Excerpts from edited transcript.
Lia Howard: Ken, let me start with you. In the course description for your course, the Chinese Body and the Production of Space in Chinatown, you say, “the course will be part public art course studying the nature of representation, part cultural studies course examining identity politics through the prism of cinema and popular forms of printed media, and part city planning course, examining the structuration of the ethnic enclave of Chinatowns.” Can you explain why you are using these multidisciplinary frameworks and how they work in concert to best describe the Chinese experience? How do these different perspectives aid understanding, helping to perhaps grow political empathy?
Kenneth Lum: Sure. I mean, that’s an important question because interdisciplinarity is essential for the approach I take in terms of this course. In fact, all the courses I teach. Why? Because we live in a world where all the norms that we take for granted have been beset by disciplinary, have been beset by professional epistemes, academic epistemes that have contributed to all kinds of problems in the social world, including inequity and social injustice. And so on.
And it has had a strait-jacketing effect in terms of the way we understand otherness, difference, and such, and because we become victim to specializations. But the specializations also make sense in terms of the logic of, let’s say, capitalism, which requires that. And I think it’s important to upset all the normative ways we think about things.
And one of the key ways to do that, to achieve a challenge to normative thought, is to break down the barriers between disciplines and take advantage of different perspectives and approaches of knowledge streams to tackle not just tackle the subject at hand, which is Chineseness and so on in my class. But also tackle questions of inequity, and social injustice, and so on, which, as I said, have been the products of intense disciplinary and specialization about knowledges.
Lia: Deb and Grace, you both are teaching a course entitled “Sighting Black Girlhood”, which is part of a multi-year project bringing attention to the specific social inequality faced by Black girls. Your course, like Ken’s, themes deeply interdisciplinary. Deb, your primary appointment is an anthropology. And Grace, yours is in Africana studies. How do you bring different lenses to this course?
Grace Sanders: Hi, Lia. Thank you so much for this great question. I think what’s amazing about this course is that while Deb and I are trained, maybe, in different fields and use different methodologies through anthropology and I’m trained as a historian, a lot of what we’re bringing to the table are actually interdisciplinary practices that are the core of Africana studies.
So in many ways, we have a very similar lens. We’re bringing ideas and methodologies that are not only interdisciplinary, but multimodal. We’re also bringing a lot of thinking that comes from theories of Black feminism and Caribbean feminist thought and thinking. And so in that way, the course goes even beyond interdisciplinarity. It’s bringing so much of the history of the fields that we’ve been a part of together.
Deborah Thomas: Thanks for that, Grace. And also, thank you, Lia, for the great questions. I just want to build on one thing that Grace said, which had to do with the integration of creative practices with the intellectual agendas of the class. And that stems also from both of our involvement in the Center for Experimental Ethnography in which we seek to support this kind of multimodal work among faculty and students.
And by multimodal, I mean work that is that incorporates a creative practice as part of its research methodology, not just in the dissemination of findings. And since both Grace and I work through various forms of artistic practice and we’re working with Vashti DuBois here who runs the Colored Girls Museum and who has been curating a number of really innovative visual arts projects.
We’re really seeking to bring students to an understanding that creative practice and artistic practice is, in fact, intellectual work. And that kind of research methodology can also be very productively generative of transformational dialogues on the ground. So with the course, we’re really seeking to integrate research in a more traditional intellectual sense, but from an interdisciplinary point of view, artistic practice, also multidisciplinary in this instance, and a kind of social engagement. And to find the nexus of those three of modes of engagement and accountability through the lens of this course.
I would add one other thing that comes out and just this interview process, is that Deb and I are teaching the course together. And so there’s this other component of co-creation that we’re not only practicing, but we’re navigating and also offering that as a tool to our students, but also showing and practicing what it’s like to work together. And I think that’s an important part of the multimodal work and the artistic practice, that it’s not solo work. Even if we might be solo artists, we’re still co-creators, co-collaborators.
Lia: Wow, this is so fascinating to hear about the many ways you’re bringing together different ways of thinking and practicing. Really appreciate this multimodal, those creative practices alongside the more traditional academic disciplines.
Since the murder of George Floyd, many disciplines are reckoning with racism within their disciplinary framework embedded in the methodology and the way we see when we do research. What are your disciplines going through right now and how might these ideas be reflected in your course?
