Tag Archives: Alumna

Interviews with VCS Founder Mieke Bal by George Dimock (VCS Class of 1993)

Interviews with VCS Founder Mieke Bal

by George Dimock (VCS Class of 1993)

George Dimock: One of the things I value most about having worked with you is the extraordinary gift you have for the close reading of words and images.I remember a brief conversation in which your cautioned me not to disparage the “old” New Criticism but rather to acknowledge its strengths as a resource for more wide-ranging and socially committed forms of cultural criticism. I have become increasingly concerned with the ways in which the current electronic media and academic pedagogy encourage, if not demand, a dispersal of attention that makes deep literacy increasingly unsustainable and outmoded in the lives of young people (Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, would be my primary source here).What role(s) do you see for close reading and deep literacy in relation to VCS in the 21st century?

Mieke Bal: Without knowing Wolf’s book, I agree that close reading is more or less a scarcity today. Perhaps it always was. I always found it disturbing that close reading was so little valued, and dismissed as “formalism.” Of course, the old version of it WAS formalistic, escaping from social reality. But instead of substituting the one for the other, my version of close reading takes social reality (whatever that may be) or rather, social issues, as an important element of whatever form emerges.

I find it somewhat shocking that even in art historical publications, supposedly keenly interested in visuality, figures are often indicated as “illustrations.” This is on the level of the collective unconscious of that discipline: the artwork is only an illustration of the art historian’s argument about, or around it.

There are so few publications that engage me on that level. And yet, only an analysis that engages the artifact in a deep and detailed manner is able to resist its own tendency to overrule the object. For a long time, my rule of thumb has been that no quote or figure must be left to its exemplary function; nor should it speak for the argument. Instead, as soon as one alleges a so-called example, a good strategy is look back to it, and analyze it in such detail that it can actually resist what the writer wanted it to “illustrate.” Only then can we learn new ideas, with and through the object concerned by those ideas. It is actually very exciting to come upon such resistance, qualification, of detailing.

I will always defend such close reading on the condition it takes into the conversation theoretical perspectives and social or cultural concerns as the third partner. Whether or not this will work in the programs such as VCS is not up to me to decide. I can only hope so, and encourage it through publications.

George Dimock: In what specific ways, for better and for worse, have twenty years within the academy, influenced the development of Cultural Studies as a “discipline” that was founded on a premise of “inter-disciplinarity?

Mieke Bal: You know, I don’t really know the answer to this question. It requires more specific knowledge than I have. But intuitively I think it is not true that Cultural Studies has become a discipline; only, it has not developed and cherished methodological reflection on its own inter-disciplinarity. In a sense, I’d even venture to say that it has remained an infra-disciplinary area. My book Travelling Concepts in the Humanities A Rough Guide (University of Toronto Press, 2002) was meant to contribute to such reflection.I care too much for the inter-subjectivity – the democratic access to knowledge – involved in method as a ground to agree or disagree or to take methodology lightly.

George Dimock: On a more personal note, I would love to know what you are working on now and how your own inter-disciplinary program has fared in recent years and since you left Rochester.

Mieke Bal: Long story, short version: I am currently working on a trilogy of short books on the art of the political. In other words, on political art as a possibility, but beyond the thematic. The first one is on sculpture, the second on the moving image, and the third on abstraction. Each [book] places one artist at the center, confusing the genres of the monograph and the theoretical essay. The issue of close reading underlies this concentration on one oeuvre to work out the theoretical perspective. One is in press at Chicago; I just started the second.

But as you know I have also started to finally do what I always wanted: making films. The other half of me is doing that. I have done this now for about seven years. It started with short films on art, how audiences respond to works – a kind of reception-based close reading, if you like. Soon, some event in my surroundings triggered an interest in experimental social documentary. From that early moment on, I have built up a small oeuvre of films and video installations on the questions raised by migration. One of the installations, called Nothing is Missing (2006-ongoing), has been and still is quite successful, and is touring the world, sometimes in more than one showing at the time.

Here, I have just turned another corner and embarked on a fiction film, or rather, a “theoretical fiction.” It’s about madness as a social and political construct and issue. See the website crazymothermovie.com. There are some hilarious video clips there. We are about halfway through. It’s a huge project.

