An Ecosystem of Representation

An Ecosystem of Representation

It seems like everyone is talking about last night’s Emmy awards, and not just about what the stars wore or the end of Modern Family‘s streak. In fact, most people are talking about Viola Davis, as the first African American actress to ever win best actress in a drama series. Her moving speech (above) calls attention to the continuing inequality and lack of opportunity for women of color in Hollywood.

Davis was one of three black women to win an Emmy last night, and Sonia Saraiya, at Salon, believes this is a sign that black women will continue to be more supported on television. She also references the new Apple Music commercial, starring Kerry Washington, Taraji P. Henderson, and Mary J. Blige, claiming that this commercial, along with the Emmys, represents a new ecosystem of representation, one where “it isn’t shocking or surprising or even noteworthy to see three women of color having a good time while another woman of color directs from behind the scenes.”

While any steps towards more representation for women of color in television is a plus, I hesitate to call this a new ecosystem of representation. The fact that it is only now, in 2015, that a black woman has won best actress in a drama, and that the number of women of color nominees for best and supporting actress can be counted on two hands, suggests that we have perhaps not reached this new, supportive, diverse television environment.  The most obvious evidence of this is Davis’s speech-crying out for more opportunities, for more representation. Or maybe it’s Kerry Washington crying in the front row, and the many journalists who are writing about Davis’s win. Davis’s win is shocking, and amazing, but it shouldn’t be. Women of color (as well as lesbians, bi, and queer women, women with disabilities, trans women, and many others) should be all over TV, and they aren’t yet. We haven’t even come close to reaching a supportive and inclusive television environment. This is what Davis wants us to remember. This is what needs to change.

Image from ABC.


The Pine Ridge Community Storytelling Project

In August of 2012, National Geographic featured Aaron Huey’s Pine Ridge Community Storytelling Project, a project that emphasizes the importance of the voices of the people living on the Pine Ridge reservation. This project allows their stories to be told, in the way that they want them to be told. This agency, to tell your own story in your own voice, is extremely important and powerful.

Two of the stories can be found below, but I would highly recommend listening to as many as possible.



Gone Home

Gone Home The Fulbright Company
Gone Home
The Fulbright Company

I’m not usually someone who enjoys video games. Gone Homerecently released by the Fulbright Company, however, is no ordinary video game. In fact, it’s more like an interactive story than anything else. I first read about this game in an NPR technology blog, and its description of the game’s exceptional craftsmanship—its “clever and subtle writing, as well as the environmental details, create a living and breathing setting. It feels like people live in the house. You can almost smell the empty pizza boxes and laundry detergent”—immediately caught my attention. But it was the emotional depth, and the connection to the piece that Steve Mullis (the NPR blogger) felt, that ultimately convinced me to try this game. Mullis claims that Sam, one of the main characters of the game, embodies a lot of the feelings that teenagers experience—”the alienation, the confusion, the excitement of a first love and the battling with parents who just ‘don’t get it'”—and that “exploring the house and reading the scraps of paper brought back memories of that time when I knew everything but understood nothing. I felt close to the characters, like we might have even been friends once.” After playing the game myself, I can’t help but echo Mullis’s claim. In only a few minutes the game had me hooked, and after an hour I cared so much about the fate of these characters that you couldn’t have pulled me away from the computer if my life depended on it. It was like reading a really good book or watching a really good movie, I needed to know what was going to happen next. But it was more than that too, because I was Katie, confused and worried about the family that wasn’t there to see me after my return from Europe. I was Sam, exploring love and relationships and trying to figure out how to be myself in a world that doesn’t always accept me. I was Lonnie, trying to make sense of the world and my conflicting emotions and loyalties. This game made me cry, not out of frustration or because I couldn’t reach the next level, but out of empathy and love for the characters. I cried for them, but I also cried for me.

This game made me think about video games in a new way. It showed me that video games can be just as emotional and beautiful as a novel or a film. Gone Home is also, as Mullis mentions, unique for it’s almost completely female cast, and the way that it does not, in spite of this, have a gender bias. This is a story about people, for people, regardless of their gender. Gone Home is an engaging, delightful, and challenging video game/story, and I can’t wait to see what the Fulbright Company creates next.

Performance Art and Animal Testing

In April 2012, Jacqueline Traides and Oliver Cronk performed a shocking piece in the window of Lush  Cosmetics’ on Regent Street in London. Parts of this piece can be seen in the video above, where Traides performs as a “test subject” who undergoes torturous procedures at the hands of a “lab technician” (Cronk). This piece was part of Lush’s Fighting Animal Testing campaign, and its shocking nature really seemed to convince people to sign the petition to end cosmetics testing on animals. It is not often that we see artists, especially performance artists, working directly with specific social justice campaigns. Because of this, it is very hard to miss the message of the piece.  While, like most performance art, the piece is nuanced, its hard to misunderstand the message when there are people standing with clipboards ready to have you sign their petition. In some ways this seems to make the piece more effective in accomplishing its purpose, but it also seems to somewhat diminish the aesthetic effect of the piece. Perhaps Traides, Cronk, and the Lush campaign are paving the way for a more precise connection between social justice and art, one that is obvious and straightforward, but what will that mean for the aesthetic value of the art that is created?

