Reading In

Last night, I attended a panel composed of Jeff L. Rosenheim, Neil Selkirk, Elisabeth Sussman and Elisabeth Carpenter at the Walker Art Center on the eve of the opening of Diane Arbus Revelations. The motivation for assembling the show and monograph, according to Sussman, was the fact that although a huge stack of articles have been published about Diane Arbus (pronounced Dee-anne), these speculations really tell us nothing about her. Most of them are “pure rubbish.” Each one generally reveals the particular perverse interest the critic has taken in the work—on the whole, they add less than nothing to our understanding.

When the Q&A started, it became clear that the main reason why a lot of people attended the panel was to query the panelists about the nature of her unhappy life and suicide. Such matters, as Selkirk pointed out, are completely peripheral and disconnected with the work. Selkirk, who knew her briefly and is the official printer for her estate, suggested that we read and listen to her commentaries about her own work. She does not seem depressed or unhappy. The panelists refused to read anything into her work about her suicide, or to speculate on its cause. Life is complicated, Selkirk suggested. Arbus didn’t like museums much; Selkirk mentioned that Arbus commented on how “clean” they were.

“Reading in” seems like a fine sport for those in the clean room. This seems a poor substitute for reading itself. Mark Woods juxtaposed the quote from Emily Thompson I posted about soundscapes yesterday with an article by Jonathan Flatley using the same point of departure from Marx. The two authors couldn't land further apart. What intrigued me about Thompson is that for her, air is material and real. For Flatley, air is speculative. From a critical distance, he reads a lot into things. For example:



June 16, 2006 12:07 PM

Indigenous Postcards

from my collection

This postcard, and the ones below the fold, are “vernacular” in multiple ways. They are printed on Kodak postcard paper with no imprint or studio stamp, so they come from some enterprising local entrepreneur rather than a major company. There is no copyright notice or other marking, no date, no identification beyond their common topoi—Wisconsin Dells, Winnebago, Indian, etc. inscribed on the face



June 8, 2006 10:50 AM

Monumental Vernaculars

Crazy Horse
A crazy monument (or a monument to crazy)

The differing roots and uses of the term “vernacular” are fascinating to me. Taken from the Latin vernaculus, the OED traces the original meaning from the seventeenth century as pertaining to the “domestic, native, indigenous.” In the mid-nineteenth century, it was applied in opposition to the monumental in a curious definition:

6. Of arts, or features of these: Native or peculiar to a particular country or locality. spec. in vernacular architecture, architecture concerned with ordinary domestic and functional buildings rather than the essentially monumental.

The differentiation doesn’t hold up well under stress. Blowing up mountains seems fairly indigenous to South Dakota. The crowds that come participate in their own sort of tourist vernacular: they photograph these things. The more monumental something is, the more we feel authorized and perhaps even compelled to photograph it. In short, such sites create a tourist “vernacular.” The terms are slippery at best, but those who undertake these pilgrimages to the middle of nowhere are theoroi bringing back the “evidence” of witnessing in the form of souvenirs, and in snapshots which establish their position within the scene. Thus, vernacular architecture (the commonplace) is unsuited in fulfilling the memorial function—to create a sense of shared (domestic or vernacular) memory, witnesses rely on the monumental.

Krista directed me to Shiny, Pointy, and Tall. It seems that I’m not the only one who is struck by how some objects, like the Crazy Horse Monument, drive people to photograph them. This monument exists primarily in the minds of the spectators; there isn't much there. But with enough props, and enough imagination, you can see that horse riding off into the sunset. It’s all in how you frame it.

*In an odd coincidence, I notice that the SPE Mid Atlantic Conference is themed as “Vernacular Spectacular”. I wish I were closer to Philadelphia, John Waters is the keynote and I'd love to go!


June 7, 2006 2:45 PM


from You are Here, The Ed Ruscha Monument by Kent Twitchell.

Via NewsGrist comes some sad news. This mural has been painted over. The LA Times story reads:

Twitchell, who lives and works in Los Angeles, said he had contacted a lawyer and planned to file a lawsuit.

The artist said he was alerted by conservationist Nathan Zakheim, who had been in the early stages of restoring the work and had gone by to see it Friday morning. "I went to get more pictures and take samples," Zakheim said, "and guess what: It was completely painted out."

Zakheim said the piece is nearly unrecoverable.

Ruscha’s books, particularly Every Building on Sunset Strip were a tremendous influence on me. This is sad, but inevitable given the sorry fate granted most roadside attractions. Maybe Twitchell will make a buck from the contractor’s ineptitude.


June 7, 2006 10:18 AM

Buffalo Bill's attic

Buffalo Bill Museum
The Le Claire, Iowa, museum show.

