Christina M. Spiker

Christina M. Spiker

Art Historian | Professor | Digital Humanist

The Life Cycle of the City: Photography and Urbanism after Disaster @ MiA

I received an invitation from the Curator of Photography and New Media at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Yasufumi Nakamori, to attend a symposium that coincided with the exhibition of Naoya Hatakeyama’s photographs titled Excavating the Future City. I last saw Hatakeyama’s work in 2009, and I was excited about the opportunity to hear him speak and to see the show. I am so grateful that two of my students could come with me — the conversations and images were of the sort that left you in a strange contemplative space with a want and a need to talk to someone. I was glad that we could hash out these difficult ideas together.

Hatakeyama used his keynote talk to think through his own position as a photographer and his relationship to 3/11 disaster, which consisted of an earthquake, a tsunami, and a subsequent nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima Daiichi in March 2011. Hatakeyama’s hometown was a small fishing town named Rikuzentakata in Iwate Prefecture, which was directly impacted by the tsunami. Hatakeyama’s talk vacillated between extremes — between life and death, between insider and outsider, and between the past and the future. Hatakeyama’s slow and deliberate delivery was set against quickly changing slides featuring his photographs. He asked us how we consider works like this that are factual, but not photojournalism. Images that exist between art and something deeper. Photographs that render us speechless.

Hatakeyama began by showing us photos that he had taken in Rikuzentakata before the tsunami. This record of a town and its life was not in preparation for the tsunami, and yet the images were filled with ghosts. Our relationship with the people and sites in the photos cause us to think about what was lost. Hatakeyama also discussed his own personal grief surrounding the loss of his mother and his hometown, both of which cannot be retrieved. Even during the rebuilding process, the local government will never be able to reconstruct traditional homes and historical sites because of an aging population and a slow, but steady, exodus from rural areas to the more urban Tokyo. It would be rebuilt in a new manner befitting the current residents, who will remember a history that was physically ingrained in and then erased from the landscape.

What was powerful to me was the process of thinking through the various personal relationships we have to disaster. Victims of a disaster extend far beyond the immediate flood zones. Hatakeyama felt very much affected by the tsunami, and yet, was perceived as an outsider by those who directly experienced it in Rikuzentakata. It is a strange sensation to feel so intensely connected to an event, even to the extent of losing one’s parent, but to be on the outside looking in at the physical trauma to the people and the land. And there is that nagging and ever-present sense of “what if” that lingers — what if I had been in my parent’s house; what if I had never left.

Two engaging panels followed the keynote. The first focused on issues of representation. We hard from Anne Wilkes Tucker, a curator emerita of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Gennifer Weisenfeld, a professor of art history and visual studies and Dean of the Humanities at Duke University, and Manny Fernandez, the New York Times Houston Bureau Chief who covered Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath. Weisenfeld is an academic hero of mine (I saw a talk by her at UPenn when I was in undergrad, believe it or not). I thought it was valuable to think through not only the power of images, but how they often work in concert with each other to further some message or story about disaster.

The second panel focused on architecture and urban planning around issues of disaster and crisis. It featured Shohei Shigematsu, an architect and OMA Partner whose work includes an urban water strategy for New Jersey post-Hurricane Sandy, Kate Knuth, the former Chief Resilience Officer at City of Minneapolis, and William Fulton, director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University. As an art historian, I was really intrigued to think about the relationship of visual culture to policy making in today’s world.

After the symposium wrapped up, my students and I went upstairs to see the exhibition, which was impressive. I needed far longer than one hour to process everything in the room and plan on going back soon. One of my students had never really seen (or even seen the point) of seeing photography in an exhibition before that day. I hope that the experience changed her perception of how the exhibition context can change our relationship to photographs that we sometimes take for granted when seen online or in a book. There is a flat, but tactile quality to the image that is hard to express. We spent a long time looking at details, colors, and the use of line in his earlier works on limestone quarries — it was easy to talk about those aesthetically. But the transition to his work on Rikuzentakata really underscored the issue of how we read and comprehend images of disaster.

