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Thoughts on “Art AIDS America”

I know I just said I don’t usually post about art exhibits, but this one’s really everything I’m interested in and it’s timely. Art AIDS America explores American art in the wake of AIDS, encompassing a wide variety of artists and media. I visited at the end of April while the show was at the Zuckerman Museum of Art in Kennesaw, Georgia. This is a no-pictures-allowed exhibit, partly to protect the privacy of visitors, so I don’t have pictures of my own (and don’t remember any details) but have pulled a few promotional images.

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From a museum perspective, the exhibit labels are just fantastic, and that’s no small consideration: art doesn’t speak for itself. Art represents something, whether it be a photorealistic portrait or an abstract emotion.  Most art museums and art exhibits have small labels with the name of the piece, the artist, and maybe the medium or the year, and that’s it. But art is both historical and personal, and without that context, I have nothing! There’s no way to know if my aesthetic impression has anything to do with what the artist actually wanted to say about their life or the culture around them. These pieces in particular were saying things, and I appreciate the care and effort that went into explaining the art in labels without being condescending or overly detailed.

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Deborah Kass, Still Here, 2007. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 45 x 63 inches.

If you know what the artist was saying or referring to, you can react in a meaningful way, not a way you’ve made up yourself. Because the labels ground you, Art AIDS America creates a connection to the material whether you have a personal one or not. “The AIDS crisis” as such was before my time — and after my time, as a historian — but it was a world-changing event in gay history with drastic repercussions, both personal and political, and this art shows those dimensions. The heaviest part was the display of Reagan-era politicians’ quotes and references to AIDS as a judgment or something anyone deserves. It’s not just history, though — the art wouldn’t exist without the context, but it’s also art, creative and curious in its own right. I remember one piece that’s made of a stack of papers and each visitor takes one, representing the spread of AIDS while questioning the idea of “owning” a piece of art in the first place.

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ACT UP NY/Gran Fury, Let the Record Show…, 1987/recreated 2015, mixed media installation.

The central controversy of the show is that in its original form, the two curators (Jonathan D. Katz and Rock Hushka) only included four black artists and a few other artists of color out of 107 total, despite claiming to “explore the whole spectrum of artistic responses to AIDS” and the current disproportionate affect of HIV/AIDS on black communities. I’m sure there’s a lot to say about how and why the exhibit turned out that way, but I’m not the one who knows. All I can say is that the Zuckerman handled it well, and took an opportunity to modify the show and include a more diverse pool of artists, and I appreciate it.

In the last week of its run at the Zuckerman, some local politicians started making noise about it being disgusting. Again, I can’t speak to all the motivations in the background, but I find it strange that the objections came in the last week of something like a four-month run, and I hope the museum isn’t discouraged. They did a fantastic job. I know they felt the need for security in the building (provided by the local police, an awesome outreach opportunity) but according to staff at the time I was there, they had no problems or complaints. From everything I’ve heard, that’s entirely typical. Audiences aren’t as sensitive as we museum people — and politicians — often think they will be.

I apologize to my southern peeps that Art AIDS America’s run has finished here, but I believe the show is headed to the Bronx Museum of the Arts in New York next, and then to Chicago!

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Museum Visit: The Walters Art Museum (Baltimore, MD)

I don’t always post about art museum visits, because I generally find art exhibits very subjective and also because photography is often prohibited and that’s how I note all the things I might want to talk about without interrupting my flow. However, the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore has a really interesting approach I’d like to discuss.

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Me, Adam, Eve, and… Femme Satan?

I visited the Walters while at the National Council on Public History conference in March, purely because I was with an art historian, she wanted to go to an art museum, and this one was free. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. It gave the impression of being quite small, yet boasts “an overview of world art from pre-dynastic Egypt to 20th-century Europe, and counts among its many treasures Greek sculpture and Roman sarcophagi; medieval ivories and Old Master paintings; Art Nouveau jewelry and 19th-century European and American masterpieces.”

