Christina M. Spiker

Christina M. Spiker

Art Historian | Professor | Digital Humanist

Reflections from American Historical Association 2018

Representing St. Kate’s at #AHA2018

It is the day before the last day of the American Historical Association conference 2018. I’ve got my chai in hand, my presentation finished, and my swag from the exhibition hall in tow. All in all a great time. It has been a great conference for making new connections and reconnecting with some old friends from UCI in History and Asian Studies.

The panel that I presented on, #s98 Optics: Race, Religion, and Technology in East Asian Photography, 1868-1949, had a great synergy:

 

Christina M Spiker, “Reproducing Alterity: Photography, Illustration, and the Maintenance of Ainu Stereotypes in Meiji and Taisho Japan

Paul D. Barclay, “Picture Postcards of Imperial Japan’s Peoples and Places”

Matthew Combs, “Reframing China: Kodak and the Growth of Amateur Photography, 1920-45”

Joseph W. Ho, “Framing Chaos: Contingency, Community, and American Missionary Visual Practices in Wartime China”

 

There were surprising connections between Paul’s work and my own, Joe and Matt shared a “Kodak Connection,” and Joe’s presentation made me really reconsider the role of Reverend John Batchelor in Ainu representation. Plus Joe let us play with old cameras that he reconstructed. An extremely cool opportunity for any photography and material culture buff! I would love to get my hands on some for the classroom.

Congratulations to editors Kristen Chiem and Lara Blanchard and all contributors! I spotted our book in the Brill booth at #AHA2018

I had the opportunity to attend and tweet some interesting panels: #s29 Digital Projects Lightning Round, #s142 Resistant and Receptive, Insiders and Outsiders: Native Peoples and the Making of Early Modern Indigenous Sovereignty, Colonial Subjects, and Slaves, #s214 Displaying the Nation: Visions of Past and Future in Modern Japan. Tomorrow morning I will see my friend Yidi Wu’s presentation on #s264 Grassroots Activism in 20th-Century Asia: Lessons from Russia, China, and North Vietnam and if I have time I will head to #s310 Empire, Race, and Sovereignty in Hawai’i From Kingdom to Statehood. There has been very little downtime!

In the exhibition hall, I also had the rare opportunity to spot a book that I contributed to in the Brill booth. This was a first for me and I am immensely proud of the work that everyone put in!

 

Some issues that I’ve been thinking a lot about as we wrap things up:

  • The conference has allowed me to clearly see the value and contributions of my own discipline. I value the many contributions by history — my work is not possible without them. But there is a true art to visual analysis that can bring a presentation alive. Images are sources in an of themselves and paying attention to their stories can open us up to new lines of inquiry. I’ve seen a lot of interesting archival material this trip — from maps to advertisements to video — and I keep thinking that asking “what” the images show is only part of the equation. We need to ask “how” they mean what they do. To quote W. J. T. Mitchell’s essay that my students grappled with all semester, “What do Pictures Really Want?” So in sum, conference has been a valuable opportunity for defining myself as a scholar outside of my own field.
  • The most interesting papers to listen to are those that still have questions to ask. I’ve seen a wide range of papers this trip — from presentations based on recently published work to real works in progress. And as a listener, I enjoy thinking through some of the problems alongside the speaker. The audience has so much to contribute, but there needs to be space to do so. I’m not a perfectionist by any means, but it encourages me to leave some areas open to debate so that I can benefit from the insight and observations of those around me.
  • And finally, a question. How can recognize the violence of the archive? This was a question asked by a few of the papers that I heard (such as the lightening paper by Anelise Shrout and a paper about Tupi language(s) in Eastern South America by M. Kittiya Lee). The types of information (and the organizations collecting it) often contribute to forms of historical erasure. I need to meditate more deeply on this issue within my own work.

 

Looking forward to enjoying tomorrow and then seeing some family before returning home to St. Paul to prepare for Spring Semester.

St. Kate’s Scholar’s Retreat: The Virtues of Writing Socially

During the school year, I always bemoan a lack of time and yearn for summer days when I will be totally free to write that latest book proposal / article / essay / blog / conference abstract… And yet, every time the summer comes, I find it hard to find the focus and motivation to get work done. I know that I’m not alone in my struggles, as it seems to be one of the most common topics of commiseration among faculty both old and new. But I can never help feeling like I am struggling along in front of an empty Word .doc. And before I know it, the summer comes to a close as we turn our attention towards course preps and upcoming departmental meetings. The summer is fleeting.

