Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Summer - when a middle-aged medievalist art historian's fancy turns to...

... taking early morning walks with Seamus Heaney reading Beowulf (very motivating, that Grendel greedily groping).

... reclaiming this stressed-out mortal coil with sleep, and random conversations, and vegetables from the Amish.

... deciding which book Mac and I will read together this summer.

... knowing, as I witness Iris graduate from second grade and get ready for a new school and say goodbye to the teachers and students she's loved thus far, that the best I can do for that girl is stay out of her valiant way.

... marveling at the incredible opportunity to speak with those who have inspired me and moved my work so far in so many ways on medieval ecologies at Kalamazoo.

... marveling, too, at the warm reception that my other Kalamazoo paper received - turns out a) everyone wants to know more about alabaster because it's so cool and b) the conservative element either is or wants to be displaced.

... thinking of the great things that await medieval art history.

... being gripped by a forum on activism in the academy and talking with Mac and seeing students graduate and thinking through how long changing even one person's world takes, what it takes to have your own world rocked, and being grateful for Jeffrey Cohen's generosity and expansive good will in bringing together voices on/to complicated things, and his eloquent defense of multiplicity, and what activism means and is it on a spectrum with humanism and yes, let's keep talking and doing, and even the "contemplative" monks saw themselves as "wrestlers" for God and let's say academic life is active and live it that way.

... relishing the return to the "Ecology of Medieval Art" syllabus, and wrestling with the place of the human in It All.

... relishing the return to thinking period, and trying to understand how I find myself hanging on to conferences for dear life as the only opportunity to think during the academic year.

... the never-ending struggle with beastly self-doubt and thinking what if just this once I forged ahead without it, ignored it, told it it was wrong (even though I know it's right).

... having to come back to this post and add that, doggone it, I had two articles come out this year, wrote a conference paper and will participate in two round tables at different conferences, finished an article this spring, will write another this summer, and am getting ready for three more conferences next academic year. (and then feeling sheepish, but deciding to leave this in anyway)

... watching Eleanor run to get her baseball signed at our first ever attendance at a baseball game (a minor league Indians game - wow!) and wanting her to hold on to that rush.

... being glad to hear my father make a joke for the first time in two years, and wondering about the small but precious re-awakening that has come with his latest bout in the hospital.

... finding a discarded apple core and, soon after, a pair of flip flops on a morning walk, and wondering about how objects narrativize, how they bring forth a compulsion to tell a story, even when nothing may "truly" be connected.

... connecting that to the many compulsions of the medieval art historian - to narrativize, to tell stories about objects, to find meaning in objects, to be moved by objects' agencies.

... living in my children's world more and making sense of mine through theirs more.

... helping my dear Oliver with his perennial insomnia with more than an exhausted "go back to bed."

... wanting to know what makes warm milk such a merciful agent of sleep, but also happy to keep it a mystery.

... thinking, incredibly, about a return to Brittany as (and yes, it's only been two years but...) the beginning of what I now see is a new part of my life.

... thinking through an epistemology of touch - a certitude of being there that comes with touch; not evidentiary but experiential.

... taste, too - the ready presence of tasting something wondrous: a homemade chocolate cake sent from France (!!!) for Oliver's birthday - and something delicious transcending thousands of miles (move over, Proust).

... gratitude for love and possibilities. At the end of every litany, they are all that matter.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Issues of Scale

Very Cool Project
I'm thinking through the responses of two students in my Ren-Mod survey who, when asked to comment on images (such as the one on the left) made by bacteria, made a scaled comparison between bacteria and humans.  Shifts in scale are as fantastic as allegories or really, really good metaphors in my book.  They ask for impossible things (things you can't really have in your experience of the world), but impossible things that make possible things make sense.  Shifts in temporal scale (Jeffrey Cohen asking us to think about the rapidity and variety of geological change within the temporal framework of rocks themselves); shifts in physical scale (yes, I'm still gripped by Eileen Joy's sighting of our chemical signature in the galaxy as our greatest work of art); and these student responses I think I would dub shifts in performative scale.  This image (and others like it if you follow the link in the caption) is made by shading the area you wish to remain light (because this bacteria is nourished by light and will move towards it, leaving the shadowed/dark areas unmarked by their darkening presence).  The test question asked them to draw on the periods we'd studied to come up with a new name for this art that coaxed bacteria into making images.  A lot of students went with some riff on Conceptual Art; others invented different kinds of Primitivisms (bacteria being one of the most primitive forms of life - at least within the framework of the human scale); one dubbed it "Bio-Constructivism," another, "performance art" (because the bacteria is alive!).  But these two students took a different direction, claiming that humans, too, flocked to resources and established themselves there, leaving empty the negative space - just like the bacteria here.  One student even claimed cathedrals as bacterial growth on the landscape, humans having long flocked to resources to make images there.

