Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Arresting Patterns

Last week we featured an essay by Sean Kelley on how the Eastern State Penitentiary has chosen to move away from neutrality and take a position on mass incarceration. Today curatorial and research assistant Brittany Webb shares how another Philadelphia museum challenges the public to take a critical look at the criminal justice system. 

Lately, public critiques of safe spaces in education have focused mostly on what they supposedly prohibit, rather than what they enable. In a recent essay in The New Inquiry, cultural studies theorist Sara Ahmed wrote: “Safe spaces are another technique for dealing with the consequences of histories that are not over (a response to a history that is not over is necessarily inadequate because that history is not over). The real purpose of these mechanisms is to enable conversations about difficult issues to happen.” 

Institutionally, the African American Museum in Philadelphia (AAMP) strives to occasionally function as a safe space for discussions that are uncommon in museums. One of AAMP’s core values contains the goal: Provide a comfortable home for uncomfortable conversations.

A set of those conversations are tied to the current exhibit Arresting Patterns: Perspectives on Race, Criminal Justice, Artistic Expression and Community, an expansion of an exhibit organized by Artspace's Sarah Fritchey with Titus Kaphar and Leland Moore, which uses works by artists like Andy Warhol, Adrian Piper, Jamal Cyrus and others as a way to think about repeated incidents of state violence against people of color and the circulation of these images in media. This is exactly the kind of exhibit desired by AAMP’s audiences, and makes perfect sense for a city with Philadelphia’s demographics and activism, where visitors and staff have been grappling with ways to understand and respond to the overpolicing of black and brown people.

Two pieces from Titus Kaphar’s “The Jerome Project (Asphalt and Chalk Series)” are the first drawings that greet visitors to Arresting Patterns. The chalk renderings on asphalt paper depict several portraits of black men shot by police layered over one another. They recall full-body chalk outlines on pavement and suggest that no two people see the same thing when they look at a black male face.

Photo credit:The Jerome Project (Asphalt and Chalk) XVIII” by Titus Kaphar, courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

Pieces like Chris Taylor’s digital collages hint at the ways the news reports of these incidents give us déjà vu. Theodore Harris’ “The Ballot or the Bullet” invites viewers to think about the role of electoral politics in structuring these interactions and our conversations about them, while Felandus Thames’ “Ideas of Ancestry” installation meditates on a prisoner’s introspection about being separated from loved ones. Avtomat Kalashnikova’s “The View From Here: Production” is a site-specific installation about the Museum’s social and geographic proximity to the prison industrial complex—AAMP shares a physical intersection with the Federal Reserve and a Federal Detention Center (despite a number of protests against its construction).

Photo credit: “Ideas of Ancestry” by Felandus Thames
Prior visitor feedback suggested Arresting Patterns would draw strong audience engagement at AAMP. Last November, we organized a similarly themed pop-up exhibit, Outcry!, which drew sizeable crowds and intense responses. Conversations at unrelated public programs have been veering into policing and violence for a while. As an African-American museum, our staff consists mostly of professionals of African descent who have been thinking about race and overpolicing long before working at AAMP. Our investment in serving audiences well with this work is as much about who we are as individuals as it is about institutional mission. A portion of AAMP’s mission statement reads:

We will be both instigator and empathizer, a point of departure for the exploration of uncharted territory as well as a hallowed sanctuary. We will communicate with a voice that projects the fierce urgency of now and, as a result, will be an institution of incomparable relevance.

In July, news about the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile fired off across our social worlds and social media feeds like a shot. As staff we shared our dismay and despair (just like we did the last time, and the time before that). This was the week of an Open House & Town Hall program that had been scheduled for months. Before the event, several internal conversations had basically boiled down to "I’m not even sure how to do this right now." And then we all took a deep breath and did it. On July 10th, a demographically diverse group of two hundred fifty guests filled the galleries and auditorium, taking in the exhibit, scheduled performances and a moderated panel discussion that they met with a tense, emotional Q&A. In a debriefing conversation after the event, a colleague said about the attendees, "I think they needed that."

