What Do You See?

the kassonian art of cultural observation: talk delivered for “cultural history and its publics – a symposium on the occasion of the retirement of john kasson” @ unc – chapel hill, 3 October 2015.

John has asked us not to shower him with praise but rather turn our eye to the larger stakes of cultural history and its publics, and I will attempt to do that. But first I wish to show you a picture of John. It is one of him many of you may not have ever seen.

Here is John Kasson, the artist in his museum, pulling back the red draped curtain to reveal to us a vast wall of knowledge, classified and stored on display for us to examine, a sublime, almost overwhelming wall of material. Despite the awesome display, he is a welcoming and cordial man. He wears his knowledge easily even as what he shows us encompasses an extraordinary range of details, connections, ideas, and more.

Of course, this image is not of John Kasson. It is the painter, naturalist, inventor, and museum founder Charles Willson Peale, pictured here in his famous self-portrait, The Artist In His Museum, created in 1822. Why do I seek to confuse you then? Because I first came upon the painting in John’s graduate seminar in cultural history. John placed this image up on the screen in our Hamilton Hall seminar room from a slide carousel (yes it was still those days) and simply said: “What do you see? Describe this image.” It was such an audaciously basic question, so unusual and against the grain of the typical high-falutin graduate school talk of agency and structure, hegemony and power. Just simply, “What do you see?”

That question, which I later learned John had adopted from a teaching technique used by one of his advisers at Yale, Jules Prown, struck me as disarmingly profound. There us graduate students were, rushing past our evidence—quite complex evidence in the case of Peale’s painting—to “interrogate it,” as they say, “unpack it,” conquer it, tame it, own it, that we were losing its great value as historical material. Aha, I realized, this is what cultural history can do. It helps us to look more closely, more carefully, more robustly at the past. To see it for all that it’s worth. Only then can we interpret it effectively.

My own work eventually took a number of John’s thematic interests—technology and republican values, the relationship between escapes into the fun of popular culture and the worlds from which people were escaping, by the million, for the relief of amusement, the stakes of modernity, the role of the body in the social imagination, the place of affect and emotion in our collective political life—and pushed them toward a topic John probably would not have studied: hippies. In The Republic of Rock: Music and Citizenship in the Sixties CountercultureI explored responses to rock music in the 1960s counterculture in San Francisco and Vietnam and their relationship to issues of citizenship. I found myself applying John’s methods of paying close attention to the language and the look, the forms and the styles, of my archival materials. It always started with a close reading of the stuff. Only then would could one effectively make connections to theories of culture.

Republic of Rock

And even at that point, the goal was never merely to show how the stuff proved this or that theory right or wrong. Rather, cultural history in John’s hands was about linking stuff and ideas. He deepened, sometimes went so far as to correct, existing theories of how culture worked within a particular historical context or moment. Most of all, as I set to work on a topic that brought John’s methods to a subject he was not necessarily drawn to himself, I found myself returning often to John’s great care and subtlety as an interpreter of form. What do you see? One starts there and then can proceed to analysis and argument.

Hippies. As we know, John is of the 1960s generation (into the 1970s) by birth, but has always been a bit suspicious of the turn away from formality and civility, decorum and respect, in the post-60s world. In culture vulture mode, to be sure, he welcomes art of many kinds, including art forms that push the boundaries of taste and convention for powerful aesthetic ends, but not necessarily in society—in public—as a whole. Needless to say, the idea of taking hippies seriously was not necessarily his cup of tea. A cup of tea itself was probably preferable. Yet as I began to work on the project, John patiently listened and responded, continually turning me back to that elegantly simple act of paying attention to and describing what one was examining in the archive, and doing so with as much care and specificity as one could muster.