An Expanded Look at Cultural Appropriation

Cultural appropriation is something that I haven’t discussed a lot on this blog, but something that is constantly being discussed in the art world and in popular media (think Miley Cyrus twerking at the VMAs.) Essentially, cultural appropriation is the “taking of something produced by members of one culture by members of another” (Young 136). In musical works this often comes in the form of “content appropriation”—where the “cultural products” (such as musical forms, or way of dancing) are borrowed by the cultural outsiders. However, cultural appropriation can also be “subject appropriation”—where the cultural outsider makes the lives of the insiders the subject of their painting/story/film (136). This second kind of cultural appropriation is the one Jesse Hassenger touches on in his article “Can Movie Stars Play Authentic Blue-Collar Characters?” While this question is the title of the article, Hassenger does not really address it, focusing instead on reviewing three different movies. (As he is a movie critic, this is not surprising.) But his question makes me think about the kinds of cultural appropriation that are not usually addressed by the media. While there are many differences between the cultural appropriation in Miley Cyrus’s VMA performance and the cultural appropriation in Out of the Furnace (one of the movies Hassenger reviews), the main difference seems to be the kind of culture they are borrowing from. Miley Cyrus’s appropriation is distinct because of its racial component, while Casey Affleck and Christian Bale’s performance in Out of the Furnace is distinct because of the class differences between the actors and the people they are portraying. However, because both Affleck and Bale are actors, the line between authentic and in-authentic performance seems to be shakier than in Cyrus’s case. Acting is a medium that hinges on the ability to perform as someone distinct from yourself, so theoretically an actor should be able to authentically perform as anyone regardless of their culture. On the other hand, if either Affleck or Bale were performing in blackface cries of “inappropriate cultural appropriation!” would echo throughout media-land. (These cries, of course, would be completely justified, as blackface perpetuates harmful and historically damaging stereotypes about African Americans and is profoundly offensive to many people.) It seems clear that our culture makes a distinction between cultural appropriation that involves race and cultural appropriation that involves class, but is this an important distinction to make?  By posing the question, Hassenger seems to think so, or at least he seems to think that we should be paying attention to cultural appropriation that involves class. But he also doesn’t really attempt to answer his own question, so maybe he doesn’t think it is worth answering?  Cultural appropriation is an inherent part of our art-world, and is taking place in a variety of mediums in a variety of ways, and in itself, cultural appropriation is not morally wrong. However, whenever cultures mix, especially when there is already a hierarchical or even imperilalistic relationship between these cultures, it is easy to end up in morally ambiguous territory. Therefore, I believe it is important to consider the moral implications of all cases of cultural appropriation. Whether or not these moral implications help or hinder your enjoyment of the art, however, is completely up to you.

Internet Art

Man Bartlett, a “multidisciplinary” artist in New York takes an interesting approach to art in the age of the Internet. In a previous post, I discussed the opportunities the Internet has provided for artists to make a name for themselves, but another great thing about the Internet is the opportunity it provides for the creation and melding of new artistic mediums. Bartlett has stepped outside of the realm of traditional artworks and uses the Internet, and our huge variety of social media, to create dynamic and challenging artwork. What I think is most challenging about Bartlett’s work is the way that he challenges our traditional conceptions of “artwork” and the way that this in some ways dismantles a few of the barriers that come with our traditional conceptions of art. Not only does the use of the Internet make art more accessible, appealing and approachable to the the Internet-savvy generation, but the way Bartlett blurs the “line between art and everyday life” makes art even broader and more accessible to people from all walks of life.

…and Counting

"...and Counting"  Wafaa Bilal, 2010. NY, NY.
“…and Counting”
Wafaa Bilal, 2010. NY, NY.

In 2010, Wafaa Bilal had a message to share about the way Americans understood the Iraq war. He was responding to the way that the number of  American casualties of the war was greatly publicized, but the much larger number of Iraqi casualties was largely ignored. In this 24-hour performance piece, Bilal literally transforms his body into a canvas, having his back tattooed with 5,000 red dots, representing American casualties, and 100,000 green dots that are only visible under ultraviolet light, representing Iraqi casualties. The painstaking process of being tattooed (which those of us who were not there at the time can get a glimpse of through this video,) the incessant buzzing of the tattoo machine, and the reading of the names of the dead, creates a moving, visceral, and uncomfortable sensation for the audience. Which is probably exactly what Bilal intends. This piece reminds us that that war effects all of us, and that war is written on our bodies. In the action of inscribing the names of the dead onto his own body, Bilal reminds us of the ways the dead are also inscribed onto our own bodies. “You feel that pain as much as I feel it,” he claims, according to this article from NPR. Bilal reminds us of the true cost of war, not only to the hundreds of thousands of people who die, and their families and loved ones, but also to those who are spectators to war, to those who insist war doesn’t effect them, to those who barely even know what is going on.