VCS 20th Anniversary Interviews: C. Ondine Chavoya with Janet Wolff

VCS 20th Anniversary Interviews: C. Ondine Chavoya with Janet Wolff

Could you describe your role and involvement in the founding of the VCS Program?

Actually I wasn’t one of the founders. As I recall, the program got State approval in 1989, and the first official year was 1990-1991 (though two students – Barbara Miller and Rochelle Steiner – had started work in the program in 1989-1990). I arrived in January 1991, and took over from Mieke Bal as Director that summer. Soon after that, we changed the title of the program from Comparative Arts to Visual and Cultural Studies.

What models were available at the time of the founding of the VCS program? Who did you see as your colleagues in the US and internationally? Were there other clusters of (interdisciplinary) scholars associated with particular locations or institutions that you were in dialogue with?

There weren’t really any models for a visual studies program at the time – Rochester was the first. However, there had for nearly twenty years been a variety of cultural studies programs, particularly in the UK (and also Canada and Australia). I suppose I saw as ‘colleagues’ – those thinking in similar ways – a number of groups. First, there were British friends and colleagues in cultural studies programs, those whom I had known since I was in Birmingham myself as a graduate student in the late 1960s and those I had met and worked with since in a number of contexts. Then there were those working in the ‘new’ art history – in the UK, connected with the journal BLOCK at Middlesex Polytechnic and elsewhere, but also with Screen and other journals committed to interdisciplinary, and socio-political, approaches to culture and the visual arts (Literature and History, m/f, Ideology & Consciousness, Feminist Review). In addition there were interesting programs in comparative literature and the specifically ‘American’ version of cultural studies developing since the 1980s. And my first visiting appointments in the US tended to be in these places; for instance, at the University of Minnesota, where I twice had visiting appointments.

During this time were you also at the UC Santa Cruz, where several interdisciplinary programs were underway including History of Consciousness and Modern Society and Social Thought?

Yes – I had a visiting appointment at UCSC in the fall of 1989. (In fact I was there for the 7.1 Loma Prieta earthquake!) I was based in the Art History Department, not HisCon, but of course it was very interesting and rewarding to be teaching at a place clearly committed to interdisciplinary work.

What do you think has been the influence of the VCS program on new programs and new models?

Hard to say. I know the program at the University of California at Irvine was explicitly modeled on the Rochester program. Since then, visual studies has expanded enormously, in terms not just of new programs and degrees but also of journals, book series, conferences, and other professional activities. I’m sure the influence of VCS has been considerable, not least through our own alumni now teaching in so many places (and some working in important museum jobs). Though what people mean by ‘visual studies’ varies quite a bit.

How would you characterize the transition from the founding of the graduate program as Comparative Arts to Visual and Cultural Studies? Did the change in program title represent a different mission?

When I arrived, the program was the PhD in Comparative Arts. I was told later that this was partly tactical – it sounds ‘harmless’ enough, and at least at the level of description it registered that the new program was a collaboration of faculty in art history, comparative literature, and film studies. But of course what it didn’t register at all was the interdisciplinary (as opposed to purely cross-disciplinary) project, the new critical methods taught (semiotics, psychoanalysis, neo-Marxism, feminism), and the socio-political focus of much of the work. After discussion with all faculty involved, and with the graduate students then in the program, we decided on Visual and Cultural Studies (rejecting Cultural and Visual Studies in case of any confusion with the pharmacy – CVS).

Did your research interests or methodological scope change during this time?

Not specifically at the moment of change of title, which happened within a year of my taking over as Director – but yes, in general they did. I would say that my work has always been, amongst other things, a product of my environment – the people I am with, the students I teach, the conversations I have. I wasn’t trained in art history, but came to Rochester with a background in sociology of art and cultural studies. Inevitably the focus of my work during my ten years at Rochester was increasingly on the visual arts. As for method – despite my resistance to what I always saw as the excessively ‘textual’ nature of US cultural studies (as opposed to the fundamentally sociological/social-historical nature of its British equivalent), I certainly benefited from working with people with brilliant and subtle skills of representational analysis. Nowadays I seem to be somewhere between sociology and the humanities – or perhaps my kind of sociology was always the humanistic version anyway (which is why I don’t really ‘fit’ into most sociology departments).