Mapping Isabella Bird: Geolocation & Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (1880) — A New Digital Resource

I can’t properly put into words how happy it makes me to officially add this link to Mapping Isabella Bird to the site. It is a project that has been in the making since 2015, and one that really came together in the last two years since arriving at St. Kate’s. I have long wanted to create a comprehensive resource for students and researchers studying Bird’s travelogue Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (1880), and this website has a little bit for everyone–Literary Studies, Art History, Asian Studies, Japanese Studies, Ainu Studies, Tourism Studies, and Geography.Putting the site together reminded me why I became fascinated with Bird in the first place: her work manages to serve as a resource in so many disciplines and her legacy keeps on. The release of the site is timely with a special issue titled “Isabella Bird, Victorian globalism, and Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (1880)” appearing in vol. 21 of Studies in Travel Writing (2017). I’m looking forward to working my way through these essays.

Mapping Isabella Bird was built with Scalar 2, a digital publishing platform developed by the University of Southern California. I first learned about Scalar (then in its first iteration) as a graduate student at UC Irvine. The ability to annotate media made it particularly attractive to me, and I knew it would work well for this project. The website can be navigated in a variety of ways — through the path at the bottom of the home page or through the drop-down menu in the top left. You will find interactive maps created on ArcGIS, CARTO, and Google Maps, which build on tabular data culled from the books. You will also find an image gallery that is slowly being annotating with original source images (and if you are interested, I am always looking for help tracking these photographs down!) The website also deliberately highlights Bird’s travel in Hokkaido and the Ainu in the Saru River Valley today in a recognition of their adaptation and development over time. I remain committed to recognizing the present of the Ainu in addition to their past.

What’s next? I’m in the process now of designing some sample assignments using the various resources of the site for secondary and higher education. Some will be for use in Art History classroom while others will fit will into a syllabus on Japanese History. Many will be paired with chapters of the travelogue. I hope that the resource will be useful for years to come for others who remain curious about Bird and her Japanese journey in 1878.

You can access the project directly via the menu on the left. If you find it useful, please don’t hesitate to let me know.

Gachapon & Middle State Publishing

For curious eyes, I just published a brief essay titled “Should You Pull?: Gachapon, Risk, and Reward in Mobile Gaming” with First Person Scholar. I’m trying to historicize plastic capsule toy vending machines in Japan, or gachapon, while also thinking forward to their application in mobile games as a monetary model. The essay brings together cultural history with some examples of application where the physical meets the virtual. I hope you enjoy it! I couldn’t help but to throw some contemporary art in there too. I am an art historian, after all.

Working with First Person Scholar was an amazing experience, and a venture that I hope to continue as my path through visual culture helps me to connect art history with game studies. FPS is a “middle-state” publication. Described by Jason Hawreliak, this means a hybrid publication that addresses two of academia’s biggest downfalls: accessibility and speed. When dealing with material that is fast moving, like games tend to be, these kinds of publications are invaluable for presenting immediate critical reflections in a timely manner. The essays do not go through the rigor of the peer-review process, but are vetted and edited. In many ways, I see the AHTR Weekly of Art History Teaching Resources doing similar work with regard to pedagogy and art history. Personally, I think we need more of this kind of publication in academia, and we especially need this kind of work to be valued. The art world moves fast as well, and it would be great if some weight could be given to these kinds of immediate explorations, essays, and critical commentaries. I know the change needs to come at the level of what search committees value in order to encourage young scholars to take stock in these sorts of publications. But I have to say that there is something intensely satisfying about a quick turn around… Especially when our work gets stuck in typical publication cycles that can take anywhere from 1-3 years time from submission to publication. By the time something comes out, nobody cares…

I feel energized — what an awesome way to kick off the Fall Semester! I’m teaching Ways of Seeing and Art History: Renaissance through Modern this time around, so more about my in-class experiences soon!

 

Photo credit: MsSaraKelly Vending machines outside a games shop in Shinjuku via photopin (license).