Photo credit: “The View From Here: Production” by Avtomat Kalashnikova

We've been sometimes heartened, sometimes challenged by the ways visitors have engaged the exhibit and related programming. But visitors have instigated interesting conversations. Some have told us that they are bothered by the federal detention center across the street; others have said they've never noticed it. People have told us they've never seen artwork like this. Art lovers have told us they never thought about this issue. And visitors have cried in the galleries.

Part of what makes AAMP relevant is an intentional commitment to partiality in contrast to some of the unstated partiality of others. Objectivity and neutrality are not in AAMP’s organizational history and are in fact antithetical to its continued existence. This is intense and occasionally messy work that, even at its most difficult, we're lucky to do. But this work increasingly feels less like an option and more like an imperative to our staff and to our visitors, and we hope that both are better for it.

Wordless Wednesday: Cows Fighting Climate Change

#CowFarts #Methane #GlobalWarming #GreenAgriculture

Follow the link in the photo caption to the associated story. You can find more glimpses of the future (and links) on CFM's Pinterest Boards.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Exhibit A

I'm taking advantage of the late summer lull in blogging to share my personal favorite from last spring's Future Fiction Challenge, a story submitted by Ken Eklund. It nails so many of the things that make for compelling future fiction: showing (rather than telling) the backstory to this world; presenting believable, compelling characters; building on trends we can see at work in the world today and provoking us to think about what we might do to avoid the worst consequences of this path.

You may know Ken as the Writerguy, creator of "authentic fictions and transformative play for social good." Perhaps you played World Without Oil, the massive multi-player online alternate reality game he co-produced with Jane McGonigal and other gaming greats in 2007, or FutureCoast, his gameful exploration of climate change in 2014. In "Exhibit A," Ken explores an educational future riven by a deep digital (and cultural) divide, and one museum staffer's decision to bridge the growing chasm with a work of provocative, collaborative pedagogy. 

My agent: Trey is inbound.

Me, out loud: “Do her friends know?”

My agent nodded. I’ll clear the south gallery. I cameraed over to it: only three people there, and as I watched, they got up and headed for the east gallery, prompted by their electronic agents. The exhibits folded back into the walls.

“Any trouble?” I asked. Sometimes people resent the youth priority.

Shrug from my agent. (Does your agent do this? Feign ineptitude at reading the emotions of other agents?) I put him back into my pocket.

I was asking because Trey would probably be the only A-Youth there. Strictly speaking, I could get demerited for clearing a gallery and inconveniencing three A-patrons for one
A-Youth; young people’s privilege doesn’t extend that far. The other half-dozen kids, the ones coming to meet Trey, aren’t agented. To me, and to many patrons, that wouldn’t matter, but… there had been trouble last time. A kerfluffle.

My agent pulled up aug-real locators for Trey and her friends; I watched them approach the museum while he monitored the museum from my pocket. When the locators showed the first B-Youths nearing the front doors, I moved on down to intercept.

Mahial and Rezat I remembered from last time, but Baz was new. Without agents to prompt them, they had to rely on physical cues, so I gave them a big smile. “Right this way! I have the south workspace reserved for you.”

The friends were all there, seven of them (and the room’s sound dampeners were inching up to max) when Trey huffed in, pulling a lumpy sack behind her on her vintage red segwagon. She greeted and was greeted at the top of everyone’s lungs except mine. And then they fell upon Trey’s bag like bandits, which in a way, they were.

Trey had raided the recycle hoppers of her family’s print-all (I’m guessing) and maybe those of a few neighbors. The group tore into the goods. Baz had taken today’s project out of his sidepack – a first-decade deskbot it looked like, but now it had plants growing out of it. Weird plants. He and Mahial pried the back open and bonked heads peering in; much pretween hilarity ensued.

I took my leave and went back to work – we were negotiating the premiere of a first- order remix of a Met show – so it was maybe an hour later that the Met’s art director said the magic words of closing (“our agents will work out the details”) and I could offscreen back to things in-house.

My agent informed me immediately: Trey deactivated her agent.
Whaaaat. She hasn’t moved, my agent said, anticipating my concern. But her agent doesn’t respond.

I’m going down there, I replied.