George Dimock: Could you describe your role/involvement in the founding of the VCS program?

Mieke Bal: Michael Holly and I invited Norman Bryson for a lecture. He was so engaging that we felt we could and should try to hire him. But to make the case in a time of budget cuts (nothing new under the sun) we devised the idea of a program that would bind all the disciplines studying visual objects together.

For weeks, Michael and I ran around on campus with a huge black “floppy disk” on which we wrote the outline and rationale of the program. This first phase went rather quickly and easily. Writing the bulk of prose for state approval was a different matter. Persuading the body of senior faculty took a lot. Once the program started, it was great fun to meet with the concerned faculty, titled “program committee.” We did everything, from creating the program, teaching the courses, to selecting the students, including pacifying colleagues who soon turned from opponents into envious onlookers who would have loved to be on board.

My favorite activity was teaching and working with the PhD students on their theses. Of course, it took a while for the first years to actually start writing. My least favorite aspect was holding meetings.

George Dimock: Could you tell us a bit about whether you began your academic career within a discipline (if so, which?) and what attracted you to an inter-disciplinary program?

Mieke Bal: I started out in French literature. Soon, the need for better theoretical equipment turned me into a theorist, specializing in narrative. And when questions started to pop up on generalizability, I took on a body of narratives very different from the modern French literature I had studied so far. It had to be foreign, ancient, and put to different purposes. The Hebrew Bible became my field for a while. The turn to images happened through Rembrandt. I can say that I was not attracted to an inter-disciplinary program; there was none, I needed one, so I created one.

George Dimock: How would you characterize your thoughts regarding Cultural Studies, Art History, and Film Studies? Do you believe that Visual and Cultural Studies encompasses all of the above? Would you characterize your research interests as leaning more toward one of these fields?

Mieke Bal: I find this question strange, in my case unanswerable. I consider “fields” far less important than what actually happens, and that is often between fields. The academic divisions don’t respond to the life of the arts, or other forms of cultural expression; nor do they move with the times.

George Dimock: What projects were you working on at the time of VCS’s founding? How did you feel the inter-disciplinary combinations of Visual Studies and Cultural Studies related to your research interests at the time? Presently?

Mieke Bal: I just started to work on Rembrandt and got too bored by the literature. No one really looked at the images. I feel a bit like all my answers lead back to your question on close reading. An artwork doesn’t allow us to confine it within a grid. For the rest, see my answer to question 2.

George Dimock: Were there any ideological tensions or rifts between the founders regarding the mission/goals of VCS?

Mieke Bal: There were discussions, not rifts. Not that I am aware of anyway. We discussed a lot, in fact, everything from teaching, recruiting, enrollment, to write-ups, administrative prose, and as usually happens, we never had enough time for the discussions of our own work. But we did read each other’s work, which is already something. Politically we were more or less on the same wave length.

George Dimock: Did you at any point experience hostility or skepticism from colleagues firmly entrenched in disciplines before, during, or after your involvement in an inter-disciplinary program? If so, what do you think motivated such behaviors?Do you think, in general, the academy is more open to/accepting of inter-disciplinary programs now than when VCS was founded in 1989?

Mieke Bal: Of course (to the first question). Like all pioneering activity, it pushed people back into the trenches. I find that normal, and even healthy. Having to battle for something sharpens our own ideas. Conviction is never enough. The art of negotiating without compromising what matters most is difficult, but it’s part of the game.

And then there is the backlash. Under the guise of economic restrictions, it’s easy to see that many regroup in favor of disciplinary work. In my current institution, this is in full swing. Administrators find it handier, and pick their advisors among the predictable would-be administrators. I am not at all happy about the way academics sing the politicians’, and worse, the bankers’ song.

George Dimock: What kinds of cultural shifts or shifts within the academy as a cultural/ideological institution contributed to the founders’ mission statement and goals for VCS? Have those initial goals changed/evolved for you individually? Are you currently employed in a disciplinary or inter-disciplinary program or department?