Constructing a (Digital) Resource: Isabella Bird in Japan

The summer is off to a fantastic start! It has been hard to get my head into writing, so I’ve thrown my effort into developing a new online resource using ArcGIS and the StoryMap feature that they offer for free. It isn’t live yet, but I’m close…

I have some experience working with the basic functions of mapping in ArcGIS through the Traveling Hokkaido project. I’ve got a long way to go before that work is done, but I wanted to make a resource more squarely focused on the various dimensions of a single traveler. Since I’ve been working on an essay on the role of illustration and the depiction of the Ainu in Isabella Bird’s Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (1880) (which will be moving to proofs soon, hopefully), I thought this might make a nice supplement.

My goal with this is to create something that is accessible for audiences of all ages. The points I plotted out for Traveling Hokkaido form the basis of the Hokkaido map above, but I’ve gone through Bird’s itinerary and began plotting out her travel in Honshu as well. Although her journey is in two volumes, I am breaking it up into four stages: Yokohama to Niigata, Niigata to Aomori, Hokkaido, and Kansai. Each point on the map to the right is an actual location Bird indicates either in text or in her itinerary. For each pin, I am going through the original 1880 text and isolating relevant quotes that pertain to place, geography, specific sites, or customs. I haven’t worked with her first volume extensively before this, and it has been enlightening to see seasonal changes and her subjective evaluations of place before and after her time in Hokkaido.

In addition to creating an overview of her entire Japan trip, I’m also trying to conxtualize the importance of her time in Hokkaido. I feel committed to doing this in terms of Japanese history while also recognizing the current state of the Ainu in the Saru River valley, where Bird spent her time. I’m highlighting the Nibutani Ainu Culture Museum, the Kayano Shigeru Ainu Museum, and the legal debate regarding the Nibutani Dam. Too many popular writers only see the Ainu in terms of their “pastness” and it would be irresponsible not to consider their present and their future.

As I put this together, I am also compiling ideas for an Educator’s Guide pitched towards high school and undergraduate students. I want to give educators ideas about how to use this series of maps in their classes. (After all, what good is a resource if you don’t know how to use it?) I think it could be extremely useful in Japanese history (of course), discussions of Victorian travel writing in literature, understanding the role of women in 19th century exploration, understanding the role of the Ainu in these narratives, and as a way to highlight the geographic context for understanding earlier practices of tourism that inform our own “beaten routes” today.

A work in progress! I anticipate releasing the project in two weeks or so. The Educator’s Guide might come a little bit later, but it will definitely be done before fall. For now, enjoys the screenshots!

Threshold: Whispers of Fukushima @ St. Olaf (April 15, 6pm)

This Friday, director Toko Shiiki and composer Erik Santos will be screening and talking about their documentary Threshold: Whispers from Fukushima. If you are in the area, the event is free and open to public and will be followed by a Q&A and refreshments. Threshold is an award-winning documentary that examines the experience of several musicians from the Fukushima area after the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disasters of March 2011.

Date: 4/15/2016 (Friday)

Time: 6pm

Location: Tomson Hall 280, St. Olaf College

Official Blurb: Director Toko Shiiki focuses on the role of music as a positive and unifying force that supports a recovering community. She writes, “Finding and nurturing one’s happiness to continue living a healthy life is a fundamental human concern. No matter where we live, we must face this. The people in Fukushima have such inspiring sounds and stories to share with the world. From these positive people, perhaps we might learn and remember something important and unexpected.”

Whether you are in Asian Studies, Environmental Studies, Film, Music, or Art — I think the film will bring a lot of unique perspectives. Congratulations to Kendra Strand for all of her hard work organizing. Hope to see you there!

Remembering My First Study Abroad: Photos from 2005

Last week, I undertook a massive file purge of an old hard drive. It is amazing how one’s drive tends to mirror the state of one’s office… In my case, this means a creative disarray of folders that was once painstakingly organized according to a complex system that I no longer remember! But among the files, I found a treasure trove of old photographs from my very first study abroad in Japan, when I was an undergraduate at Ursinus College (slideshow above).