Deb: That’s a very good and timely question. Within anthropology, you probably know these kinds of rethinking, reflections, re-framings have really been ongoing since the beginning of the discipline. We can think about Frederick Douglass’s writing, for example, as a refutation, a direct refutation of some of the more racist analyses of bodily inhabitation, of thought, of differential human evolution that were really even being promulgated in the 18th and early 19th centuries.
And different, really, throughout the 20th century, anthropologists have been constantly and sometimes very publicly involved in this kind of reframing of the field. Certainly the Boasian intervention, Franz Boas and his students in the early 20th century, which was to dislodge common sense ideas about race from biology. That was an explicitly anti-racist practice at the time and was happening in conjunction with mobilization through the UN and through other spaces after World War II to try to reorient our understanding of human variation across the world.
And of course, throughout the 20th century, other Black and indigenous scholars, anthropologists have issued various kinds of critiques not only of the theoretical framework of the discipline, but of its methodologies. And other scholars as well have been attuned to the disciplinary assumptions that undergirded the initial interest among Western European and North American practitioners in quote, unquote “other people around the world” and have tried to reformulate a new way of learning with people, in collaboration with people about the kinds of ways that we do things in order to demonstrate that the Western European universal is, in fact, a fallacy, and that we cannot bring human groups worldwide alongside this kind of evolutionary model that is Western Europe as the pinnacle of civilization.
That said, the events of last summer opened up a new moment for a broader rethinking. I think those events have drawn attention to these processes that have been ongoing and has drawn more attention to the work, especially of Black and Indigenous anthropologists who have been critiquing the discipline and trying to make it anew. I think at Penn specifically, a number of issues were raised certainly in the protests around the same in the Morton Cranial Collection. And then later in the academic year around the discovery of human remains from two girls in the Africa family that had been brought to the museum after the bombing of the MOVE compound in 1985.
So I think these kinds of issues are becoming generally more visible to the public and have inaugurated really important changes within our spaces. Certainly within the museum space, there’s quite a bit of mobilization now in order to create an inventory of the physical anthropology collections in order to create processes for repatriation of the Samuel Morton Cranial Collection, many of which had already been repatriated. But in order to accelerate those processes and do the appropriate kind of community driven research that would facilitate that kind of work.
And I think we have the work to do in Penn’s department as well. The Department is one of the very first anthropology departments in the country. Daniel Brinton was the first person to have been hired in the anthropology department. And he, like Morton, held these kinds of racist evolutionary ideas about human quote, unquote “types” and the divergences between racial groups.
And this summer, I’ve been running a PURM project with a couple of undergraduate students, Laia Manning and Jesus Pallares. And we have been making a film about Carleton Coon, who was trained at Harvard but came to Penn in the late ’40s or early ’50s. And he also was an advocate of a hypothesis of multi-regional evolution, which is to say he did not believe that all humans came from the same ancestor.
And instead, read contemporary racial groups back in history and posited a schema where there were five racial groups that independently evolved, among which there was no contact until the very modern period. So that each racial group would have emerged into modern Homo sapiens, but at different times. And of course, for him, Africans were the last to have emerged into modern human civilization.
And I say this all to say that often people talk about these older racist ideas or these older racist collection practices as something that was just in the past and it’s how people thought then. But I think it’s important to really remember that at every moment in these historical trajectories, there are people who were doing something different. And at the moment that Coon was espousing this multiregional evolutionary hypothesis, there were, in fact, physical anthropologists who were actively attempting to move the field into a different understanding of human evolution and human origins, and one that wasn’t grounded in this kind of strict racial reckoning.
And so Coon actively resisted that kind of innovation in the field, and that has important legacies today. And there are visual representations in the form of casts and busts of his theorization which he commissioned that are still in the museum. And so these legacies are not only theoretical legacies or ideas. They’re in fact materially living amongst us in the spaces in which we inhabit. It’s not just abstract. So it’s important, I think, to contend with these issues and for each department, in its own way, on its own terms to develop an awareness about these histories in order to create new spaces for intervention and engagement in the present.
Grace: Yes, Lia. This is an amazing question. And just to add a few more things to Deb’s comments, Deb started by saying that this work has been being done for a long time in both of our disciplinary homes. And I think we might assume that the field of Africana Studies– and we know this, that African Studies has been reckoning with racism and anti-Blackness since its formation. It’s really how much of its formation came to be.