Mieke Bal: If I may be skeptical: there is no significant cultural shift necessary to feel confined by established divisions that only record a moment in time and rigidify it. Among the many influences on our thinking was of course, feminism, which is, as we wrote in our application for state approval, among the most significant intellectual movements of the second half of the twentieth century. But feminism cannot escape history any more than other movements. The struggles within feminism to overcome the white bias in the movement have, in turn, contributed to the current insight that gender, while remaining a key category, is by far not the only one that promotes inequality in the world.

I am currently still employed within an interdisciplinary program (another one I co-founded) but slowly and surely the administrators are getting the upper hand. Only our relative success saves us for now from being absorbed by the very discipline from which we tried to distinguish ourselves when we founded the school: history. And this is not to say we oppose history, on the contrary. But we oppose naïve and exclusivist history, in favor of a rethinking of the history of the present, among other things.

George Dimock: What are your current feelings about disciplines versus inter-disciplinary studies? Did your involvement with VCS contribute to your current sentiments (for, against, or ambivalence about the future of disciplines/inter-disciplinary studies)?

Mieke Bal: I cannot think any other way.

George Dimock: How do you think Visual and Cultural Studies has evolved over time? How do you see it changing in the future?

Mieke Bal: I think it has evolved slightly problematically, developing its own turf wars, dogmas, and alliances. I can’t see it as unified, and that’s for the best.

Interview with Paul Duro conducted by Randy Innes

Interview with Paul Duro

conducted by Randy Innes

September 28 2009

Randy: Paul you’ve made substantial contributions to the field of art history, art theory and the study of visual culture. You are currently a faculty member in the Graduate Program in Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester, and acted as Chair of the Art and Art History department from 2000-2006. Could you describe some of your current research activities and interests?

Paul: It’s appropriate that you mention my years as chair because for me they separate the contributions you mention into a ‘before and after’. Before, when I was working mainly on art institutions and what I call ‘frame studies’ – that is, the role of borders, boundaries and frames in the construction of the artwork – and after, when I’ve been interested in mimesis and imitation, the sublime, and the separation of the decorative in art from the ‘space of painting’. The last three, typically (and problematically for me!), are all very large fields. They have nevertheless given me a renewed sense of purpose as a researcher and teacher after what I think of as the interregnum of my chair’s duties. In particular, they all in different ways address the central question of why we study visual culture: what is the purpose of a visual image, what difference does it make to our perception of the world, and how might it contain a kind of knowledge that no other form of communication is competent to communicate?

Randy: The study of visual culture is now a practice that takes place in a variety of disciplines. It might be viewed as a gateway between disciplinary practices, or a methodology for an interdisciplinary practice. Where do you situate your work in relation to the field that has been opened by visual and cultural studies?

Paul: Interdisciplinarity is foundational to what I do, and of course foundational to the work of the VCS program and the faculty and students associated with it. It is increasingly what this university recognizes to be the key concept in contemporary intellectual work. ‘Inter’, however, should not be confused with ‘multi’ in this context. I work at the boundary of disciplines in order to reveal what’s at issue, what’s left unsaid, about their centers.

Randy: Could you elaborate on this strategy?

Paul: Recently I was fortunate enough to be awarded a University of Rochester Bridging Fellowship to the Department of English, which allowed me to work with colleagues and students in a discipline that has much to teach me with respect to both its methodologies and subject matter. Indeed, in the guise of supervising several English graduate students I was in fact learning from them, taking in their knowledge and transforming my own practice. Importantly, this for me is neither theft nor a melding of disciplines. I am keen to retain what I will call the ‘resistance’ of a given discipline, its integrity – what can and can’t be done. Rather I use the intervention as a tool to cut into the cosy prejudices and assumptions of another discipline – especially that of art history.

Randy: The field of Art History has some very established disciplinary practices, particularly when it comes to studying the history and art of the European academies. As a specialist in this area you’ve had to negotiate these practices. Could you tell us about how you came to the study European art academies? How have you approached what you’ve called the “unsaid” at the heart of western art history?