It was fun reliving the memories of friends met and places traveled over the course of 2005 to 2006. And my, how things have changed from that very first adventure! I remember when two volunteers picked up a very jet-lagged 19-year-old version of myself from Narita Airport to help me find my new dormitory and my university in Mitaka. They kept throwing me softballs–what is your favorite music? favorite movie? favorite food? I remember nodding along, trying to wrap my mind around the barrage of syllables that felt simultaneously foreign and familiar. Every so often an English loan word would grab my attention like a shining beacon until the rolling murmur of the language swallowed it whole once again. I remember feeling a combination of excitement and nervous anxiety about what that year would hold, like any student starting out on a study abroad with only a beginner’s knowledge of the language. But the shock and trepidation wore off quickly, and I began traveling. I found myself venturing to Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, investigating Japan’s natural features, and making my way to exhibition openings and basement galleries, often with friends and sometimes alone. It was a year that built character and sparked a love of art, travel, and photography. It also taught me about the challenges that my own students face upon departure.

I used to bring a little Canon point-and-shoot camera with me everywhere I went. This is something that remains the same today, even though I am now dragging around a beast of a DSLR. But here are some glimmers from that year before I had ever decided to go to graduate school and devote my professional career to the study of Japanese visual culture.

Goodbye Hokkaido, Hello California

I cobbled together this post over the course of moving back to the States–from WordPress, the note-taking function on my phone, and a convenient napkin stuck between the pages of a book I am reading…

The Preparation

I leave Japan in less than a week. It is hard to admit that my leaving is actually real as I look around my apartment with items strewn everywhere. The moment when my room should be its absolute cleanest, it looks like a tornado tore through the hallway and down the center of my living space. My heart feels somewhat the same. This has been a week of many goodbyes, and each one does not come any easier than the one before it. My professional and personal life seems straddled between two countries, and although that brings with it a certain amount of joy and adventure, it also makes me feel a little disconnected by the sheer vastness of the Pacific (and perhaps, the price of plane tickets… In comparison to a flight I took in 2009, the price has at least doubled.) I will miss Hokkaido, Sapporo, and the people here a great deal — at the end of the day, this is a wonderful place to live and work. I am going to miss it here… Thank you so much Prof. Sasaki, Prof. Tanimoto, and everyone in the Department of Japanese History!

[youtube=http://youtu.be/ExLhuJmu1ao]

The Transit

Goodbye Japan!

I somehow managed to tame that tornado into two suitcases and a carry-on, and I headed to a hotel in Chitose. My flight left too early in the morning to depend on the trains, in addition to the fact that torrential downpours in Sapporo and the flooding of the Toyohira river pretty much brought JR to a stop. The storm broke for just long enough that we were able to make it to the hotel. That night, I submerged myself in the entirely empty public bath and reflected on the remaining leg of the journey. I had two suitcases–38 kg and 23 kg–in addition to two carry-on bags.  I’m still not entirely sure how I managed to wrangle the suitcases to the New Chitose airport. In Tokyo, when they transferred me to a different terminal, my heart sank as I stared at the pile of… stuff.  Let me just say that muscles were hurting me in places that probably has not seen any physical action since my short-lived rugby days. I’m waiting for my flight now, with eight hours left of my ten hour layover. I had some grand ideas of exploring Narita city when I got here, but now all I can think about is collapsing in a chair and taking a nap.

The Arrival

The flight went surprisingly well. For the first time in years, immigration and customs gave me no significant trouble and I assembled the bags onto a cart with the remaining morsel of strength left within me. As I ascended to the surface of LAX heading for ground transportation, I was hit with this overwhelming smell of french fries. At first, I thought it was just me… But judging from everyone else’s confused whiffing, I would say that the smell wasn’t my imagination. It seemed almost as if someone sprayed the place in french fry essence mixed with car fumes…  Welcome to the United States of America.

My other first impression is perhaps less surprising: California is hot.  Returning in a heat wave will do that to you, but it isn’t just the temperature. The sun itself seems to burn brighter, and I was squinting all over grabbing for my sunglasses within ten minutes of my arrival. It feels weird to be back here. I expected things to look and feel different, as if the landscape would somehow reflect my absence, but everything looks and feels the same. I guess the world just bumbled along without me. However after all the goodbyes of last week, I’m looking forward to saying hello for a change.

またね、北海道

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