I’m trying to psych myself out of these ruts by establishing a daily practice, but it is sometimes easier said than done. But this past week, I had a wonderful opportunity to unite with other faculty in disciplines across campus for the St. Catherine University Scholar’s Retreat. The image I had in my mind was “writing bootcamp,” but the actual experience was quite different. It really made me think about the process of writing socially. The two facilitators of our group encouraged us to mix writing and work with periods of dedicated play. We were encouraged not to lock ourselves in a conference room with nothing but coffee, computers, and a laser-jet printer, although that was how I imagined our entire week at the Oakridge Conference Center in Chaska, MN. We had a schedule that stressed balance and we were expected to keep to it to avoid writing binges, structured around “Sacred Writing Time,” or periods of uninterrupted work. This writing time could occur in company (I liked to work in one of the larger rooms with about 6 others), or alone in your room, in nature, or in any other nook. A typical day looked like the following:

7-9am: Continental Breakfast
9-11am: Sacred Writing Time
11:15am-12pm: Small Group Meeting (progress check in and the setting of daily goals)
12-1pm: Lunch
1-2pm: Individual Meeting (if needed)
2-4pm: Sacred Writing Time
4-6pm: Play
6-7pm: Dinner
7:15-9pm: Large Group Meeting (which consisted mostly of public readings of works in progress)

The fact that I got more work done in these dedicated two hour chunks than one of my 8-hour coffee-shop binge sessions was enlightening. I kept thinking, “I can get more work done in two 2-hour chunks than a solid 8 hours of effort?! What magic is this?!” But I really think the process was effective because of breaks and the cultivation of a writer’s community–with people who faced the same struggles and neuroses as the rest of us. This week, I felt like my work was part of something larger. And through the process, an 8-page conference paper blossomed into a 25-page draft (complete with references). More work needs to be done, but I’m going to try my hand at allotting my own Sacred Writing Time during the week, and see how that goes. It begins today.

And as an added bonus of the process? Learning about the scholarly work and ambitions of my other colleagues in fields as diverse as English, Nursing, Occupational Therapy, Biology, and Business. As I walk around campus this fall, I now have 13 newly familiar faces to greet me during Opening Workshops. I can even tell you what they are working on!

The more I reflect, the more I think that graduate programs should embrace similar retreats to teach their students and faculty how to establish a healthy writing practice. I try to think about when I learned all of the bad habits that I am trying desperately to unlearn. Was it when I was dissertating in coffee shops across the U.S. and Japan? How about cranking out seminar papers on the quarter system? Did it begin in my undergraduate education? Or in high school? I think that by the time we enter graduate school, everyone makes the assumption that not only can we write well, but that we can do so efficiently. But writing can be a struggle if it is not routine. And since there will never be enough time, we need to protect the time we allot in order to make writing a more mundane part of our schedule.

Because if I am telling the truth, my best work was never the result of divine inspiration. And I bet yours wasn’t either. It was the product of a daily toil and a special kind of perseverance to keep returning to that same draft no matter what frustrations I harbored. And the daily courage to sit down and double click on the document in order to begin.

Lessons Learned: 2nd Annual Art Historians of the Twin Cities Symposium

Thank you to Amy Hamlin for taking this great group photograph of both panels!

Many thanks and congratulations to the Art Historians of the Twin Cities for a second year of fascinating presentations! I was so honored to be a part of this event for a second year running. My paper on crepe-paper books (chirimen-bon) went over better than I had anticipated, and I left with so many new avenues to consider. It was great to hear the work of the six other presenters: Curt Germundson (Univ. of Minnesota, Mankato), Gretchen Gasterland-Gustafson (MCAD), Frenchy Lunning (MCAD), Christopher Tradowsky (St. Olaf College), Damon Stanek (MCAD) and Maria Zavialova (Museum of Russian Art).

With symposia such as this one that are purposely constructed to be inclusive of a wide variety of work, it can sometimes be difficult to find themes that unite multiple papers aside from the fact that we are all connected to art history or visual culture in one way or another. But there was one concept brought up by Gretchen Gasterland-Gustafson that I kept seeing throughout our papers. Citing Nicholas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics (1998), she discussed the artwork of Chris Larson (particularly his recreation of Marcel Breuer’s Kacmarcik House as the “Daylight Center” in Kapenguria, Kenya). She said that Larson’s work was more concerned with the processes of formation, rather than the finished form. Form, she argued, is concerned with what is desired, while formation is concerned with what is possible. Gasterland-Gustafson related this to the collaborative possibilities inherent in Larson’s art. The crucial moment is when the artist’s initial ideas about a project meet the local constraints of environment, workers, and eventual inhabitants. She explained that form served as a blueprint of sorts, with participants bringing the work of art into being.