Fortunately the B-kids were clustered around the maker and Baz’s bot, with Trey off to the side; I hate to be The Authority Interrupting Everyone’s Fun.

“I didn’t turn it off!” Trey was seven-years-old indignant. “I just let my agent go to sleep. It never gets to dream, except here it can.”

Okay, so one: kids’ agents protect them, so kids can’t turn them off. Supposedly. Two: agents don’t sleep? And three: they certainly don’t dream? Supposedly…
“And also,” she lowered her voice, “they don’t have agents,” meaning the other kids. “So, you know…”

Will you wake it up before you leave? my agent suggested. “Will you wake it up before you leave?” I asked Trey.

She looked at me. “It wakes itself up.”

“Of course,” I said, thinking, this kid knows agents better than my agent does. I let the truth of that sink in for a moment. The matter being successfully resolved, Trey raced over to join the others at the maker, where something was beginning to emerge. A cry of chagrin soon went up: it wasn’t right, whatever it was. Rezat stuffed it back into the hopper to be recycled.

Then two people barreled in: a man, in his thirties, and a silver-haired woman, possibly his mother. A-adults. The man headed for me, and my agent began to announce him, but I had eyes only for the woman.

She headed for the deskbot. “Can I see this?” she asked the kids.

“Sure,” said Trey. Baz ran to put the bot into the woman’s hands. “But you have to turn off your agent, if you want to help.”

The woman’s face lit up. “I certainly want to help,” she said. “You know I had one of these, back before,” gesturing at the deskbot. “I loved that thing. –Agent, off.”

I looked over at the man standing next to me; he was laughing, and I did too. “I wanted to ask you if my mother could join,” the man said.

“Decision’s out of our hands, looks like,” I said.

“She saw the bot through the window.”

“You certainly don’t see any of those anymore.”

“Not in A-land,” the man agreed. “But plenty still doin’ for the B’s.”

He’s a teacher, prompted my agent. Grove High School. First name is Xan.

Xan’s mother was showing the kids how the deskbot moved when it was alive. This was giving them ideas.

“We don’t see many kids from Grove here in the museum, Xan,” I said. Only B-kids had teachers anymore, or went to school.

He too was watching his mother. “It’s your A-only days,” he replied. “Wish I could change that,” I said. “We fought that law.”

“It’s a matter of principle with my kids.” “I can appreciate that,” I said.

Baz was showing Xan’s mother how the deskbot watered itself. “What I don’t have,” I said, “is agents I could loan them.”

“I have those,” he said. “That’s not the problem. They won’t use loaners. They perceive them as badges conferring second-class citizen status.”

I nodded. He went on, “Which is a big problem. Because they should learn to use agents. And many of them want to. Just not in a classroom.”

Now Baz, Mahiel and Tamara were calling up reference works on the wall, showing Xan’s mother the look they were trying to achieve.

“My agent will correct me if I am wrong,” I said slowly, thinking this through, “but I believe the law says ‘A-only days’ are reserved for people with agents.”

“Yes, so?”

“It doesn’t say the agents have to be turned on. –Agent?”

I am researching this, my agent said.

“That might work,” Xan said slowly. “To come here with an agent, but turned off. They might find that to be an eloquent expression of defiance.”

“I think they’d find support, too,” I said. “Many A’s would turn off in solidarity.” “You think so?”
“Yes, I do,” I said. Let your agent sleep. Let your agent dream, I thought. “If only for the novelty of it.”

Seven of the eight gathered again around the maker, which started working hard at something. Little Eban stayed behind with the deskbot, improvising a smooth little spin- dance routine for it as images of ballet flickered on the table underneath.

“They won’t be accredited, though, will they,” I asked. “Your kids. For agent training. Even if they happen to activate their agents from time to time.”

“Which they most certainly will. No, they won’t get credit, but that hardly matters. Who looks at accreditation? Nobody. They give you an agent and it’s obvious in five minutes how good you are with it.”

“They just ask the agent,” I agreed.

Xan went on, “I’ve always thought it’s perfect for self-directed learning. The agent itself tutors you.”

“A-kids get the luxury of having a tutor with them wherever they go,” I said. “But that brings its own issues. Although Trey seems to do okay.” I pointed her out.