At first I was totally unimpressed. Random jumbles of art and objects, without labels except for the odd laminated booklet with diagrams. The more we wandered, though, the more I realized this was intentional. Rooms represent different time periods, and we’d started in the Renaissance period. These rooms were designed to recreate the way gentlemen would’ve outfitted such rooms — random assemblages of strange or unique things, with no direction for the visitor. The host would’ve explained different things, but of course you’d never know if he was telling the truth. Visitors to the museum, on the other hand, have recourse to the booklet (or free audio guide) for these particular objects, without the intrusion of labels onto the scene.

Upstairs, there are more traditional art galleries, interspersed with things like a French royal gallery hung in the traditional style of wall-to-wall paintings crammed together to impress the viewer, or full altars set up as they would be for use. What started as a less-than-impressive old-fashioned museum turned out to be a gleefully immersive experience, and one of the best fusions of art with history I’ve ever seen, both at the room level and in their choice of specific objects to display and interpret.

I particularly love that you can get out of the museum exactly as much as you want — move through quickly and look over the art, or go slowly and read all text, or more likely something in between. And, although I’m an outsider and can’t say for sure, they seem to be doing a great job of engaging with their public through varied exhibitions, programs, and kids’ activities. Highly recommended, and would visit again!

Kingsman, The Man from UNCLE, and Queering the Action Movie

Kingsman and Man from UNCLE are two of my favorite movies from the past few years. They’re both action-spy movies, which means even though they base themselves on pre-existing media, they must reference the James Bond franchise somehow. Any new action-spy movie has to do that, but as comedies (even light parodies), it is absolutely imperative that they interact with the genre instead of just copying it. What I find interesting is both these movies deal with that by gently expanding what’s “allowed” in a Bond-type production.

Kingsman posterInitially I didn’t even want to see Kingsman, because it looked so incredibly white and male. White guy action movies are a dime a dozen, even if this one has that slight parody twist. But I love Colin Firth, (also the star of my very favorite queer movie, A Single Man). And I heard good things about Kingsman after its release, so I watched it. There’s more than meets the eye — it’s a “you’re totes special” story about a white kid being trained by white British aristocracy, yes, but this does not go unexamined.

One scene toward the beginning is representative: Galahad (Colin Firth) and Eggsy (Taron Egerton) drinking in a pub after Galahad has gotten Eggsy out of jail. Galahad launches into a rather typical list of questions about why Eggsy hasn’t done anything with his life, has quit everything he started, etc. When Eggsy makes a reference to his (abusive) stepfather, Galahad says “Oh, it’s always someone else’s fault.” But Eggsy doesn’t let it lie or try to deny it, shift uncomfortably in his seat, double down on his “excuses.” He leans forward and accuses Galahad of not understanding what it’s like to be born in a different class and do things because you have no choice, no other way to get through. And Galahad accepts it, then continues to work for more working-class representation in the Kingsman organization.

Eggsy is set directly against a group of toffee-nosed private school British kids in training, sparking explicit debates about class discrimination. It’s really important here that the discussions are explicit, not subtext, and I love the way Eggsy and the female candidate Roxy become allies against the “establishment” kids. Plus I’m always on the lookout for queer references, and I got more than I bargained for: The three final candidates in Kingsman training all get an assignment to seduce the same girl, and Roxy is totally game! And then there’s the greatest set of lines I’ve ever heard Colin Firth say:

Galahad, for his part, is a lovely inversion of the James Bond spy trope. He’s a badass, but he’s not a hardass. When he and Eggsy are threatened by hooligans toward the beginning of the movie, his quite honest response is “I’ve had a rather emotional day, so … I’d appreciate it enormously if you could just leave us in peace, until I can finish this lovely pint of Guinness.” The whole movie is of course a Bond parody… But a subtle one. You’re meant to chuckle at statements like Galahad’s, because you know the tropes he’s referencing, but you’re not meant to guffaw.

Unfortunately it gets super weird toward the end, including some bizarrely flamboyant gore and the problematic treatment of the Swedish princess, who is literally reduced to a cheap reward for Eggsy. Also, the villains are a black guy with a lisp (Samuel L. Jackson) and a girl with prosthetic feet. Is this supposed to be satire of Bond-type villains, or is it inherently problematic? In deconstructing and reconstructing the spy movie, does Kingsman perhaps reconstruct a bit too much? I loved it, but it’s also frustrating, and queer stuff remains quite subtle.