When considering your travels and academic affiliations, how do you think your geographical location has affected your research and methods? With regard to the place of sociology in cultural studies and visual studies, how has this changed over time and in different locations? Were there differences you noticed when you first moved to the US from the UK in 1988? What differences have you found since moving back to the UK in 2006?

Before I came to Rochester, I taught for about fifteen years at the University of Leeds in the UK. My home department was sociology, but it was a department with real strength in sociological and cultural theory. (My colleague and chair was Zygmunt Bauman, for instance.) During my time there, we set up an MA in Sociology of Culture; with T.J. Clark, at the time Chair of Fine Art, I was also involved in setting up a joint undergraduate degree in sociology and art history; and with Griselda Pollock and others I was involved in founding an interdisciplinary Centre for Cultural Studies. (As I recall, the MA and the joint degree were both put in place in the late 1970s; the Centre was established in the early 1980s.)

With the rise of cultural studies in the 1970s and 1980s, and the development of critical studies in art history, film and literature, the academic scene in Britain was always very interdisciplinary. So when I first started coming to the US I was struck by the difference – in particular, the lack of traffic, so to speak, between the humanities and the social sciences. My initial contacts were with sociologists – sociologists of culture and the arts, doing valuable work on arts institutions and so on, but with hardly any interest in the art objects themselves, or in questions of representation. In Rochester, I confronted the opposite challenge – how to incorporate the sociological approach into this new interdisciplinary project. We were very lucky in having great colleagues in anthropology (Kamran Ali, Bob Foster), enthusiastic about engaging with VCS. (The sociology department was closed down not long before I arrived in 1991.) I do still think that visual and cultural studies in the US is less focused on social history, and less informed by the sociological imagination, than in the UK. I have been back in England for three years now and find, after nearly 20 years away, that in some ways that earlier cross-disciplinary excitement has faded – the academy is now more ‘professionalized’, more ‘American’, I suppose, with, for example, sociology more of a social-science discipline than a humanistic one. My current home is in the humanities, anyway – not in sociology (though I chose the title of Professor of Cultural Sociology – that’s still what I think I do).

What did you learn about pedagogy, research, and scholarship over the course of your involvement with the VCS graduate program? In general, how would you describe the relationship between your research and teaching? How did teaching impact or influence your scholarship?

One of the interesting things about interdisciplinary programs (the same was true in Birmingham and Leeds) is that they are generally so pragmatic – the shape they take, the disciplines they combine, the focus they encourage is necessarily the product of the (accidental) coming together of whoever happens to be interested. (It’s rare that a program can be set up from scratch, with areas defined and filled with new hires within those specified fields.) One nice consequence is that, within reason, one can often teach the things one happens to be interested in. Of course these have to be tailored to contribute to the overall program, but with a presumed interest in the program that isn’t usually a problem. So my teaching was very much related to my research interests. When I became interested in the idea of the ‘stranger’ in modern culture, there was no problem in designing a graduate seminar on the topic. And, without a doubt, discussions in that group helped feed and develop my interest. The same with my interest in the fate of aesthetics in the post-critical age, which ended up the focus of my last book (The Aesthetics of Uncertainty).

When arriving in Rochester I had the overall impression that students in the program were a remarkably accomplished and driven group of professionals (with careers and experience in various art-related fields, including museums, galleries, studio art, teaching, and art criticism) who came to Rochester specifically for a very new course of study and degree. If I recall correctly, Natasha Goldman and I were the first students accepted to the program directly from undergraduate studies and we were both relatively young in comparison (for instance, I was barely 21). I remember being simultaneously inspired and intimidated by the students in the program. What was your impression of the students you encountered when you arrived in 1991? What was it like working with this early group of students?

Yes, I think it’s true that the program occasionally attracted students already well established in some fields (art criticism, film curating, museum work), and certainly among the first students there were one or two of these. But it wasn’t the majority, or even all that many, I think. Most would be coming in with an MA degree. You and Natasha were (and remained) unusual, I think – it would almost always be assumed that an entering students had an MA (and perhaps if in a closely related area getting some transfer credits for that). We did have a couple of cases of students coming very early – straight from undergraduate degree – and dropping out of the program. But during my ten years in the program I think we retained quite a mixture – of background, of confidence, of experience outside the academy. As for my first impressions – well I was pretty amazed at the level of knowledge and sophistication already there. But of course the students I first met, in January 1991, had already taken classes with Mieke Bal, Norman Bryson, Kaja Silverman, Michael Holly, Sharon Willis and Tom DiPiero, so already knew a lot more than me about a lot of things!