Christopher Tradowsky comparing the poetry of Wallace Stevens and La Monte Young.

After her paper, I began to see our collective preoccupation with issues of formation. In the first panel, Curt Gemundson explored the work of Carl Buchheister and his idea that copies could somehow liberate us from our obsession with the original work of art (7 years before Walter Benjamin’s “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” mind you!) Despite his grand ideas, Buchheister eventually fails in this goal, as he still held on the original work of art, making art speculation possible and thus raising the price out of the price range of those he wanted to be able to afford it. Buchheister, in his own way, seemed to be engaging with these very debates over form and formation, and the problems that arise when we privilege form over the creative process more generally. In contrast, Christopher Tradowsky turned to Fluxus and imperative poetry, and challenged us to take poetry seriously. Over the course of his presentation, he spoke about performing a “Fluxus Festival” with students so that they could fully grasp the goals of this kind of performance. We saw a photograph of his students aggressively pushing a piano into the wall, following La Monte Young’s instruction. But this photograph reminded me that such acts require not only active participants to bring the work to being, but also an ability to relinquish control over a finished product. It is about the process, rather than the “finalized piece,” which could only be documented through the medium of photography (or video). And finally, Frenchy Lunning spoke about the gradual codification of an aesthetic called “hirahira” in girl’s ballet comics (shojo manga). The style derived its name from Japanese onomatopoeia for “flit and flutter.” While Lunning provided us with plenty of finished works to analyze, one of her main points was that ballet manga was, in a way, an act of adolescent self indulgence. At the same time that ballet manga strove to depict the perfection of form through the dancer “on point” at the height of lightness and thinness, the aesthetic itself was often a way of working through the identity formation of young girls defiantly standing outside the world of men.

Q&A for the morning panel.

In the second panel, Damon Stanek allowed us to think through the relationship between jazz and images that were projected on a screen in a gallery space. In a theoretical exegesis that moved between music and art, he asked us to consider the differences between presentation and representation. The question rattling in my mind was the striking contrast between the improvisation of jazz where music avoids the overdetermination of form, and the desire to create works of art intended to preserve that generative process in the gallery space. And finally, Maria Zavialova explored the collection at the Museum of Russian art from the perspective of the curator. She focused her talk on the collecting practices of Soviet Art, and it made me remember that collections go through their own formative processes that are subject to the whims of the market and history.

And with regard to my own paper, I actively chose to focus on how these crepe-paper books came into being, rather than offer an analysis of the final form (which is scholarship already being carried out by scholars more qualified than I). I find that by focusing on process, I am better able to account for voices and narratives typically left out of the history. The labor of women is typically invisible if we analyze these books only in terms of significant artists and publishers. What is infinitely more interesting is how these things come into being through a process of cross-cultural collaboration.

The way that I am seeing form vs. formation is likely a far reach from Bourriaud’s (and by extension Gasterland-Gustafson’s thesis), but it served as a productive way for me think through the variety of work at the symposium. What made the presentations interesting is that each person was invested in the collaborative possibilities inherent in the journey, rather than the destination.

Looking forward to next year!

Lessons Learned: Global Digital Humanities Symposium @ MSU

So the symposium has ended. I still have a few hours to enjoy the snow outside in Lansing, Michigan and the amenities of this hotel room before I fly back to Minnesota. There was a lot to like about the Global Digital Humanities Symposium at Michigan State University (#msuglobaldh), and I was able to meet a lot of interesting people doing digital humanities work in a variety of disciplines (many of whom will now populate my twitter feed). But let me recount some of my personal takeaways.

1. Good things can happen when you intentionally include indigenous and global voices. In the same room. And more than one. In my experience, many conferences and symposia that I attend dedicated to a large topic, like “digital humanities,” tend to mostly focus on Euro-American projects and perspectives. If racism is brought up, it is about racism in America. If feminism is brought up, it is specifically a white, American feminist experience that rises to the forefront. In my own experience presenting, although I am not Ainu or Japanese, if I speak about indigenous Ainu historical representation in Japan, it always has to be framed and situated in this Euro-American context to be legible. I’m forced to repeatedly explain (a) who the Ainu are, (b) how they fit into Japan, (c) issues of indigenous representation broadly, and (d) why I am interested as a white female scholar and what my relationship is to that community (in addition to the ethical implications of this visual work). All of these things are important to address, but instead of feeling like an outlier or novelty project, it was nice to be taken seriously and be situated amongst projects asking similar questions about race, representation, visibility, and erasure. I was really interested in Rebecca Wingo‘s presentation, “Archival Repatriation: Reuniting the Crows with their Ancestors,” as there are facets of the work she is doing that reminds me of the work of Miyatake Kimio with regard to the Ainu and reintroducing lost photographs and objects from the St. Louis Exposition to their living descendants, and I learned that Rocio Quispe-Agnoli’s work has a lot of research questions in common with mine from a Latin American perspective.