But I think what’s interesting about the question you asked is when you said the way we see when we’re doing research. And I think that’s so much of the work that the field of Africana studies has been doing and is trying to continue to do is think about the ways we see. I’m right now just thinking about a scholar, Kevin Quashie, Kevin Quashie’s work. He gave a faculty colloquium in our department at Penn.
And he started off by saying that he invites his classrooms to imagine a Black world, and that that’s their given. He starts with the given that the world is Black, and it’s centering African people. And then from there, imagining what kind of questions, what kind of answers come from what creativity, come from those moments.
And so I think in our discipline, while there’s a long history of addressing racism and anti-Blackness, I think one of the projects that many of us in Africana Studies are working through now is how to expand that scene, how to expand our visions, how to take things that might be text that might be familiar to us that come from authors like Octavia Butler or Toni Morrison and see them anew in this particular moment. And then also acknowledge that while George Floyd’s murder is specific, many of the emotions, and feelings, and the sentiment that was reverberated and felt is familiar. It’s not the first time. And so how do we attend to that rehearsal?
And then, I think, for our course, what’s really exciting is that we get to focus on Black girls’ lenses. And so thinking about how even within the field of Africana studies, there are areas that have a little less light. And certainly, Black girlhood is one of those, especially if we think about the study of sexual violence against Black girls not just in the United States, but also throughout the world, which is an important component of our course, which is not only thinking about Philadelphia, but it’s also thinking about Jamaica and South Africa.
And we’re bringing our knowledge of anti-Blackness, but particularly thinking about Black girls and the experience of violence throughout the African diaspora, which is really attending to a global anti-Blackness. It’s not just unique to the United States.
Lia: Ken, can you talk about the other and how in the US context in particular, space has played a part in accentuating difference through the physical separation of neighborhoods? What has that done to our understanding of dialogue across difference and citizenship which are ideas central to the SNF Paideia program?
Ken: Well, that’s a very complex question because since the founding of the Republic, race has been differentiated according to skin and color. With that is the differentiation of privilege, some people having more privilege over others and so on. I mean, the fact is the United States, like many, many other countries as well. But I would say maybe there’s a particular character to American social life, and it’s highly defined by the social geography of race and such.
And race is embodied and carried by bodies, by human bodies, where they can live, where they can go, whether the bureaucratic rules that say you can’t go from A to B. But someone else of a different color can visit at will. And that’s also not just race, but gender. In the 19th century, women, even of upper class, could not go unescorted throughout Paris, whereas men of all classes could basically wander throughout Paris at will and so on.
So there is the issue of liberty of movement and who can take residency somewhere, the idea of refuge. And also, systems of confinement. African-Americans and people of color are incarcerated at a much higher level relative to their population to the population at large than whites, for example. And so all of that contributes to the sense that space and race is endemic to the way we’ve always– we understand the real politics of how one gets through life and how our society is structured in America.
Sorry. I just want to add also that attended with that is this contest of spatial imaginaries. So there’s all these resistance points, disjunctive points, which I think is really important as well. And that requires a kind of multidisciplinary approach. It requires breaking of norms, as I said in response to the first question. But it also requires much more focus in terms of the real problems at hand, problems that would be exacerbated in recent decades, I would say, with the privileging of private interests over the public good.
That’s an inversion of what I was taught in civics class, if civics is still being taught, when I was an undergraduate, for example, or high school. So there’s a lot of things, and they all contribute to the congealing and confinement of difference according to enclaves according to social income and such.
Lia: Just absolutely fascinating. Thank you so much. I wonder if you could say just a little bit more about your course in answer to the question, how is space related to the body? And you’ve said a little bit already about this, and it’s so interesting. Your course title explicitly talks about how the individual, the Chinese body and the larger community space, Chinatown, intersect. How do these two ideas play out? In the SNF Paideia program, we see individual and community wellness as connected. So we, too, acknowledge the connection, but how does the course explore this specifically?
Ken: Well, let me just take the example of Chinatown, which is obviously an ethnic enclave of the Chinese within the territory of a largely white non-Chinese civic sphere. Well, Chinatowns were formed as a kind of bulwark against threats anti-Sino sentiments that extend way back in England, at least in Limehouse to the 18th century. But certainly in America since– let’s say after the Opium War, and there was extensive migration of contracted laborers from China coming to the Americas to build the railway, to build the wharves, to build the agrarian economy of California, for example.
And it was all these kinds of attacks and so on the Chinese that required this enclave to form and so on. But it’s complex because that enclave is also itself protecting for the Chinese in Chinatown. You can get Chinese meals. You can speak to compatriots and so on because remember, they weren’t American citizens of that time. They were all part of the Empire of China on eight-year contracts and so on.