More easily said than done, of course. John Kasson really makes it all look so graceful and smooth, doesn’t he? Just a mere throwing back of the draped red curtain and voila! But of course, the way John suggests we might conduct cultural historical research is an extremely difficult path. We start by looking, but to see better and more revealingly requires extensive preparation what others have noticed and seen and explicated and theorized. It requires an openness to being surprised at what one finds when looking closely at artifacts from the past. It demands patience and discipline and a dexterity of mind, ideology, and aesthetic taste. To really see, and then to show how what we see matters, this is what John models as a cultural historian.

But enough about that guy in front of the curtain. Let me close with two ways that John’s sense of cultural history continues to matter in my work now in the practice of two modes of cultural history, one rather specialized and weird, the other reaching out to publics beyond the typical precincts of academic work. The first has to do with computer screens; the second with bodies.

Mance Lipscomb Silouette Greek Theatre 1961
Mance Lipscomb, Berkeley Folk Music Festival 1963.

My recent work in digital humanities and digital history for a project on the relationship between culture and technology in the folk music revival builds upon John’s simple question—what do you see?—by asking whether the convergence of various types of cultural artifacts in the modular form of digital code makes for new ways of seeing, and from the that seeing, new ways of knowing. Working with a rich batch of photographs of the folk revival taken at the Berkeley Folk Music Festival, which was an annual affair on the Cal campus from 1958 to 1970, I ask how playing systematically with data of images can help us to look at the past more closely.

Mance Lipscomb Gradient
Mance Lipscomb, Gradient “Deformance.”

Messing with form digitally allows one to examine the details of evidence afresh, to notice different aspects and connections perhaps previously buried. These changes, distortions even, have the capacity to illuminate the original event represented. They also remind us that much of our artifactual evidence only arrives to us in highly mediated, representational ways. Photographs, digitally reconfigured, sharpen our senses to the ways in which they are already in fact representations of a moment from the past, mediums on past moments when other people convened together to take in musical and cultural experiences.

Mance Lipscomb Photosounder 1
Mance Lipscomb, in Photosounder Sonification.

In the digital domain, data is even more pliable. Many digital humanities scholars are turning data into visualizations, but we cultural historians might expand our senses as analyzers of the past: not only what do you see, but also what do you hear? We can take the data of a photograph and sonify it so that we can use our ears as well as our eyes to pay closer attention to the forms of a photograph (or any other digitized media for that matter). We can pair audio tracks with images in new ways to put them in play with each other as if we were documentary filmmakers. We can also, using tools such as Photosounder, as seen here, do something a bit stranger. We can correlate the data of an image to sonic outputs. Whether it be lines and forms, color graduations, or semantic information such as facial recognition (or, in my case, since I’m working on the folk revival, banjo recognition), the visual data of an image can potentially be “seen” afresh precisely because now it can be heard.

The modularity of digital data makes possible a sort of digital heuristics, an iterative art of form shifts that can allow us to delve more deeply into the details of an image or images. Deforming evidence, or “deformance” as some digital humanities scholars call it, even has the potential to produce new revelations about that evidence. In the case of the sonification of the Mance Lipscomb photograph, I wanted to try to register the density of detail in the image, to hear as well as see the information the image contained. Photosounder, designed by programmer Michel Rouzic, maps a jpeg image file across a spectrograph whose x-axis is time and y-axis is pitch. As the pixels of the image are placed within this two-dimensional Cartesian coordinate system, the intensity/brightness of each pixel is sonified through a filtered cross between white noise and pink noise: the more intense or brighter the pixel, the louder the noise.

Scanned from left to right, the photograph of Lipscomb produced a lot of sound until it reached the enigma of Lipscomb at the center, photographed from behind by Chris Strachwitz, a young German-American folk enthusiast who had brought the African-American songster out west to the Berkeley Festival. This sharecropper from Navasota, Texas, was appearing for the first time in front of a largely white, middle-class audience in 1961. Prepare yourself…here’s what it sounds like.

Mance Lipscomb image: one of many Photosounder sonification experiments.