What role(s) do you think women’s and gender studies, queer studies, ethnic studies, and area studies had on the program and the projects undertaken by students and faculty associated with the program? Do you think these intersections were promoted by the curriculum and/or by individual faculty or student projects?

All crucial – though of more or less importance to the particular research interests of individual students. I suppose that mainly the impetus in each case was faculty-led (though I do remember feeling the necessity to look for faculty who would teach post-colonial criticism – as Ali Behdad and then Kamran Ali and Bob Foster did in the early years). But no doubt it was often also in response to student interests and projects. Though this raises an issue I have long been concerned with, in relation to the various interdisciplinary projects I have been involved with – that is, the risks of dilettantism. Avoiding this meant that student projects could not just emerge if there wasn’t faculty expertise – nor would we accept a student if we didn’t think we could give expert and informed supervision – so there were limits, of course, to student initiation of new areas.

From your perspective how did the program negotiate faculty expertise, advising, and supervision with student interest in exploring new courses of research, objects of study, and methods of inquiry, particularly in underrepresented fields or histories? Did this ever pose challenges with regards to advising and mentoring? In general, how would you characterize your and/or the program’s process for balancing the needs of informed supervision and fostering new (or expanded) areas?

I really felt that this (mostly) worked very well indeed. There was always a core VCS faculty, who regularly taught interdisciplinary courses and served on PhD committees. But there was also a larger group, across a number of departments, whose classes students took (either when they were listed as preferred VCS options, or by agreement with the Director of VCS because of special interests of the student). Quite a few of these people would occasionally serve on a PhD committee. As I said, I don’t think a student would (or should) have been accepted into the program unless we were sure we could offer solid support and expertise, but it was always the case that core (and other) faculty were themselves developing new research interests, which could be the basis for new courses.

Did you at any point experience hostility or skepticism from colleagues working within more traditional disciplinary parameters and/or departments before, during, or after your involvement and association with an interdisciplinary program? If so, what do you think motivated such behaviors? Do you think, in general, the academy is more open to inter-disciplinary programs – and their students and faculty – now than when VCS was founded in 1989? Are you currently working in a disciplinary or interdisciplinary program or department?

I wasn’t there at the absolute beginning – others may answer this question. (I do recall resistance elsewhere – for instance, Stuart Hall has written about opposition from anthropologists and others to the idea of ‘cultural studies’ in Birmingham.) But no – I don’t think there was anything more than low-key, individual resistance to VCS and the kind of work it did. Or if colleagues didn’t like the program, or the concept of visual and cultural studies, I think that was a complex thing, perhaps as much to with the success and relatively high profile of the program. I would also have to say that sometimes hostility (not necessarily at Rochester) is in response to a sort of arrogance among those involved in interdisciplinarity, and in ‘theory’ – not taking seriously the expertise and scholarship of the more traditional scholars. My view is that the best work in interdisciplinarity can only thrive in dialogue and collaboration with that kind of scholarship. I think in general we had really good relations with colleagues less centrally involved in VCS.

As for changes over time – it depends, I think. The difficulties faced by an interdisciplinary project are various – intellectual (and sometimes political), disciplinary (vested interests etc.), institutional (no funds, no physical space, no time for people to teach on top of their normal load if their departments were not able to release them to teach new interdisciplinary courses).

About my current position: I left Rochester to take a job of Associate Dean in the School of the Arts at Columbia University. The Dean, Bruce Ferguson, brought me in specifically to work with him on two things, both of which more or less failed: encouraging interdisciplinarity across the divisions of the School (Writing, Film, Visual Arts, Theatre), and introducing and integrating critical and academic studies into the art-practice curriculum. The reasons for the failure are complicated, and in many ways understandable, if rather depressing. (The School, and its faculty and students, continues as a highly successful one, in terms of visibility in galleries, the art market, cinema, publishing, etc.) Five years later I moved back to the UK, to join a new interdisciplinary initiative in the humanities – the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in the Arts – and a year ago I took over as its Director. I switched my departmental affiliation this year from Art History to English and American Studies, so any teaching I do is in that department – interesting in itself (and more evidence of the unpredictable and always-varied nature and location of interdisciplinary work) that EAS is the main place for critical theory, cultural studies and gender studies in our Faculty.

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