And yet at the same time, it became a site of intense surveillance, so it was heavily policed. And it was also heterotopic in a sense it was a site for all kinds of– that is to say less or more unsavory types of occupations, such as prostitution, drugs, and so on. And they would be also somewhat permitted within the territory of Chinatown. The police would keep all kinds of blotters in terms of the movement of Chinese.
For example, in the 19th century, starting in the late 19th century, you had maps of all the chop suey restaurants throughout Manhattan. Everyone was mapped out. Generally, they were very near the train stations, the subway stations. Why? The reason being, of course, is that subway was an easy way for the Chinese workers in the chop suey restaurants to get onto the subway and return back home to Chinatown. So there was a logic in terms of just the planning aspects. That’s why planning is also an important citation for me in terms of the course, so that they could return back.
In addition, any time a Chinese person would wander beyond, let’s say, a chop suey because that would be the reason for them to be there, to work, there would be reports back to local newspapers. And they’d be very quite mundane reports. But collectively, it was quite revealing. There would be reports of, oh, well, two Chinese men were spotted walking near Union park there or Union Square and so on. And all this data would be fed back to police precincts in terms of the movement of Chinese bodies that were not seen as part or seen as being too far away from a chop suey restaurant or too far away from the Chinese enclave of Chinatown.
So all these sorts of things, I think, call up a lot of disciplines in terms of Foucauldian discipline, all kinds of notions in terms of our understanding of the constitution of space and of subject formation in space. But I think the other thing that’s interesting is that is that no one could really control the movement of bodies entirely, and so there was always negotiations.
You even had white women marrying, to a significant degree– few in number, but to a significant degree, generally working class women who were working in the Chinese restaurant. They’d marry a boss or marry a fellow waiter, a Chinese waiter, and so on. And of course, that was a scandal for all kinds of tabloid newspapers saying this is what happens if you let the racists mingle and things like that.
And so once you start– but that’s just one example I’m citing. And that one example leads to many, many insights about in terms of many, many fields. And so that’s why I need an interdisciplinary approach in order to even get this one example I’ve decided.
Lia: Deb and Grace, your course description, fascinatingly, uses sight, site, and cite. That’s S-I-G-H-T, S-I-T-E, and C-I-T-E. you want to see, to place, and to amplify the voices of Black girls in three locations. Philadelphia, Jamaica, and South Africa. Can you tell us more about the sight, site, and cite? What needs to be seen? What needs to be explored about each place? And how will Black girls be heard and given recognition for their contributions?
Grace: Lia, I have to say that when Deb and I read this question, we just smiled because you saw us. And you saw the nuance in the course and in our course description by identifying that we’re really thinking about what to see took place and also to amplify Black girls’ voices.
And I think immediately when I think of when I heard this question, I’m thinking about Darnella Frazier. And Darnella Frazier, as you all might know, is the 17-year-old girl who captured George Floyd’s murder. And I think for us, if we’re thinking about sight, site, and cite, on the one hand, there’s a moment when we think about Darnella where she is not seen in this moment that has reverberated around the world. We don’t see her, but she’s behind the camera. And as a result, she should be sighted.
And it’s not only that she should be sighted, but we should know that a Black girl documented this moment. But also, that we create space to care for her. And I think this is an important component of the course as well because often some Black girls are placed in situations, conscripted into doing labor that they should not be doing. And so even when we listen to Darnella’s testimony, we know that she had a clear sense that she had a document this moment. But at the same time, she had to protect the younger people that were with her. So she sheltered them and then she documented this moment, a moment that she shouldn’t have had to.
And so I think a lot of our work is thinking about where Black girls are documenting, where they’re creating, but also thinking about how we can create spaces of care. And I think that’s what’s really important about Vashti DuBois’s work with the Colored Girls Museum is really about seeing Black girls, particularly the project The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, which is a part of this course. We’re collaborating with Vashti to think about refuge for Black girls, refuge for Black girls as a space post a violent incident, but also a refuge as a space, as an incubator for our creativity, for our ingenuity.
And so I think that that’s really the exciting part about these three sites, that it’s not S-I-T-E, location specific, but that these locations just amplify the many ways in which Black girls can be seen to have been seen historically. But also, the ways in which they should be cited for their ingenuity, for their theorizing, for the different ways that they engage with artistic, multimodal practices that we can learn from and also co-collaborate with. And as Deb said earlier in the interview, take seriously as a part of the intellectual process and as our end practice.
