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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.