseen specter. Read the rest of this entry

Beautiful Absence: The Aesthetics of Dark Heritage

Lidice today

Lidice today

The former Czech village of Lidice is today a peaceful countryside, a neatly cropped rolling field punctuated by a postcard-cute babbling brook and a scatter of trees.  The massive lawn rolls over some nearly imperceptible depressions and a couple of neatly landscaped foundations, but only a few benches and sidewalks disrupt the bucolic landscape.  Nestled in a modest rural setting seemingly far from nearby Prague, the space is a quiet and even peaceful place of reflection that is far-removed from its quite unpleasant heritage.

Like many dark heritage sites, the horrific narrative of mass murders and the complete razing of Lidice in 1942 contrast with an aesthetically pleasant contemporary space.  Lidice perhaps magnifies the role of imagination because it has exceptionally sparse material remains in the midst of a pleasant countryside; nevertheless,the imaginative experience of comprehending inexpressible barbarism in the midst of settled contemporary landscapes is common to many dark heritage sites.  Lidice illuminates the ways contemporary landscape aesthetics and material absences profoundly shape dark heritage experiences. Read the rest of this entry

Kitsch and the Consumer Imagination: Shopping at Jungle Jim’s

The SS Minnow and its Lucky Charms band stand vigil over the vegetables.

The SS Minnow and its Lucky Charms band stand vigil over the vegetables.

Few grocery stores can rise above the status of a non-place, instead sinking into a grocery landscape of interchangeable aisles with the same stale decoration and identical products distinguished by a few pennies price difference.  Even fewer have secured the status of “destination,” a grocery we would travel to for an experience igniting our imagination.  An exception to the prosaic grocery is Cincinnati’s Jungle Jim’s International Market, an enormous grocery to which a host of committed foodies and run-of-the-mill shoppers flock for distinctive goods and staged shopping entertainment.  Jungle Jim’s is distinguished by its astounding 200,000 square-foot scale, a sprawling series of buildings containing a rich array of more than 150,000 international specialty foods.  The mere size of Jungle Jim’s alone, though, does not capture its fascinating kitsch aesthetic—a monorail, fountains with jungle animals, and a host of popular cultural symbols are scattered throughout the store.  The store’s astounding selection of hard-to-find goods and mysterious products certainly is key to the grocery’s growth since 1971.  Nevertheless, the store’s aesthetic turns shopping at Jungle Jim’s into a fascinating material and stylistic experience that is key to the grocery’s magnetism.  While that grocery trip might be reduced to a captivating leisure or the pursuit of an obscure chili, the Jungle Jim’s shopping experience provides a compelling lens on the distinctive social desires of its legion of foodie shoppers. Read the rest of this entry

Ashes Underfoot: Human Remains and Public Memorialization

The 2011 launch of the Goddard flight carrying cremated remains into space (image from Celestis).

The 2011 launch of the Goddard flight carrying cremated remains into space (image from Celestis).

The remains of CJ Twomey have blazed an enormously rich path to eternal rest since his death in 2010.  Over 800 packets of CJ’s cremated remains have been scattered in an astounding range of places including baseball diamonds (e.g., Camden Yards and Fenway Park), historic sites (e.g., Notre Dame, Ground Zero, the Colosseum), tourist destinations (e.g., the Vegas Strip, Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, Central Park), sporting event sites (e.g., the finish line of the Boston Marathon, Tour de France climb Alpe d’Huez), and theme parks (e.g., Disney World, Disneyland Paris).  Next week some of CJ’s ashes will be sent into space aboard a rocket launched by a Houston firm that specializes in the delivery of human remains into earth orbit.  As his ashes now travel to space, CJ joins Timothy Leary, James Doohan, L. Gordon Cooper, and Gene Rodenberry, who also were placed to rest in orbit or returned to earth after suborbital flight (lunar deposits are expected to be available in the next two years, and all the burial options for humans are now available for pets as well).

CJ’s global and spatial scattering is perhaps distinguished by the scale of memorialization; a legion of people touched by his story have shepherded his remains to numerous resting places.  Nevertheless, one survey conservatively suggests that about 135,000 survivors scatter the ashes of their families and friends each year (another says one-third of cremated remains are scattered), and many of those remains are left in public spaces ranging from stadiums to theme parks.  Eternal rest now routinely reaches outside a stereotypical peaceful cemetery as the scripted funeral gradually disappears.  Cremation scattering extends memorialization to an increasingly rich range of symbolically meaningful public places, transforming burial rituals and memorial landscapes alike in a bereavement process that survivors control long after death.

Human cremated remains typically account for about 3.5% of body mass, which is normally between four and six pounds of coarse calcium phosphate dust.  Modest quantities of the ash will become part of surrounding soils and wash away within a few days under most conditions, and they pose no health hazards.  Nevertheless, many people seem reluctant to reconcile the literal presence of human remains in even trace form with public space, and we seem unwilling to concede that the Fenway Park warning track and Pirates of the Caribbean are memorial landscapes. Read the rest of this entry

Consuming Dark Histories in Santa Claus Village

Santa Claus Village and the Arctic Circle line in the midst of winter (image from Santatelevision).

Santa Claus Village and the Arctic Circle line in the midst of winter (image from Santatelevision).