That’s a really simplified and odd effort. One could get much more imaginative in choosing what image data correlates to what sound outputs in search of patterns within the material. Exploring this is in fact part of the project on which I am working. Even in a simple sonification such as this one, for me, intensified the photograph’s positioning of Lipscomb within the concert at Berkeley and, we might even leap to say, the folk revival of the 1960s as a whole. He is the main event, holding the audience’s attention, but he does so as a kind of blank slate, a black hole at the center of the folk revival for audiences to project their own fantasies of authenticity and roots. Race, region, masculinity, and more are at play in this photograph—and the event it captures. The photograph communicates this, but to me, when I turned to a sonification of the image, the lurking qualities and stakes of the photo and what it pictures virtually roared forth.

Working with the image as an artist might, reworking image into sound, remaking the material not so much to fashion something new, but rather to reveal something old, buried in the data, allowed me to see it better. The pivot between perceptual receptions of our evidence (after all it’s still the same data, just transposed into a new key) can spark insights (or I suppose “insounds”) about materials and their historical significance. We can do this with one image, up close, or perhaps with more images than one human can take in, at the large scales that computation can process in ways that the human sensorium cannot. Sound, noise, pitch, texture, timbre, they can help us see the world more robustly by hearing it.

These are, admittedly, experiments of an esoteric, specialized, rather zany nature. They rely upon shifts of evidence into disorienting new modes. Whereas many view the emerging field of digital humanities as seeming call to return, through “big data” and algorithmic thinking, to the failed cliometrics experiments of the 1970s, I am more interested in taking digital history in a different direction. I think we can borrow more from the strategies of artists as much as scientists. The perceptual possibilities, the untapped phenomenological potential, of perceiving our evidence in new, transliterated ways, can produce both new ways of knowing and new knowledge itself. But what I am really doing here is not so fancy. It is, at its heart, carrying forward that original request John made in his cultural history seminar: to pay attention more closely to the details of our evidence.

Digital experimentation is one area that pushes cultural history into new realms through an elaboration of the key Kassonian question: “what do you see?”; for me, collaborating with makers of dance theater has proved to be another one.

The Seldoms Power Goes Equal Sign by Bill Frederking
The Seldoms in Power Goes.

In my work as a dramaturg for a contemporary dance theater company in Chicago, The Seldoms, I have been able to link history to an entirely different mode of asking “what do you see?” The Seldoms use dance theater to inquire into issues of political and social import: the economic crisis of 2008, the debate over climate change, and global struggles over territorial borders. Lately, the company’s work has taken a historical turn, drawing upon archival source material to examine the physical dimensions of power and social change through the lens of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency.

The “Johnson Treatment”: Christina Gonzalez-Gillett of The Seldoms in Power Goes.

In Power Goes, the company engages with Johnson’s body language, as well as the uses of the body by civil rights protesters and others, to create a historically inspired dance theater work. Using their own bodies, they invite audiences to look more closely at the past as it flows not just through images, sounds, or other artifacts, but also through the corporeal: through individual civic bodies that constitute collective civic bodies. They model the flesh and bones of citizenship. For we often quite cerebral historians, this becomes a new way to ask, what do you see? We are accustomed to a field we call “history of the body,” but The Seldoms propose that we might also learn from a history through the body.

It is a bit difficult to convey this on video and in an extracted clip, but this is at least a glimpse of what this kind of cultural historical seeing looks like. The clip of Power Goes, which in total runs about 75 minutes, features the company members dancing to Dave Brubeck’s 1961 off-kilter song (it is in 7/4 time), “Unsquare Dance.” The dancers explore different gestures and stances of power through individual and ensemble investigations of weight, balance, solos, group choreography, leaps, turns, twists, fists, tensing or relaxing of muscles, clasping of hands and handshakes, curling up of the body, and stretching out of it into space. They push us to think through bodily forms and formations about both history and questions of power. And they do so over a collaged dialogue of two presidential speeches: Lyndon Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech, delivered to Congress after the bloody Selma protests of 1965 and Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech, given in 2008 in Philadelphia in response to the controversies over Obama’s connections to Reverend Jeremiah Wright.