2. Data is political and connected to the lives of real people, and we need to be mindful about how we mine it, cite it, represent it. We also need to consider how we ultimately label the work that we do. I think we all leave this symposium feeling a little more vigilant about these issues. Andrea Ledesma‘s paper “Witnessing Hate: Case Studies in Data, Documentation, and Social Justice,” asked us to consider what is means to bear witness to hate and then the implications and challenges of representing marginal identities when data becomes a statistic. Today, Viola Lasmana examined what a digital humanities that was engaged with freedom, revolution, and social justice might look like through the lens of post-1965 Indonesia. She channeled Edward Said on amateurism, and asks us to be critical of the term “global digital humanities” when there are many small, local projects that are not considered part of that corpus. To use a turn of phrase used by Anelise H. Shrout in her presentation about Irish immigrants and institutions like Bellevue, data needs to be humanized or we risk perpetuating archival violence. Real people are complicated. In the quest for clear or representable data, we can’t forget those border spaces that resist easy categorization and are thus rendered invisible.

3. The role or partnerships and collaboration in the digital humanities. This question was forcefully raised by Jennifer Hart‘s presentation “Accra Wala: mapping roads, mapping history, mapping partnerships,” where she spoke about building bridges between communities in Ghana and America. But from involving indigenous developers when designing games that represent the indigenous community, as raised by Elizabeth LaPensée, to considering institutional partners when working between one’s own project and the state to our student workers who assist in data collection and interpretation, collaborators take on many forms. The presentations over these past two days remind us that we rarely do our work alone.

4. The need for public funding for the arts and humanities. So many of the projects discussed over the last two days would have been stopped dead in their tracks without National Endowment for the Humanities or National Endowment for the Arts funding. In a scary intellectual environment where the NEH, NEA, and Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Institute for Museum and Library Services are being threatened to be cut from the budget, we must remain vigilant in protecting these. MSU Dean Christopher P. Long invokes Hobbes in saying, “For in the end, without the arts, without the humanities, there is no shared future; there is no society at all, but rather, a collection of increasingly isolated individuals for whom life has become ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.'”

I totally underestimated the challenges of attending a conference while getting over a nasty cold, but I’m so glad that I made it here in one piece (even though I had lost my voice for my own presentation… C’est la vie). However, lots to mull over as I move forward with my own work in this area.

Lessons Learned from Mechademia 2016

Mechademia PosterWell, back to the grind after a crazy week of Asian pop culture madness. Mechademia was a lot of fun, and the weekend felt like such a whirlwind! Hard to believe it came and went. Here are some general reflections on the conference.

  • This year’s theme was “worldbuilding,” and the papers of the conference took unique approaches to the concept. From Leticia Andlauer‘s  ruminations on otome gemu and the ways that fans in France build their own worlds through avatar creation and imagined romance to artist/engineer Yuzuru Nakagawa‘s engagement with theories by Otsuka Eiji and Ito Go and his proposal for a new theory of animation from the artist’s perspective that embraces the technical necessity of realistic backdrops to support symbolic characters; it seemed that “worldbuilding” manifested in many surprising ways. Sean C. Hill asked us to interpret the world of Haruhi Suzumiya through a Jungian lens, radically changing the way we perceive the characters and the protagonist’s mind, while Cindi Textor sutured the global and the local in her exploration of the Korean animation Wonderful Days. The keynote lecture by Mark J. P. Wolf titled “Building a Better World: Utopias, Dystopias, and Imagined Futures” explored the history of visual representations of utopia and dystopia, and the potentiality of applying visionary thinking often found in movies and games to real world problems. Rather than remaining in the realm of textual analysis, Wolf challenged us to think beyond the fictional world to the real life applicability of invention and design.
  • In some ways, the conference represented an interdisciplinary crashing of worlds! It made concrete the fact that scholars and students who work on popular culture hail from many fields, and the study of these objects and communities cannot be bounded within a single disciplinary framework. We saw scholars from Asian Studies, Game Studies, English & Comparative Lit, Sociology, Communications, Psychology, Art and Art History, Media Studies, Film Studies, etc. On the one hand, this is liberating! On the other, it makes me realize that we have a lot of work to do to make our ideas truly relatable across disciplinary lines. At these kinds of conferences, it becomes crucial for each of us to do the rhetorical work necessary to make our ideas accessible, and I realize that everyone (including myself) has a way to go before hitting that sweet note.
  • Every conference should have a creative element. I think this is a real strength of Mechademia. Perhaps it is working in a combined Art/Art History department, but I am always thinking about how much I have to learn from my studio colleagues. The conference combined traditional academic panels with creative workshops (on digital painting, cosplay, etc), anime screenings, short film screenings, and a fashion show; and the synergy was something to behold. I think bearing witness to the creative process allows us to reflect back at our own scholarship as a creative act.
  • This was my first time live-tweeting an entire conference. I learned a lot through the process of doing it (although I still have a lot to learn from @racgonz, who introduced me to the idea). But it was a fun process to record the ephemerality of a conference and your evolving thoughts throughout the weekend. Somehow, it kept me on my toes as I thought through my questions for each panelist.