I immediately thought of Glaber's turn of the millenium quote about the "great mantle of white churches" - here's the full quote, pulled from a passage in which Glaber is discussing the restoration of churches around the year 1000.

"[I]t was as though the very world had shaken herself and cast off her old age, and were clothing herself everywhere in a white garment of churches." 

This shot of beautiful Conques reveals the idea of concentration that my students put forward. It's the combination of both citing cathedrals as bacteria, and of noting that humans are drawn to resources - that that's where they leave their mark, their artistic gesture.  The white mantle of churches is, now that I think about it, an intermediary of performative scale: in its cloaking (meant to be comforting?) gesture, it is somewhere between the rapacious colonizing of bacteria and humans.  Does all of this make the white mantle more sinister, less sweeping a gesture? Of course, but it keeps the aestheticization of the gesture.  You get an image when you think about it.

Same Cool Project
And so it all comes together here, in an image of a cathedral made by bacteria. You can get pretty subtle in your manipulation of bacteria, eh? So yes, the bacteria is guided, moved, willed by humans (and we can have some nice debates about who the artist/the maker of images are here, and if intentionality and agency are required for artistic production, and if so, to what degree and whence) - but to a one, the students saw the phrase "Hello World" as spoken by the art bacteria. Some were a little freaked out by it: and I savored thinking about how much writing is presence.  

It's late, and there's still much grading to be done, but I can't help but wonder about the artistic gestures of bacteria on medieval art: on wood, on sculpture, on paint, on ivory, on manuscript) - or of other tiny micro-organisms. Those traces left behind by the presence of these micro-organisms as they wear on the work of art; or the dependence medieval artists had on these micro-organisms to make/preserve their art (enzymes in human saliva to clean alabaster, for example). The smallest scale of medieval artistic production that I can think of are the bees who make (ah, what else?) a cathedral inside their hive, after someone has secreted a consecrated host there (where is that miracle from? is that from Caesarius of Heisterbach? ooo, I'd love to know/remember).  We flock to our resources, and we make art there - we gather and collaborate and leave shadows; from chemical signatures in the galaxy to cathedrals in a Petri dish.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Come Up To the Table

BN ms.fr. 2810, fol. 136v
Last day of "Monsters and Marvels" activity (great presentations on the collaborative writing of Monsterfestos done through Facebook and GoogleDocs) - and so a celebration with a medieval menu based on the class:

for Beowulf: Swedish Meatballs
for the Convivencia: Gazpacho
for the Crusades: Hummus and Pita
for Alexander and Prester John: Lamb Biryani
for the Great Khan: Sing Chow Mei Fun
for the Queen of Sheba: Chicken Berbere
for the New World: Chocolate Cake

Students from past medieval classes e-mailed to know if they could come, so we had a full table.  This year's astounding Kalamazoo (reviewed with warmth and detail and with an eye to the future starting here at In the Middle) set a new record for conviviality, collegiality and coolness.  New formats, exciting claims, unexpected triumphs. In the world of art history, the Material Collective (born at breakfast in Austin after our first day at the BABEL conference there) came out and proclaimed collaboration and objects deeply good.  It's astounding what can happen when you shift something like format - the minifesto session had the Material Collective speaking as a collective from throughout the room (I was hurtling through the American highway at the time - grrr - but having seen videos and heard testimonials, feel closer to having been there!) - a powerful embodiment of the 8-10 e-mails we exchange a day on our shared e-mail list.  Members of the Materical Collection also organized two main ICMA sessions.  The thing we're still processing here is the absolute absence of pushback.  If anything, we were encouraged to go farther - consider more senses than just that of touch (Paul Binski memorably evoked taste in relation to (certain) medieval objects).  Is this a matter of recognition? Of seeing the focus on materiality as familiar to a focus on objecthood? Or perhaps materiality is adding depth to iconography and social history.  In any case, the rooms were packed and the audience truly lively.  There is some sense of meeting - of people finding something they've been after: perhaps this way of approaching medieval objects, through considerations of touch, materials, experience. My alabaster rock got so much action at the BABEL drinks hour - passed around from hand to hand, leaving its little dusty residue each time, coming back to me at the end through the attentions of a new friend.  