Deb: Yeah, Grace mentioned that one of our collaborators on the broader project of which the course is Vashti DuBois, who runs the Colored Girls Museum. And one of the things that inspired us to put together this course in this way was that Vashti always envisioned that exhibit, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, which is a collection of portraits of Black girls, as an exhibit that would travel and that would include other girls from other locations who would then become part of a traveling exhibit, and that they would all travel together, and they would always have each other’s back.
And the three of us had, actually, in the pre-pandemic times, been speaking together about trying to do a project that would span these spaces, would span Philadelphia, Jamaica, and South Africa because all of us have thought through at different moments the interesting links between and among those sites. And those locations became a sort of space of thinking really expansively and differently about diaspora, which we usually reckon through West Africa to the so-called New World. But in this case, we think about the kinds of connections and challenges that emerge when thinking from the states of South Africa rather than West Africa.
And having developed some different projects with collaborators in these spaces, we thought that Vashti’s museum and that exhibit would be a good medium for that kind of travel and for that kind of collective engagement. Krystal Strong at the GSE is also one of our Penn collaborators. And you may know that she’s one of the leaders of Black Lives Matter Philadelphia. And so her activist engagement will also be part of the ways that we’re thinking about things not only in Philadelphia, but in our other sites.
In Jamaica, we’re working with Deborah Anzinger, who is an artist and who also started and now directs a sort of engagement residency space called NLS, New Local Space. And our collaborator in South Africa is Victoria Collis-Buthelezi, who is the director of the newly minted Center for Race, Class, and Gender at the University of Johannesburg. And she is mobilizing other partners in South Africa as well. So as we’re teaching the course, Victoria will also be teaching a similar course in South Africa.
And Deb will also be integrating some of the students at the Economic College of Visual and Performing Arts in Kingston. And we will travel to these spaces to make in the summer of 2022 and South Africa in the summer of 2023 in order that the students will be able to have experiences working with artists, and activists, and experience other engaged collaborations in these spaces. And we will travel together, which is to say that the South African participants will also come to Jamaica, and the Jamaican participants will also go to South Africa.
So we’re trying to enact this kind of diasporic dialogue across three sites from the vantage point of Black girls, understanding that there is a global phenomenon of Black violence and of particular forms of gender violence and sexism, but that they are experienced in particular ways in these sites based on our specific histories. So that’s one of the areas of interrogation that we’re hoping students will really come to learn through the course of the class, but also through their travel.
Lia: Ken, you first taught the Chinese Body SNF Paideia course in the spring semester of 2020, right as COVID-19 became a global pandemic. Not only did the world shut down and work and school become remote, but anti-Asian bias took on a particularly ugly dimension. Can you explain what it was like to be teaching this subject matter in this context? Did any of your course materials prove insightful or give students skills or approaches to living in this particularly fraught moment?
Ken: Well, the short answer is a resoundingly yes because I for one am old enough to never believe that somehow the Chinese or Asians have entered into this kind of model citizen stage and any kind of anti-Asian sentiment was basically a thing of the past. I never believed that entirely. I mean, things improved and so on, and I’m not saying it didn’t. And there’s greater mobility and so on, but there’s always–
And I think this is true for pretty much all people of difference, that those differences or those reminders of differences from others are always, always there. And they always come back, even in the most benign settings. It could be like a little– I could be meeting a curator, and the curator, because I’m an artist– and the curator might say, oh, of course you’re interested in that because you’re Asian. No, that’s not why. I mean– and so on.
So there would be little things like that, which I try not to exaggerate more than it is. But you get enough of them. And at some point, they form a kind of reminder of who you are and what you look like as well. So it was very relevant at that time.
I mean, I had an unfortunate incident in an Acme supermarket parking lot. I was just going to my car and so the guy next to me just started yelling at me– I won’t be rude enough to repeat what he said– in a very threatening way as I was loading bags of purchases in my trunk. And I just ignored him, but many of our– three of the students in my class, in fact, during that time experienced not dissimilar events happening to them, all three of which I reported to Penn Police.
Lia: Ken, I’m so sorry to hear about what you experienced in terms of both overt racism and microaggressions as you walk through the Earth. I thank you for sharing that. I’m so glad your class was a place where students were protected by you contacting campus security and safety.