Santa Claus’ office and workshop sit along the Arctic Circle in Rovaniemi, Finland, and from his arctic headquarters Santa spends the year checking his list and entertaining visitors to Santa Claus Village.  Nestled in the Lapland woods, the village’s highlight is perhaps Santa Claus’ office, where Saint Nick and his elves hold forth for reviews of children’s behavior and photographs.  The Village’s attractions also include a post office, reindeer, a husky park, snowmobile trails, and shopping ranging from jewelry to log houses.  Not far away sits Santa Park, an underground labyrinth of caves including an elf school, gingerbread bakery, ice bar, and an Angry Birds Activity Area; for good measure, Santa’s “hidden command center” Joulukka sits in the heart of the forest in the same area.

It may be tempting to dismiss the Finnish holiday attractions as shallow consumer experiences, and a variety of scholars and ideologues routinely scorn places like Santa Claus Village and Disney World or reduce them to yet another post-modern self-delusion.  Much of contemporary tourism may be a search for pure diversionary pleasure in such places that embrace spectacle, celebrate patently inauthentic narratives, and offer unadulterated joy. In the midst of the Santa attractions’ imagination of the Yuletide, though, a quite concrete and even dark history exists in an especially fascinating relationship with the theatrical Christmas narrative woven in Santa Claus Village. Read the rest of this entry

Concealing the Unmentionable: Sight, Sense and the Public Restroom

The labyrinth entrance to the Cavanaugh hall bathroom

The “labyrinth” entrance to the Cavanaugh hall bathroom

The cinder-block walls and windowless offices of IUPUI’s Cavanaugh Hall have aged rather gracelessly over more than four decades.  The utterly functional brutal modernist building will inevitably meet the wrecking ball someday, but in the meantime administrators extend the decaying structure’s life with a host of makeshift changes.  The most recent renovations have come to a series of women’s restrooms (men’s apparently will undergo similar changes soon), which are now appointed with new tile, another set of toilets, and a slightly different floor plan.  None of those changes has prompted more fevered discussion than the installation of a labyrinth entrance; that is, the new bathrooms have no doors.  The labyrinth design is intended to minimize germ transmission and make restrooms more secure spaces, and nothing is literally visible from the adjoining public hallway; nevertheless, the absence of doors and the sonic amplification provided by the tile have unleashed a host of anxieties that illuminate the unmentionable, underscore the divisions between public and private spaces, and highlight the limits of functional restroom design.

The definitive study of the washroom is perhaps still architect Alexander Kira’s 1966 masterpiece The Bathroom.  Based on extensive research between 1958 and 1966, Kira ambitiously approached the bathroom as an architectural, functional, ergonomic, and social space.  Kira pilloried architects’ sloppy bathroom designs and the century of architectural planning that viewed bathrooms as mere afterthoughts.  Kira instead ethnographically delved into the “bathroom experience” as a design issue with concrete social and psychological dimensions that needed to be placed at the heart of spatial planning.  Among other things, Kira systematically dissected such hither-to unexamined issues as the physics of urine trajectories, the space between urinals, the physiology of seated positioning, the cleaning ineffectiveness of toilet paper (a passage not for those apprehensive of cooties), and the anxieties created by the acoustics of elimination. Read the rest of this entry

Air Guitar as Global Diplomacy

Former Air Guitar World champions Justin "Nordic Thunder" Howard (2012) and Markus "Black Raven" Vainionpää (2000) tutor three audience members in air guitar (image Aleke Ollila).

Former Air Guitar World champions Justin “Nordic Thunder” Howard (2012) and Markus “Black Raven” Vainionpää (2000) tutor three audience members in air guitar (image Aleke Ollila).

There may be no more audacious pursuit of global justice than the Air Guitar World Championship’s aspiration to “promote world peace.  According to the ideology of the Air Guitar, wars would end, climate change stop and all bad things disappear, if all the people in the world played the Air Guitar.”  It is perhaps difficult to conceive of a host of global diplomats exaggerating the fluid moves of Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix, yet last week a legion of the faithful gathered in Oulu, Finland for the 19th annual Air Guitar World Championship’s unique performance of self-aware camp, bold sincerity, naïve optimism, and playful theatre.  Air guitar is quite possibly among the most democratic if not egalitarian of all expressive arts.  Even the clumsiest person is capable of reproducing the familiar motions of guitar players, and it harbors an interesting politics of community that may not yield world peace, but it is a fascinating and idealistic starting point.

Your 2014 champion is Nanami ”Seven Seas” Nagura (image Aleksi Ollila)

Your 2014 champion is Nanami ”Seven Seas” Nagura (image Aleksi Ollila)

It is tempting to reduce air guitar to shallow imitation of authentic musical performance, but air guitar is not really mimicking as much as it is its own performance.  Air guitar playing makes sense to audiences because it invokes physical and musical referents that nearly all of us know.  In some ways, this is much like Elvis performance artists, who are not “impersonators” as much as they interpret threads of popular musical consciousness.  Where Elvis performance artists do sing, air guitar may be distinguished by its celebration of the pleasure so many of us take in music we cannot hope to play and the optimistic democracy of air guitar.  The compelling fundamental attraction of air guitar is that it appears so simple and accessible to all of us with the faintest musical sentiments and a suppressed desire to strut about with Angus Young’s theatrical lack of self-consciousness. Read the rest of this entry

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