A blog of the Center for Experimental Ethnography
Jasmine Johnson believes in the integration of research and practice and is interested in the various ways her own movement practices “show up” in her work. Her research examines the politics of Black movement, which for her includes not only dance but also phenomena like diasporic travel and gentrification. Interdisciplinary in nature, her scholarship and teaching are situated at the intersection of diaspora theory, dance and performance studies, ethnography, and black feminism. Her first book manuscript, Rhythm Nation: West African Dance and the Politics of Diaspora, is under contract with Oxford University Press, and her second book project is a cultural history of black American dance.
In conversation with Grace Ndicu, Jasmine talked about the recently inaugurated Black Feminist Lab. She described the Lab as having organically emerged through casual conversations with Aimee Cox, a former CEE Fellow who teaches at Yale University. Jasmine had met Aimee during a Mellon-sponsored summer institute at Northwestern, and they had stayed in touch since that time. Their conversations touched on the movement practices in which they have both been engaged, from African and Caribbean dance to experimental dance, yoga, barre as well as Pilates. As the conversations evolved, they begun to discuss the role of movement in their writing and scholarly practice, and what moving could do to mitigate the disruptions that were taking place.
Because these discussions took place during this difficult pandemic time, one that has been especially trying for Black people contending not only with a pandemic that was disproportionately affecting them, but also with America’s perpetual reawakening to the injustices that face African-Americans, they took on a heightened salience. Jasmine and Aimee also understood that other black women were experiencing the disembodiments they were feeling, perpetuated by an increase in virtual communication, and especially by endless zoom meetings. They imagined that others would also be interested in participating in a conversation about embodiment, so they began to ruminate on the role of this embodiment in the rising conversation about Black bodies, and on what they could share that would be useful.
What was birthed from this desire to share was the creation of a space in which Jasmine and Aimee would share each of their movement practices with an emphasis on embodiment and experience, without preaching or performing. They enlisted Savannah Shange, an anthropologist based at the University of California-Santa Cruz with whom Jasmine had connected in the Bay Area, to serve as an interlocutor, and the Black Feminist Lab had its first public offering on March 19th. Forty participants took part in a workshop that was organized in relation to three concepts: CLEAR (a breathing exercise led by Savannah); BUILD (a barre and Pilates practice led by Jasmine); and RELEASE (an experimental invitation to move led by Aimee). After the exercises, Savannah threaded these three concepts together, and then opened space for participants to share how they felt. The goal was not necessarily for participants to leave with a new skill, but to explore Black women’s experiences with their bodies in motion.
Jasmine’s current research focuses on the choreographic practices of contemporary black choreographers such as Solange Knowles, Camille A. Brown, and Jennifer Herge, as well as scholar-choreographer Aimee Cox. When looking at these choreographers’ work, she is especially interested in exploring the extraordinarily diverse representations of black womanhood that they put forward.
Jasmine was drawn to barre and Pilates classes because she had noticed the dearth of Black women in these classes, and wanted to change that. She has also been exploring the practice of full body listening, as developed by Aimee Cox, a practice that she says helps develop clarity. “When using my body for physical practice,” she said, “it connects my work both in method and approach as well as practice.” Through her scholarly work, movement practice, movement instruction and her dedication to the liberation found in Black Feminist practice, Jasmine personifies the practice of full body listening.
Jasmine’s background in Dance Studies informs her interrogation of Black movement generally, from diasporic relocations to the Great Migration, to the chorographic practices of Black artist. For her, attention to movement in these broad terms helps us to understand the diversity of Black identities, even “where there is very little verbal utterance.” Movement, in this way, becomes an archive of experience, and the body both inhabits and registers this archive. It is this sense of movement that underlies the Black Feminist Lab, a space in which the intention of being and moving together in active presence should be guided by curiosity, rather than on a determined point of arrival or resolution. The trio wants participants to be open to what movement asks instead of what it answers.