Ken: It is a salient topic in terms of that course in terms of how is difference negotiated and renegotiated for the sake of survival since the first Chinatown in Limehouse in East London and in the late 18th century and so on. So yes, yes, it was extremely relevant. But it was also a reminder that all forms of racism– in this case, yellow body racism– has been expunged. It’s always there.
And I would say it’s also endemic. Just going back to your last question, it’s endemic to the way the original sin, which is part of the founding of the United States with the genocide of native people, and slavery, and so on.
Lia: Deb and Grace, COVID-19 has also exposed systemic inequities facing African-Americans in the US. With both your global lens and looking directly at our home here in Philadelphia, how will you unpack the different layers of inequity facing Black girls? How are Black girls not being seen, and how will you explore representation and likewise, misrepresentation to make sure your students learn to see more clearly?
Grace: One of the first things I thought about when you asked me this question is, again, just the work that has been ongoing from organizations that are thinking about and with Black Girls. And I immediately am thinking of A Long Walk Home, which is based in Chicago, which has been doing work with young girls for about 20 years now around gender-based violence, artistic practice, and activism. And this past summer, they came out with the first and only national study around the status of Black girls during COVID.
And what’s fascinating about this work is you see so many areas where Black girls’ labor is unseen. But also, Black girls’ creativity and thoughtfulness is unseen. I think one of the largest statistics is that many Black girls became home care providers for their families under the pandemic.
One of the more startling statistics that they offered, however, is that while much of the literature suggests that children do not have the same kind of response or reaction to COVID-19, that there were 300,000 cases of children who experience COVID-19 up until this point and that Black girls were five times more likely to be those children who contracted COVID-19.
And it was just an interesting statistic because it just reminded us of another place of invisibility. And one of the things they wrote with this was that it is likely because Black girls are often working in care positions, health care positions for people who were ill. They were also people who were taking on jobs that were jobs that were mandatory jobs during the pandemic. And I think it would be important to remember that COVID-19 is not over.
And so in that regard, even as we move back into the classroom, we will have young women who are also still caring for family members or dealing with the residual effects of this pandemic. And so I think that’s one of the ways in which we can really encourage our students to see. And not just see Black girls who are out there somewhere, but also to understand that that’s something that’s living amongst us, within our classrooms, on our campuses, and certainly being able to take the experiences of the girls that we’ll be engaging with and thinking with in South Africa and Jamaica who are experiencing the pandemic in similar but also different ways.
Deb: The only thing that I would add to what Grace just said has to do, again, with “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” exhibit. And as part of that process in creating that exhibit, Vashti asked artists to select a girl between the ages of 7 and 25 as a muse for their portrait. And both the artist and the girl were asked to keep a journal of their experience. And each muse was invited to bring an object that was important to her into the portrait.
And so the portrait that is ultimately created then is not just the actual work of art that features the girl. It is the work of art that features the girl. It is her narrative. It is the narrative about her by the artist. It is narratives about her by others close to her.
And this composite figure then acts as a counter-discourse to those other discourses that more regularly circulate about Black girls and make them hyper-visible in the public sphere, discourses that circulate through the justice system, through the medical system, through the educational system, through the religious system, that position the Black girl sometimes as victim, sometimes as wayward, and always, usually, as vulnerable.
And part of what’s so lovely about the exhibit and what we are seeking to cultivate in the class is that we want to certainly encourage people to see the forms of violence that are specific to Black girls globally. But also, to see beyond those rubrics of violence and survival. And Grace mentioned this before, to see Black girls as creative, as innovators, as people who are not only acted upon, but also as acting and to encourage that kind of perspective or that mode of seeing generally throughout the course.
Lia: Ken, can you talk about your research and your experience as an artist? Your art has been exhibited widely in world-renowned museums, and you are the chief curatorial advisor of the Monument Lab. How does your artistic practice and curatorial work intersect with your academic research? What kinds of things are you thinking about as you communicate with wider audiences beyond your classroom?
Ken: Well, first of all, I see myself first and foremost as an artist. I don’t see myself as an academic at all, even though I’ve curated several large-scale exhibitions. I co-founded Monument Lab, which also had a $3 million budget exhibition for the city of Philadelphia. And I’ve written many, many essays. But even though I’ve written many, many essays, I write it from the perspective of an artist who’s not entirely– I don’t feel entirely at home with the idea of being an artist in the art system.