So that wraps up an action-packed weekend! I still feel like I need more feedback to recognize some of the shortcomings of my argument about Street Fighter II and Samurai Spirits, so I will be looking for a new venue to field some other aspects of the project. Slowly, my ideas are materializing…

Lessons Learned from Console-ing Passions 2016

Well, I returned from the Console-ing Passions Conference at Notre Dame without any hardship, and I had a wonderful time exploring topics that are very much foreign territory for me. I think we, as academics, can learn a ton by attending and participating in events that are outside of our field, even if slightly. Here are my takeaways.

  • There was a lot of good discussion about issues of representation in everything from television to film to video games. Even my own paper focused on indigenous representation as frame of analysis. But during the forum “Back to Black: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Contemporary Media Industries,” Kristen J. Warner (University of Alabama, @kristenwarner) was reflecting on representations of blackness on TV and asked a question of the audience that has stuck with me: “Does representation even matter?” Do we cede ground in the fight when we accept a plastic or superficial representation just for the sake of diversity, rather than fighting for a nuanced, complex, and dynamic representation of race and gender. When so many arguments revolve around seeing diversity on TV in a visual manner, what happens when these fictional characters lose the texture of their culture, and the only thing authentic about them is literally surface? And is this really okay with us? Throughout the panels, this was a question that kept sneaking its way in to conversations, and one that I’m grappling with presently…
  • Another issue that was raised by presenters like Ron Krabill (University of Washington, Bothell) was regarding participatory media and a notion of radical reciprocity. He investigated the rhetoric of “global citizenship” ever present in college and university mission statements, and how this notion of becoming a global citizen is paired with creating global subjects. We strive to educate and “culture” students, and sending them abroad is a major component to this puzzle, but I do often find that students come back and talk about their own experiences and what they saw, rather than the communities they engaged with and people they met. I wonder why we do not discuss reciprocity in the discipline of art history or visual culture? How can we encourage this deeper kind of collaboration between students of different cultures so it is not just about a singular “experience”? After all, visual culture travels, and there is a lot of untapped potential in comparing different cultural approaches to its creation and analysis.
  • But the last thing that struck me was how much work needs to be done in other cultural contexts. The conference was great in so many ways, but many of the panels (and media studies/TV studies itself) seemed to be very focused on the United States. As the keynote, Aniko Imre (University of Southern California) explained, we often forget that media like television permeated a variety of cultures, including those east of the wall. She discussed soap operas in Eastern Europe (work that comes out of her new book, TV Socialism), and what fascinated me was how certain genres such as the soap opera take on entirely new dimensions when examined in a Czech, Polish, or Hungarian context. In effect, it destabilizes certain reified definitions of genre. Even in my own classroom on Japanese visual culture, my students watch portions of Japanese TV (commercials and all), and they are occasionally surprised at how the experience of watching television can be so radically different from their own. This kind of analysis raises crucial questions regarding how the medium itself communicates across space, and in the case of Imre’s work, challenges our perceptions of how TV under socialism operates.

The conference was enlightening for me, and I’m looking forward to engaging more explicitly with scholarship in this vein when I teach visual culture. I’ll be curious to see how different this will be from work that explicitly focuses on Japan at this year’s Mechademia at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

 

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