Paul: When I began my doctoral work I was most interested in the effects of government and power on the making of art. In casting around for an example, I studied the Second Empire in France, and how Napoleon III’s imperial regime manipulated state patronage for political ends. The problem was, the project became very much one of statistics, and that is not my forte! So I moved more to the study of institutions – particularly the French Academy of Painting and Sculpture – that was more flexible, and complex, with respect to its ideological underpinnings, and more open to analysis along Foucauldian and Althusserian lines. From that work I came to realize that what I wanted to say wasn’t open to the blandishments of traditional art history; and while I felt, and still feel, that I am very much in the mould of a traditional art historian, with a proper and sincere respect for archival work, humanistic study, and the situating of art production in its social and aesthetic context, I’ve got to accept that not everyone sees my work in that way.

Randy: How has your knowledge and understanding of this “centre” or methodological core of art history influenced your activities and teaching in VCS? Are there advantages to having a thorough understanding of disciplinary conventions when it comes to the interdisciplinary practice of visual and cultural analysis?

Paul: I’m hesitant to give a categorical ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to your question, but in my case, the answer would have to be categorical. I can’t imagine working in VCS without a sense of where I am. For me the discipline of art history grounds my thinking, allowing me to venture out to the margins of the discipline and beyond, but always offering a home into which I can draw back and test my findings. I’m being careful not to say ‘retreat’ here, as my understanding of a discipline is always based on recognition that what is supposed to constitute its center is unstable, volatile, and liable at any moment to collapse – especially if too great a reliance is placed on it. For this reason I think of art history as a home, a location, and place of comfort, but never a castle or redoubt to be defended. It will serve as a shelter only as long as it is continually rebuilt in accordance with the changing intellectual environment. These are the advantages for me, and I can only assume they would be advantages for others who felt the same way, but a discipline should never be a crutch, a faith, or a defense, and only those who are not prepared to work with change need worry!

Randy: As a graduate student with little knowledge of art history, I struggled in my research and dissertation to develop an understanding of certain aspects of the history and methodologies of art history. It was equally difficult to then identify and make use of relevant aspects of this understanding in the context of my dissertation. There were certainly advantages to this wandering but it was often accompanied by a strong feeling of homelessness. While VCS encourages and supports innovative research that may not be concerned with disciplinary knowledge or building a firm brick house, do you think it is important for graduate students to have a connection with a disciplinary field of study?

Paul: As my answer above suggests, it may be important, even vital, for some, but not for others. It all depends on your particular needs and perspectives. Visual and Cultural Studies is in the process of creating a new discipline. That some people are antagonistic to this aim is I think less to do with fear of adding a discipline than it is a defensive gesture of feeling threatened by growth. This is not new. The ‘liberal’ arts, the traditional subjects of the medieval universities and later the Renaissance humanists, never included poetry, yet later it was included willy-nilly while the visual arts had a much tougher time of it. That suggests to me that we should leave worrying about the status of Visual and Cultural Studies to those who think boundaries define a discipline. I obviously don’t and personally I couldn’t care less.

Randy: There are very few undergraduate departments in visual and cultural studies in North America. As former chair of the Department of Art and Art History at Rochester, could you comment on the potential for academic departments to introduce the interdisciplinary methodologies of visual and cultural study at the undergraduate level?

Paul: Really, it would be difficult not to introduce them! The discipline has changed enormously in recent years. To cite one instance, we no longer use slide to project images via a projector in class but digital images loaded on to a computer. The example may seen trite, but when the means of knowledge retrieval and storage, research and pedagogy are so profoundly affected, its hard to imagine any department not changing. They would have to resist, which takes me back to the defensiveness we were discussing earlier, and for sure they would fail to stay the same. That’s just one way of saying that change is inevitable. The trick is to work with evolution, to make sure you are a mammal and not a dinosaur with respect to technological progress and intellectual development.

Randy: The VCS program has contributed significantly to this process of change. Have the colleagues and students you’ve worked with here influenced your ideas and approach to the study of art and visual culture?

Paul: Yes, in a big way. I feel very fortunate in being at Rochester and part of the VCS program. In fact living and working in Australia in the 1990s I already knew of VCS’s reputation as the leading visual and cultural studies program anywhere. So when I was invited to apply for a position here, I did so with alacrity, as I very much wanted to be part of it.