Man from Uncle posterThen there’s The Man from UNCLE, which is equally awesome-yet-difficult. I’d been saying how gay it looked since the trailers, and wondering if they would dare show queer characters or if it would stay at the level of queerbaiting. I didn’t really expect gay characters — it’s based on an old TV show and was going for “big summer movie” appeal. However, I would argue it’s a little more than jokes.

For starters, the jokes are constant enough that they become part of the movie’s tone, and they’re “in the know” references, not “no homo!” ones. Tearoom and top/bottom jokes, plus the “Are these heels mine?” bit that appeared in a trailer but not the movie proper. Solo (Henry Cavill) and Illya (Armie Hammer) engage in all the bickering and one-upmanship that would lead directly to romance if they were male and female, and spend a good deal of time bickering about things like Gaby’s outfits when Gaby doesn’t care at all. There’s the “I’m allowing you to tag along” exchange featured in trailers:

Finally, while I love that Gaby (Alicia Vikander) had about a million times more things to do than the typical Bond girl, she’s also used in a way that’s very typical for setups like this: to legitimize, even distract from, the same-sex intimacy that’s at the core of the story. So as a whole, like Kingsman, it challenges the gender assumptions of the James Bond “ideal,” but doesn’t go so far as to include any out characters. (There’s more to say about Bond, the franchise is utterly fascinating as a cultural artifact and showed some hints of opening up in recent movies, but as of Spectre it’s once again a resolute symbol of emotionless heterosexuality).

I said in my post on the Man from UNCLE trailer that the action movie would be the very last space to be queered, and maybe that’s true, but I’ve seen the film since then. Man from UNCLE and Kingsman both expand the space in ways I hadn’t even thought about, especially in terms of class. Neither goes far enough, but just the presence of these movies as hits indicates that popular culture is getting more at home with the idea, so maybe there’s hope after all… Or maybe I should just be grumpy that they didn’t go all the way. What do you think?

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Star Trek Miniskirts: Feminist or Nah?

This month’s Star Trek column is all about the miniskirt!

Comparative Geeks

Aesthetics carry messages about values. Star Trek, while frequently written about in historical, literary, and technological terms, was also a visual experience with a distinctive aesthetic, and there’s a lot there to talk about! I just wrote a term paper on the topic, and it’s my pleasure to bring you some highlights related to Star Trek’s costumes —  specifically, the infamous miniskirts.

A variety of Star Trek uniforms StarTrek.com

William “Bill” Ware Theiss, a gay costume designer at the beginning of his career, developed the costumes for the full run of the show. The iconic uniforms were the third version developed over the course of several pilots, and their final form was a combination of practicality and aesthetics. The two earlier styles made use of velour tunics, chosen for their futuristic sheen under stage lights. Velour shrinks with every wash, though, and since television costumes are laundered every day, the tunics had to be…

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Spring is here!

Hi everybody! It’s been a good long while since I’ve done a chatty update. I wanted to let you all know that I’ve decided to do some spring cleaning around here — a new title, new (mobile-responsive!) look, all-new pages, the works.

Never fear, content will be largely the same. I love this blog and all the topics it encompasses. I’ve just been thinking for a while now that it’s time for a fresh approach and refocusing. I want to reflect what I’m doing and thinking about now, so the new blog will center on the intersection of public history and popular culture. When I talk about one, I almost always end up talking about the other, and I talk a lot about queerness in both too! (My fiction writing will go on as well, but I expect I’ll mention it in other posts more often than I’ll make posts purely about it).

I’ll be keeping my URL, which is my name, but possibly deleting some of the old posts that don’t fit. At the least, I’ll be revamping categories and tags. However, I’ve created a special WordPress to function as the Things Matter archive, preserving all the posts, pages, and comments as they are right now, which can be found at www.thingsmatterblog.wordpress.com. (I may decide not to delete anything here once I start looking, but either way, TM-as-it-was will be there if anyone, including me, decides they want it!)