The Ecologies roundtable blew my mind: Eileen Joy speaking of the chemical signature we will leave in the galaxy as our "greatest work of art" (prompting me, in the name of the other end of the spectrum I bet, to put "bacteria art" on my ARTH132 final exam - one student actually wrote: "WTF, professor Harris!" - and then a smiley face (I really do love the Midwest)); thinking through temporality's fluidities with James Smith; meeting Alfred Siewers, whose lush writing had made him a hero long ago (and yes, his talk on trees started with an image of the Lorax); thinking through Lowell Druckert's walk through Shakespeare's Caesar's parks (and wondering about the contrasting scary ecology of the forest); getting swept up in the beautiful writing and totally haunting ideas about music of Alan Montroso; taking notes furiously on Valerie Allen's take on matter/timber in Aristotle; and watching all of us get troubled by Carolyn Dinshaw and the Green Man. The student/scholar within wanted this to go on, to be the seminar that you read extra for, the one within which you eagerly anticipate what others will have to say. The teacher within watched in utter fascination as Jeffrey Cohen interwove both the content and the questions of the presentations into a new whole - simultaneously masterful and generous - beautiful. This was where my short piece on stone ("Hewn") appeared - the entire enterprise makes me treasure the writing (the very act of writing).

The alabaster panel was a revelry in...well, alabaster.  I went to several of these panels and got more and more excited about seeing the show (which I finally, blissfully did with Nancy one afternoon - perfect perfect perfect).  My dear friend from Bibliothèque Nationale days, Stephen Perkinson, had everyone mesmerized thinking about the process of production and the complexities of copying.  Rachel Dressler's paper on tombs was ideal after mine on the smaller panels - the question and answer allowed us to consider the possibility of geo-economics.  There's so much more to write, much of it art historical. There was a time when Kalamazoo was the opportunity to go hear the Friends of Richard III give impassioned talks about the monarch's unfair treatment at the hands of history.  It's different now - Kalamazoo is in a vigorous state of collegiality that narrows the possibility of presence a bit, but flings open the opportunities and ideas.  It is, I can't help but think, everything that Michael Camille would have wanted out of Kalamazoo.  It does, absolutely, set the tone for the summer.  It did, no doubt, make it impossible to confront my dad's demise the day I got back without whispering in the reeds about it to Facebook (which totally helped, by the way).  The table is set, the guests are multiple and have had their appetites whetted.  This is such a good thing.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Strange Quiet

Indiana Wind Farm
I always know that I have about 15 miles left on the highway when I start to see these gentle giants - enormous windmills turning thickly and slowly in the wind while we scurry by in our tiny metal contraptions.  They seem airy and wise where we seem rushed and dangerous.  I don't know that you can see from this photograph (taken by me while driving which is totally rushed and dangerous), but these windmills are lined up as far as the eye can see.  There are  hundreds of them making up the Fowler Ridge and Meadow Lake Wind Farms - over 600, I understand. They are the perfect greeters to the final 2-lane road stretch of driving home from Kalamazoo, the huge, wonderful medievalist conference, to the strange quiet that follows the glorious babble (BABEL) of voices and ideas of the gathering, the strange quiet that frames the conversations you still want to have. These windmills are the final big idea that makes you think new thoughts: about farming a substance such as wind, about harnessing that invisible but felt energy, about the strange quiet of such an enterprise.

And then: noise. The children's sweet piano recital, a drive and dinner with beautiful friends where I teach - familiar and warm. Ten minutes at home, settling in again, and then a phone call about my dad: lethargic, unresponsive, blue lips, 95 degrees body temperature.  The strange quiet of the emergency room at 10:30 p.m., the strange quiet of waiting, the strange quiet of signing papers, the really strange quiet of driving home at 2:30 a.m. with my dad in the ICU.  This morning, we still don't know what's happened, but something has. He's talking now, but it's about fisheries and seven kinds of seafood and redirecting the canal so that it can have fresh water and sea water intermingled and flowing back and forth. It's also about having the doctor arrested and calling the police. It's also the first time he has said "I love you" back to my "I love you" in months and months, and I'm just going to take that gift and never mind that it's in the same session with the fisheries.  The doctor has some ideas: likely a TIA: a Transient Ischemic Attack - a kind of lightning quick flash of harm to the brain: acts like a stroke, but leaves no trace. An invisible cold wind visited upon the mind. You can't see it on a CT scan, and the effects go away, but they can lead to what's called a "silent stroke." Strange quiet again. My dad's brain injury has already affected so much - he doesn't walk, he usually hardly talks, he barely eats. And yet, there's room for more decline. But he's at ease he's not scared, he's not in pain. So home for a bit now, to collect my thoughts, get some work done, prep things - back to my dad tonight. It all makes the conversations shared at Kalamazoo (which is more than a conference, it's a Gathering, a Thing in the oldest (Old English) sense of the word) so fervent and so alive, so vibrant and so important.  My father has his thoughts of fish, those quiet creatures, and fisheries, and of redirecting the fluid connections of canals to oceans. And I talk to him of medieval ecologies and stones that are the residues of oceans, and pearls that are drops of dew from the heavens.  And in the strange quiet that follows wondrous ideas, we understand each other.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Good Lord