I think there’s a lot of problems in the art system, the art world, which has never made me feel at ease with, one of it being the giving over of the idealism of the art to the business of art and so on. I know there’s a lot of artists that have no problem with it, but I– and I wish maybe I had that temperament, but I don’t. Really, it would make life easier. I could just be a member of a gallery’s roster and bide my time every 2 and 1/2 years, have a show, and just everything would be hunky-dory.
But I’m not interested in that. I’m really interested in expanding, for me, what I know of art. And for me, it has been a lifelong sense of trying to expand the functioning of art, which is why it has led me to a major project in West Africa. I was the project manager for a very large exhibition at MoMA PS1 called The Short Century– Independence and Political Movements in Africa in 1945 in 1991. 1994, I should say.
And so that led to another show I co-curated, which I wrote a 10,000-word essay called “Shanghai Modern, 1919 to 1945,” which is about the ur moment of modernity in China during the First Republic under Sun Yat-sen, a post-poetry movement, May 4, 1990 and so on.
And I should also say that this course, also during the pandemic, led to my writing two screenplays about comparative racism in America. And the first one is set in 1868 and the second one is set in 1885, 1868 being three years post-Civil War and what I call the transition of the commerce of bodies, slave bodies, to the commerce of contracts.
That is, the commerce of usurious contracts and the extension of de facto slavery by legal discursive means where you have contractual language that protects– let’s just say the more powerful who holds that, who writes the terms of the contract and then the unfortunate coolie or indentured laborer who has to be assigned to that contract and so on.
And I mean, research, for me is– I don’t see myself as an academic. And so I like the fact of being an artist and not being anchored or fixed to one way of working, or way of thinking, or even discipline. That’s the great thing about being an artist. It’s quite shamanistic, you might say and so on.
But I also like writing. I think writing is very, very important. I guess that’s why working at Penn suits me to a degree because as I said, I’m always questioning, why am I making art? Why am I being an artist? Why am I working at Penn? I question those things as well.
I’ve resigned from two tenured positions in the past. And I don’t think I know a single person who has resigned from one tenured position. So that’s the only way I can answer it. It’s a kind of curiosity I have about the world and about finding out the limits of art and also testing the boundaries of art for my own understanding as an artist.
Lia: Deb and Grace, you’ve mentioned already so many wonderful collaborations you have with artists, and curators, and projects. But you, likewise, are researchers and artists working in documentary film and oral history projects. How and why does image making and storytelling allow you to be intentional about representation? What kinds of things are you thinking about as you communicate with wider audiences beyond your classroom?
Deb: That’s such a good question, and I think it’s such an important question because we do tell stories differently in media other than text. And even within academic text, we try to imagine more experimental forms of writing as well.
And I guess I would say that for me, an important part of thinking about what form will be appropriate for exploring this particular question or creating the kind of dialogue that we hope to create always has to do with an imagination of audience or the different audiences through which we would like to have some kind of impact.
So for me, often what shapes a project at the beginning stages of thinking about a project has to do not only with the question, but also with who is this for, that question of audience. Who is this for? What do we want this to do in the world? And that helps me always to think about what is the appropriate format for them. Is it a film? Is it a play? Is it some other kind of more abstract multimedia installation type of thing?
And I think the asking of the question and the thinking about the intervention are so interrelated. And I feel that that unity, I suppose, of process can sometimes happen more explicitly and more intentionally when we’re working in non-text based formats because it requires a great deal of thought of how to make this intervention through a medium other than writing.
Lia: A deep thank you to my guests Ken Lum, Deb Thomas, and Grace Sanders. We have learned so much from you all, and we are grateful for your time with us. Thank you to our listeners for joining us for the second series of the PARK Podcast on political empathy. Over the course of three episodes, we’ve learned about interdisciplinary approaches to better understanding across political difference offered by faculty teaching SNF Paideia courses.
Our guests have shared insights from political science, history, psychology, urban studies, fine arts, anthropology, and city planning. We’ve heard how they are intentionally crafting their courses to deepen understanding within their classrooms and give their students skills to better engage political difference.
We hope we’ve underscored for you, the listener, the importance of connecting with others through a posture open to understanding them. This is a necessary part of civil dialogue, as well as a practice that can be explored through many different academic disciplines.
The park is based on the metaphor of a public park, the commons, a public space where people of many different backgrounds can come together on an equal basis. Thank you for joining us here, and we hope you’ll stay tuned for our next series on communities of practice at Penn, which will be coming soon.