Randy: How have programs like VCS had an impact on the way art and visual culture is researched and written about today? If you see a change, is it on a small or niche scale, or are these changes now at work within disciplinary channels?

Paul: VCS and similar programs in the USA, as well as programs like Trent University’s Cultural Studies Department, have had a profound impact on the direction of writing on visual culture. Of course, this is not to say that their impact has been equally distributed. There are no doubt departments where such programs have minimal impact. But it must be assumed that these departments are actively resisting change, and cleaving to an old model of Art History or English or whatever. I don’t think it’s ever a question of ‘niche’ changes though; rather it’s all or nothing in the sense that you are either influenced or you’re not. This isn’t a question of taste or preference; rather it’s a matter of a Kuhnian paradigm shift, where enough people are testing the existing paradigm to force change. There is only one possible outcome, and there’s no going back. Change will happen, and it’ll be across the board, ‘at work,’ as you say, ‘within disciplinary channels’.

Randy: Is there field of study that you currently know little or nothing about that you would like to explore?

Paul: Yes, but far too many to mention then all! One field that I have become fascinated by is astronomy. I’ve recently been working on Joseph Wright of Derby’s painting of a lecturer discoursing on an orrery, which shows a group of people engaged in studying a mechanical model of the solar system. Kant was notably interested in astronomy, and included many examples in his philosophy. Of course, astronomers are all competent mathematicians, and Kant was good at math. Unfortunately I am not. I can’t understand my son’s 7th grade assignments, so I fear I won’t get very far!

Randy: Thank you, Paul.

Paul: Thank you.

Walid Raad’s I Was Overcome By A Momentary Panic At The Thought That They Might Be Right: Documents From The Nassar Files in The Atlas Group Archive

Walid Raad’s I Was Overcome By A Momentary Panic At The Thought That They Might Be Right: Documents From The Nassar Files in The Atlas Group Archive

by Amanda Graham

The stories we tell ourselves to get over things
can have nothing to do with what really happened.

– Walid Raad

It is impossible for any of us to witness all events as they happen. Rarely, can we say, “I was there.” The visual aftermath of events, therefore, becomes our way of knowing what we did not see and what we never experienced. The traces left behind are not the end, but the beginning, of a fascinating, albeit, incomplete story. Then again, no story is ever complete. Walid Raad knows this and so do I.

Walid Raad

Walid Raad

In 2004 I was a Master’s student at York University in Toronto. That Fall Raad had his exhibition, I Was Overcome By A Momentary Panic At The Thought That They Might Be Right: Documents From The Nassar Files in The Atlas Group Archive, at the on-campus Art Gallery. I stopped in to check it out following an afternoon class. What I remember: Photographs of engines. Lots of them. From cars that might have been blown up in Lebanon. Pock marks left in the earth. People standing around watching. Handwritten notations about time, place, and how far the engines flew. Evident trauma. Evidence of trauma.

While I understood Raad’s work was as much fiction as it was fact I left the gallery with the feeling of turmoil in my belly, and an understanding that Raad’s artistic historicity communicates the reality that war leaves its mark on the landscape. The catastrophe and its subsequent recovery are both at play in the shrapnel.

As I contemplated Raad’s engines on the subway ride home the lights went out. The train lost power and came to a halt between stations. Passengers began to quietly speculate. A few minutes later an emergency crew arrived and a few minutes after that a woman with singed arms and ripped jeans was hoisted into the car where I sat. She was alive and conscious, but it was obvious from her condition that she had jumped into the tracks. The evidence of her act was written all over her body. After we arrived at St. Claire Station the woman was whisked off onto a stretcher and then toward the sound of sirens. A student-type to my right and an older man carrying groceries next to her quietly wondered if she could have fallen, or worse, been pushed. All we could deduce arose from the visual clues she provided: the marks on her skin and clothes. She displayed the evidence of the act we conjectured upon her body. She probably would forever—in the form of scars.