The Black Feminist Lab is led by:
Aimee Meredith Cox, a cultural anthropologist, writer, and movement artist currently teaching in the Anthropology and African American Studies Departments at Yale University. Her first book, Shapeshifters: Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship (Duke 2015) has won several awards.
Jasmine Elizabeth Johnson, an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania who has also been a Ford Foundation Diversity Pre- and Post-Doctoral Fellow. Jasmine earned her Ph.D. in African Diaspora Studies at UC Berkeley, and has been a Scholar-in-Residence at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a Newhouse Center for the Humanities Fellow at Wellesley College, and a Postdoctoral Fellow in African American Studies at Northwestern University. In 2016, Johnson was awarded the Michael L. Walzer '56 Award from Brandeis University for combining "superlative scholarship with inspired teaching." Jasmine is also a professional dancer and has performed internationally.
Savannah Shange is an urban anthropologist who works at the intersections of race, place, sexuality, and the state. She is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz with research interests in circulated and lived forms of blackness, ethnographic ethics, Afro-pessimism, and queer of color critique. Savannah has been a Ford Foundation Dissertation Fellow, a Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Fellow, and a Point Scholar.
We are very excited about the Black Feminist Lab as well as Jasmine's other projects!
Dr. Krystal Strong is an assistant professor in the Literacy, Culture, and International Education Division. Her research and teaching focus on student and community activism, the cultural and political power of youth, new media and popular culture, and the role of education as a site of political struggle with a geographic focus on Africa and the African Diaspora. She teaches courses in the Education, Culture, and Society and International Educational Development programs that focus on global youth cultures, ethnography and qualitative research methods, decolonizing education, and grassroots community activism. As a scholar and active organizer in the city of Philadelphia, Dr. Strong brings a commitment to supporting local communities, and to bringing the lessons of activism to bear on her scholarship and pedagogy. We recently spoke to Krystal about some of her current projects.
Krystal Strong is a native Philadelphian who grew up in the Francisville section of Fairmount, studied in the West coast and lived in various part of the world. When we spoke, she described the beauty of coming home as an academic, and about how being at Penn has opened up and required that she create space for all the work that she does in her community. Having returned to Philadelphia, she was disoriented by the intense gentrification she encountered, and she felt it was critical to do the memory work that was needed to remember what was being erased by these processes, both for herself and her famiy, and for Black Philadelphians more generally.
One of the catalysts that brought her to develop the Remember Black Philadelphia Project was the trip she took with her father to the location of his alma mater, which has now been transformed into luxury apartments. Her father played in the West Philadelphia high school band, and her grandmother owned a beauty salon around the corner from West Philadelphia High. She recalled how the community had pressed for the school to be renovated, but despite strong and organized alumni opposition, the old building (which had opened in 1912 as West Philadelphia’s first secondary school) was repurposed by a Brooklyn-based development company. Students were relocated to a new building at 49th and Chestnut in 2011, and the community lost a landmark.
These family memories were further activated in 2016, when Strong attended a MOVE event. She remembered walking up to a table that displayed 35-year old newspapers documenting the struggles of MOVE and Mumia Abu-Jamal. She was struck by the love and care that went into maintaining these newspapers, which had been saved by a community elder in a repurposed bedding set. This act of archiving demonstrated to her that important memory work was being taken on by the community, and the seeds of a new project were born. Krystal began collaborating with Jennifer Garcon, a digital librarian at the Price Lab to assist Philadelphia community members in digitizing and preserving their artifacts, and in recording their oral histories. The resources of the Remember Black Philadelphia Project have also been extended to the MOVE community to create a counter-archive, for which she recently received a two-year grant from the Mellon Foundation that will fund the collection of MOVE histories, their political work and their fight against state targeting. The counter-archive will culminate in a pop up multimodal exhibit that will assemble the oral histories and artifacts through immersive technologies to create a layered understanding of the role of MOVE in the Black freedom struggle. Keep an eye out for the Remember Black Philadelphia Project website coming soon.
