Sunday, February 3, 2013

Back into the Reeds

Fits and Starts by Marc Swanson, now in Peeler Art Center
Seven years ago, some (many?) students got drunk, got naked, got on a public sculpture, got out their cameras, got back to their dorm rooms, and got on Facebook.  There, they posted pictures of themselves drunk, naked, and riding the deer, a public sculpture by Marc Swanson called Fits and Starts. (Indeed.) This night proved pivotal in our campus's history because it was the generational turning point  for social networks. It was the night that professors discovered Facebook. Through e-mails, and phone calls, and students and faculty running to the site at 5 a.m., word spread about the damage to the deer from the vigorous riding, and no matter what direction the word of mouth took - the outrage, the glee, the scandal - it all wound up in the same place: those pictures on Facebook. By morning, the deer had several Facebook pages, some defending its presence, others decrying it. By noon, we had our first protest against the damage (there were no rallies for the damage), and within three days, our first public conversations. By then, the conversation had expanded from the deer not "fitting in" (was it the exuberant pose? the glittering rhinestones all over its body?) to the bleak reality of many people on campus being made to feel they did not "fit it" (was it their sexuality? their talk? their body?). It was the ugliest of our school, the things you know people want to know about Indiana and private small liberal arts college and their intolerance and cliquishness. And then, it was also one of the very first times that homophobia was discussed in the public sphere on campus, that silent understandings were painfully articulated, that art's materiality (swiftly morphed by Facebook, I would argue) exposed ideology. Today, three things remain: the sculpture, safe (sigh) in the Peeler Art Center, cavorting at the top of a staircase; a great interview with the artist, Marc Swanson; and a 35-minute (!) documentary about everything called Deer Diary.

No, wait: five. A lasting conversation and activism about what makes this community what it is (as it changes and continues to feel its changes - that's what I find fascinating). And Facebook.  Students in a public sculpture class that had just watched the video on Friday stopped by my office and we had a good laugh about the part of the video in which I explain what Facebook is (I call it a "database of students") (!).  Multiple new controversies, many other tempests in our teapot, have exploded on Facebook since the deer - it's now half of where our community happens, maybe even exists - even as we share the physical space of campus and classroom.  And I think of my own migration through Facebook - it's where I go for the latest in all things medieval, it's where the newest (sometimes best) conversations in my field are happening. It's where you can start out as a voice in the wilderness and, as the comment stream and the likes build, be comforted that the wilderness is not so wild - that that crazy, or personal, or emotional thought has its place after all. It's a terrain, and it's become a natural (yes, natural in the sense of compulsive, almost instinctual, inevitable) response to events. I think, too, for the first time, that surely Facebook will change how I write out here. Facebook now feels more public than this blog. This blog now recedes a bit, more a set of reeds that I can whisper newly into.  I do wonder, as a new generation of students is wondering, if the deer, too, could go back out into the wild of the outdoors of our campus, if maybe now, those reeds are not so wild.

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