I am completing a PhD in Performance Studies at Brown University. Through Brown’s Mellon-funded Open Graduate Program, I also completed an MA in Cultural Anthropology. More about my research and projects at Brown appears below.
My work reassembles the experimental systems of scientists who digitally reproduce art, artifacts, and sites of cultural heritage. I argue that this form of reconstruction is a distinctly political act of aesthetic appearing that paradoxically affirms and subverts modern notions of authenticity and originality in the pursuit of new forms of cultural capital.
In 1962, the famous American painter Mark Rothko created six mural-size paintings for a penthouse dining room at Harvard University. His goal was to create “a place” where visitors would be immersed in abstract imagery that he hoped would stimulate spontaneous feelings of a spiritual nature.
To produce these sensory and emotional effects, Rothko worked in his signature style with a handmade paint medium. Unknown to him at the time, the paint was so sensitive to light exposure that its colors began to fade in the brightly sunlit penthouse. His fugitive pigment was on the run. By the late 1970s, Harvard was forced to remove the damaged paintings and put them into dark storage.
Three decades later, the murals were re-exhibited with the help of a scientific system that superimposed light-projected color-compensating double images onto their surfaces. More surprising was the decision that Harvard made to turn the supplemental system off every day before a public audience.
In the double-concept blend of seeing the Rothkos as both “on” and “off,” then and now, absent and present, a new phenomenological theatre occurred where multiple epistemic ideas about the authenticity of a “Rothko experience” were accumulated, and where multiple temporalities and spaces were compressed.
My work builds on the argument that Rothko’s interest in existential askesis created a way to transform the public viewing of abstract art into a private emotional experience. Over time, Rothko’s spiritual and aesthetic discipline became a discursive body of knowledge about how to have an authentic experience with his paintings (as seen in the clip from Mad Men below).
As Rothko’s work aged, the discourse became an ethical guide for the scientific preservation of his paintings in which conservators negotiated the border between compromised original and idealized copy. Objectivity became an epistemic virtue that replaced Rothko’s moral virtue of askesis. The Harvard Art Museums focused their historical mission as a “laboratory for art” on reproducing the paradoxical dilemma that preoccupied Rothko’s own ascetic experimental practice—how to mediate authentic acts of self-sacrifice that cannot be mediated. The objectivity of science and the semblance of theatre merged.
For Harvard’s conservators, the reproduction of the Murals’ material and virtual effects became an example of the virtue of scientific objectivity taken to its theatrical limit. The fugitive and its double blazed a path for historical reproduction as a new form of ascetic devotion that both compromised and revived Rothko’s original vision—to dramatically stage a new kind of tragic experience for modern individuals in a public space of existential contemplation.
For my masters thesis in cultural anthropology, I conducted fieldwork with the Marzuolo Archaeology Project (MAP), a multi-year excavation of a rural Roman craft production complex dating to the first century CE. The project's principal investigators have been working at the site to uncover evidence of early experimental pottery-making practices that challenge archaeological assumptions about terra sigillata—a ubiquitous form of mass-produced pottery which is used to shape knowledge about the Roman economy. The very notion of “economy” in our modern sense is something that MAP’s investigators challenge through their reconceptualization of what it means to innovate a craft in the rural time and space of a community that left evidence of experiences which exceed any simplified understanding of Roman life.
Through an ethnographic analysis of the dig, my thesis demonstrates how MAP's investigators are using concepts drawn from science and technology studies to revise historical narratives about Roman pottery and its production. I also address an essential, yet overlooked aspect of archaeological excavation — aesthetic appearing. Functioning like a theatrical stage, the archaeological site is shaped by semblance, metaphor, conceptual blending, and cognitive compressions of time and space. This proved to be especially relevant in combination with MAP’s methodologies that focus on both human and non-human materialist agencies. Sensory and emotional scenarios are used to shape different realities and to revise historical knowledge.
In 2013, I began to conduct research on an archaeoacoustic event that took place in Ansacq, France in 1730. The archival record of the occurrence was recently rediscovered by music theorist Brian Kane, who describes it in Sound Unseen: Acousmatic Sound In Theory and Practice. I was intrigued by the performative aspects of this event, as well as the conundrums that it creates for historical representation.
Along with an article-length historical essay about the event, I also produced a ten-channel sound installation with composer John Berendzen, and a series of drawings that visually re-imagine the event (inspired by the photographs of Axel Hoedt).
Most recently, I simulated the event by using GIS software to visualize historical sound data as a geospatial representation.
In the spring of 2016, I presented my simulation at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society (IBES) as part of their Atmospheres Conference. The video below summarizes my research and the simulation. Viewing in HD with headphones is best.
