The Dresher Center for the Humanities at UMBC announces the winners of its Spring semester 2013 Internal Residential Fellowship competition: Dr. Kate Brown (History) and Dr. Preminda Jacobs (Visual Arts).
The Fellows will reside at least two days a week in the Dresher Center and receive a course release down to one course per semester in order to work on a humanities research project. Fellows will also be given access to an undergraduate research assistant (junior or senior) for 5 hours per week during the semester they is in residence (paid for by the Dresher Center) and will receive a private office in the Dresher Center for the semester. In return, Fellows will conduct two research workshops during the spring semester. The first workshop will be on research methods to assist other colleagues and the second workshop will be on their own research. The second workshop should take place by late April, when the Fellows will be expected to have completed a presentable draft chapter or article for circulation and UMBC peer comments at this workshop.
The research projects they will pursue as Fellows in Spring 2013 are as follows:
Kate Brown: “Being There: Place, Space, and the Historical Method”
To be somewhere is to take a position. Historians tend to prioritize the temporal over the geographical, the chronological over the spatial. Often, historians presume the site of action to be a given, as if place is a neutral container of human interaction, rather than a dynamic agent in its own right. Historians choose as subjects of their histories people, events, identities, communities, ideas, and movements. What happens when a historian starts from a place and uses space as a category of analysis? I am applying to the Dresher Center Fellowship to free up time to work on a collection of essays, which will explore the role of place and the construction of space in historical research and narrative. About two-thirds of the essays for this collection are complete. With a course release I will be able to finish this project by June 2013. At the Dresher Center, I would be eager to lead workshops, especially on the topics of narrative voice, embodied objectivity, and the spatial turn in recent scholarship.
I believe I can finish this manuscript soon because I have been inadvertently working on it for over a decade. In 2000, I published an article called, “Gridded Lives: Why Montana and Kazakhstan are Nearly the Same Place,” about how the large-scale transformation of territory in the US for railroad management and in the USSR for Gulag administration created a web of relations that compelled the same communities of German Russians of Ukraine to Montana as homesteaders and to Kazakhstan as deportees. In 2004, I published A Biography of No Place about how Soviet, Nazi-German, and Ukrainian nationalists imagined a borderland territory between Ukraine and Poland as “backward,” a process that served to annihilate the multi-lingual communities living there. In a 2007 article, “Out of Solitary Confinement,” I used the history of the Gulag to explore incarcerated space transnationally. In Plutopia: Nuclear Families in Atomic Cities and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (Oxford 2013),
I describe how the creation of two “model” cities for plutonium operators enabled a massive environmental contamination and helped cover up the fact that farmers and indigenous hunter-gatherers living off the land just outside the “nuclear reservation” in territories designated “clean” were getting hazardous doses of radioactive isotopes.
I have largely spent my career as a historian chronicling environmental, demographic and economic dystopias, places that other historians have overlooked because the state of destruction of these places made them appear unimportant. In “Being There,” I plan to chart out methods and tools historians of place can use to excavate stories long buried under rubble in order to recapture the lives of people who were the last to turn out the lights. The place is at the center of these histories because it, alone, remains to tell the tale.
Preminda Jacob: “The Painted Walls of Chennai: Street Semiotics in an Indian City”
My current research is aimed at producing a book-length critical analysis of vividly painted street murals that cover thousands of feet of public wall space in the south Indian city of Chennai. In Indian cities the boundaries of all properties, both public and private, are separated from the street by long stretches of walls that abut dusty pot-holed sidewalks. Murals that cover these wall surfaces with a cheery slideshow of tourist postcard-style imagery, follow the rectangular divisions on the wall surface, approximately 7 feet high by 12 feet long. The long bands of paintings function collectively as a frame for the city itself, its inhabitants and the activities in which they engage. By neatly framing discrete aspects of India’s diversity —its physical diversity in topography, flora and fauna, culturally in various local crafts, festivities and traditions, and its unending mythological heritage in the glorious tales of gods and kings, heroes and heroines — these murals create a visual montage of the nation’s patrimony. However, while communicating the utopian rhetoric of the postcolonial nation state these murals inadvertently expose the contradictions of statist ideology.
While in residence at the Dresher Center I will produce a draft of one book chapter, “Artists in the City,” based on mural artists and their client, the Chennai City Corporation. I will examine the contractual relations between the artists and the city government to determine artists’ innovative strategies for survival in the city. What are the precedents, the benefits and politics of nurturing artistic enterprises in the city? This question will frame my discussion of the social status, training, investment of labor, methods of painting and working conditions of the Chennai mural artists. By examining the relationship between mural paintings, their artist creators and government-sponsored city beautification initiatives, this chapter will advance the larger agenda of the book, as to whether visual art in public spaces can transform people’s normative expectations of the Indian city street. My elucidation of the Chennai murals will nuance the discussion of the role of public art in this city and in other Indian cities, which confront similar problems of urbanism.
Combining analytical perspectives on street painting in an Indian metropolis with a theoretical discussion of creative responses to the problems of urbanism in India, my work will challenge humanities scholars to re-examine, within a non-Western context, the relationship between contemporary public art, urban form and street sociality, a subject that has long been scrutinized in Western contexts. Key thinkers about city space concur that streets shape a city and give it vitality by creating a unique social space in the urban environment. Inimical to the healthy life of an Indian street is the fact that certain social classes avoid the street altogether. Chennai’s upper class inhabitants are retreating from the abject condition of the city street to the shining luxury of temperature-controlled promenades in shopping malls. So the questions remain: How can the city reclaim its streets as social space? Can photorealist images of mythical heroes and untrammeled nature in the Chennai murals eviscerate signs of urban blight? What role do art and aesthetics play in urban renewal? Such questions bring a humanities eye to examining urban landscapes that have traditionally been considered only in a social science framework. In analyzing the layered relationships between the Chennai murals, their creators and beholders, my book will address a major gap in humanities scholarship on public art and street sociality in a non-Western context.