“Ah, the quiet one,” Xan said.

“Yes,” I said. “That can be one of the issues.”

Xan was thinking. “With agents, Grove kids would get youth priority, right? –Oh my. Probably cause you a LOT of headache.”

“Having headache-free days is notably not in our charter.”

Xan turned and offered his hand. “It’s done, then? Our very own provocative collaborative pedagogical performance work?”

I took his hand and shook it. “Working title: ‘Exhibit A’. Tell your kids, back at the school. Our agents will work out the details.”


You can read more stories from the Challenge over on CFM's Vibrant Learning site, which is now being cared for by Sage Morgan-Hubbard, our Ford W. Bell Fellow for Museums & P-12 Education. And if you regret not entering the Challenge the first time around, stay tuned--Sage has some ideas in the works for more opportunities to contribute your visions of the future in creative forms. 

Friday, August 26, 2016

Futurist Friday: Curating the Hereafter

I have a special place in my heart for museums that help their audiences explore the future.

The latest addition to my collection: the Hereafter Institute, a fictitious company created by Gabriel Barcia-Colombo, recipient of a 201 LACMA Art + Technology grant.

Working in collaboration with theater director Benita de Wit, Barcia-Colombo envisions the Hereafter Institute as "part funeral home, part tech company." The resulting provocation challenges us to think about our legacy in a digital age. What will happen to your data when you die? How will the masses of data you create during your life change the way you are memorialized? 

The Hereafter Institute: An Invitation from Gabriel Barcia-Colombo on Vimeo.

As reported in the LAist, the exhibit will include virtual reality simulations that enable you to spend time with a virtual reality recreation of Barcia-Colombo's grandfather; wearable tech loaded with memories; and the digital equivalent of cremation urns, filled with the deceased's digital remains.

The fictional Hereafter Institute is offering a limited number of real individual consultations--and there already is a waiting list. If you snag a consult, let me know! I will invite you to write about it for the Blog. 

Meanwhile, readers, read the article, watch the video, and think about how digital data will change the way museums remember and interpret the dead, and whether it shapes how you want to be remembered. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Museums and the Future of Work: A Call for Collaboration

Hi, Nicole here. In today's short post, I'm sharing some exciting news—and making a call for your collaboration!

This spring, CFM will be holding a national convening on museums and the future of work. The two-day event builds on the issues highlighted during the Museums and Labor Demo at the 2016 AAM Annual Meeting, and will be a capstone to the final year of my term as a Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow at AAM. 

From Raconteur's Future of Work report

The convening will bring together museum professionals, nonprofit leaders, labor organizers, activists, and academics to imagine the future of museum work. Through a series of interactive panels and working groups, attendees will explore questions of wage equity and access.  We will reflect on the forces of change shaping the museum workforce, share experiences, and map ways that we can move forward toward ensuring sustainable futures for our field.

Together, we’ll assess inequities in the museum workforce and strategize toward expanding the pathways to careers in museum leadership.  Some key questions the convening will engage include:

  • How does the changing nature of work impact our field?
  • Where does the future of equity intersect with the future of workplace change?
  • How can we make both the business case and the ethical case for equitable workforces?
  • What scenarios can we build?
  • Can we tell a dystopian future of museum work? What can we learn from that future?
  • What best practices around labor in our field can we highlight?
  • What can we learn from other fields about museums and work?
  • Who works in our field today and how can we broaden our outreach to new communities?

A big part of this project involves helping museums inspire young people—and especially those from marginalized groups—to pursue museum careers. I believe that the future of our field depends on tapping into the talents of communities not traditionally represented in museum leadership.  I’m asking you to join me in making a more equitable future possible.

Planning for the convening is in its early stages, but, in the spirit of experimenting together, I’m extending a call to you for help in building the conversation.  This is important work—and we can’t do it alone. If you or your museum would like to contribute to the thinking and visioning of this project, I’d love to hear from you. If you’re interested in partnering with us, I’d love to know that, too! Please drop me a line at nivy (at) aam-us (dot) org, or leave your name and a note in the comments section below. 

Image credit: R. Black