Compared to the wide open spaces and manicured paths of Scout Ranch, the Buffalo Bill Museum in LeClaire, Iowa, takes a decidedly more chaotic and claustrophobic turn. Some clue can be found on its simple web site: “and other famous people” should be amended to read “other people and things.” Most of the objects and people commemorated here have nothing to do with the name attached to the museum; it’s as if an entire town cleaned its attic and sent it to this nondescript brick building for safekeeping.



June 6, 2006 1:00 AM

Velvet Ropes

Buffalo Bill's Barn
No roaming or running allowed— stay behind the rope.

The summer home of Buffalo Bill, Scout Ranch in North Platte, Nebraska, is a spacious and specious sort of experience. The home is tidy, and an attendant waits in the back room to take your money. The dining room is where we transacted business. The portraits on the wall gave a kind of warmth to the place. It was soon apparent that the warmth was illusory; the dining room was the only room freely accessible to intruders (tourists). Returning to the front hallway, the living room was protected by a velvet rope. So was the rest of the house. There was no roaming inside. The path was prescribed.

Upstairs past the sitting room, the pattern really developed. Much of the house was behind glass, an assortment of curios rather than lived objects. The bedrooms were tidy, and I transgressed the boundaries by gently removing the velvet rope from my path to photograph the dummy in the hall. The back stairs led out to the open, to the coke machine, restrooms that smelled like any typical campground, and eventually the barn.

Another attendant sat at the door. The downstairs was filled with artifacts and images, stretched down the 100 feet or so of walls like a giant cowboy Louvre. I especially liked the lasso made from Christmas lights. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was certainly a cheesy affair, but this monument was of a different sort: domesticity behind glass and velvet ropes. I’m not sure he would approve—I mean, where’s the action, the display of skill?

The restless adolescent buffalo were the only source of movement. A sign in the upstairs of the barn read “please restrain your children from running.”


June 5, 2006 1:24 PM

Speaking the Vernacular

Gradually finding my way back to things, I’m trying to put my finger on why I have serious problems with the idea of “image vernaculars,” as opposed to the much more common construct of “vernacular images”. I didn’t have the time to go into this when I first commented on the RSA panel “Visual Rhetoric and Visual Culture.” While this was one of the best presentations I saw, it was troubling on a number of levels beyond the issue of novelty.

The other presenters were Robin E. Jensen, “Reading Sex: Progressive Era Image Vernaculars and Sexual Education Campaigns,” Kassie Lamp, “An Innocent Face: Image Vernaculars in the Murder of Helen Jewett and Trial of Richard P. Robinson” and Katherine Mack, “Victims and Perpetrators Look Back: The Visual Rhetorics of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.” Each of the panelists (including the previously mentioned Michelle Gibbons) were guests at a special visual rhetoric workshop at Northwestern hosted by Robert Hariman (the panel’s chair), which included Cara Finnegan (the respondent for this panel) and Kevin DeLuca. The research presented was novel and important; the theoretical framework is what seemed anemic to me. Note the recurrence of “image vernaculars” in the paper titles. I was going to apply for this workshop, but the opportunity presented itself to teach a photography class—a time conflict. I learned a lot teaching that class, but I suspect the workshop would have been really fun too.

I’ve delayed writing much about the panel as a whole because I wanted to revisit Cara Finnegan’s article “ Recognizing Lincoln: Image Vernaculars in Nineteenth-Century Visual Culture” to be clear on just what “image vernaculars” are supposed to be.



June 4, 2006 5:26 PM

Negative Creep

I wrote briefly about the first RSA panel I attended last Saturday. Each time I try to engage with these things, I get increasingly recursive. Most roads lead to nowhere. Doublespeak bothers me. Creating new words when there are perfectly good old ones to use also bothers me. Several papers at the conference gestured at Mark Augé. When I asked questions, Gregory Ulmer was also cited as a fountainhead for these “non” concepts. The general thrust (obviously lacking nuance) of this first panel, and the second-to-last one I attended on Monday with papers by Collin Brooke, Daniel Smith, Jeff Rice, and Jodie Nicotra was that ideas like “nonplace” and the overthrow of any static relationship (i.e. subject/object, observer/event) must inevitably be productive. In short, they offered a “negative” definition of production bracketing or excluding standard notions of topoi or considerations of place. Another phrasing might be: Never assume the position.

I remarked before about the exclamation of “non-sense” from the crowd at the first panel, but it is hard to ignore it when so many smart people choose to invoke this stuff. I looked at the books, and started to wonder if I needed to read them. Thankfully, I found a nicely explicated article on Augé’s “nonspace” written by Torill Mortensen. The article has helped me land in a place I can understand—the crucial passage is this:

"If a place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place." (p. 77-78)



June 1, 2006 11:55 PM