The Seldoms Power Goes Collage Excerpt


And here, in another section of Power Goes, The Seldoms work through the trauma of the Vietnam War, from one of the recurring motifs in the piece, a biting gesture, into a chopped-up version of the antiwar chant “Hey, Hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”, to numbers clicking off the infamous body kill count, to dancing bodies in struggle and trauma, with wounds inflicted and care given, gestures of hurt and aggression and tenderness and vulnerability, fists driven into the ground or raised in the air from bodies turned horizontally, the dancers lying on the stage in an endurance of stomach muscles, ending with troops waist deep in the big muddy, humping the boonies, perhaps even crawling out of the 1960s alive, but barely. The gestures refer to Vietnam and its tumultuous decade, the will to struggle and the effort to save and the ultimate power to kill, but The Seldoms also link that iconography to more widespread impulses and experiences of power: both power being used and people getting used by power. Overall, theory and embodiment come together in Power Goes in a visceral yet also deeply intellectual kind of gesamtkunstwerk, a total work.


The Seldoms Power Goes Hey Hey LBJ Excerpt


This is a mode of cultural history that reaches out from academia into other public spaces, bringing certain tactics of analysis I learned from John into conversation with artists and thinkers working in an entirely different register of discovery and analysis through dance performance.

One of Power Goes‘s most powerful examples of this occurred when the activists who close the dehumanizing Tamms Supermax Prison came to see the piece at its premiere at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s MCA Stage program in Chicago. Over the last 10 years, the ex-prisoners and their families members as well as the artists, scholars, lawyers, and activists in Tamms Ten Year combined aesthetic tactics with good, old-fashioned lobbying to convince Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois to shut down the prison. With the recent threat of its reopening, the group was reconvening to strategize.

The members of Tamms Ten Year attended Power Goes and joined The Seldoms for a meeting afterward. Their testimony to the piece was revealing. They expressed interest in Lyndon Johnson’s legislative tactics and the way he used his body to convince and cajole and get things done. They also connected Power Goes not only to power, but, in addition, to freedom.

For one ex-prisoner, the piece was about how the dancers discovered their ability to move, to shine, to “juke and jive,” to express their sense of self virtuosically. For the wife of that prisoner, the piece was more about a longing for liberation, the ongoing struggle to pursue and achieve a goal of recovery and the reconstitution of being together and thriving. For another ex-prisoner, Power Goes summoned up memories of constraint, of the pain of imprisonment.

In this encounter between The Seldoms and Tamms Ten Year, we all, at a basic level, used dance theater simply to look. We saw the world and ourselves with heightened scrutiny. And this allowed us to ask with more intensity: what are we seeing, what are we knowing, what are we feeling? We connected the pleasure of art and entertainment to the pain of injustice, loss, and suffering, of striving to make oneself and the social world anew and better. Dance mattered here, even if it was just a show. Through witnessing and testimony, engagement and conversation, The Seldoms and Tamms Ten Year looked the difficulties of the world, and the dream of improving it, of expanding its shared, public life of collective citizenship just a little bit more broadly and decisively. A small moment, but one that nonetheless linked to big issues.

In the end, whether in digital humanities or dance dramaturgy, writing books or teaching, editing the work of others or collaborating with them on projects, even when stretching far past the conventional arenas of scholarly history, moving beyond words to encounter and try to contribute to the work of others who pursue embodied expression, investigation, and communication—even argument and certainly interpretation—I find myself returning to and very much grounded in that image of The Artist in the Museum as well as the question John posed in his graduate seminar, a query that is at once the most obvious and yet forever the most difficult to address: simply tell us this, what do you see?

This talk has been slightly revised based on comments at the event.

1 thought on “What Do You See?

  1. Close your eyes. Imagine the wall in front of you. Open your eyes. The wall is different from the imagined picture, is it not?

    –Ken Kesey advised in Garage Sale.

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