Every time I tell the story of the woman jumping in front of the subway it is a little different. Sometimes I mention she had dyed blonde hair, other times I don’t. Over the years, the story has become less factual, as my memory of it has faded and I continue to add details to keep listener interest. I am sure that the woman with the dyed blonde hair has told the story of that day more than once as well, or at least she has told some sort of story to explain the burns on her arms.

In 2006 I began writing about scars because I was, at the time, working in a community where people seemed to be covered with more than their fair share. Writing about scars brought me back to the day of the subway incident, and also Raad’s car bomb photographs, each absent of car bombs and full of holes in the ground. It occurred to me that both the landscape and the body are littered with traces of encounter; they hold onto what our memories cannot, or choose not. For me, these are planes of investigation, sites of overlooked visuality, and the narratives I want to pursue.

When I learned that Raad received his PhD from the University of Rochester I began to look into applying because I believed the lens through which he and I looked at the visual world was somehow cut from the same glass. I wanted to find a program where I could consider trauma and healing, the stories we tell ourselves to keep going and those we tell others, and scars on the landscape and the body. I wanted to figure out an approach to narrative that lends equal weight to fiction as it does to fact. I wanted to tell stories, like Raad, about the things we aren’t so sure, but are absolutely positive.

Amanda Graham is a second year Visual and Cultural Studies student. She is a former public school art teacher, community organizer, and activist. Her current research interests include scars, trauma narratives, and contemporary community based art initiatives.

Walid Raad is an artist and Associate Professor at the Cooper Union School of Art. In 1999, Raad founded the Atlas Group, an imaginary foundation to research and document the contemporary history of Lebanon. His work has been exhibited at The International Center of Photography, Documenta 11, and the 2003 Venice Biennale. Raad received his Ph.D. from VCS in 1996.

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.

VCS Alumna Elizabeth Kalbfleisch talks to faculty member Janet Berlo

Elizabeth Kalbfleisch (VCS Ph.D. 2009) and faculty member Janet Catherine Berlo held this epistolary conversation in August and September of 2009. Elizabeth wrote her dissertation on feminism, transnationalism, and ideas of the home in Native women’s visual culture. This year she is a visiting Assistant Professor at Concordia University in Montreal, where her courses include “First Peoples and Photography” and “Nationalism and Transnationalism in Native Art.”

EK: As VCS celebrates its twentieth anniversary, we’ve had the chance to reflect upon the work of the program’s founders and its first years of operation under their leadership. You came to the University of Rochester in 1997 and have played a key role in shepherding VCS into its second decade. Tell me a bit about what it was like to join the program at that time.

JCB: It was a very exciting time. Michael Holly headed the department and Janet Wolff ran VCS. These women were a dynamic team.

I came to Rochester with a joint appointment for my first five years: I was “The Susan B. Anthony Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies” and half of my teaching was in the SBA Institute for those first years. I didn’t have graduate students of my own until Norman Vorano came in 1999 and you came in 2001. Now I am supervising dissertations that range from the politics of an ethnic dance troupe, to fashion history, to contemporary Native and Chicano performance art.

I became one of the core faculty members in 2002, and then for the next three years co-directed the program with Douglas Crimp.

EK: Your interests are certainly broad. Yet women’s art and Native American art are foundational to these interests and to your contributions to the program. I believe that as a Native Americanist, you hold a different view of inter-disciplinarity, visual culture, and the art historical canon than do many art historians working in other areas?

JCB: Yes, I do; in fact I wrote an article about this for the Clark volume Anthropologies of Art (2005). My first course as a freshman art history major at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1970 was “the Hindu Temple”, taught by a Marxist art historian from UCLA, Gary Tartakov. I studied other aspects of Asian art and culture with Teresina Havens, the first woman to get a Ph.D. in comparative religion at Yale, in 1933. She taught a course called “Buddha, Mao, and Sesshu.” It could have been a VCS course, except that we started each class by doing Tai Chi!

EK: How did your own graduate work at Yale, and the mentors you had, influence your cross-cultural and inter-disciplinary approach?