Ye Olde Dorm Room
The rooms are as spartan (uh, medieval) as ever, the geese are still here (terrifying), and I've already heard one scholar opining vigorously about Byzantine porridge.  Ah, it's Kalamazoo. 3000 medievalists on the Western Michigan University campus. But good Lord, how did I not realize this: it's my twentieth Kalamazoo.  May 1992 was my very first one, with beloved Michael Camille and his bright red dancing shoes.  I miss him every year (and oof, it's been ten since he died).   Meanwhile, as per every Kalamazoo, it is too late considering the meeting at 8:30 a.m. tomorrow, but you get excited, you know? Tomorrow at 10 a.m. I am speaking on a roundtable filled with every intellectual crush I have - these are phenomenal people - generous, brilliant, phenomenal people - and I can't quite sleep to think of it. I chose the term "hewn," a boundless word, I now think. And then at 3:30 p.m., I'm giving a full fledged paper on an "Art and Devotion in England" panel - that's the one in which the geological conditions of alabaster call the shots.  And my beautiful friend of almost twenty years is here - we met in Siena on a Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi trip (that's when all the stained glass scholars of the world unite - on two buses - and go see stained glass in situ).  Saturday, we're going to steal away to the alabaster show. Full report on the magical stone, I promise.

Friday, May 4, 2012

What Do Rocks Want?

This little spot in the college's library was my haven for several hours over the past two week-ends, my place to think about stone becoming statue which, really, is what I'd like to be thinking about all the time. I get to go back one last time to finish my Kalamazoo paper and sketch out the places I want to fill out. It seems impossible that there would be time to think now, but I've been killing myself to get the grading done so that I actually have a relatively clean slate this week-end. Which is good, because the rocks want some attention. The central idea of the paper is to ask "how the geological phenomena of alabaster manifested themselves to the medieval sculptor." How characteristics like its porosity (high), hardness (low), and water solubility (surprising) lent themselves to what medieval sculptors wanted to create between 1350 and 1530 (the heyday of alabaster carving). Everything about this paper has been delicious: discovery, fascination, beauty, awe - everything you want in what you'll be writing about. The challenge has been between the social historian in me who is excited to present the detective work that might explain why alabaster's heyday was so specific (the Black Death was a factor in its beginning (not its end), I believe) and the more evocative writer in me (who is mostly tremulous and sometimes maybe occasionally emboldened) who wishes to have my audience revel in the how of alabaster's transformation into St. Sebastian's pierced body or the breath of God. Who can't get over that alabaster hardens when air hits it, that it disintegrates into Plaster of Paris when rain hits it, that the best alabaster is just 2-3 feet below the surface, that the stone is the trace of Permian, Triassic and Jurassic oceans, and that a huge vein of it marks what is known as the Tutbury Seam (which, frankly, I just love to say: Tutbury Seam). I want the evocative writer to win, even though she knows that the audience will be pretty conservative, and even though W.J.T. Mitchell's first foray into image agency (in which the first question from a stunned audience was "Are you serious?") keeps replaying in her head. The evocative writer finds herself very quickly on the defensive (right around paragraph 4), claiming yes, agency for stone, but oh no, not will. I think that geology will help me break free of that - there is plenty to revel in there. And I do think about the audience members then going to see the show of alabasters that will be on display at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts and hopefully knowing more about the stone before it became a statue, hopefully reveling in thinking through its metamorphosis from stone to statue beyond human agency. That's a good goal. Plus, if I can channel Jeffrey Cohen's elegant lithic courage, all will be well.

In the meantime, there are many little gifts. In waking up Oliver a couple of weeks ago, I told him excitedly that I was working on a paper trying to figure out what rocks want from us. "When did you become religious?" he asked sleepily. ??? "Why do you ask that?" I asked. "Because only religious people believe inanimate objects want things from us." I'm still thinking through that one. And then Mac giving me a small alabaster vase for Christmas (it's picking up the light in the image above, and yes it's Egyptian alabaster which turns out to be completely different from English, but it's the best gift nonetheless). And lastly, this rock cozy, that some witty soul knitted when we made a Hyperbolic Crochet Corral Reef here on campus for ArtsFest. When Mac was taking it down, he found this cozied rock at the bottom of it. If you're thinking well-tended Pet Rock, go ahead. But I love that this knit surface doesn't slip on and off, that it's for keeps on this rock, that this rock could possibly be warm, or want to be warm. Do I need to tell you of my pleasure in learning that alabaster has a rapid heat capacity?