We are very excited about Krystal’s projects!
As part of his doctoral research on human-aquifer relations and the pollution of space in Mexico, Pablo Aguilera Del Castillo interrogates the affective, aesthetic, and political affordances of maps. In order to do this, he has been exploring critical collective counter cartographies as a potential site of important anthropological analysis. Building on the well-established critique of maps as objects implicated in the exercise of power—be that colonial or otherwise—he follows the lead of mapping collectives in Latin America to reclaim the field of cartography.
For other mapping collectives, counter mapping is the continuous attempt to deconstruct traditional narratives of Latin American territories. For them, the map is simultaneously a method, a theory, and an everyday practice. They see in maps a powerful social space to bring intellectually rigorous thought to public spaces making knowledge and research more accessible to everyone. Following this, they work with other social organizations in Mexico and Central America to develop workshops to use traditional mapping methods and important baseline mapping layers in the development of critical collective counter cartographies.
Working in close collaboration with existing mapping collectives such as GeoComunes, JEN, and Iconoclasistas, as well as graduate students from the Department of Anthropology at Penn and the Penn School of Design, Pablo developed a series of maps on water pollution and industrial agricultural practices in Yucatan. Building on the ideas of forensic architecture, they generated a framework for analyzing pollution through the examination of infrastructure types associated with the growing agricultural industry in the region.
Overall the map illustrates the basic problem at hand for Pablo's doctoral research, the intensity of water pollution in the region and the need to find ways to narrate the troubled human-aquifer relations in Yucatan. Over the next months, Pablo plans to continue developing the tools and methodologies that needed for the virtual collective mapping workshops he is organizing in Yucatan.
Fewer Stays, Fewer Days: The Bronx Defenders and How Holistic Defense Reduces Mass Incarceration
Regina Austin, CEE Affiliate and William A. Schnader Professor of Law, is the director for the multimodal course titled "Documentaries and the Law". The course trains lawyers to understand both the law and the creative process, as documentary films increasingly influence what people know and think about law.
Given that documentary filmmaking provides opportunities to mount visual legal arguments that are relatively affordable, accessible, and reliable, the course seeks to instill students with an understanding of the rudiments of nonfiction film storytelling. Austin’s scholarship focuses on the impact of law on cultural conflicts arising from race, gender, and class inequality, with much of it revolving around the critical analysis of ethnographies and law-genre documentary films and photography. The Penn Program on Documentaries & the Law hosts screenings of law-genre documentaries, maintains a national archive of clemency videos as a resource for capital defense attorneys, and produces mitigation videos on behalf of young, first-time defendants in cooperation with the Defender Association of Philadelphia. The videos produced in this course are available on Youtube.
Come Spring, Austin will also be instructing a new course: "Critical Multimodal Qualitative Research Across the Professions". Stay tuned for more information about this interdisciplinary multimodal course.
There we have it. Adolescents are raising their virtual voices about menstrual health and equity. So, where does this leave our research. We have been able to gather a cohort of adolescent twitter user posts in both text and media format related to the theme of menstruation. We are in the process of manually annotating the tweets now and plan perform quantitative and qualitative analysis of the annotated data to determine the main themes that arise when teens talk about their periods online. We had initially planned to convene a small cohort of youth to design a either a digital web-based and/or in-person exhibition of the multimodal data. This cohort will likely be moved to a virtual platform but rather than a roadblock, I believe this offers a unique opportunity to explore digital media among youth as yet another multimodal tool to elevate and empower the
youth voice. Periods don’t stop for pandemics and neither do we!
From the beginning of the semester through the start of spring break, the students in Dr. Marcia Ferguson’s class at the University of Pennsylania, “The Edinburgh Project,” read works by Virginia Woolf and rehearsed a production of Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation of Woolf’s classic novel Orlando. The production was to premiere in April on campus, then travel to the Edinburgh Fringe in August. Their rehearsals with Ferguson and their training with Blanka Zizka, Artistic Director of the Wilma Theater and the 2020 artistic resident for the Theatre Arts program, were cut short by the pandemic.