Updates begin now, gradually, and I’ll make another post after some undetermined amount of time to let you know they’re done, but I remain open for business throughout. The same weekly-or-nearly-weekly schedule will continue — expect a Star Trek post next weekend!

Finally, a huge thank you to everyone who’s read my blog, even during this grad school posting-and-reading drought. Y’all are the best, and I hope you like the new look!

Review: The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage reviewWhat an intriguing work of public history!

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer is a 2015 graphic novel by Sydney Padua. It’s a kind of historical fiction about two mathematicians of the 1800s, but it carries on their lives into a steampunk pocket universe beyond the point of Ada Lovelace’s real-world death. Much of the book is available online, since it started as a webcomic.

I’ve mentioned three genres already, maybe four depending on how you count, but everyone should note that the comic is heavily footnoted. Even the clearly-made-up parts are, in my public-historian view, “historical interpretation.” She takes not only opinions but the historical figures’ actual words and actions, just moving them to new contexts for laughs, and she continues to footnote extensively. (Not to mention appending about sixty pages of primary documents and explanation). That’s why I classify it as public history, albeit a new breed. It’s history for the public, achieving both entertainment and education, not “disguising” either as the other but actually, really, truly offering something the public WANTS in both ways.

Padua also clearly delineates what was possible from what was probable, a crucial but underappreciated skill in public history. I don’t want to detract from that skill, but I must point out that when such material is presented properly like this, the public is perfectly capable of understanding the difference between reality and fantasy and embracing them both at the same time. Honestly, that’s the fun part. I firmly believe that people think history is boring because we, as historians and “adults,” ignore the ways in which history actually signifies things to people.

Ada Lovelace by Sydney Padua
Ada Lovelace as drawn by Sydney Padua

Anyway. The footnotes are new for the book. The webcomic version has short historical notes after each part, but no footnotes, and I’m going to keep talking about those because I found the to be the most delightful and most challenging aspect of the work as published. I mean, how often do you read a historical book or watch a film and think “Did that really happen?” Quite often, I’d guess, even if you don’t actually go look it up. Padua lays it all out for you to find.

That’s the challenge, though… you have to find it. Reading the footnotes along with the comic is distracting and kills the jokes by explaining them. I’m a big enough nerd that I actually got a decent number of the jokes, but many (if not most) are so obscure that I need the explanation to get it at all. The book was crazy popular, on the New York Times bestseller list and nominated for a Goodreads Choice Award among other honors, so I’d be interested to hear others’ reading methods. Did you read footnotes as they came up, skip them, skip the pictures, or what? What were you learning and why?

I ended up with sort of a staggered reading style, going through each comic section and glancing down if I didn’t get something, then going back through to read the footnotes and endnotes before continuing to the next section. (Note, however, that the final story’s footnotes should be read simultaneously. It’s a brilliant little piece in which the comic and the footnotes interact to address the question of just who Ada Lovelace was and how much mathematical history can be credited to her. Can I say “brilliant” again? I was already impressed with Sydney Padua’s research chops and artistic talent, but this sequence won the book five stars from me).

I could pick this footnote thing apart all day, because I think it says something about the modern public and how public historians should be working, and it also raises questions about reader/visitor behavior that I find terribly relevant. But if nothing else, you should read the comic book parts, because Ada Lovelace was a badass and I love her.

Uhura Wears Red

Monthly Star Trek column is up!

Comparative Geeks

Nyota Uhura, Nichelle NicholsIt occurred to me recently that Lieutenant Uhura, the Enterprise’s communications officer, portrayed by the formidable Nichelle Nichols, wears a red uniform. This may not be immediately surprising. Lots of people wear red uniforms in the Original Series. All the nameless “redshirt” security guards, yes, but also the entire engineering department, which naturally raises the question: Which is Uhura? Not security, clearly, which leaves engineering.