Atmospheres (Earth, Itself 2016 Conference) - Institute at Brown for Environment and Society (IBES), Brown University
Are museum methods for collecting phenomenal forms of otherness missing the point? What is lost when objects of wonder and magic are put into hibernation on museum shelves? Anthropologist Emily Avera and I wanted to find out. In collaboration with the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology and a group of ten students at Brown, we created a performance-based research project that brought archival objects back into the world by re-making them as replicas.
In response to the Symposium’s theme of museological loss, we searched the Haffenreffer for objects that were unknown, or open to speculation. For example, we studied a Baoulé mouse oracle from the Côte d’Ivoire, a phrygian cap from the French Revolution, and a dilapidated owl found in the museum's attic. Our research included video walks among the collections, sketches and photos, literature related to the objects, and even XRF spectroscopy scanning. In the design studio, we worked together to make replicas, or “surrogates” of the objects that we could interact with beyond the museum’s walls.
By making surrogates, we were able to adapt the objects, manipulate their qualities and forms, and find ways to reinterpret their meaning in relation to our lives in the present. The surrogates took on a number of forms, from paper maquettes and illustrations, to songs and scenarios performed around campus and the city. This unusual approach allowed us to address myriad historical and ethical questions that govern the care of museum collections, while giving the objects themselves new experiences in life.
Science and Technology Studies is but one of the many permeable frames in which humans are reconceptualizing their relationship to life and how we come to know it. Across a spectrum of embodied and mediated experiences, humans are shifting their stance on foundations that once seemed enduring, including the very definition of “human”.
As life on earth becomes a more vulnerable and collective endeavor, we cannot avoid being interested in what it will mean to know in the future, especially when it clearly must no longer mean to judge. What is to be done when radical ideas of the past solidify into canons of knowledge that now seem ill-fitting? Who among us has not experienced pedagogy as a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde affair, caught between outdated practices and exhilarating potential?
Join us this spring as we explore radical approaches to research that attempt to re-make knowledge as creative acts of sensory, conceptual, and technical complexity.
All meetings take place on Fridays, 5 pm, at the Graduate Center Bar. We encourage participants to read, watch, or listen to all of the selections for each session. Of course, there isn’t always enough time in the day. If that happens, feel free to focus on a smaller selection, and to share your thoughts about it within the broader discussion. All readings will be provided. Audiovisual materials are either free to view online, or available with your Brown login.
In addition to discussing the texts and media below, we will kickoff the spring season with an update about the STS Program’s emerging diversity and inclusion initiative. STS affiliated graduate students who are interested in participating in this initiative are encouraged to attend.
Chris Marker, Sans Soleil (Film, 1983).
Isabelle Stengers, “Experimenting with Refrains: Subjectivity and the Challenge of Escaping Modern Dualism.” (Essay, 2008).
Marisol de la Cadena, Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice Across Andean Worlds (Book selection, 2015).
Doreen Reid Nakamarra, (Painting, 2007).
Glenn Gould, “The Idea of North” from the Solitude Trilogy (Radio program, 1967).
Matthew Taylor, “‘It Might Be the Death of You’: Hurston’s Voodoo Ethnography” in Universes Without Us: Posthuman Cosmologies in American Literature (Essay, 2013).
Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun (Film, 2008).
Anna Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Book selection, 2015).
Simone Hancox, “The Performativity of Ice and Global Ecologies in Olafur Eliasson’s ‘Your Waste of Time’” (Essay, 2013).
Karen Barad, “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter” (Essay, 2003).
Sandy McLeod, Seeds of Time: Saving Our Food Supply in the Face of Climate Change (Film, 2014).
Valerie Snobeck, Reservoirs (Art objects, 2015).
Steven Brown, “The Theatre of Measurement: Michel Serres” (Essay, 2005).
Regan Brashear, Fixed: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement (Film, 2013).
Michel Serres, “Visit” in The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies (Book selection, 2005).
Romeo Castellucci, Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio, Excerpt from Hey, Girl! (Theatre, 2006).
Jonathan Glazer and Walter Campbell, Under the Skin, (Film, 2013). Note: This film is only available to purchase or rent. We will arrange a home screening for those who are interested.
Hans-Jörg Rheinberger in conversation with Michael Schwab, “Forming and Being Informed” in Experimental Systems: Future Knowledge in Artistic Research (Essay, 2013).
Sue-Ellen Case, “Sun Ra: Pharoah From Outer Space” in Performing Science and the Virtual (Book section, 2007).
Janelle Monae, Many Moons (Video, 2008)
Spotify playlist featuring Yusuf Lateef, Earth Wind and Fire, Deltron 3030, and more.
Bonus: Check out Chimurenga’s Pan African Space Station! (Streaming audio).