With the University moving to remote learning and the Edinburgh Fringe ultimately canceled for 2020, it was clear the course would not be able to proceed as planned. Looking for a way to build on this initial work within a new format, Dr. Ferguson gave the group a new assignment: weekly video projects in which the individual members of the class reflect on Ruhl’s play, the Virginia Woolf novel on which it was based, and their experience of the pandemic. The resulting film blends distinctive imagery, original music, and first-person accounts.
The 28-minute film is available on YouTube throughout the Philadelphia Fringe Festival and beyond.
Still from Our Philadelphia (2020).
Arlene Fernández, an awardee of CEE's Multimodal Research Grant, grapples with the task of reshaping the direction of her work in the wake of COVID-19.
As I imagine many of us must be feeling, this year has taken me by surprise with its persistent existential demands. Like an almost unceasing drumbeat, we are being confronted with questions of life and death, and the injustices reflected in who lives and who dies have been as profound as they have been predictable. As an emerging scholar laying the foundation of my research in critical communication and cultural studies, I have been in a state of perpetual uncertainty about what a critical ethnographic and multimodal praxis can look like during COVID-19 and how to rethink or reshape the direction of my work “in the wake,” to invoke Christina Sharpe (2016).
To that end, it seemed timely that I would begin what I had hoped to be the beginnings of a multi-sited, multimodal ethnographic project in Latinx corner stores with a filmic meditation on a photographic archive of bodegas in New York City by photographer Justo A. Martí placed in conversation with an interview (filmed pre-COVID-19) with my father, a former bodega owner in New York, called “Bodega Memories.”
This summer, I was able to complete an early cut through which I began to develop the narrative form of the project and engage the public discourse framing the “essential worker.” Diving into a “living” archive through the interview with my father, I began reflecting on the incongruencies of what it means, in this case for Latinx (im)migrant workers, to be both “essential” and expendable and what these particular archives might reveal and obscure.
The CEE and The Visual Identities in Arts and Design Research Group at the University of Johannesburg are forging exciting transatlantic connections.
Established in 2007, the VIAD research group is dedicated to deepening research around the overarching thematic of identity construction through forms of visual practice, visual culture and visual representation, and specifically in relation to African and Afrodiasporic histories and experiences. Focal areas of research at VIAD include Cultural Identities; Bodily/Embodied Identities; Designing/Designed Identities, and projects THAT interlink textual, conversational and creative outputs. From 2014-2020, VIAD is paying particular attention io research that falls under the rubric of personal addresses, creative agencies and political resistances in the post-colony.
VIAD projects include the Sojourner Project: A Black Studies Mobile Academy (here), where members of the Practicing Refusal Collective will join local artists, writers and thinkers in Johannesburg and Durban to present a week-long program of art interventions, performances, screenings, conversations and public master classes. Although physical engagements for the Sojourner project are postponed due to COVID-19, VIAD is developing a digital platform as a means of initiating a community and dialogue/exchange, and looking forward to an in-person convening in May 2021.
Another project, "The Lesser Violence Reading Group" (here), is co-created with Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (GALA). This alternative ‘reading group’, is led by artists, researchers, and scholars, and asks participants to respond to listenings, experiences, performances, artworks and readings. In the 2018-2019 year these materials addressed the confronting of GBV and rape culture (TLV 2018 / TLV 2019). This year, The Lesser Violence Reading Group will be looking to ways in which community and "the social" factor in how artists navigate, disrupt and seek to reimagine this space.
It is our hope that this partnership will open avenues of creative exchange and dialogue between the faculty and students at our respective centers.
Stay tuned for an upcoming zoom conversation between Deb Thomas, CEE Director, and James MacDonald, VIAD Curatorial and Research Manager.
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