JCB: In my Ph.D. work in history of art at Yale from 1974-79, my two mentors were the distinguished historian of Pre-Columbian art George Kubler, and Africanist Robert Farris Thompson. Kubler transgressed all art historical boundaries when he wrote a dissertation on colonial Hispanic churches in New Mexico’s Pueblos in the 1930s. Thompson was working on his amazing boundary-smashing works Flash of the Spirit and Four Moments of the Sun: Kongo Art in Two Worlds when I was at Yale. I think I was made a finer and more daring scholar for having had these wildly different men as my mentors. Kubler was meticulous about method and historiography; Bob sang in Yoruba and drummed on the podium in class. He dared to ask questions about African art that no one had asked before.
RFT was Carnival, and George was Lent.

I took courses in the Anthropology Department on Maya hieroglyphic writing and Maya archaeology; I was Catherine MacKinnon’s TA for the first Women’s Studies course at Yale. My friends in the department of History of Art were writing dissertations on African American quilts, ancient Maya temple murals, and Jonkonnu festivals in Jamaica. We were no respecters of boundaries!! So it has always seemed to me that many of the boundaries that Visual and Cultural Studies presumed to transgress were ones that those of us who studied non-European arts in an interdisciplinary way had never paid any attention to anyway.

EK: More generally, how has your training and research shaped your outlook, your commitment to Visual and Cultural Studies and specifically, your contributions to VCS?

JCB: I think the fact that I have a restless mind, and have worked in many different regions and time periods of the Americas is good training for teaching VCS grad students who work on such a wide range of topics.
I went to grad school with some superb scholars who were studying the Classic period Maya in 1978 and are still doing so some thirty years later. That makes for a great depth of knowledge, but I have always been more interested in a comparative approach, in which the questions drive the research. So whether I was working on art made in the 6th century AD in Guatemala, or in 1990 by contemporary Inuit artists living above the arctic circle, I was always interested in art made on the boundaries of cultures. We didn’t use the term ‘hybridity’ thirty years ago, but I was always interested in the frontier, the border, the hybrid.

EK: You’ve now been part of VCS for twelve years. To what extent has your identity and outlook as a scholar been shaped by this vantage? Are there aspects of your research that would be received differently, or that you would be more reluctant to take on, if you worked in a traditional Art History department?

JCB: Perhaps I have had a different experience—and a luckier one— from some of my colleagues in that I have never taught anywhere where I felt the need to tailor either my intellectual pursuits or my teaching to old-fashioned disciplinary practices.

EK: I’m interested in your teaching as well as your research. Over the years, how have the kind of courses you have offered shifted? To what extent do those shifts reflect your home in VCS?

JCB: This is a really interesting question, and one I haven’t really considered before. My courses have radically shifted; this reflects my changing interests, but also the influence of the program and its students. I tend to teach courses around conceptual topics now. The theoretical readings are always grounded in specifics case studies that illuminate the topic.

For example, this semester I am teaching a new seminar called “The Visual Culture of Heritage and Identity.” We are looking at the so-called “heritage industry” as well as how issues of trauma, memory, nostalgia, and loss shape the way that different social groups/ ethnic groups/genders and individual artists tell their own constructed histories. I also teach a course called “The Museum and ‘the Other’”, a history of representational practices in North American museums. Most of my courses are cross-listed in Anthropology, Religion, or History. The linear historical or period-bound narratives that we all used to teach are pretty much gone from my repertoire.

EK: As one of your students, I can testify to the importance of a strong relationship with a mentor. From your perspective, what has it been like working with the graduate students in VCS?

JCB: It was a transformational experience for me to finally have Ph.D. students, after teaching for 17 years in an undergraduate department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. It made a big impression on me when, in my first year in the department, Douglas Crimp said to me, “Janet, I truly love my graduate students. I care about them as much as anything else in my life.” I soon came to understand what he means. We have had such an impressive cohort of students here in VCS. It is such a privilege to learn from and be challenged by the next generation of scholars, something you will have the pleasure of discovering, Elizabeth.

My grad students always laugh and think I am being fatuous when I occasionally say, “I didn’t have to be half as smart as you are today, to work on a Ph.D. in the 1970s,” but I really mean it. I think of my grad students as junior colleagues. They critique my work-in-progress, and our conversations are as intellectually important to me as they are to them.

EK: Thank you, Janet.