This realization struck me because fans seem to have conflated “communications” with linguistics at some point after the original series, largely due to the 1985 novel Uhura’s Song by Janet Kagan. In actual episodes, though, she’s not presented as a linguist but an expert in the sophisticated technology required for the Enterprise’s communications, including long-range with Starfleet, intraship coordination, and interfacing with alien ships’ technologies. She doesn’t pull out a dictionary, she crawls under her station to reconnect wires. She’s in the engineering…

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How I Use Habitica.com

Habitica, previously HabitRPG, is a productivity app/site that “gamifies” your life, assigning XP to daily tasks and giving virtual rewards in the form of equipment etc. for your character. Habitica pretty much runs my life now, and I promised in my post on writing approaches that I’d explain how I use it. It took a good while to set this site up the way I wanted, and it takes some tweaking if there’s ever a life change like starting grad school, but malleability is one of its great strengths. Built-in rewards, a social aspect, and the existential pleasure of checking things off lists are other perks. I’m highly motivated by checking off things on lists…

When you log in, you have four columns: Habits, Dailies, To-Dos, and Rewards. You can add your own rewards if you like, but your main activity areas are the first three columns.

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My “Habits” column is where I put anything I want to do on a regular basis. You have the option of positive (a reward each time you click it), negative (a penalty), or a combo of both on one item, like the food options I have listed above. I also keep a few levels of writing goals in that column, and you can select how difficult each habit is, so there’s more of a reward for hitting a higher goal.

The second column is a self-renewing daily checklist. You get rewards for doing these things, and a penalty at the end of the day for any you didn’t accomplish. (I should note that the penalties are just a few health points, it’s nothing dramatic). The next day, the list renews to blank again. This is AWESOME, because in every other system I’ve tried, I’d have to do these lists manually and re-write the same things over and over. Most of the stuff on my daily list is “eat,” “work,” etc., but it sort of helps keep my place in the day, and then I also have some things like my daily Star Trek episode, daily exercise, etc. One more awesome feature is that you can set tasks to appear on specific days of the week, so you can still use the auto-renewing feature for something you do “twice a week” or whatever.

Most of the action happens in my To-Do column. These items, once checked, reward you and disappear, they don’t renew unless you add another one. I have one-time to-do tasks for all the stuff I want to get done — books to read, a load of dishes to wash, etc. I will literally forget what I WANTED to do otherwise, let alone what I OUGHT to do. I used to keep lists like this in a text document, and I still have that document to feed into Habitica so my list isn’t too huge at any one time, but Habitica’s features are awesome. (Turning tasks increasingly red the longer they’ve been sitting there, dragging to re-order, etc.) Plus this is a great anxiety thing, because I can take a few minutes to reorder the list for my immediate needs and then just look at what’s next. I don’t have to struggle with old paper lists that don’t accurately present EXACTLY what’s most urgent.

UntitledRight now I’m using the To-Do column as a kind of dayplanner, too — I have a one-time task for every day, made several days in advance, with a sub-checklist covering the things I want to do that day. This has been super helpful in controlling overbooking, when I think I can do ALL THE THINGS in one day, because I can literally see how much I’ve gotten done. I do the same with monthly lists. This also works beautifully for me because I just don’t function on a single-day cycle. If I do something once, I’m not mentally ready to do it again for a while. I might come back to it over a few days until it’s done, or I might want to do it once and then again some time later. With Habitica, I can get a balance of a one-time daily checklist with a general list of stuff to do at some point.

So, as mentioned in that writing post, I need to incorporate writing goals in a realistic way. I’d tried just having “write” pop up in my weekly renewing checklist, a better step than daily, but still the wrong approach for me. I’ve now changed “write” to a positive Habit, and the next step is to design my chunks so they pop up at a steady rate along with my various other tasks. I also believe I need a more conceptual to-do list, and I think that can go here — things like “Figure out what Wams is up to,” not just “write scene 87.” That way things appear along with all my typical tasks, so A) I’ll remember to actually do them, and B) I don’t psych myself out thinking writing has to be super separate.

Verdict: I love, love, love Habitica. If you try it out, let me know! I’d love to see other people’s strategies!